Saturday, October 31, 2015

In the land of "Deliverance" and Uncle Cletus

Upon arrival at the Charleston, West Virginia, airport, I immediately spotted Emily Palmer, USAC's director of anything collegiate and interscholastic. The two of us were to drive together up to the venue of the 2015 Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships in Snowshoe. And twilight was already setting in....
The Blue Ridge Mountains, seen from the top
OK, so I write this on Halloween and a certain bit of suspense should be built up. After all, we were braving West Virginia's back roads at a time of day (or night) when one should coop up the chickens and keep the kids indoors. Remember that creepy movie "Deliverance"? Well, that one played in West Virginia, or somewhere very similar (OK, so it was northern Georgia, but what's the difference?). Thus, during our three-hour drive on windy mountain roads that were dark and devoid of essentially all traffic, Emily and I kept cracking jokes about our whereabouts. We decided that in case of a mechanical breakdown we'd lock the doors and stay in the car and hope for morning to arrive before either one of us (or both) got abused and defiled, or worse.
Nice digs at the Snowshoe resort
Emily used the word "creepy' more than once during our drive, but it wasn't until the next day that we saw some folks with truly memorable front teeth, and I'm not talking about the pretty kind. But overall, it was all stereotypes and idle banter. Uncle Cletus never showed up, and the effects of long winter nights and moonshine and a healthy dose of incest (should I have added an "un-" in front of the adjective?) remained hidden from our eyes. But there was probably a reason that President Obama held a major speech on drug abuse in Charleston on the afternoon of our arrival, delaying Emily's arrival by 40 minutes..
You don't see this at Mammoth
Enough of that: West Virginia was welcoming and beautiful. We (as in USA Cycling and about 300+ college students) were guests in Snowshoe, a mountain-top ski resort with a reputation of rough weather at this time of the year. Well, we lucked out big time as we had balmy and sunny conditions on all but the last day, when early morning fog, close-to-freezing temps, and hard winds showed us what could have been. Snowshoe is situated at about 4,750 feet, give or take a few, and is a posh resort that attracts skiers in the winter and relatively few mountain bikers in the summer. While Colorado and California resorts are relying more and more on the revenue that two-wheeled summer visitors provide, Snowshoe is just now waking up to this new trend in recreation. I had a nice talk with Josh, who is in the process of developing and expanding the mountain bike park. Andy, the operations manager, was equally enthusiastic about what bikes have to offer.
My friend Cath working the start of the DH
My role at Snowshoe was the same as in Mammoth: I was the USAC-appointed Chief Referee for the event, and once again I had a crew of officials from all over the US who helped me make this event a success. The schedule was not quite as ambitious as that in Mammoth for the "regular" national championship event, but it was still quite packed. In the weeks before the race I had worked with USAC's Laura Ryan who was the race director, and together we had tweaked the schedule and the Technical Guide in an effort to avoid problems once on-site.
The Finish Line for the XC, STX, and TR competitions
Quite frankly, I think we did a good job. There will always be a few hick-ups, and one always learns something for next year, but overall this was about as smooth as a big event like this can be. Forgotten (well, not entirely—those lessons stay) were my recent races in Farmington and Angel Fire, something made especially easy with the presence of what must be the best timers in mountain biking in the US, Cath and John Jett. We have known each other for the better part of a decade, and they are as solid and dependable as they come. What a pleasure to work with professionals like them!
During my DH inspection I realized how different East and West coast are, in so many ways
The same goes for the officials. Obviously, there are always some folks who are stronger than others and are the anchors on whom I can depend no matter what; others need to be guided a little more. But at an event such as Nats we generally see the best people in the business, which makes my job easier. As I always say, being the CR is like being the conductor of an orchestra: Every single musician knows how to play his or her instrument, but the fella with the baton brings out the best in them. I like being the one with the baton.
People here are taller and imports (even from Brevard) are really tiny—hot seat for the DH
So, for three days we ran the races and awarded Stars and Stripes jerseys, and there were lots of young people who were truly appreciative of our efforts. Dealing with the coaches was a positive experience too, even when there were a few unpopular decisions I had to make. The mutual respect is astonishing, and the professionalism of the teams shows how serious they all take this event. Honestly, I really love working Collegiate Nats.
So pretty ... so unlike where I live
On the way back to the airport in Charleston we got to see the Blue Ridge Mountains in daylight, with leaves turning and long vistas that seemed to stretch on forever. This region is quite desolate and empty, and it really resembles a frontier of sorts, even though this area was settled (but probably not really tamed) two centuries ago. And lest you wonder: We didn't take any chances and didn't stop anywhere, especially after Emily saw in her rear view mirror that decrepit pick-up truck with the two giant confederate flags mounted in the bed. We decided to meet Uncle Cletus next time around.
College crowd at the DH—surprisingly little alcohol was evident
One more race to go for 2015, but I can't tell you where. Stay tuned.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Four days in New York City

