Friday, June 28, 2013

not on time

The cliche, better late than never, isn't a cliche for me.  It's my life, aside from the parts I don't even show up for at all.  Lucky me, when it comes to riding, the later the better.  So rolling around under the brand spankin' new 1500 lumen piece of sun that I stuck on top of my helmet has been most welcome, and even being 3 days late for the supermoon didn't kill the vibe.  

Also late, the first thing Kev29er stated as a must-have when he learned I'd be building a house here at the Rancho Relaxo was an outdoor shower.  That was, I dunno, 5 years ago maybe.  I can't find the email was that long ago, back in the days of hotmail, v-brakes, and the perceived spectacularity of suspension seatposts.  In short, he was tired of mopping the ticks off his sweaty head  with my garden hose, and if you're going to upgrade, you might as well upgrade.  

5 short years later, boom:

I'm not saying it's perfect.  You'll notice, I imagine, that the Simple Strap currently serving as the door latch is the most well-engineered component of the whole getup.  But if Kev29er ever rides here at lunch again, it'll at least hide his shame while he scrubs the bugs off with his sweet, pink loofah and other shower accessories, and thank God for that.  

Also late, also poorly engineered, also likely to fall apart in a matter of years: the entire state of Florida.  But the good news is that, if the place doesn't just sink into the Atlantic, Miami will be the next Whistler.  
this just in: Miami kicks ass.
I got to spend a little time on the best of the local goods a few weeks ago.  "The next Whistler" might be an exaggeration, but they're giving it a go down there and that's worth something.  Exactly what, I'm not sure.  I will say that, without any real sense of uphill or downhill, riding a mountain bike there means you're constantly on the gas.  So combined with the heat, two hours of riding will send you into the take-out menu way too frisky, and $55 later you've got like five leftover pizzas.  Which is to say, everything works out fine.  

What's not late, however, is my son riding a bike.  He's most certainly a little early, evidence by the fact that he can just barely get a leg over the seat when he mounts up.  This photo actually looks a little bit like me trying to ride C-ham's bike.  
Lots of crashing.  Lots of bruises.  Minimal tears, though, and since I'm never early to anything these days, I'm planning on pushing the earliness here right to the very edge.  The plan for tonight is to crack open a couple of Tecates, rip down that baby gate, and ride down the stairs a few times.  It's Friday after all.  

The schedule doesn't matter.  Do it anyway.  
Up, up, up.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A pretty extensive not quite bike review, and Happy Father's day

Mike Vick never really had a dad.  Unavoidably, he had a father, an ordinary biological requirement, but his father wasn't the dad that young Mike Vick needed. Vick's father, an unmarried teenager in the worst part of Newport News, was around some, but he smoked crack in front of, got drunk with, and eventually became alienated from the four children he'd fathered with Vick's mom. When it comes to the bad decisions Mike Vick has made in his life, bankrolling and participating in a dog-fighting ring among the worst of those bad decisions, it's hard to overstate the influence of his estranged father who, in recent interviews, has admitted to setting up the garage for young Mike and his siblings when they were kids to host pitbull fights for the neighborhood. And those were the good moments - the moments when he was around.

This idea of influence, the normalization of really destructive male behavior, is something that I've been paying a lot of attention to recently. Because, like it or not, destructive male behavior just entropy, the passage of time, the certainty of death, and other unsavory things we sometimes don't care to address, it exists.

Keeping it in check, that's the real story.

