Thursday, June 18, 2015

Slow Roll versus Critical Mass

Last night I attempted my first ever Slow Roll ride. As part of Chicago's Bike to Work Week events, there was a sparsely attended (approximately 40 riders), Slow Roll ride leaving from Daley Center, right smack downtown in Chicago's Loop. The Daley Center is also the traditional starting point for Critical Mass rides. Slow Roll has been going on in other communities around the country, and is supposed to be all-inclusive and more about outreach like getting more timid cyclists onto the road to build confidence riding with other people, cars, etc. I guess I easily forget that I was kinda of timid when I first started cycling in Chicago, but now I usually fearlessly take lanes and bull my way through traffic snarls with confidence and a high level of alertness about my surroundings. So, I guess Slow Roll may not necessarily be my thing. I was intrigued though about the possibility of a more low key group riding experience different from the raucous "Woo!!! Par-tay!!" atmosphere of Critical Mass rides.

There were some introductions to Slow Roll organizer folks, rules about not falling behind the SAG rider, or getting in front of the ride leader. Also there was some stuff about not going out past the riders on the sides of the group - I forgot what they were called. It seemed like the Slow Roll folks create this insulating cocoon around the less experienced riders and thus shepherd them through the dangerous streets of the city, all at a glacially slow pace. I mean, these folks were riding so slowly at one point that I think it was actually more dangerous than just riding faster. Try riding cheek-to-jowl with about 40 other people tottering along at 2.3 miles per hour where bikes are wiggling back and forth and weaving all over and tell me if your sphincter doesn't start to pucker when someone acts like they're about to careen right into you.

I've never yet ridden a Critical Mass where the same thing pretty much happens as the whole ride hits a bottleneck. So, Slow Roll seems to fail about as miserably as Critical Mass does in that when you pack a lot of bikes together and make everybody ride super-sloooooowwwwww, then the likelihood of accidents goes up exponentially. Every 'Mass ride I've ever been on suffers most of it's bike crashes during these bottleneck slow-downs. Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore. And by, "I couldn't take it anymore," I mean that I was less than about one mile into the ride which took about twenty minutes to cover, when I decided to bail. I saw a familiar cross-street, looked back and saw the street was clear of car traffic, and just broke out from the group and went east while they continued south.

I get the concept, and the need to have an all-inclusive ride that is less intimidating and somewhat less "douchey" than Critical Mass. However, I'd like to add that even Slow Roll must elect to blow some red lights and cork some intersections which apparently drew the ire of some pedestrians who ranted about cyclists not obeying the law by not stopping for red lights. Note, these pedestrians were not trying to cross but were walking parallel to the direction the ride was going. Still, it's a valid point. How does one introduce neophyte riders to being on the mean streets and at the same time hypocritically break some of the rules that they decry Critical Mass for doing? Anyway, I suppose someone needs to be the helping hand for more timid riders. I don't know how to do that and frankly I don't know that I have the patience.

Clearly, I'm not the target audience for Slow Roll, and even as a group ride I found it too "shepherded" and a bit too "directed" if you take my meaning. I've heard of a concept called "Bike Party" which sounds like it falls somewhere in-between Critical Mass and Slow Roll. Bike Party is a huge ride en masse like Critical Mass, but whereas Critical Mass almost seems to arrogantly snub it's nose at car drivers with it's happily sarcastic "Happy Friday!" shouts, Bike Party apparently doesn't clog all lanes of travel, or ruthlessly block intersections while riders stream through against the light. It's perhaps faster than Slow Roll, but not quite as confrontational as 'Mass. Chicago doesn't currently have a "Bike Party" ride that I know of so for the time being those who want the "riding in a crowd" experience will need to choose between the chaos, potential intimidation, and potential danger of a 'Mass ride, or select the kinder, gentler, coddled experience of Slow Roll.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

How Lance Armstrong ruined pro-cycling for me


Photo by ELIZABETH KREUTZ for The Telegraph
Lance Armstrong, disgraced and banned, self-confessed doper and seven time "winner" of The Tour de France, is in the news yet again. In an interview with _The Telegraph_ he wishes he'd stop being relentlessly persecuted for his crimes and worries that the US government whistleblower case could ruin him financially forever. You can read the full text of the article here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/cycling/lancearmstrong/11666570/Lance-Armstrong-Ive-admitted-to-it-all-and-I-have-suffered-enough-its-now-time-to-draw-line-in-the-sand.html

