Tuesday, May 14, 2024

From the Archives - Guitar Man

Introduction

In 1986, I took a high school creative writing class. The teacher, Mr. Kroop, wore Jams and played whale music and didn’t do a lot of lecturing; instead, he gave out gobs of assignments. We seemed to have something due almost every day. One day he assigned us a character sketch. I think my effort came to more than that, in its primitive way.


Guitar man – February 3, 1986

Olga leaned back in her chair. It creaked, threatening to collapse. She belched loudly, and then slumped over the little built-in desk. She was in a meeting at an alcohol rehabilitation center, where she had been sent as part of her sentence for shoplifting at a Liquor Mart. Having smuggled in a flask of Jack Daniels, she was too inebriated to pay attention to the lecture that was being given. Plus, she spoke almost no English.

A bearded man came around passing out magic markers and big sheets of butcher paper. Olga assumed they were to write lists of some kind. Goals? Reasons to do better? Excuses? She wasn’t feeling inspired to write anything, and nobody would be able to decipher her Cyrillic characters anyway. So she just slumped at her desk, her cheek resting on her arm, watching the proceedings unfold sideways. The bearded man said something to her which she ignored. Then she happened to spy, on the wall, a framed picture of a man playing a guitar.

Something was weird about the picture. It was sideways. Of course, Olga’s head was turned on its side, so the picture ought to look sideways, she reasoned, but it just wasn’t right. It was, like, double-sideways. She sat up and looked at again, with her head straight. Now it was upside-down! She shook her head a bit as if to clear it. She looked again. Yes, she had been drinking, but not that much, and the picture was definitely upside-down. What was this, some kind of joke? Some kind of trick? Or a result of very haphazard janitorial service? Was this some visual aid, to be used in some group exercise, serving perhaps as some metaphor? Well, it didn’t matter. Not Olga’s problem. And then she remembered something she’d learned once in an art class, decades ago, back in the old country. Something about drawing upside down, and how it helped you draw what you see, not what you suppose something looks like. Olga realized that, with her butcher paper and marker, she was in a position to draw this right now. Upside-down.

She hadn’t drawn anything with a marker in ages (a spray can being her preferred medium), and she held it tightly in her fist like a toddler with a crayon. She drew rapidly, looking at the framed picture rather than her paper. Once in a while she glanced down and was thrilled to see her drawing taking shape and looking, actually, a bit like a work of art. Some of the lines kind of did their own thing, some petered out instead of joining anything up, and she noted with a frown that the guitar player’s right hand looked a little palsied, but all in all it wasn’t bad. Now if she could just not screw up the face! She focused on the lines and tried to forget what they were supposed to be leading up to. Halfway through finishing his head she couldn’t go on—there was too much goodness on the paper to risk screwing it all up. It had to be considered Done.

She turned the paper around so it was right-side-up and gazed upon her work. Had she really just drawn this? How much time had passed? She realized suddenly that the room around her was in motion, chairs scraping back as people stood up. Somebody was collecting the papers. No! Not hers! She started to roll it up but her fingers were fumbling. It was like she’d used up all her skill and had nothing else left for this task. She stood, stepped back, and tripped over her chair. Her arms flew back and she caught herself from falling, ending up in a crablike position. Her contraband whiskey bottle flew from the pocket of her baggy overcoat and spun across the floor. This caused massive commotion—with all the alcoholics in the room, that bottle was like blood in shark-infested waters. Olga lumbered off toward the exit as if in flight, embarrassed and ashamed to have her smuggling operation discovered. The door swung closed behind her, letting out a little sigh.

The bearded man shook his head and strode toward the abandoned whisky bottle, which was still half full. Nobody raced him for it, but all eyes were on it. Suddenly there was motion again at the double doors, a struggle from the other side, and they started to open together. Olga staggered through, a look of fierce determination on her face. The bearded man practically sprinted for the bottle, but to his surprise Olga marched right by him. There was a large sheet of curled paper near the chair she’d overturned, and she snatched it up, rolled it into a tight scroll, and—flashing a defiant and satisfied look—strode off, in her galumphing way, back out through the door.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2024

My (Hypothetical) Post-Race Interview - NBS Criterium

Introduction

If you’ve ever read my “biased blow-by-blow” reports of pro bike races, you’ll have noted that I like to put words in the racers’ mouths when covering their post-race interviews. This is because they so often have so little to say (either because their brains have been too deprived of oxygen, or they’re just camera-shy and/or vapid to begin with). Since the bike races I’ve done myself over the decades haven’t had media coverage to speak of, I have had very little opportunity to try fielding reporters’ questions myself. But what if I did?

Here’s how I might have described a certain race I did as a 15-year-old, had the press seen fit to interview me about it (and had a lot of time and patience in doing so). Note that, unlike in the case of actual interviews that I take liberties with on this blog, what I recount in this hypothetical interview really happened as I describe it, to the extent I remember everything accurately (which I do). Naturally, I needed to put words in the mouth of the fictitious interviewer, so I had some fun with that.

Note: the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Boulder, Colorado is now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) and is the home of one of America’s atomic clocks. Note also: the photos in this post aren’t from the race I recount, but from the final stage of the Red Zinger Mini Classic on the same course later that year.


Interview – NBS Criterium – Spring 1985

INTERVIEWER: What does it mean to race here at the National Bureau of Standards?

DANA: Well, it’s a very cool course; any time you have a figure-8 shaped criterium on a hill it’s gonna be exciting. And I guess the Bureau is a pretty important place for, like, scientists.

INTERVIEWER: I understand your dad, a rocket scientist, works here and was out watching you race today. Did that make this race extra special?

DANA: You heard wrong. He doesn’t work here, and it wouldn’t have occurred to him to watch me race. He did drive me to one race last year, but he didn’t have a very good time because I got my ass kicked. I think he was ashamed of me. It was a very quiet, uncomfortable drive home. It’s too bad he wasn’t here since things obviously went better today.

INTERVIEWER: Walk me through the race. It really looks like you had a solid plan and executed it.

DANA: No, not at all, that was an illusion. Things actually started off really badly. My mom drove me to the race but had run out to do some errand first, which took longer than she thought, so she got me there too late and I couldn’t race in my normal division. Fortunately they let me race with the men later in the day, but of course I wasn’t nearly as confident in that group. I was pretty furious, because even though I’ve historically kind of sucked at this sport, over the winter I finally hit puberty and was riding well, and was really pumped to have a go here. But going up against grown men … that’s another thing entirely.

INTERVIEWER: Were you excited to have your big brother in the peloton with you? Did you guys work together?

DANA: Not at all. Several times this season he’s come in second to the same guy, and of course it would make sense to help each other out to try to finally beat this dude. But my brother naturally assumed I’d be useless. In fact, when we were suiting up for the race in a restroom here at the Bureau, he advised me that if he got in a breakaway, he wasn’t going to wait for me, I was on my own. I was thinking, like, thanks for the support, asshole.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your big attack. It really seemed perfectly timed.

DANA: Actually, it was totally spontaneous. I was staying up near the front watching for my brother or his nemesis to make a move, kind of waiting to see how things shook out. Although I was feeling really good, my breathing was pretty loud—I have some seasonal allergies which can make my respiratory system a bit noisy. So some douchebag with a mustache says, “Jesus Christ, kid, are you about to collapse a lung or something?” It just pissed me off so bad, being spoken down to like that by this complete stranger who just assumes, like my brother, that I’m a hopeless case. I wasn’t going to take that, but then I couldn’t figure out a clever response, so I just decided—very spur-of-the-moment—to attack the shit out of him, and of course everyone else in the process. It was a very unguarded, uncalculated move, born of pure anger and adrenaline, and I think I caught everyone—including myself—completely by surprise. When my attack blew the pack apart and only two guys were able to join me, I was stoked, especially since the two were my brother and his nemesis, both of whom had done well all season, so I knew they were super strong.

INTERVIEWER: You seemed to work really well together.

DANA: Yeah, we knew the break had a chance to survive so we were all motivated to share the work and really commit. In my case, less was expected of me since I’m just this scrawny-looking kid, right?


INTERVIEWER: It seemed like you were actually dangling at the back quite a bit, like you might even get dropped.

