Thursday, April 30, 2020

More COVID-19 Chronicles - Baking in Place


Note

This post is not about smoking weed while sheltering in place. It’s about actual baking. If you’re a ganja aficionado looking for hot tips on how to score the kindest bud, you’re on the wrong blog. Also, if you’re high right now, I guarantee you won’t make it to the end of this post. Maybe you can half-watch the vlog version, though:


Introduction

As we all shelter in place, it’s natural to think, “There’s must be more to life than working from home and watching Riverdale and Stranger Things.” So why not learn to bake? In this post I provide advice on how to source your ingredients during these trying times, and then I’ll walk you through some tried and true recipes and share some expert techniques.

Stocking your pantry

Stocking up on baking supplies is going to be very difficult during the pandemic due to all the hoarding that’s going on. The entire baking aisle has been ransacked … no flour, no sugar, no yeast. As if people even knew how to bake! This is what happens when everyone’s garage is packed to the gills with extra toilet paper but they still feel like they need to do something.

If you can’t find cake flour but do have all-purpose, here’s a neat tip from The Joy of Cooking
Cake flour is made of soft wheats, and their delicate, less expansive gluten bakes to a crumblier texture. Although you will not get the same result, in emergencies you may substitute 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour for 1 cup cake flour.
Note bene: it says right there, you can only make this substitution in emergencies. Well, guess what? The US has been formally declared to be in a state of national emergency, so you may make the substitution! Nobody will come after you … you are within your rights. 

But what if you can’t even find regular flour? Just keep looking! And do not, in desperation, resort to gluten-free flour. With all this coronavirus craziness, haven’t you suffered enough?

Finding unsalted butter is going to be a particular challenge. You have two options (beyond showing up within minutes of the store’s dairy delivery):
  1. Go ahead and buy salted butter. How bad could it be? Surely a little salt never hurt a baked good? Just use less added salt in the recipe, and if it doesn’t call for any, just add more sugar. (Note: I haven’t actually tried this.)
  2. Take off your damn surgical mask for a few seconds, let your glasses un-fog, and then stare really hard at the supermarket shelves. Look all around, scanning first left-to-right and then in an expanding spiral. After your eyes have roamed around long enough, they’ll get so tired you’ll be unable to focus and you’ll just sort of zone out, like looking at one of those Magic Eye autostereograms, and then suddenly you’ll see it: a block of super-fancy Irish unsalted butter that costs like $9 for half a pound. In fact there are two boxes left. Buy them both. Yes, it’s a ripoff, but remember, your 401(k) has lost like $300K in the last two months. It’s all Monopoly money now. Get that butter.


Now, yeast can be even harder to find right now. There are two ways forward. Option one: you could phone your mother-in-law and she’ll actually mail you some. This puts her at risk, though, as she must brave the post office because her mailman doesn’t pick up outgoing mail.

Option two: you could borrow some yeast from a neighbor. Remember, though, you can’t just walk over there and ring the doorbell. You’ll have to stake the place out. Stand in the driveway for as long as it takes for somebody to come out, knowing this could be days. (I know, that’s crazy—but do you want to bake or not?) If your neighbor doesn’t recognize you, back up an extra six feet and take your mask off momentarily. If you’re still not recognized, it’s because your hair has gone grey for the first time due to the salons being closed. Loudly announce yourself by name (but for God’s sake put your mask back on first, as loud voices more readily transmit the coronavirus)! Instruct your neighbor to leave the loaner yeast on your porch for you to retrieve later.

(Why wouldn’t you just get yeast from Amazon? Think about it. This is Amazon’s finest hour. They couldn’t have engineered a better way than COVID-19 to finally gratify their rabid appetite for total retail domination. Don’t let this pandemic be the death blow to all small businesses. Save that Prime membership for when things are back to normal!)

Now, if you run out of baking powder, that’s actually not so big a deal. You can make your own! It’s even easier than homemade hand sanitizer. All you do is substitute, for each teaspoon of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar, 1/3 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. But don’t try to store this—use it right away. And don’t get all clever and add some Drano or Comet thinking that’ll protect you from the coronavirus. It won’t, and your baked goods will taste like store-bought.

Okay, enough about ingredient sourcing. It’s time to explore some classic recipes.

Gold layer cake

2 cups cake flour (remember, subtract 2 tbsp if using all-purpose!)
2 tsp double-acting baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ cup butter
1 cup sifted sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
¾ cup milk
Lemon custard or raspberry jam
Whipped cream (not from a can!)
2 small children

Have all ingredients at about 70 degrees, except the children, who should be at about 99. Sift the flour. Resift with the baking powder and salt. At this point in the preparation the two children should come running through the kitchen, fighting as they go, and knock the mixing bowl from your hands. About half the dry ingredients should end up on the floor. Using the kind of right-brain, gut-fueled math that chickens employ when they bob their heads while walking, figure out how to add back in the right combination of dry ingredients to replace what you lost. Now cream the butter, work in the sugar and egg yolks, add the vanilla, and mix together all the ingredients, gradually, in 3 parts, alternating with the milk, though at this point you’re too furious to really follow these directions very carefully—everything has frankly become a bit of a blur. 

Stir the batter until smooth. Bake in two greased layer pans about 25 minutes at 375 degrees. When both you and the cake have cooled off, use a long serrated knife to slice off the convex part of each layer, so they’ll be flat. Take the part you cut off and shovel it into your mouth. “Holy shit,” you’ll say, “that’s amazing.” This will be the best cake ever, trust me. Your kids will run over and start cramming cut-off bits into their mouths too, and nobody will be able to believe how phenomenally good this cake is. As if it were even necessary at this point, assemble the cake layers with the lemon custard or jam between, and coat it with the whipped cream.

Now, if you don’t have two small children, and don’t dump half your dry ingredients on the floor, and just follow the more basic recipe, will the cake still turn out? It will be … okay. Just okay. For it to work right, you need the accident to happen. Don’t ask me why.

Sugarless chocolate cake

10.5 oz unsweetened chocolate
10.5 oz unsalted butter (or regular butter in a pinch)
6 eggs
½ cup almond flour
1 cup powdered erythritol (C4H10O4)

Melt the butter and chocolate. Beat the eggs until foamy, then add the sweetener, and mix. Add the butter and chocolate, along with the almond flour, and stir just until combined. Bake in a greased pan at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. When it has cooled, dust with cocoa powder and then throw the whole thing straight into the garbage. When your kids protest, shriek at them, “People are dying, and you’re all broken up about not getting to eat a stupid cake that’s totally disgusting anyway, due to having no sugar?! Really?!” That ought to teach them a lesson. The little bastards.