For years, I watched professional cycling when I had the chance, bought team jerseys and proudly wore them when I rode my road bike on the hot rural roads of Georgia. I even flirted briefly in the mid 90s with mountain bike racing and later, when I went back to college to work on a second degree, I idly considered joining the collegiate cycling team, even going so far as to regularly accompany them on training rides. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s and on into the early 2000s, I saw professional cycling as the only major sport that I could follow. You see, I was raised in an environment where my father derided professional sports and where intellectual and creative pursuits were rewarded. This isn't to say my brother and I were denied the opportunity to participate in sports though. My brother played several seasons of soccer in his early teens, and I played exactly one season myself. That one season was enough to know that I'd never be an athlete, especially participating in a team "ball" sport.

So, growing up with an inherent disdain for all sports and an awkwardness that led me to continually be "the last one picked" for sports teams in gym class all through primary school, cycling was something different. I could hop on a bike and pedal fast. I could don the kit and look the part of a professional cyclist even if I wasn't. Even in those brief months where I rode a few times with the collegiate team, I was encouraged to join because they felt I was a strong rider and could contribute something to the team as a whole. I really felt as if I had a connection to the top riders in the sport. They were true competitors, I was but a pretender. However, I could ride up a steep grade, hammering on the pedals, dripping with sweat in the 90 degree heat, and thus I could feel the same sensations as those vaunted competitors.

Cruising down steep inclines, top gear maxed out, we would tuck into our "Superman poses" ala Lance Armstrong. We'd have sprints for the mile markers, and the rider who crossed the imaginary line first would sit up in the saddle, arms outstretched in the same victory pose that the pros would have when they gloriously finished a stage of Le Tour. Cycling gave us a connection to the pros in a way that no-one playing baseball or football in their backyard could have. Let's face it, most other sports fans simply participate by watching, while most cycling fans participate by watching and doing. For years, I watched races when I had the chance, read about them when I didn't have access to a television, and otherwise tried to follow the pro cycling scene.

Then the doping scandals began. Richard Virenque, of the Festina team and multiple winner of Le Tour's KOM (King Of the Mountain), jersey was one of the first to fall. Both my brother and I saw Virenque as an inspiration. Stolidly climbing mountains took amazing amounts of endurance, and in hilly roads of northwestern Georgia, it's something we could sympathize with and emulate ourselves. Later, it seemed like every time I began to appreciate a cyclist for their prowess, they'd eventually fall to doping allegations. There was Marco Pantani, aka  Il Pirata as he was known because of his flamboyant gold earring and his "dew rag" head coverings. Pantani, an amazing climber was caught doping, and later was in and out of the sport. Finally, battling depression he died from a cocaine overdose. Then there was Telekom phenom Jan Ulrich. Ulrich, the gigantic young German seemed to be one of those cyclists would could excel at almost all aspects of the sport. During "the Lance years" Ulrich was one of the few cyclists who seemed able to challenge Armstrong. And yet Ulrich's time would come and he too was caught doping. All the while in those later years Lance Armstrong climbed to prominence.

As his wins were racked up, the criticism mounted. He continued to deny doping allegations, saying all the while, "I've never tested positive." In retrospect, it was as if he was taunting everyone. Refusing to come right out and say that he'd doped, but instead subtly saying he'd repeatedly beaten the doping tests. When it finally all came to a head a few years ago. I almost refused to believe it was true. How could some of the most amazing and inspirational Tour wins I'd ever seen have come fueled by doping? It became more and more obvious that Armstrong's seven year winning stretch was built on lies, intimidation, and doping. Supporters claimed that in a field full of doping what difference did it make? If the second and third place finishers were doping as well, what did it matter? Armstrong had simply been the strongest doping athlete amongst the top tier riders who were all doping as well.

For me, the subsequent scandals, Armstrong's final public admission of guilt, complete with crocodile tears, it all came to a head. For me the sport was forever ruined. Professional cycling had become tainted. Even following the blow up around the years of deceit and treachery, Armstrong's criminal empire of doping and intimidation, teams continued to test positive and bans continued to come down for riders caught doping. Today, the sport is still as broken as it ever was, with even the top leadership of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), being implicated in looking the other way when it knew that doping was occurring. Even vaunted champions from cycling's earlier years like Eddy Merckx we were reminded had tested positive at one time or another for doping of some form.

