Friday, September 30, 2011

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2011

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and some coarse humor.


I meant to post this race report last night—I’d already written it for my bike club—but I fell asleep unexpectedly at around nine. My wife found me, sitting up, holding a water bottle in my hand that I must have been about to drink from when sleep overtook me. This was four days after the race. That’s how tiring it is.

Anyway, what follows is my report of the 2011 Everest Challenge California-Nevada Climbing Championship. I hope you’re not looking for a tightly edited perfectly-paced action drama, nor a feel-good bromance, nor a soap opera of who did what in the never-ending Masters 35+ dynastic saga. As usual, and as with life, it’s all about the food.


Three of my East Bay Velo Club teammates and I drove to Bishop in a two-car caravan: Ian and I in his sporty Euro-edition Golf, and Paul in his element in his Element with Rob. (Two others, Jamie and Steve, had gone up in advance to adjust to the altitude.) As we passed through Oakdale we tinkered briefly with the idea of eating at the House of Beef. Next door was House of Tykes. Either you drop your kids off while getting barbecue, or it’s a cannibalistic venue.

As we’d hit Oakdale too early for lunch, we instead stopped later at Priest Station where Paul and Jamie had dined the year before. We had a great table out on the deck and paid extra for Premium Burgers (i.e., grass-fed beef ). Ian and I had mayonnaise with our fries and could tell that everybody—Paul, Rob, those at the next table, and the proprietors—were pretty impressed. In fact, the staff must have decided to keep us around as long as possible to attract other diners, because the service was remarkably slow. It worked, though … by the time we left, the place was hopping.

Alas, because of this delay we reached Bishop too late for the happy hour at Whiskey Creek Saloon. (No, we wouldn’t have any booze the night before the race, but there was discounted food.) It was more important to get in a good spin on the bikes, to sort out our legs after the long drive.

Dinner, therefore, was the free Everest Challenge pasta-feed. Last year, you may remember, was almost a fracas as the volunteer staff unwisely tried to throttle the flow of pasta. This time, none of the rider/diners got any flak. But we didn’t get any sausage either. “In this economy” etc. There was plenty of garlic bread, at least for me. Absolutely nothing prevented the others from taking like ten pieces on their first trip through like I did, and yet I was chided for hogging it. Excuse me, but is this a pre-race meal, or a little snack before a fun run? Are you going to throw elbows or throw tantrums? Anyway, the bread had giant chunks of garlic, and I had three huge plates of spaghetti (on a scale of one to ten, ten being the best, this was … free).

Of course it’s a bit hard on the stomach to eat so much. Alas, I was unsuccessful in my normal bedtime evacuation ritual. I was reminded of that old restroom graffito, “Here I sit, my hopes deflated, tried to defecate, but only micturated.” (I’ve cleaned up the language of that ditty for this report.)

By now you’ve guessed the rest: extreme flatulence, EC Edition. It was bad. I slept fine until about 4:15 a.m., and then suddenly was fully bloated with gas, like a large dead hoofed animal that has ballooned up enough to actually float on a little lake until a boy scout with a .22 shoots it and it fricking explodes. Neither Ian nor I could sleep with flatulence of this magnitude. (Rob, in the main room on a king size bed, probably slept like a baby. We’d played Ro-Sham-Bo, odd-man-out, to decide who got the big bed, and Rob won fair and square. Of course that didn’t stop Ian and me from berating him all weekend for being a prima donna.)

Our breakfast stuff overwhelmed the little mini-fridge. The thing was unplugged to begin with and it took it several hours to drop below room temperature. I suppose there’s a commentary to be made about three kinds of milk—regular dairy milk, rice milk, and soy milk—for three guys, but I won’t be making it. We had some cheap yogurt from Smart & Final, a traditional EC destination, and though the yogurt said Grade A it seemed kind of marginal (off-brand, corn syrup, etc.). Who gets the Grade B stuff? Inmates? The military? Rob had a big Coke in the little fridge, and then all our bottles of various energy drinks, and I spent about twenty minutes trying to get the door to close.

So, breakfast. In addition to the iffy yogurt, I had my Uncle Sam cereal, with 10 grams of fiber per serving, less than a gram of sugar, and the consistency of cat litter. It’s probably the second-hardest breakfast cereal to eat (next to Grape Nuts, or “grape pits” as my brother Max calls them). You take a bite and then chew for a couple minutes while you put on sunscreen or pump up your tires. It tastes like cardboard. Very high-end cardboard. Ian, ever loyal to the Crown, ate his Weetabix with its lowly 4 grams of fiber.

In its defense, Weetabix seems exactly like the kind of cereal Wallace and Gromit would eat. Nonetheless, you’ll be happy to know that I asserted my American pride, alerting Ian to the fact that Uncle Sam has been around since 1908, whereas Weetabix is a relative interloper, not appearing on the breakfast scene until 1932. (I gleaned these dates from the cereal boxes.) Of course Ian immediately rejoined that Weetabix was officially recognized by the Queen. Those British are so fricking pompous.

Stage 1 – 88 miles, 14,965 feet of climbing

During Stage 1 I consumed five large bottles of my preferred energy drink and one bottle of the race-provided drink (which is widely rumored among our ranks to cause serious stomach issues that make you look like Moomintroll or ET or something). I also had like four gels. Let me explain how hard it is eating gels during the EC. Lacking any particular muscular strength, I strive to be as efficient as possible. This means not rocking a lot on the bike. I’d like to think my upper body isn’t rigid, but merely still. It was so still during the extra-hot second climb that some sort of strange membrane of air or sunscreen or something was being created between my skin and my sweat. I would only become aware of it when my arm would shift slightly and send the sweat sliding off this membrane and suddenly I’d feel a swish of cool. Being this still, my body sort of reshaped itself into this climbing mannequin, more like a sculpture than a puppet. So when I tried to access my jersey pockets, my arms were so stiff I could barely reach anything. It was like trying to get a finger to bend again after it’s been in a splint for six weeks. The tops of my pockets seemed halfway up my back. I got gel on my number, gel on the other stuff in my pockets, residues of gel I couldn’t get out of the package draining down into puddles in my jersey … it was a mess. I also had a half banana someone passed up. Oh, and I had a giant mouthful of bile that I had to re-swallow after I half-barfed. That kind of sucked.