I've also, lucky me, been test riding The Stache. It's Trek's new-ish, 5 inch travel 29er hartdail, and it's an amazing development. 5 inch travel 29ers, as a rule, can flat mow downhill. Something about those five inches of front suspension combined with the big wheels makes pretty short work of almost all of the obstacles - natural and otherwise - that you might find on modern trail systems. It's the same front end you find on the Rumblefish or the new Fuel EX 29er - obviously a really capable size. The rear end, though, is still snappy in the corners, still wants to be stood on and cranked uphill with as much Pantani as you can muster. It's a pretty simple concept - big front end, fast rear end.  But that combination wouldn't have worked even just a few years ago before 29er geometry really got dialed in by major bike manufactures like Trek, among others. Now, due to some brilliant nuances in frame design, the pairing jives.
The seat tube wedges down to a yoke at the bottom bracket, allowing the rear wheel to come as far forward as possible.  
I could write about 10,000 words about the Stache alone, but I'll try to keep all that to a minimum because this really isn't about all that.  One of the first things that struck me about the Stache - the balance. I've ridden 5" travel hardtails before - a santa cruz chameleon, a badly modified Aquila, others - and the one thing they all had in common was tall, floppy front ends that made climbing feel a little bit like riding a unicycle. The Stache doesn't do this. It feels balanced. So despite all the capability that the big wheels and 5" fork allow, it still rides uphill like a hardtail - which is to say, it rides uphill extremely well.  Downhill, it's not ostensibly plush - I used to ride a 6 inch travel heckler, so I know plush.  But it's more stable at speed than anything I've had the nerve to push that fast.  Coming down from the observatory on a Sunday Funday jaunt from the ranch to the top and back, I was pretty amazed by how scared I was NOT at 40 mph through the diciest gravel turns above bacon hollow.  I can't help but hearken back to my first descent down Sunshine Canyon above Boulder, back in about 2002 when I was first learning to mountain bike and I ripped down that road on a 26" hardtail with badly tuned canitlever brakes.  I count myself lucky to be alive and upright today.

I won't go into the spec, because that's really not the point I'm trying to make. You could basically use whatever parts kit you'd have budget for as long as you leave the basic geometry alone. The point is the idea itself - just a really capable bike, low maintenance, fun, stable, affordable all-rounder that you can pretty much beat around any trail you can find. It's not boutique. It's not carbon. It's not even really that exceptional in any one category. But - and this is a really long way around to my point - I'll submit that The Stache is the most capable mountain bike that a lanky, socially awkward teenager could get into for less than $2k.

Eventually, as the Stache geometry becomes more the norm for 29ers, I expect a bike this capable will cost less than that - a lot less. There's just no reason that the simple concept, though in demand right now enough to warrant the price tag, can't be replicated on models that cost a great deal less. Brilliant, hardtail 29ers, requiring very little maintenance, for I don't know, $800. The 29er for the people will have arrived, not through any outlandish technological innovation, but when it comes to sheer accessibility to the best trails of our sport for the masses, this kind of bike does that but also turns down the cost of entry. So thanks, Trek. It'll cut your per-bike profits someday pretty soon, but you've made room for more of us along the way. Better build some more trails.

But this isn't a bike review. What I'm trying to make a point about here is the outlet that a bike like the Stache affords the masses. Maybe I'll start with my own son, Rowan, who is 20 months old. His mood oscillates from snuggly, sweet baby boy to screaming, physically destructive primate and back again in a matter of seconds, multiple times over. Next to his twin sister - who would usually rather be reading and learning words in her books - his gender-stereotypical need for real and loud destruction is obvious. In a way, it's positive self-expression and it's absolutely important to let him have those formative moments, but it's also pretty hard on our doors/cupboards/dogs/dishes/stairs/walls/etc.

 Enter his baddass red Kickster. He can just barely get his little leg up over the saddle right now, but he'll mount up, and he'll crash that poor bike, and repeat. Also, perhaps a testament to his bloodline, he'll just push it around, cyclocross style, looking a little bit like how his Dad "rides" Whetstone ridge. Like me, he crashes. Like me, he loves it. He'll focus, settle in, and it's the only thing he'll do for HOURS.

It occurred to me, riding the Stache on a wet, rooty Saturday night ride here on the farm, feeling pretty confident in sketchy conditions, that the Stache is the sort of bike I'll stick my own kids on. Stable at speed, tough as nails, easy to maintain, fun, and as far as mountain biking goes, pretty damn safe. It's a confidence-inspiring bike in the way that I've come to believe a kid needs to have his confidence inspired, to find that confidence on their own. And, if I'm lucky enough to pedal hard into my 50s or so, the simplicity means they'll be cheap enough that I can afford four of them - one for each kid, one for the love of my life/teammate, and one for me.

I happen to believe that riding a mountain bike is the perfect outlet for young, male aggression. It's fun, it's spiritually invigorating, and it's exhausting - all things a confused, growing boy needs. Finding your way in this world isn't always easy. Bikes allow a kid to make some wrong turns, take some crashes, but persevere. Crash your bike and you can get back on track. Learn to dogfight, and that's pretty much that.

