Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ride Report - Mount Baker (WA) with Brother & Nephew


It’s SOP on my bike club, after a glorious race, to send around a report, which traditionally focuses more on the food (which is always copious) than the glory (which can be elusive).  Since I chickened out of the Everest Challenge this year, I’m reporting on my biggest ride of 2015 instead:  Mount Baker, up near Bellingham, WA, with my brother Bryan and his son John.  Read on, or at least skim the photos, to be immersed in timeless themes:  Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, Man vs. His Father, Man Struggling to be a Man, Man vs. Food, Man vs. Bike, and (for the ladies) Fish vs. Bicycle.

Executive Summary (i.e., condensed version)
  • Breakfast:  two cups strong coffee, black
  • During:  Four bottles Powerade (red flavor); unknown quantity Gatorade (cucumber-lime); 3 Clif Bars (1 Thin Mint, 1 Beef Jerky, 1 Gluten-Free Donner Party flavor, which fortunately tastes more like leather than like scabs); two Powerbar Gels (expired ca. 2009)
  • Lunch:  nothing
  • Glycogen window snack:  one banana ( infirm, or at least not-firm); 1½ bottles New Belgium Long Table Farmhouse Ale (seasonal; highly recommended)
  • Dinner:  homemade pasta with homemade meat sauce; garlic bread; garlic hot dog buns; meat lasagne; salad; pumpkin pie with whipped cream; whipped cream without pumpkin pie (sshhh!)
  • Ride Stats:  120.2 miles; 7:57:36 ride time; 7,618 feet of vertical gain
  • Verdict:  epic pass, though I lost most of the city-limit sprints
Full report

It’s a long road, figuratively speaking, to the non-figurative open road.  Family life, with its careers, chores, children, and logistics always interferes.  Maybe that’s why the great outdoors beckon so strongly.  Our biggest obstacle was getting Bryan’s fleet running.  I’d flown to WA without my bike (because the airlines are such thieving bastards) and had to borrow.  Both of Bryan’s spare road bikes were out of commission (but on the plus side, what a boon, to own two spare road bikes!).  “I almost had one of them ready to go for John before he went off to college,” Bryan said, and then added wistfully, “Four years ago.”  (John just graduated.)

So we headed to Bryan’s office, which has a full bike shop for its employees.  Pretty sweet perk, eh?  The company is called Faithlife, for those of you already polishing your résumés.  Here we are at work:

The first bike, a 1983 Team Miyata, had belonged to my dad for awhile, before he gave it back to Bryan.  Dad had a 180mm TA Cyclotourist triple crankset on there (all but fused to a Phil Wood sealed bottom bracket); Grab-On foam instead of bar tape; front and rear racks; old-school wheels that only took a five-speed freewheel; weirdly narrow handlebars; and of course a giant puffy saddle.  He’d also removed the gold “Team Miyata” panels.  Poor bike.  Bryan had stripped the crap off before but hadn’t replaced all of it yet.  Getting that bike running felt more like an intervention than a renovation.  I feared we’d have to go out and buy a new front derailleur.  Fortunately, every former bike mechanic has a big box called The Box, and Bryan’s was full of treasures.  Check out this sweet Dura-Ace mech, from around 1980 (and no, he has no idea where he got it):

The other bike, an ’84 Team, was in better shape and needed only brakes, a saddle, and a chain.  It actually had a chain, but it was older than George Burns and almost as dead.  We ended up keeping it on there because it was enmeshed in a codependent relationship with the equally worn-out cogs.  The saddle we threw on there was a Fi’Zi:k knockoff that came with Bryan’s new Fuji, and was designed to be thrown away.  It was better than nothing, but just barely.  Sitting on it was like sitting on one of those Spenco fake boobs we used to pass around in health class, to feel for fake tumors.  At least this saddle didn’t have any of those.  The brakes we installed were Tektro—also from the new Fuji, and also designed to be thrown away.

On ride day, I woke at 6 and thought I’d have to go shake the other guys awake, but they were already up.  Look, my nephew John (a college baseball player) even stretches out before exercise:

Couple quick things:  yes, that jersey does in fact match the Miyatas, and thanks for noticing.  (It was a hand-me-down from his Evil Uncle Dana, which is also where Bryan got both Team Miyatas.)  And look at that whiteboard:  we worked out the physics of this ride in advance.  The power required for the climb, all the vectors for taking high-speed switchbacks on the way back down … it’s all there.  We don’t stumble blindly into these things.

Here’s the requisite “before” photo.  We hit out at 7:12 a.m., fully caffeinated from good, strong coffee that Bryan made.  If I were a coffee achiever I could devote a paragraph to the beans, the blend, the machinery, etc. but I’m just a NoDoz Underachiever.  We didn’t have any breakfast, because we never do, and as for its being the most important meal of the day … oh, stuff it!

