Celebrate good times (come on!)

July 4, 2020 § 26 Comments

Okay, so I’m no flag-waver. But I’ve always recognized that I was lucky to be born where and when and to whom I was born.

When I was a kid I loved the 4th of July because, firecrackers. And barbecue. And because it seemed a thousand years away from the end of school and two thousand years away from the beginning.

The 4th was always one of those holidays that seemed safe. I didn’t have to pray to the Jesus I didn’t believe in or feel weird because everyone else did. No presents, which was a bummer, but the bonus was that I didn’t have to buy any, either.

Unlike Thanksgiving there wasn’t a giant dead bird in a pan, there was a giant dead cow on a grill. Plus it was hot, everyone was in the backyard, the adults were all drunk by noon, and the kids could therefore do whatever they wanted.

As a kid I had read all the “We Were There” history books in the school library, and especially loved “We Were There at Lexington and Concord.” The Revolutionary War seemed so pure and simple. Evil Britain came to tax our tea parties, so valorous silversmiths fought Indians while building the Transcontinental Railroad as George Washington fought the Battle of Valley Forge as Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution and Ben Franklin invented electricity while flying a kite over the Delaware River as King George was slain by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys over by Mt. Rushmore.

It was an exciting time for a little kid to live, and the 4th was the perfect day to celebrate the final conquest of General Thomas Jefferson at the head of the ragtag American army singing La Marseillaise and Yankee Doodle as they whupped the bloody British at the town of New Orleans.

As I got older and rode my bike more I got more skeptical about everything. I saw things on my bike that didn’t comport with Admiral Jefferson’s siege of Vicksburg and his “damn the torpedoes” assault in Mobile Bay. I turned over “all men are created equal” in my mind as, pedaling, I saw that not only were men created unequal, but far worse, they were treated unequal.

And then as I got really older, the new history about Jefferson’s stature as a benign slaveholder began to trickle out of various scholars’ pens until it became a torrent, then a tsunami. This article in the Smithsonian from 2014 makes it clear that Jefferson was a rapist who ordered the torture of the small children enslaved in his nail factory. His never attempted ideals about the equality of men were, by the 1790s, dead and gone with his arithmetical discovery that simply owning slaves earned a guaranteed 4% profit due to what he termed their “increase.”

In plainer English, this means that he had calculated, had put a number, to the true economic value of slavery, which lay in the sexual intercourse and impregnation of people held against their will, leading to the birth of infants who in turn became slaves and producers of more slaves. The beauty of the equation for Jefferson and every white male slaveholder? Jefferson the pedophile could literally fuck his way to wealth. The more children of child-bearing age he raped, the richer he became. It’s undisputed that the genetic link between Jefferson and his slaves began at least with his father’s rape and fathering of slave children, and that the African and English commingling of genes continued throughout Jefferson’s life. No serious scholar seriously disputes that Jefferson had continual sex with enslaved women and children throughout his life. Because they were enslaved and thus deprived of free will, by definition, there was never consent. Not one time. Never.

So what is it we’re celebrating when say that July 4th is a holiday? Are we celebrating a nation that was founded on a principle, “all men are created equal,” when it’s undisputed that the author of that phrase believed nor practiced nothing of the sort?

Are we celebrating the Constitution, a formalist, legal, slave-holding document dedicated to the maintenance of the slave trade and of slavery?

Perhaps we’re giving a thumbs-up to the “long con” that led to the theft of land and dispersal of Native American communities?

I think that we all need holidays. They’ve been around as long as there have been people, days to celebrate myths, foundational stories, births, deaths, resurrections, and the mysteries of the universe. We need holidays, “holy days,” to remind us that we’re parts of a whole, a whole that we’ll never really understand of fully grasp.

And as I was pedaling up a long hill yesterday, thinking about the evil of my slaveholding forebears, I also thought that we need July 4 as well, as a holiday to think about, contemplate, and reflect on the extent to which this nation exists by the grace of its black citizens, their contributions to our national weal, their ongoing struggle, and our duty, today, to do something about it.

The Independence Day we all need is the the one that gives us independence from the lies of the past and lets us depend instead on what we all know to be right, the simplest law ever made: Do unto others.

END


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Bike hunting #2: The drag-out

June 24, 2020 § 5 Comments

I am pretty danged please to announce that my son and I were able to land his first bike on our second attempt. How it happened was epic.

There I stood, bone-sore, sweat-drenched, and stuck. Behind me was an incline of jumbled boulders and blowdowns; ahead lay a latticework of massive, windfallen trees that choked off the ravine like a pile of giant pick-up sticks. I could see no easy way out.

My only consolation was the bulk of the problem. Tethered to my drag rope was a beautiful 2020 Bianchi, which my son and I had shot several miles back in the Long Beach Mountain wilderness area. The 7-pointer, probably 18 pounds on the hoof, fell not far from a hiking trail. Normally I’d have dragged him out on what I knew was a good path. But my GPS showed I was also only about a half mile from the shore of Lake Long Beach, whose far end was a short canoe-carry from the road. That meant I could come back and paddle the bike out—after what I assumed would be an easy downhill drag.

So my son and I gripped the rope and set off for the lake. It was fine at first. But after a while, with each step, we dropped deeper into a gaping ravine, increasingly studded with jagged rocks and strewn with huge trees, flattened like windblown straw by a long-ago storm.

Some logs lay partially suspended off the ground by the nubs of their broken branches. With these, I heaved the bike close to the trunk, tossed the handle of my drag rope underneath the seat stays, clambered up and over, and finally yanked the carcass through the narrow gap. Others logs lay flat or, worse, crisscrossed. Here, we scrambled atop the trunks, hoisted the bike up, and then dumped it down the far side. Lube trickled out the bike’s side, where my son’s perfect shot had penetrated deeply into the intricate and now-defunct workings of this magnificent beast’s body.

By the time I realized my mistake, there was no turning back. The steep sides of our personal hellhole boxed us in. So we had no choice but to plod on—under one windfall, over the next, again and again and again. The only thing worse than riding a bike over logs, boulders, ravines, and windfalls, is dragging it.

The skin on our hands was burned raw from the drag rope sliding through our grip. Blood trickled down my shin, which had been gouged by a chain ring point when, after hauling the bike atop another huge blowdown, I fell over backward, exhausted, and the chain ring came down on my legs.

