Monday, September 29, 2014

From the Archives - Levi’s GranFondo Ride Report

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild vulgarity and drug and alcohol references.


It’s that time of year again: when I start getting constant e-mails from the outfit that puts on Levi’s Granfondo, which is a big organized bike ride. You could argue that this ride is too well organized: does every participant need to get regular newsletter updates for the six weeks leading up to it?

Conversely, you could argue that this ride is not well-organized enough: why am I still getting all the newsletters—which share logistical minutiae, tips & tricks, and encouragement—even though it’s been five years since I actually participated in the event and am not signed up for this one?

Anyway, this year’s e-mails reminded me of the ride, and of the report I’d filed with my bike club, which I present here for your amusement. This post’s target audience is actually even broader than Levi’s. Never heard of Levi Leipheimer?  He was a pro American cyclist who achieved spectacular results, with a little help from his team doctor.  Here is a photo of the two of us at a fund-raising dinner some years ago.

What?  You don’t care who Levi is?  No problem.  To enjoy this post, you don’t even have to care about cycling, so long you’re interested in food, violence, teenaged hooligans, live music, and/or booze.

(Coming next week:  my 2014 Everest Challenge race report, assuming I’ve recovered sufficiently to write it.)

Ride Report: Levi’s GranFondo – October 6, 2009

I had some feedback after my [2009] Everest Challenge report that I needed to mention the riding itself, not just the food. So I’ll try to remedy that in this report.

Dinner the night before was at Mary’s, a pizza/pasta chain. I had the veggie calzone; it looked like it had been run over by a car, and then vandalized with a cleaver. The goopy ricotta filling caused the inner wall of crust to be slimily uncooked. To top it off, the whole thing was way over-garlicked, like at that crummy restaurant on Columbus Ave in SF that the tourists love, the Crappy Rose or whatever. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Gary and Lisa, whose house I probably polluted horribly with my overpowering breathstench when I dropped by there to buy a Fizik saddle off Gary. My breath was still bothering me at bedtime; even my extensive dental hygiene regimen, topped off with a bunch of mouthwash, didn’t help.

That garlic really messed with my sleep. All night I dreamed I was smoking cigarettes. By morning my breath was worse than ever; I wanted to tear my mouth out and bury it. Breakfast was a 65-degree wedge of this weird ring-shaped coffee cake I found at the GranFondo breakfast table. Maybe it was a pound cake. It was eerily heavy and kind of damp, and it cost Levi’s people a mere $2.99 (assuming they’re Safeway club members). Sugar was the first of about 150 ingredients, printed on a long label that ran all the way past the clamshell opening of the plastic package and down the lower side, in a really tiny font. Not surprisingly, the cake was exceedingly sweet, and had these weird lemon-flavored crystals in it. It kind of squished in my teeth. The amazing thing, though, was that it instantly and completely wiped the garlic breath from my system. Some kind of crazy chemical reaction, I think. I was ecstatic.

The community center, where the GranFondo started, was teeming with people. There were 3,500 riders, 650 volunteers, 8 spectators, and about 3,400 Trek bicycles. I found Tim right away, but Mark was lost in the vast hordes. I tried to look for him, but it was like finding a speck of plankton within a blizzard of krill. I gave up just in time for the official start. In the first five minutes, we progressed 0.01 miles according to my bike computer. Fortunately, the announcer, Todd Gogulski, managed to keep us entertained. It was pretty chaotic, like a slow-motion stampede. I found it pointless trying to move up, because angry bikers extended all the way to the horizon. It was like a mass treadmill.

Once we were finally rolling, there was this self-appointed den mother in the group who was policing everybody’s behavior. She even chastised me: “Ride well to the right of the double yellow please, thank you,” and “Both hands on the bars please, thank you,” and “Put down the middle finger please, thank you.” (Okay, I made up that last part.) We shed a bunch of riders at the first rest stop by not stopping; I ate a couple of thick, chewy, tasty Powerbar gels instead.

We got into a decent group after that, making pretty good time to the second rest stop. Here, tech support found me futzing with my rear wheel, which sounded like it had a cracked rim when I applied the brakes. I feared the worst, but it was just a deep scratch in the rim, probably made by an angry Santa Rosa teen with a switchblade. The tech support guy sanded it down quick-fast-in-a-hurry. Presently Mark arrived; he’d been time-trialing flat-out for the whole ride to catch us.

The energy drink they gave us was pretty awful. So were the climbs, in the best possible way. At the second rest stop I ate a bunch of real Oreos, and a bunch of PBJs that were showcased by dozens of happy bees. I also had a turkey and cheese sandwich, not because it makes sense to eat such a thing during a ride, but because hey, free sandwich. I had potato chips too, and a cold Coke. Tech support gave me a 4mm allen for my cleats, which some angry Santa Rosa teen must have loosened up to try to ruin my GranFondo. There was a woman riding a single-speed, and I heard some crusty old veteran tell his pal, “She’s crazier than a pet raccoon.” (Later, upon seeing her again, we brainstormed other ways to made the ride needlessly harder, like slamming a hand in a car door first, or squirting Tabasco into our eyes.) Another interesting thing we saw at the rest stop was this bamboo bike. Its owner said it rides really well, but unfortunately grows like an inch a day.

