Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cute Alert Level Raised to Red

Time to quit my whining (at least for one post) and revel in the recent visit of Wilson, the World's Most Amazingly Stupendous Nephew... and, of course, his parents, my sis E.B. and bro-in-law Mark.

I have to say, the man travels in style. Here he is shortly after arrival, darn near naked save for the fashion-forward Viking hat knitted for him by Aunt Carla:

Pay no heed to the ugly brute holding our hero. Note, however, Mighty Wilson's non-plussed mom in the background, clearly unaware that Uncle Jason is collecting future blackmail material to be trotted out the moment he brings home a girlfriend. At least I resisted the urge to hang a clock around his neck Flavor-Flav style. I call him... MINI Flav!

The World's Most Awesomest Nephew also enjoyed the Botanical Center. Every funky leaf, stem, or stray bit of poky plant material had to be touched. Many of the gigantic koi swimming through the BC's assorted ponds enjoyed a brunch of Wilson's stray Cheerios, too.

Another at the Botanical Center, under its space-age geodesic dome. Hey, how did that ugly chump get into yet another photo? Dude, the guy from Ace of Cakes called, and he wants his no-soul patch back.

Other Des Moines activities that elicited pre-verbal grunts of joy from uncle and nephew alike included...

  • Costco. What can I say? The dude likes tubs of hummus the size of his head.
  • Farmer's Market, at least until the sensory overload caused him to shut down.
  • Blank Park Zoo. Petting a donkey's nose, getting squawked at by birds bigger than you are, what's not to love?
  • Giant, squishy mall playground. I'd always thought of those places as convenient birth control, but it was nice to turn the little ape loose in a "no sharp edges" zone for a while.
Small thumbs-down were awarded to...
  • Attempting (unsuccessfully) to sleep in Uncle Jason and Aunt Carla's unfamiliar guest room. Let's just say you can tell the kid's parents both play wind instruments, 'cause he's got LUNGS. (But, by Night 2, it was familiar, and he zonked.)
  • Hanging on to Dad for dear life at the Union Park Carousel. Note to self, activities that seem fun in theory may in fact terrify the tiny.
All in all, it was a hoot to host the family. Being an uncle rocks.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

RAGBRAI Rant #2: It's That Wagon You're Draggin'

News Flash #1: Iowa is NOT hilly. Yes, yes, yes, I've been to the Loess Hills, I've been to Dubuque, I've seen and ridden the bluffs that dot several regions of our fair state. But when you look at places that have REAL hills (heck, even the baby hills of Western Pennsylvania, where I learned to love my granny gear nearly as much as my own Granny), the most defining geographic feature of our state is its pool-table flatness.

News Flash #2: When you are doing your "training rides" in Central Iowa, your inspirational soundtrack of Hootie & The Blowfish/Lynrd Skynrd/ESPN Arena Rock 7/Best(?!?) of Garth Brooks does NOT need to be broadcast to ALL of Central Iowa. If your iPod's anything like mine, it came with a set of headphones. Try 'em. It's a pretty safe bet they won't make you any more clueless or less aware of your surroundings than you already are.

News Flash #3: There's a better-than-average chance that the fact you weren't aware of News Flash #2 explains the fact that you also missed out on News Flash #1. In other words, maybe Iowa wouldn't FEEL so hilly if you weren't dragging an abandoned hayrack loaded down with a Marshall stack and enough car batteries to send a Prius to Mars.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

RAGBRAI Rant #1: When Lycra Goes Wrong

As predicted, Thursday's "naked" post tweaked the content of my Google-inserted spam, but not in the way I expected. I saw five ads for bike clothing today. Cycle-capitalism trumps pornography on the Internet! Who knew? So, inspired by this sartorial swing, I'm taking my first snarky potshot at Iowa's big ride.

First, let me say that I am not a slender man. There was a time in my life where I could sort-of hang with a middle group of recreational riders on a mediocre climb, but these days, I've found some pounds. I know this about myself. Therefore, all the form-fitting, stretchy garments that formerly made up the bulk of my cycling wardrobe have been banished to a cedar-lined storage bin, to be pulled out from time to time as a not-so-gentle reminder of just how pudgy I've become.

The brand of cycle-enthusiast who enjoys RAGBRAI seems to know no such modesty. I'm not talking about the non-cyclists who drag out their Magnas and spend a day riding from beer to beer in whatever they happen to have handy. I'm talking about people who go in for the full kit but conveniently leave out the training miles. RAGBRAI organizers cater to this brand of cyclist with a vast selection of skin-tight jerseys absolutely guaranteed to accentuate the ICG, or Iowa Cyclist's Gut.

I cast no stones, for I too have the ICG. There's nothing to climb around here, so the more (ahem) "husky" physique of the flatland sprinter tends to dominate. Add some beers, a pork chop or three, and within a couple years, you too can have a jersey-jiggler. Then, you're faced with a choice: Modest baggy tee, or let it all hang out in Lycra.

