Monday, May 31, 2010

Watching Bike Races


It’s not easy being a bike race spectator in the US. In the dark ages we made do with the lousy coverage the major networks carried, and though things got better with OLN (the Outdoor Life Network, otherwise known as the Only Lance Network), now known as Versus, this only helps if you get that channel at home. I do not (I don’t have any channels, for a variety of reasons, one of them being that Comcast was just rated the worst company in America). Normally I don't miss cable TV, except when a big race is on.

This post discusses the challenges of watching big races on the Internet, and compares this to seeing local coverage in person.

Internet race coverage

For relatively timely post-race reporting, sites like and are very decent. We’ve come a long way since the days when “VeloNews” covered major races a month or more after the fact. By early afternoon, thanks to the time zone difference between the U.S. and Europe, you can get a pretty detailed report with great photos. While you’re at it, you can catch up on all the latest bike gossip, such as the bizarre, wacky, possibly insane Floyd Landis confessions. But of course none of this is any substitute for live video footage.

If you want to watch the action unfold in real time, you should check out and, both of which have numerous web links to live coverage. Why numerous? Well, most of the video feeds either don’t work or are in another language, or both. There’s no perfect strategy here; you just have to try one link after another. Sometimes there’s no English language option, so you’ll finally have an answer to the question (you thought it was rhetorical), “Why did I study a foreign language for five years?


This classic one-day race looked promising so I got up good and early and managed to latch on to a nice English-language feed with ninety minutes left in the race. Announcing were Sean Kelly and some British guy. Kelly, though a huge champion in his day (I’ve always thought of him as the Larry Bird of bike racing) is pretty boring as an announcer. During his racing days Kelly was known for answering questions with a head nod during radio interviews, and his manner hasn’t changed much since then. Nonetheless, his understated style—though absurd for a sportscaster—has kind of grown on me, and it’s funny to hear the other guy try to draw him out.

At one point, during an extended lull in the action, the English guy seemed desperate to keep the patter going and really tried to engage Kelly: “So Sean, here’s something nice. Remember that old lady, Coral, who promised to knit us a jumper? Well, she never found the time, but look, she’s mailed us some knit socks! Don't these look smashing?” Kelly replied, “Yes, they’re nice.” The other guy continued, “And they’re even Irish green, isn’t that something?” Kelly said, “Good for winter.” And so on.

Suddenly, with about forty-five minutes to go, the English-language feed got blocked. Incongruously, a picture of a bikini babe replaced the video, and a window popped up saying “This feed blocked at the request of the copyright holder” or some such thing. You always run this risk with the Internet video feeds. Why do they tease us like this? In America they wouldn’t suspend the coverage, they’d just hold it hostage for a credit card number. Maybe that’s no better.

After the English-language feed vanished I couldn't get anything else to work except Russian (or as the site called it “Slavic”). It was a lot better than nothing, though I barely understood any of it (despite two years of Russian language class). The video part of the feed is still from the British, so I could at least read the occasional phrase that flashed on the screen (Leaders, Chasing Group, etc.). The one spoken word I made out that the announcers used a lot was интересно (pronounced “een-tear-ESS-no”), meaning “interesting.” It was weird: two Russian announcers, a Russian and a Khazak rider well off the front in a major bike race, and yet the two announcers could have been discussing wallpaper samples. No excitement in their voices at all, just two men chatting and saying things like “interesting.” Either they’re just not patriotic, or they aren’t that into cycling, or they’re just very soft-spoken people.

After the race when the winner, Alexandre Vinokourov, was interviewed, the show was even funnier because Vino doesn't speak Dutch so he answered the questions in French, which I probably could have understood pretty well except he was mostly drowned out by the Russian translator piped into my feed. So, to summarize: Belgian race, American viewer, British video feed, Russian audio feed, Khazak winner speaking French to (among others) a Russian translator. “And we call it ... the Aristocrats!” (If you haven’t seen “The Aristocrats,” don’t bother trying to understand this joke.)

Tour of California

It’s great having a major stage race right here in my home state. This year my pal Dan came down from Bend so we could ride a couple of the stages, or at least parts of them. The first one we looked at was the stage from Davis to Santa Rosa, that goes over the Oakville Grade and Trinity Grade, on a road that connects the Napa and Sonoma valleys. We rode for a couple of hours before stopping to wait for the racers at a particularly steep and twisty part of Trinity Grade, less than a mile from the summit. A sizeable crowd had turned out to watch, and many were doing their best impersonation of drunken Belgian spectators. They rehearsed their cheering on amateur cyclists like ourselves, and even though I knew they were fake cheers—the equivalent of taking someone’s picture with no film in the camera—I enjoyed them as I rolled up the hill making this movie:

Following this, Dan and I parked our bikes and stood around in a patch of poison oak, in the freezing rain, for the next hour and a half, growing incrementally tired of the exaggerated antics of the drunken spectators, ultimately cursing the racers for not making better time. I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering and had to do jumping jacks to keep from expiring entirely. Countless race vehicles and cops would drive by, getting cheered wildly as we mistakenly thought they had something to do with the racers finally arriving. But each time—nothing. Finally, when my brain was so sodden and cold I’d all but forgotten what we were doing there, the racers finally arrived. Here is the main bunch:

Almost seven minutes later, the race leader, Mark Cavendish, rolled by just ahead of another large group. I recognized him immediately, but was puzzled by his standard team jersey instead of the race leader’s jersey. Finally I figured it out: he’s wearing a vest over it.

