Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ask Dr. Pasta

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 My husband is driving me crazy.  Whenever he makes pasta for our family and friends, he insists that  everybody be seated at the table before he puts the dry pasta into the boiling water.  I hate this but he refuses to even discuss it.  He said to consult with you.  What is going on here?

Sandra S, Spokane, WA

Dear Sandra,

I hate to say it, but your husband is right.  There’s nothing worse than serving pasta that has sat around getting cold and sticking together.  (OK, I guess there are worse things, like Spaghetti-Os, but you get my point.)  Ideally, the pasta is strained the moment it’s done (never rinsed!), tossed quickly with a little extra virgin olive oil, and plated within a minute or two.  Say your kids are slow getting to the table and spoil this small act of perfection:  that could cause intense family resentment.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

Can I store pasta in bulk?  Or will it go bad?

Chuck M, LaCrosse, KS

Dear Chuck,

Yes, you can store pasta, in a dry place.  (This doesn’t mean you should buy it at Costco though.)  It won’t go bad unless it’s that fancy colored pasta, which often has vegetable matter in it.  That stuff will start to break down and crumble, and turns mushy when boiled.  It’s safe to eat, but who would want to? 

The only other risk you run is insect infestation.  This happened to me once.  The pasta was perciatelli, which is tubular like macaroni but long like spaghetti, and the insects were weevils.  They burrowed right in there.  I went ahead and ate it (dozens of boxes), to take my revenge.  It tasted fine and, as 80% of the world’s population eats insects, I wasn’t worried about my health.  Still, it was a bit gnarly.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

Everybody knows that farfalle means “bow tie” in Italian, but my friend insists it means “butterfly.”  Will you set him straight?

Scott B, Jersey City, NJ

Dear Scott,

The paucity of your research skills is matched only by your ignorance.  Can a thousand menus and waiters be wrong?  Yes, they can.  Technically “farfalle” means “butterflies” (the singular is “farfalla”) but your friend is basically right, and deserves an apology.  I’ve been there:  I was at a fancy restaurant and got into the same argument with a friend of Italian descent and his dad, and they tried to use their Italian heritage as evidence.  I wasn’t having it, so they appealed to the waiter, who agreed with them that “farfalle” means bow tie.  I told the waiter to go ask the cook.  The waiter came back and said, “Yep, I was right, the cook says it means ‘butterfy’!”  I don’t know if he was trying to be funny or what.

Why would a great nation name a great pasta after the most useless clothing accessory in existence?  A bow tie technically does meet the requirement of formal attire, but makes the wearer look like a damn clown.  Only the Daniel Craig James Bond can wear a bow tie and still look cool, and that’s only because, when asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred, he replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”  That and because he beat a guy to death in a stairwell.  But I digress.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 I recently moved to the Bay Area from Chicago and have found that my favorite metaphor for a person being lame—“That's like putting ketchup on a hot dog!”—doesn’t work around here.  Nobody here seems to appreciate a properly dressed hot dog.  But these same people all seem to be foodies, and are nearly fascist about their pasta.  Is there a pasta-related metaphor I can substitute for “ketchup on a hot dog”?

Mike T, Alameda, CA

Dear Mike,

 Yes.  You can say, “That’s like breaking pasta in half before boiling it!”

Dear Dr. Pasta,

I’m trying to become a better cook, but I’m not ready to make my own noodles, slave over complicated sauces, etc.  What’s the best way to improve my pasta dishes?

Emily W, San Antonio, TX

Dear Emily,

If you’re shaking granulated parmesan on your pasta from a green cardboard or plastic canister, stop.  (The white can labeled “Italian topping” is even worse—it’s parmesan stretched with rice flour to increase profit margins.)  Or, if you’re buying little tubs of pre-shredded parmesan, cut that out.  Use a hard block of parmesan, and grate it with a zester.  Another simple trick is to buy Italian parsley, chop or tear it finely, and sprinkle that on top.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 Two words:  pasta erotica.  Help me out here, bud.

Tom F, Brooklyn, NY

I can only imagine you’re referring to the pasta equivalent of “bike porn,” that being glossy bike catalogs designed to titillate.  (If I've misunderstood what you mean by "pasta erotica," please don’t write back and correct me ... I don’t want to know.)

The most enticing pasta writing I’ve come across in recent years is this article by Bill Buford in “The New Yorker,” chronicling part of his pasta-making apprenticeship  under the chef Mario Batali.  Here’s an excerpt: 
Mark, having cooked up a large quantity of linguine for its regulation six minutes and thirty seconds, emptied it into a pan of New Zealand cockle-clams, sloppily dripping lots of that starchy water on them in the process, a big wet heap of pasta on top of several dozen shellfish; he swirled the pan, gave it a little flip, swirled it again, and then left it alone so that it could cook, bubbling away, for another half minute…  Then he took a strand and tasted it.  He gave me one.  It was not what I expected.  It was no longer linguine, exactly; it had changed color and texture and become something else.  I tasted it again.  This, I thought, is the equivalent of soaking bread in gravy…  But what was the sauce?  I looked at the pan:  the cockle-clams had been all closed up a few minutes earlier, and as they cooked their shells opened, and as they opened they released the juices inside—lots of juices.  That’s what I was tasting in this strand of linguine:  an ocean pungency.  (“It’s about the sauce, not the little snot of meat in the shell,” Mario told me later.  “No one is interested in the little snot of meat!”)
Click here for the full article, or here for info about Buford’s book, “Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany.” 

By the way, the presence of fresh clams in your linguine alle vongole does not guarantee that it’s good—this can merely be a way for a mediocre restaurant to be flashy.  Check out this crazy plate I got at a restaurant in Bath:

That entree was like a train wreck.  The pasta was broken up into short pieces; it was like Noodle Roni to begin with; half the clam shells were empty (!); and worst of all, every third or fourth bite had tiny shards of what must have been broken clam shell.  Given the incompetence of this kitchen, I’d have been better off with “little snots of meat” from a can.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

My cousin’s husband is a really snooty foody.  Can you give me a little-known-fact to one-up him with?

Julie R, San Diego, CA

Dear Julie,

As Buford (see above) has pointed out, in Italy the words “ravioli” and “tortelli” have always been used interchangeably, but technically “ravioli” are the filling and “tortelli” the pasta casing.  (Tortellini, meanwhile, is just little tortelli.)

Dear Dr. Pasta,

Help!   My wife wants our family to eat whole wheat pasta.  What can I do?

