Sunday, October 30, 2011

Merry Christmas in New Mexico—well, almost

Since Wednesday I have been residing in a condo at Angel Fire Resort in New Mexico, where the 2011 USA Cycling National Collegiate Mountain Bike championships are taking place. And it was on Wednesday that winter returned, with a powerful storm system that has brought traffic chaos to the region (as well as the East Coast). Here's what I woke up to on Thursday morning:

The Chile Express ski lift at Angel Fire Resort

What had been rain on Wednesday had turned into snow in the late afternoon, and by morning our mountain bike venue had been changed into a ski paradise. At the base elevation where the Chile Express ski lift is located at about 8,900 feet, the snow was about 8 inches deep. At the top of the mountain, where the downhill race was going to be started on Friday, it was more than a foot; the elevation here is around 10,600 feet, well over 3,000 meters.

Now, does that look like a mountain bike commissaire?
Fortunately, the weather forecast for the remainder of the week included lots of sunshine and above-freezing temperatures, but not by much. So, race organizer Hogan, USA Cycling’s National events Director Kelli, and I in my capacity as Chief Referee put our heads together for contingency plans and a few schedule changes. We feared the worst, but even though the course conditions turned out to be anything but ideal the entire event so far has come off with an astonishing ease and smoothness that we’re still wondering whether something really bad is going to happen tomorrow, on the last day of competition. With the collegiate crowd enthusiastic and in high spirits, who cared about a little bit of snow and freezing temperatures? well, certainly not these guys who supported their female teammates:
You gotta love collegiate cycling!

With the sun out and some of the snow melting, the course soon turned into a complete quagmire. Our first event, the cross-country race, became a total mudfest. The fastest woman needed almost two hours to cover two 5.5-mile loops! Many of the men were not able to match that speed in their contest, which was held later in the day when even more thawing had set in. Nevertheless, everybody loved it since these were truly epic conditions, and when does one get to play in the mud?
The final turn before the finish line
Dirty Girl! Catherine Harnden of Union College (KY) after the XC
Men's DIV I XC winner Howard Grotts of Durango's Ft. Lewis College
The downhill race posed its own challenges, both in the form of deep snow and ice patches as well as boggy traverses that rendered the riders and their number unrecognizable. What should have been a 5-minute downhill suddenly became a 12-minute sliding and pedaling contest. I walked the downhill, and despite being as careful as I could be, I slipped and bruised a few ribs. I can’t even start to imagine how these guys can ride bikes down this stuff! But I do have to say that the ski-lift trips up to the mountain top were incomparably beautiful. It’s just so amazing to look over the white mountains after what I thought was an eternal summer.
Yes, they pay for my ski lift ticket
OK, let's fast forward 24 hours, because I started this blog update on Saturday night but then our internet connection shut down. I think that one of my most memorable moments as a commissaire came last night during the banquet. Now, you need to know that back in 2006, Collegiate Nationals was held in Angel Fire, and the students ransacked the banquet hall in a drunken stupor (and there were other disciplinary excesses). Needless to say, the race was not invited to come back and then was held for two consecutive years on the East Coast—with similar out-of-hand behavior. The following year, I was chief referee when Nats made it to Northstar, a swanky ski resort near Lake Tahoe. I was not going to let another national championship sink to such lows, and with a lot of personal engagement, professionalism, a few well-placed fines, and innovative strategies I managed to clean up the event and its image. This year, I was determined not to be at the helm of a repeat of the 2006 debacle, and I applied what I had learned at Northstar in 2009. (I had been invited back in 2010 but had to decline because of Judy's condition).
The 2011 crew: Boris Decourt, moi, Leo Campos-Moya, and Cyndi Smith
One of my strategies has been to conduct on-time, professional riders' meetings (which are scheduled every day after the races, previewing the next day's activities) during which I approach the riders and their coaches as equal partners. I explain to them what I expect and that it is their choice to make the event successful. I also explain to them that I have zero tolerance for excess—but I also make clear to them that I am a human being who has a sense of humor and wants to have a good time. It's a juggling act, but last night it became clear that it paid off when, at the banquet, one of the students showed up as Chief Referee Jürgen, replete with fake mustache, blue USAC shirt, and even a fake German accent! My, I have no idea where he found glasses that look like my prescription Rudy's! He was making the rounds among the other frolickers, introducing himself as "Jürgen" and admonishing them to be good citizens. It was too freaking funny! And then he even started the festivities on the microphone the way I would start a racers' meetings. I was laughing tears! All this showed me was that they really trust and like me and believe that I can take a joke. It was the biggest compliment and show of respect that I can think of.
Who is who? One Jürgen hails from Humboldt State (CA) and is also known as Alex Deich

