March 19, 2014 § 21 Comments
One time Prez and I were racing through Pedro with Vapor on the old Donut Course. We’d sprinted away from the field and were barreling along Pacific Avenue doing everything we could to hold onto Rahsaan’s wheel. Things weren’t going well for us; it was like trying to keep up with motorcycle. Eventually Rahsaan kicked it hard, for real, and Prez and I dug so deeply we were scratching China.
Thankfully, we hit a red light. Prez looked at me, covered in slobber, eyes bugging out of his head, leg muscles so gorged with blood that he looked like a bodybuilder a minute before going onstage. “This level of pain,” he said “is where the gains are made.”
I’ve thought about that ever since, especially when the pain gets so intense that I pop and get shelled, making not so much gains as deficits. And I also wonder why pain in one venue is somehow endurable, but pain at the dentist isn’t. I can suffer on a bike — not MMX suffer, or Zink suffer, or Thurlow suffer, or Leibert suffer — but deep I can go. Unless it’s the dentist.
Extrusions of bone
“Big deal,” you’re thinking. “A post drilled down through your gum and into the fuggin’ bone of your jaw, or even a root canal can bring anyone to his knees.”
Except I’m not talking about posts and root canals. I’m not even talking about cavities. I’m talking about that most benign of dental operations, the dreaded bi-annual teeth cleaning.
“Bi-annual?” you say. “That’s fuggin’ disgusting! Your mouth must be nastier than a baboon’s ass!”
Indeed, my darling, it is. Nastier, for sure. But there’s a story behind it. You see, I have Davidson teeth. These are not the teeth of mortals. Pere Davidson, now in his 78th year, has never had a cavity. Grandpa N.F. Davidson (that’s “N” for “Nahum”) died in his 70’s without ever having had a cavity or lost a tooth. My brother Ian died with teeth that never felt a drill bit.
Davidson teeth are harder than the sentence of a hanging judge. They are impervious to sugar, fat, sugar, sludge, ice cream, abuse, never flossing, rarely brushing, bad diet, beer, sugar … they’re the only part of my body that has ever elicited the same reaction from health care professionals throughout my life: “Mr. Davidson, you have excellent teeth.”
Notice they never said “clean teeth,” or “pretty teeth,” or “well-aligned teeth.” No. Only “excellent,” as in “Any tooth that could withstand these four pounds of plaque and abuse and mistreatment and still be this strong and cavity-free aren’t teeth, they are diamond-plated extrusions of bone.”
Every advantage comes with a price
For me, the price began in Galveston at age 6, when I went to the dentist. He pulled two of my teeth for no reason at all, and he did it without anesthetic. I howled and screamed bloody murder. It hurt like a motherfugger, and from that point on I was terrified of dental work. Simply walking into the dentist’s office made me break out in a sweat, and I never sweat.
My lifetime of dental pain was as nothing when I went to Japan and met Mrs. WM. Japanese people have the pain threshold of an ox, and she held me in pure contempt. “Why you askin’ onna pain drugs? Thatsa for little kids.”
“Because my teeth are covered in seven pounds of plaque and it hurts like hell when he scrapes my teeth.”
“I like onna teeth cleaning. Kimochii. Even onna cavity he never gives me a pain drugs because cheaper.”
“You get your teeth drilled without novocaine?” I asked, sweating at the mention of “drilling” and “novocaine.”
“That’s nothin’. Even when a Japanese girl push outta baby there’s no onna pain drugs. ‘Girl, you baby time is normal and you ain’t gettin’ no pain drugs because, cheaper. An’ Japanese girl just push out the baby like a watermelon. You ain’t talkin’ to no Japanese girl about a tooth cleaning pain drug. She’s gonna think you’re onna girlman.”
She was right. In Japan I was the wuss of all wusses. One time her dad had a root canal without any pain medication. “Just a tooth,” he said.
I think I fainted listening to the story.
The paradox of Dr. Hayashi
In L.A., my dentist is Dr. Hayashi, a Japanese dentist. He is the bomb. He is incredibly delicate and skilled and careful and pro, but even he has to bring out the heavy duty equipment with Mr. Davidson shows up lathered in sweat and teeth covered in plaque.
Today was hell.
“Hmm,” he said. “You have a pretty big build-up of calculus.”
“Yeah,” I thought. “I got more fuggin’ calculus on my teeth than on an AP exam.”
He gently stuck the metal scraper into my mouth. I clenched and released four pounds of sweat. The metal hook caught on a tartar outcropping as he yanked a big chunk of calcified scum off my tooth. It sounded like a calving iceberg. “Looks like we have some work to do today,” he said.
“We?” I asked. “If I have to do anything other than sweat and moan, there’s a problem.”
Pretty soon the scraping became so intense that he had to drop the steel chisel and pick up the electric whizzer thingy with the vacuum spit sucker. The sound alone hurt. The plaque drill might as well have been stuck into my eyes, that’s how intensely I reacted, with little urine puddles and sharts mottling the dentist’s chair.
“Nurse,” he said, planting his boot on my chest, rolling up his sleeves, and pulling on his thickest rubber surgical gloves, “hand me the #12 bit with the diamond tip. And be ready with the extra-coarse sandpaper.”
After a brief while his rubber gloves were covered in blood as my soft and sickly gums spewed gore. His welder’s goggles were covered with shards of razor-sharp tartar, more tartar than you’d find in Crimea. His cute assistant tried to suction up the blood and spit and chunks of plaque as my mouth spattered the room with bacteria and bodily fluids of the most contaminated sort. After fifteen minutes his hands looked like they’d been plunged into a chest cavity. My mouth spouted blood and spit, which drooled down into my matted mustache and beard. The pain was unbearable as I fought the suction thingy with my tongue and clamped down on the drill.
“Mr. Davidson,” he said. “You’ll need to open your mouth so I can reach the teeth.”
