Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reconnecting with the tribe

Some hate Vegas--but I always have fun out here
If it's September, it's time to travel to Las Vegas and attend Interbike. One of the largest gatherings of industry insiders in the world, Interbike has been a fixture for the US retailer and international visitors for two decades or more. Some of my readers may not even know that I run a small bicycle retail establishment, Tandem Pro, from the confines of my house, and so I have been to Interbike more often than the number that the digits on my hands and feet combined would yield.
At the finish line of Crossvegas, the UCI world Cup opener for 2016
For the past ten years, Interbike has also become synonymous with "It's 'Cross Time!" Initially just a sideshow, Crossvegas has advanced to World Cup status, and this year it marked the opening round of the 2016 UCI Telenet Cyclo-Cross World Cup. So what could be more fortuitous than to be assigned to such a race and also attend Interbike?
Fancy bikes such as Markus Storck's special edition Aston Martin-inspired
road bike are pure bike porn
For four days I was out here in Vegas to work and to "work." The race stuff took place on the first two days, and then I spent my time at the tradeshow. I had been put up in the Monte Carlo, and Interbike takes place in the Events Center of Mandalay Bay. So I got a chance to use the better part of $50 in credit with Lyft, Uber's pendant that is trying hard to break into the market in Vegas. Show hours are from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., with the last few hours usually spent with a beer in hand chatting with like-minded retailers and exhibitors.
Really? Is this going to sell?
If one attends an annual event over such an extended period one makes friends whom one sees the next year, and the next, and the next. The bike industry is so appealing to me since it exudes the same feeling of community that a good mountain bike race has. I talked to dozens of long-time industry insiders whom I have met over the years, some of them owners of big companies, others grunts who every year seem to hold a similar job with a different bike company. One exchanges ideas, asks how the kids are, bemoans that we're all getting older, and hands out fake compliments about how good we look. It doesn't matter--it's just really, really great to see these folks as it provides a sense of tribal belonging that humans still crave thanks to our ancestral roots.
Empty aisles and Korean eBike peddlers
Interbike itself has lost much of its luster. Gone are the heady days of the mountain bike boom in the mid-nineties when one booth after the next showed off something with a wow factor of 1,000+. Thanks to the Internet, new products now are old news before they ever make it to a tradeshow, and customers in general are better educated on what's hot than retailers. As a result, Interbike seems to me on the decline--fewer exhibitors (maybe not by number as long as the East Asian suppliers flood in with their products that nobody gives a damn about) and definitely much, much less foot traffic in the aisles. On Thursday at noon, with another day and a half of show to go, it felt as if it was five minutes before closing time on Friday. Anemic is a complimentary term. Large bike companies such as Trek, Specialized, and Giant now have their own private dealer events, and fewer and fewer retailers see the need to come out to Interbike. It'll be interesting what the next few years will bring.
The Aria is one of Vegas' newest creations
The Chandelier restaurant, inside the Aria
Beautiful use of space by another Aria restaurant
Outside of Interbike I used my time to reacquaint myself with Vegas. In the two years since my last visit here, the new Aria has sprung up, with its fabulous shops and restaurants; the High Roller has become the largest wheel in the world; and removing the ceiling from Vegas by establishing more outdoor spaces with shops and restaurant instead of slot machines has become de rigueur in new developments. Quite frankly, this make-over was long due as Vegas' old casinos (for example the Imperial Palace--now completely redone and reborn as The Linq--as well as the Monte Carlo, Excalibur, and Flamingo are all still steeped in the '60s and '70s). If you haven't been to Vegas in a decade, do yourself a favor and go out there again: It's a different place.
The High Roller is larger than the London Eye; rides at night are $50
Of course, they still try to part you from your money in every possible way. But what used to be just gambling has moved into all facets of the hospitality and retail industries, and the possibilities to dine and shop are endless. Just don't expect too many bargains. Yep, that was indeed $10 for an IPA in the Beerhaus in a 12 oz plastic cup. The breakfast buffet on a Saturday in the Monte Carlo is going to set you back $29 with tax. Ouch. But those who come here bring a wad-full of greenbacks and don't give a damn, and Vegas knows that and milks it.
