Thursday, September 30, 2010

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2010

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild coarse humor.


Permit me to regale you with the tale of the 2010 Everest Challenge. I realize I already galed my albertnet readers with such a story last year, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Hollywood movies, it’s the value of cheap retreads.

As with previous posts about cycling events, this report is targeted at those who have little patience for bike race blow-by-blow accounts, but who have a lot of patience for reading about the strange and fanatical dining habits of the competitive cyclist, along with various road trip anecdotes. If you’re not interested in either topic, you could just scroll down because there are some photos. Or don’t. Whatever.


The attrition this year started before the race even began. Mark couldn’t come because he had to go to a wedding of some fairly close relative; our hopes that the engagement would fall through did not come to fruition. Craig couldn’t come because his wife had an important overseas business function; he was trying to get her to quit her job but ultimately she didn’t. Tim had a bad crash and wasn’t able to train; I have no witty rejoinder for this, of course, it being simply very sad. Nor can I explain, actually, why Lucas and Steve didn’t end up registering. So I went to Bishop as the sole East Bay rider in orange.

Paul and Jamie drove up together in Paul’s dark stealth vehicle, a Honda Element color-coded to match their dark stealth bikes. They’re able to put the bikes on a rack inside the car to keep those heavy, non-aerodynamic dead bugs off the bikes. Ian and I drove in his VW Golf, which is all tricked out with a metric dashboard, an ominous engine light, a broken fuel gauge, and—new for 2010!—working air conditioning.

We left early—too early, in fact, to hit that killer taqueria in Escalon. I was navigating, so we missed the turn for Tioga Pass and had to backtrack, so I’m glad we padded our drive time. We had gringo burritos at a gas-station-snack-bar in June Lake, an hour north of Bishop, because a) we were starved, and b) there was a sign out front saying “You must eat here!” The burritos, for being gringo and lacking both rice and beans, were actually pretty good. From a satiety perspective, though, they were roughly equivalent to a big puff of air from a bellows. We proceeded to Bishop, where we missed the turn for our motel due to my tendency to confuse north with its sneaky doppelganger, south. My poor navigation skills would end up being a recurring theme on this trip.

Paul and Jamie arrived at the Bishop Village Motel just after us, and right away began gloating because their room had a full kitchen and ours only a mini-fridge and microwave. I nursed a grudge throughout our 40-minute leg-shakedown ride. It was an easy spin, though we did one “effort,” just so we could talk about it later and feel really sophisticated using the term “effort.” In my case this was a mistake because I hadn’t used my inhaler and was wheezing as soon as my heart rate hit 150 beats per minute.

Dinner, like last year, was at the county fairgrounds where we checked in. It was free, and it was pasta. Alas, my first serving was like what you’d give a small child who had been eating Nerds, Tangy Taffy, and Tootsie Rolls all afternoon. I was ten minutes in line and about thirty seconds in eating my first plate, which at least included half a dozen hunks of cheesy bread. I went through the other line for my second helping, hoping for a more generous server. Just as I reached the front of the line, I had an impulse and grabbed a fresh paper plate to put over my old plate, hiding the sauce stain. I don’t know why I did it—instinct, I guess. You can’t teach this.

I asked the server to fill the whole plate, and she said—speaking down to me like a child—“Start out with this much”—she put a hatefully small pile of pasta on my plate—“and if you’re still hungry later, just wait until everybody’s been served and there should be enough for you to have seconds.” Yeah, right. I got back to my seat, and minutes later Jamie returned from the line, having been turned down for seconds. He looked stunned, like he’d just been told he had to race without shoes. How is anybody supposed to race 120+ miles with no fuel?

My second plate, like my first, simply didn’t register in my stomach. It’s like when you put a penny in a parking meter. I had to go back again. Paul doubted aloud that I’d prevail again against the pasta Nazis. I turned my baseball cap backward to fashion a basic disguise, and went back through the first line to try my luck. To my horror the guy ahead of me got totally hassled! I stared straight ahead, past the server, and tried to act natural. Amazingly, it worked and I got thirds, no questions asked. By this time they were out of bread, but when it was time for a fourth plate of pasta everybody had been fed and I encountered no resistance. I doubt the sideways ball cap was even necessary. My expert tactics in the food line had me feeling victorious already, though the race was still more than twelve hours away.

Now, I know you’re getting impatient for the real story: how was the pasta, anyway? Well, there was no sausage in the sauce this time, but it was still pretty tasty, in a cafeteria-grade, guilty-pleasure sort of way. Ian was drinking some beverage the color of antifreeze, which he complained was warm. But hey, free food!

After dinner we headed to Smart & Final for breakfast stuff. I’d brought a Tupperware of Cheerios—or, more specifically, the Trader Joe’s house brand. (My wife Erin persists in calling them by their branded name, “Joes Os.” I refuse to do this. In fact, I told her if she didn’t desist, I would start calling non-Kleenex-brand tissues “snot rags” in front of the kids.) We got milk and Ian picked out some bright green bananas. They were actually the ripest ones there, but way too green for me. He replied, “I like a firm buh-NAH-nah.” Perhaps it’s the English accent; my rejoinder—“That’s what she said!”—was just a formality as we were all laughing already. I realize now that this story is not that funny; I guess we were nervous about the race. Or maybe you just had to be there.

I spent a really long time pinning my numbers before bed. Ian taught me to crumple them up so they lie flatter and don’t flap in the wind. It’s so satisfying to continue progressing in this sport after thirty years. I was so pleased with my pinning job, finally, that I thought about not even wearing the jersey, but rather putting it on a mannequin that I’d display at home in a nice glass case. I suppose you could construe this as cold feet.

