Saturday, October 27, 2012

Zen Drivetrain


This post is about when bike parts fight.  If you like bikes and bike gear, and enjoy accumulating bike lore to carry around in your head like kids’ school pictures in your wallet, read on.  If, on the other hand, you can’t be bothered with worldly stuff like consumer products and bike repairs, and prefer to think about the human spirit and how to calm it down and give it respite from the more-more-more, faster-faster-faster wheel of life, well then, read on.  This post is about both—or, rather, the unlikely nexus of the two.  Sort of, anyway.

Bike noises

Bikes often make weird noises that are hard to track down.  When the noises become chronic, you’re in a bind.  If you’re a teenager who loves wrenching, you tear everything apart and rebuild it all—lather, rinse, repeat—until the bike quiets down.  (My brothers and I used to spend hours trimming cable housing and grinding the ends flush until the action of our brakes was glass-smooth.  But it’s been decades since that decadence was possible, and now even my best bike has crunchy cable action.) 

If you are an adult, have money, and are heartless, you take your noisy bike to a shop and make it the mechanics’ problem.  In my bike shop days the “weird noise” was a curse—the scourge of our industry.  It can take forever to tease out the cause of a noise, and you can’t exactly charge $100 just to make a bike quieter.  The unlucky mechanic would often give up and ask the others for advice.  A common response?  “I say we take off and nuke the entire bike from orbit.  It’s the only way to be sure.”

So what do I do with a noisy bike now, being too cheap and proud to outsource my repair, but too busy to worry about every little sound?  Well, I differentiate between harmless and harmful. 

The really familiar noises are often harmless:  a tinny thwick once per pedal revolution can be as simple as your shoe hitting the front derailleur cable end, or a shoelace hitting the bike.  A clicky noise you hear when you ride out of the saddle could be spokes rubbing together like a cricket’s legs.  A creak that presents itself under hard pedaling can be a bottom bracket problem.  A loud creaky click when you’re in the saddle is probably your seatpost where it clamps the saddle, or where it goes into the frame.  A clickier creak than this, that you hear in the saddle and out, can be a loose chainring bolt.  Squeaking during pedaling can be your cleats (one friend fixes this with Chapstick).  A loud once-per-pedal-revolution click, like a metronome, can be invisible grit between the shoulder of the pedal axle and the crankarm.  These are generally annoying but non-dangerous problems.

Any noise involving a tire is potentially dangerous.  And any sound that’s unfamiliar to you and your riding pals should be investigated.  I’m particularly suspicious of the duller, deeper sounds, that to me suggest the underworld.  And if you ever hear a strange deep crunchy clunk, like one beat of a rumble, which you can feel in the drivetrain as you pedal, and you’re on an old bike that has a freewheel instead of a cassette, be afraid.  Be very afraid. 


To me, the freewheel is the part of the bike that was never perfected.  Rather, the technology was scuttled entirely during the early ‘80s when Shimano invented the cassette freehub.  For the newbies out there who have only ever known freehubs, the freewheel was its own self-contained deal, with its own bearings, that screwed on to the hub body.  The design was terrible because the rear wheel hub’s bearings, on the right side, weren’t at the end of the axle.  They were closer to the middle, to make room for the freewheel.  Thus, dudes broke rear axles all the time.  And the freewheels were just never made very well.

Freewheels used to explode here and there, seemingly for no reason.  When I was bike touring with my mom and my brother Bryan in Canada in 1983, we came upon a fellow tourist stranded by this affliction.  Bryan recovered all the ball bearings he could—there are gobs of them, and they’re tiny—and screwed the thing back together with some grease he happened to have in his pannier.  Grease makes freewheels nice and quiet—so much so that this guy called it “good as new.”  Bryan said, “No, don’t be fooled.  Get to a bike shop as soon as you can—that thing is a time bomb.”  (A friend of ours from the shop once repacked a roadside cyclist’s freewheel with a banana.  Presumably that guy didn’t need the time bomb lecture.)

A freewheel has pawls in it, typically only two of them, that allow it to move independently of the wheel in one direction (i.e., coasting) while engaging with the wheel in the other.  The full load of your pedaling is thus concentrated on these very small bits of metal.  Modern freehub designs still use pawls, but I think they’re made better.  Maybe it’s an economics thing:  when you’re making a $1,000 wheelset you can afford to do everything right, whereas the margins on a $30 freewheel were probably never very good.

It was about 23 years ago that I learned the hard way about pawls.  My mountain bike had been making this low, grumbling, subtle clonking sound, and I could feel it when I pedaled.  I put up with it for a long time, and then discovered very abruptly what it was.  One pawl had broken, hence the noise.  It was when the other pawl broke, and the freewheel no longer engaged the wheel, that the problem became obvious.  Naturally, it was under full out-of-the-saddle pedaling pressure that the second pawl broke, so my pedaling thrust—suddenly unopposed—threw my weight violently to one side and I went down.  This was in traffic.  I looked up to see the impressive grille of a Mercedes Benz come to a stop just a couple feet from me.  Good brakes on those cars … I got lucky.


When I heard the noises and felt the crunching in Full Slab’s freewheel, I didn’t mess around.  This freewheel was a piece of junk to begin with, and had been running strong for at least 20 years.  I don’t even know how I came into possession of that crappy a component.  It was an all-black, bottom-of-the-line model and surely its manufacturer expected it to spend its life sitting, cobweb-covered, in a garage, instead of seeing heavy action. 

Ditching that freewheel didn’t, however, mean buying a new one.  (Maybe I considered such a purchase, but only in a reckless, impulsive way, like when you get the sudden notion to steer your car into oncoming traffic or off a cliff.)  Nobody makes an even halfway-decent freewheel anymore, because all halfway-decent bikes have freehubs now.  Plus, I’m cheap.  And I knew I’d find something in The Box that I could use.  What box, you ask?  You mean you don’t have a Magic Box chock-full of awesome (if obsolete) bike parts just waiting for an afterlife on your commuter bike?  What, did your wife finally make you get rid of it?