Mark A, Grand Junction, CO

Dear Mark,

That’s rough.  From the standpoint of health, it’s hard to knock whole wheat, but of course whole wheat pasta is just wrong.  There are three tacks you could take.  One, you could reclassify pasta and call it a treat instead of a staple, and then cast whole wheat pasta as a poor substitute in the tradition of Hydrox cookies (vs. Oreos), soy cheese, skim milk, and turkey dogs.  Or, you could go along with her and hope she stumbles upon a “fake” whole-wheat pasta like Barilla’s so-called “Whole-Grain” pasta, which is a blend of whole wheat and refined flour.  It’s not as bad.  Your third option is to ask for wheat germ on the side.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

There’s all this hoopla about homemade pasta or this or that premium pasta brand ... but isn’t it the sauce that really matters?

Laura D, Council Bluff, IA

Dear Laura,

It’s true that it’s harder to find a good sauce than a good pasta.  Many a grocery store will carry top-notch De Cecco pasta, or at least Barilla, but the run-of-the-mill jarred sauce (Prego, Ragu) isn’t up to snuff.  But that doesn’t mean the pasta isn’t important. 

One of the most disappointing pastas of my life was at Kuleto’s in San Francisco.  The sauce was incredible … I don’t remember much about it except it had sun-dried tomatoes and was a great ungodly godlike sauce.  Delicious.  But it was served on some colored homemade pasta that was limp and soft, somehow simultaneously doughy and overcooked.  It could have been the greatest pasta dish ever but instead was the greatest disappointment.  I couldn’t have been more bewildered and let down if Natalie Portman had shown up wearing a beard.

If you’re looking for a really great sauce you can make yourself, click here.  I know it seems crazy trying to get useful information from somebody’s blog, for crying out loud, but this guy’s Bolognese recipe is actually very good.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

I hear you used to do a bit of pasta racing.  Is this true?  If so, were you any good?

Lisa S, Louisville, KY

Dear Lisa,

I must confess, as a brash young lad I did go in for some pasta racing.  (This was many years before I settled down and earned my honorary doctorate in alimentary science.)  Sure, pasta racing seems barbaric now, but those were different times.  The Gondolier, an Italian restaurant in Boulder, had all-you-can-eat spaghetti once or twice a week, and every bike racer in the area would line up for it.  As a teenager with a vermicelli build, I always ate at least five plates,  usually six, and to keep my less voracious brothers and friends from having to wait around for me I tended to eat fast.  Nobody could eat faster than I, though several pals tried. 

One night, I was just in the zone and spontaneously decided, on my sixth plate, to set the all-time record.  I powered that bad boy down using two forks, and everybody clocked me at the same time—19.9 seconds—on their matching Timex Triathlon watches.  (Yes, that kind of nerd.)  An immensely corpulent woman at the next table was outraged.  “That is completely disgusting!” she cried.  No, I didn’t have the obvious Churchillian comeback queued up, and wouldn’t have had the nerve to use it anyway.  I either clammed up completely or said something Midwestern like, “Gosh, ma’am, I’m really sorry.”

The amazing thing?  It wasn’t even a racing plate (that is, oil and garlic, which slips down the throat faster).  It was standard marinara.  So, yeah, I guess you could say I had talent.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

It has been said that pasta is a blood memory.  What do you have to say about that?

Ron M, Boston, MA

Dear Ron,

I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.  Whoever said it must have been really poetic or something.  I’m not sure what to say, but I’ll acknowledge that my love of pasta does intertwine with my memory of eating, making, and observing it.  For example, I saw an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood back in 1984 that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.  (I was a teenager, watching the show “ironically.”) In this episode, Mr. Rogers made pasta with a friend.  It was obvious that Mr. Rogers really wanted to see the pasta machine in action, but that his friend—clearly a pasta expert—had moved beyond the machine and wanted to cut his noodles by hand.  Mr. Rogers got progressively more persistent, but the friend was stubborn, and it must have been the closest Mr. Rogers ever got to kicking someone’s ass on camera. 

That Mr. Rogers episode may have inspired me to start making my own pasta, which I took up a couple years later, and the memory of the show certainly did inspire me, this past Father’s Day, to finally take the plunge and make my own hand-cut pappardelle.  I rolled out the pasta sheets, folded them over, and cut them with a big knife (kind of like making a jelly roll).  Then I had to peel apart the folded-over layers, which was a bit like unspooling Scotch tape.  It was a glorious success that, well, I shall never forget.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 Are you some kind of elitist, or do you have a “guilty pleasure” pasta?

Angie W, Topeka, KS

Dear Angie,

I’d eat just about any pasta you could put in front of me, except maybe that Chef Boyardee beef ravioli (and that’s only for fear of mad cow disease, which—if it’s going to show up in this country—couldn’t find a better vehicle).  I’m not above Prego and Ragu (though I’ll generally sex it up with some olive oil, diced tomatoes, chicken broth, and herbs).  And I have a real soft spot for Lipton instant pasta sides.  (They’re marketed as Knorr now, but don’t be fooled.  Culturally, they’re pure Lipton.)  I first discovered this product when I did a cross-country bike tour with my wife and we needed something highly caloric and starchy that we could make on a camp stove.  To this day I’ll occasionally indulge in this trashy treat, just for old time’s sake and because it’s actually pretty yummy.  (Here I am making it for the first time, in March ’94.)

Dear Dr. Pasta,

I really want to use my knowledge of pasta as an affirmation of my self-worth.  Is there any way you can help?

Theodore B, Danbury, CT

Dear Teddy,

(You don’t mind if I call you Teddy, do you?  You seem like a Teddy.)  You might be better off becoming an expert on wine or something, but I want to help, so here’s a little quiz for you.  Match the pasta quotation with the person who uttered it.

1.  George Carlin
2.  Sophia Loren
3.  George Miller
4.  Christopher Morley
5.  Vladimir Nabokov

a.  “No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention.”
b.  “The trouble with eating Italian food is that 5 or 6 days later you’re hungry again.”
c.  “Macaroni grows in Italy.  When still small it’s called vermicelli.  That means Mike’s worms in Italian.”
d.  “Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.”
e.  “If you ate pasta and antipasto, would you still be hungry?”

