Friday, September 15, 2023

2023 Vuelta - Jumbo Visma & the Kuss Conundrum


It’s been a hell of a Vuelta a España. Not since Vuelta del Taco Truck have I been so enthralled. Not that it’s a particularly close race lately—Team Jumbo Visma is dominating—but there’s some intrigue within the team. As I write this, the American Sepp Kuss is still leading the GC, but with just a handful of seconds over his teammate, recent Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard. Kuss is only another minute ahead of another teammate, recent Giro d’Italia winner Primoz Roglic.

The really weird thing is, Kuss’s lead has been dropping a bit, stage after stage, because his own teammates have been attacking. A member of my bike club emailed the group, “Can one of you armchair directors sportif explain today’s stage of the Vuelta in which 2 guys on the GC leader’s team attack him on the final climb? I’m struggling to find a charitable explanation.” By the time you read this, things may have changed, but I want to follow my pal’s prompt and investigate this weirdness from this particular moment in time, right after the Angliru stage, when the team still has the opportunity to decide how to conduct itself, with Kuss still in the red jersey. I have developed some theories.

Theory #1: it’s just the hierarchy

It could be that Team Jumbo Visma is simply too risk-averse to shake up the established hierarchy for no good reason. Not that they don’t have good reason, from my perspective as a fan. I mean, I think rewarding a very loyal domestique, who some commentators are saying may be the best mountain domestique in the history of the sport, is actually a good reason to challenge the established pecking order. But this team is about winning races, not just being cool. Roglic has won the Vuelta three times, Vingegaard has won two Tours de France, and the team can be confident these guys won’t falter in the final week, or buckle under the responsibility of finishing out the job. As a GC leader, Kuss is an unknown entity.

Beyond tactics, this hierarchy could extend into the messier realm of unconscious bias, like an unofficial caste system in the sport. Consider the label domestique. It wasn’t until I was talking about bike racing with some recovering journalists recently that I thought much about this term. I was just trying to tell the story of Kuss pounding champagne after his brilliant stage win (more on this later), but—with the curiosity befitting journalists—my friends backed me up and said wait, wait, wait. … support riders are actually called domestiques? It really is an ungenerous term, like calling your teammates “the help.” In this light, the sport really does promote elitism. Meanwhile, it surely takes a massive ego to be a Grand Tour winner and perhaps guys like Vingegaard and Roglic take it as an article of faith that they’re simply superior to their staff, occupying a more rarified realm. (“Kuss?! That motherscratcher? He’s never even made the final podium!”) If that’s their feeling, the idea of this (albeit strong) domestique becoming a GC winner is just preposterous and cannot be allowed.

From this hierarchical viewpoint, even letting Kuss ride hard in the Stage 10 time trial was actually charitable.  Don’t forget that Floyd Landis, while in his last year of service to Lance Armstrong, was severely punished for riding too fast in a Tour time trial (instead of saving his energy for his support role in the later stages). Although Floyd professed his innocence—“I was going easy, I’m just really strong!”—Lance threw a fit and flushed Floyd’s blood bag down the toilet, right in front of him, to remind him who was boss. (No, I did not make that up. It really happened. It’s in Tyler Hamilton’s book.)

By the way, Kuss was a good sport after the Angliru stage, congratulating his two teammates on, well, beating him.

Theory #2: no gifts

During one of his Tour “victories,” Lance let Marco Pantani win the Mount Ventoux stage, which was an unpopular move with everyone. In the press conference post-race, Lance casually mentioned he’d only cared about the GC, basically announcing the gift, and Pantani was offended and said so. There was more backlash because Lance could have just been making an excuse instead of admitting Pantani was stronger, and for this reason Lance himself came to regret his professed generosity. Many Pantani fans felt ripped off, too, like there was an unnecessary asterisk next to their hero’s win. Well, the next time Lance had the opportunity to win a stage, when he already had the GC in the bag, he took that opportunity, and during the podium celebration the former five-time Tour champ Bernard Hinault said to him, “That’s right: no gifts.”

Hinault lived by this ethos himself. Prior to the 1986 Tour de France, he announced that he would be working for his teammate, Greg LeMond, to reward him for his past support. It would be like passing the baton. But in the actual race, Hinault totally attacked LeMond, several times, leading to a big dustup in the media, a real soap opera. When questioned about breaking his word, Hinault shrugged and said something like, “I wanted to make him earn it.” And wasn’t it a better story in the end, that LeMond had to beat everyone, even his friend and teammate, to prove he deserved the Tour title?

Applying this to the current Vuelta is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but perhaps this “make him earn it” notion is a clever story Vingegaard and Roglic are telling themselves because it’s more palatable to them than, say, theory #1.

Theory #3: Plan B

It’s also possible that according to some convoluted tactical logic, to have Vingegaard and Roglic attack is just a way to make sure Jumbo Visma has a plan B for winning the GC if Kuss should happen to falter. Since the time Kuss took the red jersey, Vingegaard has soloed twice. The first time, at least, the Dane wasn’t in great position on GC, having had a poor stage or two. His attack bought him some needed time on his rivals, and after all nothing was preventing Kuss from also attacking and defending his own position (which he did). Such tactics aren’t very nice, of course, but if the overall team directive is to win the GC at all costs, and if Vingegaard and Roglic have the legs, why not?

This wouldn’t be the first time a team put a GC leader’s bid at risk to support a Plan B. In one of the Tours that Lance “won,” his teammate Víctor Hugo Peña crashed in the team time trial, and the team waited for him. I was astonished … Lance was not known for his dedication to the team, to put it lightly. A pal explained to me that Peña was the team leadership’s Plan B for the GC if something happened to Lance, so they needed to keep him from losing time in the TTT.

Jumbo Visma themselves have some experience with Plan B: last year, when Roglic crashed in the Tour and couldn’t perform at his normal level, his support rider Vingegaard had been kept close enough on GC to take over and get the win.

Theory #4: envy

It could be that Vingegaard and Roglic are nursing petty jealousies when it comes to Kuss. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: Kuss is better looking, has more charisma, is more of a crowd favorite, and as the tireless, loyal domestique is more relatable than these past heroes … and now he gets to lead the Vuelta on top of it all. A real Cinderella story.

In case you don’t take all these claims for granted, let’s look at a couple of Kuss’s endearing exploits. When he won his first Vuelta stage a few years back (and again when he won a stage this year), he did something that American mountain bike racers have done for years: as he headed for the finish line he rode near the fencing at the side of the road and held out his hand to high-five scores of fans. I don’t think these European fans had ever seen anything like it. To see him doing that, a big shit-eating grin on his face … I had tears in my eyes.

And then let’s consider Kuss’s podium celebration after this year’s stage win. He took the standard jumbo-sized bottle of champagne and sprayed the crowd with it, as is customary, but the he went completely off-script. Most cyclists, especially climbers, can barely lift that magnum to their lips, and take a prim little sip. Kuss hefted that bad boy above his head and started just pounding it. Check this out:

It’s kind of amazing how long he went and how much he drank … that would be impressive even for a non-bike-racer. The commentator Christian Vande Velde said admiringly, “You go, boy!”

It’s not just any cyclist who could do this to such good effect. Roglic, who to me looks like a bit of a thug with his swarthiness and amateurish tattoos, might have looked kind of scary pounding the booze. And Vingegaard … God forgive me, but everything about that guy seems a bit weird, so to see him guzzling the champagne might have just seemed, I dunno, a little creepy. But Kuss, with his apple-pie face and boyish charm, and his unassuming persona, and that little surprised, half-suppressed burp at the end, all wrapped up with an exuberant grin ... well, it’s the very epitome of charisma.

Roglic in particular might envy Kuss’s situation enough to want to spoil it. In the 2020 Vuelta, during the last mountain stage, Roglic had a narrow GC lead that was challenged when Richard Carapaz made a sweet solo move. Carapaz needed only like 40 or 45 seconds to unseat Roglic, and things looked dicey for a bit. Uncharacteristically, Kuss was dropped, and another Jumbo Visma domestique had to make his way up and slay himself for Roglic. In this situation, Kuss—though he’d let down his leader in a key moment—didn’t get a lot of attention; his lapse wasn’t that visible because the cameras weren’t on him. Compare this to the one Tour de France that Roglic probably felt he had in the bag, only to spectacularly lose it in the final time trial to the upstart Tadej Pogcacar. Roglic will never live that down. And now Kuss, who is leading the Vuelta seemingly by accident, could go on to lose it without any particular disgrace because after all, he didn’t come into the race with any ambition other than to do his normal job of domestique. To Roglic, that might rankle enough to incite an attack or two.

Theory #5: the business people

It’s possible that Vingegaard and Roglic didn’t launch those attacks on their own initiative. The big brass of the team might have ordered them to do it, for financial reasons. After all, if Kuss were to win the Vuelta, he’d be in high demand from other teams and Jumbo Visma might have to raise his salary. If all they care about is one of their members winning the GC, why not make it one of the guys who’s already at the top of the salary scale?