Paris is still here
Thank goodness for us old guys, sex still sells. Be it lovely mock copettes, body-painted breasts, or simply the unending stream of imported gals on a bachelorette trip, there's eye candy everywhere. And right next to it are the eyesores that even Vegas cannot gloss over: homeless people who are lying in the streets, veterans "proudly" asking for help, and other who are simply hungry and silently hold up a small card-board sign. Yep, that's Las Vegas, too.
Sex continues to sell in Vegas
So I leave you with a pic of an older man reaffirming his vows to his beloved wife in front of the Bellagio, with one of the many Elvises holding watch and tourists cheering them on. Vegas is Vegas and will always remain Vegas.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Is it West Texas? Or is it Kansas? Oh no, it's Alberta!

Canada, oh Canada
A week after returning from Rio it was time again to pack the bags. Destination: Alberta, Canada. I was scheduled for a CADF gig at Canada's only international stage race, the five-day Tour of Alberta. With promising weather, I decided to take the Ritchey along, even if it meant that I certainly wasn't traveling light. So, it was a good thing that the race organizer had Lexus of Edmonton on board and I was given the keys to a brand-spankin' new RX-350 crossover, with a mere 61 miles on the odometer. Sweet!
61 miles on the odo, and all mine for a week
I spent the first night close to the airport and then the next morning drove the 300 miles south to Lethbridge, where the Team Managers' Meeting was scheduled on the eve of the first stage. The drive south, mostly on an interstate-like highway, was definitely not the most scenic I have ever taken. Yes, Alberta has mountains (on its west side  are Banff and Jasper, and BC beckons beyond), but dead center it is flat to slightly undulating, for mile after endless mile. Seriously, it was like driving through the area between Tulia and Amarillo and then north, with pasture land stretching as far as the eye can see. Oh, and there were the wheat fields of Kansas, too. The Great White North? In the winter, for sure; but in early September it was hot and windy.
I-27 north of Lubbock? Guess again.
There were the familiar pick-up trucks, and John Deere dealerships and western wear stores completed the picture. The Tim Horton's and speed limit signs in kilometers remind one occasionally that this is Canada, but don't expect a dramatic change from your normal surroundings if you are a West Texan who is looking for an exotic vacation. This ain't it.
Typical town between Calgary and Lethbridge
Once in Lethbridge I got installed in my hotel for the night (yes, we stayed here only one night; we had to transfer about 160 miles after the conclusion of the first stage to the starting point of the second stage--and that even though the opening stage didn't conclude until about seven o'clock in the evening [and my work even later]!) and ventured out for a short ride on the race course, which was a 6-mile loop in and around Lethbridge with a dive into the river valley and climb back out of it. Once again I had to think about Lubbock--we also have holes in the ground, plus we even have some overpasses. I didn't see any of those in Lethbridge.

My second ride of this trip--and as it turned out last, thanks to crappy weather and long car transfers--came the next day when I battled a ferocious headwind for about 16 miles going south of town and then flying back to the hotel. Total mileage for this trip: 46 miles ridden, and about 950 miles driven. Expressed in kilometers, the driving part sounds even more impressive. Oh well, this is after all work and not a vacation.
The first stage was the only one that was sunny and hot
What would a sign-in be without a Mountie? 
The work was easy and pleasant, after the Rio debacle. Medalist Sport, who organized this event, is a classy outfit, and they are supportive and easy-going. I really love working with these folks. Having my car and being my own boss is certainly a big plus, and the fact that the weather unexpectedly turned sour once we hit the hillier parts in the west is just a bad coincidence. The racers had a much tougher time than I who just looked out of the hotel window and said, "OK, it's 38 degrees and drizzling, so I won't ride today." I tell you, being a professional bike racer most of the time is not a glamourous job for the vast majority of these guys.
Locals queuing up at the Beavertails trailer ...
... a lonesome C&W crooner on stage in front of a few picnic tables ...
... and Drayton Valley (really!) celebrates the finish of a ToA stage.
