Saturday, October 14, 2017

2,237 miles in three weekends--bring on those races!

The first snow of the season in NM
Since coming back from Hawaii on a Wednesday afternoon a little less than three weeks ago I have worked three bike races, letting the Beemer pur along and racking up the miles. Thank goodness, gas prices continue to be low (this morning, Walmart in Lubbock was getting $2.09 for regular unleaded when I was driving by on my way out of town), and race organizers pay us the standard USA Cycling-mandated mileage charge of $0.46. You can do the math.
My favorite: riding the chairlift to the top of the mountain!
Still, it's a lot of driving. My first trip was up to the mountains, not even 24 hours after getting back home from Oahu. The Rocky Mountain Bike Conference was having its championships in Angel Fire, hosted by Adams State University, and I was the one and only official for the two-day event. Normally I'd arrive late Friday to start my duties on Saturday morning, but since race organizer Tamera Rice-Daniels had never been in charge of a bike race we had agreed that I'd arrive one day earlier, Thursday night, to help her out on Friday.
Tamera gets a chance to shine at the awards on Sunday afternoon
Well, good thinking. With four events (short track, cross country, dual slalom, and downhill) packed into two days (at Mountain Bike Nationals in Snowshoe we had six events in a week, and I was assisted by seven officials!), and the organization of the event was in the hands of USA Cycling and not an eager but still completely neophyte race organizer, there was a LOT of stuff to take care of. Thank goodness, I knew the lead guy for the Angel fire crew, Patrick, and scoring was going to be in the hands of Cath and John from CJ timing, but still.... Let me just stay, I did a lot of hand-holding and Tamera, the organizer, learned a whole bunch more about race promotion than she would have thought possible.
Fall colors in Angel Fire, NM
While the weather in Angel Fire (especially on Friday and Saturday) was simply awful (I had to cut short Saturday afternoon's DS midway through the competition when we had another t-cell move through the area, necessitating us to evacuate the mountain), the next weekend saw gorgeous fall weather (OK, let's call it what it really was: late Texas summer with temps in the upper 80s). I had been appointed as Chief Referee for the two-day Gritty Teeth Cyclocross Festival in Belton, just a few minutes away from Temple. And thus I got to stay once again with Martha and Alan. I had a private room and enjoyed nice dinners, and the racing action was fun. Once again I was the only official assigned and had my hands full, but I worked with two gracious race organizers, Joy and Chad, and they assigned two dynamite volunteers, Murph and George, to assist me. Somehow we managed to start an entire weekend of hundreds of cyclocrossers on time, and our results didn't draw any protests--best of all, though, we all had FUN!
No, the arch in Belton was NOT over the course because ...
... this can happen!

Back in Lubbock it was back to the same routine: post-event paperwork, unpack, wash clothes, go to the grocery store, and try to ride the bike when possible. I had a few nice dinners with my neighbor Janet, and then it was time again to leave. This weekend I am in Georgetown, about halfway between Temple to the north and Austin to the south, for yet another cyclocross race, the Georgetown Cyclocross Festival. This time I am one of a crew of four referees. My old friend Joe Morgan is Chief, and he and I joked a little while ago about his having a crew of three additional officials while I had to fend for myself these past two weekend. Oh well, thus it goes. I am the "pit official" for the weekend, so my responsibilities are somewhat lighter than in the past few weeks. Fine with me!
The sandpit at the Georgetown Cyclocross Festival
We're done with an uneventful, on-time, nicely executed Saturday race schedule, and the plan is to  go for a repeat tomorrow and drive back home tomorrow (Sunday) night, a long 370-mile-or-so haul since I will be leaving for Germany on Tuesday morning and I'd prefer to have the entire Monday to get ready. Good racing, good people, good life.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Spur of the moment decision: Let's go to Hawaii!