I was anxious, for sure. I wasn’t anxious about the race per se; I was anxious about being anxious, lest it disturb my sleep. I ended up sleeping pretty well, though I had anxiety dreams. I dreamt I left my laptop on Bart. In another dream I waited too long to ship out a modem line tap and had to rush all around for a FedEx office, eventually finding a Mailboxes Etc. that was also a taqueria. That’s how you know I didn’t get enough dinner.

Stage 1 – 122 miles, 15,465 feet of climbing

During the first stage I consumed four and a half bottles of my preferred brand of energy drink (two of which I’d stashed in a cooler by the car to grab before the last climb) and two bottles of energy drink provided by the race (which some of my pals have had trouble with, giving me incentive to mix my own bottles). I also had three Powerbar gels during the race. My stomach was actually pretty bad on the first climb, but I can’t blame the race-provided beverage for that—I’d not yet blown through my first bottles. Impressively, Jamie caught Ian and me on the first climb. (The Masters 45+ group, which included Jamie, raced with my 35+ group last year, but this year was split into a separate group, starting five minutes later, because there was such a huge turnout. The Masters 35+ group was twice the size of last year’s, and the 45+ field grew even more.) Unbeknownst to me, Ian stopped to take on nutrition at the top, and thus didn’t get to suck my wheel on the descent.

Toward the bottom of the first descent, disaster! I took a wrong turn, and Jamie followed me through it. (I haven’t taken a wrong turn in a road race since collegiate nationals in 1989. On that occasion, my coach famously said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk to you about it. I won’t humiliate you any more than you already are.”) Jamie and I lost 3½ minutes as a result of this error (which I know from studying my race statistics graph later). The silver lining of this error was that Ian was able to rejoin Jamie and me for the rest of the descent and the flat section following it.

There are three explanations for how I could have taken the wrong turn:

  1. I did it on purpose, as the best way to join back up with Ian. Slowing down inexplicably could have been dangerous, and it would have been impossible to explain myself to Jamie with all the wind in our ears. I timed the move to perfection so Ian didn’t even break stride getting back in our slipstream.
  2. I only thought it was a wrong turn and route correction; Jamie and I were actually abducted by space aliens and taken to their beautiful ship where they did horrible, invasive investigations of our Senator Packwoods before erasing our memories and setting us back down on our bikes, minus a third of our hemoglobin.
  3. The road cones wrapping around the corner were left there by a construction crew and were unrelated to the race, and the course marshal had abandoned his post for a little while—at the very moment we came through—before putting the cones in his car and taking them away to prevent confusion among the cyclists.

Though all three explanations doubtless strike you as far-fetched, I assure you that one of them is absolutely true. Needless to say my morale was severely damaged by this mistake. I ultimately reacted by going really hard on the last climb, far harder than I felt was even wise. Though many people had told me I should have a compact crank for this race, chalking my 39x27 up to pure foolishness, as it turned out I did most of the climb in my 24-tooth cog. I mentioned this to Jamie afterward (it was the closest I could really come to bragging), and still he insisted I should have used a compact. Gearing is like religion.

I don’t remember eating very much of the free meal at the top of the final climb. Certainly I had some cokes, and I slammed enough ginger ale for some really righteous belches (though I kept my mouth closed so as not to scare anybody). I had a few bean-and-cheese quesadillas and some Oreos. I was either too blown to eat a lot, or too blown to register what I was eating, or too blown to shunt the fact of my eating into long-term memory. I shudder to think, looking back, how little I ate with the second stage of the race still looming.

I compared my Stage 1 time this year with last year’s. At the bottom of the final climb I was about three minutes behind where I was at the same point in ’09, but by the top of the climb I was fifteen minutes faster for the stage. I have to be pleased with that, and I am. (Note that the altitude numbers are wrong on this. The final summit on Stage 1 is 10,250 feet above sea level.)

Dinner was at the same Italian place as last year, though we could have sworn the name had changed. (It hadn’t; the waitress confirmed: it’s had the same name for sixteen years.) We had some combo pizza as an appetizer, and it was excellent. It included green peppers, the consumption of which made me feel subversive as Erin is allergic. I had the same mushroom soup as last year—oddly spicy but very good. Oddly, I got about four bay leaves in mine, and Ian didn’t get any. It’s who you know.

The waitress couldn’t remember what I’d ordered last time, and I guess I can’t blame her since she may not have been my waitress last time. I knew it was either the chicken parmigiana or the chicken marsala, and whichever it was, it had been delicious. I should have re-read my own blog post about Everest ’09 and I’d have known it was the marsala; instead I guessed wrong this time and got the parmigiana. It was overly breaded and a tad greasy. I mean, it was fine and all, but I’ll never forget that marsala from last year. When I’m on my deathbed looking back at my life, trying to pinpoint where I went wrong and at what point things started to unravel, I’ll doubtless conclude it was this particular dinner choice. Meanwhile, my more meticulous competitors had probably done their homework and enjoyed the marsala, using my own blog against me!

Stage 2 – 86 miles, 13,570 feet of climbing

I approached this stage with utter dread. I’d slept very poorly; my ears were ringing as I lay in bed, as though I’d been to a loud nightclub or something. I finally managed to fall into a fitful sleep. At around 3 a.m. the dirtbag in the next room over, just across the thin motel wall, started yakking on his cell phone. I figured it must be an emergency call from somebody in Europe, and the guy would soon be on his way to the airport, but instead he just chattered away ad infinitum. I was wearing earplugs so I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but his tone was that of a happy homemaker discussing wallpaper samples. Finally Ian yelled through the wall for the guy to ring off or have his cell phone shoved so far down his throat it’d tickle his duodenum. Wait, come to think of it, Ian said something much more diplomatic; that must have been the comment I had been formulating. Anyhow, the guy shut right up, but neither of us really got back to sleep after that.