After forty-five minutes, which seemed like forty-five hours, he gave up, having dug out food items from last November, pieces of GU wrapper, slivers of gristle, and part of an old Life magazine from 1955. “That’s all we can do today. Why don’t you come back in three weeks after your gums have quit bleeding. You’ve still got plaque deposits that I can’t reach, as well as what look like pieces of bicycle inner tube, some fish bones, and a hard-to-reach clump of hair wedged down below the gum line. I’ll have to special order a hand-drill and some low-grade explosives, but we’ll get it next time for sure.”
Have you ever heard of having teeth so gnarly that they have to be cleaned in stages? I haven’t, but I was so glad to get out of the chair that I would have agreed if he’d suggested a follow-up visit that included a lobotomy with an icepick.
You’d think that with such a miserable experience I’d learn, and start flossing regularly, brushing after meals, and wearing a condom. But he said the magic words when I left, the words that guaranteed my box of dental floss from 1982 would remain in mint condition for another year or two. “Mr. Davidson, you have excellent teeth.”
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March 18, 2014 § 27 Comments
I can name what I was missing in the days that I was plugged in through every orifice to the personalized, customized, hand-tailored social media apps that have taken over the World Wide Web.
What I was missing is this: “Major” by Todd Balf, “The Chronology of Water” by Lydia Yuknavitch, “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, “Blood Medicine” by Kathleen Sharp, “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “Too Late the Phalarope” by Alan Paton, “The Anti-Abortion Movemement and the Rise of the Religious Right” by Dallas Blanchard, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson, and “The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles — Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone,” translated by Paul Roche.
Instead of tweeting my meaningless opinions about guns and Republicans and death and taxes, instead of facebagging each of my wife’s latest oven creations, instead of slapping up new profile details on LinkedIn, and most time-devouringly of all, instead of tracking every single turn of the screw on Strava, I’ve pulled the needle out of my vein and been killing time the old-fashioned way, with books and bikes.
Don’t get me wrong. I still lurk for an hour a day on Facebag; no one kicks a habit that monstrous in a month or two. And I still suit up and blog. But hours and hours and hours out of my day have suddenly been freed, in no small part because every single social media app (can I call it S&M?) has been deleted. Gonna have some down time today, Mr. Davidson? Better bring a book …
Now for the down side
The sad fact is that the less I Strava, the less I ride. Something about being strapped to that particular digital bull means more saddle time. Call it peer pressure, or the self-reinforcing nature of surrounding yourself with similarly minded addicts, or the S&M (that’s “social and media,” right?) pleasure of watching trinkets and trophies and numbers and statistics multiply, Strava converts desire to pedal strokes.
In the same way that counting calories helps you keep tabs on your weight, counting bike data helps you stay mounted. When you know you rode seven out of seven days for 23 hours and 350 miles last week, it’s really easy to make sure that you plug in an extra lap or loop or trip up the strand to make sure you match the previous week’s productivity.
Don’t lie to me. I know I’m not the only one.
Of course the questions bubbling around the edge are these: Was it really all that productive? Why does bicycling have to be productive? Isn’t productivity a work term? And don’t we bicycle to get away from the strictures of the workplace?
How it used to be
Before we were plugged in, bicycling wasn’t as fast as it is now. Hack riders are faster. Weekend warriors collect scalps. And the really fast riders? They are superhuman, and no, I don’t chalk it up the old whine that “everybody’s doping.” They aren’t.
What people are doing is using social media like Strava to harness the incredible power of data generated by HR monitors, power meters, and cyclocomputers. Riders who train without data are in the distinct minority, and even they are plugged into friendship networks like Facebag that provide amazing amounts of information about how to ride faster, how to train and race better, what to eat, and what equipment works best. Throw in the detailed nature of ride routes where you can tailor your workout to incredibly specific road and trail parameters, and you have a perfect storm surge of cycling data that relentlessly pushes almost everyone higher.
The beneficiaries of this data sharing in terms of speed and fitness aren’t just racers or elite riders. They’re the everyday person too, who’s a commuter or a tourist or a rider who likes to pedal with his friends in between bar stops.
A complete fred at the Starbucks in Hermosa on Sunday gave me a long lecture about how to use Strava from my iPhone. He was kitted up; I was wearing shorts and a tee. Ten years ago this guy and his wife wouldn’t have even owned bikes. On Sunday they confidently lectured me about how I could use my iPhone to be a better cyclist.
What happens when you pull the plug
My first response to my digital detox was a kind of frantic insecurity. “What’s going on out there?” The second phase was an attempt to revert to my oldest habit, reading, in an attempt to fill the vast void of newly available time, but it was terribly hard because I couldn’t concentrate for more than a few minutes. You can’t click “like” on paperbacks. Even as my concentration has slowly returned, I’ve likewise gotten used to rides that under the iron law of “Strava or it didn’t happen,” well, I suppose they didn’t happen.
Absent all that data and all those interactions on Strava and elsewhere there’s nothing to reflect on after I lean the bike against the wall except the internal reflection and what I can remember of the ride. There’s no leaderboard or virtual contest with people I’ve never met, or worse, people I’ve met but never ridden with yet who are my “competition” on Strava. All I’m left with at the end of the ride is, like reading a book, what happened during the ride or the read. That is, what happened on the battleground of the tiny strip of real estate between my ears.
And for me, that’s enough.
It’s not too late to subscribe to the blog! Everything here is true except for the parts I’ve made up, which is all of it. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. I’ll be glad you did.
March 15, 2014 § 27 Comments
My father rode a bicycle. It was a big, black Hercules with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub and white handlebar grips. My father’s bicycle was a tool. He rode it to work.
Many years later, I rode a silver-with-brown-highlights Nishiki International. It had twelve speeds, Sugino cranks, Suntour shifters, and Dia-Compe brakes. I rode that bike away from the pain.
My mother rode away from my father and our family in 1979. Mom and Dad took us out to dinner, a very nice Italian place, though we never went to nice anythings. Our royal parents were strangely friendly and solicitous. No one told me to stop smacking or to quit clacking my teeth on the fork. The food tasted so good. I still remember the spaghetti and the crunchy bread with small shards of garlic toasted down the middle.
After dinner we went home and my parents seated my brother and me on the olive velour couch. I scratched Fletcher’s head while he happily thumped his tail on the floor. “We’re getting a divorce,” they said.
