Three words

January 31, 2014 § 20 Comments

When I hear a funny noise on my bike I do the following two things: 1) Ignore it and hope it goes away. 2) If it doesn’t go away, hope that it’s nothing serious.

Some noises, though, are harder to ignore than others. This one happened every time I touched the rear brake on my ‘cross bike. Iw was the loudest, most horrific, piercing shriek you have ever heard in your life. It was so loud that it not only hurt my ears, it would startle passing motorists who had their windows rolled up while listening to Led Zeppelin. It was so loud that joggers a block away would jump when I braked. You probably think I’m exaggerating.

You’re wrong.

After about four days the noise kept getting worse. It was such a piercing scream that I started to think maybe it was serious. This led to a problem. If I checked out the source of the noise and found out that something was indeed wrong, I’d have to fix it. If I had to fix it I would end up taking out the three tools in my toolbox — hammer, screwdriver, pliers — and making the problem worse. Then I’d have to take it over to my mechanic, Boozy, and have him laugh at me before replacing all the parts I’d destroyed.

All of this was going through my mind as I hurtled down Silver Spur at 45 mph. A car started to pull out in front of me, and I touched the rear brake, which had the intended effect. The eardrum-shattering shriek frightened the driver into slamming on her brakes. I flashed past, pleased that my early warning system was so effective, but also troubled. What if this unearthly, mind-bending noise meant that the brakes were about to fail? The thought of going down Silver Spur like that without any brakes almost worried me.

I pedaled along PV Drive until I came to a stop sign. Resignedly I got off to inspect the rear brake. Perhaps there were no more brake pads and this was the sound of metal calipers on metal rim? Nope. Perhaps there was something wrong with the brake mechanism itself? I stared intently at the complex, mysterious piece of machinery known as “bicycle brake,” hoping that today, after all these years, its workings would finally make sense and I could somehow fix them. But, like a chimpanzee staring at an x-ray, the brake remained inscrutable.

Next I checked the rim and immediately found the culprit. It appeared that during one of my more energetic chain lubing sessions in which I had enthusiastically lubed the chain, the stays, the tire, my feet, and most of the sliding glass window on the balcony, I had gotten a few quarts of lubricant on the rim. The lube had, over time, picked up filth and gunk from the road, resulting in one side of the rim being completely coated with a thick, black, gooey tar that apparently didn’t mesh well with the brake pads.

The solution seemed simple: Wipe off the crud. I took a finger and ran it along the rim, expecting the gunk to come right off. It didn’t. Instead it smeared and left my finger covered with the tar. Next, I tried it with another finger, then another, until both my hands were black with oily crud, but the quantity on the rim appeared about the same. Over on the roadside was a bush with big leaves, so I went over and collected a few. Then I bent over and started vigorously rubbing the rim with a big green leaf.

At that moment a super pro-looking dude in a pro-looking kit on a bike cruised by on his 10k machine. He glanced at me disdainfully, as if he’d never seen a goofball riding a ‘cross bike with a huge red blinky light in the middle of the day while repairing his bike with some leaves. I expected him so say, “You okay?” but he pedaled quickly by.

The leaves had magical crud-removal properties, and in a few moments the rim was clean. I spun it and clenched the brakes — no squeal. This was the first time I had ever addressed a bike problem and solved it. I hopped on the bike and pedaled after Mr. Rudely. Soon enough I caught up to him. He had those 450-mile-a-week legs of a 20-something dreamer who thinks that if he just rides more and races more he will get a pro contract.

“Hi, there!” I chirped.

He turned his head towards me and made the grimmest half-smile, followed by a slight nod to acknowledge that I existed, sort of. “Nice day, huh!” I eagerly chirped some more. He nodded again, slightly, staring straight ahead. I could tell what he was thinking.

“Here I am on my easy day and I’ve been overtaken by the world champion Fred who repairs his bike with leaves and pedals 15 mph at 150 rpm. This sucks balls.”

