A burrito, a beer, and a brain bucket

Racing done, the sky getting dark, we were in Louisville, Kentucky, on a street corner waiting. Team Rally had finished  their post-race snack and sit, and were getting ready to head back to their motel. A van and a car, both covered with bikes and wheels atop racks, plus a large mechanics’ trailer were being loaded. The mood was somber– they’d taken second in the big race. Men’s mechanic Erik Maresjo, the guy who makes sure victory is possible, handed me a foil-wrapped burrito and an All-Day IPA, the post-race snack my son had missed. The race helmet- his brain bucket- got snapped around the handle of his gearbag. Everything was done loading.

We were just waiting for Eric who was delayed by the necessity to pee into a cup for the mandatory routine drug-control testing, the policing of the sport. Compared to the European race scene there is less pressure to perform in American racing, but the enforcement process is the same. Everybody pees when required, always if you win, sometimes if you don’t.

Second place makes a Dad proud and teammates sullen. If you get the win you also get the jersey, the interviews, the backslaps and high-fives and phone calls. If you take second you get the WTFHAPPENED?! and the Tweet about making the podium.

The sky looked darker and darker. Louisville was all finished hosting an entire weekend of championship races sponsored by USA Cycling, including Sunday dedicated to criterium championships. There is a race and a stars-and-stripes jersey for each age and gender classification: Junior men and women (under 18), U23 men and women (ages 18-23 years) Masters men and women (over 40) and then the skill classifications of Categories 3,4, and 5 (beginning racers) and Categories 1 and 2 (experienced racers with victories at lower levels), again both Men’s and Women’s.

The two culminating races that end the weekend are the Pro Women and the Pro Men, raced as teams but won by individuals. Eric has been fortunate to race in multiple championship competitions and has come out on top, but today was Travis McCabe’s.

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From left, Eric in second, Travis on the top step, and Ty Magner in third: the Men’s Pro Criterium podium in Louisville

Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeWm6kkZUt8  First, scroll forward to 6:16 for the final pro sprint. (Eric is not correctly ID’d until 6:20 when he’s finally announced for second place, with Brad Huff in at fourth). Medals presented at 6:37

And if you want to watch the race all the way through you’ll see that the true winner might be 19-year-old Brandon McNulty, a first-year pro who announced his presence by holding off everyone until one lap to go. He didn’t make the podium for the crit, but he’d won the Individual Time Trial two days before, and he almost turned the pro crit into another time trial win.

Eric’s girlfriend, in town from Colorado, waited with us. Then he rode up, still sweaty an hour after the race, threw his bike atop the rack, participated in his team manager’s talk inside their van. She waited for him, and they walked together, back to our hotel, heading for a late supper.

Can a Mercedes be Amish?

Most people who live where I do (a Chicago suburb) have their own motorized vehicle. At the house next door the neighbors operate six passenger vehicles including four compact cars and two enormous SUVs.

However, in a vain effort to reduce our carbon footprint to the size of a baby shoe my spouse and I share one vehicle. Oh sure, back before retirement she used to have a car of her own, a small blue Honda that we later gave to our youngest when he graduated college. This had become a family tradition, so he was expecting it and even helped pick it out a couple years before it became his. It has since been sold and replaced with a Toyota pickup more suitable to his Colorado lifestyle.

That has left us, since 2011, with my car, a black Mercedes C280 with 4Matic drive system and “limited” cargo space. We have been making-do with this car ever since. Because I also eschew gas-powered lawn equipment in favor of a rechargeable electric mower I have become something of a freak-of-nature in my environment: a suburban guy with only one engine.

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Not as clean as it should be

Back before 2011 we used to visit a particular area of Wisconsin that was becoming heavily Amish, and we learned that a typical Amish farm was allowed one engine, but no electricity. It wasn’t difficult to spot an Amish farmhouse as you drove country roads—there were no lights on at night and they had wash hung out in the daytime. No pickup in the driveway. But the one engine came in handy—it was usually a tractor engine mounted on blocks with a drive belt that could operate any number of pieces of machinery, all allowed as long as they weren’t electric. The engine was always installed in a barn or metal shed away from the house.

