Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is Team Sky Good For Cycling?


I missed much of the Tour de France this year because I was on a long camping trip.  My pals tell me it was a boring Tour anyway because Team Sky was too dominant.  I’m not sure this is fair, but even before the Tour I had some misgivings of my own about Sky.  Yet, as an Anglophile, I’m torn.  So, in the interest of stirring up some lively debate, I’ll examine the question:  is Team Sky good for cycling?

I won’t just focus on the Tour de France, and I won’t just focus on the quality of racing this team serves up.  Of great importance to a sport are a team’s overall aesthetic, its sporting panache, and its place in the international cycling scene.  Other considerations—is the team run well, does it pay its riders on time, is it a leader in the anti-doping effort (which is basically impossible to really evaluate)—are arguably less important to the spectator.  (If you disagree, great:  post a comment below.  As I said, debate is the whole point here.)


What is sport?  It’s entertainment.  For most of its audience, it’s video entertainment.  And since cycling isn’t exactly “My Dinner with Andre” or “Tristam Shandy:  A Cock and Bull Story,” the sport is as much a visual spectacle as an intellectual flight of fancy.  This means it has to look good.  With the look of the sport already seriously compromised by the awful time trial helmets (look at this one, it looks like a damn golf ball), every team has a responsibility to help the sport aesthetically as much as possible.  This is especially important for a high-profile team like Sky with its Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins.

How does Team Sky do aesthetically?  Not well, in my opinion.  For one thing, I have a big problem with their jerseys.  The sleeves come down way too far—farther than any cycling jerseys ever made, practically to the elbow.  Look at this.  The long vertical stripes on the sleeves just accentuate the effect.  No other team has sleeves like this, which strongly suggests Team Sky is making a statement.  And that statement is:  we want to look like idiots.

Also, their jerseys, and the sleeves in particular, are too tight.  I was chatting with a friend about this and he complained, “Their jerseys look like they’re trying to be like skinsuits, which fit like condoms.  Since I never liked wearing either of them, I don’t care for the look.”  I agree.

On top of this, Team Sky alone has decided to put riders’ names on their jerseys.  I find this a bit twee.  Plus, it seems like a pretty expensive gesture to make, like the team is showing off how loaded it is.   (I guess putting names on jerseys might be a way to help certain ageing British commentators who sometimes struggle with riders’ names, in which case maybe it’s okay.)

One more aesthetic issue:  it has become popular for the Tour de France leader to wear yellow shorts and/or ride a yellow bike.  Again, this is conspicuous consumption and completely overboard aesthetically, like a college football team having gold-plated equipment in its weight room.  Cycling is supposed to be gritty, not posh!  (When I raced the Red Zinger Mini Classic in the ‘80s, there was literally a leader’s jersey.  As in, one jersey.  If the leader lost the jersey, he literally gave it up—he took it off and handed it over, and the new race leader wore it the next day, presumably after washing it.  Maybe that was a bit extreme, but I think the sport has gone too far in the other direction.) 

Now, the yellow shorts/yellow bike trend isn’t all Team Sky’s fault, but the BMC team did a nice reversal last year, with race winner Cadel Evans in regular shorts on a regular bike on the Champs Élysées.  Sky had a chance to give this return-to-basics move some momentum, but instead went back to the full yellow silliness (look here and here).

A final note on aesthetics:  if you really don’t think they’re important, consider the case of my wife.  Despite having been married to a cyclist for eighteen years, or perhaps because of it, she has little interesting in bike racing, and the only pro racer she has ever shown the remotest interest in is Edvald Boasson Hagen, because she met him at the 2008 Tour of California and thought he was cute.  (Note to Team Sky management:  keep this guy away from my wife or there’ll be hell to pay.)

Verdict:  fail, other than having the (apparently) good-looking Boasson Hagen among their ranks.

Sporting panache

What do I mean by panache?  The flair, the chutzpah, the willingness to take risks to make the race a greater spectacle.  It’s more or less the opposite of racing conservatively.  If enough riders show enough panache, the race is really exciting.

This year’s Tour de France was indeed boring if your main interest, like mine, is the general classification.  I was already bored after two Sky riders, Wiggins and Christopher Froome, went one-two in the first time trial.  But was it Sky’s fault the Tour was boring?  Not necessarily.  Cadel Evans knew he couldn’t count on the time trials to secure victory, like he did last year over Andy Schleck, so he knew he had to attack Wiggins in the mountains.  This could have been really exciting—except Evans just wasn’t riding well, and nobody else could challenge Wiggins and Froome, either.  It’s not the Sky team’s job to make sure their competition is up to snuff.

A case could be made that BMC is partly responsible for the lack of a proper GC battle.  If they’d recognized sooner that Tejay Van Garderen was their best rider this year, they could have reversed roles and had Evans work for him to put Wiggins and Sky under pressure.  Granted, this would have been really risky, since this was only Van Garderen’s second Tour de France and he didn’t do so well last year—but then isn’t risky, unorthodox strategy the essence of panache?

However, the GC isn’t everything.  There’s the matter of stage wins, and here Team Sky delivered.  Mark Cavendish had three victories, including the final stage on the Champs Élysées; Wiggins won both time trials; Froome took out a mountain stage.  Not bad:  six stages, three stage winners.  (Compare that to US Postal’s first Tour, when they had only four stage wins and just one stage winner.)

