Candid camera

October 4, 2018 § 3 Comments

Sometimes, just when you think the world is really messed up, something happens that makes you realize it’s waaaaay worse than you thought.

Normally, stories about secret bathroom videos don’t come through my inbox, but this one did because it concerned the Starbucks for the Rich and Obscure Overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Golden Cove Shopping Center, otherwise known as Hangout for Marginally Employed Cyclists.

As the buddy who sent me the link said, “Is my wiener going to be on YouTube now? Cuz I use that bathroom ALL THE TIME.”

I think most of us male cyclists using that bathroom are safe unless the camera had a macro zoom, but it made me wonder what the deal is with potty photos. It is not our most graceful series of yoga poses, Dangling Man, Squatting Frau.


At 4:45 AM I was headed home to Los Angeles, hoping I had left early enough to miss the inbound snarl towards San Francisco and Oakland. The driving was easy, and shortly after six I was approaching Livermore.

Rather than the easy Starbucks fix I got off the freeway, drove on surface streets and wound up at the downtown, dark, and empty as an old beer can. Only the coffee shop was lit.

Raindrops fell, sending off the fresh rain smell of ozone. I pushed open the door, which had a bicycle next to it. Inside was a bicyclist eagerly chatting with the proprietor. Only bicyclists chat eagerly at 6:00 AM.

The owner was cheerful. “Bad news! Cash only and the Internet is down!”

“No worries,” I said, glad that I’d stowed a twenty. “I think I can make it through my first cup of coffee without Wi-Fi. Maybe. Is this your place?”

“Yes,” he said with pride.

“What makes a man open a coffee shop in downtown Livermore?”

“A horrible job as a production engineer, that’s what.”

“How long have you been open?”

“Three years.”

“Going well?”

“It’s great. Except for the Internet and card reader that don’t work today.”

“It’s nice running your own show, huh?”

“Yeah. I got sick of working for a bunch of idiots who told me to do idiotic things that made no sense at all.”

“And now?”

“I get to make all the idiotic decisions! Right, Sarah?” He looked at the barista, who grinned as she pulled a great shot of espresso.

The coffee and donut revitalized me, especially in the lower g.i. tract, so I hustled off to the bathroom without a care, confident that whatever happened in Livermore would remain there.



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Look up

August 3, 2018 § 10 Comments

The Turdy France came and went, and for the first time in decades I didn’t follow it, care about it, or even know who had won until a couple of days after. My sole TdF awareness was courtesy of a friend who texted to say that “Today’s stage was like when the bridesmaid coldcocks the bride, grabs the flowers and ring, smooches the groom and says ‘I do!'”

I went over to CyclingNews and saw that the bridesmaid had indeed made a run at the altar, head down and shoulders squared.

That was pretty much it until last Saturday, when I, Damir and Dutchman Georg were rolling out of Vienna, and Damir said, “The Englishman named G-something is gonna win.” It mattered not at all, at least to me. I’ve made my peace with drugged up entertainment. Some people like it and need it, and that’s okay with me.

Keep your eye on what they want you to keep it on

What’s not okay with me is the way that the TdF, pro sports, the news media, and the streets of Vienna, or any other city, keep your eyes fastened on what’s in front of you. Here you are walking down some of the most beautiful streets on earth and your eye can’t help but focus on the marquis for Rolex or the imposing sign that says Ritz-Carlton.

The Tour does the same thing, of course. It tricks you into looking at what’s in front of you on the computer or television screen, because what’s in front of you is advertising, and what’s behind advertising is the global corporate monolith. You need to look straight ahead in order to keep consuming, which is why the designs are so Facebooky appealing and the colors so innately attractive.

Tilt your neck

One of the last days in Vienna I was returning my wife’s rental bike and had to walk along a bridge over the Donau. Off to my right was an imposing skyscraper with a design that can only be described as fantastic. I snapshotted it and posted it the next day on Instagram, and a follower, an architect, immediately posted the name of the woman who had designed it.

