Sunday, May 24, 2020

When Will the COVID-19 Pandemic End?


Right off the bat, I’ll say that this post won’t answer the question posed in the title—it will merely examine one methodology for addressing the question. And, obviously, I’m not an epidemiologist or any kind of expert. That said, I’ve found a way to look at the pandemic that has given me some measure of relative peace vs. just freaking out.

By the way, for once I’m not going to try to make this a funny post. If anybody finds humor here it’ll be months or years from now when the puny perspective and inevitable inaccuracy of my model and approach will be glaringly, laughably obvious in retrospect.

Who needs a model?

For me, one of the most stressful aspects about this situation is that not only do we not know how it’ll end, but we have no idea when. At least with a final exam coming up or a term paper due, we know when our stress will be over. For better or for worse, that final will be done at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 27. Whatever kind of shape that essay will be in on Friday, it’ll have been turned in and that’s that. As badly as we’re suffering on a long climb during a bike race, we know there is a summit, and at what mileage or altitude we’ll reach it, even if we haven’t raced the course before. With this pandemic, though, nobody knows where the finish line is. Could this go on for years? It could … the world has seen that before. Not knowing adds to the emotional strain.

Isn’t it enough to follow the news? Well, that hasn’t really helped me. Not only is too much news just depressing, but there’s just not enough consensus to be useful. The media points out what is salient, and discord usually is. Meanwhile, much of what we read is speculation about what could happen (the “news” being that somebody said it), without much effort to say which scenario is the most likely. News is divergent, not convergent.

My solution is to create a mathematical model to forecast the arc of this pandemic. Though this model is extremely crude, it has the ability to improve over time, and at least it’s based on numbers. It gives me some peace, so I figure it might help you, too … but only if we are in basic agreement about what will end the pandemic.

The end of COVID-19: two scenarios

If we could plumb the collective consciousness of the people, across the entire spectrum of humanity, we’d come across all kinds of notions as to how this situation will be resolved. There would be the vague hope that somehow it’d just end, like it would just go away, the way mad cow, SARS, and Ebola seemed to. We’d also find various flavors of denial that this virus actually exists at all, and/or that it’s actually worse than the flu. But if we’re going to try to be reasonable about this, I think we should limit the possible resolutions to two scenarios: 1) enough people are infected that virus can’t find any new hosts (i.e., we reach herd immunity), or 2) a vaccine is developed. Now, if you disagree that the resolution will probably take one of these two forms, that’s totally fine … but you might as well stop reading here. I don’t want to waste your time.

I think it’s possible that a vaccine will come to the rescue. I don’t think anybody is ruling this out, and obviously loads of people are working on that vaccine, and this work simply has to happen because future waves of this coronavirus, or the next one, are probably inevitable. All this being said, I have two problems with hanging my short-term sanity on the prospect of a vaccine.

First, the existence of an effective vaccine doesn’t equate to a swift and efficient means of rolling it out in this country. Vaccinating people isn’t as easy as rolling out a new software version to phones or computers. America is really good at making money, but not very good at making good healthcare available to our entire population. If our performance thus far during this pandemic is any indicator, the time between somebody in this world developing a good vaccine and Americans actually getting it could be very long.

Second, creating a vaccine takes as long as it takes … we can’t just slap a launch date on it. Any time lots of people collaborate on something complicated, delays are inevitable. I have worked in tech for almost 25 years and have seen more deadlines missed than achieved. The only engineering deadline that had any teeth was Y2K, and the entire industry breathed a huge sigh of relief that we fixed our networks in time for that. But Y2K was a lot simpler than a vaccine … it was just cleaning up sloppy software.

The conventional wisdom around the rough timeframe for a vaccine, to the barebones extent I’ve investigated it, is at least a year. WebMD, for example, says it’s 12-18 months out. I suspect herd immunity will come before then, because that’s what my model predicts. If it seems reasonable to you that herd immunity could be achieved before a vaccine, read on.

My pandemic prediction model

I’ve hunted around a bit to see what the generally accepted rate of infection is for achieving herd immunity—that is, the point when the virus can no longer spread due to lack of available hosts. The number I’ve settled on is 70%. (It’s not that important that you agree with this figure because it’s easy enough, with the spreadsheet, to swap it out for something else, which I may do if suddenly all the experts are saying we need 75%, or only 65%.) Multiplying 70% by US population, I come up with 230 million who need to be infected before the virus stops spreading. If we reach that number before 12-18 months, that’ll be the end of COVID-19 in this country (assuming we have some combination of worldwide herd immunity and international travel restrictions).

To figure out to long it’ll take to reach this level, we have to calculate what the current rate of infection is. I’ve been watching the daily stats on Infection 2020, a website my daughter alerted me to. It compiles data from a number of sources: the website cites “CDCWHOThe New York TimesJHUCorona Data Scraper, and official state and county health agencies.” Every day, it posts the rate of increase vs. the day before.