During the first big descent, I thought, “Wow, this is pretty technical—these angry bikers better know what they’re doing.” Seconds later, I was about ten or fifteen feet behind this dude as we carved through a curve, and I don’t know what happened—his line was fine, his outside foot weighted to maintain rear wheel traction, etc.—but his front wheel suddenly washed out and he went down. The crash made that horrible indefinable grinding noise that crashes always make. I had front-row seats. I yelled out and braked to a stop and yelled for other riders to stop. (I always wish there was a guy like in “Mad Max” who, unfettered by a bike, could run up the road waving his arms and pleading, plaintively, “STOP! ... STOP!” but there never is.) But the guy scrambled off the road pretty quickly. He looked okay. I asked if he was okay, and he said, “I think so.” Others had stopped and I frankly wanted to start rolling again, so I took him at his word and continued on.

Moments later I remembered the little chart of translations: “I’m not okay” means “I’m really messed up,” and “I think I’m okay” means “I’m probably pretty messed up,” and “I’m okay” means “I might be really messed up but I won’t know until this supersize load of adrenaline wears off.” A minute or two later a fire truck roared by us toward the scene, sirens blaring. I felt bad, but hey—am I my brother’s keeper? Later, Mark proposed that I had crashed the guy. He probably still thinks this, or wishes it were the case. I found it hard to defend myself without offering an alternate explanation. The best I can do is that the guy hit a patch of black ice. I know it was too warm for that, but that’s sure what it looked like.

There was a bunch more climbing. Then we hit the coast, where the wind picked up mightily. The wind was mostly behind us, which a volunteer had predicted, yelling out to us, “There’s an 18% downhill, and then the wind is going to push you down the coast like a bat out of hell!” This led to an enthusiastic EBVC forum on the topic, “Will Hell eventually run out of bats?” We ultimately concluded that there must be bats continually slinking back into Hell. I invite you to coin and propagate a new expression based on this phenomenon. Anyhow, that was some wind. When it was behind us it was glorious, but when it came in from the side it was chilling, and made it hard to keep the rubber side down. Once, it actually blew me hard enough that my front wheel came off the ground and I almost went down. That’s never happened before.

At the penultimate rest stop (we skipped the last one) I had more chips and PBJs. I consumed nothing else during the ride except more energy drink, which was the worst I’ve ever had at any time or any place. It tasted like a cross between a variety of flavors: dog-hair-soiled lollipop; vinegar; urea; and bong water. Every drag from my bottle had me cussing like a really angry and profane sailor. (Yes, I have drunk bong water. An old roommate left some out and, having never seen it before, I thought it was tea and took a drink. And no, I have not drunk urea; that part was a joke.)

At the finish we couldn’t find the Fat Tire stall that would honor our coupons, so we settled on the cash stall where Matt bought us beers. If I ever race a crit with him, I’ll lead him out for every prime and at the end, even if I’m off the back. We sat on some hay bales, which were set up like bleachers, and drank. We were just in time for the live band, which I was dreading.

Most live bands suck; it’s like a law of physics. This one started up a cappella with this black guy belting out “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” and the thing was, his voice was great. So I willed the band not to spoil the music with their instruments. But to my amazement, they played really well, too. Then this white guy came up to the mike. (Note: I’m not trying to suggest anything about black vs. white. These are simple descriptors to help you keep the two singers straight.) I thought, “No, white dude, this song sounds great, don’t wreck it with your crappy voice!” But you know what? He sounded great, too! It was good times. Even the hay bales felt really comfortable after 6+ hours of the bike saddle. (Okay, I wasn’t technically seated for the whole ride, but wasn’t standing on the pedals enough to really air things out.)

Then we went to the Mexican food station, where darling little kids took our orders and presented our plates: rice, beans, and chicken soft tacos. I’ve had a lot of post-century-ride food, and this ranks way up there at the top. Problem was, I needed more. I went back and begged for seconds; perhaps the kids would have been amenable but an adult intervened, and he looked skeptical. I pleaded, “Even if it’s just more rice and beans.” He weighed the negligible cost of the rice and beans against the moral hazard (Mark’s phrase) of setting a precedent about seconds, and ultimately did give me more of the coveted sides. This simple fare, doused with salsa and graced with fresh cilantro, made a worthy second plate. Before I could quite finish the rice a big gust of wind flipped up my plate and I lost everything. But it was enough calories to get me home, where my mom, who was visiting, had made chicken enchiladas with homemade tomatillo sauce. My heart soared like a hawk.

In summary, Levi’s crew put on a good GranFondo ... just remember to BYOED.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ready for Everest Challenge 2014?


The one big race I do every year, the Everest Challenge Stage Race—two days of racing with 29,000 feet of vertical gain—is  coming right up.  In case that “29,000 feet” description doesn’t tell you much, consider that each stage of this race is like climbing a 5-mile staircase with 24,000 steps that would take you to the top of a 1,160-story building.  The first day is bad enough, but the second day is murder.  The third (and last) climb on the second day is, by itself, the equivalent of a two-mile staircase with 10,000 steps reaching the top of a 490-story building.

A friend asked recently, “Are you ready?”  It was not my wife who asked.  She knows better, having had quite enough of my blather.  It was my friend John who asked; he flew out from New York to race the EC two years ago.

I could have simply answered John directly, since he was reckless enough to ask and might actually be interested in the answer.  But why answer only him, when I could blog about it on albertnet, where other people, like my mom and a Russian hacker, might also see it?  Plus, maybe you’re considering racing the EC, or have already signed up, and are wondering more generally, what does it take to be ready for it? 

(Perhaps most importantly of all, this post will come in handy later, when the EC is over, as a retrospective building block for self-flagellation.)

