May 18, 2016 § 11 Comments
Jeff Fields was the older brother I never had, which is weird because I actually had an older brother. The problem with my older brother was that he got the brunt of the conflict between my parents, and in a play as old as time, he passed it down to me in the form of beatings, teasing, and ritual humiliation.
Ian could be the best guy in the world, but a mentor he wasn’t, preferring most of his lessons be delivered through fisticuffs rather than patient instruction.
Jeff was the opposite. He was stern and gruff, but patient beyond belief. He knew I adored him and he’d never had a younger brother; his sister was many years his junior. Jeff didn’t talk a lot about how to train or how to race, but when he did it was always golden, and his pile of race wins spoke for his mastery of the craft.
Unfortunately, as all of my teachers in school had quickly learned, I was a miserable student. I didn’t want to learn anything, I just wanted to mash gears and ride my bike all day because it was fun. Jeff never told me I was riding stupidly, and he certainly never yelled at me or offered me advice. As a brilliant and calculating bike racer, he enjoyed watching my hopeless pursuits, pointless attacks, and devil-may-care approach. For all that, he noted everything I ever did and never seemed to forget it. Praise from him was treasure.
Yet he didn’t tolerate dangerous riding. He was the safest, steadiest, best-positioned wheel in the bunch. You could close your eyes on Jeff’s wheel, I always used to tell myself, and he didn’t have to coach you. If you wanted to be like him, you just imitated. There weren’t any secrets, except perhaps to the riders who didn’t care to watch.
Jeff put structure into my riding and confidence into my legs. He told me I was good and that I could always be better. He took me on the most challenging rides he could find, and let the distance and the pace do the rest. Countless Austin winter days days it would be overcast, cold, maybe even drizzling, and like clockwork we’d layer up, roll out, and ride.
We had one workout called The Path of Truth, where we sat behind a 50-cc motor scooter piloted by Randy Dickson out to Webberville and back. I took the wheel going out, Jeff took it going back. In all the times we did it, I never made the full 25 miles without getting shelled. Afterwards we’d shake our heads at the pain and the difficulty and the speed and the wind.
In those days of course there were no coffee shops. We simply kept pedaling as we talked in the cold and the rain, invincible.
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April 8, 2016 § 36 Comments
The LA weatherperson forecast rain tomorrow and this weekend. This generally means it won’t rain, but people have already canceled Friday coffee cruises, Saturday races, and Sunday group rides.
If it does rain, people from other parts of the country will probably not call it “rain.” Rather, it will be a few concentrated drops of water more commonly recognized as drizzle. But it will keep cyclists home in droves.
Not me. I hope it rains. It’s not that I like the rain or that I’m one of those tough guys who licks his chops when it starts raining in sheets and the wind starts howling and the temperature drops to freezing. But every once in a while I really enjoy going out and getting soaked on my bike.
It’s because when I started junior high my dad drove me to school on the first day. Then on the second day I got my things ready and told him I was ready to go. “Okay,” he said. “Have a great day.”
I looked at him for a minute because he was still drinking coffee and reading the paper. “I’ll wait in the car.”
“You might have a long wait.”
I tried to divine the Oracle of Dad, but either I hadn’t proffered the right goats and virgins and incense or he was done talking. So I stood there for a minute. “Aren’t we gonna drive?” I asked.
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
I did some quick mental math, which for me took a while. “So I’m gonna walk?” It was a solid three miles.
“You can if you want to,” he said without looking up.
I fidgeted and squeaked this out, something that might have almost been rebellious. “What if I don’t want to?”
The Oracle of Dad read a few more paragraphs about David Berkowitz a/k/a Son of Sam, who had been all the rage for a couple of weeks. “Then you should ride your bike.” The audience with the Oracle of Dad was now over and my three-year sentence of daily commuting in the humid, hot, wet, miserable hell hole of Houston began.