Chief Referee Jürgen starts the evening's festivities

The banquet at the AF Country Club came off beautifully, with only one stiff-drunk racer whom we discretely escorted to a safe location before things could get ugly. The food was outstanding, the hosts had invited a good guest speaker, and the awards ceremony showcased lots and lots of talent. And we had a chance to mingle with the racers, quite a few of whom had chosen to dress up.
That's why we officiate!
The newly crowned Division I XC champion ...
... and male counterparts
The final stars-and-stripes jerseys were given out today, Sunday, for the Dual Slalom. It's a cool discipline in which two racers go head-to-head down a 30-second course. This short video that I took gives you an idea not only of the format but also the challenging conditions, which continued to vary during the day depending on where the sun started to melt the muck ice into icy muck.

We had a few problems with the generator that activates the start gate, and there were a few other small hick-ups, but overall it was a great finale to an extremely successful National Championship. I think that everyone involved with this event—racer, organizer, volunteer, USAC staffer, or commissaire—will take away lasting memories.

Thanks for reading this long entry, but believe me, it was a LONG week!


Monday, October 24, 2011

The JAMjam

Three days ago, on Saturday, October 22, 60+ cyclists joined for the first Judy Austin Memorial ride, the JAMjam, here in Lubbock. Over the past few months, the Cure Cancer Foundation had prepared this fundraiser, and through my relationship with my good friend Martha, who works for the foundation, I was closely involved with the event.
October 22, 2011: The date of the first JAMjam
Let me describe the JAMjam in this way: It couldn't have been better than it was! It seemed as if everything was just perfect, from the beautiful weather (sunny, calm, mild temperatures) to the excitement of the riders (many of whom had not seen each other in years), from the post-event celebration to the accumulated donations from riders and sponsors who could not participate.
One of the rest-stops on the 50-mile route
The ride offered 10, 30, and 50 mile options, and I think everyone opted for the two longer rides. Some folks had traveled long distances—for example, Tommy and Diane had come in from Sedona (AZ), Sandi had traveled from Dallas, and Ronnie and his wife, Christy, had driven in from Amarillo. Donations came from as far away as California (thank you, John!), Wisconsin (thank you, Leo!), Oklahoma City (thank you, Terry and Leann!), and all over Texas (thank you Alex, Stanley, et al.). It sure was humbling to witness this outpouring of goodwill in the name of Judy and for the benefit of all those either facing this horrible disease now or waiting to be diagnosed one of these days—in other words, all of us!
Post-ride party time at CCF headquarters

Martha, Terri, and the rest of the staff of the CCF had beaten the pavement to find corporate sponsors who underwrote one expense after the other. At the risk of offending by not mentioning, let me just call out publicly Greg of DFC here in Lubbock, Kirk who owns Hills in Amarillo, and Michael of Wicked Beaver Brewing in Wolfforth. Live music was graciously provided by Mr. Mike Pritchard himself, and the catering by Rain Uptown was second to none.
The Wicked Beaver crew
Toward all the volunteers, riders, friends, family, CCF staff, and small and large sponsors I would like to express my very, very sincere thanks! Maybe one of these days we will not have to lose our loved ones any longer! See you next year at the JAMjam.
Cheers, amigos!
Christy and Ronnie came from Amarillo; please take time to read Ronnie's story here


Friday, October 21, 2011

Free things to do in NYC

You know me: I'm a cheapskate. Have always been. I readily admit it. Had I not, I wouldn't have retired at age 54 and travel the world the way I do. It's all about maximizing opportunities and being shrewd about how you allocate (financial and other) resources.