I began to view pro cycling as rotten to the core. I couldn't even bring myself to watch any races post-Armstrong, not wanting to root for someone only to find them being banned later on for testing positive for some form of performance-enhancing drug. Professional cycling had been ruined for me. This thing that I had loved and followed for years was spoiled. The many hours of sitting in front of the television watching the Tour, the Spring Classics, all spoiled. In a way I felt dirty for having watched and supported the riders. For cheering on Armstrong all of those years, when others like three-time Tour De France winner Greg LeMond cried out that he was cheating, I feel guilty. I championed him. I believed that what he did was purely because he was a supreme athlete, and I genuinely believed that he was riding clean.

These days, I don't follow any professional cycling of any sort. I've grown so disdainful of the sport, that even the local amateur cycling teams have earned my ire, simply because they choose to participate in and emulate the trappings of a broken, tainted sport. I see them pass me on my commutes to or from work, riding in a pace line, usually at a high rate of speed in an area where they can't do so safely (a topic for another posting perhaps), and I shake my head ruefully. They may not be doping, because who the hell would dope to win a local race where the winner takes home a few hundred bucks? What they embody though, as they carelessly whip around slower cyclists and pedestrians, is the same arrogance as Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong arrogantly thought he could build an empire on lies and deceit, and for years he did. Competition in and of itself requires a certain level of confident arrogance. It's that arrogance that I can no longer countenance. It took me years to see it, and this is what professional cycling has become. Winning at all costs. Whether it's pros doping and willing to risk their lives for a marginal edge against the competition, or amateurs out on their training rides, tooling along with blatant disregard for other trail users, it's all left a bad taste in my mouth that I don't know will ever wash away.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

A weird metaphor

The idea for this entry came to me while making my usual 11.5 mile ride in to work one morning a few weeks back. I crossed a street that subdivides part of the multi-user path that comprises approximately 98 percent of my ride. It had been a great morning. I started out a little late, leaving the house a few minutes after when I usually would. The threat of being late for work had me hammering on the pedals, even into a light headwind if I remember correctly. The Yuba Mundo is not a light bike by any stretch, but still I managed to keep it going at a fast clip. I'd hunker down a little, grab the forward portion of my Jones Loop bars to get a little more aero and I'd crank it up a notch. I'd settle down a little, sit up with my hands on the grips and dial it back a little. I get very few commuters riding bikes in the same direction (north), that I'm riding every morning. I pass a few runners and joggers, and very occasionally a slower cyclist. 

No. That morning it was just me and the clock. I made it to my usual halfway point and rolled past it with plenty of time to spare. I wasn't going to be late at all that morning. I had plenty of time to spare. I rolled across that bisecting street and looked down, seeing this little 8-bit robot-man ground into the pavement. I'd seen him days (weeks?), before crossing that strip of pavement but didn't pay him much mind. Was he some child's toy, or a sticker, or what? I have no idea, but he's now permanently merged with the pavement, forever gazing upwards with a little wry, half-grin on his face. For whatever reason that morning, I thought about him for a few pedals strokes, then turned around to go back and take a picture. Somehow, he seemed like a metaphor for what the commute is some mornings. Some days the wind is in my face and I have to pedal just to keep from being blown backwards. Some days my legs just don't have the steam and it's a struggle to turn the cranks. I realized that on those days I'm like that little 8-bit robot-man, ground into the pavement. 

I know, it's a weird metaphor and I'm not sure it makes sense. But that particular morning, it seemed to make sense in light of the hell that was most of April, with headwinds and winter-like temperatures more mornings than not. That was me, ground into the pavement by the elements, just a wry little grin as I tried to keep the cranks turning over. Then, there were mornings like that one that I stopped to go back and take that pic of the little 8-bit robot-man. I had the headwind, but the legs were like pistons. I powered through and my tires soaked up bumps, and I sailed along, veritably hammering out the miles. It's mornings like that when I feel like I'm channeling Eddy Merckx. My thighs are like massive pistons, turning the cranks. I eat the miles up. Ahead, I see another rider and I dig deep, closing the distance, then I pass them. I keep pushing harder. I relax for an instant, then I dig deeper still and I open up a lead. I open a lead on who? What? Maybe it's just a lead on the clock. I'm only challenging myself. I hammer the miles out on those mornings. I'm Eddy, not a little 8-bit robot-man ground into the pavement. 