The worst days were rain days. It would come down in blinding sheets, cars spraying walls of water as they passed within inches, and I’d arrive at school as wet as if I’d just stepped out of the swimming pool, or something really nasty, like the Gulf of Mexico. I remember clenching my teeth as filthy road water soaked my face, and I remember spitting out the bitter, brown, grit-filled sludge. On the worst rain days, which was all of them, I remember seething with rage at being forced to swim to class, arriving sopping wet and hunched over as I tried to lock my bike up in the bike cage, never a problem finding a good spot because on those days my bike was the only one there.
It took an average of two class periods to fully dry out, and my shoes generally squished until the end of the day. If I was lucky the rain would pick up again around three and I’d get to do it all over again.
Those rain days left some kind of stamp on me, something written in a secret invisible ink that has to be treated with a special potion to come to the fore again and be visible. Nowadays, when it’s not raining too hard and it’s not too cold and I’m not too lazy, I love to get out in it and pedal around, hoping that maybe the stamp of youth and struggle will become visible again.
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March 7, 2016 § 14 Comments
Jimmy Huang was better than me at everything, except maybe being tall. He was my debate partner and he was the brains behind the team. I was the judge appeal, if that gives you any idea how unappealing we were, and the only reason I spoke better than he did was because he had moved to Houston from Taiwan when he was eight and when he got to talking quickly he would lapse into a very thick accent and spit.
He was a big spew-spitter, but he was still the brains. We went to nationals on the back of his IQ, and lost three out of four rounds on the weakness of mine.
He was a better athlete. We briefly went to swim team practice because Thomas Lin, another Chinese dude who was smarter than my whole family tree, was a state champion breast stroker and lured us into workouts one summer. Jimmy had the swimming grace and technique of an old typewriter tossed off a pier, but he could beat me in every stroke. He was tough as nails and really enjoyed watching me crumple.
He went to Harvard. I went to Texas.
He became a world-renowned pediatric oncologist at one of the world’s leading medical schools. I became a blogger. About bike racing. For old people.
I tried to keep up our friendship until I realized it wasn’t a friendship. He had needed me to get him to nationals in debate and add a line to his college application, but once that function was served, we drifted apart as in “he rowed as fast as he could in the other direction.”
Jimmy was Chinese, which is what I always called him, even though each time he patiently corrected me. “My name isn’t Jimmy, it’s James, and I’m not Chinese, I’m Taiwanese.”
“What’s the difference?”
“China is a communist authoritarian regime. Taiwan is a capitalist democracy.”
“Taiwan is a friend of America. China is an enemy.”
“So please don’t call me Chinese. I’m not from China.”
“Okay, dude, sorry,” I’d say until the next time.
Finally he got exasperated. “Would you please stop calling me Chinese?”
“Dude, I’m sorry, but you fucking speak Chinese, you look Chinese, and Taiwan used to be part of China.”
“So can I call you English?”
“You can call me whatever you want. I don’t fucking care.”
“I do care,” he said. Then he lectured me about Taiwan and China and stuff. About how Taiwan was a lone outpost of democracy with democratic institutions, constantly threatened by a totalitarian regime, about how the island’s existence depended on the industriousness and dedication of its people, and about how in this age where despotism ruled most of the world and was growing, we had a moral duty to support Taiwan.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I said.
“To you it’s just a place with ‘Chinese’ people, even though they speak a language called Taiwanese and are independent from China. To me it’s a homeland and its precarious existence matters. Democracy and rule of law are real things and every little bit of democracy on this earth punches a thousand times over its weight. Slavery and oppression are real, Seth. Freedom matters.”
“What am I supposed to do about that?”
“For starters, you could use the right words. I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese. And maybe one day when you become an adult, you can remember this conversation and do something for Taiwan.”
“I don’t know. Go there, maybe. Educate yourself. Spend some of your American dollars on your American allies.”
