Monday, July 30, 2007

Monday morning at work. I'm still thirsty, undercaffeinated, slightly dehydrated. Tired, but my sweat from the morning commute has dried.

I'm ammused at moments that feel like a huge contrast. Monday morning at work, and me feeling sore and fatigued from a weekend of vagabond punk bike tomfoolery in Boston - it makes me think of that delightful scene in Fight Club when Ed Norton flashes a bloody set of teeth at a coworker.

Why did I decide to go to Boston? I have a wariness of Boston that, at some point - mixed with fear and ignorance - blossomed into full-blown avoidance. I'm never racing in Boston! But this weekend, I went anyway. A whole mess of NYCers went up Friday night, and Brantley and I caught a Saturday morning Chinatown bus. Our destination? The L Street Beach, starting line for a race based on the movie The Departed. The goal? First Out of Town. The prize? A custom Geekhouse bike.

We got off the bus and popped into Revolution Bikes across the street. A dirty punk rocker with the thickest Boston accent I've ever heard in real life sold me a tube - I didn't want to be the jerk who flatted and had to bum a tube. We called Dan - who spent years in Boston - to figure out where the hell to go. I figured everything was a long ride away - after all, we're talking about going back and forth across the city!

Nope. Ten minutes had us pulling up to a bike shop where Dan and a bunch of folks were hanging out. We pulled up as it started to pour, and we took refuge inside. While hanging out, the rain kept coming down harder and harder, but for some reason, we decided to mobililze anyway, to head to another bike shop a few miles away.

We rode into some of the hardest rain I've ever seen. When you are soaked through (immediately!), you've got nothing else to worry about from the rain, so you might as well enjoy it. I should have photographed Dan skidding through three-inch deep puddles... or the sight of ten of us dripping wet all over Cambridge Bicycles.

We dumped some stuff at Lauren's house - it sucks to ride with a full traveling pack - but my bag was still heavy. You never know when you're going to need a lock in a race. Still, though, I'm looking for ways to lighten the load that I carry. Going fast is much easier when you don't have a ten pound bag on a shoulder.

It's raining less and less, and then barely at all when we roll through Southie to the L Street Beach. I'm a little nervous about this race, because of my New Very Special Plan: to have absolutely no idea where I'm going and just try to stick with the leaders, with Dan Bones, with Gary, with who ever can be fast, show me around town, and get me placing high. High enough to win some sick prizes. Cause let's be honest. I like winning prizes.

It's a huge crowd that gathers around Scott as he introduces the race, and then, with no warning, "NOW GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE!" I'm near the back of the crowd which means I'm early out and I hop with a fast pack that hurtles the wrong way down a narrow street and then turns onto L street, which turns into Summer and will take us out of South Boston. It's just narrow enough to be nervous and the neighborhoods are just quiet enough to make the intersections a little bit hairy. It's the lead pack I'm on and there are about twenty of us. I suck a lot of wheel and work my way close to the front, behind two fast Boston guys, a couple fast NYCers, Gary, and a few unfamiliar faces. The plan is to stick with this pack for as long as possible. These are the guys to beat.

I tightly draft over a bridge and we take some intersections together. I'm working hard and pull into the first checkpoint fourth, but there's no checkpoint worker. The moment of confusion means that the pack catches the leaders, and Dan Bones is yelling, "other way! other way!" and we all turn around and there are way too many riders together again, bombing this hill. I hear somebody go down behind me, and I need to go into oncoming traffic to avoid a traffic island.

At the second checkpoint I get in early enough to reach up to the guy sitting on the wall and hand him my manifest, but by the time it's signed i'm in the middle of a huddle and have to push my way out, not caring about people's bikes or bodies. Gary is just leaving - his green bike is distinctive to follow.

We hurtle through streets for another five or six checkpoints, doing some nasty, hurried traffic work. I'm kicking my ass to keep up to the pack, at times, making guesses at turns, keeping Gary's green bike in sight a block ahead of me. And then, a problem - Gary pulls over. "You okay?" I yell. "I'm out of the race!" he says back. Slowing down to ask that meant I had to struggle to keep the pack in sight. Every now and then I see Crihs a few blocks ahead of me, but it's hard... Luckily a guy catches up to me - I verify that we're going to the same place and that he can show me around. This is good. I can be back on track.

