Chengdu on $3.70 a day

October 21, 2018 § 4 Comments

I went ahead and bought a ticket for my second trip to China. It cost $460 round trip, which sounds cheap until you consider that almost $250 of the ticket is for taxes. You wonder how anybody makes money flying a new Airbus from LAX to Hangzhou to Chengdu for $200 bucks.

Because I don’t think they’re making it up in foreign exchange. Mine, anyway.

I went looking for a place to stay on, filtering immediately for “cheapassedest first.”

I came up with the Chengdu Dreams International Youth Hostel, which cost $37 for ten days. The next step up got pretty costly; $53 for ten days at the Chengdu Tribe Youth Hostel. Was it worth an extra $16 to swap out dreams for a youth tribe? Would there be drums and a sacrificial goat? Decisions.

This trip will be about four years after I started “studying” Chinese again. I have never worked so hard for so long and ended up with so little to show for it, except in cycling. If I had to rate my spoken Chinese on a scale of one to ten billion, with ten billion being “average” and one being “Why in the fuck are you still doing this?” I would rate myself at about three. Again, cycling comes to mind.

Which makes for a good comparison chart between the two:


  1. Cycling is way more expensive; there is really nothing cycling related you can do for $37. China has a price point for everyone, no matter how cheap.
  2. Chinese is way more niche. Although billions of people speak it, none of them are white cyclists in the South Bay.
  3. Cycling is safer. When you screw up horribly you get a bad brain injury and spend your life in a hospital bed. When you screw up in China just a little bit you spend your life in prison.
  4. Chinese teaches you that you are stupid. Cycling teaches you that you are delusional.
  5. Cycling makes you hungry. Chinese food makes you happy.
  6. China is overwhelming. Cycling isn’t, unless you start training with power.
  7. Cycling has like 12 disciplines. Chinese has like 100,000 characters.
  8. Chinese is to cycling what astrology is to chelation therapy.
  9. Bike races are fun to do but boring to watch. Me speaking Chinese is fun to watch but horrible to experience.
  10. Since I switched to a bread-based diet, I’ve gotten really fat.



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fatty (2)


How do I get faster?

October 20, 2018 § 10 Comments

Here’s an email I got yesterday:

Hi, Mr. Wanky

I started cycling hard-core back in April, and fitness-wise I’ve come a long way. My 7-mile ride to and from the brewery where I work has gotten  easier, but I’m plateauing (is that a word?) with my current rig. Other cyclists with nicer bikes whiz by me with what seems like less effort. They are not all lathered up like like a horse in heat, they glide by way faster, you know?

About my rig: This was a Craigslist special. I’m 6’1″ and the frame is 58cm or 65cm, I can’t really remember. Someone or someones used it a bunch and it’s definitely not carbon. The back tire is fat compared to the front tire since I needed a cheap replacement after someone failed to steal the ol’ gal with a hacksaw.

So about my get-up: My clothes are sporty with very good all-court shoes but no bicycle outfit yet. I’m not sure about that *tighty-tight* stuff (confidence??) and my pedals don’t clip.

More about my rig: My seat is down compared to the handlebars, and when the bars droop which they do about once a week I get out my wrench and jack them back up. The seat hurts my balls (can I say that??). I counted five gears in the back and two of them work. Solid. The brakes are okay when I’m starting and they grip so-so most of the time. What’s my quickest route to “gliding” fast?

Should I buy a new bike? Fix this one up? Seems like the ol’ gal still has life in her. Buy new clothes? Tires? I have no clue. Thanks for any help!! Here is a picture of the bike if that helps.

A Fan

So I answered him ‘cuz he took the time to write.

Dear A Fan:

You have covered a bunch of issues and I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with your job at the brewery. If you work at a brewery you are gonna be the most popular guy on two wheels. Schwag for beer is a fuggin’ given.

Your rig is fine, don’t touch a thing. Maybe a spritzer of air in the front tire for shits and giggles but otherwise that thing is great.

With regard to clothes, some are better than none, at least most of the time. Don’t worry about the *tighty-tight* stuff. It will make you look *dummy-dumb.*

Seat height is a matter of taste. Some people like it high, some low, but if it is hurting your balls you might consider having them removed.

Gears are a complicated issue for cycling. Two is a good round number. The next jump up would be 200. So I think for now you are okay.

The reason you are having trouble “gliding” is because of your brakes. Take them off and you will glide like crazy, trust me.

If you think you have plateaued, you need to hit the gym and start lifting. Work on your arm strength to help you grab the front tire for stopping after you remove the brakes.

You mention that the “ol’ gal” still has life in her, which is pretty sexist, but basically after another 5-10 years you can consider a bike upgrade. $25,000 and up would be my recommendation. Stern-O has twelve of them in his garage and they are immaculate.

