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Team In Training

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.

Please Support My Latest Fundraising Ride

1779132_10202777097685404_297078677_nYikes!  I’m about to start training for my third “century” ride with Team In Training, raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  The event — “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride,” in Tahoe — will be on June 1, and I need to raise at least $2,700 before then.  If you can donate any amount for this wonderful cause, I (along with numerous people with blood cancer, and their loved ones) will be eternally grateful!

After each Saturday’s training ride (and my epsom-salted recovery bath) I’ll be posting a blog entry, describing the experience and giving the vital statistics from the ride, along with a map of the route.  No doubt, as the rides build in difficulty from week to week, the tone of these posts will gradually morph from wry bemusement to raw anguish — which should give them the kind of dramatic arc that I’ve been trying for years to get into my theater pieces.

You can make your donation by clicking here or in the cool little purplish rectangular thingie on the right side of my blog page.

Thanks so much!!

My Second Century

At the finish line, with one of my prizes.

At the finish line, with one of my prizes.

There’s a guy at the gym who seems to be a bit competitive with me.  This is weird, as no one else at the downtown Berkeley Y feels this way: if anything, I serve as the person upon whom everyone else may look and think, “Well, at least I’m in better shape than that dude!”  But this guy … well, there’s an edge to him.  Like me, he is middle-aged, stocky, and bald — so that might have something to do with it.  But for whatever reason, on the rare occasions when we interact, I kind of stay on my guard.

Well, yesterday I was coming down the stairs from spin class — my first in a long time — and I was feeling jazzed about getting through it.  And this guy is going down the stairs next to me, and he asks what I’ve been up to lately.  (It’s not like he’s aggressively mean to me — more like a friendly/creepy duality.)  So I told him that tomorrow (which is to say: today, as I’m writing this) would mark a month since I’d ridden my second cycling century.  And he must have heard the pride in my voice, because his reply was undercutting: “Century?  Is that some kind of long ride?”

I mean, come on!  How hard is it to figure out how long a “century” ride is?  But no, he couldn’t just say something like, “Cool!” or “Good job!” or “Wow — that must have been tough!”  No, he had to come back with a sneering kind of pseudo-putdown.

Well, in case he’s reading this — which, I realize, is quite a long shot — let me just spell it out: a “century ride” is 100 freakin’ miles long!  And I finished it — the Solvang Century (my second) — though just barely, and with lots of help.

*          *          *

It was a dark and stormy night when my wife and son and I arrived at Solvang, Calif. …  Well, okay, not stormy, but dark.  I’d had to teach my last class of the quarter at Stanford (on “The Ethics of Storytelling”) that morning, so we couldn’t get down there in the early afternoon, as had been recommended.  In fact, it was 11 p.m. or so when we arrived at the hotel.  I’d missed the “inspiration dinner” with my teammates from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT); now the question was whether to try to find some dinner or just grab a bit of sleep.  I went to sleep.  And an instant later it was early morning, and I had to get up and get ready to cycle.

I won’t belabor this point, but pretty much my entire daily schedule is built around the sizable amount of time I spend in the bathroom (on the plus side, I’ve gotten a lot of reading done — a lot).  The challenge of accomplishing this in an efficient manner is exacerbated when I haven’t slept very much — when, so to speak, even my internal organs are sleepy. …  Okay, I think I actually have belabored the point — but what I’m trying to say is that by the time I had finished my various processes and ablutions, there was no time for me to look for breakfast — so I began the Solvang Century on (if you will) two empty stomachs.  Which is not recommended, as food — besides being, of course, a tool for human self-loathing — is fuel.

Also, unlike last year (my first with TNT), when I hewed closely to the recommended during-the-week workout schedule (brutal) and missed almost none of the weekly training rides (brutal-er), this year — with many creative projects (and one or two nasty colds) to juggle, along with my first-ever teaching gig (which I loved, by the way) — I missed most of my daily workouts and many of the weekly rides.  So I wasn’t in the (relatively) excellent shape I’d been for my first Solvang Century.

