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July 30, 2005

What a great Chicago day.

It began with BBQ on the South Side. In the evening, Critical Mass wended through the North Side and wound up at Foster Beach, where the water was warm and the waves were high. Dozens of riders dove in in street clothes, a few in nothing at all. It had been awhile since my last spontaneous night swim. I'd forgotten how fun they are.

Afterward, my friends and I convened at Levi and Stacey's. A man tried to sell us a rubber shark on the way. We declined. We changed into dry clothes and discussed everything from Santorum to santorum over martinis and potstickers.

(Levi has made the martini, forged in a penguin-shaped shaker and served in a proper martini glass with a half-dozen olives, a part of his evening routine. I have yet to acquire the taste for martinis, but I can fathom why one would endure the agony of doing so. What I like is how it mandates patience and lingering. You take a sip, and only after you have forgetten its foulness do you take another sip. An hour later, when you look down into an empty glass, you experience relief and accomplishment. "Well, that's done with, and I am a stronger man for it." (It is also possible that I misunderstand the point of a martini.))

In a few hours I leave for a week in Yosemite, where I'll see my 14-month-old nephew. I imagine that 14 months is an impressionable age, sensory wise, so I'm tempted not to shower. This way can I arrive stinking of BBQ, gin and Lake Michigan and it will lock an association in little Malcolm's mind. The hope is that the next time he ever smells one of the three again -- whether in 10, 20 or 60 years -- he will think fondly of his uncle, and he will follow his nose to the good life.

Photo taken: July 29, 2005


July 29, 2005

At Comiskey a few weeks ago someone mentioned that 35th was the farthest south they'd ever been. "So where do you go for your ribs?" I asked.

In the conversation that ensued it came out that although she worked in Hyde Park, Stacey had never had proper South Side ribs. Today we filled that void in her life. I picked up some ribs, tips and links from Barbara-Ann's and met her, Levi and Sandy on the Midway. She brought Diet Cokes and a large roll of paper towels, and God smiled upon our plans by delivering perfect weather.

A month ago I found one serving to be too much for one person, but two servings today turned out to be the perfect amount for three people and a vegetarian, Levi, who dove into the fries and bread.

Photo taken: July 29, 2005


July 28, 2005

My mother possesses a pure heart, a heart incapable of entendre or suggestive language. How else could she e-mail this sentence regarding my brother and his wife:

S&M are their days off.


July 24, 2005

Three recent moments:



It's 97 and not yet noon. I'm reading and drinking coffee on the patio. Neighbors file past and tell me how mad I am to be outside.

"A few more degrees," I tell them, "and I might have to install the air conditioner."

A third-floor neighbor, who says he's looking forward to January as much as I spent January looking forward to today, puts some vegetables on the grill. He asks me to monitor it while he makes a salad upstairs. It needs to be around 450.

"450! Now there's a temperature I can abide!"



On the Clark Street sidewalk, near the shuttered taquiera and the bank that was once a dollar store, there's an empty box of edible underwear. Beneath a hundred footprints the model on the box resembles a 1980s Chippendale. He looks up with a thumb tugging ever so slightly on his shorts.

I wonder how the box got there. Did it get thrown from an apartment window? Did someone buy it just for a snack? And did it belong to the same litterbug as the nearby Ding Dong wrapper?



A girl enters the train at Wilson. She's 13 if she's a day and 80 pounds if she's an ounce. She wears a flowered sundress and carries a Dominick's bag of belongings. A large plastic daisy adorns each flip-flop. She's with a much older, slighly thuggish man in a dew rag.

This is a terrible thing to think and a worse thing to admit, but it speaks to how segregated my city remains: There is something suspicious about a white girl, prepubescent but already world-weary, in the company of a black man.

After two stops she does the most unexpectedly polite thing I have ever seen on a CTA train: She steps onto the gangway between cars to smoke a cigarette. The man is indifferent, but I check back every few minutes to make sure a jolt hasn't cast her down into the abyss.