Basically, speed is about being aerodynamic. Ride in the drops more to stay aero and you’ll go faster. Maybe get a teardrop helmet if you absolutely HAVE to spend money.

You don’t need new tires, ever. That is a sales scam.

See you on the road.



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We won’t get fooled again

October 14, 2018 Comments Off on We won’t get fooled again

After yesterday’s bloodbath I went over to Team USA’s hotel to drop off a loaf of sourdough rye/wheat. I figured they can always use some good nutrition.

Daniel Holloway met me in the lobby. “Hey, man, thanks for the bread!”


“Did you do the Donut this morning?”


“Oh. How come?”

“I was, you know, destroyed and unable to walk.”

“From yesterday?”


He nodded. “Well, I’ll shoot you a text next week when we have an easy day on the schedule.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m good.”



There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again! Please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!



Tokyo Olympics, here I don’t come!

October 13, 2018 § 7 Comments

On Thursday night I was really tired, three days into my planned two weeks of rest. I was looking forward to the weekend, where I was going to do a lot of nothing and do it exceptionally well and vigorously.

Shortly before lights out I got a text from Daniel Holloway, he of the many U.S. national crit and road championships, and he of the Madison/Omnium portion of the U.S. national track team. “Ride tomorrow with the team at nine? Five hours.”

I wasn’t sure the text was meant for me, so I texted him photos of the new Big Orange 2019 cycling kit and said, “Can I wear this outfit?”

He immediately pinged back. “I don’t care what you wear. But wear your DAMN helmet.”

“Guess it wasn’t sent in error,” I concluded.

You never get in trouble for coming early except when you do

The ride started at nine so I showed up at 8:30. Everyone was sitting around a table by the pool so I pulled up a chair, realizing belatedly that I had just crashed the team pre-ride meeting. But no one said leave, so I stayed.

I got to listen to the riders talk about the team and also eavesdropped on the discussion that their coach Clay had about the concept of initiative. It was intelligent, well thought out, and perfectly articulated. I’ve never thought about teamwork and about how teams come together, not for ten seconds, ever, much less considered how you get a group of world-class, Type A athletes to work towards a common goal. Getting to listen to a world class program preparing for the Olympics, and getting a glimpse into the different theories of the psychology of success was flat out fascinating.

At the end of the meeting Gavin Hoover announced the route. “Going north,” he said, which sounded awesome because it meant a few hours on the PCH rollers and then back home.  This made sense because it was a track team and you wouldn’t exactly expect these riders to seek out the hardest climbs in the Santa Monica mountains. Throughout the team discussion the riders and Clay had been mentioning the 2 x 15’s on the menu. I knew what a 2 x 4 was and that in Japan carpenters preferred 2 x 6’s, but I had no idea what a 2 x 15 was or why anyone would get such a serious look on their face when they said it.

Someone asked Gavin about exactly where “north” they were going.

“Latigo, Mulholland, then finish on Piuma,” he said, mentioning two of the hardest climbs in the Santa Monica Mountains, and the hilliest arterial highway.

Did someone say “Olympics”?

The only reason I went is because I was invited and it is rude to turn down invitations. I had zero desire to ride with ten world class cyclists in their 20’s, and one or two “old men” in their early 30’s. Why? Because I knew my time with them would either be brief and painful, or long and painful, after which I would get dropped. And not simply dropped but dropped in a completely shattered state, beyond recovery.

To make matters worse, Daniel had introduced me to the group as a “local legend” (mostly false), and a “good rider” (total bullshit). All I could do now was fail big, and I took comfort in my extensive experience doing that at least.

Riding on PCH was an education in itself. Track racers of this caliber literally ride shoulder to shoulder. The gaps and spaces I created were small, but compared to their disciplined riding style my holes looked big enough to drive a truck through. I’m sure the hairy legs and fourteen blinking lights helped instill confidence.

I also realized that virtually all of the riders, even though they were fully dedicated for 2-3 years to the national track racing training plan and racing schedule, were also accomplished road and crit racers. Whatever happened later in the ride wasn’t going to be pretty. For me.

Those fears ebbed as we got one long flat tire change and made two pit stops on the way to Latigo. How bad could it be? The rider I was next to, Jonathan from South Carolina, asked me “How long is Latigo?”

Someone else chimed in. “About 30 minutes,” he said.

I am not a Strava/time/KOM dude, but I do remember that at the peak of his doping career Levi Leipheimer set the record at right around forty minutes.

Every Olympian an amazing story

Although this was not the full track squad, it comprised a good mix of the team pursuit riders, Madison riders, and omnium riders who were going to compete in two weeks’ time at the World Cup races in Toronto. In short, they were peaking, and this was a big race simply because the selection process for Tokyo puts a lot of emphasis on World Cup results. They aren’t decisive, but good results in these big races matter. This wasn’t an early season “team building” training camp. It was a “finishing touches” or “final sharpening” camp, after which the riders would be at their best for a huge international competition.

