Week in review

September 23, 2013 § 12 Comments

Lots has happened.

Julie Cutts, who rides for La Grange, won two world masters championships this weekend, one in the time trial and the other in the road race. More about this at a later date, but suffice it to say that this is staggeringly, incredibly, amazingly fantastic news. Julie was joined in Trento, Italy by Rudy Napolitano, Mike Easter, and Tony Restuccia, who all raced in the men’s 35-39 world championship. Although everyone can appreciate Julie’s two victories, not everyone can appreciate the men’s results — 15th, 19th, and 60th. Let me be the first to say that these results are extraordinary. Out of 101 finishers, these three racers performed exceptionally on a global stage, on a brutal course that ended with a 20km climb, in the epicenter of world cycling. Simply being invited to the biggest stage for masters racers is a tremendous accomplishment. Finishing as strongly as these guys did is testament to their toughness, ability, and racing skill.

Cyclocross is here

The 2013-2014 cyclocross season kicks off in Southern California next Sunday, September 29, at the historical downtown LA state park. Dorothy Wong brings cyclocross back for another year, only it’s bigger, better, and promises even more participation and excitement. Even as road and track racing stagnate in the state and nationwide, ‘cross continues to grow. Why? Because it’s audience-friendly. Road and track focus on the athletes, and with the exception of blowout races like Tulsa Tough, it’s unheard of in SoCal to see a road race, circuit race, or crit that’s packed with spectators.

Cyclocross brings people in to watch. The courses are exciting and spectators can put their tents right next to the most thrilling parts of the course. The racers go slower and they come by much more often, and spectators are encouraged to cheer, heckle, and give questionable hand-ups. ‘Cross courses are “parky,” so kids can run around. After racing, the athletes are often found under the tents drinking beer, hanging out, and enjoying the rest of the day. What’s also interesting is that, as far as I know, there’s little or no prize money — and the racers could care less. They’re energized by screaming fans and a fun time, not the illusory professionalism that comes from getting a “paycheck” of $25 and a box of Clif bars.

More PCH tomfoolery

I did another couple of Sunday rides on PCH, taking the lane all the way out to Cross Creek and back. The criticism of this approach was initially massive by the local cycling community, or at least among the people with whom I ride.  Then, thanks to a video captured by a biker on Sunday, I saw an entire crew of “gutter bunnies,” 50 riders strong, taking the lane. So that’s awesome. One disappointment has been the almost complete absence of “take the lane” advocates, folks who are quite vocal about taking the lane and who spout lots of facts and figures regarding the  merits of this method, but who can’t be bothered to actually do it on PCH. Maybe you don’t believe in your method quite as much as you say?

My kingdom for a stem

On the way to the ride this morning I ran into Mike Barraclough, who was sidelined just past Malaga Cove with a flat tire, a short stem, and no stem extender. My wheels are box rim aluminum Open Pros and so they take any length stem, no matter how short, but when I went to the bike shop to get a new tube the only ones they had in stock were the 60mm. It turned out that this was just the right length, so we swapped his spare 52mm for my 60mm, and we got underway. Dave Kramer, also en route to the ride, had also stopped to help. Pressed for time, we took the most direct route from Redondo to Manhattan Beach, which is PCH, and we took it at full speed. Mike and Dave had breathing problems along the way, and we had to back it off a notch to stay together. Then, once we turned on Gould and dropped down to Valley, Dave and Mike blew a stop sign that had a police cruiser parked off to the side, waiting for speeders. This was our lucky morning, though — I put a foot down for the first time in recent memory, and the cop just watched us pedal away. When we got to the start of the ride, Mike and Dave looked like they were on the finishing leg of RAAM. Ron Peterson looked up and laughed. “You were supposed to exercise the horses, son, but instead you done broke ‘em!”

Can’t say enough about these shoes

I’ve been riding Bont shoes for about six months now. My first shoes were Detto Pietro. My second shoes were Marresi. My third shoes were the Sidi Revolution, the first shoe with a velcro strap. My fourth shoes were Duegi white patent leather track shoes with wooden soles … I used them on the road and almost died in them atop a high mountain pass in Japan, but that’s another story. My next shoes were Sidi, and I wore their various iterations for twenty years until two years ago I bought the Specialized S-Works under pressure from a local dealer. My feet eventually adapted to them, but the dials constantly wore out and it was frustrating and expensive to replace them. It also felt like a bit of planned obsolescence, so that I could keep spending money on the shoe. It rubbed me the wrong way.