As race spectating goes, this was pretty good, discomfort aside. The trouble is, a tough climb like Trinity Grade barely fazes these guys, and they just go by too fast. If you really want to watch them suffer, you have to find something a lot longer and steeper, or a multi-lap deal like the Nevada City Criterium. Plus, since we couldn’t be in two places at once, we couldn’t watch the finish and thus didn’t learn who won until that night, when we checked out the results online.

The next day, a few more friends joined us as we took Bart to San Francisco and rode down Highway 1 along the coast for a couple dozen miles, ahead of the racers on the Stage 3 route, then heading inland to ride up Tunitas Creek Road, otherwise known as Kings Mountain. It’s about a ten mile climb, and again the weather was cold and damp (though at least we weren’t rained on). The top of the climb was absolute pandemonium, with spectators thicker than flies on road rash:

We saw the blur of racers go by, descended, once again freezing, to a second vantage point for another quick look, then headed back to the coast where we hammered south on Highway 1 a bunch more. Seventy-five miles into the ride, with twenty-five to go to Santa Cruz, we stopped at a convenience store for Cokes and such. When Dan and I came out, our pal Mark had spotted a roadside diner and said, “Conceptually, there’s no reason we couldn’t get a cheeseburger here.” He considered it for a moment, then went on, “Screw it, I’m getting a cheeseburger. You wanna cheeseburger [pointing at me]? You wanna cheeseburger [pointing at Dan]?” Dan and I each twirled an index finger in the air and said, “Three orange whips!” (If you don’t remember or haven’t seen “The Blues Brothers,” don’t bother trying to understand this.) To our great delight, the diner was showing the race on their big TV over the bar, which is how we came this close to getting to see the finish.

It was a real nail-biter: Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie, and Michael Rogers were in a breakaway only about twenty seconds ahead of the charging peloton, with about a mile to go. It seemed like couldn’t get much better than this: burgers, fries, a warm place to sit after a bunch of riding, and race coverage on the telly. But suddenly, the Versus announcer, Phil Liggett, was saying something about us needing to switch to the Versus online coverage. And then—Bam! Literally less than a mile to go, and the coverage stopped. It was 4:00, see, when some stupid pre-game hockey show was scheduled to run, and Versus made no effort to accommodate the late finish of the race. God forbid the hockey fans should miss five minutes of their show so we could see the final result of four and a half hours of bike racing. Nice job, Versus. My chances of ever paying for your channel have just sunk to zero.

Giro d’Italia

The trouble with the Tour of California and the Giro d’Italia running concurrently is that it’s hard to stay on top of both. When the American race ended, I was able to better focus on the Italian one. Fortunately, the first truly epic day wasn’t until Stage 7, when the racers tackled the unholy combination of dirt roads and rain: mud wrestling on bikes, basically. I missed this one live, but watched the last fifty or so minutes later in ten-minute installments, thanks to and their handy video archives.

The next stage I watched live was the penultimate race, over the mythic Passo di Gavia. This time poor weather temporarily halted the video feed for everybody, worldwide. During this period the footage turned to the spectators atop the high pass, shivering in the cold. (After Trinity Grade, I could begin to relate to their experience.) There was so much snow the road had to be plowed for the racers , so they road alongside six-foot walls of snow on either side. Being terrified of copyright laws, I cannot furnish photos on this blog, but you can see some nice ones here and here and here.

Happily, the video eventually returned, and I got to watch the action on the Gavia with the announcing of Sean Kelly and the British bloke. I’m really becoming rather fond of Kelly’s soft-spoken reticence. As Ivan Basso, the new race leader, reached the summit, an American announcer would have tried to inject as much drama as possible by saying, “And here he is, the leader of the Tour of Italy, cresting the highest summit of the entire three week race!” or some such. Kelly, after pausing to watch Basso roll by, simply said, “And here’s Basso, all jacketed up.” Something so calm, cozy even, about this simple description.

Perhaps my video hosts were feeling a bit punch-drunk on the last day as they announced the time trial event. The Brit watched one rider cross the finish line and said, “Quite a good ride from so-and-so, especially as he’s got no form to speak of.” When Vladimir Karpets, a 6’3” Russian rider, overshot a corner and had to come to a stop, the Brit said, “Not a great spot of bike handling there,” to which Kelly replied, “He’s so far from the ground, he’s probably scared.” As tall rider myself, I winced.

But this was nothing compared to their assessment of the Frenchman Thomas Voeckler. “A bit of a loose cannon, isn’t he Sean?”the Brit asked. Kelly replied, “Well, he’s impetuous, and he’s the kind of rider who, when he’s in the thick of it, you can’t talk to. Some riders are like that—you can talk to them until they’re in a move, and then they do their own thing. Usually it’s not very bright, but it can work out, if other riders are caught napping, so it’s not always such a bad thing. Besides, other riders you can talk to, who are always aware of everything and don’t make mistakes, well, so often they’re so aware they don’t do anything, and when you tell them it’s time to ride, they’ve always got some problem.” I felt pegged. I've often missed opportunities in races by paying too much attention to my own cautionary impulses.

