Saturday, January 26, 2008

Props from Motorists

I was stopped at a light on yesterday's commute home, taking the lane to keep cars from sneaking around me and turning across my path, when the car behind me skulked up on my right to make a right turn. The driver stopped and rolled down his window.

Maybe I'm paranoid, but my first thought was, "Hoo boy, here we go." When it's this cold and miserable out, I just assume that anyone who breaks the seal on his (and it's always "his") climate-controlled coffin is a) plenty mad about something, and b) committed enough to that anger to freeze just so he can launch it at me.

Then, I saw his roof rack. Now, a pricy bike-schlepper doesn't always mean a "get out of hostility free" card. I've been cut off by more than my share of unfortunate bikes that just happen to have a giant, gas-guzzling parasite stuck under their tires. But in this case, I was in fact dealing with a friendly fellow bike-person.

"Is that a singlespeed?"

"Yup." As much as I love semantics, it was too damn cold to launch into the explanation that it's actually a fixed-gear. After all, it does have just one speed, unless you count walking.

"Wow!" And off he went.

Maybe it's lame to take your warm fuzzies from random strangers, but that little "wow" made me feel like the World's Biggest Bad-arse for the rest of the night. It almost makes up for the half hour I just spent on the gerbil-wheel in the basement.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Please Remind Me That I Chose This

It was the year 2000. Why-two-kay! A new century. A new opportunity.

I had two brand-spankin'-new, utterly useless degrees in hand and a wife ready to quit her miserable job. I could have taken those hunks of embossed toilet paper ANYWHERE in the world and received the same pittance of a salary.

I chose Des Moines, IA. The same freaking climate as:

  • Sterling, IL, where I grew up
  • Iowa City, IA, where I got Useless Degree #1
  • Columbus, OH, where I got Useless Degree #2
In short, after spending a huge chunk of my young life in crappy Midwestern winters, I chose to stay in the Midwest.

Why, oh why?!?!

I have no idea. But I'm taking suggestions for where I might take those useless degrees next. Requirements include:

  • Reasonable geographic proximity to Illinois, home of Wilson, the World's Coolest Nephew, the rest of my clan, and my wife's immediate clan
  • A milder climate than here -- I don't expect the 70s year-round, but this blanket of frigid whiteness for several months at a stretch is unacceptable
  • Something urban, no smaller than the bustling metropolis that is Des Moines
  • Good roads with quasi-friendly drivers
  • A bike culture with more diversity than, "Hey, let's suit up in our matching too-tight RAGBRAI jerseys and ride our matching Trek bikes (from the three identical mainstream bike shops) to the bar in the next town, get drunk, and ride back!"
  • Some kind of job opportunity for me and my better half
  • A decent-sized Jewish community (i.e., more than one token synagogue)
Kansas City (either the KS or MO variety) seems to have potential. Maybe St. Louis, MO? No experience there, though bike-pals say it meets the climate requirement.

So, what say you, devoted readership of three people? Where's the next move?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Retro Ride Report: BRR '04

Editor's Note: Just finished shoveling my sidewalks in -5F temps with -25F wind chills... which means no real ride report today. However, the frozen claws that now pass for my hands can still cut and paste. So, I'm digging back into the archives of the Internet-BOB mailing list (a.k.a. iBOB) for a climate-appropriate ride report I wrote many moons ago. I'm exceptionally proud of the uber-nerdy Taun-taun reference in paragraph six -- which, had I written one more draft, would have featured the punchline, "And I thought Jason smelled bad on the outside!" For non-locals, BRR is the Bike Ride to Rippey, an annual 23-miler from Perry, IA to (logically enough) Rippey, IA and back. The catch? It's in Februrary. So, set the wayback machine to February 2004 and enjoy!

Saturday was the much anticipated (and more than a
little dreaded) BRR ride here in the frozen tundra of
central Iowa.  Having survived with all extremities
still attached, I feel the need to post a ride report.

Had dinner Friday night with pal Ross, who was also
preregistered for the ride.  He spent the entire
evening trying to talk me out of going, so he could
stay home too without losing face.  No such luck.

Saturday morning, 7 am, Ross calls: "It's five degrees
out there, 15mph wind, and there's blowing and
drifting snow on rural roads.  I'm not going."  Of
course, Ross has the car with the bike rack, so I have
to strip the bike down enough to jam it into my Civic
and drive the 40 miserable miles to Perry, IA.  All
the streets in town are snowpacked and spooky -- in
the two blocks from my parking place to the ride
headquarters, I narrowly escape eating snow twice.
And, when I get there, the only "facilities" are
portable and outdoors -- note to self, less coffee
before the ride next year.

