Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ride On, Lance.

For whatever reason--for whatever perfect storm of national calamity, difficult personal circumstances, ceaseless high temps, and general malaise that's decided to descend upon us--this summer has been tough for most people in my life, myself included. Maybe it's because, in the last few months, the news from abroad and at home hasn't been good, and never seems to get better. Maybe it's because, since Memorial Day, the heat never seems to cool, and a run in the steamy humidity of 6:30 am feels just as unbearable as one under the relentless noontime sun. Maybe it's because jobs keep not materializing for friends looking for work; maybe it's because clumps of Deepwater Horizon oil could start washing up on the East Coast. Or maybe it's because, all other factors aside, sometimes the only expression that best fits so many of these things is that frustrating and nebulous adjectival phrase, plain old "bad luck".

With this in mind, and as friends and family members know, I tend to retreat for three weeks in July to watch the Tour de France; by retreat I mean I hibernate with my flat screen and clunky window air conditioner for hours and hours in order to watch the peloton circle to Paris. I look forward to the Tour all year--the first week of August is when I experience my post-Christmas morning crankiness--and even in a year like this one, which showcased the Olympics and the World Cup, my excitement has remained unabated. Particularly as this summer has progressed, the Tour has loomed like an athletic oasis, and one in which the event's characteristic unpredictability, epic nature, and challenging geographic context would be most welcome to a doldrums-lingering viewer like me.

The Tour, suffice it to say, has not disappointed, but the ways in which it has not disappointed have of course defied my expectations. I'm neither the first nor the last to state that all one can expect of the Tour is the unexpected, and I embrace the fact that every year the Tour holds true to this maxim. On its 97th journey through the French countryside, the Tour seems to be adhering to the same Boethian cycle that the rest of us have; in other words, Lady Fortune has not looked favorably upon most of the riders. For the first time in years, the Tour de France had to neutralize the results of a stage because so many rides crashed spectacularly on a freakishly oil-slicked descent, a decision the Tour organizers haven't even made when riders have died. Garmin-Transitions lost its team leader, its sprinter, and its lead-out man in a matter of days. Frank Schleck--his GC brother's most trusted lieutenant in the mountains--kissed his Tour goodbye after a collarbone-snapping crash on the unforgiving cobblestones of Stage Three; that same day Lance Armstrong began to lose his maillot jeune dreams with, of all things, a flat tire. Cadel Evans attempted to hide his broken elbow--sustained in yet another crash--on his one day bearing the yellow jersey in the stony Alps, and later broke down on the steps of his team bus as the reality of its loss sank in. And in a move that will be hotly debated by Tour viewers and participants for years to come, Alberto Contador attacked and won the maillot jeune from Andy Schleck not because the Luxembourger betrayed a moment of physical weakness, but because Schleck dropped his chain.

True, for some this Tour has been exceptional; French riders, for example, have won a commendable six stages so far, including an extremely difficult one by the petit blanc Thomas Voeckler, who famously wore yellow for ten days in 2004. Similarly, Thor Hushovd, that sprinting Norwegian "Hammer of the North", continues to defy gravity and re-capture the green jersey on mountain stages poorly fit to his ballast-like frame and fast-twitch muscles. And Clean Bottle man, perhaps my favorite TDF mascot in years, has landed TV coverage on almost every stage (it can't be easy to run up the edge of the Col de la Madeleine in a faceless, full body water bottle costume!). But on the whole, the general mood of most riders and the seemingly non-stop freak accidents--flats? dropped chains? oil-slicked roads?--seem to fit the overall wtf? ambiance imbuing the summer of 2010.

Which brings me to Lance Armstrong. Lance, as the cycling-obsessed public knows, is riding his thirteenth Tour, and hoped to win his eighth. He's thirty-eight years old, but there are older riders this year--Christophe Moreau and Jens Voigt among them--although none were gunning for the podium. He had every single teammate from last year's champion Astana squad (with the obvious exception of Contador), plus he had Johan, the mastermind behind every one of his Tour victories. He began training and racing earlier than he had last season, when he commenced his comeback and placed third; he even had a brand new sponsor. In other words, Lance possessed everything he needed to be a serious contender, and a record podium finish seemed tantalizingly within reach.

And yet...despite acing everything that's within his control, like placing fourth in the prologue time trial, nothing seems to be working right. The man who always seemed to glide by misfortune, even down the side of a mountain, has been caught in crash after crash after crash, including one on the way to the starting line. The man who flicked off any little mechanical like an annoying insect had to wait by the side of the pavé for almost a minute for a new wheel. The man who ruled the peloton as a legitimate patron now works as a domestique for Levi Leipheimer, an amazing cyclist in his own right, but one who as a Postal rider ten years ago wasn't even selected to ride for Armstrong on his nine-man champion Tour squad. It's almost as if, all other factors aside, Lance spun the wheel and landed on several years' worth of straight up bad luck.