The last climb was crazy. A storm was brewing (though without coming to fruition), which hampered the accuracy of my bike computer because it uses barometric pressure to calculate altitude, and uses altitude gain plus speed to calculate my power. In certain sections there was a terrible headwind, which made it hard to keep the bike moving given my not-so-low gearing. These sections gave me my most inaccurate power readings of all—it read like 90 watts when I had to have been putting out over 400. I held back on the non-windy sections to save energy for the windy ones, which ended up being less frequent than I’d feared. Thus, I sort of loafed for much of the last climb—not a problem, since the second stage of the race would certainly use up any surplus energy I carried forward.

After I finished Stage 1, atop its final climb, I had like eight Cokes. Not eight cans, but eight cups filled by the volunteers, who are all distance runners who volunteer here just to be cool. Now, when it comes to booze, I’m careful not to fall prey to the “bottomless cup” model, where it’s hard to modulate your intake and you might end up downing, say, a pint glass of bourbon without realizing it. Discrete units like bottles of beer are much safer. But with soft drinks, especially after a ride like that, who cares! Worst case scenario I get too much caffeine and can’t sleep … but then who can sleep after Stage 1 of the EC anyway?

All the same, I switched to ginger ale at some point. My throat was so parched I couldn’t talk, but boy could I burp. After a liter or two of carbonated fluids I could talk again, though by that point I was busy gobbling quesadillas and Reese’s peanut butter cups and potato chips. There was chicken soup, too, with noodles. I have figured out what’s so strange about the EC soup noodles: they are never boiled, but rather thrown in to non-boiling broth. So they’re both crunchy and soggy at the same time. You could probably pay big bucks for such a novel thing at a fancy restaurant, along with lobster foam and quail eggs and such.

Jamie won the first stage among the Masters 55+! We’re all very proud. Not only that, but based on when his category started, he was actually the very first rider—out of 335 total—to finish. Nate English was glued to his wheel at the end.

They switched the course around this year, swapping the first and last descents. (This was to eliminate pelotons in the one residential section of the course.) The new course had about ten fewer miles of racing, most of which were downhill. This meant it was hard to compare times from last year to this year. Since my main goal with this race is to be faster each year—part of my effort to battle the ravages of age—this difficulty of comparison was kind of a bummer. Still, I was almost an hour faster on Stage 1 this year so I’m pretty dang stoked. Here’s the course profile with my heart rate and power:

For the data nerds among you, here are my climbing stats (power and heart rate):

- 242 watts at 155 bpm on first climb;

- 239 watts at 157 bpm on second climb;

- 215 watts at 150 bpm on last climb.

Note that these are "dog-watts"—that is, they're based on my rate of vertical gain, my speed, and my weight (f=mgh) without considering wind resistance, etc. That 215-watt stat is particularly off (i.e., low) based on the headwind and the stormy sky.

Dinner was, once again, at the little Italian place. I have done some special research this year and can actually tell you the name: The Upper Crust Pizza Co. No, this isn’t the Boston chain with the award-winning TV commercial. (Who ever heard of such a thing? The only TV commercial that deserves an award is a really short one, like under a second, or maybe a beer commercial with really hot babes.) We went to the one-off Upper Crust whose domain name is up for sale.

As always, we started with a pizza as appetizer. Steve celebrated his EC Rookie status by choosing the ‘za: we had the, dang it, what was it called? Something silly like the Ranch Hand or Wrangler or something. I tried to find the place’s menu online so I could get the name of our pizza but I only came across a two-star review from a guy name Jesse G. who complained, “they put way too much cheese on the pizza for my taste.” What a pussy. Hey Jesse, why don’t you go ride 117 miles over three mountains and then get some pizza. Too much cheese? Hell, I was salting my pizza! Just for the salt! I was craving salt. I’d have eaten a whole stick of salami if it had been provided as garnish, which come to think of it is a pretty good idea.

On a pizza called the Ranch Hand you’d expect toppings like hardtack and tumbleweed, but it was a classic: mushroom, sausage, pepperoni, something else. (I can’t remember the fourth topping—I guess I ate too fast.) Then we had pasta. I heavily promoted the chicken Marsala and two others had it. Jamie had something that looked exactly like it but wasn’t, apparently. I will publically apologize to Rob for not warning him that it was a cream sauce. It never occurred to me to classify this as a cream/non-cream dish. Just that it was chicken, and pasta, and fattening, and actually this time the pasta was a bit overcooked but dang, it was good anyway. So was the oddly spicy cream of mushroom soup. I’m doing EC again next year just to eat at Upper Crust again.

After dinner we had to go to K-Mart, America’s Favorite Store, so Ian could buy some earplugs. Why earplugs? Because my flatulence had kept him awake from 4:15 a.m. on the night before. (When he first complained about this, I thought he said his own flatulence kept him awake from 4:15 a.m. on, and I thought, wow, what a coincidence, I was gassy too at that time! And I started to wonder if, like female roommates end up on the same monthly cycle, guys sharing a room might start to have synched-up flatulence. But no, it was just me doing the flatching.) Ian purchased some Hearos, despite his misgivings that the attenuation chart and noise reduction info on the package didn’t cover flatulence. I told him not to worry because my concussive blasts were doubtless much louder than the norm anyway.

