Friday, July 24, 2015

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2015 Tour de France Stage 19


Introduction

Is it responsible for a journalist to cast aspersions, jump to conclusions, play favorites, and make fun of his subjects?  Of course not.  But is it okay for a journalist to keep his mouth shut and pretend everything is normal when it’s obviously not, or when “normal” has become totally warped?  Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about these questions.  I’m not a journalist.

Read on for a breezily irresponsible, brazenly irreverent, and boldly impassioned collection of sentences that follow this strange pattern of adverbs that start with “b” and modify adjectives that start with “i.”

Tour de France Stage 19:  Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire

As I join the action, there are 67 km to go.  That puts the riders about halfway up the Col de la Croix de Fer.  This is a beast of a climb, 22 km (13 miles) long at an average grade of 6.9%.  There’s a large breakaway about 3 minutes ahead of the yellow jersey group. Pierre Rolland (Team Europcar) is off ahead of the break.  Rolland was second yesterday having failed to close the gap that Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) opened up with his m4d descending sk1llz.  Third yesterday went to Winner Anacona (Movistar Team), which begs the question, “What were his parents thinking?”  How many dumb jokes did this guy have to suffer through in gym class whenever he failed to live up to his name?  (Yeah, I know, he’s Colombian, they weren’t speaking English, blah blah blah.  Don’t over-think it.)

Wow, the field is really coming apart.  It’s been a grueling Tour.  Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) is getting dropped.  At the head of the GC group, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team) is being paced by his powerful teammates.  Poor Nibali.  Every day he tries to do something, and every day it’s just pissing into the wind.

Here’s today’s course profile.  It’s probably the hardest stage of the Tour this year, with 4 categorized climbs, finishing on the Category 1 La Toussuire.


Wow!  Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) is dropped!  The GC group is down to ten guys.  Thomas current sits 4th in the GC, just 6 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).  This could shake up the GC.  Of course in this Tour, as so often happens, nothing will shake up the race for first place, and we’re left mining the leader board for interesting also-ran trivia like who gets 2nd thru 10th.

Nibali attacks!  Did that really deserve an exclamation point?  Nope.  I don’t think he expected to drop race leader Christopher Froome (Team Sky), who instantly neutralizes his “attack.”  Probably Nibali had a side bet going with somebody about whether or not he could get Froome to start breathing through his mouth.  (He couldn’t.)

Rolland’s solo move is proving clever, as Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Uran (Etixx Quick-Step) have joined him, making this a somewhat more viable breakaway.  Current KOM leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha) was in there for a bit, but now he’s going backward.  Wait, now Uran is dropping Ruben Plaza Molina (Lampre-Merida) ... where did he come from?

Rolland is 5 km from this summit.

The GC group is back up to maybe 20 guys.  Wout Poels is driving the pace for Froome.  Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team), currently 2nd on GC, has Alejandro Valverde and Jose Herrada Lopez supporting him.  Valverde is having a great tour, sitting 3rd on GC.  Valverde dopes.  Can I say that?  Of course.  I just did. The better question is, can anybody actually say he doesn’t dope?  C’mon.

Wow, Froome has something wrong with his bike!  He’s looking down at his drivetrain, clearly puzzled at all the whizzing gears and such.  He’s getting dropped!  Nibali, meanwhile, is attacking!  If anything came of this attack, he’d be compared to Contador and “chain-gate,” but of course nothing will come of this attack.  Froome could have a flat tire and break a spoke and have a derailleur cable snap and he’d still be able to haul back Nibali, or anybody else with the absurd audacity to actually try to drop him.  That’s just how he rolls.  There, he’s back up with Quintana and Contador.  Whatever his bike was doing wrong, it seems to be behaving now.

Interesting. Nibali actually has about 30 seconds on the GC group.  How cute!  He’s making it look like he might actually have a chance!

Speaking of silly notions, here’s a great headline from a couple years back:  “Froome Win ‘Has Silenced Critics.’” That’s from a 2013 article in The Express which goes on to say, “Chris Froome’s historic victory on Mount Ventoux last night should silence the Team Sky doubters, according to team principal Sir Dave Brailsford.”  Clearly, Brailsford misses the point:  nobody had been doubting Team Sky’s abilities; they’d been doubting that Team Sky is clean.  And that Mount Ventoux stage has become the poster child of Froome’s “not normal” abilities.  In retrospect, Brailsford’s comment was exactly wrong.

(Do I need to go into that whole thing?  It’s pretty tedious.  Condensed version:  Froome’s power and heart rate data were stolen and published, and a video was created showing that Froome’s race up Ventoux produced eyebrow-raising watts-per-kilo stats reminiscent of known dopers.  Froome’s camp claims that the power numbers are off because of the oval-shaped chainrings Froome uses.  This is obviously an absurd defense, because how could such a rich team tolerate inaccurate power readings?  How hard could it be to calibrate the power meter for the stupid chainrings?  Why use a power meter at all if it produces incorrect numbers?  And who really cares?  Blah, blah blah!)

Pierre Rolland is solo again, and has crossed over the summit.  (Get it?  Crossed the Croix?)  Uran crosses next, and now Bardet is over.  The GC group is not far behind and Froome leads the group over the summit.

Nibali is less than a minute behind Rolland now.  He’s descending really well, as always.

Wow, Rolland almost stacks!  Serious pucker-factor there.  Took a curve too wide.

And now Nibali hits the same curve, also too wide, and has similar trouble!  Somebody is going to crash there, I predict.  This might be one of those situations where the race radios might actually increase safety (which does not, however, offset all the times they increase danger, but that’s a giant topic I don’t have time to take on right now).

Nibali is only 50 seconds behind Rolland.

Rolland has finished his descent and now begins the Cat 2 Col du Mollard, 5.7 km (3.5 miles) at 6.8%.  Nibali is about 45 seconds behind him, and Molina is drifting ahead of the GC group, which is a little over 2 minutes back.

Rolland looks a bit sluggish on the climb, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going well.  Everybody except Froome looks sluggish after almost 3 weeks of racing.  Froome could probably do a five-week grand tour and never slow down.

Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) is hanging on at the very back of the GC group.  Talansky sits 12th on GC.  It’s a pity Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) had to withdraw, while in 3rd place overall.  The only other American in this race, Tyler Farrar (MTN-Qhubeka), isn’t exactly a GC guy, and it shows:  he’s way down in 155th place, almost four hours down.

Not that I care overmuch about nationality.  I was chatting with my teenage daughter about the silliness of tribalism among sports fans, and how, say, a Bay Area fan will personally identify with the San Francisco 49ers and, after “his” team wins the Super Bowl or whatever, will run around in the street yelling “We’re number one!” as if his invisible support and loyalty had anything to do with the success of a bunch of guys drafted from all around the country.  “Why don’t fans identify with individual athletes?” Alexa wondered.  It’s a great question!  Why is it always “we,” when “I” is really no less absurd?  So in the first week of this Tour I kept telling her, “I’m having a great Tour!  I’m in 2nd overall!”  (Finally she asked me to stop.  I guess that trope didn’t get funnier with overuse.)