The spaghetti didn’t taste so good any more. My brother silently went upstairs and tried to fling himself out of the upstairs bedroom window. I still remember with clarity the panic in my father’s eyes as he gripped my brother’s leg at the last second, the last possible second.
It was organic how profoundly my mother hated her marriage, though her husband was a good man and simply insufficient. What was sufficient? Only a woman knows.
In truth, it wasn’t him she hated. How could she? She hated her father and every man cast in his image, which is to say on some level, all men.
I rode as hard as I could to escape the melee, never escaping it completely, but typically managing to stay a few bike lengths ahead, except, of course, for those times that it overtook me as if I were getting swarmed by a thousand-man field sprint. I learned to pedal like hell, miss the biggest pile-ups, then pedal some more. Or perhaps it was more like going over the falls at Teahupo’o. Hold your breath until you were ready to explode, then pop to the surface with milliseconds to spare. The price of not breathing deeply enough was drowning. In my brother’s case, it was drowning by a gunshot wound to the heart. That was on Father’s Day 2012, just yesterday.
I rode as hard as I could, switching bikes to take advantage of lighter weight, and eventually went all in for modern speed boosters like handlebar shifters and carbon components. The more I rode, the more I saw other people riding hard too, staying a wheel or so ahead of their own private monster. Cycling, the crazy kind, is that way. Everyone seems to be riding from something.
During the ride I had a daughter and two sons. You think that the necrosis of a broken family heals itself over time? You are wrong.
But still I rode and watched the riders around me, the ones who continued decade in and decade out, not the dilettantes or the ones who tried bicycling and then moved on to pilates or surfing or golf or sailing or spin class, rather, the ones who didn’t so much as persevere as they endured. It is, we were told, an endurance sport after all.
After three grueling years, my eldest son breached the surface, sucked in a lungful of air, and told us that he would graduate a year early. I relaxed on the pedals and celebrated in spirit. He was my son. He had never been forced to ride away from us. “How should I arrange all the graduation events and stuff with, you know, the grandparents?” he asked, and I could hear his knotted brow over the phone line.
So I said to him, “Their battle is not your battle. This day of celebration is for you.”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
And in one way at least, my riding days are done.
March 14, 2014 § 20 Comments
She saw me fiddling with the car keys. It was 5:30 AM. “You ain’t takin’ onna car, I hope.”
“Uh, yeah I am. I’m going to the La Grange mixer after work and it’s on the West Side.”
“Don’t you remember I was tellin’ you I’m drivin’ onna girls party night tonight?”
“How come you ain’t listenin’ anything I say about me and you got big old commode seat ears when somebody’s talkin’ onna drinkypants biker party?”
“Commode seat ears?”
“Means big old ears can catch any old crap.”
“No big deal,” I said, knowing it was a huge deal. “I can ride my bike there.”
South Bay vs. West Side
My friends on the West Side regularly made the trek down to the South Bay for our occasional bike events, and that was invariably a labor of love because the traffic from there to here in rush hour is mind-numbingly bad. If Sausage & Co. were willing to brave the 405 for us, it only seemed right that I’d do the same for them. Still, doing it on a bike presented problems.
The biggest problem was, of course, clothing. You can show up at Naja’s wearing a bike outfit, or a t-shirt with holes in it, or with bicycle helmet hair, and you’ll fit right in. On the West Side, you simply can’t. Whereas you can be ready for any event in the South Bay with a quick pass of dental floss and a bit of de-stinkifier to dilute the B.O., West Side casual is a highly sculpted, carefully developed look that takes time, money, and incredible attention to the details that will make what you’ve “just thrown on” look like something out of fashion magazine.
After wet, sticky bike clothing and the musky stink of armpit, my next challenge was, of course, the biking itself. I’d done the NPR that morning and knew that by the time 4:00 PM rolled round I wouldn’t feel like climbing back into my smelly kit and riding for thirty miles to a bar I’d never been to. The “never been to” issue was also a problem: I didn’t know the roads in West L.A. at all and had no idea what roads were best for a bicycle.
Be like Wike
By 4:30 I was heading to the bike path, and somewhere around Manhattan Beach I saw Wike blazing by in the opposite direction. We waved. Minutes later he had flipped it and rode up to me. “Where you going?”
“That sounds good. Where?”
“I’m not sure. Somewhere near Beverly Hills I think.”
Most people would want more information about someone doing a thirty-mile ride to get beer. “Like, what’s wrong with the beer around here?”
“Nothing, but La Grange is having a mixer, and I need to get mixed, and they always come down here, so this time I’m going up there. Wanna go? I have no idea where this place is.”
“What’s the address?”
Wike, who knows L.A. like a human Googlemap, grinned. “Okay. You’re gonna need some help. I’ll go have a beer with you. I think I can get us there.”
As we came to the turnoff onto the Ballona Creek bike path, Wike veered left. “No Ballona Creek?” I asked.
“I’d rather bike through a hostile Afghan village with ‘Jesus Saves’ taped to my forehead than take that thing,” he said. Ballona Creek is famous for toughs who lie in wait and attack passing bikers for their bikes and the five or ten dollars they carry in emergency change.
“It’s that bad, huh?” I’d never taken it, but my computer map recon before setting out indicated it was the best route.
“Yeah. We might have a little traffic on the streets, but it’s no big deal.”
When your ‘no big deal’ is my colonic cleanse
Before long we were tearing up the gutter along Admiralty, Lincoln, and an entire network of surface streets that were choked to the throat with cars. This was urban guerrilla riding at its most intense, and it involved somehow following the wizardry of Wike as he hopped potholes, power-slid around gaping cracks, bunny-hopped onto curbs, sliced impossibly narrow slits between swaying buses and parked cars, split lanes, charged around tight corners in tandem with sedans whose numbers were inches from our hips, sprunted through yellow lights, raced ghetto dudes on green-and-yellow-and-purple fixies, and shot through darkened freeway underpasses filled with glass, rocks, nails, condoms, and detritus from the week’s auto collisions.