But what happens? Passing an intersection I see Brantley - he was ahead of me with the pack - and I turn with him and follow him to... a checkpoint I've already been to! I look up - that wasn't Brantley! It was Colin, wearing a similarly bright and ugly jersey. Fuck. Where am I, and where do I got?

I have no clue.

And by this time the leaders are very far in front of me, for sure.

I yell for directions back to Summer Street and get them, from riders headed in other directions. I meet up with some locals and follow them, but they are going slowly. No way I'm going to catch up at this pace. A few times going back and forth on Summer Street I see the lead pack - I'm two miles back. Brantley and Dan Bones are with the pack and I'm psyched for them, but realize that I'm out of the race.

With that realization comes fatigue; I'm working hard to stay on the wheel of David, a cheery local who accepts the role of navigator. My manifest is in tatters from being shoved in and out of damp pockets, wet hands, stamps and pens. It's getting dark. I could use some water. I could use to race a little smarter. I could have geared down. I wouldn't mind dry socks and a beer.

It's a long race. We go through Boston again and again, through puddles, out to lonely piers, to Chinatown Alleys. Friends at checkpoints say, "Yeah, you're doing pretty well," but I know it's not as well as I could be doing, or as I want to be doing.

Several times, seeing the leaders heading the opposite way, seeing Dan and Brantley with them, I want to skid 180 degrees and hop on their wheel, I want to pull out my manifest and scribble a signature in a few boxes and consider myself "caught up" - but come on, cheating in alleycats? I won't. Would anybody? I hope not.

Finally, the last checkpoint, climbing up Beacon to the State House and setting in to the ride to the finish line. Two others catch up to me and David, and with my last energies, I entertain a sprint to the finish line and am second in our pack of four to cross the line as Scott is counting off - he writes my name down in 27th place.

I frown, and get a funny combination of elated and disappointed in myself when I see Dan and head his way. "Seventh!" he crows. "Nice!" How'd Brantley do? I look at him. He's tight-faced and supresses a sparkle in his eye. The kind you do when you don't want to be overwhelmed as how awesome you just did... "Yeah, I got it..." he said. "First out of town!" Dan yelled! "Third overall!"

Brantley wins a custom frame! I'm pretty happy for him. He beat a casual rival of ours. Dan is super excited, too - he's got his confidence back, his legs back, and his impeccable navigation of Boston did him well - 7th in a race this size, with almost a hundred racers, is no small feat.

We celebrate with snacks from a convenience store, and a 4 pack of Fin Du Monde. Return to the party for beers, me getting drunk and yelling "I'm takin' portraits!" and snapping my camera in people's faces. Prizes all over the place. Smelly punks. High fives. We ride out to L Street Beach again to pick up Dan's chain lock, do some wheelies and other ridiculous shit before making our way - where? Who knows, but we got yelled at from a sidewalk, joined some other bikers including Scott, Brantley, and Aaronplane, and made our way to a bar for a few hours of recap, shooting the breeze, and me running into somebody from college who I cannot place.

Then we destroyed a bag of Doritos on Lauren's stoop and crashed, hard, smelly, and wet, all over her house.

The next day was brunch, desperately seeking a clean scrap of anything to wear, and long, slightly nauseated hours on the Chinatown bus before I made my way back to the Bronx for a fitful but much-needed night of sleep.

What a weekend.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Last night was the first of a seven week, all fixed-gear race series, , Prospect Park Summer Slam! My team was generously donating a few bottles of our Special Edition Lager as prizes; after gluing labels on to bottles in a hurry we rolled up to Prospect Park as people were gathering.

It was a different crowd than I was used to. Plenty of people from alleycats, but plenty of fast people who are in the bike scene who don't come out to the usual races. Older, more experienced riders, and most people decked out in spandex. This was a Serious Race in an informal manner - very different from alleycat races. On the bike scene's internet forum, people were talking about pack riding, drafting, and treating this like riding on a huge velodrome with hills.