I was given the Bont shoes as part of my team’s sponsorship package. Basically, they give me a bunch of world-class gear so that I can go place 57th in the local crits and DNF the occasional road race. I was skeptical about the Bont shoes because you have to put them in the oven. They are also flexible like well-cured concrete. And the road shoe looks a little boxcar-ish. Once I had cooked them and used them for a week, my feet molded perfectly to the interior of the shoe. Everyone loves to talk about their “stiff frame” and “stiff BB” and “stiff soles” and “stiff” whatever, but it’s a word I’ll use with care for the rest of my life after wearing the Bont.

So, how stiff are the Bont shoes? They are “sailor on shore leave” stiff. They are stiffer than a fused spine. Stiff like glass. When you push down on the pedals, the shoes are so stiff that, if your bottom bracket is sufficiently robust, the earth will flex on its axis before you’ll flex the soles on these beasts. The ‘cross version of the Bont Vaypor is just as good, with several modifications for the rigors of cyclocross. If you’re unhappy with the flexiness of your current shoes, consider the Bont.

Geeks v. Dorks

September 17, 2013 § 54 Comments

I’ve been puzzled by the split of opinions about where to ride on PCH. In the lane, or in the gutter? That’s the question, and it has evoked strong reactions.

On one side are the racers/ex-racers/soon-to-be-racer geeks who “know” how to ride safely. On the other side are the bike dorks — the dudes with mirrors, crusty machines, and weird signs hanging off their saddles. This is a simplification, since many “racer geeks” have also signaled their agreement with take-the-lane positioning on PCH by, well, taking the lane.

Still, it got me thinking about the cleavage. An FB page I frequent, “Cyclists Are Drivers,” and a web forum I belong to, the CABO forum, are both filled with bike dorks. The key feature of the dorks is that they are focused on facts, numbers, and hypotheses that can be tested with regard to cycling safety in traffic. They are often in sharp, even vitriolic disagreement.

The key feature of the racer geeks is that they are focused on riding their bikes fast, or at least pretending that what they’re doing will allow them to ride faster later. Racer geeks, unlike bike dorks, keep their disagreements on the down-low for the simple reason that they spend much of their time riding in groups with one another. They’re fundamentally group animals, whereas the bike dork tends to be more of a loner, at least to the extent that bike dorks seem to commute a lot by themselves, which makes their concern with traffic safety obvious.

The dislike of public arguments between race geeks makes sense when you see some of the online disagreements between the bike dorks. It would be hard to go have a fun group ride with a bunch of people you’ve just excoriated as misguided imbeciles.

How I joined the dorks

I became a bike dork by accident, or rather, I’ve always been a dork and the bike dorks won me over with, well, logic and debate. I won’t reiterate their reasoning, since it’s available by the ream to anyone who can do a Google search, other than to say that after trying out their lane control tactics on Del Amo and then Hawthorne, I found my traffic rides much less stressful. Lane control rides on PCH reconfirmed that taking the lane is superior to being a gutter bunny, at least for me.

What surprised me is how poorly the dorks’ ideas were received by many of my racer geek brethren. One of the bike dorks I respect the most had this to say with regard to racer geeks and the authority with which they speak regarding traffic skills:

Bike racers are to traffic skills instruction as auto-racers are to driving school instruction; not qualified unless they go though certification training. I know highly trained and traffic skilled racers, … and others who are terrified of traffic and ride like children, by hugging the curb in fear, and a spectrum in-between the two extremes. Just because someone is a racer, or has good paceline skills does not mean they also have bicycle driving skills. I’ve seen too many national and world class racers operate very hazardously in traffic to buy that common misbelief.

This, more than anything else, puzzled me. Are the people I’ve ridden with for years, people whose wheels I trust, people who have performed magic on two wheels, are they unqualified to speak about traffic skills on PCH because they haven’t taken some sort of course?

Sticking to PCH

The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. One of our recent ride additions, a bike dork par excellence, had aroused the ire of the racer geek group with his riding. What was interesting was that his same behavior had annoyed me on our lane control ride, even though his antics were simply riding closer to the lane divider stripes than I thought reasonable.