During stage two I drank four bottles of my preferred energy drink, two bottles of Heed, and a couple bottles of water. (It’s a lot shorter race than Stage 1, but it was hotter than blazes with no shade at all.) I also swallowed some electrolyte capsules they were giving out at a rest stop, and ate a couple fistfuls of grapes passed up by a Samaritan spectator who appeared a couple times along the road on the final climb. Somebody gave me a banana at one point as well, provoking Paul to quote Ian’s firm buhnahnah statement. I timed my consumption to perfection, running out of energy drink less than 500 meters from the finish line.

For the last fifteen kilometers I’d really been going hard—harder than I was completely confident I could sustain. I wouldn’t have been surprised to suddenly crack at any point. I passed a number of riders who had, in fact, cracked—including the previous day’s third-place finisher, who for awhile was five minutes ahead of the rest of the Masters 35+ riders. One guy, when I passed him, said, “Oh man, there’s another one!”

Near the top, I went by a couple of spectators, one of whom said, “Way to finish strong!” I felt like turning back and saying, “Say that word ‘finish’ again, would you? That sounds really good!” It was a real relief to be done: not just because the suffering was over, but because nothing catastrophic had happened. In the end I was about five minutes faster on this stage than I’d been last year. I didn’t place as high as last year for the overall race, nor in either stage, because the field was much better this year. That said, in the “Man vs. Nature” and “Man vs. Himself” competitions I am plenty satisfied with my efforts.

Here is the graph. Note that it’s altitude over time, not over distance, so the descents look steeper than the climbs. This is an illusion. I’d have shown you altitude over distance, except my bike computer was screwing up, so the altitude/distance graph looked like a long rubber band dropped from a great height onto graph paper. Not very useful. Also note that the altitude numbers are wrong. The final climb started at 3,800 feet and ended at 10,100 feet. (In fact, the distance and power numbers on my bike computer display were also reading low, which tended to make me both ride harder and overestimate how far I still had to go.)

At the top, after a bunch of water and some cokes, I started macking on these so-called Greek quesadillas they were grilling up. They had fresh spinach leaves, feta, and I think olives. The spinach was perfectly wilted, the tortilla perfectly crispy yet soft, the cheese gooey and salty … fricking amazing. I kept expecting them to run out, but the ‘dillas just kept coming. I was just shoving them in my face as fast as my hands could move.

I cannot estimate how many quesadilla triangles I consumed other than to say I surprised even myself. After a volley of eating I’d go sit down for awhile, the basic camp chair feeling like a throne of some kind, until the hunger would gnaw at me and I’d give up the seat for more food. This led to an interesting social question: is it fair to take over a fellow racer’s chair when she is called up for the awards ceremony? I ultimately decided it was, so long as I gave her the chair back later.

The medals this year were even cooler than the ones we got last year. I complimented the race director, Steve Barnes, about the medals (and everything else about this glorious event), and he said a few people had said they’d preferred a cash or merchandise price to the medal, but he chose to ignore that input. I agree with him: a money or bike tire would be consumed right away, whereas a medal can live in a drawer forever, occasionally brought out by your kids to admire or play with. In fact, without being prompted my daughter Alexa found a nice ribbon for this year’s medal:

Dinner was at Erick Schat’s Bakkery in Bishop—again, the same place as last time. I talked up the pastrami sandwich a whole bunch to Ian before realizing I was setting him up for disappointment. What do I know about pastrami? What makes me an expert? So I backpedaled and said, “Look, you probably should order something else. You’re bound to be disappointed. I shouldn’t have shot off my mouth.” He ended up ordering it, and as far as I can tell he liked it. I got the pastrami myself and it was nirvana. The only trouble was, they were out of their rye bread and the sourdough wasn’t as robust, and got a bit soggy from the sauerkraut I stuffed in there. I wished aloud that they’d grilled the bread, and Ian disagreed, pointing out that the soft bread conforms better to the stuff inside. Though I found this observation perfectly consistent with his race-number-crumpling technique, I couldn’t resist taking the bait, and soon we were fistfighting in the parking lot. No, of course we weren’t—far from feeling pugilistic, we were happy to be done with the suffering and to be stuffing ourselves with pastrami that a placard noted “is not lean.” Jamie had the “Mule Kick” sandwich. I was tempted to say, “You just like saying ‘Mule Kick.’” It really is a catchy name. I suppose it’s trademarked. If I start a sandwich shop maybe I’ll offer a “Jackass Spaz” sandwich. Paul had a platter of some kind; the vegetable side looked a bit limp and he wasn’t thrilled with it.

The trip home

No way were we going to settle for Taco Bell, like we did last year. We stopped in Groveland at a little restaurant that had pizza. I remembered the place from a Yosemite trip many years ago, and I remember thinking how awful it was, but here we were and I was determined to go with the flow and keep a stiff (if sunburned and chapped) upper lip. Pizza was indicated. Jamie and Paul said they only wanted a slice. This made no sense. Why would they lie? To be safe, I talked them into ordering a large. Oddly, a one-topping cost like $5 more than a plain pizza, and yet the super-combo with like five ingredients was like $1.80 more than that. Normally, on general principle I’d have insisted on a combo, but we were tired and a debate about topping choices might have been dangerous. So we went with pepperoni. It was glorious. The crust, though thin and crispy, wasn’t overly cracker-like: it still had some nice chewiness. The cheese was plentiful and the pepperoni was fattening. We should have ordered two or three of them.

