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Archive for June, 2008

I’m a … Climber?

Place this one in your WTF file.  After all of my hard-charging sprints in the TNWC criteriums, I had more or less convinced myself that I was a sprinter and hilly road races are not my thing.  So today, when I raced the Union Vale Road Race, with its absolutely wicked final climb (a steady 9% at the bottom), I was sure that anything better than DFL would be awesome.  Instead of finishing dead last, I held steady with the climbers throughout the race, and worked as hard as I’ve ever worked on a bike to take third place!  This was my favorite finish of my career.

The race had a lot of decent climbs in the 4-6% range, which is just about the right type of grade for someone like me, who is strong but not a pure climber.  Every time someone pushed the pace on a climb or tried to get a little gap, I was right there, racing very smart and reacting with just the right effort.  Even so, I was beginning to get a little tired, and kept thinking, “Cool, I can get a top-20 finish!”  A top-20 seemed like the best I could do.

The course is a 14mile loop, and we did three laps.  At the end of the third lap, we left the loop and climbed straight up the wicked climb.  I was in a group of 15-20 at this point, and I was still thinking that I would have to just try to hang on as best I could with the climbers.  I had started to think that I might just be able to grab a top-10 finish when I realized that I was passing people.

I knew the climb was long, so I set a hard pace that I knew I could keep for a long time.  I concentrated fiercely, and thought only about maintaining my cadence and heart rate.  My maximum HR is 185 or so, and I kept mine pegged at 182.  I knew I could keep it there for the six or seven minutes of the climb.  To do this, though, I needed to go deep, deeper within myself than I thought possible.  At one point, I jolted out of my zone when I realized I was gaining on yet another guy.  I could hear my breathing, which sounded very close to hyperventilation, and I could feel my legs burning horribly with the exertion.  I pushed the pain away–something I did not know I could do– and focused on the road ahead and the racers still ahead of me.

I passed one–9th place.  Another–8th.  A bigger gap until another–7th.  I kept doing this until I could see there were only four still ahead of me.  Spin.  Spin.  Spin.  I dug deeper and deeper.  Another–4th!  If  could pass another guy, I would have a podium spot.  Push the pain away.  Breathe.  Concentrate.  I got him–podium!  The last two guys still had a decent gap on me, and I kept pushing, but could not quite get them.

I am still surprised at how hard I was able to push in that last 1.8 miles.  I have never been able to dig so deep or concentrate so hard in a bike race.  Everything faded away, and I was in a zone, deep in the pain cave, where the agony of my legs and my lungs and my heart is so pervasive that it paradoxically becomes nothing.  The pain was all and I rode that beast until the finish.

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I Did It Again

Tuesday Night World Championships.  After forcing another rider off the wheel I wanted to follow, I found a great spot in Pawling’s leadout train.  At the final sprint, I seriously detonated.  As I approached the finish line, I was still accelerating and still pulling away from everyone else.  It was the fastest sprint I’ve done all year, and did it ever feel fine!

I knew that I had the win about halfway through the final lap when the front of the peloton was all stretched out and I was sitting comfortably in fourth position, right where I like to be.  I knew that if we stayed stretched out like this all the way to the sprint, I could rocket past everyone, so I did.  Did I mention how good it feels to win like this?

People kept coming up to me after the race to say something about how fast my sprint was.  For someone who was never a jock and had to deal with PE class humiliation on a daily basis, this was a lot of fun.  One 11-year-old kid was particularly impressed.  “I just looked and then, whoosh, you were past!  It was so fast!”  I’m definitely not usually the object of boyhood admiration, so it was a nice change.

I have always raced because I like racing–the camaraderie, the joy of exertion, the fun of pushing myself–not because I’m extremely competitive.  But I could get used to this winning thing.  I like it.

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New Book Alert

Because I couldn’t deal with London any more, and because I had to go out anyway to buy notebooks, dividers, and other stupid things for my tenure packet, I decided to stop by the local Borders to see what might tempt me.

I had read the New York Times review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and I thought it sounded intriguing.  The other reviews were also pretty good, and the blurbs on the cover strangely wonderful and cool (Stephen King blurbing literary fiction?).   So after much angst over buying a hardcover of a book I was not sure I would like, I finally took it home with me.

So far, I’m only 70 or 80 pages in, but I can tell it is going to be a great read.  The prose is amazing, and if Wroblewski can keep it up, this will have to be on the Pulitzer short list.  It’s that good.

I’ll wait and say more about it once I have finished, but if anyone else out there is looking for a good novel, check it out.

