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Aug. 31, 2005

I know a rider who teaches for Chicago Public Schools. Cycling is expensive. Since a teacher isn't likely to afford a top-of-the-line bike unless a student steals it for him, he supplements his income by gambling. Any money he wins he plows into his cycling. He's a good rider and an even better poker player, so he's ended up with very nice components.

It's a natural combination, cycling and poker. I just read "Big Deal," Anthony Holden's smart account of a year on the poker circuit -- back in 1988, before it was cool -- and I was struck at how much they have in common. (Granted, I'm obsessed with cycling, if you haven't noticed, so I see everything through its lens, much as how for a person going through a break-up, every love song is about them.)

But I think I might be on to something. Here, then, is why a bike race is like a night at the no-limit Texas hold 'em table. Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the dudes with the carbon frames.

The deal
A rider's fitness constitutes his hand, and for as long as a rider lasts in a race he is claiming his to be the strongest. That's what a poker player is doing, too. When a cyclist is dropped or a poker player folds, they are saying: "Just kidding. I didn't really have anything."

Some cards -- the length of his legs, the size of his lungs -- were dealt by God; other cards -- his aerobic capacity, his fat-to-muscle ratio -- he dealt himself. Cycling is stud, not draw, so once the race starts there's nothing he can do to improve his hand. All turns on how well he plays it.

Obviously some hands are stronger than others; some riders are blessed with better bodies than others. But the weaker hand often wins in poker. So, too, in cycling, especially in criteriums. The physically weaker rider can win if he sucks the right wheels, makes the right moves and has the right luck.

The key is misrepresenting your hand. People associate poker with the bluff, but bluffing -- tricking your opponents into overestimating your hand -- is risky and rare. More effective is to trick your opponent into underestimating your hand. Make him think you have two pair when you really have trips, a straight when you have a flush. Only after you've done that a hundred times can you trick him into thinking you have a boat when you really have rags.

Anthony Holden tells of the time he arrived at a table of strangers and played the part of tourist. He asks basic questions of the rules ("Do you have to use both concealed cards?"), bungles an attempt at riffling his chips and even intentionally loses a few cheap hands. Once he'd conned them, he attacks and fleeces them blind.

The same gamesmanship happens in cycling. Most guys try to overrepresent: They talk tough, they ride expensive gear, they sport terrifying tattoos. The thinking is that if the field thinks you're an inconquerable bad-ass, it won't bother trying to conquer, and your breakaway can break on its merry way. But it never works. Nobody cares about your carbon-fiber jock.

Far better is to underrepresent your hand. This is what Lance was doing every time he preceded a Tour de France by moaning about illnesses and poor training and how impossible it was going to be to beat such a strong field. Getting caught eating a donut with Sheryl Crow early in 2004 was perhaps his career's most brilliant tactical move. Everyone then assumed he'd show up in July as a fatty with powdered sugar on his lips -- and he proceeded to win one of his easiest Tours.

So how do you get your cycling opponents to underestimate you? Pin your number sideways. Complain about broken shifters. Apologize in advance for your chronic flatulence. Remove a price tag from your bike at the start line. Grow your leg hair. Wear an ugly Primal jersey instead of your team kit. Lean into your chain and get a nice Cat 5 tattoo. Anything to ensure that when you make your move, the reaction of the field will be: "Don't worry about chasing him. He'll pop soon enough. Plus, he farts."

The play
What are the traits of a successful poker player?








These also happen to be the traits of a successful cyclist, and few riders wouldn't sell their own mother to get more of the same.

Both endeavors demand perfect resource management. In poker, chips are your resources. In cycling, it's energy. The goals are the same: Maximize how much you start with, minimize how much you lose as you go.

This leads to risk management. Is any given risk worth the possible reward? Is a bet worth the pot? Is it worth one's energy to bridge to a breakaway? And when's the right time to make the big bet? Before the flop? Fourth street? The river? Same in cycling. When do you attack? At the bottom of a hill? At the top? On the first lap? At the final sprint?