Man, it was fricking cold (41 degrees, 88% humidity, and I don’t want to hear about your “real winters” and all that—I’m a Californian).  Mist rose from all the fields as we rolled out of town.  Most of the roads had been repaved recently, and featured those rumble strips that used to keep drunks and somnambulists from going off the road, and I guess still do, but now they’re mainly for drivers who can’t resist texting while driving.

Speaking of annoying drivers, you know what’s all the rage in WA?  Putting an oversized engine in your jacked-up truck, and then, when passing cyclists, flooring it so the groan of the engine and the whine of the turbocharger make the bikers jump out of their skins.  We bikers need to be taught a lesson, you see.

We got a great view of Mount Baker, our destination, on the way out of town.  Cameras, for all their recent improvement, still do a lousy job compared to the naked eye.  I wish they responded quasi-intelligently to voice commands, so I could say, “No, don’t focus on the chain, focus on that ancient front derailleur!” or “Fix the exposure so Mount Baker shows up, duh!”  My hands were too cold to do a lot of futzing so I had to add the mountain in post-production.  (Full disclosure:  I’m not actually sure this is Mount Baker, and I guessed on the scale.)

We sprinted for every city limit sign.  I thought I’d do pretty well, because Bryan is even older than I am, and this was—I kid you not—John’s first bike ride of 2015.  (He commutes short distances by bike, but that’s about it.)  I know you’re tired of all the hackneyed excuses bike racers give, so I have some new ones:
  • My contact lens prescription is on the weak side, and the city limit signs in WA don’t feature elevation or population, so they’re hard to discern from a distance;
  • I was afraid to shove hard on the pedals due to that ancient chain;
  • I’m just a big sissy.
When Bryan and John launched their sprint into Glacier, I was riding no-handed with the camera out so there was no way I could participate.  So did I at least get an awesome photo of the glorious sprint?  No … by the time this occurred to me the guys were too far ahead for a great photo.  My brain was being as sluggish as my legs.

It’s a bit hard to describe the climb up Mount Baker. Technically, it’s about 30 miles long, but the first 20 miles average just 1%. The climb proper begins 9.5 miles from the “summit” and averages 5.5%. (The road doesn’t reach the actual summit.) About a mile from the top is a pretty steep section, maxing out at 13.7%.

There are a few buildings along the road, one associated with a ski resort, but nothing was open so we couldn’t get any water. About 5 miles from the summit we had some Cliff bars which we washed down with recycled saliva (our own). The modern bars have caffeine in them and come in all kinds of new flavors. I can’t tell, in this photo, if John is savoring his, or using Zen techniques to ingest it without suffering.

Look at their shoes.  Those Lake cycling shoes Bryan is wearing?  They technically belong to John.  They’re his only pair, which is why he’s rocking the Nike sneakers.  Does he complain about having to ride 120 miles in sneakers?  No.  Does he complain about his dad swiping his stuff?  No.  Did he complain, six years ago when we last attempted this ride, that it rained the whole time and we got turned around by snow a couple miles from the Mount Baker summit?  No.  Does he complain about overuse of the serial-rhetorical-question literary device?  Possibly, and I couldn’t blame him.

By the way, here’s a movie from that ill-fated Mount Baker ride of 2009.  I still have the scar on my leg from where Bryan tried to take a bite.

Fortunately the weather was great this year … it was still cool on the mountain, but nice and sunny.

Go ahead and zoom in on that last one.  Note that Bryan’s gloves don’t even remotely match:  one is full-finger, one isn’t.  Guess what he’ll be getting for Christmas!

So how was John doing, considering that he’s not a bike racer, hadn’t ridden all year, has more extraneous muscle on his upper body than Chris Froome has in total, was wearing sneakers, and was riding a bike with wheels handed down from his aunt’s early-‘80s Univega?  Quite well, though he must have been suffering pretty badly to get gapped like this by his dad.

Actually, maybe he was gapped only because he was futzing with his GoPro or something.  He did admit later to having suffered, but who knows … maybe he was just being polite.

Here’s the only halfway decent action photo I got of all three of us.  It appears I may have suffered a mild stroke at some point, based on how the side of my face is collapsing and on how I’m grinning like an idiot.

Look, we made the summit, Artist’s Point!  The elevation is 5,100 feet and we started at (basically) sea level.  A friendly hiker snapped this photo, and also gave us a whole bottle of Gatorade, which was cucumber-lime flavor.  You know what?  It actually tasted pretty good.  That’s what hours of exercise will do for you.  (I remember enjoying some ice-cold Tequiza after an hours-long hike in Yosemite; I bought some when I got back home and realized it was actually quite gross.)  We were really stoked at the hiker’s generosity, because there was no water at the summit, either.  We only managed to fill our bottles once during this ride, about 80 or 90 miles in.

For those albertnet readers who’d like to get into a big argument about irony, here’s a photo that may or may not be ironic.  (Capri Sonne, aka Capri Sun, is one of those rare beverage companies not owned by PepsiCo, which is Gatorade’s parent.)

