Friday, October 29, 2021

How to Select a Camera - Part 2


In my last post I explained why it still makes sense to buy a real camera, notwithstanding (and partly because of) the sophistication of smartphone cameras. I described the main types of modern models—the point-and-shoot, mirrorless, and DSLR (aka “sand-filled”) cameras, and concluded that most (hypothetical) albertnet readers should probably go with mirrorless. In this second and final installment I’ll quote two experts in describing the technical differences in features among two models, and what these differences mean.

Advice from the mavens

My friend John and my brother Bryan take great photos (but I won’t be sharing their albums here so you’ll just have to trust me). Bryan got a lot of photography lessons from our dad (perhaps using up our dad’s patience since I never even got a real camera, much less a lesson, but I’m not bitter). I emailed John and Bryan links to my two front-runners, the Olympus PEN E-PL10 and the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV, and this handy link to a comparison page on the B&H Photo website.

John advised, “I think for Lindsay, finding a camera that ‘speaks to her’ rather one with the best specs on paper is the thing. I’ll admit that I bought Sony cameras because I thought they looked cool. And I think the PEN cameras are super cool looking too (and they are well regarded).”

This is a good point, and freed me somewhat from worrying too much about the specs … though I’ll admit I can’t resist sifting through the minutiae.

My brother Bryan took some time to walk through some of the more salient feature differences. Here are his observations, with my reactions and some other commentary.

Bulb mode

Bryan explains:

Bulb mode is where the camera keeps the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter button down (or perhaps by some other mechanism?). One uses it for making long exposures, so if that’s something Lindsay would like to play with, this might be a benefit of the OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. When might she play with such a feature? One thing that comes to mind is that young people these days love to take pictures of star trails because they’re so cool.

I don’t know about this one. Bryan might overestimate how much kids, or other people, are into astronomy. (Or perhaps he’s being facetious?)

Sensor size (resolution)

Bryan expounds:

Sensor Resolution of 16.1 MP versus 23 MP – Obviously, the OMG camera [his jocular nickname for the Mark IV] has the bigger sensor, which means higher resolution pictures, which means better zooming and cropping possibilities. It also means that if you want to make prints of your photos, they will look much better. It’s like comparing your old VGA monitor to your modern tablet with its retinal display. On the down side, these bigger pictures take up more space on your computer’s hard drive and so on.

I have read in various places that simply looking for high megapixel count won’t help much. That number can be high due to pixel density, but sensor size is more important. Assuming these cameras have the same pixel density, the more expensive one really does have the superior sensor. I guess it comes down to the old adage: size does matter.

Image Stabilization

More analysis from Bryan:

3-Axis Sensor-Shift verses 5-Axis – When it comes to making sharp photos, it’s all about holding the sensor still while the light is exposing it. You can do this with a tripod, by holding really still like a sniper, by buying lenses with active elements that move to absorb some of your shaking, or, like Pentax did years ago and other companies are apparently doing now, actively moving the sensor around to compensate for your shaking. The more axes the better... I’m not sure which axes the PEN camera operate on, probably x, y and rotate? The irony of course is that it’s the PEN camera that needs more stabilization, since it’s the one you’ll be waving around at arm’s length while taking pictures.

This is one of the main reasons I kind of think the bigger, clunkier camera might be worth it. Lindsay holds the camera fairly still but not perfectly … I kind of cringe at how much the camera is still twitching. Maybe that’s just me being a dad, though…

Electronic Front Curtain Shutter

Bryan writes,

I had to research this... apparently there’s a phenomenon called “shutter shock” where the mechanical clanking of the shutter mechanism (the mechanical curtains that hide the sensor until it’s time to expose it to the light) can shake the camera enough to blur the image at certain camera settings. It can cause what would otherwise be a perfectly sharp picture to be blurry when zoomed in, even when the camera is otherwise stable, even on a tripod. There are actually two curtains involved in covering the sensor, the front curtain and the rear curtain. The front curtain slides out of the way at the beginning of the exposure, exposing the sensor. After the set amount of time has elapsed, the rear curtain slides over the sensor, hiding it from the light, and the exposure is complete. Only the front curtain can cause the blurring, since the rear curtain’s movement comes after the exposure is complete. The solution, then, is to move the front curtain out of the way early and begin the exposure electronically, by starting the sensor read at the beginning of the exposure. (There are things I don’t understand about this, but that’s for another time.) Here is a good article, with a link to a cool movie that shows the curtain in action. All this to say, if she ends up really pushing the envelope, this might be a cool feature to have and learn about.

Wow, this is kind of amazing! You know what it reminds me of? That second set of eyelids that Vulcans have, that saved Spock’s vision in the “Operation – Annihilate!” episode of Star Trek!

Diopter Adjustment

Bryan writes,

This is the adjustment on the viewfinder to correct the image so that you don’t have to wear your glasses while looking through the view finder. Obviously, this applies only to the camera with a view finder ... more on this later. If you weren’t wearing your glasses, you might not make as good pictures because you can’t see what you’re doing, either on the screen or the viewfinder.

I have this on my Lumix point-and-shoot camera and I totally dig it. At this point, though, Lindsay is not very keen on the viewfinder … when she borrows my camera, which is frequent these days, she always uses the big LCD. Man, kids these days…

Media/Memory Card Slot

Per Bryan:

I didn’t research it, but the PEN camera only supports UHS-I, whereas the OMG supports UHS-II. Obviously UHS-II has two I’s instead of one, so it must be better. Seriously, though, the higher standard probably means that you could buy a faster card to handle the higher data transfer rates of the fancier features. Maybe it just makes the camera faster overall.

Bryan’s synopsis

Bryan completes his comparison of the two cameras:

The more expensive, bigger OMG camera [shown at the top of this post] is better in every regard except for one: it looks kind of like a big DSLR camera, and some people just don’t want to look like a tourist. I think that Dad got to that point, which is strange when you think about it. It looks like the cameras are actually similar in dimensions, the OMG is just five millimeters wider, but 16 mm taller and 10mm thicker. But the PEN camera is designed to look very stylish, and I believe that it does, and that could be very important to a young lady. I agree with John on this one: if she is embarrassed about the looks of the camera, she may never bond with it properly and it may just end up in a drawer, and she will have lost the opportunity to learn all about photography and make beautiful art.

