Monday, December 31, 2007

Caucus Thoughts

Okay, so this is outside my usual scope, but with so much attention being heaped on Iowa these days, I thought a post about the caucus might...


Excuse me a second, that's the phone. "Hullo? Um, no, this isn't a good time for me to answer a few poll questions, thanks."

Okay, where was I? Ah, yes, the caucus. Every four years, the people of Iowa have a chance to make their voices...


Shoot, that's the cell phone. Sorry about that. "Hello? Listen, I'm sure your candidate is wonderful, but could you please not call this number? It's a cell phone. Thanks."

As I was saying, this is the opportunity for the people of Iowa to make a real difference in the political process. It's our time to...


Doorbell, sorry. "May I help you? No, I haven't decided who I'm caucusing for. Listen, I'm right in the middle of something. Could I just take a flyer? Thanks."

I am so sorry about that, really. Where was I? Okay. Every four years, Iowans can...


There's that doorbell again, doggone it. Give me a second. "Morning, Bob! A little early for the mail, isn't it? Oh, this is just the first batch? Well, leave that bale of political ads on the porch. I'll try to get them moved before you get back with the second bale."

So, my point is, Iowans have a real responsibility to participate in the caucuses as informed citizens on January 3rd...


I can't believe this. That's the phone again. "Hello? CBS News? An interview with an everyday Iowan? Uh huh, Katie Couric? At a local restaurant? I don't think we'll be able to get a reservation. Oh, sure, make it in her name, that's right. It's only the locals who can't get tables. Listen, can I call you back? Thanks."

What was I saying? Aw, to hell with it. I think I'll just stay home on the 3rd.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In Defense of BSOs

That's "Bicycle-Shaped Objects", in my snob-speak. Huffy, Magna, Pacific, etc. The stuff of all the dash-mart stores (K, Wal, etc.)

I just tuned up three of these monstrosities that a friend's office was donating to their adopt-a-family for the holidays. And, as expected, they were rife with all the things that are wrong with BSOs: steel rims, cheesy stamped brakes that only offer a hint of slowing, two-ton suspension that doesn't suspend anything, crunchy maladjusted bearings, wheels installed crooked (with brakes adjusted sideways to compensate), you name it. It took a full afternoon of work in a very-cold garage (with a lot of hammering and cursing) to get them rideable. If you paid a shop to do what I did, the tuneups would cost more than the bikes.

But when I was done, I couldn't help but smile. Any one of them was at least equivalent to my first BSO (an orange Murray banana-seat beast) that my mom and dad bought from Farm & Fleet some thirty years ago, and look where that ended up.

I can't say these are great bikes, but I'm withholding final judgment for about three decades.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Nature vs. Garage: A Draw

The 90-year-old trees around our 90-year-old house struck back during last week's nasty ice storms. Des Moines didn't get anything near the pummeling that the southern Iowa suffered, but our garage (which I've lovingly nicknamed the Velo-Palace) took a direct hit. How this behemoth threaded its way between the power line, the cable line, and the phone line without hitting any of them, I do not know... but I'm thanking my lucky stars that it did. Carla tells me that it made quite a racket when it hit, as you might well expect.
Inside the Velo-Palace, there's only a head-sized divot that leaks a little snowmelt on the car whenever the temps creep over freezing -- you can barely even make it out in the photo. Not bad, considering.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

What's Wrong with the Bike Industry, Rant 2

This one pains me, because I worked as a shop rat through college and grad school, so I have some serious bike shop sympathy. But here's a scenario that's starting to wear on me now that I've taken off the apron for good and moved to the other side of the counter.

I need Part A. Nothing terribly exotic, just a standard widget to keep one of my semi-current steeds running. Maybe it's an 8-speed cassette. Maybe a 110mm bolt-circle-diameter chainring. Or maybe (and this is the one exotic on my list) it's a part or accessory not branded by Specialized, Trek, or one of the three dozen Trek subsidiaries.

So I go to Local Shop 1: "Do you have Part A?"
Response: "Uh, what's a Part A?"

Shop 2: "I'm looking for Part A."
Response: "We don't have it, but have you seen the new Madone?"

Shop 3: "I'll speak slowly: I... NEED... PART... A."
Response: "Dude, do they even MAKE those any more?"

Shop 4: "Oh for the LOVE of LANCE, tell me you have Part A!"
Response: "Uh, lemme look..." (five minutes elapse) "No, but we could probably order one."

It's reached the point where I follow the "four-call rule": Out of (semi-)respect for those who wrench, I'll call my four nearest shops. If anyone actually a) knows what I'm talking about, and b) has what I'm looking for in stock, they get my business. If I get four variations on the answers listed above, I go online and find it for myself.

I know, my karmic payback will come. There will be a day when I need a tube, and all the shops that could have sold me one will be boarded up. Of course, even if they had stayed open, the counter-guy would probably have said, "Whoa, tubes are so retro, dude. You totally gotta try these new Bontrager four-spoke tubeless carbon disc wheels!"

LimpStrong II: This Time, it Might be About the Bike

Ugh, winter has arrived, and with it, cabin fever. Closest thing I've had to a "ride" in over a week is popping my fixed-gear on the trainer in the basement, flipping on some random sporting event on the tiny TV, and blowing my eardrums out with Kraftwerk's Tour de France Soundtrack for a half-hour Johnny G-wannabe spinning session. Nothing like a little sweat bath and nether-region numbness during the shortest, darkest, most depressing days of the year.