Is this website perfect? Of course not. One of the most maddening aspects of this situation is that we can only really guess about how many people have actually been infected with this coronavirus, given the abysmal state of our testing capability so far. I have no doubt that hundreds of thousands of infections, perhaps a majority, have not been documented. But I think it’s still worth using this data, because it will get more accurate over time, and I think you have to start somewhere … otherwise you can’t model anything and your take on the situation will get yanked in too many directions.

When I created my model a little over a week ago, I’d been watching these stats for a couple of months, during which period I’d seen the rate of growth fluctuate between 1 and 4%. It was mostly around 4% at first, and then gradually dropped. Lately it’s been 2% or 1%. The problem is, the growth rate figure is not very precise—it’s only one significant digit—so it flip-flops between 1% and 2% based on the time of day when I check. That’s all the difference in the world.

To get past this imprecision, I created a spreadsheet that models three different growth rates: 2%, 1.5%, and 1%. I started with the actual values as reported by the website on May 16, and copied the formula [previous value * 1.02] down far enough to where the total cases reaches (roughly) 230 million. Here is what the 2% growth forecast looks like (with a ton of rows omitted so the snapshot is manageable):

What the above shows is that if the infection rate proceeds at 2% day-over-day growth, we’ll reach the necessary 70% infection rate by the end of January, next year. Now, of course the infection rate won’t be constant like that … it is bound to go up as we relax the shelter-in-place rules. Or maybe it won’t … many seem to think it’ll flatten out, and for the last couple of months it has. But at least this is a starting point, and it’s easy enough to tweak the model and the situation changes.

Here is the next tab of my spreadsheet, based on a forecast of 1% day-over-day growth in the infection rate:

It has this pandemic lasting until October 5 of 2021 unless a vaccine comes out before then. Is that realistic? Perhaps not, but no matter: I also did a 1.5% model:

The 1.5% model has us reaching herd immunity toward the end of next April.

Now, all three models project a 6% fatality rate, because that number hasn’t changed in months. You may be wondering if I truly believe this pandemic will kill almost 14 million Americans. No, of course I don’t. Keeping in mind that most of the cases we know about are people showing bad enough symptoms to get tested, they’re probably the more vulnerable populations. As more and more people get the virus, we’ll be into the more mainstream cohort: younger and healthier. Meanwhile, as mentioned before, surely countless people have had this virus, or have it now, without being tested. The fatality rate is deaths divided by known cases; as the number of known cases grows, outpacing the deaths, the known fatality rate will fall dramatically.

So which of these three models is most accurate at the moment? That’s easy to measure simply by filling in the actual numbers as we go. I added formulas to subtract the actual values from the forecasted values, day by day, across each model, so we can see which one proves most accurate. Here’s what the 2% model shows so far:

Clearly, the forecast is pretty far off and getting worse. In other words, 2% is too aggressive an assumption, thus January 26 is too early a date to expect herd immunity to be reached.

Let’s look, then, at the 1% model:

It’s also pretty far off, though a bit better than the 2% model. (Not long ago, it was farther off than the 2% model, so we can tell the rate of infection is declining.) The numbers are in red because they’re negative, meaning the model is too optimistic and is predicting fewer cases and deaths than we’re seeing. But they’re smaller numbers, indicating greater accuracy.

Here is the 1.5% forecast:

It’s a fair bit closer than either of the other two models, which isn’t surprising since the reported rate has been bouncing between 1% and 2%  due to the rounding the website does. For that to happen, the actual rate would have to be somewhere in the middle.

Does this mean I should discard the 1% and 2% models? No, because the rate could swing in either direction from here. Over the next weeks and months as events unfold, I’ll probably add more tabs modeling other rates of infection if they do a better job. This gives us a way to contextualize the numbers we see each day. At some point if things are departing sufficiently from what we’ve observed since May 16, I might start over, basing the forecast on the number of cases as of that date (i.e., instead of the 1.48 million we had on May 16).

Over time, the model will change constantly, reflecting more and more new data and the effect that government policies and human behavior have on the spread of infection. If it turns out that fear, and not regulation, is driving social distancing behaviors, the rate might not go up by much. On the other hand, if people revolt and businesses start opening up again willy-nilly, the rate could skyrocket. These things cannot be predicted but their effect can be fed into the forecast.

So what I’ve created here is a model that says today, based on what is now known and what’s going on at this moment, I have a tentative herd immunity forecast date. As of May 24, I have at least some basis to believe that this pandemic will be over by April 20 of next year, after which the long, slow return to normal can begin. Notwithstanding the crudeness of my model, it gives me comfort just to have this projected date, vs. speculating endlessly about what could happen.

