Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bob Mould as seminal moment

Bob Mould released Workbook in 1989. I bought it a week after I  dropped out of college. I'd come back to Nebraska with no money and fewer prospects. It was a dark, dark time.

The record was written while Bob lived on a farm in upstate New York, trying to recover from the implosion of Husker Du. (They broke up the night before they were supposed to play a gig in Omaha.)  When I first heard the album, I connected very quickly with its images of rural life: "I walk through the day / through the open fields." These peripatetic rambles through a rural countryside inspired his imaginative productivity:
Imagine yourself in the middle of nowhere
Imagination runs away for a while
I play games about once a day or so
I don't know, that's where I'd rather go
Brasilia crossed with Trenton

I wish that I could tell my story
To all the people that listened to my story long ago
I knew that this would happen sooner or later
That I'd get disillusioned with it all
Just throw my hands up to the sky and say
"Oh Lord, what happened, what happened
To make things run this way?"
Being isolated in an empty space sets the imagination free. You can create games. You can pretend the mundane has become mythological. But when this creative process stops, you're often left with new insights into the reality of your present circumstances. You start to see yourself a bit more clearly. After writing the fantasy, you can craft a new narrative about your reality. 

Our culture's conceptualization of "imagination" comes from Wordsworth, as does our notion of the artist as a solitary wanderer, releasing slivers from one's emotional life into an unsuspecting and indifferent word.

Much of Wordsworth's poetry examines how rural imagery stimulates his imagination, and Bob's lyrics describe a similar process. MY job now is to focus our attention on the material production underlying all of that imaginative work. I choose agriculture because I believe that its metaphors, its rhetoric, and its earthiness all permeate Romanticism. I believe that the same processes are strongly influencing our culture.

Bob talks about how "fertile" this rural setting became: "Up on the farm in 1988 for Workbook. I was just like, wow--environment was so important to where I was in my life." In the lyrics, the fields are "open." Empty. So was my life in the aftermath of 1989. I was open to new imaginative ideas and images.

As I come so close to the completion of this project, one which has consumed the last five or six years of my life, one that's led me from the open fields of eastern Nebraska to the open fields of the California Central Valley and back again, I wonder where in the hell the idea ever came from. "What happened to make things run this way?" The high school classroom where I first read "Tintern Abbey?" A grad. school seminar 20 years later? Or was it Bob Mould?

Bob writes, "I wish I could tell my story." Wordsworth laments, "I cannot paint what then I was." For both of them, it's a rhetoric of impossibility.

Maybe finding that narrative is all any of us can hope for.

Bob Mould discusses and performs “Hoover Dam”

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dorkiness is a warm bar mitt

Two new additions to my winter kit are on the way.

I know I'm going to get eviscerated the minute I show up with ugly-ass neoprene abominable-snowman mittens, so I'm just going to out myself now.

I stay warm on winter bike rides--except for my hands and feet. It's the same for everybody, right? But there were times last winter when I still couldn't feel my fingers and toes three hours after getting off the bike. That's dangerous.

So my options are: ride the trainer all winter and slowly go berserk, take spinning classes and quickly become homicidal, or acquire extreme warming options and endure endless ridicule.

So yeah, I've ordered Bar Mitts. Pearl Izumi lobster claws are okay for an hour or two in temperatures warmer than 20 degrees, but our longer gravel rides are frequently more demanding. I've got a pair of Bontrager's thickest five-fingered glove, but even with liners, they're still not warm enough. So the windproof neoprene Mitts, according to the icebike guys, are the warmest option. We're talking Alaskan I-bike-a-rod warm.

The shoes were a real toss-up: the store where I work part-part time is a Sidi dealer, so I've played with fitting them quite a bit. They're really, really well made shoes. But my existing road and mtb shoes are both Shimano, and their size 46 fits me well. I guess it came down to trust: I had a chance to talk with our rep. this summer, and he made me promise that the next pair of shoes I buy would be Sidis. The Diablo has a full Gore-tex liner and some fleece insulation, so between the shoes and Bontrager's crazy-thick fleeced RXL booties, I should be loaded for frost. Bryan just ordered a pair of the Shimano winter boots, so we're going to stage a side-by-side, on-bike test in a couple of weeks. Hopefully I'll have the Bar Mitts by then, too, so I won't break a knuckle when I slug him in the nose after enduring hours of his ridicule.

Come to think of it, I hope the Mitts are really durable. I'll probably have to smack Shim around, too......

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bob Mould as prime mover

I have a few pop music sacred cows. My favorites from the 80-90's were The Smiths, REM, The Waterboys, Bob Mould,  and Rollins. From the last the last ten years, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, The Drive-By Truckers, and the Decemberists.

Turns out, they all sort of like each other. At least some of them. The Decemberists have played with and covered songs by The Waterboys. Neko tweeted recently about how much she likes Morrissey. Ryan Adams is a huge Smiths fan. Michael Stipe and Morrissey like each other's work. (Rollins despises Morrissey, but how could he not?)

Bob Mould was feted in Los Angeles last month; Dave Grohl paid tribute to the obvious debt Nirvana owed to Husker Du, Spoon and The Hold Steady played mini-sets, and Ryan Adams....well, Ryan did this. This is my favorite Bob Mould song, sung by my favorite singer-songwriter (not named Neko) of the last ten years.

I'm amazed by diachronicity.

If anybody could read my mind
And share with me these thoughts
Of all the enemies left behind
And friends that time forgot
Pretending nothing could ever phase you
Well, some things never change
Tell me, why do these words ring home?
How can you heartbreak a stranger?
Plato asked the same question of poetry: how does its power drive men mad?

I met Bob once. My recently-departed and much-missed friend Thomas has spoken with him many, many times. But he's an enigma.

And sometimes, his words eviscerate us.

But sometimes, that heartbreak doesn't just rend. It also binds. One could say that I ride a bike today (and suffer all the madness that choice has fostered) because I ran into Miah at a Bob Mould show, four years after he and Thomas and I drove halfway across Iowa to watch Bob play a solo show in Ames. I'm thinking now of all the choices I've made because of the bike, all the new friends in my life today. Where I went to grad school. Those choices were catalyzed by a shared affection for Bob's work.

Sometimes, you can save a stranger. So thanks for that, Bob. We'll see you sometime on the road.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Autumn Leaves, and hope

I've written here before about the motivational challenges I face in the Fall, especially now that I'm living in the Midwest. Impending cold and enforced confinement looms over October and November, and I still carry the memory of the 87 straight days we spent with snow on the ground during that awful winter of 2009-10.

But Autumn holds eternal promise for the cyclists around here, even as our training time decreases and our waistlines expand. My friend Mark Savery is crushing the Master's 1/2 category on the 'cross bike, (he was 3 for 3 at Jingle Cross this weekend) and his Midwest Cycling teammate Matt Tillinghast has also taken a bunch of USGP podiums. Mark's ramping up for Master's nats and worlds. Wow. Jeremy Cook won the Cat 3 Nebraska State Championship in 'cross, and Bryan, well--he's had all sort of news about a new member of his clan.

But I've gone down the rabbit hole these last six weeks--and come back out with 155 new dissertation pages.

Not all of it is really new. This writing is the culmination of two years' worth of in-depth archival research, sorting, outlining, fretting, thinking, and cursing. But by the end of the year, I hope to stop spending my days hip deep in sheep dip. I'll get back to writing about poetry and literary theory, not just eighteenth-century agricultural writing.

So there's a light, as my man Mozzer used to say.

And cycling hopes remain. They're based on ephemera, but without our ridiculous dreams, would any of us ever bother to pin on a number? Looking back on the season that was, I got blown off the back of half the events I entered. I lost a chance to sprint for a master's championship when I dropped my chain 300 meters from the finish line after an excellent lead out from my friend Kevin. I attacked the shit out of three crits to help teammates establish the winning move. I missed a turn in a TT. I won a road race that Shim and I pretty much controlled by ourselves. I successfully raced four 'cross events without falling on my face.