Other than that, the final stage coverage was low-key, like the pleasant passive entertainment of a baseball game. When the final rider, race leader Ivan Basso, took the start ramp, there was no fanfare from the announcers. “Here is Basso,” the Brit intoned, “all in pink except for the overshoes and the mitts.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From the Archives - Critique of Alexa's Early Art


We got a new fridge. The State of California had a fat rebate set up for purchasers of Energy Star fridges, and that might have been nice except the fridge we needed—short enough to fit under our cabinet—wasn’t on the approved list, though it’s Energy Star certified. There’s a process to add the fridge to the list, but the deadline for doing so preceded the announcement of the rebate itself: a nice Catch-22. So we bought the fridge anyway (our old one was drooling all over our food) and did without a rebate. Thanks for nothing, California!

Part of breaking in a new fridge is, of course, the Kids’ Art Installation. Lindsay had a nice new piece that was too large for the front, so I put it around the side, where it was spattered with spaghetti sauce from the nearby stove until I removed it, and it's now gone missing. D’oh! Here are a couple of the works we have up front now:

Serving as curator for this new fridge exhibit made me think of Alexa’s very first major work, which she completed at age two. In general the public’s response to this work was positive, but one major critic, my friend Michael, was fairly critical of it. I get that being critical is his job as a critic (albeit an amateur one), but I thought he missed some of the artistic nuances of the work. What follows is his critique, and also my response, which ended up blossoming into a full-fledged exegesis of Alexa’s drawing and her artistic sensibility in general.

The work

Happy Face by Alexa Albert. 2004. Mixed Media (digital photo, plastic and magnets). The Museum of CAlbert Art, Albany, California.

The critique – January 27, 2004

I think the use of color needs development. Form and style are good but the inclination toward avant is so euro-yesterday. i'm impressed with the texture--the play toward the pixelization look--but feel the minimalist approach is just not in tune with contemporary artistic values. in essence, the artist appears immature in her approach and execution; however, there are some encouraging attributes warranting encouragement.

My response – January 28, 2004

Your analysis is generally quite valid, but if I may say, you fail to fully consider the context in which we should view this work. Sure, if you came upon it in a gallery, little more could really be said about the fresh young talent who created it. But naturally there is a school of art criticism that goes beyond the surface and considers the context, the background, the circumstantial and sociological texture, if you will, of the art and its artist. From this perspective, the work embodies much more than a quick glance can appreciate.

Young Albert is making grand statements with this early piece. Certainly there is a brashness here, some would even say an insolence or iconoclasm, given the relative lack of education of the artist, in this case a relative autodidact who has never apprenticed to a master and frankly ignores, or even denies, contemporary or historical influences. And yet the treatment of subject here is, above all else, ironic, and throws a harsh light on the current art scene and, indeed, the current psychological and emotional landscape of our time.

You mention the sparse use of color: exactly her point. Her choice of medium, and her truncated palette within that medium, are the equivalent of making an expensive color photocopy of a black-and-white original. (An architecture student I know once played with this as well.) And though you seem to appreciate her experiments in pixilation, perhaps you haven’t fully realized the depth of her statement: she had to know that her picture, coarsely drawn though it is, would be captured with a 2.1 megapixel digital camera. She’s actually bridging the pointillism school (exemplified by Georges Seurat and his followers in late 19th-century France) to the present, invoking the oil-and-water clash between warm French beauty and cold American technology.

Certainly it could be said that young Albert should master the technical aspects of her craft before embarking on grand statements. After all, Picasso almost certainly could have painted in the soulless but technically adept Norman Rockwell style before moving on to the experimentation that become Cubism. One could accuse Albert of not actually recognizing that the nose is between the two eyes and not off to one side, challenging the idea that she is deliberately skewing the loci as did her famous predecessor. But that would be false: she has been able to identify the nose, her own or another person’s, for well over a year, and always points to the right place. (Indeed, the work in question shows a strong command of locus, even if the nose itself is lacking in definition.)

Can’t we forgive Albert’s refusal to get bogged down in technical skill-building when she has so much bottled up, that yearns for alternative modes of expression? This is a person whose entire life has taken place post-9/11. She has never known a government that wasn’t steeped in cynicism and at odds with its society. This is a sensitive soul whose first exposure to mass media included the Teletubbies, those uncanny, unsettling, inexplicable creatures that exist as if to fly in the face of decent artistic temperaments. Sure, Albert’s work may be titled “Happy Face,” but it cannot be an accident that the face is sticking its tongue out at the viewer, as if to say, “I see your cracked polystyrene world and I raise you one flip gesture.”

You charge that the work is avant and euro-yesterday? Exactly Albert’s point: a half-rhetorical question, “Wouldn’t it be nice to revert to an earlier time, and a less crapola culture?” And her refusal to sync up with contemporary artistic values is, above all, an attempt to put the kibosh on our entire shattered American era, art and all, since she can’t cherry-pick what beauty still remains.

Of course it’s still irresponsible and myopic to say she has no influences. Her parents, totally unrecognized by the contemporary art world and for good reason, have taught her every poor technique in the book, and make matters worse by choosing uninspired subject matters for their own art: cats, babies, simple geometric forms that are easy for the untalented to draw. This early exposure has combined with young Albert’s emotional and intellectual underpinnings to establish backlash as a fundamental—if not the fundamental—basis of her oeuvre. Consider the haphazard geometry of “Happy Face.” A slap in the face of realism? Or a realistic representation of a face that’s been slapped? That eye on the right: is it crying? Or does it have an “owie”? (Could it even be based on Albert’s growing understanding that her sister was born with a cataract?) Moving across the (virtual) canvas, we see an irregular form above the eye on the left. A cloud? A hematoma? Why should an ostensibly happy face cause us to ponder such questions?