After getting home around midnight and finally making it into bed, I dreamed of food all night. One dream involved dinner with some new friends, and they were serving carnitas. The problem was, instead of using forks or tortillas we were expected to lift the carnitas into our mouths with chips, and I couldn’t keep the meat from falling off the chip. I was getting hungrier and hungrier and progressively more embarrassed. When I woke up I had the relief that it was only a dream, but no relief from the hunger. In fact, I’m still hungry. I have to go.

dana albert blog

Thursday, September 23, 2010

From the Archives - Missy Giove Busted

NOTE: This post is rated R for pervasive drug references.


In June of last year somebody in my bike club sent around an article from about former mountain biking world champion Missy Giove being busted for trafficking marijuana. The article began thus:

WILTON, N.Y. – Former mountain biking world champion Melissa “Missy” Giove was in custody Thursday on federal drug charges after authorities said they seized more than 200 pounds of marijuana from a truck she was driving in upstate New York.

Normally I do everything I can to respect the privacy of anybody who appears in this blog (e.g., not using his or her name), but since a) Giove willingly became a public figure through her racing, and b) she has behaved so very badly, I think all bets are off ( just as I felt in July of 2008 when I wrote a spoof about Floyd Landis for dailypeloton). Here is a fanciful faux newspaper article about Giove that I wrote and e-mailed my bike club pals for their entertainment. I include it here because it will tie in nicely to an essay I'm working on and will post very soon.

From the Archives – Missy Giove Busted

Any hope Missy Giove might have had to inspire a new generation of cyclists has ended following the seizure of more than two hundred pounds of marijuana from her truck. Giove has admitted to knowingly possessing what authorities have described as “a truly breathtaking amount of weed.” Giove contends that this was her “personal stash,” which she used in an attempt to alleviate acne.

“I had possession of a substance that they’re telling me is illegal,” Giove said. “Today is about my leaving the biking has-been limelight and coming forward to talk about acne. I don’t want to talk about drugs, it’s about moving forward and taking care of myself and my complexion. It is a very difficult thing.

“I woke up in custody knowing that I'd be talking to a few people—well, actually one person, I guess I only get one phone call—to make it official, and it really hit home and I am really sad. I am trying to see the reason why this is happening. A lot of people have acne and they need to get treated for it.”

Giove said she purchased the pot from several dozen independent growers, along with dozens of pounds of oregano that evidently didn’t help her acne either. “I’m not naive,” said Giove, who said she was fully aware that THC was an ingredient of the marijuana, and that it is sometimes regarded as an illegal substance. “I know people will be angry with me, like my roommate who somehow didn’t know I was holding and would have wanted me to share. I didn’t play my cards right and I’m sorry to have been caught,” said Giove.

“What I did was wrong and yes, I did have a suspicion pot smoking was frowned upon. But, I was going through a very rough rash of whiteheads and I was desperate. I had a note from my doctor, but I guess by ‘doctor’ they actually mean I’m supposed to find someone with an M.D. instead of what Roger has, which is only, like, a Ph.D.,” said Giove. She denied she used the marijuana to get totally high. “Did I take it recreationally? Absolutely not,” she stated flatly.

Giove’s mother, father, brother, and several friends unofficially diagnosed Giove with acne in 1991. She used Clearasil on and off for the next seventeen years, generally as directed on the label. But according to Giove, she took amounts double the prescribed dosage for two weeks in January when her face completely broke out in the wake of the nation’s economic crisis. When this failed to clean up her skin, she decided to try marijuana on the recommendation of her brother. She contends that she had no idea two hundred pounds was an excessive amount to purchase, since no dosage guidelines were provided by her dealers.

“There is no scientific evidence or basis for this drug to help with acne,” said DEA spokeswoman Erin Mulvey. “It is fair to suggest that the probability of THC clearing up anybody’s skin, even in massive doses, is inconceivable. There are good reasons to smoke pot, liking getting stoned off your fricking gourd, but to use it for treating acne, instead of using a proven drug like Clearasil or even good old soap and water, is very reckless. Meanwhile, I think it’s a foolish thing to keep more than a few pounds of ganja in your home or car.”

Giove’s de facto spokesman, who refused to provide his name, was unable to form a statement because he kept breaking down in mirthful laughter over Giove’s improbable predicament.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cycling Shoes


This post is about shoes. I know it’s not very masculine to care about shoes, and in general I really don’t. However, when I shell out a bunch of money for something, as I just did, I try to get as much mileage as possible out of the expenditure, in whatever fashion possible, and that includes blogging. This explains why I’ve twice written about mud baths: here and here. (If I were paid for my writing, I could deduct such things as business expenses.)

Besides shoes, this post is about cycling and marriage, and the sometimes perilous nexus between them. I’ll also throw in a little history, involving wooden soles, nail-on cleats, and some impressive Italian names. If you’re not chuckling or at least intrigued within ten minutes, you can go back to “Survivor IV: Gator-Bait Edition” or “CSI: Cat Butt, Wyoming.”

The uncomfortable discussion

Throughout my cycling life I’ve bought my cleated shoes at a deep discount through bike shop connections. My last pair cost like $100, five years ago, and my heart has soared like a hawk throughout that period. But my bike club’s shop sponsor, Left Coast Cyclery sadly folded this year, and my brother Max’s bike connection, a shop we affectionately call Loserville, finally cut him off from the family discount. (I can’t blame them; he last worked there in 1996.) Alas, my recent purchase was (gasp!) at full retail.

My wife Erin is as accustomed to sweet deals as I am, so when I mentioned what I was looking to pay she was taken aback. My timing with this purchase wasn’t very good either; after our family’s rather expensive recent train vacation, we’ve embarked upon a Period of Austerity in an attempt to avoid foreclosure on our home, etc. Still, my old shoes were completely thrashed and Mike’s Bikes was having a big sale so this couldn’t wait. After bristling slightly at the price range I was looking at, Erin asked, reasonably enough, if I had to have the top of the line. I couldn’t use my old standby argument, which is touting the greater dependability and thus safety of expensive bike gear. That works fine for brakes, wheels, and tires, but I doubt anybody ever crashed because his shoes weren’t good enough.