DANA: Yeah, it really sucked because the last time I raced here, I crashed out and was hauled off in an ambulance. Everything had been going great—this was the last day of the week-long Red Zinger Mini Classic and I was in a 3-up breakaway with the GC leader and the guy in second overall—but it started raining, and got a bit slippery. In my case it was especially bad because I’d punctured during my warm-up and borrowed a wheel from a friend. Unbeknownst to me and probably to my friend, he’d mounted a track tire on there that was not designed for wet conditions. So on the fastest corner, in the descent, I slipped right out and that was the end of that. My shorts were so badly ripped, my junk was hanging out as I lay on my back being attended by paramedics. All these spectators were crowding around, including my brothers, who gave me endless shit afterward for reaching down and tugging the ripped Lycra to cover my johnson. Their point was that if I’d really been injured, I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to do this. Whatever, dudes. Anyhow, I was really spooked by that crash, and my mojo was shot, so I couldn’t keep up on the downhill today. Every lap I’d lose ground and have to chase like a madman on the climb to catch back up. So that kind of sucked.

INTERVIEWER: Did you figure you were doomed, then? How could you possibly go for the win if you’re always gapped like that?

DANA: Well, in the end I managed to use it to my advantage. The other two were so sure I wouldn’t be a factor, they only marked each other. With a couple laps to go I realized that if I could possibly get my head together and not get dropped on the downhill on the final lap, I’d be in perfect position and have the element of surprise. So I just gritted my teeth and willed myself to just bomb the last descent and not get gapped, and it worked! I was tucked right in as we made the final corner! Heading up the hill toward the finish, seeing my brother and this guy watching each other, I decided to go early and see if I could get a big enough gap to hold it. So I went right up the fucking gutter and totally caught them napping—it must have seemed like I came out of nowhere. So now I was just going for the line, absolutely all-out, kind of channeling into my effort a lifetime of sibling rivalry and being bullied, so I didn’t care a whit if I pedaled so hard I ripped myself in half, and I was watching that finish line approach and just kind of begging it to come closer before I got caught. And to my shock and pure delight, finally I was over it and nobody had come around.

INTERVIEWER: Your victory salute was really something … a whole lot of whooping and punching the air. What was going on there?

DANA: To actually win, and against my big brother, and all these men, after having been so distraught at missing my start earlier, and to have success after so many fruitless years in this sport, particularly after my friends had kind of abandoned me since my sucking at racing apparently made me a dork … there’s just so much satisfaction in winning here, such a feeling of absolute vindication. It surpasses my wildest dreams. And now I get to give my brother so much shit, for the rest of our lives. I just wish I could go find that dickhead with the mustache and give him a hard time for bagging on me. I’d love to tell him, “I hope the rest of your race went better, not having to hear me breathe anymore because I dropped your ass.”

INTERVIEWER: I think you’d better head to the medical tent. You’re showing signs of acute testosterone poisoning.

DANA: Naw, I think I’m okay. I’m a teenager, these levels are normal for me!

Postscript

So, forty years on, is it the case I’ve given my brother endless shit about having beaten him in this race? Well, yes, but it hasn’t been quite as satisfying as I’d hoped: he maintains that he doesn’t remember it. At all. I find this astonishing. I mean, if I never brought it up until recently, yeah, that kind of makes sense, but I feel like I’ve reminded him a great number of times! I guess at the end of the day, this was just an unimportant local bike race, not any kind of championship or anything, so nobody would bother to remember it at all, much less care. Except me.

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Monday, April 29, 2024

Test Ride - Specialized Turbo Levo SL 2 Carbon E-Bike

Introduction

I almost called this post a “road test” like in “Car and Driver” magazine, as I did technically test the Specialized Turbo Levo SL 2 Comp Carbon on the road, or more precisely the street (but I don’t think “street test” is a thing). Obviously a trail test would have been better, as the Levo SL is a pure trail bike, but it’s also an e-bike, and the electronic aspect is the bigger deal. So the eight minutes you spend reading this will be worth it, trust me.


Overview

I suppose I should start by telling you what this bike is and what it purports to do. It’s an $8,000 motor-assisted mountain bike that provides “2x You” performance. That is, it’ll basically take your ability and double it. So, if the Stone Temple Pilots guy singing “Half the Man I Used to Be” bought this bike, he’d be made whole.

Since we’d all love to double our performance, it’s tempting to think this bike is for everyone—but it’s not. I learned about it through my friend R— who texted me about it and said, “Only level 3 coaches can get this bike.” He’s referring to the most advanced NICA high school mountain bike coaches, of which I happen to be one. But coaches shouldn’t ride e-bikes at all, and surely Specialized would sell this bike to anyone, wouldn’t they? R— can be cryptic in his texts and ignored my request for clarification, so I went to the Specialized website for more information.

The web page for the Turbo Levo SL 2 Comp Carbon explains that this bike is “for the trail rider who craves serpentine singletrack, sending it skyward, and lives for advancing your skills and fitness.” This confused me further. So, this trail rider, a third party, lives for advancing my skills and fitness? Lives for it? Really? Sounds kind of obsessed, like a stalker. Or maybe I’m just being deliberately dense, reluctant to acknowledge that this Specialized marketing person simply got stuck with that old pronoun problem, his vs. her vs. his/her vs. their, and didn’t want to be political. I can understand that. But this innovative switch from third person to second person could have been even more dramatic—how about switching to first person? “For the trailer rider who lives for advancing my skills and fitness.” I’d be like, your skills and fitness? Who are you?” And the marketing person would be like, “Exactly.” And I’d be scratching my head, like, “How did we get into a dialogue? It was just words on a page.” And you’re like, “Exactly.” (By “you’re” I mean the marketing person. Even if that isn’t you.)

So why is this bike $8,000? Well, they spared no expense to make it as awesome as possible. For example, they “stripped away the mass to keep the Levo SL lean and responsive.” Thank goodness. I hate it when a bike manufacturer leaves all that mass on there. So many bikes, especially e-bikes, just have big clumps of material, maybe it’s actually fat, and the bikes are sluggish. My Salsa backup road bike, though not electric, is just massive and clumpy. (I still love it though, like an oversized teddy bear.)

The Turbo Levo SL 2 Comp is loaded with innovation, such as having a 29-inch front wheel and a 27.5-inch rear. But it doesn’t stop there. Check this out: “If you prefer the rolling and traction benefits of a 29” rear wheel, just flip the pivot link chip and mount the big wheel.” The big wheel? Where would you get this big wheel? Does the bike come with two rear wheels? Or are we talking about the Big Wheel from the 1970s, i.e., this?


It’s a very confusing bike all around. Like, where does the name “Turbo” come from? Well, according to the website, this bike offers a “TURBO OPERATING SYSTEM.” So, I guess the way this works is that there’s a turbine powered by the exhaust system that enables the bike to suck in extra oxygen to mix with the fuel, so ... wait. I’m getting confused again. This bike is electric, not internal combustion. And “operating system” sounds like software. I guess they mean “TURBO” as in, just, really really good. I’m getting tired now, processing all this nuance, so I’m going to go make a sandwich. I’ve got fresh avocado and San Luis Sourdough so it’ll be a totally turbo sandwich!

Okay, I’m back. To round out the tech specs of the bike (before I get to the test ride itself), the website says this model has a “new kinematic with flatter leverage curve which provides more support and playfulness off the top, but plenty of control in rougher conditions.” What is “kinematic”? Wikipedia says kinematics is a “subfield of physics and mathematics” and offers this illustrative graphic:


So what does this “kinematic” have to do with bikes? I was a bit lost so I googled it, and found that this bike-themed web page mentions kinematics (albeit only once). I guess “kinematics” is kind of like “geometry” but that term is so dated, so pre-electric. I guess we should just absorb and acknowledge that a “new kinematic” is a good thing. As for the rest of that sentence, “playfulness off the top” and “flatter leverage curve” may have to do with a kicky, young, sexy woman who might be a little bit flat-chested. I mean, obviously the kinematic doesn’t literally have to do with that, but it’s just the feel of this thing. If this bike were a young woman she’d be playfully alluring and her name would be, like, Kylie. And you’d be dying to meet her. Wow. I can’t believe you just said all that. Who are you? (Besides, of course, a marketing person who understands that the majority of e-bike buyers are male.)

