Sunday, January 24, 2010



This isn’t a post about the new electronic bicycle shifting system from Shimano. Electronic shifting is not the future of the sport, nor is it anything new. Mavic took a fruitless stab at it in the ‘90s, and in 2003 Campagnolo did too. Electronic shifting was a dumb idea then and it’s a dumb idea now. Why spend many hundreds of dollars to shave grams off your bike, only to spend thousands more adding needless complexity and a battery pack?! Electronic shifting is a solution looking for a problem. Enough said.

Nor is this an essay about two-way radios in professional cycling, and the debate over whether to ban them. That’s an interesting topic, but I doubt I could shed new light on it; without access to the riders in the pro peloton, I can only speculate on their perspective. (Doubtless some appreciate the radios because they remove the stress of having to figure out race tactics, while others chafe at the idea that they’ve been hired from the neck down.)

This is, rather, a post about the electronics more commonly used by mainstream cyclists: bike computers, heart rate monitors, power meters, altimeters, and GPS devices. In addition to some personal anecdotes, I will share the results (comprising 52 responses in all) of a survey I sent to my cycling pals on this topic.

Early devices

The first cycling data-gathering device I remember was the Huret Multito odometer my friend Aaron had back in 1982. It was actually pre-electronic: a clunky little black box mounted at the front axle, with a little rubber ring that looped around a tiny wheel, like a pulley, that rotated with the hub. Its readout was like a miniature version of a car's odometer.

The main purpose of the odometer was bragging rights: Aaron and I were only thirteen and doing our first century rides; seeing that thing tick over from 99.9 to 100 was pretty exciting. The rest of the time the Multito was a bit of a nuisance because the little rubber band was always falling off.

The first proper bike computer I remember was the Avocet 20, which came out in 1985. It was black, pretty small, and had a recessed display that tended to pool up with sweat. The squishy, rubbery round buttons had a pronounced click to them. The Avocet was fun to use, but this fun came at a price: when I’d ride with my friend Peter, he’d use the speed data to help drive up our pace. I’d be sucking his wheel for dear life, longing for that moment when he’d pull off so I could finally slack off and rest at the front, but as soon as he got on my wheel he’d yell, “Don’t let our speed drop below thirty!” (Maybe it wasn’t actually thirty. It felt like thirty.)

Lots of bike computers came out after that, and new ones hit the market all the time. They were and are handy devices, but their usefulness only goes so far. Perhaps this was why the coach of the Boulder-area 7-Eleven junior team, Dale Stetina, was no fan of them. (Dale was not a technophobe; in fact, he had eight-speed gearing in ’83 before anybody else did, having ground down the body of his freehub to make room for an extra cog.) At the start line of the 1986 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Durango-to-Silverton road race, Dale chatted casually with one if his riders while reaching down and suddenly ripping the wires out of the poor guy’s computer mount. I thought this would hamper the guy’s ability to pace himself, but during that race I learned for myself how useless the mileage data really was. The race was only forty-seven miles, but featured almost 5,600 feet of climbing.

Fancier stuff

An altimeter suddenly seemed like the more useful device to have, and a few years later my boss at the bike shop loaned me his for the summer. It was, to my knowledge, the first bike altimeter on the market, made in Germany by Ciclosport. I’m guessing that cheap, small barometers weren’t around yet because this used a very strange alternative mechanism: within the computer’s casing, a dangling wire measured the angle of bike vs. the ground, and since the computer knew the speed of the bike, it could calculate the vertical gain. Setup was really tricky: you had to use a level to make sure the bike was absolutely horizontal in order to calibrate the device. And in practice the altimeter was almost useless, because rocking the bike in a sprint made the wire fly all over the place, so the device would go nuts and tally up several hundred feet of utterly fictitious vertical gain.

The next big thing for me was the heart rate monitor, which helped me with my weakest cycling event, the individual time trial. These races were boring, and I was lazy, and I’d actually forget to hammer. I’d be plowing along, and then my mind would wander, and I’d be in la-la land for awhile, not hammering nearly hard enough, until I came to my senses—but by then it was much too late. With a heart rate monitor, this focus became a snap. Knowing my anaerobic threshold (i.e., the peak heart rate I could sustain before going anaerobic), I’d just peg my heart rate there for the duration of the event. This really improved my results.

Heart rate monitors also help keep you from going too hard in a long event. Going by feel doesn’t always work, as I learned when I totally overcooked my first effort at La Marmotte, a cyclosportif race in France. My brain had been so completely marinated in adrenaline, I decided to ignore the sky-high numbers on my heart rate monitor. I guess I thought I was like Luke Skywalker and could trust my instincts over the instruments. That didn’t work so well: I had a total core meltdown halfway through the race. Three years later, I heeded the heart rate monitor, and though it seemed I was loafing for the first two passes, the numbers didn’t lie and I paced myself much more wisely. Nowadays, people use power meters in much the same fashion, with similar benefit.

Clearly, electronics are useful for bike racers. That said, I only race here and there (e.g., this race and this one) and yet I use these devices more often, and more assiduously, then ever. You may think I’m just a nerd; if so, I’m in good company, as I learned by surveying my friends’ devotion to these cool toys.

The survey

Most of the guys I sent my survey to are either current or former racers; all are riders who could hang with my bike club’s weekend rides; ten are either current or former Cat 1s or pros. (It’s the same group I surveyed for my leg shaving essay.) I set out to discover how many use these devices, how they use them, and to what extent this data affects them psychologically when they’re riding.

Here’s a breakdown of the 52 respondents to my online questionnaire, in terms of racing experience. (Click to enlarge graph.)

Keeping in mind that only 17% of my respondents still race regularly, check out how many use electronic devices:

Racing isn’t everything, of course, and it’s perfectly reasonable that a non-racer who wishes to increase his or her fitness would use performance data from these instruments as part of a sophisticated, methodical workout program. But I had a hunch most of the guys I ride with—strong though they are—don’t adhere to a formal training regimen. I asked them what best describes their approach to riding, and here’s how they responded:

A question presents itself: if we don’t follow a strict training program, why bother with heart-rate and/or power data? Why pay attention to average speed or rate of vertical gain? Could it be that the minimal weight of these devices makes them analogous to the windshield ice scraper we Californians keep in our cars—seldom used but occasionally handy? Or perhaps it’s just smooth-talking bike shop salesmen getting us to buy accessories we don’t really need?