Theory #6: the business people, continued

It’s also possible that the team’s business leaders didn’t like Kuss’s champagne-swilling antics. Perhaps, they feel, this sent the wrong message about the Jumbo Visma team culture. They may have decided his behavior was unprofessional and glamorized the uninhibited consumption of an alcoholic beverage. “Think of the kids! Those poor impressionable youth!” they might be thinking. Perhaps they determined that the less attention Kuss gets from here on out, the better … so he shouldn’t be allowed to win the Vuelta. So they deploy their henchman, Vingegaard and Roglic, to stop him.

Theory #7: nationalism

Ever since the Dubya years, and particularly since the Trump years, the United States hasn’t exactly been the darling of Europe. It also doesn’t help our cause when American tourists like me go around saying things like, “World War II: you’re welcome.” (No, of course I don’t actually say this, but you get the point.) It also didn’t help that Lance took his don’t-mess-with-Texas ethos over there and messed with Europe, handing the Tour (and the sport) its biggest scandal in history. For Vingegaard and Roglic, as helpful as Kuss has been to his team, maybe they’re nursing some unconscious anti-American grudge such that they can’t bring themselves to promote him to the protected rider.

If you’re skeptical about this theory, and haven’t felt like Kuss wears his nationality on his sleeve, consider Exhibit A, his bike travel case:

That really does smack of unbridled patriotism, doesn’t it? I mean, would you use such a loud, brazen product? I sure wouldn’t. With all this in mind, you’ll surely be relieved to learn that (at least to my knowledge) Kuss’s bike case actually looks nothing like this.  I was just messing with you.

Theory #8: it’s not about Kuss

It could be that these attacks actually have nothing to do with Kuss. For all I know, Roglic and Vingegaard are bitter rivals, and their attacks are simply on one another, with Kuss and the rest of the peloton being collateral damage. Or even if the two get along, Roglic could be lashing out at having been kept off the Tour team this year, and wants to show everyone he was wronged, and/or Vingegaard wants to demonstrate that only he could have won the last two Tours.

Theory #9: irrational exuberance

Maybe these riders have been trying to do the right thing and work for Kuss, but they just can’t help themselves. When you’ve got the legs, it’s hard to resist using them. Look at LeMond in the 1985 Tour, attacking Hinault, his team leader. I already mentioned Hinault returning the favor in the 1986 Tour. Then there was Marc Soler up in the breakaway throwing a tantrum during the 2019 Vuelta when his Movistar team called him back to help his leader (i.e., do his fricking job). Sport in general is riddled with reckless, impulsive behavior. Chalk it up to testosterone poisoning.

Theory #10: none of the above

Of course it’s entirely possible there’s a perfectly good reason for these attacks that just isn’t apparent to an armchair directeur sportif like me. For example, Roglic and Vingegaard could be space aliens driven by forces utterly foreign to us humans. That would explain a lot, actually.

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Friday, September 8, 2023

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume IX


This is the seventh installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, Volume III is here, Volume IV is here, Volume V is here, Volume VI is here, Volume VII is here, and Volume XIII is here. (The different volumes have little or nothing to do with one another.)

As with other installments, these are taken from emails to various friends and family members, back when I archived them as simple text files for posterity. Who know that posterity would come in the form of a blog? I sure didn’t, as the Internet was (almost) entirely unknown in those days…

January 15, 1995

I filled out a W-2 the other day and was about to check “Single” as I’ve been doing for about 15 years, and then realized, “Wait a second—I’m married!” Then, I had to look at all the worksheets to see how many deductions to claim. I was shocked to realize that as far as the IRS is concerned, I do not qualify as the Head of the Household. Just what in the hell is going on here when a man doesn’t automatically qualify as head of the household?

July 6, 1995

We have some houseguests from Holland. In their honor we just ate “Gourmet,” a Dutch culinary tradition (you might even say celebration). I got the Gourmet set from my brother. You have these little burners, that burn Sterno, with little 4-inch non-stick pans on a cage above them, and you throw in little pieces of meat and vegetables, kind of like fajitas. It takes forever, and it’s a lot of fun, like a great movie that you don’t want to end. You get to try all kinds of different combinations—I ate at least ten different pans of food. It’s great. The only problem is that the flame goes out every so often and it’s kind of scary relighting it. I’m sure after doing this dozens of times I’ll get overconfident, squirt Sterno right into the dying flame, and blow up my kitchen.

July 30, 1995

I had an epiphany recently. I was going to brush my teeth and I noticed that E—’s toothpaste tube wasn’t rolled neatly from the end, but was squeezed in the middle. This shouldn’t have bothered me too much, since we have separate toothpastes (not really by design, but because I accidentally bought tartar control, which she doesn’t like). But I figure I’d roll her tube up for her. Well, not really for her, since she doesn’t give a damn, but for me. I can’t stand to see the toothpaste tube disfigured like that. Well, when I rolled it up, I realized the cap was open. I realized this because toothpaste squirted out. It was a big mess, all over the cap. This is the kind of stupid modern cap that has a little flip-top. The top was all coated in goo. I reflected meanly that it was probably pretty gooey even before my little mishap. I removed the cap and rinsed it carefully in the sink, which is when I had my epiphany that I’m really a totally absurd person. Actually, it’s not really an epiphany, because this fact has been dawning on me frequently, possibly due to the tendency one has to compare his behavior to that of his spouse. E—’s lack of attention to such details amazes me. “Amazement” perhaps don’t cover her responses to my own quirky pedanticism, and to the obvious torture that entropy inflicts on my life. We’ve had a certain amount of marital friction along these lines.

So, are you the same way? (I think I’ve seen signs that you are.) If so, does [your wife] mind? Only moments ago, I halted my train of thought, noticing a bit of lint on my keyboard, and plunged into my desk drawer to retrieve a little nylon brush, perfectly suited for cleaning out a keyboard. It’s the brush that came with the Norelco electric razor I bought in 1985 to shave my legs with. The razor wore out in six months, and the replacement blades cost more than a new razor. I sure wasn’t going to buy new blades, on general principle, but I couldn’t bring myself to replace the whole razor and throw away the almost perfectly good old one. So I took the only possible remaining option: I began using a Bic. Before retiring the electric razor to some special burying place (or perhaps I still have it somewhere), I inspected the nylon brush that came with it, and determined that it would be excellent for cleaning the keyboard of my typewriter. Well, that little brush has lasted me four keyboards since then, and I always know where to find it instantly. I even brought it on the bike tour. Does that make me ridiculous? [2023 update: I still have, and use, that little brush.]

September 12, 1995

[Trigger warning: the following anecdote involves heavy drinking. Let me just say, before you proceed, that these days, as a responsible salary man, husband, and father, I appreciate quality beverages and enjoy them responsibly. I haven’t drunk recklessly in ages, and my kids can vouch for me in that regard.]

We went down to Ventura to participate in D—’s blowout 30th birthday party. P— drove us down there, with [his wife] L—, and even got us a motel. (I’d envisioned just passing out on a sofa or something at the party, but a motel was entirely welcome.) The only problem was, once we got to the party, P—, who is a very starchy sort, given to extreme temperance, seemed determined not to have a good time. He and L— sat by themselves on a sofa and watched—and in fact judged—the mêlée unfolding around them. It was one hell of a party. All kinds of people were there whom I hadn’t seen in ages, such as B—. Well, the more fun everybody else began to have, the more visibly annoyed P— seemed to become. By 9:30 he had his jacket on and was making noises about saying our goodbyes and heading to the motel.

The next piece of this story requires some background. At your wedding, I became somewhat inebriated, perhaps as the result of obliging half a dozen old friends who wanted to drink a shot with me. (I’m not sure what the origin is of this strange custom.) Well, I began talking to S—’s sister. She asked me what I did for a living. My response, as I began, threatened to ramble out of control, since I really didn’t have a good answer. So I backed up and started over by telling her the highlights of my day: getting home, changing my shoes, and hanging up my suit jacket. From here my logical faculties completely broke down and I circumnavigated, in tedious spirals, what would have been the point of my story if there had been one. My shoes featured prominently, for reasons I cannot recall. I do not believe that my story was very interesting. However, I believe S—’s sister was at least somewhat amused, because she giggled through my little monologue. It’s always at least somewhat amusing, in a voyeuristic sort of way, to watch a drunk person trying to make sense, his rhetoric completely disintegrating and being replaced by loud, doggerel emphasis. If nothing else, my rambling was benign.

Anyway, the next time I saw P— he recounted at length the foolishness of my drunken oration, which he’d witnessed at the wedding. (I had actually half forgotten it, until he mentioned it to me, at which point I remembered every detail with complete clarity.) P— expounded with much emphasis on what an absolute idiot I had been, and how glad he was that he wasn’t me and doesn’t have to live anything down. I didn’t (and don’t) quite get his point, though he took pains to make it.

Okay, that’s the background. Now we’ll return to D—’s party. P— grew increasingly vexed with me, since I was ruining everything by having a good time and enjoying the company of not just my friends but of complete strangers. For example, I got to chat with M—, a former star rider on the cycling team I’d never before met, whom I gather P— was kind of intimidated by. Well, while I was chatting with M—, about who knows what, P— came up to us and said, “Hey Dana, why don’t you tell him about your job, and your shoes.” This annoyed me, encapsulating as it did his general piss-poor attitude, and I am curt even when sober as you well know. I responded, as one does, “Why don’t you blow me.” Well, M— was drunk enough to find this the funniest damn thing he’d ever heard. This annoyed P— further, and he decided it was time to leave.

