Sunday, September 25, 2016

Should You Tip Uber Drivers?


Are you supposed to tip your Uber driver?  There is no simple answer.  You can go read five different articles on this, like I did, and come away confused.  Or you can read this post, which arrives at a specific conclusion, and includes some discussion of the culturally tricky practice of tipping in general.

Our tale begins

I used Uber for the first time recently.  I was traveling on business and needed to get to the airport in a foreign city, and had been burned by the usurious cab fare three times already.  (In those cases I’d priced Uber, and noted that it was cheaper, but chickened out.)  Coached by some colleagues, I downloaded the Uber app and ordered the car without a hitch, and even found my driver, among a row of them waiting for passengers (despite the make, model, and license plate of his car not matching what the app foretold).  The only problem was, I forgot to ask my colleagues about tipping.  So I spent the ride to the airport researching this matter on my phone, and though I got pretty carsick I never did get a definitive answer.  I ultimately decided to give the guy a few bucks, and he seemed very pleasantly surprised.  (“Oh!” he said with a start.  Either he was truly taken aback, or a great actor.)

When I got home, the matter came up again as I did my expense report.  Would my company approve this tip, as a separate line item?  Or would this raise a flag, kicking off some bureaucratic process and wasting everybody’s time?  Now the question wasn’t just “what should I do?” but “what is typical?”

The confusion

During that first Uber ride, the articles I read were non-definitive.  The first Google response (i.e., big text instead of just a link) said, “While tipping your driver is not required, it is not against Uber policy for the driver to accept cash tips.”  Okay, so I won’t be in trouble if I tip, but I still don’t know if saving my money makes me a dick.  A San Jose Mercury News article suggests that the drivers, not society, are behind this tip movement:  “When it comes to tipping, some Uber drivers have started to take matters into their own hands.”  It quotes the Uber website as saying, “You don’t need cash when you ride with Uber. Once you arrive at your destination, your fare is automatically charged to your credit card on file—there’s no need to tip.” The article goes on to quote a driver who threatens to give riders one-star reviews if they don’t tip:  “Giving one star is the only recourse I have.  That ensures they’ll never get in my car again.”   This article had me leaning toward not tipping, on the basis that greedy drivers were holding us hostage.

But my next Google result, an article on the CBS news website, quoted an etiquette consultant:  “The apps are designed for us to evolve to a cashless society; however, that doesn't mean we [have to] become heartless in the process.”  That is, the issue isn’t necessarily Uber’s to decide.  Indeed, two lawsuits filed by drivers led to a settlement compelling Uber to modify its policy, so that—while they still refuse to enable tipping on their app—they now also say, “You can tip if you want to reward good service, however, and drivers can accept.”

Past news stories aside, here’s what Uber’s website says about tipping as of today.  First, when I started to type my inquiry, the website autofilled what I suspected I was asking about:

Okay, I thought, so they call drivers “couriers” for some reason.  So I clicked that and got this answer:

In  case the snapshot above isn’t totally legible, it says, “While Uber does not require eaters to offer a cash tip, you are welcome to do so.”  Eaters?  WTF!?  Is this just a little glitch, indicating that Uber didn’t exactly slave over this verbiage?  Or are they referring to their UberEATS app?  If it’s the latter, I’m more confused than ever, because they’ve answered the question of tipping a food delivery driver, but not a standard Uber driver.  Meanwhile, a passenger consulting the Uber website could be excused for interpreting the answer as, “You can tip if you eat in the car.” 

As it turns out, the website does address tipping of drivers but only if you ask the specific question, “Can I tip my driver with the app.”  To this it responds, “Uber is a cashless experience. Tipping is voluntary. Tips are not included in the fare, nor are they expected or required.”  This is better, but Uber still doesn’t tell you what you ought to do, but only what you’re allowed to do. (And technically, we’re allowed to stiff waiters and cabbies.)

By the way, searching the Uber website on “Should I tip” produces the same autofill result over and over, as though Uber were trying to dodge the question:

With this search, there is no link to any other question.  In other words, you cannot actually ask Uber if you should tip.

The article that finally settled the matter for me was in the Boston Globe, which stated, “Uber, facing a chorus of criticism from its drivers for refusing to add a tipping function to its app, is mustering a provocative argument:  Tipping is inherently unfair because of customers’ unconscious racial biases.”  Uber, the article says, cited two studies, one which concluded that “consumers of both races discriminate against black service providers by tipping them less than white service providers,” and the other finding that “statistical oddities” abound with tipping, such as “larger fares that ended in the digits 0 or 5, such as $40 or $55, earned cabbies far smaller tips, on average, than similar fares that happened to end in other digits.”  The Uber spokesman explained their position as being that accepting tips would result in “a discriminatory system in which two drivers who perform the same work could receive substantially different wages.”

Well, how convenient!  An Uber customer who is naturally, instinctively loathe to part with his money how has a big, bright, lofty ethical and philosophical excuse not to tip.  “Yeah, I could give this guy a few bucks, but I’d be part of the problem!  I’d be an enabler, spreading discrimination through my supposed largesse!  If I give this driver extra money, I’m feeding into a racist system!” and blah, blah, blah.  This entire line of reasoning left a bad taste in my mouth.

(A Bloomberg columnist equates tipping on Uber with empowering a nefarious social movement to deprive us of our God-given right to convenience:  “Although my driver was fine and I’m generally a good tipper, I resisted the instinct to comply. He got a five-star rating but nothing further — not because I’d begrudge him the extra money, but because the only way to preserve the frictionless Uber experience is for riders to defy the social pressure to tip.”  Just in case you were tempted to side with the guy who’s trying to make a living, she continues, “Everybody seems more concerned with helping drivers cheat on their taxes by collecting unreported cash than with preserving the frictionless arrival that makes Uber so pleasant.”  Convenience-addicted, faux-idealistic cheapskates of the world, unite!)

The problem I have with the “discriminatory system” argument—beyond its giving people a way to lie to themselves about being cheap—is that it fails to address the reality that all tipping is prone to discrimination, as is giving one candidate a job versus another, or marrying one person and not another, and so forth.  By this “enabler” logic, we should stop tipping everybody until all injustice in the tipping world is corrected.  But of course that’s absurd; we all participate in the reality of life’s unfairness every day of our lives.  In a perfect world, perhaps we’d tip the undocumented immigrant laborers who keep the cost of our food so low.  I don’t think the best solution is to stiff anybody or everybody in the service sector.  An unfair tip is still more than nothing.

Myself, I plan to tip Uber drivers going forward, just like cabbies.  Will I give the Uber driver extra money because he bothered to pick up a newbie like me, with so few rides feeding my Uber rating?  No, I can’t be bothered with such minutiae.  But this does raise a larger question.

How much should we be tipping?

The etiquette expert whom CBS consulted recommends that we tip Uber drivers 20% of the cost of the ride.  That strikes me as pretty generous, especially as it comes right on the heels of not tipping at all.  I don’t want to expose myself to the wrath of Internet trolls, so I won’t say how much I generally tip cabbies, but it’s a lot less than 20%, especially when I’m traveling on business and don’t want to get in trouble for being too generous with my employer’s money.

You know who I think make far too much money in tips?  Bartenders.  I always tip a buck a drink.  That works out to about 15-20% because I only drink beer.  But should bartenders be tipped like this—i.e., as much as waiters?  After all, the bartender only has to walk about ten feet back and forth to the tap, and spends like 30 seconds filling my glass.  That’s a lot easier than the waiter helping me decide what to order, and making separate trips for the drinks, appetizers, entrees, and dessert, plus extra visits to check in and fill my water.  Yeah, the total tab is higher, but it comes after like half an hour of service.  Bartenders are getting tipped every few minutes.

