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Archive for January, 2012

The Unbearable Flatness of Vacaville

It doesn’t make intuitive sense, but cycling on a flat road for many miles seems to be tougher than going up and down hills over the same distance.  Such, at least, was my experience on Saturday, as we rode nearly 60 miles out of Vacaville.  There was quite a challenging ascent at about the 10-mile mark — but after that: flat, flat, flat.

Which turned out to be really hard!  Hard on your butt, for one thing: you tend to stay in the same exact position on your saddle, instead of the natural adjustments you make when ascending and descending.  Hard also on your genitals.  And on your hands, strangely.  Hard, certainly, on your leg muscles, which — especially with a headwind, which we had for most of the day — are engaged all the time, rather than intermittently as in an up-and-down ride.  But mostly, I’d say, it’s hard on your brain: there’s a numbing quality in doing exactly the same thing over and over, and in seeing pretty much the same stuff again and again.  I tried thinking of interesting things — like solutions to the problems in the screenplay I’m working on — but my mind would always snap back into zombie mode.  It was as if I had become just another accessory on my bike, a thing whose job was simply to turn the pedals around — a cycling automaton.

Though, to be fair, I did see some notable things: A peacock, for instance.  Also, a baby deer.  And, disturbingly, a dead cow.  Well, it looked dead: it was lying on its side, with its legs sticking straight out and another (living) cow staring down at it.  Also, I learned that people in Vacaville apparently like to combine such activities as truck-driving and dog-walking with the activity of marijuana-smoking: at one point, a truck went by in the other direction with a bunch of people in it looking really, really happy — and it was going slower than we were on our bikes!  The fumes in its wake were pungent and medicinal.

Most notably, toward the end of the ride, a power line came down.  Fortunately for me, I’m in the slowest group — it was a faster group, just ahead of us, that bore the brunt of the downed line.  Actually, it was one particular rider in that group — Mark, who is doing his first Team In Training ride, like me, but is a vastly stronger cyclist.  The rider in front of him observed the surreal sight of a power line coming down, and called out “Wire!” just as a thick cord literally grazed the top of his helmet.  On hearing this, Mark, while zipping along on his bike, instinctively looked down at the ground (for a wire).  And this, Mark thinks, may have saved his life: with his head tilted down, the power line struck him in the crown of his helmet, rather than in his face or neck.  The helmet pulverized; Mark, fortunately, came through with only some nasty-looking facial bruises (and maybe a broken nose).  Amazingly, he wasn’t thrown off his bike; he just kept cycling.  When I got back to the parking lot that was both our starting and ending point, Mark was being tended to by a teammate, who was applying band-aids in a big “X” across his face.  Showing Clint Eastwood-esque toughness, Mark refused an offer of painkillers.  He also expressed relief that his expensive sunglasses hadn’t been broken.  (People from Marin are really protective of their shades!)

So on this ride, nothing happened for a long time, and then something really did happen.  Though what happened was so much better than what might have happened that it kind of took my breath away.  Turns out, the flatness I’d experienced had been a gross misperception on my part: all that time, the future was veering drunkenly toward us, killing cows and downing power lines; it almost took Mark away from us.  So what was flat, really?  Certainly not Vacaville.  (How could a town be flat when half of its inhabitants are high?)  No, the flatness, it seems, was — is — in me.

[UPDATE: I later found out that the cow I saw wasn’t dead — rather, she was about to give birth!  When I heard this, I said, “Well, I won’t get foaled again” — which I thought was pretty clever, until I remembered that a foal is a baby horse, not a baby cow.  I really shouldn’t have dropped biology.]

You can support my upcoming ride in the “Solvang Century” by making a contribution on my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of Saturday’s ride: you can click on it for more info.


Apparently the people who choose music for fitness classes are doing a lot of “mashing.”  This seems to involve scrunching a bunch of well-known songs together into one, continuous track.  But it also — if I’m hearing correctly, as I sweat along in my spinning class — seems to involve (at least sometimes) replacing the original recordings with other ones, ones that perhaps can better release endorphins in the exercisers, or preserve a strictly robotic beat, or both.  This is tremendously depressing — which is a strange feeling to have alongside the chemically induced elation that I’m getting from my exertions — and not just when it happens to songs I deeply care about.

At a recent group spin, I heard “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” — not the Nancy Sinatra recording, which swings, but a kind of mechanical version sung by a featureless female voice over a featureless synth instrumental track.  It sounded a bit like the original, in the way a McNugget tastes a bit like chicken, but the spark was gone: it wasn’t fun anymore, it was rote, a cog in a machine.  Now, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” is not a song that has dominated my life, or is even particularly meaningful to me — but damn it, the original recording was fun!  And it also reminds me of the goofy/cool video that Nancy Sinatra did of it (I think I saw it playing in some bar once), in which she is wearing what I — in my total ignorance of couture — will call go-go boots and doing a little watch-me-work-it dance step in front of a greenscreen (actually, its primordial forebear, the purplescreen).  Whereas this synthetic, denatured, mashed-up version brought to mind … oh, I don’t know, maybe a really relentless toaster.