Answers:  1. e; 2. d; 3. b; 4. a; 5. c. 
Note:  George Carlin is widely credited with quotation (e), but perhaps erroneously.  Should we care?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Curse of the Epicure


Adam and Eve had a pretty easy life in Eden, with very few complications.  God took care of most things, and Adam could make minor fixes around the place.  Adam joked to the snake:  “How many humans does it take to screw in a light bulb?  /  It better not take more than two!’”  The snake, unimpressed, changed the subject:  “See that tree?  You should really try an apple from it.”  Adam refused, remembering it was forbidden.  But the snake eventually convinced Eve to try an apple.  When Adam saw this, he immediately had to have his own.  God appeared when Adam was on his second bite, but before He could say anything, Adam looked up and said, “God, these apples suck!  They’re all mealy and mushy and the flavor is so cloying.”  God roared back, “That’s why I told you not to eat them!  I haven’t perfected them yet!”  God was so furious He banished Adam and Eve from Eden.  Not long after, Adam suddenly noticed things about Eve that he hadn’t before.  “Eve … I don’t know how to tell you this, but, uh … you need a bra,” he said.  She fired back, “Well, I was just checking out your, uh, endowment, and you’re not exactly Big Man on Campus!”  So they were embarrassed and covered themselves up.  And that is the tale of the original sin:  being finicky.

A confession

I have a confession to make:  I used to love Chevy’s.  I once walked 2 1/2 miles to a Chevy’s, when I lived in San Francisco, only a mile from what is now my favorite taqueria, in the Mission.  I liked Chevy’s’ really thin chips.  I liked their stupid beans.  It seemed as good a Mexican restaurant as any.  What an idiot I was.  My roommate confronted me about it:  “Why would you want to eat mall food?”  He would bring salsa home from his favorite place in the Mission, and once even brought a couple quarts back from his favorite place in Denver.  But I didn’t listen.  It took me years to realize not only that Chevy’s is a mediocre corporate chain hawking non-spicy soulless fare to the uncultured masses, but that I should feel embarrassed to have ever thought that place was worth going to, especially when I lived in the best taqueria city in the world.

A cautionary tale

When I was in college, my then-stepdad took my mom and me out for a nice meal at this upscale French restaurant called the Metropole.  It was an old Berkeley standby, exactly the kind of place college kids get taken to when their parents are in town.  I was impressed by how swanky the place was, and thought the food was pretty good, but my stepdad complained about absolutely everything.  He had been to France, and this food didn’t seem French, and blah blah blah.  By the end of the meal he seemed downright miserable.  And yet, there were plenty of things he could have been happy about:  having enough money to eat in a fancy place like this; the fact that nobody was smoking like they would have been in France; the fact that were it not for his complaining I’d have thought it was an awesome place.

So there’s a flip side to having sophisticated tastes.  Once we know what we’ve been missing, we’re no longer satisfied by what used to please us.  Meanwhile, there’s an ego aspect.  Consider my confession about Chevy’s:  should liking a restaurant chain really be embarrassing?  Should there be any shame in not knowing from good Mexican (or French) food?  I mean, so what?  But there you have it:  we’re all a bit afraid of being seen as uncultured rubes.  (What, you’re not?  You mean it’s just me?  Fine—go read something else then … your sensibilities are too advanced for this blog.)

When we become judgmental about aesthetic choices, we sometimes stray into other territory.  Have you ever noticed that when you see litter, it’s always a McDonalds wrapper or a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup?  You never see a Godiva wrapper or an empty Veuve Clicquot bottle on the side of the road.  It’s tempting to conclude that unsophisticated tastes, or at least the poverty that makes it necessary to embrace them, are a sign of vulgarity, part and parcel with the ignorant impulse to just throw your trash out the window.  But (as I shall explore) there’s also a coarseness in aspiring to impress people with your aesthetic sophistication.

Sophistication for sale

Consider Godiva chocolate:  it’s really expensive, and the packaging is really fancy, but the product itself is mediocre.  No, I’m not some expert or chocolate or anything, but I was shocked at how waxy and bland it was when I first tried it.  (My opinion isn’t unique; I had my albertnet fact checker google “godiva chocolate sucks” and he reported 444,000 hits.)  Am I trying to impress you with my taste in chocolate?  Well, maybe I am, but I’m also making a point:  Godiva chocolate exists simply because there are plenty of people out there willing to pay extra for it, just to look rich and savvy.

We’re surrounded by the blatant marketing of sophistication.  For example, there are Stella Artois billboards that show a glass of the beer with the headline “Perfection has its price.”  Normally “price” in such a context is figurative, suggesting sacrifice, but with a beer I guess the point is “this beer is expensive so it must be good.”

Magazines like “Cigar Aficionado” make their nut teaching, or seeming to teach, their readers how to be more discerning about cigars.  I suppose there are people who actually do love cigars (though the only thing I’ve found them good for is filling a friend’s car with smoke), but could you really predict how much you’d like a cigar based on its ratings?  A review of a mainstream product like a camera gives all kinds of objective information, and can provide sample photos taken by the camera itself—but the flavor of smoke cannot be described in any useful way. 

Each issue of “Cigar Aficionado” has a rich celebrity cigar smoker on the cover and I guess that’s really the point:  the reader can think, “Yeah, if Jack Nicholson and I met, we’d hit it off.  I’d show him my humidor, and we’d hang out and smoke some fine Cubans.”  This seems like the kind of magazine you’d leave lying around on your coffee table to showcase your expensive tastes (because your wife would never let you light up around guests—cigars stink too bad).  I’m going to guess not many subscribers to “The Costco Connection” would leave that mag lying around.  (I’m not the only one to mock “Cigar Aficionado”; consider this.)

I’m not quite as skeptical of “Wine Spectator” (put out by the same publisher as “Cigar Aficionado,” by the way), because I understand there is a huge, rich vocabulary available for describing wine.  I won’t attack the validity of that vocabulary (how could I, being an uncultured rube?), but there does seem something fishy about “Wine Spectator.”  First, there’s the name.  Spectator?  Like, the point of wine isn’t just to drink it, but to watch others drink it?  See, drink, be seen, and be drunk?

Okay, I’m quibbling.  But consider this:  the magazine has an award it presents to restaurants that have great wine lists, which brought about a great hoax in 2008.  A guy created a fake restaurant (nothing more than a mocked-up menu and website), put together a wine list comprising wines that “Wine Spectator” itself had reviewed harshly, submitted his $250 application fee to the magazine, and his “restaurant” won the Award of Excellence, following which magazine’s ad sales department contacted the “restaurant” soliciting an ad to accompany the Award of Excellence listing.  I dare you to try to convince me this is anything more than a circle-jerk-for-profit.  Subscribers would surely defend the magazine, but that’s because their own standing as wine experts depends on its good reputation.  It’s the emperor’s new wine journal.