Add to the above the fact that my bike — a “hybrid,” built to take the lumps and bumps of city riding — is considerably heavier than the “road” bikes most of the riders were on … and, well, I was looking for trouble.

And I got it.

This was a hard ride!  I mean, hard.

For one thing, there was quite a headwind.  And when there’s a headwind, I essentially become a sail — especially as my bike has me sitting straight up, rather than hunched over as on a road bike (for which, admittedly, my ultra-tight hamstrings thank me).  So basically, what the physical world wanted me to do was to go backwards; whereas, I was quite eager to try to go forward.

Also, the Solvang Century’s organizers had altered the course from last year, and this new route — which took us through the Vandenberg Air Force Base — had much more climbing in its early stages, while still having the famous “wall” (followed by the less-famous “second wall that no one talks about but is really a pain in the ass as well”) in the last 30 miles or so.

So that by the time we got to the 55-mile mark, I felt done.  There was no springiness in my muscles; I had no energy; Kornbluth was kaput.

But here’s the thing: there were still another 50-or-so miles to go!  And a bunch of really, really nice people had donated over 3,000 cancer-fighting dollars ($3,531, as of this writing — today’s the last day for donations, by the way) based on my pledge to complete this century ride!  So I was in kind of a Biking for Godot situation: I must go on.  I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.

But no one said I had to go fast!

That’s been kind of my ace-in-the-hole, cycling-wise: the fact that the century isn’t a race, per se.  All you have to do is finish. …  Well, that isn’t totally true: there’s a point at which the Solvang Century folks shut everything down, and that point is, roughly, nighttime.  So you have to make it to the end before it gets totally dark.  Which is quite easy for most of the riders at Solvang, for whom cycling a century is just a smidge more strenuous than taking a warm bath in Epsom salts.  But for me — on this struggle-icious day, especially — it would prove to be quite the challenge.

At one point I was pedaling up a rather gentle incline when my TNT coach, Coach Lisa, pulled up alongside me and noted that I was in my “granny gear.”  The granny gear is the lowest gear on my bike — the one that makes it easiest to climb hills — but also the slowest: you can pedal really fast in the granny gear, and you still won’t get very far.  Usually you (and even I) save the granny gear for really steep ascents — but here I was using it to climb a relatively gentle grade. …  A word about Coach Lisa: Recently she rescued a kitten that had somehow gotten stuck in the engine of a (non-running) car.  (The kitten is doing great now.)  Well, at that moment I was arguably more helpless than that kitten had been.  And though I said that Coach Lisa “pulled up” to pedal beside me, actually what she had to do was circle back around and then slow way down.  Coach Lisa pointed out that if I continued biking at this tortoiselike pace, I wouldn’t make it to the finish line before curfew.  And here’s the thing: We’re a team – all of us with TNT.  But within that team, there are sub-teams that are organized by how fast you ride.  I was in the next-to-slowest sub-team — Coach Lisa’s sub-team — and the idea was that we were all going to try to finish together.  So Coach Lisa wanted me to go faster.  And I wanted me to go faster.  But I was feeling like Dead Man Riding, and the granny gear was the best I could manage at that time.

So … a conundrum.

Fortunately, there was also Barb.  Barb isn’t technically a coach with TNT, but she always seems to be keeping a watchful eye on us stragglers.  And for pretty much the whole rest of the ride, Barb hung back with me and distracted me and kept me company and cheered me on.  We talked about our respective children, and our spouses, and how much we love them.  We discussed politics.  Every once in a while, I would urge Barb to leave me in her dust, to just go ahead and finish at her normal pace — but she wouldn’t do that. …  Even when, out of exhaustion, I reverted to my essential New Yorker-ness and began cursing the universe with a stream of invectives — though I could tell that Barb was a bit scandalized, she took it all in stride.  (At one point — it was cute, really — she even got herself to emit a quiet, supportive “Shit!”)