My gut

My gut tells me that I’m ready.  But then, what does “ready” mean?  I’m very confident I can finish, since I have five times before.  Beyond this minimal sense, “ready” begs the question “Ready to do what?”  To a snowboarder, “ready” means “Ready to shred this gnar’!”  Which I’m totally ready to do, unless you’re talking about descending, where my modern chickenshit approach and undersized “big” chainring keep me decidedly within non-shredding, non-gnar territory.

So, what am I trying to do this year?  Well, after all the solid training I did last year, I ended up setting the wrong goal.  (I should have followed my own advice and not set a goal at all.)  I’d been so miserable on the final second-day climb in 2012, I vowed to take it easier in 2013 and pace myself better, especially on the first day.  (Day-to-day recovery is my Achilles heel.)  Did this strategy work?  Well, I certainly felt better on the second day’s last climb last year, but I was only 3 minutes 40 seconds faster ... and I was 20 minutes slower the first day.  So whatever suffering I saved myself then has been dwarfed by the year of self-loathing I’ve subsequently suffered.  (I’m reminded of a Steve Coogan line:  “Remember:  death is but a moment; cowardice is a lifetime of affliction.”)

So, this year, I’m going to try to man up and go as fast as I can, both days.  I know that sounds simplistic, but go try racing for more than twelve hours over two days and then decide if you still think this all-out business makes any sense at all.  So:  am I “ready” to go utterly destroy myself?  Well, can you ever be “ready” for that?  And conversely, aren’t we all born ready?

Of course, “my gut” doesn’t refer only to a subjective sense of readiness.  It also refers to whether or not I’m fat.  “Fat” in cycling parlance means having an abnormally low amount of body fat that is nonetheless still higher than what you wish you had.  I’m pleased to report that my fancy electrode-equipped scale tells me, as of a couple days ago, that I have 5.9% body fat. 

There’s some fine print, though:  you have to configure the scale with your height, age, and whether you’re an athlete or not.  This last setting probably tells the algorithm to simply lower the number so that the self-styled athlete doesn’t get pissed off and demand a refund on his crappy scale. 

The numbers

I keep a really detailed training diary.  I know, I know, I should use Strava for this, everybody keeps telling me that, but I don’t feel like sharing all my details with the world, especially if I’m updating the comments right after a workout and might write something untoward.  (The pro team Omega Pharma-Quick Step has a rule against riders tweeting within an hour of competition “when when emotions can be running high, and logic and reason can go out of the window.”)

Old-school Excel training diary in hand, I compared this year’s EC training to that of 2012.  (Of course how I prepared in 2013 is irrelevant, that race being an ugly smear on my memory.)  The below chart shows a comparison of the EC training period (beginning after vacation and ending in mid-September) for both years.  What I’ve discovered is that my preparation has been almost eerily similar:

Look at that.  Only ten seconds difference on Mount Diablo.  The biggest contrast is the number of Diablo ascents, but this year I did two fairly comparable rides in Colorado  (click here and here for details).  The difference in vertical gain might look like a lot, but actually, I gain that much vertical in just a couple of weekday (i.e., evening) rides.

Now, if I were a proper bike dork, I’d have a power meter and could look at all kinds of extraordinary numbers.  And in fact, it would help me during my rides as well.  I saw this in action last weekend when, on the second trip up Mount Diablo of the day, my pal Craig dropped my other pal, Ian, and me.  Craig just walked away from us (figuratively speaking).  At the summit, when Ian commented on this, Craig said humbly, “I was just watching my power meter and trying to keep it between 300 and 350 watts.”  To which Ian replied, “Yeah, I was just trying to keep mine between zero and 200.”

The requisite lugubrious day

I think it’s pretty unlikely that anybody training for a race like EC, and then racing it, will escape having a truly lugubrious day.  If he does, he’s either loafing too much (like I did last year) or is egregiously lubed like the pros.  (Yes of course I noticed that “egregiously lubed” is an anagram of “lugubrious leg guy,” except when it isn’t really, which is always.)

The trick, I think, is to get that lugubrious day out of the way during training so that you won’t have it during the race.  It’s like an insurance policy against having a particularly bad day when it really counts.  This almost worked in 2012 when I did a double-Diablo training ride fueled entirely by greasy dim sum, as chronicled here.  But I wasn’t quite miserable enough that day to call it lugubrious, which perhaps is why that last EC climb became my crowning lugubrious moment of the year.

What exactly do I mean by lugubrious?  Well, you know, just mournfully, pathetically, almost comically sad (though too sad for it to be funny).  This photo, I think, captures it pretty well.  Yes, I’m actually sobbing into my orange slices (after totally cratering in the 2003 La Marmotte).

So, you may be wondering, have I had my 2014 lugubrious moment?  Well, I almost got it out of the way really early, on January 1, when I raced the Mount San Bruno hill climb.  I went into the race angry, and was hoping to channel that anger into a great performance.  But as I wrote in my subsequent race report, “As I got dropped, I discovered that it’s possible to be bitter without being angry.  In fact, I just felt sad.”

Fortunately, that wasn’t my most miserable biking moment of 2014.  Nor was a frigid ride in the rain in February, though that experience was also awful enough to write about.  No, my worst ride of the year so far—which certainly deserves the lugubrious label—was my first double-Diablo after getting back from vacation (i.e., from missing almost three weeks of riding). 