Finally, after nearly four hours of this, I reached Lake Long Beach, aching all over and ready to crush my GPS under a boot or launch it into the water, but at the same time hesitant because, $35. As for the bike, I’d pulled a third of the covering off its saddle.

Years ago, the legendary Vermont tracker Scrotal Nadscratcher told me that the hardest part of getting a big bike out of the big woods is shooting it in the first place. He was right, of course. But after the “Damned GPS Drag,” I will never, ever take a downed bike out on a blind bushwhack. I always take the known route now, even if it’s longer.

There’s a curious power in a dead bike in that it has the ability to draw life. Hanging from a gambrel or a post, inside a barn or outside in the aging cold, a dead bike brings hunters away from the fire or out from the tent. It conjures a retelling of how it was hunted and the memories of other bike hunts. Guesses at its age, weight, wheel build, derailleurs, and brakes are offered. And when the chatter eventually dies, the bike is stared at in silence.

One dead bike is enough to bring a camp together, but when Woodrow and I got back to camp, we had four bikes hanging and a fifth on its way. Spirits were high.

The garage was heated by a woodstove, and the room reeked of gasoline. Every time I smell gasoline I remind myself that it’s nothing but napalm in a more innocent state. Sawdust on the floor absorbed all the chain lube dripping out from the carcasses. Next door was the bunkhouse, which was warm and furnished with leather couches and a big screen with the NFL game playing; there’s only one.

There was no question as to which place was more comfortable, but we still chose the rugged outdoorsy indoorsiness of the garage. We wanted to hang out with the guides as they caped the bikes for mounts. We wanted to hear and share stories of the day’s hunts. We wanted to drink whiskey and laugh and rag on one another. Mostly, we wanted to be near the bikes, and not so far from the TV that we couldn’t poke our head in and see if the New York Vixens were still up over the St. Louis Tinseltwerps.

My favorite moment of the night came as two of the guides, Bubba Johnbill Larryjim and Barry de la Pudwhacker, were dressing the fifth bike. They removed the intact heart, sliced off a chunk, and rinsed it off. Then they half-jokingly offered it to Stacy, who had killed that Giant of a bike. She declined with some deft antiperistalsis, but I volunteered. Those in the room who’d eaten raw bike heart (the guides) cheered and shook my hand. Those who hadn’t (everyone else) were revolted. Everyone laughed, stood around in each other’s vomit, and the night kept going until everyone was so drunk that the men looked like women, the women looked like men, and dry-humping a dead bike carcass seemed natural.

I later got a horrible infection and had to have my liver replaced in a dicy operation done in a bivouac with a camp knife and twine, but that’s another story, a story called “The Revenge of the Hart,” and it tells the story about how Stacy, who was a pre-eminent liver surgeon, saved my life by swapping my liver out for a deer’s. We fell in love, of course.

I’ve gone back to that evening many times, viewing the photos on my phone in betwixt saved images from some of my favorite webcam subscriptions. Thing is, this wasn’t an old camp of longtime friends who owed each other money and cheated on their wives with each other’s spouses. This took place at a modest lodge filled with plump guests who’d been acquainted for only a few days but bonded, serendipitously, through Visa and MasterCard. For that night in that garage, with our bike in the heart of the room, and bits of the bike’s heart comfortably lodged in my pudgy tummy, we were a camp of hunters who’d been friends for life.

(With condolences to Field & Stream’s 18 Best Deer Hunting Stories of All Time).

END


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The bad idea fairy

June 23, 2020 § 27 Comments

I first learned about this creature from pro racer and all-round good guy Brian McCulloch, who learned about it from his brother, a combat veteran. “The bad idea fairy,” Brian told me, “comes to you at night and instead of giving you money for a tooth, she gives you a really bad idea, which, the next day, you get up and try to execute. The top guy in a combat platoon spends a lot of time trying to chase those bad ideas away.”

I don’t know how often I’ve been visited by the BIF, but I do know that the staircase in my apartment building is narrow, twisting, and steep, and I do know that the complex itself is built into the side of a very steep hill. I call it the Escher Staircase. I also know that the average American finds walking an astonishing challenge.

I know this because piece by piece I’ve been selling off my furniture on Craigslist. Not that I had a lot of it, but you know, I did have the basics: Couch, bed, dresser, chest of drawers, dining table … Judging from my survey of people who’ve come to get the furniture, the single hardest thing they’ve done recently is walk up the hill and then climb the staircase.

We bicycle riders tend to judge our fitness by how fast we ride or by how many miles we go or by how many trinkets we get and etcetera, but we really are a breed apart. The average American judges itself by how many yards it can walk before gushing a Niagara Falls from ‘neath the armpits. I haven’t heard so much puffing, grunting, groaning, and labored breathing since my first child was born with Lamaze.

But back to the bad idea fairy.

It didn’t make the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but when Joe Yule packed up the trailer and moved back to Colorado, part of the South Bay died. He didn’t have a good-bye party, or if he did, the organizers had sense enough not to invite me. He certainly didn’t send out a good-bye message or a so long, it’s been good to know ya. By the time he left, I’d have to guess that the great majority of cyclists in the South Bay didn’t even know who he was, much less that he had gone.

I, however, did. Joe did a lot of things during his brief reign as King of the South Bay. Honorable mention was his years-long stint as chief designer for what started as the Garmin pro team, later morphing into a variety of other names but always starring the designs of Joe. It’s no exaggeration to say that his design sense, with its clean lines and remarkable beauty, infected the entire peloton in one way or another.

More impressive, though, was the way he killed the demon baby of ugly bicycle clothing and helped re-set the standard that had once ruled when bike clothes were woolen and not subject to the plastic and infinite design of lycra and Illustrator. Classic bike team and jersey designs from the 60s and 70s were pretty because everything had to be embroidered. It was expensive, it was slow, and because of the wool thread you couldn’t put thirty sponsors on a jersey pocket, much less a fish head on a top tube next to a steaming cup of coffee and a cute slogan that said, “Farts on Bikes.”

Joe was the first lycra designer who rejected the idea that more is better, or as he said it, “My mission is simple. I want to beautify the roadways.”

And he did. Using artistic skills honed in the pre-computer days with a pencil and a brush, Joe gradually showed people that although you would always look silly in lycra, you didn’t have to look like a circus clown.