It wasn’t even 10:00 yet, and D— and I hadn’t even yet shared the sophomoric delight of travelling naked. To this day I regret having squandered the opportunity to bike naked through Isla Vista with D— years ago (having chosen instead to do something else with R—, which only seemed like the better idea at the time). This time I wasn’t about to leave before accomplishing that, so with the clock running out, D—, B—, and I ran out of the house, out the back door, as if escaping. As we abandoned our clothing and ran across the beach, mooning the moon as it were, I could hear L— and P— harmonizing: “We’re leaving!”

Now, the ocean was a good 200 meters from the beach house, and we aren’t great runners, and it seemed to take an eternity to make it to the surf. Then, for some reason the water felt merely cool, not icy cold as it truly must have been, and hence our swim was not rushed. Nor was the ensuing sand fight. To make matters worse, by the time we returned to the house, our clothing had been stolen. By now it was going on 10:30 and P— was livid (in the silent, tense, purple style that is so much more annoying than if he’d spewed profanity or something). It should be noted that nobody else had even thought of leaving the party. In fact, there was a cake fight in full swing. By the time I had recovered my clothing and put it back on, P— himself had become an innocent civilian caught in the crossfire: he’d had a giant wedge of brown/blue/pink birthday cake ground into his jacket by one of the blessed Dionysians. P—, the party atheist, dragged me out to the car, our wives following along, and we left behind a party that was still in full swing. Fortunately, once we got to the motel P— treated us to a live reading from a book of fine literature by Laurence Sterne. This seemed to revive his good spirits and was a nice way to wind down the night.

December 10, 1995

My new job begins tomorrow. I gave my old employer  a whole month’s notice, so that I would have time to tie up all the loose ends and train my replacement. We hired a good guy, looks like Uncle David did as a young man. Good academic credentials, including a law degree. Made it kind of odd training him: “Well, I’ve no use for this job anymore, but I’m sure you’ll be great!”

The new job is about five blocks closer to home than the old one. It’s on the edge of the Financial District near Chinatown. The building is a newer one than my old one, but slightly less spacious. If my old building was a giant Buick, this one is more like a nice new Nissan Sentra. The furniture is more modern (Star Trek ballistic nylon, coated steel) than the stuff at my old building (opulent leather, cherry wood). And this is the kicker: a cubicle rather than an office. Did you ever see my old office? Probably not. Well, it was sweet. Great view, great chairs (high back, ergonomic chair for me, a sumptuous black leather chair for my guest), great lighting. A door I could close. Vertical blinds. Framed Ansel Adams print on the wall. Now I’ll have a cubicle. I haven’t seen it yet, but I envision the kind of fabric-covered partitions I can stick notes to with thumbtacks. Surely buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. It’ll be an unimpressive task chair (like the dumb-looking webbed chair Spock had to sit on in the Star Trek movies.) These are my fears. The reality could be nicer, but still . . . a cubicle. O, what I’ll sacrifice for job security, unlimited growth potential, stock options, medical/dental/vision benefits, and cool people to work with!

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Thursday, August 31, 2023

Should E-Bikes Be Allowed on Nature Trails?


A member emailed our bike club a photo of a trailhead sign banning e-bikes. This spawned a brief debate among our members about whether it’s reasonable to ban e-bikes, but not regular mountain bikes, from multi-use trails. In this post I provide my two cents … for free.

What is an e-bike?

Part of the problem here is that not all e-bikes do the same thing. The most subtle version is the illegal racing bike with a tiny motor hidden in it and I won’t go into that (other than to say I kinda want one). Among consumer products, there are three major types of e-bike, as described here. Class 1 helps out when the rider pedals, and can get the bike up to 20 mph. (This is the “pedal-assist” model called out in the photo above.) Then there’s the Class 2 that doesn’t even require you to pedal, and can also reach 20 mph. This is the kind that might have huge tires, and the rider is often just slumped over the thing, slack-jawed, languid, sometimes almost catatonic, his only input being the hand on the throttle. The final type, Class 3, doesn’t require pedaling unless you want to hit its top speed of 28 mph. And then there are the rogue companies putting out e-bikes that can go 55 mph if you snip a wire or otherwise disable their governor. So they’re basically motorcycles in disguise.

If a community wants to regulate e-bike use, the most practical way is across the board, even if the Class 1 might not be a particular menace.

What are e-bikes for?

Let me just say I love the concept of e-bikes. I’m not some purist who gets annoyed when some dude blows by me on the road, his cadence having nothing to do with his speed, like he’s just kind of floating along, pretending to exercise, like the person on the Stairmaster at the gym supporting all his weight on his hands. Who cares? At least he’s on a bike.

That said, I think the sweet spot for e-bikes is commuting. Sure, the world would be a better place if everybody were super fit and commuted everywhere by regular bicycle. (It would be Holland, basically.) But if somebody isn’t fit enough to ride to work in a reasonable amount of time, and/or just doesn’t want to show up red-faced and sweaty, and/or has a big hill that’s too much to handle after a long workday, and/or has cargo or a pet or a kid to carry … go for it! I’m not comparing this rider to a Tour de France racer; I’m comparing him or her to a car, which takes up too much space and wastes too much energy and somewhat endangers cyclists and pedestrians.

This isn’t to say I’d begrudge anybody for using an e-bike for exercise. Cycling is hard, and my favorite rides around here feature serious climbs. If I somehow lost half my fitness, and had to choose between riding on the totally flat Bay Trail on my current bike or continuing my beloved hill climbs on an e-bike, I guess I’d choose the latter (at least until I could somehow get my fitness back).

E-biking on trails? I’ll get to that in a minute. But first:

Whom are e-bikes for?

I’ve been Mr. Nice Guy so far but now I’m going to be less generous: e-bikes are not for the young. First of all, if a kid or teenager doesn’t have the energy to schlep himself or herself around on a regular bike, he or she isn’t being parented properly. Buying your kid an e-bike is just throwing in the towel on their poor fitness. It’s also, arguably, endangering your kid. Check out this article about the disturbing uptick in bad accidents involving teenagers who lack the skill to pilot an e-bike safely, and lack the sense to even try.

Safety is why allowing e-bikes on trails is problematic. I don’t have an issue with older folks taking up road cycling, though if they choose e-bikes they’d better be careful. (I wouldn’t want to tell them not to do it, since managing the risk is really their business. If they hit a car, it’s not like the driver is gonna get hurt.) I also have nothing against older folks taking up mountain biking—after all, as a high school mountain bike coach I actively recruit parents as assistant coaches. But these parents are not on e-bikes, and that keeps things safe. Given how rigorous it is to pedal up a steep dirt climb, new riders develop gradually, and their skill builds along with the range they can cover. This is all for the best. Older folks learning how to ride off-road on e-bikes is just a recipe for trouble, and the danger extends to other users of the trail, who don’t have two tons of steel protecting them.

Then you’ve got your ageing former bikers, who at some point put on fifty pounds and gave up the sport, and now want to drop $10K or so on a fancy e-MTB and pick up where they left off. I was on the backside of China Camp a couple years back and came upon one of these guys. The backside has some gnarly descents, but the climb getting to it hits pitches of over 20%, which normally keeps the novices, and the out-of-practice, from partaking. This (rather stout) dude had motored his way up there and found out the hard way how much his skills had atrophied since the last time he did this descent. His collarbone was clearly broken and he was being carried out by EMS.

What, and whom, are trails for?

Now let’s step back and come at this issue from the other direction: the purpose of nature trails. I love mountain biking, and I also love (well, like) hiking. There’s a fundamental difference, in my opinion, between road cycling on the one hand, and mountain biking or hiking on the other. On the road, you have to contend with cars, along with other aspects of humanity like buildings and of course the road itself. So even though it’s super fun, it’s not exactly communing with nature. Biking on a trail, I can enjoy more of a Grizzly Adams experience, and have a relief from the crush of humanity I normally have to tolerate. (Yes, I’m an introvert.) And when I’m hiking, free of the need to operate a machine, I suppose I’m even closer to this bucolic bliss. I don’t appreciate being spooked by a bicyclist whose sense of a safe passing speed may be radically different from mine, but fortunately this is a rare occurrence.

With all this in mind, as a mountain biker I do my very best to respect the hikers I encounter. I slow way down; I offer a greeting so I don’t startle anyone; I am gracious when a hiker doesn’t feel like acknowledging me. We MTB coaches teach our student athletes that they need to slow down enough that when they say hi, the hiker has the chance to say hi back. (This is a lot to ask of a teenager but we’re tenacious about it, and they generally behave.) With this as the model, I believe that mountain bikers deserve the privilege of sharing trails with hikers. That being said, I’m totally fine with some trails being for hikers only, and I’m stoked to have encountered a few trails specifically set aside for bikers. But not e-bikers, because of the…

Unique problems e-bikes present on trails

Since I started mountain biking in the early 1980s (when the sport was brand new), I have observed how tenuous the relationship can be between bikers and hikers. In the mid 1980s, I loved riding the Shanahan Ridge and Mesa trails in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado … until the city heard from too many angry hikers and closed every single trail to bikers, a ban they still uphold. (I attended the city council meeting where this was argued about, and—being an unprepared, clueless teenager—made an absolute ass of myself and was laughed at by the entire room, which is why I have so much character today.)

