Get in line!

March 8, 2016 § 22 Comments

One thing I can say about Tainan is that it’s filled with bikes. Thousands and thousands ands thousands of them, ridden by kids, parents, and grannies, parked so thickly you can barely navigate the sidewalk and filling the streets from gutter to center line.

Unfortunately, they all have motors.

The other thing I can say about Tainan is that I love it. It’s gritty, unpretentious, and like traveling back to the Japan of the 1980’s. Our hotel, a 38-story luxury monstrosity, is plopped down in the middle of town next to a train station that hasn’t had a bath in forty years.  

What’s more amazing is that all of Taiwan looks like the Utsunomiya I first experienced in 1987. The bullet train is one of the Japanese models from the 80’s but in immaculate condition. It’s exactly like the one I used to commute on, only a different color.

  
We were exhausted when we reached the Shangri-La Hotel. My pilot friend had warned me against taking China Eastern Airlines.

“Is it that bad?” I asked.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I’ve never heard of them.”

We boarded expecting an Aeroflot reject from the 90’s, but it was a brand new 777 with the only thing Mrs. WM cared about, which was clean toilets.

My neighbor, however, was displeased with the fare. He looked like the grumpy complaining type and I envisaged thirteen hours of complaints. “This airplane food is disgusting,” he snarled.

I looked at him. “Dude, what is it about the phrase ‘airplane food’ you don’t understand?” That shut him up.

Everything went great until 30 minutes before landing. “Captain not landing Shanghai Pudong International,” said the intercom. “Captain landing Shanghai Hongqiao.”

I turned to Mrs. WM. “At least they both have ‘Shanghai’ in the name.”

The plane erupted in angry Chinese chatter. “What are they saying?” asked Mrs. WM.

“‘Oh, fuck!’ and ‘The fuck you say!’ and such,” I guessed.

“You makin’ that up? I thought you was onna Chinese talking champion.”

“Come on, honey. I only been studying Chinese since September. I’m still on the chapter called ‘Can you use chopsticks?’ I haven’t gotten to ‘What the fuck do you mean we’re landing somewhere else I’m gonna miss my fucking connecting flight to Taipei.’ That’s still a few chapters away. Maybe Book 3.”

Everyone swarmed the waitress for info but she clammed up. When I got my chance she smiled sweetly. “Ground crew telling all information. Maybe free shuttle bus to Pudong.”

“How far is that?”

“Only 60 kilometer.”

“That’s not so bad. We have a five-hour layover. How long does it take to drive from Hongqiao to Pudong?”

“One and one half hour no traffic.”

“How long with traffic?”

“Seven hour.”

“We only have five.”

“Maybe you take subway.”

“How long does that take?”

“One and one half hour if you no lost. You speak little Chinese?”

“Yes.”

She rattled something off. I stared uncomprehendingly. “What she say?” asked Mrs. WM.

“I have no idea.”

“You better get onna refund for your Chinese book. You ain’t can’t Chinese for nothin’.”

The waitress saw I was clueless. “Maybe for you get lost in subway badly, three hours unless mistaken train Nanjing then overnight.”

“Are there no flights from Hongqiao to Taipei?”

“Ask ground crew,” she shrugged and continued along the aisle, thronged by angry passengers shouting questions.

We deplaned onto the tarmac into a pounding rain and couldn’t fit on the bus. A staffer held a broken umbrella over our heads as we got soaked waiting for the next one.

Inside the terminal it was madness, but at least it was dry, warm madness. We went through customs and immigration and towards the China Eastern Airlines counter. Mrs. WM saw a line forming and sprinted away in her white sandals with thick black wool socks dragging a giant red suitcase whose wheels began smoking from the speed.

I caught up to her, breathless. “This onna good line and we’re fourth place!” She said excitedly. “Plus Chinese onna rude and pushy inna line,” she said, elbowing her way past a pair of quiet and orderly people.

“How do you you know it’s the right line?”

She shrugged. “I know I’m Japanese.”

We waited a half hour. “I’m sorry, this is wrong line, you line over there at Counter 70.” The ground staff pointed to a tiny speck on the other side of the airport.

Mrs. WM sprinted away. I got there much later. “Honey he said Counter 70. This is Counter 17.”