None of that mattered to me, though. I was drawn to Joe because of his biting humor and his utter contempt of compromise. Anyone who ever worked with Joe quickly learned that their opinions about how a thing looked were secondary, if they were lucky. They also learned that time deadlines were relative, relative to Joe’s moods or his passion for the project.

Most of all, they learned to STFU when he sent them a “draft” design, because Joe didn’t do “drafts.” He didn’t crank something out and get it over to you as the first leg of a multi-step, iterative process. He thought long and hard and worked his ass off to get you a design, and if you didn’t like it pretty much as it was, you were a fucking idiot.

This business plan sat poorly with many, but for those of us who knew we had a real, live genius on our hands, two fucks gave we not. We asked, we patiently waited, and we took what we were given. I believe that the countless times Joe graced me with his work, the only corrections I ever made were spelling, and those I even made timidly. In return, Joe gave me the same thing he gave everyone: His best.

Embedded in his art, which is to say his mind, was a keen, wry, biting sense of humor that was every bit as funny as Mark Twain. He had a wit that was second to none, and this I appreciated most of all. His jokes and his humor were so rich and so hilarious that the laughter reawakened every time you saw it. For example, on a small jersey pocket for the Donut Ride, he included the immortal phrase, “Officer Knox Foundation.”

Knox, of course, was the South Bay sheriff’s deputy famed for citing, cuffing, and stuffing cyclists who failed to ride as far to the right as practicable.

About this time last year, Joe, who, like me, appeared to suffer frequent visitations of the Bad Idea Fairy, got the bad idea to take his dog off for a hike from the Canadian border down to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail. Many a friend advised him that a late summer start was impossible for such an undertaking.

Others wailed at his lack of training, preparation, and fitness that such a hike, which is foremost a logistical operation, required. Others bewailed the mortal dangers awaiting him at first snowfall in October or late September. Some few remarked that his dog, well accustomed to the fair weather and yummy treats of domestic life, would fare poorly on the rugged slopes of the Sierras. If any of this made an impression on Joe, it was not noticeable, other than in the way that catalyst in surfboard resin hardens the mix.

He packed his shit, hitched various rides to Washington, made his way to the border, and trekked for a few weeks before abandoning the whole enterprise and accepting a ride home from a concerned buddy. He had made his point, though, as he always did, and he made it without the edits, corrections, revisions, and design suggestions of others.

The point? Fuck y’all, I’m going.

Who is left in the South Bay like that? Better put, who in the South Bay ever was?

So the other day, after watching a lady and her husband lug a moderately heavy chest of drawers out the door the night before, I woke up with two little pin pricks on my neck. “Aw hell,” I thought. “I’ve been bitten by the bad idea fairy again.”

And indeed I had been, because the first thing I did that morning was send Boozy P. a text message: “Can you fit my ‘cross bike with a rack that will hold panniers?”

He immediately texted back. “Send a photo of the seat post and seat stays.”

I did.

“Yeah,” he said, “should be no problem.”

Bad Ideaville, here I come.

END


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Shoplifting

June 17, 2020 § 5 Comments

He thinks I am a shoplifter, for sure. Can’t say I blame him. I’m fairly unkempt, usually in flip-flops, never in a car, and always making suspicious purchases. For example, the other day I bought an onion. Another day, a bell pepper. Sometimes only a box of raisins and some milk.

It’s the absence of frozen or prepared food, the miserly purchases, and my use of the self checkout that sets this guy on edge. He is always waiting for me to scan the onions at a different price, I guess. He fake-solicitously comes up to me to “show” me how to use the scanner that I’ve used a zillion times. It’s not like he doesn’t know me, either. I always wear a bright pink Castelli neck condom pulled up over my mouth and nose.

And to his credit, I did used to be a shoplifter, and a pretty darned good one. That was back in the 70s. We had an Eagle Supermarket around the corner. That chain went bust long ago, can’t imagine why … and that’s the place I did all my thieving.

Actually, I only thieved one thing, LPs. Which are hard to thieve. Especially when you’re a 13-year-old kid and the LPs are as wide as you are. It’s not as if they’ll fit down your pants like a purple pack of Now-and-Laters.

Now-and-Laters were the first thing I ever saw get pilfered. It was in Galveston, at DeLasso’s Grocery, right around the corner from our house at 1512 Rosenberg. They have since gone out of business, too. DeLasso was old, Italian, and well versed in the thievery of little kids. I was only five and unversed, but my friend Cuca and her brother Rollie were experts. I still remember the day I got my first clinic on thieving.

The three of us walked in and old Mr. DeLasso watched us like a hawk. We went to the candy aisle and dawdled. “You brats hurry up!” he yelled, knowing that a theft was in progress and afraid it would happen before he could spot it.

With such tight surveillance, it was nothing doing, so Cuca and Rollie got the candy they wanted, including a pack of purple Now-and-Laters. I had no idea that thieving was about to happen.

We walked up to the counter, which was about neck-high, and plopped our stuff down on the counter. I was standing next to Cuca, who was wearing a pair of orange velvety shorts. As Rollie was putting his candy on the counter, she reached down to her waistband, opened it up, and dropped in the Now-and-Laters.

I don’t know whether I was more shocked at having her flash the contents of her shorts or at the fact that she wasn’t going to pay for the Now-and-Laters. I put my candy on the counter, we paid, and left.

Outside, Cuca deftly retrieved the Now-and-Laters. “You stole those,” I said.

“So?”

“That’s stealing,” I said, weakly, as she popped out the first purple candy.

“Want one?” she asked.

“Sure!” I brightened.

She spun on her heel. “Go steal your own, then.”

I don’t remember the third album I stole, but I remember the first two, “Chicago X” and “The Eagles’ Greatest Hits.” The records were at the head of a main aisle near the checkout lanes. I was bored one day and had gone to the Eagle to read magazines. It was raining and I was wearing a big raincoat. I meandered over to the records and saw the two albums I wanted to badly buy but didn’t have the money for because they cost $4.99 each.

On an impulse I took the albums and shoved them up under my rain jacket. In an inspiring moment, I realized I could rest the edge of the covers in between my marijuana leaf belt buckle and my t-shirt. I walked out of the store, expecting to be arrested by the FBI or something.