Speaking of which, it’s high time I stopped blathering about the Turbo Levo’s specs. I should get to the test ride itself.

The ride

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t have the proper shoes, or even a helmet, when I rode this bike. I hadn’t planned on riding it at all. I’d been at the pub with some pals, two of whom are cyclists. One, in fact, was R—, the fellow coach who’d alerted me to this bike. For once, we weren’t talking about bikes. We were talking about R—’s mentally ill neighbor who put padlocks on his garbage and recycling cans and constantly hassles everyone and at one point got right in his other neighbor’s face, yelled something like, “You wanna piece a me!?” and ripped off his shirt. (His own shirt, I should clarify.) I said, “In fairness, though, who among us hasn’t done that?” I know all this backstory has nothing to do with the Turbo Levo SL, but I’m just setting the stage here. Think “Deer Hunter.”


When it was time to head home, R— had a surprise for us: he’d gone out and bought himself the very Turbo Levo SL 2 Carbon I’ve been writing about. No, he won’t ride it on high school team mountain bike rides, because that would be cheating, and setting a bad example, and embarrassing himself because we coaches pride ourselves on being able to (more or less) keep up under our own power. R— uses the Turbo Levo for commuting across the Richmond Bridge to Marin County. The spanking new bike was locked right out front (with a lock worth more than an entry-level mountain bike, I’ll bet). He invited me to try it out and I didn’t hesitate.

I set off up Solano Ave, and right away discovered that the Turbo Levo really does have a new kinematic. In fart, wow … what a strange typo. I went to type “in fact,” and because I’m on the Dvorak keyboard layout, the “R” is right next to the “C,” so it’s a pretty predictable typo and I’m only surprised I haven’t made it before. And no, I’m not at the pub as I type this, I’ve actually only perhaps had too much coffee. So where was I? Oh yeah: the new kinematic. It was, in fact, so dramatic that some rando on the street corner yelled, “Nice kinematic!” Full disclosure, it wasn’t actually a total rando, it was M—, the owner of a local bike shop, whom I see at the pub sometimes. Well, okay, even that isn’t completely accurate: to be totally transparent with you, nobody on the street corner actually yelled anything. In truth there was nobody there. But that doesn’t change the fact that this bike’s kinematic really was breathtakingly novel and refreshing. Its flatter leverage curve and playfulness off the top had me whispering, “Come here, you.” (Naw, just kidding. That was actually you.)

Well. If you’ve ever ridden an e-bike, particularly the Class 3 type (click here for details) that simply add to your power as you pedal, it’s a pretty awesome experience. Instead of pushing a button or operating a motorcycle-style throttle to engage the motor, you just pedal along as though you were on a regular bike, but you go way faster, still in accordance with your effort. So it rides a lot like a regular bike, except you feel like you’re young again, and impressively strong. Naturally I wanted to intensify this experience. Instead of going only 15 or 20 mph, I wanted to steam up Solano Ave at like 25. So I shifted up.

The SRAM GX Eagle AXS wireless electronic shifting is smooth and precise and I would have been very impressed, except the button I pressed did exactly the opposite of what I wanted it to. It shifted me into an impossibly large cog in the back (the cassette being a 10-52). This made for such a low gear, there was nothing for the motor to do as I spun ineffectually at a comically high cadence, my speed dropping woefully. It was like all the wind suddenly vanished from my sails. Now I was mincing along pathetically and getting nothing out of the electric assist. If I weren’t such a mature, unflappable type I might have started crying. I fumbled around with my thumb trying to find the up-shift button but could not. I pulled over, frustrated. I will not say this is a criticism of the SRAM GX Eagle, since this was my first time using it, but it is a bit odd I’ve never struggled with this kind of thing before in my life. Perhaps I was a bit light-headed from having to adapt to the new kinematic.

There wasn’t enough light to see the controls, as I live in the kind of upscale community that doesn’t need to supply powerful streetlamps. Plus, my eyes are going. I have this irrational fear of already getting cataracts. I think it’s happened to all us 50-somethings. You should see my home: it seems like every week my wife brings home a new area lamp. As much as I squinted I couldn’t discern a second button. I got out my smartphone and struggled to unlock it. The fingerprint reader is pretty tricky and the facial recognition scanner even more so, especially in low light. (I really wish Samsung had gone for a TURBO OPERATING SYSTEM on this phone.) Finally I got the torch feature going, and found the up-shift button. Tech tip: it’s right above the down-shift button.

Based on what you’ve read of my test ride so far, you might be wondering at this point how much I’d had to drink. I want to assure you that, like all those who appreciate quality, I enjoy it responsibly. Was I tipsy? Well, of course, a bit … I mean, it was boys’ night out after all. But was I, to borrow a phrase from James Acaster, “hella tipsy”? I was not. Four of us had shared two pitchers (not counting the one that mostly gone when I arrived) and one of them was Trumer Pils, noted for its 4.9% ABV content and very flat leverage curve. Plus, I’d had two dinners right before meeting my pals. (One dinner was at the new pizza joint that, obviously, has miniscule portions.)

Now that I’d mastered the shifting, things got real, real good. I won’t say I could feel the difference with the 27.5-inch rear wheel—the “compact chainstay and super responsive behavior” weren’t prominent—but I did have that warm, relaxing sense that with this bike I’d never need to wonder if it would be wise to rotate the tires occasionally (which would be a hassle since they’re tubeless ). I’m also not sure I was fully appreciating the “low bottom bracket, slack headtube angle, and reduced fork offset” because I was just riding on a city street, not shredding singletrack ‘gnar, but the important thing about this bike is that it was fast, easy to pedal, and probably made me look really, really cool particularly because I wasn’t even wearing a helmet, mine being locked to my 3-speed back at the pub. For that reason, and because I didn’t want R— to think I’d made off with his superfly new ride, I made a nice sweeping U-turn in front of Gordo’s taqueria and made my way back to my pals. I cruised up the sidewalk and … WTF? Where did they go, and who were these randos standing out front?

As it turns out, the two randos were R— and H—. Even though they were right where I expected to find them, the fact is I didn’t recognize them. And they were behaving strangely, staring right at me as if they wanted something. For a moment I felt an impulse to rip my shirt off and yell, “You wanna piece a me!?” but it passed. R— was wearing a new helmet and maybe that’s what threw me off. Or maybe, just maybe, the Turbo Levo SL 2 is that special kind of bike that makes you see the world differently. Okay, thinking through this a bit more I guess that’s probably not it, since I have long believed myself to be face blind. My struggle probably had nothing to do with the bike.

Well, it was kind of sad climbing aboard my 3-speed Triumph commuter bike after that. I call this bike the Arseless, short for Arseless Horse, after the hero’s bike in A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle. The Arseless is so old (older, even, than I) and has been so neglected, it probably wouldn’t even roll downhill if you didn’t pedal. All its bearings are practically seized. None of its mass has been stripped away, and it doesn’t even have an operating system. But I couldn’t help but to ponder, as I pedaled my way home, that the difference between this bike and the Turbo Levo SL 2 is a lot less than the difference between a bicycle and nothing. The Arseless cost just $65 (albeit secondhand), practically nothing compared to the $8,000 Turbo Levo, but both of them are infinitely superior to walking. In the final analysis—to quote the Irish cycling champ Sean Kelly—“a bike’s a bike.”

Postscript

Lighthearted mockery aside, I love Specialized bikes. I still have an old Stumpjumper; I bought my daughter a Stumpjumper M2 for her first mountain bike; and I met my wife at the bike shop where I sold her the Rockhopper Comp she still rides. The Turbo Levo SL 2 Carbon is an amazing bike and if you’re looking for an e-bike, you should totally buy it. Just don’t ride it on no-e-bikes-allowed trails (which I think ought to be most of them ... but that’s another post).

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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Can We Unplug our Kids?

Introduction

A new book is out, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, by the N.Y.U. professor Jonathan Haidt. Both The New York Times and The New Yorker have reviewed it recently, here and here respectively. The book decries the effect of social media and constant smartphone use—citing their role in widespread anxiety, depression, and other mental-health disorders—among Gen Z. As the Times sums it up, “Mr. Haidt lays out an ambitious set of interventions in his new book, which include: no smartphones before high school, no social media before age 16 and no phones in schools.” With regard to these goals, the New Yorker writer declares, “All of these strike me as not just reasonable but irrefutably necessary. What is less clear is whether there is enough collective and institutional will to accomplish them.”