And thank goodness for downhills!  With the combined weight of my bulky body and my stolid bike, I can build up a great deal of momentum on descents.  So between Coach Lisa’s coaching and Barb’s encouragement and my occasional friend Gravity, I was able to finish the Solvang Century with the rest of my sub-team, just before total sundown.  My wife and son were there — a beautiful sight, as always.  The finish line was actually a few miles from our hotel, so my sub-team and I (our nickname was “Lisa’s Loafers,” by the way) cycled back there together, through the gathering darkness.  Which is why I actually biked 102.2 miles that day!  (Though who’s counting?)

As I happily wolfed down my “celebration dinner” with the rest of the team, I resolved a few things:

  • To make sure to eat well before my next ride.
  • To save up for a lighter bike.
  • To try to keep up my training and cycling, even without the incredible support of being part of a team.

Which is why I dragged myself to that spin class yesterday, even though my mind and body were united in silent protest.  And why no amount of snarkiness from competitive chunky guys at the Y will get me down.  And why, from now on, whenever I meet a rescue kitten I will raise my paw in solidarity.

Below is a map of my ride.  You can click on it and get more-detailed info (though not my pedaling “cadence,” as my cadence meter got busted somehow).  You may note that on many segments I received an “award” for my second-fastest time ever — an impressive achievement, perhaps, until you realize that this was only my second ride at Solvang!

Truck Left!

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

So on last Saturday’s training ride, a truck hit me.

Well, to be a bit more accurate — at the cost of some dramatic effect — a truck clipped me.

I was cycling uphill along a winding road near Pt. Reyes when all of a sudden: BANG! — there was this loud noise, which I soon realized was from the impact of a speeding truck slamming into my left elbow and the left edge of my handlebars.  The truck — a dirty white pickup — was going really fast (at least, compared to me — so admittedly, that might not be incredibly fast), and by the time I’d absorbed what had just happened, it was already way ahead of me.

I didn’t fall off my bike; I didn’t even stop pedaling — though I imagine that if the truck had just swerved a smidge more into me, things might have ended unhappily.  It turns out that my elbow had flattened the truck’s passenger-side rearview mirror.  This leads me to think — and I’m not normally a boastful man, at least about my joints — that I have really strong elbows!  Maybe my ancestors, when pondering the futility of their lives, assumed a particular position — elbows on desk, say — that, over the generations, led to an unheard-of toughness.  In any case, I can assure you that I feel totally fine!  My elbow has a little bruise, but it doesn’t hurt at all.  Although, as they say, you should see the other guy!

I caught up with that other guy — the truck’s driver — eventually.  At first, after he’d hit me (and let me mention that I wasn’t riding in the middle of the road or anything: I was as far to the right as I could go without falling off) and I’d watched his truck zoom away without stopping, I was pissed.  You know, New York-style pissed!  As I continued pedaling, as fast as I could go, I gestured after him with my hand, as if to say, Are you effin’ kidding me?  I tried to make out the license plate, but couldn’t.  By the time the truck disappeared around a curve, I assumed that I’d never see it again.

But then it stopped, at a turnout — and right away my anger at this apparent clip-and-run evaporated.  When I finally pulled up alongside the truck, and the guy rolled down his window, I found that I couldn’t be upset at all.  Because here was a big man with a little chihuahua on his lap.  I mean a really big (and bald) man, with this little tiny scared-looking chihuahua!  The man looked scared, too.  He kept asking me, again and again, “Are you okay?  Are you sure you’re okay?”  And instead of saying something snippy (like “No thanks to you, Mr. Erratic Truck Driver!”), all I could do was emit the little babyish sounds that I tend to make whenever I encounter cute little doggies (and even big doggies): “Oh, look at you!  Look how sweet you are — yesh you are!”  Etc.

Finally, the driver — having been unable to get me to say that I’d been hurt in any way (I hadn’t) — drove off.  And I had a fairly impressive story to tell my Team In Training teammates at the next SAG stop.