Oahu's South shore, scenic beyond belief
Sometimes plans change: Sometimes, people get sick and die; sometimes races get cancelled; sometimes I fall off my bike. No, not this time, at least not the latter. But, unfortunately, Sabine's mother's unexpected diagnosis and subsequent passing changed our plans for Sabine's coming to the US, and a race in South America for which I had been planning for months vanished without much of a trace. So, instead of driving with Sabine through Central Texas on an exploratory trip I ended up working a cyclocross race in Elgin, TX, and then the Texas State Road Championships at Ft. Hood. And before I knew it, wanderlust overcame me and I had a First Class ticket to Honolulu in hand. Thanks, American, for charging me only $11.80 for taxes and fees. For once, using miles was easy and fun.
A study in contrasts: The arid West shore ...
... and the verdant East shore
So, a week ago I arrived on Oahu, after just a few days of planning for this trip. But that was enough time to contact my old commissaire buddy Scott who calls The Rock home. A few emails later, and I had secured a room in his pad in Honolulu. To get around the island, I needed wheels, and since RCI timeshare points are almost worthless I cashed in a generous amount for a rental car that cost me the transaction fee of $25. Good. And for my last two nights I invested two C-notes for an Airbnb room on the North Shore, about a 4-minute walk away from the spectacular coast. Bingo. That's the way to travel.
The Ritchey, with Chinaman Hat island in the background
Chinaman Hat island--I found a skinny dipping spot right here, away from the cars
I had been to Oahu at least once before--I can't remember exactly. The trip I do remember was a fabulous cycling vacation with Judy, when we circumnavigated the entire island and camped out every night in a different State Park. To do so, you need reservations for each and every night, but the permits are free and they give you access to truly choice spots, nice facilities, and a safe environment. That trip was enough for us to put Oahu a notch above the Big Island and Maui, which we also visited over the years. For this trip, I took the Ritchey along to ride and see beautiful coastlines and just relax. With a rental SUV (Dollar miraculously upgraded me from a Pinto) I was able to easily access the various starting points of my daily jaunts, avoiding boring and intensely populated stretches and trading them for miles and miles of shoreline.
For miles I rode mere feet away from the Pacific; this was one of the best shoulders I encountered
Incidentally, when I arrived in Honolulu my man Scott was in Vegas for Interbike, so I had to do a little bit of beer sampling (Waikiki Brewing Company, Honolulu Beerworks, and Aloha Brewing) all by myself. At the Beerworks (located next to the shop where Scott works!) I started up a conversation with a local, Rick, who'd later on taught me how to stand-up paddleboard when I got to the North shore. Beer, the universal facilitator... Here's to you, Rick!
Like a native, well, almost
With my new Hawaiian friends in Haleiwa, on the North shore
During my five days of riding in Hawaii (today was a pure beach day since I had to check out of the Airbnb), my Ritchey and I covered 216 miles on all four coasts of the island. Let me tell you: The sights are magnificent! And the roads mostly suck! I just read a comparison of road quality for all US states, and Hawaii is just slightly ahead of D.C., Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, but not by much. Well, I believe it. Even if there were a few smooth shoulders (wide enough for a bike to feel safe, but not a TX-sized one), the majority of infrastructure that a cyclist has to contend with is pure and simple shit. Broken pavement, potholes, shoulder width reduced to the disappearing white stripe on the side of the road. This is not for the faint of heart. You need to contend with car after passing car as the number of roads is limited and there's only one road that leads around the island. The traffic isn't fast, with 35 to 45 mph speed limits in most places; still, the constant parade of passing cars is different from what we experienced 20 or 25 years ago.
Proud to be American
But the scenery makes up for it. Let me tell you: The best way to ride around an island that's not run by the British is counterclockwise. Why? You'll be riding right next to the water! Literally, for mile after mile I was less than 10 feet from the lapping waves of the Pacific. Good thing that bozo-in-chief Trump calls global warming fake news, because if it were real, a lot of the areas where I rode would be in a bunch of trouble. Of course, who cares about whether global warming is real when all it takes is a well-aimed missile from North Korea. Believe me, that thought entered my mind more than once.
Lava beach on the North shore
Parrot fish caught in a tide pool
The North shore
It's difficult to sit in a perfect spot on the beach, overlooking the Pacific with night falling, and thinking about how nutty we humans can be. There are those palm trees, the sounds of the waves, the first twinkling stars--and we don't seem to realize how fragile all this is. It's not just nuclear armageddon: It's the 19-year-old son of the Airbnb host who thinks that recycling beer bottles is "just not worth it," and billboards by the road complaining about the use of wind turbines to generate electricity. To each his own.