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

You're drunk Winter! Go home!


You can hardly tell it, but the sun was trying to shine through all of that gloom this morning. Winter decided to try and overstay his welcome yet again this morning. Granted, this is Chicago and winter often persists in the form of cold temperatures even into the beginning of May, despite calendar proclamations and pronouncements from rodents about the beginning of Spring. In spite of that I just wasn't ready to ride into work on yet another day with temperatures in the low 30s Fahrenheit. I wish that figure was Celsius. So, I layered up with my mild winter gear and headed out the door. With no forecast for rain I was aggravated to see the ominous low hanging clouds, for all the world portending rain. I hadn't packed my new Showers Pass jacket, the forecast for the next several days said I didn't need it.

Still, about five minutes in and I was feeling drops hitting me. But wait, not drops. Nope. Sleet.

Sleet?! Really?! April 22nd and sleet for my ride in. Seriously Old Man Winter, stop being such an asshole and leave already. We're done with you. Some folks would tell you to just grin and bear it. Yeah, it might have looked like I was grinning but no, that was not a grin but was instead a rictus of determination. Nope. Mr. Car-free-bike-commuter-man just sucks it up and keeps turning the cranks over. Winter, you can suck it because I know that even though you keep trying to overstay your welcome, your days are numbered dude. Man I love riding my bike!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Car-free, whether you're ready or not

This was the scene about a month or so ago, when my loyal and mostly trouble-free Subaru was hauled off to a junkyard. Unlike those dumb commercials from  few years ago, I didn't drive my Subaru out into a field in the rustic country and park it under a giant old tree, where crying hipsters could come filch parts from the rusting hulk. No, I called a bunch of random junkyards who advertised paying cash for junk cars, until I got one that actually answered their phone. They asked me a few questions.

"Do you have the title?"
"Yes."
"Does it run?"
"Yeah, kinda. It misfires pretty bad on cylinders two and four, but it will still start up and go."
"Does it have catalytic converter (said in a thick, indeterminate accent)? Cuz if it doesn't you get $100 less."
"Yeah, the exhaust is completely intact."
"When you want to have it pick up? Today good for you?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm home all day."

It just so happened, I was busy building the bike that was going to replace this Subaru wagon, so I wasn't going anywhere. A little over an hour later, I was $275 richer, and one car lighter.
The tow truck driver had me sign over the title after which he unceremoniously yanked the license plates off the car and handed them to me. "Plates still good! You can put on another car!"
"No, I'm good," I told him. "I'm going to go car-free. Yeah, that's right, I'm not going to own a car anymore." He told me about some other cars he liked. Mercedes, BMW, and how one of his daughters who was going to go to medical school insisted on a new BMW. No used car for her.

So, how did it all come about? Well, for the last three years I've been a pretty diehard bicycle commuter. I rode my bike a minimum of 120 miles a week or more, depending on how many days I might make side trips to the grocery store or somewhere else to run errands. During that whole time, I still owned a car. As the car was driven less and less, I started to think more and more about whether it could be possible to go truly car-free. I know from reading other people's tales that it was indeed possible without much in the way of undue hardship.

If  my wife and I really needed a car, there was always the option of rentals or some form of car-sharing service like Zip Car. Fortunately, my wife has been able to walk to work as we live mere blocks away from the university where she works. I have a relatively easy commute to get to work by bicycle, and our car was increasingly driven less and less. Things began to really gel in 2014, when the car was seldom driven more than once or twice a month. Even then, the total mileage put on the odometer in a month was typically no more than maybe 30 miles or so at the most.

What really planted the car-free seed (pun intended, as you'll see), was coming out to use the car one day last summer. In the area between the hood and the windshield there were actual tiny green plants starting to grow in the layer of humus that accumulated there. Over months of neglect trees dropped their leaves on the perpetually parked car, and birds regularly fertilized the paint job and windshield, no doubt contributing the seeds of whatever it was that now grew from the loamy medium collected there. I laughed about it at the time and pointed it out to my wife. It was as if I'd unlocked a trophy in a game on my Xbox 360 console. Bike commuter car neglect - Achievement Unlocked!