But it never happened. I was so skinny, raggedly looking, and obviously up to no good that as long as I stayed away from the things that kids could thieve, like cigarettes and knives, no one paid me any mind. Nobody thought I could shoplift LPs anyway.

Rainy days became my friend and my record collection grew, watered by the frequent Houston rains. It wasn’t until I started branching out that my thieving came to an end. I made the mistake of trying to steal some more marijuana brass belt buckles from the outdoor flea market off of Bissonnett, a place called the “Common Market.”

Those folks knew a thief from a mile away, and the minute I tried to palm one of the belt buckles a big fat lady with scars on her fists damn near jerked my arm off and dragged me over to the security guard, who was an off-duty Houston cop. He shook me so hard I thought my teeth would come loose and he would have done worse had I not been there with my parents, who shamefully took possession of me as the vendor and the cop yelled as loud as they could, “You bring your little thieving punk-ass brat back here again and we’ll beat his ass!”

It was excellent entertainment for the other flea market patrons and created enough of a disturbance, no doubt, for other of the little thieves to palm a gewgaw or two, but it was the end of my thieving. I realized that that cop really would have beaten my ass, and the fat lady, too. My parents were oddly enough, not angry. They were something worse: Embarrassed.

Their worthless kid stealing drug-paraphernalia embossed accessories at a flea market, and not even doing it well. We got home and no one said anything about it, which was pretty terrible, except my brother. “You fucking dork,” he said. “Don’t ever steal shit at the Common Market. What kind of dope are you? You’re lucky they didn’t stab you to death. I’m not.” I quit thieving but didn’t return my record collection to the fine corporate folks at Eagle.

So I can’t fault the guy at my local supermarket for marking me as thief, even though he’s about forty years after the commission of my last crime, for which he would have jurisdictional and statute of limitations issues galore.

Anyway, yesterday I was checking out and he came over to tell me how to properly ring up the Fresno peppers.

“I’ve done this about a hundred times,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. Then he stood behind me and watched.

“Do you want to do it?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. I actually had a large amount of items in addition to the peppers. Eggs, milk, onions, taters, green onions, spinach, Brussels sprouts, butter, raisins, olive oil, a chicken, a bag of sugar for the hummingbirds, carrots, celery, toothpaste, floss, and some chocolate chips, also for the hummingbirds.

The guy walked up to the machine and started suspiciously checking my items. I walked out of the store, leaving him there with a huge basket of items. I never went back.

END


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Don’t feel the reaper

June 16, 2020 § 17 Comments

Back before there was internets and covids, words was a lot of trouble, especially song words. Rock musicians wasn’t great at “enunciatin'” as my grandpa called it, and it was usually impossible to understand anything singers sang. Lyrics wasn’t printed on the album cover because that was precious real estate for cool artwork that consumers stared at between bong hits.

It was hard to even know the name of a song if you were listening to it in a friend’s car on some cassette tape he’d dubbed his favorite music onto. So I went through teenagerdom not knowing most of the lyrics and fewer of the song titles of the music I liked, listened to on the radio, or was forced to listen to by girlfriends and others.

It didn’t matter. I had a solid imagination and could make up the song words on my own. I didn’t need no damn cheat sheet, and most of the time I liked my song words better, even when I learned thirty or forty years later that I’d been singing them all wrong.

For example in Stayin’ Alive, the part that went, “Music loud and women warm I’ve been kicked around/Since I was born”?

I always sang that “Music, love, and wampum warn/See the been kick on the barn.” Maybe my song words didn’t make much sense but neither did anything ever sung by the Grateful Dead, and they were loved by dozens.

One of the songs I recently learned that I had mis-learned was “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” which I hummed for decades as “Don’t Feel the Reaper.” Now I know what you’re thinking. Ick!

But my song words in that case were pretty good because here was the Reaper coming to take you away and the song commanded you not to “feel the reaper,” in other words, don’t give in to his clammy grasp of death. And when you plug it into the other song lyrics, “Seasons don’t feel the reaper,” etc., it kind of works out, a case of getting the lyrics wrong and therefore right.

One song I never got the lyrics wrong to was Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie. It came out in 1967 when I was four and my parents played it all the time. I knew the lyrics to the song years before I knew what they meant, thankfully. Arlo may not have ever written anything else worth a damn, but that one song is probably the greatest piece of storytelling set to a guitar to ever come out of a man’s mouth.

It’s in “stereo”

It was the kind of anthem that Bob Dylan never could pull off. Dylan, who idolized Arlo’s dad Woody Guthrie, has spent his whole life trying to be authentic, but he isn’t. He’s just a dude from Minnesota who changed his name and who made a few good songs aping Woody, right along with Springsteen and everybody else.

But Arlo wrote this great anti-war song and Thanksgiving anthem about littering in the tradition of his father on the one hand, and his grandma on the other, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. I think you’ll agree that anyone who can have a hit 18-minute song that takes up an entire side of an LP and includes numerous use of the neologism “father-raper” is pretty darned good listening.

Nowadays you can find every lyric to every song and I don’t like that. If a singer like Arlo says his words crisp and clear it means he has thought about them and he wants you to think about them, too.

If a singer like Jerry Garcia slurs his words like a fart in a jar of honey it means, and yes, Jerry said this when someone once asked him what one his songs meant, “Whatever you want it to mean.”

Which is to say that getting all hung up with knowing the words when the singer couldn’t be bothered to say them intelligibly is like putting lipstick on a baboon’s butt. Wrong item, wrong location, wrong individual. Blobby words you can’t understand, though, let your mind run where it wants to run, which is a good thing, especially for kids, because most often it ends up hopping the fence and running somewhere interesting, uncharted, free.

END


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Life’s work

May 22, 2020 § 19 Comments

Everyone has a life’s work, a thing they are destined to do for all their days on earth. Unfortunately, most people don’t figure out what this is until they’re dead.

My brother was a cellist and a poet. I’m sure that the latter was his life’s work. I’m not so sure about the former, because he gave it up in young adulthood. It may have been, though. He had only two teachers, Paula Baker and David Boyle. You can find Boyle’s name in these old programs from the Houston Symphony Orchestra, along with my old flute teacher, David Colvig.

I never met Mr. Boyle, but I met Ms. Baker a lot. She had two very pretty daughters.

Did I mention she had two daughters?