The answer can, arguably, be given in two words: Thomas Kinkade. Yes, as if Albert’s worldview wasn’t tainted enough by 9/11 and the Teletubbies, she was also exposed to a Kinkade “painting,” reproduced in an advertisement (for Kinkade-branded merchandise) in “Parade” magazine, irresponsibly left around the house with no regard for the possibility of this impressionable young artist seeing it. It is entirely possible—and hideous to contemplate—that Albert is unaware of the almost universal disdain for Kinkade; after all, no two-year-old can be expected to have followed what criticism the art world has bothered to throw in Kinkade’s direction. How could she feel anything but disgust for her fellow man, believing that Kinkade is not just a commercial but a critical success?

We could well expect a less cynical approach were Albert to have read Joan Didion’s latest book, Where I Was From, in which Didion snarls that Kinkade’s “paintings” are “of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel.” (A perfectly appropriate analogy in this case, as young Albert possesses the juicy, sausage-like calves that to a bloodlusting witch would make Hansel and Gretel look, in comparison, like dried-out jerky.) Given this strong dose of grotesquery, and the idea that Kincade is accepted by the art world, any artistic sentiment could be expected to turn immediately to bold, raw, intentionally non-cozy images. Built atop Albert’s other influences, this Kinkade exposure may indeed have been the straw that broke the camel’s back and sent her fleeing to an artistic realm that William Blake might have inhabited had he been painting two centuries later and for “Mad” magazine.

Of course, after such contextual flights of fancy, we must always return to the work itself. And there is certainly room for growth, for maturity, for greater depth in Albert’s work. But if you’d viewed it as the artist had intended—for just a few seconds, before it was wiped out by magnetic eraser wielded by the artist herself—you’d have a better sense for its transitional, flash-of-consciousness intent, its post-MTV artistic-pulse sensibility. By photographing it, I have falsely imbued it with an intellectual permanence, and invitation for study, that were not mine to give. Young Albert is a highly experimental artist-in-transition, and only when she turns her full attention to other media—crayon, ink, clay, paint, motion-picture, holographs, mindoplastiform—will she offer us the kind of craft we can endlessly explore, that will give the true measure of her talent and ambition. dana albert blog

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Big Red - Letter to a Young Gearhead

NOTE: this post is rated R for mild strong language and thematic elements.


Awhile back, I sent a photo around to the guys on my bike team. The photo was of a very cool bike, with incredibly large wheels, that my brother Max recently acquired. Here's the very photo of the very bike and the very brother:

Just recently a pal on my bike team e-mailed me about it:

This was such a loaded subject that I wasn’t surprised when my response ended up being rather long-winded. I suppose the popularity of Twitter, with its ultra-short, off-the-cuff, breezy messages, should dissuade me from assuming anybody has the patience anymore for a lengthy discussion of bike parts, bike lore, shop talk, personal history, and such, but just in case I’ve lucked out and you’re a bike nut or at least an aficionado of machines and/or blue collar matters, I’ve decided to post my letter here, with some more or less appropriate photos.

In the photo below, Jan is on the left. In the middle is our friend and EBVC teammate, Mark. As may be evident from the photo, Mark and I are old enough to be Jan’s dad. That said, Mark and I are still idealistic enough to cling to youth, fight off age and the aura of responsibility, and generally try to pretend we’re still Jan’s age. The limitations of that approach are represented throughout this post.

My response


Sorry for the delay in answering your question about the bike with huge wheels. It’s impossible to broach such a loaded topic briefly, and if I tried to keep this brief it’d take me even longer. But you’re a young, unfettered guy, looking to take on a hearty mechanical project, so you won’t mind a long-winded response, I’m sure. (Myself, I dare not take on any bike projects, lest I end up out on the curb with the Floor-Mate and the old armchair and whatever else Erin decides is cluttering up the garage. It’s stuff like this that reminds me that I’m a lot older than you, whatever my self-delusions try to tell me.)

The photo I sent around is of my brother Max’s bike, which he calls “Big Red.” I haven’t ridden it yet—I haven’t been back to Boulder to visit Max since I got the photo. A very cool bike it is, and perhaps all the cooler for being kind of pointless. The wheels are indeed a stunning 36 inches in diameter. Max says 36 inches is a standard size for rickshaw wheels so it’s easy to get tires for Big Red. He says the ride is smooth as silk—“You can just roll over a curb and not really feel it.” He said it’s a great bike for getting noticed, too.

That’s the good news. I asked Max if the bike is hard to steer; he admitted that it really is—“Like the Exxon Valdez.” There’s also the issue of gearing; you really want gears on a bike like that but good luck finding such a thing. The previous owner (more on this later) retrofitted the bike with a Shimano Nexus 7-speed internal hub, which wasn’t at all easy to do.