If, on the other hand, she doesn’t care about the stylish nature of the PEN camera and is more moved by the sexy pretend pentaprism hump on the top of the OMG camera and all that it represents, then by all means, it is the better way to go. I happen to be a firm believer in the viewfinder for many reasons, some of which I shall enumerate. First of all, if you hold the camera properly while peering through the viewfinder, you will get superior pictures because they won’t be blurry from motion-blur. A professional photographer taught me this. I frankly can’t understand how phone cameras manage to get such sharp pictures when their owners are waving them about like pom-poms while taking photos. There must be some incredible processing going on there... in any case, holding the camera up to your face allows you to pin your arms against your body, which, being quite large, doesn’t shake around as much as your extended arms. This effect will be less with Lindsay, but the principle is sound.

I agree 100% with this, and by the way the phrase “pretend pentaprism hump” does more to sway me toward the smaller camera than anything else I’ve read, because it’s just so cheesy to build a cosmetic hump there, and while I’m on the subject, wouldn’t “Pretend Pentaprism Hump” be a great name for a rock band?

More on the viewfinder

Bryan continues,

Another reason that the viewfinder is superior is that you can see better. With your eye up against the camera, it’s dark in there and you can see the screen clearly. This allows you to frame things better, focus better (if you’re into the manual focus thing or are telling the camera where to focus), set the exposure better, check out your depth of field better, and so on. Though I haven’t really used one, I understand that the modern EVF (Electronic View Finder) allows for all sorts of extra data to be displayed in interesting ways. Some of these data can be displayed on the screen, but probably in less detail.

Finally, when it comes to serious photography, you just don’t see real photographers waving their cameras around, shooting photos like an action hero shoots a gun, holding one in each hand, with the barrels pointing away from each other, alternating bullets from left to right. Boy, that sure looks cool, especially if they’ve just flown through a glass wall of a skyscraper and they’re shooting and shooting as they fall, but real gun people don’t shoot that way, they hold the gun very carefully with both hands, arms extended, and they sight down the barrel so that their bullet has a chance of actually hitting the bad guy. Photography is kind of like that. If you want crappy, blurry shots, go ahead, wave the camera around. John and Erin [his son and daughter-in-law] take a whole lot of photos, and really good ones at that, and they use the huge, sand-filled DLSR cameras and they almost always use the viewfinder. There are probably other reasons for using a viewfinder that I haven’t thought about, but this has gone on long enough.

OMG, I can totally picture that movie poster of Chuck Norris shooting in two different directions at once, with his eyes looking at you, the viewer of the poster, rather than at either of his ostensible targets.

I have to admit, when I take a photo, I mean a real photo and not just a snapshot of my cat (for which I emphasize quick set up, kind of stealing the shot so the cat doesn’t see what I’m up to and stop being so cute), I do like to pretend I’m a sniper actually shooting somebody, and not like the bullet-spewing action hero but like a real freaking sniper, and I happen to know a bit about this because I have two friends who are super talented sharpshooters, both ex-military and one of whom had a job sitting up in the guard tower and shooting would-be prison escape artists at the California Men’s Colony prison. (He was never presented with the opportunity to shoot anybody, but the stress of knowing he might have to eventually got to him and he quit.) Both sharpshooters assured me that you almost never fire more than one shot, because a) the guns are so accurate you don’t need to, and b) if you actually sprayed bullets like in the movies the heat would warp the barrel. Anyhow, I guess with modern cameras and the capacity of these memory cards it’s reasonable to just flail the camera around like you’re a human semaphore or something, clicking away all the time, knowing that among the several hundred shots you’ve taken, one or two will be amazing, but man, I just hate wading thru all of those unsuitable photos, giving myself arthritis deleting them, since it’s always my phone or camera that the flailer (i.e., my wife or daughter) used and they leave all that photographic detritus around like so many plates and forks after a dinner party. Heck, maybe I like the viewfinder simply because I’d rather be a sniper than a dishwasher. Maybe it’s an ego thing.

The camera mavens’ conclusions

Bryan summed up his analysis with this:

All that being said, buy the camera that she will actually use. If she really likes the PEN camera, good on her; if she really gets into it but finds that she’s being hampered by the camera, because it doesn’t have a viewfinder or is missing features or whatever, she can always sell that camera (or hand it up to someone) and buy something fancier. If she goes all in, she’ll probably want to buy a full sized DSLR or whatever anyway. You never know!

John agreed and added:

The more I look at photos, the more I think that the tech is less important. I have two Sony APS-C cameras: one is old and has less resolution and no image stabilization and usually has my older, slower, crappier lenses on it. But sometimes that is the camera that is in my hand, and I tell you: I am still impressed at the good images I can get with it. Sure, the newer one gives me better assurance that I will get a good image in one setting or another, but a good photograph rarely has much to do with how awesome your camera is.

My ultimate choice

Obviously I favor a camera with a viewfinder for myself, but after all these emails I was leaning toward the PEN. After all, Lindsay doesn’t use the viewfinder on my camera anyway, and this camera is for her, not me. And getting back to that (probably hollow) pretend pentaprism hump … it just turns me off. Is this a camera, or a prop?

What clinched the deal is that I was on the B&H website, grabbing links for this very post, and noticed that the price for the PEN E-PL10 body bundled with a M.Zuiko ED 14-42mm lens had somehow dropped by $100 since the last time I visited it. This was (oddly enough) $50 less than the camera body by itself, $100 less than the price on Amazon, and now a full $250 less than the E-M10 Mark IV, which is enough to put a stake in its heart.

Surprised by the price drop on the B&H site, and thinking the price might go back up, I spontaneously snapped up the PEN E-PL10. After going through the checkout process I tried to get back to the original product page for it, and discovered—to my great surprise—that B&H has now discontinued this model entirely. I got the very last one!

I hope my daughter likes it. If so, perhaps I’ll paste some of her photos into this post. And if she doesn’t like it … well, I may just keep it for myself. My point-and-shoot is looking pretty humble right about now…

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

How to Select a Camera - and Why


I have a perfectly good point-and-shoot camera but I’m in the market for a new one anyway—not because I’m a consumerist sucker, but for my kid. For her eighteenth birthday, she is very clear that she doesn’t want a smartphone (like her sister finally got), but a proper camera. Now that I’m up to speed on modern cameras, I’m ready to help you get there too.

