Friday, June 30, 2006

Road to Joy

In less than 12 hours, the Tour de France prologue begins.

I'll be at work, firing up a boiler.

At the eleventh hour, nine riders have been pulled from the race—including four of last year's top five—because of serious allegations of blood doping in Spain.

The fifth of the top five, Lance Armstrong, retired after last year's race.

It certainly raises questions if Lance was able to beat four of the world's strongest riders without ever testing positive for banned blood treatments.

How long have the busted riders been doping and racing without ever testing positive?

This guy was probably not among the 50-odd racers the Spanish police have said are under investigation. In February's Tour of California, he came up this hill several minutes behind the peloton. (The elastic hadn't snapped yet, except for this guy.) I feel for the guy who bonks. I know what it feels like to have a big ride still in front of you and to feel like your tank's already empty. As he came up the road, we all gave him a rousing cheer.

With several heavies out of the Tour, the field is suddenly open again for contenders who might not have thought they had a chance. Several Americans—Californians, even—have an even better shot at Tour glory than they might have with veteran riders like Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso in the race.

Levi Leipheimer (Santa Rosa) and Floyd Landis (used to live in Irvine) are pretty easily in the top five. Both did pretty well in this year's inaugural Tour of California, competing against top-seeded world talent. Both are riding with solid teams, and both have made it through the Tour a few times before (both on Lance Armstrong's squads at least sometimes). Both have shown their chops in the mountains, and both can swing at least a decent time trial.

Watching any pool of great riders is exciting, but it's even better when you've got a hometown boy to cheer on.

With nearly 190 riders, the Tour will still be an intensely competitive race, with all the thrill of watching teams jockey for position for their top riders.

We don't have cable at work, for after I get the boiler fired up. But I might just be checking the text updates on the Tour Website.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Diminishing Returns

For us who work day shifts, June's long days mark the peak of outdoor training season. July and August may bring warmer days, but the sun will come up a mite later and go down a few minutes earlier with each passing week. On the rare day when I leave work on time, I can get home and go for a 25-mile ride before sunset. By Labor Day, I will have lost nearly an hour of that evening riding time. The same applies to morning rides: If I felt like it, I could get up at 5:30 these days and have enough light to ride. By December, there won't be enough light to ride before or after work, so cycling will be constrained to weekends. Even then I'll have to plan my days carefully to make sure I can ride while it's light and push other errands like grocery shopping into the gloaming.

Any wonder that I'm usually in better riding shape around Tour de France time?

Oh, sure, there are other ways to stay in shape, but none of them are half as much fun as it is to just get out on the road and go.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Poppies for Princes

I'm a little bit of an accidental gardener: I don't get too upset if my plants aren't successful, but it always charms me when they take off, as if my watering and nurture played no part. I don't try too hard, but my patience with plants is infinite, until they have been pretty clearly dead for a few months.

I chucked these California poppy seeds into a pot, along with some lupine, inspired by the hillsides around Gorman a few years back, when they erupted in splashes of purple and orange and mustard yellow. This year the poppies are in and blooming, as you can see. I've learned something from potted poppies I never would have known from afternoons spent poppy spotting on hillsides: Poppies are diurnal. At night they roll up their petals.

They also take fabulous shapes after their blooming phase is over. I'm not sure when we get to the spot where the Wicked Witch of the West cackles "Poppies, poppies!" I'll let you know.

The Day the Sun Stood Still

Until yesterday, the sunset had been marching steadily north across the horizon. As of today, the sun will set a little further south each evening than it did the day before.

I took the picture above last night, around 8 p.m., a fraction before sunset. As you can see, we had enough haze in the air that the sun melted into oblivion before it hit the horizon.

(As you can also see, this is a great stretch of beach for dogs. I count at least five in this picture.)

This is from the same spot last year, taken with 35mm film and a 70-300mm zoom lens. (My digital camera has a built-in 5.8-23.2mm zoom, which is something more than that in dog years, but still not as good as a 300mm lens on a 35mm camera.) Last year there was almost no haze, so you can see the buildings on the skyline clearly. That's downtown Long Beach to the right of the palm trees, with the port and San Pedro to the left, then the rise of Palos Verdes Peninsula.

I love going to this spot for the solstice. When you watch from here, you can see the sun set exactly behind the Gerald Desmond Bridge, which is about a mile from my home. Less lithic than Stonehenge, but still a cool cosmic alignment to herald the start of summer.

The arc of the bridge echoes the circumference of the sun, with cranes marking diagonal slashes against the sky for emphasis. Gradually from this day forward the sun will set a little further to the left of the bridge, then even further, marching over behind Palos Verdes Peninsula and out into the water, nearly reaching Catalina Island by the time the winter solstice arrives and the sun turns once again to start its annual trek north.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Don't Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake

The Poor Man's Truing Stand

Worked all day Saturday (5:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.), so by the time I got home to go for a roll, I was already pretty thrashed. (Friday was a long day too.)

Got started with fair ambitions, but I'd swear the bike was making more noise than it normally does. A good bike rides silent; every bike has its own collection of little creaks and tings and clicks.