Obviously my city bike - fixed gear, flatbars, front brake - won't exactly suffice. So I pull off my chainring, put a larger one on, pull off my brake, and put drop bars on.

Just the opportunity to move my legs fast and gain more skills. Last night's race was a two-person, four-lap relay race. Jeremy and I teamed up, and I lined up on the line with twenty other racers for the first lap. With a "stay safe and have fun!" from the organizer, we're given the go.

People get up to speed, quickly, and the pack forms. It's not super tight but people are grabbing on wheels. I move through the pack, concentrating on being alert and keeping my spin smooth. I find Dan - we work together and move toward the outside where there's a little bit more room. He's on his fast bike and feels good, and as we're at the Southern end of the park, he moves by me. I grab his wheel.

I'm unused to riding in a pack - hoping I'm aware of riders close to my side behind me, working hard to hold my line. And meanwhile, I'm pretty sure that this frontal pack has left a solid handful of riders behind. Dan moves past the pack but I can't grab his wheel. Niki does and a line of riders forms, with me off to the side. It takes me a while to get back into good position - I let myself drop back in the pack and find plenty of room there.

I'm unfamiliar with Prospect Park. I realize that we've been going down a slight downhill when I realize that I'm spinning out, and that my ass is starting to bounce in the saddle. This means we're easily doing 30 MPH.

I settle out my spin - I want to keep it smooth. Sticking on someone's wheel, no matter what, means that I'll hurt, but a whole lot less than if I get dropped. But I'm also impatient. I want to be near the front, I want to be in good position to get a jump toward the end of the hill. But impatient and inexperienced aren't a good combination, and I'm learning that, when it comes to racing in a pack, where you are is no indication of how you're doing. It's when and how you make your move.

A handful of fast guys make their move at the bottom of the long, last hill. The hill's not very steep, but it's long enough to tire you out. As the pack picks up its pace I furrow my eyebrows, thinking that it's too soon to move on the hill. But the pack thins out, so I get out of the saddle and grab a wheel. Riders are quite spread out by the top of the hill, and as we come around the curve we're calling our numbers to our teammates, who will take the next lap.

I pull over, keep my legs moving, take a squirt of water, and in a few minutes, line up for the next lap. Heidi says that the winner of the lap crossed at 6.45 - I do some calculations in my head and figure out that that means there was an average speed of over 30mph throughout the 3.5-mile loop. Damn.

After a few more minutes of waiting on the line, we hear the riders approaching. A handful of leaders fly by - you can feel their power. I hear Jeremy a little while afterward, and just get up to speed by the time I hit the line. But as I'm riding out into the park I realize that I'm alone. The leaders have taken off, and there's nobody in sight in front of me. A quick look under my arms from in the drops confirms that there's nobody within sight behind me. I stay low in the drops and keep a good pace.

Finally, I see somebody ahead of me. I don't gain on them for a while, but then I begin to. Around the southern end of the park, I catch him, and hug his wheel. I'm sucking air from my effort to catch him and deserve the reward of drafting, even selfishly. After a bit, I pull in front; other riders catch us, Dan and Eric. Dan, who loves to move, pulls around us after a while, and we grab his wheel - he's pulling us up the hill.

In a more intimate pack, I feel more comfortable, and smarter. Halfway up the hill, I make a move, pulling around Tom and putting a lot of energy into the sprint. I'm moving pretty well, but definitely unsustainably, so I'm happy to bellow "ELEVEN! JEREMY! ELEVEN!" as I'm coming around the corner. Jeremy comes off the line, gains speed, and is moving when I cross the line.

I felt great. Tired, yes, but that part of tired when your legs are moving fast on their own accord. I am motivated to get faster, and will get up early at least once a week to do laps of Central Park at a brisk tempo.

Till next week!

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Hooray! Two new blogs I'll be reading:

Beth Bikes. I was fortunate to know this badass lady in college - before either of us were cyclists (I was a biker then, sure, but have since crossed a couple of important thresholds...). I'm not surprised that she's thrown herself into racing with such gusto - everything she does, she does 120%. I love reading race reports by people I know, so I look forward to more. Hey Beth! I'm glad your face healed! Damn!