So it's sad that, historically, riding a decent mountain bike as an outlet for young, male aggression has really come down to luck. Where you were born. Who you were born to. What color their skin was. How much money they had. No matter how much time you spend considering those formative chances the next time you're out riding, they are a large part of what allows you to be out there. A quality mountain bike that won't lead a kid to hate the sport isn't cheap. Wikipedia reckons the average price of an "enthusiast" level mountain bike is between $1400 and $3500. But I hope that the Stache, at least eventually, is a ticket to ride that some more kids will get to take because they can actually afford it.

If you need an example of where a kid's life can go without that ticket, do a web search with the words "Should Mike Vick be allowed to own a dog?" The barrage of opinion-based news coverage on the subject, mostly answering that question in the negative, basically makes one point: "Mike Vick hurt and killed dogs in the most terrible way, and he should be punished, probably forever."

Now, I'm a dog lover. But I'm still a holdout for Mike Vick on this subject, mostly because when it comes to the power of positive change in people's lives, I'm a believer.  Mike Vick didn't have a dad. Mike Vick didn't have a Stache. What, exactly, did we expect he'd do with all that money he made in the NFL? For that matter, what kind of steam would we have believed that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were going to blow off by going bowling?  And what did Adam Lanza's mother say to herself about the future the very first time she took her very troubled son target shooting?  I don't suppose it matters in most cases - what's done is very, very done.  But Mike Vick is still alive.  I want to believe that Vick, if he were allowed to have a dog again, wouldn't hurt it. He'd just need an outlet. I mean, shit, Mike Vick is one of the most athletic men to ever play the game of football.  I'll testify that a bike can change a person for the better.  With a little finesse, I bet he could roll Whetstone in under an hour. But should he be able to take his dog with him?

I ride bikes 4 days/week and I think dogfighting is repulsive. My dad chose the career path of a school teacher so he could spend more time with his kids, and he turned me loose for the first time down the hill on our driveway on a BMX cruiser something-or-other when I was about 4, a big yellow lab trailing right on my back wheel.  When I was cut from the JV baseball team in 9th grade, my dad didn't remark one iota on my lack of talent with a bat, but clearly made his point that maybe I'd be happier, long term, in a sport that wasn't so "fenced in."  It's hard to thank your dad enough for that sort of thing; and even if you can, you can never pay it back.  I'm not making excuses for Mike Vick here, but you and I - the lucky ones - have to give some thought to how different our perspectives were, right from the start.

We can't go back and give Mike Vick a dad. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, his mother and father have reconciled and married since Vick left home, years ago.  But does Vick have the right to own a dog?  I'm not sure about his right, but I think maybe he has the obligation to own a dog, not in the awful sense of property that was once normalized for him, but he should really own the responsibility. If it were possible, our penal system would require that he fall in love with it. He should have to experience, that first night he brings it home, the terribly large responsibility that comes with the life of a fragile puppy, then stay up all night with it and hear its lonely howls. He should live with it. Sleep with it. Crate train it. Come home from a hard day at work and regret that he didn't have enough time for it that day. Let it lick his face. Worry about it when it's sick. And watch it thrive - watch it become this really amazing, athletic, caring animal, and learn to understand that it's his friend. Watch it care about him deeply, deeper than anyone has ever cared about him. Feel it's warm tongue, its presence on his bad days. Let it wrap around him when he has the flu. And really understand that, though he's the boss, that his dog is his most certainly his equal, his best friend.

And his friend, like the rest of our friends and our dogs and our dads, will grow old.

I met C-ham for a night ride around Flo Lakes on Thursday night, not long before Father's day, and we talked about his own father's struggle with cancer and how much time he had left. I rode the Stache, and fireflies erupted all across the lakes, and despite the bleak outlook, things came remarkably into focus. Camus once said, "There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night." I said the same thing just before we hit the jungle trail under about 1,000 lumens, but C-ham was grinning and pinning it, too far up the trail to hear me. At times, it's important for a man to just take the lid off his life, hang a leg through the turns - irresponsibly fast - and not be afraid to skid a little.  When C-ham gets that jones, he rides.  Mike Vick fought his dogs.  Adam Lanza shot guns.  Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold tore their whole world apart.