SAG stops are cool.  I believe the term is an acronym for Support And Gear — but in my experience with TNT they tend to be food-and-drink stations, usually run by volunteers.  (Often there are also Port-O-Sans.)  All SAG stops are magical and lovely things, but the best I’ve experienced have been set up by Jim Fenolio, whose daughter Jennifer was one of my teammates last season.  I believe Jim was going through (successful) treatment for cancer as we trained last year.  Here are some of the things that I remember being available to us weary riders back at my first-ever Jim Fenolio SAG Extravaganza:

  • Numerous, carefully sliced peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich wedges, with many different varieties of preserves (e.g., rose-petal-and-guava), which were labeled so you knew what you were getting.
  • Peet’s coffee.
  • Hot chocolate.
  • Teas, herbal and caffeinated.
  • Many types of pretzels and chips.
  • Eggs prepared in a number of ways.
  • Water.
  • Sea salt.
  • Steaming, hearty soup.
  • Manna from Heaven (or maybe Dublin).
  • AC/DC blaring from a boombox.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton of stuff — but you get the idea: It was the kind of SAG stop that makes you think it would be pretty cool if you could just live at a SAG stop.

Well, this time, among Jim’s offerings (and don’t get me started on the delicious meatballs!) were these rice-patty things that contained crab meat and a type of mushroom whose name I don’t recall but I know is popular among connoisseurs.  Jim explained to me that at one of his SAG stops on an earlier ride (one that, tragically, I had missed, as I had a gig in Florida that weekend), he had prepared a similar dish, but with another kind of fish (halibut, maybe?) — and that someone had mentioned to him that, well, it might be even better with crab meat.

Who the hell requests fancier ingredients at a SAG stop?  It put me in mind of these two little girls who happened to be playing “ice-cream truck” at the “tot lot” in Berkeley that I used to take my son to, years ago.  One of them said something like, “Welcome, customer!  What would you like?” and the other one said, totally seriously, something like, “Um, I’d like a scoop of cappuccino-mint gelato and also a lychee-lemongrass sorbet, if you would.”  Perhaps we have reached a point — and I am speaking here specifically of Bay Area bourgeois culture — where there are just too many choices.

In any case, Jim’s food (and the food of all the other SAG volunteers) was yummy.

Overall, the ride — nearly 61 miles in length, and 4,329 feet in elevation (but who’s counting?) — was quite challenging.  But I made it to the end (at Stafford Lake, in Novato) and was able to return home in triumph and experience the hot bath I’d been fantasizing about for lo, those many miles.  I’ll admit that — especially when the road got particularly narrow, and the winds became especially gusty — I sometimes got a bit jittery when one of my teammates called out “Car back!” (or, more bracingly, “Truck back!”), or when some skinny hotshot cyclist (not with TNT) came brushing past me without first calling out a helpful “Bike left!”  But that dirty white pickup truck hadn’t killed me, so it must have made me stronger.  Who knows?  Maybe, even now, at truck stops throughout Marin County, a legend is spreading — about a mysterious, indestructible cyclist with Elbows of Steel.  Mark me well, truckers of Marin: I will be back.  So drive carefully, keep your chihuahuas close, and keep your passenger-side rearview mirrors even closer.

I am training with the Leukeumia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT) to cycle the Solvang Century on March 9 — both to try to shrink my pendulous tummy and (more important) to raise money to fight cancer.  You can contribute to my ride by clicking here.  (As of this writing, I am 42 percent of the way toward my goal.)

Below are maps of my two most recent rides.  If you click on them, many additional details will be revealed to you.



The silence of a lamb (or sheep).

On our ride yesterday I got really excited about the idea of an espresso-maker that you could operate while cycling.  Someone — I think our head coach, K.Sue — had noted that it was a beautiful day (at that point — later, just after the ride, it would get yucky) and the surroundings (in Pleasanton, or maybe it was Livermore just then) were lovely (rolling fields, distant hills, cows, horses, vultures [!]) and asked, rhetorically, how it could possibly be better.  I thought: a fresh, hot espresso drink!  A drink that we could prepare and consume even as we continued to ride!  But how?