Back at the motel, Rob studied an impressive legal textbook, and I couldn’t help but feel sheepish about the fact that, though cycling may be enough for some of us, others are actually getting somewhere in life, making something of themselves. It didn’t help that I was pretty much brain-dead and struggling just to transfer my race numbers to a clean jersey. I mean, here Rob was deep in thought processing complex ideas about law, while I was somehow managing to pin my number not only to the jersey but to the bedspread. When I was finally done, and Rob had realized he wouldn’t get any studying done with me forgetting every thirty seconds to shut the hell up, we headed out to McDonalds for some freedom fries. We brought some back for Ian. Look at this happy customer.

Stage 2 – 88 miles, 14,070 feet of climbing

During Stage 2 I drank four bottles of my preferred energy drink, about a bottle (two halves, really) of the race-supplied beverage, and a bottle of water. It’s hard to take on a bottle of water during the race because you don’t want to use up limited water bottle cage space for a non-caloric beverage. So during the hottest stretch (90+ degrees) of the third pass I rode along holding the bottle of water, drinking greedily from it, like Landis in that famous Tour stage. It didn’t work as well for me. (Maybe it was the testosterone, blood transfusion, and Jack Daniels that worked so well for Landis.)

Oh, and I had three gels and a half-banana. I didn’t want the banana—the very idea of eating it made me want to hurl—but it was a little kid volunteer offering it up which was so cute. Once I took possession of it, of course I wouldn’t waste it. That’s just how I was raised. So after carrying it for half a mile or so I choked it down.

I was fricking dying on that last climb. It which gains more than 6,000 feet over 20 miles, and I’d blown up before even reaching it. I was nauseated and weaving and fighting off despair. My heart rate was stuck in the 130s, sometimes dipping into the 120s. I was afraid to look at my bike computer’s mileage reading: to know how many miles I had left would be too demoralizing. At one point I saw the 6,000-foot elevation marker, and was elated because somehow I’d missed the 5,000-foot marker and thought I was still below it. But the elation didn’t last long as I realized being at 6,000 feet wasn’t actually that great of news: I still had over 4,000 feet to climb. During this climb I only passed one guy in my category. That gave me a little bit of a morale boost, because at that moment I hated him even more than I hated life. This was the kind of suffering that I wouldn’t wish on anybody except maybe the other Masters 35+ riders, all of them , damn them.

I don’t know how I made the summit without losing my shit entirely. When I crossed the line I thought I was going to burst out crying. Its’ the kind of bike-induced misery that—now that it’s over—I wouldn’t trade for anything. A real Vision Quest kind of suffering. The kind of torment that forges you, like heat-treating a frame, as long as you survive the process and don’t come out warped like a damn Cannondale.

After finishing I had a bunch more Cokes, but really couldn’t touch anything else sweet. I did eat a whole bunch of the feta, spinach, and mushroom quesadillas. Actually I couldn’t tell if they were mushrooms or olives because the feta was so salty. Let me tell you something about salt: it’s good for you. I’ve been telling people for years that it only raises your blood pressure if you have a genetic predisposition for high blood pressure. I’ve been contradicted on this point so often I was starting to doubt myself until Rob volunteered the very same fact. And he’s got like a Ph.D. in some related field. He said he used to get muscle cramps as a kid because his well-meaning mother fed him a low-sodium diet, and then when he moved into the dorms and started eating their salty food he never had another muscle cramp. And I’ve never had one either. I eat salt like crazy. And my blood pressure is, well, good enough. If I had some more of those feta quesadillas right now, I’d eat them recreationally even though my body is probably pretty much back to normal.

Looking back at my heart rate and power stats for the second stage, I see that I wasn’t really as slow on the final climb as I’d feared. Here are my stats for Stage 2:

- 244 watts at 146 bpm on first climb;

- 224 watts at 140 bpm on second climb;

- 214 watts at 138 bpm on last climb.

Compare those to the stats for the first day, and compare the graphs, and you can see how much the first day took out of me! I was pleased to learn that, meltdown notwithstanding, I was 3 minutes faster on Stage 2 this year than in 2010.

We all had a great time in the race, and then a great time descending for twenty miles back to our internal-combustion rolling saunas. We all showered in Steve’s room (he stayed an extra night—brilliant!) and then headed over to Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop—an EC tradition. I got the last two slices of rye bread with my famously “not lean” pastrami sandwich. They’d run out of rye bread the previous year, too. What is it with these people? They do make good food though. Rob got two sandwiches: a turkey sandwich and the Mule Kick. Somebody always gets the Mule Kick, doubtless because of the catchy name, but I’ve never seen anybody order it a second time. At least Rob had the balls to admit it was a terrible sandwich. I don’t know how a place that makes such a killer pastrami sandwich can also make something lousy.

Now, I’d asked Rob about his sandwich purely to gather material for this report, but of course the others made it out like I was hinting around for a handout. As much as I denied this, I couldn’t convince Rob and soon I’d inherited one of the pieces of bread from his Mule Kick, with a bunch of Dijon mustard, and some cheese. Why does Dijon mustard exist? Just so men can show off that they can handle a spicy mustard that tastes like ass, if ass were spicy? Dijon is to a sandwich like hops is to beer: it turns a flavor into a pissing contest. “Pardon, monsieur, mais avez-vous du Grey Poupon?” / “No way, dude, I’m an American! I like French’s mustard!”

The trip home

On the way home we stopped at this little restaurant in Groveland we ate at last year. Pizza. Now, last year they had some weird quirk with the menu where a one-topping pizza cost like $5 more than a plain pizza, and yet the super-combo with like five ingredients was only $1.80 more than that. I was hoping to exploit that loophole this time, but they’d closed it up. But here was something new and just as weird: to get a single topping on a 16-inch pizza cost like $5. But to get a single topping on an 18-inch pizza was only a buck. How did these guys come up with their prices? A Ouija board? We didn’t care. We went with the 18-inch pepperoni.

Rob announced, shockingly, that he wouldn’t be having any pizza. He said he had heartburn. I’m pretty sure that almost any female would have said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Since I’m a guy, this didn’t occur to me (at least not until later); instead, I tried to convince Rob that pepperoni was really good for heartburn. When this failed I asked the waitress if we could get Tums as a pizza topping. She said, politely, that we couldn’t. Rob had split pea soup with ham and I could smell it from here. He said it was pretty good but oddly not that salty. Easily fixed.