Why would this behavior elicit such condemnation?

Then it hit me. The bike dork is primarily concerned with not getting hit by cars. The racer geek, although he’ll tell you that is his primary concern as well, is mostly concerned with not getting taken out by other riders. I don’t think I’ve ever actually witnessed a car hitting a bicyclist, but I’ve witnessed countless accidents  on group rides caused by bad bike handling.

Now it was starting to make sense, sort of. The bike dorks are talking about where to ride safely in the lane. The racer geeks are trying to keep conformity within the peloton because that’s where the danger is greatest. Erratic, unpredictable moves cause crashes, scare the shit out of people, and act as a total buzzkill for what is supposed to be a fun social event. It may be true that the conformity would be even more easily handled, and bad bike handling would be more easily accommodated in the lane rather than in the gutter, but for purposes of the debate that doesn’t really matter.

The bike dork is viewed as a living, breathing threat to the racer geek’s bunch ride.

Traffic skills versus bunch riding skills

No one likes to be told, “Your biking skills suck.” Except me, because mine do, and I’m reminded of it every time I ride. I was amazed at how ignorant I was of basic traffic skills the couple of times I rode with Jim Hannon’s BCCC group. My default mode of “blow the stops,” and “consider red lights as advisements only” was the tip of the iceberg.

Lane control riding also required a new set of skills. Yet while I noticed — and notice — my traffic skills deficiencies, I also notice that there’s not one bike dork I’ve met yet whose wheel I’d take if the pace ever got over 21 mph, much less if it happened in a group. The bike dork, for all his traffic skill, is a hopeless threat when the pace picks up and the group gets congested.

This is where the auto-racing analogy breaks down. You will never simulate race car conditions on normal streets, i.e. tightly packed, one-way, high speed roadways with vehicles going well over 100 mph. But you will always, if you’re a racer geek, find yourself in tight bunches going at race speeds even on “easy” days. The useless car racing skills that are not relevant to traffic skills in a car become highly relevant if you’re a recreational rider who does “the Saturday ride.”

As a racer geek, I view the bike dork with great skepticism when he or she starts telling me what’s safe or where I should ride. “What the fuck do you know?” I think. “I’d drop you like a heavy turd from a tall horse without even trying.” Even more to the point, I do what every racer geek does when a new wheel appears in the group, regardless of how they’re dressed or what they’re riding or how fit they look. I give them a wide berth and pay scrupulous attention to how they handle their bike. Doing otherwise wil put you on the pavement, quickly.

It’s a two-way street

Just like racer geeks hate being told that their lifetime skills of bunch riding don’t count for squat when it comes to traffic safety skills, bike dorks hate having it pointed out that they’re slow, weak, can’t sprint, can’t climb, can’t hold a straight line, and that they terrify the shit out of everyone behind them. Bike dorks find that all the knowledge and expertise in the world won’t keep them in the group if they lack the lungs and the legs.

The racer geeks wrongly see this as proof that the bike dorks don’t know anything worth knowing. The bike dorks wrongly see it as evidence that racing skills are inapplicable to traffic, particularly when accompanied by running stop signs, blowing through yellow lights with fifty people on your wheel, etc.

Both groups are right up to a point. Bike dorks are correct that lane control works. People who do it find it less stressful than life in the gutter. Race geeks are right up to a point, as well. An authority on traffic safety who drops his head when he’s tired or who can’t hold a straight line is a much greater threat to the group than cars.

But both groups are also wrong. Bike racing skills do lend themselves easily and seamlessly to traffic skills as compared to new riders who are still unable to clip in without the risk of tipping over. It’s easier to train someone who rides 10,000 miles a year than someone who still can’t shift properly. And bike dorks are right in that lane control can make the whole bunch safer, and can more easily accommodate unskilled group riders.

One final note from the dorks

Of all the factoids and anecdotes I’ve run across, one of the most instructive was the bike dork observation that you, the racer geek, may not owe your survival to your great bike handling skills as much as you think. Cycling is statistically one of the safest recreational activities you can do, with a rate of .26 deaths per million cycling activities. Compared to skydiving, with a rate of 128 per million, cycling seems to be quite a bargain.