My first idea was a kind of modified Beer Hat.  I’ve never actually worn a Beer Hat (I don’t drink beer very often), but as a slothful person I’ve always admired a device that could deliver beer (usually to a fan at a sporting event) without requiring even the exertion of one arm.  The problem with that plan, as best I could tell (I have no engineering background, nor in fact do I have any documented relationship to the physical world), was twofold:

  • The tubing (rubber, I’d imagine) might melt from the heat of the fluid.
  • The device (especially the tubing) would probably get gunked up with espresso residue, and might be difficult to clean.

So I moved on to what seemed like the next natural idea: An old-fashioned espresso machine that could be secured to one’s handlebars — a Handlebarista™, if you will.  To be sure, there would be challenges, among them:

  • Keeping yourself and your bike in balance while operating the machine.
  • The risk, as you frothed your milk, of some of it getting windblown into a fellow biker’s face.
  • Running out of sugar or tiny lemon peels.

But people probably brought up just as many objections to the Wright Brothers.  And sometimes you just have to show the world that something new can work before anyone will believe you.

As I tried to mentally hash over various capitalistic issues relating to the Handlebarista™ — how to fabricate all the parts locally, finding a fair price-point, permitting the Sur le Table chain to rename it Le Handlebarista™ — we finished a long stretch of flatland and began our ascent along the Altamont Pass.  Now, as often happens when I’m climbing, I thought mostly about the unfairness of our economic system, the shocking apathy of our universe toward human suffering, and how mean James Blount was to me in the sixth grade (though, from all reports, since then James has become an exemplary person).

Then came a brief, exhilarating descent, and all was (briefly) right with the world.

But that’s wrong, what I just wrote: Yes, all was right with the world when I was zipping (carefully) downhill — but really, it was just as right during the previous climb (and the tougher climb that followed).  Because I was alive, and my teammates were alive, and my loved ones were alive, and the woman our ride had been dedicated to by her law partner — a woman whose bone-marrow transplant is apparently not taking, and who faces enormous and terrifying uncertainty — is still alive.

At the top of the most difficult ascent, two of my teammates had paused so one (Lisa) could take a picture of the other (Chris) in front of a lamb.  (Maybe a sheep — I’m iffy on this stuff.)  I asked to have my own photo taken in front of this same lamb (or sheep).  (Mostly, I was grateful to be able to stop for a few moments and catch my breath — the last little stretch of climbing had been a doozy.)  And though the lamb remained silent (as is reportedly their wont), I thought I could feel it beam its spiritual encouragement of my Handlebarista™ concept.  Creatures know the importance of comfort.

I’m biking with Team In Training to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  By March 9 — when I do my second Solvang Century (near Santa Barbara) with TNT — I hope to  have gotten at least $2,250 in donations.  If you’d like to contribute — which would be awesome! — please click here.

We do our training rides every Saturday (weather permitting), and after each one I post a description here on my blog.  Below you can see a map of yesterday’s ride; if you click on it, you can get all kinds of details (like speed and altitude) — though I forgot to wear my heart-rate monitor this time, so no pulse data (but trust me, my heart was beating the whole time).

Cycling Again To Fight Cancer

I’m thrilled (and, okay, a bit nervous) to say that I will once again be training to ride the Solvang Century — a 100-mile cycling event — with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT)!  The Century will take place on March 9, 2013, and I have committed to raising at least $2,250 by then.  These funds will go to help blood-cancer patients — finding cures, improving treatments — and also to their families, offering much-needed support.

Each week, on this blog, I will post a map and stats from my latest training ride, uploaded from my cool little GPS device.  So you can keep track of my progress — even including such minutiae as my heart rate and pedaling cadence from moment to moment!

I would be so grateful for any donation that you might be able to make!!  You can donate by clicking here to get to my TNT fundraising page.

