A matter of manners

October 30, 2012 § 14 Comments

Some things are simple, like manners. Biking makes these simple things even simpler.

Clawing my way up Latigo yesterday I passed a woman and her boyfriend. “Hey, guys,” I said.

“Hey,” said the dude.

“Nice socks!” said the chick, admiring my pink unicorn Gnarlube calf-high stockings.

A couple of minutes later the dude had caught up to me. “You didn’t think I was going to let you just ride away as easy as that, did you?” he said, rudely, challenging.

“I’m just riding tempo by myself today,” was what I said.

What I thought was, “Fuck you, asshole.” Predictably, things went from tempo to threshold. Then I was by myself again.

What kind of dude drops his girlfriend to chase down a pair of chickenlegs in pink socks? Answer: Someone with very bad manners.

What happens to rude cyclists? Answer: They get shelled. Unceremoniously.

Mind if I leech?

After Latigo I headed north on PCH and met up with the Big Orange contingent a few miles after the Ventura County line. They were coming back from the Rock at Point Mugu. I u-turned and sat in for a few miles, chatting with Ron and Tink until a mechanical caused the group to stop.

I continued on with Robert Ephthamos, a dude with a terribly hard name to pronounce, much less spell, all dressed up in a Garmin kit. “I gotta get home,” he half-apologized as he picked up the pace. I could tell after a few moments that he was a relatively new rider, but game and ready to work.

We rode a hard tempo, easing up while passing under Cher’s compound in Malibu Colony. At Cross Creek we lifted the pace again after the stoplight. A group of four or five wankers saw this as their opportunity for a free ride, and hitched on.

Robert was lathered up, and so was I. After four miles the leeches hadn’t made the slightest effort to come through. “Robert,” I said as he rotated off of a particularly long pull, “make the fuckers pull through.”

My next pull was brief, and Robert had gone all the way to the back. The next guy in line put his hands on the tops as I slowed and swung over. “I can’t pull through!” he shouted.

–Next Line Is Absolutely True–

“I’m not strong enough!” he wailed.

–End Of Absolutely True Line–

I thought he was going to cry, like the time I told my dad “I can’t do word problems!” while struggling overĀ  Fourth Grade math.

“I don’t give a fuck,” I said. “If you’re strong enough to suck wheel, you’re strong enough to pull through. This isn’t a charity ride with you as the beneficiary. Get your saggy ass up here and take a pull.”

By now I’d slowed down so much that he could have easily come through, but the belief in his own mind that he couldn’t was so great that he just stopped pedaling. Robert roared by and I followed.

One of the wankers stayed with us, and after Robert and I took our turns he eased up next to me. “Do you want me to take a pull?”

“When you go to someone’s house for dinner, do you ask if they want you to refrain from pissing all over the toilet seat?” I asked. “Hell yes I want you to take a fucking pull!”

He pulled through. Rather large, and rather offended, and very well rested, he began winding up the speed until we were going well over thirty. Robert and I tucked behind the Cadillac draft as I counted strokes. At pedal stroke sixty, his shoulders started to sag and wobble a little bit. Then the speed started to drop. Then his pedal strokes changed from circles to squares to raggedy triangles.

This, of course, was the teachable moment. He’d overcome his inclination to suck wheel and, with a little prodding, had done the right thing, obeying the imperative of the paceline: He’d gone to the front.

Moreover, he’d put in a big effort. He’d behaved in a way worthy of redemption and forgiveness, such that if I now came through steadily and not too fast he could latch on, recover, and perhaps help out a few miles later. He would learn a valuable lesson about sharing the work, and more importantly, about the bonds of friendship that are built between strangers as they toil into the wind at their physical limits, sharing the work each according to his ability.

So I did the only respectable thing that I could do, both as a representative of cycling in the South Bay, as an older and experienced rider, and as someone who understands and profoundly respects what road cycling is all about, which is to say I attacked him so fucking hard that I thought I’d puke.

When my eyes refocused, Robert was pulling through at full throttle, a long string of drool splattered along his face. I jumped on his wheel and glanced back to confirm that our good friend was dropped and a receding speck in the distance.

Just before we settled back into a rhythm of dull, aching pain, Robert asked “Were you trying to teach that guy a lesson?”

“No,” I said. “The lesson was for you.”

He grinned and let the big meat sing.