Minimizing risks and maximizing resources come into play with all of each sport's various moves and plays, many of which are fairly analogous:

Poker: Limping in, or betting the minimum in order to see the flop.
Cycling: Sucking wheel, or hiding in the pack and waiting for opportunities.

Poker: Raising. Best done when weakness is sensed.
Cycling: Attacking. Best done when weakness is sensed.

Poker: Calling, matching someone's raise.
Cycling: Covering an attack or bridging, leaving the pack to join a breakaway down the road.

Poker: Coming over the top, or significantly re-raising a raise. This is an excellent way to hear an opponent's bowels gurgle.
Cycling: Counterattacking, or launching a second attack right when the peloton catches a previous one. Same thing with the bowels.

Poker: Folding. You can't win. You know it. Your opponents know it. You depart with a whimper.
Cycling: Getting dropped, fading from the peloton with no hope of reunion.

Poker: Going all-in, putting all your chips on the table.
Cycling: Hammering, putting all conceivable energy and will into a move.

Poker: Busted. You've gone all-in and lost. Now you're going home.
Cycling: Popped. You've put the hammer down but you just didn't have enough. You don't just fade away. Your legs are crippled from fatigue and lactic burn. And now you're going home.

And of course the stakes in both are no-limit. If you want to lose your house and your kid's college fund, you can. If you want to attempt a hairpin turn at 60 mph, you can.

The finish
And here's the most crucial element. Victory in both hinges on a decisive moment. "I have the two best pair," Holden writes of one such moment. "This is Armaggedon. Do or die."

Sometimes this moment occurs early, sometimes in the last 100 meters or after hours and hours of play. You cannot foresee this moment or plan for it, but the thousands of miles training and hundreds of hours studying "Super/System" have led to it and will determine whether you handle it correctly.

In poker, it's called going all-in. You either double your chips or you go home broke. In cycling, it's called putting the hammer down. From out of nowhere you attack with everything you have, along the way finding things you didn't know you have, knowing that if it succeeds, you've won. If it fails, you will be too knackered to salvage anything from the race. That's the pot, that's the bet. Once you've decided, you don't look back. You just go. You're all-in, baby.

My exterior, I think, looked appropriately cool and collected; inside, I'd been a quivering blancmange of self-doubt right from the starter's pistol. All year I had prided myself on my temperament, nerve, self-discipline, even "heart," all of which had steadied with experience. But did I, in the end, possess the indefatigable, indefinable insight which distinguishes poker's great champions? Had my sheer enjoyment of playing blinded me to the finer points of mind- and card-reading, odds and outs? Or was it just that I didn't have "the right stuff"?

Anthony Holden, "Big Deal"

I'm racing Saturday. Aside from a minor series in October, this will be the last race of the year. Just when I finally feel like I almost know what I'm doing, the season is already over.

For the first time I think I have a good shot at success. I'm in good shape, my bike is in good shape and it's not a very technical course. Plus, it's Cat 5 only, which increases the chance of crashing but should be an easier field.

Funny how my objectives have matured in just four months. In my first race back in April, my goals were simple: Don't crash, don't die. Now I'm more ambitious. I want to either finish in the top 10 or contribute to a teammate finishing in the top three. I'll want to stay away from squirrelly riders during the race and a bunch sprint at the end, so the plan is to attack often, hopefully breaking away early and staying away.

And then it will be time to start planning the winter training regimen, so that I can start next season with the nuts in hand.

Photo taken: Aug. 28, 2005


Aug. 29, 2005

At the Portland World Trade Center, where two college friends had just gotten married.

Photo taken: Aug. 27, 2005


Aug. 25, 2005

Early arrival at the Matteson practice races.

Photo taken: Aug. 16, 2005


Aug. 23, 2005

In the Dana Hanging Gardens, Yosemite National Park.

Photo taken: Aug. 5, 2005


Aug. 21, 2005

Spare wheel and bike pit at the Downers Grove Criterium.

Photo taken: Aug. 20, 2005


Aug. 18, 2005

Three recent moments:



I finish fifth in a practice race down in Matteson. Someone mentions that the guy who finished second has a titanium hip.