I got home just before midnight and when I put the dodgy Smart & Final yogurt in the fridge, the crappy wire shelf flexed too much and dumped the yogurt container on the floor where it burst open. The cat, ominously, gave it a sniff but declined to lap it up. My motor skills were shot and I was barely functioning and it seemed to take forever to clean up the mess. I got the towels too wet and was just smearing it around and my god, the Everest Challenge is so hard. Be sure to join us next year!

dana albert blog

Thursday, September 22, 2011

From the Archives - How to Choose a Major


Long before I went to college, I knew I wanted to be an English major. There was simply no other subject to which I could imagine applying myself. That said, I had plenty of friends who took awhile deciding. Perhaps that’s what led me to write the following essay, during my sophomore year. I can only speculate, because I have zero recollection of writing it. Looking back, I can tell it’s me, albeit a younger, snottier version. I think I’ve mellowed out over the years. If nothing else I know how to spell “cuckoldry” now.

How To Choose A Major — September 27, 1989

As far as I’m concerned, UCSB is the right school, regardless of a student’s field of study. Why? Because everybody rides bikes to class. I mean, everybody. You’ll see a few students walking, but their bikes probably just have flat tires. The important thing is that there’s a minimum of VW Cabriolets, Vespas, and Kawasaki Ninjas here. I refuse to attend school in a place where these stupid motorized vehicles reign.

Okay, so you’ve chosen your school; now it’s time to choose a major. Come with me to my classes and you can get a taste for what each major is like.

English Lit

First up is English 20, which is Renaissance Literature. I didn’t take this class because it sounded interesting or rewarding, but for these reasons: (1) English majors like me are required to take it, and (2) nobody else wants it so it’s one of the few English classes I can get. There seem to be too many English majors at this school, plus non-English-majors who need English classes for General Ed, so the English classes fill up fast.

What can I say about the lecture? It’s okay, I guess. Better than other classes: instead of scrambling to write down every word, I actually listen to what the professor has to say. I look at the notes of the girl sitting next to me to find out how to spell “cukoldry.” She’s written “cutaldy” and obviously doesn’t care how it’s spelled. What does seem to concern her is her handwriting and the headings on her notes. Three colors of felt pen. The heading lists the name of the class, the name of the professor, the times the class meets, the section number, and the date. This information is not useless. When she’s hung over some Monday morning and can’t remember what any of her classes are, it could come in handy.

I’ll bet she chose English as a major, figuring the practice she’ll get in writing and organization in this department will prepare her for her career one day. Her attention to little details extends to her outfit: her dress is impeccable, from the crisp collar all the way down past the blindingly white socks with little fuzzy balls on them to her shoes, which are cute white and teal numbers with lots of Velcro. I’m wearing mended shorts, the inevitable bike race t-shirt, and the my black-and-white Nike high-top basketball shoes which I call Shamus because they look like killer whales, which is why I bought them.

My notes are much sloppier than hers. Instead of her huge, loopy letters with tiny circles dotting all the i’s, my handwriting looks like the last words of a dying man, scrawled desperately on linoleum with his own blood in an attempt to expose the man responsible for the gushing knife wound in his back. I’m sure this girl uses three different colors of highlighter, too. Buying used textbooks, I can’t avoid the blight of highlighters. As if reading boring drivel wasn’t bad enough, I have to deal with pink, blue, and green paragraphs. As far as I know, the highlighting is completely random. It’s usually the most concentrated towards the front of the book, because by the second midterm, most students have realized the futility of highlighting, or they’ve dropped the course.


French is next. I think foreign language classes are all the same: “discussion” format, instead of a lecture. French teachers must have even less money than I do: this one has worn the same dress every day this quarter. With foreign language classes, at least lower-division, it’s never a professor, always an instructor. I wonder if that’s what all foreign language majors have to look forward to one day. That doesn’t really bother me, at least compared to other idiosyncrasies of foreign language teachers: they always smoke (in fact, they’re probably the only smokers still around at UCSB), and they’re intentionally ambiguous about their backgrounds, as though they were ashamed to have been born in the U.S.

The instructor is arranging the class in a big circle around the perimeter of the room. I think I know why she always does this: first of all, it kills time (which is about all French instructors ever try to do), and it keeps students like me from hiding out in the back. If I was as ambitious as that guy over there, Dave, I would have positioned myself right next to the instructor’s desk, in her blind spot. But I already established myself in the back on the first day, and besides, this cute girl just sat down next to me and confided to me that she’s not quite sober after last night. That seems a lot more enticing than various negative forms in the French language. She’s trying to do her homework during class, and I look at her work. As with the girl in English class, the content is completely off but the form is perfect. She answers each question with a giant exclamation mark comprised of a circle with an inverted triangle above it. Very cute. This girl is likely an undeclared major. I don’t have anything to base that on; it’s just a strong hunch.

The instructor is breaking us into groups of three, in which we’ll write sentences (using various negative forms, of course) to describe roles she assigns us. My group is given the label “extravagant” and so Evan, who is obviously an Art Studio major, and I think real hard about what an extravagant person is like. I know Evan is an art studio major because he has forsaken his French textbook to make more room in his backpack for paperbacks (mostly Sartre and Camus and the like) and he is sporting the “starving artist” look. His old mended, faded jeans are spattered with paint from the studio, and his long curly hair is blasted back from his forehead as though he had just been blown away by one of the gigantic studio speakers they have in the art department. My roommate, Casey, is a lot like Evan, and I find them both to be very agreeable people. Perhaps the low-stress environment of the art department puts them in a more relaxed mood then other majors. Of course, my cycling would severely clash with my image if I tried to be an art studio major; after a ride my cheeks are rosy and if you’re an art studio major it’s cool to look pale and emaciated. Then again, at least I’d have the emaciated part down.