And now, it's fall. I weigh less today than I have on any december 1st in 17 years--I'm just 2 pounds above this summer's race weight. I've usually ballooned past 205 by this point in the year, but so far, I'm doing okay at reducing my portion sizes to reflect my reduced training. I've forced myself to take a few days totally off the bike, and I feel refreshed and eager to start lifting and trainer workouts.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: if I can come into march weighing 190 (vs. my usual 210) and still pushing ~325 watts at threshold, I can certainly build on a base of fitness. I could conceivably weigh 185 and push 350-375 watts by may. Assuming I can still sprint at that weight, I should be able to help the fast guys a lot more next year. I just have to hope that I can avoid packing on my normal autumn 15.

But the numbers don't matter as much as the hope. Hope gets you out the door when it's 30 degrees outside and you have a three-hour endurance ride on your schedule. Hope forces you onto the trainer in a dark basement at 6:00 AM. Hope makes you complete another set of Bulgarian split squats when all you want to do is puke instead. Hope makes you try to train totally unlike Shim and Spence, both of whom have 20 years of riding in their legs and can go fast all the freaking time.

Hope compels you to leave Omaha at 18, and it pushes you to persevere long enough to earn three Grammy nominations:

Hope makes you scour another archive and discover a use of adynaton that makes all of the dissertation bits look like they belong together. 

So I hope. When the days grow short and the light recedes, I remember, as always, Uncle Bill:
                    we have within ourselves
Enough to fill the present day with joy,
And overspread the future years with hope.
 I hope that it's enough.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Road Tubeless: a morality play

Two weeks ago, Velonews published the following letter of mine:
Dear Lennard,
Based in part on your review of their Alpha wheelset and your road tubeless advocacy, I have decided to make the jump to road tubeless using Stan’s Alpha 340 rims.
The mechanic at my LBS built me a rear wheel using my existing 28-hole Powertap SL+ in a two-cross pattern on both drive and non-drive sides. The spokes were double-butted round Wheelsmith 2.0, attached with alloy nipples. Tension was set to Stan’s recommended 95 kg.
I mounted a Hutchinson Intensive tire using Stan’s yellow tape and two ounces of their sealant and took off down the road. After about 10 miles of smooth pavement, the wheel’s non-drive-side spokes had lost almost all tension.
Here’s my question: assuming my friendly mechanic (who’s built hundreds of wheels) proceeded correctly, is there anything about that rim / tire / hub combo that might have caused the spokes to become detensioned so quickly? Have you noticed tubeless tire installation affecting spoke tension? Any advice about building the wheel so it stays nice and stout?
— Eric

A. Dear Eric,
If anything, the tire pressure is lower on a road tubeless tire than a road clincher, so that does not affect it any more than a standard clincher. All tires, when pumped, reduce spoke tension somewhat. He should have used DT ProLock nipples and, to even out the tension more (and his tension in general may be a bit low), he maybe ought to have laced it radially on the drive side; the two-cross should have been fine on the non-drive side.
— Lennard
The mechanic I mention  is Paul Uhlman at Trek Bicycle Store of Omaha, a friend and riding buddy.

I sent Stan's the same letter. Here's their response:
The Hutchinson Tubeless tires have a very tight bead made from Carbon fiber. It does not stretch like kevlar so when seated on a tubeless rim it will compress the rim and drop the spoke tension more than a tube and tube-type tire. We have found this to be true on Shimano and Campy tubeless rims also. Some hubs are more prone to lose significant tension. The powertap has such a design where the non-drive side requires about half the tension of the drive side for proper dish which results in much less initial tension and therefore very low tension once a tubeless tire is seated on the rim. The solution for you is to keep the tire mounted and inflated to riding pressure and retention the wheel - bring the drive side up to 80 to 85kgf and adjust the non-drive side accordingly.
Here's some chatter from the Velonews readers comments section:
Eric, you need to have your mechanic retension the wheel with the tire mounted. Mounting Hutchinson tubeless tires on low-tension Alpha 340 wheels causes a noticeable loss of tension.  There can also be lateral stability problems with the Alpha 340 on a Powertap because the Powertap offset creates a large difference in tension between the drive and non-drive side, so there's not much support for the relatively flimsy, lightweight Alpha 340. If you check the NoTubes forum they allow for a slightly higher tension with Powertap hubs (105 as I recall), but it's easy to deform the spoke holes on the Alpha 340 when you get above 100. Lennard's suggestion of radial lacing on the drive side, along with heavier spokes on the drive side can help even out the tension if you have problems with the rim rubbing the brake pads under power, or if the wheel won't stay true.
*      *      *
Bikerider34 is right about the Alpha 340 rims. If you search any of the popular forums for something like "notubes rims detension pressure" you will find this is a common problem, the cause of which seems to be twofold: 1. The rims are made so light that they can't take much in the way of tension due to a thin spoke bed (hence the recommended max tension that is lower than many other brands). Lower starting tension gives you less of a "tension margin" before loading will de-tension the spokes, either through acute or chronic loads 2. The light weight construction also is less resistant to the compressive force of tire pressure. As a result, wheels built with Alpha 340s (and the lighter MTB rims like the Crests) will lose more tension for a given tire pressure than a heavier and stiffer rim. Combine less tension margin and more tension loss and you have a wheel which is always riding at the limit of its integrity. Add in greater lateral flexibility (again due to the very light construction) and you have yourself a real problem. I agree with Lennard's suggestion that some sort of locking nipple would help minimize the further loss of tension through extended use, but the fact of the matter is the wheel is a lot closer to detensioning through acute loads regardless. 
One thing I love about cycling: riders and mechanics help each other out. A lot. With lots of snark, sometimes, but still--it's a community. 

I also bought a custom wheel from Handspun, QBP's in-house wheelbuilding concern. It has a 24-hole Dura-Ace 7900 hub laced to a Stan's Alpha rim with DT Swiss Aerolite spokes. I mounted the same kind of Hutchinson Intensive tubeless tire, but this time I checked tension both before and after mounting the tire. It decreased from an average of ~85 kg to ~60 after I mounted the tire, so I asked Jake at Trek Omaha to look over my shoulder while I re-tensioned the wheel with the tire mounted. It has held up very well for three weeks of riding.

However, I'm beginning to wonder if the rear wheel is flexing enough to cause sporadic brake rub--I seem to be pushing more watts. I haven't ridden with anybody in a while, so I'm going to ask Bryan to watch it for flex this weekend.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


This paragraph took me two hours to construct:
Marshall’s main criticism of the Board of Agriculture's “tourist” surveyors is temporal, but it can be assuaged, in part, by spatial considerations: commissioning a local resident to survey his native county might make up for the haste with which the surveys needed to be conducted. Localism compensates for nationalism when time is of the essence. Stone lends a bit of support to this conceptualization of the efficacy of survey work; granting the major premise of haste in a way that Marshall never does, Stone argues that the surveyor must be local or “a habitual visitor [. . .] when a surveyor has not an oppourtunity of feeling land at different seasons of the year” (xi). Given the abbreviated timeline that the Board imposed on the surveyors’ work, Stone felt that hiring local residents was the only way to ensure accurate and in-depth information: “he would be careful in examining the soil which lies under the surface” (xii).
If one more civilian asks me how much longer until I'm done, I may just rip off his or her head and kick it down the street like a soccer ball. 

My boy William (no, not Wordsworth--the other Bill in my life) has this to say:
We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, "A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world."

jump to 5:40

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yeah, Nirvana was important, but.....

I was flabbergasted that none of the "20th-anniversary of Nirvana" tributes mentioned their debt to Husker Du. Here's a survivor of post-punk still blowing people's doors off 30 years after he created the version of Hardcore that made Kurt Cobain possible:

In another cultural milestone, my second favorite band called it quits yesterday. I bought a few crappy records before I discovered "alternative" music, but my first real rock concert was an R.E.M. show. I'll be proud of that fact for the rest of my life. Although I haven't heard their last four albums, from 1987 to 1992, they were the best band in the world. And without IRS and R.E.M., there would have been no Subpop and Nirvana.

