Wednesday, February 28, 2018

From the Archives - Robin Killed Off!


Introduction

What’s up with all these comic book movies? They’re coming out constantly. I had to sit through Thor recently, because my wife has a thing for Chris Hemsworth. (I went along because Thor also stars Natalie Portman.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, this movie was pretty much unwatchable. We fast-forwarded through all the non-Earth scenes, which was like three quarters of the movie, and were still bored out of our skulls.

Curious about how this comic book movie thing got going, I decided to check out the original Batman from 1989. This film, more so than the Superman from 1978, seemed to spawn all these others. Superman was kind of nerdy and clearly targeted at kids, whereas Batman was evidently trying to be hip—and something adults could watch.

So: was the 1989 Batman any good? No. It looked pretty good but my wife and I found it really tedious. Clearly the movie industry is on to something, though, because these movies are undeniably popular. Batman was skillfully marketed and pulled in more than $40 million in its first weekend (vs. the mere $7.5 million that Superman made). Since Batman, there have been 20 movies based on DC comics and 47 movies based on Marvel comics. Maybe some of these are pretty good, but I think the bigger point is the crossover appeal: they draw in current teenagers for the obvious reasons, but also appeal to people my age who dug the comic books as kids and are prone to nostalgia.

As uninterested as I am in comic book movies, I was crazy about Batman as a kid. Watching the Batman movie awoke a dim memory I had of writing an essay about the Dynamic Duo some thirty years ago. And look, here it is now!


Robin Killed Off – October 29, 1988

When I was a little tyke, four or five years old, my life revolved around cowboys. Not real cowboys, who spend all day herding cows across the desert on a long drive, but the ones that spent all their time shooting at Indians or bad guys. The Lone Ranger was my favorite. I just thought it was so cool that he wore two belts, one to keep his pants up and the other for his gun holsters (or “holsterns” as I ignorantly called them). I had a Lone Ranger coloring book that showed him making his silver bullets, with the mold and everything. Too cool! Silver, the Lone Ranger’s white stallion (or “white-a-stallion,” in my benighted jargon) was just the most magnificent beast on the face of the earth.

I wore a cowboy hat for about two years straight. Nobody ever saw my hair during that period. I even wore that hat in the bathtub. When my kindergarten teacher told me to take it off, I refused. She went and got the school principal, and when he tried to take it away from me, I bit him. Everyone in my family remembers that hat and my cowboy fixation, but might not remember what replaced my “cowboy days.”


It was Batman who took over my imagination after cowboys inevitably got stale. Batman was so noble and good, yet so rock-‘em-sock-‘em tough, that he was a natural replacement. He didn’t have a horse, but he had a really cool car, a cool boat, and of course the Bat Cave.

Besides being strong and bold and good, the Lone Ranger and Batman had something else in common: a sidekick. The Lone Ranger had Tonto, and Batman had Robin. This seems like a wise arrangement. Sure, the hero is the greatest and all, but it’s also nice to have someone to relate to. Perhaps by seeing ourselves in the sidekick, we get to admire the hero in another way: he’s kind of like a cool big brother. For the humble among us, it’s hard to imagine ourselves being truly heroic, but we could relate to at least tagging along and helping out here and there. It’s hard not to love the underdog who’s always doing his best and sometimes even saves the hero’s bacon.

So imagine my shock and chagrin today when I read the following headline on the front page of the “Calendar” section of the L.A. Times: “Holy Finale! Comics Hero Bites The Dust.” Accompanying the article was a graphic illustration of Batman carrying a charred, shredded, blood-oozing corpse, who apparently had been Robin. The caption read, “Batman carries tattered body of Robin, as Dynamic Duo is halved.”


What the hell?! Nobody is supposed to die in the comics, at least nobody good! The Lone Ranger never killed or even badly wounded an outlaw—he just gave him a lecture and put him in jail. On the Batman TV show I used to watch [the original colorized series from 1966], Batman never hurt anybody, and neither did Robin; they just worked the bad guys over for a while and then surrendered them to the authorities. It was just enough action to be exciting without being crude or traumatic. Even the bad guys weren’t that bad. I remember an episode where the Joker tied Batman and Robin to a buoy with a bomb connected to it. Before leaving them to their fate, the Joker—strumming a guitar—sang them a little farewell song (and then gave them ample opportunity to get away unscathed).