I suppose I should say a few words on the subject of internal gearing. I’ve encountered enough youngsters like yourself, who have never ridden a bike with friction shifters or toe clips, to know there’s a good chance you’ve never dealt with internal gears. There’s nothing like a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub for a proper commuting bike. So much more dignified than a “kicky, fun” “commuter bike” with “grip shift!” Of course, the Sturmey will turn on you, time and time again. I’ll be riding along on my old Triumph 3-speed, a black beast I call the Arseless, a proper English bike with an upscale bike license from Connecticut that expired in the ‘50s or ‘60s (the decal is no longer very legible), with my heavy work bag and u-lock in the basket, humping it up some 2% grade that feels like Alpe d’Huez, and suddenly the drivetrain will just give, no longer engaging the rear hub, and my body will heave forward, my knees crashing into the bars and stem, and I’ll almost go down. There’s no way to adjust the Sturmey well enough to prevent this; there are little gears and pawls and whatnot in there whose corners get rounded off over time. Second gear is the scariest. My brothers Geoff and Bryan could take a Sturmey apart and overhaul it but I never learned; those hubs are like clocks inside. Geoff had a 5-speed that was a nightmare; he got so fast at field-stripping it, he’d give it a complete overhaul every few days, as naturally and fluidly as a chain-smoker lighting up.

The Shimano Nexus 7, though, truly represents the impending ascension of the Eastern world. (After decades of prominence, Sturmey-Archer almost went out of business before being bought up by a Taiwanese company.) True, the Nexus has a grip-shift thing, not nearly as cool as the lousy Sturmey Speed-Switch shifters, and true, Shimano makes fishing reels, and true, Shimano has disgraced itself and its customers with electronic shifting for road bikes, and true, “Nexus” sounds like the model of a cheesy Nissan, totally lacking the coolness of “Sturmey-Archer,” but man, the Nexus shifts beautifully. I had one on Erin’s Bianchi Milano, rest its soul. When Alexa was in day care, Erin would go to work really early, riding the Bianchi to North Berkeley Bart and leaving it in the locker. I’d get Alexa fed and dressed and drive her to El Cerrito to day care, then get on Bart at Del Norte. Erin would get off work early, Bart to Del Norte and find the car, and I’d get off work late and ride the Bianchi home from North Berkeley Bart. Except one day the bike wasn’t there: the locker door would sometimes spring open spontaneously if you didn’t test it after locking up by kicking the daylights out of it like you were trying to kill it. Erin just didn’t kick hard enough, I guess, and some douchebag stole the Milano. Here’s an old photo of the bike, with my brother striking a pose:

Back to Big Red: its previous owner wanted it to have a Nexus 7 hub, which of course doesn’t have the same flange diameter as whatever the bike came with, so he had to have spokes custom made for it. I can’t imagine how hard he had to look for a shop with the special tool that cuts and threads spokes. It’s hard enough to find a shop with a decent wheel builder, what with the popularity of these new-fangled pre-built wheels.

(Now, lest you think I’m going to go into some impassioned sky-is-falling defense of old-school hand-built wheels, think again. The modern wheels are lighter, stiffer, and more aero, and anybody who denies their superiority should be ignored, just as you should ignore anybody who denies that there is sex after marriage, like this guy I used to work with who assured me of this marital sex myth the moment I got engaged—it was one of his pat lectures, he’d just blather on and on, wasting my time, and when he finally stopped talking and I’d start to say something curt like, “Noted,” he’d check his watch as though I’d buttonholed him, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him there probably just wasn’t sex after marriage for him because he was so annoying. But I will say I miss the days of expert wheel builders, like my brother Geoff who, without fail, could reach into a box of spokes and grab exactly 16 of them, without looking.)

Even with stock spokes, getting the right length is always, and has always been, a difficult process. At the greatest bike shop ever, the High Wheeler (or Thigh Feeler as we called it) in Boulder, there was a homemade card catalog where you could look up different combinations of hub, rim, number of spokes, and number of crosses. Whenever you built a combination that wasn’t in the card catalog, you had to make a new card. There would be comments, like “Worked OK, just a tad short, one thread showing.” Years later, working at a lesser shop, I’d often throw my hands up at their techniques—a chart you’d hold the rim up to, a Casio calculator program—and call my old Thigh Feeler boss, JB, and just ask him. Half the time he’d know the length off the top of his head.

Anyhow, the problem with spoke cutter/threader tools is that they attract the wrong element to a shop. You get these total gearhead types who show up, drool over the spoke machine, describe in great detail the project they’re working on, and proceed to chat up the mechanic for the rest of the day. My brother Geoff worked at a place in San Luis Obispo and I hung out there a lot, and they had the spoke cutting machine, a really fancy thing with a leather cover and all, and it was just a time sink. That was a shame, too, because the whole time my brother worked there, the place was slowly going under. The head mechanic was this big fat bearded guy, and though his weight wasn’t in and of itself a big problem, he had these amazingly spindly stork-like legs that barely held him up—he’d have to lock each knee while walking before it could support his weight—so he couldn’t test-ride any bikes, and obviously was useless on the sales floor. What’s more, he was really lazy, just sat around on his stool chewing the fat all day on just about any topic. He had this friend who was supposedly a porn star, “The Tripod” they called him, who would come by and they’d just shoot the shit all day. One day I watched for about ten minutes as this head mechanic used the vice to pop a whole mess of bubble wrap, patiently feeding it through bit by bit.

The owner had a soft spot for the mechanic, who it was said had a heart of gold. The owner had a soft spot for just about everybody, actually. He would have loved to hang out and eat pizza with the guys after the shop closed, but he had a wife and family at home, so he’d secretly call up and order a pizza, and leave enough cash by the register to cover it. Geoff and I would be hanging around tuning up our bikes after work and suddenly the pizza guy would be there, and we’d panic until we found the money waiting and pay the guy. Then it was good times. Nothing, I mean nothing, stoked us out like free food in those days. The pizza was always Canadian bacon and pineapple, which we kind of got tired of, but of course complaining would have been utterly ungrateful, and it was a far cry better than nothing. Now when I have that combo it’s nostalgic. I wish I had some right now.