Still, I wasn’t too worried about getting my wife’s buy-in, because she’s no stranger to expensive shoes. Some years ago we had a similarly uncomfortable budgeting discussion when she wanted to get some stiletto heels. They were absurdly expensive. In fact, just now I looked at the price tag (still on the box), and discovered that the shoes were even pricier than I’d remembered. My brain must have sheltered itself from the awful truth, or perhaps on some level I’ve never believed what they actually cost, but suffice to say they were brutally, devastatingly expensive. Anyway, I figured as a last resort I could bring up those stilettos; if Erin still balked at the price of my cleats, the irony would be so thick we’d practically drown in it.

To more diplomatically bolster my case, I mentioned how long cycling shoes last, and then—inspiration!—I sifted through my training diary for the past five years and calculated that I put 24,000 road miles on my last pair of shoes, in addition to more than 150 indoor trainer rides. At the latitude of the Bay Area, 24,000 miles will take you all the way around the earth. Erin was suitably impressed, so I didn’t even have to come out with “How many miles have you logged in your stilettos?” which probably wouldn’t have helped my cause anyway.

What I want in a shoe

My cycling shoes need to be fairly light, quite stiff, and most of all aren’t allowed to hurt my feet. Of course, it’s hard to predict whether or not a shoe that feels good in a ten-meter walk around a bike shop will still feel good after a hundred miles of riding. It’s a bit of a gamble, every time. Note that I don’t particularly care if my shoes look good. Italian shoes—and aren’t Italian shoes the gold standard, like Swiss watches and Belgian beer?—have a history of coming only in colors that, though stylish to the Italians, are grotesque to Americans. You might get green, pink, and blue on the same shoe.

I had some Lake shoes that I really liked, and they were baby blue and white, which wasn’t exactly macho. Fortunately, Andy Hampsten wore them the same year I did, and won the Tour of Italy. If I couldn’t have his class, prestige, strength, and results, at least I could have his shoes.

This time around I figured I’d just get exactly the same shoes I bought last time: the Specialized Pro. Alas, Mike’s Bikes only carries them in white. Wait—didn’t I just say I don’t care about looks? Well, white cycling shoes … that’s just a bit too Liberace for me. I realize I have a real chance of alienating my white-cycling-shoe-wearing albertnet readers (if any), so let’s just say the shoes look fine on others but I don’t think I could carry them off myself. Besides, my bike is grey and black!

Ah, but Mike’s had the higher-end Specialized S-Works shoes in black. The S-Works is an ugly shoe, and (as I said before) a very expensive one, but it wasn’t hard for the salesman to upsell me. (I’m kind of weak like that. Just like with taxes: show me a new one and I’ll vote for it every time.) I asked if the S-Works shoes were comfortable. “Ridiculously comfortable,” the guy said.

A little history

I reckon this was my twelfth pair of road cycling shoes. (Not bad for thirty years of cycling.) My first pair was the coolest, hippest pair I’ve ever owned (and the cool factor has pretty much declined ever since). Those first shoes were Detto Pietro Art 76s. Say that a few times. DETT. Oh. Pee. AY. Tro. Art. 76. I got them used. The uppers were black leather with holes for ventilation. “DETTO” was slapped on in simple white letters that peeled off over a period of months until the shoes were completely blank. The soles were wood, very much like what you saw in the photo above. The cleat had a slot that went over the back edge of the pedal cage.

The modern cyclist might well ask, “But what about float?” Float? Hah! The cleat wasn’t even adjustable! It was nailed on! You’d ride for awhile without a cleat, the toe clip keeping the shoe in place, and the pedal cage would make a black mark on the wood. Then you took it to Perry’s Shoe Shop in downtown Boulder, and Perry himself—the trusted cobbler for the entire Boulder cycling community—would position the cleat and nail it down. One time I broke a pedal cage, so the two broken pieces overlapped. I didn’t realize what had happened until (with great effort) I pulled my shoe free only to find the cleat stuck there on the pedal, all the nails pointing up. Yikes!

Compared to those Art 76s, my next shoes, the Detto Pietro Art 74s (hand-me-downs from my brother), were high-tech. The sole was plastic, and featured a fancier logo that wouldn’t come off. Best of all, the cleat screwed onto a base plate (which I believe was still nailed on) so it was adjustable. As you can see, there was only one bolt, making the cleat vulnerable to rotation over time, so there were still holes in the cleat to accept nails, once you got the adjustment perfect. What about replacing the cleat? Well, my feet were growing so fast, I never needed to. I remember snipping the leather in the back, where it was biting into my heel, to extend the life of the shoes a bit.

The next shoes were Duegis, with a weird logo of two shimmering disks with the kind of pattern that could hypnotize you. I loved them too. The first really ugly shoes I had came a few years later, and they were my first French shoes, Rivats. They were this horrible red color with black accents. I got them for $10 from a shop that was on its last legs. They were heavy, and practically carpeted inside, and did I mention ugly? But they were really comfortable, and really stiff. And ugly. This was the summer of ’89, which I spent in Boulder. Was Perry’s Shoe Shop still there? It was. Could Perry dye my shoes all black? He could, and did.

