Monday, August 24, 2015

Adopting a Kitten in the Modern Era


Are you considering adopting a cat?  Has it been awhile since you did this?  Or do you just like cats and/or think I can make you laugh?  Well then, read on.  I adopted a kitten recently and have a few tips to offer.

I am not including photos.  The World Wide Web is replete with cute cat photos.  Okay, you get one:

Should I adopt?

If, like me, you are a human, you cannot conceive a kitten and birth it.  This has never been accomplished.  So you almost have to adopt.  Almost?  Well, you can always work with a breeder and pre-order a kitten; it’s kind of like having custom cabinets made for your kitchen.  I don’t know anything about kitten pre-ordering, because I’m too cheap for it.  (Plus, the members of my household could never agree on a breed anyway.)

I like to adopt from the pound, the shelter, the Humane Society … whatever they call the local clearing house for unwanted or otherwise stray pets.  Not only is this (almost) free, but procuring your cat at such a place gives you a bit of the do-gooder feeling, which in my case assuages the guilt I carry around about not donating more money to charity, not volunteering, etc.

Changes to the Adoption Process

I can only speak for California, but since the last time I adopted a cat—15 years ago—laws have cropped up that significantly change the pound/shelter animal adoption experience.  Animals are now required to be healthy, spayed/neutered, and have all their vaccinations.  I suspect this changes the general level of care they’re getting, because last time, it was a grim scene.  When I got my last cat 15 years ago, the animals at the pound seemed really stressed because there were miserable dogs howling at all times.  There was almost an underground, black-market feel to the whole thing.  I spied a little kitten who looked cute; my wife said, “Fine, grab her, let’s get out of here,” and we went to the counter.  “I found a kitten I like,” I told the guy.  He glared at me and said, “There are lots of kittens I like here.”  Abashed, I replied, “Let me rephrase that.  I found a kitten I like so much, I want to take her home.”  He said, “That’s more like it.”  I forked over like $50, he put the kitten in a box, and we left.  We were in there for maybe five minutes.

Though that was inarguably convenient, that original kitten ended up being really sick.  She had worms, ear mites, an eye infection, and a nasal infection.  She refused to eat for days, until I figured out that she couldn’t smell her food and didn’t know what it was.  When I shoved her snout into the bowl, she was like, “Oh, wow, food!  And just in time—I’m starving!”  One expensive trip to the vet and several prescriptions later, she was healthy as a horse.  Probably healthier.  Though we never knew her birthdate, she lived for about fifteen years.  Rest her soul.

The other thing that’s different now is that you can scope out your prospective pet in advance, online.  I suppose it’s a bit like online dating, though that’s just a wild guess (I’ve been married since before the World Wide Web was popular).  My older daughter is the one who discovered the online pet photos.  She found one kitten that was so insanely cute we all fell in love with her—only to discover that she was at the pound in Albany, Minnesota, not Albany, California.  (My daughter is still honing her online search skills.)

Of course my kids jumped the gun on the kitten search, which meant we saw a couple animals malingering.  I think it’s a bit sad seeing the same kitten online every day for two weeks … nobody wants her, I thought, so maybe we should just rescue her.  But is that any way to choose?  (According to this logic, we should all be adopting the old, haggard, dandruff-y cats.  But I’m not a saint.  I don’t want a used pet.)

The pound’s website isn’t perfect.  First of all, the kitten we thought we wanted—because she looked the cutest in the photos—didn’t end up having a tail.  I’m not saying this was a bait-and-switch, just that the photos didn’t happen to capture that characteristic.  I prefer a cat with a tail.  That doesn’t make me a bad person, does it?  Surely somebody will want the adorable Manx kitten.  Anyway, the other shortcoming of the website was that there were lots more kittens at the pound than were represented on the website.  I think these shelters are almost always on a shoestring budget.  They’re no Amazon.

Some hoops to jump through

 Our pound has some weird “adoption hours.”  They’re closed most days, and don’t open until 11 a.m.  Maybe their idea is to make sure no deadbeats try to adopt.  If you can manage to show up at the right time, you’re obviously fairly organized.  Maybe you’ll remember to change the litter box.

Another hurdle was their pre-adoption questionnaire.  My brother had warned me about this.  Perhaps the current generation is so often asked to participate in focus groups and such, their guard is down and they think companies are just curious about their buying habits—but make no mistake about it, the pre-adoption questionnaire is more like an application.  I suspect that if you answer wrong, they can disqualify you from adopting, just like with humans.

For example, the form says, “What do you plan to do if a member of your household becomes allergic to cats?”  This must be a common excuse people use for getting rid of a cat.  I guess it would ease your conscience; you can think, “Hey, I was prepared to give this cat a loving home, but it’s more important to protect my child’s health.”  I’d guess that response on this questionnaire would be a deal-breaker.  I considered responding, “I will find a large, vacant field and abandon the human there.”  But I didn’t want to seem like an aleck (smart or otherwise) so I just put, “I would treat the human.”

The form also asked (rather casually, I thought), “Have you considered declawing your cat?”  Of course not.  Trick question.  Answer yes on that, and you’re going home with a stuffed animal.  (At least, you should.)

The weirdest question was, “Why do you want a cat?”  My first impulse was just to write, “Well, DUH!!!!!!”  That’s not very precise, though, so I considered writing, “I am moved by their essential felinity.”  But there were several unpaid interns milling around (recognizable by their “UNPAID VOLUNTEER INTERN” t-shirts) and I wasn’t sure the abstract response would be properly construed.  I started to feel a bit irritated by this question.  Chances are there were wrong answers (i.e., that could get me disqualified), but what would they be?  “I hope this cat will shore up my marriage.”  Or, “I actually don’t want a cat.  My kids do.”  Or, “Cats may be kept until needed or sold.”  Figuring out the worst possible response became a game:  “Cats are useful when you dabble in the occult.”  Ultimately I wrote, “We love cats,” and then—for good measure—“We will love this cat.”