Trench report

October 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

The latest edition of the SoCal Prestige cyclocross race took place in San Diego and it was hellish. Temperatures in the 90’s added misery to a dry and dusty course carved out of a hillside and merged with the San Diego velodrome. The course had so many twists and turns that there was nowhere to get a head of steam up. Instead, it was all finesse and bike handling to keep the highest average speed without plummeting to a stop and then spiking with huge accelerations, which soon led to moderately big accelerations, followed by smallish accelerations, concluding with no accelerations at all but rather a slow, resigned, plodding flail around a random course in the grass and dirt for no particular reason while people made fun of you for being so stupid and slow.

The mill of the gods grinds slowly, but it grinds exceedingly fine. The mill of the dogs, however, is fast as snot and you needn’t wait long for your comeuppance.

Before my race began, I sat comfortably in the shade with Emily and Chris, perfectly positioned to make fun of the hapless sods who came limping over the barriers, around the turn, and smack into the sand pit where they either tumped over or struggled slowly to the other side, faces painted with strain and pain. One young girl in her first ever race walked over the barriers and never remounted.

“Get back on!” Emily shouted encouragingly. “You can do it!”

The young lady looked hopefully at us. “I’m afraid I’ll fall off!”

“You can DO it!” Emily said with a big smile.

The girl got back on just before the sand pit. “You can’t do it!” I hollered. “You’re going to crash!”

She got off her bike in terror. “Don’t listen to him!” shouted Emily. “He’s a wanker! Get back on!”

“I’m a wanker but you’re even more hopeless than me! Give up! Quit! Have a beer and come snuggle under the tent!”

The woman looked ready to cry. About that time she hit the sand pit and fell over in slow motion. “See?” I yelled. “It’s hopeless! All is lost!”

“Get up!” said Emily. “You CAN do it!”

Emily’s encouragement won the day. The girl got up with grit, both the metaphysical kind and the nasty, grimy kind that stuck awkwardly between her teeth, remounted, and forged ahead.

“When it’s your turn we’ll encourage you, too!” Emily said with a laugh.

Experience counts

My first season of ‘cross had been a steady trajectory of improvement. The last race I hadn’t even crashed, and had scored an amazing 11th place, which in my mind was like winning, or better. I’d reconned today’s course. It didn’t seem to have any areas where you could really go fast, filled as it was with turns and barriers and sand pits and dry, loose dirt and one loamy corner with a treacherous approach that everyone seemed to fall over in.

No matter. I was ready.

The whistle blew. I surged hard. Everyone else surged harder. I was in my familiar spot, the very back, with eight laps to chase.

Unlike the recon laps, the course at race pace might as well have been a completely different course on a completely different planet. MMX, Victor, Todd Stephenson, JM Hatchitt, and the usual cast of winners sprinted away.

When we exited the velodrome I barely made the turn and almost shot off the embankment into a thicket of thorns. I’d deflated my tires to 20 psi, which made for good grippiness, but also made for bad rimminess, as each large rock and edge of pavement went straight to the rim, up my spine, and stopped with a massive rattle in my braincase.

For a while it looked like I would catch up and start picking people off, but at the loamy section even that silly fantasy exploded. I half-walked through the turn, scraped my ankle on the crank, bruised my calf with the pedal, and lumbered on.

This was going to be a long forty-five minutes.

“Here he comes again!”

I’d been working on my dismounts and remounts, so even though I was the last guy in the race, I was pleased at the large crowd standing around the barriers. Employing a move I call the “Baryshnikov,” I gracefully came off the bike, made two very pretty springs into the air, and with a third leap gracefully remounted without ever racking my nuts.

I’ve never heard so many people laugh at the barriers; they must have seen something really funny but I was too busy careening towards the sand pit to pay attention. Emily & Co. were ready: “You’re winning, Wanky! Just forty-three more positions to advance and you’ll be in first place!”

When I rolled through the start-finish to complete my first lap, it seemed like I’d already done a thousand laps. By the middle of the next circuit I’d been caught and passed by the next two groups. Coming to the barriers I noticed a visible amount of commotion. “Here he comes again!” several people shouted.

“Who the hell are they talking about?” I wondered, looking back. I did another Baryshnikov, this time leaping so high in the air that if I’d had a basketball attached to my head I could have dunked it.

One guy with a camera, who was laughing very hard at something, changed his tune pretty quickly, as my landing zone was about three inches away from his head and camera. He scrambled, I did a perfect three-point, narrowly avoided posting up against a tree, and motored towards the sand pit.

“You’re still almost winning! Don’t give up!” Emily called out.

So I gave up.

But the team sure didn’t

Finishing DFL is not usually something to celebrate, but in my case it wasn’t so bad, as the leaders lapped me with less than 100 yards to go, which meant that I didn’t have to complete another circuit on the course. Victor had scored 2nd, MMX 4th, JM 6th, and other teammates in other races had won or done exceedingly well. Lars, Garnet, and Logan had all won their events, and SPY closed out the podium in the 3’s race.