Time to go to my Happy Place, which is planning the Big Rides of 2008. After the stunning success (translation: I didn't die) of LimpStrong I, it's time to start thinking about the Second Annual LimpStrong Ride for the Femur-Impaired. There's a sick little corner of my brain that keeps whispering, "Do it on the fixed gear, you big pansy."


  • Limpstrong I was my first self-contained century, raising the personal achievement bar just a skidge. Making II a self-contained fixed century would just knock it up there one more notch.
  • Despite my '07 injury, a big chunk (close to half) of my annual mileage passed under non-coasting wheels. Clearly, I'm getting pretty comfortable in a freewheel-free world if I can do that on a bum leg.
  • I kind of like that look people give me when I say I'm going to do these things... like they really want to call the gentlemen in the white coats, but they're afraid to make any sudden moves.
  • Even I think this is a little nuts, and it's my idea.
  • My geared bike is soooo nice for long-distance rides.
  • Who the heck am I trying to impress, anyway?
Obviously, with the blanket of frozen precipitation showing no signs of leaving any time soon, I have a while to think about this. But for now, I'm going to keep putting the "miles" on the non-shifty, non-coasty steed and see what my legs (and nether region) think.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What's Wrong with the Bike Industry, Rant 1

Maybe this isn't limited to the bike industry, but it bugs me: "name brand" and "generic" stuff made by the same company, coming out of the same factory (I presume), and being sold (and bought!) at two wildly divergent price points.

Case in point: Put the Cane Creek SCR-5 brake lever side-by-side with a Tektro R200. Same product being sold under two supposedly different brands, one "boutique" and one "blue collar". (Am I wrong? Those more in the know, please enlighten me.) The Cane Creek gets lizards on its hoods, but that's just more boutique branding to my eye, unless someone's going to honestly claim that the grippier texture is a "feature". A reputable online source where I buy parts lists the Tektro at $27, the Cane Creek at $40. Now, we English majors don't usually do so hot in math, but that's almost a 50% markup for a handful of tiny lizards and the ability to look down on my riding buddies. Seriously?

I want to be wrong on this one, but I also want to believe in the Tooth Fairy, and in the hordes of presidential wannabes glad-handing their way across Iowa. So am I going 0 for 3?

(Sidenote for the fine people at Cane Creektro and their lawyers... I am not trying to disparage one particular vendor and/or its products here. In fact, I only know the SCR-5 versus R200 comparison because the R100 -- shorter-reach sibling to the 200 -- is my favorite brake lever for drop-bar applications, even if the hoity-toity set mocks me for my lack of lizards.)

I'm Out!

Oh, how the mighty have fallen (metaphorically speaking) after falling (literally).

Des Moines got a little rain, a little snow, a little sleet, a little freezing rain, a lot of wind, and a lot of cold yesterday. Result? My street looks like the surface of the moon... piles of slushy crud reshaped and refrozen into one of the most bike-hostile landscapes imaginable. So for the first time in a couple years, I'm reading a bus schedule, trying to figure out how to get to and from work tomorrow without a bike.

Call me a wuss, but when I think of a) how gentle my femur-breaking fall was, and b) how many times I fell that gently (or came close) last winter, I get a massive case of the willies. Rebuild me once, shame on the slippery surface. Rebuild me twice, shame on me. Until I get a trike, it's "no slick stuff" for this bionic man.

Any locals who are riding this week, please keep your taunts gentle, and I'll see you in April. And watch this space for an irony alert when I slip and fall on my arse while walking to the bus stop.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Winter Gear Rundown Part 1: The Legs

Staying warm as a year-round cyclist in Iowa is no picnic... unless your idea of a picnic is when the potato salad freezes solid and has to be pried out of the bowl with a chisel. Since I won't be doing the year-round adventure this year, I figured I'd better document what little I've learned before the lyrics to bad 80s songs overwrite that sector of my mental hard drive.

Note for any easily-offended international readers: "Knickers" is the U.S. usage... a difference I learned by doing a Google search for "knickers" at work. Cheeky Brits!

For the legs, I wrap up like so:

  1. Nylon/cotton knickers: OK for short commutes down to about 40F. I just threw these in for people who think 40F is cold. As my knees get more... erm, ahem... "vintage", they like a bit more coverage when the air gets slightly nippy.
  2. Polarfleece knickers... yes, seriously. These started life as long pants, but I hated them in that configuration. On a whim, I lopped off the bottoms, and now I'm in heaven down to about 25F. I continue to be surprised how little my lower legs care about warmth as long as I cover the knees (see "vintage" above). Extra bonus, this time of year, my pasty white calves are so visible, 3M should patent them as Reflecto-Skin.
  3. Foxwear Powershield tights, regular weight. If it's too cold to ride in these, you probably need an axe to chip your tires off the garage floor. Double bonus, Lou (the guy behind Foxwear) is a pleasure to work with. He'll talk you through all the fabric choices, send out cute little swatches for you to fondle, and even do custom tweaks to his stock products without charging you an arm and a leg for the extra arm or leg. Other than those silly "plugged in by Google" ads over to your right (which have earned me a whopping 12 cents so far, almost enough for that new kidney), I try not to shill on this blog, but doggone it, this is an operation that deserves a plug. Foxwear. Yep, Foxwear. Did I mention Foxwear?
Of course, it was a freakish 60F for my commute home today, so take it all with a grain of frame-eating road salt. Maybe global warming will make this post moot?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Winter Cyclist Challenges

The temps here in Des Moines (My Fair City) Iowa are dropping like a stone, so it's time to start playing the Winter Commuter Games!