At the end of 2011, Team Sky brought Mark Cavendish into the fold.  His being British makes him seem like an obvious fit, but considering the team’s main goal—to win this year’s Tour de France—it wasn’t such an easy call.  Cavendish is accustomed to having (and certainly deserves) a full lead-out train for the sprint finishes, and surely wasn’t exactly aching to surrender his stage win goals to the support of Wiggins.  The effect?  Greater excitement!  Let’s face it, over the past several years Cavendish was having a bit too much success.  (“Who won?”  /  “Cav again.”  /  “Yawn.”)  Now, with no lead-out train, Cavendish had to fend for himself a couple of times, and his victories were glorious.

Adding to the panache of Cavendish’s stage wins was the fact that, twice, Wiggins himself—while wearing the yellow jersey—helped Cavendish win a stage.  This was most dramatic on the all-important final stage on the Champs- Élysées.  When I saw Wiggins leading it out—right there on the front, working his ass off instead of coasting along sipping champagne like so many GC winners before him—I couldn’t believe it.  In fact, for a second a wrote it off as a silly publicity stunt, kind of a precious little token move, before remembering that all the sprinters—and their teams—of course wanted this win very badly and have a strict “no gifts” policy.  Wiggins was there because he was really fast enough to do it, having been a champion on the track in his past life.

Really cool stuff, especially given how shameful it would be if Cavendish managed to lose after such an audacious display from his famous teammate.  Instead, it was Cavendish’s best sprint of the Tour—he took off from way out and held everybody off.  Balls like King Kong!

That’s the good news.  On a less positive note we have stage 17, where it looked like Wiggins and Froome were going to overhaul Alejandro Valverde just before the line, just like they stunned Evans on stage 7.  The two were bearing down on Valverde with about a kilometer to go, the rest of the peloton scattered behind them, but Wiggins couldn’t handle Froome’s pace, so Froome held back.  In fact, some say Froome made kind of a show of hanging back.  I reviewed the video.  Froome looked over one shoulder, then the other, one hand off the bars.  Then a third look back.

I was on the fence over whether Froome’s looks back were legit or drama-queen stuff, until this past weekend when I rode Mount Diablo with a few pals.  One of them paced me for the last four miles, keeping me right at my redline the whole way.  He didn’t need to look back.  He knew exactly how hard I was going and how much more I could take.  If my humble friend can do that, why should a top pro racer need to keep craning his neck?

I bring this up because Wiggins totally should have let Froome take off, pass Valverde, and get the stage win.  But of course in modern cycling it isn’t really the race leader’s choice.  I’m sure Wiggins and Froome took direction from Sky team management in the car.  Wiggins was already almost three minutes ahead of Vincenzo Nibali in the GC; had dropped him on the climb; had taken over two minutes out of him in the previous time trial; and had one more time trial left through which to cement his lead.  There was very little risk in letting Froome go on ahead—I mean, how much could go wrong in the last kilometer, when Wiggins was already outclimbing Nibali?  But any risk was evidently too much for Team Sky, and they did the conservative, boring thing.  This sucked all the flair out of what could have been a brilliant stage.

Verdict:  pass, but not perfect.

International flavor

I guess I should say “flavour” in this case, since this is Team Sky we’re talking about.  That cycling is such a truly international sport is one of my favorite things about it.  I just can’t get that excited about sports like American football and baseball that are generally played within the confines of this country.  (Eddie Izzard quips, to an American audience, “This is football I’m talking about here, which you call ‘bananas,’ but you’re reluctant to play it.  But you play baseball, the World Series, and you’ve won every year—America’s won every year in that.  Well done, America, that’s great!”)

In the case of England, this year’s Tour victory is of course a monumental achievement.  Great Britain has never before put a rider on the Tour de France podium, much less won the race.  For a British racer on a British team to win is icing on the cake.  (Team Sky didn’t win the teams classification of this year’s Tour, but I’ll bet that’s how most people will remember it.)

So did Team Sky give this Tour a distinctly British flavour?  Did they persevere against seemingly insurmountable odds, keeping calm and carrying on, always keeping a stiff upper lip?  If Winston Churchill were alive today, what would he say was Britain’s finest hour during this year’s Tour? 

For my money, that moment belonged not to Team Sky at all, but to David Millar of the Garmin-Sharp team when he won a thrilling two-up sprint to win stage twelve.  It’s his first Tour stage victory since 2003, and he’s not getting any younger, and there was certainly nothing inevitable about him prevailing at the end.  Interviewed afterward, he showcased the famous self-deprecating British humor that we never really saw from the Team Sky riders:  prompted to comment on what a great Tour this was for the Brits, Millar replied, “I’m kind of like the, the crap one, really.  So I’m glad I was able to win and be up there and be put in the same bracket as Cav, Wiggo, and Froome….”

Seeing the video of Millar lying on the ground after his sprint, his chest heaving so hard it looked like he might damage his rib cage, I reflected on how easy the Team Sky riders made their successes look.  And there was something almost arrogant about Wiggins’ interview just before the Tour started.  “We’ve looked at a couple of the Tour stages…  Funnily enough, my son wanted a magazine on the flight over here and he decided to buy the official Tour Guide so I had a look at some of the stages in there. It was the first time that I’d seen them all back-to-back.”