A life’s work is something that drives you. When you are doing it you have no eyes or mind for anything but that. When you’re done with it for the day, before long you start thinking about it again.

A life’s work isn’t a hobby or a job, although it can be both. It’s certainly not appearance or success or money, although all three of those can come along with it, or even be part of it. A life’s work always leaves something behind for other people. It’s something they look at after you’re dead and say, “Wow, she did that.” But in addition to earning recognition, your life’s work makes someone better. It enhances their moment. They breathe more freely, with a bit of wonder, than they did before.

My brother loved Pablo Casals. I didn’t know much about this nonpareil cellist, and what I did know what wrong. I thought he was Puerto Rican; he was Spanish. I thought his name was Pablo, it was technically “Pau.” I vaguely thought that he was a great musician. I didn’t know that he was the greatest cellist ever.

The first time I really listened to the music was at my brother’s funeral, when they played Casals’s rendition of the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No 1. It is one of the most soulful, deep, and beautiful pieces of music ever written.

A couple of days ago I was riding along Golden Meadow and I saw this bumper sticker.

It made me think of Casals so I looked him up on Wikipedia. He lived to be 96, and was a lifelong opponent of the Franco regime. He was also extraordinarily funny, as you’d expect from a brilliant musician. My two favorite quotes, maybe ever, are his.

The first was when he was asked about the 60-year age gap between him and his new wife, whom he married when he was 93. “I look at it like this. If she dies, she dies,” he said.

The second was his response to being asked why he still practiced three hours a day though he was in his 90’s. “Well,” he said, “I seem to be noticing some improvement.”

This struck me hard, first with laughter and then with reflection, reflection that great musicians, and indeed great anything, spend hours a day practicing. Six to eight hours day is standard fare for anyone aspiring to be a concert pianist. I remember that it was pulling teeth to get me to practice piano, and later flute, for even an hour a day, or often even an hour a week. It’s no surprise that I was pretty rotten at both.

On the other hand, it never took much to get me to ride my bike for seven or eight hours at a pop. In college I rode 500-600 miles a week and don’t think I ever missed a class. My grades were pretty good, too. Even later it was never especially hard to convince myself to go out for a long ride. But is riding a bike a life’s work? No. No way. How do I know? Because it doesn’t leave anything behind for anybody else. It’s simply another form of selfishness, albeit it one that is relatively easy on the environment.

On Jan. 28 of last year I started memorizing Chaucer. I’m now up to over 3,000 lines and am 3/4 of the way through the third part of the Knight’s Tale. Sometimes I spend five or six hours a day memorizing and reciting. I wake up in the morning and rip off a few hundred lines as I’m waiting for the water to boil and the bread to toast. The problem with memorizing Chaucer is that it seems a lot more like riding a bike than it does like playing Bach’s cello suite. It doesn’t really leave anything behind. One thing I know for sure about your life’s work. You have to proclaim it and not be afraid of the unavoidable ridicule. Your life’s work doesn’t have to be grand or beautiful in the eyes of others, it just has to be yours, and it has to measure up to you in your own eyes. Casals knew he wanted to be the greatest cellist ever, and he knew that before he performed, it had to be right. Casals refused to play the Bach suites in public until he was good enough. So he practiced them every day.

For thirteen years.

Maybe I’ll get bored with Chaucer soon. It’s only been a year and a half. But maybe not.

END


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Huggable murder cops

April 25, 2020 § 1 Comment

I had just turned and was passing a guy in a yellow jersey. I was muttering to myself, reciting the first few lines of The Knight’s Tale, Part I. As I passed, the guy said, “Seth?”

I looked back, then slowed. It was Francis, my all-time favorite murder cop and book nerd. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years.

Some people, when you haven’t seen them that long, you have to sort of warm up to. Remember the old cassette tapes that had the little white strip of feeder tape that didn’t make any sound, and that had to play first before the music started?

That’s how it is with most people. You kind of have to ease into it, catch up on life, feel things out to make sure the person you’re talking to now is the person you talked to last, because you know what? People change.

Except, of course, for the people who don’t. Better put, the people who you connected to not because of things or jobs or mutual hobbies or friend-family networks, but people you connected with because of ideas.

That’s a tiny class of people. They are the people in your life, never more than a tiny handful, whose minds and thoughts are so robust and brimming over with reflection and opinion and fact and consideration and experience that when you meet them you skip all the human shit and get straight to the heart of the idea, whatever the idea is.

I don’t think I have had any small talk with Francis the times we talked, at least not when the conversations lasted more than a brief minute or two. And I don’t think anyone except my friend Barbara was such a compulsive here-read-this-book person, someone who wanted to talk and then have you read the book that somehow added to the idea being beaten about.

Telling someone to read a book and then giving it to them is a big deal. It forces them to lie to you. “Thanks for the book I can’t wait to read it,” or “Oh that was great, I really enjoyed it.”

Or it forces you to tell the truth. “Sorry, I didn’t read it and probably won’t.” Or, “That was a steaming pile but thanks.”

Sometimes it forces you to neither lie nor tell the truth, but to engage, which is always a funny nether-state occupied by ideas and the infinite ways they can be attacked, bolstered, thought about. That’s how Francis’s books were. I’d read them and be affected because he was a careful curator, a careful reader, and most of all a selective recommender. He only gave you a book because he thought it might make a dent in my impenetrable layers of prejudice and opinion. And he gave you a book out of respect, because he thought you were a fair enough reader and a good enough reader to appreciate what the author had written. Whether you liked it or not was up to you.

Francis was finishing up his ride. We had zero time to talk, so in the handful of minutes together we only discussed the first freedom trains from Hungary and Czechoslovakia via Austria into West Germany in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lech Walesa and the great person theory of history, Gdansk v. Danzig, the psycho-ideological difficulties of appreciating a historical moment when you are in the middle of one, the long-term ramifications of the pandemic, and the non-correlation between murder and the economy as well as the correlation between non-murder serious crimes and the economy.

As we parted I asked an embarrassing personal question. “Are murder detectives allowed to hug lefty, long-haired, unshaven radicals?”

He threw down his bike and all the protocols of pandemic distancing and gave me a giant hug shot through with shoulder and forearm muscles that could bend rebar.

I got home and there was a text waiting for me.

“Chatting with you is like riding a bike,” it said.