Eventually the owner’s generosity, and myriad other factors, began to seriously erode the fiscal foundation of the shop, and paychecks started to bounce. I well remember one warm summer evening when Geoff got paid, and we jumped on our bikes to race over to Geoff’s bank. We well knew that only one or two of the payroll checks would be funded; the rest would overdraw the shop’s account. We were closing in on the bank when one of the other mechanics, our friend Garrett, came roaring by in his VW bus. He had an account at the same bank. Geoff cried out in protest—“He cheated!”—and lamented the loss of income, not to mention the fee he’d have to pay when his paycheck bounced. Later he learned to buy expensive Dura-Ace bike parts for me on the shop’s account, to be deducted from his paycheck, so that I could pay him for the parts and he’d have real money for a change. (I worked at the young upstart shop across town, Broad Street Bikes, which had been The Moped Emporium until the day I started work there. It was a good shop, and though it didn’t have a spoke length card catalog or anything, my paychecks never bounced.)

Getting back to the custom spokes on Big Red: the wheel came out fine, but the frame lacks the braze-ons that a proper bike, like the Bianchi Milano, has, so the original owner had to cut some corners. For example, he had to bolt something to the braze-on for the coaster-brake, and whatever assembly he codged together wasn’t quite working out. Max has some pals at a local machine shop, and after inheriting Big Red figured he’d have a fitting custom-made for it, but the man for the job was pretty out of it when Max went to talk to him. “He’s a diabetic,” Max explained, “and a few nights ago while he was asleep in bed he suddenly went into convulsions and basically beat the shit out of himself. His teeth are all broken up and he’s totally out of it. His roommate found him. He’s back at work but still messed up, so my custom fitting is going to have to wait.”

So here’s how Max got the bike. It’s a pretty predictable story, doubtless one that’s been told in various versions since time immemorial. He has this friend he says is “basically a gazillionaire” who painstakingly assembled a glorious fleet of bicycles, each as unique and cool as Big Red, but who subsequently got married. The guy’s wife was put off by the sheer number of bikes this guy owned, and made him liquidate most of them. It’s hard to justify the existence of so many bikes, especially in terms a non-bike-crazed woman could understand. (I had a similar challenge promoting Wells Fargo, my bank, over BofA, Erin’s, when we merged her accounts. She cited more ATMs; all I could think of was “western stagecoach motif,” so I lost.)

Imagine, finding a sweet cruiser with 36-inch wheels, then finding a Nexus 7 hub, having the spokes made, the wheel built, dealing with the braze-on problem, getting it all going, only to have to get rid of it. I feel the guy’s pain. I was minding my own business one day when Erin asked me to help put the Arseless in the back of the car. “What for?!” I asked. She announced, rather casually I must say, that she was donating it to the preschool for their yard sale. “But it’s my bike!” I protested. “You can’t do that!” She pointed out that I never rode it. “Well of course not, is has a flat!” I protested. But it’s no good explaining to a woman why a simple thing like a flat tire can sideline a 3-speed for so long. I have no problem overhauling the Dura-Ace 7701 non-cartridge bottom bracket, with its over eighty moving parts, because it’s a precisely machined mechanism. But a 3-speed?

With a bike that’s more than fifty years old, you really have to choose your battles. Every bolt you touch with a wrench could spontaneously strip out; non-metal stuff like tires and tubes can dissolve in your fingers like a dead moth. And that Sturmey-Archer … it’s just made to fail. Look at it wrong and the cable will instantly fray into oblivion, like blowing on a dandelion that’s gone to seed. The cable pulley is as old and brittle as a tooth you’d find in a dry skull. If you were trying your hand at telekinesis, you could do a lot worse than trying to bend, with only your mind, the tiny, frail chain that links the cable to the workings of the hub. But Erin would never understand; her eyes would roll at the word “wrench.” So instead of trying to explain, I just grabbed the bike from her and took it back into the garage and, on the spot, finally fixed its flat tire. We haven’t discussed it since. I think this kind of marital scenario is responsible for the existence of the strong, silent type.

When you’re married, your available wrenching time dwindles quickly almost to nothing, like the picture on a black-and-white TV when you turn it off. I can prove this objectively: when I got engaged, I was still working my bikes over all the time, for fun, and pulling the occasional shift at the bike shop just to help out the owner, so I had fairly meaty hands, the kind a man can be proud of. Ours was a short engagement, but even so, I became so neglectful of my bike-mechanic roots I had to have the wedding ring resized so it would fit my atrophied finger on our wedding day. But the terrible erosion of my manhood didn’t stop there; the decline continued, and with all this office work my fingers have become so slender and wussy—like the woman’s in the Palmolive commercial—that I have to wear my wedding ring on my right hand or it’ll fly off.

Not that I’m completely spineless and pathetic: at least I still keep my favorite bike here in the house, where it belongs. I was shocked and dismayed to learn that some of my married friends—guys on our bike team, for crying out loud!—keep all their bikes in the garage. I consider bike storage to be a good litmus test for the proper balance of power in a marriage. If all the man’s bikes are in the garage, his wife has been given too much leash. On the other hand, if all his bikes are in the living room, or the bedroom, he’s seized too much power and is headed for trouble. I think one bike in the spare bedroom or office is just about right, especially if there are kids around who need to spend as much time as possible in the presence of a fine racing machine.