Ride starts with a cannon blast, and we're off.

I took some chances early on to get ahead of people
and ride alone, learning quickly that a pack of riders
with questionable handling skills and no fenders is no
place to be on packed snow.  But, even my "breakaway"
was limited to about 10mph, thanks to a brutal
headwind and the lousy roads.  Within 15 minutes, my
water bottle was a block of ice, as were my hands,
feet, lips and nose.  By the time I reached the hot
chocolate stop at 6 miles, the hands had warmed up
(the rest I wrote off as a loss), so I didn't want to
stop and lose what little rhythm I had.  Caught up to
a guy on an ATB, sat on his wheel for a while.
Offered to take a pull, but we hit a bad patch of snow
and he of the 2.1" knobbies left me and my 700x35
Paselas far behind.

The route then took a turn, which -- I hoped -- meant
the end of the headwind.  It did, but the diagonal
crosswind was worse: blowing snow made it impossible
to see or hold a good line, and I had to break through
little drifts every 50 yards or so.  The tall drifts
along the side of the road meant that blowing snow hit
me broadside at about head-height, collecting inside
the right lens of my glasses and freezing up,
rendering me blind in one eye.  Started to wonder if I
would die like a Taun-taun in The Empire Strikes Back:
a plaintive, bleating cry before toppling over, then
the next rider to encounter my carcass would gut me
and wear my pelt for warmth.  Or, perhaps they would
find me the next day like Nicholson's character at the
end of The Shining, sitting in the snow, face frozen
in a maniacal stare, still clutching my bike.

After an eternity, I made it to Rippey, the longest 12
miles and 80 minutes of my life.  I literally hadn't
coasted the entire time.  Sun came out, took shelter
from the wind, downed my Thermos of coffee, tightened
up a derailleur cable for a tandeming pair, and turned
for the return trip feeling almost human.  The wind
became my friend as I found the big ring at last.
Hammered along at 18mph, throwing my butt back and
carving the snowy downhills like an insane skier,
pitying the riders going the other way.  Almost cut my
outbound time in half on the return trip.

Back in Perry, I ate my ration of chili and hot dogs,
gave an interview to the local paper, tore into Ross's
ride packet, ate his ration of chili and hot dogs,
tore down the bike with frozen fingers and made my way
back home to a hot shower.  The bike fared well,
thanks to fenders -- my chain was a mess, but
everything else stayed remarkably clean.  As to my
gear, the torso was fine (Sportwool LS jersey,
Polarfleece LS jersey, GoreTex jacket), legs were
tolerable (two pairs of tights - one windfront), hands
were eventually okay (polypro liner gloves, wool
mittens), head survived (mask plus hat) and feet
suffered (thick wool socks, plastic grocery bags,
regular riding shoes).

Will I do it again?  Not if it's this cold.  Am I glad
to have tested my limits a bit?  Sure.  Will I wear
that ride t-shirt with pride?  You better believe it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Riding in the Deep Freeze

For those still anxiously awaiting pictures of my winter ride, sorry. It's six freakin' degrees out there (yep, that's Farenheit, folks) with wind chills around 20 below. And the five inches of powder that hit us last night are now blowing sideways. I'm not even going to the garage on a night like this, much less taking the time to pose my trusty steed in front of the garage door as required by the Universal Law of Amateur Bicycle Photography.

The bike itself is decidedly normal, just my Redline fixed-gear with studded tires and a few other commuter tweaks. The saddlebag's gone to make room for another rear blinker, and I've added one LED headlight to my bars, another to my helmet. I considered lowering my usual 38x15 gearing by liberating a 34-tooth ring from another bike, but it just hasn't seemed worth the hassle so far. Just add a slathering of wet lube to the chain, and off we go!

Until today, the riding was great. There's nothing quite like the mental disconnect of actually seeking out glare ice because your tires hook up to it better than they do on snow. On a local trail, a guy going the opposite direction warned me that I was headed for an icy stretch where he'd just gone down -- um, genius, what exactly did you expect on 700x23 slicks? I took great pleasure in rolling right across the 100-or-so yards of ice sheet with nary a slip.