The microchip

The various documents we were given mentioned a microchip.  I’d heard of this before.  I consider it one of those options, pet insurance being another, that I would eschew.  But when we went through our pet adoption tutorial, given by a staffer, we learned that the microchip is not optional.  These are implanted in every animal as a matter of course.  Our kitten already has one.

I suppose this makes sense, and explains why the questionnaire didn’t ask, “In the event your pet is lost, will you print hundreds of full-color posters and plaster them on every lamppost and telephone pole in your neighborhood?” 

I actually find the idea of the microchip a bit creepy, and I have to wonder whether the company that maintains this system will actually delete my kitten’s info from the database when I refuse to pay the ongoing, lifelong registration fee.  That would be kind of mean.

There is another benefit to the microchip, by the way.  If you access the web portal—the same one where you put in your kitten’s name and address—and add a credit card number to your profile, you can use your kitten as an mobile wallet, at any retail location where POS terminals support Near Field Communication (NFC).  (Yes, of course I made that up.)

Highlights of the tutorial

The person who gave us the tutorial on pet care was very knowledgeable.  I had not known, for example, that cats who are allowed to roam outdoors as they please will live, on average, only 5 or 6 years.  We explained what we did with our last cat, which was to keep her indoors for the first 2 or 3 years, after which we started letting her outside since she never left our yard anyway.  “Being indoors early on kind of shrunk her world, so she wasn’t inclined to stray far,” I explained, suddenly feeling a bit worried that our adoption application would now be revoked.  To my relief the staffer said, “That seems like a really good strategy!”  (I did not add, “Well, I understand it’s becoming very common with human children as well.  They call it ‘failure to launch.’”)

The staffer asked us, “Have you owned a cat before?”  Was this another trick question?  I think the perfect response would have been, “If you’re asking whether we’ve been the human guardians of a companion animal previously, why then, yes, we have.”  These are the terms that the City of Berkeley officially adopted years ago in favor of those hopelessly outdated and thoughtless terms, “owner” and “pet.”  But before I could decide how to respond, my wife and kids said, “Yes!” and the tutorial continued.  Whew!

The staffer recommended we keep the kitten in the bathroom for the first couple of days, lest she become overwhelmed.  We certainly hadn’t done this with our previous kitten, who was given full run of the place right off—not that she took advantage of it.  The whole first day she’d hid under a bed, and on the second day, when we saw her walking around—“On all four legs, just like a cat!” I blurted out stupidly—we were filled with a strange sense of pride.  Anyway, we were quick to agree with this bathroom strategy, but I felt I should come clean about something:  because our house has only one bathroom, it’s like Grand Central Station in there.  But before I could say this, the staffer said, “It’s good with all the coming and going because the kitten can gradually get to know you.”  Fair enough, though with the smells we humans make in there, I don’t see how this is putting our best foot forward.

One other question that caught me off-guard was, “Do you think it’s a good idea to touch a kitten’s face and ears, which she might not like, right off the bat?”  Given the advice about sequestering the kitten, I figured the answer was “no.”  But my kids blurted out, “Sure, why not?” (thus proving they had ignored my earlier lecture about not getting up in the new kitty’s business).  The staffer said, “Right!  Go ahead!  Do touch her face and her ears, because she needs to get conditioned to it right away.  This will make her more comfortable with it for her whole life, and makes trips to the vet easier.”  Who knew? 

Pre-named companion animals

Something I really hadn’t anticipated is that all the animals at the shelter come pre-named now.  Maybe this is just to keep them straight on the website (since using numbers would seem so bureaucratic and institutional).  Or maybe focus group studies have found that it’s easier to fall in love with an animal, or at least harder to resist adopting that animal, when he or she has a name.

“Our” kitty’s shelter name was “Jasmine.”  But we’re not going to stick with that name.  It doesn’t really fit.  The jasmine shrub is native to Eurasia, Australasia, and Oceania, so this name would be more suitable for a Siamese cat, I think, than for “our” kitten, who is a Tabby, which I associate with Africa.

Besides, we want to name “our” “own” cat.  Not that this will be easy, with two kids.  Decision by committee hasn’t worked well historically.  My older daughter had all kinds of suggestions before we’d even met this kitten.  “Look, we’re not calling her ‘Panini,’” I admonished, “and for the hundredth time, you can’t name a cat until you get to know her!”  

Then it dawned on me how silly this rule is.  After all, my wife and I had both our daughters’ names picked out in advance.  To do otherwise just isn’t practical, because a baby’s personality can take a while to come out.  For the first couple weeks, babies are just these crazy sucking, crying, and sleeping machines.  Maybe newborn kittens are, too.  I wouldn’t know … “our” new kitten is almost three months old.

Okay, fine, you can have one more photo:

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Can Too Much Exercise Damage Your Heart?


I get a lot of bike-related articles in my e-mail, mostly via my bike club.  When I get an article from two separate feeds, I know it’s something big.  So it was with a recent front-page story in Velo magazine, “Cycling to Extremes.”  (I read the online version, available here.)  The subtitle:  “Are endurance athletes hurting their hearts by repeatedly pushing beyond what is normal?”

What is normal?  Alas, for American adults “normal” is almost nothing; a CDC survey found that nearly 80% of adult Americans get less than 2.5 hours of exercise a week.

But forget about averages and those who don’t exercise.  The point of this Velo article is that ageing endurance athletes—i.e., guys like me—seem now to be in danger.  The article declares, “In the case of endurance athletes who have competed for years — whose hearts have exceeded the threshold of normal heart rates for decades — going above what is normal defines them.  But it may also be killing them.”

In this post I examine the reactions of my pals to this disheartening article; indulge in some knee-jerk denial; examine some other anecdotal evidence; evaluate the article’s claims on the basis of the literature cited; and (perhaps most importantly) provide a scheme for greatly advancing the study of exercise-induced heart complications among the middle-aged.