Highest praise ever.

END


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The Secret Garden

April 3, 2020 § 22 Comments

When I was still in the earliest stage of my cycling career, about age seven, I enjoyed a very solid off-season each summer for two weeks at my grandparents’ house in Daingerfield. My grandparents were extraordinarily wealthy. I knew this because my grandfather always gave us each a quarter when we arrived, and the following day granny would give us each a dollar.

At the Ben Franklin Five-and-Dime, that was serious money. And unlike home, where we were constantly advised about the value of money and how little of it there was, my grandparents were veritable slot machines, never saying a word.

Those were the days when grandparents were old and admitted it. They weren’t called “Nanna” or “G-pa” or some other silly abbreviation to make the old person think she wasn’t old, they were called “Grandpa” and “Grandma.” To distinguish my mom’s parents from my dad’s we called my maternal grandmother “Granny.” She didn’t mind it a whit.

Granny and Grandpa Jim lived in a mansion at 203 Ridgeway Drive. We knew it was a mansion because they were rich, and because it had a huge garage with a safe in it and two refrigerators. The garage was built on a concrete slab that was always moist and cool even in the hundred-degree, high humidity summers of northeast Texas. The garage was also vast and cluttered; we could explore its recesses and fiddle with old fishing poles, cans of gasoline, and boat anchors made by pouring concrete into large coffee cans.

Our millionaire grandparents loved us unconditionally. That we knew.

But the core part of our off-season training was our daily hikes in the woods. Half a block south you could turn right on Redland, walk another block and a half to Pineland, and the road would take you to the edge of a pine forest. That was our jumping off point. We’d climb underneath the barbed wire and bushwhack due west until we hit the creek. The creek ran all the way up to the mountain, at the base of the iron ore strip mine run by Lone Star Steel.

The dirt and creekbed were deep red from the iron in the soil, and the creek was always teeming with crawdads. The forest itself was several miles wide at least; we’d never been able to hike to the farthest western end. Northwards, towards the mountain, we would hike all day until the creek petered out and the woods thinned at the edge of the strip mine. When you got to the mountain you knew you’d put in a full day’s work.

It was there that we’d unpack our tuna fish sandwiches and uncap our steel Cub Scout canteens wrapped in canvas, drink the lukewarm water that felt so refreshing and cool and tasted like canteen, and begin the arduous trek back to granny’s. By the time we’d get home, around 3:00 or 4:00, we’d been out since early morning, and the adventures we’d had were legion. We would often hike in our cowboy outfits, pistols holstered at our sides and for good measure a quiver of toy arrows and a bow strung along our backs.

We never imagined not sweating profusely or considered for a moment a short-sleeved shirt when we could wear our gaudy cowboy outfits with fringed shirts and pants.

We fought battles and wars, we fished, we caught crawdads, we played in poison oak and poison ivy, we lit firecrackers, and most of all we returned home exhausted and covered in ticks. Granny would strip us naked and go over us patiently, inch by inch with cotton swabs and a glass of gasoline. She’d find a tick, rub its insertion point with gasoline, and wait for the tick to back out. Then she’d put it on her fingernail and squish it in half.

We loved watching the guts squirt out, and if the tick had been there all day its abdomen would be bloated with blood. It was always a contest to see whose tick explosions had the biggest gusher of gore. Afterwards, the dozen or so spots would be swabbed with Mercurochrome, which did nothing at all but which looked very professional and medicinal and gave you your daily dose of mercury, a well-known health supplement.

Granny never asked where we’d been or what we’d done, although we often told her. She never told us when to come home or went out looking for us in that vast wilderness, the endless pine-scape in which two small kids could disappear forever and maybe even get eaten by a bear, or get snakebit, or be taken hostage by Comanches.

We grew old and stopped cowboying in the woods, granny and Grandpa Jim got old and died, and many years later, in my early 40’s, I was driving on a job from the Panhandle to Houston and decided to detour through Daingerfield; a rather long detour.

I found 203 Ridgeway with no need at all for a map; the house was there as it had always been except for this: It had shrunken to a fraction of its former size. What had once been a giant mansion was now a tiny clapboard 2-bedroom house, at the very last ladder rung below which you slip from the lowest middle class onto the highest rung of poverty. I knocked on the door and a tired woman answered.

“Hi,” I said. “My grandparents used to live here.”

She brightened. “Oh, you’re Miz Turner’s grandson? How lovely!”

My grandmother had taught 3rd Grade in Daingerfield for almost forty years. “Would you like to come in?” she asked.

“If it’s okay? I’m taking a walk down memory lane.”

She smiled. “Well, it’s not much.”

I walked in. The house was tiny. The bedrooms were as I remembered, but barely big enough for two adults to stand in at the same time. The massive garage had been converted into a third tiny bedroom. I thought about each of those quarters and dollar bills that my grandparents had given us and it struck me for the first time how brutally hard they’d worked for those pennies, yet how lovingly and gladly they’d given them to my brother and me. I thought about how they must have saved for our visits so that they could take us to the luxury dining of Sonic or Catfish King, never breathing so much as a word about it.

I thanked the nice lady and left. Then I drove over to the woods, which were still there. I easily stepped over the barbed wire and walked a few paces. There was the creek that I’d remembered as having to hike forever to reach. I kept going west, wondering how broad the forest was, really? A few paces later it ended. The whole thing was less than a hundred yards wide. I walked north along the creek and within minutes could see the end of the clearing, where the mine began. A smaller universe you couldn’t have made had you tried, but within it? Battles, wars, wildlife, excitement, and the most intensely lived life of any little boy ever.

I went back to my truck and headed towards Houston. I didn’t cry. Much.

END


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Bike mechanic

March 17, 2020 § 15 Comments

Lots of people have worked on my bikes, but I’ve only had a handful of bike mechanics.

Phil Tomlin was the first, and in my estimation he was the best. Phil worked at Freewheeling Bicycles in Austin and was as much an institution as the institution of Freewheeling itself. Phil was finicky, moody, prone to getting angry at the drop of a hat, and matchless when he was in fine fettle. When Phil was in a good mood, the whole shop smiled.