Official mascot of the Tour of Alberta--never caught his name
As always, I can't tell you details about my job, although I wish I could. I would tell you about young men with dreams and an iron will to make their chosen career the best it can be, because they simply love to ride their bikes, and I would tell you about the veteran team directors who in occasional private moments confide their struggles. It's a privilege to be working within this inner circle of professional cycling, a sport that must be tougher than pretty much any other that I have ever witnessed. And to be accepted and respected by these people means a heck of a lot.
My one and only view of the mountains--got here at 1:30 a.m., and left at 9:00 a.m.
We ended up in Edmonton for the last two stages. First came a short 15-minute time trial in the main city park that we shared with an ITU international triathlon event. The last stage was an exciting circuit race right outside of the Westin in downtown, where we stayed for two nights. And then the race was done, and we all celebrated at a fine taproom half a block down the street, and when they closed shop, we moved over to the Irish pub across the street until they closed, too.
Post-race party time
As I told those who wanted to hear it, the Tour of Alberta was a vacation compared to Rio. Things were more relaxed, the support was fantastic, and we all felt appreciated, whatever our role was. The only thing lacking was the exotic aura that Rio did indeed possess--but that's what you gotta expect in West Texas, or Kansas, or Alberta, eh?


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I am an Olympian!

Mission accomplished
Gold medals are awarded only to those who excel, who jump higher, or run faster, or are stronger than all the others. Gold medals are heavy--believe me, last night in the volleyball arena one of the Brazilian team members handed me his medal to admire it. Lucky I to have such an opportunity.
Watching the gold medal match in men's volleyball, BRA vs. ITA
I think that all of us who worked to keep sports clean at this Olympiad (and who mostly work for their own national anti-doping organizations, or NADOs) should have been presented with a gold medal. Those of us who stuck it out and worked the long hours, battled the daily challenges, and used our own resources when those of the organizers failed us are, in my book at least, heroes. We were thrown in with and regarded like the regular workforce--the ones who directed the never-ending mass of humanity from the bus and metro stations to the venues, the ones who sat lifeguard style in high chairs with a bullhorn animating the crowd, and the ones who stood at entrances checking accreditations. Those thousands of volunteers faced the same obstacles (while having to provide their own lodging and transportation without being paid). Unlike referees and IF members, our staff of professionals from around the world was generally not being picked up by private cars before or after the events that we monitored, we were relocated from one hotel to the next with no apparent logic, and we did not get to post the pics of scrumptious dinners that my friends from the BMX, track, road, and mountain bike races got to post on Facebook--we worked into the wee-hours and simply could not socialize because of our schedules. When we showed up at a venue because we had received a last-minute call to help out we would be denied a meal ticket for the daily portion of rice and beans and overcooked fish, and if we tried to help out these colleagues who had already put in a 12-hour shift, we'd have our accreditation removed by security and venue management. Yes, it happened to me. Kicked out, for two days, then readmitted with mumbled apologies. Read all those news reports.and don't necessarily believe the official denials. Things were not the way you saw them on TV. The sporting side was fabulous and the warm Brazilian people were gracious hosts, but there is more to the Olympics than that.
Workforce members working the crowd in the Olympic Park
With my old friend Helene in front of the Velodrome
Even if we didn't earn a gold medal, I believe that we did earn the respect and cooperation of the athletes, for whom we were here. Those in charge of us tried their mighty best to improve conditions, and let's hope for all involved that this will be possible before the start of the Paralympics in two weeks. I thank James, Carol, Alexandre, Pedro, and Alexandra for their attempt to keep us going, and I am proud to have been part of their team and our team. We did the job that we came to do under unfavorable circumstances, and we did the job correctly and without reproach--at least I can stand behind everything that I did here. But don't be fooled by the glitz and glamour of what you saw on TV. Not everything was gold.
Action during the men's points race on the track where I was Station Manager
So, with my rant (no, not a rant--simple truths, nothing more, nothing less) out of the way, let me pick up where I had left off in my last post. Over the past three weeks I was given the chance to live in a South American city and start to learn how it moves and breathes and pulses. Thanks to the unexpected move from the hotel in Mares de Goa to the the Monte Alegre in downtown I got to see two completely different neighborhoods during the daytime and nighttime hours. Thanks to my temporary removal of accreditation I had an extra day off that I used to further explore this huge, diverse, totally amazing city. Quite frankly, last night when I returned to the hotel from my last assignment at Macaranazinho in the dark and with rain falling, I felt not only a certain sense of relief but also some pangs of regret of being about to leave Rio.