But here, plain as day, Robin was flat-out dead. And he didn’t died of pneumonia, either. I quote from the article: “Robin is killed off in next week’s issue of Batman comics, blown to bits—BAM!—by a bomb planted by Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations, who turns out to be another of Batman’s old foes, the Joker.”

That’s disgusting! The picture in the comic is even more revolting! A fella doesn’t even see such carnage in rated R movies! Since when is this appropriate fodder for kids’ imaginations?

I’m reacting to more than just the age-old gripe against exposing kids to violent images. Consider this: the Dynamic Duo, for almost fifty years, have been more than just characters—they’re real heroes to these kids. Every time the Dynamic Duo was in a bind in one of those wacky TV episodes, I’d be on the edge of my seat, pulling with all my heart for the two, just like a grownup watching his home football team in the grips of a key drive. Have 7-year-olds really changed, to where they can take a hero’s death in stride?

But the most hideous aspect of this tragedy is that the Joker didn’t really kill Robin: the kids themselves did it. The article says, “According to a spokesman for D.C. Comics, which publishes Batman, Robin was killed off by readers by a vote of 5,343 to 5,271 because he was considered a ‘twerp’ and a ‘little brat.’” To me this looks like another triumph of a big kid over his annoying little brother. These modern too-cool kids seem to have stopped caring about the underdog. Where kids once humbly related to the lesser character, now they have no use for him.

Look, I know comic books mainly exist to entertain, but was there really anything wrong with a small dose of didacticism? Is it just hopelessly nerdy now to try to steer kids in any positive direction, like supporting an underdog? Is it more important to give them what they want—i.e., to let them vote on the fate of a character—than to tell them the story the creators want to tell? What’s next? Do readers get to vote on everything?

It’s not that I consider myself some societal watchdog, some sociological scold. More to the point, I guess I was always heartened at the very existence of a weaker character. I always knew I’d never be Batman, but could see myself as a possible Robin. I loved that a powerful, cool man like Batman could respect Robin for what he was, despite what he wasn’t. In other words, I am acutely aware that I’ve been cursed with all the traits that got the Boy Wonder killed. It seems now that anyone lacking a huge chest, fistfighting prowess, and outsized bravado is nothing more than a twerp. The Robins of the world don’t seem to have a chance anymore. When the next generation is voting to have Robin killed, I fear for society and I fear for myself.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Olympic Spotlight - What is Curling? (FAQ)


Introduction

The United States just won the gold medal in curling for the first time in history. You might be wondering what this strange sport is all about. Well, I’m here to tell you, by answering some frequently asked questions.


What is curling?

Curling is a bit like a low-speed, two-dimensional form of archery, where big, uniform stones—or, to use the special curling jargon, rocks—are slid along a “curling sheet” (i.e., an ice rink) toward a circular target. But there’s a big difference: you can knock your opponents’ rocks away from the target, like the balls in croquet. Also, there are four people to a team, and a team leader called the skip, who yells instructions at the others. Plus, you alter the ice in the path of the rock with a little broom, which makes this sport unlike any other.



What is a bonspiel?

A bonspiel is a curling tournament.

Why don’t they just call it a curling tournament?

“Bonspiel” better captures the specialness of the sport.

What is “the hammer”?

The hammer is an abstract term indicating the privilege of “throwing” (i.e., sliding) the last rock of the “end” (i.e., inning).

What is “burning a stone”?

This is when a player accidentally touches a stone either with his body or with a broom. This is a serious infraction that often leads to a serious scolding. Players are expected to be suitably contrite when they burn a stone, and failure to apologize may bring about a second scolding.

What is “chroming the rock”?

This is when you strike a glancing blow off another rock that doesn’t move it much but changes the path of your rock.

Why are these terms so strange?

Curling is a badass sport and requires a similarly badass lexicon to describe it.