New York is by no means a cheap place. As a matter of fact, it is usually listed together with London and Paris as one of the top-three most expensive cities this side of the Delta Quadrant. So, knowing that, I used the remaining balance of a Barnes & Noble gift card (a X-mas present from a few years ago) to arm myself with the most befitting guidebook to NY that I could find: NYC–Free & Dirt Cheap. I can see you chuckle...
Yes, Frommer's

Anyhow, this guidebook was definitely worth the investment as it told me about stuff that otherwise I wouldn't have partaken in. How else would I have found out about the walking tours that are being offered by the various neighborhoods' Business Improvement Districts? If you were to travel to NY in the summer, you'd have a much larger selection of tours than in October, when things wind down; weekends are better than weekdays. Nevertheless, the tours that I joined (small groups led by locals who live there!) were informative and educational—and free. (BTW, there is a commercial outfit called Big Onion Walking Tours that offers similar tours on a variety of topics year-round, with a cost of between $15 to $20.)
As seen in Greenwich Village

Then there is a whole section dedicated to museums, not only the free ones but also the "established" ones that offer free entry on particular days, during particular hours. At $20 entry fees to the well-known museums that can add up. Liz and I had thought about hitting MOMA, but once I told her about the free galleries in Chelsea, we decided to give that a whirl. Wow, how cool! You can go from one gallery to the next, wonder what the hell the artist may have been on when they took the undercarriage of a Chrysler Imperial and embedded it in part of another 25 tons of molten iron, and ask yourself, what do all these good-looking young women who work in the galleries' offices do all day? It's a veritable smorgasbord of art, in small bites, and all free.
Liz contemplates the meaning of life (the life of a Chrysler Imperial, that is)

Definitely some bizarre stuff
Another cool freebie mentioned in the book (although I knew about it beforehand) is the free ferry trip on the Staten Island ferry. On Monday afternoon, after Liz had finished up all her seminar stuff, we took the ferry while the sun was setting over Ellis Island. Why spend $20 to go up close to Lady Liberty (and brave hour-long lines) when the Staten Island ferry gives you the same great view? And it's not only the Statue that you see, but the entire Manhattan skyline and all those pretty bridges connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn. After a Guinness on the island we returned, with all of New York in full evening regalia. It was an absolutely gorgeous evening, warm enough not to freeze off our fannies.
Leaving Manhattan ...

... on the way to Staten Island ...
... and returning
Not all is free, of course. Liz treated us to a mesmerizing evening at Lincoln Center, where we saw Warhorse, a five-time Tony winner. What an evening! Neither of us (and Liz is more erudite in these affairs than I am) had ever witnessed a performance like this. Words cannot express how real those horses that really were nothing but transparent  wooden skeletons with actors (call them puppeteers if you will) inside of them became. We saw these props, but what we really believed we saw were living, breathing animals. Amazing. If you get a chance to see Warhorse in person, do so. Or at least check out this short video:
A file photo from the official Warhorse website
And that's all for today, folks, as I have to run off to mark the route for tomorrow's JAMjam here in Lubbock. Busy, busy, busy....


Monday, October 17, 2011

The New York City subway sucks!

Self portrait in front of the United Nations

So, there you have my opinion, right in the blog title. I don't have to worry about hurting my buddy Barry's feelings about my dissing the sub since he doesn't read my blog ("I want a handwritten note or phone call from you so that I know how you're doing," he said last night while we had a huge pastrami sandwich at Katz' Delikatessen). Yes, I know it runs around the clock, and that's about the only positive thing about this rumbly, outdated, slow, unpredictable, prone-to-service-outages dinosaur. I take the Paris metro or Berlin U-Bahn any day over this outdated monster. Yuck. And did I mention the rats?
The R rumbling into Lexington
An interesting advertisement in the subway
Otherwise, New York has been great since I got here on Friday afternoon. My friend Liz is attending a medical seminar here and she had asked me whether I wanted to tag along, and so I did. I got us the upgrade on the plane, and she's covering the room. While she listens to presentations discussing psycho-drugs I wander the streets and do some interesting sightseeing. So far I have joined two walking tours (a third one was cancelled because of the on-going Wall Street occupation by protesters), looked at some of Malcolm Forbes' treasures in his "Galleries," inspected the operations of the Brooklyn Brewery (and sampled their suds, of course), and have been drifting through Manhattan, looking and enjoying. The weather so far has been perfect for these types of activities.
Protesters in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan
Saturday night Liz and I went to the legendary Blue Note where we were treated to a mind-blowing performance by one of  my favorite artists, Pat Metheny. For an hour and a half (amazingly long for a club gig) Metheny and bassist Larry Grenadier played old and new stuff, and I couldn't have enjoyed it more. I left the place emotionally drained. It was the best live music I have ever witnessed.
Saturday night in front of the Blue Note
I'm updating the blog while sitting in a Mickey D's just a few block away from the United Nations, my next stop. McDonald's may have the crappiest non-food in the world, but they provide free Internet and have clean bathrooms. Since the Hyatt charges an arm and both legs for Internet access (and don't get me started on the fact that the $300 room doesn't get any direct daylight and that it is even impossible to see the sky when craning one's neck) I have to resort to the plan B of bloggers anywhere—invest a buck in a Sausage McMuffin and get connected to the world. BTW, the buck in NYC is actually $1.29. It's New York, after all.
Inside of  Brooklyn Brewery
Lenin himself greets New York from atop the Red Square apartments on the Lower East Side