It’s funny; just last night Erin said to me, “There are all these inner tubes in the garage.” I nodded. “What should I think about that?” she asked. I told her it would be better not to think about them at all. “What are they for?” she asked. Finally I broke it to her: “Those aren’t inner tubes. They’re sew-up tires, worth about $50-60 apiece, handmade of Egyptian cotton.” She asked if I would ever use them. I told her, “No.” For now, she has dropped the subject. But it’ll come up again, I’m sure.

I guess what I’m ultimately getting at is, you really need to seek out and acquire that 36-inch-wheel bike now, while you have the chance. Hell, get yourself a track bike, a cross bike, a rain bike, a 3-speed, a fast commuter, a general-purpose f*ck-all bike, just build yourself a fricking armada, so when you get married you can give in and ditch, say, half of them while still maintaining a respectable fleet. I confess, to my shame, that I have just four bikes (and one more on the way). I have tried to gain points with Erin by having her interview my biking friends about their collections, but she’s obstinately unimpressed that I lack both a track bike and a cross bike. Of course she has a point; there’s a time and a place for a real two-wheeled arsenal, and kids come with their own endless stream of accessories that clutter up your life. But for now, your living room ought to look like this (each photo is of one wall of the place I shared with my brother Geoff and a couple other guys):

So how many bikes is enough? Well, consider my friend’s blog post on the subject: you need N+1, where N is the number of bikes you have now. But be selective: any schmuck can have too many bikes, and it takes a connoisseur to assemble a tasteful collection. So don’t jump on the silly fixie trend—it’s vulgar. A monster cruiser with 36-inch wheels would be just the thing to show the world your discerning taste. I can’t wait to ride it!

Dana dana albert blog

Friday, May 7, 2010

Follow-Up: The Cost of Rinsing


Right here in the pages of albertnet, I was dressed down for a recent report, “A Study on Rinsing.” It was a very public admonishment, given by my brother Bryan in a comment attached to the post. Now, I can’t fault Bryan for reproaching me; after all, he’s my older brother, so this is his job. In like fashion, the psychology of birth-order dictates that as the youngest brother I need to upset the apple cart by steadfastly refuting Bryan’s every point, right here in this public forum. (I suppose if we were on Facebook I could save time by simply de-friending him and letting the gossip mill tease out every detail of our dispute. But I’m not.)

This post provides a copy of my brother’s comment for your convenience, followed by my counter-argument. It must be noted that Bryan’s statements were completely serious but also tongue-in-cheek. I intend to match him tongue for tongue and cheek for cheek, in a seriously cheeky tongue.

Bryan’s comment

Bryan wrote:
“Maybe it’s the Dutch in me, but I just couldn’t make myself spit out perfectly good food, especially when it’s expensive exercise drink. (I don't know why that isn't an issue with you... Maybe you really do have a different father. That would explain a lot of things, actually...) Shoot, I can barely even make myself eat my own expensive energy food I got as samples from the various rides I’ve done, even though they are mostly out of date by now. I find myself thinking, ‘This ride isn’t really long enough or hard enough to deserve one of my precious gels.’ By the time I realize that I really should be eating my precious, it’s usually too late. But I never learn.“As for spitting it out, it’s not going to happen. I may swish it around for a while just to get the most out of it, but I’m sure that any psychological benefit from spitting it out would be overwhelmed by guilt. There are people exercising in India and we Americans are spitting out energy drinks out on the street. Really.”
You’ve doubtless noticed what a fine writer Bryan is, and perhaps you’ve even asked yourself, “Why couldn’t he be the blogger in this family?! This guy is concise, funny, and moreover he’s right.” I am moved to challenge only the last bit, but I shall give it my best.

Perfectly good food

Needless to say, Bryan is off-base here: energy drink is not food. It has absolutely no nutritional value, other than sugar. The sugar is useful only to the extent it supports the quality of the exercise, so if tasting the sugar without ingesting it does the trick for awhile, there’s no point in ingesting it as if it were food. It’s not like with Popeye; even if he could gain his amazing burst of strength from chewing his spinach and then spitting it out, it would still be better for him to swallow it, because spinach is a good source of niacin and zinc, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, Vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and manganese. But energy drink? No value there at all.

Wait, you might say: energy drinks have electrolytes! Yes, they have two: sodium and potassium. Now, sodium isn’t exactly hard to get and I can’t imagine Bryan would argue I don’t get enough of it to sustain me during my workouts (which have averaged only an hour and a half over the last six years). And as for potassium, the energy drinks provide only a scant amount (Cytomax provides 3% of the U.S. RDA, Gatorade 2%, and so on). Especially since I’m only talking about a small proportion of the drink being spat out, this laughable amount of potassium is clearly of no importance. (Eight ounces of orange juice, meanwhile, provides 14% of the U.S. RDA for potassium and 161% of Vitamin C. I would never spit it out.)


Now I shall address Bryan’s comment about the expense of that wasted energy drink. To paraphrase something our dad once said to Bryan: “What we need here is a math major.” (The actual quote was “physics major,” because at the time Bryan hadn’t yet switched to math.) The point of this comment, of course, is to diss Bryan for failing to apply his considerable math skills to this matter. I was only an English major, but I knew enough to glean the most important lessons from my other subjects; for example, I mastered the factor label method from Chemistry. Applying that method here, I have calculated the cost per mouthful of spat-out energy drink (the price of energy drink is based on my last purchase of it, and I measured the mass of a mouthful of liquid by spitting water into a measuring cup):

So, rinsing twice per ride ends up costing a dime. I have averaged 121 road rides per year for the last six years, so the cost of my rinsing is about twelve bucks a year. (Bryan has averaged thirty-nine road rides per year over the last six years, so his cost of rinsing would be less than four dollars a year.) Hardly worth getting so indignant over, if you ask me. (Needless to say, I don’t rinse when riding the trainer. That could get really disgusting.)

