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When You Are a Man, Sometimes You Wear Stretchy Pants

About a month ago (I’ve been resting my blogging muscles since then), I completed my third 100-mile bike ride — the accurately named “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” in Tahoe.  As with my two previous “centuries,” I did this one with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT — because, really, do you think they’d want to be known as “TiT”?).  Don’t want to bury the lede, so here it is: I had a blast!  I love my teammates!  And thanks to a bunch of very generous people, I was able to surpass my personal $2,700 fundraising goal, ending up with $4,238.22 to fight blood cancers and to support patients and their loved ones.  Thanks so much to everyone who donated, or who offered words of encouragement! A couple of big changes since my previous century ride:

  • New bike — a nifty “road bike,” instead of my heavier “hybrid,” which is much more suited for commuting than for very long (and hilly) rides.
  • Stretchy pants.
Just about to start riding in Tahoe (pants redacted).

Just about to start riding in Tahoe (pants redacted).

This second transition was arguably more nerve-wracking than the first.  I did not want to wear stretchy pants: I am a fellow who likes to preserve some mystery.  But my beloved (and sometimes intimidating) head coach, K.Sue, became increasingly adamant on this point.  As she saw it, I had already gotten so close to being a real, honest-to-God cyclist — road bike, “clipless” pedals (which means, paradoxically, pedals with clips), and such — but had stopped tantalizingly short: with my shorts.  The baggy shorts I favored were clearly knocking 0.000001 mph off my top speed, and this needed to be rectified.

So on June 1, amid thousands of other cyclists, I rode “naked.”  There was nothing between my lower parts and the warm mountain air other than a thin layer of stretchy stuff.  And it was … okay!  Someone on my team even complimented me on my shapely legs, though I think maybe she was kidding.  In any case, it felt like another step towards becoming the kind of person both of my brothers would see at Peet’s and laugh at — which is something.

Here’s the map of my ride; you can click on it to embiggen and to see all sorts of details (none of them involving my legs):


Postscript on “Josh Kornbluth Day”: Staying Amazed

Susan Duhan Felix has an automatic signature on her emails: “Stay Amazed.”

The one email she’s sent me that hasn’t had that signature (because, I think, she sent it from her iPhone) is the most recent: it came in response to an e-blast I sent out to let people know that I’m now artist in residence at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.  Pretty clearly, Susan Felix had meant to send that email to someone else.  Here’s the text of her email, in its entirety: “Mainly it’s interesting. I don’t think he’d be helpful. He’s very funny but unreliable and flaky.”

So, okay, she thinks I’m unreliable and flaky — but on the other hand: funny!  I’d call it a wash.

Susan Felix is the person who’d recommended that the City of Berkeley have a “Josh Kornbluth Day.”  That day — April 29 — things didn’t go as planned, as an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, Gregory Magofña, had spaced out on doing the proclamation; so my wife and son and I showed up at the City Council chambers, but had to go home, proclamation-less.

A week later, on May 6, I got an email from Susan saying that my delayed proclamation would be presented to me on “Tuesday.”  Since it was Tuesday when I got that email, I assumed (since she mentioned no date) that she meant the following Tuesday.

Boy, was I wrong!  That very day, during the City Council meeting, Mayor Bates announced that he was now going to present me with my “Josh Kornbluth Day” proclamation — and (as you already know) I wasn’t there!

Soon after, I got another email from Susan Felix, letting me know that I should come by the mayor’s office sometime and pick up my proclamation.  As usual, her message was signed, “Stay Amazed, Susan.”

So I wrote to mayoral aide Gregory Magofña, asking when would be a good time for me to come and get my proclamation — and about a month later I got a reply from him, apologizing for his delay in responding and saying I could pick up the proclamation whenever I wanted to.

Which was sweet and cool and all.  It’s just that there was one detail in his email that kind of jumped out at me: It was addressed to “John” — not to, you know, Josh.

And then I got that last email from Susan Felix, letting me know that I’m unreliable and flaky — but, you know, funny!

“Josh Kornbluth Day”: it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Oh My God Something Really Gross Happened on My Last Training Ride I Mean Nothing Terrible Just Yowza!

So I stepped in some human poo.  Lots of it — a big, soft mound.  We were at our SAG stop — where kind volunteers offer us food and beverages — and I needed to pee.  I saw one of your garden-variety skinny cycling guys emerge from a path that led into the nearby woods and I thought (not unreasonably), Hey, that’s probably a good place for me to pee!  So I headed down that path, which was pretty narrow, and my focus was on some dicey-looking plants along the side: I was remembering my wife saying, “Leaves of three, let them be.”  So I’m looking left and right, worrying about leaves of three, when I stepped in something soft and gushy.  And big: my cycling shoes sunk in almost all the way.  And I thought, Please, dear God, let this be mud!  Only, it hadn’t been raining.  And when I re-emerged from the path, all my teammates started exclaiming (not unreasonably) that something smelled really bad.  I mean, it was epically awful.  People thought it might be from a nearby farm or something.  And I couldn’t get the stuff off my shoes!  The poo had glopped into all the nooks and crevices of the cleats, and up from there.  It was Biblical!  And I still had, like, 30 miles left to ride with my teammates!