But then, just when I’d pretty much given up on actually enjoying the music at this spinning class — rather than just sweating to it — a Prince song came on (“Alphabet Street,” I think).  When I heard the opening riff, I thought: Oh, please dear God, don’t “mash” this song!  And that’s when the instructor — who had been calling out instructions about pedaling and resistance and posture and such — said something wonderful: “I couldn’t mash this.  I thought about it, but then I realized: you don’t mash Prince.”  And indeed, the song, as originally performed and recorded by Prince, played from beginning to end.  And okay, maybe it was the endorphins speaking at that late point in the class, but I felt a sudden spiritual lightness.  Perhaps the Earth would not soon become the “Earth,” carbon-melted and ruled by untaxable corporate persons.  Perhaps humanity was about to slow down for a moment and take a purifying dip in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.  Perhaps there would still be time to breathe.

Because she was right: Prince is unmashable.  So why not the rest of us?

*        *        *

Last weekend’s training ride out of Vacaville on Saturday was canceled, for fear of rain — which didn’t materialize, as it turned out.  I joined an optional, ad hoc ride on Sunday, out of Orinda — at which it did rain, heavily, covering my glasses with heavy raindrops and the road with soggy branches.  It was fun, actually!  But due to the weather, we cut our ride short — meaning that we “only” went for 24 miles (though they were hilly miles).  Tomorrow we get a re-do of Vacaville, whose name always makes me think of a great Penelope Houston song called “Out Past Vacaville” — which can’t and won’t be mashed, not ever.

Thanks to a whole bunch of wonderfully generous people, I have met the original $2,500 fundraising goal for my upcoming ride in the “Solvang Century” on March 10.  But you can still make a donation to Team In Training — run by the venerable Leukemia & Lymphoma Society — on my TNT fundraising page.  Let’s go for $5,000!

Below is a map of last Sunday’s rain-shortened make-up ride; you can click on it for details.

The Devil You Know

Last Saturday we went up Mt. Diablo.  I didn’t much like the sound of Mt. Diablo — especially as I’d just come from the BART stop of its pacifist cousin, Pleasant Hill.  We made it to some sort of station, at which point the really cool, gnarly cyclists continue upward to the peak.  Coach Bumpster, however, was quite firm that I had to head back down: other riders had already gone all the way up, and everyone was now accounted for.  I feigned disappointment at missing out on this chance to struggle to the very top — but there’s something to be said for having stuff to look forward to.  I mean, if Neil Armstrong had already walked on the moon as part of (say) his fifth birthday party, then getting there as an adult probably wouldn’t have been so exciting for him.

The descent last week almost got too exciting for me.  I was trying to keep up with some of the faster riders (meaning: pretty much everybody else) and on a sharper-than-expected turn found myself being centrifugally pulled off the paved road and onto the gravelly shoulder.  It was a weird feeling — being almost not-in-control — but before I had time to think about it I’d gotten the bike back on the road.  Yikes (almost)!

Today’s ride is said to be long (60 miles) but, for the most part, “pancake flat.”  It may also be covered in syrup: rain has been general over the Bay Area.

You can make a donation to Team In Training in support of my upcoming “century” ride in March — and thus support the fight against blood cancers — on my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of last Saturday’s nearly diabolic training ride; you can click on it for the almost gory details.

Riding with the Bumpster

Did it — I’ve biked my age in miles, and a bit more!  Last Saturday’s training ride, starting and ending in Half Moon Bay and hugging the coast on Route 1 and swinging inland through farms and some rather gnarly ascents, went for 53.1 miles.  And no, I didn’t bike around the parking lot at the end for that last 0.1 mile!  (Though I probably would’ve if I’d entered the lot at 52.9 mi.)

There seemed to be a headwind for the entire ride, which I know doesn’t really make sense — given that our course was pretty much circular — unless you think of the wind as pursuing a personal vendetta against our cycle team, which I do.  The scenery — especially along the ocean — was beautiful, though in my case the experience of beauty while cycling comes through a filter of lactic-acid pain: let’s say it was beauctical.