The price of victory had been high, however, as the heat had taken its toll. A more wearied and dispirited group of people I’ve never seen, except perhaps at a funeral where the guest of honor had left his fortune to the cat.

That’s the thing about ‘cross racing. It’s touted as “fun,” but it’s only fun if you’re not doing it while sitting in a shady tent drinking beer and heckling flailing barrier ballerinas. If you have to actually race, it’s sheer hell. Just as Broken Seat Dude, who did the entire last half of the race without a a seat.

“Great job, Vic!” I said enthusiastically.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“Way to go, Michael!” I enthused.

“I almost had third,” he said dejectedly.

“Nice racing, JM!” I said to John.

“Thanks, buddy,” he said. “How’d you do?”

“DFL.” He looked at me as if I’d said, “I have leprosy. May I shake your hand?”

“Oh, wow, that sucks. Sorry, man!”

The only person in a remotely good mood was the other hopeless wanker, Jim, who had flogged and flailed around the course just like I had. “Good ride, Wanky!” he said.

“Yeah, I suck!”

“You sure do! Me, too! Want a beer?”

“Nah, gotta drive home.”

“No prob. See you tomorrow?”

“Yep!”

“Right on! Thanks for coming out and racing!”

“I’m not sure I’d call that ‘racing.'”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t either. I was just trying to be nice.”

“Gotcha. See you tomorrow!”

If the alarm goes off, that is…

The yellow menace

October 27, 2012 § 24 Comments

We have some little Asian haters in our apartment complex. This means they have a lot to hate, overrun as we are with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and other people with black hair and non-white skin.

It started off with him and his friend yelling racial epithets at my youngest son from their balcony, which is higher than ours and which faces us. My son is in high school and doesn’t give a shit what some little kid and his friend say or do, so he just closed the blinds and ignored them.

Then a few mornings ago I was cleaning my bike and noticed a half-dozen exploded M80’s lying on the balcony. Ms. WM had told me that over the last few weeks the harassment had gotten worse; they’d begun shouting at her when she walked over to the parking garage.

I got home this evening to learn that it had escalated.

“You know little shitturds hate a Japnese?”

“Yeah. What’d they do now?”

“I’m gonna walkin to the garage and peeeeewww! Comes onna long water squirt. Little shitturds gonna sprayin me with pumpin water gun.”

“You’re fucking kidding me. What’d you do?”

“I done what you think I’m gonna done. I yelled at ’em little shitturds to stop sprayin onna water or they was gonna getta ass beating.”

“And?”

“They shitturded runnin back inna the apartment. I was gonna make a appointment and runnin late so I was gonna go by this evenin but I got too busy onna dinner to worry ’bout little shitturds.”

At that moment there was a “thunk” against the balcony’s sliding glass door.

We turned off the lights and opened the blinds. There the little shitturds were, scampering back into their apartment. We saw a big guy from another apartment next to theirs and lower down doing exactly what we were doing, only he was already out on his balcony looking up at theirs.

I went out and saw three or four other residents, all on our side of the building, doing the same thing. “They throwing shit at you?” I asked.

“Yes,” everyone chorused.

“Well,” I said. “Let’s pay them a visit.”

I felt like Tai-Pan or the white dude in Shogun, leading my band of hardy Asian warriors off to battle. They were pissed. Some had been bombarded with half-eaten apple cores, others with banana peels, and one with a tennis ball.

We got to little shitturds’ door and knocked. No answer. Then I pounded. No answer. “I’ve tried to do this before,” said a guy named Yang. “But they never answer. Their parents aren’t home. They yell things all the time.”

“When I walk beneath their apartment they say things like ‘Chink!’ and ‘Japfuck!’ and ‘Yellow bitch!’ said one incredibly lovely young girl, who was a senior in high school. It’s pretty annoying.”

A little dog emitted a fearful, muffled yap from one of the inner rooms. “We’ll smoke the little shitturds out,” I said. “Eventually they’ll come to the door and listen to us talking, thinking we don’t know they’re listening. Then we’ll have ’em.”

We kept banging and knocking for a solid five minutes. Finally the little dog was yapping right there, on the other side of the door. I held up my empty hand, pretending to be speaking into a phone. Yang and the others stifled a laugh. “Hello? Security?” I said. “I’m over at apartment building 12 and there are some kids who are throwing stuff and shooting off what look like large firecrackers. Could you send someone over?”

The dog went completely silent.

