Friday, July 31, 2009

Fiction - Housesitting Instructions


I have this friend, Maynard Steele, who in addition to being a good writer (he’s on staff at “Good Housekeeping”) is just a very thorough guy. We house-sat for him last spring and he left us the most complete, detailed instructions you can imagine. With August, the peak summer vacation month, almost upon us I thought I’d post Maynard’s instructions here as a template for others. (He has given me permission.) Here it is.

Doors and locks

In addition to the two keys we already gave you for the front door (the gold one does the dead-bolt and the silver does the knob), we have left three other keys: one for the back door, one for the French doors, and one for the door between the garage and the house. You probably won’t need to open the big garage door. The remote control garage door opener is lost, and the doorbell-looking button inside the garage doesn’t work. If you have to open the big door, the downhill neighbors four doors down (taupe house) have an opener that, miraculously, works on ours. The man’s name is Ron (I don’t know his wife’s name).


All the smoke alarms work. The one near the downstairs bathroom will alarm from the steam from the shower, so either make your shower short or wait until everybody’s already up.

We have two fire extinguishers: one under the kitchen sink and one in the garage. In all likelihood you won’t need to use one, but if you do, be sure to pull the pin out first. Hold the unit upright, aim at the base of the fire, and stand back six feet. Press the trigger and sweep from side to side. There are more detailed instructions next to each unit. Be sure to read these before it’s too late!


We always empty the fridge before vacation, but there are some canned goods, pasta, etc. in the garage. There’s a sheet taped to the fridge for recording what you took.


Recycling is under the kitchen sink on the left; garbage is on the right. The paper recycling bin is in the laundry room. Trash day is Tuesday. Put the cans out the night before because the garbage men come crashing in at around 6 a.m. There is a separate bin for CRV bottles, which the homeless guy picks up. (If you don’t separate the CRV stuff for him, the homeless guy makes a lot of noise and mess.)


Our cat, Snowball, should be no trouble. He has a food bowl that you can just keep topped up with the Friskies in the big box in the pantry. If he stops eating, feel free to give him the canned food from the top shelf of the pantry, but don’t overdo it because canned food gives him the runs.

If the litter box starts to stink, you can empty and refill it. There are two boxes of litter in the garage. One is Arm & Hammer and the other is some off-brand. Use the off-brand litter first—we’re trying to use it up because it really doesn’t work for controlling odors.

Snowball is friendly but watch out for his “evil twin,” a stray that looks just like him and bites. If you see a cat outside that looks just like Snowball, try to run him off. If you are playing with Snowball and he bites you, that’s not Snowball! Snowball plays nicely. His favorite game is chasing the red dot from the laser pointer (you can find the pointer on the desk in the upstairs office). Do not point the laser pointer at his eyes. If you screw up and blind Snowball, do not try to switch him out for his evil twin, because I saw a similar thing in a movie once and it was really dumb.


Our boa constrictor, Buck, should only need to be fed once or twice (or maybe not at all, if Snowball brings him a mouse, which he sometimes does). Every week Buck gets a single feeder rat as his meal. The pet store down by 4th Street is where we go. Get a big one. Note that Buck sometimes escapes from his cage at night. Don’t worry—when he gets cold he usually finds his way back into the cage because that’s where his heat rock is. One more thing: do not starve Buck because he could unhook his jaws and swallow Snowball!


Please just stack the mail on the dining room table (we already have a stack going). Put all junk mail in the paper recycling (use your discretion). You’ll probably see a lot of big packets from the law firm Biggers, Ferris, & Walsh. You can recycle these, too. If any of these legal packets arrive Certified Mail, refuse them.


Wireless Internet access is provided, through our neighbor. Signal strength isn’t great; it may help to open some windows. If the connection goes down, yell over the back fence for our neighbor to reboot his wireless router.


Feel free to use the TV, DVD player, etc. We do have cable, but don’t be surprised if it gets disconnected at some point, as we’re in a feud with Comcast. Note that the DVD player has the Japanese region code, so it will not play American-encoded movies. (It’s a hassle, but it was only $36!) We have a couple of Japanese-encoded DVDs you can watch: “Porco Rosso” and “Punch Drunk Love.” You can turn on English dubbing for both of these, though “Porco Rosso” is best in German and “Punch Drunk Love” is best in French (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Book club

My book club meets at 8 p.m. on the third Wednesday of the month. This month it’s at the Swensons’, 482 Wine St. The book for this meeting is The Corrections; a copy is on top of the bookshelf in the living room. Please attend in my stead because I have a perfect record for attendance going back several years and don’t want to spoil it. I also have a perfect record for disagreeing with Barry, the stocky, dark-haired guy, so before you say anything about the book, listen to what he has to say and then beg to differ.


The living room can get uncomfortably hot in summer. We have a rotating fan you can set up; it’s in the front hall closet. Note that the grille is missing from the fan; if you accidently stick your hand in it from the front, you won’t be hurt, but don’t go near the back of it.

Furnace guy

We're having the furnace replaced while we’re gone. Please let the guy in; he knows where to go. During this activity, try to avoid the lower floor of the house because asbestos removal will be in progress.


The washer and dryer are in the laundry room. Please use your own detergent. Also, please do not throw away dryer lint. There is a blue covered tub in laundry room; please put the lint in there whenever you clean the filter. (Megan does something with the lint; I never learned what.)