Instead of “hanging on in quiet desperation,” Sky showed a dominance in the GC battle that seemed almost casual, even scripted.  If somebody made a highlights video of the stage 17 finale (Froome waiting for Wiggins) and set it to music, he might choose Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”  It’s as though Froome makes enough money supporting Wiggins, he doesn’t need a lot of glory.  I’d much rather see the inner conflict Greg LeMond had in the ’85 Tour supporting Hinault.  Maybe this is a benefit of a team having its stars hail from different countries, just to erode that solidarity a bit.  If Team Sky wasn’t such a stolid, tightly run entity perhaps we’d have had more personal initiative, thus more real drama, and the stage 17 documentary music could be something appropriately British like Pink Floyd’s “Don’t Leave Me Now.”

On a positive note, I think there was solid British flair in Froome’s interview after he won stage 7:  “I’m speechless.  That was a dream come true.  I never thought of winning a stage here.  I’m chuffed to bits.”

A final comment.  Team Sky did not send a team to the US Pro Challenge last year, aren’t sending one this year, and didn’t ride this year’s Tour of California either.  Perhaps that’s a British thing.  Maybe they’re still bitter over the solid drubbing the U.S. gave England in our Revolutionary War and again in the War of 1812.    Seems like they should be over this by now; after all, we forgave them for all those years of taxation without representation.  (If you think I’m just baiting my British audience here, you’re absolutely right.  I got a kick out of a couple of the comments posted about my British Faucet Conundrum post.)

Verdict:  pass, but I’m not exactly chuffed to bits.


Perhaps it’s too early to tell what effect, if any, Team Sky will have on cycling.  It will probably depend somewhat on how they do next year, and how well the other teams counter Sky’s success.  Let’s just hope Sky isn’t the next US Postal team.  You can call me an “enemy of freedom” if you want, but I got good and sick of that team after awhile.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Deliverance and Cycling Tioga Pass


During my recent camping vacation with my family I tried to get some bike rides in.  You may have read about my Ebbetts Pass ride.  I did one other memorable ride during the trip—memorable more for my difficulties than anything else.  My goal was to head south on Highway 395 toward Lee Vining, where I’d turn west on Highway 120 (aka Great Sierra Wagon Road), which goes over Tioga Pass and into Yosemite National Park.  In addition to the pass itself, I faced several challenges:  the Nabokovian dilemma; shortage of time; shortage of water; fear; even a missing receipt.

Nabokovian dilemma

I guess “Nabokovian dilemma” isn’t a household phrase … yet.  (Quick, send everybody you know the link to this post!)  I’m referring to a memorable passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, when he describes his boyhood mania for butterfly hunting: 
oooOne of [the characteristics of butterfly hunting] was the acute desire to be alone, since any companion, no matter how quiet, interfered with the concentrated enjoyment of my mania….  In this connection, I remember the visit of a schoolmate, a boy of whom I was very fond and with whom I had excellent  fun.  He arrived one summer night ... from a town some twenty five miles away.  His father had recently perished in an accident, the family was ruined and the stouthearted lad, not being able to afford the price of a railway ticket, had bicycled all those miles to spend a few days with me.
ooo On the morning following his arrival, I did everything I could to get out of the house for my morning hike without his knowing where I had gone....  Once in the forest, I was safe; but still I walked on, my calves quaking, my eyes full of scalding tears, the whole of me twitching with shame and self  disgust, as I visualized my poor friend, with his long pale face and black tie, moping in the hot garden   patting the panting dogs for want of something better to do, and trying hard to justify my absence to himself.
The dilemma here is simply the desire to be two places at once, in my case due to conflicting impulses to a) pursue my individual cycling mania and yet b) be with my family.  Like the young Nabokov, I sought to sneak out early.  I hoped to get in a couple hours of riding and then arrive back just in time to make pancakes on the camp stove—but I was pretty sure this wasn’t actually possible.

Normally, this conflict would barely have registered, but the campground we were at was, though very pretty, also kind of spooky.  When cruising around choosing a site we couldn’t help but notice how many of them resembled a shantytown or homeless encampment, or even an Occupy site (Occupy Eastern Sierras?).  Sagging, faded lawn chairs; ad hoc canopies; larger furniture; I could swear I even saw a car or two up on blocks (though surely this is the embroidery of memory).  One empty site was completely covered in broken glass.  Our kids were oblivious, only noting the wonderful little forest of aspen trees.  I came to realize how much I rely on nice cars, spiffy tents, and other newish REI-style gear to signify recreational campers like me as opposed to downtrodden folks who got nowheres to go.  I wasn’t sure how enthusiastic my wife would be to be abandoned in this place at dawn.  (It was obvious she shared my misgivings:  during our reconnaissance, she hummed the dueling banjo theme from “Deliverance.”)