Different father

I imagine the point Bryan is making with this aside is that my profligate spending is completely out of line with our father’s legendary frugality. To satisfy the curiosity of my albertnet audience, I’ll give just a couple of examples of Dad’s thrift.

On family vacation trips, we always camped. This was mainly because camping is fun, but there was a budgetary component as well, as was evident when the campgrounds were full and we’d have to get a motel. Back and forth along the streets of some little town or city we’d drive, late into the night, looking for the best deal. Then Dad would get a single room, and we would sneak, one by one, into the room. I can remember as a really young kid being scared that I’d make too much noise, we’d be discovered, and the whole family would go to jail. I also remember sleeping on the thin, scratchy motel carpet with a flimsy motel towel over me as a blanket.

There was also the matter of the thermostat. Winters in my hometown of Boulder were very cold, but we were absolutely forbidden to touch the thermostat. This isn’t terribly unique, of course; Jerry Seinfeld even has a shtick about it, where as an adult he phones his parents and taunts them by announcing he’s just turned up the thermostat, over which has father had had absolute control throughout Jerry’s childhood. Where our dad was unique was in overriding the absolute minimum that our thermostat could be set at. It had a little mercury-bubble switch that wouldn’t go below 60 degrees because the little bubble would hit up against the edge of its curved glass tube. Unwilling to incur the cost of keeping the house that warm, our dad removed the unit from the wall, took it apart, revised the label in his neat handwriting, and reinstalled the thermostat at a new, odd-looking angle so it would go down to 50 degrees, which is where it stayed, 24-7-365.

I disagree with Bryan on two fronts: 1) his idea that my lack of thrift suggests I had a different father, when in fact our mother was also quite thrifty; and 2) the very suggestion that I’m not thrifty myself.
It was from Mom that I learned that grocery shopping requires cunning and vigilance if you don’t want to get ripped off. She knew, and I came to learn, that no store has good prices across the board—you have to figure out which stores had the good prices on which things. For example, the Berkeley Natural Grocery has good prices on dairy products, but really high prices on produce. Monterey Market has great prices on produce and dairy, but lousy prices on prepared foods like peanut butter. Safeway has good prices on prepared foods but only if the items are on sale. Mom taught me how the whole sale and coupon business makes grocery shopping a lot like day trading. By carefully observing her example, I have developed her uncanny intuition to predict when a given item will go on sale, at which time I stock up on my beloved staples.

It was also from my mom that I learned about food expiration dates. These are largely fictional and can generally be ignored; just give the food a good sniff. I also would never have guessed that food that has turned usually won’t hurt you. Is the milk sour and lumpy? Don’t drink it then (my mom has advised me) if the taste bothers you, but if you accidentally ingest it, fear not: you won’t actually get sick. Mold on the bread or cheese? Just cut it off and eat around it. Mom is a microbiologist; she knows her stuff, and her lessons have saved me a lot of money. I came back from vacation recently and an old jar of salsa had begun to ferment; it fizzed and buzzed on my tongue like Pop Rocks Action Candy. I shrugged this off and used up the jar. Back in college I routinely fished food out of the trash that my cowardly roommates had thrown out prematurely. And a few weeks back I came across some expensive smoked trout hiding in the fridge; it was pretty old and had a trace of stink to it. I couldn’t bear to throw it out, though, so I threw it into a big pan of gorgonzola gnocchi. Gorgonzola is a strong cheese. The meal was a hit; nobody noticed anything amiss.

My precious

Bryan’s reluctance to use up his precious gels (and other energy foods) indirectly makes a point about frugality: perhaps the greatest threat to fiscal efficiency is being jaded. Most citizens of the First World have their basic needs (food, shelter) met; what keeps many of them from amassing real wealth is a combination of 1) limited earning power and/or 2) wasting a lot of money on stuff they don’t need.

For me, going to a garage sale is like seeing a parade of a family’s ill-chosen purchases. After all, if this stuff were totally worn out and used up, it wouldn’t be for sale; clearly, it is on the block due to a terminal case of buyer’s remorse. Similarly, craigslist is like a clearing house for the objects of fickle consumerism. On the consumable front, everything we eat and drink ends up in the same place—the toilet—so if it was expensive, it better have given us all the performance and pleasure we sought from it.

A rich quasi-family-member once took my mom and me to a fancy French restaurant in Berkeley. Throughout the meal, all he did was complain about the various ways in which the restaurant came up short. The food tasted fine to me; I came away wondering if being an epicure might not be a very good idea. Could it be that too much of the good life might just strip the pleasure from wealth? In contrast, when I did a long ride with Bryan in Oregon recently, and we were slogging our way up Dead Indian Memorial Road, he continually marveled at how tasty his energy drink was. He was truly stoked, just to have it. I came away impressed at how, simply by doing without, Bryan has cultivated a fine appreciation for simple things like sugary drinks. On this point—that frugality fosters gratitude for simple pleasures—I must agree with my brother.