One engine to run your life keeps things simple. My spouse and I go most places together anyway, or we can walk or ride a bike. Or I drop her off and pick her up if it is somewhere close.

The car is now 10 years old and has more than 200,000 miles on it—not particularly unusual these days, and it has always been something of a badge of honor for a Mercedes to run a lot of miles. They used to give out little medallions that an owner could mount on the radiator grill. I don’t do that. But I do use the car a lot. I like road trips & prefer driving to flying to get somewhere distant. In April we drove it to New Mexico and back. And it pretty much knows the way to Florida all by itself.

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Road tripping: Route 66 to Santa Monica California

The backseat now stays covered with a blue & white patterned mat that represents a futile attempt to keep the leather seats from being scratched by dog claws. And there are quite a few little minor dings around the interior. The white primer on my elbow rest came off with Windex and a little scrubbing.

But the car still does a great job on a road trip, averaging about 29 MPG on the highway, and performing admirably in any variety of road conditions. That’s the 4Matic, the Mercedes version of 4-wheel-drive. My previous car had been an earlier model Mercedes with rear-wheel-drive. This meant two sandbags in the trunk that stayed there all winter and into the spring (it’s a well-known jinx to remove your sandbags too early), and one year they stayed there until the next winter rolled around. Those were a hassle, especially since the battery was in the trunk. Below the sandbags. I like 4Matic much better, as the handling is superb in both rain and snow, and you never have to worry you’ll be stranded.

Because my spouse can’t come and pick me up.

Granite install

A big day: granite counter-tops.

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A finished kitchen turns a construction site into a house & counters turn blank cabinets into a kitchen. We finally had our granite install! In a matter of minutes our kitchen looks almost done. We still need the shiny new refrigerator and  dishwasher to arrive and also a sink faucet (not purchased yet). Hardwood floors are covered in protective rosin paper, (what one Home Depot employee recently called “Rosalyn” paper), but they are all sanded and ready to be sealed with polyurethane floor finish. Kitchen is almost done.

The workers from our granite place were careful and friendly, the whole experience pleasant and rewarding.

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Fifty shades of Gracie

That’s me, asleep in the car. My name is Gracie. I’m a Weimaraner

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For a dog everything goes a little bit different. Instead of a personality I have my own special Weimaranality:

  • Food tastes better when it is dropped on the floor.
  • Staring is the only cool way to beg.
  • If sent to my dog-bed, I put my head down and make the biggest puppydog eyes possible.
  • All postal carriers are highly suspicious as most packages likely contain either dangerous explosives or food, sometimes both.
  • Anyone walking on a public sidewalk is on their way to play with me.
  • The only thing better than a ball is a ball that is in your mouth.
  • Used tissues in a waste basket. Why would anyone EVER throw those away? They’re delicious.
  • Teddy bears are made to be ripped apart.
  • Squirrels MUST be located and chased.
  • Even though I’ve been fully grown for some time now, I still fit up on the back of an easy chair if I fold my long legs just right.
  • I already know all the tricks to do for a treat, so you don’t really have to say them one at a time. It’s so much faster if you just let me run through all of them and get it over with.
  • Meat is the best.
  • Chicken is the best meat.
  • Except Turkey. Turkey is even better.
  • But really, they’re all good. All the meats are good.
  • I like my scientific dog food that comes in the mail. Not sure what is so scientific about it. But it’s good. It’s really good with meat juice added on top.
  • Just not as good as meat.
  • Sticks cannot be allowed to just wallow around all over the place. You’ve got to show them who’s boss.
  • Rocks taste better than you’d think.
  • When someone gets up from a chair or couch the spot where they were sitting is still nice and warm.
  • There are two good shows on Window TV. The Squirrel Show is the best, and The Songbird Hour is good too.
  • The other shows are all pretty boring.
  • If Steve stands up from a chair he’s probably heading outside to play ball with me.
  • If he forgets I remind him.
  • Sure, I know there’s a box of dog treats in the bottom cabinet, but I don’t make a big deal about it.
  • Of course, if anyone leaves it out I’ll stick my face into it just to see how many I can reach.
  • Stella lives in a house next door. She’s a Lab, but that’s OK. The best game in the world is chasing Stella.
  • It only takes Stella 0.3 seconds to scoot under the fence and into my yard.
  • If I can see her, hear her, or smell her I know Stella wants to play Chase.
  • If you throw up some of your food, it’s no big deal. It still tastes good.
  • I like to roll in stuff that smells, but it’s got to smell good.
  • Not sure how they do it, but raccoon poop smells really, really good.
  • After you go poop in the yard you should scratch some of the grass around so it flies in the air, just to make a bigger deal out of it.
  • When a ball is thrown the right way I can usually chase it down in under 2.5 seconds.
  • The right way means you use a ball thrower, not just your hand. Give it a little arc so it has some bounce and roll when it hits.
  • That’s 2.5 seconds.
  • In that picture at the top, guess what?  I’m riding in the car. I love riding in the car.
  • The only thing better is riding in the truck. No backseat, so I’m always in the front.
  • I can pull. I can even pull in harness.
  • I can pull a skateboard or a bicycle, if you’re not too heavy.
  • Nobody really knows how far I can run. Every run is the perfect distance for me.
  • I know how to shake hands, roll over, crawl, and dance in a circle. Those are all worth a treat.
  • I can also fall over dead if you say “Bang.” It’s pretty easy actually.
  • I like to be with people in the same room.
  • Once I’m in the room? I like to sit by them.
  • Once I’m sitting by them? I like to sit on top of them.
  • I’m not that fond of rain.
  • I can find things by smell if you hide stuff. Just let me smell it first. And get the treat ready, because it doesn’t take long.
  • At night I like to sleep in the same room as people.
  • In the morning I like to go outside right away. Hey, I’m only human!