We had indeed talked about getting rid of the car, but it was always more me talking about it, and my wife insisting that we should still own a car, "for emergencies," even though she never actually drove it, being mortally afraid of having to drive in Chicago traffic. I all the years we owned the car, it was never needed for an emergency, the closest thing being a last minute need to get to the grocery store or hardware store without taking the bike on a lengthy trip, or slogging through two feet of snow for a mile round trip walk.

It was the car itself that eventually forced the issue. Through neglect, things had begun to break down. The struts needed replacing and their mounts made annoying clunking sounds while the failing struts allowed the springs to groan and complain loudly. A check engine light would periodically come on, but since the engine ran fine once it warmed up, I chose to ignore it, frequently resetting the CEL with a code reader I bought for just such instances. Finally, the car experienced a major failure of the exhaust system driving it home from work back in January. The engine was running terribly, no doubt because of sensor now in alarm mode due to the sudden decrease in exhaust back pressure.

I parked the car in early January and never drove it again. Once the snow finally melted away enough, I walked out one day to start it up and see if it would still run. We'd decided a few weeks before to get rid of the car, briefly dithering over purchasing a used Volvo 240 wagon for $2000 from a local dealership. We decided instead to take some of our tax refund money not to pay for another car or fix the existing one, but instead to pay off all of our remaining credit card debt. The car we decided, we could do without. If we absolutely needed a car there would be cabs or car shares. We'd make do.

So, I called a junkyard and had the car towed away. The immediate cost savings of no longer owning a car came a scant few weeks later when I was able to ignore the dire warnings to buy my city sticker for display on my windshield, or suffer late payment penalties and fines. A few days after I gleeful threw the city sticker mailing in the recycling bin, I was pleased to see street cleaning signs appear on the street. I wouldn't have to move my car from one side of the the street anymore, lest I incur an expensive ticket or a towing for impeding the operation of the street cleaner.

A few days after that, a major storm blew threw, knocking numerous tree limbs down and pelting the area with hail. Once again, I didn't need to worry about whether my car was damaged or not. Little by little, the trepidation of being sans auto has lessened. It's a hard thing to adjust to not owning a car, especially when you've been driving for the last 29 years and have always had a car at your disposal. Still, I think the last two to three years of driving so little had begun to prepare me. Here in America, we've been taught that getting one's driver's license is a rite of passage, a passport to freedom. With our rampant car culture we're taught to think in terms of using our cars for even the shortest trips.

As my car rolled away on the back of a flatbed truck a month ago, I felt no sense of remorse or foreboding. I wasn't losing any measure of freedom. I wasn't free because I owned a car, I was free because I no longer owned a car.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Winter - survive it with dignity and become a better person

I'm going to occasionally use this space to share some good posts by fellow bloggers. Here's the first of I hope many of these shares.

The worst of the foul weather is probably behind us for a long time. Winter sucks the fat one. I can take the heat and a thunderous, drenching,  downpour better than I can ever take bone chilling, hypothermia-inducing cold. Here's an interesting take on the weather and how we interact and get along with it. These are some sage words, and I hope next winter I can slay that shit with some real dignity.

http://www.cargoheart.com/the-sky-doesnt-care-how-you-feel/

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bikes, beer, astronomy, and classical music

 
Beer and bikes seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, Bonnie and Clyde, well you get the idea. Anyway, it's rather fitting that since I resurrected one of my long lost hobbies, amateur astronomy, and combined it with bicycling, that there would be a series of beers with an astronomical theme to come along. Bell's Brewery has just released their Venus beer. Venus, the second beer in the series, (Mars  was the first), is out on the shelves now. If you poke around you might still be able to score some Mars, but I doubt it, as it was a fairly limited release beer. Bell's created the series to commemorate composer Gustav Holst's symphony The Planets. The beers are being released in the same order as the movements in the symphony. I picked up a six pack of the Venus and it's very good. It's blond ale brewed with honey, cardamom, apricot juice, and vanilla. It's a nice tangy kinda beer that harkens back to the warmer days of summer as the nights are getting colder now. Sort of a last hurrah for the season. Anyway, I suggest if you're a beer drinker you go pick up some Bell's Venus, pop in your CD of Holst's The Planets and enjoy a couple. Even better if you can enjoy a couple out on your back deck with a telescope and some stars. Dark skies!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Planets
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83J68Y7Z1nk
https://plus.google.com/communities/111015452254725190532