My first reaction to seeing this article was, “Oh, crap.  I hope nobody forwards this to my wife.”  (She’s the designated worrier of the family, which leaves me free to pooh-pooh everything.)  But then, I’ve got people depending on me, so I thought I better take the article seriously.  First I looked at how my pals were reacting.  “Hummmm....this is a little scary,” one e-mailed.  Another replied, “Yeah very scary.  I routinely get dizzy when I get up - something that’s happened my whole life but” and here his e-mail ended abruptly.  (Had he collapsed mid-sentence?)  One guy mentioned an athletic 50-year-old pal who suffers from a heart issue like what’s described in the article.  Other responses:  “I have to admit, this article gave me pause, especially the way I like to ride bikes ... hung over, and hammering as hard as possible,” and “Alas, all along I thought I was doing something good for myself.”

Of course it’s tempting to deny the whole thing.  The article has some serious flaws—which I’ll get to in a minute—and I almost shrugged and thought, “Typical FUD, designed to sell magazines.”  But I resisted the urge.  After all, just because an article is flawed doesn’t mean its central assertion is false.  Besides, I respect the cautious position my pals have taken, and this isn’t the first time I’ve pondered the mystery of brilliant athletes suddenly dropping dead.  The article mentions two marathoners who died while running, and I also recall Matt Wilson, a local rider who died while cycling in 2011, and Steve Larsen, a guy I raced with as a junior, who died while running in 2009.

Never mind that my own heart has behaved perfectly my whole life (at least, as far as I know).  It’s possible I’m doing damage now that will only become a problem in ten years.  After all, I know guys who have smoked for years but don’t have lung cancer.  Yet.

I mulled over this article for about a week and a half, and just when it was starting to drift toward unconscious dismissal, I mentioned it to a cycling friend (my age) who said, “Oh, yeah, someone told me about that but said maybe I shouldn’t read it ‘cause it might bum me out.”  Why would it?  Turns out this guy has had a heart problem for some time now:  he’ll be riding along, just cruising, and suddenly his heart rate will go from like 140 up to over 200 and stay there for 30, 40 seconds.  Uh oh.

The “lumping” problem

My chief difficulty in deciding how much to worry, and whether or not to change my approach to cycling, is that of “lumping.”  Is it right to lump myself in with the guys cited in the article, and with the marathoners, and with Steve Larsen?  Is it right to lump runners in with cyclists?  And is it right to lump various heart problems together and treat them like one phenomenon?

Let’s take that last question first.  The Velo article uses two case studies to make its case:  Lennard Zinn, who while bicycling suffered symptoms of “his heart [flopping] like a fish” and beating way too fast; and Mike Endicott, who collapsed and lost consciousness during a cross-country ski race.  Was Endicott’s heart also racing?  Well, not at first.  Endicott’s words:  “Something was beating inside my chest.”  The Velo writer describes it as “his heart still doing something strange inside his chest” which led, after an hour or so, to ventricular tachycardia and “an immediate, unexpected loss of heart function.”  This seems a lot different from what Zinn experienced.  Were these two suffering from the same specific heart problem?  It’s not clear.

The article states that Zinn was diagnosed with multifocal atrial tachycardia, but Endicott’s exact diagnosis isn’t given.  The article talks a lot about atrial fibrillation (AF):  is this the same as tachycardia?  Again, it’s unclear (though this FAQ suggests not).  Moreover, the main study the article cites concerns “myocardial fibrosis, a condition that involves the impairment of the heart’s muscle cells, called myocytes, through hardening or scarring of tissue.”  Does myocardial fibrosis lead to tachycardia and/or fibrillation?  Do Zinn and Endicott suffer from myocardial fibrosis?  Once again, the article doesn’t say.

It’s not just this article that’s vague about this stuff.  I did a tiny bit of research on Steve Larsen’s death, and turned up something surprising:

Google’s big-font summary makes it pretty clear this was a heart attack—but it wasn’t, according to the first article cited.  Nothing else has been written to further clarify this matter; the autopsy itself apparently ruled out heart attack.  And yet people seem to remember it as such.  Two years after Larsen’s death, when I was corresponding with a friend about Matt Wilson, my friend wrote, “Steve Larsen was the guy who had a [fatal] heart attack two years ago here in Bend.”  Meanwhile, I’d always remembered Wilson’s death as having been from a heart attack, but in researching this now (for example, here), I can find no specific cause of death.

A dearth of data

Let’s get back to that Velo article.  My temptation, when presented with such ambiguity, is to read the research articles on which the article is based.  But the article, while making lots of vague references to unnamed studies, doesn’t provide much.  For example:  “Over decades of exertion, the myocardial cells of the heart begin to simply fall apart, and you’re left with an unhealthy ticker. Or so these new studies suggest.”  And:  “Long-term endurance exercise results in a five-fold increase in the risk of developing AF.  A review of the relevant research finds many small studies that correlate long-term sports activity with AF....  While none is conclusive, collectively they indicate a pattern.”  What studies?  What relevant research?  There are no citations given here; no footnotes; no hyperlinks.

The article does cite two specific studies.  One involved rats, and I’m going to dismiss that.  (My heart is bigger than a rat’s; rats don’t live 40 or 50 or 60 years, which is the age group I’m trying to learn about; humans cannot be made to exercise as hard as rats.)  Velo also cites a study published in The Journal of Applied Physiology:  “MRI studies revealed that some 50 percent of the veteran [>50-year-old] athletes had myocardial fibrosis....  In age-matched controls — people of the same age who didn’t compete — and young athletes, there were zero cases of the disease. Furthermore, the fibrosis was significantly associated with the number of years spent training, and the number of marathons and ultra-endurance marathons they had completed.”