I’m sure you stopped reading this disgusting account a while ago, so now I’m probably just re-living this horror to my own self … but, wow!!  I tried riding behind everyone else, but sometimes we all bunched up (like at a stoplight) and people would start yelling (quite understandably) that something smelled just awful.  And that something was me!  And there was nothing I could do about it!  (I mean, I’d used up a whole bunch of diaper wipes, and everything, on the damn shoes — it was hopeless.)

And now, because you’re not actually reading this, I’m going to tell you what happened when I first went to day camp.  I was, oh, I don’t know, maybe five or so?  And having grown up in Manhattan, I’d never been in nature before — which is to say, away from a normal bathroom.  And as I hiked with the other kids and our counselors, I realized that I needed to poo.  But there was no bathroom!  Finally, we got to this ancient Port-a-Potty type thing, and I was terrified to go in there.  But I really, really needed to go!  All the other kids were going in there, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.  Till finally, well, I just relaxed my sphincter and … you know. …  As we headed back to the bus, people started commenting that something smelled like poo.  I agreed, suggesting that it was perhaps from a wild animal.  This diversionary tactic became totally ineffective once we were actually back on the bus.  A counselor asked me why I had done what I’d done.  I don’t remember what I said in reply.  But I was, as you might imagine, quite embarrassed.

And then … 50 years went by, during which I never smelled strongly of poo (my own, or another’s).  Fifty years!  That’s a pretty good stretch of poo-less-ness.  But all good things must come to an end, and some bad things come from an end, and these two vectors of fate intersected on Saturday, because of a really, really inconsiderate cyclist with an impressive capacity for poo production (especially considering his overall skinniness).

At the end of our ride, there was — wait for it — a team cookout!  And no, I didn’t attend the cookout, of course.  Meanwhile, I noticed that sprinklers had gone on in a nearby field, so while everyone else was cookout-ing, I ran over and held my soiled cycling shoes up to the nozzle of a sprinkler.  My goal was to de-soil the shoes, but what this ended up doing was distributing the poo molecules throughout the entire shoe.  So I went over to where there was a dispenser of plastic bags for dog-walkers, and I took a bunch of them and totally wrapped up my drenched, poo-ey shoes (I had been offered a car ride back to BART, and I wasn’t about to inflict these shoes on anyone else!) and walked, barefoot and sad, back to the parking lot.  There were sharp things in the parking lot — splinters, and such — but what I’m telling you is, I just didn’t care!

Well, when I got back home I threw out those shoes.  Yes! — even though I’m broke-ass!  And I bought a new pair — because, well, POO!!  I know this was extravagant on my part, but before you cast the first stone, try riding a few miles in my old bike shoes.

And hey: otherwise, it was a lovely ride!  Here’s the map, which you can click on for all kinds of cool details (none of them, thankfully, olfactory):

And here are my two previous training rides:

This coming Sunday, June 1, I’ll finally be doing the big event: “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride,” a 100-miler, in Tahoe, with my teammates from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.  Thanks to everyone who donated towards my ride — it means the world to me, and to cancer patients and their loved ones!  (You can still contribute, if you want, by clicking here.)

I’m really sorry about the disgustingness of this blog entry, but I just had to write it, so that the healing could begin.

I mean, yeesh!

My First Death

Singing-BowlYesterday I took my first shift at the Zen Hospice Project (ZHP) in San Francisco, where I am the newly appointed artist-in-residence.  Since the kind of “artist” I am mostly involves talking about myself, people there (e.g., staff, along with relatives of the “residents” — the term used at ZHP instead of “patients”) understandably had (friendly) questions about what I might be up to: after all, a visual artist (say) might be expected to sit in a corner and do some sketching.  What would a monologuist do?

Well, it turns out, based on my first day, that what I do is be there.  Which was, for me, an incredibly profound experience.  Every moment I felt privileged — blessed — to be included in this remarkable community.

When I arrived for my shift (the volunteers work in three-hour shifts, preceded and followed by hour-long shift-change meetings), I learned that there were, at the moment, no residents!  Which is apparently a very unusual occurrence.  Was it something I’d said?  This sounds incredibly weird even as I type it, but there’s an eeriness to a hospice that has no patients in it.  (I think I’m going to use the “p” word from time to time.)  Kind of an almost unbearable lightness.  For the moment, this lovely house was … just a lovely house!