And if we’re going to worry about unconscious motivations for tipping more, think of how public a gesture tipping is at a bar.  You’re not just writing something on your credit card receipt; you’re dropping cash in plain sight.  I’ve noticed that when I’m drinking with friends, the tip is always a buck a beer—but when I’m drinking with associates, or new friends, or friends of friends, it’s often two bucks.  Nobody wants to look cheap.

On the flip side, I think hotel maids are badly under-tipped.  TripAdvisor suggests tipping “$2-3 per night up to $5” and Lizzie Post in Travel And Leisure magazine says, “a couple dollars a day” regardless of the price of the hotel, on the grounds that “if you’re cleaning a hotel room, you’re cleaning a hotel room.”  This is a serious departure from restaurants and bars where, if you order expensive food and booze, the 15-20% rule automatically increases the tip even though the job wasn’t any harder.  And cleaning a room is much harder than serving food or drinks, and not much of a stepping stone to anything.  Society needs to rethink how we tip hotel housekeeping staff.

Whom shouldn’t we be tipping?

My wife and I disagree on whether you tip a hotel concierge for recommending a restaurant.  She thinks that’s the point of his offer, and one of the hazards of staying at a fancy place.  I figure a good rule of thumb for tipping is this:  would I ask a friend to do this service for me, and expect that friend to happily oblige?  I wouldn’t ask a friend to drive me to the airport, or make my bed, so I tip cabbies and hotel housekeepers.  But I’d totally ask a friend for restaurant advice, so I don’t tip for this.  The concierge can silently curse me if he wants.  (Click here for what I hope isn’t too similar a declaration of tipping policy.)

The most useless service I’ve ever tipped for was at the Carnelian Room, a really high-end restaurant atop one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco.  There was a guy in the restroom handing out towels after you washed your hands.  (This was at a wedding reception, with the booze freely flowing, so I was visiting that restroom a lot.)  I strongly disliked this service.  First of all, how hard is it to grab my own towel?  Second, how reasonable is it to have to handle currency right after washing my hands, and right before going back to my meal?  Paper money is probably the filthiest thing we handle on a regular basis.  I just did a quick survey of my wallet, and the average age of a bill in there is six years.  Think of the thousands and thousands of people who have handled that money.  Is it in any way reasonable to pay a guy for compromising my hygiene?

The latest tipping conundrum I came across was at an airport restaurant.  It’s was a pretty upscale place ($22 for a burger) and every seat was equipped with a table-mounted iPad and a credit card magstripe reader.  The menu was on the iPad, as was the POS software.  It was entirely possible—and indeed the whole idea—for diners to go through their entire meal without speaking a word to anybody.  True, a human brought the food to the table, but that happens with counter service as well.  So how much should you tip an iPad app?  Unlike Uber, this app had the tipping function built right in, and it even suggested several (generous) amounts, just like Square does.  It’s easy enough to just drop a couple bucks in a jar for counter service, but would feel weird hitting the “custom” button and typing in a really meager tip.  I ended up tipping 20%, just to play it safe.  After all, if the (quasi-) waiters here are being paid below minimum wage like most waiters, they’re probably suffering financial losses based on reasonable people reasonably refusing to generously tip an iPad app.

In conclusion

Clearly, tipping is a messy social tradition.  It would be really handy if Uber drivers everywhere assured us that they’re not allowed to accept tips, and/or that it’s a societal taboo to tip them, sure to be taken as a terribly insulting gesture.  But obviously that’s not the case, and the question isn’t going to be solved by the folks at the Uber home office.  Perhaps the best thing we can do is pester Uber to include a tip button in their app, or to pay drivers a per-trip bonus linked to the star rating given by the customer.  Or just take a cab.  Or better yet, ride your bike!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Beer!


I got the idea for this post from the co-founder and CEO of Spoon University, which is a website devoted to a) educating college kids about how to “eat healthier,” and b) teaching college kids how to be online journalists. ( All Spoon content is written by students.)  The other day, the Spoon CEO said something like, “We have our most illuminating ‘moments’ when an article is shared widely, which happens when it strikes an emotional cord,” and as an example she cited a popular recent Spoon article about a beer based on Ben & Jerry’s chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream.

I want college kids to love my blog and forward my posts, so I am taking on this subject myself.  Since I’ve already been scooped, I’ll just have to do a better job with this topic better than the college kids did.  Watch me try.

The existing literature

I expected the main Spoon article to read like Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, but it was fairly down-to-earth and mostly just covered the basic facts:
  • New Belgium Brewing is making a beer “inspired by” Ben & Jerry’s chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream
  • This is the second beer New Belgium has produced on this Ben & Jerry’s theme
  • They’re donating $50,000 of the proceeds from this new beer to a nonprofit environmental organization called Protect Our Winters
When I researched the topic on mainstream news sites, I really didn’t get any more information—so these Spoon kids seem well on their way to writing like the pros.  All the stories I found read like thinly veiled press releases.  And yet, this very minor news tidbit—another new seasonal beer!—has really generated a lot of press.  How did this indifferently reported story become so popular?  My theory is that people just really, really like beer.

Case in point:  I used my smartphone to photograph a beer recently, and because I’d accidently left Location Services turned on, Google Maps asked if I wanted to share the photo with future users investigating the pizza place where I snapped the photo.  It wasn’t a great photo or anything and didn’t capture the ambience of the place, much less showcase the pizza.  It was just a photo of a glass of beer, for Beck’sting.  But I thought heck, I’ll let Google use it.  They asked for a caption.  The beer was in a glass bearing the name of the pizza place, so after deliberating for 1/100th of a second I posted the caption “Pizza and beer … am I right?”  Amazingly, this photo has had 56 views already, despite the fact that you can easily tell from the thumbnail that it’s an utterly pointless photo. 

So:  beer.  People love to think about it.  Maybe beer + ice cream is some kind of magic pairing, capturing the minds and hearts of college kids everywhere.

What can I add to the coverage?

I will go further than the available news stories on this beer by answering the following questions:
  • Does drinking this beer increase one’s sex appeal?
  • Is it a good beer?
  • Is it a gimmick? 
As luck would have it, I’m traveling on business right now in the very locale where New Belgium is test-marketing this beer.  At an airport bar I ordered it, speaking really loudly so the attractive woman next to me would be sure to hear my bold and interesting choice.  I took a sip, and then waited.  I expected the woman next to me to say, “Well … how is it?”

After a minute or so she hadn’t said anything.  Had she not heard my daring, planet-saving order?  At this point the beer was two-thirds gone so I figured I better step up my game before it was too late.  “Hi,” I said to the woman.  This utterance didn’t come out very loud for some reason.  In fact it came out as kind of a high-pitched croak.  (Chocolate-chip-cookie-dough beer is only about 6% alcohol so it wasn’t exactly liquid courage, and I’m a shy person.)  The woman just stared at me like I was her dog and had just made a mess on the carpet.  But I wasn’t about to give up.  Summoning all my verve, I said, “Airports and beer … am I right?”  At this, the woman abruptly got up and walked away, leaving half her cocktail behind.

Conclusion:  drinking this seasonal ale does not increase one’s sex appeal.

So how was the beer itself?  Well, let me preface my commentary here by saying I don’t consider myself an expert on beer.  Honestly, I bristle at the very idea of a beer expert.  I would hate for beer drinkers to end up sounding like wine aficionados, with all their fancy language.  Unfortunately, this may already be happening. 