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere!  I looked at the study itself to get more information.  You can read it here.  My big issue with this study is that it only included 12 veteran athletes.  Of these, 2 had previous heart conditions (1 probable previous mycarditis, 1 probable previous silent myocardial infarction).  The Journal study is candid about its limited scope, acknowledging that “Like many studies of this type, the numbers of veteran athletes are small (largely because this is a small and unique population), and generalization is difficult.”

And yet, without the ability to generalize, what are we supposed to do with this (largely anecdotal) information?  My frustration is that I feel I ought to evaluate and possibly modify my own behavior based on these cautionary tales, but I have no solid basis for assuming that my behavior matches the profile of the overworked athlete who may be damaging his heart.

Velo addresses this problem of definition by quoting Dr. John Mandrola, a heart rhythm doctor:  “What’s too much? That’s the $64,000 question. Though I will say it’s a little like what the judge said about indecency: ‘I know it when I see it.’”  Well, this just doesn’t do me much good, because I’m not about to go to Kentucky to visit this doctor, in the absence of any symptom of any problem.

I see four possible ways to respond to this information. 
  1. I could completely ignore it—but I think that’s irresponsible. 
  2. I could simply err on the side of caution, and ride less often and less hard than I currently do—but isn’t this completely arbitrary, since somebody who rides twice as much as I could similarly tone it down “a bit” and still be riding way more than I? 
  3. I could continue riding exactly how I currently do, while adding myocardial fibrosis to the pile of things I regularly worry about (which will increase my cortisol levels to the detriment of my health) while feeling guilty for being such a poor custodian of my body.  No thanks. 
  4. I can try to get more information about this, with a whole lot more data, so I can more reasonably evaluate and (if necessary) modify my behavior.
Number four wins, and that’s where my proposed solution comes in.

The solution

We need more information!  We need more than two anecdotes and a lot of vague references to “these new studies” and “the relevant research.”  We need more than studies on rats, and we need studies of more than 10 veteran athletes.  By “we” I mean “society,” and actually society is already really, really good at harnessing massive amounts of data and crunching them to derive useful judgments.  Think of how effectively Amazon predicts what we’ll want, and how well the advertising industry can anticipate, and create, our desires.  What if we could find a ready source of “big data” for studying the effect of gonzo endurance athleticism on heart health?

But we have it already!  It’s called Strava!  This social network has 8 million registered users, of which 1.2 million are active and something like 190,000 have premium accounts.  (These are estimations since the company doesn’t reveal these numbers; click here for details.  Suffice to say, this is a lot deeper pool of data than 10 test subjects.)

 The number of Strava users isn’t even the best part.  It’s the quality of the data set.  Consider the type of athlete who goes so hard, and so long, and so often, that he or she is actually at risk of causing heart damage.  How many of this type wouldn’t be on Strava?  The gung-ho Strava cyclist is exactly the kind of person who might overdo his or her training.  In other words, Strava members comprise the perfect group for studying this stuff. 

I’m envisioning a splash screen that pops up when the Strava user logs in.  It asks, “Are you willing to participate in an anonymous study about heart function and rigorous aerobic exercise?”  I’d guess most users wouldn’t have a problem with this.  And anybody who’s having heart trouble would probably be eager to participate, to better understand it all, and could indicate the nature and frequency of his or her problem.  Such a study could quite feasibly have millions of workouts per day to crunch (the average workouts logged per day being around 6 million last year, as detailed here).  You’ve got your control group and your heart-oddity group both covered, right off the bat.

And what great data there’d be to crunch!  You get exercise frequency; exercise duration; heart rate; and history (e.g., how much a rider’s performance is improving or deteriorating).  You could start to develop very precise profiles of those whose hearts are misbehaving.  Is there an age threshold beyond which these symptoms most commonly present?  Are there frequency, duration, and/or intensity thresholds below which no errant heart behaviors are observed?  What is the rate of heart trouble for riders exactly my age, who ride (on average) just as often, and in exactly the same heart rate zones I work out in?  Of those who work out like I do but who are 10 years older, how many have developed heart trouble?  Five years from now, when we see an even more comprehensive integration of “big data” into our lives, we’d probably have even more ways to correlate the data.  (We might know, for example, whether frequent purchases at Starbucks or BevMo factor in to the cardio health equation.)


For now, I’m going to assume that the hectic pace of my life, my many familial obligations, my relative sloth, and my unaggressive riding style will keep my heart in good shape.  I’m not going to bother shopping my Strava idea around, because I’m confident  that the Strava folks themselves, looking for a way to actually make some money, are bound to get the attention of the insurance people, who I assume are always looking for ways to avoid open-ended batteries of complicated tests.  I envision all of this happening without any effort from me, probably years before I start getting into the dangerous years where my heart starts “doing something strange inside [my] chest.”  And if you want to forward this link around to speed up the process, please be my guest!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

New Cycling World Record Set in Berkeley!


Remember that “Brady Bunch” episode where Bobby and Cindy tried to set a world record for continuous teeter-tottering?  Well even if you don’t, imagine trying to go watch their attempt, as a complete stranger.  You’d be chased off by Mr. Brady, or maybe Alice.  But today I had a chance to interview a daring world record attempter even while he made his attempt.

The challenge

The current world record—yes, as in Guinness Book of World Records record—for “the most vertical metres cycled in 48 hours” is 28,789 meters (94,452 feet), set in 2012 by a Swiss rider.  That’s more than three trips up Mount Everest, if its base elevation were at sea level. 

The guy out there attempting a new world record, even as I type, is named Craig Cannon.  In addition to wanting to set a new record, he’s hoping to accumulate 100,000 vertical feet.  Something I’m particularly excited about is that Craig is doing this via endless trips up my favorite climb, South Park Drive in the Berkeley hills.  (I love this climb so much, I wrote an Ode to it, replete with footnotes & commentary, which you can read here.)  But as difficult as this climb is, Craig is doing his laps on the hardest section, which is 1.1 km (0.68 miles) long, at an average grade of 12%.  The elevation difference between the top and bottom of this section is 129 meters (423 feet).  So he’ll need to have completed about 236 laps (about 321 miles) in 48 hours.  You can see the Strava segment by clicking here.