Meanwhile, there was a fellow camper who had given us pause.  Erin first encountered him while depositing our payment in the unmanned registration box.  He wore a t-shirt that said, “If it weren’t for flashbacks I’d have no memory at all.”  He had a mean-looking dog on a leash with a choker collar.  Erin, though friendly to the guy, nonetheless cut to the chase:  “Can you assure me your pit bull won’t attack my kids?”  He denied only that the dog was a pit bull.  Later he came by our campsite and was friendly enough, describing to me in great detail a bike ride I might try the next morning.  He looked pretty much like a cyclist, but he also twitched and trembled, which made me wonder if the build of a meth addict might be fairly similar to a cyclist’s.  True, he had cycling sunglasses, sort of, but they were gas station Oakley knockoffs.  What if his suggestion of a morning ride was just a way to get me out of his hair while he robbed my family?  Of course you’re shaking your head at my paranoia, and rightly so, but I’m just not used to strangers in “flashback” t-shirts being so friendly.

Probably I’d have ignored all of this entirely had it not been for my ill-fated attempt that night to find water.  The campground map showed various locations of (albeit non-potable) water spigots.  At least we could use this to wash up and do our dishes; we didn’t have much drinking water.  I wandered all over the campground and couldn’t find a single spigot.  A pickup truck coming the other way passed me really slow and the front passenger asked what I was up to.  I explained I was looking for water.  He flashed a gap-toothed grin.  “Just keep going thataway,” he chuckled.  “You’ll find water.”

So I kept going and found myself in the campsite at the end of the line.  There was a kid of maybe sixteen sitting by the campfire.  I asked about a water spigot and he looked completely bewildered, even frightened.  “What?” he said, his voice shaky.  Suddenly two adults appeared, looking alarmed, as though I’d been harassing the boy.  At this moment I realized the kid looked exactly like Blaster, the huge scary gladiator guy from “Max Max:  Beyond Thunderdome” who, once deprived of his knight’s helmet, looks baby-faced and vulnerable.  I repeated my simple question to the grown-ups, one of whom engaged me in conversation while escorting me away from his campsite. 

He was gaunt and ponytailed and looked like a classic rock guy from the ‘70s who’s been ridden hard and put away wet one too many times.  “What site you campin’ at?” he asked casually.  Unwilling to divulge this I said, “Oh, down that way a piece.”  (My subconscious slippage into his vernacular almost had me saying, “Down thur a right fur piece.”)  He acted as though the notion of a spigot at this campground was completely absurd, but gave me elaborate instructions on finding the creek.  (Duh.)  I was afraid I’d have to take some false turns rather than lead him to my site, but eventually he stopped walking with me and headed back where he came from.  Dang.

One other thing.  According to the flashback guy, this campground had a resident bear.  This bear was normally unaggressive, but Yosemite-area bears are known to rip cars open like sardine tins to get at the food inside.  Flashback said that this particular bear could recognize a cooler.  Most of the sites had bear boxes but ours didn’t; I wasn’t about to ask a neighbor to share.  So I had to cover up our cooler in the back of the car and make sure we didn’t bring any toothpaste or deodorant into the tent.

Suffice to say, part of me thought it best to keep an all-night vigil with a large Maglite across my lap.  But the other part wanted that morning bike ride, so I went right to bed.

Shortage of time

I woke up somewhat early, but not as early as I’d hoped.  When I’m camping it takes awhile to find all my stuff, unlock my bike, etc., especially when I’m trying to be completely silent.  Plus, there was the matter of the pre-ride, uh, lightening ritual.  The outhouse was really far from our campsite.  I brought my own toilet paper, and good thing:  the outhouse had none.  Given the little aspen forest we were in, I might just as well have gone there.  As it was this outhouse offered nothing except a platform to sit on and a little privacy.  Oh, and of course graffiti to look at in lieu of a magazine.

But then, this was a special campground with special restroom graffiti:

And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about ;
Noli me tangere; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

What? you’re asking.  Are you kidding?  Of course I am.  Just making sure you’re awake.  But those lines, from Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, did cross my mind for some reason.  Maybe it was the No-Doz.   Needless to say, most of the graffiti was totally unoriginal, like the old “Here I sit all broken-hearted” ditty (too vulgar for this family blog, but I could paraphrase it:  “Here I set, growing petulant, tried to defecate but was only flatulent”).  But then I came across this:

Yo momma is a myth
Atlantis is a myth
So yo momma is Atlantis

You may have guessed that I got out my pocketknife and carved below it, “This argument is not sound, because its first premise is obviously false.  Also, this argument is not valid because it commits the logical fallacy of ‘the undistributed middle.’”  But you would have guessed wrong:  I never, ever indulge in graffiti.  Besides, I couldn’t remember, that early in the morning, the name of the logical fallacy.  I could recall the logical structure the argument was surely trying to resemble—modus ponendo ponens—but what was it called when the mechanism was erroneously reversed?  Before I caught myself, I wasted a good many precious minutes pondering this matter (and related questions like “What kind of idiot thinks that’s worth carving on an outhouse wall?”).  Curses!

Shortage of water

It had been my idea to only buy only one 2.5-gallon bottle of drinking water the night before.  I’m just cheap, especially when it comes to bottled water, which always tastes uncannily like the tap water of the region (except in the Bay Area, where tap water tastes better than bottled).  In my defense, I had reasonably trusted the campground map showing water spigots.  Now, preparing for my ride, I had to decide how much water to deprive my family of.  I eventually set out with only one bottle.