After we left high school in 1982 I got into biking and it became a craze after the ’84 Olympics. Coincidentally Jimmy had bought a bicycle and started riding. One summer I was in Houston for one of Tom Bentley’s races. I called Jimmy up. He had heard through a mutual friend, Ferdie Wong, who went to Rice and rode for their Beer Bike team, that I rode. “So I hear you are a bicycle racer now?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s pretty much all I do.”
“Well, I bought a bicycle in Boston and have been riding for a few months. We should go ride together.”
“Nah, you don’t want to do that,” I said. “I’ll rip your fucking legs off.”
“That’s okay,” he said smoothly, recalling a summer’s worth of beatings administered in the pool. “I’ll try to hang on.”
“Jimmy, you don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t pedal around the block with a few buddies sprinting for stop signs. I’m a licensed Cat 2 USCF road racer. I train 500 miles a week. I know you think this is another one of those things where I’m just a puffed-up fraud of a bullshitter, but trust me, even though I am, if you only started riding a bike in earnest a couple of months ago I will be forced to tear you apart and leave you for dead somewhere far from civilization.”
“It should be instructive,” he said patiently. “Why don’t we meet out in Katy? There are some roads out there I’ve been riding on since I came home for the summer.”
“Okay, but why don’t we just go have lunch somewhere? I’m going to destroy your perfect record of always being better than me at everything. And a perfectionist like you will grind down your fucking rear molars from the ignominy of it all.”
“I will take my chances,” he said humbly.
We met out on one of the farm roads west of Katy. He had shorts and jersey and helmet and an entry-level racing bike. I had my Team Peloton garb (Team “Group of Cyclists” translated from the French), my sparkling blue Eddy Merckx with Campy Super Record, shaved legs, and a musette bag stuffed with ten flavors of whup-ass.
The roads west of Katy are flat and the prevailing wind is southeast. “Let’s start with a tailwind,” I said. “It will be easier for you. In the beginning, anyway.”
I was pretty excited, and I started kind of hard. He knew how to draft and immediately got on my wheel. Pretty soon I backed it off and let the tail wind push us along. After ten minutes or so I looked back. He was still on my wheel, but he didn’t look very good. I couldn’t believe my good luck, so I eased off a bit so that he could catch his breath. We rolled with that tailwind for 30 minutes. I glanced back once more and saw that he was in the box.
“Hey, pal,” I said. “You’re looking like a fish that’s been fed a live grenade. Want to turn around?”
“Okay,” he said.
We did and hit that headwind. It was awful. I settled into a pace that I figured was just enough for him to hang on, knowing that he was a tough, no-quit bastard, but fast enough to be a living hell. I checked back once to see him dying two deaths: One was the physical death of trying to hang on, the other was the emotional death of getting crushed by someone he held in contempt and had fully expected to destroy.
We got back to our cars. He was giddy and could barely stand. “If you want to go knock out a couple more hours, I’m game,” I said. “But frankly you don’t look like you’ll be able to make the drive home without an oxygen tent.”
He tried to smile. “I think I’ve had enough for today.”
Many years later I realized that after almost thirty years of marriage I’d never taken a vacation or leisure trip with my wife that hadn’t included kids or parents. “Hey, honey,” I said. “Let’s go take a trip. Just you and me.”
She looked at me funny because she knew that this was going to be a sideways invitation to go hand up water bottles at a road race. “I might be busy. When? Where? And what for?”
“Let’s go to Taiwan,” I said. “We’ll stay in a super fancy hotel, you’ll get the spa package where they buff those four-inch calluses off your feet, and we’ll lounge around.”
“What about the bike racing?”
“There’s no bike racing.”
“Because,” I said, “it’s a super beautiful place. It’s mostly national park and rural and incredibly rich in Chinese culture–like the mainland before Mao destroyed everything with the Cultural Revolution. Plus the food’s awesome. And there are tons of great birds, 30 or 40 endemics.”
She was in a bind. It sounded good, but thirty years of hard knocks and disappointment are hard to overcome with a few glib words, especially from someone who majored in Glib. “Okay,” she said, “but how are we gonna get around?”