In my first TNT ride, this past March, I raised way more than I’d originally asked for — and I cannot tell you how moved and gratified I was!  It’s so incredibly tough to fight cancer, and your contributions did so much to improve the quality of life for so many cancer patients and their loved ones.  I’m hoping to do even better this time!!

Below — if I have successfully navigated through the murky swamps of http coding — are the maps and stats for the few training rides that I’ve already done this season.  (If you click on any of the maps, you’ll be shown all sorts of details about that ride.)

Again, you can support my cancer-fighting efforts with Team In Training  by clicking here.

Thanks for reading this, and be well!!





My First Century

Our ride dedication ceremony, at about 6:15 a.m. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Fenolio Faye.)

A dog was barking, furiously, as we began our 100-mile bike ride on Saturday, March 10.  It was about 6:30 in the morning in Solvang, California, and my Team In Training (TNT) teammates and I were thrilled to finally be starting the Solvang Century after months of training.  The dog was in a house on what I’m sure is normally a sleepy street, and it clearly considered us to be potential intruders.  What it couldn’t have known was that we were only the first of thousands of riders who would be pedaling past the house that morning.  I wondered whether the dog would have the stamina to keep barking until the last possible helmeted intruder, smelling of sunblock and chain lubricant, had wheeled off into the distance.

Also, I wondered — and not casually — whether I would have the stamina to make it through all 100 miles.  I really, really didn’t want to fail.  In the week leading up to Solvang, I’d felt nervous and restless — a condition that wasn’t helped by our coach’s strict instructions that we not do any strenuous training during that week, so that we’d be fresh for the ride.  Over these months I’d gotten used to doing four days of workouts each week: core-strengthening, spinning, and stretching (including the continuation of my futile lifelong quest to touch my toes; I bet my toes feel like smooth pebbles on a balmy Mediterranean shore; I’ll never know).  Without that daily endorphin rush, my essential, sedentary self threatened to wrest back control from the wannabe athlete who’d been in charge lately.  Maybe, by the time we were ready to start at Solvang, I’d have completely reverted to a couch potato.

Alex Pezzuto. (Photo courtesy of Mary Pezzuto.)

But as we continued past the barking dog, through more residential streets, and then onto a freeway, those fears mostly evaporated.  Biking with my teammates had become a natural thing for me: My feet now belonged in biking shoes, clipped to the pedals, and my butt belonged on the saddle.  As always, we called out potential hazards to our teammates: “Car up!”  “Glass!”  “Slowing!”  And we thought about the people we loved — and people whom others loved, as well.  It occurred to me, as we went along, that after a lifetime of obsessively thinking about and talking about my family (particularly my late father), I now was focusing, in part, on people I’d never met.  For example, Alex Pezzuto.  Alex died 22 years ago of chronic leukemia.  I learned about him from his daughter, Mary, who is on my e-list.  He was a delightful guy — accordion player, delicatessen owner, terrific dancer, loving father of six children.  He had one wonky eye, and he was always joking and teasing.  This is my favorite thing that Mary wrote to me about her dad:

Alex had a signature comment whenever anyone was aggravated or impatient with him.  Usually it was in response to some horrifying or deeply embarrassing breach of etiquette to which he paid no attention.  His response was: Love Me, Love My Dog.  It always put us into stitches because it’s so ridiculous.  I don’t know, maybe you had to be there.  Anyhow.

“Love me, love my dog.”  I thought of that phrase over and over during our training, and it helped to sustain me through the Solvang event (including when that dog, which I’m sure is very much loved, was barking at us), making me smile even during long climbs.