The beauty of riding a bike is that one can stop anywhere. Unbelievably, there are still untold miles of pristine beach, without a soul in sight! OK, I didn't say that there aren't some souls around, they're just not in sight. It doesn't seem that much has changed in regard to the huge numbers of homeless people who live in make-shift shelters somewhere along the coast, mostly trying to remain out of sight and out of trouble. Shopping carts, burned-out cars, plastic tarps, mattresses, and jerry-cans for drinking water are the signs of civilization in lots of places. Judy would tell me about various social agencies on the mainland would buy a one-way ticket to Hawaii for their problem cases, and that practice may not have ended. That's the other side of paradise, and it's a very obvious one.
Burned-out cars by the side of the road are a common sight
One of thousands of make-shift homes
Tent, bike, a few belongings--the other side of paradise
The Cadillac of the homeless population
Quick: What's the state bird of Hawaii? Of course you wouldn't know unless you rode a bike around the island. It's the CHICKEN! I swear it must be, because they are everywhere: on the shoulder, on the beach, in parking lots, in people's yards, cackling and running around with tiny chicken keiki! Google the question and you'll be mislead into believing that it is a type of goose, the nene, but that obviously can't be true. The only question that I have: Why are eggs so expensive?
Well-trained cat--or a disaster in waiting
Lubbock may have grackles, Oahu has chickens!
Yep, things are expensive out here, with few exceptions. For example, I was surprised that gasoline was selling for $2.85 to $2.98 a gallon at a time when Lubbock's price was around $2.35. Of course, they haven't had a recent hurricane here that laid waste to the gulf refineries, but still--I would have thought it'd be higher. At McDonald's you can still get a large drink for a buck, but that's where it ends: Go to any food truck and expect to pay between $12 to $15 for an order of fish tacos or garlic shrimp. A big shaved ice (yep, they charge not only for the ice and syrup but an additional 50 cents for the container they put it in, plus of course tax) will empty your wallet by a fiver. Bread, milk, meat, any staples are way higher than on the mainland. Heck, I can buy Hawaiian Dole pineapples in Lubbock for half the price they are commanding here. It may be paradise, but you better have a well-paying job to enjoy life out here.

It's time to close things down as my red-eye flight to Phoenix will start boarding in about an hour and I still need to add some pics to this post. I'm sure glad that I came out here for this repeat visit, and I must say that I had a really, really good time. In about 48 hours I will arrive in Angel Fire, NM, for another collegiate mountain bike race, and before I go to Germany in mid-October there are another two races downstate. A man has to make a little bit of money--how else would I be able to afford the $11.80 airfare, eh?
4 minutes from my Airbnb
Almost like Lubbock ...

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Crashes, and unfulfilled dreams of steel drums

Another day, another crash ...
Let's get the nasty stuff out of the way first: Since my last post a few weeks ago, I once again was involved in a bike crash. On Tuesday, August 22, I was out for my usual morning road ride when one of the legs on my Kestrel EMS fork failed and I hit the ground. I'm not exactly sure what happened since I apparently was knocked out for a short period (I was by myself, so this could have been 10 seconds or a few minutes), but the results were not pretty: My face took a lot of abuse as you can see from the picture, my left wrist is still sprained (but getting a little bit better every day), several fingers of the right hand were jammed like in the days when I played basketbal and handball, and both legs had some good bruises and scrapes right above the knees. I saw my dentist since one of my front teeth was a bit loose and also showed a slight chip, but I may have dodged the bullet and the tooth may actually be fine in the long run. My septum appears to be cracked or worse, but what good is it to run to the doc and get an x-ray for the better part of a C-note and be told "not much we can do about that"? And the rib is healing on its own, too. Things could have been much worse.