Scones

Sift together in a large bowl:
   1¾ cups sifted all-purpose flour
   2¼ tsp double-acting baking powder
   1 tbsp sugar
   ½ tsp salt

Cut into these ingredients, until the size of small peas, using a pastry blender or 2 knives:
   ¼ cup cold butter

Wait a second. Cut into them? Size of small peas? Two knives? Sounds like a lot of hassle! And look at the ratio of ingredients: a single tablespoon of sugar, and a quarter cup of butter? Scones are ridiculous. If you think these things are worth the inevitable heart attack, why not just peel a stick of butter like a damn banana, and eat that? Go ahead. You’ve earned it.

Uncle Max’s 2D biscuits

Sift together:
   1 ¾ cups sifted all-purpose flour
   ½ tsp salt
   2 tsp double-acting baking powder
   2 tsp sugar
   ½ tsp baking soda

Cut in:
   ¼ cup lard (yeah, baybee!) or 5 tbsp unsalted butter

Add and lightly mix:
   ¾ cup buttermilk

Turn the dough onto a floured board. Knead it gently for 30 seconds. Pat the dough until it’s ¼” thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Bake 10-12 minutes. Note that the biscuits will not rise, due to the yeast being dead. It expired in 2012. What the hell were you thinking? Didn’t I give you two perfectly good strategies for obtaining fresh yeast? These biscuits will be so flat, you’ll practically lose sight of them when turning them sideways. Serve them anyway and tell your family it’s matzo.

Mom’s amazing boule

Note: these ingredient quantities are for a 4 quart Dutch oven (i.e., the kind of shallow, enameled, cast-iron covered pot that costs like a gazillion dollars). If you don’t own one of these, now’s a great time to buy one online. I mean, what else are you gonna spend your money on right now?

3 cups white flour
½ tsp non-dead or undead yeast
1 ½ tsp sea salt
1 ½ cups warm water

Dissolve yeast in water. If you’re not sure it’s alive, take some more of it from the package and put it in warm water with a little sugar, and wait 5-10 minutes. It should get all bubbly. (This is called proofing.) If it doesn’t bubble up, your yeast is dead! Damn it, how could you let this happen again?! Go back to the earlier step of hustling up fresh yeast wherever you can. Then, combine dry ingredients, and add the water/yeast solution and combine well. Cover with plastic wrap and a damp towel. Let sit at room temperature for 18-24 hours.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place Dutch oven with lid in (actual) oven to heat up. Transfer dough to floured surface—it will be almost sticky—and form into a round boule. Use as little flour as possible! Place round on a piece of parchment strewn with coarse cornmeal.

When Dutch oven is hot—after about 1/2 hour—take it out, carefully, using a proper potholder that your mom sewed, not one of those stupid knitted ones you got at the middle school craft fair, because with that knitted kind your thumb will go right through it and you’ll burn the crap out of yourself, causing you to drop the Dutch oven on the floor, barely missing your foot due to your catlike reflexes but denting the hardwood floor because the Dutch oven weighs like a gazillion pounds. When you’re done cussing and running cold water over your thumb, place dough with parchment into Dutch oven, replace lid, and slide into oven; reduce heat to 425 and bake for 30 minutes. Remove lid and bake for another 15 minutes until nicely browned. Cool on rack; cover with towel. Eat with good butter—salted, perhaps, just to use it up because that’ll give you a smug feeling, knowing you can buy more salted butter easily, though deep down inside you’re wondering: how did we get to this place, where we can get a smug feeling just from eating butter?!

Other notes: did I forget something? Like, kneading the bread? Who ever heard of bread dough you don’t need to knead? Believe it! You really only knead this for about 10 seconds before forming it into the round. Also, you can slash the dough in a pattern just before baking if you wish. Optional: give it a second rise of 2-3 hours before baking, and/or add 1 tbsp vinegar to dough before first rise. If your Dutch oven is larger than 3-4 quarts, adjust recipe accordingly so your bread is not too flat.

By the way, I feel honor-bound to point out that the photo below is from my mom (as is this recipe). I’ve never baked bread in my life. (But the burned thumb due to knitted potholder? Yeah, that was me.)


Calzone

Follow the instructions in your favorite pizza recipe, except when it’s time to move the unbaked pizza from the cutting board to the heated pizza stone, fumble it completely so it is not longer even remotely disk-shaped, but more closely resembles a deflated basketball. Cover any gaping holes with bits of dough, performing dough-grafts by harvesting from other parts of what is now, let’s face it, a calzone. Lower the oven heat because this bad boy is going to have to bake slowly for a long time so the middle isn’t raw. Would it help to try to stuff some ricotta in there? No … I think you’ve caused enough damage already.

Virtual baking

Binge-watch The Great British Bake Off while practicing calligraphy.

Flourless chocolate cake

This is a great recipe for when you can’t buy flour, duh!

¾ cup unsalted butter
12 oz. bittersweet baking chocolate
6 eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream (because it’s just about the only brand left with real vanilla and no “natural flavors” by which the food industry means “artificial flavors”)
Brandy or chocolate liqueur

Chop chocolate into ½” pieces. Put in saucepan with butter and cook over low heat until melted. Let this cool until it’s room temperature. While it’s cooling, beat together eggs, vanilla, salt, and sugar, using an electric mixer at full blast. It should be thick enough to form little crests, more like waves than dunes. Gently mix with chocolate mixture but don’t overdo it. Pour into darling little ramekins that you’ve buttered generously. Bake for about 20 minutes. Be sure to test the mini-cakes for doneness by putting a fork in them. If the fork comes out clean, it’s time to take them out of the oven and serve them warm with vanilla ice cream. Actually, you baked the little cake-lets way too long and they’ve turned into little hockey pucks. You’ll know you’ve failed when your small children only pick at them, and/or try to lever them out of the ramekins and hide them under a napkin.

After a reasonable period of mourning—perhaps a week is enough since pandemic time crawls by so slowly—try again with a whole new batch of ingredients. This time, take the little cakes out of the oven a lot earlier, so they are almost still a liquid. They should jiggle just a little. Again, serve them warm. Now they’re underdone but you’ve already added the ice cream so it’s a little late to put them back in the oven. Instead, drizzle them with 2-3 tbsp of brandy or liqueur, and then drink a large tumbler of it, neat. See? Your stupid cake is getting better already. Next, leave your rapidly puddling dessert on the table, abandon your family sitting there, take the bottle of brandy or liqueur with you to the living room, and binge-watch Tiger King. There. Now you’re sheltering in place!