The beauty of the building, and the speed with which the person who really knew what she was looking at identified the architect, struck me hard because Vienna is filled with amazing architecture, but the buildings are whored up with so much signage and storefront modifications that you only appreciate the dangling brand names, never the facades they hang upon.

On my last few days I walked around the city looking up, with each glance realizing how little I knew about the buildings that made up the city. They were clearly from different eras, some built after the war to fill in a gaping hole caused by aerial bombardment, others built in the 1700’s to house nobility, others built two centuries ago as tenements for those who lived outside the city’s fortifications. The more I looked, the more I pondered how ignorant I was, and the more amazed I became at having seen so little in such a long stretch of time. This is the kind of missed picture that people who don’t birdwatch never get to see when they stroll along the beach at Redondo, oblivious to the amazing variety of bird life right in front of their noses.

It’s the same oblivion that we experience when we focus our energies on the Doper of the Day rather than the extraordinary people pedaling bikes around us. After a few days of staring at buildings, my neck got really sore and I went into my favorite bookstore, Thalia, to find something that would be in front of my face but not mass media pablum designed to sell me something I don’t want, don’t need, and can’t use.

And man, did I find it.



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Window seat neighbor

August 2, 2018 § 6 Comments

It is really easy to get to know a whoooooole lot about people on airplanes. You only need to ask them two questions:

  1. Where are you coming from?
  2. What did you do there?

If the flight is mostly filled with outbound fliers, you can modify it to:

  1. Where are you going?
  2. What will you do there?

You can enhance your conversational potential by hanging out at the aft toilets. On long flights bored people or fliers wanting to stretch their legs will hang out there too, and they are usually eager to chat. The downside is that if it’s an especially active lavatory you get that constant smell of chemical disinfectant mixed in with the organic infectant.

A few misses

The first guy I spoke with was very sour. “Where are you coming from?”


“What did you do there?”

“Saw some old friends.”

“Russians?” The dude was from San Diego it turned out.

“Brits. Some guys I worked with in finance a long time ago.”

“What’s Moscow like? I’ve never been.”

“New York. It’s exactly like New York.”

“Wow. In what way?”

He looked at me contemptibly. “Every way. Tall buildings, lots of people, good restaurants.”

“I guess everyone there speaks English, too?”

“Of course. English is the world’s language. Didn’t you know that?”

“I’m starting to get that impression.”

“I mean, where are you coming from?”


“You got around fine there, didn’t you?”


He shook his head in disgust.”That’s because everyone speaks English.”

“Oh,” I said.

Movie star

I went back to my seat. The guy against the window was asleep. After a long time he woke up.

“Where are you coming from?” I asked.


“What were you doing there?”

“Shooting a movie.”

“Wow. What kind of movie?”


I looked at him. He was a big dude and in good shape, but really old. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Pays the bills.”

“How’d you get into that line of work?”

He sighed and I got ready for the story he’d told a million times. “I used to play pro football, with the Raiders and the Chiefs. My nickname’s ‘the Hammer.'” He held up his giant hand with its twisted fingers. “You know what that is?”

“A diamond ring?”

“Yeah, from Super Bowl I.”

“And now you’re an actor?”

“Have been for fifty years.”

“That must have been hard transitioning from the NFL to Hollywood.”

“Only three people have ever done it. Me, OJ, and Jim Brown. And I’m still at it.”

“Do you have a particular kind of role you play?”

“Yes. Talk a little, shoot a lot, drag the bad guys off to jail.”

“Sounds pretty straightforward.”

“It is.”

“You look like you’re in pretty good shape.”

“I’m a martial arts guy. I studied with Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. That’s what I’m known for in the action movies I do. Martial arts.”

“Do people ever come up to you and ask you about your sports career? Or your acting career?”

“Every twenty minutes.”

“Have you ever had to use your martial arts on a fan?”

“No. Martial arts aren’t for fighting. They’re for avoiding fights. De-escalation.”


“Yeah, really. I look at some dude who wants to take me on and I say ‘You’re gonna hurt me, and I’m gonna hurt you, so why don’t we knock off with the hurting and have a beer? They see you mean it, and it’s over.”