If this end date idea appeals to you too, I’m happy to share my spreadsheet … just drop me an email. Or, if you’re a lot better at such modeling than I am, I’d love to hear your comments and/or see your forecast. Or, if I have missed some all-important consideration and you’re able to shoot holes in my entire framework here, such that I discard it completely, I’d rather do that than stumble forward ignorantly, deceiving myself. (Will this post have been a totally wasted effort in that case? Mostly, yeah … but it’ll also be, arguably, an interesting historical testament to the kind of agonized cogitation this pandemic has brought about.)

More reading on the pandemic
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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Letter to a Middle-Aged Cyclist - Buy New Wheels NOW!


This post is available as a vlog. And check this out: if you launch the video and then close your eyes, it magically becomes a podcast! Naturally, the traditional text-O-rama blog format follows below.


I’m not much of a consumer, but recently a friend bullied me into buying new wheels for my road bike. Based on the outcome, and with all the zeal of a convert, I exhorted another friend, who complained about broken spokes, to buy these wheels as well. Seeing an opportunity to expand my beneficence, I hereby entreat all middle-aged road cyclists to buy new wheels too. Here are my top five reasons, followed by a handy Q&A.

Reason #1 – You’re not getting any younger

Okay, right off the bat you can find some pretty badass looking wheels nowadays. Case in point, these Dura-Ace C40s I just picked up. Have a gander at these bad boys.

Now, if you were 70 years old, would I be recommending these to you? Of course not. You’d be a geezer, unlikely to get much use out of them. When my dad was like 70, and had suffered some shoulder injury he thought to be permanent, he decided he needed a recumbent, because it was closer to the ground. “If I crash on a regular bicycle and land on my shoulder, it is done,” he explained sternly. Alas, he was too old a dog to master the recumbent bicycle, so then he bought a recumbent tricycle. Now he no longer needed to balance, but the supine riding position, he complained, gave him terrible neck pain. Well hell, I could have predicted that!

The awkwardness of the recumbent is not just a physical problem. There’s also the aesthetic consideration. Nobody should ride recumbents, any more than any tortoise should be flipped over on its back and laughed at. Fortunately, after giving up on the trike, my dad decided his shoulder was okay after all and bought a sensible Fuji hybrid/commuter bike. Not bad, except he never rode it either; apparently after his hip replacement he couldn’t swing his leg over the bike. So he asked me what I thought about him trading it in for a women’s model, with no top tube.

My instant reaction was, “What, are you crazy? What’s next, you gonna start drinking rosé? Dude, it’s time to man up, do some damn physical therapy, and ride the bike you got!” But if course there was no point in saying this. By the time a guy is asking you if it’s okay to ride a women’s bike, it’s too late to help him. “Sounds like a great plan,” I told him, “and I’m sure Performance would gladly swap your bike for a women’s model at no charge. After all, you’ve never ridden it.” This was a gamble, of course; would he take my advice, and if so, whose demise was approaching faster—his or Performance’s? (In the end it was a dead heat.)

I hope I’ve made it clear we need to put off the geezer years for as long as possible and hang on to youthful stuff with all our might. In this battle, aesthetics are important. If you’re over 50, you’re heading toward the years when you wouldn’t necessarily carry off those badass new wheels very well. Similarly, there’s something sad about a 65-year-old in a distressed-looking leather jacket and that’s where we’re headed. At some point that jacket would need to be traded in on a cardigan sweater because who the hell are we kidding? As Anthony Bourdain once said, “There’s nothing cool about ‘used to be cool.’”

[Above: my brother Max and I when we were younger and cooler (even if we weren’t, strictly speaking, cool). Can I still wear that jacket? Yes, I think … but not forever.]

Don’t even get me started on all the super-cool sports cars you see in the Bay Area—the Porsches, the McLarens, the Audi R8s, even your occasional Lambo—that inevitably have some 60-plus douche behind the wheel (driving responsibly, of course). Seeing this grotesque pairing of speed-obsessed engineering and delusional, over-moneyed, existential Viagra, I fantasize about the guy’s irresponsible 18-year-old grandson stealing the car and taking it out for a joy ride, maybe even leading the cops in a stupidity-and-adrenaline-fueled high-speed pursuit.

At least bikes provide a healthy outlet for midlife-crisis ya-yas. So we should all be using high-end, kickass gear while we still can. If we can still put the hurt on younger riders, and we can still make our racing bikes go jolly fast, we’re not too old to deserve really awesome machines. Yet. So you need to snap up and enjoy these wheels while you still have the mettle, the minerals, the sound & the fury to put them to good use. Seize the day!

Reason #2 – The price is right

I hear anecdotally that everything is cheaper now because of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place and the low price of oil. New cars, as described here, are still being shipped over here and there’s no place to put them because the dealers aren’t making a dent in their current inventory. It’s kind of a consumer’s market in general, apparently.

So when I broke my third spoke in under 500 miles on my current rear wheel, and complained to my friend Pete, he immediately urged me to buy new ones. He even sent me a link to where the wheels he recommended were on sale for $350 off. Within a few minutes I found them on closeout at another place for $600 off. DAAAAAAMN!