Not the case: the survey respondents seem to get a lot of use out of these devices. I asked the question “How much attention do you pay to your electronic device during your ride?” and offered up, as one of my multiple-choice responses, “I don’t look at it at all and arguably shouldn’t even own this device.” You won’t see that response in the graph below, because nobody selected it.

Okay, suppose we continue to play the devil’s advocate (or “devil’s avocado,” as I like to call it) and question what features actually get used. What if all theses guys are only checking the clock function (as one rider commented)? Perhaps the acid test of how truly hungry we are for data is whether we upload device data to our PCs to analyze post-ride. Here’s how that inquiry shook out:

A bunch of nerds?

That’s pretty remarkable: fully 60% of the device-using riders (21 in all) either upload this data or wish they could, and 69% have purchased instruments sophisticated enough to do this. As a group, we’re clearly highly tuned into ride and performance data, even though the majority of us don’t follow a formal training program. What is going on here? Shouldn’t we all just put the bike computer & heart rate monitor aside, lift our heads up, and enjoy our surroundings and the speed—the things that got us into cycling in the first place?

Well, that’s a nice idea, but let's look hard at what actually did get us into cycling. I’m sure we’d like to think of ourselves as purists, but really, an awful lot of cyclists, including myself, are tantalized by the cool gear. We shouldn’t be too ashamed of this, and I harbor no ill will toward those who continually upgrade their equipment even if they don’t use it that much. (After all, wealthy enthusiasts—the ones who actually pay full retail—are the financial backbone of the sport, keeping worthy bike-related companies afloat.)

Bicycles are beautiful machines, after all. I started racing largely because I wanted a cool racing bike, and I wanted to be worthy of it. In this sense, it was about the bike. Eventually, after several years, this finally shifted, and the bike became what it should be: a tool to serve the sport, not the other way around. But even now, even for a guy like me who’s still on 9-speed, the “cool stuff” legacy continues, in a dampened mode. I'll never outgrow it.

Why so popular?

But this still doesn’t explain the popularity of these electronics. They’re just gadgets, after all, and will never be as important to us as our bikes. So why are they so prevalent? I think part of it is that these devices are just one more way to get us to go hard. Especially as we age, they can be part of the feedback loop that keeps us focused during a workout. To see if others felt the same way I do about this, I asked a final survey question: “Do your device’s real-time performance data (e.g., power, speed, heart rate, stopwatch time up a climb) influence you psychologically during your rides?” Here are the responses:

There you have it: of those who use these devices, 54% (21 riders) are stoked by good numbers. I suppose this phenomenon is no different than a diet that has you count your calories: measuring performance holds us accountable to ourselves. Especially when I’m riding alone, little contests against myself or the mountain (how fast can I go up it? how hard can I run my heart? how many watts can I sustain?) keep things lively.

The downside of data

The flip side is what I’ll call the “data slave” effect: watching these instruments can become a pointless addiction, like crosswords or cheap, plot-driven novels. I should know: for me, watching my heart rate is like constantly checking my watch when I’m in an airport—a reflex whose repetition is excessive. I acknowledge the absurdity of this behavior, but hey, why not indulge in data obsession, if it’s not hurting anybody?

Well, the numbers themselves are harmless, but it’s possible to read too much into them. Performance data seem to answer the fundamental question “Am I any good?” (or, for us ageing cyclists, “Am I still any good?”). We run into trouble when their answer is “Hell no!” As 13 respondents (a third of electronics users) indicate, lousy numbers can frustrate or annoy us.

Rationally, I understand that on a bad day I’m not going to post impressive heart rate or power numbers, but at such times I can’t help feeling like my instrument is taunting me. This can have the demoralizing effect of turning a trivial circumstance—tired legs—into something that taints or even ruins my ride. (Sneer at me if you want: a dozen of my pals have the same experience.) One respondent commented, “If my numbers look slow I go even slower and enjoy myself,” which is wise; of course, bike racers, myself included, often aren’t.

The weather channel

To help myself cast off the “data slave” shackles, I’ve come up with a technique I call the “weather channel.” If your device tells the temperature (I think most do), put the display in temperature mode. (If your device has dual displays, put the second display in clock mode.) Temperature is the perfect statistic for lousy days: after all, you have no control over the weather, and it doesn’t say anything about you. As corporate blatherers are so fond of saying, “It is what it is.”

The best thing about this arrangement is that every time you reflexively glance at your bike computer, you get a reminder of how trivial ride data ultimately is. The non-verbal equivalent of “How am I doing?” is answered by the non-verbal equivalent of “Who cares?” And maybe, bit by bit, this practice can help wean the data-obsessed among us from our fixation on these (albeit useful) electronic devices.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

From the Archives - The Sissy Syndrome


My recent dishwasher installation project, and various other home improvement projects over the years, remind me of an essay I wrote long ago called “The Sissy Syndrome.” I wrote it because it needed to be written, but at that time I had no way to publish or otherwise propagate such essays. Thus, I’m not sure any living human has ever laid eyes on this one. As you will see, it concerns a double-standard: not a simple, well-understood one like women face, but a thornier, more complex one that torments men. I have found it and dusted it off, and present it here as a companion piece to “Dishwasher Man.

The Sissy Syndrome - February 1, 2003

No doubt women have been screwed in many ways by the process of their liberation. For example, men expect women who work full time to continue doing most of the “women’s work.” But the glory days of this double standard are behind us; it was my dad’s generation who got to skip out on most forms of housework while enjoying the fruits of a double income. I’m always eager to pile on when our wives and mothers bemoan the complete injustice of the woman’s double role, but let’s let that be their thing. I have my own bone to pick with the evolution of the sexes.