What makes a person a bike mechanic as opposed to simply being someone who works on your bike? One of the most skilled mechanics I’ve ever met was Mark White, an Oklahoma auto mechanic. Mark tore your bike down and put it together quickly, effortlessly. When he got done, it wasn’t only you that smiled, your bike did, too. But he was never my bike mechanic; he was an auto mechanic who worked on my bike once and made it sparkle.

A level above Mark in terms of technique and engineering skills was Dan Gammill. Dan had a degree in mechanical engineering from Rice and he was omnivorously brilliant. He could rebuild pianos. He could build and fly airplanes from scrap; his favorite was an aircraft he powered with the motor from an old Subaru B-210. And auto esoterica? One day he decided to put a Supra automatic transmission into his little Toyota manual pickup. It worked flawlessly. For Dan, bicycles were stupid and intellectually empty things. He could do anything any bicycle would ever need done to it with his eyes closed.

Dan was brilliant but he wasn’t my bike mechanic, although he was my friend, at least for a time. I feared asking him to do anything to my bike, like asking Albert Einstein to help with your math homework. His brain and hands had higher occupations, and he also lacked the true bike mechanic’s empathy. Dan believed that anyone too stupid to fix his own bike deserved to ride it broken. And if not, Dan had better things to do than be their knight in shining Snap-On.

In Japan I had a bike mechanic, Jun-ichi Tsunakawa. Jun-ichi and I rode together; hw worked in the family bike shop. Jun-ichi once broke the single biggest bike-repair commandment I’ve ever seen: He glued on a tubular after getting a flat mid-ride. I waited to see him covered from hair to heels in rim cement, but he did it more quickly, prettily, and perfectly than I could have done had I spent a weekend on a tire-gluing project. Jun-ichi had wondrous repair skills, but he was my bike mechanic because when I came into the shop, whatever he was working on, he’d stop, ask what was wrong, and throw my bike up on the stand to have a look.

Nor was it simply for the ten years I lived in Utsunomiya. A year ago I was back in the Utsunomiya and my bike wasn’t shifting right. I swung by the shop and he acted like I’d never left despite the intervening 20 years. He put the bike on the stand and diagnosed, then quickly fixed, the derailleur hanger that’d been tweaked in transit.

This, then, is the core of what makes a person your bike mechanic. He or she puts you first. And I’ve had plenty of fantastic mechanics work on my bike who treated me like an ordinary customer. That’s fair and fine; someone doesn’t become your bike mechanic simply because they work on your bike. They become your bike mechanic because … well, I’m not sure exactly why.

With Phil Tomlin, for example, he was mostly looking out for me. Like the time I tried to clean my entire bike, frame/bars/saddle included with a giant can of WD-40. “You can’t do that,” he said, taking my bike off the outdoor DIY stand and bringing it into the shelter of his turf, the shop floor.

Or the time that I decided to put a pair of mounts on the fore bed of my pickup so that I could easily pop the front wheel, lock down the front forks, and haul my bike without a rack. Phil heard what I wanted to do, thought about me drilling a hole through my hand, and then went out into the parking lot on a July day in Texas and spent an hour or so drilling the holes and setting up the absolutely best bike rack I’ve had before or since. He didn’t charge me for it, either.

Not that Phil held me in any particularly high regard. I was like a little brother, or an errant youth, or someone hopelessly over his head in the world of bicycles and Phil saw it as his duty to take care of me and my mechanical needs. I recognized the favor and if it meant I had to listen to a bit of haranguing, I didn’t mind it much. Phil’s heart was in the right place, and his hands were unerring.

Some bike mechanic relationships deteriorate and you’re not sure exactly why. There used to be a mechanic at PV Cycle Center who was my bike mechanic, then the shop closed and he moved somewhere else and from then on it was all business. Want it fixed? We’ll get to it on Thursday. There’s an unspoken code that tells you you’ve been fired as a favored customer, like a romantic breakup where the biggest feelings are buried in the smallest details.

One of the dirtiest little secrets that bike shop owners hold close to their chest is that the mechanic is the shop. It’s one thing to sell a bike but if you can’t service it you lose the customer and you lose the after-market income. The mechanic is also the driving force behind new sales. The customer who brings in the rusted out POS and has the post-mortem done by a knowledgeable, apron-clad, kindly wrench is a customer who will shortly be stomping around on the showroom floor looking for a new bike. For all that, bike mechanics and the shop area are almost always stuck in the back, usually behind some kind of partition, as if the mechanics are an embarrassment rather than the pounding heart of the bike shop organism.

The astounding importance of the bike mechanic has been recognized by the market in the form of mobile bike shops. ShiftMobile is run by Jason Morin. He is an amazing mechanic, but he’s not my mechanic. It’s rare to hear exclusively good things about anyone, especially in the bike world, but the only thing I’ve heard about Jason in addition to his superlative wrenching is that “He’s an amazing chef.”

You see, Jason is someone else’s bike mechanic, and that person and Jason have a special relationship. Jason does his magic, and that person feeds Jason dinner from time to time. In reverse-payback, Jason then shows up at the occasional party and cooks a rack of ribs or other delicacy. Jason’s services as a mechanic are for sale, but Jason isn’t, and that’s the thing about someone being your mechanic. It usually develops over time and results from the spillage of something personal into the bike-repair sphere.

When I moved to LA in 2006, I had to cast around for a bike mechanic because I was still on a steel Eddy Merckx Leader with downtube Shimano 8-speed shifters and Mavic 36-hole tubulars. I wound up at Ted’s Manhattan Beach Cycles, which was run by Manny Felix. Manny was–and is–a superlative mechanic. He was happy to see my “vintage” stuff that still got ridden hard, and no matter how busy he was, he always had time to fix what ailed me and my bike. I remember having issues with a spoke that kept breaking and no one could figure out why. Manny put the wheel in the truing stand, waved his magic wand, replaced the spoke, and it never broke again.

Not all, but most of the people who might end up being your mechanic, like to talk. And you need to know how to listen, not only because you might learn something, but because the indispensable part of the mechanic-customer relationship is respect. I never imagined feeling anything but mute awe when I saw someone take my mis-shifting bike and make it hum, but everyone isn’t that way. Some customers are humiliated by having to ask for mechanical help, and they compensate for their feelings by acting less than nobly. This will guarantee that a mechanic never becomes your mechanic.