Drip irrigation

The drip irrigation system runs automatically every other morning at 7:00. Please keep an eye on it because it often springs leaks, spraying water forcefully from a popped-off tube. Clip end off tube with blue-handled clippers (on top of the dryer), and push new tube end onto junction.


I have disconnected the gas from the oven (for complicated reasons). I have notified the uphill neighbors that you may be asking to use their toaster oven from time to time, and they did not say no.


You can park wherever you want. If your car drips oil, please park where the existing buildup is from our car. FYI, one of our neighbors tends to acquire cars (e.g., old Buicks). He fills them up with garbage and parks them in front of other people’s houses. Do not say anything to him. He only does this for attention.

Law enforcement

A cop often parks across the street and just sits there with his engine running. We’ve never been able to figure this out. Don’t bother talking to him—he’s a complete asshole.


If you need to take calls at our house, feel free to answer the phone. If a telemarketer calls, ask her what she’s wearing. (Drives ‘em crazy!)


There is an old guy who often sits on the curb out front, or sometimes on our stoop, usually in the morning, and cries, usually with his face buried in his hands. Don’t worry about him—he is harmless.

There’s another guy, a big dude, younger, usually wears a baseball cap and a hoodie, who hangs around a lot, just staring. He is a terminal psychotic. Everyone in the neighborhood is convinced he’s going to erupt one day. The police will do nothing.

If the psychotic guy does become violent, note that Ned, the neighbor across the street in the light brown house, is a total gun nut. If he’s not around, here’s a tip: the key to his gun cabinet is on a string around his son’s neck! If his son isn’t around, there’s a Glock in the étagère in their upstairs bathroom. (If you ask Ned to let you see the Glock, don’t use the word “étagère.” Call it a cabinet.) I know it’s weird, a gun nut in Berkeley, but there you have it. (He does drive a Prius, though.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From the Archives - Brutal Mountain Bike Crash Recounted in College Paper


In the fall of 1992, during my last semester of college, I took a course in creative writing. One of our first assignments was to write a scene. I wrote about an early morning mountain bike ride 

I’d done in Berkeley’s Tilden Park the previous summer. I read my essay aloud in class and watched with amusement as my classmates argued about whether or not it was a satisfying story. I personally believed it wasn’t—it was only supposed to be a scene, after all.

My instructor, a successful writer, actually found some valid issues with it even as a scene, and offered some ideas on how to develop it further into a story. I’d always meant to revise the essay with her comments in mind, and now, almost seventeen years later, I’ve finally gotten to it.

Rather than rewrite the piece from scratch, I’ve simply fleshed it out with more details, many of which I’ve accumulated during return visits to Tilden Park. I haven’t removed anything from the original essay. There are some awkward, overreaching sentences in there that actually make me wince, but so be it; they can stand. (I did make some simple line edits based on my instructor’s feedback.) The new, added text is in blue. In the interest of sharing with you the advice that my instructor offered, I’ve included some of her questions and comments as section headings, in red and in quotes. You can decide for yourself whether or not I did enough with her input. A final note: I added some photos, which (needless to say) I took recently.

Tilden Park, June 29, 1992

“What motivated you to go on such a strenuous ride?”

At the tail end of college I had given up racing but I still loved to hammer. Riding hard enlarged my world—with a finite amount of time to ride, speed increased my range, taking me farther from the well-worn rut between school, my bike shop job, and home. Besides, having raced I was accustomed to a certain pace; anything slower felt like a defeat that repeated itself with every pedal stroke. I chose my riding buddies according to who could give me a good run for my money, and if they could show me some new rides, so much the better. As for routes, I chose the ones with the most hills: climbing is romance, descending is sex. (Flat roads, by comparison, are just a long, dull chitchat.)

One morning before work, my bike shop pal Dylan took me on a mountain bike ride that started with a brisk climb up Spruce Street in the Berkeley hills before dipping down into the trails of Tilden Park. I don’t actually remember riding up Spruce at all. This surprises me because Spruce is a steep hill that can seem endless, especially when I’m not warmed up yet. There’s actually a lot about this ride I couldn’t remember afterward; my recollections of it are an incomplete bunch of scraps I’ve assembled, with some artifice, into a sequential narrative. Perhaps from the very scarcity of recalled moments comes the vivid detail of those few I have.

After a steep dip down a paved road, Canon Drive, we get to the trailhead and set out. The trail is about ten feet wide and winds up a shallow climb and out of sight. I don’t know where the trail goes because this is my first time riding it, but we’re in a large basin ringed by hills. The ground beneath my tires is grey-brown and dotted with green and blond grasses. I’m not on a sight-seeing tour, of course, so I don’t pay much attention to the wild chamomile sprouting here and there on the trail, or the thistles drying out as summer gets underway. I’m going slow enough, however, to appreciate how the drier parts of the trail have a cracked surface like the top of a pan of brownies. I can make out horseshoe prints, and the tire tracks other riders have left in the dirt. That track is certainly from a Specialized Ground Control, and I think that’s the tread pattern of a Panaracer Smoke.