There’s also the price of not buying those wheels. Look, your gear is going to wear out at some point. Why wait until then, when the economy may well be booming again, and you’ll have to pay what the market will bear? And why run the risk of finding out the hard way that your hubs and/or rims are approaching wear-related catastrophic structural failure, like my crankarm back in 2011?

With my new wheels the cost analysis included the crap I’d have had to put up with from Pete if I’d stuck to my penny-pinching ways. He wrote, and I quote, “Do it do it do it do it. Don’t be scared.” I hemmed and hawed and he pointed out, “It’s not like you’re gonna go on some expensive vacation any time soon.” I acknowledged this point and he replied: “See, you’re practically making money on the deal!”

Not a bad argument, but the “don’t be scared” was even more powerful. Did you catch that? How he was, albeit subtly, impugning my confidence? Like I’m too scared to throw money around? I went silent for a bit and he texted me, “I assume your silence means you bought them!” He basically rim-shamed me into the purchase, and I hope I’m doing the same with you. If not, read on because I’m not done yet.

Reason #3 – Aero wheels actually will make you go faster

By “modern” I mean the truly aerodynamic ones. No, not like those super deep-dish time trial wheels, which is frankly overkill, but something a bit more aggressive than what you might have on your bike. In my case, I had been rocking the HED Ardennes, which claim to be aerodynamic but aren’t very deep (and frankly aren’t very durable—long, dull story). I’m talking something at least 35mm deep, from the edge of the rim where the tire sidewall begins to where the spokes go in. And the wheels need to have a relative paucity of spokes—not a mere 16 front and rear, like the early Shimano wheels I swore off of, but not your old-school 28- or 32-spoke build either. And bladed spokes, needless to say. Why on earth did my replacement HED wheel, which I just bought late last year to replace the defective one I bought in 2014, have non-bladed spokes? What, did they forget? What’s next, toothpaste without fluoride? Leaded gasoline? CRT televisions? Dial-up Internet?

Now, the bicycle industry has a long history of total BS when it comes to aerodynamics. I give you the aero water bottle, which led to famous victories by nobody ever.

They’re just hideous. I doubt anybody would use them even if they did confer a real advantage. Aesthetics, remember?

And you think the placement of these shifters, and the internal cabling, led to any actual benefit?

To some degree the bicycle industry pretended that making something needlessly ugly would automatically lead to aerodynamic improvement:

So I’ve been skeptical about aero wheels too (other than, obviously, disk wheels, tri-spokes, etc.). When I was pondering my last new wheel purchase in 2014, I incredulously emailed my teammate Sean (a legit bike maven), “It’s crazy ... the more expensive Dura-Ace wheels are heavier than the C24s … could that be right? Is the idea that the aerodynamics are so much better, it’s worth it? The order of the universe seems out of whack all of a sudden.” Sean replied, “Yes, that is correct. I too have trouble accepting the idea that heavier wheels can be faster, but apparently the aerodynamics more than make up for the weight gain, unless you are doing major climbing.”

So is he right? In a word, yes. There really is a big difference with these Dura-Ace C40s (35mm deep in the rim-brake version). It’s not subtle. Consider this: there’s a little downhill on Wildcat Canyon Road, where I try to get as much speed as I can to carry me up the next rise. I’m accustomed to hitting a little over 30 mph on that if I pedal fairly hard. With these wheels, putting out about the same perceived effort, I hit 37 mph! Digging extra deep yesterday, I reached almost 40. Going down South Park Drive, without pedaling, I can feel the bike picking up speed like it never has before, as though gravity had gotten stronger. (In a sense its effect is stronger, as it’s impeded less by wind drag.) Descending with these wheels is the difference between paddling your little canoe out on the lake vs. feeling a giant wave pick up your surf kayak and hurl it toward the beach.

Now, I know just what you’re thinking: your decisions these days are data-driven. You don’t want this mealy-mouthed, feel-good subjective nonsense clouding your AI-like judgment. So here are the cold, hard facts about my first two rides with these wheels.

My first ride was one of my favorite loops, 19.3 miles with about 2,500 feet of climbing. My previous best time of the year was 1:19:02, an average speed of 14.7 mph. On this route with the new wheels (their maiden voyage), I clocked a 1:16:26, averaging 15.5 mph. Pretty staggering improvement, eh?

Now, there’s a such thing as “new bike syndrome” where you automatically go faster because a) you’re excited about the new bike, and b) you’re frightened into riding harder by the looming specter of buyer’s remorse. Does new bike syndrome extend to wheels? Anecdotally I wouldn’t say so, and anyway we can account for that effect, to some extent, by looking at average heart rate across the two rides.

For the ride that produced my former best time, my average heart rate was 131 bpm, and I was in Zone 3 (>144 bpm) for 0:17:49. On the new wheels, my record-breaking ride was at an average HR of 132, with only 0:15:55 in zone 3 (and no time in or above zone 4 for either ride). In other words, the level of effort was comparable, one ride to the next. So, yeah—it was the fricking wheels! They actually made me faster!