I’ve made a note to myself. “Riding up Pico from the 2000 block to the 10000 block is not for the faint of heart or for those who like a clean chamois.”
We got to the bar half an hour before the party and had to beg to be let in with our bicycles. The bar, Steingarten L.A., was run by a friendly manager and friendlier hostess who let us park our bikes on the patio. We clattered across the stone floor looking like the bike dorks we were. Two beers and a bratwurst in, we couldn’t have cared less.
At 6:30, Wike got up. “Thanks for the beer, dude. I’m headed back.” And back he went.
The La Grange partiers were filtering in and everyone pretended that you know, since they were a bike club that it was, you know, totally okay for me to be standing in, you know, a stinky, wet bike outfit and cycling cleats that sounded like an angry man pounding the floor with a hammer every time I walked. More beer was poured, much of it in the form of Belgian triple, and more food was eaten, and by the time the party ended I had lost the $130 taillight on my bike and my credit card.
With Belgian triples, though, you don’t care. “Who needs a fuggin’ light at midnight in L.A.?” I slurred.
The person who needs a taillight at midnight in L.A. is YOU
Several La Grangers were concerned that it might be difficult for me to get home, seeing as it was a long way away and I lived on top of an unlit hill. Others thought that I was only getting what I deserved. Still others were hugging me good-bye with their arms outstretched and touching me only with their finger tips and what looked like rubber gloves.
“Even in the South Bay,” I thought, “I’d be considered rather gnarly.”
As I reached into my jersey pocket to put on my glasses, I realized that I didn’t have them. I’d left my Rx clear riding glasses at home and only had what would be most helpful for a long night’s trek in the dark, my Rx sunglasses with extra black tinting to keep out the bright California sunlight. There didn’t appear to be any of that, and when I put them on things got noticeably darker.
“You’re gonna fuckin’ die, hon,” said Foxy. “You want a ride home?”
“Nah,” I slurred. “I can ride on the bike path.”
“You’re still gonna fuckin’ die, hon. But I can at least give you a ride to the Santa Monica public toilets. That’s where you seem to meet everyone anyhow.”
I let the comment slide, grateful that I wouldn’t be riding Pico at night.
The long march
Once I started pedaling, the mixture of beer, bratwurst, beer, Korean BBQ appetizers, beer, my lost taillight, beer, and my lost credit card started to add up. “Why do I feel so bad?” I wondered. “And why does the start of a measly 25-mile ride feel like the end of the Bataan Death March?”
Of course … by totaling up the morning’s ride and the commute to Steingarten, it was already an 80-mile day + greasy food and beer. This would be a full century, finishing with a 1,300-foot climb in the dark. Thankfully, it was also cold, so I had that discomfort going for me.
It took forever to get home, and I got to observe a complete cross-section of late-night life on the bike path. Waifs texting in the moonlight, homeless people looking for a place to lie down or for perhaps a waif, strange women pushing baby strollers with babies in them, men running up and down steep staircases and grunting, and bargain hunters combing through the trash cans. By the time I hit the bottom of the big hill I was frozen to the core and barely turning the pedals. Somehow I got up it and got home.
I can’t wait for the next mixer on the West Side with the beautiful people. But I might listen a little more carefully to Mrs. WM when she tells me about her schedule.
March 11, 2014 § 15 Comments
I have come to accept that nothing is as it seems except for those things that appear incomprehensible, which is to say all people, each of us, you, me, your mother, your father, and the real person inside the true person inside the secret you.
One of the craggy inscrutables was always Dave, with his wry grin and potato-chip-thin build and weird way of talking and weirder way of spelling and writing, weird because he was Plan II and had read books and had written sentences, in theory at least, to get through his rigorous liberal arts college degree, but maybe he’d forgotten all of that? Maybe he’d had the whole four years ghostwritten? Maybe he was beyond grammar and syntax and spelling and normal speech because you know, he raced bikes for Labor Power and when you raced bikes in the long cruel shadow of MKA, the self-invented caricature of a cartoon, the loneliest one always surrounded by people, maybe you have to forfeit the common currency of language as we know it and speak only in tongues, mystic ones understood by a nation of two, or even fewer.
That tumbling moment of car and bike and crush of bone on steel and hospital and blood and bills and the poor Mexican in the next room who was hurt in some horrific industrial accident and who they slapped Band-Aids on and hustled out asap because NO INSURANCE AMIGO while they plugged and prodded and poked and rode the rich bitch of Dave’s comprehensive health insurance policy until he was sewed and screwed and glued back together as good as new except, you know what?
Humpty was put back together again but they left out the bicycle, the screaming madness down a wild and woolly hill surrounded on all sides by other idiots who thought the glory of a city limit sprint or the cheapass trinket for winning a forgettable race in some shithole in the desert made it worth risking this, the only time that Dog has granted us, privileged us, us in all of the universe and in all of infinity and the space-time continuum, and you’re gonna squander even a second of it on a fuggin bicycle race?
No, that part got dropped in the gut bucket when they put Dave back together, so he had the memory and the love and the camaraderie and the sensations of having been buried deep in the bike delusion but he got sprung from the ICU free, free of the baggage, nothing left to show, nothing left to prove, hand up a bottle, help the boys get ready before the race but my time in the rack is done, son, it’s all you.
And he changed his name and I didn’t understand it until today, Dos Gatos.
He teamed up with a traveling pharmaceutical drug rep guitar player who he’d known in high school and drunk Pearl beer with in a rusted out Pinto, a dude I’ve never met but whose German name I can sure as hell pronounce and who I can tell you has a wife who I’ve also never met but is smoking hot and she’s gotten a million inviting looks from strangers if she’s gotten one and I’ve never even seen her, all I’ve ever seen is his mother-in-law, a hard drinking, chain smoking Midwestern woman who’s tough as a boot and tougher, who laughs and who loves from the bottom of her heart and so her daughter must, too, did I mention that the mother-in-law and I once got drunk together in a bar in Germany because that’s exactly how small the world is and it explains, nearly enough, how I learned that Dave the tough and gritty former bike racer made music with the drug hawker and who would have thought that under all that gritty bike racer and bad grammar there lay a musician?
