Saturday, March 24, 2012

Grassroots work in Central Texas

Louisiana may have jello shots—but Wingate, TX, has a Goat Cook-Off, and y'all are invited
Welcome back to Texas! After last week's 70.3 fiasco it sure feels good to be back in friendly territory. I haven't been on a real road trip ("real" being defined as get in the Miata, drop the roof, and drive for 430 miles with the sun staring down on you) since last year's Collegiate Nationals, and I tell you one thing: I have been enjoying the living hell out of my past 36 hours or so on the road.
Bluebonnets, as seen from the Miata

The photo above was snapped while entering the hamlet of Wingate, a 200-soul settlement somewhere between Sweetwater and Brownwood. Winters (where the local high school's athletes are called the "Blizzards") is just down the highway. Man, you gotta love those names! I left the Hub City yesterday before noon to drive down to Bertram, a bit north of Austin, to spend the night at Mark and Ann's place, fine in-laws of Judy's and thus mine. Even though they were not around (unfortunately, I must add), they had opened the doors to their beautiful home on Oatmeal Creek for me to spend the night. The drive (334 miles to their place, to be exact) was unbelievably beautiful. It was one of those perfect days to drive the little roadster: temps in the mid to high 70s, no wind, and nothing but sunshine. I saw my first bluebonnets just outside of Santa Ana, and from there, it was just one flower field after the other.
Bluebonnets in Mark and Ann's backyard
I spent a quiet, happy late afternoon, evening, and night on Oatmeal Creek. Good memories welled up, even though the oak trees have been felled because of parasites—somehow they get sick too, and die. Still, sitting in the waning sunlight with Sugar, the lab, and one of the cats in my lap and a beer in my hand was just what I needed after the past few days of WTC crap. Oddly enough, my friend Sabine sent me the following quote from Dylan Thomas' Under The Milk Wood just this morning (or, better, late last night, while I was snoozing like a baby in the dead quiet of night):

"It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now."

How about this for a night out of town? Welcome to Oatmeal Creek
This morning I drove the final 90 miles or so to Smithville and the race site at Rocky Hill. My route led, of course, though Bastrop, which experienced one of the worst wildfires in Texas' history last year. Oh my, those blackened dead pine trees are so sad to look at, but what is even worse is seeing the foundations of burnt-down homes, just a few hundred feet from the highway! I had seen the effects of the Los Alamos fires in New Mexico last fall, but this felt worse because of the displaced human element.
A typical Texas "welcome" (BTW, those are Indian Paintbrush in the background
Once at Rocky Hill (where, incidentally, Judy and I had our big officiating breakthrough back in 1999 or so when we hand-scored 960 racers after the "fail-safe" computer system went on the fritz and the computer dude went AWOL—the race director gave us a $300 tip at the end of the day!) and met with Vance, the man behind the new Texas Mountain Bike High School League, and Mat, who hails from California where he established the first such HS league in the US about a decade ago.The HS kids and the parents that I talked to seemed all excited about this new way to burn off some testosterone—heck, it's a sport that doesn't involve just one ball like football, basketball, or beisbol! 
Wildflowers at Rocky Hill Ranch, just outside of Smithville, TX

Looks to me like acacia in full bloom
Babies are always cute—nopales
I walked the course, as I always do as a commissaire. To think that just two weeks ago I did the same for a UCI race in the tropical rainforest of Puerto Rico! And next week I'll be in Las Vegas for a triathlon in the desert. If you want to send me all of your savings right now, chances are I won't trade, unless you also throw in your sister, and even that depends. Seriously, I have one of the most gratifying lives of anybody I know, and I am glad c'est moi et pas tu.

So, with all that said, it's time to turn in and call it a night. Hope you enjoyed the pics, and tune back in after a day or two, just in case exciting things happen to this here German.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Once more back in San Juan—this time for a 70.3

The flags of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the US of A
This post should have been written a day or two ago (but I didn't find the time), and certainly not tonight from Puerto Rico when I was supposed to be back home in Lubbock. But the organizers bungled my flight back home, royally, and so I had to spend another day here in San Juan. I made the best of it and enjoyed some fine sightseeing.
View of San Juan from Castillo San Felipe del Morro