We argued and I lost until we got to the front after half an hour. “This is wrong line you line Counter 70.”

I was too worn out to curse for more than about five minutes. We got to Counter 70 where we were #57 in line. Each person ahead of us had a lengthy life’s story, twelve bags, and a carry-on filled with seething rage.

The staffer would furiously pound the computer, shout into a walkie-talkie, then dash away with a clipboard. She’d then return, apologize, and tell the waiting passenger and his family to take the shuttle bus at which point they’d erupt in fury. “What they saying?” asked Mrs. WM.

“‘I’m going to miss my flight!’ and ‘Who’s gonna lug these 12 bags back through the airport?’ is my guess.”

After an hour we got to the front with only one angry family ahead of us. They, too, got shuttle-bussed. “Let’s go, honey, and take the fucking shuttle bus.”

“We ain’t waitin’ onna one hour in line to go shuttle bussin’ without talkin’ onna clerk.”

“Don’t be silly. EVERY SINGLE FUCKING PERSON HAS BEEN SENT TO THE FUCKING SHUTTLE BUS FOR FUCK’S FUCKING SAKE.”

“I waited an I’m onna get my talkingsworth,” Mrs. WM insisted.

The staffer pounded the computer, shouted into the walkie-talkie, ran off with the clipboard and never came back. Those behind us went up to AngryCon 5 as we’d apparently run off the only ticket agent in Shanghai.

After ten endless minutes which is a long time to hated by a 200-person queue she returned. “Here boarding pass leave Gate 6 ten minute.”

Mrs. WM snatched them and sprinted away. The angry mob stared in awe and envy. We made the flight and got into Tapei a half hour ahead of schedule.

                
END

Let’s do the Time Warp again!

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.”

“So?”

“Taiwan is a friend of America. China is an enemy.”

“So?”

“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.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Go there, maybe. Educate yourself. Spend some of your American dollars on your American allies.”

“Whatever, dude.”

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.”

“Why Taiwan?”

“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.”

“What is?”

“Because Jimmy was right.”

END

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A tale of two Francises

February 24, 2016 § 34 Comments

The first time I did the Old Pier Ride on a December day in 2006, I got yelled at by Stern-O. My crime? Daring to be a new face contesting the sprunt on a steel Masi while wearing a wool jersey.

On my first few Donut Rides I was yelled at and pushed around, and was only able to create breathing room by riding some of the worst-behaved people off my wheel. The only way you could get people to lay off was by beating them down.

Those few short years ago road riding in LA was like it still is in many places. Cliquish, hostile, and full-to-overflowing with self-important preeners.

Nowadays LA is not that way, even though other parts of SoCal and NorCal are still rife with faux elitism. Guys like Rahsaan Bahati, Robert Efthimos, Greg Leibert, and especially Greg Seyranian have created an environment where inclusiveness is the norm. New faces like David Wells, and old ones like Gerald Iacono and Michael Norris have kept up a steady drumbeat that welcomes new faces.

Eventually the most offensive snobs relocated to faraway climes, or took to riding by themselves in tiny groups at odd hours where they come into contact with hardly anyone, or they’ve simply quit riding.

This environment has attracted a lot of people to the old group rides. The NPR now easily starts with 70 or 80 riders. There’s often shouting and sometimes a bit of jostling, but it tends to be based on actual riding behavior rather than to establish a pecking order.

One of the guys who started showing up one day was named Francis, but one look at him and you pretty much knew that:

  1. You weren’t the first person who’d thought about saying, “Lighten up, Francis.”
  2. He’d beaten up lots tougher guys than you for lots smaller infractions than that.

In a universe where bikers are the underdog and the police are the enemy, Francis was like that overgrown guy in the movie with beard stubble and a knife who shows up in the 7th Grade classroom after riding his motorcycle to school and befriends the twiggly dork getting bullied by the bad guys. Turns out that Francis was a homicide detective and beneath his tough, flinty-eyed exterior there lay a hardened, unflinching, barefisted interior.

This was amazing because suddenly when the group got pulled over by a cop responding to a call from an irate PV housewife who’d been slowed down four seconds on her way to Starbucks, instead of getting a lecture, four back-up squad cars, and tickets all ’round, Francis and the cop would have a conversation and that would be it.