Lopez is driving the pace for Quintana on the Mollard, but the gap behind Nibali is actually growing, and is now over 2 minutes.  Nibali is quickly gaining on Rolland and now trails by 26 seconds.  There are cute little kids on the side of the road in matching fluorescent green hats.  Fans of Quintana and/or Movistar?  Fans of fluorescent green?  Wearing the hats only because their mother makes them?  Who knows.  The only thing I can say for certain is that those kids are finally silencing their critics.

Man, Lopez is just sitting on the front the whole time, clearly suffering.  Sky can’t be bothered chasing Nibali, who’s over 8 minutes down on Froome.  Movistar, naturally, has to be more worried because Nibali is only 4 minutes behind Valverde.

Bardet attacks!  He quickly opens a nice gap, but an FDJ guy is right on him.  Who is it?  Probably Thibaut Pinot.  Bardet is surely looking for KOM points.  I hope he gets the polka-dot jersey away from Rodriguez, who has never struck me as credible.

Nibali has caught Rolland and they’re descending together.  DAAAAAAAMN, Nibali overcooks a curve and very nearly goes off the road!  But he saves it!  Balls like King Kong!  Man, my heart is racing.  I used to watch these guys descend and think, “Yeah, I’d be up there, I could hang with that.”  Then I maimed myself, so now I watch the racers descend and think, “Oh dear!  Please be careful!”

Bardet, whatever his intentions, is now solo and descending with aplomb.  What’s this?  He’s beating his drivetrain with his fist!  What ... crank falling off?  Bizarre.  And now he’s unclipped his foot from the pedal and is kicking his drivetrain!  I hope it’s just his front derailleur or something.  Surely he’s radioed the car for help.  What are they saying, do you think?  “Aw, quit whining.  Fix it yourself.”

“The double-changer must be touching the crank,” says celebrity commentator Sean Kelly.  That does it, from now on I’m going to call my front derailleur a “double-changer.”  That’s far better than “mech.”  And what if the crankset is a triple?  You say nothing.  The word “triple” is like “Voldemort.”

Fortunately for Bardet, this is a mighty steep descent so he’s not having to pedal that much anyway.  Being kind of a small dude, he tends to just take the curves faster vs. powering out of them like the jumbo-sized racers.

Man, this is a really bitchin’ descent!  Such a wind-y road.


The yellow jersey group is just under 2 minutes behind Nibali and Rolland, with Poels drilling it on the front for Froome.  I wish they’d show Geraint Thomas, off the back ... surely he’ll be passed in the GC by Contador, but also possibly by Robert Gesink (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) who was just over a minute behind him on GC heading into today.

The final climb today, 18 km (11 miles) at 6.1% average grade, is where Froome accidently dropped Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France.  Imagine being so lubed you don’t even know you’re going fast enough to destroy everybody behind you.  That would be like me in an eating contest.

The gap is down to 1:44 with 16 km to go.  Both Nibali and Rolland are cool as cucumbers.  How did cucumbers get to be the standard-bearer for coolness?

Wow, Nibali accelerates and totally drops Rolland!  Man that gap is opening fast!  Is Nibali hauling ass, or did Rolland detonate?  We’ll know soon enough based on the splits to the GC group.  Rolland is really wincing now.  No longer looks cool.  He’s as warm as flannel now.  He’s as warm as a perfectly executed bread salad.

I think Nibali’s chances of a stage win probably have a lot to do with the GC battle behind him.  Gesink doesn’t have any teammates, nor the horsepower to lead a protracted chase.  Contador probably is much more focused on gaining a podium spot than defending his 5th place (which is now 4th, Thomas having been shelled).  Valverde is probably more focused on defending his podium place than on kidding himself that he could help Quintana win the Tour.  That’s what makes Tours like this too boring, when one team and one rider are too dominant.

I take it back, Gesink does have a teammate, Steven Kruijswijk, owner of the weirdest last name in the Tour this year.  Kruijswijk leads the chase for Gesink and doesn’t look too bad, though the gap is actually opening up a bit.  Nibali is his normal poker-faced self.

This GC group is pretty big ... clearly the hammer has yet to go down.  Quintana sits on Froome, who sits on Poels, who sits on Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo).  Unless Quintana launches an all-or-nothing attack, and maybe gets joined by Contador, and they manage to actually ratchet up the pace in some meaningful way, it looks like Nibali will get a stage win.  That would be a nice consolation prize after basically sucking this year.

Talansky is just barely hanging on to this group.  He’s been very active in recent days and has probably soiled a lot of chamois.  (You didn’t think I was going to say “burned a lot of matches,” did you?)

Oops, they’ve just panned back across the entire line of the GC group, and I don’t see Talansky anymore.  I guess he got sawed off.

Nibali crunches on.  What’s with the pink shoes?  Left over from the Giro a couple years back?


It’s 9.5 km to go.  Nibali’s lead is staying solid.  I guess it doesn’t matter that his best domestique, Jakob Fuglsang, has been dropped today.  Fuglsang crashed yesterday when a motorbike clipped him from behind.  That motorbike driver has been expelled from the Tour.  After that stage Fuglsang said, “He can be happy that he’s not close to me now, that motorcycle guy.”  I think Fuglsang overestimates his chances in hand-to-hand combat with the biker, of whom I happen to have a photo.


Rolland is caught by the GC group.  Man, that lead tumbled fast ... he must have sat up.  Poor guy.

It’s 7.1 km to go.  If somebody doesn’t attack Froome soon, he’ll probably attack himself, just out of sheer boredom.  Majka needs to step it up, or Contador needs to strike out on his own, or Quintana needs to try something.  Are they just too tired to care anymore about the GC rankings?  I guess I can’t blame them.  You know what cycling needs?  Something equivalent to the shot clock they have in basketball.  Riders with opportunities to better their GC positions should be identified, and docked time (or hell, maybe money?) for failing to attack within set periods of time.  That would be a lot easier than trying to solve the doping problem.

Gesink is starting to try to ramp it up.  Too little, too late.

Okay, finally!  Quintana attacks!  And he’s got something of a gap!  Froome is leading the chase, head down, elbows sticking way the hell out!  And now the whole group is shattered, as this is a really decent attack!


Quintana really does have a pretty good gap.  It’s a proper attack, none of this testing-the-waters BS.  It’s 4 km to go .. can Quintana actually take some time?

“Elbows out, tongue down!” cries Carlton, the Eurosport announcer.  Froome actually does seem to be working hard, though actually he so often looks like crap, it’s impossible to tell how he’s feeling.