But what if society cannot make these adaptations? Is the next generation doomed, or can parents reverse this digital tide and create appropriate boundaries for their children? Can iconoclastic families go it alone and not get swept up in this modern miasma? The answer, I can tell you from experience, is yes. That’s what this post is about.

How parents are complicit

As is typical, the New Yorker review wasn’t so much a review of the book but an examination of its overall topic: the mental health crisis faced by Gen Z, and the role of the Internet, social media, and smartphones in it. The New Yorker writer cited the role parents play in this quagmire:

By the time that smartphones and social media were becoming omnipresent, in the late two-thousands and early twenty-tens, children were also spending less and less time engaged in unstructured, largely unsupervised play with their peers. This deprivation owed to their parents’ concerns for their safety—a fretfulness known as “safetyism”—and to a competitive, college-fixated mind-set that prioritized adult-led, résumé-building, and “enrichment” activities. Unaccompanied kids doing normal kid things like walking home from school or visiting a playground became conspicuous, strange, perhaps even the subject of a 911 call or a C.P.S. investigation.

It’s disconcerting to see how helicopter parenting and Internet technologies have dovetailed such that parents cannot resist not only allowing but expecting their kids to have smartphones. It’s a true codependence. Kids are willing to surrender their autonomy by letting their parents track them; in return, kids get unfettered access to a virtual realm that distracts them from the real world, to say the least. Meanwhile, parents (perhaps succumbing to FOMO) set poor examples by being glued to their own smartphones as well … maybe not engrossed in Instagram and Snapchat, but in their doom-filled “feeds,” which is probably worse.

Well, not me. You may find this annoying, but I shall now explain how I’ve not only eschewed all this, but successfully opted my kids out of it for their entire childhoods. If you still have young children, perhaps you can find some inspiration here.

My Internet & phone policy

Almost eleven years ago, arguably before the Gen Z mental-health crisis was widely acknowledged, I blogged about my concern that smartphones, with their steady stream of engrossing social traffic and bite-sized entertainment content, were teaching our kids impatience. I proposed three ways parents could combat this: 1) set the right example; 2) work deliberately to teach patience; and 3) don’t let your teens have cellphones or social media accounts. I wrote that post when my older daughter was twelve; I hope a few readers at that time chuckled at my pledge and assumed I’d fall short of actually enforcing it. Here’s how it actually went.

As I explained in a later post, I think every family should have an Internet acceptable use policy, just like corporations do, and here is the one my wife and I laid out from Day One:

  • No social media as long as you’re under our roof
  • No video gaming (the exception being, briefly, an arithmetic game assigned for school)
  • Limits on video entertainment
  • No Internet after 9:00 p.m.
  • No cellphone until high school
  • No smartphone until college

This wasn’t just aspirational; we stuck to our guns. On our home WiFi network, I blocked all social media for all users, other than allowing LinkedIn for myself. (I use it as a digital Rolodex.) I blocked all video gaming as well (the only wrinkle being that my firewall erroneously blocked https://www.aerobie.com/ which isn’t video gaming but for outdoor products like Frisbees; I had to whitelist that one).  Until they were in middle school, my daughters had to log their Internet time on paper, noting when they were online and for what purpose. The idea wasn’t to give me reason to cut them off, per se, but rather to get them thinking about their use vs. letting it be as automatic as a smoker lighting up.

To make video less appealing, I throttled the bandwidth down to 250 kbps, which is a trickle by modern standards—it turned YouTube (etc.) into a pointillist slide show. This wasn’t quite effective enough, so I monitored the usage and blocked specific sites as needed, including gostream, watchcartoonsonline, 123movies, gogomovies, and dailymotion. (I did eventually increase the bandwidth allocation during the COVID-19 pandemic, to support video conferencing.)

I configured my WiFi network to shut off my daughters’ Internet at 9:00 p.m., to start with. My daughters were on separate networks, so later on I changed the older one’s cutoff to 10:00 p.m. When they reached high school and used the Internet for a majority of their class assignments, I allowed them to request an extension on an ad hoc basis if they had a paper to write or something. Eventually, I moved out the shutoff time to 11. So I guess maybe I caved a little on that one.

Meanwhile, as strict as my cellphone policy may seem to you, I really did apply it. I’m not going to lie: my older daughter was not a fan of this aspect of my parenting. She often entreated me to relent. On one occasion, I asked her, “Why is it that you even want a phone? How would that benefit you?” She replied, “Well, it could lead to greater freedom. I could go to more places by myself, and you and Mom wouldn’t have to worry.”  I told her that our merely knowing where she is won’t keep her out of trouble, and added, “Besides, if your parents can reach you whenever they want, that’s not really freedom at all.  Freedom is having enough trust that we don’t need to know where you are.”

Against her protests, I held firm and didn’t get her a cellphone until high school, and even then it was a cheesy feature phone I bought on the cheap from Amazon. I was curious to see how much texting she’d end up doing, and it turned out to be almost none: she basically scrapped the phone entirely. Part of the reason is that it embarrassed her by ringing randomly when she was in class. The ringer volume wasn’t actually adjustable, as far as we could ever figure out, and she struggled to silence it while her classmates laughed. The situation worsened as she struggled to find, in the phone settings, where to turn off the ringer. This phone was so weirdly designed that as you pressed its buttons it would read out the name of each function, as though the user were blind. Some words were pronounced with a British accent; others were in this very annoying, braying female American voice. Our entire family enjoyed mimicking how the phone would sternly yell out, “SETTINGS.” This phone was a complete dud. I only ever received one text from it: “This Is A Message For Dad. Maybe You Can Reply!”

Perhaps with her sister’s experience in mind, my younger daughter never did show any interest in a cellphone. So all through high school, she had nothing.

The result

So how did this work out? Were my unsupervised daughters abducted and sold into slavery? Did they get lost somewhere, for lack of GPS, and never turn up? Did they become total pariahs, scorned by their peers for not being tech-savvy? Or have they made up for lost time and become utterly enslaved by the technology, having not been inoculated against it during their formative years?

The results were a bit mixed. Only one of my daughters was abducted. Kidding! In seriousness, my younger daughter totally embraced the non-digital life. In fact, I have a very fond memory of something I overheard (from the next room) when she had a bunch of friends over for dinner. They were gathered around the table and my daughter said, “Dammit, P—, put away your phone now!”

My older daughter, other than being embarrassed by her feature phone as described above, didn’t tend to complain unless she happened to overhear me describing my family’s draconian policies to another parent. My smug anti-tech priggishness was as annoying to her then as this blog post surely is to you now. But she made do throughout high school without social media, gaming, or a phone, and when she got a smartphone the summer before leaving for college (so we could have some visibility into her nascent habits), she appreciated the utility without getting totally dragged into the virtual-first life. She’s never glued to her phone, at least in her mom’s and my presence. As far as I know, the only social media she’s on is Instagram, and she says she only posts occasionally. (I’ll take her word for it.)

I will say that I do a lot of texting with my older daughter these days—far more than I’d ever expected. But I still don’t think I’m setting a bad example; for one thing, she knows not to expect an immediate response, and I don’t either. Also, the majority of our texts fall into just a few categories: photos of my cat from me to her; the daily exchange of our Wordle scores & snapshots; the occasional snapshot from a bike ride, hike, etc. That’s really about it. The social media culture of broadcasting a curated version of yourself and hoping for a lot of likes does not enter the equation.

As for my younger daughter, she’s now in college, and she still doesn’t have a smartphone. My wife exhorted her to accept one (we’d even pay the bill), but got nowhere. Our daughter eventually agreed to accept a prepaid feature phone (albeit a decent one that doesn’t yell “SETTINGS”). For roughly 90% of her two years at college, the phone has been lost. (I think she’s on her third one … good thing they’re cheap!) For the remaining 10% of the time, the phone has mostly been powered off. If we propose a phone call over the weekend, and our daughter remembers, she’ll turn it on and call us. I periodically ask her if her offline approach has caused any social friction. She maintains that it hasn’t and doesn’t. During her freshman year, in the dorms, she said, “It’s great—the only way people can reach me is to come knock on my door, so I never have to make plans—I just get whisked away.”