Lower Manhattan, as seen from Staten Island
It may not sound like an extended vacation, but it felt like so much longer: NYC would probably fill a week in just a day. If you have been following the blog, you have seen how busy I have been with races over the past month or two. They have been coming non-stop, and even now while I am finally starting the post I am sitting in the Charlotte airport on the way to Snowshoe, W-VA for the final race of the season as commissaire.
You can pay either $3.99 a minute to be rikshawed ...
... or pay a few bucks to have access to a bike all day
New York essentially just "came along" and I picked it up. Once I had realized that I will requalify for Executive Platinum once again for 2016 I started having this desire to burn some of my miles. A bit of research and a bit of soul-searching later I had spent $10 in taxes and fees for a First Class ticket to NYC, with plans to revisit the Big Apple for a few days. I mean, doesn't that beat the heck out of sitting around on 63rd Street?
On the way to the Bronx
The initial plan had been to stay with my friend Barry in Lower Manhattan, but his wife, Suzie, threw a monkey wrench. OK, she's always been a bit like a character out of a Woody Allen movie. Sweet, but a bit on the neurotic side. No problem, as there's AirBnB, and it sure hasn't done any harm to our friendship. So on Wednesday I flew into Newark, braved various trains and ticket schemes, and ended up in the Bronx, where my roomlet was located. I knew it was a small place, and I had an inkling that it didn't have an outside window, but I had expected at least a clean place. Regardless, I have stayed in worse before, and host Richard (whom I met briefly) seems to be a decent guy—it was just a shitty little dungeon. But the truth of the matter is that I simply needed a place to put my pull-along and have a place to sleep for a few hours every night, and for that it was adequate. And I can say I have stayed in the Bronx!
My neighborhood
My bed (and most of my room)
So, for the next three full days (and a good part of the nights) I went to museums, joined walking tours, and listened to three cool concerts. Before I had headed to NY I had made a plan of what I wanted to do while in the city. It's just too easy to become overwhelmed by all the choices, so I decided on a plan that at times I adjusted a little but in general followed. Based on this plan I had bought reduced admission tickets to three "attractions," and I think I made the right choice with two of them while the third one was a bit disappointing. My behind-the-scenes tour of the Lincoln Center complex was really not what I had expected, even if we happened to come across a ballet rehearsal in one of the auditoriums and I promptly fell in love with the leading dame..... But I had hoped for a similar tour as the one in Salzburg, with access to the area behind the curtains, so it all was a bit on the thumbs-down side.
Ice skating outside the Rockefeller Building
The Lego Store
The view from below—Rockefeller Center
Much better was the free walking tour of the Grand Central Terminal area, led by a former teacher who in his presentation was quite a character and who imparted more New York history on me in those almost two hours than I had gathered in my previous visits of the city. And talking about "free": There's always the Staten Island ferry that provides one with a fabulous view of Lower Manhattan, hard to beat when Hudson River cruises cost upward of $35. (It also puts you within 10-minute walking range of Flagship Brewing Company a small place that makes the best East Coast IPA I have ever tasted. No kidding! Getting back to the "free theme": Sometimes it's OK to spend that extra money, and I certainly don't regret my Twilight Harbor cruise that took us around Lower Manhattan, under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, and back out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island—all of them twinkling and looking fabulous. That was a truly great tour!
Midtown and Lower Manhattan