Quintana is staying ahead, but the gap isn’t growing significantly.  It’s 14 seconds right now, as Nibali goes under the 3km-to-go banner.  I just don’t think there’s enough road for Quintana to really threaten Froome’s lead, not to mention enough power in Quintana’s legs.  To Froome, this attack is probably more of an unpleasant nuisance than any kind of crisis.

Nibali only has 2.3 km to go, and still looks pretty good ... it’s too bad, I’d like to see Quintana at least get a stage win for his efforts.

Quintana has increased his lead to just over 20 seconds.  Froome is probably holding back a bit, knowing that only by blowing up completely could he endanger his yellow jersey. 

Quintana is now under the 1km banner.  It’s not really a banner.  What the hell is it?  Big tubes arching over the road.  It’s a thingie.

Nibali gets the win.  I guess he showed me, with my (obviously wrong) “pissing into the wind” comment earlier.  And with the time he gained, he’s now in 4th on GC.  Not bad!


Quintana crosses the line, and then Froome 29 seconds later.  So Froome’s margin is down to about 2:40 in the GC, with tomorrow’s brutal stage ahead.  If Quintana were riding better (or more to the point, if Froome weren’t so dominant) this could get really exciting!

Well, the racers were running a bit behind schedule today, which means I don’t even get to see the podium celebration.  That’s a pity, because I pull major aesthetic Gs looking from Froome to the podium girls and back, which is always kind of amusing.  Anyhow, tune in ... never, because this will be my last report from this year’s Tour de France, and next year I’ll probably shift my attention to the World Badminton Championships.  Thanks for hanging in there.

Epilogue

I have now seen, minutes after posting this, Froome's post-race interview.  He describes his mechanical problem on the big climb:  “It was up the Col du Glandon, pretty close to the summit, I suddently felt like my back wheel locked up, a bit of tar or a small stone had locked itself between my brake caliper and back wheel so I had to stop and take the wheel backwards to get the stone out. Unfortunately that was the moment that Nibali decided to make his move. He did see what he was doing, I’m pretty sure he looked around, saw I was in trouble and attacked. In my opinion you don’t do that to the race leader, it’s not sportmanlike.”  Man, what a whiner.  How uncharitable, to cast aspersions on a rider whom he has thoroughly vanquished in this race, especially when the timing of Nibali’s attack was utterly irrelevant, when Froome and his team made the obviously logical choice of ignoring the attack altogether.  Froome, man, get some class!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2015 Tour de France Stage 9 TTT


Introduction

What do you suppose goes through the minds of race announcers, that they’re not allowed to say? Maybe things like, “That guy’s obviously coked to the gills,” or “So-and-o looks like a damn clown.”  Sure, announcers hint at stuff:  “Froome has injected some, uh, life into this race,” or “Not the most elegant rider, surely, but he gets the job done.”  And why can’t they be perfectly candid?  Because they’re professionals.  I, on the other hand, am not.  So I’ll say it how it is, or at least how it looks to me.  And if I’m a little on the cynical side, can you blame me?

I know you think team time trials are boring, so I’m going to work really hard as I go along to make this as entertaining as possible.  And you should read anyway, because this is an important Tour stage.  The Tour hasn’t had so little time trialing since 1933, and this year’s only individual TT already happened, without breaking up the GC all that much.

I’m missing a Mount Diablo ride with my pals for this, BTW.  One of them really egged me on, e-mailing me last night to say, “Dana, thanks for writing the TTT preview!  Now that you fulfilled your blogging obligations to your mom, you can meet us....”  He has an impressively firm grip on how elite my blog readership is.  Today you can see how I did with the predictions I made, about the outcome of this race and its affect on the GC battle....

2015 Tour de France Stage 9:  Vannes – Plumelec TTT

As I join the action, FDJ is hammering along and the Eurosport announcer (I never learn their names, as it’s too sad when they leave, which at least they tend to do before getting too old to think straight) has just said, “So-and-so is out with a broken neck.  It’s actually broken in two places, and he’s lucky to have escaped serious injury.”  WTF??!! Is this guy joking?  Who jokes about a broken neck?  Or does he somehow consider this minor?

And just like that, we’re on to some ads.  I’m joining the action late here, so I hope I haven’t missed any important teams.  I had a bit of a glitch this morning because my Internet connection is down.  Fortunately, all bloggers have dueling Internet connections.  It’s just part of the value we bring you readers, for free.

Here’s my favorite current ad.  ANNOUNCER:  “Marcel Kittel, do you use this shampoo because Alpecin is your new team sponsor now?” KITTEL:  “No not at all, I just like the feeling of thick hair.”  I’ve seen this ad several times this week and I still can’t believe I’m hearing it right. I mean, I’ll grant that it’s theoretically possible to absorb caffeine through your scalp.  Dumb idea, but okay, possible.  But “the feeling of thick hair”?  Look, nameless ad agency, hair doesn’t have nerves, and if it did, it’d be one nerve ending per shaft ... how could you sense thickness

The Lotto Soudal team has started their TTT.  As I mentioned in my preview yesterday, these Lotto guys are (by bike racer standards) simply huge, with the highest numbers I saw for height, weight, and body mass index.  If this TTT were, say, 3K in length, I’d pick them as favorites.

Sean Kelly, the evergreen Eurosport announcer, says that these teams warm up for 40 km before a race like this.  Man, that’s a lot.

IAM Cycling is on the line.  I don’t know what product or service IAM produces, so I just consider this the “dog food team.”  I could look it up, but I’m too busy.

Lotto Soudal looks pretty cohesive.  All their guys have great position on the bike, which is more than I can say about some GC contenders (okay, one GC contender, and I won’t bag on him by giving his name, though his initials are CF and he’s on Sky).

Poor Orica GreenEdge.  They won the last long Tour TTT, two years ago, but they have only six riders left in this crash-ridden Tour, and they obviously went in to this one with the sole goal of making the time cut (kind of like choosing a class in junior high because you heard it was an easy “C”).  Orica GreenEdge look like they’re on a training ride.  Check it out, one guy didn’t even fasten his helmet strap!


Weird.  I’ve restored my better Internet connection and refreshed, and now the announcer is a woman!  I’ve never encountered that before.   Maybe she watched “In A World...” and got inspired.  She’s interviewing some dude with an Irish accent, Brian Smith.  I can’t tell his role because my video is too grainy.

Ah, we’re back to the main announcers.  I guess they had a special guest star asking the questions (since all that requires is a script and a good voice, and she had both, and I miss her already).

Lampre Merida finish their ride, in around 33 minutes.  I was slurping coffee and missed exactly what Kelly mumbled about their result, but I think these guys are now leading.

Another ad!  There’s this highlights reel of all the sports that Eurosport carries, and the announcers just about pissing themselves with excitement (e.g., “He didn’t just break his world record, he absolutely SHATTERED it!!!”) and then, incongruously, they show a snippet of same-sex diving, with the announcer totally quiet.  What?  You haven’t heard of same-sex diving?  Maybe that’s not the official name.  Synchronized diving?  Yeah, that’s probably it.