“Oh, I see. That’s a code red? So I need to call the police? It qualifies as a terroristic threat? Okay. 911, right? Thanks. And you’re sure they’ll make arrests and take these kids to jail ? Great. Thanks again.”

The door swung open.

The two boys stood there, as pasty-faced and frightened as anyone I’ve ever seen, or imagined seeing. The ringleader stood in front. He was a very fat little seventh grader with long, unkempt hair, a small mouth, and the beady eyes of a bully. His accomplice was taller and skinny, blonde and blue-eyed, and he was shaking.

Shitturd One spoke so softly, and his voice shook so badly, that I could barely make him out. “I’m really sorry,” he said.

“Listen, do you sorry little snotnoses want to go to jail? That’s fucking assault, hitting people with shit, and it’s attempted battery throwing shit at their apartment, and it’s a goddamn felony to try and hurt someone with a fucking explosive!”

They were shaking so bad that the fat kid’s blubber on his neck was jiggling like a bowl of jello. “We’re really sorry, sir,” he half-cried.

“Sorry? You think I give a rat’s ass if you’re sorry? What’s your name, you little fucking punk?”

“Billy Snipkins,” he stammered.

“And what about asshole standing behind you? What’s your name, you stupid little prick?”

“Me?” he said.

“You don’t think I’m asking the fucking dog, do you?”

“But I don’t even live here.”

“That’s an extra year in prison for being a non-resident accomplice. What’s your fucking name?” I roared.

“Thurston.”

“What’s your fucking last name?’

“Talleyrand.”

“You two little pricks go to Shady Acres Middle School?” They nodded. “Okay. Talleywhacker, I know your name now and am calling your fucking parents. I have a student guide from last year.”

“Are the police coming?” asked Snipkins.

“Fuck yes they’re coming. And they’re bringing a fucking bomb squad and drug dogs.”

At the mention of drug dogs both boys began to cry. “We’re sorry!” they wailed.

“Well get your sorry fucking asses over to my wife and apologize to her and ask her to call the cops and tell them not to come. But she’s so pissed at your bullshit she probably will call ’em just for the satisfaction of seeing you two little assholes get cuffed and stuffed and dragged off to jail. And you can start your fucking apologies here.” I gestured at Yang & Co.

They were now crying in earnest, and apologized over and over to each of the assembled tenants, all of whom were doing their best to look stern, which was a challenge. Next we marched over to Mrs. WM.

“We’re so sorry!” they wailed.

“Why you wanna do that?” she said. “You thinkin Asian people onna bad? We makin your car and TV and iPhone and Chinese noodle. What you gonna do without no car and TV and noodle?”

They apologized some more.

“Where your momma and daddy?” she asked.

The fat boy looked down. “My parents are split up.”

“Where your momma then?”

“She always goes out to bars and stuff after work.”

There were a few seconds of silence as the picture gelled. He was a bored and angry kid, ignored by his parents, and he had no way left to get noticed in the world, or noticed by the world, except through causing trouble. In a few years he’d graduate to real trouble, if he hadn’t already.

My anger and sense of righteousness evaporated in an instant. That kid was me. “Look, pal,” I said. “This kind of shit will get you thrown out of here. Don’t take your anger out on people just because they’re Asian.” I wasn’t yelling anymore, and could barely muster up my lecture tone. “Go apologize to these other families and be done with it.”

He wasn’t crying now, but he was still terrified. “Are the cops coming?”

“No,” I said. “No cops if you’ll knock it off.”

“Okay,” he said. “I promise.”

Mrs. WM closed the door and we sat down at the table. She was grateful they’d been brought to justice. No one likes to be the object of racial hatred, regardless of the reason. But she’s also a mom, and happens to be the best one I’ve ever known. “Little shitturd’s momma better quit hoppin onna bars.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You donna worse onna things than that when you was a kid.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You feelin’ onna guilty ’cause you yellin at those boys but their momma and dad not around, and your parents was ignorin on you all time and you know how they feelin and they anger.”

“Yeah.” I said.

“You a grown up man now and gotta be a hypocrite. That’s what a growin’ up is for. So you can tell onna kids not to do what you did.”

“Yeah,” I said.

She reached over and squeezed my hand. “Don’ you feel onna bad. Those little shitturds gonna got a good lesson tonight.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“An you got onna good one, too.”

Let the moonlight wash it away

October 26, 2012 § 22 Comments

I got up and had a banana. My mind was teeming with all the things that lay in wait the rest of the day. Then I had two cups of coffee. In each cup of coffee I poured some nonfat milk and a tiny, really tiny, dollop of heavy cream. I rolled out just after 6:00 AM, met up with Bull and rode to the Center of the Known Universe.