Of course I can’t base this conclusion on a single ride. But the next ride corroborated this; it’s a bit shorter at 16.7 miles, with just over 2,000 feet of climbing, and I beat my 2020 PR of 1:07:43 handily, completing the ride in just 1:04:45 (15.5 mph vs. 14.8). This year I’ve done one or the other of these loops 17 times on the old wheels, and never averaged above 15 mph. With the new wheels, I’ve broken the coveted 15 mph average all three times on the longer loop plus the one time on the shorter loop. Four for four!

Moreover, factoring in longer rides (with more flat sections), my highest average speed of the year on the old wheels was 16.3 mph (on a 33-mile ride with 2,900 feet of climbing). On the new wheels yesterday, I averaged 17.6 mph (on a 39.4-mile ride with 3,300 feet of climbing). That’s an 8% improvement … stunning.

Reason #4 – New wheels will actually make you ride harder

Okay, I’ll confess that comparing my average heart rate across rides is somewhat specious, given the slippery nature of the term “average.” After all, the average person has one breast and one testicle. Coasting on downhills will lower the average heart rate figure inconsistently, etc. Meanwhile, by looking closely at some of my climbs, it’s clear I’ve been going harder lately. On the old wheels I recently clocked a non-stellar 8:13 up Pinehurst Road, whereas with the new wheels yesterday I managed a much better 7:39. My average heart rate over the slower ascent was a mere 140 bpm. Yesterday, my average for this climb was 148 bpm. Across the whole ride, I’d averaged 122 bpm for the first ride, and 133 yesterday.

So does this deconstruct my whole argument, suggesting that greater effort, not greater efficiency, explains the improvement in speed? First of all, no—the difference is too great, and too consistent, and I do have the pair of rides with very similar heart rate yet dissimilar speed & time. Second, it kind of doesn’t really matter if I could have gone as fast, or as hard, on the old wheels. The fact is, I didn’t. I’m going faster and harder now, clearly. When better equipment puts better performance within our reach, we’re much more likely to stretch ourselves.

There’s also the matter of momentum. The parts of my rides that aren’t big climbs or descents are still lumpy, and with the new wheels I find myself carrying more speed from a downhill into the next uphill, such that if I go a bit harder I can stay in the big chainring for longer stretches (in my case, from Summit Reservoir all the way to Inspiration Point), which inspires and enthuses me. It’s a virtuous cycle.

[Google Maps says it takes 23 minutes to ride the above route. With my old wheels I did as well as 12:58. My new PR with the aero wheels is 11:35.]

Reason #5 – COVID-19

Let’s face it, if we’re smart during this pandemic we’ll all be riding alone for the foreseeable future, with nobody to draft, so we need to be as aerodynamic as possible or we’ll a) get too frustrated to continue, meaning we’ll give up cycling, launching a downward slide into sloth and depression, or b) we’ll be unable to resist drafting others, meaning we’re one snot rocket away from bringing the coronavirus home and killing our entire family.

Meanwhile, returning to the fiscal discussion I started earlier, during shelter-in-place it’s harder to spend money. My credit card bill hasn’t been this low in years, and for the first time in forever all the transactions fit on one page. Why not splurge a little? Besides, there’s a good chance we’ll all be dead soon, along with our would-be heirs, so what’s the point in saving? It’s time to buy! Buy buy buy!

Questions and answers

Q. Why not just get a whole new bike, since there have been so many improvements in technology, such as disc brakes?

A. How can you even contemplate such a major purchase when the global economy is melting the fuck down?! I can’t believe you’re thinking so irresponsibly. Besides, better brakes will not make you go faster. Aren’t we slowing down enough as we head into middle age? Meanwhile, it might be pretty hard finding a new bike anyway ... the pandemic has caused a major bike shortage, as described here.

Q. Why wouldn’t I upgrade my mountain bike wheels instead? Maybe with some sweet carbon rims?

A. With the vast hordes of hikers I’m seeing in the regional parks, I don’t consider mountain biking safe whatsoever right now, or even fun. How are you supposed to socially distance on single track? I can’t imagine spending money on a bike I might not get to even ride in the foreseeable future.

Q. What about crosswinds?

A. Whaddya mean, crosswinds? What the hell are you even talking about? Listen to this guy … crosswinds.

Q. In your previous post about selecting bike wheels you touted the benefits of wider rims and claimed that “the HEDs really do ride better” and “the ride is really plush.” Now you’re pushing Dura-Ace wheels with a narrower rim profile. What gives?

A. You know what else is really plush? Your bed. Or we could ride around on beach cruisers. Look, we’re heading toward old age, infirmity, and death … this isn’t the time to make ourselves comfortable. To paraphrase Andrew Marvell, “The grave’s a fine and restful place/ But no one there is fit to race.”