“But wait,” you’re thinking. “Cameras are obsolete!” No they’re not. In this post I’ll explain:

  • Why you want a camera (or should)
  • The main types of camera (point-and-shoot, mirrorless, and DSLR) and how to choose among them
  • Other arcana around viewfinders, sensor resolution, shutter speed, image stabilization, bulb mode, front curtain shutter, and why the most expensive cameras are filled with sand

Don’t worry, it’s not as boring as it sounds. Also, my typical ignorance won’t be infectious … I’ve consulted two actual experts and will quote them as necessary.

Why buy a camera?

It’s certainly true that modern smartphones take really great photos, and they’re always at hand when that perfect subject presents itself. Factually, most of the pictures and videos I get nowadays are from my phone. In particular phones do a great job with low light … they somehow make do without needing a flash.

The problem is, their tiny lenses tend to be very wide-angle, and often produce startlingly warped results. Case in point: I was having a beer with my boss a couple months back and he suddenly said, “Smile!” and snapped my photo with his iPhone. As I discovered later, he emailed the pic to our whole team … which would be fine except, being caught off guard, I was wearing a huge shit-eating grin. Okay, that’s on me, but even worse, the photo was totally warped so my head looked like Charlie Brown’s. My ears looked almost as far apart as my shoulder blades. I looked like a damn bobblehead. I’d totally post the photo here to prove my point, but it’s so awful I’m actually too vain. It’s bad enough for my colleagues to get a good laugh at my expense—I’m not letting you as well.

But here’s an example I’m not afraid to post, of my nephew and his grandma. Look at this, it’s like something out of Alice in Wonderland:

I’ve got lots of examples of these, from various modern phones.

I also have an issue with how phone cameras reproduce color. It’s not that they’re bad at it; it’s that the colors often seem “enhanced” by the software. I feel like we’ve reached the point where you can’t really trust these cameras—it’s like when you see a photo of a Big Mac and the tomato looks properly red, like the kind of vine-ripened tomato you’d never get at McDonald’s, and the cheese looks like plastic (which it probably is). Smartphone cameras and their associated apps seem more keen to please narcissistic Instagrammers than they are to produce accurate photos faithful to their subjects.

Here is Exhibit B, showcasing this software impulse toward brazen tampering:

I snapped that shot accidentally while cycling, and in the process I somehow invoked this automatic retouching feature where the camera suggested an enhanced version. It gave me a little slider so I could preview the “improved” photo, which as you can see fixes a number of flaws. The app evidently decided my skin was too pale and my razor stubble too unsightly, my skin too gooseflesh-y … in short, that I’m not attractive enough to warrant all the selfie-photo sharing I was surely about to do. So it showed me what my face is supposed to look like, if I were someone else … someone good. What the hell is wrong with modern society, other than everything?! And (more to the point), how much are these camera apps doing without asking us? I prefer a device that reproduces reality as faithfully as it can—you know, like an old film camera would do, and which modern cameras still do.

My daughter, who has the critical eye of an artist, has been borrowing my smartphone for years to capture priceless moments “on film,” and lately she’s grown more and more frustrated with it, and increasingly borrows my (albeit nine-year-old) proper camera instead. I can’t wait until she has her own, vastly superior to mine, so I won’t have to hunt for mine anymore. Plus, I’m excited to see what shots she will get with a truly fine instrument.

So what kind of camera should you get? Let’s walk through the types, in ascending order of price.


In reality, almost all modern cameras could be described as point-and-shoot, in the sense that you don’t have to set the aperture, f-stop, shutter speed, or anything else, nor do you have to focus. Several times (pre-pandemic) I’ve been in a group of friends and somebody has handed me a super fancy Nikon DSLR camera and asked me to snap a group shot, and I’ve learned I don’t need to ask how to use it. “Just press this button” is all the instruction I’ve ever needed—or gotten.

So what point-and-shoot really means is “basic, cheap camera that doesn’t allow you to swap out lenses.” Point-and-shoots can be pretty sophisticated and/or expensive and can even be fairly bulky, with telescoping zoom lenses. My Panasonic has a 16X zoom, which is way better than the zoom on any smartphone including the so-called 30X zoom on my Samsung. (Phone cameras have so-called “optical zoom” which is more like cropping a picture than actually seeing farther.)

Since these point-and-shoot cameras have bigger lenses than a smartphone and (in my experience) don’t tend to warp photos as much, I suppose they’re worth buying … but then, if you’re going to carry around a whole extra device, why not step up to something even better, that solidly trounces a phone camera? Let’s look at the next category.


I’ll bet you never knew your point-and-shoot camera had a mirror in it! Well, guess what: it doesn’t. So this second type of camera should perhaps be called “also-mirrorless” or “the other mirrorless.” Pretty weird, isn’t it, to define something by what it isn’t, or hasn’t got? Imagine if boxer shorts were called “strapless underpants.”

The mirrorless camera gets its name from the fact that the next step up, DSLR cameras, do have a mirror in them, like the (film) SLR cameras of old. (As if we all knew that, or cared.) The actual difference between mirrorless and point-and-shoot cameras is that the former generally have bigger sensors (more on this in a second), and you can switch around among variety of different lenses, which gives you something else to buy (in a good way).

So what’s all this about the sensor? Well, since cameras don’t have film to expose to light anymore, they have sensors, and the bigger the better. (You can spend $10K on a mirrorless camera, and its giant sensor is the main selling point.) The sensor isn’t the only important thing, though; you also want a lens big enough to let in more light. Mirrorless cameras have these traits, and thus are what the cool kids are using, I’m told. They take really good pictures (as my friend John’s photo albums would attest if I saw fit to violate his privacy by linking to them here).


The digital single-lens reflex camera is the really expensive version that some people—that is, the ones who look down on us—simply have to have. (Single-lens reflex probably started out “single-lens reflects” but “reflex,” like all words with an “X” in them, seems cooler somehow.) All SLR cameras have a mirror and a pentaprism in them, so that whatever image the lens “sees” is reflected right into the viewfinder, aka eyepiece. Here’s how it works:

Does that looks fancy and sophisticated? Damn right it does. And that comes at a cost.