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The Songbird Hour comes on pretty soon.

Venice the trip over?

We stopped the last day at Venice Beach, just minutes before we returned our rental and rode the airport shuttle to LAX. image

We passed a giant macaw just hanging with his owner, a customer at a sidewalk table. The bird was friendly and enjoyed having his head scratched, but the owner was tired of talking. I wondered why someone might bring a giant social bird in brilliant colors to a sidewalk cafe if he didn’t want to . . . talk about the bird. But he just wanted to read the paper.

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We walked on until we got to the beachfront places and ordered iced teas at a place that fronted the Venice people-show. It’s probably more California here than anywhere else in California. Ordinary people turn into a TV show, on display in windows looking out.

The couple just next to us remained friendly though they’d been disappointed to find they had missed the brunch eggs Benedict, and on her birthday. It kind of summed up something about the trip.

For me, California had three segments—first, Yosemite with Tom and Christine, second, cycle racing with Eric and Team RALLY, and third, driving around sight-seeing, trail-hiking, and beach-hopping, all after Eric flew home.

It was all fun but made a strange trip for us—the RALLY cycling team kept me focused on racing by being in every break and winning two stages and three Most Courageous jersey! It was impossible to not pay attention, even though we didn’t go to the races anymore without Eric involved. We had fun and saw family, but it wasn’t like New Mexico. It was Carol’s first time at the Amgen Tour of California, RALLY’s greatest week in the history of the team, but we were ready to go home.

Bonfire: The Diagnosis

Not long ago I realized that certain symptoms, which I’ve always considered overwhelmingly normal, might amount to what they call a “syndrome.” It’s been research and treatment options ever since.

I’ve been plagued with watery eyes, persistent sneezing, and more recently loss of hair and recurring episodes of memory failure—note that this is very different from memory “loss,” in that I always remember everything later, much later, long after it would have been useful. A typical example: “What was the name of that restaurant we like in (say) Atlanta?” my wife asks.

I usually remember this when we are far, far from (say) Atlanta, somewhere like (say) Albuquerque. If you asked me for the name of the place we like that is actually in Albuquerque, I would have to say (say) some place in Florida. And so forth. I always considered this normal—not totally normal, but kind of normal, like dandruff or fear of dentists talking to you when you can’t answer.