We talked for a long time. It was fascinating hearing about his career. I hesitated for a minute, wondering if I should ask to take his photo. “Nah,” I concluded. “Too predictable.”

Before we got off the plane I asked him his name.

“Fred Williamson,” he said.

“It was great talking to you.”

“I enjoyed it,” he said, and sounded sincere.


Pretty lady

July 31, 2018 § 10 Comments

You can admit it. When you travel you are always looking at the bikes. And when you tourist in a country where people are biking all the time, the types of bikes you run across are endless, even though certain bikes seem to predominate in certain places. Ogling is a fact of biker travel life.

In Vienna you see Peugeot, Bianchi, Puch, and MuddyFox everywhere, being ridden, chained to bike racks and fences. When something is especially interesting I’ll stop and check it out.

Last night I was having a miserable non-dining experience at Va Piano, an Italian chain here where the kitchen line is stretched out against a wall. Each cook has a bay and you go to the bay, order your food, watch the chef prepare it, then take it yourself over to the table, hot. It shreds their labor costs because they don’t hire waiters, and it gets the food from the stove to your face more or less instantaneously.

The system had broken down last night, though. There were only two chefs for six pasta bays, and one of them was a trainee. The line was long and grumpy, The pizza bay wasn’t doing any better. After I bailed on the pasta line and migrated over there, I watched the cook pull ten burnt pizzas out of the oven.

“It’s going to be a minute,” he growled.

“No, it isn’t,” I said.

Grocery store food

Across the street was a Spar grocery store, so rather than wait another hour and spend $18 for dinner I figured I would wait zero minutes and spend $4 for a sandwich, bottle of water, and pasta salad.

As I crossed the street I checked the bikes shackled to the rack. And there she was.

An old Italian beauty with chromed fork crowns, dt shifters, and cables sticking out of the hoods. And what the hell was that? Campy NR rear der? Pretty soon I was squatting down, rubbing off the grease as a group of angry old women sat on a bench eyeing me suspiciously.

The brakes, crank, and pedal were various, but along with the vintage Campy parts the owner was even running sew-ups. I snapped a few photos.

“Excuse me?” a voice said.

I looked up and saw a tall hipster with a shoulder bag, tattoos, and forearms like thighs. “Is this yours?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“It’s gorgeous.”

“It is?” He clearly thought I was trying to steal it.

“Hell, yes. Where’d you get it?”

“My uncle gave it to me. It was his old bicycle from a long time ago.”

Funny how when people describe the 70’s as a long time ago you feel ancient. “He gave you something pretty cool.”

The guy’s suspicions hadn’t completely allayed but he’d sized me up and saw I was no bike thief, or at least not a very good one. “Yes, he told me it was a good bike.”

“Campy Nuovo Record rear derailleur, and check out the front derailleur. Totally classic. And the frame, it’s an Italian touring frame. A lot of this is original equipment.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So?”

“So it’s just beautiful, that’s all.”

“It is covered in dirt and grease,” he pointed out.

“That’s because it’s not hanging on a wall in some dude’s collection. You’re riding the shit out of it.”

“Is that bad?” He was now a little concerned.

I stood up and clapped him on the thick shoulder. “Dude,” I said, “that is exactly what this shit was born for.”



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The ten stages of Euro smoking

July 30, 2018 § 8 Comments

When you get to Austria or Slovakia or wherever, you notice that everyone smokes all the time. There are nominal nonsmoking places, for example, in your hotel room. But outside is free and free to smoke. Here are the stages of Euro smoking for an American tourister.

  1. Curiosity. “Wow, they smoke everywhere all the time. Isn’t that different?”
  2. Denial. “Smoking doesn’t really bother me all that much, actually.”
  3. Advocacy. “I actually kind of sort of a little like the smell a tiny bit maybe.”
  4. Investigation. “I wonder how many people actually smoke here and whether there’s more lung cancer?”
  5. Political correctness. “I suppose it’s not that great but this is Europe and I’m not here to impose my cultural values on people.”
  6. Indifference. “IDGAF if these fucking morons want to poison themselves and their babies.”
  7. Rage. “Quit blowing smoke in my lungs or I will kill you.”
  8. Contempt. “This is why you lost all those wars.”
  9. Resignation. “It’s their continent.”
  10. Emigration. “Thank dog I’m going home tomorrow.”