Who would have thought that the people you know are such profound strangers?
Of course it was thanks to Facebag that I clicked on a link of photos of Dos Gatos, and boys, your Hollywood photo shoot was nice and all but when the link took me to the two music clips of your band and I hit “play” and heard sounds soulful and easy, good with who you are, okay with the broken pieces that got left out of the rebuild and the half-fixed ones that got put back in, feeling and warmth and a little frilly undergarment of pain and loss and hope for what wasn’t, what isn’t, what can’t be, but that maybe, after all, with a little bit of luck, just might be anyway, you know what I heard?
I heard the highway pouring beneath narrow wheels and the wind in my hair.
Give it a listen. I hope you’ll hear it, too.
March 10, 2014 § 23 Comments
Wankmeister stared, almost unseeing, at the big greasy leg of chicken that dripped enormous globs of grease onto his fingers and hands. With each mechanical thrust of the chicken leg into his mouth, the grease drizzled down into his beard and slowly congealed there until the whole thing looked matted and sticky as it shone repulsively in the burning afternoon sun.
He didn’t care.
At the next table over, two chatty ladies from Seattle were proudly detailing each pedal stroke of their successful assault on the Solvang metric century. They had already changed into matching orange tops and miniskirts, and seated across the way with legs slightly parted Wankmeister duly noted that the most animated of the two was full commando and completely shaven. “Holy shit!” whispered Squishy. “Check that out!”
Wankmeister didn’t care.
Big Bowles came cheerfully over with a foaming cup of Firestone I.P.A. and set it affectionately down in front of him, patting him on the back. “Take some of this, pal. You’ll feel better.” Wankmeister tilted the cup back until the holy liquid poured down his parched throat, but the magical reaction of fresh beer in dehydrated body never happened. All he tasted was bitter. Bowles was concerned. “You look awful.”
He didn’t care.
The sun kept beating down on his exposed neck as various South Bay riders trickled in. There was Gussy, happy and backslapping. There was Toronto and Mrs. Toronto, she pleased with her Metric 100 and he displeased with multiple tire blowouts and flats and various issues. There was Major Bob who looked like he hadn’t yet ridden a bike this day. And of course the contingent of FTR DS Jaeger, King Harold, Bull, Squishy, Checkerbutt, Luscious Lucious, Tub Top, sat around enjoying the day and the beer and their completion of the full hundred miles.
Wankmeister didn’t care about anything, and more melted rivulets of fat trickled down into his beard.
A baby dolphin hunt gone terribly wrong
Cycling, when done properly, is a series of poor decisions culminating in despair. Having paid the $90 entry fee for the Madera stage race, Wankmeister bailed the night before due to incomplete recovery from his bubonic plague and ovarian cyst. Overcome with guilt, he decided that rather than staying home and doing the Donut he would instead go to Solvang for the annual baby dolphin hunt.
In the beginning it had been glorious. Jaeger, Wanky, Bull, King Harold, and the Long Beach freddies had engaged in a wonderful morning of gaffing and filleting the baby Solvang dolphins by the hundreds. At one point DS Jaeger flatted. Imperiously handing his bike over to Tub Top to change the tire, he waded out into a field and happily pissed on the vegetables. Tub Top got his revenge by improperly seating the bead, which meant that despite the record-setting tire change DS Jaeger was soon enough standing on the side of the road wasting more of other people’s CO2 cartridges as he tried to do right the fifth time what he’d been too lazy to do right the first.
The one happy outcome of so many unplanned stops was that it allowed hundreds of baby dolphins to pass by the hunters with snide baby dolphin smirks, as if to say “You thought you were so fast, but who’s passing whom now?” Actually, none of them said “whom.” Baby dolphins don’t know how to use the objective case.
It was a happy outcome for the hunters because it simply meant that rather than a one-time dolphin slaughter, the brave predators were engaged in a catch-and-reclub program whereby the dolphins were caught, clubbed, released, and the clubbed again. By the time they reached the 60-mile-mark at Santa Maria, it looked like it would be a day for the record books. At least a thousand baby dolphins, countless “we can hang with this train” flailers, and even a pair of triathletes were clubbed, gaffed, gutted, and filleted.
Don’t count your baby dolphins before they’re gored
On the first set of rollers outside of Santa Maria, however, FTR DS Jaeger, forgetting all of the CO2 cartridges he had shamelessly borrowed, forgetting the quick wheel change he was given while he urinated in the field, and forgetting the camaraderie of the great sport of Solvang Century Ride Dolphin Clubbing, accelerated hard and kicked Bull out the back. Next to go, despite a last minute push from Checkerbutt, was Wanky. Then, a few miles later, Tub Top was clubbed. Shortly thereafter, Squishy got squished. One by one DS Jaeger disemboweled each of his friends, soloing in to the Solvang finishing tent and beer garden with no one in sight.
Last to finish were Bull and Wanky, the former tired, the latter barely able to stand.