This week's race was an Ironman 70.3 triathlon, the second edition of the event that I had officiated last year as well. A year can make a big difference, in the way that some things are handled (travel comes to mind) and in how some stuff is communicated (or not). Let's put it this way: It was another successful event, albeit with fewer participants than during the inaugural year, and I worked with a nice crew. There are still a few issues with one or two unhappy racers that need to be mopped up, but otherwise things are in balance.
My local crew of draft marshal volunteers
So, let's concentrate on the other aspects of my time down here in Puerto Rico, the second trip in as many weeks. When I tell friends at home about flying down here twice, the obvious question is: Why don't you just stay down there instead of flying back home in between? Well, UCI and WTC are two totally different organizations, and trying to work something out in regard to airfare and hotels for the time in between would have been similar to trying to broker Mid-East peace. So, forget it. My flight back down this time was one of the least pleasant flight experiences I have had in the past two decades. The organizers had worked out a sponsorship deal with Delta, and instead of being able to fly directly (and in style) from DFW to San Juan I had to rub shoulders with the Kettles while flying to Memphis, then onward to Atlanta, and then finally to San Juan—with layovers I traveled 13 hours, not counting the time needed to get to the LBB airport to leave at 6:00 a.m. last Thursday. Or having to get up tomorrow at 4:45 a.m. to make it to the SJU airport. Oh well. It was the perfect preparation for the "pleasant" experience of  finding a roommate for the next five nights in my room when I finally arrived in the hotel.
First Class on the Delta flight—NOT!
Since I was not provided with ground transportation here in San Juan I was not able to have a look at the course on Friday with my two USAT cohorts, Marty and Steve, who worked the event with me just like in 2011. But that didn't keep us from having dinner in San Juan's Old Town on Friday, accompanied by Marty's wife, Lauren, who was racing the event. We ended up at Old Harbor Brewing Company, the island's first and only microbrewery. The "beer bong" that held three liters of mediocre Pale Ale was quite a sight to behold. It was a fun evening.
The Head Ref with Click and Clack and the beer bong
On Friday afternoon I had enough time for a long walk through the part of San Juan east of the Hilton Caribe, where race headquarters was located. It was interesting to explore the non-tourist side of the city, and here are some visual impressions. They are quite diverse, truly reflecting this complex city.
Academia Sagrado Corazon, one of many church-affiliated learning centers

Inside the waiting room of the state-run Departamento de la Familia
Happy Easter messages are everywhere
A banana tree in the middle of the city
Not necessarily the cleanest city ...
The art-deco Puerto Rican Telephone and Telegram headquarters
The most fun I had on Saturday night, when Eduardo (who had helped with the UCI race in Florida) and his brother-in-law, Felix Miguel, picked me up for a family luau in the nearby town of Dorado. Well, it wasn't in the town; rather we went to the family compound out in the country. We had been in touch on Friday and Saturday, and Eduardo had told me there'd be a roasted pig and much rum. Well, he wasn't kidding: There was indeed a dead, perfectly barbecued oinker, and Felix Miguel had brought along a small selection (only four!) of something like 40 home-made rums that were flavored with tamarindo, pistachio/coconut, coffee, and tropical fruit. Holy Moses, one was better than the other!
Felix Miguel (l) and Eduardo free part of the pig from the custom-made fire pit
A scene from Lord of the Flies
Only the bottles are Bacardi—this is true moonshine, and it's good!
Additionally, there was a sheer endless supply of rum daiquiris that was based on the same home-made rum. Overseeing the whole spectacle was el patron, Jorge. Half a dozen children were playing basketball, and the women (wives and daughters whose names I never caught) were sitting at the other end of the table. Old man Jorge has built up a multi-million dollar heavy-equipment business, and Felix Miguel has to take on more and more of the leadership role since Jorge's wife is not doing very well. Jorge and I talked almost the entire evening, and I felt included and like a longtime family friend. As a matter of fact, Felix Miguel later told me that his father only very rarely takes to strangers and even less often invites them to his family retreat, and I feel quite honored. More than once I was admonished to make sure to come back, and that I could stay as long as I wanted. And you know what? I believe these fine people were dead serious, and I hope I will be back soon. Before they took me back to my hotel in San Juan at midnight (giving me ample sleep before I had to get up at 4 a.m.) Felix Miguel took me to his house, in the same sprawling compound, to show me "my future room." Thank you, amigos, for an unforgettable evening.
Surrounded by new friends and a menacing can of Coors Light
And that brings us to today's extra day down here in San Juan. After a bit of beach time right after breakfast I walked all the way to the western end of the peninsula that the Puerto Rican capital occupies. On my list of places to see were the two forts of San Cristobal and El Morro, two World Heritage Sites that are simply spectacular. After Columbus had discovered the Americas, the Spanish were rather quick to develop shipping routes that would facilitate plundering the New World. Going west, from Europe, they'd hug the coast of West Africa and then make the hop across the Atlantic, aided by favorable trade winds and a western current. Puerto Rico was the first point with a perfect landing spot (at San Juan) and ample fresh water and sullies, and thus it quickly started to take on an important role. Going back, the sailors would veer north and catch the Gulf stream and easterly winds. Perfect! Other ports were added, and the empire held for almost 400 years. The English and Dutch were the main adversaries, but it was not until the Spanish-American war in the 1890s that San Juan fell. 
The Spanish ruled the Caribbean
And then, suddenly, it all came together for me: My trip to Peru and my reading about the Spanish exploiting (and exterminating the Inca) and all this maritime stuff. Having not all that long ago traveled in New Mexico and seeing the Spanish influence there. And of course having visited that monastery near Madrid just six weeks ago. The world is simply amazing.