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Report card

July 29, 2018 § 8 Comments

I finished my 2-week intensive German course at the Vienna branch of the Goethe Institut on Friday. It’s hard to compare courses because I’ve never taken one before. On the whole it was really good and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to dive into German for a couple of weeks while enjoying an amazing European city.

The program has 4.5 hours a day of classroom instruction, which is a lot, by which I mean completely draining and exhausting. But the lessons are only part of the program. The other half of it, or more, are the daily events and tours arranged on your behalf. This is where you really get to put into practice all of the things you’ve been doing wrong in the classroom.

If you were to do the entire program from tip to tail, it would be a 12-hour day most days, because the events continue into the evening. As with most things in my life, I wasn’t really able to take full advantage of all that was on offer because, bike riding. It is really hard impossible to do a 7-hour beatdown, then class, then attend a Stammtisch. Oh, well.

For many of the other students you could probably replace “bike riding” with “massive consumption of alcohol.”

Goethe Institut v. Belgian Waffle Ride

The easiest way for a cyclist to understand anything is to compare it to cycling. In this case, the 50-hour course of advanced German approximated the BWR. So if you’re considering something like the Goethe Institut, here is a handy-dandy list that will let you compare, contrast, and do something else.

  1. Distance: Comparable. 50 hours of intensive German coursework with lots of grammar and 19th Century reading selections is like doing the dirt sections on the BWR … for 140 miles, backwards.
  2. Pain: Legs empty. Head throbbing. Throat dry from extreme dehydration. That’s how it feels to listen to a presentation in German on “Hydroelectric Power in the Swiss Alps.”
  3. Cost: BWR, about $150 for 8-12 hours. Goethe Institute, about $950 for approximately 120 hours.
  4. Sense of accomplishment: BWR gives you a t-shirt that says “Participant.” Goethe Institut gives you a certificate that says “Participant.” Neither organization is about to call you awesome just because you gave them money.
  5. Gewgaws: BWR gives you a bag filled with gewgaws of varying utility. Goethe Institut gives you a textbook with CD, neither of which you will ever use again.
  6. Course: BWR is a well thought out, impeccably planned route that includes a lot of pain for everyone and ultimate collapse. Goethe Institut follows a careful plan of helping you realize that mastery of German is within your grasp if you can only live to be 200.
  7. Food: BWR food is nourishing. Goethe Institut offers you coffee from a vending machine that is better than Starbucks, which isn’t saying much.
  8. Scenery: BWR scenery is fantastic even though you don’t see any of it. Goethe Institut scenery is world class and you get to see all of it plus panhandling plus as much secondhand smoke as your heart desires.
  9. Music: BWR offers pop music on the PA. Goethe Institut offers Vienna, e.g. Mozart.
  10. Comrades: BWR fellow riders are all self-flagellating nutjobs. Intensive German students are, too.
  11. Sag: BWR has frequent sag stops with pro hydration. Vienna has cappuccino every 100 steps.
  12. Comrades: BWR riders are mostly Usonian, male, white, middle-aged, and delusional. Goethe Institut students come from all over the world and are of all ages. Also delusional.
  13. Recovery: BWR, about a month of drooling and aching. Goethe Institut, no recovery required.
  14. Shame quotient: At the BWR you are only moderately ashamed of sucking because you’re alone most of the time and you can cut the course. At the Goethe Institut you are surrounded by people as you endlessly make a fool of yourself, like telling to the waiter “Pay my bill, please!” instead of asking him for the “Bill, please.”
  15. Pride quotient: BWR is “I suck but at least I did it.” Goethe Institut is “I may be a dumb American but at least I’m dumb in the local language.”
  16. Overall awesomeness: You’ll never forget either.



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July 27, 2018 § 18 Comments

Standing in the wound care aisle of the corner pharmacy trying to decide which antiseptic spray to get, which bandage is the biggest, and whether they have enough on the shelf is a pretty good indicator that your Euro bicycling vacation has taken one left turn too many.