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Toilet Paper Hoarding Conundrum


Vlog


This week’s post is available as a vlog. Just kick back, crack open a beer, and click below.


Or, if you prefer my text to my mug, below is the classic format.

Introduction

Five weeks into shelter-in-place, it’s still hard to find toilet paper. I’ve never seen anything like it—but did you know this isn’t our nation’s first paranoia-induced toilet paper shortage? It turns out there’s a lot we didn’t know about this basic consumer product. In this post I’ll delve into the following:
  • The great TP famine of ‘73
  • Non-pandemic toilet paper hoarding
  • How unnecessary toilet paper actually is
  • The psychology of toilet paper stockpiling
  • Toilet paper hoarding as microcosm
Ah, “microcosm” … there’s a real English-major word for you. Don’t worry, I won’t get all eggheaded on ya. How could I, with such a low topic?

(Check out these stoked shoppers. One is saying to the other, “Look, not only do they have toilet paper here, but a choice of brands! It’s like 2019!”)


The great TP famine of ‘73

The world has seen pandemics before, and it’s seen worse. But this bizarre toilet paper hoarding? Actually, that’s happened before too, and what’s more, there was no global crisis precipitating it. This was back in 1973, and as described here, it all started with a congressman who, irritated with a relatively unimportant pulp paper shortage, which was “allegedly caused by companies that increased paper exports to avoid Federal price controls,” took to the American media to drum up support for his constituents. The press ignored him until he reframed the issue as a potential toilet paper shortage. This they jumped on, as did news agencies globally. Pockets of Americans started stockpiling, though this fell short of a national phenomenon. Then Johnny Carson got involved.

Johnny worked the news tidbit into his opening routine, during which—struggling to keep a straight face—he declared, “I wanna tell you, it is serious.” After that broadcast, everyone went nuts and started hoarding toilet paper, just as we are now. Perhaps they were being even sillier, believing in a nonexistent supply problem without even having an ostensible cause to point to. (Even before the Carson piece, the Scott Paper Company went on television to confirm that their production was as high as ever.)

Is it ever rational to second-guess the toilet paper supply?

There certainly are circumstances in which it’s perfectly rational to expect a dearth of toilet paper. One of these is large public events. I learned early on to bring my own TP roll to bike races, as the portable toilets often run out. One year at the Everest Challenge stage race, a guy coming out of the San-O-Let warned me, “There’s no paper. I had to use my arm warmers.” I thought he was joking, until I got in there … how disgusting. Fortunately, I’d planned ahead.

The other time you should BYOTP is when traveling to certain countries. Some of them simply don’t use toilet paper (more on this later) and others tend to run out due to theft. A Quora discussion on the topic “Why is there no toilet paper in Chinese public toilets?” tackled this apparently widespread problem. A few respondents explained the rationale behind the behavior:
It’s because they used to [be] poor or they [are] actually poor now … in 2018, Chinese per capita disposable income is 28228 Yuan or about 4000$ per year. And rural people’s per capita disposable income is 14617 Yuan or about 2000$ per year, 40 Yuan per day. Let’s say one roll of toilet paper is maybe 2 Yuan, so it’s almost 1/20 of rural people’s income for one day.
For some old people, extreme poverty had a destructive influence on their morality—Stealing will let you survive and being lawful makes you (and your children) starve to death.
One correspondent even provided this security camera footage.


Lest you think only Internet randos are reporting this, the New York Times wrote here about how technology is being used in China to address the problem: 
The authorities in Beijing are fighting back, going so far as to install high-tech toilet paper dispensers equipped with facial recognition software in several restrooms. Before entering restrooms in the park, visitors must now stare into a computer mounted on the wall for three seconds before a machine dispenses a sheet of toilet paper, precisely two feet in length. If visitors require more, they are out of luck. The machine will not dispense a second sheet to the same person for nine minutes. 

Still, the prevalence of toilet paper theft is subject to exaggeration. One person in the Quora thread chimed in to state that he generally has no trouble finding toilet paper, providing ample photographic evidence. He also shared this photo of a method used to deter waste:


Perhaps I’ll steal that idea and post a handy usage guide in my own bathroom!

Is toilet paper even necessary?

Sometimes, a westerner’s inability to find toilet paper is a matter of foreign custom. Russians, for example, used scrap paper until fairly recently. As described here, their first toilet paper factory was built in 1969, and due to low output the product was strictly rationed. One citizen recalled, “The lucky ones who managed to buy it would thread rolls on a string and walk home wearing their spoils like a necklace, to the envy of passers-by.”

This scarcity of toilet paper in Russia continued for decades. A respondent to this Quora thread wrote, “I was in Russia for one month in 1985. There were baskets of ripped up newspapers in each bathroom stall.” A friend of mine who visited in the ‘80s reported a similar scenario, and in fact accidently walked in on two maids as they cleaned his hotel room. They were caught red-handed with the roll of toilet paper he’d brought from home, passing it back and forth and giggling. It must have seemed absurdly posh to them.

Moreover, many countries simply don’t want toilet paper. This fascinating thread provides lots of testimony from people, mainly in India, who consider it disgusting that anybody uses toilet paper instead of water. Some examples: 
Unless I live in a desert, I would never want to carry my mess in my pants for days!
Let’s imagine, a crow shits on your shoulder or head … Will you still use a tissue paper to clean it? 
Water is more efficient and practical for a populous country like India where we have plenty of rivers and ponds. It will be quite impractical to switch to tissues.
This valiantly but imperfectly translated assessment actually blames the western toilet paper tradition for the Black Death:
Britain enraptured from crapping from the windows … within the eighteenth century and victimization pans to shit in rooms so property somebody carry it and inflicting plague and Black Death to toilet rolls. We washed our bottoms and washed our hands at the moment. So, no plague. No Black Death.
One helpful respondent offers this challenge: 
Put some Nutella on your right hand. Then wipe it off with a piece of paper, preferably toilet paper. Put some Nutella on your left hand. Now wash this with water, preferably a faucet. Now touch and smell both the hands. The right hand would smell of Nutella and you may feel some remnant on it too. But the left hand neither smells of Nutella nor there is anything to touch. Now imagine. Put your bodily waste instead of Nutella. Now tell me, which one is more hygienic??
From this same thread I learned that Pakistanis also prefer water to toilet paper; that Italians also do; and that an American who lived in India for 38 years learned to prefer water to toilet paper. He writes, “There is nothing better than a jet of water to pressure-wash the exhaust port of your Death Star.”