My ongoing game is what I call "Last Person Standing" day: Of all the regulars who lock up their bikes at your rack, who's the last one to brave the weather in a given winter, and on what day is that person the only one riding? I was LPS at my office last year (date? call it a DNF, since I rode through the whole winter), but this year's crash probably has me out of contention. Frankly, it didn't take much to split my femur like a wishbone, so I'm a bit hesitant to do the ice and snow again. I even gave my studded tires to bike-pal and ex-neighbor Steve to eliminate any temptation.

My boss (another commuting nut) just let me in on another Winter X-Game that goes like this: You track the low temperatures each day you ride, and your score is the total of the low temps on the four coldest days you rode each month. Low score wins. Didn't ride four days in January? Each day you're short is scored 45 degrees -- which is probably high enough to put you out of contention for that month, at least in Iowa. Arizonans, make that 75 degrees. On second thought, Arizonans don't get to play unless they move to a climate where icicles on facial hair is a distinct possibility for a third of the year.

I've been disqualified for this game because my commute is considerably shorter than any of the other competitors, short enough that I could conceivably chalk up a handful of sub-zero scores each month without risking lost digits. Drat!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Training

I'm training for the merger of Fleur Drive and Locust Street in downtown Des Moines, where four packed lanes of cars slide together and I find myself the lone bike in the middle of dozens of hostile metal boxes. Cars pour in from the suburbs, meshing angrily with the cars pouring in from the airport. Every day. So I'm training for that gap in the mayhem, the ten feet between deadly bumpers where -- with a well-timed jump -- I can tuck my tiny bike and vulnerable body into the flow, slide safely through, and emerge curbside, untouched.

I'm training for Grand Avenue in Des Moines at five o'clock on a Friday, when those same cars back up for blocks, trying desperately to escape downtown. Minivans. Sport-utilities. Coupes. Buses. All motionless, trapped, burning overpriced fuel, their extra horsepower rendered useless by extra size. Drivers who -- like me -- just want to be home, out of their suits, away from the office, free from their jobs, their uniforms, their cars. Only I'm already out of my work clothes, cruising smoothly through the impasse in shorts and a flapping t-shirt, my two wheel track narrow enough for the tiniest gap in this endless parking lot, my two-cylinder engine burning off lunch.

I'm training for the guy on the professional-replica racing bike with matching shorts and jersey, all red, white and blue, who sits in my draft for a mile, pulls through without even a "how's it going?", ignores my hello and jumps out of the saddle to leave me behind. I'm training for the look on his face when, a mile later, he looks back to find me -- baggy shorts, wide tires, loaded panniers and all -- still glued to his official team-issue back wheel. I'm training to have enough breath to say hello again, just to see if he says anything the second time.

I'm training because donuts taste so good.

I'm training for Saturday morning on a quiet stretch of country asphalt, fifteen miles west of Des Moines, where, for just a minute, I catch enough tailwind to shift up to the big ring. A red sun burns through the morning mist, dew gleaming on the cornstalks. A freshly-lubed chain spins silently over a rarely-used gear combination. The hum of rubber on pavement reaches a new, higher pitch. I'm training for that instant where I feel like one of my two-wheeled heroes: ten years younger, twenty pounds lighter, and immeasurably faster.

I'm training for my cardiac stress test in 2027. I will be fifty-five, the age my father was when his heart stopped for good. So I'm training to make that treadmill smoke, to make my cardiologist suck in her breath in surprise. I'm training for the rides Dad will never take, the miles we missed together. I'm training so my wife can ride with more than just memories.

I'm training for November 8, 2052, my 80th birthday. My wife says, "Ride safe," and I reply, "I always do," the same conversation we've had daily for almost sixty years. And, without ceremony, without a crowd, without even a witness, I lift my leg gently over the top tube, and saddle up. I'm training so the neighbors can call me "the nutty old bike guy" when they see me wobble to the end of the block, turn around, and wobble back. And I'm training to do it again the next day.

"Cycle" Meets "Scribe"

Here comes one from the hard drive archives -- not sure why I wrote this in the first place or what I intended to do with it. Guess I was going through a phase where I actually thought I could combine my creative work with my bicycle-brain and make a career out of it. Silly lad.

Whatever I was going for, I have a few of these little nonfiction morsels stashed in a folder, and this seems like the place to let them run free. Thus, I give you "In Training."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

See Bicycles? Seriously?

I'm seeing more and more of these bumper stickers on my commute: Bright yellow background, all-caps sans serif black type, message: SEE BICYCLES.

And really, if anyone on my commute route deserves a rant, the SEE BICYCLES crowd probably shouldn't be the target. After all, they're supposedly raising awareness, telling the rest of the car-bound world to look out for me.

But, you see, I can't see a SEE BICYCLES sticker without looking at the vehicle... and more often than not, it's a big 'un with a lone occupant, and probably a bike rack on top. So I think, Hell's bells, friend, rather than telling the world to SEE BICYCLES, why don't you just BE A BICYCLIST? You own one, and it's probably a nice one, or else you wouldn't have dropped three Huffies' worth on a Yakima roof rack. And all of a sudden, SEE BICYCLES looks more like an indulgence purchased from the Commuter Church to make its owner look and feel more pious. "I'm one of you, man! I feel your pain... as much as I can feel anything through a bucket seat, comfort suspension, and foot-wide tires, that is."

Quickly, before my dander drops: These stickers are pretty big. They wouldn't even fit on the massive sewer-pipe boom tube of my Cannondale tandem, which may be the biggest surface known to all bicycle-dom. From this, I can only conclude that the stickers were designed specifically for cars rather than for the vehicles they claim to support.