Of which there were several.  The first ascent happened relatively early in the ride, between miles 20 and 30.  It began the way so many climbs do: You’re just cycling down a hill or along a flat stretch of road, minding your own business, and suddenly … you’re going up.  And up, and up.  Before I started my training, I was mostly preoccupied with whether I’d be able to deal with climbs — but now, after so many Saturday sessions with my team, I knew to just go down into my easiest gear, pin my ears back, and pedal my way to the top.  Inching up the incline with hundreds of other cyclists, all of us stretched out in single file along the side of the freeway, felt something like being a tiny part of a giant, wheeled millipede.  Though of course, here — as throughout the event — many cyclists would, traffic permitting, speed past me.  (A teammate would warn, “Biker left!” — which, for part of the ride, I daydreamed about titling a publication for progressive cyclists.)  One time, a biker zipped by me, really close, and it momentarily unbalanced me: suddenly I found myself veering out into the traffic lanes (albeit incredibly slowly).  (Something like this — a possible near-spill — happens to me on pretty much every ride.  So far — knock wood — I haven’t actually had an accident.)  I managed to unclip my left shoe in time to get my foot down on the road and prevent myself from falling — and fortunately, there were no cars coming up behind me at that moment.  Within a few seconds, I was back on track, in my single file of cyclists.  Voices called out: “Are you okay?”

One of the concerned voices, inevitably, belonged to my coach, the Bumpster.  The Bumpster has a very distinctive voice: sweet and sharp and high.  Her laugh (and she laughs quite a lot) is amazing — you can hear it from a long distance away.  On this day I decided that the Bumpster’s laugh kind of resembles the call of a seagull: you know, that resonant, question-marky sound they make?  In my little group (nicknamed Team Margarita, for the drink that the Bumpster likes to serve during post-ride celebrations), we always responded powerfully to the Call of the Bumpster: no matter how far we may have strayed, that laugh drew us back to the safety and solidarity of our flock.  In the non-cycling part of her life, the Bumpster is an ER nurse; I would bet that her laugh has speeded many a patient back to good health.

With Sara at a SAG stop.

When we got to our second SAG (refreshments) stop, my wife, Sara, and son, Guthrie, were already there waiting for me.  I cannot tell you how much joy I got from having them down at Solvang to share this experience!  They met me at several SAG stops, and occasionally would pull up beside me in my wife’s car as I biked along.  These encounters made me feel glorious, like a participant in the Tour de France or something, only much slower and without any alleged performance-enhancers (unless you count the peanut-butter-honey-and-banana sandwiches that Sara had prepared for me).  Several other teammates had friends and family members with them as well — and so did many other riders at Solvang (most of whom were not with Team In Training).  As a result, especially towards the end of the ride, the vibe along the route was incredibly festive.

But before we could get to the end, we had to go up “the Wall.”  Or, as it was often referred to, “the notorious Wall.”  The Wall — a steady, relatively steep ascent — goes from about mile 70 to around mile 83.  In fact, one of the things we’d been warned about regarding the Solvang Century was that the bulk of the climbing happens late in the ride.  The thing is, a few miles before the Wall there was another ascent — one that, the Bumpster repeatedly told us, was actually harder than the Wall itself. Whether or not this was true (I have written before about the Bumpster’s propensity to lie in the service of motivation), it did make the Wall seem less daunting to me; after all, according the Bumpster, we’d already gotten through worse.  Moreover, our training rides had often packed in way more climbing per mile than Solvang could throw at us.  So we just downshifted, pinned our ears back, and kept going.

As often happens, the toughest ascent — psychologically, at least — came when many of us assumed we’d already gotten all the hard climbing out of the way.  In this case, it was a section (around the 90-mile mark) that the Bumpster had (from her previous experiences at Solvang) nicknamed “Little Bitch.”  Somehow, Little Bitch isn’t officially counted by the ride organizers as a hill — but believe me, it’s a hill!  And a twisty one, at that.  On previous ascents, I’d swallowed a packet of caffeinated energy goop to help propel me.  But by this point in the ride, I was over the whole eating thing — especially sweet stuff; I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.  Normally among the most avid eaters of peanut-butter-and-anything-sandwiches, I gazed upon the ubiquitous PB&J’s at our later SAG stops with utter disinterest.  Like a camel that had learned to depend on its hump, I felt a serene certainty that my body contained sufficient stores to power me the rest of the way.  Plus, I was the opposite of hungry: I felt like a nation that had suddenly gone from being a net importer of energy to an exporter.