My beef is this: men have come a long way toward contributing equally to the ongoing housekeeping and child-rearing duties; have developed impressive cooking and diaper-changing and even ironing skills; have sincerely adopted the principles of gender equality; have even learned how to be emotionally sensitive in a manly, non-effete way—and yet both women and men alike are still immersed in the timeless conviction that all men should have the robust, uncomplaining, tireless physical strength and invulnerable armored flesh of the day laborer.

It’s all well and good that modern men are comfortable with abstract mental operations, delicate sociopolitical maneuverings, and ballsy professional grandstanding; that we have a real appreciation for high culture; that we possess the unflagging patience and tenacity required by, say, a mortgage refinancing transaction—but all of this is for naught if we men don’t have an intuitive understanding of, and love for, every power tool and toxic solvent known to man, along with the cheerful willingness to haul all manner of large heavy object. It’s understood that we have a natural affinity, and even enthusiasm, for any brute-force earth-moving project our women can throw at us.

Men don’t get to substitute the ability to choose a necktie for, say, the willingness to unclog a rain gutter. If for all our amateurish efforts with the belt sander we still can’t make the doors in the house close quietly, it doesn’t matter if we can go eyeball-to-eyeball with an angry executive and successfully push through a deal he’s not happy with. Modern business tools or intellectual powers alone cannot make us men, they just makes us better Smurfs. But it’s not the women applying this judgment; the self-loathing comes largely from within. If I can resolve a static IP routing problem on a frame relay interface and bring all the Jiffy Lube stores in the nation back online, but still have to pay somebody to change the oil in my own car, I still feel like a poor excuse for a man.

In fact, if I can have a heart-to-heart talk with my wife and help restore contentment after a painful emotional storm, that almost makes it worse when I get a paper cut in the tender, peach-skin flesh of my finger. On some level, I truly believe that our women would secretly jump at the chance to trade in our advanced verbal skills for the chance to watch us bore a mining tunnel into solid rock with nothing more than a pickaxe swung by graceful and powerful muscles. Beyond the show of strength—and here is the important point—there’s work to be done. And often they need a man to do it.

On some base visceral level, women must be as conflicted as modern men are about our modern refined sense of home-decorating aesthetics and our spirit of familial cooperation. So what if we do half the diaper changing around here? It’s helpful, sure, but a woman doesn’t need a man for that. Women sincerely love it that we’re affectionate with our babies: but wouldn’t it be even better if we could cuddle those babies after building a redwood deck out back?

Perhaps the modern woman would hold firm and maintain that she really, truly is above all that, and if given the choice, she’d actually trade in our ability to fix the sump pump for a willingness to read a book on ovulation. But I know all about spoken positions: they’re easy enough to have because they seldom get tested. (My dad is a feminist from way back, as fair and even-handed is they come, but—happily enough for him—this managed not to result in his doing any laundering or dishwashing when I was growing up.)

Without any behavior to study, the only way to prove or disprove one’s progressive attitudes would be to employ a polygraph machine. And I think it’s the same way with the attitudes women have toward backbreaking manual labor and the male. It’s subtle. They don’t have to say, “Hey, are you going to dig up that tree, or are you worried you’ll get a blister on your finger or throw out your back or not end up being strong enough for the job?” It’s all implied. All they need to say is “That tree needs to be dug up,” and the following chain reaction is automatically kicked off in the man’s brain:

She wants this tree dug up.

Digging up a tree is hard work, requiring strong muscles and tough hands.

She is not as strong as I am.

Her skin is not as tough as mine.

Based on my superior strength and tougher skin, I am not only the logical choice for this job, but it would be shameful for me to allow her to do this herself.

Hard though it may be to dig up a tree, this and countless other much harder jobs have been done by normal male individuals throughout time.

Based on the countless number of individuals who could dig up this tree, if my muscles are not strong enough or my skin not tough enough to do the job, I am actually a lot more like her than I am like the men who do this kind of thing routinely; that is, I am not really a man at all, but more like a modern woman who happens to own a penis.

If I do this job but complain about it, I am maybe just barely a man, since I live in a world of real, uncomplaining men, any of whom she might come to wish she had around instead of me.

Naturally, it doesn’t seem appropriate for me to complain about this state of affairs. After all, men enjoy being stronger; on average we make more money than women, for no good reason; we still dominate high offices throughout the world; we get to pee standing up; and we never have to wear panty hose. Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. But I do feel justified in pointing out that at least on this homemaking front, the tide is turning in an unfavorable direction for us men, and not just in the reversal of past ills. Without attempting an exhaustive discussion of the equality of the sexes—after all, I don’t want to stray too far from my main thesis—let me take a minute to address the chance examples I just gave:

Without much hand-to-hand combat or many long marches through the mire with a badly injured comrade on our backs, the modern American adult, male or female, has little need for great physical strength; indeed, there’s a downside to this strength—the burden of it—that I hope to make clear in this essay.

It’s immaterial how much money the average male makes compared to the average female, since a) my wife’s and my incomes are combined anyway; b) this is just another area where I risk falling short of my male peers; and c) it makes zero sense for me to actually wish for this state of affairs, since I want my wife to make as much money as possible, ideally many times more than I do.

Men’s high office stranglehold is of no benefit to us, as these leaders are totally beholden to corporations, lobbyists, and pundits anyway; moreover, the tendency of people to elect men instead of women only benefits me if I’m a chauvinist (which I’m not) or want to run for office myself (which I don’t).

Okay, I have to admit, peeing standing up is great, but the average person only goes six times a day, and one of those times is at night when we have to sit down anyway, so it’s just not that big a deal.

Women almost never wear panty hose anymore, and women’s slacks today don’t look any less comfortable than men’s.

But these considerations are beside the main point: that there is really no female equivalent to the double-standard of the modern, sensitive male needing to have the physical attributes of the sinewy, gritty landscaper. Is there truly a female equivalent to a man’s not being manly enough? I can’t think of one. Not being feminine enough? No, guys love tomboys, and if asked any woman can put on makeup and flattering attire. A woman wearing her man’s clothing has a certain type of sexy chic that takes nothing away from her femininity and if anything enhances it when employed properly. Not being good looking enough and/or thin enough? Not a good example. There are obvious benefits to looking good, whether you’re male or female, and if women are scrutinized the most, at least their investment in their appearance is well amortized across virtually every waking moment of every day. How does it benefit a man to build up the strength, stamina, and calluses necessary to occasionally build a fence or landscape a yard? Who’s going to know he did these jobs, besides his wife? (Yet if he shirks them, he has to face himself.)