But what is the practical advantage of this? Well, two things. One, what you see through the viewfinder is exactly what the photo will capture. Thus, you avoid the “parallax error,” and though I don’t understand exactly what that is, it just sounds bad, doesn’t it? Next time you look at a photo and think, “Damn, that dude’s head looks like it’s about four feet in circumference,” you might be encountering a parallax error (unless it’s actually encephalitis). I’m not saying you are seeing parallax, since I’m not some kind of scientist or optics expert or anything, but I’m just sayin. 

Now, the other advantage of the SLR camera is quite simply that it costs more, and discerning people will not skimp. I mean, why the hell should they? Do you think James Bond would use a mirrorless camera? Hell no. He’d use a Leica. In fact he did. A real one, not just the Leica lens built into a point-and-shoot camera like mine, which is a sellout if there ever was one. (Could you even fit a mirror and pentaprism into a camera that looks like a bow-tie? Of course not, but then a wristwatch that shoots laser beams isn’t very realistic, either.)

So, if you’re the kind of person who must have a DSLR, the rest of the hairs I’ll split in this post probably don’t apply to you. You should just throw as much money as you can at a camera, preferably on a top brand like Nikon, and you can’t go wrong. Your photos will  be better due to the automatically superior features you’ll be getting, and higher-end materials, and because you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people who feel themselves automatically drawn to you … unless you’re on safari. Then you’ll get great shots because you’ll have a lackey supporting the four-foot-long telephoto lens you’ll be using, which enables you to peer right down the throats of mighty lions. You DSLR people can stop reading right here … get yourself over to B&H Photo and start shopping!

A final note on DSLRs: you might hear these referred to as “sand-filled” cameras. Believe it or not, this moniker was coined by my brothers and me. The origin is something famously said by our dad, who was a great photographer (though he had the annoying habit of using only slide film, so you could never see his pictures unless he did a slide show, but he was too cheap to buy multiple carousels so he would have to load each set sequentially so the shows took hours, thus he almost never did them, and I have thousands of slides we’ve never seen before, which I only discovered after his death and which are now in my garage waiting to be digitized). He was all into the classic old-school SLR cameras that take different lenses, etc., and teaching my brothers how to use them (but not teaching me, as he was too disgusted by my brothers’ stupidity and/or was insufficiently confident I could learn and/or simply got bored of parenting). Oddly enough, at some point during his retirement he suddenly turned his back on the classic technology and took to poo-pooing DSLRs. He was talking to Bryan and me once (as I recall, Bryan had his pride and joy, a Pentax DSLR, hanging around his neck at the time, and if our dad had been better read he’d have compared it to an albatross, à la “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and he (Dad) scoffed, “There’s no reason these fancy DSLR cameras need to be so big and heavy. It’s obvious that the marketing people got involved and influenced the design teams, just to fool all these consumers into thinking there’s something special about these giant cameras. They’re probably full of sand.”

How to choose among mirrorless cameras

O gosh, you could go crazy researching this stuff. When purchasing anything, I have a tendency to narrow down my investigation to just a couple of brands, right off the bat. And how do I filter out the others? Well, there are luxury brands (e.g., Leica, Nikon) that probably aren’t a good value. And then there are obscure ones (e.g., Paper Shoot, HamiltonBuhl) that seem like a gamble. Then there are brands known for other products (e.g., Vivitar, HP) which would be like buying Ralph Lauren housewares or Porsche sunglasses (lame!). So if you have any brand loyalties, like to an old school camera you had in the past, start there. And if some friend you trust has a recommendation, don’t ignore it.

My first digital camera was an Olympus, which I bought back in 2001, when digital cameras were fairly new technology—new enough, in fact, that I bought mine at The Sharper Image. It was $750, and the memory card (which might hold up to one modern photo) was probably at least another $50. It would be easy to take shots at that camera (sorry, pun intended) based on how primitive it seems by modern standards, but it actually took some really great photos, like this one:

When it was time to replace it I had gobs of choices and a friend recommended a Panasonic Lumix, with the Leica lens I mentioned earlier. I took his advice and since then I had several of these; between me and my kids we have tended to drop (and thus break) them.

Her ageing father’s brand loyalty aside, my daughter had her eye on an Olympus PEN mirrorless like her friend has, and when I started looking I realized that, while most mirrorless camera brands will only take their own lenses, there’s one exception: Olympus and Panasonic lenses are interoperable. That seems pretty cool to me, given my luck with both brands. Plus, I was looking for an excuse to settle on a single brand, so Olympus it is.

Of course, you have to choose among the models available, and that’s where the B&H Photo website is pretty handy, with their Compare feature. (Yes, other websites have this too, but they don’t do a very good job with it.) Poring over the differences is a fun rabbit hole to go down—almost as fun as Alice’s descent into Wonderland (“curiouser and curiouser!”). Consider this comparison of the Olympus PEN E-PL10 vs. the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. There, side by side, are all the technical specifications so you can totally geek out.

But what if you’re not a camera geek? That’s when you have to call on a friend or two … and surely you have at least one friend who’s a camera maven? This is what I did, with my friend John and my brother Bryan offering great advice.

Ah, but I see I’ve run a bit long here. I’ll save the rest of this post for next week. Check back because I’ll go into bulb mode, sensor size/resolution, image stabilization, front curtain shutter, and the all-important viewfinder…

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, October 11, 2021

From the Archives - My Front Derailleur Tragedy


In some ways, 1995 was a tough year for me. After the beautiful freedom of the cross-country bike tour that had taken most of the previous year, I was hunkered down and working hard in a nowhere job at a consulting firm. During my recruitment with this company, knowing they’d smoke me right down to the filter if I let them, I insisted that I be eligible for overtime pay. Several of the workaholic engineers dragged me along with them into fifty-hour workweeks—and, being paid time-and-a-half while saving to buy a house, I was all too happy to oblige them. I managed very little work/life balance.

This meant, of course, that my racing bike was sorely neglected, in every way. I was riding only two or three days a week, and wasn’t taking the time to keep the poor bike tuned up. (It didn’t help that my 450-square-foot San Francisco apartment didn’t have anything like a garage, and though I still had a workbench whenever I needed one at the shop where I’d worked in college, that was across the Bay in Berkeley.) My body fared as badly as my bike. When I did ride, the sport felt like something I used to do. That’s the landscape for the sad tale that follows. (This was not a blog post, as those didn’t yet exist, but an excerpt from an email to my brother Geoff, on which I’d cc’d half a dozen friends).