Bike Snob NYC. When I first read a few of this person's post, I scowled, a whole lot. Come on! A whole blog dedicated to snark? Aren't there better ways to spend one's time? It's not that I disagree with him - yeah, just about everything that he mentions is stupid is really, really stupid. I just try not to let it get to me enough to blog about it... I prefer to try to be more positive than negative. But I've gone so far as to read the extensive comments to some of his posts, and the way that Bike Snob responds is considerably more tempered and even-keeled than I had expected. So that's good.

Oh. A third. A guy in the NYC fixed gear/alleycat scene or community or whatever here, is training for the Hour Record, and writing about it at Hour Record. "Training for the hour" sounds a little bit presumptuous, like taking on Goliath, but who among us here on the streets can say they're willing to punish themselves for a solid hour at Kissena just to see how they do? Plus, further marks in the "race reports by people I know" category.

I was thinking about focusing this blog a little bit more, since people enjoy my write ups of races, but here's the thing: alleycats are really, really awesome, but I don't want to get overly caught up in them. I mean, okay, I'm caught up in them, but I don't want to only write about alleycats. This touches on a bunch of stuff involving valuing processes and things that don't necessarily produce tangible results - "elevating the lived experience to the status of art" - and so needing to remind myself that I have a lot of fun with and on my bike, without racing. So I'm not going to focus it. Because, after all, what has riding a bike shown me? That I can get anywhere and do anything - and more than that, that I want to go places, do things, explore, try things, go to quiet spots in the city, cross through worlds, open new doors.

You can do anything on a bike. Anything. I swear. My challenge to you: bike every day for a year, and see if your life is better than before.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Excuse me, but do you know about New York City in the summer?

Do yo know about the exuberance? The motivation to spend hours in a park? Do you know about how the buildings tower over pockets of green, peering down, jealous?

Have you breathed in the air shared with nine million people, all wearing very little clothing? Bumping elbows on sidewalks, sharing sweat and furtive glances around the corner; dirty, odd-numbered side streets where burly men throw parcels on to trucks lead to wide open, heat-seared avenues of migrating men in suits, of blaring taxi horns.

The whole city sweats - the smell of that stagnant water in the gutter, or of the sudden moist greenery of Central Park where you go to lie in the grass, to get impossibly grass-stained dirty in a fit of cuddling and wrestling with a friend.

Don't you want to yell and laugh? Grab a stranger's hand and spin around? This is what will happen: the crowd (and yes, there will be a crowd, for where are people but outside on the sidewalks?) will push back to create a circle for you and they will watch, some with glowing eyes, some warily, but when they skulk off they will remember your movement, your effortless and graceless abandon, and they will dance someday too.

New York City in the summer! I let slip to a boss the phrase "slacker summer" not once, but twice. I didn't hide the look on my face when I was asked about my five-day weekend, but let flow facial expressions, grins like laughter at the feelings from letting myself ride, enjoy the sun, enjoy a date or three in new york city, unencumbered, in the summer.

Why hide it? I challenge the liars. You don't want to be indoors anymore than you want to excise a piece of your heart. You don't want to be working, and if you say you do, then I challenge you to run around the block and then head to Madison Square Park; sit on the grass for thirty minutes and then I'll show up with a blended fruit smoothie or some sort, or a beer in a paper bag. Tell me now where you'd like to be!

I was at Coney Island for the Mermaid Parade and, dehydrated, undercaffeinated, and slightly boggled by the hour-long bike ride there, and the sudden infusion of piercing, bleached sunlight, lost my place as I found myself listening to a voice in my head narrating thoughts I didn't know I had; it did take me a moment to realize that the voices came from a loudspeaker, cabled to the announcers speaking the afternoon from their vantage point on the grandstand, but it felt like they were holding my hand through the oddest of dreams.

Later that afternoon, I hopped on my bike and rode somewhere else.

