Thursday, June 25, 2009
For you non-nerds out there, the Justice League is a group of superheroes who regularly save the universe. This is not to be confused with guys like Spiderman, who just saves New York, or the Fantastic Four, who spend their free time saving our planet. No, these guys save the Whole Freaking Universe.
What do you expect? You've got Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. These are all folks that have saved the world at one time or another, so put them together and you can open a major can of Whoop A$$ on some bad guys.
I was very fortunate last year to crew for Team Gran Fondo Fixies on RAAM -- the Race Across America. The Fixies were the two-man team of Jeff Bauer and Kevin Kaiser, who rode fixed-gear bikes across the country in eight days, two hours, and 21 minutes. I got to meet the Supermen and Wonder Women of Ultra-Cycling -- folks like Jure Robic, Dani Wyss, Pete Penseyres, and Susan Notorangelo -- the kind of folks that do not just ride 3,000 miles on a bicycle, they race those miles.
Racing like this is a super-power ... the kind that you only get from being born on the planet Krypton, or because you're an Amazon queen, or a dying alien gave you his power ring.
It's easy to miss Batman in this kind of crowd.
Yes, Batman is a member of the Justice League. We forget this because he's a loner in the movies ... The Dark Knight and all that. But Batman is a key member of the Justice League because, along with being a good fighter, he is smart and he is determined.
At RAAM this year, Kevin Kaiser was Batman.
No Big Red S
First off, Kevin was not out there in a kit covered with sponsor names ... probably because he didn't have very many. Superman has that big red "S," which is supposedly his family crest from Krypton (but then shouldn't it be a "K" for Krypton or Kal-El, or "J" for Jor-El?) and Green Lantern has that lantern emblem (hmm, yeah ... maybe). Like those guys, Robic and Wyss had jerseys and vans covered with the names of companies who were paying their freight and/or giving them free schwag.
Kevin just had Chain Reaction Bicycles, who set him up with three bicycles, some spare parts, and a few jerseys. He also had support from crewmember Gator Cochran, who built a rig in case he suffered from Shermer's Neck. But otherwise it was either Kevin or friends paying for everything -- rental vehicles, gasoline, plane trips, hotel rooms, food. The budget was for around $15,000, and most of that came out of Kevin's pocket.
But here's one way that Kevin is not like Batman -- he is not really a billionaire playboy, but is instead a pharmacist at a Publix grocery store in Augusta, GA. Whereas $15K is chump change for Bruce Wayne, it's real money to Kevin.
Kevin also cannot fly, doesn't have heat vision, can't make things from light, and has no magic lasso. Like Batman, Kevin gets his power by training. A lot.
Now, all of the RAAM riders train. You can not do this kind of race without lots and lots of miles. For some of them, training is their job ... or at least their duty station in the Slovenian army.
But Kevin has a day job, so training is what he does evenings and weekends. And he's been working at it for 10 years.
How far has Kevin come in 10 years? In 1998, Kevin did BRAG -- the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia. That sounds hard, but I've done it twice and I can tell you: It's a piece of cake compared to RAAM. On BRAG, you ride about 60 miles per day, with lots of stops on the way for cold drinks and cookies and sandwiches, and trucks full of folks offering to take you to the next spot if you get tired.
You get to sleep at night -- for the whole night, if you want -- on BRAG. Nobody does that on RAAM.
Kevin did not finish BRAG in 1998.
So, in short, it took Kevin just over 10 years to build himself up from a BRAG DNF (Did Not Finish) to Fifth Place in the The World's Toughest Bicycle Race.
Enter the Villian
Like most super-heroes, Kevin has an arch enemy: Heat. In all great comic books, the super-hero has to come close to defeat at the hands of his nemesis.
On Day Two of RAAM this year, Heat almost got him. He had averaged just under 20 mph over 90 rolling miles between Lake Henshaw and Brawley, CA, but when he got to the dessert nauseau struck. Kevin had trouble keeping food or liquids down, and threw up on the side of the road. He was getting dehydrated and over-heating, but there was nothing he could do about it if he kept riding.
So he kept riding.
Between the fourth and eighth time stations -- the 200 miles from Salome to Flagstaff, AZ -- his average was about 8.4 mph. It took him 25 hours to ride those 200 miles. Batman, swimming thru a pool of acid with chunks of sharp glass floating in it, could not have hurt more.
I'll be honest: I didn't think Kevin was going to make it at this point. I was hoping that he could just finish the first 1,000 miles of the course -- roughly, the Race Across the West portion of RAAM. But then, remember: I'm the janitor at Justic League. I'm used to seeing Superman do incredible stuff, so I sell Batman short.
Kevin recovered, of course. He dug deep and found the will to go on (fortunately, this did not require his memory of seeing his parents killed before his very eyes), and not only made the time cut-offs but starting passing other riders. He missed being the first American finisher and winning Rookie of the Year by just over four hours.
More Than An Everyman ... A Randonneur
If you look thru the list of RAAM solo male finishers this year, you will find that only one other rider (Daniel Rudge) is a member of Randonneurs USA. Kevin is not only a RUSA member, but helps manage the Georgia brevets that are held in Augusta. He does the same 200K, 300K, 400K, 600K, and 1200Ks that we do ... although usually faster.