"The wise man built his words upon the rocks / But I’m not bound to follow suit"

I just learned that even though this song wasn't released until 20 years later, it dates from the same writing sessions that produced "Life's Rich Pageant." 1986--what an amazing year.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Road Tubeless for Cyclocross? Advice welcome

I have a 28-hole Powertap SL+ hub laced to a rapidly-failing DT Swiss 415 rim. Major cracks are appearing at the drive-side spoke eyelets. I'd like to rebuild the wheel with a road tubeless rim and use it for recreational 'cross training and racing, and then for winter training on gravel roads.


Stan's makes a tubeless-ready 700 CC rim with a 28-hole option. Bryan's not enthused about the durability of such a setup.

I could buy a slightly beefier DT Swiss rim or a Mavic Open Pro rim and use Stan's conversion kit to make it tubeless.  

Again, the rim has to be a 28-hole. I weigh 193 pounds and tend to beat up rear rims--my Mavic Kysrium Elites have lasted a long time, but this DT Swiss rim failed after less than a season of road training.

Tire choices:
Stan's Raven
Hutchinson Piranha or Bulldog 
Or any standard 'cross tire like the Panaracer Cinder-x, a setup CX Magazine tested with good results.

OR, should I just convert my existing Velomax Circuit clinchers to tubeless using Stan's tape, thereby saving the Powertap for road training and racing?

Comments and debate welcome!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

September remains a melancholy time for me. It's a time of transition, and we know how well we handle those, don't we?

It's also a time of endings.

I wonder if Donne was right. Maybe, in the end, we'll end up retracing that circle.
Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Impressions from the Maah-Daah-Hey

Want to ride 100+ miles of singletrack? Want to spend four days riding point to point cross-country trails with no backtracking? Want someone cool to haul your stuff from campsite to campsite? Want to bed down in a tent and fall asleep with the howling of coyotes for a lullaby?  Then go here:

This is the Maah-Daah-Hey trail, a 100+ mile singletrack trail that bisects the Little Missouri National Grasslands between two segments of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota.

The route runs over high-desert grasslands, along exposed sandstone ridgelines, and through deep riparian canyons. And despite my impression of North Dakota as really flat, this trail isn't; in four days we climbed 10,000 vertical feet, continually climbing and descending from 1700 feet at canyon floor to 2500 feet atop the ridges. Much of the landscape is pure wilderness.

Due to some mechanical snafus, I rode alone for two of the four days. Aside from the ten minutes when I caught and passed two other guys who shared our shuttle ride, I didn't see another soul the entire time. Imagine that: riding world-class singletrack for four hours in utter solitude. While I missed riding with Blank, I had a lot of time to figure out some stuff.

Blank finished the fourth day strong. Here we are at the end of the trail, with the trusty gear trailer as a backdrop.

We take a week-long mountain bike trip most every Summer, usually to Crested Butte, Lake Tahoe, Downieville, or other world-class dirt destinations. The Maah-Daah-Hey belongs on that list. It's stark, isolated, and demanding.

Maah-Daah-Hey Trail Association

Dakota Cyclery 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Of Morrissey, Neko, and the search for ágape

In 1986, The Smiths released the Queen is Dead, an album that has remained my favorite piece of alterna-pop for over 25 years.  It ends with "Some Girls are Bigger Than Others:"
From the ice age to the dole age
There is but one concern
I have just discovered:
Some girls are bigger than others
Following their undisputed masterpiece "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," "Some Girls" is a notoriously anti-climactic conclusion to the album. While "There is a Light" manages to combine  longing morbidity with transcendent hope, "Some Girls"  plays like a throw-away dittie that ruins the climax of the record.

However, "Some Girls" also expands the latent irony of "There is a Light" by reducing its object of worship to a simple comparison: someone so beloved at one moment--"to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die"--becomes merely "some girl" in the next moment. A lost opportunity in "There is a Light"--"I thought, 'oh, God, my chance has come at last!' / But a strange fear gripped me, and I just couldn't ask!"--becomes a "just discovered" banality in "Some Girls." While "There is a Light" evokes the agony and ecstasy of adolescent love, "Some Girls" reduces these feelings to just one of a long line of crushes.

I wish it were that easy in real life. It used to be, didn't it? The pain of unrequited love one suffers at 17 seems excruciating, but it eventually fades in time. And from the comfortable perspective of my 40's, I can look back with simple fondness on the girl with whom I was deeply infatuated at 17. After I mustered up the courage to "ask," she came to see me the same way I had seen her--but I soon realized she was just another girl. Many other girls followed -- some bigger than others. But to a boy of 17, the longing for that first one was all-consuming.

After adolescence passes--when we realize the world doesn't revolve around us--another type of love becomes possible. The Greeks called it agápe, an unconditional love. Such a selfless desire to prioritize another person's well-being and happiness over one's own is impossible for adolescents, who are simply too self-centered to empathize that deeply with another person. In my experience, it is difficult to create, but it endures much longer than the burgeoning éros of youth.

But if agápe develops first and then opens the door to éros, the results can be just as devastating as they were at 17.  The unconditional, selfless component of the love prevents it from dissipating so rapidly. One's desire to protect and nurture the other person never really fades.

All this is prompted by a friend calling me out on Twitter the other day. I tweeted something about marriage being a "sucker bet," and he wanted to know what I meant. Simply this: the odds are pretty bad. I've recently watched the disintegration of what I had thought were two ideal marriages. I've watched other marriages drift into passive resignation. Some recent weddings and engagements have left me wondering what the hell they were thinking.

We're conditioned by the ideology of "romance" to believe in the existence of one perfect person, someone with whom we'll share a lifetime (or eternity) of bliss. Our culture's narratives are full of sappy, boy-meets-girl stories, most of which end with a wedding. Maybe it's Romanticism's fault; Jane Austen IS our high priestess. She pretty much invented the modern "romantic comedy."
But Austen's characters are controlled by ideological and economic forces just as powerful as interpersonal attraction. "Fortune" means money as well as destiny. And marriage is ultimately an economic institution invented to ensure the rights of legitimate male inheritance by regulating female sexuality. That's the reason patriarchal, capitalist societies insist on female monogamy: to make sure dad's stuff gets passed on to HIS son rather than some other guy's.

So I'm cynical about marriage. Getting a girl or boy can be pretty easy, but keeping them happy over the course of 40 years is another matter entirely. Yet I've not lost my "Romantic" sensibility. Here's why: I still think choosing a mate because of compulsive éros--and expecting that sort of love to endure unabated for 50 years--is simple folly. But so too is settling for anything less.

I stumbled onto this photograph yesterday:
Some Girls are Bigger than Others
(I'm sure that my fascination with Neko is pretty much a cliché by now, but I've gotta play the hand I'm dealt.) Since this picture of my two favorite female singer-songwriters appeared on a blog named after a song from my favorite Smiths album, I started thinking about Neko's metaphors in the context of Morrissey's ironic cynicism. Here's what occurred to me: two of my closest friends are still proudly and fiercely single. So is my mom. They've managed to avoid settling for a relationship that isn't right. Maybe they've short-changed themselves out of a chance at happiness, but they've also managed to avoid consigning themselves to a life of mute resignation or profound heartbreak.

Yet they still believe in love. They still try to find it. They know it's really, really hard, that it's full of regrets which are:
 Common as a winter cold
They're telephone poles
They follow each other, one, after another
After another
But my friends are still patiently and fiercely holding out hope for a glimpse of a 17 year-old's agony, that éros which seems to awaken life:

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

The speaker of this lyric refuses the ideological imperative for marriage and insists on waiting for  a "Light that Never Goes Out." 

Maybe some girls ARE bigger than others.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Genius of Breaking Away

This blog is always about displacement, loss, movement, and return. Its poetic and pop culture allusions are subtle attempts to explore these themes.  I'm thinking out loud in this work, trying to use art and activity to formulate some fundamental questions about the ways in which identity is shaped by place and travel.

It's also frequently about the bike, which itself a common metaphor for self-fashioning. Cyclists are always cyclists--we may define ourselves by our passion more than any other hobbyists / participants / players of other sports or hobbies. There's an unmistakable physical aesthetic to cyclists, one we sometimes accentuate with odd grooming and sartorial choices: shaved legs, rolled jeans, obscure t-shirts, bike-chain jewelry, short-brimmed hats.

All that's incidental to the rest of this blogpost, except to say that because our sport / activity / hobby is so esoteric, we simultaneously embrace and disdain moments when the larger culture shines a spotlight on it.

Which brings me to Breaking Away.

The film's approach to class relations are obvious: set in 1979, recession-era Indiana, Breaking Away is about Dave Stoller and his friends, "townie," working-class kids living in Bloomington. They are the sons of "cutters," the men who supplied the Indiana University campus with limestone they cut from surrounding quarries. But those stone-cutting jobs have started to leave town: 
Dad: I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that's all. You guys still go swimmin' in the quarries?
Dave: Sure.
Dad : So, the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind?
Like most 18 year-olds, Dave and his friends laze about the empty quarries, fight with rich college kids, and fret about their futures. The jobs their fathers worked have made them outcasts in their own town, but even those jobs are closed to them, just like the buildings their fathers built.  

Mike is Dave's best friend, the star of his high school football team. But after graduation, he chafes against the creeping mediocrity he sees waiting for him. Since he can't conceive of a place for himself in Bloomington that doesn't reinforce his failures, Mike concocts mythic dreams of elsewhere that Romanticize the frontier:
Mike: That's the place to be right there, Wyoming! Nothin' but prairies and mountains and nobody around. All you need is your bed roll and a good horse.
This sentiment is reminiscent of the longing of another failed athlete who dreams of a place that doesn't remind him of his failures:
Biff: In Nebraska when I herded cattle, and the Dakotas, and Arizona, and now in Texas. It's why I came home now, I guess, because I realized it. This farm I work on, it's spring there now, see? And they've got about fifteen new colts. There's nothing more inspiring or--beautiful, than a new colt. And it's cool there now, see? Texas is cool now, and it's spring. And whenever spring comes to where I am, I sullenly get the feeling, My God, I'm not getting anywhere. What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week? [. . .] Every time I come back here I know that all I've done is waste my life.
Of course, none of the characters in Death of a Salesman can escape the lot in life that American capitalism has assigned to them, and tragedy strikes when they have the nerve to try.

But Breaking Away is a production of Hollywood, so it's a comedy at heart. Dave is infatuated with Italian cycling and culture. He rides all over the state, but he always has to return home at the end of the day, so his fascination with Italian racing starts to occlude even his daily identity; his ongoing impersonation of an Italian exchange student reveals a desperation to escape his life in the shadow of a University he's been conditioned to believe he cannot attend. But in the end, Dave takes a college entrance exam and does well enough to earn a scholarship. He and his friends use the bike to beat the college kids at their own game, and even Dave's dad starts riding.

So, in Breaking Away, the bike in Indiana serves the same purpose as de fiets in Flanders or le vélo in France: it helps working-class kids transcend their upbringing and aspire to greatness. In the film's climactic scene, the "Cutters" race the exact same model of one-speed bike that the fraternity guys ride, and when they're given such a level playing field, the Cutters win. It's a classic bit of American ideology: in this land of equal opportunity, talent and desire and hard work always triumph.

Or do they? Mike gets on the bike at a critical moment in the race and helps his Cutters team win the race, but in the film's final denouement, he's nowhere to be seen. Dave is rolling though campus on his way to class, but Mike is entirely missing from the new world that the action of the film has created for Dave and his family. So while Dave has an aspirational future ahead of him, Mike is consigned to the viewer's memory as the high school athlete with no prospects of escape.

As a coda, let me close with the lyrics from the Drive-By Truckers song I quoted in yesterday's post. Their similarity to Mike's ideas are what sparked my thinking about the movie:
Mike: They're gonna keep callin' us "cutters." To them, it's just a dirty word. To me, it's just somethin' else I never got a chance to be.
DBT: Sometimes I dream that I had aimed my life in different ways
But there was nothin' to show me a way to get me outta this place
So I just did what my daddy did before me
Only to find the only door I found was closed to me
See, in America, the barrier to entry in cycling is pretty high. You have to have a sizable pile of money to get a race-worthy bike, you need safe roads to train on, and you need the support of mentors willing to show you the ropes. It might seem like an impossibility to urban kids, which might explain why I always do a double-take when I see an African-American road or mountain cyclist here in Omaha.  While I see plenty of working-class people riding Wal-mart bikes on the sidewalk on their way to work, I can count on one hand the number of minority folks I've seen in spandex. And sadly, ethnicity is a correlative of class in much of the U.S. If the bike is going to help improve the world--like it does for the kids in Breaking Away--we'd better start thinking about the cutters we might find in our community.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Il no va esta f*ckin' picnico"

My dissertation chair is fond of saying "Ideology is externalized in food." And while I don't practice what cultural critics call food studies, my research of Romantic-era agricultural writing overlaps with some of it.

For example, Andrew Hubbell published an essay in 1996 called "How Wordsworth Invented Picnicking and Saved British Culture." He argues that the Romantics perceived eating outside as a radical symbol for transgression against food commodification.

I chewed on that idea for awhile. While sitting in a Moroccan restaurant in Oakland one night, I was asked to explain my early writing and was hit with the familiar accusation, "There's no food in Wordsworth!" Before I could think to talk about the difference between food production and food consumption, I drunkenly announced, "Wordsworth invented the picnic!!"

Gin, Maes, and K-Ro have never, ever let me forget it. And since these are clever, pretty women, I endure their teasing rather than smacking them in the nose.

I met a important, self-imposed deadline yesterday: a big chunk of my archive chapter is floating around in space, waiting for my Chair to bite into it. But rather than capitalizing on all that great momentum, I've spent most of today procrastinating and wallowing. I have a massive database of notes on agricultural writing, all of it sorted into searchable terms and sortable fields. In some disciplines, this would serve as a thesis unto its own, but in literary studies, I have to shape all that primary data into a cogent narrative. I've re-outlined the remaining sections five times today, but they just won't congeal into a logical and syllogistic argument. It's pissing me off. There are lots of ideas on the page, but there's no structure, which is not my ideal situation.

Then I remembered a great metaphorical usage of the word "picnic" from my favorite film. I hadn't thought about this scene in a long time, but after watching this clip, I wrote a few paragraphs about the madness of post-modernity's desecration of the individual.

Yes, Jack, I DO think I'm being punished for my sins. Sometimes.

But forgiveness is hard to find.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Let the Drive-By Truckers Proselytizing Commence

A few years ago,  some of my friends went to see Son Volt play the Filmore in San Francisco. They were sharing the bill with an outfit called the Drive-By Truckers, a band none of us had seen or heard of. I stayed home with my girls.

Everybody told me the next day that the Truckers had played the best rock show they'd ever seen, and most of my friends bought a bunch of their records. 

I listened, reluctantly. Southern Rock Opera appealed to my wife more than it did to me; she grew up in a southern household enamored of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Her cousin played with The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Southern rock seemed natural to her, while I favored the Neil Young side of the debate between "Southern Man" & "Sweet Home Alabama." I guess I'd always harbored a Midwesterner's disdain for the stereotypes of the South: racist, provincial, anti-intellectual, backward.

But living as a Nebraska native in California subjected me to a small dose of my own medicine. Left coasters sometimes made assumptions about the Midwest and its people that I tried hard to dispel. And while much of what Californians disparage about conservative red-state mentality is based in fact, most folks in and around Omaha are kind, generous, and straightforward. I wish some Norcal Progressive politics would mix with Omaha no-bullshit pragmatism, but there you go.

I guess what I mean is that many Midwestern ideas about California are crap, and most Californians have no idea about Nebraska. Reaching out to another region's culture can teach us a lot about our own. And listening to the work of Southerners while living in California eased my sense of exile.

However, The Drive-By Truckers don't play "southern rock." They deconstruct it. They temper it with rock influences from The Band, punk aesthetics borrowed from The Clash, and radical politics found in The Jam. Three-axe assaults alternate with ballads of melancholy folk.

By the time I finally saw them play a live date in Sacramento, I had devoured three of their albums. I think The Dirty South is a Romantic and Marxist masterpiece. The things I love about early Wordsworth (and Springsteen)--his close examination of the rural poor and his attempts to imaginatively ease their suffering-- also permeate the Trucker's songs. Lyrics about the personal cost of being an artist surround songs about the dehumanizing implications of economic upheaval. The Truckers' narrators are often bootleggers, gun-runners, meth-heads, and unemployed machinists -- voices of the underclass of American prosperity, emerging from the shadows. And they're pissed about what their lives have cost them. Yet these same characters also raise their voices to the heavens and wail about the beauty of their existence.

While the songwriter whose work I liked the most has struck out on his own, the last two 'Truckers albums still resonate with fist-in-the-air rock sensibility and that-ain't-right political anger. And the anguish of loss or leaving a loved one behind still seeps through.

They play the Slowdown in Omaha on October 26.  You should go.

Nobody told me it'd be easy
Or for that matter, it'd be so hard
But it's the livin' and learnin'
It makes the difference
It makes it all worthwhile
It makes it all worthwhile

Sometimes I dream that I had aimed my life in different ways
But there was nothin' to show me a way to get me outta this place
So I just did what my daddy did before me
Only to find the only door I found was closed to me

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Funniest Thing I've Ever Seen

SNL usually leaves me bored. One good skit in 90 minutes is a waste of time. But this? This is genius.

In Elizabethan comedy, the fool always asks the wisest questions--and tells the hardest truths.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Coletrane Interlude

Driving home last night, I accidentally tuned into a KIOS rebroadcast of NPR's Jazz Profiles John Coletrane: Saxophone Icon.

For much of 1996, I was obsessed with the tonal changes in Trane's version of "My Favorite Things." The bridge to his second solo, when the soprano notes accelerate and modulate into his highest register, always inspired an exultation akin to religious ecstasy. So much newly emergent life blazes from that tune. Trane had kicked heroin and alcohol, recorded his great Giant Steps, and started the spiritual path that would lead to sainthood. All of his newly emancipated genius seem to cascade forth in nascent sheets of sound.

I was 25 when I first delved in to Trane. He was my first non pop/punk/alternative musical obsession, and he's stayed with me as an inspiration and confidant ever since. Every few years, I have to play all of his records back to back. It's always a revelatory process: intimately familiar tunes reveal an undiscovered secret. They're organic things with agency: they have a will of their own. They talk with me, and they always respond to whatever I need when I approach them. 

'Trane's solo catalog isn't that extensive. There are numerous live recordings, guest sides, and assorted rarities I haven't heard, but I own most of his great studio work. Today, I can't seem to stop listening to "After the Rain," a 1963 cut from his Dear Old Stockholm, a relatively minor release on Impulse! It's bop-influenced solo is infusing me with energy and helping me write. It's also conjuring images of absent friends, flickering around the edges of my awareness.

I'm sure that I'll move onto A Love Supreme this afternoon, because its mantra-like dirge quality helps me focus and stay on task through some very challenging writing I have to do.

I'll most likely end the day with My Favorite Things. How's that for irony? I'm racing to finish my chapter, propelled along by the first tunes on sides 1 and 2 of the record: the title track, and an equally exultant "Summertime." These are twin yawps of glee, but the two other tracks are improvisations on well-known jazz standards of regret: "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and "But Not For Me." Coltrane is the most lyrically aware jazz player I've heard, and his chord changes evoke a sense of loss just as effectively as the missing words themselves.

See 8:40 for an escalation into the noumenal.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, is there a cardiologist in the house?

Still waiting on the results of the stress test last week.

That's one helluva way to spend a birthday: the only people I spoke to in person last Wednesday were the cardiac nurse and the ultrasound tech. I talked to my Mom on the phone for a bit and traded messages with the girls, but that was it. Given how the morning started, that isolation was probably for the best.

Quick recap: I get really dizzy after hard workouts. I've blacked out on the bike twice this year, and my ability to hold watts at my lactic  / functional threshold has been on the decline all summer. I experience shortness of breath at five beats a minute below threshold (165 beats per minute makes me feel like I'm breathing through a straw), and I have no power past zone 3 / ME / tempo.  My blood pressure's low (good?) as are my cholesterol and resting heart rate. I feel fine except when I try to push myself on the bike and after I finish a ride.

An initial EKG indicated an early repolarization. Coupled with the syncope symptoms, that result spurred my internal medicine doctor to refer me to Creighton's Cardiac Center for a full-on stress test.

I know now that I look stupid with a bare chest--the cardiac nurse shaved off most of my chest hair to get a better seal under the sensors. She hooked me up to an EKG and a technician took ultrasound video of my heart at rest. Then they asked me to run on a treadmill while still connected to all the electrodes and the blood pressure cuff, a task much harder than it sounds.  Based on my age ("Yes, nurse, it's my birthday. No, I have no other plans"), they were hoping to see 152 beats per minute. I told them that I usually suffered symptoms at around 161 or so, but they reminded me that my running and cycling threshold heart rates might be different.

The treadmill was narrow and short, and my right arm was wrenched backward by the blood pressure cuff and mass of wires running from the electrodes to the EKG. Plus, I just kinda run like a walrus. It was an awkward few minutes.

I jumped off the treadmill at 160 beats a minute and lay back down on the table for another ultrasound. The nurse said she saw nothing worrisome on the EKG, but the ultrasound tech left without comment as soon as he finished. I found that worrisome--he'd been relatively talkative earlier in the session.

I've called the doctor three times, but I can't get past his receptionist, who tells me the doctor will call when he gets the results. Crap.

I skipped riding on Wednesday, rode really easy on Thursday and Saturday, but utterly failed to finish a threshold effort with Bryan yesterday. I felt okay as we rolled out of town, but every time I tried to get my wattage above 300 -- or my heart rate higher than 165 -- I just fell apart. It feels like my lungs have shrunk, somehow.

So I wait. I'm skipping Wednesday Night Worlds again tonight and plan to ride easy tempo tomorrow and Saturday. If I haven't gotten some news from the doctors by Friday, I may pay the office an impromptu visit.

From wikipedia (yes, I know it's often crap):
Factors that influence fainting are fasting long hours, taking in too little food and fluids, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, growth spurts,[citation needed] physical exercise in excess of the energy reserve of the body, emotional distress, and lack of sleep. Orthostatic hypotension caused by standing up too quickly or being in a very hot room can also cause fainting.

More serious causes of fainting include cardiac (heart-related) conditions such as an abnormal heart rhythm (an arrhythmia), wherein the heart beats too slowly, too rapidly, or too irregularly to pump enough blood to the brain. Some arrhythmias can be life-threatening. Other important cardio-vascular conditions that can be manifested by syncope include subclavian steal syndrome and aortic stenosis.
Orthostatic (postural) hypotensive faints are as common or perhaps even more common than vasovagal syncope. Orthostatic faints are most often associated with movement from lying or sitting to a standing position. Apparently healthy individuals may experience minor symptoms ("lightheadedness", "greying-out") as they stand up if blood pressure is slow to respond to the stress of upright posture. If the blood pressure is not adequately maintained during standing, faints may develop. However, the resulting "transient orthostatic hypotension" does not necessarily signal any serious underlying disease. The most susceptible individuals are elderly frail individuals, or persons who are dehydrated from hot environments or inadequate fluid intake.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Find Out on Wednesday

In 72 hours, I'll know whether I'm at risk when people yell "Bang!"

Lost in the Supermarket

Political critique of consumer culture is too easy: ideology inculcates an imaginary relationship with a real mode of production, blah blah blah. There's a Lacanian "lack" in ourselves that ideology tries get us to fill by buying stuff. Old news for my academic friends. For others, here's a Clif's Notes version from recent pop culture:

Joe Strummer's take on this critique is equally accessible:

"I'm all lost in the supermarket / I can no longer shop happily / I came in here for that special offer: / a guaranteed personality." The speaker either won't or can't assent to the idea that what we buy helps configure our subjectivity. Brands don't make us who we are. But maybe we're so deep in the ideological maze that we can't see any other way of defining ourselves.

Some of us try opting out. Romantic / progressive / back-to-land / hippie / punk / hipster aesthetics have all been about abstaining from consumerism. But always, that act of abstention gets co-opted: see American Apparel's capitalization of the dirt-bag, DIY vibe of current hipsterism. See Proctor and Gamble making "green" cleaning supplies. We still buy shit to show who we are--it's just that we buy different shit to show that we're different.

I do it, too. I've written here before about how I rationalize my cycling. Yes, riding a bike instead of driving a car to get somewhere is a subversive act that might help free us from expensive health insurance premiums and high gas prices. Both outcomes are anti-corporate. But biking is still an act that says "Hey, look at me on my cool new / retro metaphor for alternative thinking! Yipee!" And I still sometimes drive places in order to ride my bike.

I rode my mountain bike alone through Swanson Park yesterday. Swanson's where I first rode with my friend Miah all those years ago. I had gone to Ireland and rode all over the island for six weeks, but after I came home, I put the bike away and rarely got on it again for two years. But once Miah got me riding it at Swanson, I was hooked, and I've ridden a bike at least 5-6 times a month ever since.

Here's where the Clash song "Lost in the Supermarket" comes in: I got lost in Swanson yesterday. Cue laughter. For you non-Omahans, Swanson is a municipal park with about 5 miles of tightly looping single-track running through second-growth, deciduous hardwood forest. Dense foliage and underbrush surround very narrow and twisty clay trails that frequently double back next to themselves.

I've ridden there scores of times, but only once or twice since I've been back in Omaha. And they've changed some stuff. One loop is completely closed off, the entrance / exit trails have been moved, the climb up to Tetanus Ridge--where exposed iron and steel scrap juts up out of the ground for 50 yards and threatens an eponymous shot if you crash--has been closed. All those changes are pretty easy to figure out, but somehow I missed a turn in the deep woods. See, there are new little signs at most of the forks in the trail: A1, B1, etc, with directional arrows pointing the way. But I somehow went from C1 or D1 to J1 and skipped a whole bunch of stuff. I tried to backtrack and figure out where I went wrong, but I got caught in a loop starting and ending at the long bridge that leads to the J1 and the climb up and out of the woods to the fire station road.

After a few minutes trying to figure out the route, I found the road crossing and entered the switchbacks through the prairie grass and sumac. I found the new exit trail, too. But during my second lap, I paid more attention to the letters on the signage, and I found the trails marked D, E, F, and G that I'd missed the first time. But I have no idea how I'd missed them. I couldn't find the bad turn I took during my first lap, with one exception: during the second lap, I followed a "difficult" arrow instead of an "easy" option at a fork in the trail. I dropped down a really steep hill toward a creek bottom and then popped up a sharp rise 200 yards later. Taking the "easy" fork must have led me to the wrong turn. Hmmm.

I always knew where I was and how to get out of the woods. Only that missing fork eluded me. So I wasn't lost so much as ... displaced. But I marveled at how I could get so turned around, even in deep woods, on a piece of land I'd ridden so many times before. The world just felt askew. Trees loomed larger, grass radiated deeper. Swanson's grown more wild since I've been gone, and that wildness might be what disconcerted and displaced me. Of course, without the new signage assigning an alphabetic symbol to each of the loops, I might not have noticed that I missed a turn. Maybe the park's new civility is what disoriented me. That's what ideology is made of, after all: language and metaphor.

But for a sense of self partly constituted by the act of riding of a bike, getting lost on familiar territory was a revelation. "Home" felt "away." If  Ulysses is right when he says "I am a part of all that I have met," then finding the new where I expected the old might mean that I'm not exactly who I thought I was.

And sometimes, that is a comforting thought. Being lost someplace as familiar as Swanson--or the supermarket-- might mean that I'm not so dependent on habits and patterns. That I am not, after all, my khakis. That I'm not consigned to repeating the same choices and following the same patterns that got me into this mess. That it's still possible to take a different fork.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More Numbers

Good cholesterol: way high. Bad cholesterol: way low. I'm a cholesterol rock star. My liver and kidneys and thyroid levels are all great, too.

But they still want to do a stress test to figure out the weird EKG results. Maybe the glitch in my heart has something to do with why I've struggled to recover from hard surges on the bike this season. Maybe it's also got something to do with why I sometimes get so dizzy after exercise.

I've undergone Conconi and lactate threshold testing in a sports performance lab, but the doctor wants a cardiologist to have a look at a more specific test. "You're getting into your forties, Eric. We don't want you to just drop dead now, do we?"

My response to all this crap has been pretty stoic. But I can't help thinking about Steve Larsen, one of the first guys I met after I moved to Davis. He owned Steve Larsen's Wheelworks, the best roadie / tri shop I've ever seen. I didn't understand the significance of the name until I flipped through The Cyclist's Training Bible, which quotes him a few times. A Google search revealed that Steve raced the Giro as a member of the Motorola team, won a MTB national title, and won an Ironman Lake Placid and top-ten at Kona.

He sold me some tires the first week I moved to town and gave me some good ideas about places to ride around town. He was really welcoming and encouraging, and he reminded me of Kent McNeil, owner of the old High Gear bike shop in Omaha and the founder of the Trek Bicycle Stores in Omaha, KC, and St. Louis. 

The next time I went to Wheelworks, Steve had sold it and relocated with his family to Oregon. In 2009, word reached Davis that he had died of a sudden heart attack while training. A world-class talent and the father of five kids, dead at 39.

We later learned that Steve may have died of complications from a virus or an allergy, but the heart-attack theory is what stuck with me. 

Even though I can't pedal up a hill and suffer from a weak lumbar spine, I'm in pretty good shape for someone my age. But Steve Larsen was among the elite athletes of his generation. If it can happen to somebody like that, it can happen to anybody. The results of my EKG may mean that I'm a higher risk of a sudden heart attack. Or they could mean nothing at all.

Hence the stress test. It'll probably be on a treadmill, which only reinforces my oft-repeated assertion that running sucks. But I suppose it's better than never running again.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Good and bad numbers

My math PhD / bike racer friend Paul Mach might argue that numbers are inherently neutral, but I disagree. As symbols, they mean many things.

The trinity, for example: 3 IS a magic number. How many skyscrapers lack a thirteenth floor?

Here's some more numbers: I push 325 watts at threshold, for a total of 3.71 watts/kilogram. That came up in conversation last night. It used to be 370, or 4.2 watts/kilo. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I burned 1625 kilojoules on my "easy" version of last night's Wednesday Night Worlds--no more than 250 watts for 2.5 hours.

Numbers: I'm about to turn 41. I though that number might mark the appropriate time for a physical, so I had some stuff looked at.

Resting heart rate: 44. Blood pressure: 108 / 60. Good numbers, all.

But as always, it's the ambiguity of words that trip me up. My EKG showed "early repolarization,,' which, according to recent studies, means that I might be at significantly higher risk of heart attack. It could also mean that I'm a young male athlete.

I have none of the other associated symptoms of a heart condition associated with early repolarization, aside from my persistent problems with low electrolyte levels and dehydration after exercise, which often leads to low blood pressure and dizziness when I get off the bike.

Now we're waiting for a whole bunch of additional numbers from the blood work to show us what those words mean.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You're Stuck in a Metaphor!

This is so damn meta, I don't even know where to begin. In medias res, perhaps?

Here's what happens to an improvisational actor (Steve Coogan) who's spent entirely too much time reading the Romantic poets. The fact that I laughed as hard as I did means that I'm reading (watching) this as a metaphor for the two parts of myself; one who attempts something palpably, stupidly ambitious and gets stuck, and the other who stands on the bridge and mocks his friend's attempt.

But I'm also stuck in a metaphor, you see: my damn book's symbology just won't resolve itself. I unpack metaphors all day, sometimes so many that I'm beginning to think I've discovered a Gordian knot of them. I'm stuck in a metaphor (perpetually halfway finished with an impossible task) made up of metaphors (Romanticism as agricultural upheaval).

Plus, Blank once fell off his bike while trying to cross a stream. That was pretty damn funny, too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My memory lied!? Images refute my version of a race win

Thanks to North Iowa Spin for their permission to use these images and for their hospitality all weekend. The Monson & Sons / Bicycle, Blues, & BBQ race weekend was a blast. I hope we can arrange another visit next season.

Calm and focused before the race. Actually, I was still really pissed about the day before and desperate to make amends.