No problem—I could just refill at the Mobil station at Lee Vining, where 395 meets 120, right?  Well, this gas station—perhaps because it has remarkably good food—tends to have a line at the cashier.  And a lot of motorists go through there.  What would I do if my bike got ripped off?  Walk ten miles back to the campground?  You must think I’m the most paranoid guy in the universe, but consider that along the roads near my home, there have been several recent cases of bike theft and even of cyclists getting mugged.

Plus, my bottle was just water, not energy drink, so I was relying on gels for sustenance.  Ever eat a gel without washing it down?  Didn’t think so.  It’d be easier to eat a sleeve of Saltines without water.  Of course I didn’t start pondering this until I was well underway, riding hard over an unknown distance toward Tioga Pass, a climb I’d only ever gone over in a car.  I had no idea what this ride would be like and how long it would take.


One problem with riding a road for the first time is worrying about traffic.  I had seen a pretty good shoulder on Highway 120 on the drive over on the previous day, but it only takes a short section of shoulder-less road to create a hazard.  Plus, I’d seen lots of these Cruise America rental RVs on this road.  The very idea of Rental RVs strikes me as dangerous, like discount sushi or amateur dentistry.  I recently watched a guy in a brand-new RV spend about 90 minutes backing it into his campsite.  He looked really stressed, as did his wife, standing behind it guiding him in.  She saw me looking, and to ease the embarrassment I said, “That’s a really great-looking RV.”  She replied, “Stick around … we may be selling it soon.”  Now, pedaling my way up the pass, I could just imagine a similarly hapless RV newcomer with no sense of the size of his camper whacking me without even realizing it.

If you’ve ever considered riding over Tioga Pass, I can tell you it’s just fine climbing it from the east.  There’s a generous shoulder the whole way up.  Heading the other direction (downhill towards 395), there are sections of the road where guardrails cut into the shoulder, but these are short; plus, you’re going pretty fast, so the likelihood of being passed at all is pretty low.  Even during the climb, very few vehicles passed me.  They tended to come in clumps:  half a dozen fuming SUVs stuck behind a Cruise America RV.

Another problem was the weather.  Despite having grown up in Colorado, where afternoon thunderstorms are a given, I stupidly set out without a jacket and now the clouds above were purple-black.  The air had that strange electricity you so often get at high altitude.  What is it our brains detect?  A constant shifting in barometric pressure?  The whiff of distant lightning?  A sudden increase in humidity?  The peculiar foreign wind of a storm system?  I wouldn’t say the sky darkened because it had never actually gotten very light.  A cold wind bullied me.  Here is what Tioga Pass looks like with better weather (I didnt bring a camera on the ride; this photo and those following it I took a couple days later, during the drive home).

As I reached 8,000 and eventually 9,000 feet of elevation, all this became stronger.  I was hit with that delicious cool-rain-smell.  And of course I was suffering.  While my conscience continued to nag at me (“What might be happening to your family back at that eerie campground while you pursue your pleasure/suffering centers?”), I begin to bask in the sheer epic-ness of this ride.  I, a speck of under-fit cyclist, seemed about to be caught in a thunderstorm at 10,000 feet on a little highway in the wilderness.

Missing receipt

It costs $20 to drive to and/or through Yosemite in a car.  Your receipt gets you unlimited access to the park for seven days … if you have the receipt.  I couldn’t find it the morning of the ride and decided to plead my case using other receipts we’d gathered (a rather expensive lunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room, and a batch of groceries that included day-old discounted sushi, which was disgusting) that proved we’d been in the park.  All this just to get past the toll gate so I could finish the last bit of Tioga Pass and say I’d done it.  Worst case, I could pay another $10, though then I’d have nothing to buy food or water with.  And this was looking like about a fifty-mile ride.  Hmmm.

In the event, there was a long line of cars at the entrance gate and I didn’t feel like bothering with it, especially since all manner of social outcasts, possibly including a bear, were probably converging on my family at that very moment.  So I headed back down the east side of the pass. 

The descent was sublime.  My wife and kids had felt something between awe and outright fear when we’d driven down it, but I’ve been descending mountain passes since I was thirteen and can’t get enough of them.  Descending Tioga Pass is sweet.  Good road surface, very few cars (not a single one passed me on my descent), and world-class scenery.  I even outran the rain (which did finally come to pass, but later in the day). 

Epilogue:  Mono Lake

Just a few miles from the campground, at the point in the ride when I needed to eat my last gel but had no more water left, I saw the sign for the Mono Lake visitor’s center.  I headed over there.  Here’s what you need to know about Mono Lake: 
  • It’s pronounced “Moe No,” not “Ma No.”
  • This lake is the breeding ground for 90% of the seagulls in California, due to a vast number of tiny flies that feed on an even vaster amount of salt-loving algae.
  • Those crazy crystalline formations, called tufa towers, are not made of bird dung (which is what I told my kids), nor is “tufa” the Paiute Indian word for “tofu.”  The formations are made of calcium carbonate (i.e., limestone).
  • There’s a drinking fountain right outside the doors, perfect for a paranoid and parched cyclist.