Not that France would become my favorite source of shoes. In 2003 I bought the top-of-the-line Carnacs, also French. Heavy and ugly, they were also the most expensive shoes I’d ever owned (though I got the pro deal through Eden Bicycles, my bike club’s shop sponsor at the time). The Carnacs came highly recommended by three people who, though well-meaning and good people, are now banned for life from recommending shoes to me. The shoes hated my feet, and my feet hated them back. Every pedal stroke was misery. “You have to break them in,” my brother said. I gave them a little over two years and gave up. (A final note: these shoes were made of kangaroo leather, which kind of made me feel guilty on top of everything else.)

The coolest

The coolest old-school shoes I know of that are still on the road are my brother Bryan’s Vittorias. He bought these during the late ‘90s from a pal at the bike shop who’d had a hard time finding them back then. As Bryan recalls, “He ordered them special, as you know…. He tried them on and after several seconds declared them no good, so I saw it as an easy opportunity to get some shoes without having to do research, order, wait, and all that.” They’ve been Bryan’s only cycling shoes ever since, and have given him very few problems. “Sometimes they’re just amazing. After a really long ride, sometimes it’s like they’re massaging my feet. Other times, though, particularly if it’s cold out, their thin leather and numerous vent holes cool my wussy feet too much, so it feels like my feet are tightly bound to slabs of icy marble.” They sure sound stiff, don’t they?

“One of the laces started wearing out about ten years ago,” Bryan says, “so I avoid the tenuous thin bit when I tie it, using only half a bow. It works, though.” He brought the shoes into a bike shop recently to get new cleats for them, and one of the employees came up and said, “That’s a beautiful shoe! Do you mind if I look at it?” The guy proceeded to fondle the shoe for a few moments.

The S-Works shoes

Fast-forward to the most modern shoes I’ve ever seen. If you’ve been paying attention you know I don’t consider looks to be a big deal when choosing my shoes, which is how I ended up with a pair that look like the cheap plastic shiny shoes you rent with a tuxedo, but with stripes added. The S-Works shoes really are cool, though. Instead of shoelaces or Velcro they have these little knobs. The knobs wind or unwind these little cords—wires, I guess you could say—that are like fishing line and criss-cross over the tongue of the shoe. (The tongue, though thin, is densely padded and keeps the wires from biting into your feet.) The knobs click as they turn, in either direction, giving you very precise control over how tight the shoe fits. The knob system is a rare example of something that looks like pure gimmickry but actually does work. And the shoes are conspicuously well ventilated. And stiff, stiffer than anything I’ve ever worn. They beg the question, Can a shoe be too stiff? No. As it turns out, the stiffer the better. Dang.

Of course, you may decide this is cognitive dissonance: having shelled out so much money, I’d be embarrassed to admit the shoes sucked, even if they did. I’ve seen many examples of this, particularly the people quoted in the news as saying they weren’t bothered a bit by paying $100 more for their iPhones than those who bought them a month or two later. But that’s not me—I was cursing those Carnacs from day one! These S-Works shoes are the real deal (though I won’t know for sure if they were a good buy until I see how long they last).


I know, you’re tired of reading, and the text-to-picture ratio is nowhere near the “Us” magazine you’re used to. So here are some photos.

First, the Carnac Quartz, bristling with straps and looking like a banana fortified with electrical tape. From above these look like clown shoes. The toe box is absurdly wide. Not for nothing did I include the food scale in the photo: at 470 grams, these shoes are over a pound each! That’s not just heavy for a cycling shoe, but for anything but a steel-toed work boot. Man, what was I thinking? And what were they thinking?

The Specialized Pro shoes seem kind of retro to me, with their prominent stitching and plain black simplicity. At 370 grams each, the pair saved me seven ounces over the Carnacs. I’m not a weight freak, but when I remember how heavy and lifeless my legs felt on the Col du Galibier in those Carnacs, I appreciate how nice a light shoe can be. Best of all, the Specialized shoes didn’t hurt my feet. They were comfortable from Day One, and only in their last year did they start to cause issues, due to the leather having gotten really stretched out, as if the shoes had molted or something. (Note: the little ratcheting buckle on these was a bit of a joke.)

I had a girlfriend in college who once dragged me through a clothing store in Nordstrom called Brass Plum. Everything there was glitzy and bright and tawdry, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her the clothing looked like it was for high school kids. Nor did I have the stomach to stay in there for long; the top-forty music was killing me and I had to head over to another department and pretend to look at neckties. Anyway, if Brass Plum carried cycling shoes, perhaps they would be as shiny and weird as the S-Works shoe:

That said, the S-Works shoes look to be well made (in China). And through sheer luck, the color and stripe pattern match those of my daughter Alexa’s new soccer cleats, and that’s fun for both of us. And look at that weight: 275 grams! Another 6.7 ounces of weight savings over my last shoes (and 14 ounces over the Carnacs!). That’s not a minor difference, people: angry bikers routinely spend many hundreds of dollars dropping a couple ounces from their bikes. And remember, shoes are rotating weight.

How about another longing look at those sweet Vittorias? Here’s some better detail, along with the all-important weight statistic. As the appropriately old-school scale attests, these bad boyz weigh in at a respectable 325 grams each—lighter even than the Specialized Pros.

And now, at long last, the Sergio Rossis. Perhaps if any women read this post (a long shot, I know), they’ll look at this shoe and find it beautiful. Frankly, next to the S-Works it looks kind of flat and plain. I guess that’s the point. Erin touted these as “versatile” when she bought them, but I’m unable to remember what she meant, or why I was convinced. They don’t get much action; when I pointed this out to her, she said, “That’s because you don’t take me to enough gala events.”

Still, these shoes have had their moments. At a gala NorCal Mountain Biking League fundraiser, a famous retired bike racer (a childhood hero of mine) paid Erin what struck me as undue attention, and it wasn’t for her knowledge of, or interest in, bike racing. The Sergio Rossi shoes doubtless contributed to her fine silhouette that evening.