Arcos de Lapa--the Santa Teresa street car still uses this former aqueduct
Around 8 p.m. this neighborhood comes to life and keeps throbbing until 5 a.m., every day
The same area during the day, all shuttered until night comes
Homeless in Lapa, middle of the day
Idling over a few beers, a very common sight
The inside of many phone booths is used for sex-ed classes
This city has so many different faces, and I am sure I have seen just a few of them. During my sightseeing excursions I passed through many different neighborhoods, some tony, other quite dilapidated. I never feared for my safety, but the possibility of assault exists quite clearly, even if during the Olympics the security forces (police, para-military, and regular military) concentrated their efforts on those ares where visitors would most likely go and thus the incidence of crime was low. Still, my new friend Yuko from Japan was robbed during the middle of the day while walking with a female DCO to the metro station from our hotel. There are a lot of males in the streets who simply don't do anything--I have to assume they have no jobs, and they simply stand there. Others lie on sidewalks, covered with a blanket or not even that--and that's before nightfall when the sidewalks in certain neighborhoods (definitely in downtown, on the way from the metro to our hotel) start to be littered with bodies. I have never seen anything like it, not even in India to this extent, and word has it that the government removed scores of homeless and street children before the Olympics. To where, I don't know.
Streetcar on the Arcos de Lapa, going up to Santa Teresa
It's mostly tourists who are now using this (free) streetcar up the hill
Waiting in the post office, number in hand
Braving the bus and the turnstile
Yet there are those neighborhoods where people are walking dogs and big gates hide big houses and big cars. If you watch the local TV broadcasts you could think that nobody in Brazil has any more than just a bit of Latino in his or her blood (just the same as all other TV I've ever watched in Central or South America). Skin color--just like in the USA--is a determining factor in one's fortunes. The glitzy malls are the same as in New York or Dallas, and those who go there are cosmopolitan and as far removed from the everyday struggle in the favelas as you and I. That's the way the world works. The Olympics were the people's Olympics only when Brazil was about to earn a medal. Even in the tiniest little bars--the ones with the plastic stools and the large beers for $2--everyone would be glued to the 32" LCD screen and shout Brasil. When you don't have much you need to find a reason to party, and maybe that's why carnival lasts as long as it does. The rest of the time? Nobody gave a hoot. They couldn't even give tickets away!
Locals during the closing ceremonies in a small restaurant ...
... while I'm enjoying a Brazilian steak with beans, rice, FF, fabulous salsa, and farofa
The Brazilian people, as I met them, were extremely friendly and warm and always trying to be helpful. They are gregarious and love to laugh. So often I'd see some old fellow play a trick on another one, a woman giving a heartfelt chuckle at what her counterpart just whispered to her. Play some music, and they will start to sway and dance. At the volleyball final, in which Brasil topped Italy in a very tight match, the atmosphere was simply incredible. I would have hated to be an Italian or just an Italian fan. The sea of green and yellow flags in all the venues was stunning--but that did not translate into the streets outside of the bars where a live broadcast might be viewed. For all it's worth, these Games were not the Games of everyday Brazil even though there were moments when everybody did forget life's misery. No, there was no Olympic fever outside of the venues and their immediate vicinity.
The headless Christ
Sugarloaf on an only slightly hazy (humidity) day
The view from Corcovado is simply spectacular and well worth the price of admission
It was as crowded as at any Olympic venue
I visited the places one has to visit in Rio: Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and the Santa Teresa neighborhood via the streetcar. The beaches were fun; I strolled along the entire length of the sickle-shaped Copacabana, which I thought was much more scenic than Ipanema, which is straight (even though it has gay sectors). The body watching was pretty amazing, going from one end of the spectrum to the other, while being heavily weighed by large bodies. But the young men and women certainly didn't disappoint. This is where you wear mostly your body and, nowadays, your tattoos. Pre-cancerous skin was evident everywhere, and I do admit that the sight of all those fine boobs made me want to check their firmness. But the accreditation removal episode was still fresh in my mind, so I suffered silently.