It was also amazing because we now had a cop who backed us up when bad things happened. It’s a funny feeling to think that when some cager in a pickup buzzes you and flips you off and then gets it into his head to escalate the situation that he’s going to find out he’s grabbed the red-hot poker with both hands by the wrong end.

Of course, what are the chances that a hard-bitten homicide cop would even be named Francis, let alone also be a cyclist, and a good one, at that? One in several billion. So in an effort to let him know how much he was appreciated, I made an especial effort to give him as much shit as possible, which, to his credit, he always returned in rather unequal quantities.

But back to the NPR …

In tandem with the large size of the ride, the police whose jurisdiction is LAX International Airport have their own Wellness Department, which focuses on health initiatives for employees and for the broader community. After a particularly bad car-bike collision on Westchester Parkway, which abuts the airport’s runways, the officer in charge of Wellness decided to get involved.

This guy’s name is Officer Sur, and with the department’s backing he now escorts the group on Tuesdays. He drives an SUV patrol car with large magnetic signs that say “3 Feet Please!” indicating the minimum legal passing space a motorist must give a cyclist.

He assists with intersection control when we make the u-turns on the Parkway, and also helps control traffic at lights when the lights are changing and only half the peloton has made it through. Officer Sur even came to our 6:40 AM liftoff at the Manhattan Beach Pier and gave a talk about rider safety and police involvement with things like the NPR.

From the time that he has been escorting the ride, we have gotten noticeably less (as in zero) buzzing or harassment by cagers. So in addition to the lottery-like odds of having one guardian angel in the form of a homicide detective named Francis, we wound up with an even more improbable scenario: Having two policemen who ride and who look out for others on bikes.

 

So I was talking to Officer Sur after the NPR, and telling him about Francis.

“Francis?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty weird, huh? I mean, what are the chances of having a cop named Francis who’s not only involved in cycling but who’s also kind of a guardian angel?”

Officer Sur looked at me to see if I was pulling his leg. “Pretty long odds,” he said. “Because that’s my first name, too.”

officer_sur

Officer Sur giving a talk before the NPR.

END

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Just a little Observation

February 23, 2016 § 30 Comments

This is the hardest single-malt climb, aged 35 years, in the LA area. Feel free to disagree, but you will be wrong.

One of my buddies has a passion for things that don’t make sense, and he has this in common with a billion other cyclists. He texted me the other day. “What are you doing on Sunday?”

“I’m doing the hardest climb in the LA area. Single malt, aged 35 years.”

“Deer Creek?”

“Lots harder than Deer Creek.”

There was a pause because everyone knows there isn’t anything harder than Deer Creek.

“Santa Monica Mountains?”

“Yep.”

More silence. “Where?”

“In Team Helen’s back yard. And hardly any of them have ever done it.”

I could hear his jaw flex through the text. “Really, now?”

“Really.”

“So how hard is hard?”

“It’s 30 percent for .1 mile. The total climb is about fifteen minutes.”

“How would you know that? You don’t use Strava.”

“I’m just making it up. But it’s still the hardest climb and none of your boys have still ever done it and it’s still on their porch stoop.”

“I’m in,” he said.

“I knew you would be the minute I said ‘hard.'”

“Can I bring people?”

“Instead of worrying about bringing people, you should worry about bringing gears.”

“Check,” he said.

On Sunday he showed up with a cadre of climbers. Although Michael is a big boy, he climbs like crazy, and he was surrounded by tiny people who climbed even crazier. Holloway, Jeff Mayhem, Strava Jr., a couple of juniors on the Specialized Euro squad; they were all there.

We turned up Topanga from PCH and the questions came rapid-fire. “Where is it? What’s the name of the road?”

“It can’t be here! I know all these roads.”

Etc.

As we got halfway up Topanga I broke the bad news. “Boys, we’re going up Observation.”

The conversation ended as each rider contemplated his rear cog. Some had heard of it, none had done it. We turned left onto Grand View and then onto Observation, which goes down at first, which is nice, and then up, which isn’t.