Official reviews of the last Ben & Jerry’s-themed beer

Consider the following highlights from the amateur reviews on for last year’s New Belgium Ben & Jerry’s-themed seasonal beer, Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale.  (Each bullet is from a different reviewer.) 
  • No idea why this needed salt added
  • I can't pick up on any caramel or certainly not salt
  • There is some overly sweet caramel
  • A little bit of sweetness
  • Mostly sweet
  • Despite the name, this is not sweet
  • I was surprised at the lack of sweetness
  • Smelled fine, but the taste was sweet without much balance
  • Taste about matches the smell
  • [Smell is] a barely-there whiff of metal and vague creaminess. The taste has more going for it—heavy notes of homemade vanilla vodka, macadamia nut, and cocoa butter
  • Light brown, amber hues
  • Clear amber brown
  • Clear reddish brown
  • Chestnut/mahogany brown
  • Translucent brown
  • It's damn near black and almost completely opaque
  • Definitely tastes like a brownie
  • The beer has a strong brownie flavor
  • You could say there is a slight brownie flavor
  • Not really a caramel brownie flavor
  • Honestly, if I didn't know it was supposed to taste like salted caramel brownie ice cream, I would have thought it was just a standard brown ale 
Okay, nobody agrees on whether or not it’s salty; whether or not it’s sweet; whether or not the taste matches the smell; whether or not it tastes like a brownie. And nobody can even agree on the color. What the hell good are these beer people?

Thus emboldened by the state of the art in beer-blathering, here is my experience drinking the new flavor, Ben & Jerry’s-inspired chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ale.

My taste test

I did not start with the beer at 48 degrees, as one reviewer thoughtfully did.  This was an airport bar, remember, where all the beer is near-frigid.  But you know, had I been pouring this at home, I’m not sure what I’d have done.  On the one hand, it’s inspired by an ice cream, so perhaps it should be drunk chilled.  On the other hand, it’s kind of inspired by cookie dough, so maybe it shouldn’t be all that cold.  I would probably need to consult the brewer on this.

I did not pour it into special stemware designed for beers.  I suppose I should have asked for this, at the risk of pissing off the bartender, in order to demonstrate my sophistication to the attractive woman next to me.  But this didn’t occur to me, as I was a bit preoccupied about my upcoming flight.

I also forgot to smell the beer.  This was before I’d started researching this blog post, remember.  And I don’t know a soul who actually makes any special effort to smell his beer.  Nor do the beer drinkers I know swish it around in the glass to check the “legs” (though six reviewers mentioned “lacing,” their descriptions being variously given as “light lacing,” decent amount of lacing,” “web-like lacing,” “spotty lacing,” “no lacing,” and “some lacing”).

All of this said, I have much to report on the flavor.  My first quaff (since I’m unabashedly incapable of sipping beer) set off a major alarm in my brain, as in:


Have you ever raised a glass to your lips thinking you were drinking one thing, but it turned out to be another?  Like, you think it’s water but it ends up being lemonade?  Or you think it’s orange juice but it’s grapefruit?  And for a second you’re totally freaked out, and then your brain figures out what’s going on, and you’re greatly relieved?  Well, I had that experience with this beer, big-time.

Of course I’d expected it to taste a bit like chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream, and also like a beer.  But I was completely unprepared for the actual flavor, which was—get this—not at all that of chocolate chip cookie dough, but of fully baked chocolate chip cookies.

Look, I get it that it’s difficult to match the exact flavor of an ice cream, especially from a specific manufacturer like Ben & Jerry’s.  But New Belgium Brewing Company has a reputation to protect, and there’s no other way to say it:  they really shat the bed with this beer.  Don’t get me wrong, I was able to finish it, and actually by the end—once I’d totally recalibrated my sense of what it could be—I was able to enjoy it on its own terms.  But that initial taste probably caused me to make a really bad face, like when you drink wine that’s turned to vinegar, and that’s probably why that good-looking woman at the bar dissed me so hard.  Maybe New Belgium can fix the recipe, or at least change the label to “Nestle Toll-House Chocolate Chip Cookie” or something.


Look, it’s no fun bagging on an experimental beer, from a socially responsible, solar-powered brewery I happen to like.  And it’s especially bad when they’re doing something good for the environment with their new product.  In a way I feel like this has been an evil review, and that because of my harsh honesty, our oceans may warm up even faster, and many species may die.  But I have a responsibility to the truth here.

Which is a funny thing to say, actually, because so much of this blog post has actually been completely untrue.  Yes, you read that right:  within this essay I have flat-out lied.  That whole thing with the woman at the bar?  Pure fiction.  The fact is, I don’t buy beer at airports because it’s a fricking ripoff.  I also don’t try to get the attention of women, other than my wife (and I know that if I’m looking to win her favor, beer isn’t the way to do it—I’ll build the FLÜNDTRAÄG she brought home from IKEA).  Moreover, the new beer celebrated by Spoon University isn’t even out yet.  If New Belgium has a test market for this beer, I’m not aware of it.

But don’t worry, not everything you’ve just read is a lie.  All those conflicting review snippits were real.  And the bit about the that Spoon article being widely forwarded, and lauded by the CEO as having produced a strong emotional response?  That’s 100% true (though you’ll have to take my word for it).  And my implicit point about these novelty beers being a gimmick (though a harmless one) does smack of some kind of greater truth, doesn’t it, despite my beer tasting having been fictitious?  I mean, when you and I do get around to trying this beer, isn’t it inevitable that we’ll come to this “nice gimmick!” conclusion one way or another?

Why would I lie?

So why would I lie like that?  Look, let’s get down to brass tacks:  with the modern media, and the blogosphere, and this new era of journalism, and Reddit, and all the sharing and re-tweeting and recycling that goes on, there’s really only one measure of success:  how widely read something is.  So I decided I had to go well beyond the “moment” that the Spoon article created.  What’s the first thing you’d google after learning of the existence of a new seasonal beer?  You’d want to know if it’s any good, right?  I suddenly had this opportunity to scoop everyone, just by lying!  So I took it!  And I’m not sorry!  After all, if you’ve made it this far into my post, you must have gotten something out of it.  Maybe you smugly enjoyed the pathetic tale of me (supposedly) striking out at the bar.  Or maybe, like me, you dread the ascent of beer from a basic working man’s beverage to something snooty and epicurean, and appreciate the satire.

And if you’re now smarting from having been led on, maybe feeling a bit foolish at your own gullibility, here’s what to do:  immediately forward this article to all your friends and tell them how great it is.  When they get to this sentence—the one you’re reading right now—they’ll know they’ve been punked—by you—and they’ll go punk their friends, and all this will create a global “moment,” and make me famous!  So go on.  Do it.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

From the Archives - My First Week as a College Student


I have a kid in high school, which around this parts means I’m in earshot of a never-ending litany of worry, most of it about the near impossibility of getting into a good college (and sometimes about the near impossibility of ever getting a good job).  The latest fear is that even the second-tier, “backup” schools like UCSB are becoming too competitive for all but the very brightest students, blah blah blah.

If all of this is true, a good college is bound to be a pretty dull place by the time my daughters get there.  Nobody will know how to enjoy life, because they’ll have spent their teen years taking six AP classes per semester, studying like fiends, doing extracurriculars like cleaning public latrines “to look good on their applications,” and spending what little spare time they have worrying. 

But then I look back at my own college years and think, nah, students will never change.  When I was a teen my mom assured me that college had been much easier, and less selective, when she was a student, but I can’t imagine it.  There was nothing especially elite about my generation of students; we were your basic run-of-the-mill hedonists.  For some this took the form of partying; for others, sports; and for many, excessive sleeping.  (Yes, when I transferred to Berkeley I encountered a stronger work ethic, but we were still basically hedonists.)  And isn’t that part of the point of college?  To be hedonists for four years while earning an accreditation that will last a lifetime?

To celebrate this, and because I don’t have time to write this week, I’m posting another essay from my archives, chronicling my first week as a UCSB student.

First week of college – September 19, 1988

The line streamed up the block and disappeared into a building.