Man, that ride was just awful.  I clocked abysmal times on the climbs, and couldn’t even keep up with my pals on the flat section back from the mountain.  (Because I’d taken so long on the climbs, Craig had to really motor to get home on time, and couldn’t wait up for me anymore.)  I finished up with over an hour of solo riding when I was barely able to turn the pedals.  By the end I was just totally shattered.  Everything hurt ... my legs, of course, and my butt, and also my forearms, my biceps, even my hands.  Even coasting hurt.  I came away from that ride feeling that the “good base mileage” rule is bogus—that I’d have been no worse off had I done no riding at all during the spring.  After that ride I was totally useless for five days straight.

(They say misery loves company, and I was duly cheered to learn that another pal on that ride fared even worse than I had.  Despite skipping the second trip up the mountain, he had to stop to lie down three times on the way home.)


All those stats I provided earlier may end up meaning nothing, as stats often do, so I should probably hedge my bet a bit with an omen.  I certainly have one to share, though whether it’s a good omen or not remains to be seen.

Last week I was hammering home through Tilden Park, at the tail end of an evening training ride, in the last moments of weak daylight before dusk set in, when I saw something swoop down from out of a tree.  Its trajectory was totally unlike that of a bird.  It came right at me and then swerved at the last second, but in the wrong direction so instead of going over my head, it went down and actually hit my thigh on its way past.  “What are you, blind?!” I thought, before realizing that yes, in fact, it was.  It had to have been a bat.  Moments after seeing it, I saw another creature of the same size and odd flight style, but this one was silhouetted against the horizon and was definitely a bat.  I got home and googled “bats Tilden park Berkeley,” and sure enough, bats can be found here.  Or they can find you.  (The other odd creature I’ve been seeing lately, but on Mount Diablo, is the tarantula.  I’ve seen three of them in the last month.)

So, what does it mean to be hit by a bat while riding?  Stay tuned to albertnet, because in early October I’ll give you the a full report on the 2014 Everest Challenge:  what I ate, and how badly I destroyed myself, and thus whether being hit by a bat is a good or bad omen.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow, Vuelta a España 2014, Stage 20


I know nobody follows the Vuelta a España.  It’s not nearly as prestigious as the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, and it comes during football season when even the most diehard cycling fan is glued to ... wait, what am I saying?  It’s impossible to be both a cycling and football fan.

Anyway, since you can’t be bothered to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday (except to ride), and no major cable network carries this virtually unknown race, I’m doing you the service of fighting with messy Internet feeds to get some live coverage so I can give you a blow-by-report that differs from, say, the cyclingnews one in a couple of major ways.  First of all, I get into much more detail about what the racers are thinking, where they get their hair done, etc.  Two, I spell everything correctly.  Three, I don’t have to bite my tongue when (right or wrong) I don’t like something a rider is doing (e.g., doping, being inelegant, having a funny name) and so I pretty much tell the whole story.  The real story.  The as-I-see-it story.  Sometimes an unrelated story here or there.  So here you go.

Stage 20 – 2014 Vuelta a España

It’s a great stage today.  Arguably the hardest of the whole Vuelta, with certainly the most brutal mountaintop finish.  Here’s the profile.

My Internet feed absolutely sucks.  It’s going about as fast as Cadel Evans in this Vuelta.  It’s more of a slide show, really.

As I join the action, the riders have got 47 km to go.  There’s a breakaway of four guys:  Wout Poels (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Maxime Mederel (Team Europcar), Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida), and Jerome Coppel (Cofidis).  Wout’s manager is surely yelling “Wout, Wout, Wout!” through the radio.  Przemyslaw’s manager just calls him “Slaw,” and in fact nobody on the team can pronounce this guy’s name.  His parents can’t even pronounce it.  It doesn’t matter, though, because none of these names will become a household word because the gap is down to under five minutes and there are still two huge climbs to come:  the Category 1 Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas (Climb of the Folgers Crystals) and the Beyond Category Puerto de Ancares (Port of Apathy).

I’m on some Spanish site.  I knew I should have studied that language!  There’s a chat window alongside the video feed and the astute comments I see are “Vai!!! Vai!!! Vai!!! Froome!!! :-)” and “aru!!!”  So it’s nice to see Americans don’t have a monopoly on lameness when it comes to the amateur pundit game.

My online correspondent is having no luck with his Internet feed either.  Maybe the hacking group, Anonymous, is behind this:  shutting down certain video streaming websites to protest the jocks that used to pick on them in junior high gym class.

So, while I’m waiting for Eurosport announcer (and former champion) Sean Kelly to finish the sentence he started 30 seconds ago (before my feed froze again), here’s what’s happened so far in this Vuelta (since I know you haven’t been paying any attention because it’s only the Vuelta).  The Colombian favorites are out (Rigoberto Uran Uran and Nairo Quintana).  Quintana crashed in the time trial while leading the race, which is a shame.  And Uran Uran is too young to understand why older guys call him “Duran Duran,” which is also a shame.  Plus he got sick and dropped out. 

It’s 27 km to go and I’ve missed most of the last 20 km but I have a solid feed now.  The gap from the break to the peloton is down to 1:25.  The leaders are still on the penultimate climb.

So back to the recap:  the American hopeful, Andrew Talansky (Garmin Sharp) is way down in 56th place.  My favorite rider, Cadel Evans, is doing scarcely better, in 46th.  The defending champion, Chris Horner, didn’t get to start the race because his team decided he was just too damn old and with these new “elder abuse” laws on the books, they couldn’t afford to take the risk.  Well, I guess that’s not exactly what’s going on.  They decided his cortisol levels were too low so he wasn’t healthy enough to ride.  This is in keeping with the MPCC (Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Credible) which Horner’s team, Lampre-Merida, is voluntarily participating in.  Team Sky, meanwhile, doesn’t participate in MPCC because, according to their spokesman, “We don’t need to be a part of that program because we asked our guys if they doped and they clearly said no, and they would never lie.”