Sure, I could brag to my male buddies about how I dug up and fixed a leaking sprinkler system (if I’d actually done this), but how much mileage would I get out of that? The difficulty of the task doesn’t speak for itself. And generally the wiser tack is to avoid discussions of home improvement altogether, lest we end up admitting to something we’d rather not: “Well, actually, we paid a contractor to build the fence. I’m sure I could have done it myself, but being so busy at work and all [unspoken details: driving a desk, typing all day, making phone calls] I just didn’t have time. I did stain it myself though. Yep. Tough job. The stain really didn’t smell very good.” No, better just to field a complement by saying, “Yeah, it’s a good fence,” and then changing the subject. (Perhaps this explains the origin of the strong, silent male.)

Nor is there a female equivalent to the inability of a self-respecting man to gracefully get out of doing a man’s work. The entire notion of “a man’s work” is completely solid and inarguable. Sure, there are tasks formerly thought to be the exclusive realm of the male, that it turns out are equally achievable by a female, like doing math and programming electronic equipment and driving a car in bad weather and barbecuing. And other tasks, such as taking out the garbage, have belonged exclusively to the male for reasons involving, perhaps, the last vestige of chivalry rather than any notion of difficulty. But there are other jobs that simply demand too much strength for a woman to do. It’s obvious to anybody, progressive or not, that the man is the appropriate person to do this work.

The notion of “women’s work,” on the other hand, is a total anachronism. Name a single job that a woman can do that a man truly cannot. There isn’t one. Sure, there are skills that have traditionally been in the women’s domain, like knitting and crocheting and sewing clothing from fabric and patterns, but nobody does that stuff anymore, and no woman would ever have her womanhood challenged by refusing to do them. Lots of women don’t even cook much these days, and they practically boast of it, since it marks them as modern and liberated. (Note that this does not cast doubt on their femininity.)

Worse, if a man gets sore about the home project double standard, the woman doesn’t have to take any blame—she gets to chalk the whole thing up to a man’s hang-up. It’s unbefitting of a male to complain about the difficulty of the work, and in fact can cause big trouble. Envision this scenario: a man—okay, a male adult—does some yard work, and he gets completely pissed off because he has just developed, and in the process lanced, a large blister, and it hurts. He complains bitterly, and there is absolutely no appropriate course of action for his wife to take. If she snidely says, “Oh, poor baby, did you get a little boo-boo?” or “Get a backbone, you pathetic excuse for a man,” the effect is obvious. But if she sweetly coos, “Oh, I’m sorry, let me kiss it and make it feel better,” even if she could do this without a trace of irony, that’s even worse because it makes the husband a child and his wife a mother figure. There is no human social protocol for this scenario other than the man to grimly and silently bear it. Only if he sustains a respectable injury like the loss of a limb is there room for the woman to notice it, freak out, and let the man shrug and say, “It’s nothing.”

By complaining of a blister, the male paints both himself and his mate into a corner socially, and there is no escape. Though we can’t complain about the work itself, at some point the unfairness of the situation begins to grate on us. When I say “unfairness” I’m referring to all the progress men have made toward being more thoughtful spouses, better parents, effective housecleaners, fairer people, and yet how little these things do to relax our duty to take on all the physically strenuous jobs.

If the male decides to point out the double standard, then the female really has him over a barrel. Because she hasn’t said a thing! All she asked was for the job to be done, since she couldn’t do it, so his plaintive response takes on the aspect of some difficult male complex, his internal emotional struggle, the kind of thing that can be summed up as a man talking about his feelings, which is an acceptable thing for the modern male to do under certain circumstances, like when all his manly obligations have been met, but not right after he’s made a big fuss over having to do the kind of work that real men have done cheerfully for millennia, without sustaining even a slight soreness, much less a blister, much less a spoken grievance. No, the abuse comes from within the male himself, so women don’t even have to fess up to it. It’s an invisible button they don’t even have to push.

So what is to be done? I guess we men could maintain the role of sensitive, articulate, well-educated, fair, sweet housekeepers, and loving, doting fathers and husbands, but take careers as day laborers, to build up the strength and stamina and (let’s just say it) manliness required for the occasional home improvement project. But then we wouldn’t make enough money, which is a pity when you’re as educated and articulate and sensible as the modern man has become.

So should the women try to even out the playing field by building up the strength and firmness of flesh to do the jobs themselves? Of course not. They’d be snared in their own ideal of femininity and beauty. No good for them, and besides, no man wants his wife to be tougher and manlier than he is.

So should women relieve their men of all housekeeping and child-rearing duties to give them time to work out and toughen themselves up? Yeah, right—and recreate the wretched state of affairs my generation grew up with, the overburdened career woman/homemaker/mother, but now with both parties resenting the man for the injustice of it? Not a good solution.

Perhaps the only kind thing for women to do is to silently hire somebody to do this work, and let the husband find out only after it’s too late. Then the man can save face by pretending to be annoyed at his wife’s fiscal irresponsibility, saying “Hell, honey, I could’ve done that!” while secretly breathing a sigh of relief. (And the woman can humor him in this bluff.)

If this scenario isn’t practical, or the job is something truly within the husband’s grasp, at least the woman can let the man seem to talk her into letting him try it himself; she can exercise saintly patience while he struggles with it; and she can make sure she never, ever downplays the difficulty of the job, and never shames him into doing it by starting to do it herself. And if he complains—not about the job itself, he would never do that—but about the injustice of this double standard, she can make sure she readily agrees, and acknowledges the absurdity of it. She can concede that males have come too far in our evolution from jerks to be subjected to backbreaking slave labor, that he should be spared this work not because he’s not capable of doing it, but because it’s not interesting enough for his heightened intellect and his advanced appreciation of the higher planes of human existence to which he has ascended. And she can bring him a beer.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dishwasher Man


For complicated reasons, my kitchen will only accommodate a dishwasher that’s less than 18 inches wide. The first one I bought, an unknown brand nobody will service, broke down after just a year or two. I orderded a new one online, and when it arrived I faced the classic homeowner’s dilemma: do I try to install it myself, or hire somebody who knows what he’s doing? Not a simple question, especially when my masculine dignity hangs in the balance. (“Masculine dignity” is a phrase I’ve borrowed from a pamphlet I got years ago from a couple of door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness types. It has become a handy buzz-phrase around our place.)