The descent was glorious (if a bit brisk).  Toward the bottom of this post is a YouTube video where you can see some of that.  Following the downhill, when we finally did stop for water, we compared our helmet-heads.  Bryan’s was fricking epic:

You can tell he was going fast by the piece of straw there.  My own helmet-head was pretty sweet, too.  I didn’t get the corn row effect, but the bugs are a nice touch. 

The redness is because the helmet I borrowed from Bryan was too small.  I was relieved it didn’t actually wear a hole in my forehead (though it felt like it was).  There was a missing pad above my crown, which due to my lack of hair and the male Velcro bits caused an unpleasant sandpaper sensation.  John suggested I put some wadded-up paper towel in there, and it really helped.  Such a fine lad!  His heart must go out to my brother and me, the way our hair is disappearing faster than glaciers in Greenland.  (Actually, our hair is migrating to our backs … but I digress.)

I did manage to win a city-limit sprint, into the little town of Nugent.  Just now I looked up that town to see if it was named after Ted Nugent, and I can’t find it on a map.  I guess it’s not a town at all … there’s just a random green sign that says “Nugent” so I didn’t really win anything.

The final sprint into Bellingham was one we’d talked about the whole ride; it’s the equivalent of the Champs-Elysées stage of the Tour de France.  Bryan and I were watching each other like hawks on the approach, and just as I was about to launch my sprint, Bryan said, “I don’t think that’s it,” meaning the city-limit sign.  I hesitated, and just then John came flying by us.  There was no way to catch him.  It was a brilliant move.  Later I accused Bryan of treason; after all, saying “I don’t think that’s it” is a lot easier than giving his son a lead-out.  Bryan denies any such tactics.  In any event, John has not only great strength but great instincts (exemplifying 3 of the 5 sprinting tips I give here).

Here’s a video of ride highlights from John’s GoPro:

Here’s the “after” shot, juxtaposed with the “after” shot from our 2009 expedition.  John has certainly grown.

We sat on the back deck and ate bananas as our glycogen window treat.  My legs really hurt … this was my longest ride of the year by almost 40 miles.  My dad was visiting as well, and I attempted to scandalize him by saying, “I’m going to take an over-the-counter muscle relaxant.”  I think it worked:  my dad (an acolyte of Dr. Andrew Weil) asked worriedly, “What kind?”  I replied, “Brewski.”  Man, that Long Table ale is yummy.  Like a Saison, but stronger.  I brought out one for John too because hey, he’s of legal drinking age now!

If you’re wondering how I came to drink 1½ beers, it’s because there was a limited supply, and John gave me half of his.  I commented on his temperance and he said, “It’s not that … you just look like you need it more.”

Dinner was straight-up massive, and tasty:  hand-cranked pasta, a previously frozen lasagne we’d thawed just in case which was nice and meaty, salad (well …salad), garlic bread, and some hot dog buns that had been given the garlic bread treatment.  Then the pie, and whipped cream.  Have you noticed that aerosol whipped cream seems so often to come in a 3-pack nowadays?  It’s almost entrapment the way its overabundance leads to fist-sized puffs atop tiny slivers of pie.

The aftermath of the ride and dinner was predictable enough….

Next time I do this, I’m bringing my older daughter, Alexa.  I just informed her of this.  She replied, “You are insane.”  You can imagine her eye-roll.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2015 Vuelta a España Stage 20


Some bike race coverage is better than others, but the vast majority of accounts share one trait:  journalistic integrity.  This means being responsible and only reporting what is verifiable fact.  How odd, then, that such coverage participates in the big lie that the sport has cleaned itself up.  An announcer must pretend to be excited when an obvious doper is doing well, when he’s got to be thinking, deep down inside, “What a disgrace.”

Well, my coverage is different.  I like to tell it how it is, or at least how I suppose it is.  My goal is simply to entertain, even at the risk of inaccuracy, because that’s the purpose of sport anyway, right?  And yeah, I play favorites ... because what sports fan doesn’t?  So read on for a totally biased blow-by-blow report of the crucial penultimate stage of the 2015 Vuelta a España.

Vuelta a Espana Stage 20:  San Lorenzo de El Escorial – Cercedilla

As I join the action, Ruben Plaza Molina (Lampre-Merida) is off the front solo with almost 80 km left in the stage.  This looks pretty quixotic, but what better country to be quixotic in than Spain? 

Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) decides to do something panzic, and tries to bridge from the chase group up to Plaza.  What’s “panzic,” you ask?  Well, if we can derive “quixotic” from Quixote, to mean “acting in a way that Don Quixote might act,” can’t we do the same with Quixote’s faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza?  I’ll make you a deal:  you help spread “panzic” as a word, and I’ll keep providing these blow-by-blow reports free of charge.