Is chroming the rock the curling equivalent of gleaming the cube?

No.

Is it true curling has been called "chess on ice"?

Yes, curling has been compared to chess by fans and detractors alike. Fans emphasize the strategy involved. Detractors claim that both sports are similarly long and tedious for the spectator. So who is right? Neither, actually. Because curling rocks are identical, one to the next, and can move in any direction, curling is actually more like checkers on ice.

How old is the sport of curling?

A curling rock was discovered in Scotland with the date “1511” engraved in it. How did archaeologists determine it was a curling rock? Well, they can’t know for sure, but these are experts and we ought to trust them. That being said, for years it was believed that a curling rock engraved with “302 BC” was the oldest—until somebody pointed out that—aha!—the BC/AD thing wasn’t invented until sometime AD.

There is also some speculation that curling has been depicted on the cave walls in Lascaux, but as it isn’t cold enough in Montignac for lakes to freeze, these claims are regarded with skepticism.

Does a curling sheet require a Zamboni?

No. In fact, a Zamboni would interfere with the sliding of the rocks. Curling requires the ice to have a pebbly texture. The lack of Zamboni has been cited as an obstacle to curling being more widely popular.

Who is the most famous curler in the world?

Effective immediately, the most famous curler in the world (or at least in the United States, which is all the world cares about, right?) is John Shuster, the skip of the American team that just won the gold. He is famous for being an American gold medalist, of course, but also for choking in key moments in two of the three previous Olympic Games. His failures in clinch moments were so dramatic, the Urban Dictionary includes the word “shuster,” defining it as a verb meaning to fail at a critical moment.

Is John Shuster fabulously wealthy?

Up until now Shuster has been just a part-time sales associate at a sporting goods store in Duluth. With this success, however, he will no longer need to practice curling and his manager thinks he can rejigger the schedule and move Shuster up to full time.

What about endorsement deals?

Shuster is well poised to be the public face of the premier curling broom manufacturer. Unfortunately, there is none, as there is no market for curling brooms outside of Olympic hopefuls (who usually get hand-me-downs from former Olympic hopefuls). It’s possible Shuster will get to be on the Wheaties box, but since he looks more like a factory foreman than a perfect athletic specimen, nothing is guaranteed.



Shuster’s fellow gold medalist Tyler George may have an opportunity to endorse Skechers. He he has worn the same pair of Skechers in training and in all his bonspiels in the last eight years, so they have achieved some fame in their own right. But according to the New York Times, these shoes have been called “revolting” by other Olympians, so perhaps it’s the wrong kind of fame. Meanwhile, nobody—not even Skechers—makes curling-specific shoes (curlers attach their own Teflon plates to regular shoes) and nobody wants curling shoes anyway, so again the endorsement possibilities are limited.

Is there a professional curling circuit?

There is no professional curling circuit per se, but many former Olympians go on to become professional janitors, given their prowess in wielding a broom and maintaining grace under pressure.

Is it true curling is the fastest growing sport in America?

Actually, that honor belongs to darts (though NBC falsely claims it’s Pickleball). Curling is tied with saltwater fishing for second place, though perhaps that is about to change!

What nation has the most Olympic gold medals in curling?

Believe it or not, the nation with the most curling gold medals is Libya.

Wait, did I say Libya? I meant Canada. They have fairly dominated curling, winning the gold in 2006, 2010, and 2014 before totally shustering it this year.

Is it true the US team was accidentally given the women’s gold medals in Pyeongchang?

Yes, actually. It is widely believed this was an attempt to embarrass the Americans—but if it was, it failed, as nobody is more secure in his masculinity than a male curler. The other theory is that this was a sly way to introduce them to the winning women’s team from Sweden (they’d visit them at the hotel to exchange medals, then head down to the bar, etc.). But America’s gold was already a Hollywood ending—they don’t need another.

Do you have to have facial hair to reach the top of men’s curling?

No, but it clearly helps.



Is it true that the curler is the most fit athlete of any discipline?