Bora-Aragon has launched their offensive.  Okay, I know that’s a bombastic way to say “started their TTT,” but there are a lot of teams here and I don’t want you to think this was a computer-generated sports story.  (That’s a thing now, believe it or not.)  I promise I won’t use the word “gallop” at any point during this blow-by-blow.

IAM Cycling is going really fast, getting the best intermediate split.  And now Trek Factory Racing is on the start ramp.  The camera pans across them and man, one of their dudes is really small.  It’s almost comical.  They should have arranged them in order from tallest to shortest like at a wedding, to look less jarring.  And lose the bridesmaid dresses, guys!  Poor Trek.  Earlier in the Tour they lost their best guy, Fabian Cancellara, who was the first of two race leaders to crash out this year.  Unlike Orica GreenEdge, these guys can’t afford to loaf, because they have a GC rider, Bauke Mollema, to support.

Team Europcar doesn’t look fast at all.  They’re bunched up like a peloton instead of strung out in a line.  Thomas Voeckler is attacking!  He just never learns.  Remember when everybody used to love him?  You can thank Lance Armstrong for that.  I know, Lance lied, he cheated, he was a dick, but at least he gave the French their underdog for awhile there.  Look for the silver linings, people.

Astana is on the road.  They had a great TTT in the Dauphiné.  They also looked unbelievably good in the Giro.  I really mean “unbelievably,” as in I don’t believe it.  They reminded me of US Postal.  On final climbs Astana would have like four guys in a lead group of ten or fewer.  Oddly, though, they kept attacking their GC rider, Fabian Aru.  Since we’re into another ad (which is also unbelievable) I’ll take a moment to describe Astana’s latest optimization efforts.  Their tactics were so sloppy in the Giro, not only confounding Aru but surely demoralizing him, they’ve decided to tweak their world-class doping program yet again.  You read that right:  doping for the mind.  Their directeur sportif, Giuseppe Martinelli, was apparently having trouble concentrating and is now on Adderall.  Not to be outdone, the team’s general manager, Alexandre Vinokourov, always an impulsive type (but hailing from the good old days when hunches and gut feelings hadn’t yet been totally obliterated by race radios), is testing a new drug, LogiContin.  And both of them are also experimenting with Alpecin-SC, a new caffeinated leave-in conditioner.

IAM Cycling has the best time at the second intermediate check, by a larger margin than before.  They look pretty awesome, if you can ignore the visors built into their helmets.  They’re not the kind of visor that sticks out to form an awning, but more like what welders use.  Is there a name for that?  Speaking of which, I was out riding up the Huis Categorie Mount Diablo with my teenage daughter last weekend, and there was a woman up there with one of these dorky TT helmets (and aero bars).  She instinctively started giving my daughter advice, as though her old man obviously couldn’t.  I like that about riding with my kid.  Nobody ever gives me advice.

Oh dear.  Astana’s mental doping is clearly not working!  Their TTT line has completely disintegrated!  They’ve lost like four guys on this first climb and are trying to regroup.  Only two riders have made it back up.  One of the two who can’t reconnect is gesticulating wildly to the guy behind him.  And now he swats himself on the butt!  It’s so sad ... I almost can’t bear to watch.

IAM Cycling now has the best time, ten seconds faster than Lampre-Merida.  We’ll see how long that lasts.

Team LottoNL-Jumbo is on the road, and so far so good.  The “J” in “Jumbo” is that special Dutch kind, so it’s pronounced “Gumbo.”  No it isn’t.  Just seeing if you’re awake.  Of course it’s actually “Yumbo.” 

Okay, I’m back.  Watching Astana’s troubles had a serious impact on me—as in, my bowels thought it was race day for me.  You might find this TTT boring, but that’s my fault.  This can be a very exciting event for anybody who’s had to suffer through a crucial TTT himself and can relate.  I think this is very likely the most painful event in cycling.  Why?  Well, first off, TTTs tend to be pretty short, so the effort is far more intense than with the patient pacing you need for a really long mountain stage.  Yes, the individual time trial is often of similar length, but if you loaf in an ITT, you don’t screw over your team.  In a TTT, you have to be awesome the whole time or you blatantly ruin everything for your comrades.  It’s kind of like ballet, where if a dancer breaks her ankle during a performance she has to keep right on dancing.  (If you think it’s silly to hold ballet dancers up as the ideal, think again:  they have the highest pain threshold ofanybody.)  I’ve always sucked at ITTs because I knew there was no real consequence of failing to ride hard enough.  I was lazy.  But in TTTs I was driven by the fear of shame, and dug deeper than in any other event. 

Think about it:  if you’re in a hill climb and get too miserable, you can back off and watch the others ride away from you and feel like you’re giving them a gift!  “I suck, so you get to win ... enjoy it.”  But imagine being in the collegiate national championship TTT as one of the favorites, and failing to deliver.  Forever after you wouldn’t be able to look at your teammates for fear they’re thinking, “We could have won if you didn’t screw it up!”  I found myself in that position in 1990, and was so miserable during that TTT, I seriously fantasized about killing myself.  I thought, if I ride full-speed into that post, will I die?  That would end the pain and I wouldn’t have to face my pals!  It was too risky, though ... what if I lived?  So I pushed on.  Yesterday I was boring my wife with this story, when suddenly she became interested. “Wow, you’re moved by this!” she said.  “Are you crying?”  I wasn’t, but I was very close.  And this was 25 years later.  TTTs are a bitch.

Oh my god.  Astana is down to five riders.  They’re in the final kilometer.  They really don’t look good.  They look really deflated, I mean physically.  Their fifth guy is so fried he’s on the wrong side of the road, not even getting a draft.  That’s surely the sign of mental collapse.  Sometimes that’s okay, though, as it means you left absolutely everything on the road.  If you finish too fast, that can mean you didn’t exhaust yourself properly. 

And how about that!  Astana has managed somehow to take the lead.  Of course, the best teams are still to come, but still, I guess they couldn’t have gone that slowly.  Poor Nibali.  His Tour isn’t going well, and I’m sure he hoped to validate his victory last year so people wouldn’t just say, “Yeah, you won, but Contador, Quintana, and Froome weren’t there.”

AG2R La Mondiale is on the road.  They look kind of climber-y to me.  Not so good for TTTs.

Eurosport is interviewing Michele Scarpone, who has so little hair left, he could make a bottle of Alpecin last for like a year.  He should use their special Espresso version.  He says nothing of any interest, predictably enough.  I’d quote him if he said something like, “Yes, I visited Dr. Ferrari, but not for drugs, or even for training advice.  You see, we’re lovers.”  Actually, let’s pretend he did say that.