“How was the ride?” a vaguely familiar person asked, but what was there to say, except this, and he was too tired to say it …
Nothing is as lonely and miserable as getting dropped by your “friends” 35 miles from beer, and then, over the course of the next miserable hour and a half, getting passed by slow people, old people, young people, male people, female people, triathlete people, tourists, first-timers, last-timers, riders on their last legs, riders getting their second wind, the strong, weak, rich, poor, handsome, ugly, lovely, pitted, proud, sympathetic, gloating, oblivious, in short, everyone and everything on two wheels. Finishing a ride such as this imparts no sense of accomplishment, no feeling of pride, no joy at a job well done but rather a profound sense of worthlessness and failure, a recognition that the icy hand of death is laid fast upon your balls and has begun its final squeeze, a grim glimpse into the near future where everyone is younger and stronger and your trajectory is moving from quickly downward to flatline, the beauty and nobility of the human spirit nothing more than a willful suspension of disbelief that got us through our youth and, now devoid of all magic, that we can angrily cast aside, or gently lay to rest as a sweet nothing no longer worthy of whispering in the ear of fate and no longer holding any power to deny or delay or even momentarily forget that rust never sleeps. Other than that, it was a great day, one of those moments in time where each passing hour erases a little more of the awfulness until in retrospect, like a terrible disease from which you only barely recovered to avoid death, the pain becomes blurred and forgotten except as a historical fact, and you have forgotten the sweat-encrusted, laboring grunts of the riders who suffered with you, the fiery burning in your feet from shoes that fit perfectly until mile 80, what felt like fiery shards of glass being shoved up your rectum from too many hours on a hard, narrow ass hatchet, the crackling and contorted neck, aching from holding the watermelon in a distended position for hours on end, the shivering stings of muscular cramps, the dull and primeval message of “You’re going to die soon” that comes from dehydration, and worst of all the frenzy of feeding and sugary faux hydration at the feeding stations that neither replenish nor hydrate but instead caulk your muscles in stiffness so that when you remount it’s worse than if you had never stopped, while all around friendly volunteers are telling you “good job” and offering you another stale chunk of p-b sandwich, or a quarter of a green banana as you hate them to their very bones for being cheerful and kind and even more because at the last way station, with its famished riders and the one or two geniuses who have conned their way into the ambulance and a free ride back to beer by claiming heat prostration, some well-meaning sadist says “Only 12 miles to go!” In your own little hell, of course the only thing worse than not knowing you only have 12 miles to go is knowing that you have exactly 12 miles to go because you know what a mile is and how long it takes, and twelve of them, stacked up like this at the end of five hours of unmitigated misery are unendurable to contemplate, let alone complete, it’s as if the dentist gently reminded you that after the root canal he would be operating on your brain with pliers and a screwdriver, but you continue slogging away because as much as you’d love to lie down in the road or, yes, call the Solvang taxi, there is something inexplicably stupid about people in trouble on bikes that makes them continue on for no good reason other than the best reason of all, which is that they are impervious to the normal operation of a rational mind.
Wankmeister looked at his vaguely familiar friend and didn’t say anything. With the grease in his beard and the sunburn and the haggard eyes, he didn’t have to.
March 9, 2014 § 44 Comments
I put the call out on Facebag to see if anyone had a starter bike, 54 cm or thereabouts, for my 16-year-old. We’d been talking and he had said, “I’d like to go riding with you sometime, Dad.”
Several friends reached out with various kind offers, but none kinder than Wankomodo. “I have a fairly nice bike I could let go for $500. It’s just sitting in the garage and I’d rather see it used than gathering dust.”
A couple of weeks went by and I finally got around to visiting to check out the bike. It was an immaculate S-Works Tarmac with Campy 10-speed, Ksyrium wheels, brand new Continentals, and Speedplay pedals. “If you want the compact chain rings and rear cogs I can throw them in for fifty bucks.”
That night I got home with the new bike and showed it to junior. He glanced at it. “That’s nice,” he said.
Some more weeks went by. I was busy, then sick, then he was at a track meet, and then finally our schedules meshed. “Let’s go for a ride on the bike path,” I said.
In the interim I’d yanked the Speedplays and replaced them with a pair of flat plastic pedals. This would be the only super bike in L.A. with “pedal” pedals.
“What should I wear?” he asked.
“T-shirt and shorts and sneakers should be perfect.”
“Okay. Who’d you borrow this bike from?”
“I didn’t borrow it. It’s yours.”
He looked at it differently.
Before we left I aired up my tires and then gave him the pump. He pushed and strained to get the gauge up to 100 psi. “This is hard!” he said. I had forgotten that not everyone is born knowing how to air up a tire as I watched him struggle with getting the pump head on the valve.
We loaded the bikes in the car and drove down to the Riviera. I parked on the flat section of Camino de Encanto and got his bike out. He put on his helmet. He hadn’t ridden a bicycle since he was eight. “How do I do this again?” he asked.
I’d forgotten that not everyone rides a bike everyday.
“Throw your leg over the top tube and set the pedal up like this … “
“What’s the top tube?” he asked.
I’d forgotten that not everyone knows what a top tube is.
“It’s this.” I walked over and showed him. Then I returned to the car to get my bike out. I heard some funny noises and looked back. He was weaving and barely staying upright.
“Keep pedaling,” I said casually, my heart in my mouth. I turned back to the car. He wasn’t a child anymore. I could not run to him, because he is now a child with the mind of a man. He passed by, smiling, still wobbling a bit. I smiled back as if it were the most normal thing in the world, as if I were not afraid.
“Stay to the right,” I added. He reached the stop sign, turned around, and came back. “Why don’t you do that a few more times to get used to it, then we can go.”
“Okay,” he smiled. “My ass hurts though.”
I grinned. “Welcome to bicycling.”
A small group of Serious Cyclists were going the other direction. The fattest one with the fanciest bike eyed our amateur get-up. “You’re going the wrong direction!” he smirked. “The hill is the other way! C’mon, don’t be weak!”
“Martin Howard would have laughed at that,” I said to myself with a smile.
The bike was a terrible fit because I hadn’t jammed the seat forward and put on a super short stem. It looked awfully uncomfortable; he was stretched out like a circus performer. But I didn’t say anything. He was riding, and he was riding with me.
We coasted down the street when suddenly I heard someone say, “Hey, Seth!” It was Marilyne, Craig, Lisa, Renee, and Carey, all returning from the Sunday Wheatgrass Ride. I was wearing shorts and a tee, and they summed up the situation instantly. We chatted and coasted down to the traffic circle. They all went very slowly, with my son tagging along on the back, uncertain and wobbling and me so afraid. He was in the road, the damned road, on the damned bike, anything could happen but I swallowed my fear.
“We’re going down to the bike path,” I said.
“See you!” they said, and rode off.
We went down the embankment and I was afraid again but I said nothing and showed nothing because he is no longer a child. Something happened and I heard a scraping noise. He got back on the bike and didn’t say anything and I didn’t say anything either because there was nothing for me to say.
On the bike path we rode to the pier at Redondo Beach. The path was crowded with people. I had forgotten that not everyone easily weaves between hundreds of people on a crowded path and never worries about hitting them. “Hey Dad,” he said. “Can we stop for a second?”