Taste, if I’m not mistaken, is supposed to be a personal thing.  We try a bunch of different things, and decide we like certain ones more than others.  (Yes, our friends help turn us on to new things, but those friends presumably know us well enough to guess what we’d like.)  Defining our tastes by ratings in a magazine smacks of insecurity.  Really, what could be more vulgar than letting ourselves be manipulated by advertisers and other profiteers, just to make sure “our” tastes show sophistication and class? 

A dilemma

On the one hand, it makes sense to cultivate refined tastes, lest we miss out on the best the world has to offer.  (If Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the apple, humanity would still be in Eden, getting nothing but Middle Eastern food.)   On the other hand, striving to be an epicure can end up being just another treadmill of one-upmanship, with the ever-present threat of getting jaded.  (I sometimes wonder if the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis—fancier food, better booze, faster cars—aren’t actually the cause of the crisis, given the ageing process and how it ruins our earthly pleasures via heartburn, hangovers, and the need to drive responsibly.)

So the question is, how can we best walk the fine line between cultural refinement and mere contentment?  I’ve mulled this over and here are my suggestions.

Don’t forsake your old tastes just because you’ve developed new ones.  Take Chevy’s, for example.  No, I no longer think it’s great, and wouldn’t recommend it to others, but if I went there, could I still enjoy my meal?  Sure—my taste buds haven’t changed, and I won’t let my attitude spoil my appetite.  (That said, those doughy, baking-soda-y “tortillas” made by “El Machino” are pretty disgusting.)  Former delights we’ve transcended don’t have to be abandoned; they can have a long afterlife as our guilty pleasures.  I kind of like the Uno pizza chain, which is more like Pizza Hut than it is like the original Uno.  And speaking of pizza and forsaking old tastes, when I told my daughters I was coming to prefer Little Star over Zachary’s, they looked stricken, like they might never get their beloved Zach’s again.  “Take that back!” Alexa demanded.  (I told her not to worry … I’ll always enjoy getting bloated on stuffed pizza even if it’s not from my favorite place.)

Try to keep ego out of it.  Naturally, when we discover something wonderful, we want to turn others on to it, and occasionally to help them overcome their hesitation.  This is well and good—but we should keep an eye on how we conduct ourselves.  I’ve seen my own enthusiasm turn into a bludgeon, where the person I’ve exhorting to try something becomes reluctant to admit he dislikes it.  Things can get worse if the supposed expert demeans a product rather than promoting one.  Consider this rant on chowhound where, instead of answering a question, somebody decided just to complain, unbidden, about the pizza crust at Zachary’s:  Had a think [sic] crust slice at Zacharys on Solano the other day and was kind of shocked at how bad the crust was.  Of twelve replies, eleven were negative, and it seemed like the reviewers were trying to outdo each other with their explanations of why the crust is bad (e.g., “the cross section of the dough that touches the pan was dry”) and of what else is wrong (e.g., “I find their sauce rather bland”), and with their own credentials (e.g., “didn’t start disliking Zachary’s until I returned from an Illinois trip … doesn’t come close to Giordanos or the even better Art of Pizza in Chicago”).  That Zach’s pizza is hugely popular among a discerning Bay Area clientele, and yet gets such poor treatment on chowhound, suggests a striving among these reviewers to out-foodie each other.  On a somewhat related note, I’m often relieved I know nothing about wine, because I’d hate to see myself getting into one of those logorrheic pissing contests you sometimes see when wine experts clash in the night.

Cultivate tastes that can’t be marketed.  If you’re afraid of being played for a sucker by luxury brands, slick marketing, veiled ads (i.e., magazine “articles”), and/or peer pressure, consider focusing on pleasures that are impervious to such manipulation.  For example, you can search for the perfect taqueria (which will have no advertising budget at all), try to learn how to mix for yourself the perfect martini (which, I have it on good authority, has as much to do with technique as with good ingredients), or tackle a culinary challenge (e.g., learn how to make your own pasta).  Such quests for the finer things take effort, as opposed to merely “buying” sophistication by trusting the authority of this or that brand, magazine, or celebrity endorsement.

Along these lines, would you like to know what soft drink is my very favorite?  I’ll tell you:  it’s that ice-cold can of Coke (or Pepsi, whatever) you get at a convenience store in the middle of a long bike ride, on a hot day fifty miles from home when your blood sugar is crashing.  Try that out and you’ll be the greatest snob of all:  the connoisseur of epic experience.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ghost-written Race Report - Central Coast Circuit Race

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language.


I got a strange offer from a bike club pal on Saturday: his leftover lunch in return for my ghost-writing his race report. You may have read a few of my own race reports in these pages (here and here and here, for example), but I’ve never written somebody else’s before. I love Mexican food and a literary challenge, so I accepted. Sean described the restaurant to me (I am always encouraging my teammates to dwell on food in their race reports), and later sent me his notes about the race, encouraging me to embellish freely. I turned his accounts into the following report. (It might seem irresponsible to cover an event I didn’t even attend, but I’ve been to enough bike races to know the truth about them, even if I have to guess at some “facts” and contrive others. Meanwhile, Sean’s notes—which comprise about a quarter of the report—gave me a solid nonfictional starting point.)

By the way, the response from the club was interesting. Sean e-mailed the report from his account, and a number of guys apparently didn’t grasp that I wrote it. The result was that it got a lot better response than anything I’ve sent out myself; two guys called it the “best race report of all time.” If I had my own marketing department, its leadership would have to be worried about the Albert brand.

Race Report - Central Coast Circuit Race

I [i.e., Sean - ed.] drove down w/ Ken in his Prius. I felt really good, doing that. Finally, a slight easement to my liberal guilt. Plus the dashboard, or more precisely the top surface of it that heads out toward the windshield, is really deep. I wanted to climb onto it and take a nap because I heard that Bernard Hinault often napped before time trials. But of course he’d have been going to races in some tiny Renault.

We stopped for breakfast at this tiny little shack. All they had was stinking black coffee, pre-packaged pastries, and the “house special” which they called “huevos al baño.” I didn’t realize until I was thinking about it later, my stomach roiling, that this translates “restroom eggs.” But Ken’s pastry looked even worse: it left a little ring of grease on that giant dashboard.