"Whattsamatta," I ask, "he couldn't afford carbon?"



I'm at the Men's Wearhouse to buy a weddings-and-funerals suit, something to wear, knock on wood, no more than once or twice a year.

Taking a cue from my strategy for picking a wine, I take about three minutes to pick one from the second-to-cheapest rack. Just as I cannot tell the difference between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle of wine, I cannot tell the difference between a $200 suit and a $800 suit. I'd get the cheapest, but I don't want to look like some sort of tightwad.

While one salesman helps me, another finds an excuse to walk by and casually says, "Yeah, this is a nice suit." When the tailor measures me, he says the same thing, in the same way, twice. Each time it sounds very sincere but also practiced, like George Zimmer has them say it a hundred times a day because he knows how much the customer likes to be complimented for his taste. I feel like I should tell them to stand down: "Guys, it's OK. I know it's an ugly suit. I'm cool with that."



We're waiting for "Broken Flowers" in Old Town. An ad for the National Guard comes on screen. A handful of young, beautiful teenagers with young, beautiful bodies frolic in what is either a volleyball court or a desert wasteland. They pump their fists. "Freedom rocks!" a red and blue logo proclaims.

We are bewildered. I wonder whether there's been a mix-up at the ad distributor. Perhaps somebody in red-state America is waiting for "Stealth" to start, seeing ads for French wine and hummus and also saying, "What the fuck?"


The Tuolumne River near Lembert Dome, Yosemite National Park.

Photo taken: Aug. 5, 2005


Aug. 16, 2005

Three recent moments:



Bob comes over to help me change the pedals on my racing bike. He feigns shock at all my new cycling gear. "You're gay for bikes!"

OK, so it's true that my bikes rival my friends for my most important relationships in Chicago, and that there's nobody else I currently clean weekly with a Q-tip. But Bob forgets an important fact: All of my bikes -- Faith the mountain bike, Charity the commute bike, the Colonel the racing bike and a fixie I'm hoping to buy this fall whom I haven't even seen but have already named Amanda -- are girls.

I'm gay for girls.



I'm at Johnny Sprockets, my neighborhood bike shop, because I have decided to buy a new wheelset and naturally have decided to buy it right away. I cannot wait to shop around for the best price.

My wheels are there but they're not ready, so my guy at the shop drops what he's doing and starts working to make them true and centered. I sit and listen as he and the other mechanics talk shit. No manhood or mechanical skill goes unquestioned.

My guy carefully spreads talcum powder inside a tire before inserting the tube and putting it on the wheel. We chat about wheels and racing and my bad experience when I strayed and visited a different shop. He asks whether I have a wife or a girlfriend or anything.

"No, just my Jamis."

"That's what I thought, the way you came in here and bought a wheelset without having to consult anyone."

"I've heard of people who are able to do both -- ride and have a girl -- but I've also heard of the Yeti. Doesn't mean it really happens."

It's been an hour and he's still working on the second wheel. There's no way his commission on this wheelset covers more than an hour of labor, let alone labor this careful.

I slip out. Busch Light is the best stuff at the liquor store across the street, so I walk a half-mile to the Jewel and buy a case of Goose Island. When I return, the work is done. I give my guy the beer. "Aw, gee," he says, "you didn't have to do that."

He shows me the boxes with my wheels. While I was gone he had tossed in about $25 worth of tubes, gels and chamois creme. "And you didn't have to do that," I say.

How often does good karma balance itself this quickly?

And that's the great thing about the local bike shop. Even if I could have saved $100 by going elsewhere, my guy does things he doesn't have to do. There are many things in this world that are best measured in dollars and cents, but sometimes things are best measured in beer and chamois creme.



The Cubs are on at the gym. Derrek Lee hits a groundball to first and runs to third, where he is forced out.


Then I realize I'm watching in a mirror, but for a second it made sense: The Cubs have been playing so poorly that a clockwise run around the bases wouldn't be all that surprising.