Okay, okay, now it's probably time for my medication...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Bald and the Beautiful

Call it another in my "obligatory features of every blog" series: the self-indulgent, coo-inducing baby photo.

I don't intend to put the homely genetic material you see to the right into an unfortunate spawn, so the tiny collection of cute shown here is a loaner: Wilson, the World's Coolest Nephew.

Yes, he does have more hair than I do. Thanks for mentioning it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

LimpStrong? (drum roll) SUCCESS!

Apologies for the false suspense -- had a bit of a computer meltdown.

The first-ever LimpStrong Ride for the Femorally-Assisted is on the books, and it was a screaming success. The day of the event featured a bizarrely perfect, "how lucky can I get?" forecast: Sun with a high temp predicted for the low 70s. I overslept (which would come back to haunt me) and didn't get my lazy arse on wheels until about 9 in the morning. At that point, it was still a brisk 50 degrees, but still ever-so-pleasant for late October in Iowa.

I spun through downtown Des Moines, passing the hospital where, just six months prior, I'd had the surgery and recovery that inspired the ride -- sheer, unplanned coincidence, since it just happened to be on one of my usual routes. But as long as that particular deus fell out of the machina, let's just pause to thank...

  • The guy who answered my curse-laden 911 call (hey, a broken leg HURTS!)
  • The paramedics who carted my broken carcass up from the trail
  • Dr. Stephen Taylor, surgical superstar (and his right-hand man Jim)
  • Every poor sap at Iowa Methodist Medical Center who had to deal with me
Plus an extra-super-special thanks to Jen and Lindsey, who I swear never got off a shift the whole week I was in there, answering every whiny call-button message, emptying every revolting bottle of pee, picking up every clumsily-dropped TV remote, and generally earning a notch on the sainthood belt in addition to whatever measly salary they got for the ordeal. If you absolutely must break a major bone, do it on J & L's never-ending watch, believe me.

(Astute readers will note that I didn't mention my wife. That's a whole separate post, and a debt of gratitude that pretty much guarantees I'm hers until that whole "death do us part" thing comes to pass.)

But, Digression Man, back to the ride. Headed out on the Great Western Trail, an old rail-trail that makes a just-shy-of-50-miles loop from my house. Did that 50 in an uneventful 3-plus hours and stopped at the house for a quick lunch. A little neck soreness inspired me to raise my handlebars a skosh, then it was back out, headed west to the Walnut Creek Trail which would connect me to the Greenbelt Trail which would connect me to the Raccoon River Trail (not nearly as complex as it sounds, truly.)

Walnut Creek turned out to be another unintentional stop on the Tour of Bad Femur Memories, since it was the trail where the whole thing went down (and by "thing", I guess I mean
I went down). Sure enough, there was the accursed spot where a bit of gooey mud had treated me to an expensive and painful pratfall. Note to locals, it's where the trail goes under 63rd Street... and if anyone found a battered black Zefal hpx-4 frame pump there in May, it's mine and I'd love to have it back.

Once I cleared the metro area, things got a little ugly. A pretty rugged crosswind marred miles 60-70 and 80-90 -- not the time you want to be fighting the environment. Note to self, next year's LimpStrong should be a
group ride (who's in?), so the "don't mock me for being a quitter" motivation is right there beside me rather than lurking in the blogosphere. This is also where oversleeping paid me back in pain; had I dragged myself out two hours earlier as planned, I would have been done and home snoring in front of a football game during the worst part of the day, not beating my head against a wall of wind. But, with the help of a good mix on the iPod (yes, I'm sometimes one of those guys, sue me), I muddled through, knocking down exactly 100 miles in 7 hours ride time, 8:30 total door-to-door time. Not close to a personal best, but for my first hundred in nine years (and my first-ever solo), I'll take it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

LimpStrong Draws Nigh!

Abandon all hope, ye who undertrain!

It's t-minus 36 hours to LimpStrong, and I've started my pre-event dietary preparation: fat loading. Carbo-loading is so 1990s, don't you know? Carbs are out! It's time to start pounding down heaping bowls of bacon, storing up the high-energy, slow-burn blubber that will kick in around mile 75, propelling me to a new personal best century time.

The original route plan was to start with a 45-mile loop that would bring me back home for lunch, but several key roads in that plan now look like canals in Venice thanks to the recent rains. It looks like I may have to go with a "no guts, no glory" route that takes me 50 miles away from home and then dares me to make it back.

My wife has reminded me that we bought bicycle coverage with our Better World Club roadside assistance membership, then hinted that there would be no shame in an "accidental" mechanical failure at mile 60. Hmmm...

Obligatory Fleet Rundown 4: Morrissey

First, I didn't name it. That's my wife's work again. Apparently, like the singer of the same name, this bike wears black on the outside because black is how it feels on the inside.

This big brute followed us home from a vacation in Madison, Wisconsin*, and now that we've fed it, I don't think we'll ever be able to get rid of it. Underneath all that blackness is a Cannondale MT800 mountain tandem, pimped out touring-style by yours truly with slicks, fenders, racks and panniers.

*Tangent for owners of first-generation Honda CR-Vs: Big tandems just barely fit inside. Don't believe me? Try driving from Madison, WI to Des Moines, IA with a field-stripped twofer in there. Even with both wheels off and the bike upside down, I had a rear derailleur tickling my ear for the whole drive. Yes, we wanted this bike that much. And yes, that drive inspired the subsequent purchase of a roof rack.

Obligatory Fleet Rundown 3: Li'l Frenchie

Okay, so that isn't really this bike's name, but my wife -- namer of all inanimate objects (ref. house Fred, car Clyde, etc.) -- hasn't slapped a moniker on this one yet.