I settled on a great-looking old Suntour Winner Pro that’s almost a corn cob.  I used to race on gearing like this, full-time.  No hill seemed too steep for a 19- or 21-tooth cog.  Then I moved to the Berkeley area with its monster climbs, and more importantly I started getting older, so I had to gradually go to larger and larger cogs, which is to say gradually increase my own disgrace, to the point where I actually browsed online the other day to see what a decent compact crank goes for.  (Rest assured, it was a moment of weakness, and the breathtakingly high price of such a thing quickly snapped me back to reality.)  Anyway, it’s great to finally have a properly small cluster on one of my bikes.  Check it out:

But my problem was only half solved.  You can’t replace just the freewheel if it’s over twenty years old—you need a new chain, too.  Chains and freewheels are enablers, the classic co-dependents:  a chain as old as mine would skip on any freewheel except the one I just replaced, and vice-versa.  The two had ruined each other; their relationship was as dysfunctional as George and Martha’s in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  They had each other because nobody else would have them.

In a perfect world, I’d have a Sedisport chain, still in its paper wrapper, just waiting to be installed to match the new-ish Suntour freewheel.

Ah, the Sedisport.  That was the working-man’s chain.  All black.  Didn’t shift particularly well, but didn’t stretch much either.  It was a badge of honor, my brothers and friends and I felt, to use that chain even on our pride-and-joy race bikes.  A Sedis chain cost $8 retail.  Even though a bike’s chain has over 400 moving parts, that $8 model was plenty good enough.  It was, in fact, the cheapest bike part I ever put on my bike, unless you count mere accessories like the $2 Benotto bar tape and $2 Velox bar plugs.  

Alas, my Magic Box didn’t have a Sedis chain.  Just an all-black Shimano 9-speed HG chain.  I had a strong feeling the HG wouldn’t work very well, but still managed to be hopeful.  In fact, this could be great, I told myself.

When chain slippage is kind of cool

I figured if this chain slipped just a bit, that might be pleasantly nostalgic.  During my teen years, I raced a lot against Dale Stetina’s 7-Eleven junior team, easily the best in Colorado, and in ’86 they were using these wacky freewheels—I think they were Regina or Maillard—that had spacing issues.  There was always one shift that none of the 7-Eleven guys could get right.  The chain would find this Never Never Land between cogs and slip a few times, making a light hissing/ringing sound, before engaging the next cog.  I always enjoyed that.  It was the only thing about that team that wasn’t superior to me.

One time, I even got to experience this slippage for myself.  Warming up for the time trial at a stage race in Aspen, I punctured.  I had just minutes before my start and no spare wheel.  I went over to the 7-Eleven van and my friend John loaned me a wheel.  “Sorry, it’s only got a 20!” he grinned.  I think most guys were using at least a 23-tooth large cog for Suicide Hill.  It was going to be a bitch humping that wheel up the hill, but what could I do?

As I shifted gears during the flat part of the race, my chain slipped between two cogs, and made the same ringing sound that the Slurpees’ bikes made.  I really felt like I’d arrived, like this was some natural progression toward becoming one of them.  On the climb itself, of course, I was doing no shifting at all—I was well overgeared in the 20-tooth cog.  Seeing my struggle, a guy yelled, “Come over on the sidewalk!”  I guess he figured it would offer less rolling resistance, or there was gravel in the road or something.  So I went up on the sidewalk, and the (albeit modest) crowd there parted before me, furthering the king-for-a-day impression the chain slippage had given me.  That ended up being one of my best-ever individual time trials.

The Zen drivetrain

So, it really seemed like a chain that slipped now and then, especially on my commuting bike, wouldn’t be the end of the world.  Sure, it might slow me down a bit, but how bad could it be?  Well, I took Full Slab out for a test ride after installing the HG chain, and discovered to my horror that the chain skipped in just about every damn gear.  Only the largest cog was spared, for reasons I can’t quite fathom without applying some serious brain power to the job.  (Perhaps my readers can explain this, or better yet, bicker about it amongst yourselves.)

So, naturally, I went right out and bought a proper chain, didn’t I?  Well, no.  It was night.  The shops were closed.  And the rigors of my working-stiff/parenting lifestyle made it impossible—well, okay, difficult—to get around to this errand.  I wanted to call around and find a shop that had an actual Sedisport chain rusting away in its original, albeit moldering, wrapper, that they’d sell me cheap.  Of course, such lofty projects invite procrastination.  The ensuing civil war that raged within my drivetrain was basically inevitable.

But actually, I discovered something about the new setup.  If I just refrained from shoving on the pedals, and accelerated exceedingly gradually, I could keep the chain from skipping.  I developed the capability of coaxing speed out of the bike, rather than just stomping on the pedals as I’ve been doing for 30+ years.  Since most of my commuting these days consists of escorting my older daughter to school in the early morning, and she’s on a 3-speed bike called a Lazy Susan with remarkably slack frame angles, a big rack with a heavy pannier and a violin lashed to it, and giant balloon tires, the pace has been mellow.  The whole thing has been really pleasant and peaceful.  The narrow chain is whisper-quiet on those wide-spaced cogs, especially compared to my old setup with that grumbling freewheel and old, chattering chain. 

There’s actually some precedent to a cyclist hobbling himself intentionally.  I give you the guys who ride fixed gears in the winter, to improve their pedal stroke or some such thing.  This isn’t so common in the Berkeley area, where we have serious hills, but I remember seeing real road riders on fixed gears when I lived in San Francisco.  (Note that roadies on fixed gears shouldn’t be confused with hipsters on their fixies, many of which bikes are actually just one-speeds—i.e., they can coast.  Hipsters, who also do totally brainless things like smoking and riding at high speeds with no helmet in urban areas, certainly don’t deserve to be copied by anyone.)

Could this skipping problem teach me to slow down and just enjoy the bike?  To embrace the Lazy Susan ethos?  Could this be some kind of Karate Kid learning opportunity, to teach me patience, and tranquility, and smoothness?  To generally just Let It Be?  In short, was this a Zen drivetrain I’d stumbled upon? 

For weeks, half out of laziness (i.e., avoidance of a bike shop errand) and half as experiment, I’ve tried out the Zen drivetrain.  It has been illuminating.  After having recently watched twenty competitors ride away from me during the Everest Challenge, I’ve gotten to watch my daughter ride away from me on her Lazy Susan, maxing out her 3rd gear, while I gradually brought Full Slab up to cruising speed.  I’ve literally coasted toward green lights, knowing they’d be yellow before I got there and I’d just have to wait at the light, frozen in time.  I’ve consoled my impatient side by pausing to appreciate how quiet my bike is, how smooth the pedal stroke.

Yeah, right

But no way could I tolerate that forever.  Accelerating as slowly as a train is one thing when I’m riding with my daughter, but when I’m riding home, or to Bart, I demand the right to step it up.  I’ve paid enough dues as it is, having commuted for years on the Arseless, my Triumph 3-speed.  Its flaky Sturmey Archer 3-speed hub has a nasty tendency to slip out of 2nd gear, usually with painful and dangerous results.  No way am I going to accept such drivetrain shenanigans on two bikes.  So, when I was buying  a Ksyrium spoke for my race bike the other day (and errand that absolutely cannot be put off), and the mechanic asked if I need anything else, I said, “Yeah, I’ve got an old Winner Pro freewheel that’s fighting with a 9-speed chain.  Got an old Sedisport or anything?”  Without moving from his stool he reached under the counter and produced a SRAM 6-7-8 speed chain, the modern incarnation of the Sedis.  It’s like he was just waiting for me to ask for it.  So, 17 painful dollars later, it’s mine.

Of course, owning the chain is a far cry from it actually making it onto Full Slab.  The garage is torn apart, and it’s been raining, and my life itself has a lot of moving parts.  Who knows, maybe by the time I get around to installing that chain, I’ll have already achieved enlightenment!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

From the Archives - Haircut Gone Wrong


I’ve always lacked a vocabulary for hair styles. When the barber asks what I want, I never know what to say. Directions like “take off an inch” seem meaningless—I have no real sense of how long my average hair shaft is, nor how much they vary. Today at Supercuts I went through the normal struggle before the hair stylist brought out a visual aid: photos of six men, none of whose hair looked anything like mine. They were swarthy men with curly hair and names like “Rado” and “Moose.” I pointed essentially at random and let the hair stylist use her discretion. The haircut came out fine.

That isn’t to say my haircuts have always come out fine. The worst one? Well, right before I moved from Colorado to California in 1987, my buddy Pete offered to cut my hair. He’d never cut hair before, but I gave him a shot. He snipped away for awhile with what seemed like great confidence, but then stepped back, frowned, and said, “Dude, it’s all screwed up. I better buzz it.” So I started my California life with a sub-Sinead buzz-cut. (Adding insult to injury, Pete then had the nerve to nickname me “Curious,” as in “Curious George.”)

After that buzz cut finally grew out, I experimented a lot, letting my hair get pretty long at times and having fun with hair gel. During my freewheeling late-‘80s SoCal years, my ‘do often looked something like this: 

When I moved to the Bay Area in summer of 1990, I wanted to get a high-paying office job so I decided to get a nice short haircut. (With hindsight, I should have gone native and grown my hair even longer, since I ended up with yet another bike shop job anyway.)

Below is the tale of my first Berkeley haircut experience, which didn’t go at all as I’d expected.

Haircut Gone Wrong - July 27, 1990

The hair stylist I used to go to in Boulder always told me, “Women should not cut hair. They’re too emotional, too unpredictable. They’ll screw up another woman’s hair if they’re jealous of her looks. And when they’re in a bad mood, no customer is safe.” Or something to that effect; I forget exactly what he said or just how he put it. I wasn’t ever sure how much stock to put in this judgment. I once got a haircut from this Italian woman who seemed to have her own ideas about what would look good, and did exactly the opposite of what I asked for. Thing is, it grew out really well and became one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t immediately leave the other day when, during my first week living in Berkeley, I went to get my hair cut at a hair salon on Bancroft Ave and found only female stylists. I was looking for a little trim (I mean a haircut—get your mind out of the gutter!), because it had been awhile since my last haircut, from my brother Geoff, and it was growing out really unevenly. Ordinarily I wouldn’t really care, but I’m trying to get a job right now and if I can’t dress as nicely as the next guy for these interviews I might as well not look too scraggly.

Besides, there’s something so right about having your hair cut as soon as you land in a new place. All the old cowboys always went straight to the barber as soon as they hit a town, right after they’d had a good meal and a drink at the saloon. You’ve seen it in the movies. Of course, if it was a Clint Eastwood western, the hero also wasted no time in shooting half a dozen people and bedding down some fine woman. Well, I’m no Eastwood but at least I can have the old hair evened out a little bit.

So here’s what transpired. I sit down in the barber chair and right off the woman with the scissors is fuming mad about something. “Whaddya want,” she scowls as she spins me around in the chair. I start to tell her but I don’t think she’s listening. Instead, she’s muttering furiously: “Every day it’s that damn radio: first this station, then that, why don’t they just find a station and leave it instead of always switching around, all day long. It’s making me sick.” I almost decide to make a run for the door, but it’s too late, she’s already begun.

I can’t even see the carnage because she has me turned away from the mirror. Usually a barber will keep you facing the mirror so you can watch him or her work, but throughout this haircut the chair faces away. Every time my hair stylist finishes a strafing run of snip‑snip‑ snip‑snip‑snip she exhales briskly, the exhaust phase of her constant seething. I look at the other two women working there, and they seem to be the overly cheerful type that always rankle grumpy women like the one who is attacking my head.

I look at the guy in the next chair, who looks something like a fat Stephen Roche. He’s cheerfully chatting away with the youngish woman cutting his hair and constantly asking technical questions. I’d hate to be in her shoes, because his is the kind of hair that just can’t really be made to look good. I don’t mean to hack on the guy, but his hair is so thick and has such tight little curls that all I can see in its future is that trimmed hedge look—his hair is doomed to be a big cube or melon‑ball unless shaped creatively, like Grace Jones’ anvil‑shaped job or the strange skewed‑plane look sported by rap artists. I met a black guy with such a hairdo at the optometrist’s, and he was getting mismatched contact lenses: one magenta, one green. But that’s another story.

Anyhow, I’m pondering the futility of this other guy’s hair, and the increasingly tragic plight of my own, when one of the bubbly women looks right at me and says, “What’s your name?” I tell her and she says, “Well, Dana, you look angry. Why is that?” The only thing I can think to say is “I just ran over my cat in my parents’ Blazer.” This response has popped into my head, and won’t go away, and I can’t think of any other. I’m tempted to actually utter it, but being bitter or sarcastic with people is no way to conduct yourself in a strange city, even if it’s Berkeley.

So while I’m trying to assemble a nice, safe response to this really stupid question, Jackie the Ripper snorts in my ear, “Don’t even listen to her. Just don’t pay any attention.” Now a new response to the question has rooted in my head: “I’m not angry, I’m just really concerned about the unstable and obviously upset woman cutting my hair.” I can’t really use this response either because I feel like somehow I’ve created a bond with the psycho woman in our mutual dislike for ol’ Mary Lou Retton over there … a bond which I don’t want to disturb because the snip‑snip‑snip sound is now slowing down somewhat, and the terrible nasal fuming sound has gotten a bit quieter.

In time, the breathing in my ear begins to sound pretty normal and the snipping is at a higher pitch, indicating that only the very tips of the scissors are being used. This is a very slow, deliberate cutting now. So slow, in fact, that cutting the back of my hair takes about twice as long as the top and sides combined. An eternity later she’s done, but instead of turning me around to face the mirror she gives me a hand mirror and asks, “How do you like the back?” I am shocked to see a graceful semicircle where the hair ends on my neck. She’s obviously very proud of it. And geometrically, it’s perfect. Aesthetically, I really don’t know what to say. I’ve really never seen anything like it. It’s so short and precise . . . truly bizarre.

Without another word, she takes off my little poncho cape deal and starts putting away her stuff. Paddling with my feet, I sort of walk my chair around to where I can see the mirror, and as soon as my reflection comes into my field of vision, I stop dead. The horror! What’s left of my hair is running down my forehead in miserable little wet strands. I’ve never been one to be obsessed with my appearance, but this is really serious. I feel a strange sort of detachment from the whole thing, like it’s too horrible to really be me. It’s the same sense of withdrawn awe I felt when I once severely cut the knuckle of my ring finger on some glass and could clearly see the full depth of the incision and the massive flap of skin, only a second before spraying blood brought me back to reality.

The haircutting woman must notice the strange look on my face because she hands me a comb and says, “Oh, here. Style it.” How? There’s nothing to style! And my head is so . . . so round! It’s not that every strand is uniformly short; it’s that most of the strands are just plain gone. But the detached feeling continues and I’m oddly calm. I have this inexplicable faith that by the time I’ve paid my eight bucks and gone home, my hair will look different. It’ll be dry then, maybe, and . . . aw, who cares anyhow.

Besides, there are two reasons I should be happy with this haircut. First, like I said earlier, I’m trying to get a job right now, and I’ll bet employers just love dorky, Young‑Republican haircuts. Secondly, this will be a very durable haircut: it’ll be a long, long time before I let anybody with scissors near my hair again.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2012 (Stage 2)

Note:  This post is rated R for mild strong language and mature themes.


In last week’s post I described the exploits, particularly the gastronomic ones, of my friends and me as we tackled Stage 1 of the 2012 Everest Challenge stage race.  Now, with the professional sport of cycling collapsing around us—Lance Armstrong’s team, his maid, and even his pet hamster have confessed to participation in his doping ring—I offer the sorry tale of my un-drug un-fueled assault on Stage 2 of the 2012 EC.


I slept unusually well for an EC second night; that is to say, I slept some.  As my roommate John pointed out, the AC unit had a continuous fan feature, as opposed to those enemy-of-sleep versions that turn on and off all night.  Still, as the chilled air compressor periodically cycled on and off, its low, deep groaning came and went.  (Or was that John?)

The Uncle Sam cereal was even harder going the second day, because I was at the end of the box and all the heavy stuff—various kinds of seeds and, I think, gravel—had settled to the bottom.  John and I ate in silence, which frightened me.  Normally, the EC motel room banter is the giddy, profanity-laced stuff of locker rooms, but this was almost gloomy, like a wake.  John and I could be accused of having a poor attitude, but as you shall see, prescience would be the better description.

We got to the start line as the sun was rising and the moon was setting.  I think there was even an occultation of Venus in progress, but I was a bit distracted and didn’t look for it.

The main source of my distraction was my bowels.  You may be rolling your eyes and groaning:  “This again?!”  Well, remember, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  The fact is, evacuation is a critical part of this sport, and is too often swept under the carpet.  Now.  Don’t get me wrong, the organization of EC is excellent overall, but they need more San-O-Lets (aka Port-A-Potties).  On this day there were only two, and what’s worse, they were still atop a trailer.  Not only did I not have time to wait in line, but I feared, albeit irrationally, that somebody would drive off while I was in there.

Fortunately, I took a lesson from last year when a guy coming out of a San-O-Let told me, “That thing’s out of toilet paper.  I had to use my arm warmers.”  So I’d brought a roll of TP from the motel.  I found a good bush off the side of the road that would provide excellent cover from most vantage points—but not including, alas, that of the van.  And that’s where the setting moon came into play.  All the guys were about to photograph the moon over the jagged saw blade mountains when I entered the frame.  There was nothing I could do—I had to go.  You will not be seeing this “double moon” shot on this blog, though I hear it’ll be on the cover of “Forbes” next month.

Stage 2 – 76 miles, 14,030 feet of climbing

During the race, I drank four bottles of Cytomax, two bottles of Gatorade, a bottle of Heed, and two bottles of water.  I ate four gels.  I swallowed enough pride to produce a glut of bile, which tasted only a bit better than the Gatorade (which was lemon-lime, a flavor I burned out on during my 1994 bike tour and have wisely avoided ever since).

The first climb went pretty well, except for a) knowing that I was in 10th place and should defend that, while b) knowing I should pace myself, which meant watching twenty of my competitors ride away as soon as the road went uphill.  It was sort of the “presidential primary” strategy:  don’t do anything bold that might backfire; and, hope my opponents do. 