I do, I love it, I feel better than I have in a while. Chalk it up to several things if you want to - and that's okay - but I'm just going to say that I am thrilled by this love affair with New York City. It may take me longer to fall in love with the sighs and resignation of autumn (The Tartar Steppe) or the dream clarity of winter (Winter's Tale), but maybe I need to try harder. Maybe I even will.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

I curse, fiercely and forcefully. It's just gotten dark and the rain is starting to come down hard again; I am on my bike on Broadway in the 30's, heading South of course, and I'm in the worst place possible during an alleycat race: alone. The rain exacerbates the darkness and the lights glaze everything in a shine that obscures rain-filled potholes, pedestrians sneaking out in the road, and my desire to continue riding hard. We're two thirds of the way through Broadway Bomber and I do not yet have a bruised hip, scraped arm, and cracked helmet.

Despite a few mishaps on the way to the starting line - a wipeout in the rain and a broken seatpost bolt suffered by a non-racing friend - the race started off great. We gathered in a parking lot at the tippy top of Manhattan and waited around, staying warm and grabbing snacks from an over-airconditioned bodega. For once, I didn't mind waiting for an excessively late start - the longer we waited, the drier the roads were getting. I should put it in the singular: road. This race started at the beginning of Broadway in Manhattan, and ended at the end. Thirteen and a half miles from the top to the bottom: Broadway Bomber.

When they're ready to begin, the organizers lead us over the Broadway Bridge into the Bronx, to a parking deck behind a Target, a few blocks away from the Bridge. Mike Dee abuses us a little bit when one person crashes and two people flat on the bridge - "You were advised to stay off the steel roadway! There are two perfectly good concrete sidewalks for you to use! Now shape up and get in line!" Before beginning there's a brief hype session. The top twenty finishers from the last race, Rumble Through The Bronx, are given front spots in the pack and gold stars, while the others are told that we are the ones to beat.

I'm strangely calm by the time the security guard comes around to tell us to leave. Mike Dee and Chris ignore him, finish their speil, and with a whoop and a hoot, send us packing. Not knowing how to get off the deck, I follow the dozen guys in front of me down a ramp, and for a few minutes, it's a quiet, tense scramble over sidewalks, off curbs, and the wrong way down the street until we get to the bridge. We all take the sidewalk; I decide to be cautious until we get to open street, and I think everybody else decides this, too, but the difference between me and them is that my cautious is a little bit slower. When we get on to the street and I get up to speed, the leaders have a block on me.

I hop on the wheel of a tall, wide-smiled guy on a Pogliaghi, drafting him. As usual, the first push has fooled me into thinking I'm tired, but as we start up the first challenge - a long, steady climb up to the George Washington Bridge - I settle into a smooth spin and wiggle my eyebrows at a few cheering bystanders. I'm putting space between me and the people behind me, and trying to close the space in front of me. If I can stick with the front pack...

In and out of the first checkpoint, and onward! The next checkpoint is at an island on 163rd; "Eat a donut!" Jacob from Boston says; I take a bite, yell "fifty five!" and get my manifest stamped, and head out as Heidi pulls in. I hear say, "Nope, I'm vegan..." and as I'm pulling out, see a few people overshoot the checkpoint. I settle in to another climb; Heidi pulls next to me and we chat. She passes and pats her butt, yelling, "Hop on!" and I jump on her wheel to draft, spinning well and moving fast in the open stretches of Northern Broadway. I want to work with her, so on some of the fast descents, I take the red lights with my hand brake and give her a signal so she can bomb through with no brakeless reservations.

At the 125th checkpoint we're told, "tenth and eleventh." Nice! I clip back in and we head up the hill - I see a few riders ahead of us and say, "What say we make up a few places?" We pick up the pace going up hill, but then I see something too tempting to pass up - a bus that I can catch up to. I grab a hold on the wheel well, lean away from the wheels, and enjoy a great, fast-paced skitch up to the crest of the hill. I pull in before Crihs, but pull out after him. It's hard getting my manifest in and out of my damp pocket - I finally resolve to buy a cool hip pouch.