Tinkoff-Saxo is down the start ramp and hammering along.  This is one of the really important teams, because a) their GC guy, Alberto Contador, is obviously a favorite, and b) if they have an outstanding ride today, they could put Peter Sagan in the yellow jersey, which would be amazing because he’d then be holding the green, white, and yellow jerseys simultaneously. 

Movistar is having a good ride and some have tapped them as favorites for this TTT.  Naturally their motivation is super high, with GC favorite Nairo Quintana in their ranks.  They look pretty good out there, if you can get past their boring uniforms.

Oh dear!  The Movistar line has broken!  You know, I’m going to blame the radios for this.  After all, the directeur sportif can’t give a continuous patter about whether everybody is together, and so many riders have forgotten how to use their spidey-sense to know what’s going on.

BMC are on the start ramp!  No pressure, guys.  Man, I hope they light it up out there.  An American in yellow, without all the asterisks of doping, would be fricking awesome.  I wouldn’t expect him to hold it for too long, if he got it, but how awesome would it be to bring home a stuffed lion for your kid?

Movistar has the fastest intermediate split, notwithstanding their troubles a bit ago.  But they’ve taken the lead over from a team with only five guys left ... their placing may yet tumble.

Now Eurosport is interviewing Juan Antonio Flecha about the weather.  “The wind is blowing, as wind often does, and though it was blowing also earlier today, it may not be blowing is much as it was, though it could be blowing harder now, and there was wind when Astana was riding, like there is now, and wind can be a factor in a TTT when a team can be slowed by wind, unless it’s a tailwind, which would tend to blow you forward and actually speed you along.  Also, I myself am a windbag, and I’ve been breaking wind this entire time, by which I mean I have been releasing gas from my anus.”  Flecha’s chatter is the verbal equivalent of a college kid using a really big font and wide margins to make the five-page minimum with his essay.  Might I recommend a Bora kitchen ventilation system for this fellow?  I’m reminded repeatedly during this coverage of how well Bora handles “vapors that smell bad.”  They’re insulting your cooking!  Great ad copy, that.


Okay, they’re showing Sky now, and Froome with his ugly helmet.  The commentator is going on about how Froome’s handlebars were created using a 3D printer.  I know, this dude’s just making shit up, right?  Froomie’s helmet is of a piece with the rest of his ghastly gaunt ungainly look.  It completes the insect look.


BMC has the fastest intermediate split, but only by two seconds over Movistar.  I’m not sure that heralds an awesome ride but of course it’s hard to predict these things.

Saxo-Tinkoff isn’t looking all that tight.


But then neither is BMC, actually.  Couple gaps there between riders.  I guess you can’t tell from this photo, but one rider is sitting on the back, unable to move up through the line.  At least he’s communicating well to the others about it.


See that thingy sticking out from the last dude’s saddle?  That’s a GPS device, to make all the split times more precise.  Every racer has one for every stage, just to further remove guesswork from the armchair generals’ over-precise operations.  It’s also how they can put up that little speedometer graphic you see in the photo there.  I’d like to see the big data from Stage 4, when Tony Martin overcame a mechanical problem and soloed to victory on his teammate’s bike.

Team BMC has the fastest split now with Sky through the first intermediate check, but it’s by a fraction of a second! 

Weird ... Tinkoff-Saxo has only seven guys in their group.  I thought they had nine going in ... maybe not, or maybe they accidently shelled a couple dudes.

I have to say, Sky looks pretty good.  All nicely lined out, no gaps, and totally aero.


BMC is at the second intermediate point and now leads Movistar by 3 seconds.  That’s not a ton, considering Movistar isn’t the team they’re most worried about.  I’m thinking mainly about a yellow jersey for Tejay, of course; even a 30-second deficit wouldn’t hurt Sky too much since Froomie, when he’s properly lubed (i.e., on any day of the season), can take that kind of time in just a few kilometers on the right mountain ... and there are so many brutal mountains ahead.

Tinkoff-Saxo are looking okay, other than their uniforms, which are so bizarre ... they’re made to look like they’re spattered with mud, evidently.  I just don’t get that.


Uh oh ... BMC is somehow down to six riders.  Maybe it’s according to plan; maybe they’ve figured out that certain guys will slow them down on the climbs or something.

Sky are through the second intermediate check, and they’ve got the virtual lead by one second over BMC!

Tinkoff-Saxo are over the line and have lost about 25 seconds for Contador.  Not great, but not a complete disaster.  The bigger issue for Contador is if he tired himself out too much in the Giro.  I’m surprised he even raced it, frankly.

BMC has gapped their sixth rider!  Okay, he’s back up ... they’re going so fast, the slipstream must be really long.  They’re on the penultimate climb and riding cohesively.  But what’s this?  They’re actually down to five guys, and Sky down to six.  I think it’s because we’re 8 days into this race that teams are breaking up so much.  A TTT earlier in the Tour probably wouldn’t feature so many breakdowns.


BMC are now on the finishing climb and they’re clearly suffering.  Out of the saddle now, going for the line!  They’re trembling all over, so the camera can’t properly focus on them.  (No they aren’t.)


They’ve got the fastest provisional time, but I have a feeling Sky could win this.  No yellow for Tejay in any case, as I pessimistically predicted.  You never know, though ... maybe Sky will fall apart, like they did in the Dauphiné.

Sky has 1 km to go.  They’ve got two minutes to get to the finish, which might be tricky only because of the finishing climb.  Geraint Thomas is hammering on the front and has been for a fair bit now.  Now Froome takes it up.  Nicolas Roche is dying on the back of the line.  They’re having to regroup a bit here and Roche is back on.  Froome is out of the saddle, looking like Ichabod Crane.


Check it out!  BMC has managed to win this thing!  Sky got second, by one second!  Both teams beat Tinkoff-Saxo, also as I predicted.  Also, Tejay has moved from third into second on the GC, also as I predicted.  As it turns out, all of my predictions were spot-on.  How do you like that, Mom?







Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tour de France TTT Preview - Can Tejay Take Yellow?


Introduction

There’s no point in making uneducated guesses about the outcome of any sporting event, and plenty of the professional talking heads end up being wrong.  But I’ve decided to do some serious research for once, and in this post will make my predictions about tomorrow’s Tour de France team time trial.  I’m particularly focused on the question of whether the BMC Racing Team can ride well enough to put their GC rider, American Tejay van Garderen, into the yellow jersey.



Who wins the TTT?

Of course BMC is favored to win the TTT; after all, they’re the reigning world champions in this discipline, and a month ago they won the TTT in the Critérium du Dauphiné.  Tejay van Garderen and Rohan Dennis (who won the only individual time trial in this Tour) obviously have great form right now.  So I predict BMC will win, even if being right about this wouldn’t exactly make me an oracle.

As for second and third, I don’t actually care except as the Tour’s general classification is concerned.  The big question is, can BMC take the GC lead away from Team Sky’s Chris Froome? 