I just updated this post from the New York Public Library, which has blazing fast internet access. Enjoy the pics. I hope there will be another post with more photos before too long.


Monday, October 10, 2011


OK, so you have no idea what that title may mean, eh? Well, had I not asked for a Mayan coffee, without all the faldera, I wouldn't have either. See, a Café Maya is a concoction of coffee and liquor, some of which is burned off in a show-stopping (or -starting) display of waiter-ship. Well, I didn't want that.

I had already been pleasured by las Perlas del Mar, beautifully charcoal-seared scallops that were part of tonight's dinner at the fancy restaurant (Fusion). Since I have inherited $270 worth of room credit (long story) I didn't think twice about ordering an expensive bottle of a reserve 2005 Tempranillo, and from there it just went south, or west, or wherever.
Mr. Lobster is waiting

The lobster dinner was part of  my paid stay here—one per visit, thank you very much. I had the spiny fellow juiced up with some mojo de ajo, essentially a buttery garlic sauce. Damn fine. While looking at the full moon I realized what a lucky, LUCKY dog I  really am: My goodness, this is the kind of meal you'd serve Angela Merkel while she's contemplating the Greek bailout, but they don't have a gently lapping Gulf of Mexico in Berlin, not even as a replica. Perfect moon, no wind, a glassy sea with the most miraculous reflections, the sounds of  the  "Indigenous Night" production coming from across the far-away pool—with haunting flutes and the tam-tam of the drums, all the while implying foot-stomping dancers—in the most mysterious way, and a good bottle of  $60 Tempranillo to soften it all even more.

I decided that I was a pretty pathetic fella because I didn't carry a notebook to jot down my innermost feelings and—more importantly—how to make Café Maya. Paul Theroux, whose often unhappy ruminations on the South Pacific I am currently reading, did so. He also listened to the same Walkman tape of the Big Chill soundtrack for weeks on end, so maybe that's why he was the way he portrayed himself. And maybe the infection of his willy was not to blame on ill-washed sheets, after all. (see pages 226 to 227 of the Happy Isles of Oceania) Just thinking out particular reasons or willy-ness.

So, at any rate, devoid of a notebook I had to ask a waiter to jot down the final, super-secret ingredient of the Café Maya, apart from rimming the glass with brown sugar, using native Kahlua and some tequila, and brewing a mean coffee. It is Xtabentun, a mixture of anis and honey (miel de abejas), something that undoubtedly goes back to the Mayas. What a perfect ending of a soft day. (And just in case you're wondering, pronounce the "X" as if it were a "Sh." Try to pronounce it the way a German he-man would, like Schtabentun. And you wonder why they love me down here!)


PS: Recipe for Cafe Maya: 1 oz Xtabentun, 1/4 oz tequila, 1/2 oz Kahlua, plus of course coffee. Enjoy responsibly!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

La Riviera Maya

Hola amigos! I hope this finds you well in climes where fall is making itself felt once again.