July 18, 2005

Saturday I joined Cameron (pictured) and Cynthia for the Ride Across Indiana, the RAIN Ride. This photo was taken in Richmond, Ind., 161.3 miles and seven and a half riding hours after leaving Terre Haute.

Last year's RAIN ride marked the first time I'd ever ridden in a group. Even though I didn't know what I was doing or how to work with others, it was transforming. The next morning I watched the Tour with Mikal in Indianapolis, and it was then that I started to put two and two together: Cycling + racing = what I need to be doing with my life. And so it has been. Rare are the moments where one's life shifts this decisively.

I intended to ride this year's RAIN at a moderate pace and stick with Cynthia, a good friend who has done more to advance my cycling than any other person, but, to borrow Robert Pirsig's language, ego got the best of Quality. A recreational ride turned into a personal race. More than anything I wanted to beat last year's gross time of 9:30, just to prove to myself how far I've come. I latched onto fast riders when I could, and I pushed the tempo when it was my turn to pull. As a result, I came in at 9:20, despite hours of rain that washed every last drop of lube from my chain.

Also as a result, I missed out on the social aspect of the ride that helped make last year such a life-changing experience, and I lost contact with Cynthia about 50 miles from the finish.

And then I got home and realized last year's time was in fact 10:30, not 9:30. I'd beaten it by more than an hour.

Another good intention gone awry: Today was supposed to be a rest day. But as of last night my legs weren't feeling as heavy as I thought they would, so at 5 this morning I headed back to Wisconsin for another Superweek road race, 45 miles near Hartford, Wis. I knew this was folly and that the limited recovery would slow me down, but I expect that six months from now, when I'm sipping glogg in my pajamas and looking forlornly out on a snowed-in patio, my regret will be only that I raced too little this year, not that I raced too slow.

One great thing about being so new to cycling is that each race presents a new and fascinating excuse for getting dropped. "I'd have held on if it weren't for the climbing! ... or the descending! ...or the crashing! ... or my cheap-o wheelset!"

Today it was the wind that did me in. I hung with the main pack for a little more than one of the race's five laps. Then we turned into a fierce wind and I wasn't able to cover the gap that had formed between me and the rider in front of me. The wind was a bully's palm on my forehead. The pack, which by that point had been whittled to about half of its original size, drifted away.

This was my sixth road race and the sixth road race in which I've been dropped less than halfway in. But two things have yet to happen following a drop: I've not yet quit, and I've not yet been passed.

Tomorrow's another race, this one on the Milwaukee lakefront, and I'm not expecting to fare much better. It's a technical course with many hairpin turns, and bike handling is a weakness, but this will be my last chance to race for several weeks. Better to have raced and gotten shelled than to have never raced at all.

A final cycling lesson learned today: Never enter a men's room in bare feet after a race. Let's just say there are some Cat 5 racers out there who have trouble holding their lines as long as they're still in their bibs.

Photo taken: July 16, 2005


July 12, 2005

A steady rain began just as we hit the starting line. Water, falling from above and spraying up from below, took its toll on visibility as the crowded field made its way down the narrow, winding road. Traction was but a pleasant memory.

We safely navigated the first few turns but on the rolling hills there was an unsettling amount of braking. Each time someone tapped their brakes up front it would cascade treacherously through the line.

It was in a flat around Mile 4 that disaster finally struck. I was about halfway back in the pack when someone close to the front went down. Like dominoes -- 6 foot, 150 pound, 25 mph dominoes -- the rest of us went down with them.

I now know the sensation of driving off a cliff. When the riders ahead of me took their turn, I had less than a second to ponder the inevitability of it all and hope for the best before I toppled over their bikes and went down myself. My helmet bounced off the pavement and I rolled into the ditch, where immediately two riders landed on top of me.

I crawled out. My water bottles had flown off my bike. I replaced them and started walking down the road. While the sound of bikes colliding and riders swearing still filled the air, I took a quick inventory.

Body: I had minor road rash on my shoulder and had done something unnatural to my ribs, but they only caused me to wither in pain when I took a deep breath, so I made a quick mental note: Don't breathe hard!