“You know, like, I’m already starting to miss people at home.  Not like my parents or anything, but you know, the people I’m close to,” said an attractive girl.

A girl with green eyeshadow said, “Like, our living room is nice, but it just isn’t that fun, you know?  Like, it’s kind of boring.”

A short guy in a Top Gun type jacket, sporting aviator sunglasses against the overcast morning glare, looked on, literally too cool to speak.  I stood by, tuning into various conversations taking place around me, trying not to look like Nipper, the RCA dog craning to hear the Victrola.

“You know, I’ve worked hard in school and I think I deserve a nicer car, you know?”

“I hate dorm food.  Let’s get Chinese for lunch.”

“I’m majoring in Psychology.  I don’t know why; maybe I’ll be a psychiatrist.”

Inside the building, I received a number, like at Baskin-Robbins.  I got number 31, and they were helping 37 … so I had 94 students ahead of me, all of us waiting to sign up for phone service.  Once through this line, we had to line up again in front of one or another card table to sign up for a long distance carrier.  Why only one rep from each phone company?  I had no idea which one to choose and a shorter line would have totally carried the day.

I made myself comfortable—as comfortable as you can be just standing there in cheap shoes on a hard floor.  Not far off, a guy was having an enthusiastic conversation with a pretty young thing about absolutely nothing.  God I envied him.  I don’t know a soul in this college town of Isla Vista, unless you count my new roommates, who have somehow talked me into getting the phone bill in my name—something my old friends in San Luis Obispo had expressly warned me not to do.

A girl in a Coors Classic t-shirt said, “You think we should ride our bikes there?  I don’t know, I might fall off.  I haven’t ridden a bike since 6th grade.”

“You know, it was like, right before the prom, and I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh my god, I have got to do something.’  So I ran to my hairdresser and said, ‘Just do something, please!’”

“You know, you should just take it easy until you’re all settled in.  Just take a minimum load, 12 units.  You’ll see.  At least, that’s what my counselor says.”

I drifted in and out of oblivion, stirring slightly to witness an MCI representative harassing a Sprint representative for making up facts, which to the best of my knowledge he had been doing.

“It used to be, like, really perm-y.  Now it’s just sort of curly, not curly-curly.”

I envisioned myself on a date with one of these girls.  “Just don’t open your mouth, and we’ll get along fine,” I imagined saying.  Then it dawned on me that the girl might do well to give me the same advice.  I stifled a shudder.  At least, I think I did.  Can you stifle a shudder?  Did anyone see?

By the time it was my turn to get a phone number, I felt as though I knew everybody in the room personally.  I held for each and every one of them the same respect reserved normally for McDonald’s associates and the operator when you dial 411.  I once again became acutely aware that I was at one of the finest learning institutions in the country, in some very sharp company.  I began to feel intimidated.  I was nowhere nearly as outgoing and poised as my fellow students.  What could I talk about?  The dramatic turn of events at the recent road cycling World Championships?  The fact that I live in La Loma, the lowest-rent building in I.V., a place so cheap that I’m among the only students there, the rest being factory workers who—based on how early in the morning I hear them revving their engines in the parking lot outside my window—must commute a great distance?

Lacking my own car cut my conversational topics in half, so considered describing some of the interesting rental cars I drove this past summer, or the ’52 Ford pickup I drove while working at a clothing factory.  As I left the building, my phone number receipt clutched firmly in my hand, I resolved to brush up on my social skills.  My worldly roommate speaks fondly of his success with the ladies, which he attributes to lying about his age.  Perhaps I shall consider this technique.

So began my first week in I.V.  When my mom and the landlord (that is, her husband, not my real landlord) came to see me off, I gave them the full tour of my quaint little apartment.  Imagine my shame when my own mom accused my happy home of being “a pit.”  Surely the thin layer of protective scum left by the previous tenants would wash right off, and the black widow hanging from the ceiling could be considered a pet.  I admit that I was initially slightly dismayed by the poor condition of the apartment, but that was before the landlord (the real one, my landlord) assured me that the previous tenants had lost their entire damage deposit.

The place did come equipped with quick-release window screens, as well as a somewhat stocked kitchen.  The refrigerator is sporting some well-aged pickles, and some organic-looking sprouts I have yet to identify.  Dried seaweed and brown rice, along with over ten varieties of ramen, comprise only a fraction of the delicacies lining the cabinets.  And the aspirin!  This place is replete!  Every cabinet in the house has its own jar, so I’ll never have to walk more than ten feet for aspirin again.  I feel baffled by my mom’s apprehensions.  I’m very excited about my new home and I can’t wait to meet all the neighbors, especially the children, who seem so energetic and vocal.  I’m sure their parent will have great stories to tell.  And I’m looking forward to chatting up the maintenance woman to find out how our apartment complex got its very own golf cart.

And yet, ever since I got here I felt that something was missing from the college life I’d expected.  I just felt kind of empty inside.  And then, on the third day, it hit me:  classes!  That’s right, a college institution as old and venerable as overpriced textbooks and frequent intoxication.  For some reason, UCSB decided to start classes on a Thursday.  Perhaps this was to give new students a chance to hit their stride, and balance all these new responsibilities:  freedom, housekeeping, hangovers, and operating the local Automated Teller Machines, which in many cases differ from what students used in their hometowns.  (Fortunately, these students will have plenty of opportunities to practice with these ATMs, and believe me, they will.)

I showed up for my first-ever college class five minutes ahead of time like a good boy, and immediately panicked because nobody else seemed to be around.  I automatically assumed that the temporary, unofficial schedule I was using (after losing my final, official schedule) was incorrect, and my college career would begin with a humiliating screw-up.  But to my surprise, the Teacher’s Aide (or whatever TA stands for, if anything) arrived with about ten seconds to spare, headed to the front of the room, sat down, and proceeded to stare blankly into space, seemingly on the brink of delirium.  The six other students who had arrived sat patiently in their seats, being careful not to slouch, and behaving perfectly, perhaps for the last time in their lives.  Looking at the TA, all I could think was, “She looks like she could use a cup of coffee.”  As if on cue she said, “I need coffee,” and left the room.  She returned a moment later sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.  Did I mention this was my Environmental Studies TA?

She had prepared well for this first class.  She delivered her lecture with the poise and polish that indicate she’s given it many times before:  “Well, it looks like almost nobody is here, so there’s no point in going into anything.  But I want to say this is a great class, and I’m sure that’s why it’s so full this quarter.  I think.”

French class didn’t go so well.  I’d tested into French 4 but wasn’t nearly up to the level of the others, and right after class the professor demoted me to French 3.  I won’t miss her.  I will, however, miss this really cute girl with a hairdo like a tumbleweed.

On the way biking home I was accosted by a gentleman who came running out into the road holding out a piece of paper.  Instinctively I grabbed it, and it turned out to be a flyer.  It seemed a local chapter of a Greek leadership society was putting on a free event designed to broaden students’ social horizons.  The event was described in a touching free-verse poem:  “It’s not that far/ And they’ve got open bar/ You won’t have to drive a car/ To go see the party czar/ The liquor king/ The master of malice/ The hero of hedonism/ It’s EVIL EDDIE!/ At the original house of fun.”  Ah, the Delta House at 6515 Pardall, a building almost as elegant as La Loma.  Apparently, the fraternity would be hosting this event as a display of its benevolent leadership in the community.  After reading a list of the activities and hospitality planned (“beverages, snacks, sex, drugs, and rock & roll”), I was disappointed at having to miss it.  Laundry Night with my roommates had already been planned and I wasn’t going to let the guys down.

Well, I should wrap up this report.  I’m about to acquaint myself with the final puzzle piece of my college experience:  studying!  This is another collegiate tradition I’m hoping to keep alive, if only in my own tiny realm.  Wish me luck!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ride Report - Mount Evans with Teenager - 14,270’ Summit!