Here is the tale of my dishwasher struggle.

Why I should install it myself

Most of our house projects have been done by others: that is, by other men. This has been both a relief and an affront: relief that I didn’t have to exert myself and/or screw anything up, and an affront to my can-do male sensibility. Time and time again, as able-bodied men have carried out our home repairs, I would cross paths with them, invariably while I was carrying a load of laundry or the cat box and a little feces spatula. Or, I'd be doing a load of dishes, watching out the window as the men did some brutal landscaping job like digging a four-foot-deep trench through my backyard for a new drainage system. For socioeconomic reasons, these workers are usually Chicano, and if there’s any truth to the notion that they’re a macho bunch, they must think I’m a real sissy. They’ve all been far too professional to say anything, but I’ve self-applied the sting. I might as well be wearing an apron as they man the rotary saw, cutting the wood for my fence without need of a tape measure, a level, blueprints, or a liberal arts degree.

I doubt these workers admire my ability to bankroll the operation; that’s just as symptom of an unjust world where the bigger earners pilot a desk forty hours a week. In some cases, I wonder if the workmen actually have contempt for me. For example, when had our first dishwasher installed, the guy we hired pulled a fast one on us. There’s this anti-siphon device (the little plug that sticks out of the top of the sink and occasionally spews water), and though he put it in place atop the sink, he didn’t connect it to anything. I guess he figured we’d hassle him if he didn’t install all the accessories that came with the dishwasher, but that I’d never peek under there and notice the ruse. Either that or he just plain forgot to hook it up, which challenges the idea that it’s worth paying an “expert” to do the job.

Besides, how hard could it be to swap out one dishwasher for another very similar one? Why should I wait around while we find somebody to do it, schedule a time, go without a dishwasher until he can come do it, and pay a bunch of money on top of it? Looming over all these considerations is my male pride: I ought to be able to do this kind of thing myself.

Why I should hire an expert

I hate working on house stuff. I’m no slouch with tools, having worked for many years as a bike mechanic, but oddly enough, my experience with bikes makes home repairs particularly unpleasant for me. Bikes are predictable, well-designed, well-machined, and solid. There is generally one right way to install or repair a component, and it’s not hard to figure out what that is. When you screw in a bolt, it goes in smoothly and stops dead when it’s tight. Surfaces of things match, and when you’re done they’re flush. Everything is beautifully made; bearings are silky smooth. Bikes are a true pleasure to work on, especially the high-end racing bikes I deal with.

Homes, meanwhile, are a crazy mishmash of materials, techniques, and eras. They’re built on lumpy and/or hilly terrain that is only more or less solid. At least in my neighborhood, almost no two houses are alike. They’re worked on, over the decades, by a variety of crews with highly variable abilities and ethics. My house particularly is a kludge; built in 1929, it’s been the recipient of an unholy combination of neglect and really shoddy so-called upgrades. When I try to do the simplest thing to it, I frequently run into annoying problems. Like, I try to put a nail into the wall to hang a picture, and a crack runs across the painted plaster wall. Or I’ve missed the stud and the nail just makes a useless hole in the plaster. Or the nail goes in a quarter inch and hits some incredibly hard thing and will go no farther. And hanging a picture is probably the simplest home improvement task there is!

I also have great respect for professionals, and pity for the hapless amateur who boogers things up completely. So many times as a bike mechanic I’d inherit what could have been a simple repair had the bike’s owner not tried to do it himself. You get a partially disassembled bike and a big bag of parts, not all of which have any place on the bike to even go. (One time there was a spark plug among the detritus, as though the guy had just scooped up everything from the garage floor.) It’s bad enough to screw up a bike, but what if I made a plumbing or electrical error? I could burn my house down, or cause a massive unseen water leak that could dissolve a wall or, unbeknownst to me, soak my mudsill and attract termites.

What men do for inspiration

When I’m on the fence about whether or not to take something on, I get some advice—not from an expert, who would of course tell me to hire an expert, such as himself—but from any friend or family member who surpasses me in do-it-yourself capability. There’s a small chance this person will tell me, “Dude, you really don’t want to try that yourself,” but more likely he’ll give me encouragement and pointers. Make no mistake about it, though: you don’t ask for help unless you’re pretty sure you’ll take on the challenge. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up to lose face in front of another male. Not a pretty sight.

I started with my brother Bryan. Fortunately for posterity, I hit him up on instant messaging, so the transcript is available for your delectation. (I’ve edited it here to weed out the side diversions that, while amusing to me, are beside the point. Also, instant messages have a way of getting out of phase, like ships crossing in the night, so I’ve rearranged things a bit.)

DA: Have you ever installed a dishwasher?
BA: No, I have not. I have worked one over pretty good, though. I reckon it’s not that hard, especially if you've already got one installed. It’s like heart surgery, only easier. Plug-n-play, baby.
DA: What if the hoses aren’t the same diameter or something?
BA: [It’s] just tubing, you know. You hook one end from the dishwasher to the thingy, and the other end of the thingy to the drain hose. You might need couplings and things, too. You can get all that junk at McGuckins the next time you're in Boulder. Maybe it even comes with your new machine.
DA: I figure if it’s an hour project with no trips to the hardware store, I'm as sound as a pound. But other than that, I'm feeling like a wuss.
BA: Like a wuss—because you're sick, or scared, or what?