Q. You seem to assume that all your readers are still gainfully employed right now, even though unemployment in the U.S. is now at historic levels, with more than 20 million people out of work. How can you callously pretend we’re all in a position to spend money on nonessentials?

A. Just buy the damn wheels.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

From the Archives - Portrait of the Young Cyclist: Part 2


This post is available as a vlog. You can open a bag of chips, plug your laptop into your TV, kick back, and pretend you’re watching TV. Or, you could plug in some headphones and pretend this is a podcast, and listen while doing your laundry. Or just read it, below. The world is your oyster.


This post continues the tale, from my archives, of how I became a bike racer. What started as an unearned identity became an object lesson in recognizing self-delusion. Things improved a bit from there, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here is how I looked at the time. You can see how hapless I am: my belt is crooked, as is my cap, and I’ve got my shirt buttoned up wrong.

Portrait of the Cyclist as a Young Man – Part Two: The Art of Failure (written in February 2003)

As I was saying at the end of my last post, I took up bike racing mainly because my dad had forbidden it. It’s not that I sought to defy him; it’s that my mom did, disgusted by his attitude. “You boys are too stupid to race bicycles,” my dad had warned. “You’d get yourselves killed.” Hearing that, my mom insisted that we all sign up for the Red Zinger Mini Classic. I submitted my application, and a few days later I brought my bike to the High Wheeler bike shop for its mandatory pre-race inspection. It failed. The tires were completely shot.

Now that I think back, it’s a bit odd that Dad prohibited us from racing for safety reasons, since he let us all ride around all day on unsafe bikes. Dad couldn’t be bothered to maintain our fleet, and was too cheap to pay a shop to do it. So we tried our best to fix our own bikes (so long as replacement parts weren’t required). This didn’t always work out so well.

Once, when I decided my brakes weren’t working like they used to, I thought maybe the center bolt was loose. I tightened the bejeezus out of it, thinking tighter must always be better. In fact, now the calipers were too stiff for the springs, which meant as soon as I applied the brakes, halfway down Table Mesa to King Soopers, they stayed on and my bike ground to a halt. I can still remember dismounting and staring at the brakes in confusion, unable to understand or accept what was going on. Finally I pried the calipers apart and resolved not to use the brakes anymore, at least until I had another crack at “fixing” them.

Whenever my bike got a flat tire, I suffered two consequences. First, my dad would be angry at me, like that was a damn fool thing I’d gone and done. Second, I’d be in bike-less purgatory until one of my brothers, in an uncharacteristic magnanimous mood, got around to fixing my flat. During one of these bike-less periods I borrowed my brother Bryan’s bike (probably on the sly). I was shocked by a violent whump-whump-whump sound the rear wheel made, coupled with a terrible lurching. I jumped off and investigated. It was the tire: Bryan had skidded so badly on it at some point, he’d worn completely through the tread and the casing, and had fixed it with Shoe Goo.

Getting back to the pre-race shop inspection, tires were the only flunk-able safety problem with the bike, but it had other issues. The gears, for example, were a mess. Despite being cautioned against using the gears at all (my dad probably thought they’d distract me and I’d run into a parked car), I had eventually transgressed and started making use of all ten speeds. It was Max who taught/corrupted me, one day riding across town. We were descending a steep hill and he kept dropping me, until he spotted the problem—I was always in first gear!—and advised me to push both shift levers all the way forward. God, what a rush! All of a sudden I could pedal again, and I just flew!

(Both levers forward? Yep. This was a Suntour Spirt front derailleur, that was backwards from every other front mech ever made.)

Unfortunately, by the time I had shifting mastered, Dad changed out my rear cogs and derailleur, to give me lower gearing. This had meant replacing the fairly new components with ancient ones from some other bike, and I could never shift cleanly again. Now I was as clumsy as a surgeon operating in mittens.

I wish the gearing had been deemed unsafe by the High Wheeler, because then maybe something could have been done about it. As it was, just getting new tires on our bikes was a big crisis in the Albert household. You’d have thought my parents were being asked to buy EPO for all four boys. Lots of big sighs from Dad, who apparently was resigned to our participation in the race (probably the economist in him couldn’t handle the idea of our registration fees going to waste).

Worse, the whole ordeal made me look at my tires closely for the first time and realize that they were fatter than my brothers’. I had 600C wheels (roughly 24”), with tires 1-¼ inches wide, to my brothers’ dashingly narrow 1-1/8”. Actually, finding any tires was a chore. I had to make a lot of phone calls to a lot of shops, and nobody was happy to hear from me because skinny 600C tires apparently didn’t exist. Invariably I got a big lecture about how the width didn’t matter, that skinny tires were actually less stable and wouldn’t make me go any faster anyway. At first I assumed I was being told the truth, but I didn’t care because looks trumped everything. And of course it was only a matter of time before I realized that all these bike shop adults were lying out their asses to begin with. Of course narrow tires are better, everybody knows that. You think those hypocrites had fat-ass tires on their own bikes?