In all bike-snob respects, this little Peugeot "Orient Express" ain't much: a welded Taiwanese mountain bike with decent entry-level parts, circa late 80s. The thing's about as French as a McDonald's french fry. But gosh darn it, my wife loves the bugger, from its red star-pattern grips to its obnoxious Honka Hoota horn. And I must admit, I find the budget mass-produced take on a classic mixte frame sort of charming.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Oh Crikey, Almost 2 Weeks to LimpStrong

I wish I could say that the lack of LimpStrong training updates reflects the countless hours I've spent training for that epic event.

Yeah, dream on, pal.

I started with the hypothesis (copped from an old magazine) that if you can consistently ride 100 miles in a week, you can ride 100 miles in a day -- the wheeled equivalent of, "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!"

That quickly degraded to the hypothesis that if you think you can consistently ride 100 miles in a week, then you should be able to ride 100 miles in a day. Same idea, with some "Little Engine That Could" mixed in.

On the bright side, I did tick over the 1,500 annual miles mark this week, and only 600 of those miles happened before the broken femur. Not shabby for someone who needed two nurses pulling on a strap around his chest just to get his busted-up butt out of bed five months ago. LimpStrong, baby!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Muscle Memory (Part 4 of 4)

The first play is crucial, Coach says. The first play is where you decide who is a man and who is a boy. At the first snap of the ball, I must hit seventy-one as hard as I have ever hit anything. I must put the top of my helmet in his facemask. He must see nothing but my head coming at him like a blue missile, and hear nothing but the explosion of plastic shells meeting. I must make him afraid. This is called “putting paint on him.”

When the huddle breaks, I see seventy-one on his knees in front of the ball. I have never seen him from the ground. I only know him as a small body in red, captured from a distance by a wobbling camera. Face-to-face, he is as big as I am, maybe bigger. His uniform strains to hold him. I am not afraid. He is a fat boy. Quick feet will always beat a fat boy, Dad says. Short, choppy steps.

I crouch over the ball, wrapping my black gloves around it. Seventy-one has a foot back. I picture the path his helmet will take when he tries to go past me. I imagine the first step I must take to make my helmet meet his. I do not have quick feet, but I am smart. I know where fat boy seventy-one is going.

The count is called.

I snap the ball.

Seventy-one goes where I knew he would. Our heads bang together. The crash echoes in my ears. My neck flexes back. The edge of my helmet presses into my collar. I bite hard on my mouthpiece, feeling my teeth touch through the thick rubber. My vision goes yellow and white, but my feet keep moving, keep driving. For an instant, he wobbles, giving up one step. I want him to fall, but he does not. No one will ever see that one step I fought for. No one will know that I won the battle. The whistle blows.

As I get in my stance for the next play, I see a streak of blue on seventy-one’s facemask, a scrape from the top of my helmet. I imagine my own mask without a trace of red. I put paint on him. I am the man, he is the boy.

His foot is dropped again. I may be slow, but he is stupid. I picture his first step and plan my own. This time, fat boy, I will knock you down.
The count is called.

I snap the ball.

His hand rises. He is going to swat me. I brace my neck against the foam collar and drive towards his numbers, waiting for the slap on my helmet, imagining the hard ground under our bodies when I knock him down, the humiliation in his eyes when the whistle finally blows and I help him up like a gentleman.

The swat never lands. His hand goes under my mask, pulling at my chinstrap, scratching at my cheeks, gouging my eyes. I see nothing but his thick fingers, his hand inside my mask. My chinstrap breaks loose. My cage shakes and turns. The world outside my helmet rocks. I keep driving. My shoulder lands hard between the seven and the one. He topples back, pulling at my mask, taking me over with him.

I straddle his fallen body. My helmet, unstrapped by my enemy, comes off easily in my hands. My exposed face burns with sweat in the tracks left by his fingernails. I grip my mask with black-wrapped fingers, swinging my helmet over my head, bringing it down again and again on the enemy’s fat masked face. The helmets crack like rifle shots, echoing off the concrete stadium walls. Each impact leaves a dark, satisfying streak of blue paint.

I see his eyes and they are afraid.

I do not hear the whistle blow.

Muscle Memory (Part 3 of 4)

We cross the plywood bridge over the track. The boards flex and rattle like wooden drums under the weight of the team. With the first sinking step off the bridge, my cleats drive through the grass into the wet dirt. Each step sticks in the moist sod as I run to the opposite end zone for the pregame pep talk. The gold jerseys and blue numbers of my team keep passing. Their helmets are covered in the small adhesive tomahawks that Braves earn for tackles, yards gained, or touchdowns. Each player, as trained, drops to one knee when he reaches the end zone. I am the last to arrive, struggling with a body that I want to grow into.

I have two tomahawks. If a running back gains over one-hundred yards in a game, each offensive lineman gets a tomahawk. I am too slow to play defensive line and make tackles, so I am only the center. Centers do not make tackles, gain yards, or score touchdowns. I cannot earn a tomahawk that is only mine.

Dad has moved from the end zone to the sideline, walking up and down like he belongs, wrapped in his blue and gold warmups, talking with the chain gang and the referees. I know that in the patch of visiting Brave fans that have collected while we were in the locker room, my mother is passing out egg salad sandwiches and my grandfather is polishing the lenses of his binoculars.