“You need more detail”

I’m frankly ignorant of the names of the vegetation surrounding me, but there are bay laurels, blackberry vines, poison oak, and expanses of Queen Anne’s lace. Oaks, redwoods, and pines make a guest appearance in my consciousness, and though they get lumped under the blanket category of “tree,” I do appreciate how the morning breeze sighs through them. And I notice the narrow tributary trails that run along the main trail for short sections, because I think about switching to them here and there, just for fun. I spot California quail running across the trail, and enjoy how short and fast their stride is, like they’re spinning a low gear. I marvel occasionally at how bright white cottontails spoil the otherwise perfect camouflage of little brown rabbits fleeing the trail ahead of me.

My head itches slightly as sweat runs down from the soaked the pads in my helmet. As I sway the bike from side to side, pedaling out of the saddle, I can hear the handlebars creaking slightly, and this little crunching sound comes from my left pedal or crank—a nagging mechanical problem I haven’t been able to fix. Now and then a drop of sweat rolls off the end of my nose, and I play a little game: can I time the drips, with little shakes of my head, so they miss hitting my tire as I rock the bike? Watching the tire, I enjoy an optical illusion: its knobby rubber tread appears, periodically, to stop moving forward and to begin spinning backward. Before I become mesmerized I look away, up at the hills ahead. A low mist is slowly receding, backlit by the rising sun and thinning as if being melted away by the morning. As the sun gets higher in the sky, dim shadows appear, and I watch a butterfly dragging its blurry shadow across the ground.

“What kept you going? Machismo? Finding the edge?”

I’m relieved when Dylan, riding just ahead of me, tells me we’re almost at the top of the long uphill. My legs and lungs burn, my right toe clip is biting into my big toe, and the collar of my jersey itches on the back of my neck from the sweat. Roughly the first half of this loop is climbing, and we’ve gone out good and hard. I haven’t ridden much with Dylan before this, so there’s a bit of a pecking order to establish, but that’s not the main reason for our tough pace. We go hard because we can. We go fast because faster is just better—an unquestionable fact that is hard-coded into our DNA. It’s partly a macho thing, I suppose, but I hammer when I ride alone, too. It’s not a matter of “finding the edge,” exactly—it’s more like honing the edge, striving our way toward our best possible selves. We don’t wear out; we wear in. That the body improves in response to cumulative physical duress is nothing short of a miracle. There is suffering, certainly, but it’s infused with bliss. And that’s just the climb.

Before we begin descending, I adjust my helmet and, one last time, use the back of my gloved hand to wipe away the annoying drip from my nose. As we accelerate down the shallow grade, the sun leaks through the leaves of the trees overhead, scattering on the ground in faint diffused patches. We’ve got a good view of the basin below, and I faintly register the scrubby, dry grasses of the hills and the brilliant blue lupines jutting up here and there. Large birds circle above, rising on their thermals: red-tailed hawks with their telltale cry of “keer, keer.”

But my attention is downward, ahead of my bike. I make no connection between the bark and leaves littering the trail and the naked-trunked Eucalyptus trees they have fallen from. The trail surface itself commands extreme focus: traction is all-important, and I heed the warning of tiny pebbles and clods of dirt rolling over the ground, of shifting dirt on rutted, hard-packed ground. I tune in to the rattle of my tires over cracks in the hard clay. This is all crucial feedback: how fast can I go on this surface? Hazardous roots protrude here and there, and half-embedded rocks like fruit in Jell-O.

Unsure of the terrain, I match speed with Dylan, who is about twenty feet ahead, and watch him lean into the turns, his knee swinging out for balance. Occasionally I can faintly taste the dust kicked up by his wheels. The morning is suddenly chilly as the wind blows over the sweat on my arms and legs. As I bounce over ruts in the trail my bike rings—the noise the rear brake cable makes as it slaps against the thin steel tube of the bike’s frame. The noise—danga, danga, danga, danga—brings to my mind the cowbells that European spectators ring as they cheer on their downhill ski racers.

Suddenly, over the rush of wind in my ears, Dylan is yelling, “LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!” to warn me of a blind switchback. Out of the corner of my eye I see the drop-off I’ve just avoided. My rear tire, skidding and fishtailing in the dirt, makes a sound like the static of a radio lost between stations. Back on track, the bike rolls almost silently, the hum of its tires almost quiet enough to escape notice. Only when I jump a rock, during that brief moment when the bike is airborne, do I really know the true silence of Tilden Park on a Monday morning. Touching down again, I realize I am making every sound that I hear.

At the bottom of the long descent, we pedal across a flatter section that winds through a tunnel of trees, like something out of a fairy tale. A deep creek runs to our left and the ground here is a thin carpet of flat, dry leaves.

Reaching the end of the loop, at the trailhead where we started, we stop to catch our breath. Dylan says, “That was great, man, we were haulin’. Do you wanna do another lap?”
“Yeah, sure. Do we have time?”
“Yeah, if we hurry.”

If I look at a certain cloud formation long enough, I see that it is very slowly drifting across the sky. The sky hasn’t yet reached a deep blue because its color is washed out by indirect sunlight behind a thin cloud cover. After a while my squinting eyes begin to water, burning from the brightness, and I shift my glance. Now I am looking down at my own body. It is absolutely motionless, and seems distant—strangely detached from me, as if just a blurry photo. I know it is I, yet the sight seems confusingly unfamiliar, like a lifeless object I’m looking upon, some slightly melted wax statue. Foreign garments—a red shape suggesting a sweatshirt, and something blue—are draped over me like a tarp. I cannot make out details at all—the image is distorted as though my corneas are frosted glass. Gradually I become aware of a dull throbbing pain, spread throughout my body, devoid of localized pangs: my torso and every limb are stiff and sore as if they had been sprained a day ago. This pain threatens me with violence if I shift my body. The body, not the brain, perceives trauma.