Eventually I found (albeit fat) tires at some shop in Denver, and my bike passed inspection. This was kind of a gift from the High Wheeler, actually, as my bike lacked reflectors. My brothers had removed them, when they worked over my bike for me, adding toe clips and moving the stem-mounted shifters to the down tube where they belonged. They also removed the so-called “chicken levers,” which enabled braking from the tops of the handlebars. Don’t get the wrong idea: my brothers didn’t do this because they were good guys. They did it in case they were ever seen with me out riding—they didn’t want to be humiliated by association if somebody noticed an amateurish look to my bike.

One of the benefits of the Mini Zinger was the bike clinic they gave far all riders. They found some old veterans of the sport who were willing to volunteer and took us on a ride up NCAR—that is, the road leading from my neighborhood to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a mile or two from town. We all met at The Spoke, a bike shop in the Table Mesa center. People I knew from school were there, which in itself was an insult, since I thought I was the only guy around with any awareness of the sport. To make matters worse, they were giving this other kid, Mike Blaney, a hard time because he had a Schwinn. He tried to defend himself by saying, “Yeah, but it’s a nice one, with Quick Release!” This made the other kids laugh even harder at him, and they all started mimicking him—“I have Quick Release!”—which terrified me because my bike could just as easily be mocked. Hell, I didn’t even have quick release.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before some guy went and started making fun of how small my bike was, with its 18-inch seat tube and miniature wheels. The look on my face must have been downright lugubrious, because he actually took pity on me. He lifted up my bike and said, “But it’s so light!” (Of course it wasn’t.) Just like that, the expected fusillade of teasing never materialized. Paradoxically, everyone’s restraint in razzing me became an insult in itself, as thought they knew I couldn’t handle a little verbal abuse.

On our way out of the parking lot, I tipped over because I’d just switched to toe clips and straps instead of mini-clips, and was still getting used to them. So I felt like a complete Fred and the ride hadn’t even really started yet. Things got worse from there. Just getting to the base of the climb almost killed me as I was nowhere near fit enough for the grade. We took a back route, via Stanford Ave and Vassar Drive, which gained about 230 feet but might as well have been Alpe d’Huez. I was totally out of breath and dizzy by time we got to the base of the NCAR climb proper. I thought I might even hurl.

The actual climb wasn’t so steep, so I was able to loaf. It didn’t matter that I’d self-identified as a cyclist for years by this point, or that I’d been one of the first kids in town with a helmet, or that I loved “Breaking Away” … I was dropped immediately and mercilessly. Just like in gym class, I was dead last. The leader of the clinic dropped back and rode next to me, offering up encouragement. He politely suggested I get out of the saddle and go a little faster. This concept was completely foreign to me. The idea that I could choose to pedal harder just didn’t make sense. It seemed to me that if I wasn’t keeping up anyway, there was no point in exerting myself beyond what it took to keep my balance and eventually complete the ride. What this guy was asking me to do was to suffer—more precisely, to inflict suffering upon myself. This just didn’t make any sense.

He left me alone and cruised back up to the group, and as I continued picking my lone way up the road I pondered his words. (I had plenty of time to think.) I eventually began to understand what the old pro was saying. At some point in that ride I finally grasped that what he was suggesting not only wasn’t absurd, but actually made sense. What he was giving me was nothing less than the key to training, to racing, and above all to improvement. Those who went fast, I realized, might not just be more talented. They might actually be working harder, day after day, to service their ambitions.

So did I take the veteran cyclist’s advice? Did I get out of the saddle and push myself a little? Of course not. I understood his tutelage, but lacked the drive to apply myself to it. It would be weeks or months or years before I had the psychological gumption to fully embrace this bold ethos, to locate the will to flog myself vigorously and often in pursuit of betterment. It’s possible today for me to be mistaken for someone with talent, but it has taken decades of suffering to get to this point, all stemming from that day. Not to sound maudlin or anything, but that guy gave me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned. I wish I remember the guy’s name. He deserves to know that, despite all appearances, he did get through to me.

The Mini Zinger itself, a week or two later, was a real eye-opener for our family. Watching my brothers race, it was easy for me to see that gym class was no real indicator of athletic ability, at least for them. At Track & Field in gym class, these guys were slaughtered as badly as I was, but they did pretty well in the Mini Zinger, especially Geoff, who finished somewhere around tenth overall. Here is Bryan toiling away:

And here is Geoff (alas, the best photo I can find):

The difference was the duration of the race: the typical Mini Zinger stage lasted at least 25 minutes, which was an eternity when compared to anything you did in gym class. Geoff, Bryan, and I don’t have a single fast-twitch muscle fiber among us. Our only hope is to wear down our opponents, which isn’t exactly possible in a ten-second running race during a half-hour gym class, of which twenty minutes is spent walking to the park and back.