Bike: A co-worker who also went down had to help me adjust the front brakes. The handlebars were askew and the hoods were banged up, but it was mostly cosmetic. Everything else appeared functional.

Uniform: One side was covered in mud and later when I reached into a pocket for some gel I pulled out a wad of grass, but there was no new ventilation. Phew. I didn't want to have to buy a new kit.

And that was that: My first race crash.

When a good friend had her first crash this weekend, I reminded her that there are only two kinds of cyclists: Those who have crashed and those who are about to crash. It's been three years and 12,000 miles since my last one, so I suppose I was due for this.

Soon after I was upright I got in a rolling paceline with four other riders: two teammates, the co-worker and an unknown rider. We got a good rhythm going. The unknown chirped, "Keep riding like this and we'll bridge in an hour!" I think we all recognized him for a fantasist. I fell off the paceline soon thereafter -- I could go only so fast without breathing hard -- and the other three would eventually drop out altogether.

I am not very ambitious about starting things, but what I start I like to finish, so I stubbornly rode on. If Dave Zabriskie could ride four stages of the Tour after breaking his ribs, I could certainly ride 30 more miles after breaking mine.

Later I was watching the pros ride their race through the rain. Nearby, two sheriff's cadets controlling traffic huddled under golf umbrellas. "Great day for a bike race, huh?" I said.

"Is it really?"

"No. Actually it's a big pile of suck."

"Oh. I don't really follow this stuff, so I didn't know."

But what he probably also doesn't know is that it's the big piles of suck that make this sport so great.


July 11, 2005

I'd give anything for a picture of this:

I'm climbing Alpine Valley's toughest hill for the fourth and final time. It's the same hill that the junior above is wiggling up. I try to spit, but full expectoration is not achieved. A stream of saliva dangles from my bottom lip all the way to my top tube. I could fling it away with a finger, but I need both hands to tug at my handlebars. I could spit it the rest of the way out, but that would take energy and focus, and my reserves of both are already completely devoted to the climb. So on it dangles for a good 20 seconds.

And it's great. This, friends, is why I cycle, and this is what cycling has done to me: It has literally turned me into a drooling idiot. (I wrote as much in a cranky e-mail to a local newspaper columnist who had belittled the Tour de France. He seems to find golf exciting. Wake me when Michelle Wie is working so hard that a giant loogie dangles from her lip.)

When I tell people how important racing has become to me, I often add, "And just think how much fun I will have once I'm actually competent." Truth is, I still stink. In today's race the pack shelled me after the first of four laps, thanks in part to some tactical miscues that wiped me out heading into a climb. (Bridging to a breakaway? Who do I think I am?) Once again I had to watch as a peloton drifted tantalizingly out of reach.

After I got dropped I was scooped up by a few other riders, one of whom organized a rotating paceline. Unlike at my first race, this time I knew how a rotating paceline worked, so I was able to stick with them.

We finished in a group of six. Even though we were contesting God knows what place, I attacked at the 100 meter mark. I thought it strange, though, that I couldn't see the finish line, and also strange that everyone else was content on my wheel. Nobody was sprinting. Then we passed the 200 meter mark. Blast! They'd put the signs in the wrong order! It was here that everyone jumped and left me in the dust.

As it turns out, that sign didn't say "100 meters." It said "1000 meters." It's not unusual for my vision to be double at the end of the race, but this was the first time it had been decimated.

This is Superweek, so there are races every day. I'm doing another one tomorrow, at a course aptly called the MGA Proving Ground. Another chance to prove myself worthy of calling myself a cyclist.

Photo taken: July 11, 2005


July 9, 2005

Last Night was the Beverly Hills Cycling Classic, the first event of the 17-day "Superweek," a series of races in Chicago and around Milwaukee. I'm registered for three of them, road races all. If I do well enough, I'll try to squeeze in a few more, maybe even a crit, but I'm not counting on it.

Beverly was a 60-mile criterium for pros and Cat 1's and 2's. The field was a mix of international pros and regional hot shots. This was my first exposure to racing of this caliber, and I was amazed: They were racing at speeds I could probably not even reach, let alone sustain for 2 hours.