Zubeldia is caught.  Man, he almost didn’t even last long enough for my verbal aside.  So, I’m not sure how big this chase group is.  It’s about 12 minutes ahead of the peloton, and 2:20 behind Quixote.  Er, Plaza.  Is Plaza being stupid?  Not necessarily.  This is a really strange course:  nothing but up and down ... 176 km (109 miles) with four Category 1 climbs.

Long flat sections doom a solo rider, but drafting doesn’t help that much on climbs, and if the road is twisty, a good descender can hold his own pretty well.  Think of Floyd Landis in Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France, when he soloed for a huge distance over such terrain to [seem to] win the stage.  (If he hadn’t drunk too much Jack Daniels and fallen asleep with a testosterone patch on his balls, and if all the American cyclists hadn’t turned on each other via the Lance Armstrong investigation years later, I might have managed that last sentence without the bracketed caveat!)  So yeah, maybe Plaza’s move is smarter than it looks.

Speaking of turning on each other, I think Sean Kelly is getting fed up with his co-announcer, Carlton, who has just made a lame joke about race leader Tom Dumoulin (Team Giant-Alpecin) breaking his bike in a crash yesterday.  “Giant was probably pretty upset about that,” he quipped.  Earlier in this Vuelta, Kelly might have politely ignored this, but instead he disagrees, saying, “In a crash like that you’re actually just glad your man wasn’t hurt.”  I can’t blame Kelly for being impatient.  During a crucial earlier stage, Mikel Landa (Astana Pro Team) was soloing, and Carlton said, “He’s Mikel Landa, and he’s about to land a big one!”  What I heard next was hard to make out, but I think it was the sound of Kelly punching Carlton in the windpipe.

With 53 km to go, the riders are on the penultimate climb, the Puerto de la Morcuera, which is 10.4 km in length at an average grade of 5.3%.  Plaza has almost 3 minutes on the chasers, whose gap to the main field is down to 10:50.  Plaza doesn’t look so hot—his shoulders are really rocking—but then, form isn’t everything.  I mean, nobody looks worse on a bicycle than Christopher Froome (Team Sky), but that doesn’t stop the guy from winning the Tour de France.

Speaking of Froome, he dropped out of this Vuelta long ago.  He was way out of contention after a crash, but frankly he was never really in contention anyway.  He almost got a stage win on a summit finish, but as he was making his disgraceful, mincing-stepped, high-cadence, bobble-headed way to the finish line, Dumoulin—who had failed to solo minutes before—defied the laws of gravity and came flying by to take the win.  Dumoulin is a big man, a man’s man, and it’s not a stretch to say a macho man, and he wielded his bike like a fricking bat instead of a badminton racquet like Punky Froomester does, and I had to let out a whoop of pure joy and relief that the sport isn’t totally ruined by the kind of boring predictability that Froome and Sky have been working to produce through their undeniable lead in the pharmaceutical arms race.

It’s actually been a very exciting Vuelta, because no single rider or team has built up too great an advantage.  Sadly, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) crashed out; Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) looks too tired from the Tour de France to contest GC victory here; Vincenzo Nibali was disqualified for holding on to his team car (which was disgracefully, embarrassingly blatant; he might as well have been caught on camera dirty-dancing with a podium girl); and other contenders like Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) have been excellent but not dominant.  Going into yesterday’s hilly stage, Dumoulin had only 3 seconds over Aru in the GC battle.  He dropped Aru on the short cobblestoned climb at the end to get 3 more seconds.

Near the top of the Puerto de la Morcuera, Astana is drilling it on the front, and Dumoulin is gapped!  They’ve got about two seconds on him!

Dumoulin’s team is nowhere around; probably they’ve all been shelled.  (I think of them more as a sprinter’s team built around John Degenkolb than a GC team.)  But Dumoulin is a cool customer.  He lost snatches of time—30 seconds here, 30 seconds there—in the earlier, more brutal mountain stages, confident that he’d make up time in the time trial, which he certainly did, crushing everybody (including the second-place rider on the day, who lost over a minute).  Still, 6 seconds is nothing on such a hard stage, particularly when Aru has such a strong teammate, Landa, to help him attack.

The breakaway, by the way, is still over 10 minutes ahead of the field, which makes Aru’s job harder because they’ll eat up all the bonus seconds for the top 3 finishers.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) is all by himself, having been sawed off from the GC group.  That’s been the story of this race.  He’s always either trying to solo, or getting dropped from a group.  Maybe he just prefers being alone ... maybe he just doesn’t like his competitors.  Fine by me ... I don’t like him, either.

The GC group is down to 8 guys.  I love these later stages in grand tours, when so many riders are so blown, they just give up when the hammer goes down.  It certainly makes it easier to tell what’s going on among the GC favorites.  It’s particularly easy with this Vuelta because Dumoulin is so much taller than everybody else, like a giraffe among gazelles.