Here a re a few more pics from today's long walk. After posting them I will have to hit the rack because it is late and the unrelenting alarm clock will howl in just a few hours, once again.
Looking from San Cristobal west toward El Morro
The US military built these observation bunkers into the forts
The old city's cemetery outside of El Morro
Cannon at El Morro guarding the entry into the San Juan harbor
The entry into the San Juan harbor—nobody could sneak by the Spanish
El Morro
If you find yourself in San Juan and can spare the $5 to visit these two forts, do so. I have seldom spent that kind of money more wisely.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, March 11, 2012

10th Annual Clasico MTB Florida (Puerto Rico)

The real reason for my going to Puerto Rico this weekend was not looking at trees and flowers but rather to work an international mountain bike race. To be frank, we were lucky that it became international when three US riders showed up this morning, well after the deadline for inscription and number pick-up. The 10th annual Clasico MTB Florida near Arecibo has been on the UCI's calendar for a number of years, and 2012 was my time to come down here. With the recent changes at the UCI (we will have to decide between serving as commissaires or DCOs very soon) this may very well have been my last race as President of the Commissaires' Panel.

The day was perfect: The night had been void of rain, and the morning was sunny and almost cloudless. Race organizer Luciano S. had things so well under control that he even toed the line for the 8:00 a.m. start of the first race—and promptly won his non-UCI Masters race. Look at the determination, and you see what this lawyer cum bike racer cum organizer can do.
Senor Sanchez displays his race face
We had a good race—an on-time start, knowledgeable local commissaires, a perfect course, friendly racers, no injuries, happy faces, zero protests. Yes, the number of UCI racers was anemic, but we ran the show in a professional way, and it seemed to be appreciated. And no, this was not a World Cup, but all races start out (and sometimes stay) small. Hey, the mayor of Florida showed up, and a great salsa band served up the music. Puerto Rico is A-OK, believe me. In Costa Rica they'd say, Pura Vida!
The start area at Clasico MTB Florida
As I said, the local commissaires really are a good crew. Lucano, who worked as Starter, learned the hard way why you have a whistle in your mouth as a starter—just in case the pistol doesn't fire, twice. Somebody had loaded the ammo back-ass-ward! Old stalwart Nitza was rock-solid as my Secretary, and the ever-so-lovely Yelitza is on my A-list for, well, whatever crosses your mind, or mine (but, alas, I'm sure not hers)! All kidding aside, thanks for your hard work today, Yeli.
Please meet the Finish Judge, Yelitza
Let me tell you one thing: Down here in Puerto Rico (and the same is true for Costa Rica and Chile) the organizers and the local staff treat us commissaires like royalty. It makes me feel ashamed when I think how a South American commissaire might be "welcomed" to a UCI race in the USA. Here, I have been treated to all meals, one has included me in meeting the local families, and one has asked me umpteen times whether everything is OK—all the while telling me how glad and honored one is that I took the time to come down for this event. I've never experienced this type of appreciation in the US. I always feel welcome at the cycling races south of the border, and I am glad that I can help out to improve these events in my own small way.
Luciano y Eduardo, con el jefe
We finished off the day at La Ponderosa, a mall-based restaurant with US roots but definite local touches. Thank you all, Luciano, Eduardo, Alberto, Rodolfo, Roberto, y todos los commissarios y obreros. Sin ustedes, el Clasico MTB Florida no esta possible. Muchas gracias, amigos. Hasta luego,


Friday, March 9, 2012

The 51st state?