Mark drove the “magic bus” carrying Ryan, Tony, and Matt. At least, they call it the “magic bus.” The only thing that makes a bus “magic” is if it helps you pick up chicks, but those guys were already at the race when we arrived, and they weren’t attended by any chicks. Mark was racing an early race, prior to the other trio jumping into the M35+ 3/4.

Ken and I rode the M45+ 3/4. This was “the only decent and Christian thing to do,” according to some guy in the line at registration. I’m still trying to figure that one out. The field was 31 riders, of which 28 finished. One guy who dropped out had dropped his chain and just bagged it. Another guy dropped his habit. His habit of racing? No, a nun’s habit. He was naked underneath. This caused a crash, which is why the third guy dropped out. Later he said he broken his duodenum. I guess he’s of the Andy Schleck school (just like the guy who dropped his chain, come to think of it).

The circuit covers part of the old Ft. Ord course. One hour race, or 5 laps of the 4.3 mile loop. No free laps—believe me, I asked. It was upper 60s, sun like a big egg yolk, a yellow one, like from those queerly uniform eggs you get at Safeway that are $1.49 for 18 and they seem to always be Buy One Get One Free, which makes you wonder what new cost-cutting measures the hens were subjected to. There was a headwind in the Stairmaster section of the course (so named because you feel like you’re getting nowhere, which turns out to be true).

I led the race from the gun for the first mile, mostly because nobody wanted to come around me, no matter how slowly I rode. I think they were all afraid, because I was exuding Command Presence. It happens sometimes. I had to make some self-deprecating jokes before anybody would pull through. The only other time I led was coming through the start-finish area with one lap to go, having followed two other guys who made a meager break attempt a half-mile earlier. But actually by that point the whole field was upon us “like a gorilla on shit,” in Riccardo Riccò’s parlance. (Riccardo who? Exactly!)

There were only a few such break attempts during the race, and nothing really sustained or vicious. I should point out that there were some vicious attacks, but they were all verbal. One guy yelled, “Hold your line, Davis!” (Like us, the Davis team has bright orange jerseys.) I turned to him and said, “It’s EBVC, you stinky douchebag!” Only then did I realize there actually was a Davis guy wobbling all over the place. I called him something even worse, and he started crying. I almost felt bad but mostly I felt big. Not like big as in Godzilla, but important, you know?

But the pace was okay. I only really felt in trouble maybe once during the race, when someone was trying to get away on the series of nasty little rollers. I should have let the guy go, because he was obviously a wanker, wearing a sleeveless jersey with armwarmers (hello?) and then I thought, wait, why would they even let him race without sleeves? About this time I began to think I’d imagined him, and as soon as I thought this, he was gone—probably absorbed by the pack, but possibly by my subconscious.

But I was often hurting during the race. It’s a tough little course, the Reno of circuit races (as in “biggest little city in the world”) and as we all know, if the road goes up, Sean pretends to struggle but it’s all a big mind game (which some of you seem not to have yet figured out). After our races Ken berated me for telling Ryan that the course “wasn’t that hard, no real climbing, just a little stairstep on the backside.” At least, that’s the ostensible reason Ken had for berating me. Really I think he was just sore at me for saying his car was “cute, like a golf cart.” But that’s just how I roll. I call a spade a spade, to its face, and sometimes I call a club a spade.

Ken also covered one break attempt previous to mine, and said it really took a lot out of him, not just as an athlete, but as a human being. It was interesting to me that he found the front side of the course, and its long false flat, by far the most difficult part of the course, while for me there’s no question—it’s that stairstep on the back side that kills me every lap. Ken is what English majors like Dana would call an “unreliable narrator.” The more you heed his comments the further into the weeds you find yourself (or “farther,” as an English major would pompously interject).

So it came down to a field sprint. I knew that to finish well I needed to be very near the front when we made the second to last turn, into the longish, fast descent with one more turn before the 200m uphill sprint. Knowing and doing are two different things. Actually, they’re three different things. The knowing, the doing, and the separate act of knowing, which is like a spectator, standing aside (figuratively speaking) to measure the philosophical distance between knowing and doing. I guess I was doing too much of this third thing because before I know it everyone else was clogging up the downhill like un-flushable Maxi-pads in a swirling toilet, and it was absolute mayhem, with guys who tried to go too early dying and sitting up and stretching their backs and sighing as others behind tried to move up and past them, all at the same time. I hit the brakes more than a few times, and it was only in the final corner that I was able to get around to the outside and start a kind of semi-sprint, knowing that it was futile, that in fact life is futile and we’re all just hamsters on a wheel pretending we’re getting ahead when actually anything worth having in life was probably all used up before we were even born. Still, I moved up from about 20th to 13th at the finish simply by the fact that this was a criterium, and I am Davis Phinney, and no of course neither of these statements is true but I dare you to challenge me on them because you weren’t even there, you armchair director sportif.

Ken finished 19th. But at least he can live with himself.

For lunch we hit this little Oaxacan joint. (I’m talking about a restaurant, not a doobie.) We chose it because I thought “hit this little Oaxacan joint” had a ring to it. I caught Ken mouthing the words in the rearview mirror and before you smirk, go try this yourself. Elvis couldn’t look cooler (and not just because he’s dead). The restaurant, which is in Seaside, is called La Tortuga Torteria and they feature these entrees called huaraches, or at least they call them that, but really they’re more appropriately called “pupusas” but I wasn’t about to correct anybody. There were photos of the food on the wall, which is normally an indicator of a terrible restaurant, but I was feeling bold after keeping down the huevos al baño from earlier, and besides, they were black and white photos, which is kind of ingenious because as faded as they were at least the foods weren’t the wrong colors. The photos had to be from the ‘70s or earlier.

The waitress didn’t speak any English but somehow communicated that we could choose what kind of meat I wanted on my huarache. I said “pork” but there were like six variations, one which was cooked with either pineapple or urinals (as I said before, my Spanish is spotty) so when she got through describing the second one I said I’d take it, even though I hadn’t understood or even heard what she’d said. She was mumbling and blushing—I think she wanted me. Anyway, the portions were absolutely huge.