The third member of our group says nothing, just writes down everything. I look at her notes: every single word that has been uttered since the class began has been recorded verbatim. Throughout my notes, all you’ll see are entries like, “For Tues: ex. A&B p. 98; wkbk ex. A p. 45 in ink.” Wait, there’s one more entry in my notes, a simplified form of a clumsy equation for math class that suddenly came to me a minute ago. Other than that, I figure extraneous notes will just tie up more of my time if I have to read them later. This girl must spend hours re‑reading all her notes every night. As far as original thought, she is completely useless. She reminds me of my old factory co‑workers: seemingly content to do the grunt-work, but unwilling to generate ideas. We try to get her to participate, but it’s useless: she has no aspirations to be part of the brains of our operation.

Now the teacher has broken up our groups and we share our sentences with the class. Dave is first, representing the “professor” group. Always ready to put some spark into the classroom proceedings, Dave has written the French equivalent of “nobody listens to the professor because she is stupid” and has just read it to the class. I like Dave. He’s an English major through and through. Although his hair is good and long for that liberal arts look, it isn’t as unruly as that of an art studio major; it’s combed to represent the sophisticated side of our major. Often he wears a visor which he piles the hair up on, to keep it out of his eyes. Although I was originally skeptical, now I wish I’d just bought a visor instead of having my hair cut. Now my hair looks more accounting or econ. I’m suddenly aware that the teacher is addressing me, asking me to respond to Dave’s avant-garde statement. I could say something straightforward, but I can’t resist picking up where he left off: “What’s that? I didn’t hear you.” (In French, of course.) What a wasted effort. Here I’ve gone out on a limb with the teacher, and a good ninety percent of the class didn’t catch my joke. They probably didn’t understand me—no French majors here.


Next is Calculus class. I compare this class to a painting I saw once of a bunch of fish all fighting over a worm—on a fishhook. That’s right, this class has the element of competition to enhance its unpleasantness. We don’t just compete on tests, but also just getting into the classroom! Today, strangely enough, nobody is in the room when I get there. Here’s why: the class has been moved to another building. I head over there frantically, and sure enough, the room is completely filled up. Why are all these students fighting over seats like they were at a rock concert? Simple. Only from the very front row can you hope to make out the professors nightmarish calculations (which make my handwriting look neat by comparison).

After we scramble to turn in our assignments, which the professor collects in a flimsy plastic bag which is now tearing in several places, I scan the front row for a vacant seat. I know I’m dreaming, but I actually find one. Somebody’s backpack is there on the floor—could mean the seat’s taken, or it could belong to someone in the next seat. I sit down: I figure succeeding at this game requires taking a bigger chance than the next guy, just like parking in San Francisco. This time it doesn’t pay off—I am violently accosted by an irate female classmate, the owner of both the backpack and the seat. Take careful note: girls in calculus class are not looking to pass the time on the way to an MRS degree. I mean, let’s face it, what guy in his right mind would try to pick up a girl in a math class? These girls are here to get their piece of the pie, even if (or especially if!) it means trampling a lot of guys in the process. She’s not dressed for aesthetics—it’s pure business. Efficient slacks that won’t snag on the table in the library late-night study area, no frilly skirt to bunch up under her at the chair in the computer lab. Button-down shirt with big pockets for extra pens and a calculator. Hair coiled into a tight bun that won’t obstruct her vision as she scans the logarithm tables. Eyeglasses, because contact lenses and all-nighters don’t mix.

I finally find a seat in the front row—a Godsend, because if I can’t see the equations, I’m bound to fall asleep instead of copying down the professor’s strange graphs and theorems. I can even put my feet up on the stage. But it’s not all roses—the guy next to me is a hopeless motor mouth. He absolutely will not shut up. “Yeah, I guess you can sit there. I was saving it for Steve, but I guess he won’t be showing up. Up real late, I’m sure, probably partying. Nice seats, huh! This is just like summer school! Duh, huh, huh!” Look at him. Pathetic. Multicolor surfer-dude shorts, Corona t-shirt, prim and proper hairdo. He’s on the social track, obviously hungry for universal acceptance. I’ll bet his career goals include a big house and a BMW. “What the hell is he doing up there? Hey, are you getting any of this? Hey, I think I’ve seen that theorem before, back in high school in Morgan Hill! Wait, is that ‘as x approaches a,’ or ‘as x approaches 2?’ God, man, his handwriting is terrible. Have you looked at those homework problems for Friday yet? Look at all of these! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, god, there’s like thirty problems here!” I press the cold steel barrel of my revolver into his ear and say, “Buddy, you talk too much.” He drops his books on the floor and runs out of the classroom. The professor shoots me a quick glance and returns to his equations as my fellow students glare in disapproval at my disruption of the class.

The guy on my right is a male version of the girl who attacked me for trying to steal her seat. But the male is worse: he constantly mumbles about how he already knows all the equations, and his breath stinks. I know exactly what happened: he ate a peanut butter sandwich right before class and didn’t have the decency to at least rinse his mouth out. He figures he doesn’t have to be decent because he’ll be making fifty grand in a few years anyway with his engineering degree. I don’t care if he does—I’d rather starve to death with breath that’s face-to-face close than lug fifty pounds of Calculus and Digital Fundamentals books back and forth to the library for the next three years, scarfing down peanut butter sandwiches during my few spare moments.

The professor has gone so fast that he’s finished his lecture ten minutes early, as he has done every day so far this quarter. He could slow down a bit so that maybe some of the students could keep up, but hey, he’s got a reputation to keep up here. If the other guys in the math department caught wind that some of this guy’s students actually understood the material, he’d never be invited to another department luncheon, or whatever it is math professors do when they’re not solving derivations or making graphs.