Except, of course, nurses and other staff members were still there.  And also — incredibly, to me, though this obviously happens regularly at the hospice — there was a person who was already dead.  She was a tiny, elderly woman, who had died only a few days after arriving there.  I first observed the bathing ceremony: Still lying in her bed in her pretty room at the hospice — clothed — with her hands crossed and her mouth (this was a powerful thing to see) agape, she was surrounded by her three grown children and what I took to be a son-in-law.  An RN named Jeff, who with his shaved-bald head and liquidly soulful eyes is someone you’d pick out of a lineup as who you’d want to run your death ceremony, made a gong-like sound by hitting a bowl three times with a kind of mallet.  Explaining everything as he was doing it, he simultaneously emptied two carafes — one containing water, the other a kind of tea made from a spice that, he said, had long been used at death ceremonies by Native Americans from the area — into a bowl.  He explained to the family members that anyone was free to do what he was about to do: dip a washcloth in the bowl and ceremonially wash the dead woman’s feet, hands, and face (he explained that her body had already been bathed completely by staff).

The family members seemed reluctant to participate in this way — which was fine.  That’s one thing that I really appreciated about the ceremony: the non-pushiness of it.  A lot of this non-pushiness came from Jeff: he made everyone feel okay just to be, and do, whatever was natural.

Everybody, I’m learning, responds differently to the death of a loved one.  This is, to me, something that is both remarkable and — when I think about it — also unremarkable, in the sense that we are all different individuals, with our own quirks.  It is, perhaps, the suppression of those quirks — the denial of our unique individuality — that makes so many ceremonies seem so false, so stuffy.  Years ago, when my father died, I felt, at the funeral, as if we family members were almost like extras — and, for that matter, that Dad himself was kind of a prop: Paul Kornbluth, in the role of the dead person.  In a way, I’ve spent much of my life since then trying, through storytelling, to restore his astonishing individuality.  Yesterday, as this tiny, old — now dead — woman lay there, no platitudes were said about her.  She was being celebrated, and her passing was being noted, and everyone could feel it in their own way — while at the same time being in the presence of others who were doing their own feeling.

A body that is no longer animated by breath, by hope, by love, is no longer a person: that was my experience yesterday.  I realize that this probably should seem obvious — but I guess it wasn’t obvious to me, until I experienced it.

Another thing that struck me profoundly, but is also (I guess) obvious: death is a totally natural part of life.  Death has always felt, to me, kind of like the sun: something that’s there, but you don’t (can’t?) look at.  Well, you can look at it.  You can look at it with the same eyes, and mind and heart, that take in the infinitely astonishing joyful miracle of a child’s birth.  And you can feel what you feel, and that’s you, and no one else should be able to tell you how or what to feel.  How we experience death — others’, and our own — is (I think) an important part of our personal autonomy.  Also: When we make death a separate category from life, we tear a deep gash into the fabric of our existence, and bear the pain — and the sense of incompleteness — from that fissure through all our days.

To put it in wonkish terms: In the program of life, death is not a bug — it’s a feature.

A short time later, downstairs — as the imposingly enormous and courteous guy from the mortuary went about moving the body from the room upstairs — one of the woman’s sons approached me.  “Excuse me,” he said, “but I wonder if you could tell me the significance of ringing the bell three times?”

I confessed to him, somewhat sheepishly, that this was my first day, and I didn’t know — but told him that every meeting I’d attended at the hospice began with three dings and then 10 minutes of “sitting” (meditating), which itself was followed by three dings.  The guy nodded.  Then he smiled a little smile: “I think I’ve seen them do it on Star Trek.”

I smiled back: “Well, then we know it’s got gravitas.”

I went off to try to find someone who could tell me why the bell-bowl had been rung three times.  The hospice was less populated than usual, due to the paucity of residents to be cared for, and I couldn’t find anyone who knew.  Everyone — including the family members — assumed that Jeff would know: I mean, he’s bald, and he’s spiritual!  Finally, I saw Jeff descending the stairs, carrying the bowl and other objects from the ceremony.

“Jeff,” I said, “can I just ask you a quick question?”

With a touch of weariness, he said, “No, Josh, I do not know why we ring it three times!”

So clearly the word had gotten around that I was investigating the issue.  And I thought: Okay, it’s time to stop asking about this.

Everyone next gathered outside, in a kind of garden area, for the second part of the death ceremony, in which people lay rose petals on the body before it (she) is taken away by the gi-normous mortuarian and his regular-sized pal.  I told the family members that, based on my researches, the Star Trek theory was clearly in the lead.  One of the daughters said, “We should Google it!”

Well, anyone who has been around me recently knows that I’m fairly obsessed with asking questions aloud to my new Android phone.  So excitedly, I pulled out my phone and said, “Okay, Google now!” (which makes it blurble to life).  I didn’t know how to word the question, so I looked desperately over to the family members, one of whom whispered, “Why three gongs at a Zen ceremony?”

So I said that into my phone, and after some more glurgling, it typed out: “Why three dongs at a Zen ceremony?”

I looked up from my phone apologetically.  I told the family members that, while Google was taking our question in a fascinating and unexpected direction, it seemed perhaps best to leave the matter be for now.  They readily agreed.

(For what it’s worth, this is my current theory of why three: Why not three?)

Later, after the body had been taken away and the family members had quietly and politely said their good-byes to us, I found out that this tiny old woman had, in life, been quite the spitfire.  In fact, not long before her final bout with cancer, she had loved going to the gym to Zumba!  And suddenly, in my mind, that dead body was animated into the living person she had been: I pictured her in tights — in the front row, dammit! — Zumba-ing like all get-out!