A couple of guys got lost, breaking the rule of “If you don’t know the way, wait for the guy who does, even if he’s old and slow and has a leaky prostate.” We regrouped at the top, if “regroup” is what you call a bunch of broken people who aren’t ever again going to be un-broke.

Nobody said anything but they didn’t have to. When I got back home it had been memorialized as a segment called “Seth’s Hell.” Even though I was last.

END

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Yeah, but did you have fun?

February 22, 2016 § 5 Comments

“Dude,” G3’s text read. “Can you give me a ride to the church?”

“Sure,” I wrote back. “I’ll snag you at the curb in front of your house.”

Ms. WM needed the car that day, so she drove me over to G3’s in the Prius. He was standing on the curb with his bike, a set of wheels, the team tent, and his race bag, which weighed 80 lbs. and was five feet long, stocked with everything he’d need for 50 minutes of racing and six months in the wilderness and a complete bike overhaul.

“Uh, how’m I fitting my stuff in that?” he asked.

“In what?” I replied.

“Your midget Prius. There are already two people in it and a bike, and the back seats are folded down. Where am I going to sit?”

“Are you blind? In the front seat.”

“But Mrs. WM is already sitting in the front seat.”

“Are you calling her fat?”

G3 sputtered. “Dude, no one’s calling anyone ‘fat.’ That’s a tiny Prius passenger seat and a full grown adult is already sitting in it.”

“You just called my wife fat.”

“I did not!”

“You sorry turd,” I said. “She is not fat.”

“I never said she was fat!”

“She has a very narrow ass.”

“Look, Wanky, I’m sure she has a very narrow and a very firm and nice ass. There’s no dispute about that. But I have a somewhat wider ass and our two asses won’t fit in that single seat. Plus, there’s only one seat belt.”

“There you just called her fat again. And now you said she’s too fat to wear a seat belt.”

“I did not!”

“We’re going to be late  for the race.”

“My stuff won’t even fit in the back. This is crazy.”

I sighed, popped the hatch, and showed him how to surgically insert his bike atop mine, then wedge the tent along the side, then cram his massive pack on top of his full carbon rear wheel, which groaned.

Mrs. WM opened the door. “Get in. There’s plenty of room!”

G3 exhaled and squeezed in next to her. Half of his right haunch hung out of the car. “Now what?” he said. “The door won’t close.”

“If we were on the Marunouchi Line at rush hour, here’s what the little man in the uniform and white gloves would do,” I answered, gently pushing the door against his dangling buttock and then mashing it as hard as I could.

“Ouch!” he said.

“That’s just your fat being pinched,” I said. “It’ll grow back.”

We hurried over to the megachurch on PCH where the Hun and Major Bob were waiting for us in his rad Mercedes van with leather captain’s chairs. “Where’s Dr. Whaaat?” I asked.

“We’re going to get him at the usual pick-up spot,” said Major Bob.

A few minutes later we got on America’s busiest and most dangerous freeway and exited at Culver Boulevard. Crossing Culver, we prepared to re-enter the freeway. Dr. Whaaat? was standing on the entrance ramp with his bike. The only thing missing was a big piece of cardboard that said, “Full-time Employed Teacher: Broke! Dog Bless!” and a tin cup for donations.

We bundled him into the van, almost getting smeared by the whizzing traffic, and hustled off to the Rosena Ranch circuit race, which is located at the hypotenuse of the Meth Triangle that comprises Palmdale, Riverside, and San Bernardino. All the way there we plotted strategy.

“It’s simple,” said G3. “We will have eight guys and Major Bob, so we attack every lap.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“Eventually we’ll tire everyone out and then Money can hit the gas and ride off in a break. We’ll have three or maybe even four guys in the move who can either act as clogstacles so that Money escapes on the last lap, or we can activate the Team Lizard Collectors’ asphalt magnets, which will pull a few of us to the ground and impede the others while Money dashes to victory.”

It seemed like a great plan until we got to the starting line, where we were greeted by Meatballs. “Oh, fuck,” I said. “Are you 45 now?”

Meatballs grinned. “In fact, I am.”

Meatballs is kind of a bummer to race with, because he always wins. He clumbs, he sprunts, he time trails, and he attacks. Especially, he attacks. Like, over and over and over until your legs turn to mush and your eyeballs droop and your gonads swelter and you decide that today wasn’t meant to be your day anyway as he goes from being a massive meatball in your viewfinder to a tiny speck up the road to invisible to a massive meatball standing on the top step of the podium taking your gas money and case of Clif bars.