When I got back to the campground, my family was just finishing up breakfast.  Nobody had bothered them, not even a bear, and they had plenty of water left.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Non-Death-Ride Non-Warmup

I found myself in the Lake Tahoe area just prior to this year’s Death Ride. That ride is so popular it’s hard to get in, and when dudes started scalping spots on craigslist I gave up on it. But this year, a couple days before it, since I was in the area I did a hard ride over Luther Pass (a former DR pass) and Ebbetts Pass, which is the granddaddy, en route to another campground. If everything went fine I wouldn’t have much to report.

My plan was to ride from South Lake Tahoe, where my family was camping, over the west side of Luther Pass, down the east side, through Markleeville, and over Ebbetts Pass and on to the campground some 25 miles farther on where we were meeting up with my wife’s friend and all her in-laws. The road to this place isn’t on Google Maps and my smartphone battery was dying, so I only had verbal directions. I love a point-to-point road ride—it’s the furthest thing from riding a trainer. You really feel like you’re getting somewhere.

Pre-ride meal was Red Hut in South Lake. Great place, where the cops go. Whenever I’ve gone this place has offered a special called The Usual which is eggs, real hash browns, and a biscuit and gravy. I love hash browns and despise home fries. I can kind of make home fries at home, and except for the ones at the dearly departed Spaghetti Western restaurant in the lower Haight, I’ve never had very good ones. It’s easy to screw up hash browns too but I admire a place that tries, and love a place (like Red Hut) that nails it. I got most of my wife’s hash browns but my kids successfully fought me off from their French toast and pancakes.

I almost doomed the ride before it even began by wearing the wrong shorts. The awful chamois of modern bike shorts is a topic I’ll have to tackle as its own post one day. Suffice to say the modern chamois is less like a little pad and more like crotch upholstery. Giant thick thing and they’re bigger every year. This year’s shorts have a chamois the size of a basketball. Paul Bunyan could use it. And where traditional chamois had a little terry-cloth section where your unit goes—we always called it “the penis patch”—these latest ones have full thick chamois all the way up practically to the navel so there’s no ventilation. It feels like you’re riding with a book shoved down the front of your shorts. I’d actually put them on before I remembered their cursedness. Had I ridden in those, this would be the story of a crotch done wrong and maybe of a mid-ride suicide.

My second choice of shorts were last year’s, with all the seams done in bright orange. It’s a really lame Spiderman kind of look, especially the bright seam running right up the front of the crotch, and my wife has said they’re downright lewd. My kids get embarrassed when I wear them. I’d have blown all this off, except that (though I’d met only one of them) I knew the men we’d me meeting up with for camping would all be real men: big strong guys with trucks and boats and biceps. (Not that they’re lowbrow; they know how to make non-grey, non-slimy hash browns and how to roast an entire pig on a spit.) I pictured them sitting around a campfire drinking beers when this skinny little bike guy shows up with obscene orange-piped shorts: not a good first impression. So I had to wear the shorts I’d worn a couple days before during a 55-mile ride over Luther and Carson Pass.

I hit the road a little after 1 p.m., a few minutes after my wife took off in the car with the kids. (She’d have lunch before driving to the campground and would pass me on the road.) It was 95 degrees. The west side of Luther Pass is much harder than the east side that used to be a Death Ride pass. It starts at about 6,500 feet and winds up at 7,740. I could really feel the altitude and my bad leg felt heavy and kind of stiff. The climb is long and straight and there’s no shade. Plus, I had a headwind—not the kind that’s at least refreshing, but the angry hot wind that just parches you. But Luther is not that big a deal and soon enough I was cruising down the east side, then down through Pickett’s Junction and Markleville where I refilled a bottle at a cool old drinking fountain right alongside the road.

My family passed me at the base of Ebbetts. They acted like I was some kind of hero. Then they drove on, and I began my suffering. Ebbetts is a pretty brutal climb. It’s got some switchbacks of grotesque gradient. I’d never ridden it solo before—it’s a lot easier when it’s the Death Ride and you’ve been training and have excitement and camaraderie working for you. Plus, I really didn’t know what else awaited me after the summit. I imagined it would be around thirty miles of gradual descent, but had to keep something in the tank in case the ride turned out a lot longer and/or harder than I expected.

About halfway up I was really suffering, and running low on energy drink. The air was cooler but also thinner. My gearing was just barely low enough. I weaved like a paperboy. The grade blocked the wind most of the time, but in sections it would return and rush in my ears trying to shatter my morale. There is a human impulse to complain even if nobody is around to hear it; I fought this. Ebbetts has a lot of sudden downhills that slam you into another steep uphill section. All they do is screw up your rhythm and undo some of the progress you’ve made toward that 8,736 foot summit.

Finally I reached the top. There were already port-a-potties set up for the upcoming Death Ride. I took a leak and started the descent. The road is steep and twisty and I was so tired my hands were hurting just working the brakes. In very little time I’d reach Hermit Valley, which is around 7,000 feet above sea level. This is where the Death Ride has you turn around and climb the south face of Ebbetts. From this point on I had little idea what to expect from the ride but was still shocked to find myself climbing again. Not just a little roller or two, but serious grades, one melting into the next. Eventually I realized that Hermit Valley wouldn’t be a valley if it didn’t have a grade on either side of it. I’d literally never considered this before in my life. I’m not very bright.