“I’ll learn Chinese.”
This sounded like the insane husband she was used to, whose grandiose delusions always turned into unrealistic plans that went down in flames. “In six months?”
“Sure,” I said. “How hard can it be?”
“But why Taiwan? It’s bicycles, isn’t it? Your bicycle is made there, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but that’s not the reason.”
“Because Jimmy was right.”
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March 2, 2016 § 51 Comments
Before I could book my flight to Austin I had to sign the General Austin Flight Agreement, which says that, “Once arriving I solemnly swear to agree with everyone how much Austin has changed for the worse.”
On the flight my neighbor told me she loved Austin. “But it really has changed so much since I moved there ten years ago.”
“Yes,” I said. “For the worse?”
“Definitely,” she said. “The old Austin is pretty much gone.”
“That’s too bad,” I said sympathetically.
Yesterday morning I took a walk along Shoal Creek and then Waller Creek to downtown. It looked mostly the same as it had in 1982 ago except for a few big buildings.
Once I got downtown I stopped by Mellow Johnny’s bike shop. I’ve yet to see a bike shop in Los Angeles like MJ’s. The first thing that strikes you is a giant Ride Board that lists upcoming club rides every day of the week. The second thing is the coffee shop that is more a part of the bike shop than the retail area. The third thing is the repair shop that greets you when you walk in, and the fourth thing is the shower which is available to pretty much anyone who needs to de-stink.
What’s striking about Mellow Johnny’s is the fact that foremost it’s a place for cyclists to hang out, and only after that is it a place to buy bike crap. The placement of the repair shop is awesome. Regular customers don’t come back often to buy new bikes; they come to get their derailleurs adjusted. Oh, and the shop opens at 7:00 AM, when cyclists are up and about and in dire need of a coffee fix.
As soon as I walked in a sales guy asked me not if I needed any help, but “What music are you jamming to, dude?”
We started talking. I told him I’d walked from 24th and Lamar. “Amazing amount of construction, huh?” he said.
“It’s incredible how Austin has changed,” he said.
“Yeah. My wife and I moved here four years ago. It’s a completely different city.”
“For the worse?”
“Mostly. The old Austin has been swallowed up by development.”
“That’s too bad.”
About that time a group of riders came in from the morning ride and lined up at the coffee counter. I got in behind them and started chatting. One was a guy named Alan, a judge. The other was named Matt. Finally I walked over to the big wooden communal table where everyone was sitting. “Mind if I join you?”
“Sure,” said a guy named Martin. “As long as you’re cool. This is the cool table.”
“I’m not very cool,” I said.
“That’s okay,” said a guy with a huge mustache that was waxed so stiffly on the ends you could have hung your coat on it. “As long as you say something cool.”
I asked about the rides and people began talking animatedly. Bikers are the same everywhere. They are happy to chat with you about the local rides, which ones are hard, which ones hilly, who are the hammers, and the good-natured back-and-forth between friends about who dropped whom when and how and where. Most of the guys at the table rode for the Violet Crown Sports Association, Austin’s oldest racing club.
“I used to race for VC,” I said.
“When?” asked Martin.
“My first race was in January 1984 at the Bloor Rd. to Blue Bluff time trial, where Jack Pritchard gave me a Laverne & Shirley board game for winning. Our team kit was a blank purple Vigorelli jersey.”
There was a bit of awed silence as I pronounced the mythical words “Jack Pritchard.”
Suddenly I wasn’t some stranger in jeans to whom they were being polite. “Do you know Jay Bond?” asked a guy named Andy.
“Yeah,” I said. “He built my first pro bike. Or maybe it was Phil. A Picchio Rigida. The ones that all had cracked rear dropouts. It was purple.”
“Wow,” said Andy. “Jay’s my neighbor.” The triple authenticity label of mentioning Jack Pritchard, Phil Tomlin, and Jay Bond could only have been strengthened by saying the hallowed words, “Tom Paterson,” which of course I did.