Astana attacks again!  Oh, man, Dumoulin is really hurting!  His shoulders are rocking and he’s totally isolated!  Ooh, it’s a big gap.  Sure, he has a long descent before the final climb, but if it’s not technical, he won’t necessarily make up time on the group.  Being dropped this far from the finish also doesn’t bode well.

The front group of 6 has split in half but they’ll come back together.  They’ve got about 22 seconds on Dumoulin now.  Majka and Quintana are in that group and obviously highly motivated to work.  Quintana sits 5th on GC, about 30 seconds behind Majka.  I'm sure he’d love to make that up today.

Dumoulin is working with Mikel Nieve (Team Sky) and has decreased the gap to around 18 seconds.  Assuming he catches up, the final climb is going to be brutal.  If he manages to stay anywhere near the leaders on that climb, he’ll have a 7 km flat section before the final descent.  He showed in the time trial how much faster he goes on the flats than the little climbers.  Like a Kawasaki Ninja against a bunch of Vespas.

Could Dumoulin be faking it, to give Aru false hope?  Probably not, but it’s not impossible.  In a really hilly road race I once let myself get dropped on every climb, because it wasn’t that hard to catch the group on the downhills.  I did this for the whole race until the last couple climbs, when keeping up mattered.

Dumoulin is hauling ass ... Nieve can barely hang on, despite what must be an awesome slipstream.

I wonder what the Giant-Alpecin director is saying to Dumoulin over the radio.  How do you motivate your rider without demoralizing him?  Maybe it’s something like, “You have to beat Aru.  He’s the kind of jerk who sticks his chewed-up gum to the bottom of the desk.  He’s mean to old people and kicks dogs when nobody is looking.”

Dumoulin has shrunk the gap to 10 seconds.  This would be great news if he didn’t have that final climb, 11 km at 5.3%, to deal with.  Dang, he looks really tired.  He flicks his elbow and Nieve takes a turn at the front.  Now they’re chatting.  What could they be saying?  “Dude, you’re crazy, Natalie Portman is way hotter than Scarlett Johansson.”

Dumoulin gives a little head-shake, reminiscent of George H.W. Bush.  Either he’s cooked, or this is the greatest rope-a-dope since Lance on the Alpe d’Huez stage of the 2001 Tour.

Dumoulin drops back to his team car, but then seems to change his mind and just keeps riding.  Maybe he was going to ask for a strong cup of coffee but then remembered that caffeine is a diuretic and didn’t want to have to take a piss during the climb.  That might knock him off the podium.

Look, I’m not going to deny it:  I’m totally rooting for Dumoulin.  When it comes to bike racers, I’m size-ist.  This isn’t really on aesthetic grounds; it’s just that, being a tall, heavy rider myself, I’ve had countless opportunities—hundreds, I think—to resent the little climbers as they break my legs off.  I admit it:  I’m bitter.  When I look at a big guy like Dumoulin, I can relate to his difficulty in these mountains.

It looks like Aru has another teammate ... somebody must have dropped back from the breakaway.  If so, that’s the first time Astana has done anything intelligent in any bicycle race.

Man, Dumoulin must be heartbroken ... at one point he was 10 seconds behind the leaders but now it’s stretched out to over a minute, despite his getting some help from a couple more riders.  He’ll be lucky to hang on for a podium placing at this point.  Poor guy, he’s really suffering.  I dare say he even looks, well, clean!

Way up front, Plaza is still going it alone, 1:40 ahead of the chasers.

Dumoulin’s radio earbud is taped to his ear.  I always find that a little sad.  Some riders have the good kind of ear that holds the earbud; some don’t.  Lance never needed tape; Ullrich always did.  Ullrich’s taped-on earbud looked sad, too.

Man, Plaza just slashes away.  He hasn’t looked good all morning, and yet his lead is holding steady.  His saddle is about 2 inches too low ... maybe it’s slipping down.  And Dumoulin’s beret is all crumpled; his sunglasses are scratched; his zipper is jammed; back home, a drain is clogged; his cat just missed the litter box by like 4 feet.  The center cannot hold.  I think I’m going to cry.

The chase group has broken up and it’s now four riders chasing Plaza:  Giovanni Visconti (Movistar Team), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing Team), José Gonçalves (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), and Matteo Mantaguti (AG2R La Mondiale).  Do you like how I bothered with the cedilla on the “c” in Gonçalves?  You won’t get that on  They wouldn’t bother.  On the downside, knowing it’s pronounced “Gon-SAL-vays” means I can’t make a pun about calves.  Maybe that’s for the better.  (Yes, I’m killing time before the finish because the denouement of this race is such a long, painful one.  If this were boxing, the ref would call the fight right now, but in bicycle races everybody has to serve out his full sentence.)

Dumoulin has fallen behind the group he was with and some Astana guy is on his wheel now.  I’m sure the Astana rider is taunting him from back there.