I reflected on that, too. Riding with the A Team as it peaked for a major pre-Olympic “qualifier.” WTF was I doing here?

Sublimating that for a moment I focused on my riding partner, Jonathan. Four years ago he weighed 300 pounds and was a party-time football player, wrestler, and college kid working in an Asheville, N.C. bike shop. He took up riding, then moved to South Carolina to be near the velodrome, started racing, upgraded to Cat 1 (it’s that easy), made the national team, and decided to target the Olympics. Um, okay.

“I went all in,” he said. “Just threw the whole bowl of spaghetti on the wall and waited to see what stuck.” Apparently it was the most glutinous bowl of spaghetti since Marco Polo came back from China, because from the look of things the whole thing was still on the wall.

“Yeah,” I thought. “Just woke up and now I’m trying to make the Olympics four years later. Happens all the time.”

My other riding partner was Adrian, an accomplished road rider who raced for UHC until they folded last year, then moved on to the track. Adrian juggled a full-time professional racing schedule with … law school.

“Took seven years because I had to do it part-time,” he said. “But doing it part-time was way more affordable, so I got out without any debt.”

“Are you licensed?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I was injured and had a couple of months’ down time so I studied for the D.C. bar and passed.”

“Ah, of course,” I thought. “Just had some down time so I took a bar exam. Why not?”

The focus and caliber of the riders was as evident off the bike as it was on, and that was disconcerting as we approached the “30 minute” Latigo climb.

2 x 15 is not a cut of lumber

“You doing these with us?” Adrian asked.

“Doing what?”

“The 2 x 15’s.”

“I guess so. I’m here. What are they?”

“We ride for 15 minutes at a prescribed wattage, rest five minutes, then do it again.”

“Is that all?”

He looked at me and smiled. “Yep. That’s all.”

“I mean, that’s all the workout for the whole day?”

“For the whole day.”

“I guess I’ll try. Can I sit on your wheel?”


“What wattage will you holding?”


“Oh,” I said in a very small voice. “I guess I won’t be sitting on for long.”

We started up the climb and I couldn’t believe how easy it was. “Man,” I thought as I pressed down on the pedals, “I am crazy strong, hanging with the pros at 340 watts!”

The first five minutes breezed by, hard but totally doable. “Old Man Power,” I told myself.

The second five minutes were exponentially harder, suddenly. Adrian’s cadence had never varied, whereas I was hunkering, upshifting, downshifting, and doing all kinds of research to find the absolute best draft.

“Is my gasping fucking up your workout?” I gasped. “I can tail off if it is.”

He laughed. “You’re fine, pal.”

I wasn’t fine. In fact, the final five minutes were a gore-soaked horror show and all I was doing was sitting in. The interval was finished, and so was I. All I could think was, “OMFG, he’s going to do another one in five minutes.”

As Daniel explained to me later, “Yeah, these are hard because the first one you’re fresh and so the first five minutes are free as your heart rate is climbing; it’s really only the last seven minutes or so that are bad. But the second one starts with your heart rate already up. You get a one-minute breather and fourteen minutes of pain.”

The second one started and incredibly I hung on. The pain started immediately. I couldn’t believe I was able to hold Adrian’s wheel. I didn’t look at my watch but we were at least halfway through. The pain was unbearable and giant black octopuses were swimming in front of my head. My peripheral vision vanished, and Adrian’s rear wheel swelled up in my field of vision like a truck tire.

“That’s enough,” I thought. “I can quit now. With honor.” I sat up and looked at my watch. I had completed just sixty seconds of the interval.

From bad to worse

Their workout for the day completed, everyone was chatty and relaxed. Except me. I was silent and wasted. Mulholland was horrible beyond any words and took forever. The riders were feeling super happy and I got to witness some of the insane bike skills that make THEM different from US.

Holloway took the entire Latigo descent with one foot unclipped, throwing out his leg at 30 mph into the hairpins as if he were going to drag it.

For giggles.

Adrian did a downhill bunny hop about two feet into the air on Mulholland for no reason at all.

Except giggles.

I lizard-gripped the bars on the Rock Store descent as the group bombed it, and I knew they weren’t even bombing it.

“We’re really going up Piuma, aren’t we?” I asked Daniel.

“I think so,” he said.

At Piuma, Gavin, who looked just as fresh as when we’d rolled out of El Segundo almost four hours prior, motioned for the left-hander. At the very bottom of the climb, before it was even a climb, I came off. “Don’t wait for me,” I told Daniel. “I know the way home.”

The first part of that was superfluous, of course.