A few days later I was making the (almost) annual pilgrimage to Wichita Falls' Hotter'n Hell when I witnessed an oncoming 18-wheeler jackknife on rain-slick HWY 183 and plow into the median. I was the first one on the scene, and thank goodness there was no fire since I would have been totally helpless with the two occupants being trapped in the cabin, hanging upside down but thankfully being responsive. I called 911, other cars stopped, and first responders were on the scene in less than 15 minutes. That experience was certainly not a good omen for Friday's crits and Saturday's road races, but the crashes that did occur were limited to road rash and no broken bones, at least in the races that I worked.
Now, that's a serious crash!
Two days later I was off to Trinidad and Tobago, for the 2017 Elite Pan-American Track Championships. Well, guess what, people crashed here, too, incurring mostly nasty burn wounds from sliding on the fast wooden track of the beautiful indoor velodrome in Couva, about 45 minutes south of Trinidad's capital of Port of Spain. For five long days I saw not much more than the inside of the velodrome, in the company of old friends such as Juan from Argentina and Hector from Colombia. Rainier from Venezuela and Omar from Argentina rounded out our international crew. Our days started with our 8:30 a.m. bus ride in the Sexy Rabbit (a nickname that was based on a sticker on the back of the bus) to the velodrome, for the morning session. A few times things took longer than expected  and we simply stayed in the 'drome until the evening session, which started at 6:00 p.m. Juan and I would finish our work as late as midnight, and then we'd be shuttled back to our hotel, the Cara Suites in Claxton Bay.
Is this called track rash?
If that doesn't sound like much of a vacation, well, it wasn't. We pushed long hours, saw very little of Trinidad, had rice, pasta, and chicken for every lunch and dinner, and had to get our cultural capsules through conversation with our warm and friendly Trini hosts. They are certainly nice people down here: They are open, have a quick smile and an even brighter laugh, and they are interested in the world beyond the island. I had lots of interesting conversations, be it with a janitor, a shuttle driver, a security guard, or a race doctor. I learned a bit about the history of this dual island country that celebrated its 55 years of independence from Britain just a few days ago. Whenever I mentioned that I live in Texas, genuine sympathy would immediately well up with questions about whether my house was OK and my family and friends were safe in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey.

This is the Couva velodrome, a modern and well-equipped facility
As mentioned, we spent the vast bulk of our waking hours in the velodrome. On the last day of the competition, however, we had a few extra hours, and the organizers arranged for our crew to go on a short bus excursion to Port of Spain, about 45 minutes to the north of Couva, where the velodrome is located. (The 'drome is part of a larger sports complex that includes a modern swim facility as well as a large soccer stadium. Unfortunately, word doesn't seem to have made it around that this facility exists as daily spectator attendance was dismal.) I had hoped to see some of the Trinidad that comes to mind when one hears the name, but the reality here on the west side of the island is different: We barreled down a four-lane highway full of cars, trucks, and buses, traversing a commercial and industrial area that stretches for mile after mile. Refineries belch out noxious fumes, and nature can only be imagined in the mountain range toward the north. Trinidad and Tobago have about 1.3 million inhabitants combined, but fewer than 100,000 of them live on the much smaller Tobago, and the bulk of the population is concentrated on the west side of Trinidad.
Afternoon excursion to Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital
A Trini, as they call themselves 
Port of Spain's malecon, with hints of Venezuela in the very far distance
Port of Spain may have a grandiose name, but from what we saw it is a dirty place that is just now starting to try to preserve some of the British legacy in the form of some of the old buildings. There's preciously little to attract a tourist, and our driver admonished us to stay close together and be careful when we took an hour-long stroll in downtown. On the attractiveness scale I'd give this place one out of ten possible points. Don't waste time here.

And so we drove back to the velodrome, passing fairly crummy-looking shopping malls that our driver proudly pointed out. Had the bus broken down, there would have been enough repair places to get us rolling again. The visual onslaught of billboards hawking everything from Nestle products to international banks was almost too much. Trinidad most certainly must have a different side somewhere, but we never came close to it. For all the talk about ecology, pristine beaches, and refreshing waterfalls in the tourist booklet in my room, the stark reality of all those smokestacks and rusting infrastructure didn't make me feel as if this could be the same country. How else can one explain the cemetery of seven ocean vessels right in front of the hotel, half sunk, rusting, and looking like the aftermath of Pearl Harbor?
Pearl Harbor just off Trinidad's western coast, in front of the hotel
On my final day in Trinidad, I finally had a chance to eat outside of the velodrome when my shuttle driver took me to a tiny diner where I had roti. Upon his suggestion I ordered it paratha style, meaning that instead of using utensils I gathered my curried goat stew with the unleavened flatbread and ate with my fingers. I felt like Anthony Bourdain in this tiny place, eating the first food on the island that actually tasted of something! Trinidad has a very large Indian population, and roti came highly recommended. It really was a shame that our hotel was so terribly isolated (OK, there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant within walking distance) and that our work schedule did not allow a little more immersion. I tried my best later in the afternoon when I went to my first (and last) rum shop. Our drivers had told me about the rum shops, which really are bars where one can buy beer and rum in small cordials from the keeper of the place who stays safely tucked away behind iron bars. You exchange money through the bars, get your beverage, and then you hang out. Actually, you lime, as they call it down here. If liming is not allowed in a particular place, signs will tell you so. Well, on my last night I limed, alright, and then had a Chinese dinner (the only other place with food apart from the KFC) in a restaurant that required me to press a bell to gain admittance. Safely back in the hotel I had a final nightcap at the bar, sponsored by a German business man who's been selling heavy equipment to the Trinis for the past 20 years. That was better than the rum shop, for sure.