Note, however, that I said "until today." I don't care what tires you're running, five inches of unplowed, fluffy powder is ugly. And Iowa drivers (bless 'em!) act like they were born and raised in the tropics every time it snows, whether it's the first one in November or the last straggler in late March: "What is this strange white substance that falls from the sky? Perhaps I should jam on my brakes or swerve -- or maybe both -- to get a better look at it!" C'mon, folks... aren't you FROM here? Snow was not invented yesterday!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Winter Gear Rundown Returns: The Melon

I'm past due in reporting on Week 1 of Snowbike Follies, but until I have some photos of the trusty steed to share (per the request of iBOB-pal Scott), this will just have to do.

I'm lucky enough to be married to someone who's as nuts about knitting as I am about bikes. It's like living with a giant spider: sit still long enough, and she'll probably knit you to the couch. So, when I mentioned that I was going to start riding again, and gosh, it would be so nice to have a wooly head-and-face protector, she went straight to work. The pattern (available for free all over the Web, apparently) is called a "helmet liner" -- designed in most cases to be made for troops serving in chilly climes. Mix that with some wool/mohair blend yarn and the abovementioned knit-nut, and you've got the oh-so-fashionable "cyclist preparing to rob a convenience store" look shown above.

When I need a little more airflow, I shift to this look: "cyclist auditioning for a part in a local production of Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (insert your own coconut clip-clop sounds here).

So far, this melon-insulator has been perfect for the oh-so-brisk 15-25F temps of Iowa in January: toasty without being clammy, fast to dry, and nowhere near as stinky as the synthetic balaclava it replaced (unless the smell of wet wool isn't too your liking).

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Off-Season Ends Tomorrow

That's right, kids. I'm baaaaaack...

After one month split between the bus and carpooling, I couldn't take it any more. My mind and my legs were turning to Cream of Wheat. So I called up the lovably cantankerous (or is it cantankerously lovable?) Peter White of the eponymous Peter White Cycles and ordered up a set of Nokian studded winter tires. As of tomorrow, I'm back to my old, mildly deranged ways, terrorizing the streets of Des Moines on rubber that looks like something out of Mad Max.

For the record, rumors that Peter White is a cum laude graduate of the Bruce Gordon Charm School are 100% false. I found him to be an absolute pleasure on the phone -- and the tires arrived exactly when he said they would, even with a holiday tucked in there. Thanks, Peter!

Now where did I put the battery charger for my lights?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Something Bike-Related? Okay, if You Insist

Mileage for 2007: 2,050.

660 of those miles happened before I fell down and went boom in May.

The remaining 1,390 are currently under investigation by the UCI and the French press (mmm... French press... dark roast... crap, I just drooled in my keyboard), who suspect that I was unfairly assisted by the new titanium femur. I strongly deny these allegations, and have been peeing in a cup non-stop in the hopes of clearing my besmirched name.

When asked for comment, my wife said, "I wish he would just go back to peeing in the toilet and stop besmirching all our cups."

Live from the No-Caucus Bunker

That's right, folks, as promised, I'm hunkered down in my panic room, all deadbolts locked, with a six-month supply of Spam, waiting out the Caucus Carnivale. Ring that doorbell all you want, earnest collegiate campaign volunteers! I ain't comin' out until the satellite trucks cross the New Hampshire state line!

Here's a news flash, in case you missed it on CBS, ABC, NBC, or the relentless CNN Headline News crawler: It's cold in Iowa in January. Huh. Guess when I was learning to write, I never took "Fundamentals of the Painfully Obvious Lede." Of course, it's better when you deliver it with a little drama. Hire a timpani player for some stock "breaking story" background music, and try this: "On a cold January night in Iowa, history is in the making." Just like that, you've got the Official Cliche of the Caucus. Sure, everyone's been playing around with the "history is in the making" part, but you can't spit around here without hitting a national news figure who's opening his/her story with, "On a cold January night in Iowa."

My other favorite media moment happened earlier this week: We finally reached the point where news reporters outnumbered news stories. So, obviously, the extra news reporters had to start reporting on the other news reporters. Local affiliates aiming cameras at their national counterparts! National networks aiming cameras at other national networks! Reporters interviewing each other about the reporters that they interviewed yesterday! "Charlie Gibson ate a tuna sandwich for lunch today! How will this impact Iowa caucus-goers?" "Well, Tom, you may remember that in 2004, Dan Rather went with egg salad for his caucus-day lunch, and it really seemed to energize Howard Dean's supporters. I think Gibson's tuna could be the turning point for the Obama campaign."

Of course, one could argue that blogs are New Media, which would make me the media reporting on the media that's reporting on the media. Now my head's spinning a little. I'm going to lie down for a while. Someone wake me when it's all over.