Which is why, as the days pass, I'm rooting for Lance. Not because I think he's going to win, but because he's in the Tour at all. Because he never needed a comeback, but he decided to risk one anyway. I choose that word, "risk", deliberately, because it's a big gamble to chance that the last entry on your athletic CV isn't going to be "seven time Tour de France winner", but could instead be "finished 25th in his last Tour de France with no stage wins". Sure, Lance was hoping that it would say "eight" or even "nine" time winner, but he knew that there was a decent chance it wouldn't. And, frankly, I admire him for that. I admire him for doing everything he could to give himself the best possible shot at another win, knowing full well that it could blow up in his face, and then, when it did, for still showing up every day anyway and racing his bike. Because the fact of the matter is, no one who doesn't want to be racing in the Tour de France is riding in it; it's simply too hard. So the man who already had the perfect postscript threw his hat in the ring again, in spite of his age and with full awareness of the risks, because he loves it for what it is.

And so yesterday, as I sat on my couch with my clunky window air conditioner running full blast, I watched Lance attack on the hardest stage of this year's Tour, a stage that justified the Pyrenees' nickname "The Circle of the Dead Men". The peloton released him and the nine other riders who eventually joined him; none were a threat to the overall standings, not even one of the most celebrated Tour winners of all time. Up the Tourmalet and then the Col d'Aubisque he attacked and counter-attacked. He was visibly tired, and in the finish line sprint, he simply wasn't fast enough. He knew it, too, but he sprinted anyway. And as I watched, I remembered watching him win the Limoges Tour stage fifteen years ago, when I was half the age I am now, in the middle of a foggy San Francisco summer. It was only a couple of days after his teammate Fabio Casartelli died, that gifted Italian cyclist whose memorial the peloton passed just earlier this week. Lance, despite winning the 1993 world championship, was no GC rider at that time either. He took off on a solo breakaway, and the peloton let him go; he crossed the finish line alone, and pointed his finger toward the sky. I think now, upon reflection, that these are two of the greatest Tour stages I've ever seen.

"It was a tough day", Lance said later yesterday at the finish line. "I paid for it at the end [...] I warmed up a little bit before the race and it went right at kilometer zero. 200 km at the front took it out of me. I had no sprint at the end. But I tried".

You sure did. Ride on, Lance.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Quotes of the Week

The past two months only produced a few notable quotes, but what quotes they are. Enjoy!
LP: "I have something highly inappropriate to say".
CGC: "What is it?"
LP: "I leave it to suspense".
JML: "I was electrocuted last night".
CGC: "You were?"
JML: "Yeah, just a little bit. It kind of felt good".
LP: "I bought a Dutch tile".
CGC: "You bought a Dutch child?"
LP: "A Dutch tile".
CGC: "Oh. That's inappropriate?"
LP: "No, that wasn't what I was going to say. But, some Dutch tiles are very inappropriate".
While ordering ice cream at Sweet Melissa in Cobble Hill.
MS: "Chocolate chip?!? I am SO OVER that flavor; I've been over that flavor since I was five years old. Tell me one thing that chocolate chip can do that cookies and cream or mint chip can't".
While sitting in the Salt Lake City airport.
CGC: "How come neither Betty nor Veronica ever seriously dated Reggie?"
LRC: "Are you serious?"
CGC: "Of course I'm serious. Why didn't they?"
LRC: "Because Reggie was an a**hole!"

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Morning on Mt. Judah

This past weekend, while at Sugar Bowl near Donner Summit for LRC2's wedding, I decided to go for a run. As this decision was made on Saturday morning, or the day of the main event, I knew that I had about three hours until the wedding began. I also knew that, based on the location, any run would involve an elevation gain of at minimum 1,000 feet, would test my total lack of altitude acclimatization, and would be mind-blowingly beautiful. Indeed, even if I just ran to the end of Sugar Bowl's parking lot and back, I'd still be treated to a vista of Mts. Lincoln and Disney, the shade of lodgepole pines, and bright patches of mid-summer snow. In other words, I couldn't lose.