Within this anti-TP context, it’s hard for me to understand why—at a time when people all over the world are dying of a horrible virus—Americans are getting so worked up about their preferred method of, uh, cleaning up. What’s the big deal, when toilet paper alternatives clearly exist? Maybe it’s because America is also out of hand sanitizer?

Which brings us to …

The psychology of toilet paper stockpiling

Chances are, lots of people hoard toilet paper simply because others are doing it. Imitation is perhaps the quintessential human behavior: it’s how we all learned to talk, after all. Where such copycat behavior is concerned, rest assured very little contemplation of supply chain fundamentals is going on.

Beyond that, this hoarding behavior may give us some sense of control at a time when we feel we have little. As articulated by this article in The Conversation, “Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.” The article also points out, “Modern economies run on trust and confidence. COVID-19 is breaking down that trust. People are losing confidence that they will be able to go outside and get what they need when they need it.”

I have to think the CDC’s reversal on wearing masks hasn’t helped maintain this trust. “You don’t need masks,” they told us, and look what happened: those who defied the CDC and hoarded masks anyway are now almost the only people who have them. In this way cynicism and distrust have been reinforced.

Toilet paper hoarding as microcosm

There is no overall supply problem with toilet paper, and actual usage of this product is not increasing. If anything, we’re all scared shitless. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Therefore, if nobody altered their behavior in any way—that is, if they purchased toilet paper on the same schedule they always have—we would all continue to have plenty.

And yet, in the short term we don't, because too many people are behaving irrationally. It doesn't take unanimous foolishness to create a problem; just a critical mass. After all, it doesn’t help me to think rationally about the toilet paper factories running at full capacity, because irrational behavior is creating outsized demand. The shortage, in short, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The paranoid and/or highly organized types have far, far more toilet paper than they need, while the optimistic and/or disorganized among us are running out. The clear thinkers don’t get to lord their sensible approach over anyone; instead, they’re trampled by the stampeding masses.

In a more general sense, one downside of freedom is our vulnerability in the face of what can amount to crowdsourced public policy. Consider the problem of non-vaccinators (aka anti-vaxxers): they don't perceive diseases like measles or HPV as a threat because they've never encountered them, so they declare these diseases a non-threat and stop vaccinating their children. By behaving ignorantly, they are creating widespread problems that affect everyone in their cohort, and sometimes beyond. Measles, for example, could be eradicated worldwide if everybody were vaccinated; instead, it persists and is making a comeback. (As reported by the CDC, last year saw more than 22 outbreaks, with well over a thousand victims, here in the US—a country where this disease was thought to be eliminated 20 years ago.)

This same phenomenon could happen with COVID-19, as frustrated citizens demand an end to shelter-in-place and/or ignore the rules. By mistaking the success of social distancing for a lack of need for it, they lead us back into danger. Lashing out at the authority they’re tired of bending to, they err on the side of undue optimism. Oddly, this is almost the reverse of the toilet paper irrationality: in that case, they’re being unduly paranoid about something they have relatively easy influence over. As the Conversation article notes, TP hoarding “is an example of ‘zero risk bias,’ in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.” In other words, it’s easier to hoard toilet paper than to shelter in place … never mind the return on investment.

Where the microcosm breaks down

Fortunately, there is enough toilet paper to go around, ultimately, and we'll reach a point where so many people have so much stockpiled, they'll eventually stop hoarding it. Their garages will get so overrun with TP, they'd feel silly buying more, and will finally learn to pass up their next opportunity to continue stockpiling. Eventually, the shelves will be replenished, and then the hysteria will die down and we'll go back to normal, which consists of all Americans having enough TP in their homes that they don't worry about it. Supply and demand will once again be in perfect balance. You might call it “hoard immunity.”

Alas, the world's overall resources don't work like that ... there really isn’t enough to go around, which is why a lot of people are malnourished, don't have educational opportunities, don't have great access to affordable health care, etc. The supply and demand of money has never been in perfect balance. Just about everybody wants more money, and it never starts to look ridiculous to stockpile it. Industries like advertising and marketing exist to increase demand, irrespective of the target market's standard of living, which in turn drives up monetary greed.

This brings us to what may be the harshest, most protracted aspect of this pandemic: long after the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and mask shortages are over; when the shelter-in-place rules have finally been relaxed; well after the coronavirus has either run its course or been thwarted by a vaccine, we will likely be stuck in a terrible recession. And unlike the toilet paper shortage, it won’t affect people equally. Once again, the have-nots will take it the hardest.

Obviously there’s not much I can do about COVID-19 or its economic devastation. But where toilet paper is concerned, I will do my part: I haven't stockpiled any and I'm not going to. This is my symbolic stand, the simple, tiny gesture I’ll make in solidarity. I'll leave some toilet paper for the next guy and if I run out, so be it. Life will go on. (Or not.)

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Is Cycling Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic?


Introduction

You know what? Pandemics are overrated. This COVID-19 thing is causing a me lot of uncertainty … how do I balance responsible risk avoidance measures with trying to have some semblance of a full life? This post examines the question of whether cycling outdoors is a reasonable and responsible activity during shelter-in-place. I base my conclusions on personal experience, feedback from bike teams I’ve surveyed, and a popular—but contested—article on the subject.

Confusing advice

If everybody shelters in place, we’re told, and if we all wash our hands constantly, everything will be fine. Or at least … well, it won’t be fine, actually; everything is going to get a lot worse. But you should shelter in place anyway. You probably won’t get COVID-19, unless you do, and even then you’ll probably survive it, unless you don’t. Young, healthy people either experience mild, flulike conditions, or hospitalization and even death. Nobody knows for sure. Just shelter in place because we know that will help. This will all be behind us sooner or later, or maybe much later, or even later than that. Don’t worry, the bubonic plague only lasted for four years, unless you consider that it actually started in Constantinople 800 years before it hit Europe.

Should we wear masks? For months the CDC said not to bother, but now it says we should. (I, for one, have been pro-mask all along, though not enough to wear one, until recently.) A mask probably won’t help us from getting COVID-19, but it may help us not transmit it. Not everybody believes in masks, though; in my neighborhood, only about half the pedestrians I’ve seen wear them. About the only thing we all agree on is that we need to be stockpiling toilet paper.

Sometimes we want to believe something because it looks like good news. A family friend sent us this article contending that here in the Bay Area, many of us might have immunity already because COVID-19 may have arrived here as early as November and we’ve built up a “herd immunity.” It’s tempting to credit this with how well we’re doing compared to other metropolitan areas. The rate of infection in San Francisco county is 1 in 1013, vs. New York at 1 in 80. In Alameda County, our rate is 1 in 2063; Westchester County, adjacent to New York, is at 1 in 50.

