Tuesday, August 27, 2013

If this upgrade doesn't deserve a blog post ....

For someone who—deservedly or not—has become accustomed to being upgraded whenever he flies, yesterday's move from Economy to Business on flight AA50 from DFW to Heathrow will be remembered for quite a while. I had been monitoring the passenger load on this flight for weeks, and Business had filled up more and more; the notification that I'd be sitting up front never came. I don't obsess over upgrades, but I certainly enjoy them, and this one I really wanted to score because this was going to be my first flight ever on American's new 77W, the one with the expanded and purportedly much-improved Business section.
The Economy section of American's new 77W
Upon check-in in Lubbock, I was number 4 on the upgrade list, and only three seats were available. It didn't look good at all, so I enjoyed my (upgraded) First Class hop to DFW. (In case you didn't know, American is the only carrier flying into Lubbock offering this premium cabin choice.) Once in Dallas I hung out in the Admiral's Club, thinking that this was going to be the place where the luxury part of the trip was going to end. I really didn't fret over it—after all, Economy is what I had paid for, and having been able to snag a seat in the "premium" Economy section, which offers something like 6" or 8" of extra legroom was already a benefit that would have cost extra dollars for somebody without the frequent flier status that I have earned by flying annually 100,000 miles or more on revenue tickets. Still, how cool would it have been to get to sit up front?
The three rows of "premium" Economy, with added legroom not just for the bulkhead
When I left the AC to go to the gate a few minutes before boarding, I was still #4—but now there were four open seats. I assumed that a paid Business passenger had contracted the measles or experienced an emergency C-section and just couldn't make it. But I didn't get my hopes up since measles sometimes turn out to be just a rash, and C-sections are overrated when it comes to missing a flight. But then I got to the gate, and I was on the "cleared" list. Wow! It was a bit like Christmas!
Tada!!! The Business section with individual pods
When I got on the plane, I couldn't believe the visual impact of the new Business Class section (there are also eight seats in First Class). All seats are now aisle seats, meaning you don't have to climb over somebody to go to the restroom or stretch your legs (and nobody climbs over you!). The seats are truly lie-flat, no longer the slightly angled ones that are much, much more comfortable than standard Economy seats but that give you the feeling of sliding down. The individual pods have large TV screens, Bose headphones wait for the passenger, and there is so much more space surrounding the seat. Honestly, this is like First Class on BA.
No more climbing over people, and the seats become flat beds

The plane also features a self-serve snack-and-beverage-bar (I never used it because I slept so well after dinner and a movie), and supposedly there is wifi even over the Atlantic—not that I would have used that either. American has really scored with these new planes. Of course, sitting up front is going to cost you about four to five times as much as sitting in the back, unless you have upgrade vouchers (as an Executive Platinum flier I receive 8 systemwide upgrades annually) or use miles plus $$$.
The entertainment and user-interface section of my pod in 12J
Well, I enjoyed the heck out of this flight. I had a great meal (scallops and shrimp),enjoyed fine drinks, watched a movie, and then slept soundly until a short while before our landing in London. Regardless of how often I have been upgraded, I still see it as a benefit, a true chi-chi. I pay only for Economy (who in his right mind would pay $5,000 for a plane seat?), and when I get upgraded I am just as excited as the first time I got to taste luxury.
BA's Galleries First in Heathrow's Terminal 5
The wine selection
And now I get to enjoy even a little more luxury here in Heathrow's Galleries First, where horses have lampshades on their heads and wine is stored in free-standing glass cases. Another hour, and I will continue on to Munich—this time in steerage. They gotta keep me honest somehow, right?