John and I did the first climb and about half of the second climb together.  It was hot and dry and my legs were heavy and I plinked along in my lowest gear a lot of the time, remembering how I’d cracked on the third climb the previous year.  The idea was to save up my strength and finish strong, but I couldn’t find much strength to save.  Paul, racing in the 45+ category that started ten minutes behind, blew by us, inspiring me to … well, to train better next year, or race smarter, or switch to an activity I’m better suited to, like typing.

The race promoters lengthened the second climb this year.  They’d announced this on Friday evening, but didn’t say how much longer it would be.  Looking back, I think we were all unknowing subjects in some kind of cruel psychological experiment.  I kept expecting to see the leaders of my race coming down the other side, and the longer I went not seeing them, the closer to despair I came.  (A more foolhardy rider would have supposed he was simply not that far behind.  I knew better.) 

I spent much of the climb trying to work out how I might calculate how far behind I was, based on when and where the leaders passed me on their way down.  Doing math during bike races is notoriously hard, but I had plenty of time to think.  By the time I finally saw Craig coming down, I had it worked out:  I held in my head the current altitude at that moment (a better landmark than anything visual in this stark, Road Runner terrain) and the clock time.  When, an eternity later (the climb having been, finally, four miles longer this year), I crossed that altitude again on my way down, I checked the new clock time and subtracted.  Craig, it turned out, was twelve minutes ahead of me at that point.  Pretty amazing, since he was still as sick as a dog, breathing raspily and almost unable to talk.

I couldn’t be bothered to pedal or get in an aerodynamic tuck during that descent.  I just sat there, coasting, and waited for it to be over.  I finally reached the van, which was parked at the base of the third and final climb, and saw Craig there, off his bike and in street clothes.  As well as he’d’ been riding, he was still sick, and the heat and altitude made it impossible for him to breathe well enough to continue.  He and Ian gave me some drink, gels, and encouragement, and I struck out for the final climb.

I was feeling pretty close to despondent.  Where was all that energy I’d been saving up?  Where was the enthusiasm I’d had on this climb the first couple times I raced EC?  I couldn’t face the reality of what I had left to do:  over two hours of climbing, with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, in the baking heat.  In previous years I had a teammate or two to ride with; this time I was off the back and oddly, breathtakingly alone.  No rider in sight, anywhere.  I could be anybody out here, on any day, in any era.

I couldn’t use my mileage to measure my progress because I hadn’t worked out how much longer that second climb had been.  Meanwhile, the thought of slowly ticking off the altitude benchmarks—4000 feet, 5000 feet, 6000 feet, 7000 feet, 8000 feet, 9000 feet, and, yes, even 10000 feet—was far too demoralizing to face.  (Plus, as often as I wiped the sweat off my bike computer, I couldn’t keep the screen clear enough to read it anyway.) 

I devised a plan:  instead of looking around me at the terrain to figure my progress, I’d just keep my eyes on the road ten feet ahead.  That created the illusion of speed, at least.  And I decided to “play” the entire double-album “Pink Floyd The Wall” in my head, including all the background sounds, TV snippets, the schoolteacher yelling “wrong, do it again!”, etc.  Because I knew my frazzled brain would get caught in endless loops of certain songs, I could be confident that by the time I got to “Outside the Wall,” I’d have been climbing for at least 90 minutes.  Then I’d be close enough to the end to monitor my progress without sliding into despair.

(The other benefit of this strategy was preventing the random songs that sometimes pop into my head while I’m riding.  All the way up Alpe d’Huez during the 2003 La Marmotte, I had Ravel’s “Bolero” in my head, which was the musical equivalent of a prison sentence.  John had had it even worse during the final EC climb of Stage 1:  pondering that he had such a long way to go, he suddenly got “Ride Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross stuck in his head, and couldn’t get rid of it.  Poor bastard.)

Around the time my brain got to “Goodbye Cruel World” I was actually doing a little better.  At the higher elevation the heat had subsided a bit and I had a decent rhythm.  I passed a couple of fellow Masters who had dropped me at the base of the second climb, well over an hour before.  They were really crawling.  “Dude, you’re a fucking stud!” one of them said.  I have to admit, that encouragement felt pretty good.

There’s a descent about 2/3 of the way up this climb.  The road drops some 200 feet, erasing your progress toward the finish.  It’s totally demoralizing.  I took the opportunity to eat a gel.  Hunting in my jersey pocket I came upon a sleeve of Clif Shot Blocks that Craig had given me.  My hand groped it, trying to figure out what it was.  Once I’d identified it, my brain tried to comprehend what Shot Blocks were and what they did.  You eat them, right?  But what are they?  And how do you get into the package?  Is it like Pez?  I give up trying to fathom this great Shot Block mystery and managed to find a gel.

I ran out of head-music.  The last lyric, “Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall,” was eerily apropos.  My own heart was working far better than my poor legs; in fact, the heart’s foreman had sent half the chambers home.  On the shallower pitches my heart rate wasn’t even in the 130s.  My breathing was strangely, unsettlingly slow at times.  I kept pushing on the right shift lever, hoping in vain that I actually had one lower gear.  The final few miles were like slow motion.  The guy I’d passed earlier, who’d called me a stud, now passed me back; if I’d had the energy I’d have said, “Do you care to rescind your earlier statement?”  Worst of all, I was starting to feel lightheaded.  Stretches of the climb appeared that I don’t recall ever having seen before.  It was like when something familiar, looked at too closely, starts to look odd and strange.

Finally I reached a terribly steep ramp with a couple spectators on it, and someone said, “200 feet to go!”  I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t dare.  But then, why would he lie?  I saw race officials sitting on lawn chairs.  I saw a line painted across the road labeled “FINIS.”  Still I couldn’t believe it (even though the finish line seemed long overdue).  “Is this the finish?  Am I done?” I cried out desperately.  The officials laughed.  “Yeah, you’re done.”  Normally I would coast a few hundred feet down the other side to where the food was, but I couldn’t manage it.  I clipped out and stopped.  “Did you get my number, 802?” I asked half a dozen times.  They had.  “Can I borrow that empty chair?”  Yes, I could.  I sat there at the finish line for a good ten minutes, watching other riders come across.  Two or three of them cried out desperately, “Is this the finish?  Am I done?”