Speaking of Team Sky, I see that their domestique Vasil Karienka (who is wearing “the horse face” according to Kelly, whatever that means) is at the front of the Sky train hammering the pace at the front as they’ve been doing all day and for the last few weeks.

So, getting back to the status of the race overall.  Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is leading the GC by 1:19 over Chris Froome (Team Sky).  Froomie had a lousy time trial, which puts his pharmacist in a really tough spot, but Froomie has lately been riding better so he might well try something on the brutal Puerto de Ancares, which is 13 km (8 miles) at 8.7%, with pitches of 18%.

Contador crests the final summit of the sawblade Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas in first place, perhaps to send Froome a message but more likely because his mom is watching the stage today but will miss the finish due to a hair appointment.

So, this stage may be the final battle of this Vuelta because tomorrow’s time trial is really, really short.  The GC contest is really between Contador and Froomestrong, because the perennial Spanish stage-race also-rans, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Team Katusha), are no better than they ever are.  I think those two always vie for the final podium spot but get no higher than that, which is fine with me.  Valverde is a known doper, and Rodriguez has this thing where his upper lip gets pushed up way above his teeth, which combined with his overbite is aesthetically unsightly.  I know I should be kinder than that, especially since the poor guy has to put up with everybody spelling his name wrong all the time (i.e., Joaquin, as cyclingnews spells it) and he deserves better.  But that’s just how I roll.

The gap is down to 48 seconds between the doomed breakaway and the peloton.  They’re on the final descent before that brutal finishing climb.

The other big thing you have to know about this race is that a few days ago, a couple of the racers got in a fistfight, while riding!  It was awesome ... everybody else in the pack started chanting “Fight!  Fight!  Fight!” just like in junior high.  No, of course I made that part up, but the fistfight was real.  You can see here a video of Gianluca Brambilla (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) being told by the race officials, who are yelling at him from their car, that he’s out of the race.  (Footage of the actual fight starts about a minute into the video).  You should check it out ... it’s something to see.  Brambilla keeps gesticulating, as angry Italians often do, and then sitting up and riding no-handed.  I guess he figured “That’ll show ‘em!” and I can only hope he doesn’t do that when he’s riding in traffic and some car cuts him off.  That could be dangerous.    

So, were Brambilla and his foe, Russia’s Ivan Ronvy (Tinkoff-Saxo) ejected due to unsporting behavior?  No, it’s a bit more complicated than that.  The director of the race simply felt that their fight was disgraceful because they were such pansies about it.  And I have to agree.  They punch like little girls would if little girls threw punches.  I’ll bet any boxer could do a better job climbing the Puerto de Ancares than these guys did duking it out.  So needless to say, neither rider was given the day’s Combativity award.

It’s not the first time poor fighting skills have gotten people into trouble.  I got in a fight in my junior high gym class and landed what I thought was a pretty good punch.  It made the other guy’s mouth bleed, which I kind of felt bad about and kind of felt great about.  So then the guy started screaming and trying to kick me, and I dragged him over to the gym teacher.  To my amazement, the teacher—a war veteran, it was said—yelled at me:  “I saw the whole thing!  What is this—you land one good punch and then you come to me for help?  You don’t just hit a guy once!  You hit him again and again!”  I was bewildered.  Was this some reverse-psychology thing?  Anyway, I didn’t actually get in trouble, but having a crazy war veteran yell at you is overrated, as life experiences go.

The break is down to 17 seconds.  Sky is absolutely drilling it on the front.  It’s nothing but black jerseys and they’re taking the field apart.  Froome is sitting in third.  He’s easy to make out because his elbows stick out to the sides.  It’s really awful to look at.  The Eurosport announcer, Carleton I think he’s called, said the other day, “Froome is not flicking his elbow out to ask Contador to help ... his elbows always stick out.”

Is Sky setting the stage for an awesome come-from-behind GC victory for their man?  Could be.  Brailsford, the Sky team manager, said yesterday, “I think Froome can still win this Vuelta.”  But Brailsford also said, back in July, “It’s best not to put Bradley Wiggins in the Tour,” and said a couple years ago, “Blackberry doesn’t need to do a touch-screen ... the iPhone is a flash in the pan.”

Wow, Anna is calling me!  And she has pretty big hooters!  How do I close this pop-up without accepting the call?  I can’t handle that kind of distraction!

Man, this grade is brutal, and the road surface is medieval.  Rodriguez makes an attack!  It’s a pretty good one, too.  There’s 9K to go.

The lead group is really small now, like eight guys.  J-Rod, or “J-Wad” as he’s unaffectionately known in some circles, is still looking quite strong.  My online correspondent says of him, “He’s like an untrained porn star,” by which I think he means that J-Rod often attacks too early and blows his wad long before he’s supposed to.

Froomie is drilling it on the front with Bertie right on his wheel, out of the saddle, doing that slightly duck-footed lazy mongoose sway he’s so fond of (and which seems so effective).

J-Rod is bobbing a bit, but looking pretty solid, and he’s not doing the white man’s overbite yet.  Maybe today is finally his day.