I zoomed past, turned onto PV Drive West, and headed up the little bump out of Malaga Cove. At the top I slowed down considerably and Mr. Rudely passed me. I hopped on behind him, figuring it would drive him insane, which it did. Since he was obviously on a recovery day, he wasn’t going to hammer away from me, so he took the opposite tack. He slowed down until I passed him. I laughed to myself. “Nobody beats Wanky in the slows.” So I slowed down until he passed me again.

Now he was really pissed. “Hi again!” I chirped.

He sped up and I hopped on his wheel. Then he realized it was his recovery day, so he slowed back down. As I read the sponsors on his jersey, I wondered if he knew that by being such a prick he was causing me to memorize the name of each sponsor so that I would never, ever, ever buy any of their products? I wondered if it occurred to him that by stopping, or even slowing, to say “You okay?” he and his club and his Orange County shop would have done the best advertising possible? And of course I wondered if it occurred to him that by refusing to even speak to me because of my dorkiness he proved to be an even bigger dork than I?

Seeeeeeeerious cycling

Road cycling has a tradition of snobbery, rudeness, unfriendliness, and contempt for those who are slower and weaker than you. Why? Mountain bikers are glad you’re out on the trails with them. I wish I had a dollar for each time an MTB friend has invited me to try out trail riding. Cyclocross racers are the same. They only want to ride with you and drink beer, and many don’t even want to ride. Track riders are a little more serious, but the ice is easily broken your second or third time out and they will bend over backwards to show you the tricks of the trade.

Not road racers, though. Although there are plenty of friendly, down to earth riders, there is a distinct class of road racing snobs. Whether you’re riding with a mirror, or the expiration date on your white shorts has passed, or you’re working on your bike with an old leaf, they believe you are NOT WORTHY.

That’s when I think about Fields. Fields was the best, the cagiest, the one who trained hardest, and the one who dominated the peloton. But he never looked down on anyone because of the bike they rode or the clothes they wore. And if he passed you on a ride he’d always offer a friendly greeting, not to mention stop if you were stranded with a mechanical on the side of the road. Fields believed that people earned scorn and contempt when they acted like assholes, not when they were out enjoying a bicycle ride.

Mr. Rudely and I did another set of slow – and – pass before he got so angry that he stomped by me on the Switchbacks. I followed at about three bike lengths. When we got to the college the light was red. We stopped. I smiled. “Where are you riding today?”

“What’s that?” he said.

“Where are you riding today?”

He twirled his finger in the air as if circling the PV Peninsula. “Loops.” Then he telepathically communicated something along the lines of please-shut-up-now.

I left him for good this time, touching my rear brake occasionally on the long descent. They were perfectly silent. Maybe I’m not such a bad mechanic after all.

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What you’re really made of

May 7, 2013 § 27 Comments

It is part of our bicycling delusion that we are made of the qualities we reveal “on the bike.” The power meter tells you that you’re a badass (the opposite of which is what? A goodass?) Showing up for the NPR when it’s raining toxic sludge in 40-mph sideways sheets proves that you’re a tough guy, whether or not you’re even a guy. Hanging onto Rudy Napolitano’s wheel for the first 50 yards of his acceleration on the Switchbacks makes you a fighter.

That’s who you are, right? Watt pumper, road tough, and a competitor.

Bicycling may or may not reveal character, but it sure is replete with characters. And the character of those characters, in my experience, is most often revealed not on the bike, but off it.

The cast of characters

G3: I still don’t know what “G3″ stands for, and I’ve been riding with this wanker for years.

Stathis the Wily Greek: Only smiles for money.

Little Sammy Snubbins: Baby seal pup who loves to ride his bike.

Stitchface: Cat 4 adventurer who’s already gotten 100 sutures in his face this year.

Anonymous Steve: Generic bicycle rider whose chief characteristic was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Cast of Dozens: Amalgamated Idiots, Inc., a/k/a Usual Donut Ride Crew.

The route

Portuguese Bend is a hallowed part of the Donut Ride. It connects Palos Verdes Estates (a fancy enclave whose denizens’ shit doesn’t stink) with the Switchbacks, the epic 8-minute climb that punctuates this weekly beatdown.