Our brother Max had mixed results. He had been a champion swimmer for years, and his bike races always started strong. He’d go straight to the front of the pack, fly high for a few laps of a criterium, be the boss of the peloton for several stunning minutes, and then would inexplicably suffer mechanical problems. His derailleur get stuck between gears, or his chain would fall off. He’d announce the problem very loudly. In one race, a criterium, he came around a corner with his saddle broken clean off. He waved it at us frantically as we lowered our heads in shame. 

Which brings us to my performance. God, what a travesty. I was just as bad at bike racing as I was at everything else. Probably worse. If I’d been a Japanese kid, I’d have been honor-bound to commit seppuku on the spot to save my family from disgrace. The first event was a short prologue time trial, and when I saw the results I couldn’t believe how far down I was. I think I was second-to-last. Last place, at least, would have carried some distinction. Worse, while hanging around after the race I pointed out to one of my brothers a kid with really skinny legs—probably to try to cheer myself up by badmouthing him—and my brother was quick to point out that my own legs were even skinnier, and to my horror I realized my brother was right. I’d just never really looked at my legs before, never realized how spindly I was. Two rude awakenings in one day. How could I handle it? 

The next day was the North Boulder Park Criterium, where my Leisure Time Products teammate John Lynch placed top ten and I was lapped, probably more than once, notwithstanding the rather long circuit. I was second-to-last again, beaten out once again for the Lantern Rouge. I actually remember the kid who always got dead last: David M—. I guess I could have tried to let him beat me, so I could have Lanterne Rouge, but the fact was, I never knew what was going on in the bike race. I knew who was ahead of me, but never really could keep track of who was behind me, if anybody. (Of course it was never anybody except David M—, who was probably actually much stronger than I but always crashed or something, for all I knew.)

Once the pack started lapping me I got especially confused. It was a complete nightmare. I’d roll, snail-like, past my brothers, who would be yelling at me. This wasn’t really cheering, but more like a wailing lament such as you might see at a funeral from some bereaved mother throwing herself across the casket, lashing out at her son’s having been cut down in his prime. Unlike the brief moment of cheering we’d do when watching a Coors Classic stage, this interaction with my brothers would go on for a long time because I was moving so slowly. They’d yell for me to shift up, and I’d put the bike in my highest gear, and barely be able to pedal. They’d yell “No, no, that’s too high, shift down!” and I’d put the bike in my lowest gear and be spinning futilely. I was as awkward as the word “futilely.” Now, don’t get me wrong, my screwed up derailleur and freewheel alone cannot be blamed. I know that I possessed the ability to make that bike shift properly, but facing the humiliation of the race, and the extra pressure from my brothers’ yelling, I was just too flustered to function.

After one particular race, I broke down crying. The race organizer, Eddie Sandvold, a kind man, came running over, asking if I’d crashed. I sobbed that I didn’t crash, that I just lost. He didn’t know what to say. His look said, “Well, what did you expect?” This brought about another epiphany: it was just plain stupid of me to expect any other result. I’d never done well at anything athletic before; why should I have assumed that my knowledge of bicycles (which consisted of knowing that Dave rode an Italian Masi with full Campy in “Breaking Away”) and general cycling arcana (e.g., cycling caps) would make me a successful racer? And what about training? Had I ever done that, after all?

Solving this fundamental problem would have to wait, though. In the short term I had to face the crushing knowledge that my dad had seen me lose. He’d watched the whole thing, watched me get dropped and then lapped, and to top it all off, watched me getting removed from the course by the officials. You see, I hadn’t understand that all riders, including the lapped riders, finished on the same lap. I figured I had at least a lap or two more to complete after the winners were all done, and doggedly stayed out on the course, knowing that I could score three points just for finishing, which was slightly better than nothing. By the time somebody was able to make me understand that I really was done, I was more humiliated than ever that once again, just like with baseball and football, I didn’t even understand the rules. This is what had finally brought me to tears.

On the drive home with my dad, he asked me what I’d had for lunch. I said some bread and cheese. He explained to me that cheese, being a dairy product, took a long time to digest, and that likely I didn’t have enough fully digested food in my system to properly fuel me. I brightened at this suggestion, probably as much out of relief as anything, and trotted it out several times that day to explain, to each of my brothers in turn, and then to my friends, why I’d done so badly in the race. I was able to ignore my brothers’ reaction—after all, they were always trying to undermine me—but after the second or third friend gave me the same knowing, kind of disappointed, look, I recognized it for what it was: a look that said, “Yeah, right, whatever.” My dad had (albeit inadvertently) taught me a valuable lesson about making excuses, and at a young age. Of course, this did nothing to improve my morale. I was a loser, after all.

To be continued

Tune in next time for the unlikely tale of how I persevered in the sport, made a fresh start with a new bike, learned how to train, and went on to endure an entirely new form of humiliation.

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