So how much is 100,000 vertical feet?  Let’s put it in perspective.  A staircase gaining that much elevation would be 35 miles long; would have 166,667 steps; and would take you to the top of an 8,000 story building!

Wait.  Stop.  Set aside, for a second, the math and the grade and even the 100,000 feet.  Just think about bicycling up and down a murderously steep grade for 48 hours straight.  It’s an unbelievably difficult challenge Craig has undertaken.

The challenger

Until this past Thursday, I’d never heard of Craig or this effort.  What I can tell you is that he’s an Oakland area cyclist, a member of the Knackered Tyres cycling club, and has ridden with my East Bay Velo Club teammates a few times.  He asked one of them, Mike, to get the word out about his effort.  Craig wanted to have as much company as possible on the road, for moral support.

The only other thing I’d heard, before meeting up with him on the road, is that he started a little after 5:00 p.m. on Friday, rode through the night, and was joined by a couple of my teammates at around 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.  Here he is—he’s the guy in all black—riding with Muzzy (white arm warmers) and Jamey (behind him).  So this is 18½ hours into his effort.

And here he is at 9:48 p.m. on Saturday, close to 29 hours in.

My teammate MB snapped that photo; she and Muzzy, her husband, had gone to check on him that night (but without bikes).  No good action shots due to the darkness, of course.  That’s Craig’s mom, by the way, with the headlight.

The next morning MB, Muzzy, and another teammate, Lucas, joined Craig for some more pacing.  This photo is from about 9:50 a.m. when he was about 41 hours in.  Still looking pretty chipper, eh?

Riding with Craig

I thought about leaving for my own ride extra early this morning to ride a lap or two with Craig on the way to meeting another teammate, but I just didn’t feel like getting up that early, even to witness history being made.  I figured I’d drop in on the action on my way back from Mount Diablo.  Now, the easy way to come home from Diablo is via Wildcat Canyon Road, which links right up with South Park.  But to be honest, I was afraid that if I took this route, I’d chicken out, tell myself some lie like “He’s surely given up,” and go straight home.  I mean, cycling is hard, and attempting even one out-of-the-way trip up South Park presents a serious “gumption trap” (to borrow a term from Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

So I came home over Lomas Cantadas, so I could descend South Park and look for Craig.  I have to admit, the small, weak part of me wouldn’t have been too disappointed if he’d given up, because I really, really didn’t feel like riding up South Park, even once.  And frankly, even though Craig had invited us to ride alongside him, I wasn’t at all sure I’d actually be welcome.  I mean, it was close to noon, meaning this guy had been riding for 43 fricking hours straight.  If I get less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep, I’m pretty grouchy.  I’ve pulled one all-nighter in my life, and was a beast afterward.  And that didn’t even involve continuous cycling on a brutal grade.  I feared that, by this point, Craig might be in no mood to deal with anybody, least of all a chatty guy like me.  Plus, not having seen the Sunday morning photo shown above, I figured Craig would look like absolute hell, presenting a truly pitiful sight.  So though I hate to admit it, I was prepared to be (one one level) kind of relieved if he wasn’t there.

But then there he was, cranking his way up the road, flanked by my teammate, MB.  By the time I safely turned around to catch up with them, they were pretty far ahead.  I had to really work to close the gap.  What the hell?  I’d ridden, what, 5 hours?  Amazingly, even after 43 hours, he was putting out a good pace.  After a short introduction whereby I invited him to tell me to shut up and/or go away if I bothered him—because I totally understood the pain cave where you want to suffer in peace—we had a nice chat over three laps (1,269 vertical feet) of the climb.

Some Q&A with the world record challenger

So, how was he doing?  Just fine!  Still on target!  With about 5 hours to go, he’d tallied up about 90,000 feet of vertical gain.  So he had to average 2,000 feet per hour for the rest of his ride to make his goal (half that to break the current record), and we were doing about 2,500 as we rode.  (To put this in perspective, the Tour de France peloton does around 4,200 feet per hour during the mountain stages.)  Craig had been through a pretty difficult period but had come through it.  He’d taken about a 25-minute rest during the night, but couldn’t tell if he’d actually slept or not.

He really did look relaxed and strong.  Here are a couple of photos, taken a little before noon.


Is his bike anything special?  Not really.  Another guy who was riding with us complimented him on using an old school steel frame.  “Yeah, I like the feel of steel, and it’s cool to get to hang out with the guy who built it,” Craig said.  “It’s not the lightest bike in the world, but....”  I decided to finish his sentence:  “It’s not like you ride a lot of hills or anything.”

Does he race?  No, he just likes “messing around on a bike,” as he put it.  (I’m quoting him as though verbatim but it’s just from memory.  To do otherwise is just too clunky.)  He hasn’t ruled out racing in the future.  He did do a pretty gnarly competitive event that had the word “Everest” in it.  It wasn’t the Everest Challenge, a race I’ve done and written about a few times, which features 29,000 feet of climbing over two days, but rather a self-paced, virtualized GPS-based event where you try to accumulate that much vertical gain in just one ride.  Craig accomplished that on this very climb—South Park Drive—though he was doing longer laps, from the very bottom to the top.

So, why South Park Drive?  He worked with a coach and thought hard about the best way to tackle this world record, and ultimately decided this climb was perfect because it was steep enough that his speed would be low enough (too shallow a grade = too much speed = excessive wind resistance); the grade wasn’t so steep that his pedaling cadence would get too slow; and this road has a lot of cyclists on it so he’d have plenty of moral support.  He emphasized the need for camaraderie since so much of such an effort is psychological.  Oh, and he needed a route that has restrooms.  And an extra bonus is that when you descend this road, there aren’t any roads connecting to it from the right.  This makes it a lot safer.