The debate about regular mountain bikes on trails will never end, which is why I think we need to be really, really careful when it comes to e-bikes. This technology presents several unique problems.

First of all, as I mentioned before, part of why regular mountain bikers do okay on trails is that they have to pay their dues, fitness-wise, before they have a lot of gnarly descents to contend with. By the time they’re passing hikers on a steep downhill, they’ve acquired the skill they need not to lose control and take somebody out. With an e-bike they’re going everywhere, ready or not.

Second, with increased speed comes extended range, which means more total encounters with hikers. I mean, if I could ride twice as fast on an e-bike (which I probably almost could), I’d go twice as far, and automatically pass a lot more people. And as careful as I try to be, I’m going to encounter some hikers, usually older people, who cannot abide mountain bikers in any form. Even on a regular mountain bike, with all the politeness I can muster, I can’t do right by some of these folks. I could dismount my bike, greet them kindly with a tip of my helmet, hand them a $100 bill and say, “I’m pretty sure you dropped this, even if you don’t remember doing so,” and then give them some homemade chocolate chip cookies and a hand-knit sweater for their dog, and they’d still scowl at me with a look that says, “Go back to your gutter, you filthy vermin.” Meanwhile, at the other end the spectrum, you’ll always have a few mountain bikers who are rude and/or incorrectly gauge the socially acceptable passing speed. If, due to a surge in e-bike popularity, the trails suddenly had twice the number of bikers going twice the distance, the number of pissed off hikers would surely increase, and as I said before, this détente between hikers and bikers is already precarious. In a nutshell, I don’t want e-bikers tipping that balance and ruining the party for us regular bikers.

Third, e-bike motors are allowed to produce up to 750 watts, which is half-again more than Lance Armstrong could sustain for a single climb at the height of his dope-fueled career. This kind of power could surely enable an e-biker to spin the rear tire on climbs, not just half a pedal revolution at a time like I might accidentally do here and there, but more like a motorcycle can. They could totally peel out and some yahoos probably would. I suspect this could really damage a nature trail, which is not designed for such stuff. (And remember, not all e-bike manufacturers play by the rules, power-wise, to begin with.)

Finally, there’s the douchebag factor. Some e-bikers just wanna pretend they’re motorcyclists and will get all armored up and go treat the trail like it’s a motocross course. I was hiking at the Rockville Hills Regional Park, where e-bikes are disallowed, and this dork on an e-bike with a full face helmet and knee and elbow pads was riding with his buddies who were on regular bikes. He kept zipping on ahead and passing my wife and me, and then circling back to rejoin his friends, then passing us again. My impulse was to knock him to the ground and beat him about the head and shoulders with his bike, but it would have been too heavy given my spindly bike-racer arms. Lucky for him, I didn’t think of seizing his battery pack and flogging him with that. Granted, the prohibition against e-bikes hadn’t stopped him from riding there, but presumably the park rangers are licensed to kill and that dumbass is no longer bothering anybody.

What is to be done?

The majority of trails I encounter that allow mountain bikes also allow e-bikes, so far. It appears that the trail managers are either struggling to figure out how to regulate e-bikes, or are adopting a wait-and-see approach. As you have surely gathered by now, I’d favor something more assertive. Fire roads are fine, as there’s plenty of room for everyone, but any single-track trail that allows mountain bikes today should err on the side of caution and ban e-bikes initially, until they’ve figured out the best way to govern them. Anyone wanting to use an e-bike for exercise can go buy an (albeit sexist) Pinarello Nytro and pick on old school roadies like me, or do their shopping on an electric cargo bike. Leave the trails for nature lovers.

(At least, that’s my take, for now. I hope I’m more thoughtful than in my teenaged years, with that disastrous presentation at the Boulder city council meeting.)

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Sunday, August 20, 2023

The Oxford Comma


A friend of mine asked me recently, “Hey, did you blog about the Oxford comma?” This was basically entrapment. Having posted 690 times to albertnet, I feel like all the easy topics (e.g., bike gearing, pasta, flatulence, cycling, the spelling of “kindergartner”) have been exhausted, so I struggle to come up with new ones. Thus, an inquiry like this is basically an assignment.

Herein I will explore the raging debate around the serial, aka Oxford, comma: what is it, who uses it, should it be used, should we care, and why do we care?

What is the Oxford comma?

When a sentence includes a list of things, the Oxford comma is the one placed before “and,” as in this example:

“I bought some gum, a lighter, and a knife.”

Opponents of the Oxford comma would omit that final comma:

“I bought some gum, a lighter and a knife.”

Opponents assert that this final comma is redundant because “and” gets the job done by itself. Proponents cite the lack of clarity that can result if this comma is omitted, as in this classic example:

“We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.”

Had the Oxford comma been used in the above sentence, nobody would be wondering if J.F.K. and Stalin were strippers. Obviously you could dodge the grammar and say clarity is achieved by knowing that neither world leader looked good naked, but that’s cheating.

Strong opinions

I emailed three of my wife’s former newspaper colleagues (the “recovering journalists,” I call them) to get their take. Ed immediately wrote back, “I don’t like the Oxford command [sic] anyway [sic], shape or form!” Rachel opined that “the Oxford comma is redundant and ungrammatical,” gave some rationale for her position, and concluded, “I will die on this hill.” The third, Monique, was the most emphatic of all, declaring, “I literally included this line in a [résumé] cover letter: ‘Colleagues know me as positive, trustworthy, calm in a crisis and always ready to battle the Oxford comma!’”

Oddly, when I inquired with my bike team email group, most of the responses were the opposite. Seven supported the Oxford comma, one didn’t care, and one wrote “depends.” My friend Pete, who started this whole thing, and is also a cyclist, is strongly for it. And this article in Bicycling mentions that American pro cyclist Chad Haga is a big fan of the Oxford comma. So why are cyclists different from journalists? I’ll get to that. But first…

Should we use the Oxford comma?

I favor the Oxford comma, for the simple reason that many writers don’t have the judgment to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether that final comma is needed. A journalist might pause to consider the matter, and would understand sentence structure well enough to make the right call, but so many people wouldn’t. Therefore, we should have a simple rule that can be applied every time. The comma in “apples, bananas, and pears” isn’t hurting anything.

I suppose the recovering journalists would argue that the “extra” comma slows things down—and journalists are all about speed. Their greatest fear seems to be that the reader will lose patience and stop reading. I suspect this is somewhat inaccurate, because the traditional audience for newspapers has all but evaporated, and those (like me) still willing to pay for a home subscription actually love to read, and aren’t in a constant panic about it taking too long. (Never mind that the doomscrollers end up reading a tremendous amount, though in tiny bite-sized pieces.)

Meanwhile, not all text is news, and when clarity is lost in certain contexts, such as law, the effect can be disastrous. Long ago, when I was working my first corporate job, our office split off from the parent company, very acrimoniously. I was charged with reviewing the split-off agreement, which included language around how long our consultants could continue using software that had been developed in-house. Due to the lack of an Oxford comma, it wasn’t clear whether all six software applications could be used, or just the last one in the list. I almost spoke up about this, but for some reason I just didn’t. (Maybe I was just tired after a futile debate with my boss over apostrophes.) Well, lo and behold, the former parent company ended up suing us for continuing to use all six apps, and though we eventually prevailed, the lawsuit wasted well over a month, cost gobs in legal fees, and was a massive distraction. I should have spoken up … but if the Oxford comma had been the law of the land, I wouldn’t have had to.

This kind of thing surely happens a lot. Some years ago, as described in this New York Times article, a Maine dairy company had to pay $5 million to drivers because the overtime policy, as written into Maine law, wasn’t clear about what types of work were exempted. The lack of clarity opened the door to the (ultimately successful) overtime claim. As if the $5 million wasn’t bad enough, Maine revised the law very crudely. You see, they couldn’t just add the Oxford comma, because they were dead set against it. As described here, “the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual … specifically instructs lawmakers to not use the Oxford comma.” So they came up with a grotesque new construction: “The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of” is how they arranged their sequence. They just replaced the Oxford comma with a semicolon, understanding that punctuation is required before the “or” but refusing to make it a comma. I think anyone who cares about words and grammar would agree that’s a monstrosity, and that this overly zealous adherence to the anti-Oxford-comma stance is absurd.

Of course the anti-Oxford-comma group would say fine, use it when it’s truly necessary, but omit it the rest of the time, because it’s jarring and slows the reader down. An essay in the Daily Californian states, “As readers, our brains are trained to pause when we see commas.” Well, yes, but when reading a sequence, we pause at each comma (which is what they’re for) and we also pause for the implicit comma suggested by “and.” If we didn’t, we’d get tripped up. Frankly, I think the lack of comma slows me down because I find it jarring—it’s like being clotheslined.