We rode the New Pier Ride, which was fast and hard and into the teeth of a howling Santa Ana crosswind. Afterwards I bought more coffee at Peet’s, cut it with some nonfat milk and another dollop of half-and-half, and sat on the bricks in the morning sunshine at CotKU. My mind was a jumble of thoughts and memories and stories and reactions and questions and plans and ideas.

Then I went to the office, showered, had an apple, and worked until eleven. So many problems and angry people and odd ins and outs and procedures and letters and emails and faxes and more angry people and worried people and just people. All of them crammed inside my head, my tiny head.

At eleven I went down to the Coffee Bean and Tea leaf with a new graduate who’s awaiting his bar results. We had coffee. I put half-and-half in mine, feeling like a lawbreaker. A brazen lawbreaker.

The rest of the day force fed my mind with all the things it had in store.

I went back to the office and ate lunch. Lunch consisted of a can of tuna packed in water dumped into a bowl. Atop the tuna I cracked a raw egg and mixed it with the tuna and some pepper. Then I ate it with two tortillas and a baby Fuji apple for dessert.

I worked until five. Then I had a cup of coffee and four peanut M&M’s. They are twelve calories each.

After a full day of work my head was heavy as a big, rough stone that someone had moved with a bulldozer. I left the office just past five-thirty. My head was so heavy and swollen I could barely cinch my helmet strap.

As I pedaled home the wind blew strong in my face, passing Joe’s house, thinking about him and the six-day bike odyssey upon which he and the other Man Tour riders have just embarked. I turned along Esplanade in Redondo Beach. The wind was now at my back, blowing hard. The sun was quickly dropping onto the horizon. The breakers had been whipped up into large, ragged swells by the wind. Despite the poor form, several surfers were out bobbing in the whitecaps, seeking a few seconds of size and intensity.

The straightest way home is up Via del Monte. Left turn.

But I turned right at Malaga Cove and dropped all the way down to the water. Then I did the steep climb up by the little bay and popped out onto PV Drive.

The sun was mostly in the water.

The straightest way home was now PV Drive all the way to Hawthorne. I turned right on Paseo del Mar, went right at the elementary school in Lunada Bay and took the sharp, short, hard little spike up the secret alleyway.

The sun was gone but the afterglow threw out plenty of sunlight as dusk began to settle.

The straightest way home was Hawthorne. I turned right at Calle Entradero and descended back to the water. People walked peacefully with their dogs. One lady in a billowing dress was taking a photo of a landscape that made her happy. I climbed the little wall back up to PV Drive.

Now I was at Hawthorne. The shortest way home was straight. It was vaguely dark, or rather deep dusk. I switched on my tail light and turned right, did a u-turn at the Starbucks, and headed the other direction on PV Drive back towards Lunada Bay.

The wind was in my face. A group of three bikers came whistling down Hawthorne and raced away, their red strobe tail lights taunting me to chase. The light turned green, but I didn’t chase.

I reached Via Zumaya and turned right, flicking on my headlight. I was now bathed in sweat. The thought occurred to me that my entire engine had run from morning to this point on a few hundred calories. I wasn’t really hungry, and my legs felt fresh.

It was now dark. The headlight cut a sharp beam, delineating the pavement. The moon was brilliant.

I glided up the climb, not going hard, but not giving in to gravity, either.

The moonbeams got stronger the higher I got, or maybe they made me higher.

At Coronel Plaza I turned right and merged with another rider. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said.

I climbed Ridgegate alone, the moonlight clearing everything from my mind except the rhythmic turning of the pedals.

There was nothing left in my mind, nothing at all, except this: “I wonder what’s for dinner?”

That, and a few moonbeams.

The real problem with PCH

October 24, 2012 § 49 Comments

Another person was killed riding her bicycle on Pacific Coast Highway last week, not too far from Cher’s compound. Reports say she clipped a mirror on a parked car, veered out into the lane, and got hit and dragged to death by a bus.

“It was a tragedy and a very sad event,” said Malibu City Councilmember Skylar Peak. Yes. It was. As opposed to being a tragedy and, say, a happy event.

“It was a very, very sad and tragic loss of what seemingly was a wonderful young woman,” said Councilmember Laura Zahn Rosenthal. Yes. And how nice of you to say “seemingly.”

It was sad and tragic, just like the other sad and tragically dead cyclists who have met their end on PCH, and just like the ones who will die there in the future. What’s really tragic, though, is that there’s no end in sight.

What’s killing cyclists on PCH?