Portuguese Bend is so geologically unstable that a permanent road crew is assigned to the 2-mile stretch of twisting roads, which shift and crack daily. The instability is such that sewer lines are placed above ground and  re-paving the entire roadway is done multiple times each year. The crews make weekly repairs to gaping crevasses that open up overnight as this side of the slope slides relentlessly into the sea.

With steep ups and downs, cracks that appear suddenly, narrow lanes, speeding traffic, and a long downhill from the Switchbacks, of course it’s the perfect place for the weekly gaggle of idiots to charge through the area at speeds exceeding 40 mph.

What could possibly go wrong?

The delicately choreographed Dance of the Club-footed Oafs

Cold logic, or even cool reason, don’t live in a peloton (“peloton” is French for “speeding gaggle of imbeciles.”) When you drop off the Switchbacks it’s a straight plunge several miles long to the bottom of Portuguese Bend. You wind up tightly bent into a densely packed anthill of carbon and meat and wires and metal, crammed into a tiny bike lane with livid pickups passing on the left three inches from your bars, your nose jammed up the next rider’s rear end, your front wheel an inch out of the next rider’s spokes, the busted and uneven and pockmarked road rattling your wheels and your frame and your legs and the tiny pea inside your skull but instead of sitting up and braking and letting the crazies dash off to their doom you bury yourself into the heart of the swarming beehive where there’s no escape hatch and the slightest waver will slam you to the pavement or worse catapult you off your bike into the oncoming traffic where Suzie Q whose shit doesn’t stink will mow you down in her Range Rover while talking on her cell phone and sipping a latte, as she’s wholly untrained to avoid catapulting bicycles flying across the road onto her grill which is pretty much what happens in the next instant when Little Sammy Snubbins, tucked deep in the hive at tenth wheel, hits a crack and, because he’s Little Sammy Snubbins and still on the lower part of the learning curve is rocketing along the jarring bumpy roads with his hands loosely gripping the bars instead of clenching them like his life depends on it which in fact it does and the crack that he smacks full-on with his front wheel jolts his left hand off the bars and his right hand steers him t-bone style into the side of Stitchface who, at 40 mph, is hit by Generic Steve full force in the rear, taco-ing Stitchface’s rear wheel and tossing him into the air like a rag doll and hurling his bike and him into oncoming traffic but actually against all odds Suzie Q WAS expecting a flying bike and Raggedy Andy biker to come sailing airborne over into her lane from thirty feet away and she locks up the ABS and doesn’t squash Stitchface like a bug or even hit him but down goes Generic Steve and down goes Little Sammy Snubbins and the Dance of the Club-footed Oafs goes from being a sort of delicately clumsy waltz to a screeching, screaming, clattering, skittering, pandemonic mishmash of smoking rubber and hands filled with maximum brake and, miracle of miracles, no one else chews the asphalt and Little Sammy Snubbins only breaks his bike and Generic Steve barely gets a scratch and Stitchface peels his body off from the pavement and declares himself unhurt even after the shock wears off.

Unfortunately, someone has to be the grown-up

So for the moment the bicycling is over. Everyone stops; well, almost everyone. There are a handful for whom getting in their miles is more important than stopping to see if Stitchface has been gored to death or to find out if Little Sammy Snubbins needs mouth-to-brain resuscitation, and…

…there is no “and.”

It’s now, off the bike not on it, that character is revealed.

The character is revealed of G3 who swings back, gets the riders off the road, orders others to control the traffic, and swiftly calls the rescue wagon with Nurse Jeanette and Nurse Ava to come and haul back the broken bikes and thankfully unbroken bodies.

The character is revealed of Stathis the Wily Greek, who despite his stone-faced demeanor is one of the first to dismount and leap to the aid of the fallen, though he was on Generic Steve’s wheel and narrowly avoided catastrophe himself.

The character is revealed of numerous other riders whose first and only impulse was to stop and help.

And the character is revealed of those who couldn’t have cared less.

The little drama plays out again, reminding us that it’s not about the bike, it’s about what happens on the bike, and what happens off it. The unsophisticated and uninitiated might even go so far as to call it “life.”