On the plus side, my coach had given me some winning advice:

  1. Don’t do anything.
  2. Rest.
  3. Sit in.
  4. Expend zero effort.
  5. Avoid the wind.
  6. Be patient.
  7. Wait.
  8. Don’t be over eager.
  9. Don’t get sucked into meaningless early attacks.
  10. Save your bullets.
  11. Conserve.
  12. Let the race unfold.
  13. Hide.
  14. Cower.
  15. Duck.
  16. Be invisible.
  17. Then, after doing 1-16, while positioned in the 15th slot or so, wait for the hard, decisive attack that is certain to come, follow it, and you’ll have made the winning split.

However, I slightly modified coach’s plan so that after the 3rd lap my race plan looked like this:

  1. Attack from the gun.
  2. Follow every move.
  3. Chase everyone.
  4. Attack again.
  5. Hit the front from the rear coming up the right-side, into the wind.
  6. Lead up every climb.
  7. Flex.
  8. Do at least a dozen max 30-second efforts.
  9. Scornfully stare at everyone.
  10. Attack some more.
  11. Then, after doing 1-10, while positioned at the very front after a futile acceleration and while exhausted and gasping for air on the hardest part of the false flat, I waited for the hard, decisive attack that was certain to come and did, tried vainly to follow it, failed to latch on, and watched the winning split go up the road.

Sure enough, Money had made the split, which was created by Meatballs, who had attacked from the back in the draft of the group before sling-shotting off to the far left side of the road, forcing chasers into the gutter, at a speed that was horrible to even think about following.

No one on Team Lizard Collectors could do anything other than check to make sure their asphalt magnets hadn’t been switched on by mistake and pray for a typoon or swarm of mosquitoes carrying the Zika plague or other natural disaster that would somehow stop the breakaway. At one point in the race, TLC organized a chase, determined to bring back our team leader since it was clear there was no way he could win the sprint.

However, the chief problem with bringing him back so that we could counter and get another breakaway going with perhaps a better composition, was that he was going a lot faster than we were and in order to catch him we’d have to go faster than he was going, which proved difficult since, as mentioned earlier, he was going faster, and as it turned out, a lot faster, really an extra super whole lot faster.

Another problem was that even though Money isn’t known for sprunting, the rest of TLC isn’t known for winning, and even if we had been able to re-shuffle the deck, it would still have included Meatballs (unbeatable) and Fireman (unbeatable by anyone except Meatballs). So instead we attacked each other, with Dr. Whaaat? rocketing away and finishing a glorious ninth.

In the end, Meatballs ground up the breakaway into little pieces of gristle and shit by accelerating every time out of the u-turn, crushing it up the climb, then shattering the group into a few manageable morsels of charred flesh at the very end and handily winning the sprunt.

Back in the van we all hung our heads, cursed our fate, and yelled at each other.

“Douchebag!”

“Asshole!”

“Sandbagger!”

“Republican!”

Finally, as we were about to all get kicked out of the van by Major Bob and be forced to walk the seventy miles home, Surfer Dan from Team La Grunge stuck his head in the side door.

“How was the race?” he inquired with his trademark smile.

As we all scrambled to get in our version of how our teammates had ruined it for us, he held up his hand. “Guys,” he said. “Did you have fun?”

We looked at each other and released our fingers from each other’s throats. Because in fact, yes, we did.

END

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Maybe you do, maybe you don’t

February 20, 2016 § 25 Comments

Not everyone has this problem.

It’s 6:00 PM on a Friday night. I’m alone. The one thing I’d really like to do right now is have a drink. This is different from people who just want to “have a drink.” When I say “have a drink” what I mean is “Have a whole bunch of drinks, tonight, tomorrow, and every day henceforth until blotto forever.”

There are a bunch of reasons not to do that. But you know what’s more important than reasons not to do it? People.

There are people who, wittingly or not, are my guides. Some are people I barely even know and watch from a distance, awestruck. One is a guy named David Wells. He’s from the East Coast, and showed up one day in the South Bay full of good cheer.