Traditionally, fitness is measured by two main criteria: VO2 max (oxygen uptake capability) and anaerobic threshold (the percentage of VO2 max that can be sustained before the athlete goes into oxygen debt). The highest VO2 max ever recorded was in Norwegian curler Thomas Løvold, with a measure of 97.5, surpassing Norwegian cross-country skier Espen Harald Bjerke’s VO2 max of 96.0.

It’s extremely difficult to measure anaerobic threshold, but if you’ve ever seen a bonspiel, well … the spectacle speaks for itself.

What do curlers eat?

Curlers have the reputation of being the most laid-back of Olympic athletes when it comes to diet—images of cheeseburgers and shakes come to mind—but this isn’t really fair. In reality, most curlers eat a lot of poutine—the Canadian standby consisting of French fries with cheese curds and brown gravy. If this doesn’t seem like the kind of nutrition befitting a top athlete, consider that modern versions of poutine often include things like duck confit and a garnish of arugula or even broccoli rabe.

Other staples among curlers are apparently eggs, steak, pancakes, yogurt, and cookies. These are the favorite foods of the “Garlic Girls,” the members of silver-medalist South Korean curling team who are the darlings of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

That thing about VO2 max – are you serious?

Actually, I just realized I goofed there. The 97.5 VO2 max belonged to Norwegian cyclist Oskar Svendson. Curlers do seem pretty fit, though.

Note

Yeah, I made a bunch of stuff up. You should consider this more a humor piece than actual journalism. Wondering what is really true and what is not? Based on input from a reader, I have gone back and changed the font to show what is contrived. The black text with a serifed font is factually accurate. The texted rendered in a blue sans-serif font is what I made up.

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

My Favorite Failure


Introduction

A year or two ago I came across in article (probably a regular column) titled “My Favorite Failure” or “My Favorite Mistake.” I can’t find it now (Googling “Favorite Mistake” turns up a hundred variations on some Sheryl Crow song). The article concerned some famous pianist playing his first competition and having such a battle of nerves that he botched the opening notes and actually started over, which ruined his chances of scoring well. The judges, however, were impressed that he started over (something to do with the sanctity of the piece or something) and said so. He learned some valuable lesson and now he’s famous, so it’s a heartwarming story, etc.

Do I have a favorite mistake? For me, the chief problem with this exercise is choosing one among the many, but I’ve settled on a favorite (for now). If I were famous, you’d be reading this in some magazine.

My favorite failure

I’ve had some great failures, like when I tried to ride through a giant mud puddle during the warmup lap of a mountain bike race and ended up entirely submerged in mud in front of at least 50 people. Another time, I was at a party and barfed in front of dozens of onlookers, without alcohol being involved (or at least without it being prominent). Another candidate: as a dumb teenager unaware of the need to prepare his speeches in advance, I was laughed at by an entire roomful of people at a city council meeting in Boulder. These were all funny and humiliating failures, but I didn’t really learn anything beyond the fact of my being an idiot, which I’d known already.

The mistake I’ll focus on here: at age 14, I traveled 75 miles for a bike race and forgot my cycling shoes. Now, I know that’s not really remarkable—probably every bike racer has done this, or something like it. But that’s just a mistake. The real failure was how I reacted.

Did I melt down, and throw a tantrum, maybe break my hand punching the side of the car? No, actually, I was pretty stoic. In fact, maybe too stoic.

The facts of the case

This was the Buckeye Road Race, the first race of the 1984 season. I was inwardly miserable because I never trained much over the winter in those days and thus always sucked in those early races. I did better as the season progressed (though to be honest, I sucked to some degree all season long, compared to my pals who all improved way faster).

But poor winter training wasn’t my only problem. All races gave me a bad case of nerves; I was pretty much a basket case psychologically at every start line. Just seeing all the parked cars with the bikes on them gave me butterflies. I wasted so much energy being nervous, I never rode as well in the races as I did in training. At least, the fitness gap between my friends and me was more pronounced on race day. My mood would improve afterward when I could finally relax, even though I probably should have been more disappointed in my (generally poor) results.

You might be wondering: why did I even keep racing? Well, as slow as I was in my fourth year of racing, I was at least (gradually) improving. More than that, I just liked the culture of bike racing. I liked the people, I liked bikes, I liked the speed, and I liked the idea of racing. It got me out of the house and gave me a reason—almost an excuse, you might say—to train.