Half a wheel is worse than none at all

February 23, 2013 § 25 Comments

I dropped down the hill to meet Geriatric Jedi-in-training. The sunshine from Sunday had turned to overcast and chill. The wind beat helplessly against my insulated long-sleeve jersey but stung my legs and bare fingers.

G-Jit was doing circles in the Golden Cove parking lot to stay warm. We dropped onto PV Drive and headed towards the Switchbacks. The last time I’d ridden with him two years ago he’d been 55 years old and a solid 250 pounds. Today he was a touch under 200 and couldn’t wait to tell me about his new diet.

“Wanky, I know you’re really into diets have you ever heard of the Rocket Coffee Butterbomb Diet?”

I shook my head and stared straight ahead as he wobbled, weaved, dashed ahead, dropped behind, and drew even again.

“Yeah,” he said, “My son in-law has this new Rocket Coffee Butterbomb Diet that provides eight essential vitamins and oil and butter and flaxseed and kale baked into a lump with brown sugar and a pre-brewed intense coffee that you add hot water to, drop in the lump and that’s all you need until your next meal!” He rocketed about five feet ahead and veered out into the lane where he was almost picked off by a passing gardener’s truck.

I saw the headline in the Daily Breeze: “Peninsula Cyclists Hoisted on Lawnboy’s Petard.”

I still hadn’t moved an inch to the right or left and was doing my best to watch the pavement, where I’ve generally found all the action is in cycling, even more so than new diet-acne-male enhancement additives that go in your coffee.

“I think you’re gonna really like this stuff,” G-Jit said, “Even though most people don’t put butter in their coffee, it’s fine.”

As G-Jit dropped back and began to jerk ahead again I reached out and grabbed his jersey pocket. “Dude,” I growled in my best Fields. “Quit fuckin’ half-wheeling me.”

Back in the day

A long time ago, when I started riding with Fields, cycling wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. The equipment sucked, especially the tires. The only thing we had were sew-ups. No one called them tubulars. They were sew-ups, because when you flatted you would stuff them in your jersey pocket and the next day take them over to Cap’n Jack’s.

You’d knock on the door and let yourself in. It was always dark and smelled like rubber, more precisely, like old bicycle tire rubber mixed with freshly smoked herbal remedies. That’s because there were tires everywhere amidst the resiny haze. Hanging on the chairs. Laying on the kitchen counter. Draped on the bed. Coiled next to the toilet. Piled in huge mounds around the ancient Singer sewing machine with the foot pedal.

You’d stagger through the smoke trying not to inhale too deeply and give Cap’n Jack your tire, or tires if you had a few that needed fixing. Then you’d leave. Long after you’d forgotten about the tires you’d go into the bike shop where he worked and Cap’n Jack would say. “Hey! Tires!” and he’d hand you three or four or ten tires. In each one he’d found the leak, cut the thread on the casing, patched the tube, and SEWED THE CASING BACK UP. It was a sew-up.

It was also feast or famine, because his repair schedule went in phases of the moon, or the growing season, or something inscrutable like that. You’d be out of tires and doing some long-ass ride on bad roads with nothing more than a bad spare and a prayer that you wouldn’t flat, and then the next day you’d have so many repaired sew-ups that it would take a year to flat them all. If you were lucky they would even occasionally be some of the same tires you’d left with him.

Cycling back in the day sucked for other reasons. The bikes sucked. They were flexy and heavy and only had a few gears. You had to nail your cleats on the shoes and bind them onto the pedals with leather straps that blackened your toenails and caused them to rot and fall off. The pads in shorts were so thin that they’d scrunch up like toilet paper and chafe the hell out of the whole damned undercarriage.

But there was one thing we had back in the day that we don’t have anymore: We had rules about half-wheeling. Rather, we had a rule: Don’t you ever fucking half-wheel. Ever.

The torched lung teaches best

It was my first ride with Fields. He’d said we were going to “go easy.” I was all jumpy and excited and pumped to be riding with The Legend. As we rolled out past the airport in East Austin, I later realized, my front tire was an inch or so ahead of Fields’s. He pulled even. Unconsciously, I pulled ahead, ever so slightly. Half-wheeling. Fields pulled even, never saying a word, and waited to see if I did it again.