Morning coffee on the balcony
My current location is the Ocean Coral & Turquesa in Puerto Morales, on the Mexican Riviera just south of Cancun. This is hurricane season, but apart from daily afternoon showers I've been lucky. Daytime temperatures are in the mid-80s, and at night it cools off into the lower 70s. The hunidity is worse than it would be in the spring or summer, thanks to the daily rains, but that's why they have an ocean and three big pools here.
Puerto Morelos' fancy pier
I've been spending my time reading, riding the Ritchey (got caught in a pretty heavy deluge yesterday but then hit dry ground again), and attempting to make diving reservations. The latter has been a bit of a lesson in frustration, thanks to the local haphazard outfitters. Maybe I will actually get to dive tomorrow.
Nighttime at the Ocean Coral & Turquesa

This place is quite fancy, and the evenings are quiet and relaxed. The pools are illuminated, and one can sit in the breeze and watch the sea roll in or simply sip a cocktail. And the food is quite nice, too, as there are various themed restaurants (there's also a large buffet-style one) where one orders a la carte. Even at the risk of having to eat my words next time I'm invited at Martha and Alan's, I couldn't help but order the tiramisu. No, not all desserts are stupid, I'm afraid.
Quite a presentation in the Italian restaurant
It's Sunday morning, and breakfast beckons. After that another bike ride, more reading, and lots of floating and bloating. Hasta la vista,


PS: That bike ride deserves a post script. It was by far my worst ride of the year, one that I thought I would not be able to complete. On the way out (one can ride only south, west, and north from here, and I had ridden in the latter two directions already) I had a slight tailwind, enough to make it unbearably hot and muggy. The practically standing air was stifling, but I soldiered on, going easy and fairly slow. When it came time to turn around at the 16-mile mark, the wind provided some relief, but not much. And I think I had something going on inside of me since I became more and more fidgety, couldn't find a comfortable position on the bike, and finally had to throw up on the side of the road. I had enough water, but those 16 miles became longer and longer, and hotter and more humid. I was sweating like a pig and hurting like a dog, my speed dropping down to 12 and 13 mph. Oh, it was ugly. Somehow I made it back to the hotel where I immediately took a cold shower, drowned several cans of club soda, and then submerged myself in the pool. Half an hour later I realized that I had averted the heat stroke and was back among the living. Damn, that was no fun today. I'll have to be more judicious about future rides, I suppose.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

24-Hour National Championships: Don't believe it—it's more like 40 hours!

Oh, the fun I am having! Or the sleep deprivation. Or both. But we all know that sleep is overrated, right?

Well, at least on a short-term basis.

After arriving in CO Springs Thursday night and a wonderful German dinner with race director Tim Scott I spent Friday familiarizing myself with the venue in Palmer Park and helping out at registration, at the very trendy Ascent Cycling, a truly cool bike shop. Palmer Park—like Central Park in NYC or Cameron Park in Waco—is one of those rare legacies of a visionary who realized a hundred years ago that people need more than just their homes to be able to live. I'm not sure of the exact size of this gem, but our race track covered 13 miles and apparently only scratched the surface of the existing trail system. There are gorgeous vistas of Colorado's second-largest city, and Pike's Peak and Red Rocks seem to be within grasp's reach.

Palmer Park, in the middle of Colorado Springs—wow!
But I wasn't here just for the sightseeing. I know, none of you thinks I ever work, but I really do. It may not be lifting stuff, or scraping things off the floor, but it is sometimes similar to being a greeter at Wal-Mart, and we know they do get strangled. During registration I had fellow "greeters" in Kelli Lusk and George Heagerty, two of USA Cycling's minions who not only are essential to keeping the USAC machine humming but who are also long-time friends. In the late afternoon, the venue started to take shape, but it was a long way from being the glitzy backdrop of Velo and VeloNews photos.

Before ...
... and before ...
... and 48 hours later
Let me tell you, Tim's crew worked HARD throughout the night so that we could have a National Championship.