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London Defeat

I have had Edward Rutherfurd’s London sitting on my shelves since I picked it up last summer at one of the many library used book sales I attended.  It looked like an interesting read, a good sweeping historical novel with a lot of fascinating information about this most fascinating of cities.  I finally decided to read it a few days ago, and now I am sad to report that it has defeated me.

Not many novels do defeat me.  Usually I am very serious about finishing a novel I have started and very rarely do I give myself permission to toss one out the window once I’ve committed to the whole thing.  Even really slow and boring novels do sometimes pick up and improve as they mature, and I would hate to miss out on something potentially great just because the first few pages did not appeal to me.

With this one, though, I just can’t keep going.  The novel is about London, as the title so clearly tells us, and it begins in the first century BC, just as the Roman legions are about to invade England.  The main character here, a young boy named Segolax, is interesting, and I enjoyed his mix of little-boy bravado and little-boy terror.  Once the chapter ended, so, too, did his story, and the next chapter jumps ahead to Roman Londinum some three hundred years later.  A new cast of characters appear, though the main one here, Julius, is a descendant of Segolax.  The third chapter starts in AD 604, with yet another group of characters.  I could see that there is something other than ancestry and setting tying all of these characters together, but I couldn’t really care enough to keep reading.

This is not quite accurate.  I did find the characters interesting, and even though I was only able to see them for short stretches of time, the book could have been compelling.  What really made me decide to stop reading was the unbearable prose style.  I could not imagine myself dealing with it for another 700 pages.

Rutherfurd is writing in the James Michener mode: large historical epics, with a lot of historical, geographical, and even geological details.  This novel, for instance. begins with a fairly technical description of the geology of London–the deep shale bedrock, the heavy silt covering that, the eons of gravel and stones deposits from advancing and retreating glaciers, and the geological effects of billions of years of tectonic forces.  Interesting, but the tone of this and all the rest of the story is that of a junior high school history book.  It comes across as either condescending or stupid, and since the author is a Cambridge graduate, I’m guessing he’s not stupid, which unfortunately leaves condescending.  This annoying tone, which seems to imply that I am too stupid to read anything more complicated, finally forced me to set the book aside in defeat.  I just can’t keep at it.

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Housatonic Pain

Yesterday was the Housatonic Hills Road Race, the one race a year that I absolutely have to do, and the one race a year that I absolutely dread.  It is a very hard, very popular race, and usually very hot race that promises to turn even the most dedicated cyclist into a whimpering, wobbling pile of jelly.

This year was a little different, though.  Because one of the roads on the course is notoriously horrible, even by Connecticut standards (there are actually parts of it falling into the river), the race organizers decided to switch the route a little by eliminating River Road and adding a new stretch north of Roxbury.  This added about 600 feet of climbing to an already hilly race, but the new roads were in much, much better shape.  This also meant that we started the race going up Constitution Hill, a ferocious climb of about 2 miles with some double-digit grades (I’m not sure of the exact gradient–12%?  15%?–something like that).

I lined up at the front, as I like to do.  I was lucky this time with my fellow front-liners.  Usually the guys at the front all think they are the Second Coming of Lance, and have about as much congeniality as NYC transit cop with sore feet and hemorrhoids.  Today, though, everyone was relaxed, or trying to appear relaxed, and we chatted and joked with the promoter as we tried to shake our pre-race jitters and get ready to focus.  The whistle blew and we started up the neutral start behind what one racer deemed the ugliest race vehicle ever.

Although the start was neutral, one guy tried to get a gap going by riding right on the bumper of the lead vehicle, while the rest of us sat back and laughed at him for riding like such a dork.  At the top of the hill, the lead car sped off and the race really started, with the bumper-sucking dork tearing off as if this were a 20 mile flat crit instead of a 55 mile hilly road race.  We let him go, but still pushed our pace up into something more closely resembling racing.

I found myself feeling really good at the beginning, which is always a bad sign.  I took the first long descent at speed, making some great swooping curves and hitting around 45 mph before the road turned up Minor Bridge and the start of the first major climb–it was, in fact, the beginning of the old King of the Mountain climb.  I rode at a solid, steady pace, pushing myself a bit, making sure that I was staying with the lead part of the pack but not burning myself out.  I crested this first climb about tenth or so, and noticed that we were already starting to lose the back ten or twenty racers.

We soon noticed that the bumper-sucking dork was no dork at all, but had some real speed and strength and was staying up ahead with about a five or ten second lead.  Another guy jumped the gap and there were two up ahead, a potentially dangerous situation.  We in the pack watched carefully, noting when the two up ahead looked tired or when they seemed to have a little extra push.  By the time we turned onto the new part of the course, we could see that, despite their very strong effort, the two guys were not going to be able to stay away for much longer.  By the time we came to the first really deadly section of the course, we were a single pack again.