The group vanished, I flipped a u-turn and got to PCH via Malibu Canyon Road. At Cross Creek I called my wife. I could barely stand. “Can you pick me up at CotKU in an hour?” I begged.

“Sure!” she said. “Hard day?”

I mumbled, put my head down, and pushed the pedals homeward.



An unforgettably horrible day with Team USA! Please consider subscribing … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!


Empty chair

October 7, 2018 Comments Off on Empty chair

Cyclists are the ultimate flakes. They are the absolute world’s best at not showing up. We’ve all been there: Ride scheduled, blood oaths sworn, times reconfirmed, and … no one shows.

You curse. You howl. You lie to yourself that they’ll come in “five more minutes.” But they never do. How could they do this to you? Easy: Their bed is cozier than your ride.

This kind of flakery doesn’t happen by chance. It takes practice. Lots of practice. If you are getting started in cycling, here are some of the tell-tale signs alerting you that the speaker is absolutely, certainly, put-your-money-on-it going to flake:

  1. “I’ll be there for sure.”
  2. “If I can’t make it I’ll text you the night before.”
  3. “Sounds like a hard ride. I can’t wait.”
  4. “Can you set up the ride?”
  5. “Really looking forward to riding with you.”
  6. “That’s early but should be no problem.”
  7. “I get up every day at 4:30 anyway.”
  8. “I like riding early so I can get the ride out of the way and still have the day left to do other stuff.”
  9. “I prefer riding in small groups.”
  10. “I’m totally down for a chill convo ride.”



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Love bicycle, bicycle love

October 6, 2018 § 1 Comment

We had our Big Day 2018 two weeks ago. It was a hard, fun ride and blah blah blah.

Afterwards several of the riders went out of their way to say “Thanks!” to Yasuko for doing the hand-ups and spending all day supporting the ride, a day that began for her at 3:00 AM.

One friend gave her a mug and a whopping gift card from our beloved Dogtown Coffee in Santa Monica.

Another friend dropped some cash anonymously on the passenger seat of her car.

A thankful rider gave her a lovely bouquet, while a different rider gave her a beautiful orchid and a Starbucks gift card. One rider said “thanks” by picking up her post-ride tab at Rockefeller’s.

A fantastic video and a day spent taking, then sharing great photos was how one rider said thanks, and three others formed a combine and added a coffee card to Yasuko’s haul.

But what really made the difference was that every single rider said thank-you with warmth and appreciation and sincerity. That is what makes what could have been a chore into something special. Gratitude and appreciation aren’t measured by money but by warmth, human warmth.

One more thing …

As if all that weren’t enough, two of the crew came by yesterday. They brought a pair of Japanese sushi trays that they had painted by hand and adorned with the kanji for “Love” and “Bicycle.”

It made me think about doing things by hand, and about how when you give someone a gift that you made, you take a risk. It made me think that you don’t have to be Picasso to make art. It made me think that when art is personalized, like this was, and transformed into a gift, the object takes on perfect beauty, shared by the artist and you.



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Other people’s windows

October 3, 2018 § 6 Comments

I’m staying in a downstairs bedroom off the main house. There is a window that looks out onto the yard. While eating lunch a giant golden retriever bounded through the open sliding glass door, put his paws on the table and begged for a slice of bacon. I gave him some and petted his head.

He begged some more then left. I shut the screen and looked again, out of these windows that weren’t mine.

Song remains the same

I went downtown to get a cup of coffee. A very nice young woman with garish makeup and a kindly smile took my order. Her eye makeup trailed out from the edges of her eyes up onto her temples.

“Are you from here?” I asked.

“Yep!” She had the confidence of knowing where she was from.

“The town was pretty packed this weekend.”

“Every weekend,” she said.

“Filled with us tourists.”

She worked carefully on my coffee, thinking for a minute. “Yes. But it’s okay.”

“It is?”

“Can’t be helped. The money comes up here from down there.” She thumbed towards San Francisco. “It’s a big, rolling wave of money that drowns everything.” She shrugged. “Can’t be helped.”

Tattoos and all

I stopped in at a place that had a sandwich board out front. “New Bike Shop,” it said.

The owner was working on a kid’s bike, greasing the bottom bracket. “How’s it going?” I said.

He didn’t look up because he had looked up before I entered. He had a long, wild beard and ink, well, everywhere. “Good. You?”

“Good. Cool shop.”

He still didn’t look up. “Thanks.”

“How long have you been open?”

“Year and a half.” The bottom bracket was done and he leaned back. “But I’m not from here. Takes time. Have a look around.”

It was as much a personal bike stuff collection as a bike shop, filled with things that he cared about whether or not they would ever sell. It was miles, light years from a “concept store.” It felt bicycle, through and through and through. This was what happened when people were allowed to carve out a little space.

I thought about that big, rolling wave, bought a t-shirt, and left.



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