Immediate surroundings of the Cara Suites Hotel
Downtown Claxton Bay in the evening--yep, it ain't much
Overall, it was an interesting, albeit unsatisfying trip. But I came to work and not to vacation, although the latter is implicit in most of these gigs. Will I come back to Trinidad? Well, maybe Tobago, which is supposed to be a natural heaven. But here, overlooking the stretch of water that on the other side is bordered by Venezuela, I didn't see anything that's compelling enough for me to come back. Except, maybe, the promise of actually seeing some real steel drums and not just the tiny replica that our gracious hosts bestowed upon us. Maybe....


Monday, August 14, 2017

Monsoon season in Colorado--or how I survived a second grand tour

A week ago I was sitting in my hotel room in Salt Lake City, and tonight I am sitting in a Doubletree in Denver. Working two back-to-back grand tours in the US is no laughing matter. The days are long, the transfers stretch forever, the meals are shitty, and there's always too much booze because you feel entitled to have a second beer (or third) because you worked so hard.
Ominous clouds move in--monsoon season in the Rockies
The inaugural 2017 Colorado Classic (Inaugural? Kinda--Red Zinger, Coors Classic, and the US Pro Challenge were precursors of this race, which was reborn after last year's Pro Challenge was cancelled because of lacking funds) was a four-stage affair that started last Thursday in Colorado Spring and ended today in Denver.
The Purple People Healer, as the CC's race doctor's vehicle was called
OK, let me say it: Despite its UCI designation of 2.HC this race was not able to rival last week's Tour of Utah in many aspects. For one, the stages were relatively short, with none coming even close to 100 miles. The atmosphere at the starts (and finishes) was not what had been bench marked Utah: Dave Towle, as probably the US' best field-of-play announcer, simply cannot be replaced by two female announcers whose shrill voices just don't rile up the masses as does Dave's baritone. I'm glad to see female announcers trying to break the glass ceiling of this metier, but Dave is simply better. And the crowds didn't really compare to what Utah dished up. And so did other aspects of the race.
On the way from Breckenridge to Denver, the only time I really got to see the mountains
But not the racing. It was exciting stuff to witness, with GC changing hands daily and riders taking chances and risks to further their position. There were none of those epic, long stages; rather, two exciting circuit races and two long loops with finish circuits provided spectators with exciting racing.

Media--top--and spectators with a micro-brewery's hardware in the background. Please don't notice the crowds.
After the Tour of Utah had finished, I had left the Ritchey and its case with Fred and Candi, my assistants. They were also going to work Colorado, so it made only sense to leave the bike with them in their RV. We reunited last Wednesday in Colorado Springs (after I had had a brief 36 hours at home in Lubbock), and over the course of this short, four-stage race, I still managed to go out every day and ride a total of 73 miles. None of it was as scenic as my riding had been in Utah, but it was certainly better than nothing. The weather in Colorada Springs, where I stayed for three nights, was fall-like, with cool temperatures and low clouds in the mornings. Denver, where I spent another three nights, was better and I had enjoyable rides through the new suburban areas of Stapleton. I never got close to the mountains, at least not to ride. Only on stage two, we left Colorado Springs in the morning, headed for the finish in Breckenridge, and then drove another two hours to our hotel in Denver. That was a really long day, but the drive was gorgeous.
Colorado Springs summer weather
Now I am done with races for at least two weeks and I'm heading home for some R&R. These past three weeks have been tough, with quite a bit of work. It'll be nice to be around the house, cook meals, have wine with friends, and just take it easy for a while.
Sunday morning ride in Denver's suburb of Stapelton