My last class today is history. There’s Tor. I recognize him because he’s in my French class—otherwise, he’s just another generic History 4A Western Civilization student, one more addition to the sea of faces in the giant Lotte Lehman Concert Hall. But I can tell he’s a History major: the glazed look his eyes had in French class is gone, replaced by little points of light. This guy obviously loves facts. Ideas are vague and unstable, insights are false—only cold, hard facts turn him on. But don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying this guy loves history. I don’t think the term “history” needs to be synonymous with “facts.” I actually doubt that Tor cares at all about ancient Mesopotamian cultures. I’ve checked out his notes: statistics, dates, names. That’s it. This is one guy whose notes are not bound to aesthetics—in fact, there’s no organization whatsoever. Just thousands of facts, which will be transferred to note cards and memorized later.

I did that once, for a history final that was 80% of my grade. I memorized so many facts I thought I would vomit and in the toilet bowl it would look like alphabet soup. Of all those facts, all I remember is that the amount of horse manure that accumulated in Philadelphia was truly breathtaking. I once knew the year, the street, and the exact weight per day. Who weighed it all, anyway? I much prefer factoids—statements that sound like fact and give an argument support like fact, but are actually made up. I’ll show you how it works. “I hate horses and here’s why: on 9th Street in Philadelphia in an average day in 1934, 13,000 horses deposited 145 tons of manure. That’s 3/4 of a pound for every man, woman, and child!” Would you know enough to correct me? Probably not. So why memorize real facts?

I try to organize my notes, but the professor, too, is just spouting names, dates, places. Another fact-lover. I think he’s a geek. At least he’s wearing a suit. Never mind that he looks like one of those stupid little kids who wears a miniature suit to a wedding and implores you to think, “That stupid little kid is too young to be wearing a suit.” The prof does look better than Tor, who’s sporting a dingy, blank sweatshirt, Toughskins jeans, and blue Keds running shoes. His attire suits him well: fashion is always changing and hard to pin down. Maybe 501’s were out last year in favor of acid-washed jeans, and this year Lee is heavily promoting its new “three-day weekend: fourth day” image. Leather Aviator jackets may have come and gone. These are ethereal fashion feelings—but blank sweatshirts, Toughskins, and Keds are facts. They’ve never been “in” so they’ll never be “out.” They’re as old as time and will never die.

Tor’s hair is long and greasy, and even though it’s sort of smeared away from his eyes, he looks like a sheepdog. He doesn’t wear his hair long per se; it just happens to be long because he isn’t even slightly aware of its length. Below his intertwined legs, one foot crosses over on top of the other as if trying to meld with it. The only time I’ve ever sat like that was when I was at home alone one night, a paranoid eight year old, and my malicious brothers had turned off the power at the circuit breaker and I thought if I pulled my whole body into a solid mass I’d be more secure somehow. Now, I’ve only had one psychology class, but I’m going to guess that Tor’s body language is expressive of what’s going on inside—feeling out of touch with an unstable world, he seeks solace in sturdy, unyielding facts. Hence the History major.


What am I getting at here? Well, this is UCSB, and what we’re studying probably won’t affect our eventual careers, since this is not a vocational school. Students here do not choose their majors according to what they want to learn, or what they want to be. They choose majors according to who they already are.

So. Who are you?

dana albert blog

Friday, September 16, 2011

Epic Colorado Ride


Whenever I visit my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I do an epic ride with my friend Peter. He plans out a suitably difficult route and I follow along, suffering. Last month I visited, and we rode, and I’ve only now recovered sufficiently to write about it.

Here is the view of the Flatirons visible from most parts of Boulder:

Who is Peter?

Peter is a lot like me, only better. I met him at a bike race back in 1985 when we got in a breakaway together. At the finish he outsprinted me by such a huge margin it appeared he’d actually soloed to victory. Ever since that day, he’s been stronger than I every time we’ve ridden, with one notable exception: the Colorado State Road Championship road race in 1987. Peter, the reigning state champion, got hooked by another rider and crashed with 300 meters to go. As I approached the finish, I looked back to see him bearing down on me. I just nipped him at the line. Afterward I discovered that the crash had bent his front brake bolt, mashing one of the pads into his rim. You couldn’t even turn the wheel by hand.

That was the one time I got the better of Peter. It’s been Bambi vs. Godzilla ever since.


How does one prepare for a brutal ride like this? Well, if you’re lucky you have access to a really nice stationary bike like this one:

That bike actually has some tangible benefits over what you see at the gym. It’s fully adjustable, for one thing. And I’ll be that flywheel really helps smooth out your pedal stroke. Plus, the thing weighs like a gazillion pounds so you could do curls with it, at least if you’re as strong as my brother Max (shown here).

But actually, instead of preparing for this ride, I prepared with it, for the upcoming Everest Challenge. Some say training at altitude is a great idea; others say you shouldn’t train at altitude but rather just hang around there. Well, I’ve done both. I’ve even drunk beer and eaten big pasta at altitude. I’m covering all my bases.

Finding a bike

My Boulder trip was short so it wasn’t worth spending $100 each way to bring my bike. (For details on the travesty of bike fees on airlines, see Appendix A below.) I tried to line up a loaner bike, but largely in vain. A friend of a friend—a guy I’d never met—was nice enough to loan me a cool old Cilo, and I did ride it a fair bit during my trip, but it was too small to do an epic ride on. (The guy even gave me the go-ahead to move the saddle all around, but the seat binder bolt looked like it had rusted back in the Reagan years and might snap if I so much as looked at it wrong.)

It was tempting to do the epic ride on my brother’s rickshaw-wheeled cruiser, Big Red:

You might assume that Big Red is a one-speed, but it’s not. As detailed here, it’s got a 7-speed internal gearing système. But the gears aren’t really low enough and the bike is too valuable, and too cool, to risk on a guy like me.