Sunday, August 25, 2013

A full weekend of racing

I have just returned from the annual pilgrimage to Wichita Falls, where the Hotter'n Hell Hundred attracted something like 15,000 cyclists this weekend. Wow! The geek factor is huge, as you can imagine, but fortunately I had very little to do with that as I was the chief for the mountain bike races and an official for one of Saturday's road races.
Day-of-race packet pick-up at the Bridwell Ag Barn, where the races started and ended
I had traveled to WF on Thursday morning, when it was nice and cool (well, at least until 10 a.m.), to be on-site for packet pick-up for the Wee-Chi-Tah Trail Races on Friday. We were in the MPEC, a multi-purpose civic facility that for one weekend becomes a beehive of activity for cyclists. Things were busy, but our pick-up was organized and there were only few delays and problems. Sandy, the race director, and Michael, in charge of registration, really did a bang-up job implementing ideas that I had brought up during my site visit two weeks ago, and that carried through the entire weekend. Nothing like working with organizers who actually listen to what I have to bring to the table. And with people like this at the helm you end up with an amazing group of volunteers, as well—it was an experience hard to top.
My club-mate Brian Alger's legs post-race
Friday morning I was on-site at 7:30 a.m.. We had a total of 352 racers who took to the trails in four separate staggered starts throughout the day, and there was not one negative comment that I heard all day. Our staging was world-class (really, our boxes and staging were World Cup worthy), the 11-mile course was much tougher and challenging than many riders had maybe anticipated, and of course, it was hotter than hell! I tell you, when I finally left the site that evening around 8 p.m. (to attend the officials' meeting for Saturdays road races) I was sticky and pretty tuckered.
With RD extraordinaire Sandy Monson, about mid-afternoon
While I had been chief for the mountain bike races, the road races (as well as Friday night's and Sunday morning's crits) were in the hands of Rey Trevino, who was also my roommate in our two-room suite at the Baymont. I tell you, chiefing does have its privileges. So, on Friday night all the officials met their wheel-truck drivers and other support staff in a big meeting, and we were given last-minute instructions. While we ran the mountain bike race with two paid officials (my Chief Judge, Lura, had brought along her commissaire husband, Joe, as a volunteer, which was a nice benefit), a road race has so much more personnel infrastructure. I was responsible for the Masters 35+ Cat. 4/5 race, and we had me as COM 1 in a truck plus Stearns as a moto official plus a wheel truck behind us—and then there were another two or three volunteer moto drivers for assistance, plus of course a State Trooper to lead the caravan of 69 starters (the field had been sold out at 75 racers but, as usual, a few didn't show up). Multiply this by about 10 races, plus personnel for the finishing stage, and you get an idea of how many people are involved. (And not all races were as full as mine—some had field sizes of only 35 to 40).
The Masters 35+ Cat. 4/5 field snaking its way to the finish
I had expected lots of fireworks in my race, especially since it was only a 100K race instead of 100 miles, but nothing happened. The field stayed together, the riders mostly behaved themselves, and my driver and I were getting ready to call it a day when with less than a kilometer before the finish we had a massive pile-up of at least 20 riders. Oh man, the carnage! Somebody had touched wheels while jockeying for position, and the next thing you know thousands of dollars worth of carbon parts are trash. Worse yet were the injuries. Aside form the usual road rash (in some cases fairly major) there were two racers with at least broken clavicles if not worse shoulder injuries and one concussion who had to be transported via EMS. So, instead of enjoying a thoroughly easy day I was back to taking up incident reports and doing the usual paper stuff that is required in such a situation. (We had had one broken clavicle in the mountain bike race, the only injury.) Nevertheless, I was able to scoot out of Wichita Falls before noon and make it back to Lubbock during the hottest part of the afternoon. What a great race weekend, although I feel sorry for the guys who went down so hard.
WTCA members Bobby and Brian with Jacob, Donna, and Susan after the Wee-Chi-Tah
And now it is Sunday, less than 24 hours before leaving for Europe tomorrow morning. It may be a less pleasant than normal flight for me as my upgrade for the transatlantic flight still hasn't cleared and only few seats are left, but any streak has to come to an end sometime. I had really hoped for this upgrade on the new 77W with the lie-flat seats, but whatever happens, happens. I still have to pack, take a lot of eBay packages to the post office, and do the usual pre-trip preparations. The next time you hear from me I hope to be either in Madrid or the Canary Islands.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Getting closer to officiating again—HHH is looming!

It's easy to neglect the blog when the daily routine involves sitting around, occasionally working on a bike, selling things on eBay, and looking forward to the next PT session. So, it was a welcome break in this routine when last week I drove to Wichita Falls for a site inspection of the upcoming Hotter'n Hell Hundred mountain bike race. You may be familiar with the annual HHH (to which I generally refer as the Dumber'n Hell), an event that attracts thousands and thousands of cyclists not only from Texas but the surrounding states as well.
On the way to Wichita Falls, just outside of Benjamin
The calling card of the HHH is the 100-mile ride on Saturday, an event that can be quite grueling, depending on how damn hot it becomes and how badly the wind is blowing (and how much you see it as a "race," even though it is a tour with well-supported rest stops). Shorter routes are offered as well, but the century is what HHH is all about. But among the about 15,000 cyclists that will descend upon Wichita Falls next weekend will also be a few hundred who will participate in the organized road and mountain bike races, which are being held under a USA Cycling sanction. And this year, I am going to be the Chief Referee for the expanded off-road races. While in the past fewer than 150 riders participated, we're expecting as many as 800 this year—and that is what prompted me to suggest to the organizers that I come down and give them firsthand pre-event advice on how we can make these races as smooth and positive for everyone involved. Thus my field trip.
The happy lil' Miata, out for a field trip
I had an extremely valuable meeting with Sandy and her staff of volunteers, and I believe that we're prepared of the large increase in racers come Friday. The trail is in excellent condition. The last time that Judy and I worked the off-road race back in the mid-'10s it all looked like a wasteland, much worse than Lubbock's admittedly below-average trail system. But over the years, the trail has been expanded and is quite challenging. One lap will be 11 miles long, which is pretty amazing when you look at the general footprint of the area. We will have a superior staging and start/finish area, and spectators will get their fill, too. I love working with the HHH folks: They all exude a tremendous can-do attitude, and they're all friendly. No wonder that Judy got bitten by the officiating bug many years ago when she volunteered for the road races under the tutelage of Dave and Judy Miller from Philly.
We used to ride our mountain bikes in Dickens when Srub was still alive
Even though WF is less than 240 miles from Lubbock I made it an overnight trip. Why rush when one can be relaxed? The drive was beautiful as many of the areas had received some good (thunderstorm-based) rainfall. I just love dropping the roof on the Miata and going places. And I get to do so again next week to actually work the race on Friday and then be the commissaire for the 35+ 4/5 road race on Saturday morning. Officiating has me back. Yeah!
Silver Falls rest area
Otherwise, I am muddling along. The knee finally seems to be coming around as last night was the first time that I could actually use the exercise bike that Wes and Susan have loaned me. Beforehand, I simply couldn't get enough of a bend out of the knee to follow the pedals all the way around—but now, I can! My goal had been to be back on a bike by the end of August, and even if I can't ride one outside just yet (my bikes' cranks are just a little longer than those on the exerciser), I'm almost there. I'll continue to do my exercises and be patient. But I think that the worst may be over, and I am looking forward to the next months as they will bring great travel and challenges, so please stay tuned.