People know how I feel about color-man Ron Santo, but still it breaks my heart to hear the anger and frustration in his voice. A few days earlier Santo gave his signature "Aw, geez!" -- "Aw, geez!" belongs to him as much as "Holy Cow!" belonged to Harry Caray and "Hey, hey!" belonged to Jack Brickhouse -- when Aramis Ramirez popped out to the infield and casually walked down the baseline, bat in hand. "Does he even want to play?" an exasperated Santo asked.

It would not have surprised me if the next thing I heard was Pat Hughes explaining that Cubs legend Ron Santo had put on a uniform, barged into the dugout and demanded to be put in at third, just to prove that a legless, 65-year-old diabetic could run with more spirit than Aramis Ramirez.


Aug. 15, 2005

I didn't finish last. I didn't crash. I didn't die.

I didn't start.

My bike felt loagy toward the end of my warm-up before yesterday's criterium in Winfield, but I chalked it up to fatigue or nerves.

And nervous I was. In the front row of the starting line, standing ahead of more than a hundred riders, the largest field I've ever been in, I had, as George Lucas would put it, a bad feeling about this. I was almost looking for a reason not to compete, and when I felt my front tire, a reason was found: It was flat, probably the victim of a slow leak caused by glass on the ride down to Logan Square in the morning. There was no time to fix the tube, and I had no spare wheels in the pit. I pulled out, changed clothes and started taking pictures.

It sure would have been nice to have had a spare set of wheels.

For weeks I've been debating whether I could afford to upgrade my wheelset. I spent a lot of time in Yosemite thinking about this. Over one shoulder a toga-clad angel squawked something about saving for retirement. Over my other shoulder, a bearded devil in Lycra danced from foot to foot and made promises about visits to the podium. I can fund my IRA later, his airtight logic went, but the only time I could only win races was now.

I resisted temptation. I even went to the bike shop last weekend expecting to buy wheels, but when 20 minutes passed and no salesman had come to help -- because of a coupon I had gone to a place other than my regular local bike shop; never again -- I took it as a sign. (I bought new shoes instead.)

When there is something I want to do but know I shouldn't, I'm big on signs. On destiny. On deflecting responsibility. In the vending machines at work there is a candy bar I like to indulge in that costs $1.10. When the sweet tooth strikes I will say to myself, "If there is a dime in this drawer, it is my destiny to buy a candy bar." I make massages contingent on whether I win at the poker table. If there is gelato across the street, I will say, "If that light turns green within three seconds, it is a sign that a higher power wants me to have some gelato."

Sometimes that three seconds turns into 20 seconds, sometimes into 20 minutes. In any case, there apparently is a higher power that wants me to eat a lot of candy bars and gelato, and who am I to argue? (It's a bit like the joke of the preacher who throws all the offering money into the air. Whatever God takes, God gets. Whatever falls to the earth, the preacher gets.)

So yesterday morning I prepared myself for the possibility of a sign, a revelation, a Post-it note from God: "Buy those wheels. --G."

I wondered what the sign would be. Doves of peace? A hundred-dollar bill in the gutter? A crash? Suddenly there I was, walking my flat tire down the sidewalk because I had no spare, and my destiny was clear. Whether I could afford it or not, I would buy those wheels.

I'm just glad I didn't have to make the decision on my own.

Photo taken: Aug. 14, 2005


Aug. 13, 2005

While we waited for "The Night of the Hunter," orange-jacketed security shooed several dozen Canada geese that had been calling Grant Park home, often from one patch of trees to another and then back. It was like a giant game of keep-away.

The geese flew in large, panicked flocks, an activity that to those of us on the grass was more disconcerting than had they remained standing quietly under the trees.

"Whatever you do," someone nearby said, "don't look up!"

"At least not with your mouth open," I thought to add.

Photo taken: Aug. 9, 2005


Aug. 12, 2005

My cycling team has a monthly 10-mile time trial that we use to gauge our progress over the season. A practice of truth, if you will. The final one was this week. I hadn't done well at the last one so I really wanted to shine this time.

I had several advantages going in:

  • A new, more efficient pedal system.
  • A rested, conditioned body.
  • A week spent in the oxygen tents of Yosemite.

But then it looked like I'd be foiled by weather. It stormed Tuesday night and was forecast to storm again Wednesday morning. When I woke up, however, the rain had stopped, so I caffeinated, ate a banana and headed to our start/finish point at Soldier Field.

I forgot that one should never ride down the lakefront after it's rained, as the water and sand conspire to gunk up a bike's every last moving part (see above). But I looked on the bright side: A wet road meant less surface friction to slow me down. Questionable traction discouraged unnecessary braking. And an ominous western sky encouraged haste.

There's not much of a narrative that can be told from a time trial. You pedal hard, you pedal hard some more, and then when you can't pedal hard any more you puke and then pedal even harder.

Right before the finish line I passed my minute woman and came close to passing my two-minute man, the teammates who had started, respectively, one and two minutes before me. My time? I'd nailed it: 25:16, more than two minutes faster than at the start of the summer and a minute faster than my best time. Of all the teammates who have ridden the course this summer, the only ones to have done better are either Cat 3 or soon to be.

Perhaps the time trial is my ideal event, after having little success with the road races or crits. Or maybe it's just the practice time trial, like the quarterback who can hit a tire from 60 yards but can't complete a screen pass during a game. I race again Sunday, so I'll soon see whether this translates into real results. In my only other 4/5 criterium back in May I got dropped hard and early. This time I'd like to keep up for at least the first lap.

Photo taken: Aug. 10, 2005


Aug. 11, 2005

It usually takes about 14 months for me to make a good impression. Right on schedule, then, a great stride was made last week with my nephew, 14 months after I first met him: At the beginning of the trip he would cry as soon as I entered the room. By the end of the trip he'd cry when I left it. (It helped that I would sometimes leave the room carrying his favorite toys. It's a dirty trick to make an uncle feel wanted, but I love him so; all is fair and all that.)

On the trip's last night I stood around the campfire after my brother's ranger talk. He was chatting with visitors and mentioned he was from Wisconsin. Two young women next to me started tittering.

Do you think it's him? He said he's from Wisconsin. It's gotta be. Let's ask him. Yeah, ask him. No, you ask him. No, you ask him.

Hank looked their way and they were silent for a beat, then burst together: "Are you Malcolm's dad!?! He's the GREATEST!"

They'd apparently waited for a shuttle bus with Malcolm and his mother and become big fans.

They were sort of cute, too, but I resisted the urge to point out that I was Malcolm's uncle and, unlike his father, single. Still, it reminded of what great company Malcolm could be around Chicago. Prop him up on the bar and so long as he keeps his fingers out of my Schlitz I'm set.

It wouldn't even have to stop once he's too big to carry. I'm imagining a scene in 20 years when I am 50 and he is 21 and he visits his doddering, still-single uncle in the city. We'll ride our hoverbikes through the park. "This is my nephew," I'll say to the fawning women, "with whom I have common DNA. He pooped today!"

Or maybe I'll just buy a puppy.

Photo taken: Aug. 4, 2005


Aug. 8, 2005

Like the businessman who submits to the cat-of-nine, I am fond of controlled danger, of ordeals with just enough risk to make me hate myself for having entered them willingly but with enough reward to want to do it all again. Comfort, like air conditioning and coffee cream, is for other people.

It's been more than a decade since my last rigorous camping trip and I don't think I've ever done time in the backcountry alone, but for about a year I've been considering a solo trip through Yosemite wilderness. Finally last week I visited my brother and his family -- they spend their summers as rangers in Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows -- and with borrowed gear embarked on a three-night trek.

The first 48 hours were perfect. I hiked down, through and up the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Although I saw none of the bear or rattlesnakes I was promised warned about, I didn't see many people, either. I didn't hear a single car horn or check a single RSS feed.

I'd budgeted the entire last day to make the 8-mile, 3,000-foot climb from Pate Valley to Harden Lake, close to the spot where my family would pick me up the next afternoon. The ascent, however, wasn't nearly as difficult as it looked from the canyon's depths and I was at Harden by 1 p.m. Even though my food was down to a half-pound of trail mix and three Landjager sausages, I decided to add an extra 5-mile spur to my trip with a hike to Smith Meadow.

And that's when everything went to hell.

Unknown to me, a large fire had within the past five years swept through the area west of Harden Lake. Large, sooty logs blocked the trail at dozens of points and it was often hard to find my way again on the other side. Switchbacks never switched back. Elsewhere, lush new growth or swampland swallowed the path, such as in the eye-high flowerbed above. (Do you see a trail there?)

The sun played its share of tricks. Shafts of light resembled well-worn paths until the shadows shifted and I found I'd been lured into a dark dead end with no way out and, against belief, no longer a visible way in.

Losing a trail is like climbing a rope and having the rope abruptly turn to air. The last mile, a long descent into the meadow, was the worst. Even when I knew I was on the trail -- which was rare -- I had to clomp violently through the thicket. Thorns and branches scratched and bloodied my beautiful and sultry cyclist legs.

All I could do that last mile was trace the countour lines down to where Smith Meadow was supposed to be and hope for the best. To avoid the brush I balanced across felled logs arrayed like so many pick-up sticks. Every few minutes I whistled for help. None answered. This bombed-out forest held me alone.

It's funny the things you do when you are lost. (I use the word liberally here. I wasn't really lost. I knew exactly where I was. It was the trail that couldn't keep its bearings worth a damn.) Sometimes I headed opposite my intended direction because the ground that way was more navigable, like searching in the kitchen for an item dropped in the pantry because the light there is better.

I took inventory of who was to blame for this mess. Damn the rangers for not posting a sign at the trailhead: "Caveat urbus: Cityfolk beware." Damn the park system for not adhering to the Chicago grid with a cross street every eighth of a mile. And damn that deer bounding from the brush for making this look so easy.

Then I remembered that this is wilderness, and this crisis was why I was there. Wilderness is a state of mind as much as a location. It is a place without roads but, more important, a place without emergency exits. If it weren't for the possibility of getting lost or falling off a cliff or getting mauled by a bear, this would be just a park, and there would be a security guard on a Segway telling me not to loiter and to be gone by sundown.

Finally I was there in my meadow, a small, uninteresting patch of dry grass that rightly earned the small, uninteresting name of "Smith." An hour later a second hiker came through. He was more seasoned than me -- he wore hiking boots, for example, not running shoes -- and he confirmed that that was the worst trail he'd ever been on.

Through it all I never felt I was in real risk. There was plenty of light left. Weather wasn't threatening. The only danger was if a fall immobilized me or if I stumbled upon a napping bear who enjoys being woken up as much as I do.

The remarkable thing is that after two days with no new insights or revelations, it was during this hour of despair that my thoughts congealed the most. I was reaching for my notebook every few hundred yards. I mentally composed postcards to friends. When I reached camp I transcribed them so that if the next day took a turn for the worse, my friends would know that in my final hours I was thinking of clever things to tell them.

The next day did not take a turn for the worse. I still could only approximate the trail, but I was more patient. After four hours the trail became a road and I knew the trip was almost over. I heard the clip-clip-clip of sprinklers. I saw hikers unburdened by overnight packs.

I passed a father with two skipping children. I'd been out of water for an hour. "How much farther to a cold beer?" I asked.

"You're about four minutes away," he said.

Five minutes later I had the week's first and only moment of panic. I couldn't find my wallet. It wasn't in the compartment I'd put it in. It was in none of my pockets. Then I remembered I'd put it in the bear can. Of course. To keep it safe from ursine pickpockets.

The store at the trailhead had no beer, so I settled for a Powerade, a Häagen-Dazs bar and a half-bag of Doritos a motorcyclist in leather traded me for my story.

I had all the limbs and most of the blood I had started with. The Dead played on the store's radio as I sat at a shaded picnic table. Suddenly the adventures of the previous 24 hours seemed small and barely worth mentioning. I was lost, I became unlost, ho-hum.

I blame the ice cream. What honest man can claim hardship or trouble between licks of a Häagen-Dazs?

Photo taken: Aug. 3, 2005