To Contador’s credit, he isn’t wearing red shorts to match his red leader’s jersey.  His gloves and shoes are the same yellow his teammates get.  For that reason, and because his elbows don’t stick out, I’m hoping he’ll keep the lead today even if he is a filthy doping scoundrel.

It’s 17 seconds between J-Wad and the GC group.  Valverde is off the back.  Anna is calling again.  Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) is clinging for dear life.

J-Rod is only 2:29 behind Contador in the GC, but they can give him a bit of leash.  Contador has been doing this a lot:  letting, for example, Froomie go on ahead so that Valverde and Rodriguez have to chase while he, the accountant, sits on.  I’d have to say, those two podium hopefuls have done a lot more to help Contador than his Tinkoff-Saxo team has.

Wow, J-Rod is making it happen ... his lead is now 26 seconds.  There are time bonuses in this race, too.  Maybe he’s hoping Froome and/or Contador will blow up trying to close the gap.

Aru is just barely hanging on to the others.  Froome starts totally hammering on the front!  Whoah, Valverde is totally getting dropped!  It’s unbelievable how quickly he’s going backward.  Froome is going incredibly fast, and looking really awful with his long, skeletal arms out ahead of him like a zombie’s.

It’s 5.9 km to go and my feed has evaporated, straight up vacated.  Dang it!  I’ve hit refresh but all that’s done is get Anna calling again.  Okay, now I can at least hear again and eventually can close these pop-ups.

The next kilometer averages 13%.  In case you have no idea what that means, it’s just really, really steep.  Probably twice as steep as that awful climb between your house and the video store.

Froome and Contador have caught J-Rod.  Froome sits up and rides no-handed while he futzes with his sunglasses or something, and has now stepped up the pace.  I guess he’s trying to psych out Contador. 

Man, this grade is nuts!  It’s 14%!  Froome looks solid though he’s bobble-heading a bit.  Contador looks a bit tired, but I mean, duh!  He’s been racing for three weeks!  He’s wagging his jaw, but then he always does that.  Probably does that at the dinner table.  Froome’s neck must be tired as he keeps staring at the ground and then looking up, again and again.  Maybe he’s trying to burp.

It’s 4.4 km to go.  Camera switches back to Aru to show how he’s all alone and just suffering away.  Aru punched Froomie’s ticket at the end of a recent stage and took the win, so he can’t be too bummed now.  So the top five on the GC are the top five on the road at the moment.

J-Wad is dropped!  Did I call it, or what?

Froome is so gaunt, he’s at real risk of having his jawbone slice through his flesh.  It can’t be comfortable having less than 1% body fat.  I mean, how does he even sleep at night?  And how does he shave?  What does he even eat ... rice cakes?  He’s a mystery, this guy, or maybe a space alien.

It’s just Froomeboy and Bertie on the front now, about 3 km to go.  I’m starting to think this is a stalemate, unless the race officials command them to ride no-handed from here on out just to make it more interesting.  Wouldn’t that be great, if race officials could issue such commands, like the DJ at the roller rink who would sometimes say, “Now, skaters, turn around and skate the other way!” or “Everybody skate backwards!”

Carleton says, “The road is only 2% now, that’s nothing, but soon it kicks up rather rudely!”  I love these British announcers, in a strange way.  No, not that way.  I mean I love what they say.  Or more precisely, I don’t love what they say but I like listening to them say it.

Valverde is suddenly bearing down on these guys with a quickness.  

Froome is frowning, as if thinking, “I don’t like this at all!  I don’t like Contador and I don’t like this climb and I don’t like this sport!  But it pays better than being an extra in a zombie movie, which was my only other offer, so I guess I’ll continue on.”  

My daughter Alexa has pointed out that Froome’s jersey sleeve says “FROOMEY” on it.  Are you kidding me?!

Now he’s out of the saddle and his elbows are sticking out farther than ever ... it’s really ghastly.  But it’s no good, Contador cannot be dropped.  So all Froome is achieving is to help Contador pad his lead over the other Spaniards.

Contador will probably make a huge effort at the very end—the first time he’ll face the wind all day—to get the bonus seconds, since you can never have a big enough lead facing the final time trial.

Wow, there he goes!  Contador has attacked.  He’s grimacing and just absolutely killing it.  He really has the edge.  He’s got that George Mount grin (and if you don’t know who George Mount is, don’t sweat it—he’s even older than Duran Duran).  Dang, Contador is really pulling away.  I can just see the slight scarecrow figure of Froomie, in his cadaverous black kit, back in the distance.  Man, this finale is super-steep and Contador knows what the hell he’s doing.

I just hope that, when the time comes, he won’t do that pistolero victory salute where he mimes shooting a handgun.  This guy’s upper body is so spindly, he couldn’t take the recoil of a cap gun.

He’s got the win!  And he actually put both hands up in the air, like a proper winner!  What a pleasant surprise! 

Froome staggers in a bit later ... 16 seconds the final gap.

Valverde crosses the line almost a minute down.  And here comes J-Wad, upper lip stuck way the hell up there, totally bummed.  The rest of the peloton will come over in dribs and drabs over the next couple hours.

“I’m not suggesting he’s yodeling,” Carleton says of Contador.  Does this Eurosport announcing gig have a two-drink minimum or something?

The big loser of the day is Irishman Dan Martin (Garmin Sharp) who lost over 3 minutes, slipping from 6th to 7th overall.  He remains the only English speaker in the top 10.

And Contador gets his penultimate red jersey and a kiss from the podium girls.  I hope these women get hazard pay, having to kiss a sweaty cyclist every day.