Trying to look around by shifting only my eyes, I must settle for an incomplete panorama: a twenty‑foot arc of vision, encompassing mostly dirt and rocks, and then (as I scan upwards) a vague backdrop of faded brown and green tints, and finally the sky again. My eyes long to see something familiar, something that could give me a trustworthy frame of reference. Eventually I understand that I am lying on my back. Now I want to hear something—any sign that I’m not alone—but I’m enclosed by silence. “Dylan!” I yell. Nothing—still not a sound. Louder, “DYLAN! DYLAN!” Every time my mouth closes the noiselessness returns. I look down at my body once more. It dawns on me that I’ve crashed, and that Dylan has left me behind so he won’t be late for work. “What a dick!” I think to myself.

I do not know how much time has slipped by before I notice the hands. They are joined together in the semblance of a handshake, both clad in mesh‑backed fingerless cycling gloves, one of which is spattered with blood. My vision is fading now as I send my gaze past a wrist, up along a suntanned arm to the shoulder and neck: all ambiguous shades of color. Only when I reach what I know should be the face does my vision finally clear. My perception of precise facial features is sudden—as unexpected as that moment when a meaningless cluster of colored dots, finally viewed from a sufficient distance, miraculously becomes a pointillé painting. The goatee and boisterous eyes now spell out Dylan’s identity. Now my vision makes sense: this is Dylan. This is his hand I’m holding. Now that my eyes have solved this mystery, they let go of sight completely and I see nothing.
The rest of the scene becomes more difficult to describe, because my memory does not seem to tell an honest story. I recall my vision as having been limited to occasional flashes of light, like blank slides thrown against the wall of a motel room by the headlights of a passing car, broken up by a partially closed window curtain. I also remember losing most of my hearing, and only being vaguely aware of voices, like a low murmur, an almost subliminal chant that carries no more meaning than would the buzzing of bees. Oddly, this memory doesn’t match Dylan’s—he tells a completely different story. From what he has told me, I have reconstructed, as accurately as possible, a part of his version: a conversation I apparently held behind my own back.

“Dana, whose hand is this? Who am I?”
“Okay, Dana, that’s good. Can you feel my hand?”
“Am I gonna lose my eye?”
“I don’t know. Don't worry about that. Can you feel my hand?”
“Dylan, am I going to lose my eye?”
“I don’t know. Do you know where you are?”
“No. Am I gonna lose my eye?”
“You asked me that already.”
“What? What did I ask you already?”
“About losing your eye.”
“What? Am I going to lose my eye?”
“I don’t know. Hey Dana, why don’t you tell me about the barbecue you were at last night. Do you remember Paul’s barbecue?”
“No, I wasn’t at a barbecue. Dylan, am I gonna lose my eye?”
“That’s good, just keep him talking, we don’t want him to lose consciousness. Was he out for a while?”
“He was out when I went to get you.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Only like ten minutes ago.”
“Good, he hasn’t lost much blood. Did you see him crash?”
“No, I was ahead and I heard him go down and I looked back expecting to see him laughing and getting up, but he wasn’t movin’.”
“Dana, can you hear me? Dana, I’ve got what is called a scoop stretcher and we’ll be using it to get you into an ambulance. You’re going to feel it slide under you and the metal might feel cold on your back, but just try not to move. Are you ready? Okay, on three: one, two, three. Okay, great. You’re doing great. How old are you, Dana?”
“Is he twenty‑three?”
“I think so.”
“Dana, did you go on a bike ride this morning?”

As I’ve said, this differs radically from my memory of the scene. I remember having as my sole sensory organ my inner ear. After my last flash of vision, it alone tells me I’m conscious. It tells me I’m being lifted. It tells me my neck is suddenly being raised, cradled. Now it tells me I’m pitching to one side, now uprighted. Now I can perceive a rhythmic bounce that I can almost recognize. This sensation calls me back to my childhood: I’ve fallen asleep in the back seat of the car and Dad is carrying me into the house, to my bed, disrupting my sleep only enough that I perceive this simple motion, and have the vague feeling of being cared for. The body remembers now and tells itself that it is being carried.

A violent sound finds its way through my muted hearing. It’s the choppy roar of a hundred lawnmowers surrounding my head. If I strain I can hear yelling over the roar, but I can’t pick out any words. Like a headache the huge noise won’t go away and now I feel dizzy. My body tells me I’m being dangled somehow, swinging but without direction—without that serenity and regularity enjoyed by a pendulum. My stomach lifts and falls and I become nauseated. I don’t know where I am or what is happening. Actually, it’s even worse than that: I have forgotten what it means to know anything. Finally only nausea and pain tell me I’m conscious at all. And nothing tells me I’m being airlifted out of Tilden Park.

Monday, July 20, 2009



I turned forty recently. This shouldn’t be a really big deal, and I guess it’s not, but on the other hand, it kind of is. I’m not worked up about the arbitrary “forty” milestone, nor about the distant tombstone lurking somewhere behind it, but more about the day to day slackening of my faculties. The fortieth birthday merely put a finer edge on my growing awareness of this gradual decay.