We talked about Jay’s famous 55-mph straight-line fred fall coming out of Leakey a couple of years ago, about his sister Felicia, the illustrator for “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and most importantly about whether or not Jay still had his blue steel Pinarello and his red steel Eddy Merckx.
I checked my watch and saw it was time to head back. “Great talking with you guys,” I said. No one had mentioned how much Austin has changed or about how the Old Austin has gone.
That’s because, you know, it hasn’t.
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December 23, 2015 § 14 Comments
Do you remember your first birthday bike? I got mine when I was five. I got my second one (purple with a banana seat, OF COURSE) when I was eight. I got my third one when I was twelve. It was a man’s bike, which is to say it was a ten-speed.
Guys had ten-speeds. The only legit guys who had BMX’s raced them, and they only raced on Redlines.
My ten-speed was a gray Murray. It was called a ten-speed because it had ten gears. Total. Every other bike I’d ever owned had one. I still remember hopping on it, wobbling down the driveway, and almost running into the giant oak tree because I tried to stop by backpedaling.
Ten-speeds didn’t backpedal brake.
My Murray had lazy brakes. Do you remember those? Levers that ran parallel and underneath the tops of the handlebars so that you could brake without putting your hands up on the hoods? They were super squishy, just like the handlebar brakes, and didn’t stop nearly as good as, say, an oak tree.
My brother’s birthday was on December 27, two days after mine, so we both got twin Murrays as Christmas-birthday combos. We were a Christmas shopping bargain for our parents, but bargains only in that respect.
Ian’s was the same color but bigger than mine, of course. By a couple of inches. “Your bike looks like a baby’s bike,” he said. “If I had to ride that baby bike I’d walk.”
There was nothing more contemptible than a 12-year-old walking because it meant your bike had been stolen and you were too poor to buy another one. It never meant that you couldn’t ride a bike. How come? Because there was no such thing as a boy in Texas who couldn’t ride a bike. It’s like saying you didn’t know how to spit or cuss.
When I was thirteen I started Seventh Grade at Jane Long Junior High. She was the Mother of Texas, a historical figure who had wrestled some coyotes and given birth “to the first white child” in Texas, as we were taught in our integrated classes. They cleaned it up long after I (barely) graduated by saying she gave birth to the first “English-speaking child” in Texas.
The principal of Jane Long, Mr. Thompson, was a real sonofabitch. He had been famous for beating the children with a big board. Rumor was that he had his spanking privileges revoked when he broke the spine of one of the kids from the Burnet-Bayland Orphanage across the way. Now all the spanking was done by Mr. Harsch. That was really his name.
The first day of school I rode my bike, and it was hot, August-in-Houston hot. There was a big cage made of 12-foot fence. You wheeled your bike in and you locked it with a big chain if you had any sense. I locked my Murray good.
After school I went out to the cage to get my bike. A big guy with thick fuzz on his upper lip was standing at the gate.
“You got your money?” he asked.
“What money?” I asked.
“Don’t nobody get their bike ‘less they pay rent.”
“How much is rent?”
“I never heard nothin’ about no bike rent.”
“You’re hearin’ it now.”
“What happens if I don’t pay?”
“You like your teeth?”
We stood there for a minute. I was scared and he was big but I didn’t have fifty cents and I lived five miles away and there was no way I could pay fifty cents a day anyway. My allowance was only seventy-five cents.
“You don’t want to hit me,” I said.
“Maybe I do,” he said.
“Nah, you really don’t.”
“What’s a skinny little Seventh Grader runt gonna do about it?”
“I ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it now,” I said.
“What are you gonna do later?”
My bluff being called, I got ready to fold and say goodbye to my bike when I suddenly remembered a story my Grandpa Jim had told me about how he had put an end to getting bullied at the Virginia Military Academy.