The bonus effect

The Internet/phone policy my wife and I devised was based on a few principles: a) nobody should be glued to a screen; b) virtual life should not take priority over real life; c) nobody should be on a social dopamine drip, craving constant affirmation from a wide but shallow network of quasi-friends; and d) we should all avoid the shrinking of our attention span that is afforded and ultimately created by these technologies. My wife and I have been very satisfied with the outcome as we look at our adult daughters’ online behavior.

We perhaps took for granted how important it also was to eschew the safetyism described earlier in this post: the impulse for parents to monitor their children’s whereabouts and activities through their phones, almost like a digital leash. That safetyism washes both ways, I think: the offspring learn not only to expect but to accept and even welcome their parents’ supervision and assistance. Of course kids can text (etc.) their friends for support, but these friends are a shared resource among a wider group, whereas parents are fully invested in their children and ready to bend over backwards. I’ve talked to several parents who were kind of surprised at how closely their kids kept in touch during college, via texting etc. … even to the point where these parents became a bit concerned about the kids’ lack of autonomy.

I think it’s worse when a parent isn’t worried about a lack of autonomy. A few weeks ago my wife and I enjoyed a getaway with a few other couples at a glorious guest house near the ocean. We were out on this back deck taking in the first really sunny day of spring, nibbling fancy snacks and enjoying a rambling conversation, except for one guest, a friend of a friend. She was on her phone the entire time, which I originally took for shyness (she know only one person there) but which turned out to be a crisis her son was having that she was trying to mitigate. If it had been a real crisis, of course she should have gone off to a private place and phoned him. But it was just the unfolding drama of the kid believing he’d just flunked a college Statistics midterm. To the kid and his mom this was an absolute disaster that threatened to unravel his entire future. Every twenty minutes we’d get an unsolicited update from the mom. “He needs this class to graduate!” she cried out at one point. I replied, “Maybe he should change his major to Drama.” I realized in saying this that I was burning to the ground any chance of ever getting to know this person better, not just for myself but for all those who burst out laughing. But I don’t regret it.

And that’s an effect of this no-phone policy that I hadn’t expected or consicously intended: that it would make my kids more autonomous and resilient. My wife and I haven’t become these de facto fixers who are just a quick digital poke away. Curious as to how true this assessment truly is, I fact-checked myself by going through all my texts and emails from my daughters, to compile the instances of them reaching out for help. Here’s what I came up with:

Daughter A:

  • A request to order her a sketchbook (before I’d given her my Amazon login)
  • A photo of some well-cleaned road rash (doesn’t appear I replied), either to ask how she did or just to flex
  • A solicitation for money (before we worked out a standard practice of 80% reimbursement for necessities, payable several times a year upon request)
  • An email on March 10, 2020 telling my wife and me to suspend our plan to visit over spring break: “There is a very real possibility that there won’t be classes next quarter due to the coronavirus.” (I thought she was crazy … this was about a week before the pandemic asserted its grip on everyone’s lives.)
  • A request to review an English paper
  • An invitation to an awards ceremony, the day before graduation, for exceptional academic performance
  • A request to review a cover letter for a job application

Daughter B:

  • The following requests sent via text: “I’d like another pillow and something to microwave tea in”; “Tell freya I said hi”; “whats the water to rice ratio again”; “Could you give me tha grandmas phone number?”
  • An email request for some books needed for a class that aren’t available at the bookstore
  • A request for my “Southwestern corn goo” recipe
  • A request for money (i.e., to settle up, as described above)
  • This text: “yo could you send me the link/give me the name to your party megamix and other music collections you’ve made?  I’m looking to expand my list”
  • An email asking how to send a camera in for repairs

This isn’t to say my wife and I are totally immune to the impulse toward safetyism. In my case, sometimes I text my younger daughter and when I don’t get a reply (i.e., most of the time), I think, “Dang, I hope she didn’t lose her phone again.” For my wife’s part, she does worry, being a mom after all. She’ll say of our younger daughter, “I haven’t heard from her in like a week and a half. I hope nothing’s happened.” I’m always very supportive, reminding her that in the vast majority of cases, when a college kid doesn’t respond to her parents it’s because she’s been abducted, either by human traffickers or space aliens. I also reminder my wife that this daughter was on the wrestling team: “I pity the fool who messes with her—she’ll go full Hunger Games on they ass.”

Conclusion

If you have young children or teenagers, you don’t need to wait for Jonathan Haidt’s proposed utopia to become reality, such that all of society embraces limits on digital culture. If you have the chutzpah to decry this modern tend toward safetyism, and you have the rapport and authority with your kids to impose limits of your own, you don’t have to wait around and hope that society corrects. You can carve out a family culture, starting right now, that doesn’t put your kids at the mercy of for-profit technocrats. Yes, you’ll have to give up the irresistible prospect of remotely babysitting your teenagers, but after all, you came out okay … right?

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Sunday, April 14, 2024

From the Archives - So We Missed the Eclipse

Introduction

I initially drafted this post back when my older daughter, A—, was home for Thanksgiving the year she moved away for college (but before COVID-19 brought her temporarily home again). I took advantage of her being around to query her on something close to my heart: what I should blog about next. (For me, coming up with a topic is, hands-down, the hardest part of being a blogger.) So long as she responded, this would be a can’t-lose situation: I might get a useable topic, and either way we’d have a meaty conversation.

In this case, I got both! Her topic? How our family missed out on doing anything fun around the total solar eclipse back in August of 2017. “I have a lot to say on that,” my daughter declared. So I grabbed my laptop to take notes, and we had a nice dialogue, which became a blog post. But for some reason, I never posted it. Now, with another eclipse have recently transpired, I’ve decided to remedy that.

Why would you read this? Maybe you are a father, or are going to be. Maybe you’re a daughter or son, or used to be. Or, maybe you care about astronomy, eclipses, or just science in general. Or perhaps you just hope I can make you laugh. As always, I’ll do my best.

By the way, this is the one photo I snapped from last Monday’s eclipse:


So we missed the eclipse – Nov 13, 2019

We didn’t entirely miss the eclipse but we sure didn’t get the most out of it. As I described in these pages at the time, I was totally disorganized and hadn’t thought up any great way to see it. My wife and I were vaguely aware that people were traveling to rural Oregon to experience the full effect, but we weren’t too keen on braving any crowds.

(By the way, here is the photo that pops up when you do a Google Maps search on Culver City. The 2017 eclipse has evidently put the place on the map.)


After the eclipse was over, that evening, my wife and I noticed that A— seemed glum. We tried to draw her out, to figure out the problem. College prep worries? A falling out with a friend? Finally I said, half-jokingly, “Is it the eclipse?” My daughter almost smiled. “It is, actually,” she said, a bit sheepishly. She was touring the Internet reading about the eclipse and came across Randall Munroe’s xkcd cartoon about it. If you hover your mouse over the cartoon you get an extra caption: “It was—without exaggeration—the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” Munroe is to my daughter what Justin Bieber is to most teenage girls, so this was a profound statement. It was dawning on my daughter just how much she’d missed out on by having a deadbeat, incurious, non-science-y dad. Little did I realize my daughter would bring this up, two years later, in one of our first real conversations since she went off to college.

DA. Okay, so yeah… we missed the eclipse. We could have traveled to see it but we didn’t. In my defense, you had not indicated any particular interest.

AA. I just thought that was one of those things you’d figure out. My friends’ parents booked hotels in advance and I expected you had a plan. I figured that as the offspring of a rocket scientist you would be interested in it the same way I was. You’d seen stuff like that as a kid … your dad had done so much when the eclipse came through your town.

[My late father was literally a rocket scientist.]

DA. At what point did it dawn on you I wasn’t stepping up?

AA. Well, when my friends were talking about their plans I started to realize we probably weren’t doing anything. But I wasn’t too disappointed because I thought it would probably be one of those lame things like “Oh, your shadow’s a different color,” where you have to try to feel impressed by it. Or maybe I was being all skeptical just so I would be disappointed.

DA. So it never occurred to you to speak up and let me know you had interest.