The root causes of most bike-car accidents are twofold: Most cyclists are not particularly good bike handlers, and PCH is essentially a narrow, obstacle-filled road with speeding cars, trucks, and buses. It doesn’t take much, especially when PCH cyclists are often enthusiasts who are going hard, for a biker to lose control.

It might be a mirror, an opened door, debris, a pothole, uneven surfaces, longitudinal cracking in the pavement, wide “tire traps” around manhole covers, a howling onshore wind, the air vortex from a fast passing large truck, another cyclist, a moment of inattentive wobbling, a parked car, a parked trash can, a mechanical failure, a flat tire, something getting caught in the spokes…it’s an endless list. To make sure these predictably unpredictable hazards don’t crash you out takes skill; it takes the skills of constant alertness, of being able to react quickly without losing control, and of being able to forecast problems and avoid them before they occur.

These are precisely the skills that most cyclists lack, and they often lack them to a shocking degree. The average cycling enthusiast is a terrible bike handler for many reasons. They tend to start later in life, when the learning curve is steeper. They tend not to have a background in moto or BMX, two-wheeled activities conducive to great bike handling skills.

They’ve never raced, and so don’t have a lot of experience crashing and avoiding crashes. They don’t train with large groups, so they’re not on a state of constant high alert, or accustomed to being surrounded by reckless, unpredictable idiots who can crash them out at a moment’s notice. They cycle for exercise, not for errands or commuting, so they don’t have a lot of experience using a bike for transportation and learning the survival skills that go with fighting traffic in a morning and evening commute.

They don’t have a skilled mentor from whom to learn.

PCH is a high-skills corridor. The deaths there prove it. And although thousands and thousands of people ride PCH every year and never get hurt, I’d hazard a guess that everyone who rides it much at all has a long string of stories about near-misses and the mishaps of others.

So that’s part of the problem: High-skills corridor, low-skills users. Bam.

The other 90% of the problem

However, it’s not the kooky wankers whose wheel you wouldn’t want to follow on a dare who are killing themselves. They’re being run over and killed by cars, trucks, and buses. And as the NRA would say, cars don’t kill people. People kill people.

They’re right.

Because however inept the average cycling enthusiast is, the average driver is far worse. More damning, terrible driving skills in America can’t be excused from lack of practice. It seems that no matter how many years people drive, the roadways are still cluttered with terrible drivers.

The comments from idiots like “Hellwood,” a Malibu type whose philosophy is that PCH is too dangerous for bikes, prove the point. Most drivers, Cher included, simply don’t know what to do when they come upon a bicycle, whether it’s in the lane, on the shoulder, or straddling the two. A skilled driver wouldn’t even shrug: He’d see the bike far in advance, move over, pass the bike, and get back into his lane.

He might be slowed down a few seconds, if at all.

This, of course, hardly ever happens. Tottsy Dundershoot is barreling along in his restored Chevelle SS with the top down and “WHOA! What the fuck! A bike!!!”

Yikes! Hit the brakes! Or better yet, veer! Or better yet, accelerate, buzz, honk, and wave the middle finger! Get flustered!

None of these reactions is the reaction of a skilled driver. They’re the reactions of an unskilled, easily unnerved, easily frightened driver. And it’s no different on the freeway, where no one understands what a “passing lane” is, and where 999 drivers out of 1,000 believe that the far left lane is the “fast lane,” meaning “the lane I stay in because I’m going faster than the guy I just passed.”

Drive the autobahn and you’ll get a quick education in real driving skills. You hit the left lane to pass, then get the hell out. Autobahn driving, if you’re going fast, is a series of passes followed by returning to the slower lane until you have to pass the next person. It requires constant attentiveness, the ability to see what’s going on well ahead of your own car, and the patience and skill to seamlessly pass, return, pass, return, pass, and return over and over and over again.

In Germany, that’s one of many skills that make up the ability to “drive” a car.

In America, we don’t drive cars. We point them.

Skilled drivers relish using their skills

Like road cyclists who enjoy a tricky descent, or mountain bikers who get a kick out of negotiating difficult terrain, skillful drivers enjoy using their skills. Driving situations that require forecasting, reaction, avoidance, coordination, and thought make driving fun.

This is the antithesis of how people drive on PCH. They point, mash the pedal, and scare the fuck out of themselves when anything unexpected happens. You know, unexpected things like bicycles, of which there are thousands every single weekend.

Frightened, inept, barely-in-control car pointers are not dangerous because their cars are big, moving fast, and weigh thousands of pounds. They’re dangerous for the same reason that a clumsy, unskilled idiot is dangerous with a loaded gun: He doesn’t really know how to use it.