My Front Der – May 11, 1995

I gotta tell you about my front der. (“Der” seems to be the new bike shop lingo for derailleur. I still prefer “mech,” which is what my favorite two Square Wheel colleagues, illegal immigrants from England, called them. Customers sure got confused.)

During a recent evening ride, I got a flat tire on the Golden Gate bridge. I wasn’t worried, for I had not only a patch kit, but a spare tube. Well, the spare tube had a damn hole in it so I opened up the patch kit. It hadn’t been used in well over a year (since before the big bike tour) and the glue had completely dried up. So I tried to flag down anybody passing by, and all these bikers with bulging seat bags just blew by, ignoring me completely, perhaps because of their fiendish concentration in fighting the wind that always blows around the bridge towers (where I had set up, for shelter from that wind). Finally a woman stopped, and admitted with embarrassment that she had all the tools I’d need, but hadn’t the foggiest idea what to do with them. I offered her a free lesson in exchange for a patch.

Well, I repaired the tube, no problem, and the Samaritan pedaled off into the sunset (almost literally), but then the damnedest thing happened. When I went to reassemble my bike, my chain had locked solid between the right crankarm and the chainring. Nothing I could do would free it. It was just stuck. At first I gingerly poked at it, not wanting to get my hands filthy (as my chain was in sorry shape—like Dad’s chain, with that ten-years accumulation of black oil and grit on it). Then I poked harder, pushed, pried, and eventually found myself ripping at the chain furiously, and somehow managed to severely lacerate my finger. Blood was absolutely spurting out of it—all over the ground, the chain, the crank, the pedals, everywhere.

Now I was truly furious, and started trying to roll the bike backwards to kind of roll the chain out. No dice—all I accomplished was to get blood and black grime on my handlebar tape and saddle. So I carefully tried to pedal the bike forward. Nothing. Blood shooting everywhere, hands a grotesque red-black color, my composure completely gone, I finally jammed my foot down on the pedal in a burst that I hoped would break the chain in two but at least end the stalemate. Well, the chain held fast, but my Shimano Dura-Ace FD-7403 (cutting edge!) front der somehow got snagged and was bent horrifically!

Now, this wasn’t just any derailleur. It was also kind of a trophy. You see, all the way back in 1989 I’d somehow broken [our brother] Bryan’s Dura-Ace front derailleur, and our boss at the shop assured me Shimano wouldn’t warranty it. I begged him to try (as lowlife mechanics like me weren’t really supposed to talk to the industry sales & service reps ourselves). He wasn’t interested, and in the meantime I had to buy Bryan a new der. But I always vowed I’d warranty the broken one and keep the replacement for myself. Finally I got around to it, years later when working at the Square Wheel, and thanks to my (nearly authentic) original sales receipt, I prevailed. (I had to fill out some form and describe the failure, and all I remember of my report was the conclusion, “I am incredulous.”) A beautiful spanking new 7403 front der was my prize. It’s the braze-on version, so compact they had to bend the logo around.

This was the most modern, sophisticated part of my entire bicycle, and now it was utterly ruined! And as if that weren’t bad enough, the bizarre mishap had also bent my derailleur braze-on all to hell! Now I was so enraged . . . words cannot describe it. I was like that guy in “Midnight Express,” rotting in the Turkish prison until he can’t take it anymore, who finally loses it and tears some dude’s throat out with his teeth. I grabbed that chain with my bare hands, and in a feat of strength matched only by Samson’s when he crashed down the coliseum around him, I broke that chain in two! So complete was my frenzy when I accomplished this that I continued the fluid motion, hurling that chain, discus-style, right over the railing of the bridge. I can only assume that in its trajectory downward it sliced off the arm of a fisherman in a small boat below. Needless to say this is by far the most irresponsible thing I have ever done.

Now before you condemn me for this brazenly stupid and highly illegal act, let me tell you I know exactly how illegal it is, from my job. We do risk management of offshore oil platforms and part of that is publishing all the safety regulations, which also delve into various oceanic legal realms like pollution, and on a slow day I’d read with fascination (okay, mild interest) how steep the penalties are depending on how close you are to land. Far enough out in the ocean, you can pretty much dump whatever you want, even an entire military helicopter, but if you’re caught dropping so much as a paper clip within sight of land, you’re practically pilloried. Well, what can I say? I’d completely lost my shit.

Did this awful act immediately come back to bite me? Did a Coast Guard cutter suddenly appear? Or did I face karmic payback, like my back suddenly going out? On the contrary, just as I set off toward home on my bike, flailing at the ground with one foot like a damn skateboarder to propel myself, two cyclists rolled up, assessed the situation, and offered to push me along. “You live in the city?” one asked. I said yeah. “What neighborhood?” I told him Russian Hill. “We’ll get you home. That’s on our way,” the guy declared. And they literally pushed me the whole way back!

When I got home, I violated all the rules of bike mechanics: 1) I worked when angry and frustrated; 2) I didn’t have enough light; and 3) I was so mad I couldn’t even remember the third rule, nor do I remember it now, so how could I have followed it? At stake was my pride and joy: the Ten Speed Drive Team Issue Guerciotti SLX. If I screwed up bad enough trying to straighten the derailleur hanger, the frame would be ruined.

On the plus side, Bonney was there to help me. Bonney is an old friend of mine: a giant, 12” croissant wrench, built in the USA to the stringent mechanical tolerances of a Lexus. Years before, at mile 95 of a century ride, I’d spotted Bonney lying on the road, and I was so tired I actually considered just leaving her there. I pondered the matter for a fraction of a second before turning back and swooping down to pick her up and carry her home, my trophy. She’s the pride and joy of my toolbox, which is impressive considering I have all kinds of Campagnolo tools, even the famous R-tool that straightens bent rear derailleur hangers. Alas, there is no purpose-built tool for straightening front derailleur braze-ons.

I had that dead Dura-Ace 7403 derailleur off in a jiffy, and then set about, hands still shaky with anger and drooling blood, to use Bonney the Wrench to straighten that braze-on. Almost sick to my stomach, I envisioned the braze-on snapping off, leaving a gaping hole in my frame. This horrific vision ended with a little window popping up in my brain—an instance of the saddest, most absolutely lugubrious computer error message ever, which I see from time to time when using my CompuServe Information Manager software: “Could not recover from failure.” Like the epiphany of a Generation X-er who dies of a drug overdose.