This is where the conversation gets interesting. Male support is, I think, a lot different from female support. Women listen, uphold, and empathize. Men apply subtle, but powerful, pressure. By questioning your manhood, they bring out your stronger self, just like the Army. Witness:

DA: I’m scared.
BA: Just think of how impressed Erin will be with your manhood should you succeed.
DA: Right, but think of how much face I could lose if I fail!
BA: True story, I'm scared, too. Sometimes I'm scared to go home, for fear of what damage awaits me.
DA: [provides web link to 28-page installation instructions for the dishwasher in question]
BA: Man, with instructions like those, you can't go wrong! Just don't let the wife see them, or she’ll figure she can do it!
DA: Funny you should say that. I was just showing her the instructions as Exhibit A in my defense should I elect not to try this at home. “Cripes, woman, it’s 28 pages and you need a 90-degree elbow with 3/8” N.P.T. external threads, and copper tubing, and it has stuff like toekick and leveling legs!”
BA: Are you kidding? If you give up now, she'll know you're a wuss! Just hand those instructions to Alexa [my eight-year-old daughter] and she could do it!
DA: You're not making it any easier for me to wuss out, you know. “Do not solder within 6 inches (15.2 cm) from water inlet valve.” Like I know how to solder! Like I have a soldering iron!
BA: You don't have to solder! You’d use a torch, anyway. Now there’s a man’s tool. (I haven’t actually done it, but Dad has.)

With that last bit you can really appreciate Bryan’s masterful skill in applying pressure. His phrase “a man’s tool,” drawing an implicit contrast between me and a man (subtext: I am not a man!) flows perfectly into his invocation of our dad. Dad … now there’s a guy who would never, never shy away from a project like this. Check it out: even as a teenager he would boldly tear apart the engine of his VW beetle.

My dad is capable of fixing any household appliance in existence (whether or not he gets around to it promptly). One time he suspected that a hot water heater was on its last legs, and engineered a solution whereby a puddle on the floor would be detected and would trigger a solenoid that would drop some weight attached to a cord or cable that would crank closed the water supply, preventing the house from flooding. I’m not sure I’m describing this correctly, or that I have ever even understood the thing correctly, but you get the idea. My dad is a man’s man, who has tools and knows how to use them. Bryan’s simple words here meet the legal definition of entrapment, I think.

BA: But you've already got the water supply and the drain hose, so you're golden.
DA: IF they're compatible. WHICH I doubt. Our old one was a complete and total pile. A steaming load.
BA: Dude, I'm confident that you can do it. [Subtext: don’t let me down!] It’s just a couple of pipes.
DA: Come on! It's got a Waste Tee and these curvy drain traps....
BA: All that stuff's already there! Alls you have to do is unhook the old drain hose and hook the new one in its place. (Of course, you should be a man about it and hook up the air gap while you’re in there.) Just don’t electrocute yourself. I always give the kids a refresher course on what to do if you see someone being electrocuted before I do a project. More for shock value, and so that they’re duly impressed with my manhood, than anything else.

At this point, the phone rang. It was a colleague, with whom I’d separately been having a brief chat on the same topic. Guys are great. If you ask them about their health or their families you may get a few words, a cursory response. But throw out any sentence beginning with “Ever installed a…” and you’re almost guaranteed a passionate and detailed discussion. Throw in actual hardware, especially a car, and you enjoy practically unlimited use of their time and energy.

My colleague asked a number of questions about the plumbing, the old dishwasher, the new one, and so forth. We talked for about fifteen minutes, and eventually he concluded that I could probably do the job myself, though he advised me to have at least three inches of butt crack showing above my jeans.

At this point, two men—both more capable than I—had expressed confidence in me, and had thus applied the proper motivation. I was now determined to take on the project. I returned to my chat with Bryan, to give him the news.

DA: I’m goin’ in!
BA: Dude, good luck! We’re all counting on you! [An allusion to the disaster movie “Airplane,” of course.]
DA: What about “You fool! You’ll be killed!” [Bryan has missed an opportunity to play out a standard Albert set piece.]
BA: D’oh.
BA: Don’t do it, you fool!

DA: I must do this … alone!
BA: (What was I thinking?)
DA: (Yeah, no kidding.)
BA: You might want to put on some baggy jeans for full effect. (So they’re... shoot, what do the kids call it? Ah, “sagging.”) You'll be The Man if you pull this one off. [This comment, of course, shows the disingenuous nature of Bryan’s earlier assertions that this job would be really easy.]
BA: Let me know how that turns out!

DA: We shall see!
BA: Go get ‘em, tiger! Woot woot! OH, and don't forget to disconnect the power first! Worse case it doesn't have a plug, just wires, but you can just skin them and shove them in the holes. Huh huh, no. You'd have to buy a plug.
DA: Surely they would provide a plug…
BA: Man, if that’s your nightmare, you're doing okay.

How women inspire their men

Erin was astounded that I’d decided to install the dishwasher myself. Earlier she’d made a pretty airtight case for outsourcing: “Look, you don’t have all the parts on that list, and you don’t have all the tools, and you’ve never dealt with plumbing. We could call Galvin Appliance—they’ve got a guy we could hire to do it, even though we didn’t buy it there. In this economy he’d probably really appreciate the work.” This argument was convincing, even glib—an underhanded attack, perhaps, on my masculine dignity? And now, her disbelief that I was up to the challenge—bordering on prohibiting me outright from taking it on—further steeled my resolve. She had upped the ante. Failing in the task and then having to admit I was wrong … that would just be adding insult to injury. Besides, her lack of faith had slightly wounded my male ego. I had to turn that around.

How children inspire their dads

My kids had by this point spotted the huge box the dishwasher came in, and I think Erin had told them they’d have to wait before playing with it. But once they caught wind that I was installing the dishwasher right now, they cheered and danced around. They shadowed Erin and me closely as, almost tripping over them, we dragged the dishwasher into the kitchen. Alexa even said, “I’m so excited you’re going to do it, so we can watch!” If I turned back now, I’d have two very disappointed daughters. Fortunately, the box was more interesting than my struggles, so they weren’t in my way as I tackled the task.