We stopped. “This is stressful,” he said with a nervous smile.
I had forgotten that, too. “You’re doing great,” I said.
He remounted, smoother and faster and more confident than even ten minutes ago. We reached the pier. “Take a break?” I said. “This is the turnaround.”
He looked relieved. “Yeah.”
“How about some ice cream?”
Out came the big grin. “That would be great!”
It has been lifetimes since I rode my bike a couple of miles in shorts and tennis shoes with someone I loved and stopped and ate ice cream. Never, maybe.
We sat on the bench and watched the Jesus freaks and the tourists and the man with the battered guitar and the happy little kid dashing with his mom running after him out of breath and the ice cream tasted so good. “You ready?” I said after we were done.
“Sure!” He had the enthusiasm of ice cream, now.
We pedaled back without incident. Behind me, he talked about a book he was reading. It was as pretty a sound as any symphony.
We got to the ramp and he almost fell making the turn. Then he got off and walked to the top. I’d forgotten that not everyone rides a bike up steep hills for miles at a time. We remounted and made for the car. There was the little climb up Calle Miramar and then the more significant bump up Camino de Encanto.
He was puffing. I had forgotten that not everyone rolled up those two small hills without puffing.
We got to the car and loaded the bikes in.
“That was fun,” he said.
“Yes, it sure was,” I answered, thankful I hadn’t forgotten that you’re never too old for ice cream.
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March 8, 2014 § 41 Comments
People always ask me about bike stuff.
“What do you think of the new Slobotomy aero-helmet?”
“I hear that slightly wider tires are actually faster than the ultra-narrow profiles. Is that true?”
“How does the GoPro Super Narcissto 4 stack up agains the Garmin 24/7 MeMeMeMe?”
“Is a computerized bike fit as good as a hand job?”
Needless to say, I devote hours answering the person’s question, and they do the exact opposite, or, more commonly, nothing at all and instead go buy a large pizza.
Still, there are ways to really upgrade your ride, and they aren’t the ways you might think. I will list them here for you in order of the impact they will have on your riding experience.
- Make your next two purchases the best and brightest taillight you can find, and the best and brightest headlight you can find. Then, mount them on your bike and use them all the time, especially during the day. How it improves your ride: Cagers will not horribly maim or kill you and you will get home alive.
- Max out your uninsured motorist insurance. When you get hit by some idiot who doesn’t have enough insurance, or who has none at all, or who hits you and drives off, leaving you for dead, the only way you can pay for the damage is through the uninsured motorist coverage ON YOUR AUTOMOBILE LIABILITY INSURANCE POLICY. It’s cheap to max out your UM coverage, so do it now. $500k in coverage is not too much. How it improves your ride: 48% of LA-area collisions are hit-and-run, and you will, with maximum UM coverage, get compensation for your injuries and your destroyed bike.
- Enter an event you would normally never do. A century ride, an MTB race, a ‘cross race, the Eldo Crit, a charity ride, a Fredfest, Ciclavia, critical mass, certification at the Velo Sports Center, whatever it is, if it’s outside your normal riding band, do it. How it improves your ride: You’ll meet new people and get a new sense of appreciation for the fun that is cycling.
- Read a book that treats some aspect of the history of cycling. How it improves your ride: You’ll understand the incredible changes and challenges that have been overcome in order to allow you to effortlessly, electronically shift your way along the streets on a carbon fiber bike.
- Go into a local bike shop and buy something. How it improves your ride: The vast majority of people who own bike shops do it first and foremost because they love bikes. Supporting their passion supports yours as well.
- Proffer roadside assistance to someone. Even if you can no more change a flat than swap out a car’s transmission, take a second to pull over and see if the fellow cyclist on the side of the road needs help. Everyone appreciates consideration and concern, even if just means holding their bike or pulling the tube and cartridge out of their seat bag. How it helps your ride: Cycling is a community, and the good deeds you do to strangers will get paid forward.
- Say hello to someone you don’t know. Whether it’s your regular ride or whether you’re passing someone on the street, greet a stranger and exchange names. How it helps your ride: People remember being spoken to, especially when they’re new to a group, and it makes them feel good, and making others feel good will make you feel good, too.
- Get rid of five cycling-related things you no longer use or need. Most riders are awash in crap. Old shoes, old helmets, old wheel sets, even (especially) bikes. Slim down your possessions, especially if you can pass them on to someone who will actually use them. How it improves your ride: Makes space for you to buy newer, cooler crap.
- Ride to work one day a month. How it improves your ride: Once you begin commuting, odds are that you will do it more often. I went from 0 days a week to commuting almost every day. How it improves your ride: You’re riding more, of course. And bikers who cycle to work will tell you that the commute is the best part of their day.
- Go on a ride with a family member who isn’t a “cyclist.” Not a 25-mile hammerfest, just a fun 15 or 20-minute pedal. How it improves your ride: You can slowly trick them into riding if you do it in a way that is actually, you know, fun. And the family that rides together …
February 28, 2014 § 27 Comments
As Rudyard Kipling so famously wrote in his epic poem Gunga Din …
YOU may talk o’ gin an’ beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
It’s been the nicest winter imaginable for riding a bicycle, so warm and sunny and pleasant that the news from Chicago and the East Coast and other weather-challenged climes seems almost unfair. Then I remember that Karma Bitch and Karma Bastard always have the last laugh. That’s always as in “always.”
This afternoon I got my first taste of what it means to experience earth’s warmest January since humans began keeping temperature records, when I read a brief little article about California’s drought and how it has caused the Russian River to essentially dry up. You see, even though bicycle riders love sunny, warm winter days, and even though it makes them happier than a stoner at Hempcon to be out pedaling when their Midwestern counterparts are chained to the trainer in a cellar, there is one thing that California bicycle riders love every bit as much as riding bicycles, even more, perhaps.
Beer. Because unlike the soldiers in Gunga Din, bikers don’t do their work on water. They do it on beer. Over ‘ere.