My point here is not that mountain biking would have fixed their lives.  I'm not ignorant enough to believe that my world view and my outlet is the only one worth having.  My point is also not that football, target shooting, or bowling or whatever is intrinsically harmful to the outlook of an already misguided kid.  I guess my point is that those kids could have used a different outlet than what they were offered.  Historically, mountain biking just wasn't an option for any kid that wasn't white, wealthy, and well-attended on the trails.  But with the arrival of affordable, stable bikes, maybe it can be.

Moments later, it all came to a stop - some unforeseen force broke C-hams derailleur, bent his hanger, broke his light, and the water hose from my pack sprung a leak and began shooting water across my top tube, out into the raucous cicada night. We stopped to regroup, and in the tree above us we saw the largest spider - maybe even the largest insect - that I have ever seen.

 She watched us turn C-hams Pivot into a singlespeed, about face, and roll back down the trail from the direction we'd come.  I'm still suspicious that spider somehow caused the carnage - it was just that big.

C-ham's dad passed away this week. If you've been through it, you know that though he knew it was coming, the emotional blow is still enormous.  We got out early on Father's day morning, put in three hours of gravel on the Stache, and tried to maintain a little perspective.  I don't really need to re-assure C-ham.  For those of us that get to live our lives adjacent to a great dad, we don't need reminded of all the amazing times that make their eventual passing unequivocally, terribly hard, but worth it. 

I believe that for Mike Vick to become an emotionally full and balanced person, he'll have to watch his dog pass away, but not the easy, fast way he once knew. He should have to experience the slow, downward spiral, the vet trips, the radiology appointments, the certainty of cancer, and the gigantic medical bills that he'll pay without batting an eye even though he can't afford it. He should have to hold his friend's paw, sobbing hysterically while some poor vet tech puts a hand on his back and tells him it's the most natural thing in the world, and he should have to watch his friend slip away. And he'll wonder, for months, maybe years after that, just what the hell the point of life really is without his friend. He'll contemplate his own, unavoidable demise. He'll think about suicide. He'll think about maybe getting another puppy. But mostly he'll just feel the terrible loss, the awful emptiness that he hears every time he wakes up and his friends nails don't click across the tile floor, and the smell of the animal that he loved will fade out of his clothes, but it will never be completely gone.  But someday way down the trail, atop whetstone ridge in the sunshine sometime, it will finally occur to him how much richer, fuller, and more complete his life has been for having loved his friend, and he'll laugh and tell stories with his buddies about how much fun his dog had on this trail before they drop down the long, loamy singletrack to Irish Creek to climb back to the car. It's the loss of it all, and then that great cathartic release, that makes us whole.

We keep riding these things in circles, starting and ending in the same parking lots, because somewhere out there between who we were when we clipped in and who we are when we return, we become better people, better dads.

Happy Father's day. 
Up, up, up. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

D-Day, 2013

On days like today, D-Day, I like to reflect on the things that are important.  Freedom.  Liberty.  Cursing in German only because I want to, not because I have to.  

Having ridden through Normandy with my bro, retracing - at least as much as we could - the steps of a fallen quasi-relative that died in the madness somewhere just north of St. Lo, I can attest to the simple truth: 

That's France.  
In June, 1944, it took a man something around 12 days to fight inland from Normandy, shooting hedgerow to hedgerow, covering just about 10 miles in the process.  On our trip, Shawn and I rode something very close to that same stretch of terrain in just under 30 minutes.  (As you might imagine, Shawn had the hammer down.)  

Photo below from June 6, 1944, when French commandos equipped with bikes disembarked from their landing craft after Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches.
Heroes for certain.  But clearly, the dude in the front didn't ride the staircase, and everyone behind him had to dismount.  Pretty lame.  I'll assume he was riding a Lapierre or something utterly carbon, svelte, and useless.  Prove me wrong, history buffs.    But thanks for saving the world, Jean-Claude.   

So clearly, it wasn't all heroic.  Something about the phrase "French commando equipped with a bike" makes me want to go out on a road ride, double flat, lose my cell phone, and walk home.  So too, maybe it is with you.

Seize the day and all that.  

Up, up, up.