As I toiled away, trying to be like a robot (and thus incapable of misery) some guy in a jeep drove down toward me. He slowed down and asked, “How far is it to Hermit Valley?” Of course he didn’t deserve scorn, and of course this is a reasonable question, but at the time I felt true contempt. What—is your foot getting tired on the pedal? Is this drive boring you? Are you in a rush?

Finally I reached a sign: Pacific Grade Summit, Elevation 8,050. Only then did I vaguely recall seeing that on a map. Now, though, I figured it must be all downhill to the campground. But it wasn’t. The road continued to roll up and down and put the fear into me. How much longer could I hold out? Strength aside, there was the matter of fuel. I had some gels left but nothing to wash them down with. I encountered a lodge at Alpine Lake and topped up my bottles. When I got back out to the main road, I suddenly wasn’t sure which direction to go in. My brain was that muddy. I figured it out but wasn’t completely confident.

It took me forever, still fighting the wind, to get down to 7,000 feet. Fortunately I didn’t miss the single sign to the little uncharted road leading to the campground. It was at this point I realized two unsettling things. One, my assumption that by the end of the ride I’d have logged as much vertical loss as gain was erroneous. That rule only holds true when you start and finish at the same place (i.e., home). There is of course no guarantee of this when you don’t know the elevation of the destination. Second, I realized why it had seemed like I’d done more than my fair share of climbing over the last 40 miles: it’s because after climbing Luther, I’d gotten more than my fair share of descending. Markleeville is more than a thousand feet lower than South Lake Tahoe. I’d dug myself into a hole I’d have to climb out of. So maybe point-to-point rides aren’t such a great thing after all.

So yeah, there was one more brutally steep grade to get over, a few miles and maybe 600 more feet of climbing. I made it. Hardest ride in ten months. I guess there’s not much more to tell.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

From the Archives - Bike Shop Wheelchair Repair


As I’ve mentioned before, I worked at bike shops throughout my teen years. I wrote this little story while working for the Square Wheel in Berkeley during college.

At the Square Wheel - September 16, 1992

Oh no, I’m thinking, not today. Please don’t come in here. Oh, God, he’s trying to get in, all right.

I rush to the front door to open it for a man in an electric wheelchair. A passerby has beaten me to it and holds open the door, smiling. The passerby can afford to smile—he doesn’t have to work on the wheelchair.

I work in a bike shop. My ideal customer is old, non-athletic, wears Oakley sunglasses, and drools with excitement when I describe why the latest Composite Metal Matrix T‑6 aluminum bicycle will help him regain his youth. He will come in regularly to get rid of almost-new, perfectly good equipment in favor of newer, higher-tech brand‑new perfectly good equipment. When his bike needs a tune-up, there’s never much wrong with it. We count on this high-profit customer to subsidize the repairs that go wrong. It’s not that we’re greedy—we’re just trying to stay in business.

The perfect customer never rolls in on a wheelchair. The only wheelchair parts we sell are tubes and tires—and we carry these only as a community service. Many shops don’t even bother.

The moment I saw this guy’s wheelchair I have a flashback of the last one I worked on, a few years ago at Broad Street Bikes. Its occupant must have weighed about two hundred pounds, and her motor‑driven machine weighed even more. She had a flat tire, and, for better or for worse, we carried the weird-sized spare inner tube she needed. I summoned one of the other mechanics, and we slipped a huge wooden plank under the wheelchair and shoved, lifting the whole thing up on two wheels so I could get to the punctured tire. The poor helpless woman was perched precariously up there, grimacing and trying to be a good sport while clutching desperately at the arms of her chair. She was probably terrified of falling out onto the floor. Myself, I feared the wheelchair would fall and crush me—and the worst part would be that I would still have to finish the repair. You can’t just roll a customer and her vehicle into the storage room and write up her work order for your next day off.

Will this be another flat repair? No, this electric wheelchair has good tires. What else could be wrong? Without intending to, I begin to speculate about depth of this guy’s paralysis. He has a complete pair of legs, but I can’t tell how atrophied they are beneath his jeans and running shoes. His feet are slightly pigeon‑toed on the platform of his machine. His movements are fast, jerky, and almost frantically uncoordinated as he gropes around in a huge metal basket mounted to the front of his wheelchair, and eventually comes up with a little bike headlight.

“Hello there. I bought this light here a while ago and it no longer works all the time,” he says. “I was hoping you might have some idea how to fix it.”

This customer is much more polite than our usual ones, who revel in the competitive bike shop landscape and our almost desperate shows of servility as we struggle to keep our customers from leaving us for mail order outfits. Perhaps this guy knows in advance that we’ll lose money on him. I take his light apart and inspect its workings. “Often times you just have to tweak the battery contacts a little bit,” I tell him, hopefully. This doesn’t work. Then I dismantle the bulb assembly. “I can try tweaking the bulb fittings here.”

“Ah, tweak seems to be a versatile word when working on these lights,” he says. I nod and try turning on the light. It seems to work now, but there’s a slight delay between the switch and the connection. I would love to pretend the light is fixed.

“It seems to be behaving itself now,” he says cheerfully. I could do it—I could send him out the door with the seemingly intact light, and he probably wouldn’t ever make it back in. What kind of obstacles does a wheelchair‑bound person face when making a trip across town to a bicycle shop? What kinds of traffic hazards, stairways, and mass‑transit complications? How long did it take him to get here? An hour? I can’t do it. I slap the light around until the short‑circuit returns and the bulb dies again. I open it back up and find a corroded switch contact.