Also, I felt hot.  Throughout our training sessions during the Bay Area winter, it had always been relatively cool — sometimes, downright frigid.  Down here in SoCal, the chilly morning had given way to a scorching afternoon.  Anticipating this, I had, the previous week, bought a kind of skullcap designed to go under my helmet and protect my bald head from the kind of airhole-pattern burn-striping that had inspired my team to nickname me “Manimal.”  I found it ironic that I was now biking while wearing a skullcap, as this reminded me of all the Saturday mornings that my cycling training had kept me from going to synagogue.  (I have kind of a passive-aggressive relationship with God — though, to be fair, God started it.)  What I hadn’t anticipated was that, for the very first time in my relatively short endurance-cycling experience, today it would become so hot that I’d be moved to take off the arm-warmers I’d worn on every training ride.  As a result of this (and of my lack of sunblock), my arms became so burnt that — even now as I write this, nine days after the event — they are peeling like the skin of a horror-movie creature.  Which, of course, makes me very proud.

With Guthrie at mile 98.5.

The last few miles of the Solvang Century were all downhill or flat, and my teammates and I enjoyed them immensely.  Guthrie and Sara were cheering by the side of the road as we neared the finish line — one of the peak moments of my day, and of my life.  A bunch of us actually cycled past the finish line — causing the Bumpster to yell out to us, penetratingly, to circle back.  But even though we’d covered that extra bit of distance, at the end of the ride my bike’s little computer thingie told me that we’d gone only 98.5 miles.

This wouldn’t do!  After picking up my way-cool Solvang Century completer’s medallion and pin at the TNT booth, I continued biking to a nearby parking lot.  And there, with my son jogging along beside me, I cycled an additional 1.5 miles — until I had officially made it through 100 miles.  At which point, I finally got off my bike, and Guthrie, Sara, and I wandered around Solvang in search of some celebratory aebleskivers.  Aebleskivers are said to be the supreme delicacy in Solvang, which is kind of a Disneyfied replica of a Danish town.  Well, we finally found a place where we could buy aebleskivers.  Let me tell you two things about the aebleskivers we ate:

  1. They tasted like blobs of deep-fried dough immersed in cherry cough syrup.
  2. I thought they were delicious.


(From some Googling, I’ve learned that apparently the correct plural is not “aebleskivers” but “aebleskiver.”  I will not, however, allow the Danes to exercise their usual linguistic hegemony in this important matter.)

After the ride, there was a celebration dinner at a nearby hotel for TNT riders and their entourages.  The food was terrible; I had three helpings.  My hunger, briefly dormant for those last few miles of the century, had returned — with a vengeance.  The Bumpster came by my table to serve me one of her homemade margaritas; it was the very stuff that dreams are made of.

The next morning, we hooked my bike onto the back of Sara’s car and headed back up to Berkeley.  It was poignant to say goodbye to my teammates, and it felt weird to have already completed the event, after all those months of training and worrying and wondering.  I don’t deal well with finishing things; it took me over a week to bring myself to do this little blog entry about Solvang, as if writing about it would seal the whole experience into an inaccessible past.  I worked really hard to prepare for my first century ride, and then I actually did it — which, me being me, I find somewhat depressing.  I’m a lot more comfortable with incompletion, even more so with failure.  I realize that this is creepy and wrong, but really, there’s nothing to be done about it.  You know: Love me, love my dog.

Again, let me offer my infinite thanks to everyone who contributed the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in support of my ride!  You have helped to fight blood cancer, and to make life better for cancer patients and their loved ones.  People who want to donate still can, through April 9, by clicking here.

Below is a map of my Solvang Century ride; you can click on it to get details regarding speed, heart rate, elevation, and more (though strangely, it contains no sunburn-related data).