He's one of us. Or, maybe, the "one of us" that we could be if we worked hard enough.
The difference between an ultracyclist and a randonneur is this phrase: Self-supported. In ultracycling, you have people passing you water bottles from the pace car and massaging your legs when you stop. In randonneuring, you nap in ditches and know that there's usually a water spigot on the side of rural Baptist churches.
So maybe it's the "loner" in Batman that a team like the Justice League needs -- somebody who can do it all on their own and get past the bad guys when everyone else has been trapped or beaten. Someone who may not have super powers, but who is willing to work just a little harder, be just a little bit smarter, and will not give up.
Welcome to the Justice League, Kevin.
Obviously, the RAAM photographer caught Jure with his antenna out, like Uncle Martin from My Favorite Martian. It shows that he really is a machine ... and that the machine is Johnny Five from Short Circuit.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Yesterday, we began our discussion of the State of Cycling in Ireland by looking at urban riding. In Dublin, this differed from urban warfare only in that nobody wore helmets or cleaned their weapons. Today, we will talk about rural Irish cycling.
Basically, riding a bicycle in the country in Ireland is the best way to go, because:
- The roads are usually too narrow for cars, anyway.
- The fuel for cars is too expensive.
- There are not many journeys that are more than 300 kilometers (190 miles) long. That's just a day ride ... if you're a randonneur.
They even have bike lanes there … although they are about as well-maintained and designed as bike lanes here. They tend to come and go on a whim, are just wide enough for a bicycle (in the same way that the roads are just wide enough for two cars … ha!), and tend to collect all of the crap that washes down off the rest of the road.
Driving a car in Ireland, however, is not fun. Many of the roads are pretty normal, except for the confusing roundabouts and weird “traffic-calming” zones. And, of course, they drive on the left side of the road, which keeps things kind of weird.
The real joy, however, comes the further you get out in the boonies. Out there the roads become, basically, paved goat paths. And they're not even paved very well, with the kind of potholes that bounce your head off the roof. And they're too narrow for fat goats.
Near the southwest coast, we did a drive called the Ring of Kerry. The road is fairly major – think of the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Natchez Trace here in the States. However, before you go out there they advise you to do the route from north to south because – and this is critical – that’s the way that the buses go, and you don’t want to try to pass them going the other way.
Yes, this translates to: If you do the route from south to north, you will have to get off of the road when a bus comes by, since the road is not wide enough for your car and a bus!
But wait, it gets better.
Halfway on the Ring of Kerry is an optional loop: The Ring of Skellig. It’s a little more … secluded, shall we say? Of course, we decided to do it.
Buses don’t go on the Ring of Skellig. Partly this is because it is rather hilly, but mostly it is because the roads are not wide enough for a whole bus. They’re barely wide enough for a car.
Imagine how much fun it is to be going up a 15-degree hill on a 0.6-lane road and encounter a car coming the other way. We did that.
Now, to be fair, it was also beautiful. As you can see from this picture, the views were easily worth the terror of driving the roads.
Of course, I say that because RandoGirl had thoughtfully signed us up with the rental car company, and she was the only one allowed to drive the car.
Sometimes it’s good to be the passenger.
And it's possible that, if you had a more major road out there, lots of people would take that road and it would spoil it. If I lived there, I certainly wouldn't want a big road. If they have zoning meetings out there, the one for that would be a doozy.
Here’s RandoGirl illustrating how narrow the roads were. This is an alley in Kilkenny, through which our GPS insisted we must go in order to get to our hotel. We made it, but had to fold in the side mirrors. Needless to say, we subsequently walked around a bit in order to find a way out of Kilkenny that did not involve this alley.
After a week of no cycling in Ireland, RandoGirl and I broke down and rented a couple of bikes for a day in the city of Clifden. We did a little two-hour ride from there out on one of the peninsulas, stopping for tea in a fishing village.
You have no idea how cool it is to say that you stopped for tea in a fishing village. It's even cooler to say than it is to actually stop for tea in a fishing village.
The terrain was pretty mild, with just a few little hills, but the winds were fierce. It had also been a long time since either of us had ridden hybrids, wearing blue jeans and sweat shirts. All in all, though, it really felt good to be back on a bike -- any bike.
At one point, we're riding into this 25-mph wind and come across some sheep. I stood up (mostly because I had been riding for a couple of hours in blue jeans) and started chasing the sheep down the road. RandoGirl was very amused. The sheep were not.
The route to the quiet lanes of the peninsula required that we get on the more major road in the area. During this stretch of about 15 kilometers, we were regularly passed by a variety of vehicles.
The interesting thing about this, though, is that at no point was I worried about these cars, trucks, and buses. They all seemed to appreciate our space and rights as vehicle sharing the road. Although they passed quickly, it was never at a “stupid” time, with another vehicle coming the other way or on a blind curve. And it seemed to me that giving us this little bit of consideration never seriously inconvenienced the Irish drivers. Nobody yelled at us, threw stuff at us, or even passed us very closely.
Frankly, it had been more nerve-wracking being in a car on the same road.