The new horror to confront us was Nichols Hill Road, a long climb hitting 10%, or so one of my more technologically-equipped friends tells me.  That kind of gradient is just out of my comfort zone, and means that I can’t rely on the power side of my decent power-to-weight ratio and start to lose ground as the weight side weighs (ahem) more heavily.  It was also dangerous because not everyone races intelligently.  I knew the course because I rode it a week ago, and I knew a sharp right was followed by a hellacious climb, so I dropped into my small chainring before making the turn.  Others did not have my foresight, so they made the turn, were confronted with the dispiriting sight of a wall pretending to be a road, and frantically tried to shift.  Too late.  At least five guys dropped their chains and were desperately trying to get going again as the pack swept around the corner.  Again, I was ready for this, and took evasive action.

This hill, I thought, panting miserably, goes on for-fucking-ever.  Skinny little climbers passed me, but I held on, trying not to grit my teeth (it takes up energy you need for climbing), planning my shifts and accelerations meticulously.  I managed to stay with the main group as the pack fractured definitively.  For a change, I was on the right side of a fracture.

After the climb, we entered some of the stereotypically pretty rolling ridges of Connecticut, the perfect sort of road for a scenic Sunday ride through farmer’s fields and bucolic vistas of the Housatonic River valley.  For us, though, scenery was beside the point, and we ticked along at 28 mph.

The new King of the Mountain climb came after a screaming fast descent and sharp left turn.  The front group of the peloton knew better than the poor suckers who dropped their chains earlier, and took the turn and climb with aplomb.  I took it with too much enthusiasm and started picking off racers as if I were going to try to win the KOM prize myself, except 180 pound rouleurs don’t win KOM prizes.  I passed roughly half of the lead group, putting me about ten back and halfway up the one kilometer climb, when I remembered that the proper method to climb is start easier and build your speed over the course of the hill.  About two-thirds of the guys I passed now passed me (the rest stayed passed) and I got dropped right before the crest of the hill.

Now I had some catching up to do.  I went into an aerodynamic tuck and screamed down the hill, happy to find a place where my weight was more useful.  I glanced at my bike computer and then wished I hadn’t: I was flying down this road, happily oblivious that I was breaking the road’s speed limit at 52 mph.

After the turn on Bacon Road (mmm…bacon…), I caught up with the lead group and settled in comfortably.  I kept trying to count the racers in the group and estimate my chances, but it was too hard to keep everything straight and concentrate on riding at the same time.  Let’s see…did I count that guy in the red jersey already?  Just race, okay?

Then we hit the second lap.  Constitution Hill.  This time it was not neutral.  The lead pack again splintered.  I passed a couple of heavily wheezing, dripping, drooling racers, but was myself passed by several disgustingly fresh-looking speed demons.  I could not keep pace with the lead group and found myself cresting the summit alone, ahead of the slower guys but behind the faster guys.

I soon hooked up with a couple of other not-quite-climbers, and we tried to limit our losses and maybe even catch up.  We couldn’t quite do it, though, and when a larger group of chasers came by, I didn’t have quite enough left to sit with them over the second King of the Mountain climb, though I gave it almost everything I had left.

The first year I raced this course, I finished 69th.  I didn’t race it the next year, but the year after that I had a mechanical and didn’t finish.  Last year, I finished 54th.  This year, 41st.  At this rate, I’ll finish 30th next year, and 21st the year after and 14th after that, and then 9th.  Apparently the best I can do, mathematically speaking, is 5th.

I will absolutely be there next year.

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Nancy Drew by Joseph Conrad

I just finished Beat not the Bones by Charlotte Jay for my mystery book club, and I am not entirely sure how to write about it.  It was an interesting story and Jay’s prose is beautifully clear.  My confusion arises from a strange sense of opacity the novel left me with: much of the narrative seemed driven by a strange tropical fever dream, and I felt my footing was never quite sure.

The novel takes place in Papua, New Guinea, only a few years after World War II, and the area is struggling to recover from the devastation of the war and keep some sort of delicate balance between colonials from Australia and the native population.  One of the characters, David Warwick, is an anthropologist working for the colonial government, and he seems to be quite enlightened in his understanding of and feeling for the natives.  He seems to believe that western civilization is good, but that the Papuans cannot be driven into the modern world so quickly that their lives and culture are destroyed.  Things get complicated when Alfred Jobe, a piratical Australian with a deeply racist hatred of Papuans, discovers that one remote tribe has hoards of gold ornaments, something this stone age tribe should not have.  Jobe applies to the colonial authorities for permission to trade for the gold, which the Papuans apparently do not value especially highly.