She’s dead now — but my God, she lived!  She lived on this Earth!  And she rhythmically swung her hips, and she smiled and sweated, and I bet everyone loved being in class with her.

About an hour later a new resident arrived.  After spending a couple of hours in his vicinity, I can already tell you that he is a remarkable person, with a deeply loving son and beautiful grandchildren.  I can report that I saw his young granddaughter tenderly stroke the hair of her even-younger brother.  I hope and pray that this man will still be there on Friday, when I return to the hospice for my next shift.

In the meantime, may we who are currently living take every opportunity to Zumba like crazy!  Turn the dial up to 12!  Bust a move!

[I will be doing a solo performance on Oct. 1 as a benefit for the Zen Hospice Project.  In the meantime, I plan to continue blogging here, as well as improvising about my experiences at some lovely Bay Area theater, and even — tech gods permitting — recording a regular podcast.  Details to come, in this space.]

Training Rides #8 & #9: Near-Bonk Experience

[For the next month, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training (TNT), as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride”  (AMBBR) in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

Me during the May 3 ride (after my near-bonk), with some of my TNT teammates -- each one of them a bicycling bad-ass and a lovely person.

Me during the May 3 ride (after my near-bonk), with some of my TNT teammates — each one of them a bicycling bad-ass and a lovely person.

I was climbing up a hill during last week’s training ride, in and around Half Moon Bay, when I suddenly felt like a machine that was overheating and out of fuel — which, I guess, is what I was.  I’d missed two full weeks of training and working out, but the early part of this ride had seemed to go okay.  Now, though, I was on this difficult ascent, and suddenly it wasn’t just difficult — it was kind of hallucinogenic.  So I did something I hadn’t done before, in (now) three years of endurance training with TNT: I got off my bike during a climb.

My body felt clammy now, and my legs were shaky.  I took a long drink from one of my water bottles (to which I’d added a “hydration mix” called Skratch), then wolfed down an entire package of super-sweet gummy Shot Bloks.  Possibly I was just on the edge of bonking, the dreaded affliction that comes upon all endurance cyclists at some point (I’m told): basically, your body runs out of fuel, and shuts down.  People have told me of crying uncontrollably by the side of the road and other yucky post-bonk manifestations; it sounds horrible, and usually you can’t recover from a bonk in time to finish your ride.

I was probably fortunate that the heatwave that attacked the Bay Area during the previous week had given way to a lovely coolness: had the temperatures been higher, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to recover.  But the moments’ rest, along with the hydration and sugar rush, revived me enough to get back on my bike and finish that hill.

But then there were still many more miles — and climbs — left to go!  And what happened was, I reconnected with my speed-group teammates (I’d briefly gotten separated from them during my near-bonk experience), and I got a second wind (or something), and I mostly felt stronger and stronger for the rest of the 69-mile ride (you can click on this map to see more details):

Afterwards, I reflected on how there are two big, bad things you can feel on a tough ride:  One is pain — and that seems to be unavoidable, and even can become something you kind of enjoy (in a masochistic sort of way), especially after the fact.  But the other — the bonk — is a sudden negation of self, and it’s terrifying and sad and empty.  I didn’t go there last weekend, but I got closer than I’d like.

*       *       *

My previous training ride, two weeks earlier (see map below), was a tough one as well.  Starting and ending at lovely Stafford Lake in Novato, we did a bunch of climbing — including the notorious Marshall Wall.  The Marshall Wall goes straight up, into infinity.  Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one.

Lots of aches and pains during this ride, but — thankfully — no hint of bonking.  And when it was over, I could eat anything I wanted to, guilt-free — which is a big part of the sport’s appeal to me (another part being the celebratory, post-ride Epsom-salt bath).

How I Celebrated “Josh Kornbluth Day” in Berkeley

What one intersection in Berkeley looked like while experiencing Josh Kornbluth Day. (Photo by Sara Sato)

What one intersection in Berkeley looked like while experiencing Josh Kornbluth Day. (Photo by Sara Sato)

A few months ago I got an email from a very nice woman asking me whether I would like for a day to be proclaimed “Josh Kornbluth Day” in Berkeley.  I was pretty sure she was kidding, but I wrote back and said, “Sure.”

A week or so later I got another email from her, asking whether April 29 would be a good day for me.  I wrote back, saying, “Sure.”

Then she send me a third email, asking me to draft the proclamation for Josh Kornbluth Day in Berkeley.  This threw me for a loop, as I have spent about a quarter-century writing in a style that leans heavily on self-deprecation.  So I did what comes naturally to me: I procrastinated.

Eventually the woman wrote back to me, asking (nicely) how my proclamation draft was coming along.  I read that email, clenched internally, and moved on.