The job itself

Before I began work, Erin urged me to print out the directions I’d found on the web. I refused. After all, many of the pages were describing how to prep the area under the counter; how to make sure the dishwasher would fit; how to move it without throwing out my back (fortunately, my back was already out, so I didn’t have to worry about that); how to splice wires together (I was sure this was for some nonstandard implementation, like if your house didn’t have a nearby electrical outlet), etc. There really were soldering guidelines, which I was certain wouldn’t apply. It just seemed like a waste of paper and ink to print that whole thing out; I would have it on the PC for reference. (At the end of the job I realized that—duh!—a paper copy of the instructions was provided with the dishwasher. In the event, I never did look at them, being, after all, a guy.)

I set about methodically photographing the existing setup before dismantling it. That part was pretty easy. I even thought to put a tub down to catch the spills.

From there it seemed a simple matter of finding the corresponding hoses and parts supplied with the new dishwasher. But wherever I looked, I found nothing. No supply line. No obvious place to hook up a supply line. No cord. It was crazy. Finally I unscrewed and removed the toekick plate, to see if the missing components were hiding underneath, like the bag of small organs the butcher puts inside a chicken or turkey. Still nothing … except a little stub were you would attach, say, a 90-degree elbow with 3/8” N.P.T. external threads. If you had one.

I looked into the old dishwasher to see what I could scavenge. I found a corresponding stub, connected via (eureka!) a 90-degree elbow to the supply line. So far, so good in avoiding a trip to the hardware store.

Next to this elbow on the old dishwasher was a little metal box that looked like it might have something to do with power. I removed a screw or two and took off the box, and found three wires coming out. Bryan hadn’t just been trying to scare me: these damn dishwashers don’t come with a cord!

How much money do you suppose the manufacturers save by not bothering to provide a cord? That is, how much would the Chinese kid or the robot get for doing a little assembly-line wiring? I couldn’t imagine, at first, why they’d skimp on this, and then it dawned on me: they can save fifty cents here and their customers will never know or care, because the cost of overcoming this hurdle will be buried in the price charged by whoever installs the dishwasher. Even if the consumer chafes at the expense of this labor, the manufacturer has already gotten their money and couldn’t care less. In a way, though, I felt reassured by this: for the company to nickel-and-dime me like this, their margins must be pretty slim; in other words, I probably got a pretty good deal.

I wasn’t happy about the idea of doing any wiring myself. After all, these wires would be near water, so there’s an electrocution risk, and any time you have live wires there’s a fire risk, and then there’s the less glamorous but equally dreadful prospect that no power would go to the thing at all, after all my work. But I was encouraged by an e-mail I’d gotten from a friend in response to my 2009 Holiday Newsletter, about my retail experience in London. She commiserated, citing a trip to London she took in 1980. She hadn’t realized her hair dryer wouldn’t work over there, and had to go out and buy a UK-compatible one. She got it home only to find it had no plug. Her British husband sheepishly told her that you had to buy that separately, at a hardware store, and wire it yourself. Now, if an entire nation had managed to put up with such nonsense, I thought, surely I can adopt the same chin-up attitude and push on with my task. Keep calm and carry on.

I phoned Bryan and consulted with him. “There’s a green wire,” I said, “which I guess is the ground, and a black, and a white. The cord from the old dishwasher has a green wire and two white. I guess the two white are interchangeable, right?”

“Oh, no!” Bryan replied. “Only one of those is live. You need to figure out which one it is.” I looked more closely. One of the cord wires had a ribbed plastic casing; the other was smoother. I looked at the photo I’d taken of the old wiring; ribbed plastic was evidently the equivalent of black. Glad I asked! Here is my handiwork:

Other than that, it really wasn’t that hard a job. Messing with the wires, and moving the elbow joint and supply line from the old dishwasher to the new one, were hassles because they’re all just inches from the floor, so I was sprawled out there a good while, my face occasionally bumping into a screwdriver. It also wasn’t pleasant having the old dishwasher drool on me periodically, or rolling over on a puddle or wet towel. I had to cut off part of the drain hose, which had a triple-diameter aperture to fit different junctions. (I confess, I’m trying to make this sound as complicated as possible.)

Getting the dishwasher to fit in the cavern below the counter was straightforward but really tedious. Lest I fall prey to what we English majors call the imitative fallacy, I’ll spare you the details. When I was done I was delighted to find wood beneath the counter to screw the dishwasher’s frame into. And then I was pretty much done!

At least, it appeared I was done. I was really wondering whether the thing would actually work. Would it get any juice from my home-wired cord? Would a hose burst and flood my kitchen? Would the dishwasher prove defective, now that my kids had dismantled the box and all the packing materials? Would some dire plumbing mistake cause raw sewage to spew up from the sink? Would some combination of problems cause the floor of my home to become electrified and kill us all?

Before I could test the new dishwasher, of course, I had to load it, and that meant generating dishes. Here’s where my family could help: we’re all great at this. In fact, my must-act-now project had delayed dinner significantly, and I was more than ready to chow down on some good blue-collar food:

Then I loaded up the new dishwasher and ran it. It seemed to take forever, only (I’m sure) because I was on pins and needles. It made the normal mild groaning and moaning noises that dishwashers make, accompanied by light swishing sounds and occasionally punctuated by a slurping gurgle in the sink. It was still toiling away when, exhausted, I went to bed. The next morning, I was greeted by a full load of sparkly clean dishes. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I chortled in my joy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Race Report - Mt. San Bruno

Why I race Mt. San Bruno

I’m not a bike racer. Depending on your perspective, I’m either a washed-up old has-been, or merely a would’ve-wanted-to-have-been. But, having raced for over a decade, I can fake it pretty well, if I choose my races carefully. Criteriums require a lot of sprinting, for which I have neither talent nor conditioning. Short hill climbs favor climbers; I’m not built for them. Regular-season races favor those who race every weekend and follow a fairly regimented training program, which I can’t be bothered with. So if I race it all, it’s generally either an event that’s too awful, by its length and difficulty, for most racers (e.g., the Everest Challenge), or is held out-of-season.

The Mt. San Bruno Hill Climb takes place every year on January 1, a day when (in theory) most people ought to be too tired and/or hung over to participate, and nobody in the northern hemisphere should be in anything approaching race shape. Perfect for a guy like me who rides the same amount, at roughly the same intensity, all year round. Perfect in theory, anyway.