That this lack trips me up, but doesn’t bother the recovering journalists, suggests I’m reading different stuff, such that this serial comma seems normal to me. My favorite magazine, The New Yorker, famously defies the Associated Press Stylebook in always employing it. (Mary Norris, their “comma queen,” explains her rationale here.) The Oxford comma is also employed by most of the novelists I read. (I just spot-checked the last one, Tana French, and have confirmed she’s indeed in the pro-comma camp.) On a hunch, I searched the index of Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions to see if he weighed in on this matter, and while there’s no entry, the opening sentence of the book happens to employ this comma: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” As for the absence of serial commas in the Times, I don’t exactly read that paper anyway … I usually just skim it.

So why do cyclists seem to promote the Oxford comma? My wife’s theory is that more of us are engineer-types, and I will say that the loveliness of bicycles as mechanical objects is a big part of the sport’s allure, whatever our background. Moreover, anyone who has to properly dial in spoke tension, brakes, and indexed shifting generally has a healthy respect for being methodical and precise, even at the expense of time and effort. I will go one step further and suggest that road cycling is a good way to learn patience. I rode up Mount Diablo yesterday and was acutely aware how long that takes … halfway up the climb I thought, “Cool, only half an hour to go” and then realized, wait, that’s a long time to suffer in 90-degree heat. (And then it’s two more hours riding home.) To me, the kind of brisk, comma-avoidant sentences favored by journalists are aesthetically at odds with the experience of long-distance cycling, which is so often a slog. I don’t spin the pedals like a hamster … I like to stand up and mosh away at a low cadence … shove, shove, shove. The brief lull at the top of each pedal stroke is a bit like a comma.

Should we care about the Oxford comma?

Two things have stood out for me in researching this post. First, the responses to my inquiry—not just those that supported my position, but also the ones that didn’t—were a joy to read. Well, actually, not all of them. The one who replied “Who gives a f—?” didn’t please or inspire me. (Another replied with that comment but only to direct me to this Vampire Weekend rock video.) Apathy toward language bothers me in this era of STEM-obsessed non-readers who prefer podcasts and YouTube over the written word. My second observation is that reading various articles about the Oxford comma has been an extremely pleasant way to pass the time. (In addition to what I’ve quoted from, several other articles, like this one, greatly amused me). Readers and writers who get fired up about linguistic minutiae are my people. What side of the fence we’re on is less important.

Case in point: my friend Trevor took me to task, years ago, for using two spaces after a period. While I debated this heartily at the time, I have now conceded that he’s right … not because two spaces was never helpful, but because lots of modern software doesn’t handle a pair of spaces correctly. It’s just not worth fighting modern convention. But what I didn’t expect, when I conceded this point, is that now, years later, seeing two spaces looks wrong to me. My taste has adjusted, which is a reminder that opinions can be malleable … but apathy is absolute. 

Why do we care?

Where the Oxford comma debate is concerned, one thing is perfectly clear: those with an opinion hold it strongly. But why should this be, when the matter hinges on such a subtle point, and the English language is so convoluted to begin with? I suppose that once you’ve made up your mind what’s right and what’s wrong, every instance of the “wrong” usage feels like an affront. Perhaps it’s the same way we respond to fashion: once we’ve decided fanny packs are dorky, we wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one, even though a whole lot of people (mostly tourists, it seems) just love them.

The Oxford comma, then, could be considered a matter of fashion, just like anything else. In his New Yorker essay “A Tale of Two Cafés,” Adam Gopnik examines the phenomenon of two perfectly good neighboring cafés in Paris, the Flore and the Deux Magots, one of which is always preferred and the other shunned—even though their popularity flip-flops over time, according to the whims of Parisians. Gopnik quotes a “dour friend” who sums up the matter as intrinsic to human nature:

The relationship between the modishness of the Flore and the unmodishness of the Deux Magots isn’t just possibly arbitrary. It’s necessarily arbitrary… The reason that, when you place any two things side by side, one becomes chic and the other does not is that it’s in the nature of desire to choose, and to choose absolutely.

I think that’s a big part of it, anyway. Beyond that, the Oxford comma is just plain correct. I mean, isn’t that obvious?

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Wednesday, August 9, 2023

If William Wordsworth Were Writing Today


What if William Wordsworth (1770-1850) were writing today? And what if he had a corporate-type editor? Imagine the instant-messaging dialogue that might take place after the great poet submitted a new work for review. Actually, you don’t need to, because that’s what this post is about. The launch point is this timeless Wordsworth poem, from 1807.

Wordsworth’s poem

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. 

The dialogue

BANES: well ive read the poem and i think its a good start. a solid start

WORDSWORTH: Actually, it’s complete.

BANES: dont need to add anything

BANES: just tighten it up a bit

WORDSWORTH: I don’t see your point.

BANES: well you know poetry its so good at being sucint. thats  why its so popular right. i  mean those who still read poetry want concise

WORDSWORTH: My poem is under 200 words. That is not long.

BANES: its all relative

BANES: what is that poem about the subway and petals on a wet black bough so good can you do more like that

WORDSWORTH: If you’re asking me to plagiarize Ezra Pound, no. If you want me to adapt my style to imitate him, hell no.

BANES: no nothing like that just concise

BANES: like that first stanza maybe get that across in one line

BANES: get to the point faster

WORDSWORTH: Oh, I see. So I could get the entire poem down to the size of a tweet.

BANES: exactly

WORDSWORTH: I was being sarcastic.

BANES: no need for that i am trying to help

WORDSWORTH: Every word in every line is essential or I would have removed it already. That’s what makes me a poet.

BANES: you need to adapt

BANES: modern readers = shorter attetnion span

BANES: no time for flourishes etc

WORDSWORTH: Well then just call me a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

BANES: what are u talking about

WORDSWORTH: I gather you’re unfamiliar with my earlier works.

BANES: really what are you talking about and never mind your earlier works

BANES: you have currency now so lets leverage that

WORDSWORTH: I assume you’re referring to Taylor Swift name-dropping me in her song, literally one line after decrying “some namedropping sleaze,” ironically enough.

BANES: taylor swift yes exactly

BANES: we need to get on that

WORDSWORTH: I won’t disgrace myself by pandering to pop culture.

BANES: i'm trying to help you here. u want to be replaced by A.I.?

WORDSWORTH: If you think ChatGPT can write poetry, you’re delusional.

BANES: look, you know why coleridges poems are so successful? He’s writing about big-screen TVs, pleasure domes, and opium trips. your writing about dancing flowers

WORDSWORTH: Have you even read my poem?

BANES: yes

BANES: in fact i found some errors

BANES: like, i'm sure you saw lots of flowers but not continuous, not 10K

BANES: and lakes dont have waves

WORDSWORTH: Actually, Windermere lake is the largest in England and does have waves. As usual you have no idea what you’re talking about.

BANES: look work with me here you have some good stuff here, lonely = emo can resonate with readers

BANES: just tigten up a bit and we’re good

BANES: and doesnt matter what lake, actually not saying which lake is better

BANES: in fact i wanted to ask you

BANES: poetry now needs to be hyper local

BANES: i'm thinking different versions of poem by region

BANES: can we do one for CA and change from daffodil to poppy (state flower

WORDSWORTH: I am not a staff writer for a tourism board. And I’m not rewriting the final rhyming couplet to support “poppies.”

BANES: about that rhyming

BANES: kind of passe

WORDSWORTH: Taylor Swift uses rhyme.

BANES: touche

BANES: but getting back to the number of flowers

BANES: never ending line & 10K, nobody is buying that

WORDSWORTH: I’m employing a standard poetic device called hyperbole. I guess they didn’t teach you that in business school.

BANES: why cant you just be more precise

WORDSWORTH: Are you my editor or my fact-checker?

BANES: readers dont want to be decieved

WORDSWORTH: Are you going to revoke my poetic license?

BANES: look maybe i dont have a fancy degree from Oxford but i know my stuff

WORDSWORTH: My degree is from Cambridge.

BANES: whatever

BANES: look there is an incosistency in the poem you start with lonely & brooding and then later your all talking about bliss of solitude

BANES: not as strong as other parts need to tighten up

WORDSWORTH: This just demonstrates how completely you have missed the point. “That inward eye which is the bliss of solitude” is exactly what this supposed audience of modern readers has lost, due to the constant intrusion of Twitter, Snapchat, and the never-ending smartphone “feed.” There is no more bliss because there is no more solitude. And nobody can just enjoy their natural surroundings without stopping to snap photos and share them on Instagram.

BANES: nobody says instnagram anymore its insta

WORDSWORTH: You know what? We’re done here. You can take our contract and shove it. I’ll just put my poem on my blog.

BANES: actually i wanted to talk to you about that

BANES: its time to monetize your blog

BANES: adsense can make us some money if we get the seo right

BANES: untapped potential there

BANES: you already did the work

BANES: dont you want to get paid

BANES: hey are you still there

BANES: ???