So: back to the Buckeye Road Race. I got there and was going through my stuff when I discovered my cycling shoes were not in my bag. They were Detto Pietro Art 74s, like these:


Back then, there was only one configuration for such shoes—there weren’t 4 or 5 different cleat types making compatibility difficult. The cleat was just a hunk of plastic with a slot in it, which fit over the cage of any pedal. We all had toe clips and in theory I could have raced in sneakers. My shoes were big clunky things, though, and I wasn’t going to do that.

Some adult on my team went running around trying to find somebody who could loan me his shoes (my race being before theirs). I was embarrassed, of course, and didn’t like the idea of anybody taking the trouble. I was well prepared to face the consequences of my neglect.

Too prepared, actually. When it became clear nobody could find shoes my size, I immediately felt a warm flush of relief wash over me. I wouldn’t have to race after all! This was a lot like the warm, cozy sensation of wetting your pants—in that carefree moment before you realize what you’ve done. No sooner did I recognize my emotion—relief—than I became deeply ashamed of it. What the hell was I? A bike racer or a poser? A driven athlete, or a fraud who wasted space in his teammate’s car? What was wrong with me that the pressure of the start line was so great I’d graciously accept being turned away from it through my own disorganization? Why was the embarrassment of a bonehead move like forgetting my shoes less painful than normal pre-race butterflies? Could there have—gasp!—been anything bordering on intentional about my utter lack of meticulousness when packing my bag?

My enlightenment

I can’t really say this shame represented an epiphany of any kind; I didn’t suddenly make any resolution that changed the trajectory of my life, or even my sporting life. But the recognition I’d had was the start of something: I now knew there was a problem somewhere in myself. I no longer just bumped blithely along, buoyed by my friends and my team and the comfortable delusion that I was an actual bike racer (who just didn’t happen to be very good). Up to this point I had bobbed merrily in the baby pool of poser-dom, but now the plug had been pulled. The cycling season gradually drained away and at the end of it, I seriously considered quitting the sport.

Rather than a bolt out of the blue that clarified everything, my failure—that is, the realization that I wasn’t truly committed—festered in my gut like a slow-growing infection. It was just this unpleasant awareness that I hadn’t had  before, that didn’t spur me to any specific action but also wouldn’t go away.

I put a rear rack on my mountain bike and attached cute little caddy to it haul stuff around. I asked myself: is it enough to be a guy who gets around town on a bike? A carefree bike path regular? Could I just bike around for the pleasure of it, without worrying about speed and strength and performance?

Sometime over the winter the answer materialized: no. It wasn’t enough to be a neat guy who likes bikes. I wanted to be a racer, a real one, who doesn’t make excuses and races every chance he gets and pays enough attention not to forget his damn shoes.

This new emotional, psychological commitment—the increase in will—must have changed my behavior in a hundred subtle ways. I trained more; I got more organized; I stopped finding excuses not to ride; I thought a lot less about the rote activities involved and just carried them out; training went from being something I could do to something that had to be done; I tinkered less with my bike. I raced more; my fitness soared; I started getting results. It was the real start of competence in the sport for me.

I was chatting with a pal recently, a fellow assistant mountain bike coach, and we were trying to figure out how many races we’d done. I guessed I’d done over 150, but just now I did a rough tally and it’s actually over 250. And not once, since the 1984 Buckeye Road Race, have I forgotten my shoes. That’s a pretty good track record … and I think it all stems from that one privately humiliating failure: not merely the failure to be organized, but a fundamental failure to commit.



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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Race Report - 2018 Fort Ord CCCX XC MTB


Introduction

It is a tradition on my bike club to send out race reports that give a comprehensive explanation of how all the race tactics played out to produce the thrilling final outcome. No, of course that’s not true—who cares about any of that? We actually focus on what was eaten, and at what velocity, and what beer it was washed down with. Here is my second report of the year (my first being this one).