So I figured I’d just do a “Performance Road Rental”—i.e., rent a $6,000 full Dura-Ace Serotta from University Bikes, the über-cool bike shop in Boulder. I went there the evening before the ride, with my shoes, tape measure, and pedals, to make sure I got the fit just right. Alas, some portly stockbroker beat me to the Serotta by a matter of hours, just so he could have a better bike for his little 30-mile muffin ride. (Okay, for all I know he was a total badass doing an ever harder ride than I.) I had to settle for a “standard road rental,” which meant a cheap Cannondale, with mismatched wheels, a triple crankset, and a front reflector.

For me to use such a bike on the epic ride seemed like a punishment of some kind. Front reflectors are for people who ride on the wrong side of the road at night without a light, and elsewhere these pages I’ve made clear my feelings about triple cranksets. As for Cannondales, they’re perfectly fine bikes, but as detailed in Appendix B below, I’ve just never liked them much.

The bike did fit well, thanks largely to the nice folks at uBikes who swapped out the stem for me. But man, it was amazingly heavy. I think it’s the heaviest road bike I’ve ridden since my 1981 Miyata 310. I didn’t realize anybody still made such a heavy road bike. I didn’t even think the current state of the art was capable of producing such a heavy bike. Maybe they fill the frame up with buckshot, to make sure the low-end bikes don’t cut into sales of the pricier ones.

The other issue was the saddle, which was one of these giant sofa-like things with the big ravine down the middle. How much padding could a guy need? There’s room in that foam for Magic Fingers. I call this the “prostate intimidation” saddle, because it’s designed to capitalize on vague fears men have about their prostates, much in the way that, back in the ‘70s, that one laundry detergent fear-mongered about the nonexistent bane of “ring around the collar,” or that one shampoo made dandruff seem like a love-life-threatening global epidemic. On principal alone I couldn’t ride the prostate-friendly saddle, so I borrowed Max’s tiny, rock-hard saddle, a Selle Italia SLR or some such. There’s probably a whole range of SLRs, and this is the smallest, lightest, and hardest (the “SLR Nano,” perhaps). It’s also pretty old, and by far the hardest saddle I’ve ever sat on, including those all-plastic BMX saddles. It was like sitting on a 2x4.

Epic beginning

Here is the requisite “before” photo. You can tell I’m a bit worried about the ride. Pete, meanwhile, looks like he’s pre-savoring his schadenfreude.

Peter had planned out a difficult route indeed. After just a couple miles of warm-up we went straight uphill, up Flagstaff, a road used many times as the prologue time trial for the Red Zinger and Coors Classic, which finished about halfway up the main climb near the Flagstaff House restaurant (where I had my wedding reception back in ’94). Here, you can see it’s still pretty early in the morning:

At the end of the main climb we took a trip up Summit Road to where there’s a little amphitheater, and then we went back to the main road and continued on up toward Kossler Lake, which turns the ride from “Flagstaff” to “Superflag.” According to mapmyride, this climb is a Category 1. (The categorization scheme is taken from the European pro bike race standard. Category 1 is considered the hardest climb, and Category 5 is the easiest, though really easy climbs aren’t categorized at all. Special climbs are regarded as “Hors Categorie,” aka HC, meaning “so hard they cannot be categorized”—kind of like the “evil whose name must not be spoken.”)

I really suffered on Superflag, even on the shallower sections where I could snap photos:

I was breathing really hard on the climb, despite my heart rate being down in the 140s. It was as though my heart were saying, “Look, I’ll beat faster if you give me some more air. My job is to oxygenate the blood but I have very little oxygen to push here.” Kind of like a contractor sitting around at the job site waiting for lumber to be delivered. Altitude really does matter—coming from sea level, I find that even climbing a flight of stairs in Boulder (at 5,400 feet) is a huffing-and-puffing affair. I don’t know how anybody could compete at the US Pro Cycling Challenge who didn’t acclimate to the altitude beforehand. (Max, who has lived his whole life in Boulder, complains that he still hasn’t acclimated.)

It was of course hard to tell how much of the difficulty was the bike, how much was lack of sleep, and how much was trying to keep up with Pete. My struggle to keep up continued when we turned off on a dirt road and began descending toward Gross Reservoir. I’m no slouch at descending but riding on the dirt on that foreign bike with its too-tight brakes and cheap tires was a little scary. It was a bit like in a job interview and knowing my fly is open and there’s nothing I can do about it.

It’s a very bumpy descent. I tried to do this ride back in 2005 with my brother Geoff but we had to abandon: between the two of us we had only one pump, and it fell off during this descent and was never found. We’d had to abandon the ride and head home because getting a flat on this desolate dirt road would be a real drag.

Here are Pete and I toward the end of the descent.

From there we took Coal Creek Canyon Road up to Wondervu, another Category 1 climb. Of this climb, oddly enough, I remember almost nothing. Then we headed up a freshly tarred-and-feathered road (a Category 2 climb) to the Lake Eldora ski resort. (No, the road wasn’t really feathered.)


By the time we made that summit and descended to Nederland, we’d ridden about 45 miles, but with all that climbing it felt like a lot more, and I was worrying about bonking (in the American, not British, sense). Dinner the night before had been a nice pork chop with a handful of fingerling potatoes: tasty, but decidedly lacking in precious carbohydrates. So when we stopped at a convenience store I went for the good stuff:

Not shown here are the Hostess fruit pies. In terms of calorie per dollar, and calorie per unit volume, they can’t be beat. I think Pete had cherry, which has a whopping 480 calories . As much as I adore the fruit-flavored varieties, I had to go with chocolate: 520 calories. These pies should be a controlled substance—there’s no reason on earth that anybody but a distance athlete should ever consume one.

More climbing

After Nederland (strangely named for a town that sits at more than 8,000 feet above sea level) we headed up the Peak To Peak Highway over two more Category 2 climbs. I must confess I used the smallest chainring quite a bit. (My wife asked about this later, and suggested that perhaps the triple really was appropriate. “Yeah,” I told her, “but only because it was such a crappy bike. It’s like a really awful restaurant where they’re thoughtful enough to give you a barf bucket.”)