“Yeah, it works a little better, but if you went over a bump the light would go right out,” I tell him. “It just won’t be reliable.”

“I see. Well, would a new light be my best solution?”

“Yeah, they’ve changed the design to a simpler one.” I get a new light from the display case. “This one has a simpler switch, and no wires.”

“Hmmm, that’s nice. But how would I mount it to my basket?”

Exactly the problem. Bike lights are designed for bike handlebars, not wheelchair baskets. The old light, through sheer luck, strapped nicely in place with a nylon strap. The new model simply won’t go on. I could shake my head and say, “Sorry. We don’t have anything. You might check around at other stores in town.” But just can’t do it—I know too much. I know the light he needs isn’t available anymore, and I know we have a whole bunch of old bike crap in the back that I can try to press into service here. And I’ll do it, because this isn’t the kind of customer who can get on the phone and describe his problem to various shops; how could you know what jerry-rigged thing would work without dinking with it in person? I picture this guy tediously wheeling around, rolling into other shops and having every employee groan and roll his eyes. My shop is uniquely suited to helping him: it has a bad location, and business is slow. I have patience and a soft spot. So as much as I want to get rid of this man, I won’t.

My first attempt at a solution is to wind cloth handlebar tape around the top rung of his basket to build a workable mount for the light. Working on the wheelchair is much different from servicing a bicycle because in a sense I’m almost working on the customer himself—he’s only a couple of feet away as I lean over the machine. He is watching me intently from behind the steel basket, as if from within a cage. What relationship does he have with this contraption? Does he have a sentimental attachment for it, like a devoted bicycle racer does for his bike? Does he call it his “baby?” Or is it even more than a vehicle? Has it been his constant companion, like a seeing eye dog, for years?

Before I even finish winding the tape, I know it won’t work. The light is already beginning to rotate on the rung of the basket. I start to remove it, and in the process I drop a tiny screw, which falls to the platform of the wheelchair by the man’s feet. I know he can’t reach it, or perhaps I don’t want to watch him struggle in the attempt, so I go after it myself. I can smell his chow-mein breath as I reach for the screw. The screw has rolled right up to the sole of his shoe, and he strains to move his foot out of the way. Startled, I pause: he has moved his foot a breathtaking quarter of an inch. Life does exist, however faint, in those legs.

I make a few more unsuccessful attempts. I won’t bore you with the details. Finally, searching through drawers of parts in the back of the shop for anything that could possibly be used to mount a light to a steel basket, I spot a potential solution: a seat post that is roughly the diameter of a handlebar. The light could mount to it. Its clamp, designed to grip a saddle rail, could mount to the basket rung.

As I work the guy watches me as a patient watches a doctor dressing a wound. I mount the bracket successfully, and I only hope he approves of my solution. I notice that most of the metal tube is unnecessary; only an inch is needed to mount the light. Again, I ponder the man’s relationship to his wheelchair: will he think the appendage crude? Ugly? Will he be slightly annoyed whenever he sees the chromed steel protrusion—which could be at any moment of the day?

“Do you want me to saw off the extra post here?” I ask.

“Well, I don’t see that it’s hurting anything, if it doesn’t bother you,” he says.

“Oh, no, it won’t hurt anything, I just wondered if it was okay with you, aesthetically.”

“Sure, just as long as it works, that’s all. I kind of like it, it’s like a little battering ram up here.”

I secure the end of the post with a little plastic zip‑tie to keep the fixture from rattling, and try to wiggle it on the basket. It is rock‑solid: the basket itself wiggles before the light.

“You sure are good at what you do,” says the man.

“Oh, thank you,” I blush. I show him how to take the light on and off of the bracket. What is simple for my practiced fingers is almost impossible for his. He leans forward, his teeth clenched in determination, but I can see where his finger is missing a tiny plastic tab. Feeling abashedly unqualified to work with living flesh instead of machined metal, I carefully guide his fingers onto the tab and, finally, he successfully snaps the light on and off. He grins.

I total up the parts and charge him four dollars in labor. After he pays he puts his hand out. I reach over and we shake. I admit it: I had to brace myself for the handshake. What will it feel like, I’d wondered. Lifeless? Bent? It isn’t—he’s got a fine handshake and I’m slightly embarrassed at my uneasiness. “I really want to thank you,” he says. “You’ve been just an incredible help to me today getting this thing working.” I suddenly dread the thought of him calling my boss with praise for me. I’d be in big trouble for wasting forty-five minutes of company time for four dollars in labor. It’s not like the guy’s word of mouth could bring us anything good; what bike shop wants to be known as the go-to place for stupid wheelchair repairs? “Oh, no problem at all,” I reply. “If you have any problems with that, you can drop by anytime.”

“Thank you. And I wish you a beautiful rest of the day.”

He wheels around towards the door, I open it for him, and he leaves. I wait several minutes for my smile to die down before I go back towards the back of the shop. The other mechanic is listening to punk rock and cussing at the bike in his work stand. I grumble about how much money we lose on wheelchair repairs.