In my research I’ve discovered that my symptoms form the central basis for a scary terminal diagnosis: Latent Incipient Forensic Eponymia, which it turns out, bears some similarity to Lou Gerhig’s Disease, although without the Hall of Fame career, or the Gary Cooper biopic. Now, it turns out that Lou Gehrig might not have even had Lou Gehrig’s Disease! If he didn’t have it, maybe I don’t either? More research. Now I’m realizing that  what I have is actually more like the lesser-known Wally Pipp’s Disease.

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Wally Pipp (1893-1965) in pinstripes. Twice AL home run champion, but best remembered for taking a day off due to a headache, The Yankees put in Gehrig at first base who then played the next 2,130 consecutive games at first.

Just like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) my syndrome is better known by its acronym (literally, “tall word”), or LIFE. “Give it to me straight, Doc,” I said when I felt she might be beating around the bush, “I can take it. Am I going to die?”

“Yes.” She didn’t look as sad as I thought she would.

I choked back either tears, or watery eyes, it was hard to tell. “How long do I have?”

“Well, it’s hard to say,” she continued, while reading from a tall chart. “I’ll just have the lettuce wrap,” she said quietly to her assistant. Then she looked back at me. “You see, your condition is relatively rare. A lot of men don’t even notice the symptoms, unless they include ED.”

I couldn’t think of anyone by that name, but she went on, “Mostly what you are experiencing is just an awareness that every day could be your last.”

“Wow,” I thought to myself, “that’s really heavy,” and I handed her back the medical dictionary I’d been using to look up the big words. I wanted to ask if she had any advice, any words of comfort, any way to convince myself that it would all be OK.

“It’ll all be OK,” she said.

It didn’t help as much as I thought. I looked into her eyes, but all I saw was a deteriorated skeleton of a man. Then I noticed the backwards words attached to the bones, and I glanced over my shoulder at the anatomical diagram labeled Normal Musculature. This bore little resemblance to the actual me, but that didn’t cheer me up much either.

“Doc,” I mumbled, “I can take the worst. If I’m going, to die, just tell me how long I have.”

“Probably somewhere between fifteen and thirty years.”

The phrase hit me like a ton of bricks, until I realized that a normal brick weighs a couple pounds, so 2,000 pounds of brick would only build a house about eleven inches high. Then I realized that fifteen years would equal out to 5,475 days unless you count leap years, which add at least a couple more days, while thirty years would be 10,950 days, again without leap years.

OK, I didn’t realize any of that until I got home and hit the calculator function on my iPhone. Ten thousand days is a lot of days, I said to myself. I should dedicate myself to doing good. I should realize that I need to use every day, every hour, nay every minute. I realized I shouldn’t use the word Nay, because it sounds like a horse. But I have time, precious time, to devote to loved ones, to lost causes, to watching more Cubs games. And Andy Griffith reruns. (I still haven’t seen them all!) I should watch more sunsets, have more adventures, make love to more women.

“Why are your eyes watering?” my wife asked.

“I was just thinking about . . . poor Wally Pipp,” I lied.

When your team becomes Rocky

For Team RALLY the Tour of California continued after Eric flew home, and it continued in spectacular fashion.

First, Tuesday (Stage 3 to Morro Bay) looked considerably better due to  Danny Pate’s leadership in getting himself into the break of riders ahead of the race. He lasted in that group until about 5 km to go when they were all caught, but his success energized the team and helped lead to Wednesday’s incredible rides by Evan Huffman and Rob Britton.

On Wednesday we were in the SUV listening to TourTracker while on Hwy. 101 back to Solvang, because we still had a room reservation.  Evan Huffman and Rob Britton were both in the break of five, and they were still away with a big enough margin that it looked possible to pull off the greatest win in team history. As it came down to their last few miles we pulled off the highway and found a big screen TV at The Lazy Dog in Oxnard, the home of RALLY’s winter camp every January. This allowed us to catch the end of the race that put Evan Huffman and Rob Britton into first and second on the stage. It’s the only race to ever put a Continental team on top in a World Tour cycling race!

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Evan and Rob finish one-two in Santa Clarita

I had my RALLY t-shirt on as I tried to explain to our waitress that our team had just won a big race, but most Americans don’t understand that cycling even counts as a sport, so it wasn’t working. I still left a nice tip.