The coach of my sub-group (we are the slowest cyclists) is a legendary rider whose name is Susie — but, perhaps because half of the coaches and mentors happen to be named Sue, she goes by “the Bumpster.”  The Bumpster is relentlessly, charmingly, impossibly cheerful.  I think this is because the Bumpster is an incredibly sweet person, but her unfailing high spirits can seem, well, bizarre in the context of the extreme discomfort most of us are experiencing.  “You’re doin’ great, sweetie!” the Bumpster will call out as you strain to inch up a ridiculous incline.  The truth is, she is doing great: the Bumpster, who is older than me and exudes a grandmotherly vibe, is renowned for all the tough courses (with names like “Death Ride”) that she has repeatedly conquered.  The Bumpster never stops; the Bumpster never falters.  However, I must say: the Bumpster lies.  Yes!  I’ve noted a sneaky tendency on her part to make a claim that, say, the toughest hills of a course are behind us when, in fact, much tougher hills are ahead of us — as she well knows, having cheerfully ridden over all these hills many times before.  And I’m not the only one who’s noticed this.  After the 53.1-mile ride on Saturday, I heard the Bumpster talking to some coaches about a ride they were going to take the next day.  “It’ll be easy,” she was assuring them — “just a nice, little 40-mile ride.”  The other coaches rolled their eyes as she walked away; one of them explained to me that the Bumpster habitually understates the length and difficulty of the rides she leads: “little,” “easy” jaunts turn out to be quite challenging.

After we’d gone 40 miles or so, the Bumpster informed us that we’d already ascended about as much as we were going to climb over the entire Solvang Century in March.  And just as I was allowing myself to relax into a small sense of accomplishment, she told me that I should join the quicker group ahead of us for the remainder of the ride, which was going to be taking a longer, and hillier, route back than our own group.  “Really?” I said.  I was shocked.  Smiling (as always), the Bumpster said, “You have it in you.”  And instinctively I realized: when the Bumpster tells you to do something, you do it.  Because when it comes to endurance cycling, the Bumpster knows.  Ask anyone who’s ridden with her, and they’ll tell you.

If you’d like to make a donation to Team In Training in support of my upcoming “century” ride in March — and thus support the fight against blood cancers — you can go to my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of last Saturday’s training ride; you can click on it for details.

Not Quite 40

On New Year’s Eve, the day my brother Jake turned 39, I rode 39 miles on my bike.  Thirty-nine years of age seems incredibly young to me, whereas 39 miles seems like a really large distance to bicycle.

Jake called me just after I’d finished my ride.  He and his wife, Ket, were having fun down in Palm Springs; I was having fun in San Rafael.  The main thing on both our minds these days is our gorgeous little niece, Elsa, born in London on Dec. 13 to our sister Amy and her husband, Jeff.  Elsa is not yet even 39 days old, and already she’s been to Europe!  Clearly, she is an adventuress (a word?)!

We lost our father in 1983, and lost Sue — my stepmother, and the mother of Jacob and Amy and Sam (until Elsa, the baby of the family, at a mere 35) — in ’91.  They are never far from our thoughts.  (Nor is my dear mother, Bernice, who is recuperating from a hip-replacement that itself needed to be partially replaced.)

Dad was 59 when he died, 55 when he had the stroke that devastated him.  So 55 has been a totemic number for me as I — the eldest of his children — have approached, and then passed, the age of 50 myself.  I wish I were like my father in so many ways, except for one: he didn’t take good care of himself.  I want to take good care of myself.  Which, mostly, is why I signed up with Team In Training to do this century ride in March: to give me a structure that would help me — force me — to get fitter.

But of course the purpose of the organization itself is to fight cancer (blood cancers, specifically).  And so a spirit of remembrance hangs over our training rides.  Saturday’s ride was in memory of Kevin Maurer.  I learned that he had died from Acute Myeloid Leukemia (a cancer that grows in the bone marrow) just two days after my darling new niece was born; that he was only 51; that he left behind a wife, Julie, and three daughters; that he worked for US Airways in North Carolina; and that he was a big Notre Dame fan.

I have found that the experience of hearing about people who’ve died of cancer, and of riding alongside people who have survived cancer or are even in the process of trying to survive it now, is less sentimental one might suspect.  Which is not to say that people aren’t feeling deep emotions.  But, to me at least, there is an overall sense of determination, of plowing forward.  Actually, that doesn’t quite capture what I’ve been feeling at these rides: it leaves out the sense of joy — a paradoxical thing to feel as we note the absence of those whom we and others have loved, but it’s there.  It’s there as we glide under the Redwoods that will (I hope) outlive us; it’s there in the camaraderie of our teamwork; it’s there in the realization that we, for now, are still here, with our dreams and our loves and our memories, alive.

Next week, I heard, our training ride will go for 55 miles.  That’s a bigger number than 39 — though smaller, to be sure, than some others.

If you’d like to make a donation to Team In Training, in support of my upcoming 100-mile ride in March, you can go to my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of last Saturday’s training ride; you can click on it for details. It says I burned 1,145 calories, but believe me, it felt like at least 1,146.