But wait, you’re saying: you’re still in good shape, it’s way too early to start fretting about this. And I know you’re right (this hypothetical you, trying to buck me up—thank you for that). When I hear my parents (who are ageing very gracefully, thank goodness) talk about their friends who are suffering from sciatica, glaucoma, memory loss, and even those nameless maladies like no longer being able to walk well enough to enjoy, say, a guided tour of some faraway place, I know I should be grateful that I can still, for example, ride my bike up hills most twenty-year-olds wouldn’t and/or couldn’t. But such reassurances only go so far, because I can remember a time when I needed no such reassurances.

The Tour

Perhaps you have time to read this blog simply because it’s a rest day in the Tour de France. This year, I have been hugely absorbed in this race, more so than usual, because of the return of Lance Armstrong. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not a rabid Lance fan, and would love to see Levi Leipheimer or Christian Vande Velde win. In fact, by 2005 when Lance won his seventh Tour, I was frankly kind of bored by him; his ruthlessly efficient, carefully calculated winning style that year made him seem more like a bully to me than anything. Now it’s different, because, well, he’s so fricking old.

No, Lance is not some doddering, batty, stooped old senior dribbling fruit-cup juice down his chin. He’s still a force to be reckoned with and to his great credit is still causing much suffering in the Tour de France peloton, which (I challenge you to refute) is the greatest theater of suffering in all of sport. But it’s weird to see a guy with graying sideburns in that peloton, and the part of me that craves Lance’s success is the same part that’s reluctant to turn the world over to the younger generation. If Lance can triumph over the young Alberto Contador, he’ll be winning one for all of us old guys.


Lance seemed especially symbolic when I watched him in yesterday’s Tour stage, a 129-mile journey from Pontarlier, France to Verbier, Switzerland, a course featuring a big climb at the end. Two weeks into the stage race, this was a day of reckoning, and finally all the intrigue and theorizing about the rivalry within Lance and Contador’s team was put to rest. Contador mopped up the asphalt with Lance and everybody else. The young Spaniard soloed to victory with a supreme show of force and sheer strength, the way Lance used to, and though I won’t say Contador made it look easy, he had a certain spring in his pedal stroke, an ebullience, a lightness on his feet, like a young Muhammad Ali.

Lance, meanwhile, faltered and was powerless even to hang with the second-place finisher, Andy Schleck, who looks like he’s about fourteen years old. As I watched Lance being paced to the finish line by his teammate, Andreas Klöden, all I could think was, “Lance looks so old.” The way Klöden held back, making sure Lance was still on his wheel, he might as well have been pushing the former champ in a wheelchair. Looking at Lance’s drawn, grimacing face, I thought, “Dang, that’s how I felt this morning when I had to get up at six to watch this race.”

Another race

As soon as the Tour coverage ended I headed over to Albany’s Memorial Park where my bike club ( was helping the Berkeley Bike Club with its annual criterium, a multi-lap race around the park. My teammate Ian Lockley and I announced the Masters 45+ race. I have to say, it was impossible to transfer all the enthusiasm I'd had for the Tour stage to this local event. Lance had set out to prove that he could still be the best stage racer in the world, and these guys in this race were trying to prove … what? That they were still faster than a bunch of other local forty-somethings? No, that’s probably not the whole story. I think they were proving that at their age they could still race a bike, and do it well. I couldn’t fault them for this: at least they were still out there, while I was just talking about racing, and finding myself unable to resist making fun of their age to the dozens of fans along the course.

Kidding aside—I have great respect for those who still have the courage to race, knowing as I do how much harder racing is than just riding—I would like to point out that in a general sense the 45+ field was in the same race as Lance. Like Lance, they’re denying the fact of their ageing, refusing to give up their vigor without a fight. And It’s a good fight, despite the fact that they’re all—we’re all—doomed.

The future of cycling

After the Masters race I met up with my family and herded Alexa and Lindsay off to the registration area to sign them up for their race. I hadn’t been sure that they’d be interested in doing the kids’ event, but to my great satisfaction they immediately liked the idea. Here they are on their way to the start line. (Lindsay is #541, an anagram of my first race number, 154.)

My announcing duties included the kids’ race, and I pointed out to the spectators that these kids were the future of American cycling. I told them, “Twenty years from now, when one of these kids is in the Olympics, you can say, ‘I remembering watching her race as a little kid, at Memorial Park in Albany, and she stopped to blow her nose halfway to the finish line.’” And though none of these kids put on a blistering pace, they had something that even Lance Armstrong doesn’t: they were beginning something new. For Lance, bike racing is about the possibility of one more yellow jersey, about salvaging just a bit more glory from the fumes of his previous career. For the kids, all the glory is spread out before them, waiting to be seized, bit by bit, over the next couple of decades.

Did watching my kids race make me feel old? No, it didn’t. I could kick their asses, man. But I’ll tell you what did make me feel old: listening to them talk about the race later, as I lay on the floor of their bedroom in the dark trying to think up a bedtime story. They weren’t actually talking about the race per se; they were talking about the Jelly Bellies they got as a prize. “My favorite are the brown ones,” Lindsay said rapturously. “Oh, yeah, those are either chocolate or coffee,” Alexa replied. “But my favorite is definitely light green. They taste like … like a spring morning, they’re just so … fresh.”