We were pretty low on beverages around our highest summit, at 10,400 feet. In this photo, the half-cropped mountain on the right is Mt. Audubon, elevation 13,223 feet.

I was so oxygen-deprived and tired, I completely forgot how ugly my rental bike was. We totally should have used Pete’s bike for this photo. Anyway, if you look closely at that picture, I’m sort of smiling but it’s really a lie. Look in my eyes. There’s a lot of suffering there. At no point in the ride had I been hammering, but the miles and elevation were piling up and taking their toll.

We searched in vain for water; it was all shut off. Fortunately, the next thirty miles of the ride were virtually all downhill. The day got progressively hotter as we lost elevation. We encountered about a dozen raindrops. Eventually we arrived in Lyons, a big player in the thriving sandstone industry, where it was good and hot and we drank giant Cokes. Then we headed south on Highway 36 toward Boulder.

Home stretch

It’s a long trip back to Boulder from Lyons. Kind of a Room 101 for many a Boulder cyclist: I know more guys—myself included—who have bonked on that stretch than any other I can think of, and on shorter rides than this one. We’d gone 90 miles, which meant we had another 20 to go.

I’ll just come out and say it: my ass hurt. Real bad. I’d set the saddle a tad too high, and did I mention it was the iron maiden of bike saddles? My butt never used to hurt on long rides. I don’t know if it’s just ageing, or not enough training, or what. The modern cycling shorts don’t seem to help. They’re over-engineered these days, each chamois thicker than the last. It used to be that a pair of shorts cost $30 and had a single-ply pancake-thin chamois. Now they’re this thick puffy three-ply thing, like a short stack, and can cost upwards of $200. By this point in the ride my legs had turned more than 30,000 pedal revolutions—they should have hurt the most—and yet my ass, which had just been sitting there most of the time, was giving me the most trouble.

Even more alarming was the realization that we weren’t even heading straight back over the gently rolling hills of Highway 36. In the photo above, you see the purple mountains dead ahead on the horizon? We had those yet to climb. It was at this point in the ride that I toyed with the idea of despair, then immediately dismissed it. What good would despair do? Besides, I’d been on harder rides than this. To borrow from Faulkner, it may have killed me, but it hadn’t whupped me yet.

We took a right on Lefthand Canyon Drive. This is a pretty shallow one, but it goes along a right fur piece. After six miles we took a left on Lee Hill Drive, which is a real sumbitch of a climb. At least, that’s how I always thought of it when I lived in Boulder. The two sections together comprise a Category 2. Lee Hill Doesn’t look too steep in this photo, and yet you can tell Pete is working pretty hard—plus I’m pretty far behind.

The last climb, Wagonwheel Gap Road, was only a Category 3, but it’s dirt. I’m not sure mapmyride takes that into account. Nor could it have known how tired we were. (Or at least, how tired I was. As usual Pete showed no sign of strain. For him this may have been like an easy stroll.) I could barely keep enough traction to make the bike go, so I couldn’t take any more photos. Here’s a nice shot of clouds from earlier, anyway.

After that it was a short descent back to the house for some nice cold sugardrink. I forgot to take an “after” shot but here’s a picture of my salt-encrusted helmet.

This helmet is less than two months old (purchased after my recent crash). Note the board-stiff chin strap. Note also the little flowers, for which I’ve taken plenty of flak from my pals. But hey, I can handle it. I just did a big ride on a cheap bike with a triple crank and a front reflector!

Here are the map and elevation profile (click to zoom in).

Appendix A: Bikes on airlines

Our modern airline industry has done everything it can to make me hate them. Airlines are the number one offender in the pollution category; they’ve stopped serving meals; they charge for baggage; they impose useless security measures like putting toiletries in little plastic bags as an insult to our intelligence; they’re charging money for the privilege of sitting in an exit row; they charge for checked luggage; the frequent flier free flights are universally blacked out except certain red-eyes between Houston and Lubbock via Seattle; and they’ve made the pricing so crazily random it’s like day trading trying to book a flight. So I shoudn’t be surprised that the rate for carrying a bike has gone steadily up even as the weight of bikes has come steadily down.

A few people have told me Southwest will take bikes for free. Their website could lead the unsuspecting passenger to believe it: “Non-motorized bicycles, including Bike Friday and Co-Pilot, will be accepted in substitution of a free piece of checked baggage at no additional charge, provided the box containing the bicycle fits within the 62-inch sizing limit.” This is a bit like saying “Children eat free at Denny’s provided they are under 12 inches tall.” The smallest adult bicycle I’m aware of is a 44 cm, and it comes in a box whose overall size (length plus width plus height) is 80 inches. My bike frame alone would require a 78-inch bike. So, Southwest will take certain kids’ BMX bikes for free but beyond that, don’t get your hopes up.

Appendix B: Cannondales

Now, I realize what I’m about to say could alienate certain albertnet readers, so I’ll try to be careful. But I have to say it: Cannondales are not my favorite bikes. It’s probably totally unfair of me, and if you are a happy Cannondale owner you should really ignore me on this topic because I’m sure your bike is great. (A college teammate of mine won a ton of races on his Cannondale, and the Liquigas team rides them with vigor and aplomb.) But I’ve just had it in for those bikes for decades. Perhaps it’s because Cannondale stole Klein’s basic design back in the eighties (they were sued, but prevailed). Maybe it’s because Cannondale got their start with touring bags and a weird Velcro water bottle and so forth and I can’t shake the association. Maybe it’s because their early mountain bikes were so hard to build and service, due to their having (for gimmicky reasons) a smaller rear wheel, which fouled up the chain line and made the front derailleur hard to adjust. Or maybe it’s because every single new Cannondale to be assembled (when I worked at a Cannondale dealer) was badly scratched in the same place, and included a smashed bottle of touch-up paint. Whatever the case, I should put aside my distaste for them and be less judgmental, but I’m just not big enough. I’m sorry.

dana albert blog