The Chrysler Building
The city wakes up to the night
Empire State Building
Free continued with a Garifuna concert in the Atrium at Lincoln Center. Here I am, "Mr. World Music," and I had not even heard of the Garifuna people and their culture and music. The Garifuna are of African origin who were first were brought to St. Vincent and then resettled into Nicaragua, Belize, and Honduras, countries where they continue to speak their language and play their African- and Salsa-influenced music. The artists, Aurelio, and his band are spearheading an effort to bring more recognition to this type of music, and the free concert became a free-for-all dance orgy that brought dozens of crowd members to the stage to swing hips and thrust pelvises. Now I understand why some black women try to augment their posterior! The sexually oriented dance is suggestive and erotic, and apparently New York has a small population of Garifuna, and it seemed as if all of them were in attendance. Wow!
Monheit at Birdland
Aurelio at Lincoln Center
Scofield and Lovano at the Blue Note
I spent several hours on top of the Rockefeller building, in late afternoon, until the colors faded and New York started to sparkle. That was another paid-for attraction for which I'd spent money. It was an unusually calm, warm afternoon and evening, and with me hundreds of snap-shot-snapping tourist were assembled on the top of the building that's just a little less tall than the Empire State Building, but one that provides a totally comprehensive view of  New York south of Central Park (and of the northern boroughs when looking the other way). Spectacular!
Multi-million dollar north-facing apartments on the corner of 7th Avenue and Central Park
Times Square, magnetic during the day and at night
Keep America safe—surveillance cameras on Times Square
In my planning for the trip I had honed in on two jazz concerts, one at the Blue Note and the other at Birdland. On the night of my arrival I saw John Scofield and Joe Lovano play their second set for the night at the Blue Note, and on my last evening I went to see Jane Monheit just off Times Square at the iconic Birdland. The two venues are quite different: While the former is a small club with a few tables crammed in between bar and stage, the latter is a more civilized place with dinner options at reserved tables that provide more elbow room and perfect sight lines. I had a single table just a few feet from the stage (actually, at the Blue Note I had been able to snag a near-perfect spot as well). Acoustically, neither concert was convincing, but that is always made up by the surrounding atmosphere for such an event. And how often does one get to go to one of these legendary jazz venues?
How many selfies can I take with my selfie-stick?
Unconcerned about selfiesticks
Hadn't heard about selfiesticks but would like to meet one
That leaves us with only one more item on the to-do list: museums. Trying to control costs, I visited the MOMA on Friday afternoon when admission is free from 4 until 8 p.m. In Time magazine I had read about the Picasso sculpture exhibit that is currently showing, so that was a definite draw. And close to 4 hours in any one museum are certainly enough for a first visit. Well, I did something similar in the Museum for Natural History, a mostly stuff affair that harks back to the 19th century with all its stuffed animals and dioramas depicting Life on the Prairie and the Roosting Grounds of the Ptarmigan and the Peregrine Falcon. The many dinosaur skeletons were actually more interesting than I would have thought beforehand, and the (much more modern) displays regarding both Earth and the Universe were a bit more 21st-century as well. Still, the place is stuffy and dark-dank unsexy.
Picasso's guitar
Picasso's take on bikes
Picasso's goat
Picasso's hot girlfriend, taking a crap, or something like that (interpretation is always encouraged)
Picasso's phallic-nosed GF
With all these activities I still found time for a nice chat with the owner of Flagship Brewing Company on Staten Island, drifting along 5th Avenue, and bar hopping in Greenwich Village. And lest you think I forgot Barry, the two of us spent a nice evening together over an outrageously expensive meal.  He needed tacos afterward to fill him up.Well, that's New York for you.

The four days went by way too fast, but I collected lasting impressions and memories of things I had not seen before. The subway is still a big mess, and the number of homeless people and panhandlers is outrageous for a civilized country. Selfiesticks are now banned in many public places (but are still allowed on the SI ferry where I noticed one young woman spending literally the entire passage posing for her damn iPhone on the stick without ever turning around to actually see where she was). Food carts are everywhere, but most of them seem to be franchised as the same Halal signs adorn at least 80% of them. Citibike (which was born and modeled after Paris' Velibs) seems to be quite popular, as is the wearing of either very short shorts or tantalizing tight black gym knickers. Sometimes it was quite difficult to concentrate on architectural lines when panty lines (or the lack thereof) were so much closer as well as distinct.

So, you can see, I had fun. Actually, I should do something like this more often—maybe find one of those artists whom I've always wanted to see in concert and build a short city trip around an event. I have the miles, and I can always find the time. It'd be more fun with somebody to share the experience, but alone isn't all that bad either. I'm sure this was not my last visit to the Big Apple.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