The problem is, the herd immunity article is pure malarkey. I was skeptical right off the bat because I don’t understand how herd immunity is supposed to work … the article just says “Herd immunity in [sic] the idea that a large percentage of a population has already contracted the virus which would slow the rate at which it spread to others.” Wouldn’t a large-scale infection increase the rate at which it spreads? Isn’t that the whole rationale behind shelter-in-place?

Beyond that, I’m shocked at how many grammar and punctuation errors there were in the article. Don’t these journalists have editors? The source, KSBW Channel 8, also seemed a bit obscure for such an important story, so I googled around to see if other publications had corroborated any of this. In the process I found this article totally debunking it.

Knowing I’ll never get totally reliable information from the news, I figure at least I can base my own behavior on the letter of the law: the official shelter-in-place policy promulgated by the county. Most of it was pretty clear from the beginning, except the rules around bicycling. The original shelter-in-place order prohibited “non-essential travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, automobile or public transit,” suggesting we shouldn’t bike at all, but it also said we’re permitted to “engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in this Section, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running.”

Cycling is covered by that “without limitation” clause, but this guidance still wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as what the county later published. When they further tightened, and extended, the shelter-in-place order, their updated Frequently Asked Questions document included this note: “Bike repair and supply shops are considered an essential business.”

So cycling is allowed … does that mean it’s safe?

Knowing I was allowed to ride my bike for exercise (but not transportation) did help. For a while, I continued to ride outdoors, only by myself, and giving other cyclists as much room as I feasibly could on the assumption that six feet wouldn’t be enough when cycling. After all, the Berkeley Bicycle Club stopped its team rides well ahead of shelter-in-place due to the “snot rocket” problem. (That’s their term. I have generally called them “snot comets” … perhaps mine have a longer tail.)

My experience, though, was that my rides seemed more hazardous than usual, and not just because of the threat of infection. The problem was the other people out getting exercise, whose adherence to the social distancing rule often took them right out into the middle of the street. In one case, a jogger was giving a hiker six feet by running right down the middle of Wildcat Canyon Road, next to the double-yellow line. I couldn’t pass them by going into the oncoming lane, because I was heading into a blind curve. I had to hit the brakes and go between the two. They probably weren’t too keen on my violation of the six-foot rule, but what was I to do?

Meanwhile, I’ve had joggers and pedestrians wander right out in front of me without looking, on the assumption that nobody drives or rides on the roads anymore. In one case, also on Wildcat Canyon Road, I had to brake and call out, “Yo,” because this jogger running across the road was totally oblivious. I made my “yo” just loud enough to be heard because I didn’t want to scare the crap out of the guy, but he was totally caught off guard anyway and scurried one way, then the other like a frightened squirrel. When he made it to the road shoulder he regained his composure a bit and yelled, “Shut up!” It was bizarre … I’d said one thing, comprising one syllable, simply to alert the guy of my approach. I hadn’t uttered another peep. Perhaps the added mental strain of social distancing has people a bit flustered.

But the most unsettling behavior I’ve witnessed is cyclists wanting to draft or race me. Twice, guys rode exactly six feet behind me to benefit from my slipstream, and when I picked up the pace to drop them they’d speed up as well. Granted, they weren’t presenting a threat to me (based on how wind resistance works), but I didn’t want to pass my germs along to them. As a hayfever sufferer I do sneeze from time to time; also, I might not remember to call out before launching a snot comet or a loogie. Thus, in both cases I had to hammer to drop these drafting riders, which is annoying because I’m getting old and like to set my own pace. A couple times, when I caught up to someone going roughly my speed, I pulled over to stop, wait a while, and start back up.

The most annoying incident came when I caught up to a guy going up Spruce, a fairly long climb before you leave the city limits. I started to pass him, and then he sped up and rode next to me. I continued to accelerate and so did he—so he was basically half-wheeling me, while I was way out in the road to give him his six feet. So I thought, fine—you’re faster, I’ll drop back. I gave him about a twenty foot gap and continued at his pace. But then he started to tire out, so I had to keep lowering my own speed to maintain the gap. This pissed me off to the point that I finally shifted up several gears, stood on the pedals, and completely attacked. This worked fine, but it was early in my ride and not how I like to warm up.

The other thing that unnerved me during these rides was that I didn’t see anyone on the road I knew, and very few club racers (who normally comprise like half the riders I’d see). Where were all the veteran cyclists? Did they know something I didn’t? I’m not knocking bike enthusiasts and I truly love the idea of more people taking up the sport (which is why I coach high school mountain biking). That said, cycling is a complicated sport, and those who have done it for decades learn subtle lessons over time. For example, I once hurled while leading a four-rider paceline and was amazed to see that the rider on the very back of our line was the one who took it in the face. I’ve also noted, with wonder, that when riding in a headwind, I can sometimes clearly hear the conversation of riders in another group like 100 feet ahead because their voices carry in the wind. When it comes to judgment calls, sometimes there’s no substitute for experience. It’s never a bad idea to take cues from the experts. So where were they?

Ultimately, and partly based in input from my wife, I stopped riding outdoors and went to riding only on my rollers, indoors. I lasted about a week before I started going crazy.


The Belgian-Dutch study

Right around the time I started contemplating heading out for another real ride, a guy on my road team sent around an article in Medium, an online magazine, titled “Belgian-Dutch Study: Why in times of COVID-19 you should not walk/run/bike close to each other.” Not long after, I received the same link from a cycling friend in Colorado. Within a couple days this rebuttal made the rounds as well. The rebuttal, and this coverage in cyclingnews, contend that the article has gone viral (though I’m not sure exactly how that claim is established or what threshold something must reach before it’s declared viral).

My initial reaction to the article was positive, since it validates concerns I already had around the increased risk of passing on a virus when breathing hard and riding fast, vs. simply walking by somebody or standing near him or her in a line. A friend of mine works for Ansys, the company whose software was used in the study, and he vouched for the accuracy of the modeling done (while acknowledging that the level of threat presented by aerosols cannot be determined by the study alone). This blog post by Ansys gives an interesting overview of how such studies can help.