Better put, the chance that you’ll be killed on your bike is tiny, whether you ride in the gutter or in the lane. Whether you’re a wobbling Willy or a stoplight-flaunting Eddy Wannabe, the numbers are on your side. So it would seem that those who vociferously oppose lane control on PCH should be willing to try it out for a month or two, ’cause it ain’t gonna kill ya. Then get back to me and see if maybe you don’t have a bit of the bike dork in you, after all.

Guts ‘n Gore Alley: Malibu & PCH

August 25, 2013 § 20 Comments

The City of Malibu has posted an online survey at http://malibu.metroquest.com/. You can take the survey to let the city know what you think are the most important issues regarding safety improvements to PCH.

Or, you know, you could just do something else.

Let me give you 10 reasons to take a few minutes out of your busy life and complete the survey.

  1. Marisela Echevarria, 36, lost control of her bike on PCH as vehicles passed by, and struck her handlebars on a parked vehicle, causing her to veer into the side of the bus. She was then dragged under the bus and killed when the bus crushed her with its rear wheels. Date of death: 10/13/2012.
  2. Luis Adolfo Olmedo, 53, was struck and killed by a cager on PCH between Encinal Canyon Road and Mullholland Highway. Olmedo had just finished fishing near El Pescador State Beach and was crossing PCH from the shoreline side. Date of death: 2/26/2013.
  3. Sarah Salam, 21, was struck and killed by a cager driving a limo as she attempted to cross PCH after leaving Moonshadows restaurant.
    A burned out streetlight, located steps away from the collision, and other preventable maintenance considerations likely played a role in her death. Date of death: 4/20/2013.
  4. Rodrigo Armas, 45, was struck and killed on PCH by a drunken cager who worked for the City of Malibu. He was participating in an annual organized ride. The cager fled the scene of the accident. Date of death: 7/5/2009.
  5. Christian Armas, 14, was struck by the same drunken cager who killed his father, and sustained injuries to his leg and multiple bone fractures.
    The pair were equipped with regulation lighting for night cycling. Date of injury: 7/5/2009.
  6. Amelia Ordona, 74, was crossing PCH in the early morning to catch a bus on the way home from her job as a caretaker, when she was struck by a hit-and-run cager, then run over by multiple other cars. Most of the cagers who ran over the corpse didn’t bother to stop. Date of death: 3/18/2010.
  7. Emily Shane, 14, was run over on PCH by a distracted cager while she was walking along the side of the road in order to meet a family member at Point Dume Village shopping center. Date of death: April 3, 2010.
  8. Erin Galligan, 29, was was hit from behind while cycling on PCH and dragged to death by a hit-and-run cager in a pickup. Her body was thrown so far from the point of impact that police had to search for her body. Date of death: July 10, 2012.
  9. Numerous other fatalities including two Pepperdine Law School students who were killed in a head-on car-to-car collision with a drunk cager; a tow truck driver killed by another hit-and-run cager while he working on a vehicle, and myriad cyclists and pedestrians who have been seriously injured by cagers in the last ten years on PCH.
  10. You, aged 40-something, were riding down PCH on Sunday morning when a cager drove by so close that you were almost knocked off your bike by his mirror. There was only a narrow three-foot space on the edge of the road, covered with rocks, debris, glass, and cracked pavement, onto which you could veer for safety. You were almost killed, and it ruined your ride.

Although many Malibu residents come across as hateful, vengeful, stingy, selfish, and filled with venom towards bicycle riders, they are a small minority. Most Malibians are just like rich entitled cagers everywhere: They don’t like it when shit gets in their way and slows down their car, whether it’s a slow-moving truck, a traffic jam, a bicycle, or, you know, a corpse in the middle of the highway.

The city recognizes that PCH is a death trap and that they have traffic fatality and injury rates commensurate with a city many, many times larger. This survey is part of a planning process that may — may — eventually ameliorate the toxic combination of crazy-fast speeders and crazy-slow bicycle riders. Rather than gutting up for the next memorial ride to commemorate the life of another bicycle rider killed by a cager in Malibu, please take a few minutes to complete this survey.

Thanks.

Downtown donut

May 21, 2013 § 25 Comments

I had a wonderful bike ride Sunday morning.

It started at 4:55 AM. I rolled down the hill, met Half-Wheel Chris at Malaga Cove, and then pedaled with her along PCH to Crenshaw. From there we rode north to Wilshire, then over to downtown LA, then east to Central Avenue, and back through south central LA to Compton, then Carson, and from there to Manhattan Beach.