New Mexico, not just once but twice in a row

They call them ristra, dried chili peppers on a string

It's been a quite busy fall for me, with very little time at home and so many different hotel beds that I pretty much have lost count. These past two weeks, since returning from World's in Richmond, I have driven about 2,000 miles, most of that in our neighboring state New Mexico. I had been assigned to two mountain bike races, one in Farmington and the other in Angel Fire. While the latter is a "regular" venue for me, I had never been to Farmington, in the north-western corner of the state, except on the way up to Rico, CO. The town is host to the longest continuously running mountain bike race in the US, and thus most likely in the world, as the sport was invented here on this side of the pond just a little more than 35 years ago.
Badlands a a few miles south of Cuba, NM, on NM 550
So it was road trippin' time. The nice thing is that I am paid mileage for such trips, and of course I am being put up in swank accommodations such as the Best Western Farmington and I receive a small stipend for working the race—when taking into account the dozens of e-mails and the long hours at the venue this stipend amounts to a little more than minimum wage. But let's not forget: I get to go to cool places to work with interesting people and help put on a successful event. Not a bad gig at all, I'd say.
Three Rivers Brewing in Farmington offers much-needed social services
Let's be frank: Working both races was challenging. The Farmington Road Apple Rally is being organized by the Parks & Rec Department of the City of Farmington, and a last-minute change in personnel put the race directorship into the hands of a non-cyclist city employee who needed much hand-holding. But we pulled this one off, and the RD was thankful for everything that I had brought to the table—a lot of which went far beyond the usual responsibilities of a Chief Referee.
The Chili Express—one more weekend of bike transports to the top before the ski season starts
On the way back from Farmington I stopped over for the night in the tiny hamlet of Mountainair, about 60 miles south of Edgewood and Moriarty, on the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. I hadn't seen my old friends Wayne and Lorane in years, ever since they had left Lubbock and moved to the mountains. Wayne and I go all the way back to 1980, and it was a special pleasure to see his second-born son, Trent, who happened to stop by. I remember when they brought him home from the hospital, a tiny bundle of humanity. And now he is a strappin' young man who runs ultra-endurance foot races in the mountains. It was a wonderful evening.
A moment of peace and aspen at the Dual Slalom
Three days after returning from this trip I packed the BMW once again to head for Angel Fire to chief the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Conference Mountain Bike Championships, which were organized by Adams State University, an Alamosa, CO-based school. I had been in contact with the RD, Marshal, and we both deemed it better that I arrive at the venue on Thursday night so that we could pow-wow on Friday before the two-day competition started early on Saturday. And what a good decision that turned out to be, as neither the Chief Judge nor the one-person timing company arrived in AF until about 10 p.m. on Friday—and the conference director, with rider roster information, arrived even later that night. Yes, registration started at 7 a.m. on Saturday, and the first XC race got off at 9 a.m. It's needless to say that registration was a total catastrophe, not because of Marshal's shortcomings but rather a combination of rule changes that had never been communicated, ill-prepared outside personnel, a crappy AF-provided printer, three of four extra volunteers who never showed up after having committed to be there, some people with toxic attitudes, and a bevvy of other small but important pieces in the puzzle. The start lists for the 9 a.m. XC start were finally delivered at about 11 a.m., after most of the racing had been completed—full of mistakes. Somehow I remember some other race that had similar issues, don't I? Oh well, thanks to all those years of clusterfuck experience we went to plan B and things worked out. They always do, but why does it have to be such a struggle?
A downhiller gets ready to explode out of the start gate
That afternoon's dual slalom competition was another exercise in patience and hoping that we wouldn't run out of daylight (we didn't) because of delays—not because we had course holds as no riders had any serious crashes but rather because the timing company had never timed a dual slalom before. Nothing like being the guinea pig.
Looking upon Wheeler Peak from the top of the World Cup DH run
Sunday was much, much better, even if there were once again no start lists for the short track competition. If I hear another time the excuse "it's just a collegiate race" I will probably strangle somebody. Marshal, himself just barely graduated, and his wife, Kristin, were as professional as they come, but some other people who had various roles this weekend (and no, none of the as usual top-notch mountain employees) were, well, on the level of typical lala-land college students, even if they were grad students or a tiny bit beyond. I felt very sorry for RD Marshal as he and his school did not look as good as they should have—but most likely nobody in the college crowd noticed.
The Ft. Lewis A women pose before the DH start
Ride like a butterfly...
Selfie time before the start
After Saturday's 13-hour day it was a great pleasure to have a few drinks at the Sunset Grill with the crack mountain guys, Hogan, Matt, and Patrick; we were joined by Sarah, my direct liaison to much of the operative issues. I have worked with these folks before, and it is humbling how much trust they have in me and my decisions regarding the race. To be told "please come back" and "you know that you're always welcome here" means the world to me as I see them (and those who work for them) as the very best mountain employees I have worked with anywhere. Thanks, gang!
AF Events and Sponsorship Manager Sarah fills in as part of the timing crew
Catching a ride down the mountain with the Ski Patrol
And now it is Sunday night and I am finishing this blog entry in my room here in the Angel Fire Lodge. I am so glad that I did not have to drive home tonight but that I was given the room for an extra night. Tomorrow I will be well rested for the six-and-a-half hours back home, with a day-and-a-half in the Hub City to unpack and wash my clothes and get ready for my for-fun trip to New York City on Wednesday morning. I finally get to burn off a few airline miles and am looking forward to some extensive sightseeing and a few good jazz concerts. And then, a week later, comes Collegiate Nationals, for which I will be the Chief. Let's hope that this weekend's issues won't repeat themselves. More hotel beds are coming, that's for sure.