I felt so jaded, lying there trying to remember what it was like to really enjoy something as trivial as a jelly bean. What a rich, wondrous world children inhabit, where almost anything can be a source of joy and wonder. As an adult I’m forced to ignore so much: as my brain ossifies, I have to filter out more and more of the world just to give my mind room to maneuver. The kids, meanwhile, are being thrilled by every little detail. A spider’s web. A pattern on a tile floor or rug. A popcorn-flavored jelly bean.

My dream

Last night I dreamed about bike gears. Specifically, I had this seemingly endless dream about trying to count the number of teeth on a freewheel cog, to make sure there were enough. I needed 27, but every time I tried to count them I lost my place. “Dammit all, they used to stamp the number on these,” I complained grumpily, like old people do. The gist of the dream was the growing doubt—no, the panic—that I was losing my mental faculties and might never again be able to do as simple a mental task as counting the number of teeth on a cog.

No doubt the dream was triggered by something that happened at the race yesterday. Not long after I arrived, I ran into a teammate, Marty, who presented me with a late birthday present: a plastic ring that snaps onto a bike wheel to keep the chain from going into the spokes. It was a gag gift, a way to poke fun at me over a blog post I did in April ( about my dreams, as a kid, of graduating from big cogs with spoke protectors to small cogs without. As I wrote in that blog:

“We didn't call them spoke protectors though, as ‘pie plate’ better mocked how big they were. They caused the largest cog to seem to grow--a mean illusion, awful to endure. A bigger cog meant lower gearing, see; the stuff of weaker boys, embarrassing. We longed for smaller clusters, finally free of pie plates. Lack of metal was our bling.”

Marty’s gift alone wouldn’t have meant so much, but it so happened that earlier that very morning I’d acquired the largest gear cluster I’ve had since I was twelve. At that age, my whole future looked like a continuous upward path of improvement. I now realize this path is more of an arc, and I’m on the downward side of it. I rode my most macho gear cluster half my lifetime ago, and my cogs have gotten incrementally larger since then. For the criterium Marty was rocking a really small cluster—at least, it looked small to me. It was actually a 23. Imagine, 23 looking small! I remember racing a full season on a 19! But again, that was twenty years ago.

The 27 … well, that’s almost humiliating. I got it from another teammate, Mark, at whose house I watched the Tour stage. Asking if he had 27-tooth cluster to sell me was not fundamentally different from asking if he had an adult diaper I could borrow. A month ago I’d have been tempted to tease him for merely owning such a thing, as low gearing is a concession to one’s diminishing strength. And now here I am in possession of it, and I have a pie plate to boot. This is what’s so hard about getting old: realizing that your best health is behind you, and for the rest of your life you’ll be making more and more little concessions like this, to ease your way into the grave.


Sport, of course, isn’t everything. The point isn’t really the strength itself—strength is all relative, after all—but the willingness to take on new challenges. Think about Lance Armstrong: here’s a guy who can’t stand losing, and yet willingly took on his worst odds since cancer to try to eke out another Tour de France victory. Watching Lance fail to win the Tour is ultimately a lot more interesting than seeing him win it when he last raced it in ’05. Learning to lose gracefully isn’t really something he’s had to do before, so in that sense he’s progressing in new directions now. And having that experience is a lot more worthwhile than a lot of things Lance could do at age thirty-eight.

I guess something like 1.5 million people get Lance’s frequent updates on Twitter. It’s not hard to see why—he’s a badass, out to conquer the best bike racers in the world. But imagine if he kept up the Twitter without keeping up the hard life. What might those Twitters look like? “Got pretty pissed off today. How elite a country club do you need to still get good service? I’m sitting there trying to relax and have a good meal, and there are spots on my flatware! I’ve seen that scumbag dishwasher, and let me tell you, if he focused as much on his dishwashing as he does his body piercings and tattoos, maybe he could do a decent job for a change.”


Perhaps a worthy goal for anybody, whether or not he would ever feel like broadcasting the minute details of his day to a wide audience, would be to lead a Twitter-able life. That is, to have enough going on, especially into old age, to have something interesting to say. More interesting, for example, than this: “I’ve decided my back wouldn’t be so messed up if the toilet were the right height. Why should one size fit all? They make this thing so a child or a short person could use it, and I’m like a grasshopper sitting there. As often as I have to lower myself onto that toilet these days, it’s no wonder my back is in constant pain.”

In the spirit of fighting this ageing process to the death, I’ve decided to ride the Everest Challenge bike race (, a two day event this September featuring more than 29,000 feet of climbing in 206 miles. I can safely predict that I won’t win, and in all likelihood won’t even be in contention. But, if I finish, it will be the hardest course I’ve ever raced. And if I don’t finish, it’ll be the hardest race I’ve ever dropped out of. This is why I acquired that 27-tooth freewheel, and I think that’s about as good a reason as any.

Does this mean I think the key to ageing gracefully is to make huge demands on the body? Not exactly; again, the point is the willingness to take on a challenge. Perhaps the greatest goal for old age is wisdom, and how better to gain it than to struggle against something really, really hard? At age forty, I want to live such that the things I one day tell my grandchildren about are from the second half of my life, not just the first.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Death Ride Frequently Asked Questions

I used to ride the Markleeville Death Ride (125 miles, 15,000 feet of climbing, every year. In fact, it became a tradition for all three of my brothers and me, and sometimes a friend, to get together for it. Here's a picture of (from left to right) my brother Bryan, his colleague Bradley, and my brothers Geoff and Max climbing the back side of Monitor pass in the '04 DR. (Click to enlarge.)