No one honked at us. No one yelled at us. We didn’t even get killed.

Instead, we had a good ride, and punctuated it with fresh donuts and hot coffee on the corner of Normandie and PCH. If you want good donuts in LA, ask Raja Black, then listen when he answers.

From bubble to bubble

The thing about Los Angeles is that it’s a city with a tiny bubbles of wealth separated by huge minefields of not-much-wealth and, yes, grinding poverty. The goal of many people is to get from bubble to bubble without having to venture out into the minefields, which are mostly black and brown.

Cars are the bubble shuttles for LA residents, zipping us from one “safe” area to the next. Multi-multi-multi-billion dollar freeways create safe bubble corridors so that we can take our safe bubble shuttle to the office or the beach or the museum or the bike race without the discomfort or the danger of having go out into the minefields. LA’s freeways are safe, right?

Right?

The benefit to this system is obvious. You don’t have to encounter or deal with actual humans. But the downside becomes clear until you get outside the bubble on a bike and start figuring out how to navigate without hitting a mine.

Suddenly, moving around LA goes from being a drive to being alive. Your choices have consequences. Getting from A to B requires more than a tank of gas and your favorite radio station.

What Los Angeles really is

…is a city. It’s not a series of disconnected bubbles as seen through the windshield. On a bicycle you see the transitions and you feel how abrupt they are. As you descend — literally — from the heights of Palos Verdes into Gardena and Lynwood, you notice that no one is starting their day with a Starbucks latte. They’re starting it at the bus stop. At 5:30 AM. On a Sunday.

I always feel nervous pedaling through someone else’s neighborhood like that. Then the bus stop folks give me a smile and I smile back, for just a second, before I return to my chat with Chris, which goes like this: “Quit half-wheeling me.”

Isn’t it daaaaaangerous?

Most of my friends don’t ride their bikes through Gardena, Lynwood, Hawthorne, Lennox, and Inglewood. They don’t even drive it. “Is it safe?” they ask.

What they mean is, “Are the black and brown people going to attack me because I’m a skinny, shrimpish white dude, and take my expensive bike?”

The answer to the first question is easy. Of course it’s not safe. Riding a bicycle in LA puts you in close proximity to cars, who are driven by people actively trying to kill you.

The answer to the second question is not as easy. Depending on the time of day and the location, there are places on this tour route where people would attack you and take your bike no matter what color you are. LA has some rough neighborhoods, and if you hang out on corner of Long Beach Boulevard and Greenleaf on a Friday night with a 12k TT rig, I suppose someone might relieve you of it.

But the simple act of putting on your fancy bike uniform and hopping on your fancy bike and pedaling — briskly — through south central LA early on Sunday morning seems a lot less risky than riding on PCH north to Malibu.

One thing that’s hard to miss if your regular beat includes the pretty coastal cities is the people who serve food out of the trunks of their cars. People living out of shopping carts. Understanding that the best insulating material for the poor isn’t a Patagonia jacket, it’s cardboard.

The downtown LA loop also puts you on what is often cracked, pothole-filled asphalt, the kind of paving that would tear up the undercarriage of a nice car…if there were any nice cars. So don’t forget your spare tire and a couple of extra cartridges.

Flat ‘n chat is the new drill ‘n grill

If you ever do this ride, or even suggest doing this ride, someone’s going to ask, usually with a wrinkled nose and skeptical brow, “Why?”

“Because it is there” worked for Hillary. It won’t work for Crenshaw.

The “because” is simple: Because it’s flat, and because you can chat. I’m not saying you have to give up the drill it and grill it approach that involves hammering your brains out. I’m just saying that every once in a while it’s nice not to have to do 100 feet of vertical for every mile you ride. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bikeversation that contains more than “How are ya?” “Fine. You?” and is followed by hammering ’til you crack.

Most of all, though, by a factor of at least eleven, is the supreme reason to Do The Downtown: It turns into a Donut Ride with real, honest to goodness donuts at the end and cheap, hot coffee enjoyed from a plastic bench.

There’s something special about sharing a quiet, sugar-drenched, lard-filled moment with a friend, when you can look over at her with a smile after having ridden sixty miles together from dawn to sunrise, and say from the bottom of your heart, “Would you please quit half-wheeling me?”

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