The toxicity of “My Space”

Partnered up with a laughable set of driving skills, the PCH car pointer becomes even more deadly due to his xenophobic sense of space. The roadway is his turf. Anything that is smaller and slower than him is a foreigner without an entry visa. When his space is invaded, his cloddish driving skills combine with his outrage at something being where he thinks it doesn’t belong, and cause him to freak out.

In order to make PCH safe for cyclists, it doesn’t require any new studies or infrastructure or laws. It requires something even costlier and more impossible to attain: The admission that bikes in the middle of the road, even erratic and badly handled ones, are a piece of cake for anyone who pretends to be a skilled driver, and the realization that as a cyclist the biggest hazard to your health on PCH may well be the way you ride your bike.

The beautiful eye

October 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first time I saw the photo, I was envious. Then I looked at it again, and my envy turned to burning, green envy with a purplish tint. There was no enjoyment of the image, no appreciation of the slice in time captured in the pixels on my screen, just envy.

‘Cause that’s just the kind of person I am.

I scrolled through the handful of photos he had posted on the gallery. Each one was not better than the one before. They were equals. Toweringly beautifully posed photographs ripped off shutterclick by shutterclick at some insane number of bangs per second, these were the keepers out of how many? A thousand? Five thousand?

“That bastard. That fucking bastard. Fuck. He is good.”

You’re so transparent

When people take pictures, when they write paragraphs, when they paint or sculpt or throw clay, they reveal themselves. The more you know about their craft, they more they show.

This dude’s autobiography was pressed into his gallery of nine images. All I needed to know about him, I learned in the hour or so that I studied those photographs.

Let me tell you these things about him. We’ve never spoken more than a minute or two with each other, and never about his photography.

  • He’s a perfectionist. You won’t see his work until it’s ready. The vast majority of his work, although stunning to you, isn’t good enough for him.
  • His photography doesn’t show people. It shows their character.
  • There’s only one right shot of a given person at a given time doing a given thing. That’s the one he wants.
  • He’s meticulous about his equipment, but he knows that it’s all in the eye.
  • He believes that great photos can only be created with the proper foundation. He prepares and looks and thinks and chooses each vantage point with incredible care, and that’s the foundation upon which he builds each photograph.
  • He hates what’s common.
  • He believes that if you want to show different characters, even from the same person, you have to shoot different perspectives.
  • He can’t take snapshots…he thinks and plans and angles and reflects too much to reflexively point and shoot.
  • Every picture isn’t a painting. It’s a sculpture, crafted laboriously by hand, with much effort and furrowing of the brow.

Danny Munson, photographer to the wankers

If you’ve spent any time on CyclingIllustrated, you’ve seen Dan Munson’s work, and it has left you slack-jawed. The power, the energy, the dynamic pulse of the athlete leaps out from each image so strongly that you can feel the striations in the muscles. If you’ve spent time on his web site, it’s equally amazing. If you’re lucky enough to be his friend on Facebook, your cup runneth over with more than a thousand pictures to browse through, which are worth millions of words.

I’ve been lucky to work with one of the finest photographers anywhere, Ted Eubanks, who also happens to be married to my mom. However good you think you are, you’re not this good. Unless you’re Colin Finlay. Because if you’re Colin Finlay, you’re better than Ted Eubanks…as long as you’re not shooting birds, butterflies, dragonflies, or natural landscapes.

Like Colin, who I’ve never worked with, there’s another giant behind the lens who I’ve actually ridden bikes and drunk coffee with. That’s Greg St. Johns. What he does with a camera is another degree removed, yet again, from what normal people think of when they think of photography. Greg is the head chef at a high end image restaurant; a professional TV cameraman who nails incredible shots of the cast–stars and water carriers alike–in black-and-white when the mood strikes.

I’m going through this mental Rolodex of photographers simply because I put Dan Munson in their sector of the Venn diagram, where the edges of artist, genius, and amazing person all intersect to make a tiny little club built out of photography. The thing about each of these guys is that their photos move, and you’d think that Danny’s job, shooting bikers, would be the easiest one for capturing motion.

But anyone who’s tried to photograph a crit or a road race knows that’s not the case; it’s the opposite, in fact. It takes amazing skill to wind up with anything other than a frozen figure hunched over a bike going nowhere. It takes love and passion and intellect and strategy and compassion and risk to make an office park routine into what it really is: A gladiator’s arena filled with pain, danger, despair, humiliation, elation, risk, defeat, and victory.

He shares all of these things with us, and more. Thanks, dude.