I was also amazed at Beverly, a quaint haven of smalltown life on the far South Side. Rolling hills, well-tended lawns, large lots, kids at play, neighbors gathering to gossip, brats grilling in every other driveway -- I had no idea such a diverse neighborhood existed within Chicago city limits. Clean, quiet and pleasant without being overtly upscale or tony. Reminded me of parts of Minneapolis. I almost forgave its many violations of the Chicago grid.

Not that I'd want to live there, or even dine there. I left immediately after the race and hit Lem's BBQ on 75th on my way home. "Your ride all the way here?" said one of the guys behind the bulletproof window, knowing with a single glance that I had come a long, long way. "That's a regular Tour de France. We'll set you up with extra fries for that." Which he did, and which I enjoyed while sitting on the sidewalk outside. (My experience with BBQ suggests that quality is inversely proportional to available seating.)

Photo taken: July 8, 2005


July 8, 2005

Photo taken: June 24, 2005


July 5, 2005

Two recent moments:



Do Butch and the Sundance Kid hold hands before they jump off the cliff ahead of the armed posse? I can't remember, but it seems like they do. At the very least there's a twinkle of love in their eyes.

This is the scene I think of at the end of Stage 2 of the Tour de France. Four riders have spent several hours attempting to escape the enormous peloton, an audacious move as likely as a sand castle escaping the rising tide.

They ride alone, each taking turns breaking the wind. Periodically a motorcycle tracks close and announces their lead. Five minutes. Four minutes. One minute.

With less than 10km to go, they are caught. This is always heartbreaking, to see brave escapees swallowed by the relentless, heartless maw of the peloton. This time it's doubly so: At the last moment, the final two escapees reach out and hold hands in a gesture that says, "We gave it everything we had and failed, mate, but I'm glad we tried." And then they are surrounded and never seen again.

Watching this alone at a bar, I am moved. It's because of these moments of love, almost as much as Lance's moments of triumph, that I race.



I ride through Waukegan on my way to the Wisconsin border. A parade is about to start but I navigate through the barricades and have Main Street to myself. Children wave to me from the sidewalk. On my way back the parade is in full swing so I walk my bike down the sidewalk. A woman hands me a small American flag and wishes me a happy birthday.


July 1, 2005

Four recent moments:



A black SUV is parked in the bike lane on Damen. Three men stand on the sidewalk outside new condo construction. As I pass I yell my usual epithet: "I don't park in your lane."

"OK, Sparky," yells the man holding the granite counter samples.

I turn back, only because his response was so smug. (Is there anything less threatening than yuppie smugness?) I ask how hard it would be to park somewhere else. I point out that parking there is illegal and forces me into the middle of traffic.

"C'mon," says a young woman I hadn't seen in the driver's seat. "Can't you just go around for a second?"

Things I could say in response.

  1. "A second is all it takes for me to get killed."

  2. "You're putting me in danger for your own convenience. But that's what SUVs are all about, isn't it?"

  3. "Hey, I didn't paint these lines, but they're there for a reason, and it's not to be a spot for your fat, lazy ass."

  4. "Greedy motherfuckers!"

But because I am slow and dim, I say this instead: "    ."

And go on my way.



A teammate and I are riding through the far-northwest suburbs. We turn onto a country road and are met by a surprising peloton: 20 Holstein cows. They're herded by a stout elderly woman with white, curly hair and a floral-print shirt. She carries a cane in her left hand and a turqouise rope in her right. "Come on," she croaks with each crack of the whip. "Get on up there!" We pace behind for a few blocks at 1 mph, careful to weave through the trail of manure.



It's 11 p.m. It's strange to see a handyman laying out his tools outside a Bryn Mawr apartment building this late. A few steps later I see why he's there: Inside a brightly lit garden unit an anxious woman cradles her cat while a police officer shines his flash light at a broken window and a pile of glass shards.



"Who are you seeing at Ravinia tonight?"

"Mahler's 'Resurrection.'"

"Never heard of them."