But before we get to that, I’m actually on two teams: the aforementioned EBVC road team, and the Albany High School mountain bike team. That’s right, a routine background check determined that I never actually finished high school, so I’m back finishing up a couple courses. No, actually I’m an undercover cop posing as a cheerleader. Or maybe I’m just an assistant bike team coach. I race the CCCX mountain bike every year so that the student athletes get the chance to see me suffer, too.

Executive summary

I had two dinners the night before, one of which included a free beer that was almost forced on me; race-day weather was gorgeous; course was even better than last year; I suffered way better than last time; and, though I did not win, I was a bit closer, and achieved a distinction I haven’t enjoyed since 1991.

On Android phones, the first photo of every blog post appears on the albertnet home page as a thumbnail alongside the title. I want to avoid any spoilers, so here is a photo of my cat drinking beer.


Bonus: my younger daughter was so impressed by this photo, she did a drawing of it!


Race report - short version 
  • Race stats: 23.2 miles, 2,343 vertical feet climbed, 1:40:25 race time, 159 bpm average heart rate (vs. 153 bpm last year), 1:36:39 above heart rate target zone  (i.e., 96% of the time!), 13.9 mph average speed (vs. 12.4 mph last year), 16:21 at redline (vs. less than a minute last year)
  • Pre-race Dinner #1: “burgef”; some secondhand (moribund) fries; the residue of my daughter’s potato salad; a leaf of her lettuce; two glasses of water, at Monterey Brewing Company (slogan: “We’re not actually in Monterey”)
  • Pre-race Dinner #2 (since I wasn’t even close to sated): a carnitas burrito and a beer that a fellow patron insisted on styling me out with, at some random taqueria in Seaside
  • Breakfast: one quarter of a so-called “muffin” that was a muffin-shaped hunk of (let’s face it) cake; its polar opposite, that being some homemade low-glycemic-index bread made (apparently) of bits of wood and bark, which took about 20 minutes to chew; one PBJ; half a banana; two cups coffee, black
  • During race: one sleeve froot-flavored Clif Shot Blox; one raspberry-ish gel, four bottles of water
  • Glycogen window treat: none (because I was too busy standing around near the finish line waiting for my daughter to finish her race)
  • Lunch (post-race): a glorious grilled sausage; one small pile spaghetti à la Boyardee(-ish); one small hunk of a grapefruit-sized meatball; half a hamburger bun (white); mustard; artificially colored sweet pickle relish (a guilty pleasure)
  • Dinner: three large plates De Cecco linguine topped with one of those new fancy-pants grocery store tomato sauces that’s like $8 a jar (don’t worry, I bought it at deep discount) with fresh BelGioioso Parmesan grated with a zester so it melted like fresh snowfall on the pasta; two large servings spinach (to model proper behavior for my kids); Häagen-Dazs ice cream (chocolate, dulche de leche). This meal was carefully calculated to reverse the effects of the South Beach Diet, which has worked so well I recently got a PR in body fat (5.3%) and my wife is complaining frequently and bitterly about my gaunt physique. I am in full North Beach mode now and gladly accepting donations of beer, pizza, chips, and other crap. If you have anything left over from your Super Bowl party, bring it on by!
  • Now (as I write this): one Lagunitas IPA and an apricot pastry because all this talk of gluttony is making me hungry and thirsty!


Last year, I got kind of a crummy start, became disillusioned, lost the motivation to keep hammering, didn’t suffer enough, and ended up finishing just 5 seconds behind another guy in my category (not that it really matters, as both our placings were pretty humble anyway). I have lived with the shame of this poor performance for a year now and thus resolved to put it to rest. So, at the recommendation of my friend/coach/tormentor Peter, I actually did some interval training this year (which is remarkable, intervals being the whole reason I quit racing in the first place) and hammered properly during the race, astounding myself with my ability to stay at redline almost the whole time, and made the (albeit the spacious five-tier mountain bike) podium.