Culling of the herd

October 21, 2012 § 11 Comments

The first ‘cross race of the SoCal season was thrilling, filled as it was with fresh, happy faces beaming with the eagerness to try out this new fashion called cyclocross. In preparation for their first race, many had purchased brand new, top of the line ‘cross rigs, had donned fancy Rapha and Assos clothing, had invested in pro-grade Specialized shoes, and, in the final frenzy of their folly, had paid the advance $350 fee to pre-register for all ten events in the SoCal ‘Cross Series.

By the third race in the series, which was held yesterday and billed as Spooky Cross, the herd had thinned considerably. “Welcome to ‘cross season!” for many eager beavers had translated into “Crash your fucking face into a berm and quit after one lap and sell your new bike to some other sucker.” For others, it meant “Wife livid at spanking new, trashed $2k tubular ‘cross wheels that need replacing.” For others still, it meant something far worse: “Sheer, unmitigated terror shot through with almost unbearable pain and repeated smashing of nuts on the top tube.”

Where the rubber doesn’t actually meet what you’d describe as “road”

After my first race, MMX had given me a friendly grin, taking in the blood mixed with sand, torn shorts, broken bike, and just-finished-a-bout-with-Manny-Pacquiao look on my face. “The thing about ‘cross,” he said, “is the learning curve. It’s steep.”

Yes, it is.

With no BMX or moto background, even the most basic thing about riding a bike through sand and grass and dirt had eluded me: How to steer.

Luckily, the learning curve came to my rescue. I’d started in the coveted last spot, but unlike the previous three races, rather than watch the entire group instantly vanish, I easily stayed with the peloton. We entered the chute together, and along the narrow sand ledge the wanker in front of me ejected. I neatly pedaled around him. “Wow, I’m like, actually cyclocrossing instead of just riding by myself through a yard.” I passed several others.

By Lap 3 the field was shattered, the race decided, and I simply dialed in the rider ahead, overtook him, and then dialed in the next. On the long dirt section that goes through the start-finish I passed three wankers who’d been dangling out ahead for half a lap. “Take that, wankers!” I chortled.

The entire time, though, something had been gnawing at me. “Why can’t I corner?” In every turn my front wheel skittered and slid, and in the sandy turns it was invariably touch-and-go.I was that guy who the people behind looked at and thought, “Just get around that fucker, he’s going down.”

The terror quotient was high, and the pain quotient higher because if I braked I had to come full sprint out of the turn from what was almost a dead stop. If I let the momentum take me through the turn I almost crashed every single time.

Going through the sandy 180 just before the run-up, my front wheel leaped skyward. I fell on my right side, my skull thwacking the dirt so hard that, for a split second, everything stopped. “Won’t be seeing that dude again,” said the wankers who I’d so dropped earlier with such authority, as they bunny-hopped my torso and head.

Enlightenment through gravity

Legend has it that a falling apple whacked some gravitational sense into Newton’s head. In my case, that pounding on my temple beat in a stunning realization:

If you want to go through a turn safely and fast, take the fucking weight off your front wheel, dipshit.”

It made such perfect sense. I don’t load up over the front hub in a crit or bombing a downhill, why the fuck was I all hunched up on the drops and throwing my weight to the front in this shit?

The guys who had bunny-hopped my head were already atop the run-up. I clambered up the steps, where One of the Finest Photographers Ever, Danny Munson, clicked away at my Stumble, Drag, and Whack Nuts approach to the stairs. I began a furious chase using my newfound “sit higher and shove your ass back technique.” I began waltzing through the turns…okay, more like polka-ing with an iron accordion, but still nothing like the Free Willy Frontire turns I’d done every fucking turn for the three previous races.

As I passed Wanker One, he looked at me in surprise. “Good job, dude,” he said. When I passed Wanker Two, he grunted and pedaled harder. This, however, is what Supcat would say is the unfortunate result of introducing road-fit riders into the mix of strictly ‘crossers: We drag them down to our level of technique and beat them with fitness.

He battled heroically to hang onto his 17th or 38th or 43rd position or whatever it was we were risking life and limb for, but in vain. One of my many hecklers shouted, “Yo, Wanky! You can’t win 27th place if you keep jumping off your bike and rubbing your face in the mud!”

Another helpfully hollered, “Go to the front!”

Round Two

The second day of racing starts shortly. The weather gods of cyclocross, tired of all the sunshine and dry ground and warm temperatures, unleashed cold rain and drizzle all night long. I know because I periodically woke up and as the rain beat down could only think, “Tomorrow, I die.”

I know what I’m going to find when I get to the Fairplex course in Pomona: Mud, rain, cold, mud, and more mud. Did I mention rain and cold?

That learning curve just got a lot steeper.

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