During my Colorado vacation a week or so ago, and two days after my disastrous attempt at an epic mountain ride there, I tackled an even more ambitious effort:  biking to the summit of Mount Evans, the highest paved road in North America.  I’ve reached this summit four times before, but this time I threw in something extra:  I brought along my 14-year-old daughter.  This would certainly be the toughest ride she’d ever attempted.

Did we make the summit?  I’ve decided to thwart the rules of journalism and not tell you right away.  If you want to find out, you’re just going to have to read on, or at least skim all this text and look at the photos.  (Note:  if you don’t have the stamina to read 3,000 words on this lofty topic, whereas a 14-year-old attempted to bike up a 14,270-foot mountain under her own steam, do you think it’s time for some soul-searching?)

About Mount Evans

The road up Mount Evans is, in local parlance, “hyper-gnar-gnar.”  It climbs almost 7,000 feet from its base in Idaho Springs to a blasted summit that looks positively lunar, if there were cold winds on the moon.  According to Wikipedia, the highest temperature ever recorded on the Evans summit was 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can freeze at any time of year.  The average wind speed up there is 28 to 35 mph.  The summit is way above tree line (the point at which conditions are too harsh for trees to survive).  In fact, a 2012 tornado touched down near the summit but didn’t cause any damage because there was nothing to damage.  What was the tornado gonna do … move some fricking rocks around?  (There was once a building containing a gift shop and restaurant, but it burned down in 1979 “and was not rebuilt, but remains as a place of contemplation today.”  Here’s a jumping-off point for your contemplation:  “What the hell are you doing up here?!”)

How does Mount Evans compare to the famous peaks reached in the Tour de France?  Well, Mount Ventoux is even windier, but its summit is a paltry 6,273 feet … that is, 1,267 feet lower than the base of Mount Evans.  The Col du Galibier is the highest mountain that the Tour de France ever climbs, but at 8,678 feet it’s still a dwarf by Mount Evans standards.  The Galibier climb, by itself, lasts only 11 miles—far less than the Evans climb, which goes on for more than 28—but the Galibier taken together with the Col du Télégraphe is 21.6 miles and gains almost as much vertical as Evans.  Does this make it as hard?  Well, the Galibier is steeper, but it also features way more available oxygen.  Thus, I think Mount Evans is harder, especially for somebody only acclimated to sea level.  (Full disclosure:  I’ve raced up Mount Evans and the Col du Galibier twice each, and the worst suffering I endured was on the Galibier.  But there were extenuating circumstances.)


While I was foolhardy enough as a teen to take on pretty difficult rides (particularly this one), I didn’t attempt Mount Evans until I was 17.  Frankly, teenagers aren’t very good with logistics—at least, I wasn’t and my teenage friends weren’t, and my kids aren’t, nor are their friends.  Teens don’t think about things like the wind chill factor being 20 degrees on Mount Evans on a typical day in August.  I don’t remember what I wore in 1986 when I first did this climb but it was probably just shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. 

I well remember two things about that day.  First, when I started I was freezing my ass off while warming up—despite Idaho Springs typically being 20-25 degrees warmer than the Mount Evans summit.  (I was warming up because it was a race and could be fast from the gun; more on this in a moment.)  Second, I remember crossing the finish line and hearing this guy we called The Yeller yelling, “Get this rider into a warm van—now!”  This wasn’t special treatment, but standard operating procedure.  Somebody caught me, and another person took my bike away, and I was thrown into the back of a van—engine running and heater jacked up—with a bunch of other racers.  After lying there dazed for a dozen or two minutes, I came to and started chatting with the others, mostly about how bad that sucked, etc.  Then we were all driven down the mountain to Idaho Springs and reunited with our bicycles.

(About the race starting out fast:  the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb is a huge, prestigious event and records are kept of the fastest times up it.  There is (or at least was) a special prize for the first Junior to finish, even though—as was common in those days—we had to race with the Senior Category 3 riders.  The first couple miles are almost flat, and the normal custom of the peloton was to take that part easy and chitchat.  So it was in 1986, to the dismay of my friend John Smathers who felt he could get the new Junior record if we went out fast enough.  I remember him looking back at all us slackers, and saying, “Oh well, I guess we won’t be getting a record today.”  But he actually did, winning the race more than five minutes ahead of my teammate Peter and me, and the record John set that day, thirty years ago, still stands!)

As a 14-year-old, I was fairly reckless and thought, for example, that it was kind of cool to get stuck in a thunderstorm at way over 10,000 feet elevation and get treated for hypothermia.  As a parent, I think it would be incredibly lame to subject my 14-year-old to that sort of ordeal.  So for this trek I arranged to have my dad drive up as our sag wagon.  I also picked a day with a favorable weather forecast (and when that forecast changed for the worse, I rescheduled the ride).

There’s one more thing I did as a hedge against the ride being a nightmare:  I tried to set my daughter’s expectations appropriately.  “I never made the summit at your age—I did the race at 14 but it was only to the halfway point at Echo Lake,” I told her.  “Let’s shoot for that, and anything we make beyond it is gravy.” 

She was having none of that.  “There’s no way I’m not making the summit,” she declared. “I’d never be able to live with the failure.”  Okay, kid—but that’s your decree, not mine.  (Not that I was surprised at her position, and I’ll concede that acknowledging the existence of a summit was tantamount to entrapment.)

The ride

We got up at 5:30 a.m. to drive from Boulder to Idaho Springs and try to get on the bikes by 7; no matter what the weather forecast says, high mountains in Colorado always carry an afternoon thunderstorm risk.  We got rolling a bit after 7:30.  Here’s the “before” shot.  Of note:  I was a bit anxious and couldn’t be bothered to frame the shot very well, and Alexa’s smile seems a bit forced. 

Our second “before” shot shows that the road is open.  This is no small thing … it doesn’t open until June, and two or three times the race (typically held in July) has been canceled due to snow.  In fact, the last time I rode Evans, with my brother Bryan and my new bride in June of 1994, there were snow flurries at the top.

It was 44 degrees F when we started.  The first hour slid by, the day warming up slightly despite the increase in altitude.  At 9,000 feet the temperature was 45.5.  Alexa was in fine spirits.

Before 90 minutes had elapsed we made the 10-mile marker.  I’m curious whether the abundance of trees offset the gradual diminishment of oxygen as we climbed.

By 10,000 feet the temperature had climbed to 53 degrees.  We’d brought full-finger gloves and were too hot for them as we toiled along.

Echo Lake is at mile 14 and I dimly remembered my race finishing there in 1983.  My main recollections of that race:  a) there was one girl in our group, who deliberately dropped back when one racer called another a very vulgar and profane name, and b) I got absolutely shelled and was miserable.  The next time round (1986), when Echo Lake was our halfway point, somebody attacked here and blew the Junior/Cat 3 field to bits.  Things were a lot mellower this time around.

We stopped at the Echo Lake Lodge to use the restroom.  It’s kind of amazing how much souvenir paraphernalia is available there:  commemorative keychains, license plates, and even pocketknives with the altitude and your name engraved on them (unless your name is Alexa, which they don’t have).  Tourists are encouraged to believe they’ve really accomplished something by making it all the way up there in a car.

Here’s the sign pointing to the summit.  You can tell we’ve had a rest because our gloves are back on and Alexa has tugged her sleeves back down.  By the way, she was supposed to wear either her East Bay Velo Club jersey or her Albany High School mountain bike team jersey.  But she forgot to pack them, along with cycling socks (which we had to go buy in Boulder).  Did I mention teens aren’t good with logistics?