Coach hikes his nylon shorts up under his paunch and slides the Sterling Football Staff hat off his greasy comb-over. “Tonight, gentlemen, is going to be a test. On the field, you’re going to have a tough game. Off the field, you are going to have to show your very best sportsmanship. The home fans sit right behind our bench, not theirs. They’re going to have some things to say to you. You are to be gentlemen at all times. When you come off the field, leave your helmet on, face the game, and ignore everything behind you. You are representing Sterling High School, and, goddammit, you are going to behave yourselves. If those people piss you off, use it on the field. Get pissed out there. Use it to beat their team. Got it?”

There is a rumble of agreement. I nod.

“Okay, hats off, moment of silence.”

The sound of snaps breaking loose is like bugs chirping in the grass. I pull my helmet off and lean heavily on it. Head down, eyes closed, I picture the perfect hit. I see it from above, fifty-four versus seventy-one, two small bodies on a game film, a slow-motion replay. Seventy-one comes out of his stance too high, and my shoulder is in his stomach before he can put his hands on my pads. I take short, choppy steps, the same steps that knocked Dad over every time. The force of my legs churning, cleats digging sod, drives seventy-one backwards. He catches a heel. His weight shifts, body rotating around his hips (because if you control the center of gravity, you control the enemy, Dad says), and I drive his back into the dirt, hearing the wind knocked from his lungs on impact. In my mind, I am an angry machine. I hate seventy-one. My mask tears at the grass, my legs driving, keeping the enemy on his back, humiliating seventy-one until the whistle blows.

“Amen. Let’s play,” Coach says.

I look up. Dad is walking backwards across the track on his way to the bleachers. He catches my glance, smiles, gives a double thumbs-up, and turns his back on the field.

Muscle Memory (Part 2 of 4)

We jostle down the narrow aisle, struggling with our equipment. When I reach the door of the bus, the dirty air of LaSalle-Peru’s factories fills my lungs. The team wanders around the gravel lot, lost outside the bus. Dad’s car sits empty across the street in the visitor lot. Dad, always early, squats in the far end zone, a small body in blue and gold staring at the field over the orange corner pylon.
Coach gets us moving. “Let’s go, goddammit! Ten minutes! Don’t stand around like a bunch of baby robins, all mouth and asshole!” His whistle chirps. Under his breath, whistle still in his teeth, he mutters “God, I hate this place.” We jog toward the north end of the field, where a tall digital scoreboard announces that we are in the “Home of the Lasalle-Peru Cavaliers.”

Lasalle and Peru are two different towns. If we could play them separately, the game would be an easy win. But Lasalle-Peru High School, the combination of the two, always gives us a good battle. We are only one town, Sterling, Illinois, home of the Sterling Golden Warriors, but we are not the Warriors. The Warriors are the varsity, who will arrive on another bus for a later game. We are the Braves. We will become Warriors someday. Coach, who teaches government during the day, was a Warrior in 1951. Dad was a Warrior in 1965, fifty-four just like me, starting middle linebacker, led the team in tackles, and has the yearbook to prove it. I will be a Warrior next year. Who would want to stay a Brave?

We are not facing the Cavaliers. Our opponents are the Incas. I don’t understand why an Inca would want to become a Cavalier. It doesn’t matter. Next year, I will still be fifty-four in gold, and I will still face seventy-one in red, Warrior or Brave, Cavalier or Inca.

Coach yells at our backs, “Keep off the track, goddammit! Don’t tear up their track! You’re guests in somebody else’s house!” I jog on the gravel shoulder, avoiding the cinder lanes. My cleats squirm on the hard surface. The rubber nubs are pressed back into my shoes by the gravel, jabbing my soles with each step. I tolerate the pain, trying to be a good guest. My teammates pass me in small groups, each with a matching equipment bag on his shoulder. I am too big and slow to run with them. They are talking and laughing quietly. I try to catch up, clutching my helmet in one hand and my pads in the other. They keep passing until there are none left. They have all disappeared into the locker room tunnel, and I am running alone.

The locker room stinks with the sweat of absent freshman Incas. I choose a section of the red bench, sit, and pull my Sterling Football sweatshirt over my head. Static jumps in front of my eyes. When the light reappears, I am sitting in my game pants and the grey cutoff t-shirt that keeps my skin from sticking to my shoulder pads. I feel the ragged, unhemmed edge against my stomach, proof that this is my game shirt, the shirt I cut myself, the shirt I have to wear under my pads during games. My game shirt is good luck. I have to wear it.

My elbow, forearm, and hand pads are collected in the shoulder pads resting at my feet. I pour them onto the concrete and reach into the gold mesh, crawling inside the giant torso. My jersey is gold, not yellow, because Sterling players are never yellow, Coach says. My head emerges from a rolled collar of foam. When I hit another player, the collar will keep my head from snapping back. It will keep my neck from breaking. When I lean back, the foam presses against the base of my skull, hard and reassuring. My armor will protect me in battle.

I pull the straps of my shoulder pads under my arms and buckle them to the front of the pads. The elastic digs into the rolled fat of my sides. When I draw up the laces, the plastic plates squeeze against my soft chest, forcing my body into another shape, flattening the top of my thick stomach. I tuck the jersey deep into my pants and snug up the webbed belt, because I am a football player, and football players cannot look like fat slobs, both Dad and Coach say.
When I have squeezed my arms through black elbow and forearm pads and forced my stubby fingers into black padded gloves, no skin is left exposed. Black makes me look tough, Dad says. He bought the pads for me because I am not very intimidating. I am big for my age, my doctor says, and I have great potential, Coach says, but I am lumped with baby rolls, a soft two-hundred pounds on bones that are still growing. I need to lift weights. I need to get strong. But when I pull the ear pads of my helmet over my protruding ears, when my soft face is behind the cage, when my chin is pressed up in a leather strap, and when my arms are wrapped in black, I feel intimidating. I feel gold, not yellow. Tonight, number seventy-one will see only hard black pads, a helmet, and eyes that are still trying to be angry.