Long version

As I’ve explained in these pages, I’m not real big on goals. That said, I had one general goal for this race—suffer much better (i.e., worse) than last time, with my Key Performance Indicator being a higher average heart rate. I also had one specific goal, which was … shit, I forgot what it was. Oh, yeah—to get a better start so those sorry poor-life-balance ego-trapped alpha-dog get-a-life bicycle-as-penis-substitute overachievers would be trapped behind me for a spell and I might somehow beat some of them. I did not write down a bunch of milestones that I would reach along the way to achieving my goals, but I did train hard, and stuck to the diet that I’d embarked upon in the run-up to my last race on January 1.

The night before, my daughter and I arrived late at the Monterey Brewing Company because Google Maps had randomly directed us out into the middle of nowhere. There we were, driving along this dark, deserted highway with nothing in sight but fallow fields, and then the little voice said, “You have arrived.” Son of a bitch!

Once we rerouted and found the restaurant, the food took forever to arrive even though (being a large group) we’d placed our orders more than a day in advance. We each had a scrap of paper with our order scrawled on it that we placed on the table. Mine said “burgef.” The “f” at the end was actually a lowercase “r” with a bar added so it did double duty as an “f.” This meant “burger with fries.” Ingenious! Most of the other coaches got salads instead of fries, but then they were drinking beers, too. I loves me some beer, but I’d had one (via happenstance) last year and then didn’t race so well the next day, so this time I stood firm and employed all the “Refusal Skills” I learned in high school health class. Even when the head coach teased me and said, “What are you, chicken? Everybody’s doing it!” I held firm. (Note: he did not say this.)

The burger was good and the fries were very fresh. But damn it, after two straight months of quinoa and napa cabbage, I was in need of serious calories, more than a mere burgef could provide. I stared at my daughter’s plate with puppy-dog eyes but she ignored me. I even said, “You know Alexa, if you start to get full, I just want you to know I’m here for you. I got your back—I can help you finish your plate.” She gave me the brush. I did steal a lettuce leaf, and scraped the potato salad residue from her plate with my fork, which at least embarrassed her. She punished me by going on and on about how full she was.

There was nothing to be done but to find a taqueria near the HoJo in Seaside where we were staying. We found a suitable place where the jukebox was just pounding out the accordion-rich taqueria music (which always has a Pavlovian appetite-inducing effect on me). While I waited for my to-go carnitas burrito, the guy at the next table tugged on my sleeve. “Hey, amigo, you wanna beer?” he asked. He had a steel bucket of beers on the table. Resolute in my quest for redemption after last year’s pre-race one-beer bacchanal, I declined as politely as I could: “Oh, no thanks—I have a big bike race tomorrow.” He replied, “Hey, man, it’s just one beer!” Textbook peer pressure, exactly like they warned us about in Health class! I paused. It was only Modelo Especial, which I guessed was sub-5% ABV. (In fact, it’s only 4.4%, with just 145 calories, and it’s even vegan!) The guy went on, “I really want to give you a beer.” So I accepted. Here we are, appreciating quality and enjoying it responsibly.


I love how my new friend isn’t even looking at the camera—he’s looking at his beer, with love in his eyes.

On race day, I wasn’t much use as a coach because I was so busy warming up for my race. Fortunately, the kids rose to the occasion and sorted certain things out for themselves. Apparently sticking Shot Blox to your top tube is all the rage right now. Though I don’t like this idea (what if one fell off?!), I’m glad the kids are marginally increasing their chances of remembering to eat during the race.


At the start line, I started chatting with this guy who looked really fast (thin, ripped, nice bike, not visibly nervous which means he’s a season veteran, etc.). He told me his name, John Hopkins, and I realized I’d raced with him in San Luis Obispo almost thirty years ago! “Your brother sold me my first mountain bike!” he recalled. That’s the good news. The bad news is, I remember him as the guy who always trained more and harder than the rest of us.

All the Category 2 men started together this time, so it was impossible to tell who was in my 45+ category. What’s worse, the young bucks (or who knows, maybe the old bucks) were making the pace brutally fast. The first ten minutes were mostly downhill, which isn’t exactly my forte  because if I crash, my wife will kill me. Fortunately, there were a few great climbs that helped my cause.