(By the way, when I write “Tejay” I’m not trying to imply I’m on a first-name basis with the guy.  I just can’t handle the lowercase “v” in “van Garderen” when I’m leaving off the first name.  Though this is correct, it looks funny, and I might get arguments from my bike pals.  You may have already seen the swath of rhetorical detritus this process leaves across the Internet.)

Right now Tejay is sitting third on GC, only 13 seconds behind Froome, and only 2 seconds behind Tinkoff/Saxo’s Peter Sagan.  So we need to figure BMC’s chances against Sky and Tinkoff/Saxo; if Orica GreenEdge or Astana sneaks in between these teams in the stage results, I don’t really care.

Size does matter!

My predictions will be based largely on, well, largeness.  Everybody knows that big, tall riders make the best team time trialists.  (No, I don’t mean “Big & Tall” like the clothing chain for fat people.  There are no fat Tour riders.)  So I’ve done a painstaking analysis of which of these three teams has the biggest dudes.  You ready?


Clearly, BMC is going to be the best of these three, followed by Sky.  Not only does BMC have the largest guys on average, but they’ve got the biggest guy, Swiss rider Michael Schär.  As if that kickass umlaut in his name weren’t enough, this dude stands 6’6” and weighs a whopping 172 pounds.  (I know, that’s not heavy by most standards, but for a bike racer he’s Hank the Tank.)

But wait, you’re saying.  Not all the riders need to finish with the team—the little climbers like Tinkoff/Saxo’s Rafal Majka (5’8” and 137 pounds) can get sawed off and it’s all good, since the fifth rider’s time is what matters.  Good point.  Here are the averages for the five largest riders on each team.  The ranking doesn’t change.


But wait, you protest.  This isn’t a flat TTT!  Maybe the biggest guys will struggle!  Well, you’re right about the course.  Over 28 km (17.4 miles), the riders will accumulate about 300 meters (close to 1,000 feet) of vertical gain.  Moreover, they’ll only pile up about 175 meters (~600 feet) of vertical drop, so they’ll end up with a net vertical gain of about 125 meters (~400 feet).  So, we can’t have too many lard-ass sprinter-types in the mix.  That’s why I analyzed the average body mass index (BMI) for each team as well.


No matter how you look at it, BMC will prevail, followed by Sky. 

The tougher question

We still have the thornier matter of Tejay’s chances for yellow.  To judge this, we have to look at any team with a rider close to Tejay on the GC.  Lotto Soudal has Tony Gallopin in fourth overall, just 13 seconds behind Tejay.  And those Lotto Soudal guys ... they’re huge!  As a whole, the team’s average height is just a hair above BMC’s, but their average weight is a whopping 156, fully 7 pounds higher than BMC’s.  And if we look at just the top 5 guys, we get an average of 6’2” and 172 pounds.  Huge!  Their biggest guy, Marcel Sieberg of Germany, stands 6’6” with 181 pounds of pure bike racer goodness to his credit.  (He’s André Greipel’s lead-out man ... that must be  a sweet draft.)

So, Lotto Soudal could beat BMC, right?  Well, not so fast.  We haven’t factored in BMI yet.  Remember that thing I said about having too many lard-ass sprinters in the mix?  Well, this is a sprinters’ team, built around Greipel’s bid for the green jersey.  They don’t even have a GC rider; their highest overall finisher in last year’s Tour was Tony Gallopin in 29th, and the team finished an unimpressive 15th overall.

So, how about Lotto Soudal’s BMI average?  It’s 21.8, higher than all three of the teams I looked at earlier.  Focusing on their five biggest guys, the average BMI is a whopping 22.1.  My god, that’s even higher than mine!  They’re just a bunch of oversized fast-twitch brutes!


Will those big sprint-y bodies slow Lotto Soudal down in this TTT?  Hells yeah!  In the 24.5 km TTT in the Dauphiné last month, they finished only 12th, losing almost a minute to BMC.  When it comes to this kind of race, they’re just the wrong kind of big. I don’t see Gallopin moving up on the GC tomorrow.

Moving on, let’s look some more at Tejay’s GC threats.  Fifth overall right now is Tejay’s teammate Greg Van Avermaet, who by the way is a serious powerhouse (and yes, I’d love to do a TTT with him if he promised not to drop me).  Needless to say, there’s simply no scenario where Van Avermaet (yes, for some reason his “Van” is capitalized but Tejay’s isn’t) would take time out of Tejay.  Sixth on GC after Stage 8 is Rigoberto Uran (who used to go by Rigoberto Uran Uran but he’s evidently dropped the second “Uran,” which makes me wonder if people had been calling him “Duran Duran” and he tired of it).  Uran sits 21 seconds behind Tejay.  Could his Etixx – Quick-Step team take that kind of time out of BMC?

Probably not, because Etixx – Quick-Step was only 4th in the Dauphiné TTT last month, losing 18 seconds to BMC, and that was with their star time trialist, Tony Martin, on board.  Alas, Martin crashed out of this Tour (while in yellow, no less).  With only eight riders to share the workload, and their best guy not among them, I can’t see Etixx – Quick-Step going super fast.  I’m not even going to bother analyzing the size of this team’s riders, particularly because their GC rider, Uran, is just a little fellow (5’8” and 137 pounds) and they have to hold back for him if he falters.

Finally, Alberto Contador sits 7th on GC, but (as I’ve already discussed) his team, Tinkoff-Saxo, won’t beat BMC tomorrow.  The next guy down is Warren Barguil, who is almost a minute behind Tejay, which is too much for his Giant-Alpecin to make up (even if those guys are using caffeinated shampoo).  Astana Pro Team will have a good TTT, but their top guy, Vincenzo Nibali, is over a minute and a half behind Tejay.  No way are they going that fast.

There’s just one problem

Okay, so the riders behind Tejay in the GC are very unlikely to make up much, if any, time on him tomorrow.  And like I said, I’m pretty sure BMC will take time out of Peter Sagan’s Tinkoff-Saxo squad.  But that leaves one big problem:  Team Sky’s Chris Froome.  Sky is almost always good in the Tour, and the time gaps in this TTT probably won’t be that huge.  In the Dauphiné TTT, Astana lost by only four seconds, with Movistar only one second further back.  Tomorrow’s race, though hillier than the Dauphiné TTT, is only a couple kilometers longer, so 13 seconds is a pretty tall order. 

We can also look at the TTT in the 2013 Tour, which was 25 km in length.  It was also incredibly close, with the top three teams within three seconds of one another.  Moreover, in that TTT, Sky (with their third-place finish) took 23 seconds out of BMC (who finished a surprisingly poor 9th).

What’s that, you ask?  How did Sky do in the recent Dauphiné TTT?  Great question.  They totally choked!  They lost 35 seconds to BMC, a deficit which almost cost Froome the GC victory.  Could that happen again?