An optimist would say, “Just another opportunity to use German in a very practical situation!”

A pessimist would say, “It’s all my fault.”

I, an optipess, would say both.

This is gonna hurt you a lot worse than it’s gonna hurt me

I walked back to the apartment where Yasuko was waiting. I hate the sight of blood, I hate cleaning wounds, I hate seeing other people in pain, and I hate having written a blog about how great she was riding only to follow it up with the recount of a pretty horrific bicycle-falling-off-incident.

I helped her clean the right elbow, which was a mass of tissue and blood, but which didn’t have any asphalt ground into it thanks to the armwarmers she’d been wearing. I shuddered with every swipe of the antiseptic towelette. She never flinched.

The giant bruise under her left eye, the swollen lip, and the contusion under her nose looked like something from a poster on how to spot domestic violence. Her right knee was shredded and took two massive bandages to cover.

“Does it hurt?” was only one of many stupid questions I’d asked so far this morning.

“No, it’s okay. It only hurt during the shower when I had to get it really clean.” She smiled brightly. “It could have been a lot worse!”

I shuddered some more. Don’t I fucking know it?

Get back on the horse

In the aftermath of the terrible fall I’d caused, we aborted our planned six-hour ride to Slovakia. “Let’s go home,” I said rather sensibly, after ascertaining that nothing was broken, as if you can actually ascertain such a thing without x-rays or a medical diagnosis.

“Okay,” she said.

We got back to the Donau bike path. “How are you?”

“I’m okay. Just sore. We can keep riding on the bike path if you want to.”

I considered the pros and cons and we kept riding. We were still both kind of in shock, her for real, and me as the bystander.

Other riders passing us stared in horror at her bloody leg and face.

We rode for a little longer. “This actually feels good to be riding,” she said.

“It can, if you’re not hurt too badly.” Then we went home.

A-level difficulty

We had left the apartment early, at 5:30, and in high spirits. It was going to be a brisk but fun adventure, and the reason behind the early departure was to beat the morning city traffic.

I don’t know exactly how fast I was going, but it was in the low 20’s. We had one short stretch, about three miles, that we had to share with the streetcars. The streetcars aren’t a problem, but the rails embedded in the concrete can be if you don’t know how to hit them at the right angle.

We had just turned onto Donaufelderstrasse and the normally busy thoroughfare was empty. The sunken rails run parallel to your wheel, and every now and again a curb will pop up, giving you about six inches between the rail trench on your left and the curb on your right. Rather than shoot that narrow gap I always cross the rail well in advance, clear the curb area, then move back over to the right edge.

The key, of course, is making sure your front wheel always crosses the rail at a sharp enough angle so that it doesn’t fall into the gap, just like railroad crossings.

I skated back and forth and at that very instant it occurred to me to turn back and say, “Honey, be sure to cross the rails at an angle like I’m doing.”

I really thought that. Those exact words. Then I thought, “No need, she’s already doing it.”

The next second I heard the horrible scrape of a rim rubbing against a rail, then the increasing dysphony of the crash, then the body thud and helmet smack, all heard, understood, and registered before she’d even stopped sliding.

What bikers say

I got her to the curb. I was shaking. A woman who saw the whole thing came running up, along with a newspaper delivery guy, also on a bike.

“Should I call the ambulance?” she asked.

“I’m okay,” Yasuko said, not possibly knowing if she was or not.

“Give us a minute,” I said.

The newspaper guy was irate. “A minute? She’s a woman! She could be dying! She’s not a guy! Call the ambulance!”

“I’m pretty sure she’s not dying,” I said as Yasuko looked over her scrapes.

The kind woman went to her car, got out a first aid kit, and helped us clean up the mess as best we could. Nothing “appeared” broken.

The newspaper guy left in disgust. “Fine way to treat a lady!” he said.

Yasuko looked at me. We were both really scared. Our eyes met, and she looked so deeply  into mine.

“How,” she asked “is my bike?”



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