But instead, I came through. Anything I’d ever wanted to have and didn’t get was suddenly erased at that shining moment. Gone were the restrictions of original frame design; in a Zen moment I became the artist, hand-crafting that braze-on the way I myself would have wanted it in the first place, like the Platonic ideal of front der braze-on. You see, my frame—quite intelligently for a frame of its size, bless those wonderful Italian craftsmen—has a rather shallow seat tube angle, which makes for the perfect positioning for a tall person with a high femur-to-tibia ratio. Unfortunately, it makes for poor front shifting when the front derailleur braze-on is set parallel to the tube (which they all are, as far as I know). The front part of the derailleur cage is too far from the chainring teeth, you see. Well, I bent the braze-on to just the right orientation, a bit clockwise from where it had been originally, and though a bunch of paint flecked off, it was chromed underneath anyway.

I dug through my box of old bike crap looking for a replacement der, and found not one but two of them. How? Why? It’s like the old parts in that box copulate or something. Upon inspection I discovered both ders had something wrong with them, but between the two I cobbled together a working one. It was a grotesque low-end Campy number; I’d given up on that entire brand when the founder’s playboy son Valentino took over the business and created all the low-end lines like Victory and Triomphe. This cheap, ugly der was a disgrace to my beautiful bike, so to compensate I put on a spiffy new nickel-plated Dura-Ace chain that I was saving for my fiftieth wedding anniversary. When the repair was done and I’d cleaned most of the blood and grime from my hands, I went out for a test ride, and now my bike—she runs like a top. I don’t know if it’s the new derailleur braze-on angle or the Dura-Ace chain, but the Campy front der shifts great.

As for the mangled Dura-Ace 7403, it’s still beautiful, in its broken, tragic way. If you ever need spare parts from it, let me know. For now, it’s just another museum piece taking up space in our small apartment, without a jewel case or alarm system to protect it and show it off properly.

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Sunday, October 3, 2021

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2021 Paris-Roubaix


If I were on Twitter, and you bothered to get up at 5:30 a.m., you’d get this report in dribs and drabs and wouldn’t have to fret about how long it is. But think about these poor riders, hammering along the cobblestones through the cold and wet … they have it a lot harder than you. So sit down, shut up, drink your coffee, and follow all the action as I give you a blow-by-blow account without any of the annoyances of journalistic integrity (e.g., biting my tongue).

2021 Paris-Roubaix

As I start watching the riders have just over 100 kilometers left to race, including “le Trouée d'Arenberg” which translates “the hole of Arenberg.” Here’s Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroen Team) communicating nonverbally with a cameraman.

It’s been raining, and the course is torn up from yesterday’s race, the first-ever women’s edition. It’s not the riders who rip up the course, of course, it’s the support cars and motorbikes.

It’s hard to figure out what’s going on because the peloton has already broken into pieces. We’ve got a couple riders off the front, then a chase group, then another group … be patient, I’ll try to sort it out.

They’re showing footage from earlier, before the start, when French race favorite Florian Sénéchal (Deceuninck-Quick Step) observed his traditional Paris-Roubaix pre-race ritual, designed to loosen him up a bit.

Back to the live action: they’re into the Arenberg! Looks dark and scary. This is often described as a forest, but apparently the technical term is “hole.”

Whoah, Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) almost stacks but saves it!

And now another rider crashes right in front of race favorite Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)!

Amazingly, Van Aert manages to stay up, but a huge gap has opened to the group he was in, which includes another favorite, Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) who now drills it at the front.

That section of cobbles ends with Van Aert still off the back. Here he rides away from a bunch of slackers who’d latched onto his wheel.

There’s an American in one of these lead groups, #206: Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar Team). I’m glad this nation at least made an appearance.

Van Aert makes it back to the front as Van der Poel takes a drink. Next to him is Colbrelli, rocking the oddly colored European Union champion’s jersey, with the Italian tri-color cuffs as he’s the national champion. Van Aert is in the Belgian national champion jersey, not that it’s easy to tell, so muddy as it is. Their moms are gonna be furious—those are very special commemorative jerseys and they shouldn’t have worn them when they knew things would be so muddy today.

“We’ll have the women joining the course very shortly,” says the announcer Phil Liggett. WTF?! That’s the craziest twist I’ve ever heard! “Well, not the actual women, I mean,” Phil stammers. “I mean this is where the coverage began for the women’s race yesterday.”

Man, it must be a confusing place inside Phil’s head. He’s been at this so long, I’m sure all his dreams are about bike races, and all the eras are rolled into one. It’s really a shame that the women aren’t jumping into the race with the men, though, isn’t it? Imagine how that would change the dynamic of the race, with this or that man showing off whenever he encountered a particularly attractive woman racer. Meanwhile, you’d have a bunch of the guys mansplaining fine points of technique to the ladies, who showed yesterday that they don’t need any lessons, thank you very much.

“I don’t think this man knows the word giveup,” Phil says. I don’t think Phil knows that “give up” is actually a phrase. I don’t know whom he’s talking about, by the way … and probably neither does Phil.

Whoah, some dude hits the deck, and another almost piles into him! Oddly, this doesn’t even look like a very treacherous stretch of road.

It’s Evaldas Siskevicius (Delko) who’s crashed, and he’s holding up Timo Roosen (Jumbo-Visma), a support rider for Van Aert.

Uh oh, Van der Poel has had a mechanical and now chases the Van Aert group on a new bike.

“Still 900 kilo-, er, 900 meters of this cobbled section to go,” Phil sputters.

Van der Poel has found a teammate at least, and they hammer along trying to chase down the Van Aert group.

OMG, Phil keeps saying “Adri Van der Poel,” which is obviously incorrect. Adri retired in 2000. It’s his son Mathieu, obviously, taking up the charge these days. Anyway, Van der Poel II has now caught the group and immediately attacks!

Van Aert needs to be pretty worried about this, of course … as if he didn’t have enough to worry about.

And now Van der Poel bears down on a chase group of five, which includes race favorite Colbrelli in that special white EU champ jersey I mentioned before. Over on the left is Guillame Boivin (Israel Start-Up Nation) wearing the Canadian champion’s jersey. The cows over on the side, despite being Jersey cows, aren’t paying any attention to any of this.