Another time, at a wedding, I noticed a very fashionably dressed woman, who I’m pretty sure was from Los Angeles. Seeing an opportunity for high jinks, I said to Erin, just loud enough to be overheard, “Oh, you wore your Manolo Blahniks!” I swear I could hear the rush of air when the L.A. woman whipped her head around to check out Erin’s shoes. A lesser shoe would have betrayed my ruse immediately, but the Sergio Rossis were good enough to require several glorious seconds of scrutiny before the woman, with obvious relief, ascertained that they certainly weren’t Manolo Blahniks and she hadn’t been out-shoed. (It pains me to admit that I cannot be sure these were the shoes Erin wore at that wedding; I don’t really pay much attention to women’s shoes, truth be told. But for the sake of the story, can we all agree these were the ones?)

Whether or not you love the look of the Sergios, their dominance in the weight category cannot be disputed. At a feathery 180 grams, they blow even the S-Works out of the water. They look a lot more aerodynamic as well, and appear to be plenty stiff too. Hmmm … I wonder if Perry’s Shoe Shop will still nail cleats to shoes. You think they could do leather soles?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back To School


“Back to school.” One of the most powerful phrases in the English language—or at least it was to me as a kid. The newspaper ad inserts hawking school supplies presented the new school year like it was a good thing. How I resented those ads, and the very idea of summer being over. It was with nothing less than dread that, each fall, I faced the beginning of the new school year.

How odd, then, that this year I found myself excited about my kids’ first day of school. Even more odd was that my kids were looking forward to it themselves. The school year starts absurdly early in Albany—August 25 this year—and as a kid I’d have been outraged and whining about it. But when I reminded Lindsay the night before, she said, “Tomorrow?! Really?! Yahoo!” Alexa was similarly enthusiastic.

This post examines the back-to-school phenomenon and recalls episodes from my school days. There’s no real thesis to this essay; it’s as aimless and pointless as childhood itself.

Savoring and rushing

After allowing our kids a largely unstructured summer, my wife Erin and I have shifted smoothly—for now—into an effective morning routine. That is to say, we haven’t yet settled into our normal just-in-time, frantic mode. The first day of school went particularly smoothly: the kids had set out clothes the night before and were up and dressed before we got out of bed. Still, we managed to squander most of our wiggle-room and had to walk the girls briskly to class. Not that they bought into the briskness. Though Alexa is capable of fretting about a tardy slip throughout the half-mile walk, she’s just as likely to be oblivious of the time. Here are the kids enjoying a little footpath instead of marching swiftly along the sidewalk as we’d have them do:

I remember how, when I was a kid, the excitement (and dread) of school starting seemed to enhance my sensory perceptions. I remember the weave of the purple rug in the classroom, viewed in macro mode (I tended to lie around on the floor a lot in the early days). I remember the teacher’s decorations in the classroom, like the Caps For Sale tapestry in my kindergarten classroom. Most of all, I remember the smell of new crayons. It’s not like crayons have a strong scent, but you get enough kids with new boxes of Crayolas and the aroma is unmistakable. (Remember the larger crayons that, instead of being cylindrical, had a D-shaped cross section, so they would sit flat on a desk instead of rolling off? Whatever happened to those?) I also remember the smell of the glue. (This was non-toxic Elmer’s glue—we weren’t huffing it or anything.) Decades later, I’d be hyper-aware of the smell of new carpet in the office where I started my first big corporate job. Surely an anthropologist would have something clever to say about this.

Here Lindsay walks with a bounce to maximize the drumming of her new lunchbox in her backpack:

The drop-off

The crush of kids always frightened me on the first day of grade school. It was a fevered delirium of little boys running around, yelling, shoving each other, seeming completely at ease while I felt like I didn’t belong and would get singled out for abuse at any moment. I was completely craven. One time in kindergarten I encountered a first-grader in a hallway who pointed a finger at me and said, “You’re in big trouble, mister.” Rather than deny this, and/or assert that I’d done nothing wrong, I naturally assumed I’d misbehaved somehow and was done for. I burst out crying. It never occurred to me that the kid was just screwing around.

My kids don’t seem to live under that dark cloud. Like their friends, they wear their lives lightly and understand facetiousness, irony, and other kinds of subtle rhetorical forms unknown to me at that age. At a big potluck at a neighborhood park the other evening, Alexa was playing hide and seek and her friend couldn’t find her. “Where’s Alexa?” I asked the friend. She said she didn’t know. I replied, straight-faced and in a serious tone, “Hey, I was counting on you to keep track of her!” She shrugged, like “Yeah, right.”

My kids were relaxed and in good cheer when we arrived at the school. Here is Alexa nonchalantly taking leave of her old man and striding into her fourth-grade classroom, in a small building she’s never set foot in before.

Lindsay, I’m told, was just as sanguine when it came time to head through the door. (The girls start at the same time, so Erin and I could only see off one daughter apiece.) But of course a good drop-off doesn’t guarantee anything. Much could go wrong during the school day to disappoint or frustrate a child. I should know.

School trials I have known

My very first day of kindergarten was a disappointment. Early in the previous school year, my brother Max bragged about Cowboy Day at school. I was crazy about cowboys, and decided to follow Max there for the festivities. He kept telling me to turn around and go home, but I refused. (Kids back then, at least in my family, were never escorted to or from school.) Once I got to the classroom, I was turned away by Max’s teacher, and walked sadly home. The teacher had assured me I could attend Cowboy Day “next year” and, one year later, in my childish stupidity, I expected the first day of my own kindergarten to be Cowboy Day. It wasn’t.