“I’m gonna go home and get my daddy’s pistol and come back and blow your goddamn brains out, that’s what.”
I had stuck my lower jaw out and I was trembling. I knew I looked crazy or terrified and hoped it was the former.
“I ain’t scared of your damn pistol,” he said. “My daddy’s got a bigger one anyhow. And I bet I’m a better shot.” But he stepped aside.
I unlocked my bike and rode it home. He never bothered me again.
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November 16, 2015 § 33 Comments
Three days after the attacks in Paris most Americans have done all they will ever do: Shown their solidarity on social media with a cute French flag makeover.
A few people will take things a step farther and forcefully argue their thoughtful opinions. “Bomb those fucking terrorist Arab motherfuckers back into the Stone Age,” is a common refrain. These folks seem not to realize that we’ve done exactly that, and that Stone Age people are remarkably resilient and persistent and inventive. The Stone Agers now have a new country, a fully functioning oil economy, access to international finance, and a modern global media empire with a message that is somewhat more successful in enlisting support than, say, “An Army of 1,” or “Free College Tuition and a $10,000 Signing Bonus and a $100,000 Death Payout for Your Parents.”
Me? I think it is pretty simple. When you start a war you have to finish it. And if you don’t finish it then you’re still at war. And if you’re still at war the other guy will keep killing your guys. And you’ll keep killing his. Etc.
So how do you finish a war? That too is pretty simple. Someone has to say, “Let’s stop fighting now,” and the other side has to agree. In the old days the guy who said “Let’s stop fighting now,” was the guy getting his ass kicked. He waved a white flag or his army dropped their shit and ran away and the generals signed papers that said “You kicked our butt good my bad how much do I owe you?”
Then people continued on until they got mad again, usually about having lost the previous war, and the whole thing recycled.
It is pretty clear that our new war has way too many parties to ever stop. Like whack-a-mole, Whack-a-Stone-Ager results in a new pissed off group popping up and picking up where the smeared remains of the last Stone Ager left off, usually because one of our planes mistakenly bombed their wedding or bombed their hospital or bombed their kindergarten or bombed their peaceful village.
Nowadays there’s not even anyone on the other side to sign anything, even if they wanted to stop fighting. In fact, there is no “other side.”
It’s just a bunch of mad people with guns, kind of like Texas, except that lots more people died at the hands of mad Americans with guns in 2013 than, say, died from anything ISIS ever did. Even though the 34,000 Americans shot to death by each other aren’t nearly as important as the 129 people shot in France over the weekend, the landscape is the same: The war is unending, there’s no one to make peace with, and random killing is something that is a sad fact of life, kind of like herpes.
The good news is that while people debate whether the best solution to war is to post something clever on Twitter or to bomb the people we’ve already bombed into the Neolithic back even farther, say to the Mesolithic or even the Upper Paleolithic, there is something fun and simple you can do for world peace:
Ride your fuggin’ bike and encourage everyone else to ride theirs, too.
Here are some Bicycle Peace Facts:
- No one ever invaded another country on a bike. Successfully, I mean.
- When you are riding a bike you feel happy instead of wanting to kill strangers. Unless you are racing.
- When given the choice, children will choose riding bikes over killing people.
- Children always prefer riding bikes with their parents rather than burying them.
- Regular bicycle exercise makes you fit, whereas being blown to bits by a cluster bomb does not.
- Fat generals and politicians on bikes are too out of breath to give commands like “Invade!” or “Kill!” or “Bomb them into the Stone Age!”
- When you put a terrorist on a bike, he will pedal madly for a while before he gets tired and thirsty, then bonks, then stops at a convenience store for some Gatorade and a piss, after which he sits down on the curb, hangs his head, gives up on the destination, and prepares for the trip home.
- You can’t be full aero with a suicide belt. Plus, they are too heavy and slow you down on the climbs.
- An entire nation can be terrified of getting shot at, but not at being ridden past.
- If you invite someone for a coffee ride, they will like you.
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