Unfortunately, more people want to do the Death Ride than the highway patrol will allow, and it's become very difficult to get in. The last time I got a spot was in 2005, and my brothers were either turned away or had made other plans. None of us has ridden it in years. Thus, it is purely out of a selfless interest in helping others—those very people who got spots when I didn't—that I write these Death Ride Frequently Asked Questions.


Q. I’m signed up for the Death Ride, and it’s in just three days. I’m starting to have second thoughts. How hard is this ride, really?

A. If you managed to get registered, that’s really the hardest part. After braving the server crashes, getting your money back for that expensive subscription slyly signed you up for, and of course prevailing in the lottery in the first place, the ride itself is practically a formality.

Q. Should I go to Markleeville Death Ride early to try to acclimate to the altitude?

A. In my experience, acclimating takes so fricking long there’s no point, unless you wanted to live in Tahoe for 4-6 weeks. Also in my experience, the altitude isn’t a big problem unless you’re trying to hammer. If you’re pacing yourself properly, you shouldn’t break through the dreaded “invisible ceiling” where you go from being conversational to gasping for breath in two minutes after a slight acceleration.


Q. How about carbo-loading and hydration?

A. Carbo-loading is a great idea—not just in the few days before the race, but year-round. As for how to carbo-load, most endurance athletes stick to what they know: pasta, rice, cereal. And water is as fine a fluid as any other typical beverage. But for an intense night-before carbohydrate load, you might try TwinLab's Carbo-Fuel, a beverage that has 60 grams of carbohydrate per eight-ounce serving. A liter or two or this will not only top up your muscle glycogen stores, but will also hydrate you and help induce a soporific blood sugar stupor—an excellent way to get the sleep you need the night before the event. Here, Geoff, Bradley, and I mix up some (off-brand) carbo-fuel on the hood of the car on the way to Markeeville.

Q. Does beer also count as both a fluid and a carbohydrate source?

A. It counts as a carbohydrate source, but because alcohol is a diuretic, it actually depletes your fluids and should not be consumed the night before the ride.

Q. But what about that great German beer, Meister Brau?

A. That brand of beer should never be consumed, except under dire financial circumstances, such as college.

Q. Do I need to bring Powerbars with me to Markleeville?

A. No, the Death Ride event coordinators will provide all the food you will need, in addition to Cytomax, the miracle sports beverage with lactic acid buffers.

Q. I’m conflicted about carbo loading, because I’m on Atkins. What should I do?

A. Consult the handy chart below to choose the correct course of action:

Q. You seem to be talking a lot about diet, digestion, consumption, and such. Why all the hullabaloo?

A. I’m pretty obsessed with food in general, and try to work it into everything I talk or write about. Beyond that, it’s said that an army travels on its stomach—and so do Death Riders. The stomach is perhaps more important than the heart, the lungs, or the legs. If you can digest 8,000 calories while riding, maybe you’ll be able to finish. Here, Max, Bradley, Geoff, and I tuck into a pre-ride Mexican Extravagaaaaaanza dinner at some place in Placerville.

Q. Wow. Eating a lot sounds really important. Does that mean if I have a bad stomach, or start to feel nauseated, that I should just pack it in?

A. Of course not. Consider Jacques Anquetil, a cycling hero from the early days of the Tour de France. While climbing the famous and brutal Col du Galibier in 1958, he had dysentery and was spitting blood and vomiting by the finish. If he can handle that, you can surely keep down your Powerbars and Cytomax and make it over half a dozen little American hills.

Q. What does that say about Anquetil’s stomach?

A. It says more about his incredible determination than anything. And that raises a good point: your brain, your will, and your stubbornness are more important than any physical consideration. I imagine you could put a bullet through my brother Bryan’s head and he’d find a way to finish. If the time cuts don’t get him, that is.

Other strategies

Q. I’ve been told that I should “taper” before the ride. What is tapering?

A. Tapering usually refers to how much alcohol you should be drinking as the ride date approaches. It’s best to do most of your beer drinking about five days before the ride, to build stamina. (If you drink wine, you should stop. It’s expensive, pretentious, and hard on the gastrointestinal system). And as I mentioned before, you should cut back on beer the night before the ride in case it’s hot, so you’re not dehydrated.

Some use the term “tapering” to refer to a decline in training duration and intensity. This is useful for big races, especially short ones, but you’ll want as many miles as possible before Death Ride, unless you’ve been training all along (in which case you should take two-three days of active—or passive—rest). Besides, if the snap is gone from your legs, you’ll be less likely to overcook the first couple of passes.

Q. About those time cuts. Are they really enforced? Can we realistically make them? Should I calculate my rate of vertical gain for each climb?

A. The time cuts can be a problem. They’ve caught out one or more of my brothers and me here and there. Start the ride early, as early as you can, just after dawn if possible. This means waking up in the dark, which won't be hard because rock music comes blasting over the PA system at like 4:30 a.m. Here, Geoff helps pack up the camping gear before the chilly start to our ride.

Also, try not to take too much time at the rest stops. If you go out hard, you might beat the crowds at the food tables and the San-O-Lets. Of course, if you go out too hard, you might blow. What can I say? It’s not an easy ride. As for the calculations, we did this one year, and though it worked out very well—we started the sixth “bonus” pass literally ten seconds before the cutoff—it was fiendishly complicated, as our brains became less and less capable as the ride wore on.