BANES: hey

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

Monday, July 31, 2023

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume VIII


This is the eighth installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, Volume III is here, Volume IV is here, Volume V is here, Volume VI is here, and Volume VII is here. (The different volumes have nothing to do with one another.)

As with the last installment, these are taken from emails, back when I archived them as simple text files so that one day, when I was a celebrity blogger, I could mine them for tasty nuggets that would thrill my readers without requiring me to write anything new. How prescient, since the Internet was just getting started and blogs were not yet a thing…

March 14, 1995

The [HP] Vectra [computer] is still down at work. I found the setup disks and ran setup to check the CMOS settings. They were all okay; I don’t know what the problem is. I called tech support and when they heard what year the computer was, they said, “Oh, you’ll have to get in touch with our HP Classics department. The only problem is, the old geezers we’ve got down there can’t always hear the phone ringing.” Actually, I made that last part up. But there really is an HP Classics department, and they really don’t answer their phone.

May 10, 1995

I was in the company president’s office the other day having a big important one-on-one meeting, and the phone rang. The big boss got embroiled in a conversation, and you know, I’ve always really hated that. Am I just supposed to sit there in his office, contentedly watching him as he talks and as he twirls his hair around his finger in little curlicues that eventually match the phone cord, which is all twisted from his endless pacing? No way could I do that. But could I just leave? No—any motion towards the door and the boss is frantically gesturing for me to stay. What do I do? So I idly picked up three company-logo-embossed golf balls off of his desk and began juggling. And, sure enough, I dropped one, and it began rolling across the floor, and just when I was on my hands and knees retrieving it (in my $500 suit, of course) the boss got off the phone. I casually put the golf balls back on his desk and we continued our conversation. He didn’t seem fazed, so I guess he’s used to my behavior—and that can’t be a good sign. Will I ever grow up? It reminds me of how you got in trouble for your rubber-band fights at your first job out of college. You’ve really been an inspiration to me, you know.

January 6, 1996

I got a voicemail from my old boss, from [the job I’d quit about a month before]. He said the Vectra, which is the shared hallway computer, had crashed, and he had no idea what to do. They’re in a panic because it’s the only computer with CompuServe access. I had to laugh. I’d been warning people for months that the computer was showing signs of a bad CMOS battery and that its days were numbered. I even put a sign on it saying “Don’t turn me off or I’ll die.” Well, they should have listened. Asking for help now is like saying, “Well, the house burned to the ground. The fire department just finishing hosing things down. Did you say something a while back about smoke detectors?”

January 28, 1996

[To my brother Geoff] … I’ve been thinking lately about our Murray Street Station [San Luis Obispo] days. I still have that original microwave oven, and even one of those big plastic lidded pitchers we used to keep the refried beans in. Remember that awful Thanksgiving dinner at Sizzler? Man, those were the days. Remember all the Canadian-bacon-and-pineapple pizzas K— [the bike shop owner] used to buy us? And how great it was to get free pizza, but how sick we were of that variety? Like, it would be petty and annoying to complain, and yet we’d like pepperoni and mushroom so much better? I actually oddly miss those factory days, too. Sure, the work wasn’t so fun but I became fond of our routine, like how we’d stop at that grocery store (what was it called? Willie Bros, yeah, that’s it) and get Snickers bars to console ourselves because of the brutal cold wind facing us all the way home, every night? And how we used to rent videos at that one place 24/7 because the clerk was so fly? And the Lady Lee Deluxe Chocolate Fudge Brownie Supreme ice cream we’d split, just sawing the half-gallon carton down the middle? And all that cake? And our pushup and sit-up regimen, that made you so buff but never did anything for me? Man, I kinda miss those days.

February 9, 1996

Please retransmit your last email, with the attached article, in some other form than MIME (whatever that is), if possible. Or maybe you could use OCR to convert the article to plain ASCII text? Hmmm . . . I’m not sure Apple computers do ASCII. Or, you could fax the article to my computer, except I have no idea how to set it up to receive faxes, nor do I want to leave it turned on all the time. Then there’s the problem of screwing something up so that the fax answers the regular phone and deafens the hapless caller with its shrieking session-handshake protocol. (My modem came with voice-mail software, too, but I don’t think I want to mess with that, either.) Basically, I’ve got more computing power than a third world country, and no desire to use most of it.

April 24, 1996

We were in L.A. last weekend for a book festival, and Ray Bradbury and Geoffrey Wolff were both speaking. The lines for both were quite long and we worried we wouldn’t get in to either one. Wolff’s seminar, called “Memoirs,” seemed like the slightly less popular one and I thought I might have a better chance of getting into that, but it would mean giving up my spot in the Bradbury line. When I complained about my dilemma, one of the other people waiting in the line said, “Yeah, that’s a tough decision: you’ve gotta choose between the past and the future!”

I was doing my Marin Headlands loop today and I caught up to a pretty fit looking mountain biker. I passed him, and he immediately passed me back, and started hammering. I sat, bored, on his wheel for a while (it was pretty steep so I wasn’t getting too much benefit from drafting) and eventually I decided he was going too slow, and I passed him again. Well, this incited him further, and he took the lead again and started really jamming. Well, woe be to me, he simply rode me off his wheel. On a damn mountain bike! Knobby tires and everything! Man, that was humbling. I just couldn’t keep up. He took some time out of me, too, and finished the climb well ahead. Well, I was encumbered further by a couple of cars on the descent that followed, but on the next climb I blew by him. I was going so hard he couldn’t even get my wheel. I continued to hammer and basically never saw him again. I know they say he who laughs last laughs best, but still . . . he who is laughed at is still laughed at. Man.

June 18, 1996

With regard to your inquiry about bike frame geometry, I doubt there’s anything shallow about your Guerciotti’s head tube angle. My Guerciotti is the same model and only like a year older, and its head angle is like 74 degrees! Yours might be a bit more shallow than mine because it’s a smaller frame, and because you have a smaller penis than I do, but still, I’d expect it to be at least 73 degrees. In any case, this should have almost nothing to do with the way the bike climbs. What do you mean, the front wheel is “slow to move”? As far as I know, the only motion you want is for it to roll. And if it’s rolling too slowly, I would think that’s a fitness problem on your part. (The only other time I’ve heard somebody complain of something like this was when I sold my wife’s would-be-ex-stepmother-in-law a Bianchi and she said it handled “like a cow” when she got out of the saddle. We isolated the problem: low pressure in the front tire.) Anyhow, my Team Miyatas, all three of them, had shallow (73 degree) head angles and they seemed to climb just fine. Actually, they climbed like shit because they were heavy, but I had no problem per se with getting the front wheel to rotate.

June 30, 1996


HERTOGENBOSCH, THE NETHERLANDS: American television audiences received a long-overdue treat today: Geoff Albert, one of the finest looking young individuals the free world has ever produced, graced the airwaves with several seconds of his normally elusive presence.

The footage occurred during routine coverage of the Tour de France bicycle race on ESPN, an American sports network. No sooner had Stage One coverage of the race begun than the camera panned over Albert—not just his face, but his entire body as well. The camera, held by a motorcycle-mounted cameraman, was giving a racer’s-eye view of the course, and thousands of screaming, hand-waving fans struggled to get into the picture. However, when the motorcycle approached Albert, it found him strangely aloof from the rest of the crowd—somehow closer to the road, and totally unobstructed. In the nonchalant style of someone accustomed to the spotlight, Albert made no move to draw the cameraman’s attention. He simply stood there, hands thrust in his back pockets, Pentax camera hanging around his neck … the very image of nonchalance. As the motorcycle passed him, his eyes tracked the camera. As an estimated 1 billion people watch Tour de France coverage worldwide, and the footage is the same across TV networks, so it is expected that millions of female viewers were instantly, and irrevocably, smitten. Also likely is that many millions of men grumbled enviously. One thing is certain: for those fleeting moments, nobody was thinking about the bicycle race.

Why Albert was so calm and unimpressed by his moment of glory is simple to understand: he is no stranger to celebrity, and would consider this episode more of a gift to viewers than to himself. Less easy to understand is why Albert commanded such a large spectating area in the otherwise totally packed sidelines. His twin brother Bryan, an expert on such matters, speculates that “Geoff probably forgot to wear his deodorant today.” Such an oversight is not hard to imagine; after all, both of the Albert twins have earned quite a reputation over the years for their casual approach to hygiene.

Network spokesmen predict that those precious few moments of footage will boost ESPN’s ratings and help secure many more years of cycling coverage on the network. Meanwhile, journalists everywhere are speculating that this year’s coverage is well on the way to winning numerous awards for its shrewd camera work.

Albert was unavailable for comment. And, with the Tour moving to Belgium tomorrow, it is unlikely that viewers will be given an encore. With three more weeks of racing ahead, it’s entirely possible that the racers, not this sole spectator, will begin to command the attention of sports aficionados. But for today, Geoff’s televised moment is the hottest news in cycling.