Quintana attacks!  No, he doesn’t have grand ambitions here, being almost 3 minutes behind Aru on the GC.  But as I mentioned earlier, he’d love to overtake Majka in the GC.  Needless to say, Majka is right on him.  The two are pulling ahead of the other GC favorites. 

Plaza reaches the final summit!  I think he’s got the stage win.  What did I tell you about Plaza’s long solo move not being as stupid as it might look?

Majka attacks Quintana, just before the summit.  Not that he really wants to distance him; I think it’s just a gesture:  “I see your effort to pass me in the GC, and I spit on it.  Look, I’m beating you to the top of the hill!”

Dumoulin’s director is saying, over the radio, “It’s okay, Tom.  You’re still a good person.  You’re not mean to old people, and you’ve never kicked a dog.  We just talked to your girlfriend and she says she doesn’t care because you’re way better looking than Aru.  She says he looks like a stricken baitfish.  She really said that.”

The peloton is over the final summit, while Dumoulin has almost 4 more minutes of miserable climbing ahead of him.  As my brother Max likes to say, “It’s all over but the crying.”

Plaza is struggling to maintain his gap on this flat section.  Funny, isn’t it, how a flat section can be cruel for a climber?  Still, his spirits are surely high, so his suffering is only physical.  Poor Dumoulin.  I wonder if he’s seen “On the Waterfront,” and if, despite not having seen it, he might be thinking, “I coulda been a contenda!” without any knowledge of where that comes from.  Probably not.  He’s probably thinking something far less predictable, like, “Mikel Nieve is such an idiot.  Scarlett Johansson isn’t even that hot.”

The chasing quartet is on the final descent now.  Their gap is down to 1:18, but with less than 5 km to go, they’re pretty much doomed to fight it out for second place.

Man, the GC group crested that final summit with 3 Astana guys left!  Astana is half the lead group!  I wonder if Team Sky has any plans to hire Astana’s team doctor away.  Not that Sky needs any help with its doping program, but it’s always wise to neutralize a fearsome opponent if you can.

Plaza has just 700 meters to go!  I wonder if he’ll do the new victory salute that has become so popular, where he tugs on his necklace until he’s pulled out the pendant, and polishes it up on his jersey before crossing the line.  Those Europeans are so weird.

Here he comes!  He looks back—he can’t help it—and now he does something really cool:  he takes his gloves off, and throws them to the crowd!  That is just fricking awesome.  I’m glad he didn’t get carried away and throw his helmet to the crowd; it would be awful to get disqualified only 25 meters from the finish line.

The next two riders are sprinting for second and I don’t care who gets it.  My enthusiasm has been deflating for about the last hour, in case you can’t tell.  Really, it’s Dumoulin, not Plaza, who’s the Don Quixote of this Vuelta.  At least he gave us a show!

Aru crosses the line and does an awkward, blurry victory salute with his teammate.  I never liked the “GC victory salute.”  Do you know who was the first guy to do that?  Lance Armstrong.  Do you know who was the second?  Carlos Sastre.  Now it’s almost standard.

The camera is on Aru as he’s mobbed by the press.  Even in victory, he looks like a stricken baitfish.

Dumoulin crosses the line, surrounded by a group of also-rans that evidently caught him as he made his lugubrious, plodding way toward the line.  It’s probably better for him, having a little bit of anonymity at the finish line instead of giving everybody a chance for some emblematic photo of his great loss.  He slips to 6th overall in the Vuelta, less than 24 hours after leading it.  Oh well ... he’s young.  He has many opportunities ahead.

They’re interviewing him.  He’s gracious enough to allow it (in contrast to Aru, who refused to speak to the press yesterday after losing 3 measly seconds).  Dumoulin is asked, predictably, how he feels.  “Just empty.  I mean, my legs are empty.  But don’t forget, I’m sponsored by Alpecin shampoo.  So my hair feels great!”  Ah, a true professional to the last!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What You Didn’t Know About Giraffes!


Back in the ‘80s, a friend of mine tried to set me up with his girlfriend’s sister.  I thought the whole double-dating thing was kind of corny, plus it didn’t seem like this girl was the sharpest tool in the shed.  For example, she wrote a report for school on the topic of goats; it was basically a list of goat-related facts.  (I know, I know ... what grade-school kid hasn’t taken this approach?  But this was a high school junior!)  I enjoyed watching her friend try to help:  “Shouldn’t you have a thesis?” To which she replied, “It is a thesis!”

Well, I probably should have dated her, because I now realize that a well-defined thesis actually limits you intellectually.  Had she declared something specific—e.g., “goats are assholes”—then she’d have had to ignore all the great things about goats when conducting her research.

With that in mind, I’m not going to try to reach some neat conclusion as I pursue the topic of giraffes.  What I will say is this:  though there are many neat things to learn about giraffes, some of the most fascinating things are curiously—perhaps suspiciously—obscure.

Some amazing facts about giraffes

The giraffe is the tallest animal in the world.  Newborn giraffes are taller than most humans. 