I did.

It was the last time I ever half-wheeled anybody.

Fields then moved his wheel a couple of inches ahead of mine. I pulled even, and he moved an inch ahead. Soon we were battering down the road, into the wind, as fast and as hard as we could. I was down on the drops gasping as I tried to keep even, but each time I pulled level he’d move ahead. Never going down on the drops, never letting his face show the agony, he finally rode away from me as I blew, spectacularly.

A minute or so later he eased up, a tiny speck. I caught up to him.

“You call that going easy?” I gasped.

“Don’t ever fucking half-wheel me again,” he said.

“Half-wheel? I never half-wheeled you!” I was pissed. In my tiny mind, “half-wheeling” meant what most idiots nowadays think it means: Putting your wheel halfway in front of the person you’re riding next to.

Fields looked at me. “You put your front wheel one millimeter in front of mine, it’s half-wheeling. Don’t fucking half-wheel.”

After a little reflection, I got it. And it was the best and most thorough lesson anyone ever gave me on a bike. That, and the corollary: When you teach “The Half-Wheeling Lesson” you have to crack the offender riding on the tops, poker-faced.

Reason to the rule

Half-wheeling is bad because it says “I’m faster than you,” which is always an invitation to throw down and wrecks any semblance of moderation, tempo, or steady pace. If you’re riding in a group, it also throws off the formation by causing the bikes behind to also be uneven.

G-Jit quickly got the message and tried to implement. What he learned is what everyone learns. Riding steadily and even-wheeled at the other guy’s pace takes a lot of concentration and skill. Undeterred, he focused.

As we entered Portuguese Bend the traffic got bad. “Let’s skinny up,” I said.

“Yeah,” said G-Jit, dropping behind.

I nudged the pace up slightly as we rolled through the Portuguese Bend Beach Club. “Hey!” yelled G-Jit. “Want me to get in front of you and pull?”

This is like someone saying “Hey, weakling, want to let a real man take over?”

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s get through this narrow section and once we hit the Switchbacks you can take the reins.” I was steaming.

“Okay!” he said happily.

By the time we came up the bump by Trump National Golf Course I was out of the saddle, gradually upping the pace. We hit the bottom of the Switchbacks and I upped it some more. “Come on up when you feel like it!” I said cheerily. G-Jit just huffed and puffed and wheezed.

This was the best part of the ride. He was on the rivet and I was going to keep notching up the pace until he popped, no later than the first switchback. Unfortunately, things went downhill rather quickly.

Having gassed it too hard, a few pedal strokes later it was now I who was on the rivet. Pride wouldn’t let me slow down or pull over, and G-Jit was tucked neatly into my draft. There was a headwind. Oh, and I forgot to mention this detail: G-Jit had gotten faster than hell and stronger than three oxen in the last two years.

Behind me he sounded like Moby with a harpoon through his dick, but he wasn’t fading. I went from on the rivet to redline to deep purple. Now it was a contest of wills, and each pedalstroke he survived undermined me further and weakened my resolve. If it’s hell sitting on the wheel of someone faster than you, it’s an even worse hell towing someone who gives no sign of cracking.

We rounded the last turn and incredibly G-Jit was still there and fighting like Jack Dempsey. Dude had more guts and game at 57 than I had at 25, and he was still there.

I reached down into hell and kicked once again, downshifting to try and break him mentally. Sometimes, even when you go a touch slower, the vision of the chain clanking down onto the smaller cog is enough to crack the guy on your wheel. I was hoping it worked today, because my bag of tricks had been turned inside out and emptied of everything, including the lint and fingernail clippings.

Two hundred yards from the mailbox he popped and slid off the back. I crested the climb, shuddering in pain, my field of vision invaded by the alien giant black flying saucers that fill your eyes just prior to passing out. A big, slick, gooey spit bridge connected my chin and top tube.

G-Jit caught up to me, fully recovered just in time for me to get the goop wiped away. “Geez,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to learn.” He was riding bar-to-bar with me like a seasoned pro now, without so much as a wobble.

“Yeah,” I said.

And unuttered, I added to myself, “Me, too.”

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