Q. Obviously with five mountain passes to go over, there must be a lot of descending. Is it dangerous?

A. I would put the danger somewhere between a roller coaster and a nuclear holocaust. Okay, I exaggerate. The roads, though twisty and steep , are well paved. The biggest danger is presented by the vast number of riders on the road. If you must pass somebody, give him plenty of room. Also, if you haven't had your bike up to fifty miles per hour before, proceed carefully to make sure there are no surprises, such as the dreaded speed wobble. I witnessed that once on an organized century ride, shortly after this photo was taken:

My friend John had a very close call there. If you're interested in the whole story, along with a discussion about descending in general, click here:

The climbs

Q. I’m trying to get an idea of what the climbs are like. How would they compare with, say, the Samish Way climb in Bellingham, or Flagstaff Road in Boulder, or Mount Diablo in the Bay Area, or the freeway overpass in the Netherlands?

A. Whatever you train on just isn’t as long as these climbs. The first big climb, Monitor, probably gains more elevation than just about any training ride you typically do. After that the climbs get longer, and of course you’re more tired. The last climb seems endless and cannot compare to anything you’ve ever done in training.

Q. How would they rate, given the European categorization method?

A. You aren’t racing, so perhaps the whole categorization method is out the window. But if you were racing, I’d put the front side of Monitor at a Category 2, the back side of Monitor as a 1, and the front side of Ebbetts as Hors Categorie (if only because it comes after both sides of Monitor). The back side of Ebbettts is about a Cat 3, I reckon, and Carson about a Cat 1 simply because it’s so fricking long and you’re so fricking fried. It's worth it, though. Here are Bryan, Geoff, and Bradley atop Carson Pass, triumph written all over their faces:


Q. What gearing should I use for the ride?

A. Assuming a standard front chainwheel size of 39 teeth, here's a useful rule of thumb for your largest rear cog: the number of teeth should be equal to your age, minus the number of years during which you raced. For example, I'm forty, and I raced for fourteen years, so my rear cog should be 40-14=26 teeth. But there’s another rule that says your bike should look cool, so I would stick with a 25 and live with the consequences. In other words, you should use as low a gear as you can handle aesthetically.

Q. Wouldn’t a triple crankset be just the thing?

A. Let’s see, how should I put this? Don’t be such a . . . um, well, suffice to say, using a triple just isn’t done. You’d have to put up with a lot of mockery from your comrades, and the only way to handle that gracefully would be to drop them. And if you’re strong enough to do that, you obviously don’t need a triple.

Q. What about a compact?

A. Sure. You go right ahead.

Other equipment considerations

Q. I just realized my bike chain is pretty worn. Should I replace it prior to the ride?

A. Sure, if you like. But you’d better ride at least a hundred miles on it to make sure it doesn’t fight with your cogs & chainrings, to make sure nothing skips. In general you shouldn’t make big changes to the bike in the days before the Death Ride. For example, don’t do as my brothers did (though this wheel, laced a couple days before the ride, held up just fine):

Q. What kind of clothing should I bring?

A. You'll want the normal jersey, sleeveless jersey, shorts, socks, shoes, sunglasses, cycling gloves, sunscreen, and of course your helmet. You should also bring a lightweight rain jacket that can be stowed in your jersey pocket. The temperature can be in the nineties, but snow banks at higher altitudes coupled with common thunderstorms can make things very cold.

Q. Besides my bike, what is the worst possible thing I could forget to bring to the ride?

A. Your shoes. There is no way you could find a pair of spare cycling shoes that would fit properly and have the correct cleat placement. You also shouldn’t forget your sleeping bag, since you’ll be camping on the cold hard ground and it gets mighty cold up there.

Q. Has that ever happened to you? How could anybody be so stupid?

A. Next question, please.

After the ride

Q. Can I plan on driving home after the event?

A. Sure, if you have plenty of caffeine. If you’re following my an un-doping regimen (see, you’ll have no problem. But you really might be better off spending another night, if for no other reason than getting biscuits and gravy at the Red Hut restaurant in South Lake Tahoe the next morning. (I’m not sure exactly where it is … just look for the cop cars parked outside.)

Q. What’s the best medication to use for saddle sores?

A. Bag Balm. It's for cows. Dairy farmers rub it on the cows' swollen udders. Because it's designed for thousand-pound animals, it works great on humans, I'm told. I have only ever had one saddle sore, incidentally--from the ‘97 Death Ride.

Q. DMSO, a miracle solvent designed for horses, can chase crushed aspirin directly through my skin into my bloodstream. Should I use this?

A. Not unless you're stupid. (Football players have been using it for years.)

Q. What medicine can I use for general pain and suffering?

A. Advil, of course, and Halls Mentholyptus for after the ride.

Q. Will I really need the cough drops?

A. Yes, after a ride of this magnitude you will probably not be able to take a deep breath without coughing, and your throat will be very raw.

Wimping out

Q. Is it too late to change my mind about this thing?

A. Yes. You've already paid your entry fee and besides, you would incur the scathing gibe of your riding buddies were you to chicken out at this point.

Q. How did I get talked into this, anyway?

A. It was a combination of your own foolishness and relentless peer pressure.

Q. I want to ask you something that isn’t on this list. How can I do that?

A. Leave a comment below, or e-mail me at