It was a perfect day to ride up this mountain, but not a perfect mountain to ride up because a) it’s too tall, and b) our planet is too large.  A lower mountain on a smaller planet (i.e., with less gravity) would be easier to take.  The effort began to take its toll.  My daughter isn’t exactly Mary Lou Retton to begin with (I mean, who is?) and though she didn’t become surly, her manner drifted in the direction of, say, Alf.  Fortunately, about 2 ½ hours into the journey, our sag wagon showed up.  That’s my dad behind the wheel and his friend Judy riding shotgun.

We stopped for a tasty hot beverage (tea? coffee? cocoa?—I don’t know, I didn’t have any) and fig neutrons.  I was carrying thousands of calories of Clif shots and bars in my pockets but normal food is always welcome.

Unfortunately, my dad hadn’t remembered sunscreen either, but had a large bandanna I fastened under my helmet and draped around my ears and neck like a Bedouin.  I figured I was wearing enough Lycra to avoid being misidentified by some redneck and shot on site.  You’ll sees a photo of this headgear later.

Eventually we approached the tree line.  The timber began to recede, not unlike my hairline.  (The metaphor, I now realize, is rich:  as I slowly climb the mountain of age, there’s a trend toward less of everything … less abundance, less luxuriance, less vigor, less speed, less oxygen, and—it must be said—less assurance.)  By now our conversation had totally dried up.  Was Alexa fighting an internal battle, or had her respiration crossed over the Peak Conversational Threshold?

We made a painful descent to the wrongly, cruelly name Summit Lake.  This lake is not at the summit—not even close—and the descent to it undoes some of the important climbing work you’ve done.  Moreover, from this point on, large cracks across the road transmit right through the bike painfully into your hands and butt.  These cracks don’t look like much, but everything already hurts.  Here, we’ve gone past the falsely named lake and resumed our long climb toward the actual summit.  Note the tree line, now just below us.

By now my poor kid was well and truly suffering.  Neither my wife nor I has a very high hematocrit (i.e., my last measurement was 37%, which is below-average even for a non-athlete) and Alexa has probably inherited that.  On the plus side, she seems to have inherited my ability to recover within a ride or race; we benefit hugely from just taking a breather by hiding from the wind for a bit.  This doesn’t help on Mount Evans, though.  It’s just a continuous effort for 28+ miles.  It’s hard to tell from this photo because Alexa’s form is so good, but she was dying.  Perhaps the way she’s staring at her front wheel, refusing to look ahead, is a bit of a tell.

Maybe it’s a bit more obvious in this photo.  In any case you can see my silly headgear.

I’m not a proponent of rest stops during bike rides.  I have always held that getting going again is just too hard.  On this particular ride I was especially loathe to stop because I’d twisted my ankle on a hike the day before and could barely unclip my foot from the pedal.  But of course when Alexa asked for a break I granted it immediately.  We sat down in some huge overstuffed La-Z-Boy chairs and geishas came around to give us a soothing footbath.  Wait … I’m remembering it wrong.  We actually just stood on the side of the road along the blasted landscape for a spell.

I gave Alexa a fig neutron and said, “There’s more where that came from if you’ll go with me to prom.”  Without missing a beat she replied, “I like your sleeves.”  So there was still a sense of humor lurking in that tortured soul, even if she couldn’t make herself smile for the camera.  Then it was more slogging along.

It’s scenic up there, in a blasted kind of way.

A couple of years ago, in my Everest Challenge race report, I wrote, “It’s kind of funny how I train hard for like ten weeks for this [race], and my reward is abject misery.”  So it was with Alexa:  we rode all summer with this ride as our carrot, and now here it was and it was like, “Who the hell wants to eat a carrot for four wretched hours?” (or more to the point, “Who wants to stab himself in the legs and lungs with a carrot for four hours?”).  The training, it turns out, is the fun part; the “reward” is the kind of awful suffering you just wish would be over with already.  Look at Alexa here, at another rest stop.  Man, she is pissed! 

Nah, just kidding. I was going for an artsy shot with my reflection in her sunglasses but couldn’t get the angle right.  She was very patient about this.  Since she happened to look pissed in this photo (in the American, not British, sense) I figured I’d throw it in.

Alexa got a flat tire a bit later which gave her a nice, long break and the opportunity to watch 15 or 20 Model-T Fords drive by while enjoying the spectacle of her father trying to pump up a tire with his feeble T-Rex arms.

We got higher and higher up, to where even the lichen on the rocks started to become sparse.  Did the road start to get steeper, or were our legs just running out of juice?

Oh my god, the road sign lies!  You saw that sign yourself:  14 miles from Echo Lake to the summit.  But the magic 14 mile marker came and went, and still no summit.  The actual mileage is more like 14.5, and that extra half-mile is huge.  It’s the longest half-mile on the planet.  My dad and his friend had stopped here and there along their drive but now reconnected with us and drove behind Alexa for moral support for this last bit. 

Suddenly Alexa called out, “Dad!”  I wondered if she had another flat tire.  But actually, she’d stopped to look at a marmot that was, due no doubt to utter unfamiliarity, unafraid of humans.  By the time I got there it had moved on, but she got a nice long look.  (That’s right, my daughter is never too tired out to appreciate nature.  She saw several pikas on the mountain and tried to point them out, but I’m too blinded by adulthood to notice such things.)  Here’s a photo my dad snapped a bit later on:

Alas, after the marmot stop Alexa had a really hard time continuing on.  After a couple hundred meters she needed to stop again.  How close can you get to the top without making it?  I thought I might find out:  she really didn’t seem to have enough air to start back up again.  You know, cars have to be tuned for high altitude—the carburetor or fuel injection system is adjusted to mix more air with the fuel, to offset the lack of oxygen.  Humans can tune themselves this way, but it takes 4 to 6 weeks to produce the necessary extra hemoglobin.  If you don’t have 4 to 6 weeks to hang out at altitude (or a World Tour team-issue blood bag), you just have to dig deep.  Alexa had been digging deep the whole way.  Now she was experiencing something like panic, because her brain rightly recognized that her system wasn’t getting what it needed.  Could it be that we would have to abort, a quarter mile from the summit?  I don’t think we seriously considered this.  We did some relaxation exercises and set off again.

Have you ever noticed that batteries can seem completely dead, so that your flashlight doesn’t turn on at all, but then the next day you try again and get like five seconds of weak orange light?  Well, that’s about what we got after this last break.  And it was enough, because we bloody well made it to the summit!

My dad arrived after a few minutes (traffic was a bitch near the top) and Alexa climbed into his warm car.  Here she is having some solid food and a giant mug of hot, strong cocoa.  Poor thing has obviously had the stuffing knocked out of her.

While Alexa warmed up, my dad lashed her bike to the back of his car.  When he was done, I dragged her out for a couple of photos at the summit sign, just to make it official.

Can you tell it’s a bit cold up there?  We  didn’t dally—she got back in the car and I began my descent.  As luck would have it, I happened upon a mountain goat who was cooperative enough for a sweet photo-op.  (Alexa got to see it too, from the car, a bit later.)

Alexa had been conflicted about whether to accept a ride down the mountain—after all, she’d earned that descent!—so we arranged to meet at Echo Lake so she could do the bottom half of the descent, where it’s warmer and the road isn’t like a medieval torture device.  While I waited for the others, I popped into the lodge for some souvenir stickers.

We had a nice (late) lunch in Idaho Springs:  fried chicken for me and chicken and dumplings for Alexa.  She asked for some of my potato salad and I forked over the whole serving, no questions asked.

So was the ride fun?  Well, yeah, in that strange, warped, kind of un-fun way.  One thing is beyond doubt:  it was fricking epic.  Anyone can do fun; Disneyland is “fun.”  It takes a pretty special kid to do epic.  I think as time goes on, our memory of this ride will get all the sweeter, and I’m sure Alexa has forged, in her soul, a new capacity for perseverance.  (And did she have fun?  I’m not sure ... I’ll have to wait for her ride report.)