August 24, 1996

Wow, I just figured out how to hook the CD-ROM in my computer into my normal stereo. It works great—so it looks like I bought those new computer speakers for nothing. Oh well. Now I can play CDs, which I never could before. Only problem is, I only own two CDs and they were both freebies E— got from her work. I guess I can check out CDs from the library and tape them. (Of course I could buy some, but E— and I are trying to save up for a house, which is no easy thing to buy around here.)

December 17, 1996

At our company holiday party we had a “white elephant” gift exchange whereby you wrap up something that you don’t want, that somebody gave you as a gift, or that you can’t believe you ever bought, and you bring it in and put it on a table. Then everybody draws a number and the person with #1 chooses first. Now, #2 gets to either choose a gift or take #1’s gift instead (meaning that #1 gets to choose again). I brought this large cheese holder, ceramic, that’s basically a plate with a 4-inch tall cylindrical cover that goes over it, so you can store cheese at room temperature. It said “CHEESE” on it. E—’s mom gave it to us and E— never did like it. The person who got it, our receptionist, was totally stoked, I could tell. (She said later she was in total suspense the whole evening, hoping that nobody would take it away from her.) I stole our other receptionist’s Martinelli’s sparkling cider. The look on her face was one of absolute shock and unbridled grief. She was devastated. (It was one of the first gift takeovers of the day.) I felt so bad, I decided I’d offer to trade her later. She ended up with a pair of Christmas mugs, one shaped like a reindeer head and the other like a Frosty the Snowman head. They were just too hideous and she looked crestfallen all over again. I told her, “Look, I’m not willing to trade gifts, but I would like to just give you my Martinelli’s. The look on your face ... it was like I ran over your dog.” She insisted that I keep the cider; then, minutes later, the director of the entire western region (who got a Mag-lite, the lucky guy) reappeared after a brief absence: he’d gone out and bought the receptionist a replacement bottle of cider. Disaster narrowly averted. I hope my hostile takeover wasn’t career-limiting.

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Saturday, July 22, 2023

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2023 Tour de France Stage 20


Maybe you don’t have time to watch the Tour de France, or maybe you don’t want to pony up all that money for Peacock Plus or GCN+, or maybe you just like the race “story” pre-masticated for you. Who knows, maybe you just enjoy the work of a quasi-journalist who isn’t afraid to fabricate escapades from whole cloth when a bike race starts to get boring. Whatever the case, you’re here, so read on for my no-punches-pulled blow-by-blow of the last mountain stage of the 2023 Tour de France.

(Oh, and if you somehow missed the last two weeks of the race, I’ll distill that here for you along the way.)

2023 Tour de France Stage 20 – Belfort to Le Markstein Fellering

As I join the action, with about 90 kilometers to go, there’s been a big crash which apparently caused a split, and the rider sitting second on GC, previous Tour winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), isn’t even in the lead group with current race leader Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma). The riders are just about to start the second climb of the day, the Category 2 Col de la Croix de Moinats.

Caught in the crash were Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Granadiers), and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma). Rodriguez’s face is bleeding near his eye. Poor dude.

What a long, strange Tour it’s been. How can Pogacar not even be in the lead group, when for so long he and Vingegaard were neck-and-neck? Things change fast and after two bad days in a row, Pogacar is no longer much of a threat to the Dane. But to not even be in the GC group on the last mountain stage? That’s just kind of sad. It’s also more intrigue than I’d expected so early in the morning. I haven’t even had my coffee—it’s still brewing. In fact it’s probably ready.

As I return to the action, F— has usurped  my laptop.

The GC group has come back together, in the sense that Vingegaard is back in it. Evidently he was approached by Warren Barguil (Team Arkea-Samsic) who said something like, “Dude, you’re shackling the buzz of this break, your being here will force UAE to catch us, don’t be a dick.” So Vingegaard dropped back to the Pogacar group. No point making enemies in the peloton and he doesn’t need to take more time anyway.

Poor Kuss is really banged up and is getting dropped. You know it’s bad when a rider’s face is bandaged.

The breakaway has just 20 seconds … do I bother giving you their names? Wait, before I do that, there’s news: Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) has attacked the GC group and is hauling ass up to the breakaway!

And he’s caught the group, just at the summit of the Col de Grosse Pierre, where current King of the Mountains Giulio Ciccone (Lidl – Trek) takes maximum points.

Given the name of this climb, Col de Grosse Pierre, should we worry about fat-shaming? Is this the Pierre from that children’s book who didn’t care about anything? Not so fast. Pierre is also the French word for “rock” so the translation is simply “big rock pass.” No insult to anyone, we’re good here, move along, move along.

They’re doing a little side show, a profile of Rodriguez, who sits fourth on GC, 1:16 off the podium. Comically, they are including interviews with his directeur sportif and some Spanish journalist, who are both speaking Spanish, and nobody is bothering to translate. I guess it’s the network’s way of saying, “We know you never pay attention to these side shows anyway.”

Others in the lead group are Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek), Barguil, Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Easypost), Thomas Pidcock (Ineos Granadiers), and Maxime van Gils (Lotto Dstny). I can’t believe I bothered to get all their names when they only have a minute on the GC group with 65 kilometers to go. If you don’t feel my pain, consider how hard it is to even spell names like Giulio and Skjelmose.

Theres’ a chasing trio, just 17 seconds back, of Kevin Vermaerke (Team DSM), Chris Harper (Team Jayco Alula), and Valentin Madouas (Groupama/FDJ), who’s rocking the French national champion jersey. In the time it took me to spell-check all that, they’ve caught the leaders and the GC group is still like a minute down.

Pinot has had a disappointing Tour, and it’s his last ever because he’s somehow gotten so damn old (tell me about it), and he sits all the way back in 12th on GC, over 27 minutes down.

In the GC group, Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) finishes off one of those tiny little cans of soda that the Europeans drink. This is why they’re so much more svelte than the average American. That and riding like 400 miles a week.

At the summit of the Category 3 Col de la Schlucht, Ciccone takes maximum points and—wow, this is novel—does a victory salute.

He’s celebrating because he now has enough KOM points that all he has to do is finish this Tour and he’ll wear the polka-dot jersey on the final podium. I hate his polka-dot shorts, by the way. White cycling shorts are always a no-no, and with so much polka-dot going on, he looks like that weird animal from Put Me In the Zoo.

So, let’s back up and talk about the GC battle. Since Stage 9 (see my report here), during which Pogacar took nine seconds out of Vingegaard, the GC continued to tighten up in Stage 13, with Pogacar taking another eight seconds (a four-second gap at the finish with a four-second time bonus), so that only nine seconds separated the riders on GC. The next day was totally nuts: the two riders, having dropped all the others, marked each other near a mountain summit like track riders, neither wanting to lead out the sprint for the time bonus on offer. Vingegaard finally launched a sprint and took the bonus, but Pogacar beat him in the stage to also get a time bonus, and the net result was Vingegaard’s GC lead going up by just 1 second, to 10 total. It was shaping up to be the best Tour since 1989.

As the riders hit the base of the penultimate climb, the Category 1 Petit Ballon, Pinot attacks the breakaway!

And now, what’s this? They’ve let a woman out on the course!

Look how happy she looks! And how blurry that background is … she’s going so much faster than the men! It must be true: the future is female.

Wait a second. Look at that background. It’s the fenced-off area indicating the final kilometer of a race. You know what? They’re showing some kind of past footage of a women’s race. Oh, I see now. It’s some kind of promo for the Tour de France Femmes. I think I need more coffee.

Skjelmose has been dropped.

Back in the GC group, UAE Team Emirates are setting tempo with Soler on the front.

Getting back to my recap, the GC battle lost a lot of its luster in Stage 16, the time trial, where Vingegaard took a massive 1:38 out of Pogacar. Even more remarkable was Stage 17, where Pogacar totally cracked and lost over five minutes. So now the most interesting GC battle is for the final podium spot, with Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates) defending third by the 1:18 I already told you about (Rodriguez).

Pinot attacks again, and only his teammate Madouas can respond. Madouas is tucked so neatly in behind Pinot, I can’t even see him. I can just feel his presence because the Force is strong in him.

Oh, maybe not so much. Now Pinot drops him, too.

This stage is on Pinot’s home turf, and naturally he’d planned something for the last mountain stage in his last Tour, so they interviewed him before the stage. Here’s what he had to say.

INTERVIEWER: What are your thoughts heading into this final Grand Tour mountain stage?

PINOT: I’m feeling a bit wistful, as you can imagine.

INTERVIEWER: Because your career is coming to an end?

PINOT: Well yeah, of course, but also because the sport seems to be changing. It’s not so beautiful anymore.

INTERVIEWER: In what sense?

PINOT: Well, they banned that style of riding where you put your forearms on the tops of the bars to create an aero position, as though you were using an aero bar, and so now lots of bikes have these goofy handlebars that are really narrow at the top, and then the drops are canted out to the side, almost like on a gravel bike, and it’s disgusting.

INTERVIEWER: But the Tour is so much bigger than just the bikes, isn’t it?

PINOT: Yeah, but other things have deteriorated. You have all these male fans running around in underwear, not even proper boxers but tighty-whiteys, and as they run alongside the riders they let their asses hang out. I cannot understand their motivation.

INTERVIEWER: Um … okay. Good luck today.

