August 26, 2016 § 24 Comments
Marshall Perkins has been around a long time. “How long, Wanky?”
Well, one time we were sitting around and I asked if anyone remembered when coffee became part of cycling. In Texas there sure as hell weren’t any coffee shops in 1982 where you could swing by and get a quick cup before or after the ride. The closest thing I remember was Sweetish Hill Bakery in Austin, but nobody sat around drinking coffee pre- or post-ride.
Marsh remembered, and he even remembered the first couple of shops that served espresso, some joint in Santa Monica back around the time they invented tectonic plates. I got a great education about coffee-shops-back-in-the-day and we all agreed that they were a massive anomaly, but then again, so were bikers.
Marshall is a giant of a man and not just physically. He’s always stood up for the downtrodden, always been ready to lend a hand, always taken the side of the underdog. In our cycling community, he and his wife are pillars of support for those who wind up in need, especially when winding up in need is the result of a biker winding up on someone’s bumper.
I always wonder about what makes people good. Then a few days ago I saw a magazine article from 1982 about a guy named Captain Jim Perkins, California Highway Patrol commander of the Ontario office.
Here’s the link to the story, which is even more relevant today than it was in 1982. The entire article by Captain Perkins is typed out at the end of the document for easier reading. Captain Perkins is, of course, Marshall’s dad. The apple stayed pretty close to the tree.
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July 4, 2016 § 26 Comments
The July 4th Holiday Ride is always a doozy. This year was no exception.
It’s hard to disagree with the statement that the Holiday Ride is the worst ride ever. About 200 people show up and flail their way from Manhattan Beach to Brentwood. Then there is a knife fight in the mud for Tony Manzella’s wheel and we pack the entire lane of a narrow, twisty, fucked-up country road, the knife fight for Sweet Ass’s wheel moves on to guns, then mortars, then nukes, and two minutes in there are 10 riders left and unless you’re one of the ten your day is done.
If you’re one of the ten, you just risked life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for about twenty minutes of crystal-meth-pure misery.
Before today’s ride Sausage told me to video it on his GoPro. “But I have a Cycliq Fly12,” I protested.
Sausage is into high quality. He’s also real diplomatic. “Your camera sucks,” he said. “Use mine.” It’s hard to argue with facts.
EA Sports, Inc. and I drove to the Center of the Known Universe where everyone was standing around all nervous as hell. Why nervous? I don’t know, actually, because the ride always ends the same way. You get miserably dropped. There is no drama, and after having done it for ten years there’s not even any mystery about when it will happen.
Of course not everyone in the Santa-Monica-to-the-South-Bay arc is a lunatic. About 200 other people, all of whom who have done the Holiday Ride, and all of whom know how stupid it is, have formed an alt-Holiday Ride called the Yellow Vase Ride. They ride at a friendly pace around Palos Verdes and then have coffee and croissants at the Yellow Vase cafe. People laugh, talk, tell stories, and appreciate the beauty of the area and the fun of cycling.
Well, fuck those people.
By the time we got to Marina del Rey there were another hundred or so baby seals who’d been added to the clubbing list. In addition to the drama of the ride there had been some pre-ride Facebag drama, too. Phil Gaimon was going to show up and tow us up Mandeville at 462.3 watts like he did last year, but first we had to sign up for his Grand Fondue. One of the local Strava addicts complained that it wasn’t fair for us to be motoring along behind Phil, and a war of words ensued, after which there was a lot of red, rashy, very painful butthurt. So to make sure everyone on the ride was going to be okay I brought something for anyone who might need it.
Of course Phil didn’t show up so there was no need for the balm, but it’s nice to be prepared.
The ride followed its predictable course. At first people were chatty and tried to hide their anxiety with lighthearted banter. Then in Santa Monica people began to fight for position. Then on San Vicente it went from blob to narrow line, 2 or 3 abreast. Then on Sunset it was deadly silent. Then on Mandeville there was only grunting and the clanging of gears. A few people put on a brave front with occasional chatter. Two minutes in it was quiet as a teenager at a video console, an ethereal silence that enveloped us as each rider sank lower into the pain mire, everything in the universe resolved into the tiny strip of rubber twelve inches in front of your nose, and one by one people fell off, no words or excuses or explanations needed because the brutal pace and gravity spoke all that needed saying.
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June 11, 2016 § 4 Comments
When people die before their time it hits you hard.
But when is “their time”? When is anyone’s time?
Justin Warfield’s time was on Sunday. His death was mourned and his life was celebrated in his Catholic church, over a thousand people on a Wednesday afternoon standing testament to the worth of his life. More than that, they were witnesses to what we all hope for: That in our short lives we’ll have made people better by having known us.
And Justin’s life was short. Diagnosed with a ragingly malignant tumor in November of 2014 at the age of 39, he was gone a mere year and a half later.Those who knew him well were stunned. Those who knew him in passing, like me, were likewise shocked. How could someone who lived such a good, clean, healthy life have been stricken down in the blink of an eye?
I don’t know, you don’t know. No one knows.
But what I do know is that during his life he made a difference, the kind of difference that brings people from across the continent on a moment’s notice to pay homage to a friend, the kind of difference that you hear in the stories people tell and the look on their faces, looks that can’t be feigned.
When the monsignor asked everyone in the filled church to stand who had had a personal connection to Justin, every single person stood. We all got chills and we all felt grateful. We often talk about touching a lot of lives, but rarely see it, not like that.
My connection with him was the slim connection of two narrow bicycle tires. A tutor in Manhattan Beach, he was teaching the son of Jeff Konsmo, one of our most dedicated riders. One question led to another, and the obviously eager and competitive Justin ended up being invited by Jeff to a Friday coffee ride. Justin was dropped and therefore immediately hooked; you know the rest. Over a few short years cycling brought him the relief from life’s stresses and the balance he’d needed to finally allow him to begin stopping to smell the roses.
This Friday morning a small group of friends gathered at the Center of the Known Universe, where Justin’s cycling odyssey had begun. We pedaled out to the overlook where PV Drive hits Paseo del Mar, dismounted, and shared stories. Jeff opened it up with a voicemail he’d kept from Justin, that clear, happy, funny, strong voice slicing through the cool morning air, floating, it seemed, all the way across the Pacific Ocean that lay stretched out in front of us.
Dave shared the story of how Justin had gotten his nickname “Pigpen.” On the day of his first flat, King Harold had changed it for him. The bike was so filthy that Harry was covered hand-to-elbow in muck from simply handling the frame and wheel. “What the hell are you?” someone said. “Pigpen?”
From that day on he was Pigpen, and from the very next ride his bike sparkled. If a fleck of dirt ever attached to it again, no one ever saw it; Justin became the poster child for the Immaculate Ride. Chris and Dan shared stories about Justin’s dedication, his strength on the bike, and his goodness as a person.
He had died after suffering through unspeakable pain with never a complaint. The time he had left to live he used with amazing power, cementing old friendships, building new ones, wringing the nectar out of his life even as it evaporated in front of him. When he died, he was ready.
But we who didn’t have to live with his pain and suffering and the reboot of infinite courage he needed every single day just to live? We weren’t ready. We’re not ready yet. Nor will we be, perhaps ever.
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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