As you can tell perhaps only somewhat from the photo, a huarache is basically a stuffed, folded-over corn tortilla big enough to fit over a human head. It’s filled mainly with a layer of beans, and then all this other groovy stuff, like the meat, is piled on top, along with cactus. I asked for the spines on the side, which Ken hassled me for, like I’m some kind of wuss, though he didn’t even order the huarache. I don’t know what he got—just some big mess of stuff drenched in mole sauce with these giant raw onion slices on top, and boy am I glad he didn’t eat those raw onions because driving all the way back with the windows down would really hurt the gas mileage, even in a Prius. Anyway, the food was delicious. The corn tortilla was crispety and crunchety and chewity and coarse and dense, the cactus tangy without burning my lips off, and it all kind of came together in a very authentic way that made me desire, oddly enough, to stop at Chipotle on the way home and punch somebody in the face.

Well, it was so much food I couldn’t even finish it, so I dropped by that one guy’s house, the tall skinny guy on the club (I know, that doesn’t exactly narrow it down) and I said he could have the leftovers if he’d ghost-write this race report for me. He jumped at the opportunity—all he was doing was losing to his young children at Scrabble anyway. 

He divvied up the huarache three ways, finding it remarkable that it was so tough he had to move it to a cutting board and use a big serrated knife on that bad boy (maybe huarache is the right name after all), and then his wife appeared out of nowhere and he had to share his part with her. One daughter said, “The cactus is extremely disgusting. Slimy and bitter.” That judgment didn’t keep her from eating every morsel, and when her sister said, “I don’t like it” and bailed, she asked for her portion. Denied!  His wife praised the tortilla as being “very homemade-tasting.” Easy for her to say. She didn’t even race!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Miracle on Pinehurst Road

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language.


My wife rented “Glee,” the movie.  I’m writing this instead of watching it.  People have asked, “How do you have time to blog?”  The answer is, I don’t get to watch “Glee.”

This is a post about other sacrifices I make, but really it’s about the sacrifices all cyclists make, and it’s a little bit about why we make them.  I include the downside of the cycling lifestyle—the crummy rides you have.  And then, finally, I recount a breakthrough on a recent ride that felt like an apotheosis—a particularly surprising Big Ring Tale (or at least, it could have been, on different terrain—but I’m getting ahead of myself). 

The second kind of suffering

I have written at some length on this blog about the suffering cycling entails.  Hearing my daughter gripe recently about her violin practice helped me realize there’s another level of suffering in life:  drudgery.  Cycling gives you both kinds.  Leg-searing, lung-busting intense suffering is one thing; the tedium of all that day-in-day-out riding is another. 

Drudgery isn’t the same thing as boredom—it’s worse.  It’s the sheer repetition of something difficult.  Playing the violin, my daughter’s hands get tired.  Her neck gets tired.  But most of all her brain gets tired, and that’s a form of suffering.  Anybody who wants to achieve mastery of anything—whether it’s a sport, a craft, art, music, pretty much anything really difficult—must learn to tolerate tedium.  Endless repetition produces the incremental improvements in performance that matter to the diehard.  (And only to the diehard.  This sport is full of poseurs with their über-expensive bikes, who don’t realize that all the technology in the world won’t give them the gumption to actually ride.  As Bernard Hinault said,  “No kind of [technological] progress will ever overcome the loneliness of the long-distance rider.”)

Why would a non-professional cyclist—and especially a forty-something former racer—ever submit to such drudgery?  For those of us who used to race seriously, it’s a former habit that’s not so hard to pick back up.  (If I were starting now there’s no way I’d try to get here.)  The drudgery aspect mostly applies to our younger racing days.  Getting to a high level is what takes the day-after-day no-dinking-around commitment, and interval training (typically something a racer does one day a week) is the epitome of the drudgery Im talking about.  Along the way to this high level there is a lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie, and once the discipline has been gained, the difficulty of the sport is easier to take.  Besides, the veteran cyclist who no longer races so much can enjoy the payoffs without so many miles and without so much of the relentless effort. (And without the interval training.)

There are other benefits of this sport.  I won’t go into too much detail on them here (theyll one day get a post of their own), but suffice to say the big payoff for me is gradually getting to know my body better, even after 30 years, and gleaning more performance from this body as an alternative to letting it get old and fat.  These past three years I’ve derived an odd pleasure from training really hard during the six weeks leading up to the Everest Challenge, getting dropped by my pals on the brutal training rides all through August but then gradually finding my form and seeing it subtly insinuate itself just in time for the big event.  And the event itself is a huge payback:  I’m on the last pass of the first stage, in the baking heat, heading towards a 10,000 foot summit, and watching with astonishment as my legs crank along, practically by themselves, doing a far better job than I ever expected, and I look down at them and think, “Damn!  Look at ‘em go!”

My own private Strava

Many cyclists add excitement thru Strava.  Not me.  I have my own private Strava, which is my training diary.  I don’t log my routes via GPS—my ride repertoire isn’t that large anyway—but I log everything that matters:  duration, heart rate, power output, rate of vertical gain, my times on all my favorite climbs.  I put in copious comments.  I don’t compare myself to strangers online:  I compare myself to my younger self, and to a few pals. 

I don’t want to beat faceless strangers.  Throughout my decades of cycling my goal has always been to beat the guys who I know are better than me.  Some of you reading this know who you are:  the guys who routinely crush me but who, once in a great while, find yourselves unaccountably pwned!  I’ve never been a good time trialist, and Strava is a just great big time trial.  If I succeed at all in spontaneous, real-time throwdowns it’s through cunning or luck, and most often because I’ve been foolishly underestimated, perhaps left for dead.  If I’ve got any chance at all of beating you, it’s because of the complicated dynamics of the head-to-head situation, perhaps some tactics, some psychology, my ability to cheat the wind, or because you crossed me during early September, that brief window when I get some good form.  The all-time record wall on Strava?  I might as well be a swimmer (i.e., “strong like bull, smart like tractor”).

I like group rides, of course, but they’re harder to work in with my overall goal for cycling.  And what is that goal?  It’s not just to be faster, stronger, better, and the next best thing to younger.  It’s to fine-tune the balance of cycling as it intersects the rest of my life.  It’s like a crazy decathlon:  the cycling itself; having time for my wife and kids; having time to read; having time to write; keeping enough meat on my bones that I don’t disgust my wife; doing enough cycling to be good but not so much that I burn out.