Tons of food?  Yes, though most of the calories are from energy drink (I think he said this, and no, I didn’t manage to remember what brand he uses).  Beyond that he eats a total hodgepodge of things, including potato chunks with olive oil and salt.  Caffeine?  Yes, plenty, and he went off it completely for two weeks prior to lower his tolerance.  He also stopped having any alcohol for like six weeks leading up to the record attempt.

Longest ride before this?  Low 40s.  As in, more than 40 hours.  Unbelievable.  He’d also done a 48-hour double-all-nighter (not on the bike) just to make sure he could do it, and then immediately rode up Mount Diablo.  As we chatted, I couldn’t get over how chipper and good-natured he was, and how solid a pace we were knocking out.  Occasionally on a particularly steep pitch he’d stop mid-sentence and say, “Can’t talk now.”  Then he’d pick right back up again later.

Bike lights?  Of course, and good ones.  Three headlights, NiteRider brand (which are sweet), though not the very fanciest ones available.  Also a good tail light, of course, even though very few cars would be driving on South Park Drive at night.  (This is something I love about this road.  It’s just not a very useful route for a motorist to take.  Yeah, there are cars, but no commuters, and generally nobody in a hurry.)

Craig’s support crew

In addition to Knackered Tyre teammates joining him on the road (in shifts, like my EBVC pals were doing), Craig had a team based at the bottom of his route, at the turnaround point.  His mom, who had flown out from Boston to support him, was there for the entire duration of his effort and stayed awake the entire time!  A woman whom I believe is his girlfriend had put an image of him on a stick.  I’m not entirely sure what this was used for, but I like it!

I think it’s pretty impressive that he was able to get these people to devote so much time, through the night no less, to an endeavor that just seems so crazy.  His coach was among those gathered.  At one point his mom poured some water on him (it’s a hot day out there) and he cautioned her not to pour too much—he didn’t want it getting into his chamois.  (In case you’re wondering about his, uh, comfort in the saddle, I was too but I didn’t ask.  If he’d managed to stop thinking about how much his butt hurt, I didn’t want to break the spell.)

The suspense!

It’s 5:02 p.m.  I think he said he started at 5:10 p.m. (last fricking Friday, for crying out loud!) so he might already have the record ... and he might already have crossed that miraculous 100,000-feet threshold!

It was fun getting Craig’s story even as he lived it, and part of me wanted to ride with him the rest of the time, but a) the part of me that wanted to keep going was only the mental part, whereas my body had had quite enough, thank you; b) I was out of energy drink and gels and wasn’t about to bum some off him; and c) I was sure he’d get sick of me.  (I would.)  So I rolled home at around 12:20 p.m., thinking how cool it would be to rest a bit, have some food, and then return to join him for those last few victorious laps.  But in my heart I knew I wouldn’t make the effort.  Bicycling up hills is really hard and we’re not, any of us, made of such stuff as Craig obviously is.

Well?!  Did he make it?!

It’s now 6:17 p.m.  I’ve fact-checked the world record; proofread this report; checked Strava a dozen times; and I’m still waiting....

And now, at 7:00 p.m., I have just received a triumphant e-mail from MB:  “He did beat the record. Muzzy, Sean, Mike and I were there.  Awesome!

Here are some final photos. The first was taken a little before 5 p.m. (assuming the camera time was set correctly), around ten minutes before the end:

And here he is checking his GPS device. I can well imagine it would be difficult to interpret (much less believe) the instrument’s data after 48 hours of cycling. Good thing he has other people corroborating.  (There was also the (perhaps not wholly unwarranted) fear of the device malfunctioning and losing his record-breaking data, so several pals snapped photos of it.) His total elevation gain was 95,622 feet ... more than enough to set a new world record, though a bit short of his (albeit arbitrary) goal of 100,000. Kind of like hitting a grand slam home run but not sending the ball into low Earth orbit like you thought might be cool to do.

And here he is with MB enjoying a cold post-ride beverage. I’m told NBC News showed up at the end to cover the victory celebration.  Way to go, Craig!

About the type

Assuming default configuration of your Internet browser and computer operating system, this blog post will be set in Georgia, a typeface originally cut with a crude hunting knife into the trunk of a Mongolian oak (quercus mongolica) in Izborsk, Russia, in the early 1800s by Ivan Ivanovich Zakareishvili in memory of Tsar Alexandar I.   Georgia was first introduced to the web in 1997 when bundled with the Internet Explorer 4.0 supplemental font pack.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Biased Commentary - Froome, Nibali, and the “Dick Move”


As I recounted in my Biased Blow-By-Blow report of Tour de France Stage 19, there was some post-race mudslinging.  Vincenzo Nibali had attacked right when Chris Froome was stymied by a bike problem.  Nibali went on to win the stage, and then Froome complained about it—first to Nibali after accosting him near the podium, and then to the press.  In an epilogue to my report, I bashed Froome for this, concluding, “Froome, man, get some class!”

Well, a reader of this blog—perhaps the reader, who in this particular case is not my mom—wrote me to say, “I kinda disagree with you about Froome’s comments after the race.  It didn’t seem like whining to me.  While Nibali didn’t really threaten him at any point whatsoever, it did look like a dick move at the time when he attacked.  Nibble looked over his shoulder, saw that Froomey was stopping for some reason, and then he attacked.  I thought that was generally frowned upon?”

In a perfect world, I’d always get comments on my blog posts, and could fill up these pages responding.  I’d never have to think up a topic again.  So, even though the whole matter reeks of soap opera, I’m going to respond.

Quick recap

As reported in cyclingnews, “Nibali revealed Froome verbally attacked him after the stage in the podium area.  ‘I won’t say the words he used because they’ve too harsh and it’s not nice to say them. He was very angry but I don’t know what his problem was. Lots of things happen in a race....’”  Froome acknowledged the post-race altercation, telling the press Nibali’s attack  was “very unsportsmanlike and not what the Tour de France is all about” and adding, “I told him just what I thought of him.”