Well, the answer to that is not going to be contained in this post, for sure. But it is a question that does come up, down here in Puerto Rico: Should we (aka "they") pursue statehood or take the (free) ride without representation in Washington? A poll taken just four years ago claimed that 57% of Puerto Ricans are in favor of statehood, while only 34% were happy with the status quo, which is that of a "commonwealth." Maybe I'll do a bit of research tonight, over dinner in a Cuban restaurant.
La Villa Real—my home for the next four nights
Welcome back to Puerto Rico! This weekend I am down here as the PCP (chief referee) of the 2012 Clasico MTB Florida, a UCI mountain bike race in the foothills of the mountainous interior of this pretty island. Somehow I managed to squeak out of Lubbock yesterday morning, what with winds howling at 35 mph out of the NNE. Magically, my upgrade request for the DFW to San Juan portion of my travels had been granted just about the time I got to Lubbock's international airfield, and thus I had a pleasant day in the air. Luciano, the race director for this race, picked me up at SJU and drove me to my hotel (pictured above), about 20 minutes from the race venue.
Advertising, Puerto Rican style

Today I had a first look at the course (we officially call it the "course inspection," and it results in a report that I write for both the RD's perusal as well as an addendum to my final race report to the UCI) at the small town of Florida. I had heard reports of what a mudfest this race had been last year, and after walking the 6-kilometer-long course I was able to imagine the slop that riders had to contend with. Luciano told me that here in the foothills the clouds like to gather and just hang, dumping a lot of rain. The soil seems to be mainly clay, and that stuff gets s-l-i-c-k with rain! Some of the area is also used by motorized dirt bikes, and you can see how foul things look after yesterday's precip. Fortunately, today was dry— had been wrong when giving us a 50%  chance of more rain this afternoon. Let's keep the fingers crossed.
Clay and water mix well—NOT!
After Lubbock's dry brownness it is almost a physical pleasure to see green. Oh my goodness, those flamboyant trees! And the saturated greenness of the pastures (the race course used to be part of an old milk-producing estate)! And then, look at those odd trees in the pics: It's a different world, at times almost alien. Could it have anything to do with the world's largest radio telescope, located somewhere in the jungle in nearby Arecibo?
I believe this is a Silk Floss Tree (Chorisia speciosa)
Can you spot the Flamboyant Tree (Delonix regia) in the background?

A plain ol' Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra) in the forest
Not only is the flora different, but the fauna is as well. No, I don't have pics of the birds that judging by their calls seem to be everywhere (while staying invisible), but at least I caught the lizard.
One of millions
For lunch we had my Puerto Rican favorite, a mofongo (a mashed heap of plantains that has been enhanced  with seafood, meat, or vegetables). And before that we sucked up a plantain soup that had been supercharged with garlic. Keep those damn vampires away! So, as you can see, I am living the sweet life while working. In about 20 minutes, Luciano is going to pick me up for dinner, which is going to happen at a Cuban restaurant, as mentioned earlier. As long as I don't have to smoke cigars, I'm game for anything.

More about the race (which is going to happen on Sunday, after tomorrow's official training) at a later time. Please keep checking back for more updates.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Leap Day, plus two

March 2 in Lubbock

Back in Lubbock since Tuesday morning (after fog required my last flight Monday night to turn back around to dump us off in DFW for the night after traveling already for 24 hours), I've almost become used to the incessant wind that is a harbinger of spring. Or maybe it's just a fact of life here in the Hub City. According to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (yes, that's the name of our local newsrag), Thursday's highest measured wind speed was 31 mph, and the highest gust topped out at 40 mph.; on Wednesday, it was 28 / 32; on Tuesday it had been 43 mph and 56 (!!!) mph. And yes, the afternoon skies have been brown, and yes, riding in this kind of crap every day has not been pleasant. But neither is being fat, so I trudge on.
Dust, sand, and leaves on my back porch
With the weekend looming, I am looking forward to maybe doing a few things around the house (yeah, right, as if that's ever going to happen!), cooking myself a decent meal or two, and riding the bike with buddies instead of by my lonesome self. Spring really is just around the corner, as evidenced by the blooming bushes and trees in the neighborhood and the occasional higher-than-normal temperature—yesterday we hit 80 degrees, or about 26 Celsius. No worries, there's always one last hard freeze that kills off the blossoms.
Spring is springing
It does feel good to be at home, for once. I enjoy my bed, I enjoy my music, and I enjoy my hot tub. I've been selling a few more items on eBay, some of it for friends and some of it my own stuff. Every day I walk around the neighborhood "tank," as my buddy Wes in his West Texas ways lovingly calls the pond in the neighborhood park. I've been reading, and I've been preparing for the upcoming races this month. The dermatologist found only two small pre-cancerous spots that he iced away during yesterday's routine annual check-up. Tax time is nearing, so I've been working on that as well. So, overall, life's quite all right. Maybe I'll treat myself to a glass of fine cab with tonight's goulash.
Trees next to the drought-ravaged "tank"

Enough musings—time to get dressed and ride a few miles. Enjoy the weekend.


PS: Maybe it helps to bitch about the wind. Today's conditions were near perfect, with just a bit of wind from the NE, making a joke out of today's forecast that had called for the same as in the past three days. The result: I rode 40 beautiful miles, and then another six to the store.