He did the local rides, established himself as someone who knew how to pedal a bike, got fitter week by week, and then joined Team Lizard Collectors. We all figured that the way he rode, he’d be ripping up the local races as soon as January rolled around.

But he didn’t. Instead, he took a scary level of fitness and shared it. He created a ride called “Thursday Night Thunder” where people of any ability level can get help learning the skills that we leaky prostate profamateurs have had for decades and done a lousy job of teaching.

At TNT you can practice descending, jumps, attacks, recovery, tough intervals, and friendly competition all done with kindness, encouragement, instruction, and enthusiasm. If you are riding with Dave and you’re not having fun then you’re doing it wrong.

There are so many club riders who want to improve but who don’t want to do it in the race crucible, or who don’t want to risk life and limb to learn how to maneuver in a group, and there are so few expert riders who will regularly carve out time to nurture, teach, encourage, improve, and enthuse.

What does Dave’s brand of human excellence and goodness have to do with Friday night and nothing between me and the refrigerated shelves at the supermarket around the corner?

As it turns out, everything.

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Not the cutest escort I’ve ever had, but it’ll do

February 13, 2016 § 25 Comments

There are a lot of people who refuse to ride the Tuesday/Thursday NPR here in LA because it’s dangerous. I can’t say whether they’re right or not, but there have been some pretty gnarly falls, most recently when a cager rear-ended a rider who was changing lanes.

Even when it was the Old Pier Ride, or OPR, it had a fair number of falls. I remember one in which some UCLA wanker took out about thirty-eleven riders.

The worst trait of the NPR, though, has been the habit of a handful or riders to run the red lights on Westchester Parkway. Although that had nothing to do with the recent car-bike collision, the tendency of one or two riders to bust through the lights meant that sooner or later someone was going to get hit by car-on-green-pegging-bike-on-red.

Although I was never the worst offender, for years I treated the signals as suggestions rather than imperatives. If there were no cars I kept smashing, especially in a breakaway where there were only two or three other riders anyway.

To her credit, Suzanne Sonye never tired of calling out the red-light runners, even when it got her a lot of unpleasant blowback. Eventually I had to concede that she was right, and began stopping at all the red lights. The most notorious red-light runner no longer rides, and so these days the NPR follows two basic rules.

  1. Stop at the red lights.
  2. Wait for traffic to clear before making the u-turn to do the next half-lap.

It’s a much better ride as a result. We have Suze to thank for it and now the really good riders who show up stop at all the lights, so the rest of us hackers have no excuse not to do so as well. It’s an example of how a group with major scofflaw elements can be tamed.

Then one Monday a couple of weeks ago an LAX cop showed up at Helen’s Cycles in Manhattan Beach. The cop spoke with the manager, long-time NPR rider Daniel Bonfim, and asked a bunch of questions about the group.

The next day, when the group left the alley and got on Vista del Mar, they were surprised to see this.

npr_police_escort

npr_police_escort2

npr_police_escort3

 

Incredibly, the cop had shown up to escort the group, and along with his flashers he had tacked a giant 3-Feet-Please sign on the rear and right side of the patrol car. The effect on the morning traffic was amazing. Rather than having angry and impatient commuters buzzing the group within inches, people gave a wide berth and passed slowly. And (surprise) no one even thought about running a red light.

The cop has shown up each Tuesday and Thursday, and may be well on his way to becoming a permanent assignment. Of course, his presence hasn’t been without issue. This past Tuesday he stopped while approaching an intersection to give us safe passage, but there was a parked truck on the right that created a narrow bottleneck. Much yelling and brake-grabbing ensued, as you’d expect from a gang of wankers, but no one went down or even got bumped.

There are a couple of other things, such as having the cop car go ahead of us and clear the turnaround rather than hanging at the back when we turn. It’s only a matter of communication, though. The cop is friendly, rumor has it that he’s a tri-dork, and he is following the attacks and accelerations with the interest of a spectator as well as an official, i.e. he appears to know what’s going on.

Of course some people don’t like the po-po no matter what they’re up to. I’m not one of them. Hats off to the LAX police, to Helen’s Cycles for coordinating with them, and thanks for giving us protection rather than giving us tickets.

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