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 Quasi-Epic Colorado Mountain Ride


If you’re looking for a report about an epic Colorado mountain ride (like this one, this one, or this one), think again:  the only thing epic about my recent ride was how badly my friend Peter and I got our asses kicked.  Just now I was recounting to my wife the stats of our 2014 effort—146 miles with over 11,000 feet of climbing, including a 12,400-foot pass—and comparing it to the paltry stats we piled up this time (less than half the distance, with a 25% lower average speed).  “What’s going on?” my wife asked.  “Menopause?”

If you hate me, and/or enjoy reality TV and/or other glaring depictions of human frailty and misery, this may be the ride report you’ve been waiting for.

Executive summary

“We got what we deserved.”

Short version

After not training properly in like a year, Pete and I went into this ride woefully unprepared, and I suffered terribly on a series of brutally steep dirt climbs.  We decided to change the route due to rainstorms, but then reversed this decision in an act of hubris.  I completely ran out of steam by the end of the longest climb, just in time for a 90-minute drenching downpour that washed away the rest of my resolve, along with my dignity, my circulation, and my humanity.  Unable and unwilling to recover from the severe chill, we cut the ride short and descended home with our tails between our legs.

Long version

I should have prepared for this ride by doing lots of long, hard road rides, with gobs of climbing, in the company of the superior athletes on my bike club.  Instead, I spent most of the last year doing short, easy rides with my young daughter while (unadvisedly) continuing to eat like a real athlete.  (At least, this is my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)

My friend Peter, a former professional road racer, prepared in pretty much the same way—he’s been riding with his son, who’s even younger than my daughter.  One day these kids will kick our butts, but for now they’re just giving us an excuse to loaf our way through rides.  (This is well worth it, of course, because these kids improve every time they ride and are achieving the gradual apotheosis from regular human to elite athlete, as opposed to their wretched fathers who are trying, mostly in vain, just to slow the ravages of age.)

In an act of craven capitulation, Pete and I set out to ride a mere 100 miles, albeit with more than 10,000 feet of climbing.  We got a late start because I’d spent the previous day in the car, returning from a road trip to Telluride, and got to bed after midnight. 

Breakfast was cheese omelet, toast, braised tomatoes, toast, cruelty-free local sausages, and toast.  (I inherit a lot of my kids’ toast.  See how this blaming thing works?)

Here is the “before” shot.  That’s my brother Max with us, who came for breakfast but wisely opted out of the ride.

My  family was staying at a lodge at the base of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder.  This meant only half a mile of warm-up before the climbing began.  Due mainly to poor fitness but also to the altitude, right away I was huffing and puffing like the Little Train That Could.  I was able to smile for this early photo because of muscle memory in my face.

Note that all that white on my face isn’t salt from dried sweat—it wasn’t that hot out.  Nor is that white beard stubble—I’m not (quite) that old.  It’s this new-fangled sunscreen that’s as viscous as toothpaste.  My family opted not to tell me I hadn’t rubbed it in well enough, because (just like you) they prefer to laugh at me behind my back.

Instead of turning and heading over to the Flagstaff “summit” (i.e., the place where the flag pole is), we went straight, to tackle the climb that locals call “Superflag.”  This is always a brutal one, but especially so this time around.  I had to weave a lot even though I was using shamefully low gearing (27-tooth rear cog plus a compact crank).  At the summit my hands were shaking too badly to snap a photo; fortunately a couple of tourists helped us out.  The treeless hump in the background left of me is Sugarloaf Mountain (just under 9,000 feet elevation) and the pale peak behind that (with the snow) is Mount Audubon (just over 13,000 feet).

We  did a nice dirt descent to Gross Reservoir. 

From here we proceeded south and west, and I lost track of geography somewhat because Peter—who is a fricking madman—had designed a route over a number of grotesquely steep dirt climbs that essentially shut down my normal brain function.  There was a lot of washboard—that is, stretches of dirt warped like corrugated steel by car tires braking or accelerating too hard—which is almost impossible to ride on; it feels like riding over the rumble strip on the edge of a highway.  The steepest sections (~16%) didn’t offer enough traction for me to ride out of the saddle, nor to take photos.  Here’s a shallower section where I could do both (though not simultaneously—duh!). 

This shit went on and on, as if designed to completely wear me down in every way.  Meanwhile, the sky darkened and threatened the kind of downpour that, though not forecast on this day, is always a possibility in these parts.

Our original route had us riding the Peak to Peak Highway north for many dozens of miles, taking us well north of Boulder over a number of serious climbs.  But we could see a big storm in that direction and really didn’t feel like getting caught out.  So we rerouted, figuring we’d tool around near Idaho Springs and Golden.  We started yet another dirt climb, toward Ely Hill, and had made some good (but hard-fought) progress before seeing the skies clearing in the distance over the Peak to Peak.  Now we had to decide if the detour was really necessary.

“Maybe it’s clearing up over there,” Pete said.  “We could play it safe and stay south, or go back and do the original ride.”  We hemmed and hawed before he said, “The ▒▒▒▒▒ thing to do would be to stay south, but the manly thing would be to head north.”  (I’ve omitted a word there because I’m not sure Pete would want to go on record having used it.)

Well, that pretty much settled it.  As I’ve explained before, it’s hard to resist choosing the harder route because it’s so easy to just point your bike in that direction and suffer the consequences later.  And so that’s what we did.  “If we get rained on, we’ll be getting what we deserve,” Pete declared.

I thought I knew right away what he meant—that we’d pay the price for the last year of slacking off and letting ourselves get so out of shape.  But he went on to tell a bike race tale that put his comment in a more specific context.  “It was the Tour of Somerville, a big box-shaped criterium where the last corner is more like a curve so you can sprint through it if you’re at the front, but it’s really dangerous if you’re mid-pack.  Kent Bostick and I led out Jamie Carney, who won.  There were all these guys sprinting for like 50th place, which caused a huge crash.  I was ahead of it, but Kent—who’d started the lead-out—was behind it, and he said to us later, ‘When I went by those [crashing] guys, I yelled, ‘You’re getting what you deserve!’”

We hit a steep dirt descent with lots of ruts, bumps, and more washboard, and it was a bit muddy from a recent rain.  Soon enough I got a rear flat.  I didn’t think I’d hit anything hard enough to get a pinch-flat, but when I practically burned myself on my rim—which was red-hot from all the braking—I wondered if my tube had melted.  (Pete was riding tubeless.)  I got that fixed, and then two minutes later got a front flat.  In case my melting-tube theory was correct, I tried to brake a lot less after that, which was a little hairy … I was glad when the descent was over.

We headed through Blackhawk, where legend has it a woman once married her motorcycle, toward Central City, a gambling mecca.  Traffic kind of sucked here, plus we had a pretty serious headwind and the longest single climb of the ride, from Central City to where Highway 119 hits Highway 46 (look at the map at the end of this post).  The average grade is only 4% and it’s only 5 miles, so it’s pretty sad how badly it kicked my ass.

Thunder rumbled all around us.  Actually, this had been happening for most of the day.  I really love thunder, but my excitement is greater when I have a house to retreat to.  On this day I was trying to forget it each time.  I wanted to ignore what it might obviously portend.

God, the climbing went on and on.  I can’t remember where all the worst bits were but I was just grinding myself down, my speed dropping along with my morale, my legs getting progressively more sluggish like I was a wind-up toy reaching the end of its spring.  I stood on the pedals, I sat back down, I kept trying to shift only to find I was already in my lowest gear … it was like a nightmare, only boring.  Pete kept accidentally dropping me (having only a 25-tooth cog to my 27).  I have no more action photos of this ride because I was no longer capable of, nor interested in, snapping photos.