Granted, there are (tenuous at best) performance gains to be made in jerseys. Nobody my size should claim an aero advantage, but at least the things wick. I'll buy that. However, the RAGBRAI jersey also seems to serve as a uniform/badge of honor, identifying the RAGBRAI rider to others of his herd. Thus, he feels the need to wear it everywhere: bike rides, outdoor concerts, grocery stores, police lineups, weddings, coffee shops, business meetings, and audiences with the Pope. So when I'm just trying to enjoy my third State Fair corn dog in peace, I have to be confronted by the consequences of those corn dogs in much-too-graphic "elastic over butter sculpture" detail.

RAGBRAI organizers, I beg of you: I'm sure you already make a nice t-shirt in sizes ranging from small to me. All you have to do is discontinue the jerseys. Our state already has a smoking ban. Let's stomp out cycling-related visual pollution while we're at it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

On Riding "Naked"

Whew, that should dredge up some interesting Google ads.

But the scare quotes are entirely intentional. I'm talking "naked" in the "serious cyclist" sense. You know the "serious cyclist", the one who can't turn a crank without his special clipless-compatible shoes, his cycling-specific socks, his Lycra shorts, his multi-colored and multi-pocketed jersey, his cycling specific gloves, his cycling-specific headband, and his cycling-specific sunglasses (let's just agree not to talk about the helmet, the artifact that's launched a thousand intercycline Holy Wars). He's got a 70-ounce bladder of water strapped to his back, and he's gnawing on a Powerbar. All for the four-block ride to the grocery store.

If I seem to know that guy a little too well, it's because until recently, I was that guy. I started thinking of this activity as "cycling" (instead of just "riding a bike") back when I was a teenager: fat, socially awkward, and desperate for approval. Obviously, I clung to anything that made me part of The Group: Oakley Eyeshades and Look pedals/shoes (like Greg's), black Lycra shorts (like just about everyone's), and a gawdawfully garish team jersey that was way too small. Over the years, those things (or versions of them) became a mindless part of the activity, something I grabbed for out of habit, even though they were nothing more than an adolescent's attempt at sneaking into a clique.

Lately, I've been trying to tweak those old cycling security blankets, though. As much as I love my J&G Cyclewear Touring Shorts (and no one who's ever found their perfect pair of riding shorts will question the use of the word "love" here -- nor will they begrudge me the linked plug), I've been trying to ride in just, well, shorts. And a regular old, no-wicking, not-manufactured-in-a-lab cotton t-shirt. I leave the gloves behind. Sunglasses too. The final holdouts were the clipless-specific shoes, until I broke down and put a pair of $15 BMX pedals on my fixed gear... and loved them instantly. A pedal that lets me ride in whatever comfy shoes I happen to have on my (mutant) feet at any given moment! Who knew?

Lots of people, actually. Folks like Todd the 6-Miler, riding in Crocs. Or Bikelovejones Beth, eschewing foot retention. And of course, there's Kent the Mountain Turtle, extolling the virtues of platform pedals and ordinary shoes. Which I guess means that even when I'm casting off those artifacts of adolescent insecurity, I'm still looking for a clique. At least this one passes the Groucho Marx test: I'd like to be a part of it, even if they'll have me as a member.

Psst... Are They Gone Yet?

Let's see, consult any Iowa media outlet at any hour of the day... um, nope.

RAGBRAI starts next week.

I should have known by all the people I've seen gamely trying to cram months of training into the last four days, on bikes so new they still have the warning tags fluttering from their front quick-release skewers.

I'll wait to launch the full rant (most likely split into several bite-sized rants) for a few more days, when I have the bike racks, trails, and streets to myself.

(Ulterior motive: I fear that speaking ill of the Register's Annual Great Beer Run Across Iowa while its cult-like minions are still in town will get me beaten to a bloody pulp. And as much as I love the sound of my snarkiness, it ain't worth bleeding for.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

80-35 Music Festival, Plus Mini-Cam Test Run

Sorry for the lack of bike content lately. My recurrent back problem has been flaring up on me, so I spend my days shaped like a question mark. Carla has taken to calling me "The Riddler" as a result.

I did drag my old, achy self to the first-ever 80-35 Music Festival this weekend. Quite an event, and a nice poke in the eye to anyone who thinks that Des Moines lacks in coolness. I've kind of adopted Des Moines as my second hometown, so it warmed the cockles of my upper GI
tract to see so many people spanning so many age/race/subculture/sexual orientation/whatever groups crammed into the western end of our fair city. Two thumbs up to the event organizers and all the bands on the docket. Semi-bicycle-topical note, the festival even provided fenced-off, staffed bike parking, which made me wish I'd been able to ride.

I've been searching for a cheap little digicam so I can illustrate my ride reports, but my insistence on using a Macintosh (since about 1989, which officially makes me older than dirt in computer years) has been my undoing... until now. Found a $15 Spongebob Squarepants kiddie-cam this weekend and used it to document Day 2 of 80-35 as a test.

A band whose name I've forgotten, playing one of the free stages and supporting bike advocacy with a "Share The Road" sign in their stage show (okay, not really, but at least I got bikes in here somehow):

Our "hey, that's cool, let's buy some of their music" discovery of the festival, Kaiser Cartel:

And finally, just to break the monotony of my "distant bands shot on the same free stage" montage, here's yours truly (looking like he smelled something bad) and his much better half in an attempted self-portrait. Note the artistic reflection of the photographer's arm in his subject's sunglasses: