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Aug. 30, 2007

On the last day of my trip, I spent three hours wandering through Caracas, killing time before it was time to go to the airport. Gazing across the city from a small hill, I saw in the distance what had until this point been a rare sight in this car-crazy country: A road bike. Then another. Then a pack of them.

It was a race! It looked to be a criterium of some sort. I scrambled down as fast as I could while carrying all my luggage. Meanwhile, my mind raced, trying to conjure a way to enter. In my bag was a Clif Shot leftover from Superweek. Would someone lend me their bike? Who would watch my bags? Would I be OK in a T-shirt and street shoes? How do you say "One for the Cat 3 race, please" in Spanish?

Alas, my heart sank as I got closer and saw the numbers painted on the riders' arms and thighs.

It was just a silly triathlon. Pbbbt.

Photo taken: Aug. 5, 2006


Aug. 21, 2007

Standing at the start line, I knew this was a test. The lesson from Snake Alley was that it was OK to pull out if I didn't feel right. And here I was, not feeling right. I'd practiced on the Downers Grove course that morning, but then the rain started with the first race, and things looked dicey.

Could I pull out with everyone looking at me? What about Matt, behind whose hopes of winning the team was throwing itself?

I decided to stay in and see what would happen on the first lap. In my pre-race visualization, I attacked on the first lap and stayed off long enough to benefit Matt. I even pre-visualized his podium interview, in which he thanked me and my Web site. Heck, I even visualized winning myself and apologizing to Matt from the podium. (A guy's got to dream.) Surely I could give it one lap to see.

Well, by Turn 3 it was obvious that this was not going to happen. On the wet roads I had trouble getting any acceleration, and as we came down the descent into Turn 5, I knew I wanted no part of it. "Pulling out! Pulling out! Pulling out!" I headed straight into the wheel pit, my bike pitching from left to right as I applied the brakes. Somehow I stayed upright and didn't clip anyone behind me.

"Get back in," the official said. "You can still get on the back!"

No, I told him. I was done.

A lap later I was in dry clothes and taking pictures, in time, unfortunately, to watch Matt wipe out in Turn 1. He's one of the most experienced riders on our team, but he'd break his collarbone, our fourth this year. (Mine is the only one to have been self-inflicted out of personal negligence.)

And so it went. Nobody looked to be having any fun. The rain fell harder on Sunday, but with national championships on the line, the riders who stayed in raced as aggressively as ever. I count seven crashes that I saw myself, but I expect the actual number was five to 10 times that. As I've mentioned before, there are two, coincident sensations in watching a crash. On the one hand, it's unnerving to watch, the sound shakes your spine and your heart goes out to the riders. On the other, it's exhilarating and almost comic, and I am quick to the swing the camera to the unnatural sound of wreckage.

Next week: My team's criterium in Sherman Park. Maybe a crit on the North Shore the next day. I should be out riding right now, but it's still wet, and as they say, the hay is in barn. It's quite possible these are the last races of the year.

Until cyclocross.

Photo taken: Aug. 19, 2006


Aug. 15, 2007

People ask how the clavicle is. The clavicle is fine, I tell them, it's the rest of the body that has gone to shit.

I've been back on the bike for five weeks now, equal to the time I was off it, but I haven't been training well. I've been eating junk. I haven't gotten enough sleep.

Most of the sleep has been lost to the Web site, which has an endless to-do list. People have offered to help, but I want to keep it under tight control for now, and managing helpers would probably be more work than doing it all myself.

This weekend there were big, international-caliber races in Elk Grove. Because Ellen is still in Venezuela and thus not here to tell me go to bed, I stayed up until 2 a.m. each night editing photos and posts.

I could just dump my photos online, but I like to adjust each one individually and make sure they all have enough information to be useful. People don't realize how much labor goes into this. Taking pictures may not be easy, but at least it is not time-consuming. It usually takes only about 1/250th of a second. It's the post-capture production that kills a guy.

Fortunately I love what I'm doing, and the response from readers has made everything worth it.

Yesterday I took a half-day off work and went down to the practice crits in Matteson. I could tell the fitness was lacking and considered dropping out during the first two races. In the third race, however, I got in a three-man break that took off from the whistle.

There's nothing more beautiful than a successful breakaway. Andy from Clif Bar was in it, as was a kid from South Chicago Wheelmen whom Andy had told me was strong. Coincidentally, the last time I was at Matteson I was in a three-man break with Andy. He won that time, but afterward told me the secret to winning a three-up sprint. Here we were again -- and for the life of me I couldn't remember what he had said!

Sure enough I could only get second. Afterward he reminded me: Gap yourself and then start sprinting from off the back, thereby passing the others with too much speed to be caught. Of course!

Photo taken: Aug. 12, 2007


Aug. 8, 2007

I know barely enough Spanish to order a plate of carne asada, and unlike Europe, Venezuela is not a country that makes allowances for American ignorance. Fortunately Ellen is fluent and makes enormous allowances for my ignorance, so we got by just fine. I'm not much of a talker anyhow.

At the end of the week I would return to Chicago while Ellen stayed behind. My return would entail a 12-hour overnight bus trip from the remote city of Mérida to Caracas, from where I would take the Metro to a second bus, which would in turn deliver me to the airport.

Ellen was concerned about my ability to find my way, but I was not. I'd already made the necessary legs at least once. Besides, all week it was I who had kept us from ever getting lost. All I needed to do was be able to buy my ticket in Caracas. "Uno para aeropuerto, por favore." We spent a few minutes rehearsing.

"What could possibly go wrong?" I boasted. "Nothing!"

Ellen trembled.

A surly teenager in a sparkly pink halter took my bus ticket in Mérida and told Ellen that I would be sitting in seat 15A. (Because we'd bought the ticket at an agency, this somehow meant I did not get a ticket receipt.) I kissed Ellen good-bye and boarded.

And found a gangling 10-year-old girl in 15A, a window seat. I looked at her. I looked at the seat number. I looked at her. Seat number. Her. Seat number. She giggled and bounced in the seat with a copy of what appeared to be the Venezuelan equivalent of Tiger Beat.

I tried to communicate that I owned that seat, but I wasn't sure how to say "15."

"Cinco, cinco, cinco, ah," I said.

"¡Oh!" she said. "¡Cinco!" And she pointed up the bus toward Row 5.

"No. ¿Cinco dieci? ¿Dieci cinco?" I may have been sputtering Italian here.

Two female relatives in the seat ahead of her turned around to see about the commotion. The seemed to be asking to see my ticket. "Non habla espanol," I said, and helplessly pointed out the bus to indicate where my ticket was.

I gave up. The bus was still fairly empty, so I settled in across the aisle. One of the women asked where I was going. "¿Caracas? ¿Valencia? ¿Caracas?" "¡Caracas!" She smiled and turned around.

Eventually someone came and wanted my seat, so I left the bus to find the girl in the pink halter.

"Excuse me," I said, "could you please tell me what seat I'm supposed to be in?"

Except I said it in Spanish. Clear, unequivocal Spanish.

"¿Dónde yo?"

She shot an angry, puzzled look. So I spoke louder. Maybe she was hard of hearing.

"¡Dónde yo! ¡Dónde yo!"

She wrote "15A" on her clipboard.

I pointed into the bus. "¡La niña! ¡La niña! ¡La niña!"

This somehow made her even angrier, probably because it meant she'd have to leave her station, board the bus and come sort it out.

Sure enough, the girl had been in the wrong seat. She moved to the aisle seat, 15B, freeing up 15A for me.

I sensed the girl had wanted the window seat and offered to swap. I pointed at my seat: "¿Preferado?" She declined, and she declined again when I offered some of my Cocosette candy bar as a peace offering.

A few minutes later the bus driver turned the lights off and the salsa music on. At 8:30 p.m. it was too dark to read and too loud to sleep ... and I obviously had no conversation partners.

This is not yet, by the way, the part of the story that answers the question of what could possibly go wrong.

At 5 a.m. the bus pulled into a small terminal. The driver stood at the head of the aisle and said something quick. We'd stopped for snacks and restrooms on the way to Mérida, so I figured that was what this was, or maybe we were dropping off passengers in Valencia. I pulled my hat down and tried to go back to sleep over the music, which had been playing all night.

That's when one of the women shook my shoulder. "¿Caracas?" She stabbed a finger toward the front of the bus.

And this! This is what could have possibly gone wrong: A transfer! I had no idea. Ellen had no idea. But thank God I'd established a rapport with this family, because they had an idea, and if it weren't for them I'd still be trying to make my way to Caracas.

The rest of the journey passed without incident. I had three hours to wander the city. I bought some cachapas for Nikki and stumbled upon a triathlon, then successfully made it to the airport, where I heard the most English I'd heard all week: Three hours of American tourists whining about how slow and long the lines were. Ignorance had been such bliss. ¡Ay carumba!

Photo taken: Aug. 4, 2007


Aug. 6, 2007

Near Los Nevados, Venezuela.

Photo taken: Aug. 2, 2007