I will say that I took the article with a grain of salt based on its source, medium.com, which states at the top of the screen, “Anyone can publish on Medium per our Policies, but we don’t fact-check every story.” In this regard it’s arguably even less trustworthy than KSBW since it’s not purporting to be real journalism to begin with. I have a bit of experience with these auto-publishing sites: I once submitted a restaurant review to Patch.com for a fictitious new restaurant, Vostock, specializing in Antarctic cuisine. I gave no indication my review was a farce. (That would, after all, spoil the joke.) Here’s an excerpt: 
The Antarctic Chaika for $10.25 is shredded gull brined with slush and served with pickled gull eggs, steamed ice, black gravel and a little pile of yellow snow. The presentation of the dish was simple and the aroma was enticing without being overwhelming. The gull was tender and smoky, but I began to lose interest after a few bites. Nothing about the ice or gravel really stood out either. The entrée felt like, well, discomfort food, and I had the vague feeling that someone’s grandmother does a better version.
As I discovered from the reader comments, a couple of people didn’t get the joke and were shocked to discover a restaurant in their town blatantly defying the Marine Mammal Protection Act. One guy was really offended. This is the problem with Internet “news” sources: something about the official-seeming format can put people off their guard. Naturally, there are quasi-authorities who capitalize on this.

(The Daily Mail in the UK ran an article about the Belgian-Dutch COVID-19 study titled “Horrifying simulation reveals the dangers of jogging during the coronavirus pandemic.” Horrifying? Really? Looking over that filthy rag, I can’t say how many Brits actually take it seriously. Perhaps it’s no more trusted than The Onion … I can only hope.)

Criticism against the Medium article was mainly around the study not being peer-reviewed; the lead researcher has acknowledged that he spoke to the media about his findings before publishing them, in the interest of getting his info out sooner. This breezy attitude has drawn yet more criticism, and pedestrians and cyclists are predictably bickering about the article’s implications across the various social media platforms to which it has spread.

Myself, I’m not about to discredit the idea that we need to be more careful when riding than when walking, nor the idea that this study presents legitimate information. Meanwhile, having seen how quickly things change in these strange times of pandemic, I went out and rode again to see if behaviors have changed. How viral is this article, and how influential?

More tales from the road

I rode on Saturday morning and the first cyclist I encountered gave me a very wide berth. The second seemed oblivious, due to headphones, but was well to the side of the road so I passed easily. Then I came across a couple sets of clustered riders like these ones.


Note that I cropped this photo; I was much farther back than it looks. I found a long straightaway where I could build up a lot of speed and use the left lane to pass them. I suppose it’s possible the members of that trio were all related and/or live in the same household. But this next group? (Look closely, there are four of them.)


The guy on the recumbent is clearly crashing the party … I have never known regular cyclists to mingle with recumbent riders. (In fact, those who choose recumbent bikes are almost by definition iconoclasts, loners, and pariahs.) This was the most hazardous group because they were descending by the time I encountered them and thus not going so slowly, plus the recumbent guy was wobbling a fair bit in the middle of the road, as they do. I passed them at top speed, sprinting while holding my breath so my head felt like it’d explode.

As I reached the twisty, steep part of Wildcat, I caught up to a guy who was clearly somewhat new to the sport. Not only was his speed pretty low, but he didn’t know to put his inside pedal up through the curves. In a perfect world he’d have perhaps sensed me behind him and pulled off to the side as a courtesy, but he didn’t. No worries … I patiently rode about 20 feet behind him, taking the descent at the most leisurely pace of my life. One reasonable argument against cycling right now is that it carries the perennial risk of injury, and it’d be a shame for a fallen cyclist to tax a hospital’s resources when they’re already so slammed.

Things got a lot better on this little road, a favorite of mine because I’ve encountered exactly zero other cyclists on it, ever (and it’s closed to cars). I won’t disclose its location unless you ask, so I can vet you for gnostical turpitude (e.g., a willingness to lead a group ride over this road in the near future).


I did encounter, to the side of this road, a gathering of some sort of worshipers in a clearing. They were in a big circle doing some kind of séance, or prayer, or sun salutation. They were the regulation six feet apart, but no more. For their sake, and in case I encounter one of them at the grocery store later, I hope the virus sticks to the letter of the law as assiduously as they do.

A brief survey of veteran cyclists

I saw a ton of cyclists on that ride, but mostly casual enthusiast types and only four riders whom I recognized, which seems like not many given how long I’ve been in the Berkeley area club racing community. Again, this makes me wonder if veteran cyclists’ assessments of this activity differ significantly from mine. So when I got home, I created a survey and sent it to my road team, a UCSB cycling alumni group, and a few other cycling friends. I sought to learn the following: 
  • Were they still riding outdoors, and if so how much;
  • Were they influenced by the Medium article and/or did they agree on its conclusion as a matter of common sense;
  • Are they riding more indoors, and if so are they doing virtual group rides via the Internet (e.g., on Zwift)
The second and third questions were out of curiosity and also to test a hypothesis: could I be seeing more cycling enthusiasts, vs. racer types, simply because the those in the former group simply don’t own stationary trainers, much less the expensive kind that interface with the Internet?

A total of 26 riders responded to the survey. Here’s what it turned up.

Outdoor riding:

Still riding outdoors at all?
23 out of 26 (88%)
Riding outdoors the same amount as usual?
10
Riding outdoors but less often?
12
Riding indoors more often
8
Not riding at all
2
Indoor only
1

I had an “other” category, with plenty of space for comments, and though many did add color, nobody indicated they were still riding in a small group and/or drafting.

Medium article:

Article made me reconsider riding outdoors
0 out of 26
Article influenced how I ride outdoors
10
Article had no influence
5
Haven’t read the article but probably will
4
Haven’t read the article and probably won’t
6

Of those who read it, 10 of 16 modified their behavior somewhat but didn’t stop riding, and  5 weren’t influenced. My general impression is that the article wasn’t a game-changer. My pals either dismissed it, or felt it simply corroborated common sense.

Virtual group rides:

Don’t ride indoors at all
10 out of 26
Participate in virtual group rides frequently
2
Participate in virtual group rides occasionally
2
Ride indoors and are considering trying out virtual group rides
3
Ride indoors but are not considering virtual group rides
8

Some highlights from the survey response comments:
  • No more mountain biking :-(
  • I’ve always ridden outdoors alone – I hate riding with people because they’re slower than me ;-)
  • If you can smell them you can get corona
  • “Software modeling” – you sound like an art major
  • I think it’s a bunch of charlatans who want to publish papers
  • The roads are emptier now than any time in the past 30 years. Maybe you can ride indoors “with” Peter Sagan, or your friends from around the globe, but you don't get to lean a bike over in corners, feel the exhilaration of descending, get fresh air, see new & interesting sights, etc.
Conclusion

As with so many matters of personal safety, I don’t see any simple answers or magical truths. Given how infrequently, hastily, and ineffectively my children wash their hands, I don’t kid myself that my risk of COVID-19 is totally up to me. As with life, I have to manage my risk as best I can, making compromises where necessary to keep myself sane. 