Finally I made it to the rest area.  Jamie, 4th overall in the Masters 55+, greeted me enthusiastically and took my bike.  I found a chair and re-slumped.  I could smell the spinach-and-feta quesadillas the volunteers were cooking up, and I was hungry, but I literally lacked the energy to stand up and walk over there.  For a whole hour I just sat.  I couldn’t even bring myself to hunt for my bag of warm clothes.  I’ve never been so shattered after a race. 

Eventually I made it to the food tables, drank some Coke, drank some chocolate milk, drank some ginger ale, and then spied a big bottle of V-8 juice—the only real electrolyte replacement drink.  I asked if I could pour myself some.  “Yeah, please finish it up because it’s our last bottle.”  I followed this with infinity quesadilla slices, then had to sit again.  The chairs were all taken.  I sat on a tarp.  I found my bag, spent five minutes stretching my arm warmers over my squeaky, sticky arms, and got out my camera.

Paul sat down too.

At some point John showed up.  As with Stage 1, he suffered terrible cramps during the last climb.  (All my photos of the Stage 2 summit are from the seated vantage point.)

John made his pilgrimage to the food tent.  He came back after awhile asking, “Could you guys find any V-8 juice over there?”  Oops. 

Eventually we found the energy to begin the descent.  Normally I love this descent, but I really didn’t feel like being on my bike anymore.  A short way down we stopped at a scenic overlook to snap some photos.  Here’s one.

Unfortunately, the effort of descending that short distance overwhelmed me and I needed to lie down for a bit.  The sun beating down on my face was intolerable.  I was really in bad shape.

Miraculously, Ian and Craig showed up with the van.  Here’s our whole crew, stoked to be done with riding for the day.  (The exception was Paul, who manned up and rode the descent, just for fun.)

For the data nerds among you, here are my climbing stats (power and heart rate):
- 248 watts at 142 bpm on the first climb;
- 220 watts at 133 bpm on the second climb;
- 220 watts at 136 bpm on the last climb (my cadence was 61, so you can see my 39/27 gearing was actually plenty low enough, at least for a mosher like me)

Note that these are “dog-watts”—that is, they’re based on my rate of vertical gain, my speed, and my weight (f=mgh) without considering wind resistance, etc.


We stopped at a little hot springs resort to shower.  (I won’t tell you where it is; it’s great that no other cyclists have discovered it.)  One of the guys complained that his coin-op shower had been ice-cold.  Craig went to investigate and determined, to his great mirth, that the rider in question had only turned the Cold handle, not the Hot.  This is how shattered an EC rider can be.

A member of our bike club, Mary Beth, had been in Bishop a few weeks before and recommended Astorga’s Mexican restaurant.  We gave it a shot.  The salsa was good and hot, I had my first beer in many weeks, and someone ingeniously ordered guacamole.  It was fantastic.  I was starting to feel normal.  But then things got really dicey because there wasn’t enough guac to go around.  The only fistfight I’ve ever seen in a restaurant was at Juan’s Place in Berkeley and I had the feeling I was about to witness, if not participate in, another.  Fortunately somebody had a cool head and simply ordered more guac.

My dinner was the giant combo plate:  chile relleno, chicken enchilada verde, beef taco, beans, rice, and—just for the empty calories—a side of flour tortillas.  It was a serious plate of food and I attacked it with a severity I only wish I could bring to bike racing.  It has been said of my eating, “Sometimes I can’t bear to look.”  I know Ken had a chile relleno burrito because I recommended it; other than that, I had tunnel vision and the rest of the table became peripheral blur, their speech a low drone.  I was in The Zone.  I should have been stuffed by the time we got out of there, but I was only just sated.

As we drove by the pizza place in Groveland, too late at night to stop, I looked longingly out the window.  I got some potato chips from a convenience store when we stopped for gas.  By the time we made the Bay Area I was more tired than hungry, and had to figure out how to get home from Rockridge.  Ken loaned John and me his old van.

“It’s been totaled and the chassis is bent, so I had to remove the gear shift template, but I made a diagram of it,” he told me.  Actually, that quote might bear no resemblance to what he said; I was barely coherent by this point.  It was surreal driving that van across Berkeley at 1:30 a.m.  Sometimes I was able to work the gears just fine; other times I couldn’t find first and just sat there, idling, hunting.  As Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “The last long lap is the hardest.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Race Report - Everest Challenge 2012 (Stage 1)

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


In a perfect world, I’d have written this report in the van on the way home from the Everest Challenge, or I’d have stayed another night in Bishop and written this after a long soak in a hot tub.  But instead, it’s four days later, my sunburned lips have only just finished molting, and I still just barely have enough energy to sit up in a chair for long enough to write this.

What follows is my report of the 2012 Everest Challenge California-Nevada Climbing Championship (Stage 1).  If you’re looking for a blow-by-blow of the Masters 35+ race, you’re in the wrong place:  I don’t even know (nor do I care) who won.  If Upton Sinclair, in writing The Jungle, “aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach,” I am aiming for the stomach and might nick your heart, possibly even your brain.


I highly recommend using a checklist when packing for such events.  Here is mine, notable mainly for the non-checked-off items I didn’t manage to scrounge up.  I sorely missed a few of those items.

This year I decided I wasn’t messing around and actually had a pasta breakfast.  Then I headed out to meet the rest of our crew—Paul, Craig, John, Mark (a friend of Paul’s), and Ian—at Ken’s house.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at Ken’s to find that the van Paul scored for us wasn’t nearly as huge and awesome as I’d expected:

But that didn’t matter because Paul immediately produced a giant Ziploc bag of chocolate chip cookies that his girlfriend Tammy made.  One bite and I could tell these were the classic Nestle Toll-House recipe.  Delicious.  My wife, bless her heart, always sneaks in wheat germ and flaxseed and other nutritious elements, but these were the more basic, and classic, butter delivery mechanism.  You might think the cookies were just a treat, but actually they fit right into the very scientific “caloric density” strategy that obsessive Everest Challengers must embrace.  Polar explorers are known to bring sticks of butter to eat; we’re just slightly more recreational and hedonistic.  “Tammy actually asked if she should make a double-batch,” Paul said.  That got a good laugh.