Muscle Memory (part 1 of 4)

I want these pads to fit. I want the foam and plastic to be part of me, like a shell. The pads hide my soft fat. Dad says that I look good in pads, that I look like a man. The pads make me hard. They are my armor. The foam between my tailbone and the bus seat keeps me propped up and off-balance, leaning toward the window. I don’t mind. These are my pads. If I want to be a football player, I must learn to live in them.
The whine of the bus resonates through my Walkman, blocking out the voices of my teammates. My teammates did not change out of their school clothes. They are not in uniform as the bus rolls down Highway 30 towards Lasalle-Peru, not fidgeting in their armor. They sit alongside blue equipment bags stuffed with pads. When I was released from sixth period driver’s education, instead of walking to Casey’s with the team for pregame Twinkies, I went to the locker room and changed into my game pants. Coach says junk food is bad before a game. Dad says it will make me fatter.

I am wearing a Sterling Football sweatshirt and my game pants, trying to get used to the scratchy blue elastic and inner pockets full of padding. The rigid plates on my thighs dig into my waist. The foam paddles on my hips creep out of their pockets. My hands rest on the rounded foam cups over my knees. My school clothes and this weekend’s homework are in a duffel bag on the floor between my black cleats.

I am a football player, Dad says. Football players can sleep in these pads. Football players have to be hard inside, just like their pads are outside. Football players wear pads like armored skin. I cannot tell Dad that my skin is too tight, that the extra-large pants are still not large enough. I cannot tell Dad that my seams are going to split.

On the seat next to me, my oversized plastic shoulders sit empty, wrapped in gold polyester mesh, the number fifty-four in blue facing front. There is no name printed on the back, just another fifty-four, so that is who I am: fifty-four. On the open neck hole, my blue helmet sits with its grey wire mask facing me. In the empty space where my head belongs, the gears of my Walkman turn. Van Halen pounds in my ears.

Music makes me feel more intense. We need to be intense, Coach says. We need to prepare for battle. Coach doesn’t allow any chatter on the bus. Chatter isn’t intense. Coach says study playbooks, but I am the center, and my job is simple. There will be a padded body in red and white in front of me when I get into my stance. The body will be wearing number seventy-one. If the play is a run to the right, I must make number seventy-one move left. If the play is a run to the left, I must make him move right. If the play is a pass, I must keep seventy-one in front of me until the whistle blows. No matter what the play, he will try to get the ball. I must stop him.

I have watched seventy-one on videotape. I know seventy-one’s patterns. I know that if he is going to try to go past me to my left, he drops his left foot back. If he is going right, his feet are straight. I know he likes the swat-and-swim, usually to my left. He will smack me on the side of my helmet with his right hand and swing his left arm over my shoulder when I flinch, swimming past me.

I know how to beat seventy-one’s swat-and-swim. Dad and I spent the week practicing in the back yard. When I get swatted, I must drop my head and drive my left shoulder between his numbers. I cannot flinch. I must drive in against the swat and ignore the instinct to duck. I must do exactly what my body doesn’t want to do. “That’s what helmets are for,” Dad said, as he rapped mine on the earhole with his knuckles, making a racket inside my plastic shell. When I tried to duck, he claimed I had a hundred-dollar helmet on a five-cent head. When I finally learned not to recoil from his swat, I knocked him over mid-swim. He rolled in the grass, wheezing. When he could speak again, he said “Nice hit, but not angry enough. Let’s do it some more.” I knocked him down again. I knocked him down until it was routine. He said he wanted me to be an angry machine. He wanted me to hate him. “The game is about hate,” he said. I kept knocking him down, trying to remember how it felt, trying to be angry enough. I knocked him down until it got dark and Mom made us stop.
The bus whine gets louder as we pull in alongside the stadium. I reach into my helmet to turn off the music, pull my headphones off, unzip the duffel bag, and drop the Walkman on top of my clothes. Even the mumbling that Coach allows during bus rides (because it is technically not chatter) has stopped. From his seat behind the driver, Coach rises and turns as the bus grinds to a stop. “Okay, you hamburgers. The tunnel to the visitors locker room is at the end of the field, under the scoreboard. I want everybody changed and on the field in ten minutes for pregame. Hustle up.”

Are You Ready for Some Football?

Since I've been heavy on "cycle" and light on "scribe" lately, I'm going to try to post some fiction. Apologies if this doesn't translate it well to blogging... it was originally intended for dead trees. How 20th century!

The next post (or two, or three) will be my short story Muscle Memory. This was a huge hit when it debuted in a graduate fiction workshop... yet no one wants to publish it. So (muttering to myself about the value of a graduate degree in creative writing all the while) I give you Muscle Memory.

(Required fiction disclaimer: Though your author did in fact put on pads for Sterling High School many years ago, these are characters, not people. Read accordingly.)

Obligatory Fleet Rundown 2: Workin' 9-2-5

What fleet would be complete without this year's hottest fashion accessory, the urban poseur fixed gear? Mine's a Redline 925, its silly moustache bars swapped for even sillier bullhorns and its rear brake/freewheel removed.

Let's be honest here... the sole purpose of this particular bicycle is to carry a pathetic, balding 34-year-old and his messenger bag of corporate casual attire to and from a gray cubicle, all the while letting him pretend to be a 20-something urban fixie punk. Nothing more to see, move along please! It's past the old man's bedtime anyway.