AA. I think I mentioned it in passing. But I wanted to seem chill, like I didn’t really care, you know. It wouldn’t be very “cool teen” of me to say, “Hey, we should build a vacation around this!”

DA: But you’re bringing it up now, so clearly you’re a little bitter.

AA: Yes, I’m bitter.

DA: So does this reflect on my parenting?

AA: More than anything else you’ve ever done in your life. This is what will come out on the therapist’s couch in twenty years. It’s what led me down the road to academic ruin.

(This “academic ruin” comment is my daughter having a bit of fun. Decades ago, my brothers and I were in our dad’s car, along with his second wife, and as we passed by Bear Creek Elementary School our dad said to her, “There’s the school that led my boys down the road to academic ruin.” This comment produced only awkward silence at the time, but ever since my brothers and I trot it out routinely, along with other famous Dad-isms like, “You’re not very bright, are you.” After our Thanksgiving dinner the other night, I took a walk with my wife and daughters, and as we passed by their old elementary school, I said to my wife, “There’s the school that led our kids down the road to academic”—here I paused for effect and to feel my daughters’ glare, and then continued—“glory.”)

DA: How much of this eclipse remorse is just envy of your friends, a FOMO thing?

AA: It’s one of those bucket list things, a cultural phenomenon, like this mass pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest where everyone can all be there for the same reason … but we just sat at home, not doing that, just being lame.

DA: Are both your parents equally culpable?

AA: No, it’s more you, because this was more your area, with your rocket scientist dad and everything, so you should have seen this as a bonding opportunity.

DA: Did it occur to you that astronomy was not something that brought my dad and me together?

AA: Well, it was an interest he had that I thought you might share. Anyone can appreciate an eclipse whether or not you know much about it.

DA: So it never occurred to you that science in general, and astronomy in particular, was a sore spot where my dad was concerned…

AA: I didn’t know your dad ruined astronomy for you … I thought it was the other way around!

(Here I need to provide some more background. My wife, you see, is famous within our family for having “ruined astronomy.” Here is the whole story, as recounted in my 2017 eclipse post:

Back in like ‘97 we were vacationing at Canyonlands National Park and my dad joined us. We went to this very remote place, far away from any lights or people, and my dad set up his telescope. For the next 2 or 3 hours (or so it felt) he gave us an astronomy lesson. I’m not a great lover of this subject myself; the only constellations I can make out are the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt. To a simple guy like me, the constellations seem like such bullshit. It takes so much imagination for this or that collection of stars to resemble something, you might as well just make it up from scratch. “There’s the Devil’s Skateboard over there, you see, and if you follow that line of stars up—there, you see that cluster there? That’s Dracula’s Harelip.” So anyhow, my dad’s lesson was losing me entirely, I was suffering from museum knees, and then my wife heard a noise and turned on a flashlight to make a quick scan around us. “Thanks a lot,” my dad chided, “you just ruined astronomy.” (The flashlight beam had spoiled our night vision, you see.) I’ll never let my wife live this down. If she ever suffers a setback I say, “Well, you are the woman who ruined astronomy.”)

 AA: An eclipse isn’t like being lectured to … you could reclaim astronomy for yourself instead of associating it with boredom.

(At this point, my younger daughter L— happened to wander by.)

DA: L—, are you at all disappointed that we didn’t do anything to see the eclipse?

LA: What eclipse? I don’t remember. I don’t care about eclipses.

DA (to A— again): So here’s the thing. When I pointed out Orion’s belt to you, I mentioned that it’s my favorite constellation because it’s so simple and easy to see. So did you really take me for a guy who cared about astronomy? How science-y have you taken me to be, historically?

AA: I think you’re non-science-y as a deliberate act. You’re a smart guy and you’re good at math, so it’s almost like you’re trying not to care, like you want to act like it’s not a big deal because you have these negative associations…

DA: Associations based on …?

AA: On your dad, because he always lectured and made you feel lame, and small, and insignificant, and inferior.

DA: So you totally do get that he kind of ruined astronomy for me.

AA: Yes, but I thought this could be your chance to make it yours, to get it right, like a do-over. Like your entire family, Mom and L— are I, are your do-over. And this is why you’re so sorry to see me move away, because this family was your chance to have that positive father-child relationship, and now that’s coming to an end somewhat.

DA: But obviously I want you to go off to college.

AA: Yeah, but now your world is shrinking and something is coming to an end. Of course, our relationship is stronger [than what you had with your dad] which means you got it right.

DA: Do you think there’s anything pathological in my do-over thing?

AA: No, that’s totally natural, that’s the American dream, to give your kids better than what you had.

DA: Well, I certainly want to say that I didn’t become a father just to have a do-over. I wanted to have kids from so early on, I hadn’t yet realized there was anything wrong with my family. I still thought my dad was The Man.

AA: Well, yeah, that was a complex relationship, thinking your dad was The Man.

DA: But don’t all kids think their dad is The Man?

AA: Yes, but then you had to realize over time that this wasn’t a guy just to imitate like so many kids end up doing … that you had to figure out what was wrong with his parenting and not repeat that. I remember early on, when I was a little kid, how you told us that whenever you were trying to figure out how to be a good father you’d think of what your dad would do, and do the opposite.

DA: I’m a little surprised I would say that … I must have been sleep-deprived.

AA: Well, you wrote it in my journal.

(Yes, I had written something pretty scathing in her childhood journal but won’t print here. When I wrote it, on the occasion of my first Father’s Day as a father, I was definitely sleep-deprived and grumpy, but of course I could have revised it later and toned it down. But my judgment, though harsh, wasn’t wrong and I let it stand.)

DA: Well, in terms of doing the opposite of my dad, failing to get excited about the eclipse was at least consistent. My dad’s efforts around that Boulder eclipse were the rare example of him going above and beyond. There’s no way I could have come close to matching that. I don’t know how to rig up a telescope eclipse projector or make pieces of smoked glass to view the eclipse through. Of course I did have the resources to take you to where the eclipse was happening, but it didn’t occur to me you were interested. It just never came up. I didn’t even know that Uncle Bryan’s family was traveling to see it. We could have all gathered together for it … somehow we just never touched base on the whole thing. What a wasted opportunity.

AA. I thought it was one of those things where it’d be cool if it had been your idea.

DA: But you didn’t get really upset until you read what Randall Munroe said about it.

AA: Well, that was the icing on the cake, one more person saying this was an amazing experience.

DA: And a real authority too.

AA: Yes, a guy who has probably seen all kinds of cool science things but thought this was exceptional.

DA: You pointed out earlier that my dad’s lecturing made me feel small and insignificant … and I think it’s interesting that that’s exactly what looking at the stars is purported to do: to make us realize our insignificance.

AA: Yes, but in a way that doesn’t involve the ego. Stargazing is the broad and nihilistic way of feeling small, where there’s nothing we can do about it, nothing anybody can do. Knowing about rockets doesn’t matter, this is too vast. Ego is like people vs. people, whereas the heavens remind us we’re all small and insignificant, so there’s no point butting heads over it.

DA: I think that’s a passive way of appreciating nature’s grandeur, but I like an active way of fully experiencing nature’s power by butting up against it. I’m talking here about—

AA: Biking?

DA: Yes, about tackling a mountain on my bicycle to appreciate its sheer size and power, but without totally submitting. I’m putting myself against it, and though the mountain will be always be larger than me, I’m better for having flung myself at it.

AA: But there’s no way to actively fight the universe like that. Not even an astronaut can scratch the surface, and there’s nothing you can ever do in your life to take it on. An analogy I can make is that my friend is a math major at MIT so she knows a lot of math people, and most of them prefer applied math, because you can put it to use, so you’re, like, wielding it. But my friend prefers pure math, which is so heady most people will never understand the concepts or make any headway, so for her it’s like an art form, like beauty for its own sake, because the math has this unattainability. So she appreciates it in a different way, like we would appreciate music and other things that aren’t so concrete. Most people are more interested in things we can apply, because it makes us feel more powerful, more in control, more like “We’ve got this.”

DA: But you like tackling mountains.

AA: I like both realms. The attainable one is just easier. It’s easier to find the applications that give us that control. Chemistry is about what we can observe, what we can measure, experiments we can conduct, whereas astronomy can help us feel that awe, that cosmic awe. That’s the name of my band: Cosmic Awe.