We stopped for gas and Ian bought a giant bag of potato chips.  Not those super-fancy Kettle Chips, and not some fancy modern flavor like “sea salt and fresh ground pepper” or “roast cumin and Echinacea,” but your classic Lays:  plain, salty, and greasy.  Ian was nice enough to share them around, and I must confess, I surely took more than my share.  I couldn’t help it.  Maybe this rankled Ian, because for much of the drive he complained about my concussive flatulence on the Friday night of last year’s EC.  He contends that only pure intent could have made my flatches so loud.  (“Flatch” is my kids’ verb form of “flatulence,” as they’re not allowed to say “fart.”)  I promise you, as I promised Ian, that I wasn’t even awake to have such intent.  Each blast had startled me from sleep.  Some of them actually frightened me.

Imagine if we were the kind of über-modern multi-sport athletes who dabble in Yoga and Pilates and such, and drink soy milk with our lattés.  That would mean snacks like tabouleh (with its requisite raw onion) and hummus (full of garlic), and the stench in the van would be immediate—nothing would even need to work its way through our digestive tracts before starting to reek.  Plus we’d be all Zen and kind and everything and would have to keep our complaints to ourselves.  Surely that would be harder on our hearts than saturated fat.

Lunch was at Priest Station, at the same burger place as last year.  When something works, you don’t mess with it, especially when it’s delicious.  We paid extra for grass-fed beef.  All burger places should offer this.  Some of the guys got all fancy and ordered sweet potato fries.  You know, the same kind of guys that had compacts on their bikes.  I didn’t say anything; superciliousness is best savored silently.  (Sibilant enough for you?)

I never got my side of mayonnaise, nor my side of barbecue sauce.  I decided not to wait for them, because the staff was trying to rush us through.  “We’re expecting some decent people at 1,” the hostess had said, when she intercepted our van in the parking lot.  (I’m paraphrasing.)  The deal was, a bunch of old people driving vintage Mercedes Benzes was expected.  Why would anybody expect these people to tip as well as us?  We drove out, on-time, just as they started to roll in.  I hope they weren’t too tired after their long drive.  Huh.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, with beautiful scenery out the window.  As we approached Bishop, one of the guys said, “I can tell we’re getting close because I’m starting to get an erection.”

Sticking closely to our script, we did a 9-mile spin-the-legs ride in Bishop.  It’s useful to have a fresh memory of the bicycle being something fun to ride, not just a torture rack.  Amazing how fast such a memory can be obliterated—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dinner, needless to say, was the free pasta feed at the fairgrounds.  Plenty of food this time (which was a relief), but no water.  Just iced tea (which would have kept me up all night) and Country Time lemonade.  I don’t know why anybody drinks that stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, frozen concentrated lemonade with all the corn syrup and such is fine by me, but that vulcanized powdered stuff is just revolting.  It’s especially wrong for this crowd.  I mean, if we were a bunch of kids trying to get high, and fat, off the sugar, that would be one thing.  But we were all facing two days of guzzling energy drink in the 90-degree heat … could we really be expected to want this stuff now?  I realize I’m being kind of negative here; after all, we did get free pasta, and it was pretty good.  I guess I’m still just too shattered from the race to be looking at the bright side of everything.

Stage 1 – 88.5 miles, 14,965 feet of climbing

Breakfast was Uncle Sam cereal, like last year.  I’d almost grabbed the Weetabix—we had a box—but I thought I might be rooming with Ian and, it being British, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.  Besides, that stuff gets mushy.  The milk, which we’d bought at Smart & Final the night before (another EC tradition) didn’t say anything about “no rBST,” which I took to mean it does have it, and probably rBGH too.  What are these hormones?  Could they be similar to HGH?  I poured some more.  Dammit!  I should have been drinking this Monsanto milk all along!

 My roommate, in the event, was John Lynch, my old pal from Boulder.  He and I were teammates on the Leisure Time Products squad for the 1981 Red Zinger Mini Classic.  I was close to dead last in that race, but he was around tenth, and I’ll never forget what happened in the first stage:  his plastic bike-mounted number wasn’t attached at the down tube, and swung out and sliced his leg.  He just shrugged it off.  I was in awe.  So imagine my distress on this morning when he stared at his cereal like he was facing down a foe.  Sure, Uncle Sam is hard to eat, but moreover I think John was worried about the race, his first-ever EC.  He lives in Ithaca, NY these days, and though he has plenty of hills to train on, there are no proper mountains.

The motel was pretty nice this year.  It even had a Trimline phone mounted in the bathroom, right next to the toilet.  A nice touch, for those who don’t want to worry about dropping their smartphones during a heated moment.  But then, you can’t really talk with the fan going, and with no window in the bathroom that fan worked overtime.  My biggest complaint was with the toilet, which, plumbing-wise, was an underachiever.  It was really touch-and-go there, several times, especially on Saturday morning.  I found myself cheering on the toilet.  “C’mon, buddy!  You can do it!”  It was like the Little Toilet That Could:  I think I can, I think I can!  Nobody wants to run late because he’s plunging, or mopping up.

Okay, I lied earlier about the van.  That flowery thing above did come into play, but not until much later.  The actual van, to quote Ice-T, was “the flyest new shit rollin’ off gasoline,” the “ultimate super-fly ride.”  We were almost intimidated by ourselves, rolling up in that thing.  It even had platforms on the roof to walk on while attaching bikes.

During the race, I ate four gels and drank six bottles of Cytomax, two bottles of Heed, a bottle of water, and a Coke.  New for this year was the dedicated soigneur, Ian.  That’s right, he drove up with us just to provide support.  I only wish I’d thought harder, ahead of time, about how to best equip him.  He had coolers and ice and I brought plenty of drink mix, but (being cheap) I didn’t bring enough bottles.  Ian had two fresh bottles for me at the beginning of the second climb, and another two after that, but then he was out of bullets so I gave him a baggie of drink mix I’d been carrying to mix up myself somewhere.  That made sense; he’d turned it into a nice bottle by the next—and last—time I saw him, and so I tried again, handing him my last baggie of drink mix as I went by.  He stared at it, like, “What did you give me this for?”