Okay, I took a little liberty there. Those cows are Holsteins. Jersey cows are brown and found mainly in the UK.

Van der Poel catches the group and goes straight to the front.

This group has picked up four more riders, probably the ones Van der Poel had been with.

Here is the lead group, which includes the two who were originally off the front. Look, five of them are Belgian!

Not sure how many are in this group … the five listed above was only the first “page” of the cheat sheet.

Wow, this is handy! We get the names of four of the players in the chase group. And that fifth guy? Nobody cares about him.

Now three riders have dropped the rest of the lead group. I have absolutely no idea who they are … I mean, how could I determine that through all that mud?

The guy sitting third is on Lotto Soudal … you can see the logo on his sleeve. And he’s not Harry Sweeny, because we just saw Sweeny in the chase group. And he’s not the defending champion Philippe Gilbert, because the announcers would be going ape-shit over that. Ditto John Degenkolb. Ah, but we saw some names earlier … Lotto had two guys in the original lead group, Florian Vermeersch and Tosh Van der Sande … so this could be either of them. So I still don’t know who any of these three guys is. This is like one of those logic problems from math class …

Van Aert has lost 30 seconds on the Colbrelli/Van der Poel group.

So we’ve got a breakaway of the three mystery men, and then maybe five or six chasers after that including Van Avermaet, then another smaller chase group with Colbrelli and Van der Poel. Ah, here’s another partial roster:

Aha! One of the chasers is Van der Sande, so the Lotto rider in the breakaway must be Vermeersch!

The weather has improved but the cobbles will be slippery for the rest of the day. By the way, it’s time to have our uncomfortable talk about this term “cobblestones.” Everybody calls them that, but this race does not actually feature cobblestones—these albeit medieval roads are made of setts, which are stones cut roughly into cube shapes to make a more uniform surface. True cobblestone roads don’t feature this nicety: they’re literally roads built of unimproved stones (i.e., in their original form). So when retired racer and now announcer Chris Horner describes Paris-Roubaix as “they plowed a dirt road, flew over it with a helicopter, and then just dropped a bunch of rocks out of the helicopter!” he’s not being completely accurate. They dropped setts, probably from a dirigible since helicopters hadn’t been invented yet.

Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-Quick Step) punctures. “This is a bad time to puncture,” Bob Roll, Phil’s fellow announcer, says. Well, what would be a good time to puncture? Wouldn’t it be weird if the riders could schedule their bike problems? They’d say into the radio, “It’s a big group and we’ve got a tailwind … I’m gonna have my puncture now. Can you get a car up here?”

Looks like the Van der Poel group has caught the front chase group. Check out the sign they put up to warn cars about the race. The French go all-out when they host an event.

The leading trio is looking pretty solid. I’ve (finally!) learned from the announcers that the other two leaders are Gianni Moscon (Ineos Grenadiers) and Tom Van Asbroeck (Israel Start-Up Nation).

OMG, there’s another crash!

Van Avermaet, a former Paris-Roubaix winner, is one of the riders who stacked. Van der Poel continues to crush it at the front and this group may never reassemble. It’s now a chasing trio of Van der Poel, Colbrelli, and Boivin.

At the front, Moscon has attacked his two breakaway pals and is solo now!

Whoa, Colbrelli almost stacks! His bike fishtails this way, then that, and a gap opens up ahead of him.

Up ahead, Moscon looks quite good, keeping a high tempo over the absolutely horrendous so-called road.

I want to take a moment to say how exciting the women’s race was yesterday. The only problem is the limited coverage, only the last couple hours, so we missed seeing the winning attack … that’s how far out the winner, Lizzie Diegnan (Trek-Segafredo), made her move. In honor of this first women’s edition I threw the dice and asked my younger daughter, who hates bike racing, if she wanted to watch the replay for a bit. She observed how harsh the “cobbles” were and the shock waves traveling up the bikes to the riders, making their arms shake, and she said, “As hard as this must be on the men’s balls, think of what it’s like for the women. Do you have any idea how bad it sucks even to run, when you have boobs? This must just be awful for the women. Those men have no idea. You make sure to mention this in your blog post tomorrow!” So there you have it.

Crazily enough, Moscon’s lead seems to be increasing. With 42 kilometers to go, he’s got almost a minute and a half. In a normal road race this wouldn’t be that much of a lead, if a chase group could really get organized, but everyone is fried and their morale may well be seriously challenged. Van der Poel seems to be doing like 90% of the work in the chase group.

The problem with a race like this is that you don’t have long descents where people generally maintain their position and wait for the climbs. This makes it hard for your humble blogger to take a bio break. I can wait no longer. Wish me luck.

Okay, I’m back, and—what a coincidence!—Vermeersch is taking a leak! He thinks he’s a dog!

Yeah, just kidding. His tires slipped and he almost stacked and swung his leg out for balance. He’s back in now. By the way, I evidently missed it, but the Van der Poel group obviously caught Vermeersch and presumably Van Asbroeck.

So, whom should we be rooting for today? That’s easy: anyone but Moscon. Moscon is a total bastard. As detailed here, he’s been in the news a number of times for misbehavior ranging from racial slurs to deliberately crashing a rider to getting a tow from the team car to punching a rival to throwing a bike at another rider. (Why wouldn’t his team just fire him? Because it’s Ineos and they’re soulless bastards so they stand by him, again and again.) So anyway, Moscon really needs to lose today, and tomorrow, and for the rest of his life. And yet his gap is pretty steady. Who would be pleased if he won? Probably not even his mom.

Ah, but what’s this? Moscon seems to have a flat tire! Justice is served!

But he just keeps riding along, as if willing the tire to repair itself! It’s crazy, why isn’t he summoning his team car?

Okay, here’s the team car. They don’t bother with wheel changes anymore … he gets a new bike. They’ll probably just throw the old one away. I wonder what the Ineos staff think of Moscon. Like, is that mechanic tempted to grab his foot and just give it a good backward yank?

That was a pretty quick bike change—under ten seconds, I’d say—but perhaps this mishap will breathe life into the chase group. Van der Poel moves to the front, head down, and you can tell he’s balls-to-the-wall.

And now what’s this? Moscon totally stacks!

Not quite sure how that happened, other than perhaps divine intervention or karma.

Now a motorbike crashes as well! It’s chaos!