Monson and Sons Road Race
I could have sworn that I swung way over the center line when I jumped and started the sprint.

Monson and Sons Road Race
Digging deep and ramping up.

Monson and Sons Road Race
"Don't stop pedaling!"

Monson and Sons Road Race
"Did I win? Where's Shim? Don't barf in front of all these people."

These pictures have confirmed that my memory of the road race is deeply flawed. I was positive that I sent my bike all the way to the other side of the road when I saw the 200m / open road sign, and I was sure that I sprinted up the left-hand side of the road.

I also had no idea that Karl Rosenberg was that close to my wheel as we approached the line. Knowing wouldn't have changed anything I did, but I must've stayed in the group's side draft as I jumped and held my line all the way to the finish.

Karl was one of the solo riders who did so much of the chasing every time Scott Wall tried to get away. He did a ton of work in the race, probably because he trusted his sprint as much as I did mine. Those chase efforts might have burned a few too many matches and cost him the ability to come around me at the end of the race.

This was a good group of guys to race against. The course suited me and resulted in a somewhat easy race, but lots of us tried to animate it. We also took pretty good care of each other; there was a lot of communication and a lot of safety precautions. That's a good excuse to race masters events: we race smart and safe becasue all of have to get up and go to work the next day.

Except me. I just have to stumble downstairs and turn on the computer.

Monday, July 11, 2011

"When your luck turns, Sully, it TURNS"

Between races this weekend, I spent a little time talking about my father and the past. I spent a little more time berating myself for bad choices, but I did that only in my head. I even lost track of my humanity just a little bit, and that may have been the worst part.

But then, everything turned; the weather, the roads, the legs, the pedals. My luck. Now that I'm standing on the other side of what seems like a paradigm shift in my Omaha stopover, I'm torn between writing this story as a random convergence of forces or as a culmination of preparation and intent. I tend to blame myself and my decisions when things go poorly and attribute positive developments to luck. That makes living kind of hard, sometimes--especially when I accept blame for crippled mothers, disabled kids, disenchanted friends, lost jobs, unfulfilled potentials. But when my writing goes well or my kids achieve something, I chalk it up to fortune or happenstance. Resolving such negative thinking has been an ongoing challenge of subjective evaluation.

But on the bike, the numbers and the results don't lie. Maybe that's why my "fun' writing focuses on the bike: it's easier to explain.

Or maybe it's not: sometimes the strongest guy doesn't win. Sometimes you find yourself hurled into the abyss on a descent or hit by a car driven by an idiot. Sometimes you launch a heroic attack that doesn't work or suffer a mechanical failure that ruins months of training.

But sometimes, the gods smile on you and offer what Wordsworth calls "abundant recompense." Such was my weekend.

I drove to Clear Lake, Iowa for a weekend of Bikes, Blues, and BBQ with my teammates Leah and Shim. (I learned that Shim really doesn't like being referred to in social media, so I suppose we should call him "He Who Must Not Ne Named." But since that cat's already of the bag, let's just stick with Shim). 

Shim and I both raced the Master's 30+ crit through downtown Clear Lake, which meant that Cat 1/2/3 "youngsters" Ian Robertson and Lee Baumgarner from Flatwater Cycling in Lincoln also toed the line. The course was a semi-technical, eight-turn affair that started and finished next to the town square and ran alongside the ubiquitous lake for two blocks. It featured a block-long power climb and two potholes at the apex of two of the turns.

I failed to get enough intensity in my warm-up, so I hoped to sit in for the first half of the race until my legs opened up. How many times have I made that mistake? If you see me before a crit, remind me that without two five-minute ramp-ups to threshold before a crit, disaster awaits. Disaster.

I felt okay during the first three laps of the race. While Ian and Lee both blazed along at the front, I let the confidence I gained from cornering through Lawrence last weekend help me move up in the corners while drifting back on the little climb. But when I hit a pothole and heard an audible "clunk" at the end of lap three, I started to panic: I couldn't shift into the lowest gears on my rear cassette, and my breathing went to hell. the pedals just wouldn't turn, and my handling felt wiggly and unpredictable. I got gapped off the back twice and then dropped really badly.

When I looked down at my rear derailleur, it hung askew beneath the cassette. I hopped off the bike and realized that the impact of the pothole had jarred loose my derailleur hanger--the same one that fell off just before the start of the Lawrence Crit last weekend. Because we had to order the missing bolts directly from Trek, I had spent the week riding the bike with the hanger held in place by the force of the quick release skewer, but I evidently didn't get it properly aligned when I changed wheels right before the race. The tire was rubbing one of the brake pads, and the derailleur cage was way out of alignment. Race over. I blamed myself, as I should have, for not getting the bolts in time. But I ordered them as soon as I could, and I visited the shop and tried to find a solution. But I failed to properly secure the hanger in place. But Trek made a bike that allowed the bolts to pop out. But they popped loose because I misused my trainer in Lawrence. On and on, ad infinitum. Bad luck or simple negligence?

I threw the bike over my shoulder and did the racer's walk of shame through the backside of the course as the race continued. Wayne's Ski and Cycle had set up a tent in the town center, so I wandered over and told Wayne about my dilemma. He pulled bolts from his personal Trek Speed Concept Tri bike, but they were the wrong diameter. A QBP rep's loaner Cannondale, however, proved a better donor--its bolts worked just fine.  He and Wayne also re-tuned my rear derailleur and got the bike back in fighting form.

I watched Shim take third in our Masters race and saw an unfortunate crash in lap two of the Cat 5 race. I thought I was having a bad day:

No matter bad your luck gets, it can always get worse.
That's a total loss of a 2011 Trek Madone 6.5. Ouch. Even though I watched it happen, I have no idea what caused the crash.

Crashes feature prominently in the history of Clear Lake, a pretty little town with huge lake-front mansions alternating with charming Victorians. It's famous for hosting the last show that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens played before their plane went down the Day the Music Died.

After a bit of food and some rest, Bryan and I kitted up for the cat 3 race. I was confident in my bike and my legs, but I was wrong. I couldn't recover from even minor surges in speed, and I got pulled after 20 minutes of racing. Bryan stayed in the race and gutted out the heat and humidity until the finish, while I tried to stop coughing and was inexplicably rude to a passer-by who wanted to chat about the racing. I was still in the process of peeling off my jersey when he wandered over to our van, so tried to tell him that I couldn't breathe or think coherently, but I think I bungled it. As a guy who always tries to serve as a positive ambassador for the sport of cycling, I totally blew that exchange. Bad timing-- or negligence?

After decompressing for a bit, I walked the course and tried to give Leah some positive vibes during her Elite Women's race. Look at her, all bad-assed and focused on the startling line:

She was outnumbered by the racers in the blue kits who attacked one by one until the winner got away and won by several seconds. Shim and I watched in horror as Leah eased off the pedals just before the finish line and got pipped for third. She was justifiably upset, but Shim's bellowing "don't stop pedaling!" would prove prophetic the next day. Still, her fourth place in that field and on that course was a great result.

Shim dropped his chain in the Pro 1/2 race, which was won in a solo attack by Nick Frey of Jamis Sutter Home. Fellow professional Gregg Brandt of Kenda / Five-Hour Energy chased valiantly for 5 laps but couldn't close the gap, while Clear Lake native Tom Zirbel controlled the pack and finished fourth. The crowd numbered in the hundreds:

Yeah, we race bikes in the Midwest!
As pleased as I was to see such a great turnout for a crit in Northern Iowa, I was really disappointed by how poorly my racing had gone. All the travel time away from my family, the entry fees, the expense of the new bike, the missed writing time: all of it seemed like a total waste as the day wound down. Shim and Leah and I met some good folks for dinner in Mason City, but I brooded throughout the rest of the evening.

We awoke the next day to rain and awful humidity. All three of us dragged a little as we loaded our stuff from the hotel and drove back to Clear Lake. The road race was staged in the parking lot of the Surf Ballroom, which has been restored to the way it looked the night of the gig that preceded the plane crash. One wall of the lobby is covered by Buddy Holly memorabilia, and on another wall hang pictures from hundreds of bands that played the room during the last 40 years.