It was at this final water stop—something like 70 miles into the race, with one minor and one major climb still to come—that Craig decided to wait for me.  Despite being sick as a dog (he’d caught a nasty virus earlier in the week), he’d been off ahead of me all day, but often visible on the horizon like a blue-and-orange mirage.  On the first two climbs he’d distanced me by a fair bit, but I’d had better luck finding riders to descend with and had made up time.  On the flat sections he’d had particularly bad luck.  The problem was, by the time he decided to wait, I was pretty well knackered and would have been content to dink along at a humble pace.  Instead, I was determined to make good on his strategy.  Perhaps he foresaw all this, in which case you could say he dropped back to make a man out of me—to give me a chance to do something bold, like he’s the respected Indian brave and I’m the unproven upstart, with a humiliating name like Dribbles Down Leg or something, and after this heroic ride I’d get a cool new name, like Mans Up For Once.

For most of the (ironically named) Paradise section, up Old Sherwin Grade, Craig dragged me along.  I could just barely hang.  It wasn’t until Highway 395, which the race traverses for a short section to Tom’s Place, the beginning of the final climb, that I first put my nose in the wind.  We stopped briefly at the bottom (he got some water, I got a Coke—actually, it was a cup of Shasta, the volunteers volunteered) and then struck out for the final climb to Mosquito Flat.  (Why is “Flat” part of the name of so many peaks?)  Perhaps a third of the way up this, I started to feel strong for the first time in the race, just as the heat and altitude started to get to Craig.  I struck off alone (a hostage to my not-so-low gearing, to be honest).

After I had suffered for a great deal of time, a car came down the road toward me.  It was the race director, Steve Barnes, and he called out, “Three and a half miles to go!”  At this moment, it dawned on me that I was actually going to finish.  Sure, I’ve finished this race before, but this year was different:  after breaking my femur ten months ago, and having to re-learn how to walk, I wasn’t even sure EC was a realistic objective.  This race has been my singular goal for so many months, it was overwhelming to suddenly realize I was going to achieve it.  The memory of my long suffering, through countless physical therapy sessions and humbling training rides, was suddenly distilled into this moment.  I started crying.

So long as it doesn’t interfere with your breathing, crying is just fine during a race.  In fact, I think it gave me a boost.  After all, cycling legend Eddy Merckx was known for crying during races—a great many of them, in fact.  Perhaps I’d finally arrived as a suffering cyclist.  The tears didn’t last long and then, in the last couple miles, I passed two or three other Masters 35+ riders.  I made sure to pick it up a bit and blow by them good and fast, looking as composed as possible, to crush their morale and make sure they didn’t try to latch on.  Not very nice, I know, but this was a race.

At the finish, the food was a bit humbler than in previous years.  The Oreos were fake and there weren’t any quesadillas.  I did have a whole bunch of V-8 juice and Cokes, which hit the spot.  Thinking back, I really didn’t eat enough up there.  Maybe I was too knackered.  Or maybe too giddy:  though I didn’t confirm this until later, I was pretty sure I’d done the course faster than the year before.  (As it turns out, my time—6:09:26—was almost 6½ minutes faster.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is coming.)

I used the outhouse up there.  As outhouses go, it was brilliant.  Not stinky at all, and plenty of TP.  Something dawned on me in there:  you never have to worry about dodgy plumbing with an outhouse—there isn’t any.  You can do whatever damage you want and it just sits there, a seat over a hole over a pit, and takes it all.  (This is where EC is much more humane than La Marmotte:  the outhouse at the base of the Col du Galibier doesn’t even have a commode.  It’s just a hole in the floor with a couple of clown footprints to show you where to squat.)

John arrived after awhile, having endured terrible muscle cramps that stopped him cold, again and again.  He probably suffered more than any of us, and for longer.  Here are some snapshots of our gang maxin’ out at the summit.

At the pre-race meeting the race director had pointed out that support vehicles are allowed for all but the last climb of the race, to shuttle racers back to Bishop (saving us a pretty long and, under the circumstances, unpleasant schlep along Highway 395).  As we prepared to make the short descent to the van, John overheard somebody complaining about this.  “What?  People are getting rides back in cars?!  I can’t believe that!  What a bunch of limp dicks!” the dude cried.  I didn’t think of the proper comeback until much later:  “What … descending in the heat after an 89-mile race actually gives you a hard-on?”

For the data nerds among you, here are my climbing stats (power and heart rate):
- 285 watts at 154 bpm on the first climb;
- 260 watts at 153 bpm on the second climb;
- 240 watts at 148 bpm on the last climb.

Note that these are “dog-watts”—that is, they’re based on my rate of vertical gain, my speed, and my weight (f=mgh) without considering wind resistance, etc.


I won’t pretend there’s anything novel to report about our dinner at the Upper Crust Pizza Company.  This was our fourth year of dining there after Stage 1, and we followed the same strategy:  pizza appetizer, ultra-rich pasta entrée.  However, I would like to point out, mainly to my EC brethren (hi guys) that I worked really hard to be polite at that meal, though it may not have shown.  You all might think you know how much I eat, but in truth, you have no idea.  It almost killed me to eat only two slices of that pizza (and yes, I do feel guilty for that second slice, especially after watching guys cut slices in half).  If I were an asocial predatory beast, like my housecat, I’d have eaten the whole damn thing.  Then, after my entrée, which I’d easily have polished off, I’d have gone after your plates.  You see, even after eating some of Ken’s surplus lasagne and that basket of bread, I was far from truly full.  Imagine if you’d only been served a couple of Saltines:  that’s about how I felt.  Next year, I’m bringing an extra $20, and I’m going to order a whole damn appetizer pizza for myself.  Then you’ll see what I can really do.

To be continued...

That’s really enough for now, isn’t it?  Keep an eye on albertnet because the next installment of the 2012 EC saga is where things get dark.  If you can’t stand the smurfiness of this post and are developing a real appetite for Schadenfreude, I think you’ll enjoy reading about Stage 2.