Since I currently live in Skyscraper National Park, however, I wanted to make the most of my (perhaps) only high Sierra run of the summer, and so after a bit of hemming and hawing, I settled on the Mt. Judah loop. From the Sugar Bowl lodge, this run would take me up and onto the Pacific Crest Trail above Donner Pass, skirt around the eastern flanks of Mt. Judah, lead me up to and over the summit, then circle down between Mt. Judah and Mt. Lincoln back onto the PCT, once more past Lake Mary, and finally back to a shower and my waiting wedding guest garb. Based on the map the complete route looked to be about seven miles with 1500' of elevation gain, and despite little sleep and acclimatization, I sensed that I could run the trail, stop to enjoy the view, and shower/get ready all in time for the ceremony. I slathered on some sunscreen, drank some water, and ran out the door.
Donner Lake, as seen from Donner Pass Road not far from the PCT trail head
The run up to the PCT trail head felt surprisingly easy; granted, I was taking it slowly, but the altitude and searing sunlight--which was exacerbated by the black tar of the Sugar Bowl access road--didn't take as much of a toll as I would have expected. Once on the PCT, I enjoyed picking my way among the loose and dusty rocks up the switchbacks, which is a skill I rarely get to use on the smoother bridle path of Central Park. The trail rose quickly and consequently so did my heart rate, such that the "good morning"s I uttered to the hikers I passed were more strained and breathless than normal. Donner Lake loomed into view below the Pass, and I spotted several hikers enjoying a late morning snack on the rocks above the vista; less than a mile later, I was running east above them on the Mt. Judah loop trail.

Jeffrey and lodgepole pines cast the trail into a cool shadow, and giant cabbage-like plants carpeted the mountainside. Pine needles muffled my footfall as I climbed a bit for half a mile, and then as the trail turned south towards the summit, I encountered my first massive patch of snow. By "massive" I mean I could see the trail disappear underneath it and was at a loss as to where it emerged! Fortunately, a hiker coming from the opposite direction was crunching his way across the snowbank; he said that the trail paralleled the creek running to my left, mentioned that there were several other patches higher up, told me that I'd have no trouble crawling across them, and wished me a great run. I crossed my fingers, splashed up the creek, found the trail as it resumed switch backing out of the snow, and emerged with it above the treeline on Mt. Judah's eastern side, just below the summit ridge.
Almost at Mt. Judah's summit
From here I could see the mountains of Squaw and those ringing Tahoe's western side, as well Mt. Rose to the east in Nevada. With the exception of a light breeze that rustled the treetops, the world was silent. I stretched my arms and looked up at the sky, then turned and immediately ran into a second massive stretch of snow. Luckily, the muddy footprints of previous hikers gave me some idea of where the trail lay; unluckily, my trashed running shoes lacked the grip that their boots had given them. After slipping twice--and catching myself, barely, with my hands on wet, relatively grip-less snow--I chipped out two footholds with my toes and stood up to survey what lay ahead. Since I knew the trail paralleled the ridge line until it joined the ridge and lead over the summit, and because I was above the treeline, I was able to see where the trail "should" be. I decided that my safety lay on the rocky slope just above the snow, and so I scrambled up and then slowly made my way along the scree before scrambling back down to the trail once it re-emerged. I breathed a sigh of relief, ran along the trail as it skirted the flank just above a drop-off into a verdant valley far below, and then, right as the clear path to the summit came into view, hit a snowbank so long and so wide that I knew that I had no choice but to crawl across it. Fortunately, there were no ominous black clouds in the sky! I crouched down and carefully picked my way across, stepping into muddy footprints to the best of my running shoes' ability and squinting against the glare of brilliant white snow in bright sunshine.

I finally cleared the snow and ran the now-dusty trail up and over the Mt. Judah summit; worried about the time since it took so long to make my way over and around the snowy patches, I didn't stop to look around. The summit, at about 8250 feet, marked the high point of my run, and from here the trail commenced a beautiful and relatively languorous descent back to the PCT. I dipped back into the trees and enjoyed the dancing feeling that comes from trail running downhill; right as I turned back onto the PCT, I caught up with two ultramarathoners who were out for a decent, oh, twenty-five miles! I tailed behind them and their dog all the way down the mountain, watching their nimble footfalls and noticing how their arms--complete with a water bottle strapped to each hand--tucked up against their ribs. As I ran off the PCT and towards Lake Mary, they flashed me a grin and gave me a hearty salutation--"great running!"--that sated my ego for the rest of the weekend!
Looking towards Mt. Judah (on the left) from the top of Mt. Disney
Knowing that my mother would be worried, I sprinted the final mile down the access road and to the Sugar Bowl lodge where, sure enough, I found her seated on the deck with an iced tea and a magazine. "I know, I know!" I said, as she smiled and pointed to the time. I ran upstairs, plugged in the kettle for some post-run fuel (instant oatmeal), and hopped in the shower. Within an hour, I was dressed, high-heeled, and waiting for the bride's arrival--and with an aisle seat, no less!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Carve Designs, I Salute You.

Because you are the sartorial brainchild of two outdoorsy, surfing California women. Because your bikinis, board shorts, and dresses are designed for gals with athletic bodies, and because they're perfect for both mountain lakes and oceanic surf. Because you sponsor super-talented female athletes, and because you keep sponsoring more of them. Because when I wear your bikinis out in Montauk or your t-shirts on the Upper West Side, I can pretend that I'm at Ocean Beach or back in the Richmond District. Carve Designs, I salute you!