A giraffe can stand up within half an hour of being born.  NASA has studied this to help understand how to strengthen astronauts’ leg veins.

A giraffe can gallop along at 35 mph.

A giraffe’s kick can actually decapitate a predator.

A giraffe’s tongue is 20 inches long, and prehensile.  The giraffe can and does pick its nose with this amazing tongue.

Giraffes have very high blood pressure:  at about 300/200, it’s twice that of humans.  A giraffe’s pulse rate, at around 170, is also twice ours.

A female giraffe can only mate for two weeks out of the year, and indicates her readiness by urinating in the male’s mouth.  This odd practice is called flehmen and is related to that weird smelling thing cats do.

Can giraffes be evil?

Of course it’s silly to assign moral responsibility to animals, but when an animal exhibits a behavior that’s sufficiently dastardly, it’s tempting to call that animal evil.  Consider the abominable practice of eating one’s young.

“But wait,” you protest, “giraffes are herbivores!”  Well, yes, mainly.  But they are also known to eat the bones of dead animals, and even carcasses.  Is it a stretch to assert that they also eat their own young?  Probably not.  Try this:  go to Google, and type in “do giraffes eat.”  Google’s auto-fill feature immediately suggests obvious search strings, like “do giraffes eat apples.”  Fourth on the list:  “do giraffes eat their young.” 

Now, the responses you’ll see are of course quite varied.  There are more than 1.5 million hits on this search, and I for one do not have time to chase them all down.  Bottom line:  there’s probably something to this, and I think it’s deplorable.

Giraffes are also known to lay their eggs in other animals’ nests, in a move called “brood parasitism.”  What’s more, the baby giraffe, once hatched, will push the other animal’s eggs out of the nest, to get all the food to itself!  Watch this video if you don’t believe me.

Okay, I just realized I screwed up.  I somehow confused cuckoo birds with giraffes.  I guess giraffes don’t technically engage in brood parasitism, which should have been obvious because of course giraffes don’t lay eggs.  I could go delete the previous paragraph, but any attempt to “revise the past” can get you into legal trouble.  It just makes you look guilty.  And with the Wayback Machine, of course I’d get caught.

More on evil in giraffes

I’m not the first person to explore the notion of evil in giraffes.  Eddie Izzard, who in addition to being a zoologist and historian does some stand-up comedy, pursued this question when pondering, onstage, why (in the Noah’s Ark tale) so many animals had to endure the great flood that God brought about to punish evil in the world.  Among other animals, Izzard investigates the giraffe
What in fact is an evil giraffe?  How do they ... [here he mimics a giraffe voice and pantomimes chewing:]  “I will eat all the leaves on this tree.  I will eat more leaves than I should.  And then other giraffes may die.  Ha ha ha!  I am an evil herbivore.”
You should talk about this with your children.  Share with them your best rendition of Izzard’s monologue.  Use it as a jumping-off point to discuss the nature of good and evil.

Did giraffes ruin poetry?

Of course I won’t be so absurd as to assert that giraffes have done anything deliberate—whether acting collectively or individually—to ruin poetry.  But it’s an unfortunate fact that their very name has caused poets no end of grief, with many critics convinced that poetry itself has suffered.

The problem stems, oddly enough, from the simple fact that almost nothing rhymes with “giraffe.”  Of course the modern reader thinks nothing of this, since rhyme has all but disappeared from modern verse—but that’s actually the point.  For most of poetry’s history, rhyme did matter.  It was actually this animal—or rather, its name—that started the trouble.

Believe it or not, no prominent poet had managed to rhyme on “giraffe” until T.S. Eliot, in 1920, wrote “Sweeny Among the Nightingales.”  It opens thus: 
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,      
The zebra stripes along his jaw    
Swelling to maculate giraffe.
Critics immediately noted two things:  one, Eliot rhymed on just one syllable, which doesn’t really count and is fairly weak for a poet of his caliber; and two, “maculate giraffe” is kind of a stretch.  As a verb, “maculate” means “to mark with spots or stain” and is a transitive verb.  The poem takes place in a restaurant so obviously there’s no giraffe around.  (That would turn the whole poem into a weak joke, like the one where a panda strides into a bar and shoots the piano player.)  So “maculate” must be an adjective, meaning “spotted or stained.” 

Since when is it okay for a noun to modify an adjective (i.e., for “giraffe” to modify “maculate,” since what is being described is not a giraffe but the way that Sweeney’s sideburns are spotty)?  This line really makes no sense.  If you ask me, the mental effort of rhyming with “giraffe,” even on one measly syllable, simply threw Eliot off his game.

(The difficulty of rhyming with “giraffe,” by way, is related to where the stress falls in this word.  Most English words are trochaic—that is, the stress, or emphasis, falls on the first syllable; e.g., “zebra,” “swelling,” “letting.”  The word “giraffe” is iambic, meaning the stress is on the second syllable.  This is very common with French words, but a French poet runs into the problem of two different words for “giraffe”:  “la girafe” (feminine) and “le girafeau” (masculine).  How can the poet choose which form of this word to use, when the sex of a giraffe is so hard to determine?)

That Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” was well received really irritated another poet of the era, a certain E.E. Cummings.  Cummings attended Harvard shortly after Eliot, and it’s widely known he disliked living in the older poet’s shadow.  So he set out to write a poem of his own that would not only rhyme with “giraffe” on two syllables, but would actually make sense.

The only problem was, he couldn’t do it.  The only obvious two-syllable rhyme, “carafe,” was off the table, because it was too obvious.  A popular knickknack of the day was a carafe actually shaped like a giraffe, which made the association far too twee for a sophisticated poet.  (If you’re lucky you can still come across a vintage giraffe carafe at a thrift store.)

Countless crumpled-up drafts of Cummings’ giraffe poetry efforts were found by historians, but none still exist (they were destroyed in a fire, which some say was arson).  We know through accounts from Cummings’ friends that, for weeks at a time, he would convince himself that words like “agrafe,” “piaffe,” and even “Luftwaffe” counted as proper “giraffe” rhymes; each time, he eventually acknowledged he was only slipping into self-delusion.  This effort almost drove him insane, and finally he abandoned traditional poetry altogether, not only eschewing rhythm, rhyme, and spelling, but most other poetic conventions as well.  He would never write traditional poems again.

While E.E. Cummings continues to be a household name, many critics dismiss the actual quality of his work.  But whether or not he was any good, his influence cannot be denied.  To this day, most poetry lacks rhyme (along with meter, etc.).  It’s not fair to scapegoat Cummings for this ... the problem was with “giraffe” all along.  Sure, other words are hard to rhyme with too, but they aren’t attached to creatures as compelling as giraffes, which practically cry out to be celebrated in verse.

Are giraffes political?

Many primates are known to build complex political structures within their communities.  But do giraffes?  Not exactly, but once again, something about these strange animals seems to inspire humans.  If we ever manage to put together a credible third political party, don’t be surprised if its symbol is the giraffe.

The use of the giraffe in pictorial political metaphor is as old as the metaphor itself.  The giraffe first makes its appearance, oddly enough, in the first cartoon that represented the Republican party as an elephant.  I’m talking about Thomas Nast’s drawing, “The Third-Term Panic,” which ran in Harper’s Weekly in 1874:

I think political cartoons have gotten simpler over the last 140 years.  It’s worth pointing out here that the donkey doesn’t actually represent the Democratic party (as has been reported elsewhere):  its collar reads “N.Y. Herald.”  The Democratic Party is represented in this cartoon by the raccoon, which retreats from the chasm of chaos even as the elephant flees the lion.  Almost every other animal flees the lion as well.  Notable exceptions are the owl, whose meaning I can’t grasp; the ostrich, predictably burying its head; and the giraffe.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this cartoon in establishing the elephant as the symbol of the Republican party.  Likewise, other Nash cartoons cemented the relationship between the donkey and the Democrats (even though this one didn’t).  Nash didn’t follow up on the giraffe theme—but other cartoonists did.  Check this out:

The big problem with the giraffe’s ascendance in political cartoons is that the giraffe isn’t yet symbolic of anything specific (“independent” being something less than a political party with specific values).  Consider the following pair of pictures:

The caption of the first cartoon translates, “April goes as it entered, the end will be the beginning.”  The second, near as I can figure, is something about a wind farmer being pissed about a June hailstorm.  I don’t grasp the point of either cartoon, and I’m no expert on German politics, but since Merkel and Beck represent opposing political parties, the giraffe cannot be thought to symbolize either one of them.

If you’re about to ask “so what?” I will ask you to pause and reflect on something:  isn’t it possible that the failure of a viable third party to emerge is actually the giraffe’s fault?  Think about it.  The donkey first came to symbolize the Democrats because Andrew Jackson’s opponents called him a jackass, and he embraced the symbol because it represents stubbornness.  Nash characterized the Republican party as an elephant because this party was too big, he felt, to cower in fear, even when confronted by a lion.  Stubbornness and fearlessness are sound characteristics on which to base a party’s mascot.  But what are giraffes?

Giraffes, alas, are just kind of weird.  What party wants to be associated with weirdness?  But this timidity is the whole problem.  If you’re going to take on the big established parties, you’re going to have to embrace your uniqueness.  Figure out how to tune your metaphor to include a strong heart, a clever tongue, and a strong kick, and you’ll be on your way.  (Needless to say, it’s best if you leave out the bit about urinating into your mate’s mouth.)

For the record

As I hope you’ve gathered, all that stuff about Cummings and Eliot was pure malarkey (though I suppose it’s possible I unknowingly stumbled on some truth there).  Everything else in this essay, however, is completely true(-ish).

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