The hills are over and we've got time to settle in to a little paceline. Crihs greets me by name - that's cool, I didn't know he knew who I was - and as we're tearing down the Upper West Side we're working together with another couple of riders, communicating well and absolutely flying. My plan was to ride really hard for these stretches of the race, knowing I won't be able to handle the sub-42nd street traffic as fast as some of the others. If I'm keeping pace with Crihs, then the plan is working. Lincoln Center Checkpoint: Check. I tear through Columbus Circle but lose half a block on Crihs and the other two guys.

Suddenly, I realize it's getting dark. I navigate Times Square badly and have to hop a curb, ride through some tourists' picture, and drop off a curb to get to the checkpoint where Amanda, Chombo, and others are working. I pause for breath and realize that I've been dropped: dammit. 42nd street is jampacked and I go through it awfully slowly. My manifest is getting soaked and gross and I don't know where the next CP is - I don't want to fly by it, and I have no security of people in front of me pulling over. Without other riders to keep up with, my pace sags.

And then comes the rain. It starts slowly, with the realization that the street is wet, but then it is drizzling, and then really coming down. It is getting nasty. I'm tense and unhappy - we're in lower Manhattan and this is not a good place for racing. I take the Madison Square Park interchange badly and need to dive across a few lanes of traffic. Kym pulls up behind me as I slow off - "Don't slow down now!" she yells. I thank her and put in a new burst of energy, which lasts me until Union Square. I figured the Checkpoint would be on the island on the southeast side, but as Broadway hits the top of the square, a guy is yelling, "Checkpoint in here!" There are metal gates, can't go through, need to turn around, and then my tires slide, bike is on its side, I'm following it down, and I hear the crunch of my helmet against the pavement.

Stop, start. This is how accidents work. Different day, different time. I get up and grab my bike and straddle it and mumble something. "How's your bike?" Someone asks me. "Don't know, keep racing," I say. I get my mani stamped and I'm shaking my head and body out as I pick up another manifest off the ground in time to see Heidi come back around the corner, looking for hers. I hand it off to her - she barely breaks stride and takes off. I struggle to catch her and do - we share a few grumbles. The race has taken a foul turn - crashing rattles me, the conditions were absolutely dangerous, and the traffic was getting worse in lower manhattan, famed for covering road work with metal sheets. I just wanted to finish this race and get off my bike.

At the next checkpoint, Kym is off her bike, bleeding profusely from her hand. Gary catches up and I get re-energized. I want to beat him. We're getting close but I don't know where to finish. A cab squeezes me against the curb and I elbow its panel sharply; a few riders pass by on the other side and I lose more places - damn. Kym blows by me, still bleeding. Damn. And then there's a bull - we must be close, but I don't know where. I barely know where I am and can barely see where I am. I hear a yell and see a finish line, well off to the side. I yell at those in front of me, do a death-defying turn between a bus and a sedan, and make for the steps of the U.S. Customs House, ahead of everyone I had just passed. I run up the steps.

"How'd you do?" someone asks. "Only went down once," I mutter, as my manifest is checked over. I hand it to Hodari and the guy with the computer and go back down the stairs again. The pack is filtering in, and then it's a swarm, and suddenly there are a lot of bikes at the foot of the stairs.

I need to walk around. I feel weird, shaken, uncomfortable. I got tenth place, I should be thrilled, right? Top Ten in a NYC alleycat. But I didn't like the last two thirds of the race, and I only got top ten because I got lucky at the finish, and I'm cold and wet and tired. I talk with a few other people and more stories fill in - a crash over here, over there. Jeremy running from Canal Street after blowing his last tube in a crash. Heidi's ankle bleeding. Oh, and that sound I heard at the beginning of the race, on the ramp? That was Dan.

But that's races. A pretty big roll of the dice, about conditions, competition, and the ability to see where you've got to go. I don't feel lucky to get top ten - I got nothing out of it, and who wants bragging rights by beating their friends by dumb luck? Points were awarded seven deep for this race - I come up empty.

I have good company. We watch the fireworks. It's okay. It's just a race. My body is sore, but everything's okay.

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