Then, about a week ago, she wrote back — this time with more urgency.  Was I having a problem coming up with a draft?  Might I want someone to help me with it?  After all, Josh Kornbluth Day was rapidly approaching, and Mayor Tom Bates’s staff would need something to work with as they crafted the final proclamation wording.  I replied, somewhat testily, that it seemed weird to me that a city that was offering me the high honor of a day would not already know stuff about me; but of course, this was just some more procrastination on my part.

Later that evening, I finally wrote a draft of the proclamation.  I wrote about my love for the city of Berkeley, and about my pride in Berkeley’s progressive heritage.  I resisted the impulse to add a passage about the sense of entitlement that we in Berkeley often seem to fall prey to.  I also chose not to mention the feelings of dread and self-loathing that have, of late, frequently spiked my waking hours.  It just seemed to me that a “Josh Kornbluth Day” Proclamation should be more, you know, upbeat.

And then I sent in my draft proclamation to the nice woman, and she said it was great — and that now all I needed to do was show up at the City Council chambers by 7 p.m. on April 29.

So yesterday, April 29, my wife and son and I showed up at the Berkeley City Council chambers at 7 p.m.  And it turns out that, aside from that nice woman (who was there), no one else was aware that it was Josh Kornbluth Day.  Apparently, the task of finalizing the “Josh Kornbluth Day” declaration had been the task of an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, and that aide had spaced it out, and in any case had left the building for the day.  Mayor Bates and the nice woman told me that Josh Kornbluth Day would be rescheduled — and possibly even be extended into a Josh Kornbluth Week.

And so my wife and son and I walked home.  And I have to tell you, I felt great!  It was a beautiful evening, and as far as I knew all my loved ones were safe.  Plus, there was an overall vibe of disorganization, of fucked-up-ness, that — come to think of it — felt perfect for Josh Kornbluth Day.

So, okay, maybe in a week or so there will be another, official Josh Kornbluth Day event — but what I’m telling you is, it really was yesterday, April 29, 2014.  And it went off without a hitch.

Training Rides #6 & #7: Speed 3

[For the next couple of months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training (TNT), as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride”  (AMBBR) in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

So there I was last Saturday, going downhill in or around San Leandro (see map below; click on it for ride details), and I realized that I was going really fast — for me, at least.  When I hit little things in the road, my bike seemed to kind of launch into the air for a bit, and also my helmet (which I’d thought was really on tightly) started flopping up and down.  I found this interesting.  Then my front wheel went over a manhole cover, which has a swirly pattern on it (I think), and all of a sudden my bike was acting like a drunkard: trying really hard to swerve, alternately to the left and to the right.  I held on for dear life, as traffic zoomed by to the left of me; it felt as though there was a very good chance that I would lose control of the bike and find myself on the pavement, going (at least initially) 34.4 mph.  But — within seconds, probably, though it felt much longer at the time — things were back to normal and I was moving forward again, under control.

All of which is to say that I’ve been riding a bit faster lately.  I’d already moved up from the slowest group (my hangout in the past) to the next-fastest group, and on Saturday I’m going to move up yet another notch.  (Just to be clear, I’m still way slower than lots and lots of the riders on our team — I think maybe they have secret electric motors somewhere.)

But unlike last week — a “Buddy Ride,” not organized by speed groups — on this next ride I’ll be with a coach and teammates, which should be much safer.

Psychologically, it’s an adjustment not being in the slowest group, where my only goal was to — please, dear God! — finish each ride.  Now my identity is in flux, and my goals are less clear: I mean, I still want to finish, of course, but I also want to see improvement each time I go out.  So I’m kind of competing with myself, which I wasn’t doing before.  And the thing about competing with yourself is that, no matter what, one version of yourself will always lose.

Hey, this is great — I’m finding new ways to humiliate myself!!

*     *     *

My previous ride (see map below) was in and around Walnut Creek.  It was both beautiful and full of pain and heavy breathing (which is how I hope critics receive my erotic novel, if I ever write one).  I see from (click on the map) that my highest speed that day was only 31.3 mph — so apparently between that speed and 34.4 my bike and I enter a new state of being — one that involves floating in the air and swerving and some helmet mishegas.

This coming Saturday I will try to test my theory (based on hearsay) that, if I can get myself to descend with my hands down in the drops, instead of on top of the bars (as I currently do), my lowered center of gravity will give me more stickiness on the road.  Also, I will try to avoid swirly-topped manhole covers — which, dear reader, I recommend you do as well.

Training Rides #4 & #5: The Descents of Man

[For the next couple of months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training (TNT), as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride”  (AMBBR) in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

Our training ride — in Vacaville — was rained out today, sadly.  So I’ll take this time to catch up on recounting our past two rides.  Both were lovely, though at the time they seemed — alternately — scary, exhilarating, and painful.  It’s still so weird to me to find myself road-cycling — something that just seems like an activity I wouldn’t ever do.  At the start of each ride there are always moments when I wonder at the strangeness of what I’m doing, on a Saturday morning when God had originally intended for me to be sleeping in.  Then we hit the first real climb, and the lactic acid kicks in, and I’m there: there is no more speculation or theory, only experience (and the occasional — okay, more than occasional — daydream of the post-ride bath and guilt-free cheeseburger).  To my surprise and relief, I have found long-distance bike riding to be a depression-stopper — though not, fortunately, an introspection-killer.

Dang! — as I type up this blog post, I’m missing today’s ride more and more!  But I’ll admit that at 5:45 a.m. this morning, when the email from head coach K.Sue came in announcing the ride’s cancelation, there was an element of temporary relief as my head quickly went back down to the pillow (and stayed there for some time).

A couple of weeks ago I had a non-weather reason for missing the Saturday ride — Sara and I went to Sacramento to join thousands of others in beseeching Gov. Jerry Brown to reverse his incomprehensible (and indefensible) pro-fracking stance.  It was a beautiful day in Sacramento — by which I mean to say it was friggin’ hot.  It’s the kind of weather that normal people — those less insulated and less bald than myself — tend to rhapsodize about.  Sara helped me find some semblance of shade, from which I could more comfortably listen to the speakers.  I guess it’s ironic that I’m for solar energy but also for standing in the shade, but what can I say?  I am complex, and contain multitudes.

We demonstrators then spread ourselves into a big circle that surrounded the Capitol Building.  I don’t think Jerry Brown was in there at the time — in fact, I’m not sure anyone was in there.  And then we dispersed.  And nothing had changed, at least not immediately: not Gov. Brown’s stance on fracking, not the (I hope) somehow exorable overheating of our planet.  But it felt really good to be expressing our views, with like-minded others — much better than staying home and doing nothing.  And it felt super-great to be back in Sara’s air-conditioned car — even though, yeah, car and fighting the fossil-fuel industry would seem to be somewhat incompatible concepts.  You know: complexity.

Fortunately, my pal Richard Blevins graciously had offered to join me on Sunday and help me re-create the ride I’d missed the day before.  Richard and his wife, Sue, were a big part of what made my first two seasons with TNT so much fun, as they drove me (and my bike) to and from all the training rides that weren’t BART-accessible.  They’re both terrific cyclists, longtime TNT-ers and coaches, but they’re not on my AMBBR team this year — so it was a special treat to get to go riding with Richard this time.  Plus, it was just him and me, so it was like having my own personal cycling coach.

Here’s our ride that day:

For the most part, you go up and up and up, and then you turn around and go down and down and down.  I was having so much fun chatting with Richard on the way up that when we got to the top, I felt a bit of a letdown: the ride, thus far, hadn’t felt epic enough.  So when Richard asked me if I wanted to do the “Wall,” I surprised myself by saying yes.  I’d been on this ride twice before (once in each of my first two TNT seasons).  The first time, when we got to the top, I was pretty sure that I’d reached the limits of human endurance.  The second time, it felt maybe a smidge less punishing.  But I’d never had any thought of taking on the mysterious and forbidding Wall, which all the really bad-ass cyclists on the team always made a point of doing, and which I’d always imagined as … well, a wall — a rock face going straight up — though I realize that such a thing probably wouldn’t be practical for even the best cyclist.

Well, it turns out that I was almost right: the Wall may not have been straight up and down, but it was … well, wow.  After that summit we went on a steep descent — which, when we turned around at the bottom, turned out to be the Wall.  Suddenly my leg muscles didn’t just sting; they screamed.  And my breathing became this super-loud thing — so much so that a woman, ascending ahead of me, turned back in apparent alarm that she was about to be overtaken by a steam engine.  It was almost — almost — un-doable for me, and each pedal-stroke began as a stubborn act of faith and defiance.  But then we were back at the summit, and somehow I’d done the Wall, and I felt like a superhero.

Then we headed (mostly) down, and my overarching thought was, Whee!  Though also, sometimes: Yikes! …  Now that I have my cool new road bike, I have the stirrings of a desire for speed (rather than my previous goal, which was pretty much only to survive).  Richard, after watching me descend a few times, suggested that I make a few adjustments — including relaxing my upper body and (dauntingly) going down into the drop bars.

Drop bars, as they exist in nature.

Drop bars, as they exist in nature.

My other, older bike, a “hybrid,” doesn’t have drop bars, so this was never an issue before.  So far, on my sweet new Roubaix, I mostly ride with my hands at the top of the bars, by the “hoods” (I think) over the brake levers.  In this position I’m already leaning over quite a bit more than on the hybrid; to get down into the drops I have to lean over even more — which is unlikely to happen, if my tummy has anything to say about it.  But Richard explained how much faster you can go when you’re down in the drop bars — much less of you for the wind to resist — plus how much more control you have, and he urged me to start experimenting with that more-extreme position, for maybe 30 seconds at a time.  He intended, I think, for this to be something I’d experiment with on future rides, but on one of our big descents I decided to give it a try. …  It was some scary shit.  I felt like I was going way faster, my nose seemed to be just centimeters from the blurry ground, and I had the sense that the slightest twitch could send me flying off the road.  But I have to say: it was also kind of fun. …  After a little while, I nervously climbed my hands back up to their usual, safer-feeling position at the top of the drops.  But I was no longer a down-in-the-drop-bar virgin, and the future was full of promise.  Now, if I could just afford liposuction. …

The Great Nibali (tummy not included).

The Great Nibali (tummy not included).

I realize, of course, that no matter how good I get at descending I will be no Nibali.  Pro cyclist Vincenzo Nibali is the greatest descender in the world.  My friend Karen worships him, kind of the way the Pope worships God, only with more justification and fervor.  By his own reckoning, Nibali has gone as fast as 105 or 110 kilometers per hour while descending.  (I don’t have the mental power to convert that into miles per hour — and I don’t feel like opening a new tab and Googling it — but I think it’s something like a billion mph.)  Karen sent me an article from a cycling magazine in which Nibali gives descending tips — strangely, not once does he mention how difficult it is to bend over when you have a potbelly, which for me is the starting point of any discussion of drop-bar-related technique.

After we finished the ride, Richard insisted on driving me all the way home to Berkeley (rather than just dropping me off at the BART station where he’d picked me up, which was right by where he lives).  He’d brought an extra bottle of water — with ice in it! — and asked whether I wanted to stop at In-N-Out Burger on the way back. …  Now, in order to communicate to you how happy this made me, I need to explain that the day before — as Sara had been driving us back from the demo in Sacramento — we’d seen an In-N-Out Burger and I’d suggested that we stop there for a post-protest bite; but Sara wanted something less In-N-Out Burger-y, so we just stuck with the raw almonds we had in the car. …  So when Richard made that suggestion, he was offering me nothing less than a gastronomic redemption for that earlier deprivation.  And let me tell you, the experience of eating that burger (okay, double-burger) and fries, after a fun but strenuous ride, was one of those rare situations where the reality transcends the anticipation.

Shortly thereafter, I began a truly steep descent — one that I am sure I can do even faster than Nibali: into a deep sleep that was only briefly interrupted by the practical matter of getting myself and my bike from Richard’s truck up to my apartment.  And no — I don’t let my Roubaix sleep with me and Sara in the big bed!  I mean, even road bikes need to know there are limits.

*        *        *

For last week’s ride, I was back with my teammates.  On a couple of descents I again experimented with going all the way down into the drops — and again, the experience was both exhilarating and just-on-the-edge-of-terrifying.  But I’ll keep trying!

Here’s that ride (you can click on any of these maps to get all sorts of exciting granular details):

This ride was accessible via BART, so In-N-Out Burger wasn’t an option for me.  Not that I’m all about the post-ride rewards.

Okay, I’m mostly about the post-ride rewards.

But afterwards, what I like to write about are the in-the-moment experiences — the ones I futilely try to resist living in while they’re happening.  Because I’m not Nibali — I’m Kornbluth.  And that’s how I roll.

Training Rides #2 & #3: Roubaix, Mon Amour

[For the next several months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training, as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

My second and third rides were both in Marin, and were both lovely and pretty relaxing, so they’re kind of mixing together in my mind.  Here’s the first one, on March 1 (you can click on the map to get more details):

Last Saturday’s ride took us along the Paradise Loop, which left me feeling paradisiacal and loopy:

Neither ride was very challenging, so both gave me plenty of time to daydream about how incredibly hard the rides were soon going to get. After a few years of training on my hybrid bike, riding my new bike — my lovely Roubaix — feels like almost a different sport entirely: this bike wants to go forward.  I think my new bike might secretly look down on me, as perhaps it was hoping to be ridden by a pro — or at least one of those road-biking bad-asses who un-secretly look down on me.  (Last season, at a brief stop during a long training ride, I found myself walking directly towards a gentleman who was perhaps in his 60s.  Clearly an excellent and seasoned biker, he wore his stretchy biking clothes like a second skin; and of course he had the wraparound shades.  I was feeling proud and happy to have gotten to wherever we were in the mountains, and I gave him a big smile and wave and a “Hi!” — you know, as one road-cyclist to another.  He didn’t even acknowledge me — didn’t smile or wave back or even pause.  And I knew why: He was a cycling bad-ass; I wasn’t.  Maybe one day, when I’ve gotten really good and have begun to wear wraparound shades and have zero-point-zero-one body fat, he will finally acknowledge me.  Of course, by then he will be over 100 and the world will all be underwater.)  But I think I can win over my new bike.  When it sees how hard I work, how determined I am to improve, it will — at first begrudgingly — cut me some slack.  Eventually, it may even come to admire me, the way Sherlock came to admire Dr. Watson.

But here’s the thing, no matter how many bad things my bike may think about me, it treats me royally!  There were a few times, in the last two rides, when I had to stop at a red light and fell behind some of the other riders.  On each occasion, I … well, what it felt like is that I just thought about going faster.  I must have been pressing the pedals a bit harder as well, but it felt more natural, more organic and magical than that.  It felt as though, once I’d had the thought that it would be really nice to catch up with the folks ahead of me, my bike just started zooming forward.  This linkage — of intention, to power, to speed — was exhilarating.