One thing about being underweight: it makes uphills a blast! I would see this horrible 12% grade looming ahead, and I’d think, “Yeah! Bring it!” I’d look at the guys around me with something like pity. Now, before you think I’m getting a big head, I’d like to point a couple things out. First, my head only looks big because my body has gotten so twiggy. Second, the only reason these guys were around me is that all the good racers had already dropped me, duh! Those near me were the albeit decent descenders who’d been trapped behind me on the single track and now had the added indignity of being dropped on the climb.

Well, almost all the good racers had dropped me. Somehow John Hopkins was among those trapped behind me, and didn’t come flying by until the feed zone, about half a lap into the race, where I was already guzzling my water before getting a fresh bottle because a) it was hot, and I was sucking air like the ram intake blower on Mad Max’s car, so my throat was totally parched, and b) the kids I coach were running the feed zone and I couldn’t bear to deprive them of the fulfillment of their sacred duty.


Watching John ride off into the sunset doesn’t mean I was complacent, though. I kept passing the same guys on the climbs and then getting passed back on the descents. I thought I was totally holding back on the tricky single-track downhills until my front tire almost washed out. Probably I’m doing ten things wrong (and passing along my faulty technique to these poor high school kids in practice). One guy kept bobbing up (“you again?” we didn’t say) and after the race he confided that he’d had to run off to the woods at one point to take a dump (the implication being “otherwise I’d have beaten you,” and my implied response being “stopping to crap didn’t stop Tom Dumoulin from winning the Giro d’Italia”). Of course it was hard to figure out who was in my category (i.e., who mattered). One rule of thumb: if he has a tattoo, he’s probably not a high-school kid.

I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow details of all four laps other than to say that the ability to occasionally overtake somebody, and the sense that others were nipping at my heels, really stoked my coals and to my amazement, my heart rate was like 160 most of the time. I kept waiting for my body to fail, and against all odds it managed not to. Toward the end of the last lap, two guys in my category weren’t far behind at the base of the final climb. But this climb was a beast and I really gave it everything.


Photos and video have a way of making climbs look shallower, but that doesn’t even look shallow, does it? Ugh. Anyway, by the top I had a really healthy gap, so much so that I was even able to relax just a bit and gaze out at the new McProjects alongside the course (visible in the photo above) and reflect wistfully that soon somebody will decide that the trails at Fort Ord are a menace, or a hassle, or that Fort Ord itself is prime real estate for more McProjects, and the whole place will be bulldozed, and there won’t be any more races here.

After the finish line, feeling truly shattered, I was filled with the sublime feeling of having truly given it everything, so it didn’t matter how I’d placed—which was good, because I really had no idea about that. It’s better that way, I think, to decide how it went without worrying about the more or less meaningless matter of how I compared to those who happened to show up and race my category.

I stood around until my daughter showed up. We didn’t care how she placed either because she looks so cool in her new shades. Did I say shades? I meant racing jacket factory eyeshade système.


I won’t tell you how she did because she’s working on her own race report.

Here is a photo of my lunch. If you zoom in and look closely, you will notice two things: 1) I was so knackered, I totally missed with the mustard and got most of it on the plate; 2) the ingredients of the relish include FD&C Yellow #5 and Blue #1. Blue dye? Gross! I normally stick to Del Monte which isn’t nearly as pretty but is not artificially colored.



Okay, here is a photo of me on the podium. If it seems prideful to post this, consider that it would be even more prideful not to bother, as though this weren’t any big thing for me. Sure, a great racer would shrug this off and not even mention it, but I haven’t stood on a podium since 1991, and may never get the chance again. So, yeah, I’m going to humbly admit this is like my fifteen minutes seconds of would-be fame (i.e., if anybody but me cared). 


(It looks like I placed 3rd but it was actually 5th. Two guys didn’t wait around for the podium ceremony so the organizers had me step up.)

Look at the winner. Notice how he can’t be bothered to show his team colors. In fact, where’s his medal? What did he do, shove it in his pocket? I guess this guy must win all the time. As for the second-place guy, I’m required to dislike his Stanford jersey, and I really don’t like his teen-style hat. Next year I’m gonna kick his ass … unless I get free beer again the night before.



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