Suddenly the week in California had changed. Suddenly RALLY had become THE team in US cycling, the team that somehow Rocky’d their way to victory against Apollo Creed.

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Rob Britton second, Evan Huffman first, and Lennard Hofstede third on Stage 4

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On the podium Evan Huffman was also awarded the blue jersey for Most Courageous rider

When you crash out

We’ve learned that the world of pro cycling has its ups and downs, and one of the big downs is being out of a race before it’s over.

We drove to Pismo Beach on Tuesday morning and picked up Eric at his team hotel just as his RALLY teammates were mounting up to ride down to the beach for their start. The team of eight would be seven. On Stage Two in California Eric had suffered a crash on the roads out of Modesto that cost him his bike and some time. When you go down in a pro race you seldom know why—someone ahead hits a pothole or two guys touch wheels or something, so one goes down then three behind him, then five or six behind that. Eric hit the pavement at 30 mph, and if you don’t break your collarbone (the most common serious injury in cycling) then you mount up again and speed to catch up. Unless your bike is damaged. Eric’s right-side brake lever shifters were damaged, so he stood and waited for a replacement from his team car that follows the race.

The yellow jersey, Marcel Kittel, went down at the same time, but Kittel’s team is strong enough to send someone back to help pace him forward if it became necessary. Eric pretty much knew he’d be on his own to make his way back. The tail end of a pro bike race consists of dozens of vehicles: officials, team cars, media, neutral support (sponsored by SRAM and willing to help anyone), medical, and law enforcement. In order to chase back to the peloton you dodge the cars, drafting behind each one for a minute or so and playing leapfrog all the way through. Eric was riding a replacement bike from the top of his team car, and it’s a race bike like his own but isn’t dialed in on his body specifications—so it’s a tough day ahead.

The toughest part is that he knew he’d have to catch the group before they started climbing and if he couldn’t do it he’d have to climb alone. He couldn’t do it, and he did climb alone which is like a death sentence for a sprinter like Eric—he spent the rest of the day pushing through the wind by himself. Exhausted and sore from hitting the pavement, he suspected the worst. The UCI time cut is 10% above the winner’s finishing time. Stage Two, Modesto to San Jose, was won by Rafal Majka who also went into the yellow jersey. Majka took 3 hr 44 min, so the time cut would be 23 minutes later. There were 41 riders who finished together 20:46 back, and they were all safe. This grupetto included most of the big-team sprinters like Kittel and Jon Degenkolb and Wouter Wippert. None of them climb well, and they all know how to conserve their energy for the next day’s race. That was the group Eric couldn’t catch.

The team drove to Pismo Beach that afternoon, and we later learned what a terrible day it had been all around for the team. No one had made the break group so the whole RALLY day had been pretty much of a disaster. Besides Eric, Adam De Vos had also suffered a minor crash that left him sore and bleeding and all had lost time in the race standings. Evan Huffman, their best overall, was 12 minutes down.

In Pismo Beach the next morning I pulled into a Shell station across the parking lot from their team motel, and Carol walked over. Eric came out wheeling his bag, got in, and we left Pismo Beach about two hours before the race start. We talked about how to spend the day. He had a flight out of LAX at 7 pm, so we just needed to get him to the airport about 5. We decided to take our time getting there and see a bit of wine country on the way—the Santa Ynez Valley that the Hollywood film Sideways had used for locations.

In California

We are in Yosemite to meet relatives, one of the most adventurous couples I know: spouse’s brother and his wife.

imageCalifornia’s longstanding drought has been declared officially over, so the waterfalls in Yosemite are all going full blast.

We walked. We walked all day to the sights in and around Half Dome Village and Yosemite Falls. We walked even though my sister-in–law had hip replacement just a month ago. We also rode the shuttles, but at times they were slower than just walking. So we walked. imageWe had late lunch at the glorious park lodge, The Ahwahnee.

At the end of the day we left the national park and found our way to Modesto to a motel reservation, because in our family tomorrow isn’t just Sunday, and it isn’t just Mother’s Day.

Tomorrow is bike race day.

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