Well, that about wraps it up ... this stage, my coverage, and the overall race since tomorrow’s time trial is only 10 km in length.  Nothing more to see here, move along, move along ... go mow the lawn or something ... make yourself useful.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Don’t Smell a Rat


What is this expression “I smell a rat”? It’s weak on two levels. In the strictly olfactory sense, it makes no sense: I’ve never smelled a rat, even when in close proximity to one. (“I smell a skunk” makes perfect sense, but not rat.) Two, in the figurative sense, why does a rat connote something unsavory? Why is it, when someone commits a treacherous act, we call him a rat? I can find no zoological basis for this. Why not pick on the cuckoo? It parasitically lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, and then the cuckoo chick, soon after hatching, pushes the host’s eggs out of the nest. Now that’s treachery.

I’ve been thinking about rats lately because I have one. Not a pet, but an interloper, hanging out in my backyard eating seeds and/or their shells which fall from the bird feeder. I am deeply conflicted about what I should do, if anything, about this rat, and how I ought to feel about it. This post explores those feelings in an effort to make you (and me) laugh, think, and feel uncomfortable.

Why we hate rats

If you look closely at a rat, you’ll see that—wait, probably you won’t see much because you’ll have this automatic gross-out response and won’t really look that carefully. But if you look closely at a photo of a rat, or at a rat that’s securely confined, you may conclude that it’s almost cute. It’s just that long, thick tail that is so unpleasant. On top of this we equate rats with the bubonic plague. (Rat lovers point out that the disease wasn’t the fault of the rats, exactly, but of the fleas that bit them; I’m reminded of the NRA slogan, “Guns don’t kill people—people do,” and Eddie Izzard’s rejoinder, “Yeah, but I think the gun helps, you know?”)

I’ve done a cursory Google search on why people hate rats, and the only unexpected thing I turned up was this conspiracy theory: the scientific community teaches us to hate rats so we won’t mind when cruel experiments are done on them. I’m not sure I buy this; I don’t think that the Animal Testing Industrial Complex has influenced me much at all. I’m aware that a) this research saves human lives, and b) lab rats really are cute. So, it’s a toss-up whether or not it’s okay with me. Given world enough and time, I might think harder about the ethical implications, but I instead I just lump animal testing into the same category as “ugly, hairy people having sex.” That is, I’m aware that it goes on, but it’s not happening right in front of me, and I don’t have anything to do with it, so I’m fine shoving the fact of it into a dark corner of my brain and forgetting about it.

Lots of amateur Internet pundits decry the poor treatment rats have in movies, TV, and other media, and I think that’s a fair criticism. Even E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, while making the death of a pig and even a spider seem unthinkably tragic, reinforces the image of a rat as gross, greedy, and opportunistic. There are limits to how persuasive such media are, though, because I really do think the typical human response to a rat is more visceral than rational. We’re not taught to hate rats … it’s instinctive.

Being a homeowner, of course, gives me particular sensitivities. As a renter I thought earthquakes were kind of fun; now I find them horrifying. Similarly, when I see a rat in my backyard, I’m not just responding to the rat itself. I’m responding to the idea of an infestation—after all, rats breed like, well, rats. Whereas one rat might be aesthetically tolerable, a dozen or two would bring on abject terror, like something out of Hitchcock.

People keep rats as pets, and I’ll bet I could find somebody’s pet rat cute. Rats are known to groom themselves, just like cats. But the big difference, I think, is domestic versus feral. A rat in your backyard is not the equivalent of the neighbor kid; it’s the equivalent of a finding a filthy homeless dude sprawling in your deck chair.

Is it okay to kill rats?

I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind to knock off this rat.  The first time I saw it, I threw a shoe at it.  There was no moral dilemma here, because I knew full well I had no chance of actually hitting it—my arm isn’t that good.  I just hoped to scare it off.  Well, it scurried out of the way, but didn’t even leave the yard.  I fetched the shoe and tried again, and this time it left, but only for awhile.  This technique may work on housecats, but only because they have very little to gain from being in your yard.  A rat is of course totally unfazed, which is just one more reason we don’t like them.  We humans are accustomed to striking terror into the hearts of lesser beasts, and when we don’t, it’s natural to feel offended.

I’m disinclined to make sweeping moral statements about man’s right to kill animals, because I eat meat and wear leather shoes.  (Though a vegan can claim higher ground, he may be a bit of a hypocrite if he puts flea medicine on his cat, allows countless insects to splat on his windshield, or subsists on an agriculture that surely disrupts habitats, displacing all manner of wildlife.)  Obviously I have no problem with killing animals, but I also don’t believe it’s okay to be cruel.  (This means, of course, that I have to eat organic eggs,  organic chicken, and grass-fed beef.  The package of some beef I bought recently said not only that it was organic, local, and grass-fed, but that the cows were encouraged to socialize.  Hell, I was never encouraged to socialize.  Those cows may have had a better life than I have!)

I have killed one rodent in my life.  This was back in the ‘90s.  I was sharing a tiny apartment in San Francisco with my wife.  Upon discovering a mouse, she jumped up on a chair, shrieking and flapping her arms.  After I recovered from my laughing fit, I went to the hardware store and bought a trap.  I think it was marketed as a non-cruel trap, as it had no spring.  But it worked by trapping the mouse’s feet in goo.  This ended up being cruel because the mouse would have worked itself to death trying to escape.  Its piteous squeaking got to me, and I put it out of its misery via swift, blunt force.