I’d known full well this ride would suck—no, actually, that the ride would be fine but I would suck—but that didn’t make the reality any easier to take.  Of course this was a comeuppance for Pete and me, attempting an epic ride without actually training for it, but I’d somehow hoped muscle memory and finesse would carry the day.  Instead we got Mother Nature bitch-slapping us continuously as a warning not to trifle with her.  We were getting what we deserved.

My psyche began trending toward despondence.  I hadn’t felt this awful in the bike in almost two years.  I had no idea how many miles still lay ahead, or how many passes, or how long Pete’s patience with my especial feebleness would last.  I wondered:  could I just stop?  Obviously that wouldn’t help anything; resting just erodes the morale when it’s time to pedal again.  And my legs weren’t completely spent—the problem was psychological in that I just didn’t want to do this anymore.  Could I just pull over and say screw it?  Go on strike?  “Occupy Road Shoulder”?  The cycling equivalent of a hunger strike?  No, of course not.  How would I get home?  How would I tolerate Pete giving me shit over this for the rest of my life?  And how would I live with myself?  Cripes, we’d only gone like 45 miles!  This was shaping up to be, possibly, the most pathetic bike ride of my life.

I looked down at my legs.  Amazingly, they just kept pedaling, as though my crankset was attached to some external power source and was turning the legs rather than the other way around.  Sheer inertia was keeping them going.  My legs were just stupidly pumping away because they simply didn’t know what else to do.  And my brain?  Other than registering misery, it wasn’t doing anything.  It wasn’t in charge.  From the legs up I was just a wretched human payload.  And my arms?  They could barely hold me up.  My back was also trashed, probably from all the low-cadence in-the-saddle grinding I’d been doing on the dirt climbs.  I was pretty much screwed from head to toe.

The road, though straight, disappeared up ahead:  could be a summit, but possibly just a fake one.  I yelled up to Pete, “I’m stopping up here whether it’s the top or not.”  It ended up being the top—for now.  I even had an excuse to stop:  it was raining.  Had I noticed this already?  I can’t remember.  I put on my jacket, knowing it would be soaked through and useless within minutes, but appreciating the vague sense of doing something useful.  We started to descend, at long last.

Mother Nature wasn’t done with us, though.  The rain picked up until it was just hammering us.  My bike computer said it was 45 degrees now, but it felt a lot colder.  Maybe the raindrops were colder than that.  In fact, they felt like hail.  Each drop striking my body felt like a needle stabbing me, and my entire epidermis felt like your mouth does after a bite of too-spicy food.

Oddly, throughout this the whole experience I felt something like relief.  After worrying about being rained on for so long, I didn’t have to worry anymore—it was happening.  And at least the climbing was over for now.  I just sat on my bike, coasting, letting the rain wash over me.  And I felt this strange sense of airy spiritual lightness, deriving perhaps from the knowledge that a) things couldn’t get much worse, and yet b) this wouldn’t go on forever, and moreover c) at some point, in the next several hours, after a hot shower, I would return to a life that itself is not miserable.  This ride was not a microcosm of my overall experience in this world; for all its crushing reality this experience was an anomaly, a self-inflicted punishment for an existence that has become all too comfortable.  I am not, I reflected, a miserable person:  I’m just having a miserable time.  (And actually, looking back, it wasn’t pure misery ... it was kind of fun in a way.  I seem to have a fondness for this kind of suffering, and the memory of this ride will surely get sweeter over time.)

My hands became useless flippers due to the cold.  More accurately they were like lobster claws; I could work the brakes, and even shift the gears here and there if I really worked at it.  As we descended toward Nederland, I started to worry about another flat tire, because the road was flooding and all kinds of gravel and little stones were washing into the road.  The descent wasn’t technical so we took it pretty fast, perhaps instinctively saving some brake pad for later.

We got to the same convenience store in Nederland we always stop at.  I was hoping it’d be warm in there, but either the cashier has no control over the thermostat, or was keeping the AC jacked up to serve the dry and better insulated customers.  We filled large foam cups with hot cocoa and warmed our hands on them.  I grabbed a Hostess fruit pie (420 calories).  I gazed dreamily at the hot dog case:  not at the oily, endlessly rotating dogs but at the bun warmer below, wondering if Pete and I could pool our cash and buy the whole stock of buns, just to press them against our frigid, aching limbs.

It took a long time to pay because our hands wouldn’t work.  My arms were almost too weak to reach my jersey pockets.  Pete was just standing there shaking from head to toe … I’ve never seen him so cold.  My teeth were chattering so hard I couldn’t stop them—my jaw wouldn’t respond.  We looked at the clock:  quarter to five.  “If we freakin’ hammer down Boulder Canyon—I mean, hammer—we could be done by 5:30,” Pete said.  I stared at him.  He must be insane, I thought.  Pedaling a bicycle at all—in fact, doing anything at all—seemed almost impossible … how could I possibly hammer?

Amazingly, though the sun never came out, the rain had stopped when we stepped back outside, and as we cranked down Boulder Canyon in too low a gear—so as to spin the highest cadence we could—we started to warm up.  Eventually the blood in our legs got to circulating properly, and we actually did find ourselves hammering somewhat.  At about 5:40 p.m., our painful, humiliating ordeal finally came to an end. 

Sure, I’m managing to fake a smile in the above photo, but look at how tired and baggy and red my eyes are (red from the grit that had been sprayed into my contact lenses since the rain had made sunglasses impossible): 

And though Pete is mugging for the camera, look at his eyes … you can see the suffering there.  It cannot be hidden.

My  hot shower wasn’t as delightful as I’d hoped, because my skin just felt so thoroughly messed with and irritated, nothing could return it to normal.  Still, it was good to rinse off all that road grime:

Speaking of grime, our bikes’ drivetrains took a beating.  Check it out:  absolutely nothing left on this chain:

And Pete’s brake pads were worn to the point of near-uselessness:

Dinner #1 was a whole box of pasta with an indifferent marinara sauce from a jar.  This had no effect whatsoever on our appetites.  My stomach no more registered the three plates than had I eaten a single cracker. 

Then we limped down to the dining hall and had a beer (Odell IPA, from nearby Fort Collins), which hit the spot, along with a couple big glasses of water the bartender must have sensed we needed.

While my wife conjured up Dinner #2, I sat in bed, doing nothing other than feeling stunned by the whole ordeal.  My brother Max, who had come for dinner, looked at me aghast:  “You really don’t look so good.”  He turned to my daughter Alexa and said, “Look at him!  Look at his eyes!”  Alexa, not missing a beat, said, “Yes, he’s got that dead look in his eyes, ‘cause he’s seen so many horrors that he’s sort of immune to them.”

Dinner #2 was grass-fed beef marinara (without pasta—Pete and I had eaten it all), a cobbled-together tartiflette, and—shoot, what was the third thing?  I don’t recall, but I well remember the ice cream cone Max made.  He stuffed two flavors—dulche de leche and chocolate-chocolate-chip—in alternating layers all the way down the cone, then over the top.

I asked my wife and kids if they’d had a good day.  “Yeah, we got our toenails done!” they replied.

Stats and maps

Unfortunately, Pete is on Strava so I can’t make excuses about my bike computer getting reset, and am honor-bound to share the dismal stats of our Ride of Shame: 
  • 74.4 miles
  • 7:34:58 elapsed time (could we have spent an hour in that convenience store??)
  • 6:02:31 ride time
  • 12.3 mph average speed (!)
  • 9,918 feet cumulative elevation gain
Pretty sad, eh?  But I’ll tell you what:  age and sloth may have deprived us of speed, power, endurance, and verve, but they haven’t robbed us of character.  I think we might have actually shored that up a bit with this ride.  And one thing is for certain:  we got what we deserved.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.