And they don’t just love any old beer, they love California beer. And the California beer they love more than any other liquid refreshement in the whole pantheon of malt, barley, hops, and yeast is the beer with names like Lagunitas, Pliny the Elder, and Racer 5. Each of these treasures shares at least one thing in common: They exist due to the rolling blue bounty of the Russian River, which in turn depends in large part on Lake Mendocino, which in turn will go dry this summer if California doesn’t get more rain in the next two weeks than it’s gotten all year. That would be “last year.” The river itself is barely gurgling in the middle of a “rainy” season barely worthy of the name, a time when it should be raging, roaring, and plunging with clear blue water.
The deluge predicted for the next few days, if it happens, won’t be more than a tiny Band-Aid on a gashed, gaping, open wound. We’re in negative water territory and a few days of hard rain won’t save us.
How will California’s bicyclists get their beer?
“Nothing ever happens until it happens to you,” or so goes the old saw.
What’s about to happen to California cyclists is this — they’re going to finally have an endless summer, and it’s not going to be pretty. Most of the state is naturally a desert anyway, and if the megadrought that’s already in the works comes to full force, the manmade greenery here will wither and blow away like dust. Car washes will shut down, pools will empty, and a lawn or two in Palos Verdes may actually go brown (a little bit, maybe).
But we can still ride our bikes, right?
You can’t ride your bike if there’s no West Coast IPA at the end of the trail. It’s not so much that you can’t, it’s more of a “Why would you?” kind of thing. Tens of thousands of California drinkers have a cycling problem, and without the beer, well, the drinkers just kind of go away. And you can forget your precious California wine. The 2014 vintage isn’t even a hope anymore.
Until now you’ve probably not given a second thought to your 30-minute showers, your weekly carwash, and those endless lawn-watering sessions where you also make sure the asphalt gets good and doused as well. I hope after reading this you’ve gotten religion.
Your beer depends on it.
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February 25, 2014 § 15 Comments
We were pedaling along the street, he and I, finishing an awesome day of bicycling awesomeness. “How’s your week looking?” I asked.
“Righteously snowalicious,” he answered.
“Dude,” he assured me. “I been skiing forty years. No worries.”
I wrinkled my brow. “Those bony legs of yours go up-and-down several hours a day, 300-plus days a year, and suddenly you’re gonna lock those old-man knees into ski bindings and race down double blacks like you were twenty-five and had nothing but naked coeds, a jacuzzi, and twelve bottles of vodka waiting for you at the end of the run?”
He laughed. “Wankster, you’re sounding like a very old woman. I’m going with my friggin’ family. Did you forget that my daughter is seven? That we’ll be doing bunny runs with her and and her friend that I could do blindfolded on one leg carrying a logging truck on my back? Dude!”
I mused. G3 was in the form of his life. He’d logged 48,203.23 miles over the winter, including noodling, intervals, big ring training, sprinting, and pelvic thrusting. He was loaded for bear this season, but everyone knows that fierce lateral knee movements are hell on old joints, and heller on the joints of old bike racers. Why would he jeopardize this incredible fitness for a mere family outing? Couldn’t he just swill beer by the hot tub and howl “Good job, honeys!” as his kid and wife came in from the slopes, covered in snow and frostbite?
And then something went “bump,” How that “bump” made us jump
The next time I talked to G3, he was in whatever state of depression is lower than the doldrums. “Where you been, man?” I haven’t seen you at the races yet this year.
“I been sick,” he said.
“With what? The plague? It’s been months since I saw you last.”
“Worse than the plague,” he said.
Apparently he had been lazily cruising down the triple-bunny run with his daughter and her friend. His mind was focused on the upcoming season opener at Boulevard, where he’d get to test his awesome form against the monsters of the Leaky Prostate Category. Somewhere between his imagined incredible attack on La Posta and his fantasy victory acceleration up Old Drugsmuggler Highway, he noticed that his daughter’s friend had dropped one of her ski poles.
“No prob, sweetie,” he said. “I got it.” Trailing behind the two girls, he squatted and reached down to pick up the pole, and he squatted low, real low, the kind of low that you better not try unless you’re a sixteen-year-old girl cheerleader with a minor in yoga. As he squatted, forty-five years of bone and gristle protested, and they protested with vigor.
G3’s day, week, month, and season were done. He folded like a mod pair of sunglasses, crumpled like a pinata, went down like a working girl. “Ohhhhh,” he moaned, not just at the savaging pain, but at the season and the fitness that went “poof” up into the clear winter air.
I did everything I could to perk him up, reminding him of how strong he’d be the latter part of the season, envying all the quality family time he must be having, and complimenting him on having learned the treachery and dangers of Old Fellow skiing without having actually pulled a Sonny Bono. Nothing worked.
You can’t have it all, American Express
A lot of people think that cycling is good for your health. I don’t. What’s good for your health is sitting on the couch, swilling beer, and taking brief walks outside when the weather is pleasant.
Getting run over by raging cagers, spilling downhill face-first on Las Flores at 45 mph, riding your IT bands/tendons/ligaments into permanent dysfunction, and enlarging your heart from ceaseless exercise don’t seem like much of a prescription for longevity. Worse, the more you ride the more invincible you think you are. “Hey, I can ride a hundred miles … bet I can totally manhandle those youngsters in a game of pick-up basketball.”
On the other hand, every time I stand around with a group of 40 or 50-something cyclists, I’m amazed at how completely different they look from the people I graduated from high school with, people who for the most part look at least a decade, if not two, older than they really are. The bikers are lither, they move more easily, and as long as you don’t look too carefully at the weatherbeaten lines in their faces, you’d be hard pressed to peg them at their real age.
Cycling makes you reach for more, sometimes for more than you probably should. It’s not a greedy reach, it’s the reach of “try.” And as long as you’re going to try, well, that means there’s also a chance that you’ll fail. Somehow the arms don’t reach out quite as far when you’re lying on the couch.
G3 may be down, but he’s not out. With 250 Big Orange acolytes restlessly awaiting his return … he’ll be back. Whether he’ll be back on the slopes again is another question entirely. Me? Have I ever shown you my jump shot?
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