Moscon is back up but his lead has dwindled further. Brilliant!

And now you can see the chasers bearing down on him.

Now, with Moscon in sight, the chase is getting interesting because of Colbrelli, who’s an awesome sprinter and thus complicates the job for Van der Poel. Normally the chasers would finish Moscon off, but maybe they’re already starting to play games. One or more of them may be waiting to launch a solo attack instead of keeping the group together. So the lead starts to go out again; at one point Moscon had just 8 seconds, but now it’s back up to 20. Still, there’s a long way to go.

The road is slicker than snot! Moscon’s bike fishtails like crazy.

Whoa, the camera moto crashes!

And now another rider crashes! It’s Boivin.

He won’t get back on, what a shame for him.

Van der Poel takes a massive pull at the front of the chase group, stretching it out like a rubber band, and the gap to Moscon is coming down again!

And they’ve got Moscon! Colbrelli rides straight past him!

Moscon is dropped, the little shit! That’s right! Down, dog, and kennel!

Van der Poel takes the front and drills it!

Just look at these badasses!

Vermeersch takes a pull. So far these three are still cooperating, but the next section of cobbles (which I think is the penultimate one) will surely see a bunch of attacks. Only Colbrelli would want this to end in a three-up sprint on the velodrome.

The Van Aert group is over a minute back with 10 kilometers to go. Pretty much no way they’ll catch unless there’s a major crash in the break (as in, all of them falling).

Where there’s smooth road next to the cobbles, the race promoters have put up barriers, to force the riders into the rough stuff. Van der Poel weaves around the barriers, taking the smoother surface where he can get it. Is this just being efficient, or is it out of desperation? Impossible to know which of these riders is the most fried…

Boy their helmets are ugly. I cannot understand it. Why would the helmet industry deliberately ruin the look of their product? Is it supposed to be aerodynamically superior? I can’t see it.

Vermeersch attacks! I’m amused by the label applied here, as if by this point we still didn’t know who’s who. Maybe A.I. did it?

Colbrelli chases down Vermeersch with a quickness.

And now they roll into the velodrome … it’s gonna be a crazy sprint here! What is Colbrelli saying to Van der Poel? Perhaps, “Dude, give it up now. You know you can’t sprint.” Or maybe it’s something totally unrelated, like, “She was a beautiful Latina woman, but she ate nothing but frozen yogurt.”

Vermeersch makes an early move, catching the other two by surprise!

Vermeersch flies toward the line but now Colbrelli comes up fast! It’s down to the wire and Colbrelli comes past in the final 20 meters! He’s got the win!

Vermeersch pounds his handlebars in frustration! He made a brilliant move but just didn’t have the legs!

And now Colbrelli has achieved a feeling of pure blinding flaming alpha-dog-dom such as perhaps only ever exceeded by Captain Ahab (who we must remember is a fictional character). Colbrelli shakes his bike at the sky, daring the gods to defy him!

And now he throws himself on the ground and starts howling like an animal! It’s astonishing to behold! “BAAAAAA-HOO-HOO-HOO! BAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!” He’s practically hysterical! And you wanna talk about manspreading, this guy takes it to new heights!

Colbrelli is laughing, crying, and howling! Anyone could be forgiven for assuming this man has simply lost his mind!

Now he’s mainly just crying. It’s okay. He’s earned it. But man, what a goofy looking helmet.

Van der Poel is also on the ground, but having much different feelings. He’s not even moving.

An Alpecin-Fenix staffer gently lays a jacket over Van der Poel.

Now Colbrelli is being interviewed:

INTERVIEWER: It looked pretty brutal out there.

COLBRELLI: Yeah, that was hard.

INTERVIEWER: You seem remarkably calm and composed considering you’re the first Italian to win this race in 22 years.

COLBRELLI: Well, I was pretty excited a bit ago, but I kind of got it out of my system.

INTERVIEWER: You—you’ve got some mud on your face. It’s kind of disrespectful to show up to this interview without taking a few moments to wash your face. You’re on camera, you know.

COLBRELLI: No, you’re mistaken. This is an oatmeal facial mask. It’s important to rehydrate your skin after a tough race like that.

INTERVIEWER: Rehydrate? It looked pretty wet out there.

COLBRELLI: Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. You see, oatmeal is a humectant. This means it helps the skin retain any moisture added to it. Meanwhile, oatmeal has naturally occurring glycolic acid, which effectively exfoliates dead skin cells and speeds up cell turnover, so you’re left with softer skin, less visible pores, and a more glowing and dewy appearance. I swear by it.

INTERVIEWER: Minutes ago you were shaking your bike above your head, and then flopping on the ground cackling like a jackal and howling like a he-wolf. And now you’re dispensing beauty tips like a prom queen!

COLBRELLI: I’m often described as a pure sprinter, but actually I’m a very versatile rider.

(Note to readers: it’s possible that I didn’t correctly capture that interview, at least not verbatim. I might have gotten a word or two, or 200, wrong. I do my best.)

Now the riders have cleaned up, changed, brushed their teeth, and headed to the podium for the award ceremony. Look at Van der Poel. He’s like, “Yeah, I guess this race is pretty cool, but there’s lotsa other stuff I couldda done with my day.” Colbrelli looks like he’s pondering something important … perhaps he’s thinking, “I probably shouldn’t be promoting a facial mask you can easily make at home with basic ingredients. I should be holding out for an endorsement deal with, like, SkinCeuticals.” As for Vermeersch, he just looks sad.

Look at this guy. He looks like he’s about to cry.

This is pretty odd, if you ask me. This is Vermeersch’s first season as a pro, and he didn’t even come here as the leader (he was originally slated to work for Gilbert). Besides, Vermeersch is in college, studying history at Ghent University (no, I’m actually not making this up) so the cycling is just a lark anyway. How is he not happier with second place?

Colbrelli gets his giant cobblestone trophy. He looks at it and thinks, “You big rascal. I wonder if I can even manage to hoist you.”

But look, he’s done it! He’s managed to raise that 25-pound rock over his head, despite his little bike racer arms! He’s clearly pretty proud of himself.

You know what, though? The baseball cap and goofy sunglasses kind of ruin the effect. He should have paid more attention to Lizzie Deignan yesterday … she not only didn’t obscure the stone, but wore a proper old-school cycling cap and rocked some sweet nail polish.

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