My dad loved Buddy Holly. His was the generation that danced to that music and watched in horror as it died.

By the time Shim and I started our Master's 40+ race, the rain had stopped and the roads had started to dry. Temperatures were pretty mild, and Shim commented that we had covered the first 10 miles in what seemed like no time at all. I didn't know the course, but everybody commented on its lack of climbs and constant wind--two factors that usually play into my favor. I won my first race over the Dunnigan Hills in Northern California on a hot, windy day, and last year's Nebraska State Championship road race was run in similar conditions. But the wind was non-existent as we rode through flat corn and soybean fields. It felt like an easy recovery ride, just 30 guys chatting and spinning along.

Besides Shim and I, there were two guys from the Central Iowa Cycling Club, two from Sioux City Velo, two from River Valley Cycling in Minnesota, and three locals from North Iowa Spin, the host club. Assorted singles rounded out the field. I chatted about the course with Scott Wall, a lean, chiseled-legged hard man from Central Iowa CC, and a few guys from North Iowa. All of them said that the wind usually broke up the fields because there just weren't enough hills.

Nothing happened until the 15-mile mark, when I took a race-pace pull at the front to loosen my legs. When I pulled off, Bob Gregg from Sioux City tried an attack that Shim and a Minnesota guy covered pretty easily. I thought that if either Shim or I and one rider each from the other teams got into a break, we'd have a chance to stay away, but each time Shim or I tried to go, the pack would jump really hard. A solo rider escaped for about 5 miles but simply dangled ahead of us, and after we caught him, Scott Wall tried to launch 3-4 times in the next few miles. I tried to bridge up to him with a Minnesota guy on my wheel, but my jump must've scared the pack, because they roared to life and caught us just after we reached Scott.

Two solo guys did a lot of the chasing, which I found odd. Shim and I and the two Central Iowa guys did most of the animating and attacking, but the two solo guys chased while the local host club never appeared at the front. They probably ride these roads enough to know that no breakaway was going to stick on such a calm day.

I focused on scarfing down salted Clif Blocks and caffeinated Gu shots to stave off cramping in the humidity. No back pain ever crossed my mind, and despite heavy sweating in the sultry air, my legs felt supple. I did my best to cover most accelerations so Shim didn't have to, and when the pack converged, I slotted in ahead of him and tried to give him my huge draft.

Shim asked me how I felt with about 8 miles to go, and I told him that if the race ended in a sprint, I had the legs to win. We tried to pick one of the Minnesota guys to start a break with, but we just couldn't get the right combination of guys, so we resigned ourselves to mass finish.

A solo rider tried  to escape with 2k to go, but he came back on his own soon afterward. A few surges failed to string things out, so I side drafted into about fifth position as the group converged at the 1k sign. The referee had told us at the starting line that the route was closed to oncoming traffic only at the 200-meter mark, so I sat on the yellow and watched passing signs that reminded us not to cross the center line. I was chomping at the bit. I told myself over and over to wait, wait, wait.  Patience, patience, patience. Wait, wait, wait.

When I saw the "open road" sign allowing us to use both lanes, I swung out hard to the left and surged with everything I had. I stood up and threw the bike from side to side, flicked through the shifting, and felt my wheels fly beneath me. I passed the head of the group immediately and felt myself gap them off my wheel. I hit my biggest gear in about five seconds and then tried to punch through it. At about 75 meters to the line, my vision started to blur and my heart wanted to explode, but in my head, Shim bellowed at Leah, "Don't stop pedaling!" I crossed the line with my head down, still sprinting as hard as I could, terrified that someone would come around me. No one did.

I'm not sure how much of a gap I had, but I think I probably crossed the line alone. A few dozen people snapped pics and cheered as I won, but I saw none of it--I just tried not to pass out.

I was too wrecked from the sprint to feel anything other than nausea; the next few minutes after the race are still a memory-less haze. Shim picked his way through traffic for fourth place, and we rolled back to the finish line in time to watch Leah take fourth in her race, as well.

The host club fed us some beer and BBQ as they waited for the Pro 1/2 field to finish their 82-mile slog. Leah lamented my failure at race van organization when I haphazardly spread my stuff all over the place like a zombie, and Shim itched to get on the road for home. We left before the podium presentations (family and sponsor-disappointing FAIL on my part), but it felt good to leave town a winner.

Shim's power numbers prove that it was an easy race, but we animated the thing as well as we could. And I learned that I still have my sprint, even if I seldom get to use it.

How in the world did I go from dead-legs awful on Saturday to easy-race winner on Sunday? The different nature of the courses, for one. A good night's sleep, for another. A supportive teammate. A solid eating and drinking plan. Smart tactics in the group. Patience in the final kilometer.

Or was it all blind, stupid luck?
*       *        *

Richard Russo wrote one of my favorite books about an affably charming, Irish-American loser of a sixty year-old man. Sullivan's barely getting by, estranged from his family, allowing his unfulfilled potential to sadden the people who love him. But then an accidental visit from his son offers Sully a shot at redemption and a chance at repentance. All in the name of luck.

Or is it conscious choice?

The bike's a metaphor for many, many things. In my immediately post-race, finish-line hypoxia, I thought of something else Shim said, or asked. About my father.

Perhaps some failures aren't my fault.

But that doesn't mean I can't help rectify them.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Marx Was Right, Baby! (A Cycling Dialectic)

Here's conclusive proof of Marxist historiography from my old friend (ie: total stranger) Bike Snob NYC:
You'd imagine that at some point Americans would wake up to the fact that they're being sold a very expensive illusion of safety that is in fact killing them and opt for practicality and efficiency over sheer size, but until that day there's nothing illusory about city streets filled with light-running SUVs driven by a gentry who are more or less free to maim with impunity. And when it comes to cycling for transportation, the fact that your safety--indeed your very life--is not a consideration is what you might call a "barrier to entry."
The illusion of safety that BSNYC describes here is a function of what literary theorists call ideology, or an imaginary relationship to a real mode of production. We NEED cars. Cars MUST exist. You CAN'T live without one. You have to get from your suburb to your office every day, right? Because ownership of a McMansion with an acre of lawn is the AMERICAN DREAM, right? And so to protect ourselves from death and dismemberment, we should buy cars that are SAFER (ie: more expensive) than anybody else's car. Escalade! America!

The other salient point I find in the BSNYC quote is about "gentry." Marx argues that "the [written] history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle." So it's the "gentry" (ie: rich whiteys) in their Yukons and Escalades who are endangering proletarian cyclists? (ie: working stiffs) Right? That's why more people don't ride bikes?

Is that what makes me a radical? I ride a bike?

But wait. The average retail cost of the bikes ridden on an average American "race ride" is ~$3,000? And most of the riders drive their SUVs to the start of the ride? Well, crap.

So I guess the revolution will be led by super-commuters Rafal, Munson, and Sarah, none of whom have updated their blogs in weeks. How about Matt Martin and the Community Bike Project? They're getting working stiffs on bikes by recycling old parts and teaching folks how to fix their bikes.

I'm certainly not in the vanguard. The only cycling-based class struggle I saw last week was when an exemplar of white-trash hickdom in a broken-down pickup truck tried to run a bunch of doctors, lawyers, and middle managers off the Omaha Trace Road as we spun along on our snazzy pieces of carbon. Workers of the world, unite -- and kill all the freaks wearing $250 bib shorts!

Know what else? I don't care what the crime statistics say: the safest place in Omaha, Nebraska is along Florence Blvd and North 24th St -- when you're riding a bike. These neighborhoods are riddled with drugs and gang-related crimes, but at least the motorists there don't value their time more than cyclists' safety. They'll get their vehicles around you eventually, so what's the hurry? Most all of them return my friendly wave as they ease past me.

That courtesy doesn't happen in Millard very often. No one in in the predominately bourgeois Omaha suburbs has EVER yelled "Hello, beautiful white people!" when a bunch of Union Pacific executives rode by, at least not when I was around. And only a hillbilly meth-head has ever stepped out from behind a Redwood tree along the the Bohemian Highway in Norcal and yelled "Peace on earth! Wanna see my tits?!"

Rhetorical support for the revolution: that's gotta count for something.