The scene then cuts to the young and naive Stella Warwick, David’s wife of two months.  She is flying to New Guinea after learning that David has committed suicide.  Because of a mysterious letter he had sent her father immediately before his death, Stella is convinced that he was murdered by Jobe and she is determined to find out the truth.  Of course, since this information arrives barely 20 pages into a 219 page novel, it is clear to the readers that Jobe could not be responsible.

Or could he?  The action is strangely quiet and almost inert, consisting of a number of uncomfortable and elliptical conversations, and things only gradually become more clear.  Much like the dense jungle Jay so skillfully describes, the machinations and motives of the various characters are by turns brightly lit and impenetrably dark.  Why is David’s old friend Trevor Nyall being so unhelpful?  Why is Trevor’s younger brother so hostile?  What is wrong with Philip Washington?  Is he completely mad, a sort of ineffectual Kurtz?

Most of these questions do get answered in the course of the novel, and the slow unveiling of the mystery is quite satisfying.  In order to solve it, though, Stella must journey deep into the heart of darkness to the tiny, hidden village of Eola, where the gold hoard originated, and confront the dark horrors of colonial greed, native superstition, and primal guilt.

Throughout the novel, I kept trying to construct some sort of elaborate explication of the colonial symbols that peer out of the tangled underbrush of the jungle like the eyes of a large and dangerous predator.  Stella at times seems to be the paragon of white womanhood, the blushing, delicate flower who will be destroyed by her contact with the dangerous frontier.  But at others she is the only person who has the courage to confront the hypocrisy and greed of the colonial administrators and their self-satisfied silence.  Then there is Hitolo, the Papuan who works as a desk clerk for the colonial authority: is he a traitor to his people, a dangerous viper held next to the breast, or none of the above?

Perhaps a glimpse of the key to the novel can be seen in a conversation Anthony Nyall and Stella have at the end, after Stella has returned from the deep jungle with an all-too-clear vision of the hell that greed and power can create.  Anthony says this to her:

“Don’t you know that most of the world’s biggest crimes are committed by men who sit behind desks, keep their hands clean and sleep at night without dreaming?  And usually when things blow up in their faces, as they sometimes do, they manage to worm out a back alley, or, as Trevor has done, Walk boldly through the front door.”  He paused and there was an ironic twist to his lips.  “Yesterday he made out a detailed report of the whole thing.  There’s something magnificent in that; you can’t help admiring it.”

And that seems to be a sliver of the answer.  The post-colonial monster is not a demented Kurtz sitting deep in some jungle castle screeching madly as he directs his dark-skinned pawns to his bidding.  It is instead the clean, calm bureaucrat with the impeccable crease in his trousers and ice-cold gin in the cooler behind his desk.

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First First

I have been waiting to use this post title for years. I took my first first place in a bike race tonight at the Tuesday Night World Championships.

Tonight’s race was a straight race–no points, so there was only one sprint at the end. Usually, I’m not as good at this kind of race, because I need to have lots of chances to screw up. With only one sprint, if I screw up, that’s it.

Tonight, though, I didn’t screw up.

It was a hot race, with the thermometer reading 94 degrees on the front porch when I rolled out the door. The National Weather Service warned New Englanders not to exert themselves in the heat, and to stay in an air-conditioned building if at all possible. Clearly New England bike racers are either insane, foolish, stupid, or incredibly tough. Perhaps all of these things. At any rate, it was hot and uncomfortable, but my bike racing weather philosophy is that everyone in the field also must deal with the bad weather, so I just have to be tougher.

The first five laps were neutral, which was actually a good thing because it started things off at a little more sane pace. Cannondale was shooting photos for a catalog, so they wanted some of their sponsored racers up front for the pictures. We happily obliged, and didn’t pick up the pace very much even after the race really started.

In the end, it came down to the kind of sprint I really like. The field was stretched out, but there was a little chaos at the front as the middle line wavered. My leadout guy saw I was two bikes behind him, and he didn’t realize that I like that, so he hesitated and didn’t start pouring on the speed until later. Because of this, another line started to come around the left, but this opened up a small gap on the right.

I jumped through this gap hard and found myself going shoulder to shoulder with my biggest rival, Brian, who is actually a great guy and a strong racer. The sprint goes up a small hill and then levels out for the last five or ten meters. At this level spot, I looked at my legs and asked them to find just a little bit more. They somehow found it and I passed Brian to take my first ever first place.

Here is a YouTube link of last week’s points race and the after race interviews.

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