(This does, however, have the dubious distinction of being the only "racing" bike in my stable, since it carried me to an underwhelming "last of the fixies" finish in the '06 Des Moines "Cranksgiving" alleycat race. I'll let the reader decide if that makes it more or less sad.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Obligatory Fleet Rundown 1: Big Bruce

What cyclist's blog is complete without an exhaustive, bike by bike, part by part rundown of every wheeled thing cluttering the garage? In honor of this long-standing tradition, I present to you... Bike 1 of 4!

Underneath the logo-less exterior is a Bruce Gordon Rock 'n' Road, circa early '90s (mine since '02), now wearing its second coat of paint thanks to Cedar Falls, IA framebuilder Rich Powers. The build is kind of "nuovo-randonneur minus the handlebar bag" using modern parts, taking inspiration from the fine French steeds in
The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles by Jan Heine. (An aside: Do you own a bicycle and a coffee table? If the answer to both is yes, this book should be on the latter.)

Weirdness that makes it uniquely mine: A mountain triple crank with the inner ring left off for a 34/42 mini-double, the cyclocomputer mounted on the front fender with high-test Velcro (since the bar-end shifters on Paul's Thumbies take up a lot of handlebar space), and a homebrewed headlight mount on the left fork blade made from PVC and a threadless headset top cap.

Prior to the repaint, I used to pummel this poor beast on just about every surface imaginable: dirt, snow, gravel, daily commutes (and the resultant paint-trading in the bike rack at work), who cares? But now, it looks so damn good, I fear it's becoming a garage queen.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Inaugural LimpStrong Ride – Saturday, October 20

Okay, so it’s not really a ride per se, just me trying to chalk up my first century since (pauses, calculates, considers fudging the number in shame)… 1999. But since I’m notorious for letting myself weasel out of my own self-imposed goals (see also: coffee addiction, inability to eat sensible portions, Internet Surf Overload Disorder), I wanted to put this one out there for all three of my readers to see. Between that and a cutesy name, I figure I’m golden.

The event will commemorate six-plus months since I suffered a nasty femur fracture and had some pretty pricey titanium hardware installed. Hence, the LimpStrong Foundation for Femur Injury Awareness, a purely fictional organization devoted to proving that the femur-impaired can live normal lives and ride a bicycle 100 miles without sag support or helpful volunteers serving peanut butter sandwiches and Gatorade. That's right, folks, a solo, unsupported century. Heck, if I’m feeling particularly metric, I might tack on an extra 25 miles and call it a 200k!

Watch this space for LimpStrong training updates, and mock me if I don’t complete the ride. The threat of semi-public humiliation may be just what I need to get motivated.

(Disclaimer for Lance Armstrong’s lawyers: LimpStrong is a humorous parody which has no relation to the LiveStrong Foundation, intends to raise absolutely zero dollars, and should in no way be construed as an infringement on the LiveStrong trademark or all the wonderful work done by said foundation. Please find larger fish to fry and leave my silly little one-man goof to peter out all by itself. Note also that I can be bought… hook me up with the Chinese factory that cranks out those ubiquitous yellow rubber bands, have them make me just one titanium-colored “LimpStrong” bracelet – hold the lead paint, please – and that’s the last you’ll hear of this. Promise.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Free Spirit

"I found a bike! Free! Can you look it over for me?"
Hoo boy. Now I'm worried. Generally, those "set by the curb" finds are a get-what-you-pay-for proposition. Nobody throws out a vintage Paramount, at least not in my neighborhood. But it's my obligation as "office bike guy" to encourage other people to ride... no matter what they happen to ride. So there it hangs, one 70s-vintage Sears Free Spirit. Do I detect a sneer from my workstand, as if it's trying to hold this abomination further away than usual? I start the old checklist, a throwback to my pre-corporate days as a shop wrench. Bottom bracket: Loose. Headset: Loose. Hubs: Loose. Derailleurs: Spanning six of ten speeds at best. Brakes: Laughable. Rims: See Brakes. This is not going to be fun.

Any shop mechanic will tell you, when you tune up a Free Spirit (or Huffy, or Magna, or any other bicycle-shaped object), you're a paramedic, not a plastic surgeon. Stop the major bleeding as fast as possible, and don't worry about making it pretty. So I reach for the appropriate tool: Crescent wrench, large. That knocks out the headset, and with the help of its pal Screwdriver, large (for precise bearing adjustments), the bottom bracket goes next. For hubs, I choose Crescent wrench, small. Just like that, all bearings are turning as smoothly as can possibly be expected.

The derailleurs are a head-scratcher. Nothing looks wrong with them, yet they refuse to complete the most basic of tasks. I tick through the usual limit screw and cable tension adjustments on rote memory, and for no apparent reason, they start to behave. Ten gears, all accessible with surprising smoothness from the stem-mounted retrofriction shifters. Almost like I knew what I was doing.

At this point, it stops looking like a bicycle-shaped object and more like a bicycle in my mind's eye. Would I add it to my collection? No. But it's a bike, and a bike is a good thing. I'm a little more tender as I try (in vain) to bring the steel rims and galvanized spokes back to some semblance of trueness and roundness. The centerpull brakes howl like angry cats no matter what I do, but they'll stop forward progress. By the time I've swapped the torturous original saddle for something more tolerable and carefully applied fresh handlebar tape, I'm a little attached to this old roller. And by the time I give it a spin down the driveway and back, I almost like it.

My coworker-pal paid for the parts and covered the labor with a good six-pack of beer. And while I'm certainly not one to turn down a good six-pack of beer, I confess, I would have done it just because.