In reality, bike racers are an irrepressible bunch, the kind of people who really ought to get a life. My category (Masters 35+) fills up every year at Mt. San Bruno, as do most of the other categories, and the racers show up fit, trim, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed. Still, it’s not too far a drive from my home, so I can pretty easily assemble a small entourage for it (plying my wife and kids with hot cocoa). This year was my third; I raced it in ’06 and ’08, and this year set out to improve upon my performance from last time, when I was over a minute slower than in ’06.

The 2010 bike race scene

Bike races have changed very little since I started in 1981. You get a lot of stringy people milling around a parking lot in some industrial park, with a big line at the san-o-lets. (I’ve learned to bring my own toilet paper—it often runs out.) Most of the bikes you see are more expensive than the cars they came in on. The mood is a combination of camaraderie and jitters. The big change from when I raced regularly is that everybody warms up on stationary trainers now. One crew even had a little canopy erected over their warmup area in case it rained. (I found this a bit twee, frankly.)

I met up with a teammate, Mike Ceely, who—being an old-school type—got his warm-up riding to the race. In his case this meant coming straight from a New Year’s party that lasted into the wee hours. Just for fun, he wore an old jersey from a long-ago bike club, Team Milwaukee (its official name, in smaller lettering, being “√©quipe la merde”). That’s him in red below, having a laugh with me and an old buddy of his (in blue). I can’t remember what was so funny.

One new development in the sport that’s becoming increasingly common is the timing chip, which automatically records every racer’s time. I first used on in 2003 in La Marmotte, a cyclo-sportif in France; I was required to put down a deposit (something like 10 euros) for it. They had them this year for Mt. San Bruno, which was the first time I’d seen one used in such a minor race. It was a small strip of foam rubber with adhesive backing and a chip embedded in it that was mounted to the racer's helmet. I guess the idea is to speed up the results; I can’t say that it did, however, as the results still weren’t posted when I left, an hour after I finished the race. Still, the timing chip is a nice idea.

You shall be spared

Yesterday I was trying to find results of this year’s event online, and though I couldn’t, I did find somebody’s blog describing a blow-by-blow of the Masters 45+ race. It was written well, but I couldn't help the feeling I'd read this story before. Unless somebody rides off a cliff, catches himself on some shrubs, climbs back up to the road, gets a fresh bike, and goes on to win (all of which the Frenchman Laurent Fignon actually did once in a Tour de France stage), there’s generally not that much to get excited about in a blow-by-blow of a local bike race.

This is especially true with a race like Mt. San Bruno. For one thing, the race is too short to allow for some master plan to be carried out. Meanwhile, its being uphill means the speed isn’t that high, so drafting—and thus tactics in general—don’t actually matter so much. Of course, at the summit I heard all kinds of racers telling all kinds of tales, all full of tactical intrigue and strategic brilliance—the whole “chess-game-on-wheels” bit. I was hard pressed to believe any of it. In a race like this, there are some people you can keep up with, some you can’t, and others who can’t keep up with you; sometimes you can draft others and sometimes you can’t; above all, the grade sorts out who is strongest.

Thus, I’m not going to bore you with anything that happened between the time the race started and when I crossed the finish line. I went hard and then it was over and that’s all there (ever?) is to say about the race itself. But I wouldn’t have led you this far if I didn’t have a story to tell.

The story

My story begins shortly after I crossed the finish line. I took a few minutes to catch my breath, then learned that we couldn’t descend back to our cars until the last rider had finished. I had suffered terribly, breathing like a malfunctioning turbine about to blow out its bearings, my tongue dried like jerky from hanging out in the wind. The race had been so hard that one of the only things that kept me going was knowing that, not long after I finished, my suffering would end (whereas most of the rest of America would still be painfully hung over).

Then I thought: hey, speaking of hangovers, where’s Ceely? He hadn’t felt too well after his warm-up, and had no lofty goals for this race—he simply intended to treat it as another side-trip in his comprehensive tour of the many avenues of human suffering. There were gobs of racers at the summit so finding him wasn’t an easy task. I couldn’t remember what color his jersey was, so I had to scan the whole crowd for him. In the process, I saw this one dude who looked just awful—far worse than anything I’d expected to see.

Let me try to describe this guy. He’d climbed off his bike and was sitting on a low stone guardrail, staring blankly into middle distance. To say he was frowning doesn’t cover it. Every part of him was frowning. His mouth had an exaggerated closed-lip crease of a frown, extending down so far it almost reached the edge of his chin. His eyes were frowning as though tugged downward at the outer edges. The bags under his eyes were frowning, his eyebrows were frowning, and the creases in his forehead were frowning. Moreover, as he hunched over even his shoulders were frowning. He reminded me of one of those Greek theatre tragedy masks. Such misery. I thought, “He’s just plain lugubrious” before deciding that word wasn’t even strong enough and silently coining a new word, “ultralugubrious.” (It’s a testament to my own compromised mental condition that I reflected with delight that ultralugubrious has all the vowels, which of course it doesn’t.)

It was an amazing sight and then, suddenly, I realized, oh my god, that’s Ceely! I swear to it: although I was looking for him, I didn’t even recognize him at first. He looked downright unwell, and I suppose he was. Fortunately, he had filled his bottle with tonic water left over from the party, which was like nectar from the gods for both of us. (I’d not brought a bottle and had been regretting it.) Eventually his color returned a bit and we made our way down the mountain, taking a wrong turn at one point. (Perhaps because I seldom drive, I’m a lousy navigator and thus hopeless follower who would practically trail a drunk driver right off into a ditch).


We had a big thermos of good cocoa, two excited children, and warm clothes awaiting us at the car, and following that a big, hot meal at a groovy Berkeley restaurant overlooking the bay. Not a bad start to the year.

Though I aggravated a feisty virus by racing Mt. San Bruno, It’s possible I’ll be completely recovered in time for the 2011 or 2012 edition. Until then, happy new year from albertnet!


They finally posted the results. I finished seventh, in 18:03—a personal best for this event. I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with that.
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