Reactions to Nibali’s attack

While watching the attack unfold, I predicted there would be post-race blather about Nibali’s move.  As I wrote in my blow-by-blow, “Wow, Froome has something wrong with his bike!  He’s looking down at his drivetrain, clearly puzzled at all the whizzing gears and such.  He’s getting dropped!  Nibali, meanwhile, is attacking!  If anything comes of this attack, he’ll be compared to Contador and ‘chain-gate....’”

(In case you’re a cycling fan who spent some time under a rock, or a normal person who doesn’t waste his or her time with cycling gossip, “chain-gate” refers to an episode in the 2010 Tour de France when Alberto Contador clearly took advantage of Andy Schleck’s dropped chain to launch what proved to be the race-winning attack:  in Paris Contador ended up first place in the GC by 39 seconds—exactly the time he took out of Schleck in that stage.  The blow was perhaps lessened 19 months later when Contador had the title stripped, due to a doping offense.  The whole matter became even more irrelevant, at least to me, when Schleck’s brother Fränk tested positive, was suspended, and neither brother ever achieved anything remarkable again, which tells me Fränk’s positive test scared Andy straight, meaning he’d been a doper all along anyway.)

I watched this race via a live Eurosport feed, and neither commentator—Carlton Kirby nor the former Irish champ Sean Kelly—made any mention of the attack being unfair.  At least, nothing I remember.  Those two had chatted before about racers not behaving perfectly—like Rafal Majka pretending his radio wasn’t working earlier in the Tour when he failed to support his leader—but they didn’t get up in arms about it.  Kelly chuckled at remembering how a PDM teammate of his was similarly insubordinate during a grand tour.  “He couldn’t have blamed a radio, though,” Carlton pointed out, to which Kelly laughed, “No, he tore the instructions to pieces in front of our director!”  I’ve seen this laissez-faire attitude before on Eurosport, like when Mark Renshaw head-butted another rider during a final sprint and commentator David Harmon cried, “Renshaw gives him a good battering!” (To which Kelly replied, “That’s your job in that situation, making sure your man doesn’t get crowded out.”)

On the other hand, when I watched a replay of the NBC coverage, I was surprised at how indignant Phil Liggett got.  He missed the attack initially, because they were on a commercial break, but when they returned to the action Phil reported, “This happened literally seconds ago, Chris Froome seemed to have a problem, I didn’t see actually see it, we’re gonna have a look in a moment, and this will be taken [as] a very dim view of this, because Nibali saw the stopping of Chris Froome and launched an attack at the front.  Well, whatever happened to Chris Froome, it’s a dim view, and a black mark for Vincenzo Nibali.  You don’t attack a rider, that’s a gentlemen’s agreement when the rider is down from no fault of his own.”  When they showed the replay, Phil’s voice rose a few octaves:  “Let’s show you now what happened here.  The yellow jersey had something wrong with his gears I think ... Nibali looks right at him, saw it, and accelerated!  That’s not very sportsmanlike and I think the press will tell you that!”  (This is about 2 hours 2 minutes into the footage if you want to have a look.)

Actually, other than the press reporting both sides, I didn’t see much else in the way of criticism.  The official ASO stage highlights commented, but without much bile:  “The champion of Italy benefited from Froome’s mechanical problem on the Col de la Croix de Fer to escape from the yellow jersey group.  Then he caught and passed Pierre Roland on the final descent.”

Was it a dick move?

Okay, forget what everybody else said about it.  Let’s get down to brass tacks:  was Nibali’s well-timed attack a dick move, or not?  I suppose that first we should look into the matter of whether Nibali actually saw that Froome had a problem.  As reported in cyclingnews, Nibali claims he didn’t:  “When I looked back, it was to look at [teammate Tanel] Kangert. We did the race on the Col de la Croix de Fer and were planning to make a big attack.”  So:  was this true?  Let’s look at a couple snapshots from the replay that Phil got so heated about:

Well, Nibali is clearly looking back.  But he really does appear to be looking at Kangert.  In the first photo, Kangert is pretty well eclipsing Froome, which isn’t hard to do because Froome is so damn thin, he’s practically 2-dimensional.  If we look at the next shot, a second later, it’s even more apparent that Nibali is looking at Kangert, but we can also see that Froome is really slowing down—look at how Quintana (in white) has passed him.  Could it be that Nibali has noticed this, and senses that there’s a bike problem?  Possibly.  And he could have heard something over his radio.  But all this is far from obvious.

What really is obvious is that Nibali had to know sooner or later, as he continued his attack, that Froome had had a mechanical.  Here’s a photo a bit later of Nibali clearly looking back at the struggling racer leader:

Actually, there are three guys looking back at Froomie in that photo, and I don’t see any of them waiting up!  And think about it.  You’re Nibali, you’re the defending Tour champ, and you’re having a crappy Tour.  You’re in 7th overall, 8 minutes behind Froome, but only 25 seconds behind 6th (Robert Gesink) and 1:24 behind 5th (Contador).  The podium is almost 4 minutes away, but the rider currently in 3rd on GC is Alejandro Valverde, who (possibly due to an impossibly complicated doping program) has a history of really bad days in grand tours.  So Nibali wasn’t attacking Froome to begin with.  He was attacking everybody else.  Of course he won’t pause his attack to let Froome join the party.  And let’s not pretend there was anything definitive about his initial gap on Froome.  They’re climbing, after all.

But you know what?  This analysis is beginning to drag, so let’s assume that Phil Liggett was right and this was totally a dick move by Nibali.  Now we can ask some other questions.

Could Froome have known it was a dick move?