For example, haggling. Your mechanic is always charging you a fair price, and most of the time it’s a bargain when you consider the time you’d have to spend finding someone who can do the job. You see, bike wrenching gets easier the more you know the bike and the customer. My bike mechanic, Peyton Cooke, knows that I am hard on disc brake pads because I commute a lot. In fact, he knows everything there is to know about my two bikes and about what’s likely the cause of the creak or squeak or “not quite right” thing that I bring in for him to look at. This institutional knowledge about your bike speeds up his work, ensures that it’s done accurately, and lets him charge you less.

But haggling or asking for a deal? You may get one but he’ll never be your mechanic.

Another way to put distance between yourself and the person who keeps your bike running is to act like you know what’s wrong and what needs to be done and how to do it, but you’re too busy right now, so here, could you fix it for me? The fact is that you likely don’t know what’s wrong, and if you do, you don’t know what needs to be fixed, and if you do, you have no idea how to do it, and if you do, you lack the skills to execute. That’s why you’re at the shop.

Bike mechanics are no different from heart surgeons. They know more than you do and are better at it and do it for a living, so don’t pretend that all the stuff you read on Google makes you a diplomate in cardiology. Every mechanic I’ve ever had has known that I’m clueless and, like Socrates, that I know that I’m clueless.

Another sure way to alienate the person working on your bike is to use him or her as a mentor/teacher/DIY instructor. When a good mechanic is working, they rarely like to give lectures on what they’re doing. They’d much rather talk, like Phil used to, about Fignon’s chances in the ’83 Tour. And when a mechanic has a problem, the last thing they want is for you to ask, “What’s wrong?” or, better yet, make suggestions. They may tolerate it (doubtful), but they’ll never be your mechanic and you’ll pay a premium. Bike mechanics are also incredibly skilled at not telling you how to DIY when they can tell you’re pumping them for information.

Virtually all of my bike mechanics, if you scratch them hard, they’re bike racers at the core. Phil was a Cat 2 from South Carolina and won the 35+ Texas ITT after taking a long hiatus from racing. Manny Felix was an accomplished bike racer in Mexico, and Jun-ichi raced for years in the local Kanto events. Peyton? A crazy fast sprinter who, when he bothers to train, goes great.

Which leads to another thing about bike mechanics. They love to talk about racing and, as one of the information nodes about riders in the area, they have all the latest scuttlebutt. Every shop has THAT CUSTOMER, sometimes several, who practically lives there, gabbing about all the latest goings-on and pouring grist into the rumor mill. Your mechanic can tell you it’s time for a new chain, but he can also tell you who’s going well, who’s training hard, and who’s bike that is in the corner covered in dust.

Everything I ever learned about European racing I learned from Phil Tomlin, Mike Murray, and Jack Pritchard, three mechanics who would daily hold a colloquy on the ethereal happenings in heaven a/k/a the Euro Road Scene.

My bike mechanic is a great wrench, is a bike racer at heart, and to top it off is a wickedly skilled motorcycle rider. This last part matters because every now and then he motor paces me. This is an activity where you put your life in the moto driver’s hands, and Peyton is a master at it, which is another thing about your bike mechanic: He always, always, always does more than work on bikes. Case in point? After an entire career at Freewheeling, Phil went on to work in the mechanical engineering lab at UT Austin.

Of course when you think about it, we all have a bike mechanic in our life whether we ride bikes or whether we even own one. That person who’s there for you when you need it, who has encyclopedic knowledge about something vital to your well-being, who tolerates your foibles, who’s good natured when it’s all said and done, and who thinks pretty much as highly of you as you do of him.

Some people even call them “friends.”

END


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Matter over mind

Cipollini, 52, dies from helmet-related illness

November 13, 2019 § 7 Comments

The cycling world was stunned to learn that superstar, doper, fashion criminal, tax dodge, race quitter, and flamboyant wife-beater Mario Cipollini, 52, died from an acute bicycle helmet-related illness yesterday in his hometown of Lucca, Italy.

We caught up with Super Mario after the interment to talk about his early demise.

Cycling in the South Bay: Dead at 52? Incredible. What happened?

Mario Cipollini: It is a rather uninteresting story. Can we talk about my 42 Giro wins? Binda only had 41.

CitSB: Sure. But first let’s talk about your death. How’d it happen?

MC: The doctors say it was helmet-related.

CitSB: How so?

MC: Before I turned pro I never raced with a helmet, and of course as a professional most of my career I raced without one until it became mandatory.

CitSB: I don’t get it.

MC: It’s cumulative. Sudden Helmetless-Induced Trauma hits you when you least expect it.

CitSB: Shit.

MC: Exactly. You never know when SHIT is going to hit the fan. In my case, I continued to not wear my helmet after I retired despite the advice of all the group ride participants and gran fondo riders. Not to mention hobby bicyclists who would pass me on the street and shout, “Where’s your helmet?”

CitSB: What did the doctors say?

MC: They said that SHIT is dangerous and that I could die without my helmet at any moment.

CitSB: Can you explain how SHIT works?

MC: The doctors don’t understand the mechanism exactly. They say it has to do with how helmets protect your brain from excessive wind flow outside of your skull. Once the helmet is removed for long periods of time, the molecules in the skin surrounding your skull degrade due to the wind, and then the skull itself degrades, imperceptibly, until finally the wind blows away your brain cells until there is nothing left but dust. And a little bit of cocaine residue, if that was your thing.

CitSB. Shit.

MC: For years the doctors thought that you could protect against SHIT, even if you didn’t have a helmet, with a large mane of rich, thick, luxurious, flowing hair.

CitSB: Which you have.

MC: Had.

CitSB: Right.

MC: But apparently over time even long, beautiful locks cannot protect against SHIT.

CitSB: That’s terrifying.

MC: So you can imagine how frightening it is for the average MAMIL, who doesn’t have much hair to begin with.

CitSB: Comb-overs?

MC: Those are the deadliest. The doctors say that a comb-over, or worse, a little round patch in back like St. Francisco Xavier give a false sense of security. Such people must wear helmets all the time or they will be in deep SHIT.

CitSB: Any regrets?

MC: None, except for that time I rode for Rock Racing. What a humiliating end to a magnificent career.

CitSB: Yes, that was rather shameful.

MC: But SHIT happens.

CitSB: Indeed.

END


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Mario Cipollini, Stage IV, Sudden Helmetless-Induced Trauma

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