DA: You’re in a band?

AA: My hypothetical band. Obviously.

DA: Had you shown this love of awe before the eclipse, and I just didn’t see it?

AA: Everybody appreciates that awe. I assumed you did too.

DA: It’s one thing to be awake to it, another entirely to plan a big road trip to go seek it. You know that I love the power of nature, apparently more than a lot of people around here who never take advantage of our regional parks, and cycling (especially mountain biking) is how I indulge that. That’s a lot easier than heading all the way to Oregon.

AA: But Oregon is more special, the rarity of this occurrence makes that worth the trip.

DA: Fair enough. So … the next full solar eclipse is in Austin, Texas in 2024. Let’s plan on it.

AA: Yes, let’s!

[Oops. That obviously didn’t happen. But at least my daughter, now a full adult living on her own, was complicit in not getting around to doing anything for it. At least we exchanged photos.  Maybe we’ll head up to Montana for the next one, in 2044! Check these pages in a couple decades for a full report.]

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2024 Paris-Roubaix

Introduction

Sometimes the infamous “Hell of the North” classic cycling race Paris-Roubaix is held on Easter, which is tricky if I’m supposed to be entertaining guests and/or my children. This year the only obstacle to my watching—and reporting—live is my own sloth, since it’s 6 a.m. on a Sunday. But I’m up, and have my coffee, strong coffee in fact, and that means (as usual) I won’t be pulling any punches in this blow-by-blow report. If a rider is a known doper I’ll give you that background (with all appropriate vitriol); ditto if somebody’s helmet is goofy and needs to be ridiculed. This is the (low) level of journalistic integrity you can expect. Also: if Riley Sheehan (Israel-Premier Tech), who finished 13th in the Tour of Flanders last week, does absolutely anything in this race, I’ll zero in on him, for two reasons: 1) I used to race with his dad, Clark; and 2) ‘Mer’ca!


2024 Paris-Roubaix

Here is the course map:


Wow. Isn’t it funny how pointless the race seems, from that perspective? I mean, it doesn’t really go anywhere, it just snakes around as if by random. That map as so complicated, the race is already hard.

As I join the action, there’s a breakaway with Nils Politt (UAE Team Emirates) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), along with some Swedish guy. They’ve got about 20 seconds with about 70 km to go in the race.

“Danish,” Bob Roll says. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I say Swedish?” Phil Liggett says. Oh dear. Not these two again. I was hoping for the Eurosport guys, but then I’m watching on Peacock so this is what I get. If you come across any errors in this report, you can blame them on Phil. That gives me a lot of journalistic liberty, I now realize. Hmmmm.

They’re on a four-star section of cobbles. These ratings, by the way, are from Yelp users. I just read one of the reviews of this sector: “Pretty good rocks, not too slippery, and free Coke refills, but the riders were kinda rude lol.”

Whoa, a crash! Look carefully, it’s the background there. Some guy named Van Dijke.


The breakaway has been absorbed as though by an adult diaper. The peloton is very absorbent.

“They’re picking up the dust, and it’s getting through to the tires, from the looks of it,” Phil says. His voice is so agreeable, so confident and authoritative, it’s tempting to ascribe some meaning to his words … but so often I cannot.

Bob’s delivery has this chipper, upbeat flavor that is pleasant to listen to, but doesn’t really highlight the drama. I can so easily picture him narrating an elementary school crafts activity. “Well, it looks like they’re going to be doing papier-mâché, based on the newspaper strips and the balloons,” he’d say cheerfully.

Now Politt and Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) are off the front but they won’t get very far. The much-touted favorite today is last week’s Tour of Flanders winner Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), who has been so ballyhooed, I’d like to see someone else win just to make things more interesting.

OMG, Van der Poel must have heard me because he goes right to the front and drills it! How is he hearing me? Is his directeur sportif reading this report as I type it, through Van der Poel’s earpiece? That must be it.


And just like that, he has a massive gap!


Could he endure, solo, for 57 km? Yeah, probably. This year we saw Tadej Pogacar solo for 80 km in the Strade Bianche race (with a little help from his friends, and I don’t mean teammates). I’m not saying Van der Poel isn’t clean, mind you. But his dominance would be more believable if he weren’t breathing through his fricking nose. I mean, come on.


I don’t know, though. A 57 km solo breakaway? I mean, wouldn’t he get lonely? Is this some COVID aftermath thing where Van der Poel has forgotten how to socialize?

“They’re trying to chase but they’re soooooooo tired,” Phil says. I think he’s projecting. Why would they be particularly tired, this far from the finish? They’re professionals, and they’re not 80 years old.

The gap is out to 25 seconds with 53 km left. You know what? I’m tired of Van der Poel. And I don’t like his socks. They’re too tall, like the tube socks I wore in the ‘80s.


Tom Pidcock (Ineos Granadiers) is just sitting on the back of this disorganized, disheveled chase group. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in mountain biking and a cyclocross world champion, so I’d hoped he could figure in this race, but apparently not.


Is the chase group really “disheveled”? No, I confess it’s not, particularly. That was poetic license. I’m trying to keep myself awake because this race has gotten so boring.

“He’s the world champion, Van der Poel,” Phil says, as if helpfully. Yeah, Phil, I know what the rainbow stripes on his jersey mean. I think most cycling fans understand the difference between the world champion’s jersey and, say, the pride flag. (Van der Poel isn’t gay, as far as I know—I don’t pay attention to the riders’ personal lives.)

Come to think of it, I wish I were on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter that all journalists will always refer to as “X, the platform formerly known as Twitter,” because X is a stupid name) because then I could X (is that a verb, or do we still say “tweet”?) some irresponsible things like, “Amazing breakaway—will Van der Poel be the first gay winner of Paris-Roubaix?” That might get some traction because it would be perceived as the only interesting thing about this race today. (The difficulty in expressing facetiousness in such a short form is one of the main reasons I don’t do social media.)

“He’s just adjusted his cleats, and now he’s taking the corner!” Phil says. Bob replies with a chuckle, “Well, he’s not tightening the screws on his shoes, of course, but he is scorching this course.” I am not making this up. That verbal exchange did just happen. It’s so funny … these guys remind me of an old married couple, where the husband is always diplomatically saying, with a little good-natured head shake, “What my wife means to say is…”

Van der Poel’s lead is out to 1:31 and he’s still breathing through his nose. If that lead starts to drop, and gets down below like 20 seconds, all he’ll have to do is open his mouth, and that’ll be like firing the afterburners and his lead will go right back out again. Imagine how confident he must feel, knowing he’s got that Ace card up his sleeve if his legs ever start to hurt.


“Should he have a mechanical, his team car is right there,” Bob explains helpfully in case there are any idiots watching. I guess Bob is running out of things to say. And in fairness, that’s not really his fault. It’s gotten to the point that nobody even needs to say “Van der Poel” anymore, it’s just “he” because there’s really nobody else important in the narrative anymore. If you’ve read Wolf Hall, that’s the same narrative style that Hilary Mantel uses … throughout the book she never says “Thomas Cromwell,” only “he” and “him.” That’s why it’s so important to get our personal pronouns right … in case we ever become important enough to referred to only by them. Can you believe I’m rambling on about literature and pronouns? Trust me, it’s more interesting than this race.


How’s this for a headline: “Van der Poel crushes Paris-Roubaix … but does he have a crush on Pidcock?” I know that’s irresponsible. Pidcock isn’t gay, as far as I know, but without some kind of intrigue I’m going to give up on this race completely.

His lead is up to 1:46, which is actually interesting because I’m talking about Cromwell now. No I’m not. It’s Van der Poel, Van der Poel, Van der Poel. Blah blah blah.

He reaches sector #4, which would be good news if the numbers went up, but they don’t, they decrement. So he has just four sectors to get through safely, one of which (the last one) is so short and easy, even Cromwell could handle it, on a high wheeler. If you haven’t heard of a high wheeler, it’s another term for penny farthing. I’m not sure which term Cromwell would have used. I may go research that now, just for something to do. Stay tuned.