If you watch that footage (or at least refer to the snapshots above) you’ll see that wherever Nibali was looking, Froome was looking down.  Hell, Froome always looks down.  I’m surprised he hasn’t run into a fricking post by now.  He’s the downest-looking, and looking-downest, racer I’ve ever seen.  Here are a couple of snapshots I took more or less at random when I was watching the race.  Looking down, and looking down.

And at the crucial moment of Nibali’s attack, Froome was certainly looking down, as I reported live during my blow-by-blow commentary:  “Wow, Froome has something wrong with his bike!  He’s looking down at his drivetrain, clearly puzzled at all the whizzing gears and such.”  At this moment, Froome was rightly more concerned about what was wrong with his bike than what was happening ahead, so he wouldn’t have seen Nibali turning his head, even if Nibali wasn’t eclipsed by Kangert.  So I doubt he saw the (putative) dick move.  He just guessed about it.

Speaking of guesswork, let’s remember that Phil Liggett was also guessing about the dick move.  His accusation of unsportsmanlike conduct began, “Chris Froome seemed to have a problem, I didn’t actually see it, we’re gonna have a look in a moment....”  He claims that “Nibali saw the stopping of Chris Froome and launched an attack at the front,” but he hadn’t actually seen this yet.

Similarly, Nibali—when caught up in a Stage 6 crash caused by Tony Martin—initially guessed (incorrectly) that it was Froome’s fault.  Probably because he hates him.  That brought about the pair’s first post-race altercation.

Should Froome have cared about the dick move?

Whether or not Nibali knowingly capitalized on Froome’s mechanical, and whether or not Froome saw this, he obviously learned soon enough that Nibali was benefiting from the situation.  On a gut level, this would obviously have pissed him off, because he hates Nibali to begin with, and was surely nervous about anything fouling up the status quo of his eerily, suspiciously powerful Sky team controlling the pace.  But once things settled down and Nibali was away solo (with Valverde safely back in the GC group), Froome—being a professional—should have seen this move for what it was:  a blessing. 

A blessing?  Yes.  Nibali was no threat to Froome’s GC ambitions.  But, being a serious GC threat to Robert Gesink, Alejandro Valverde, and Alberto Contador—all present in this group—Nibali had now created a situation where all three riders, and their three teammates in the group, had to chase, giving Sky carte blanche to just sit on.  And if Nibali stayed away, he’d snap up the time bonus at the end, so Quintana couldn’t get it.  Meanwhile, a solo victory by Nibali would remove that extra motivation for Quintana at the end; how much faster might Quintana have gone if he could have nabbed a stage win?

But okay, racing isn’t a mellow affair, Froome was chock-full of testosterone (not all of it synthetic), and perhaps it’s inevitable that his blood (thick like jam) would boil when his enemy took advantage of him.  I can’t expect Froome to have appreciated, at the time, how good Nibali’s move was for him, since he’s not exactly a tactician.  But after the race, when the results were posted, should he still have been angry?  Granted, Quintana had taken 30 seconds out of him, but that had nothing whatsoever to do with Nibali, and Froome still had a nice cushion.  Meanwhile, Froome had taken over a minute more out of his other rivals.  And he wouldn’t have won the stage anyway, since Quintana was obviously stronger at the end.  For my money, Froome should have shrugged, reflected that all’s well that ends well, and moved on.

Should Froome have said anything?

All right, I’ll go one step further and excuse Froome for being angry even after the fact.  Maybe he’s a hothead, he doesn’t like to share the limelight, and he’s bitter at having urine thrown at him and people spitting at him.  Maybe it takes a long time to come down off all that adrenaline and reflect on how good things actually are.  But should he have whined to the press about Nibali’s tactics?

This is where I refuse to cut Froomie any slack.  By complaining, he just came off looking petty and small.  After all, he was still on top!  He was on the cusp of winning his second Tour de France, over a route that (due to its lack of time trials) so little favored him, he had considered (or pretended to consider) not racing it at all.  He was still the alpha dog, and in no position to complain about anything!  Poor Nibali, criticized all year for not winning anything, got this stage win but was still almost 7 minutes down and, as a defending champ with only an outside shot at even making the podium, was still the cyclist equivalent of a dog huddling under the couch, tail between its legs, sobbing in that lugubrious doggie way.

Moreover, Froome should have recognized that some journalist was bound to bring up Nibali’s tactics, so the question still would have been raised, and the notion of Nibali’s treachery would have seemed more legit coming from the press instead of a sulking, petulant adversary.  And fielding this question would have given Froome a great chance to boost his (clearly sagging) image by playing it cool.  “No, there was nothing amiss about the atttack,” he could say.  “Nibali is a true champion and that was a brilliant stage victory.”  In the context of his ongoing feud with Nibali, Froome’s comment would have been widely reported, and he would have looked gracious, classy, and magnanimous.  Meanwhile, he’d be extending an olive branch to Nibali, which would be a wise move professionally—after all, it’s never good to have enemies in the peloton.

My final comment, this being (after all) a biased analysis, is that Froome looks like a pretty big hypocrite when he gets on his high horse about Nibali’s attack being “unsportsmanlike and not what the Tour de France is all about.”  What is the Tour de France all about, Mr. Froome?  Doping?  Riding for a team that’s so obviously lubed we all can’t help but think of US Postal?  A team that, instead of engaging in intelligent tactics like Movistar showed in Stage 20, merely bludgeons the entire peloton to death, stage after stage, by going to the front on climbing stages and having teammates (some who aren’t even climbers, like the track racer Geraint Thomas) set so high a pace, true tactics become unnecessary and the race becomes boring?  Is the Tour de France all about being so abnormally strong you can afford to neutralize everybody, even the sad sack who, having totally given up on winning the Tour de France, is just trying to save a little face with a stage win?  And then complaining later because you didn’t get your way on absolutely everything?

Based on this close analysis, I’m sticking with my original conclusion:  Froome, man, get some class!