Cruelty, ethics, and affectation

I took a trip to Boulder, my hometown, recently and while I was there I fell into conversation with a very interesting blue-collar guy.  (I’ll call him G—.)  G— has a friend who runs a coffee shop.  This friend (I’ll call her F—) is dog-friendly—she even has a water dish on the premises for dogs—but she freaked out when a rat showed up.  So she poisoned it.  Per the directions on the poison, she removed the doggie dish, because if a poisoned rat can find water, it’ll drink enough to dilute the poison and will live.  This rat staggered out into an alley, where some college kids found it. 

For the sake of the story, let’s assume—because it’s how this was described to me—that these were silly trust fund kids taking a break from their drum circle.  They gathered around trying to rescue the rat, but weren’t sure what to do, other than blow the smoke from their medicinal marijuana in its face.  (Okay, I made that part up.)  F— was afraid they’d bring the rat into her shop and ask for water, which would put her in an awkward position.  So she called G—.  He showed up and wasn’t sure what to do either.  Fortunately for him, the rat soon entered its death throes, at which point G— went into the shop and fetched a broom and dustpan.  When he returned to the alley the rat was dead, and the trustafarians were standing over it looking grief-stricken.  G— asked, “Are you guys done with that rat?” and then, getting no response, swept it into the dustpan and chucked it in the dumpster.  Whether or not G— was callous enough to poison a rat himself, he evidently couldn’t resist the temptation to tweak the do-gooders.

It’s the kind of story I laughed hard at, but then felt sheepish about enjoying so much. After all, the concerned citizens were just trying to be good, just like I do. But they were getting all worked up about an individual member of the species, whereas it’s not at all clear they care much about rodent welfare in general. They have to know that in countless urban environments rats are killed by spring traps and poisoned as a matter of course. How much of their concern in this case was ideological, vs. a cozy, brief indulgence in a warm bath of virtue and magnanimity?

I try to be good, but I also try not to be sanctimonious.  For example, I quietly forego pâté de foie gras, because I’ve heard horror stories of how its producers force-feed geese to enlarge their livers—but I acknowledge inwardly that, pâté being expensive and not that tasty anyway, it’s an easy enough thing to boycott.  And I haven’t joined any campaign against pâté, because a) I’m a busy guy and can’t chase down every societal ill I come across, and b) given the widespread knowledge of the hellish conditions facing factory-farmed cows, pigs, and chickens—which everybody eats—doesn’t it seem odd that there’s such an outcry against a food so expensive that practically nobody eats it?

Rationalizing rat-icide

Getting back to whether or not to kill this rat:  if I decided to let it be, might I not feel pretty stupid if it bit one of my kids and gave her a terrible disease?  Perhaps.  But before using my kids as an excuse to rid my home of vermin, I should really do some research.  After all, many a Marin County parent would look pretty stupid applying such rationale, because so many of them are creating a much larger risk by refusing to vaccinate their kids against terrible diseases that—far more recently than the bubonic plague—have been epidemics.

I could argue that, my own kids having been vaccinated, killing this rat is just taking the next step to prevent the spread of disease.  But then I’d have to admit that I know nothing about the rate of disease in rats versus squirrels, and can’t be bothered to research it.  A squirrel has been raiding our bird feeder for months, but he’s a cute fellow with a big bushy tail, and it’s fun to watch him climb straight down the string toward the feeder, and we wouldn’t dream of killing him.  The fact is, squirrel and rat behaviors are roughly the same, whereas the rat alone is icky—and that’s highly questionable justification for rubbing him out.

The elegant solution

Of course there’s a very simple solution to this problem:  the cat.  Except in the case of toxoplasmosis, a rat will generally avoid a cat’s hunting ground, and our cat is probably why our backyard has been rat-free for so long.  But perhaps this rat is smart enough to realize, having had hundreds of opportunities to witness our cat’s laziness, that she doesn’t pose the slightest threat.

So the last time I saw the rat, I ran inside and grabbed Misha.  I brought her outside, hoping the rat would still be there.  It was.  I set Misha down about four feet away and she’s either totally blind and unable to smell, or simply has zero interest in hunting.  She didn’t make a single move toward that rat, which trotted away with what seemed like an annoying air of joie-de-vivre.  Misha then plopped herself down on the warm flagstones to relax.  I snapped this photo moments later.

So, as far as removing pests, Misha is worthless.  Many argue that all cats are useless.  Of course I disagree; a cat is very elegant, and nice to have on your lap or in your bed.  But as easy as cats are to keep, their companionship has a price.  As I sit here typing, Misha is meowing her head off for her dinner.  Plus, I have the ongoing ritual of fishing her turds and clumped-up urine balls out of the cat box.  At night she sometimes scratches at the door.  When we go  on vacation we have to get somebody to look after her.

The rat, meanwhile, is utterly self-sufficient and quiet.  If I can get past that tail, and its classification as filthy vermin, and start to look upon it as a pet, maybe my problem will be solved.


Do you smell a rat?  Because I don’t.  All I smell is the cat box.

Epilogue:  Our hero!

Well, less than a day after I originally posted this, the rat ordeal is over.  It seems I have greatly underestimated Misha, our 14-year-old cat, and I owe her an apology.  Her finest hour came this afternoon:

She was so proud.  She paraded the rat around, bringing it to every door hoping to be let in so she could take a victory lap around the house.  Honestly, I didn't think she had it in her!  I guess that rat didn’t either....