Phil just said, “Adri Van der Poel.” Bob, to his credit, doesn’t jump in and correct him. He pauses, surely squinting as if in pain and thinking, “Please Phil, please correct yourself.” Phil does, saying, “I don’t know why I keep saying Adri, that’s Mathieu’s father, I used to watch him race [back in the good old days when my mental faculties were intact].”

“He’s visibly flying over these cobblestones,” Phil now says. I guess he’s referring to the lack of any cloaking device that would render Van der Poel’s effort invisible. That would actually be a really cool innovation for this sport, if they could have cloaking devices. Riders would only get to use them for a set amount of time per race, or perhaps the cloaking device would draw down their strength and have to be used very strategically. So a good rider could turn it on, chase like crazy, and then suddenly appear on Van der Poel’s wheel. I guess it would take something like that to neutralize the Dutchman’s dominance.

“Surely [Wout] van Aert [sidelined with an injury] is watching these pictures with a little bit of frustration,” Phil says, “because I think he has a thing for Van der Poel and is very jealous of Pidcock.” Yeah, I made up that last part. It’s easy to put words into Phil’s mouth because nothing would seem out of character for him.

But what’s this? He’s overcooked a corner and goes off the road! Maybe he’ll stack and breathe new life into this race!


Nope, he saves it, and—interestingly enough—his lead actually increases by three seconds through this unexpected maneuver.

“The showers are very famous. Every rider’s name is engraved on the shower. Well, on the wall I mean. Of the shower.” Phil actually just said this. I think he meant every winner’s name. But how did he get to talking about the showers? I wasn’t paying attention (my mind having wandered to Wolf Hall and how engrossing that was compared to this race) and suddenly I hear the word “shower” which is one of the only words I’ve heard Phil use that isn’t a cliché. Perhaps he’s seeding innuendo.

Oh no! A rider totally stacks in a corner!


It’s Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ) and man, that looked really painful.

While the camera was fawning over Van der Poel, the chase group behind broke up and is now down to four riders. Here it’s being led by Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), who finished third in this race in 2022. But Küng doesn’t look like he’s trying that hard since he’s breathing through his nose just like Van der Poel. Or could I be mistaken about mouth-breathing being more effective? Is this Mona Lisa style some new aerodynamic thing?


Maybe Küng is just having an off day. It does look like his pre-race ritual was interrupted because he never worked that foundation into his skin. That’s not very professional, obviously. These riders are supposed to know how important it is to get their makeup right. Cycling is very much a psychological sport and a rider cannot show weakness, and of course cosmetics play a huge role. Studies have shown that the first thing a professional rider notices, on the start line, is his rival’s complexion, which is why foundation and concealer make such a big impact. Riders are often perceived differently if they have discoloration, under-eye bags, or blemishes. Fortunately Küng is blessed with almost perfect skin, which he’s used to great advantage throughout his career.

Jasper Philipsen, Van der Poel’s Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate, gets to just loaf on the back of the chase group, obviously. This means he’ll be nice and fresh for the sprint, and since he’s one of the fastest sprinters in the world to begin with, we won’t even have an exciting race for second place, unless Küng gets his face together, does something with his hair, and opens his mouth for the final sprint.


Here’s another boring photo of Cromwell. I mean Van der Poel.


Pithie seems uninjured from his gnarly crash and is now working well with Florian Vermeersch, Philipsen’s Alpecin–Deceuninck teammate, so perhaps they’ll catch the lead quartet of chasers. That would make it even easier for Philipsen to take second, making this race even more boring and predictable.

“If I just said ‘Adri’ I apologize,” Phil says. Which is kind of sad, because he hadn’t just said Adri; he’s simply doubting himself because he’s no longer aware of what he’s even saying anymore. I guess that’s partly my fault. Okay, now I feel bad.

Van der Poel is on Sector 3 now and his lead is now almost three minutes. Perhaps the only way he could lose now is if he got cocky and stopped to sign a few autographs. “But he’s far too clever a rider for that,” Phil does not say.

Not that you care, but leading the chase group is Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek), a former Wordle champion. It’s rare to see a top rider who also excels at word games. Oh, wait. Bob has just corrected me: Pedersen is a former world champion. That actually makes more sense.

OMG, Phil just used the phrase “suitcase of courage” for about the four hundredth time in his career. “But I don’t think anybody is going to catch Van der Poel before the showers today,” he continues. Again with the shower thing! Perhaps he’s just as bored as I am. Actually he’s probably even more bored, because I’ve only been reporting on these races for eleven years (my first blow-by-blow being the 2013 Giro d’Italia), whereas Phil has been reporting on cycling for something like fifty years.

Van der Poel is on Sector 2, which is only a two-star section. Here’s one of the Yelp reviews: “This section is kind of meh, just a bit of dust and dirt and a couple weeds not sure why such a long line overrated imho.”

It looks like the chase group is down to three now, having dropped Küng (who will surely learn his lesson and never, neglect his pre-race makeup ritual again).


Wow, with five km to go, Van der Poel is already starting to celebrate, giving his DS a fist-bump. Maybe with three kilometers to go he’ll try to give this guy a hug, which would be just the kind of dangerous move that might make the race interesting for a moment.


Is that white nail polish on his right thumb? Is that a thing now? I’ll have to pay close attention to Küng’s nail polish. What color did he choose?


“What do you do with a horse, do you tap it on its neck, when it’s about to win?” Phil asks. What? Has he lost his mind?

“He will be the first rider since Peter Sagan in 2018 to cross the Paris-Roubaix finish line wearing the rainbow jersey of the Wordle champion,” let’s pretend Phil just said. Van der Poel is now on the velodrome with a gap of three minutes over the guys we might call “chasers” if they were actually doing anything but running out the clock and waiting for the sprint.

Well, here it is. Thomas Cromwell becomes the 121st winner of Paris-Roubaix.


Politt makes a surprising early attack on the velodrome but it comes to nothing. Philipsen takes second!


Isn’t it remarkable how little my exclamation point did just now to make that sprint finish exciting? I guess you’re probably not very impressed that I predicted the outcome. I guess that doesn’t make me an oracle or anything.

They’re interviewing Van der Poel:

INTERVIEWER: You have just won Paris-Roubaix, having won Flanders only a week ago. Does this win have a different flavor?

VAN DER POEL: This one was kind of oaky and jammy, with a toasty undertone and hints of cherry. Kind of a fruit-forward win but just a bit tannic.

INTERVIEWER: Was it planned, to take off that early?

VAN DER POEL: I find it interesting that you use the passive voice, “was it planned,” because that’s rather appropriate in that it wasn’t really anything active like an attack. I just increased my effort because I wanted to make the race super hard. I know it was a tailwind to the finish line.

INTERVIEWER: Were you worried about a puncture or some other setback [since obviously nothing else could stop you]?

VAN DER POEL: Well that’s always possible but I had a support car, duh!

INTERVIEWER: It must be pretty special to win two monuments back to back…

VAN DER POEL: Yes, well, what can I say? I had a good hair day.

INTERVIEWER: Is it really as simple as that? [Tom] Boonen was practically bald, after all.

VAN DER POEL: I’m kind of at a loss for words, actually. I’m a cyclist, not a statesman.

INTERVIEWER: You mean, a statesman like Thomas Cromwell?

VAN DER POEL: Exactly.


Okay, I admit, I made most of that up. The bit about the tailwind is real, though. And the support car part, minus the duh part.

Here’s the top ten:


And now Van der Poel hoists the famous cobblestone trophy. Note that they were able to affix the plaque well in advance because they knew he’d win today.


Here’s a fun fact: I did some research and it turns out the stone used for the Paris-Roubaix trophy isn’t actually a cobblestone, which would be composed mainly of granite. It’s actually mostly pumice, which was selected for these trophies some decades ago when too many modern cyclists were unable to heft an actual cobblestone. So the rock Van der Poel is hoisting there is very similar to this one that your famously wimpy blogger was able to handle with ease (despite my Oscar-worthy grimace which is just for show).


Okay, full disclosure, I freestyled a bit with the trophy/stone thing. It is a real cobblestone as far as I know. 

Here is the final podium.


Well, that’s about it for this year’s race. I’m sorry if this report was kind of boring, but at least I saved you some time … this race took me two and a half hours to watch, and I wish I could take that time back and do something more exciting with it, like sleeping.

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