Perhaps that’s the reason that on the second day of my academic career I cut class for the first time. I hid behind the giant boulder in my back yard and entertained myself all morning by making up songs. When I saw my brothers coming home at the end of the school day, I headed in myself. To this day I don’t know why nobody seemed to notice my absence. If a kindergartner failed to show these days, they’d have SWAT teams and bloodhounds out in full force and it’d be all over the evening news. All I remember was that the next day the teacher said, “Gosh, it’s really too bad you weren’t here yesterday. You missed lots of fun things. We even read Caps for Sale!”

Kindergarten got no better after that. During the first week, for Show & Tell, I brought an origami bird that one of my brothers had made. If you pulled the tail the wings would flap. As we lined up to go into the classroom that morning, some kid begged me to let him try my bird. I refused, saying it was too fragile and I needed it to work for Show & Tell. The kid promised to be gentle so I reluctantly handed it over. He yanked on that bird as hard as he could, deliberately ruining it, a big grin on his face. That bastard! I don’t remember who he was because, frankly, he was no different than any of my other classmates. Any one of them would have done the same thing.

First grade (which Lindsay starts this year) was even harder for me. I wasn’t a terribly self-conscious kid during kindergarten and the beginning of first grade—in fact, I was a daydreamer, barely conscious of anything—but at some point that second year I become terribly, cripplingly self-doubting and shy. Like a dog smells fear, the other kids seized on my weakness and taunted me at every turn. All flatulence, even fictitious flatulence, was blamed on me. Et cetera. I didn’t like the teacher either, because she ripped masking tape with her teeth and then told us never to do this. Like she had some special dispensation allowing her to do things she herself acknowledged were wrong.

I did have a friend or two in first grade though, and I once entertained Robbie Bifocal (I never bothered to get his last name right) by saying sternly “Accidents do happen!” while snapping a crayon in half. Word of this got around and soon everybody wanted a live demo of my stunt. Hungry for positive attention, I always obliged. Somehow I never got busted for this (which was probably a great disappointment to the other kids, who—now that I think about it—probably had no other motive in asking to see my trick than to watch me get in trouble). Still, I hated to break the crayons. The paper label never ripped uniformly so it would stick out past the edge of the broken section, like a hangnail. I could never trim the paper edge just right so I’d end up ripping off the rest of the paper, and then the crayon would be naked. Plus it was just a useless little stub. These crayon amputees I found disgusting, and I inwardly suffered for my destructive behavior. Still, “the kid who breaks crayons” was a better identity than “the human fart.”

(My brother Geoff, meanwhile, became “the kid who eats glue.” As our brother Bryan said in a comment to an earlier albertnet post, “Geoff was known all through elementary school as the kid who ate glue, because he did in first grade, and [so] he and I were the twins who ate glue. I would usually try to convince the accuser that it was only Geoff who ate the glue, though my guilty conscience wouldn’t let me try too hard, because I’m sure I at least tasted it myself. But Geoff just didn’t care that the other kids made fun when he ate the glue, he ate it anyway because it was so darned good…. In fourth or fifth grade, I guess, Mom gave us Coca Cola® flavored Chapstick®. It was so delicious I ate the whole thing while sitting in the library, in one sitting, and it made me sick. I’m sure Geoff probably ate his, too.)

Will Lindsay have her own such troubles in first grade? Probably not. Alexa never did, and she’s in fourth grade this year. What troubles might await Alexa? My own fourth grade experience was terribly strange. The evening before the first day back, I broke my leg in a bike crash and missed at least the first week. When I got good enough on crutches to start school, all the kids—pitying me and fascinated by my cast—were nice to me for the first time ever. All of a sudden I was getting invited to birthday parties, which had never happened before. Of course I was glad to be invited, but it was bittersweet: it meant realizing that these parties been ongoing throughout my school years and I was just never invited before.

I felt like an outsider at these parties, hopping on one leg to try to pin the tail on the donkey, or mooning about at the outskirts of the roller rink, unable (of course) to skate. I couldn’t help feeling like a novelty, a social trinket. Pity will only take you so far, and by the time the cast came off my schoolmates had tired of me. When I stopped getting invited to birthday parties, I was, though disappointed, also somewhat relieved.

The pick-up

I worked from home on the first day of school so I could go along to pick up the kids after class let out. Alexa was the first one out, and was still in good spirits. Here, she totally fouls up the special goodbye fist-bump but doesn’t even blush:

Alexa had nothing but good to say about her first day. The closest she came to complaining was to say, “I’m groaning inwardly at the thought of my homework.” She delivered this line (a literary allusion, I imagine, to Harry Potter or some such) without conviction, as though just trying out the words. A pose, you might say.

I know all about that pose. In my early days, when my mom asked me how school was, I would immediately answer, “Terrible!” She didn’t pursue the matter right away, but after the third or fourth day of this, my mom asked me what was so terrible about school. This question caught me completely off guard. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was any other opinion to give; after all, this was how my brother Geoff always answered. My bluff having been called, I’d had to admit that school wasn’t that bad, actually.

After fetching Alexa we went to Lindsay’s classroom. When came through the door, she might as well have been arriving fresh from the spa. Someday when she’s a surly teenager I’ll have to show her this video and say, “What a happy kid you were! How far you’ve fallen!”


The kids have been back at school for a week now, and already our morning routine is slipping. Starting out too late to walk yesterday morning, we had to take the bikes. Lindsay sat on the top-tube of my 3-speed (wearing her ladybug helmet, of course) while Alexa flanked us on her mountain bike. This was the first time Alexa had ever ridden to school, and she forgot her bike lock. Thus, after the drop-off I had to ride both bikes home, rolling Alexa's bike next to me. I’m not troubled by such minor struggles: we have the rest of the school year to get it right.

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