Olympic beach volleyball
Ipanema beach without ball
Some people get off on shopping sprees, but for a solitary male at age 60 fashion stores don't hold much appeal. So, instead I spent about 35 minutes waiting in line in one of the two post offices that I saw on this trip to buy a stamp for a postcard (like at the supermarket's butcher section you get to retrieve a number that determines when it will be your turn to be served by one of the various "specialists"). I also tried to visit the much ballyhooed Botanical Gardens, but unfortunately they close at 5 p.m., and with public transport one gets to squeeze in just one or two attractions a day thanks to the sheer interminable transit times. Oh well, I saw the giant palms from outside the fence.
Having an ice-cold Antarctica below the Sugarloaf in Urca
There are so many quiet spots in Rio, like this area in Urca
Visiting Christ the Redeemer was another exercise in honing my patience. When I arrived by about 11 a.m., all the trains to the top were solidly booked (one can do so via the internet or, I am sure, some "app") until 5 p.m., so I shelled out a few extra bucks to get shuttled to the foot of this monumental statue via "private" van. The only reason I can see for their being labeled "private" is that one is in very close proximity to other people's privates, but after the beach experience that was OK. Once you get to the top, the Park Service takes over and sells you another time-stamped ticket to visit the viewing platform proper, so it was around 2 p.m. when I finally got to enjoy the magnificent view of Rio from this high spot. I was surrounded by hundreds, if not a thousand other tourists, who'd lie down on specially placed mats to take pics of their buddies who emulated Christ and spread out their arms. It was all a bit much, but the view was spectacular. If you go to Rio, do both the Sugarloaf and Corcovado as they present totally different perspectives.
Watermelon vendor on Copacabana beach
Wall mural in Santa Teresa
Sidewalk department stores in Lapa
I learned to use the bus system thanks to my transport card and a sense of adventure. I never found any map of the various bus lines, but after a while certain names and landmarks became more than just words, and I started to get an idea which direction I'd rumble off to. If the bus suddenly hooked a 90-degree I'd simply get off and hop on the next one. Most of these buses still have a conductor who sits in a small seat about a quarter of the way into the bus and observes how passengers try to apply their pre-paid card to activate the antique turnstile. If everything fails, you pay cash. The buses drive at breakneck speed, and the Lubbock-like potholed streets mean that one get's jostled around in a precarious fashion. I really loved riding the buses.
Protests outside of the opera house; Brazil spent lots of money that is needed elsewhere
Modern supermarket with prices that top those in the US for most items
Rio has a bike share system, but the bikes don't seem to be used often
To come back to my work for just a second before I close things down: For the entirety of the track cycling events, I was the DCSM (Doping Control Station Manager) for this venue. I was fortunate to be working together with pro-active and organized venue management members who had been working on "their" velodrome for the past two years. They welcomed me into their "velodrome family" as they called it, and together we managed to run all controls despite everything that was thrown in my way. Once I had been told to "deal with it yourself" when I had no chaperones, I simply did what I generally have to do in Latin America: think outside of the box and requisition for myself. Once I had established autonomy, the remainder of my time in this venue was without major stress and almost pleasant. I had fabulous crew members, and I started to think that maybe things weren't that bad--until reality hit and the track races were finished and we had to go to different venues.
Selfie with my friends Iverson and Marcelo
On duty
With colleagues at the conclusion of track racing at a party thrown by venue management
Oh well, it's now all in the past. I am glad that I came to Rio, even if I am not glad that things were so difficult and stressful for all of us, so bad that numerous doping control officers changed their airline tickets and flew home. Most of us stuck it out because the athletes are just so awesome, and we're all in this to make it possible for them to test each other in a clean environment, on a level playing field. We were in a daily battle ourselves, and our own strength was tested, and I am proud to have done the job I was asked to do, and to have it done well.
Oh well ...
It's only four more years until Tokyo!