Now, don’t get me wrong: climbing is still really hard.  This isn’t an electric bike!  And the climbing is only going to get harder on our upcoming rides.  But it’s quite a feeling to be riding a machine that is so exquisitely designed for the task of zipping along roadways.  As you may know, I don’t know how to drive a car (yet!), so this is my first inkling of what all you normal people are talking about when you rave about how it feels to drive a great car.  My new bike makes me smile, and I can’t wait till 2097, when I will finally have paid it off!

P.S.: Apropos of nothing, here’s a bike-related secret thought that I can share with you: Every time a teammate calls out “Gravel!” as a warning to us fellow cyclists, I think “Gravel agent!”  You know, like travel agent, only with gravel.  This delights me.  I don’t know why. …  That is all.

Training Ride #1: Amuse-Route

[For the next several months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training, as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]

Our first training ride (after the previous week’s had been rained out) was yesterday morning.  As is my habit before most training days, I woke up intermittently during the night before, shot up in bed, noted that I still had more hours to sleep, gratefully collapsed back into my pillow; repeat, etc.  Until one time, when I shot up and — hoping that I’d still have more hours till the alarm — realized that it was only a minute away from ringing!  This felt like a betrayal: how dare the universe wake me just about when I was supposed to get up. …  I got a measure of passive-aggressive revenge by moving from the bedroom to the living room and lying down on the couch for another 15 minutes.  Didn’t actually go back to sleep, but felt groggily smug that I hadn’t totally gotten up yet.

My plan had been to make “No-Bake Granola Bars” (from a recipe that my wife, Sara, had forwarded to me) to bring along on this ride.  But the prospect of cooking tends to panic me, and I kind of froze.  Also, I’d been scarred by an earlier attempt to cook on-the-bike food, when during the week I tried to make a recipe from the much-recommended The Feed Zone Cookbook: Fast and Flavorful Food for Athletesby Biju Thomas & Allen Lim.  Pretty much randomly, I’d picked “Rice & Banana Muffins.”  Sound comforting, right?  Well, maybe when someone else makes it: mine came out like soggy, slimy lumps of Elmer’s Glue, only less flavorful. …  I probably did something (or many things) wrong — though it’s a pretty simple dish, in theory.  Last night I mentioned this calamity to an actual chef (who also happens to be a rabid bike-racing enthusiast), and she remarked that rice flour (one of the key ingredients) can be very tricky to work with.  In any event, I plan — in the fullness of time — to attempt another recipe from The Feed Zone Cookbook, but first I need to try meditation and hypnosis so I can perhaps un-taste those horrible banana-rice globs I made.  (As for the granola bars, I’m feeling strangely optimistic about them, and will try to make them this week.)

Happily for this non-driver, yesterday’s training ride began and ended at the Orinda BART, just a few stops from our place in Berkeley.  K.Sue, our head coach, told us to self-select which of three groups (based on how fast we planned to go) we would ride with.  I was kind of torn, between the middle group and the slow group.  (The fast group was made up mostly of hyper-fit, tall, skinny gazelle-people.)  Opting for caution, I went with the slow group.  As I moved to join them, a voice called out, “Josh, you’re going to the wrong group!”  This was presumably a reference to my spiffy new road bike, on which I might be expected to improve on my usual snail’s pace.  I smiled, and kept moving towards the Slowies.  Later, during the ride, someone told me that it had been K.Sue herself who’d called me out — so for much of the ride, I felt as if I was kind of going against God’s will. …  But later, when I saw K.Sue herself, I asked whether she’d been the one who’d called out to me, and she said she hadn’t.  Which got me to reflecting on how the narratives that so affect our lives can be based on inaccurate (or at least shifting) details — and on how jarring it can be to learn that a crucial, life- or even world-changing incident didn’t really happen as we’d previously thought. …  By the end of the ride, I was working on a theory that the key to solving all the world’s problems is not to believe everything we hear about K.Sue (though, in my experience, all the good things are true).

The ride itself was quite easy — very short (by TNT standards) and mostly pretty flat, with just a few climbs that gave my legs twinges of that familiar burning that (with much greater intensity) will be my pal for these next few months.  It was kind of a training-ride version of an amuse-bouche: a little morsel to get us started on an extended cycling buffet.  Sometimes I thought about wanting to go faster, but I also worried that if I joined a faster group and couldn’t keep up with them, they’d be pissed at having to wait for me.  (The look that you get from teammates who have been getting cold at the top of some windy incline as they’ve waited for you to struggle and catch up with them — well, it’s not pleasant.)  I guess sometimes you have to just take a chance and go for the greatness.  Maybe next Saturday, fortified by successful no-bake granola bars, I will find the strength within myself to do so; then again, maybe these thoughts will end up like those misbegotten rice-and-banana muffins: a nice vision that ultimately collapses into gloppy suckitude.  Only time — that trickster and flirt — will tell.

Below is a map of my training ride.  You can click on it to get all sorts of details, graphs, and whatnot.