Maybe this is a benefit of having such narrow tricky roads. You come to expect stopping for the occasional sheep lying in the middle of the road, or getting onto the shoulder for a tour bus coming the other way. In this environment, slowing down a bit and then safely passing a bicycle is not such a big deal.
While in Ireland this past week, I took the opportunity to make an in-depth study of the differences between Cycling in America and Cycling in Ireland. I will be publishing this study next week in the Journal of Comparative Sociology, and expect to win a Nobel Prize for it. Or at least a copy of their home game.
For those of you who don’t subscribe to the Journal of Comparative Sociology, I will summarize the state of cycling in Ireland:
It could be worse.
First off, as you can tell by the above picture a lot more people get around by bicycle in Ireland than they do in the United States. This is in Dublin, and most of these people were in town doing errands, hitting the stores, or watching sports and drinking in the pub. Basically, doing the same things that we do in the states on a Sunday, but their carbon footprint was much smaller.
By the way, I'm not sure what sports they were watching over there. I could recognize cricket and soccer (although over there they call it "KillTheBloodyBastard!!!" ... or maybe "football"). There was some other game that we were pretty sure wasn't rugby, but had people running with a soccer ball and kicking it through uprights or into a net. I don't know what it was, but the Irish seem to love it.
There was even a tandem chained up outside of a department store.
We ran into the couple on this tandem later (I think), and it was cool to see that the woman was the captain and the man the stoker. They both looked very strong. I regret that I did not have the presence of mind to yell to them, "He's not pedalling!" It would have been petty payback, but payback nonetheless.
In spite of the gender confusion, this tandem is indicative of something else about the State of Cycling in Ireland: They need mechanics. For instance, you'll notice that the pedals are not in sync, so that the captain's pedals are almost vertical and the stoker's pedals are closer to horizontal. Now, you can do this with a tandem, but you usually offset them at 90-degree angles to avoid the "dead zone" in the stroke. These are just plain out cat-e-wonkus, as my grandma would say.
Here's a bike shop in Dublin. I went in there Monday (they were closed Sunday) and they had a mechanic. He seemed busy.
I saw a lot of people on bikes that were not set up correctly for them, with rusted chains and filthy drivetrains. Most of them had fenders (or at least what Bike Snob NYC calls a "filth prophylactic" like the one at left), to pay homage to the wet (and nasty, at least in Dublin) condition of the roads. And, while this will keep your clothes dryer, putting fenders on a bike in that climate -- particularly as close to the ocean as Dublin is -- but not regularly cleaning it and lubing your chain is classic penny-wise and pound (or Euro, now) foolish. It's like chewing gum instead of brushing and flossing your teeth: Sooner or later, things will fall apart, but before they do they will begin to creak and smell bad.
Which probably explains this view from the Millenium Bridge.
It's weird to see such a "disposable" mentality surrounding bicycles in a country that digs a five-mile tunnel to keep from disturbing old neighborhoods. I guess a castle is something that should be preserved, but (at least from a RandoBoy perspective) even a beater bike deserves a proper burial.
- Fixed gear bikes (cool, if they had brakes, since skid-stopping into the rear of a bus is always a bad idea)
- Women biking in high heels (cool, since they seemed to make it work in a very "Euro" way)
- City bikes with chain guards (very cool, if you want to keep chain grease off your pants ... assuming your chain had grease on it)
- Cyclists with both ears plugged by their iPod ear buds (way un-cool ... leave that crap for solo rides on empty roads)
Friday, June 5, 2009
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Just over half-way up, Micah Fritzinger and George Hiscox zoomed past me on the way down the mountain in the dark. I was almost to the North Carolina line when Steve Phillips went by. They probably all would have welcomed a full bottle and the momentary comfort of the RAAMinator at the top.
Finally, I made it back at Santeetlah Gap (elevation 5390'). I would have experienced some deja vu, but the gap at night looks nothing like its daytime version. In this way, it is like women I dated when I was still single.
Alone in the dark again, I listened to the wind as it picked up, growing back into the howl that I remembered from last year on top of this mountain. Then, it had been Jeff Bauer sitting up here in his van, and I had been very glad to see him as Jeff Sammons (no relation) and Bob Hess and I came up. I was so exhausted then that I fell asleep in the van for over an hour, and had to descend by myself that night. I remember thinking that my teeth would break from chattering in the cold fog.
After the riders had eaten and left, Hamid rolled in and we got him situated. One last rider -- Dave Harris -- called Jeff Sammons to DNF, so Jeff drove back over the top of the mountain to get him. Meanwhile, Hamid and Bob Hess -- who had DNF'd in Tellico Plains on Saturday -- got into the RAAMinator and we started back to McMinnville.
Next year, I have to do a 200K, 300K, and 400K to have a chance of riding Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011. But right now I don't think I will do a 600K, since I'm not interested in doing any 1200K other than PBP. Originally, I was thinking of doing the Cascade 1200K next year, but right now I would rather take that week of vacation and do a fully loaded tour on the tandem with RandoGirl. Ride maybe 100 miles during the day, and then eat a big hot meal and sleep in a nice bed.