Well, Sky’s Dauphiné team has almost all the same riders as their Tour team.  But three of them—Wout Poels, Ian Stannard, and Luke Rowe—got dropped early in the Dauphiné TTT, which torpedoed Sky’s ride.  You think they’re gonna let that happen again?  No way.

Summary

So where does all this leave us?  BMC will win the TTT, but Froome will keep the yellow jersey, by the skin of his teeth.  Tejay will move up on the GC, but only to second place.

I hope I’m wrong!  Who knows, maybe Tejay and his boys will get ‘er done.  Watch this space ... I’ll be posting a biased blow-by-blow account here on albertnet, first thing tomorrow morning.  SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY!  BE THERE!

Friday, July 3, 2015

From the Archives - fiction - A Hair Cut


Introduction

This is a short story from way back.  It was inspired by my move to the Bay Area in 1990, and my abrupt recognition of how different it was from other places I’d lived.  “Different” is perhaps less apt a word than “complete,” in the sense that the little pond I’d imagined the world to be had suddenly given way to a vast ocean.  I came away feeling embarrassed at my own parochialism.  Given the progress America has made in the ensuing 25 years, I trust a wake-up call as shocking as this would no longer be possible today.


A Hair Cut - October 15, 1990

Nick knew Steven from Colorado.  They’d been next‑door neighbors, but Nick mostly knew Steven’s parents.  Steven was ten years older.  When Nick was twelve, Steven opened a hair salon.  Nick stopped by to visit.  He didn’t go inside because Steven was in the barbershop chair with a blond girl on his lap and he was kissing her.  Nick did not want to disturb this.  He wondered if he would ever own his own business.

Years later some friends of Nick’s shared some gossip about Steven.  What they said didn’t seem right because Nick had seen the girl in the barbershop chair.  His friends said Steven was “that way.”  Nick did not know if this was true, and he liked the haircuts because a girl complimented him once. 

Five years later they both were living in California.  Nick had moved to Berkeley for college and Steven was in San Francisco.  Nick phoned Steven to arrange a haircut.  He hadn’t seen Steven in years.  Steven gave him directions.  “I’m in the Castro,” he said.  He mentioned this several times.  Was this for emphasis, Nick wondered?  Or was it just because the first time, Nick had said, “Kestrel”?  Nick didn’t know the city well.  He had no idea where the Castro was.

Nick took the Bart train to San Francisco and got off at the Embarcadero station.  The attendant at the kiosk was not helpful with the instructions for Muni.  Muni buses ran down Market Street towards the Ferry Building and up towards this neighborhood Nick had never seen before.  He waited a long time for the Muni.  Buses kept passing him and none of them said K, L, or M.  Finally Nick asked a passerby who said K, L, and M are on the subway line and you have to go downstairs.  Nick could have waited all afternoon otherwise.  He knew nothing about Muni.

The subway was awfully loud.  Nick had a book of short stories by Hemingway.  He liked how he could feel how the characters felt, and how they couldn’t help how they felt.

When Nick came up out of the subway at Castro Street, he was disoriented.  The street was busy with people and ran down a long hill through old houses like he’d seen in photos.  He looked in the window of a clothing store and one of the mannequins had a hockey mask.  Nick wondered why they would do this.  In whose eyes would this make sense?  He had to ask for directions, but he did not want to ask the people on the sidewalk.  He finally asked two children how to get to 18th Street.  They told him and he was thankful because they were just kids.  They were awfully nice kids.

He found the hair shop.  It was up a steep wooden staircase and down a short, dark hall.  He saw the hair salon to his left but the doorway had black bars across it and a padlock, so he kept walking.  Farther down the little hall was a strange, dark shop with lots of leather and chains.  He went quickly back to the hair salon and a big man with a thick mustache let him in.  Steven was not in the shop.

Nick was glad he had his book and kept reading.  Steven arrived and they shook hands.  Nick felt that he had never known Steven well.  He sat in the big black leather barbershop chair.  Steven’s old salon had had a smaller chair.  While Steven cut Nick’s hair he talked to him and as they talked they used the mirror on the wall so they could see each other.  Nick thought about how it was perfectly normal for people to look at each other when they talked.

Steven was great at cutting hair.  He used little sharp scissors and took a long time.  While he was cutting and they were talking Nick saw another man come into the salon.  He had short dark hair with tight curls and he was talking about his hair.  He said he just couldn’t do anything with it anymore.  He sat down and flipped through a magazine while talking to them.  Three times, Steven pinched his finger in the scissors and yelped.

“How do you like the dildo shop next door?” asked the other hairdresser, the one with the mustache.  Nick said that he hadn’t really looked at it.

“They’re very common here,” Steven said.

“It’s as normal as going to a hardware store and asking for a screwdriver,” said the man with the magazine.  He paused and then said, “I wonder if I meant to make a pun on screwdriver.”

Another friend stopped by to see Steven.  He had thick, tall blond hair and was muscle‑bound.  He did not stay long and after fifteen minutes or so the curly-haired man left too.  When he left he patted Steven on the belly, Nick couldn’t help but notice.

Nick’s hair looked very good after an hour or so but Steven kept cutting, hair by hair, until two hours had gone by.  He charged Nick sixteen dollars.  Nick wrote him a check and then did not know what else to do.  He was a customer but also an old friend.  Steven asked if he wanted to get some tea.  They left the salon.  As they walked down the steep wooden steps, an attractive young woman looked at them and gave Nick a big smile.

“Did you notice that this is a prominent gay area?” Steven asked suddenly.  Nick said that he hadn’t noticed.  “Well it is,” said Steven. 

The coffee shop, Nick noted, also sold beer and cocktails.  It was a curious structure with a corrugated steel roof, Christmas lights, and a patio.  Steven said Nick could get whatever he wanted.  There was a big chalkboard listing all kinds of different drinks.  Nick thought hot chocolate would be good because it was cold out, or maybe a latte.  Those were two dollars and Steven was paying and Nick bought house coffee which was eighty cents.  Steven asked if he wanted to sit outside and Nick said he did.  It was cold outside and getting dark and the coffee shop was beginning to look more like a bar.

On the patio there were lots of people who were dressed lavishly.  Even the plain t-shirts struck Nick as lavish.   A small group of people nearby were talking.  A young woman with short dark hair was talking excitedly to two men with earrings, thick spiked hair, and long overcoats.  “Yesterday, I . . . I saw this cute girl and I . . . I scammed on her and uh . . . cruised . . . uh, she came over and we . . . we made out!” she said at last, talking fast and seeming happy to finish her sentence.  She smiled brightly and the two men nodded.  Nick felt that she was very young.  Nick didn’t think anything was funny but he thought he might laugh but he didn’t.

Steven asked if he was cold.  Nick was in shirtsleeves and the air was cold but he said he was fine. Steven wanted to go in.  They sat in the bar and Steven talked about how bars were encouraged to sell food.  He also pointed out the corrugated steel ceiling, which Nick had not noticed.  Around him lively people milled about and every so often two men would kiss and Nick did not want to look like he was watching.