The downside of cycling

For the cyclist who doesnt race regularly and can skip the interval training and not always be worrying about his form, the sport is less arduous than it is for the beginning racerbut that doesnt mean it’s easy.  The most difficult thing about this sport, at least for me, is that on many a day when you have every expectation of feeling good, you (or at least I) simply dont.  The Bad Day is the curse of the cyclist.  I mix up two big bottles of energy drink, pack some gels, caffeinate, hit the road with all kinds of big plans, and then discover fifteen minutes in that my legs are crap.  They won’t do what they’re supposed to.  They’re like somebody else’s legs, like they were swapped with a golfer’s in the middle of the night.  My heart rate won’t climb, because there’s so little work for my heart to do.  It sends one of its ventricles home.  “I’ll call you if things pick up.” 

This can happen any time.  There’s no warning.  As many years as I’ve spent trying to learn how this body works, I still never know when the weakness will strike.  The menu isn’t published in advance.  (“Today’s special?  El crotcho grande!”)  The unpredictability is so frustrating.  It makes me superstitious.  I’ll be picking out my socks, wondering which ones I wore on that Diablo ride when I felt so good.  I’m reminded of a quote from “Drugstore Cowboy,” about how the junkie takes drugs to escape the unpredictability of the human experience:  “Most people don't know how theyre gonna feel from one moment to the next.  But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea.  All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles....”  (Combine this notion with David Millar’s statement about EPO—“It’s like having the best day you’ve ever had as an athlete – every day”—and you can start to imagine how those amoral doping cyclists might have started down their cowardly path.)

So when—surprise!—I feel lousy on the bike, I get demoralized, and I’m tempted to head home, and sometimes I actually do.  But usually I think, damn, I carved out time for this, and I need this training, and of course I can’t feel great for every ride, so I should just do it.  So I plod miserably on.  And because I keep such close tabs on my performance, the slow days threaten to drag me into depression and I flirt with self-loathing.  I combat these impulses through a philosophical perspective that I sometimes struggle to maintain.

Then there’s this damaged leg.  Soft-tissue & nerve damage from my broken femur still dogs me.  On a good day, when I’ve got adrenaline and endorphins and I’m riding well—when I’m blessed with what so many pro cyclists quoted on cyclingnews call “positive sensations”—I gush internally with gratitude that I can still do this sport, and that I can do it well enough that it’s not just physical therapy.  It’s easy to be grateful then.  But on a bad day, all I can think of is how deep a hole I’ve been working, for six months, to climb out of.  It’s hard to be grateful then.  It’s hard to be patient.  Friends and family say, “Give yourself some credit—you broke your fricking femur!  You’re doing great for a guy who’s had that serious an injury!”  But I don’t want that “for a guy” trailer—that note, that asterisk.  It’s too much like when I was a kid trying to keep up with my brothers on the bike and would be told, “You’re doing great for your age!”  Right or wrong, I figured if I was only ever good for my age, I’ll never get to be anything but a little brother.  Likewise, I’m tired of being a recovering cripple.  I want to be whole.

Case in point

Sunday was one of those bad days on the bike.  I faked myself out for awhile—under four minutes to Monterey and The Alameda, under six minutes to the Arlington Circle, just over eight minutes to Los Angeles and Spruce—but by Wildcat Canyon Road I knew the legs didn’t have it.  Crap.  On a glorious sunny day I might have retained my spirits, but it was early, and cool, and foggy, and my leg warmers were sagging, and though I hope one day to break eight minutes on South Park again (I used to do this routinely), I clocked a pathetic 10:16.  I rode to the edge of the road, dismounted, and pulled my leg warmers up practically to my groin, just to make them not sag anymore, rolled my shorts back down over them, and with a sigh remounted and continued my ride.  At least I could get some miles.

From there to the intersection of Canyon Road and Pinehurst Road, a distance of 14.6 miles, my heart rate averaged just 116.  If I were a Strava guy you could look online and see that my maximum heart rate for this section was only 144, my peak power a paltry 252 watts.  What Strava couldn’t tell you is what happened on the little climb, South Pinehurst, along the way.  I was poking along like a sleepy beetle when a guy overtook me.  He had pretty good form, was wearing some local club kit, and gave me a little nod as he came by. 

I’m not the kind of ego maniac who automatically gets ticked when somebody passes him—I can take it.  Countless times over the decades I’ve been bested like this, with no ill will toward my chance rival.  This guy wasn’t going that fast, though.  There was a lot I’d have liked to tell him.  Such as, I’m in a 39 x 22 right now but when I came over this hill one day last fall I was in my 53 x 20.  I’d also like to tell him that my latest physical therapy breakthrough, achieved just yesterday, was being able to stand up from the toilet without bracing my hand on the seat.  Or that my current goal is to be able to put on my socks and shoes without sitting on the floor like a toddler.  Or that, my slow healing notwithstanding, just a couple days ago I’d have been taking this hill twice this fast and he’d never have caught me.

Still, I was tranquillo about this tiny defeat.  Philosophical.  Mellow.  This just wasn’t my day.  Still, I was hoping I’d start to feel better—stranger things have happened—and when I came off the short descent before Pinehurst Road hits Canyon Road, and I made a left and began the 2.8-mile, shallow (2%) grade before the Pinehurst climb proper begins, I decided to try harder.  I’d wring whatever I could out of my deflated legs and see if I couldn’t manage some intensity on the climb.  I’d only ridden Pinehurst once since my crash, about a month before, and it had taken me about nine minutes; maybe I could beat that today.

(The run-up to the main climb is the long straight section of Pinehurst, before the twisty, highlighted section of this map.)


As if Fate read my mind and decided to mock me, another cyclist passed me.  This time it was harder to take.  For one thing, he didn’t say hi or anything.  In case you don’t know it, silence in this circumstance makes a statement.  It means either “I consider you one of the little people, not worthy of acknowledging” or “I consider you a rival.”  So right away I was not predisposed to approve of this guy.  And then there was the matter of his cadence:  he was spinning pretty fast, like he’d been watching old Lance Armstrong videos or something, or was some kind of “Prevention” magazine type who thinks cycling is like yoga or Pilates instead of a manly sport where you push a big gear because it’s the next best thing to eating red meat.  To top it off, his jacket was starting to fall out of his jersey pocket, one sleeve hanging lower than the other.  In my grumpy state I found this as offensive as if his balls were hanging out of his shorts.

For awhile I watched him gradually ride away.  I tried to ignore the silent insult.  I tried to let this be an exercise in humility.  But there’s such a thing as too much humility; just because I’d been passed and dropped by one wanker didn’t mean my soul could handle getting passed and dropped by any wanker who came along.  Meanwhile, I couldn’t bear to disgrace my bike club by getting tooled by this guy while flying the team colors.  So I tried to dig in and see if I could keep the gap down, and just maybe have a crack at this guy later.  The alternative was to have to resist feeling sorry for myself—and I wanted to feel sorry for him!