Full disclosure: nobody translated the interview from the French, and I had to guess at a lot of it. And actually, I must confess I made some of it up. Okay, all of it. I don’t even know if the French have a term for “tighty-whiteys.”

A chasing trio has formed behind, with Pidcock, Barguil, and Harper. They’re about 30 seconds behind Pinot.

Now Pidcock and Barguil drop Harper and the gap rather quickly comes down to 20 seconds.

The crush of fans is pretty incredible.

Now the lead starts to go out again. Perhaps Pinot is being buoyed along by the fans.

Back in the GC group, UAE still sets tempo, just in case Pogacar finds some life in his legs.

Ah, I spoke too soon. Now Jumbo-Visma moves to the front with Wilco Kelderman setting a nice pace for Vingegaard.

Pinot crests the Petit Ballon summit with a 33-second gap. He goes for a gel. I wonder how he’ll fare on this 10-kilometer descent … he’s not known for descending well, whereas Pidcock is arguably the best in the business.

Oh, no! What’s this? David Gaudu (team leader of Groupama-FDJ, sitting 10th overall) has dismounted rather suddenly!

I have a feeling this wasn’t just a pee stop. Ah, they’re showing a replay … he crashed in the sharp curve. He looks to be in pain but he’s getting a new bike and will go on.

Okay, this is really weird. Pidcock is being distanced on this descent by the other two. I would never have predicted this. It’d be like Taylor Swift being upstaged at a concert by the opening band. It just isn’t supposed to happen.

I will confess that I know almost nothing about Taylor Swift so my metaphor could be weak. That said, it’s never a bad idea to include the name of a pop star, such as Taylor Swift, in a blog post to increase pageviews. Taylor Swift Taylor Swift Taylor Swift.

Pinot is managing to maintain most of his lead on this descent, which must be very satisfying for him. And now he’s on the final climb.

Gosh, his lead is suddenly coming down a bit. I have to admit, I’d like to see him win this stage, to go out with a bang. I mean, the crowd favorite, the longtime underdog, winning big on his last try … it would make a kind of corny story, like an ABC After School Special, but I like Pinot. (The rider, not the wine. I have no use for wine.)

The gap is down to 13 seconds, and of course the chasers aren’t all Pinot has to worry about. The GC group is now less than a minute behind, and if Pogacar has one more big attack in him, that could close up pretty quickly.

Pidcock is hauling ass and now they’ve dropped Harper again.

In the GC group, Rafal Majka (UAE Team Emirates) hammers the front for Pogacar.

And now Pogacar attacks!

Only Vingegaard can respond!

But Pogacar seems to fizzle a bit! And now he’s looking around, as if to say hey, is anybody else coming?

And now Felix Gall (AG2R Citroen Team) blows by them and they grab his wheel.

Behind, the Yates brothers attack together.

And Pinot is caught! He looks back and can probably just see the GC group approaching.

And now the entire original breakaway is dropped as the GC trio continues to drill it. The Gall!

Gall sits eighth on GC going into today, but he’s over two minutes out of seventh.

Simon Yates is flying, starting to close on the leading trio and blowing by Pidcock! And now his brother Adam passes Pidcock! It’s a free-for-all!

Simon has caught Pinot and Barguil, and Adam isn’t far behind.

Now the four are together, less than 20 seconds from the leaders.

Ah, I just realized, Pidcock didn’t crack … he’s surely dropping back for his teammate, Rodriguez, to help him defend his fourth place on GC, now that Simon Yates is up the road and needs just 18 seconds.

Yep, there it is … Pidcock has dropped back and now paces Rodriguez. With them is Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), who won a stage of this Tour, wore yellow for a day, and sits seventh on GC.

Pinot is totally dropped. Oh well. He gave it a good try.

With only 550 meters left in the climb, Pogacar isn’t going to be able to do anything. A stage win is probably all he could achieve at this point, though his chances of that are certainly good.

And that’s it, they’re over the final summit.

Now the question is, can the Yates brothers catch this trio, so Simon can fight it out for the stage win and Adam can help Pogacar? Their gap is just 15 seconds.

Oddly, the official summit isn’t really the top. There’s another ~500 meters at 8%, which isn’t exactly a bump in the road.

There’s a lot of dialogue going on between Vingegaard and Gall. I wonder what they’re saying? Vingegaard might be saying, “Look, pal, this stage win is a bigger deal for you … you need to pull,” and Gall might be replying, “Are you kidding? You know I can’t beat Tadej in a sprint. Help me out here … don’t be greedy.” Or maybe they’re arguing about who’s better, Billie Eilish or Taylor Swift. Or Nicki Minaj.

Now Pidcock blows up completely  … he did what he could for Rodriguez.

And the Yates brothers have caught the break. This may well move Simon up in the GC.

Oh, man, Rodriguez, despite a badly scraped-up face, is really heroing up, chasing back with all he’s got. He’s only 15 seconds behind and if he manages to catch, he’ll hang on to fourth overall. Oh, wait, he’s 15 seconds behind the Pinot/Barguil/Bilbao group. So he’s racing to keep Bilbao from knocking him out of fifth, essentially.

They’re into the last kilometer, and Adam Yates winds it up for Pogacar! He’s drilling it on the front, Pogacar tucked right in, should be a textbook leadout. But Vingegaard has thrown away the script and goes early! And he looks really good!

But Pogacar isn’t fazed! He comes around Yates and launches his own sprint, not even bothering to dive onto Vengegaard’s wheel!

Pogacar has got the win!

Here is the stage result. Check it out, Gall sneaked in for second.

Vingegaard chats with his wife. Note how responsible she is, masking up so she doesn’t give her husband COVID and cost him the race. Their child doesn’t need a mask because everybody knows small children cannot get, or spread, COVID. Now, I might be imagining this, but I could swear I heard Vingegaard’s wife say to him, “You look handsome.”

Here is the new GC, which—needless to say—isn’t likely to change tomorrow. Despite his crash, Gaudu climbs up a place, because Kuss lost so much time today.

Now they’re interviewing Pogacar.

INTERVIEWER: It must be satisfying to finally have a good moment after this horrible final week.

POGACAR: Yes, I finally feel like myself again.

INTERVIEWER: You keep touching your nose. And now you’ve just rubbed your nose on your shoulder. What’s going on there? Rogue boogers?

POGACAR: No, just a little non-allergic rhinitis. You have one more chance to ask a legitimate question or this interview is over.

INTERVIEWER: What was your best moment of this Tour?

POGACAR: The atmosphere on the team bus, that was just really great.

INTERVIEWER: And your worst moment?

POGACAR: When [I was dropped and] Marc Soler looked behind at me with his scary eyes ... that was the most terrifying moment.

It’s worth pointing out that most of the above interview is actually pretty faithful to what was said, for once. I only made up the nose bit because somebody had to explore the very real phenomenon of Pogacar constantly messing with his nose on camera.

Pogacar mounts the podium for his stage win.

And now Vingegaard gets another yellow jersey.

You know what’s crazy? It’s how much these two look like other celebrities. Check out the pop singer Aurora, who could be Pogacar’s sister:

And how do Vingegaard and Macaulay Culkin look so much alike?

I feel like the sport needs to capitalize on this somehow.

Pinot mounts the podium having won the Combitivity award for today.

The crowd chants, “PINOT! PINOT! PINOT!”

Oh dear, they’re showing Kuss and the poor guy is really banged up. He was so amazing in this Tour supporting Vingegaard (after having been so amazing supporting Roglic during the Giro) and he came into today in ninth overall … such a bummer of a day for him. He slips to 12th.

They’re interviewing Vingegaard.

INTERVIEWER: How was that today? Are you feeling happy to have this Tour all but won, or do you suffer from complicated emotional problems such that you somehow feel super bad about everything?

VINGEGAARD: I really appreciate the battle, it was [presumably] very nice to watch, it was very close. Today I felt good on the bike, it was another nice fight.

INTERVIEWER: Is this a team victory? And a family victory?

VINGEGAARD: Yes, my family was there every day for  me, they’ve done so well over the last three weeks.

INTERVIEWER: What, really, is the role of the family during the Tour? What does it mean for them to “do well”? It’s not like they were pacing you or giving you advice through your radio or something.

VINGEGAARD: Well, it consists mainly of not distracting me. Lots of riders get these late-night phone calls because the printer isn’t working, or the drip irrigation system has sprung a leak, or their kid won’t go to bed. Or their wives pick fights, they’ll be all like, “You just disappear for three weeks at a time, how do you think I feel?” So I didn’t have to put up with that, which I appreciate.

INTERVIEWER: What is your best memory of this Tour?

VINGEGAARD: The whole team, way we rode as a team, executed our plan every day, thanks to the team once again.

INTERVIEWER: That’s not exactly a single, specific memory. I was hoping for some kind of clear-cut snapshot, a perfect little set piece that would distill your overall experience into a single moment we can all easily picture.

VINGEGAARD: Okay, in that case, my favorite memory is about to be formed—it will be the moment you get that mic out of my face.

Well, that’s about it for this year. Watch these pages next month because I’ll probably cover the Vuelta a España…

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