On the balance, I’ve decided that includes leaning my bike over in corners, feeling the exhilaration of descending, getting fresh air, and seeing new and interesting sights. I’m resting a lot easier about riding outdoors now, having some assurance from my fellow cycling veterans that I’m not crazy. (Or at least no crazier than all the people hoarding toilet paper.)

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 1


Introduction

I thought I’d just about exhausted my archives—that is, old essays and stories I’ve been writing since the ‘80s—and then I stumbled across a folder called “True Stories.” Jackpot! One of them was called “Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man.” I vaguely remember writing this back in 2003, but I don’t remember why. The full story runs like 14,000 words so I’ll be breaking it into installments, which I’ll run about once a month for a while. Here is the first.

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part One: How the Sport Found Me  (written in February 2003)

Don’t let the working title mislead you—what I am about to write will share nothing with James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (except, I guess, being written in English). Joyce must have had time on his hands, because he wrote and wrote and wrote and never got to the point (that I could see, anyway) and I gave up reading after about 150 pages. As for me, I have only one night to write this, since I’m fighting a cold and can’t ride. My goal is to write the entire history of how I became a cyclist and why that is important. If my output is poor, it’s because I’m in an awful rush. If it’s too verbose, that’s because I’m pretending I’m being paid by the word, just like the pros. (Get it?)

It’s all my dad’s fault, really, because my first bike was a ten-speed. Dad must have worked hard to find a ten-speed, in 1978, in my size. It was a Fuji Junior and had 24-inch wheels. The fact of the ten gears wasn’t the point—my dad figured that any 9-year-old, or at least his 9-year-old, would be too stupid to work the gears without running into a parked car or something, and told me not to touch the shift levers. (I reckon this was supposed to be an interim edict, but he never remembered to rescind it or teach me how to shift. Maybe he figured youthful disobedience would eventually take over, in which case he was right.)

[This is pretty much exactly the bike I had, only mine was red.]


It was the dropped bars, mainly, that differentiated my Fuji from the bikes my friends had. With my three older brothers, who of course also had ten-speeds, I held a playful contempt for regular bikes. We even had a label for them, something like High-Rise-Handlebar-Banana-Seat-Small-Wheel-In-Front-Big-Wheel-in-Back-Streamers-from-the-Grips-Stupid-Schwinn. I’d have to check with my brothers—I’m sure I mangled that—but you get the idea. I remember asking Dad if ten-speeds were faster, just to make sure, or to get something juicy to quote to my friends, and he said in his professorial voice, “The dropped handlebar improves the aerodynamics of the rider, which would make the bike faster.” I didn’t know the word “aerodynamic”—heck, it wouldn’t enter even the specialized cycling vernacular for other couple of years, but it had “arrow” in it and whatever garbled version of that word I spewed for my friends made their eyes grow wide. I felt like a racer long before I ever entered a race.

So did my brothers. I remember Max, at 10 or so, asking our next-door neighbor Greg (no authority on cycling, of course, but a good six or eight years older, and thus an authority on Life) if he (Max) looked like a racer, and demonstrated his style by riding to the top of Howard Place and executing a U-turn through which he put down his inside foot and dragged it lightly as if for support. When Max returned and pulled up to a stop, breathless, Greg laughed and said, “Yeah, you really did look like a racer, except for when you put your foot down in the turn.” I took a lesson well and never did that.

It’s difficult to remember whether my first exposure to bicycle racing was the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic stage race or the movie “Breaking Away.” I don’t think it matters. They were both huge. The Red Zinger gave me a taste, or at least a smear, of the sport. Our mom would drive us out to the Morgul Bismark course, which in the late seventies was basically the middle of nowhere, and we’d screw around for half an hour or so waiting for the racers to come by. Why we didn’t hike up to the top of The Hump, the second hardest climb, is beyond me. Lazy kids, I guess; we watched from the base of the climb. The pack flew by too swiftly for us to catch more than the patchwork of colors, like an animated quilt, and the whirring of chains, mostly drowned out by our own cheering. We knew the racers mainly through the great program that the race had put out. George Mount—Smiling George—was our favorite racer. The way he grinned while suffering, he was a superhero.


Then there was the two-page section showing nothing but racers who had crashed, with lots of blood and such, and it was a natural draw for bloodthirsty young boys.


The program also had a section showing the racers’ legs, all shaved, totally muscular, vein-y, superhuman. I also remember that the racers had these really cool-looking hairnet helmets—we called them Bandinis, for some reason—and between the name and the obvious lack of real protection, we were completely enchanted. I also remember that one or two of the racers had the new Bell Biker helmets, like what our dad had. The fact of those helmets told me that it was possible, just barely possible, that a nerdy kid like me might actually be able to join that race someday, even if at the back of the pack—heck, even off the back of that pack. I would be honored.

While the Red Zinger aroused our interest, “Breaking Away” blew us completely away. It delivered not just a glimpse of the sport, but a real story—actually, lots of real stories, and the main story was of this being a European sport that an American could hope to have a tenuous piece of, but only if he’s willing to immerse himself in another culture. (This was remarkably accurate, if you look at what Jonathan Boyer and Greg LeMond had to do to make it in international cycling at this point.)


It didn’t occur to us to view Dave as an adult would, to find humor in his attempt to become Italian—we were completely with him, somehow identified completely. When the Italian racer put the pump in his spokes, sure, we hated the guy, but we were also in awe, and couldn’t really fault him because this was their sport, not ours, so the Italians were somehow exempt from judgment, like how a hockey player who assaults another player gets a couple minutes in the penalty box instead of going to jail.

Max taught me that Europeans were physically stronger than Americans, and less affected by pain. (When we had some new neighbors and wanted to try to convince them that we were from Europe, we demonstrated our heritage by pretending to fight, and being unfazed by the punches we landed on each other.) “Breaking Away” helped to teach us that as Americans we were not worthy of this beautiful sport. So complete was my awe of the Italians, I was as horrified as poor Cathy was when Dave gave up the Italian impersonation. Even his triumph at the end of the movie was only over a bunch of American college students, on crappy AMF Roadmaster one-speeds. Winning the race, and holding up the trophy, didn’t quite redeem him. What did redeem him for me was that at the very end, he had picked up a new French persona. For months after seeing that movie, I carried around a French/English pocket dictionary and made a horrible attempt to speak in that indecipherable language.