To my pleasant surprise, my legs started to wake up, and as my heart rate climbed into the 130s and—imagine!—the 140s, the gap to the guy held and actually started to slightly decrease.  He wasn’t smooth enough to keep from bobbing:  a “tell” that showed me he was actually working fairly hard.  There are some little rollers before the main climb, and on the last one the guy got out of the saddle and seemed to struggle a bit, and I saw his gap start to suddenly erode.  What a joke!  Suddenly I was outraged.  Who was this weakling to have passed me in the first place?

Before I knew what I was doing I’d accelerated and cut the gap in half.  Did you know a hippo can run at 20 mph?  My legs ... where had they been all my life?  Doesn’t matter—they’d finally shown up to work.  The guy glanced back and picked up his pace.  Now he was running scared.  We hit the switchback that signals the start of the real climb.  I started my stopwatch.

I was narrowing in, but not as abruptly now.  I couldn’t know how much this guy had been holding back.  I was careful to be patient:  if I passed him too soon, he’d have the whole climb to sit on and bide his time before launching an attack.  Better to hold out until the climb has really drained him, and do something dramatic toward the top where the grade is steeper and can work its own magic on his untested psyche.  Yes, untested:  that’s what this was really about.  I raced a damn bike for years and years.  I paid my dues.  I did countless brutal training rides, I put myself through the wringer in race after race, I trained when I was tired or bored and didn’t want to train.  No half-cocked wannabe deserves to get the better of me, even on my worst day.

I ended up catching up to him before I even wanted to, about a third of the way up.  I decided not to get on his wheel—that would be showing him too much respect.  As I came by, I glanced over and discovered that, like me, he was riding an Orbea.  I scoffed at this because he wasn’t sticking to the script.  The script had him on one of those immensely popular, vulgar bikes whose brands I won’t specify, because I’d hate to insult any of my albertnet readers, and besides, these companies are solid sponsors of pro cycling.  For this guy to be on an Orbea seemed (in my distorted state of mind) an affront to the brand.  I spontaneously decided to shift into a higher gear, and did so under full pedaling pressure:  a nice loud gear change, a little fuck-you to the guy as I dropped him.  (It must be said that though my neocortex cleans up pretty well and manages civilized social interactions, my lizard brain can be a real dick.)

Though I accelerated at this point, I didn’t get out of the saddle.  I didn’t want to be obviously on the attack.  I wanted to Cancellara the guy.  (I’m coining a term here; think of Cancellara dropping Boonen in the 2010 Tour of Flanders without even standing on the pedals.)  I kept on hammering even after I was sure I had the guy.  I approached the really sharp hairpin (about the 2/3 point) and took it wide—I was going fast enough to clip a pedal.  I could have looked down across the switchback to see where he was, but figured it was better not to know the gap, in case it was huge:  for now I was no longer focused on beating this guy.  I was thinking about my time for the climb, and the prospect of beating eight minutes (something I always try to do on Pinehurst but rarely actually achieve).  The phantom behind me was like a whip cracking on my back.

I got toward the top and was underwater, just dying, suffering absolutely terribly.  This was the most intense effort I’d made since the 2010 Mount San Bruno hill climb.  It was the kind of agony that reminds me why I’ve (mostly) quit racing.  The only way to assuage the pain would be to ease up a bit, but of course that would just prolong the misery.  So I dug deep and dug deeper and went crosseyed and on the final pitch tried to accelerate one more time because I was coming up on ... could it be?  A sub-seven-minute ride? 

Almost.  A 7:02.  Certainly my fastest in years ... and yet I’d felt so crappy all day!  As much as I hone my ability, as many miles as I log, as much training data as I pore through, I think I’ll never understand this body.  I guess that helps to keep things interesting.


Of course I couldn’t let up just because the climb was over.  I wanted to make sure that my rival never managed to catch up to me.  I wanted him to never see me again, and to feel utterly schooled.  I wanted him to pedal home in shame, tail between his legs, spinning that useless ineffectual low gear, and then have a good cry, maybe talk things over with a close friend, and then go get a manicure.

The rest of my ride was decent, and when I got home I sifted through my old training diaries to see how long it had been since I’d ridden Pinehurst that fast.  Last year I’d only managed an 8:16.  In 2010 my best was a 7:14.  In 2009, a 7:52.  In 2008, pretty close:  a 7:05.  But I hadn’t actually beaten this time since March 16, 2007 ... over five years ago.  Here is my training diary entry for that day:

I duked  it out with this guy on Pinehurst.  He came by me toward the top after sitting on my wheel, and he was going for it, going a good bit faster.  I’d just decided I was whupped, and was planning to limp over the top in my lowest gear.  After all, I had been feeling tired before the climb even started, and it had taken me miles to catch him.  So I was in the process of pussing out when I noticed that this guy had one of those stems that raise the bars up a bit higher than bars really ought to be, like the guy was looking out for his back or something.  He was an older guy, and I can’t fault him for reading “Prevention” magazine and getting plenty of lycopene for his prostate and such, but that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate his beating me.  So I determined, in a flash calculation, that since he wasn’t in his lowest gear, there was no way to beat him without shifting up, even though I seemed to lack the strength to push a big gear up that top part.  But what did I have to lose?  If I didn’t try, I was surely whupped.  So I senselessly shifted into like fourth and really lit it up.  It was a rush, suddenly accelerating like that.  Totally irresponsible, like writing a $5,000 check and just hoping that it’ll magically go through or something.  Man, the pain was excruciating, but since I was quickly catching him there was no way my body was going to abandon the effort.  And then, a flash of insight:  if I shifted up again, just as I passed him, I might crush his spirit, which couldn’t hurt my chances of besting him.  So this I did.  Man, I died a thousand deaths and thought I might burst my lungs, or blow my lips off by breathing so hard, but it worked.  I schooled that guy!  He probably started crying or something!  I didn’t stick around to watch, though.  I hit the top, stopped my stopwatch (6:50, a new record for the year for Pinehurst, by a significant 12 seconds), and kept hammering because I didn’t want the guy to try again.  It would be like escalating an arms race.  So I kept hammering for the next several miles and never saw him again.  Really, really fun.

Of course it had been fun.  I’d actually felt good that day!