Two men approached the table.  One had several days of red beard and a turtleneck, and he had a thick musky smell.  The other was a small man with deep clear eyes and a brown leather jacket.  Steven introduced the short man to Nick and the man extended his hand.

“Hi Nick, nice to meet you.  You’ll like Steven, he’s very nice.”

Nick had known Steven for more than fifteen years but he didn’t say so.  Maybe he didn’t really know Steven that well anyway.

The other men left and then Steven was talking a lot about his father.  He said he hoped Nick did not dislike his father.  Nick had always been fond of Steven’s father.  He knew Steven’s father well.

“I don’t think my dad liked your dad,” Steven was saying.  “He never really knew your dad but he probably made assumptions.  My dad always said the new yuppies with their liberal ideas were ruining the city.”  He paused for moment and then began talking faster.  “But he really wasn’t bad about it or anything and he was really tolerant about a lot of things, too, like my being gay and stuff like that.”

The word stung Nick like a bee inside but he did not flinch.  He nodded casually.  The word did not shock him but to hear Steven say it did.  Nick’s neck and shoulders were all tight.  For a few moments his mind drifted and when it came back he found he was talking about money.  He wondered:  was he talking too much about money?  With his other friends it didn’t occur to him to worry about what he was talking about.  Then before he knew it Nick was telling Steven about his ex-girlfriend.

It was dark out and the bar was full and the music was blaring and the bar was full of cigarette smoke and they left.  They walked along the street.  A block down there was a Safeway and across the street were two gyms on the same block.  This was Market street, which had lots of buses running between this neighborhood and, at the other end, the Embarcadero where Bart had let Nick off, hours ago.  Clothing stores lined the street with elaborate window displays and Nick had to look because Steven was pointing them out.  Nick didn’t see any more hockey masks.  They passed a brightly lit deli and Nick walked right past it but Steven had stopped.  He had said something but Nick didn’t hear.  Steven repeated his question:  “Are you hungry?”

Nick was always hungry and everybody always knew it.  Steven bought soft uncooked noodles and some sauce and they went to his apartment.  The door to the street was small and stiff and opened into a long dark hall.  The hall ended in what looked like a carport but Nick only saw a large garbage can.  He thought that seeing a raccoon would not surprise him.  Inside, the apartment was pretty nice but it was all one room and had no windows except the one in the back door that had some kind of clear plastic film over it so it wasn’t really clear.

Steven explained that the concrete foundation was no good because it allowed moisture to seep through.  Steven had always fixed up houses, building walls and porches with concrete, and then he would leave them once they were all done.  He was planning to do a lot of work on this studio.  There was a block of concrete two feet high jutting out from the wall.  It was a mistake when they built the building, Steven explained; he was going to extend it up and put on a table top.

While Steven was washing two plates and a pot to cook the pasta in, Nick sat on the edge of the couch and tried to think of something.  In the apartment were a bed and a couch and a stereo.  On the wall there was a framed photo of somebody Nick thought he recognized.  He asked if the guy was from Boulder and it turned out he was but Nick could not have known him.  While they ate Steven got out a photo album so Nick could see if he recognized the guy on the wall.  Nick knew he wouldn’t.  Steven flipped over the pages of photos, and looking at them was giving Nick a crick in his neck.

Steven got up and walked over towards the kitchen.  He was talking about fathers again.  He asked if Nick knew Tim Glenn.  Nick had heard the story about how Tim always got his hair cut by Steven for years and then heard some gossip and suddenly he and his entire church condemned Steven to Hell and Timmy’s hair never looked as good again.  Nick hated that about the church.  He said to Steven that he sort of knew Tim but mainly through his little brother.

“Yeah, I just sort of thought Tim’s dad reminded me of your dad,” Steven said.  Nick thought about the two dads.  Were they similar?  Nick remembered a story about Mr. Glenn:  once, during dinner, he got so frustrated slicing a baguette, he took it out to the garage and cut it into neat slices with his band saw.  Maybe Nick’s dad would do this, except that the blades of power tools aren’t clean.  Maybe Nick’s dad would use a laser.  Nick realized he was no longer hearing what Steven was saying.

After a while Nick decided he had to get home and then he was worried about finding the Muni station.  Steven loaned him a jacket while they walked to the station.  There was so much to see, and it was all so vivid.  This was something Nick had been marveling at for the last few weeks, when he’d started wearing contact lenses.  Not that everything he saw was pleasant.  There were homeless people begging and Steven got all sore.  “It’s their damn problem,” he said.

At the entrance to the Muni station Nick gave Steven back his jacket and thanked him for the haircut, the coffee, and the dinner.  Steven smiled and they shook hands.  Steven was a nice guy, Nick thought.  And now Nick just wanted to get Muni over with and get back to Oakland.

Nick hated the Muni station.  It was dark and he sat on a concrete bench and somebody sat next to him.  He was a big man with golden red hair and a golden red beard and a black leather biker jacket with lots of studs.  Nick hunched forward over his book.  He stared at the page but could not read.  Another man walked over, short with a thin voice and a white shirt with a collar and a necktie.  He chatted with the red-bearded guy, saying he was only in the area for a day and he had stayed at such and such hotel.  Red said that was a good hotel and Short said he had had just a wonderful time and really liked the area.

“Yes, it’s a grand place to be, even if for only one day,” said Red, “or only one night.”  Short agreed, emphatically.  Red continued, “It’s even a good place to come to just to look at the pretty blond boys.”  Short asked, “To look at who?”  Nick knew Short had heard it fine the first time.  “To look at the pretty blond boys,” Red said loudly.  Short replied, “Oh, yes, even the Aryan-looking ones.”  Red said, “Yes, especially the Aryan-looking ones, but never, ever the skinheads.”

Nick hated being the brunt of Aryan jokes but he chuckled.  He wondered if a skinhead would bother him like this.  He wished he could think of something to say but then the Muni came and he walked quickly down to the last car and boarded.  He looked again at his book. His neck was really sore and the train started up and screamed in his ears.  The train was narrow and the seats were hard.  When they got to the first Bart station Nick got off the train.  He heard it slip away into the tunnel behind him and roar up to speed but he did not watch it go.

Nick was very glad to be back on Bart.  It was familiar and quiet.  He was glad to be able to lose himself in his book and he almost missed his stop.  Nick walked up College Ave towards home.  He passed the pizza place and the little bookstore he liked and the convenience store where he got change for the Laundromat.

The back of Nick’s neck was cold where Steven had trimmed it.  There was a breeze bringing fog in from the bay.  Nick got home and went to bed.  He lay in bed and tried to think about nothing.  When he woke up the next morning there was a stiff, cold breeze bringing a thick fog in from the bay and it wasn’t until he looked in the mirror that he remembered he’d had his hair cut.