The other thing “Breaking Away” did for us was to steep us in the arcana of the sport. What we didn’t catch from the movie itself, we got from the Bicycling magazine article about it. For example, I knew that the cycling caps that flooded the marketplace as being identical to Dave’s—that is, yellow Campagnolo caps—were completely wrong. They weren’t the right canary yellow (they were too orange), and they had too many stripes down the middle (i.e., five, these being the World Championship stripes). Dave’s cap had just three stripes.


When I found the right cap, for a shocking $5.00 at Pedal Pushers (most caps were $3.50), I had to panhandle for the 30 cents I needed to cover the tax, having only a five on me. When a friend accidentally broke the plastic inside the bill, and refused to apologize appropriately, our friendship was over. I also had a really cool red Cinelli cap, with the old coat-of-arms logo. By wearing these to school instead of a baseball cap, I brought on myself the scorn of my peers, but took it as a natural part of the outcast role I’d need if I wanted to embrace this sport. Boulder, Colorado was something of a cycling mecca even then, but this did not trickle down to the elementary school level. That cap was almost a badge of courage. I was almost, I felt, a Cutter.


[With a cap that cool, it’s a mystery why I wasn’t totally popular at school, especially with the girls. As you can see below, my overall fashion sense was unparalleled. The t-shirt I’m wearing actually says “LAMBCHOP” on it. My mom sewed those letters on there; Lambchop was her nickname for me. At least I had the physique for cycling, though I didn’t appreciate that at the time.]


All my identification might well have stayed in the realm of unearned or false had it not been for the Red Zinger Mini Classic stage race put on by the Sandvold family—Eric and his dad Eddie—and three of Eric’s friends. I guess they’d done a little race in 1980, but I never knew about it. It wasn’t until 1981 that they put on what can honestly be described as a totally legit stage race for kids. They had published a program that was remarkably similar to the Red Zinger ones we’d seen, except of course it didn’t show a lot of crash photos. (Don’t want to scare the devil out of the parents!)

The race’s slogan was “By, for, and about kids.” It looked like an incredibly cool event, and my brothers and I got our registration packets all together, and a kid named Scott M—, who had seen me riding around and saw my caps, even recruited me to be on his team, along with his friend and next-door neighbor John Lynch. There was only one problem: getting permission from Dad. Remember, this is the guy who didn’t want me to know about gears, lest I ride headlong into the back of a parked car.

We were all terrified to approach Dad. He was often grumpy, especially when we wanted something. He also never “got” sports and so far as we knew had never tried one. Mom supported the idea of us racing, but either she wanted to teach us assertiveness or she was as terrified as we were, because she refused to ask on our behalf. We boys all discussed the matter together and decided that Max, being the black sheep of the family, was in enough trouble with Dad already that it wouldn’t matter if he pushed our old man even further. Max wasn’t in a position to refuse his mission, because if he did, either Geoff or Bryan could beat the crap out of him, so with the two of them together he wouldn’t have a chance. Heck, I would have happily piled on myself, to dole out whatever I could add to the beating. Okay, I guess I’m exaggerating about the threat of actual violence, but anyway the matter was decided. Max would ask that night at dinner.

What a solemn occasion that was. The room was deadly silent through the whole meal as Max attempted to summon his resolve. This was very strange, because normally dinner time was an open forum for just about any subject, or at least any scientific or technical subject, and normally our table was abuzz with conversation (or at least my dad lecturing us while we nodded our heads and pretended to understand). The whole meal went by in awkward silence, the rest of us boys glaring at Max while he sweated bullets. Finally, just after dessert was served, Max finally cleared his throat and took the plunge: “Um, Daddy, um, I was wondering, er, actually, my brothers and I were wondering if, um, there was any way that we could, um, enter this bike race, that’s just for kids, um, because it’s really good exercise and would be good for us.” (Something like that.)

Dad didn’t even hesitate. “No. You boys are too stupid to be bike racers. You’d get yourselves killed.” I knew it sounds improbable that he actually said this, but I am quite certain I have it verbatim. My brothers remember it as well, and all our versions jibe. That was it. Nobody said another word for the rest of dessert, and immediately afterward Dad went back to work and nobody ever spoke to him again on the subject.

I guess I was relieved at his refusal, because I’d been pretty ambivalent about the idea myself. Not so much because I’d get myself killed, though I’m sure that worried me too, but the fact is, I was no athlete. I’d swum for years, first lessons and then the swim team, and I basically sucked. The best I ever did was third in some backstroke event (that loss-leader stroke), and that was only third in my heat—I ended up fourth overall, and that was only summer league. I was as undistinguished a swimmer as ever floated on water (or, more to the point, practically sank). I remember when our coach, Paul S—, got some video equipment and filmed us so that we could watch the footage and analyze our stroke. His main criticism of me was that I didn’t stay in my own lane. I’d kill for that footage today: sure enough, halfway through a lap I actually wander out of my lane, under a lane line, into the path of an oncoming swimmer. I tried to explain that I had to swim with my eyes shut because my goggles leaked so badly. Maybe the only guy everyone laughed at more was John W—, who swam freestyle with a butterfly kick.

And yet swimming was my best sport! At school, in Track & Field, I was always dead last in everything. I wished I could throw like a girl—it would have been an improvement. Every aspect of PE class was a source of humiliation. It was assumed that every boy knew the rules of football and baseball. I did not. I had no idea what was going on. Football was the worst. Offense? Defense? I didn’t know the difference. As far as I was concerned my job was to stay out of sight. Baseball? Just sit there and don’t swing, I told myself: if you don’t swing, you can’t strike out, and might get to walk. And yet the teacher kept calling strikes! I thought it was because I wasn’t holding my bat still enough, that the teacher must have thought she saw it move. I had no idea about a strike zone. I just stood there, as motionless as a statue, as the strikes were counted. I was uncoachable; teachers assumed I knew exactly what was going on and was simply demonstrating my complete contempt for the sport. Utter humiliation. Why would cycling be any different?

I guess I have my dad’s prohibition—and moreover my mom’s reaction to it—to thank for the fact that I ended up becoming a bike racer. Mom all but insisted that we all sign up for the Mini Zinger, on principle. I remember this well. The day after Max crashed and burned on our behalf, I was in the kitchen, hanging out around the stove while Mom cooked, and she asked me if I was entering the race. I reminded her what Dad said, and right there on the spot she basically made me commit to signing up. It wasn’t a long conversation, and I don’t remember her argument, but after that I was fully committed. I submitted my application, and …

To be continued

Tune in next time for the wretched tale of my flunked bike inspection, and—worse yet—the bike racing clinic where, for the first time, I felt bad about being a talentless loser unwilling to make himself suffer properly.

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