A 24-hour race such as this is completely different from the other types of events that I officiate. Somehow, everything seems to be in slow-motion since the end is so far away. Maybe that's just my perception (and maybe erroneously so), but things appear less urgent, less pressing. Still, the start came at the exact appointed hour, at noon on Saturday with a shot fired from Dean's starter pistol that sent the racers running 200 meters to their bikes in a beautifully executed LeMans start. It doesn't get much better for the spectators.
The 24 Hours of COS open with a LeMans start
The course in Palmer Park was about 13 miles long, most of it not overly technical and but with lots of short power climbs and little time to recover on long downhills. These National Championships saw both single riders competing as well as teams of two and four riders, in various combinations. And there was even a category for singlespeed riders, who were amazingly fast. While the teams generally traded off after one or sometimes two laps each, the solo riders were facing a grueling 24-hour slog all by themselves. Some of them have support crews, but others are self-sufficient and will stop for just a few moments at their campsite in the "village" to grab something out of their ice chest and then continue on yet another lap. The top riders such as eventual champions Josh Tostado and Monique Mata turn almost the same time on each lap, slowing down only a little bit over the course of the day. They are like machines. The teams' fastest lap times were around 56 minutes, while the solo males turned a number of 59-minute laps. I believe the winning team churned out 23 laps over the course of the 24 hours, and Tostado was right behind. Simply amazing.
Racers on the first lap in Palmer Park
After two hours of racing, about the time for a "normal" mountain bike cross-country race, the race doesn't stop. It goes on. The clock suddenly shows four hours, and one realizes that we still have 20 hours to go! That's almost another full day! Reality slowly sinks in, and the time slowly ticks by. Racers come through the start/finish and transition area, where the teams exchange their timing chip, which serves as a "baton," and then go out on another lap. The clock and the sun indicate it is five o'clock—another 19 hours to go. By this time we had found out that the bulletproof chip timing was rather bullet-riddled, and our crew of three commissaires knew that we would have to record every racer on every lap, with a precise time, if we were to stand any chance of ending the day with legitimate results. Why does chip timing work for 3,000 athletes in triathlons but has been more than just mildly troublesome in every mountain bike race that I have ever worked?

At 6 p.m., racers who enter a new lap are required to go out with lights on their bikes. Now, if you have not seen those fancy $400+ lighting systems that are either helmet- or handlebar-mounted, you wouldn't believe the light output. One company is aptly called "Nightsun." Some of the racers don vests and arm warmers, others head out into the quickly arriving night still in their salt-encrusted short-sleeved jerseys. Tinted sunglasses give way to clear lenses. In the transition area a certain routine has settled in, and the exuberance has calmed somewhat. We still don't have any accurate results updates, and we will continue to work through the night trying to sort out the progress of the race together with the lone woman who is working the chip timing. We still have 16 hours to go.
A racer enters another lap around 3 a.m.
Rogene, Dean, and I keep track of the racers, with me spending much time in transition and walking around to tend to other tasks (sometime as mundane as finding coffee for Rogene). Time starts to flow together. Dean takes a break for maybe 90 minutes, and Rogene and I record racers going by. Dean returns, and Rogene takes a break. Mine comes for 40 minutes around 5:30 a.m. Meanwhile, the solo-riders have been going, going, going. Faces look drawn, the team riders who get rotated out are cramping and shivering from the cold. One rider comes in, desperately looking for a teammate to substitute him; a handler tells him that he has to go out for another lap, that for some reason his substitute is not available. He takes off, slowly.
Rogene and Dean trying to keep the night gremlins away

Daylight finally arrives, and at 8 a.m. (still four hours to go, twice the time of a "normal" race!) the quiet hours are over and our announcer returns. Music starts to blare again, and some life returns. We have finally posted a reliable set of running standings, and we now update them every hour. I make the round-trip between commissaires' stand and chip-timing every 10 minutes to work out yet another kink. When we post the final preliminaries at 11 a.m., ten minutes before riders may enter the course one last time, we are accurate.
The spoils are waiting for the new national champs

Finally, at noon on Sunday, it's all done. Eyes are bloodshot, some of the riders are a bit delirious, and everybody is craving sleep. But there are first the stars-and-stripes jerseys and the medals for the winners, and then the tear-down of the venue starts. Rogene and Dean leave, I debrief with the race organizer, and his visually worn-out wife finally drops me off at my hotel around 4:30 p.m. I tell you, it should have been called the 40 Hours of Colorado Springs!

And now it's Monday morning, I have slept well, and my plane is leaving at 10:40 a.m. The beginning of a week of R&R in Cancun is just 48 hours away, and we know how fast that time goes by.