For a while I've been bothered by a noise coming from the back wheel. (You can time the period of a noise and figure out which part of the bike goes around at that rate.) I've been blaming it on the brakes, maybe something loose that rattles every time the wheel comes around, but that wasn't fixing it. Now I could swear there was an extra sound, like the first, but a second.

It's funny how things like this can get to you psychologically when you're riding. Your muscles may be just as strong, but a little crosswind or a Clif bar wrapper crinkling in your pocket or a strap flapping in the wind can wear on you, particularly when you're tired, and your performance starts to drop. A distraction, a flaw, makes you feel like you have to work harder to get where you're going.

So I knew I wasn't going as far as I'd meant to. I stopped a few times to see what was really loose. (Uh, you are correct: I could have done this weeks ago when I first began to notice the noise. Some days you feel good, and you just want to ride. Frustratingly, the sound wouldn't happen for me except when I was on the bike, riding along somewhere flat and at least moderately quiet.) I spun the rear wheel to see if it was hitting the brake pad on its way around.

Found a spot with a tiny rub, and then I started checking the spokes. Ah. Then I knew what was making the sound. One spoke was quite loose. Another had just started to loosen.

I tightened both with my fingers, as far as I could, and rode on. Now I also knew the wheel wasn't perfectly true, and I had some sense how much extra I was working each time the wheel went around. (It was mostly true; tightening the spokes had actually thrown it a little further off true temporarily.)

Got about as far as I was going and stopped for rejuvenation. When I got home, I turned the bike over and had a more serious conversation with the rear wheel and a spoke wrench. (Spokes are threaded from the outside of the rim, so you have to remember to turn the wrench in the opposite direction from usual--clockwise loosens, counterclockwise tightens. Does anyone anymore know the words deasil and widdershins?)

Got that wheel hummin'. No loose spokes, and the wheel whizzed past the brakes with just the right amount of clearance. No wheel is ever perfectly true, but I was closer than I had been.

Proof in eating: When I got on the bike, no more ting, ting, ting, every time the rear wheel went around. Almost as good as the silent noise a freshly greased chain makes.

Sunday I was armed to ride for miles. Got 10 miles up a hill, then turned around to head back to the flatlands for an endurance run. Weather perfect. Sunblock on. Bike silent. Great riding.

Until about 10 miles into the endurance run, when I noticed a little squishiness on my turns. Checked and, sure enough, the wheel I'd just tuned now had a flat tire. It's the karmic cycle of two steps forward and two steps back: What goes around goes flat.

Found a gas station with free air, and made it home before the tire went completely south. (First rule of fixing flats: Don't take out the nail until you're ready to stop and repair. While it's there, you've got a stopper in the hole.) I'd been out 40 miles at this point, shy of what I'd been hoping for, but enough to sleep the sleep of the just that night.

Got a couple of fresh inner tubes tonight, which means I'll be rolling again and in fine shape before the Tour de France starts. In case they need any alternates.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I'd Like to Teach the World . . .

A wonderful old friend and favorite conversation partner of mine has CFS. She doesn't have gobs of extra energy, and she worries about not keeping up with people. I told her she should start blogging to reach the maximum number of people with the minimum effort. This also lets you blurt out some things that might not come up in day-to-day conversation, but could be worth letting people know anyhow. I don't think she's fired up a blog yet (I know some arguments against the scheme), so she'll have to suffer along seeing me post this one my way.

I don't have a lot of use for Coke. (This is a can a friend left in my fridge about a year ago. I've used both the maple syrup to the left and the butterscotch topping to the right, but I haven't touched the Coke. Not even tempted.) The drink is nothing more than caramel-colored, carbonated sugar water. The biggest joke in the world is that there's some reason to prefer it to Pepsi, or vice versa. It's like arguing over whether there's more value in a bucket of air or a bucket of smoke. But the Coca-Cola Company has done an excellent job at peddling their core product for the past century, to the point where the brand and the product are recognized and (generally) liked worldwide.

I'll rant for a moment: My elected government spends trillions of dollars per year (that's millions of millions) sustaining the most advanced ability to kill people that the world has ever known. Ignoring the ethics of this for a moment, that strikes me as a stupefyingly expensive way to maintain influence over affairs in distant lands. For a tiny fraction of those sums, Coca-Cola has people worldwide convinced that an essentially useless product is not only pretty neat and friendly, but also worth spending hard-earned money on. Could we not save a few bucks in our attempts to influence world affairs and ensure national security, and instead of killing people just try to convince them that a well-meaning economic and cultural powerhouse that's been run democratically longer than nearly any other nation on the planet isn't a Great Satan? O.K., I'm sure there are very good reasons this wouldn't work, or we would have been doing it for years now. End of rant.

Anyhow, I've never had much use for Coke. But I was delighted to learn recently that someone has finally found a great way to use one of the Coca-Cola Company's products to make this world a better place.

See why I think my old friend should have her own blog?

P.S. I told you already I talk too much.

Monday, June 12, 2006

When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky

I have to run out and get groceries before the store closes, so I'll let these pictures speak for themselves.

I talk too much anyway.

Bridges II

They're building a bridge on one of my favorite stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway, and ruining one of my favorite spectacles. But I'm not opposed.

Economics presumes that you can't have everything. People make choices among exclusive options based on what they value.

There's a spot just north of Huntington Beach where PCH runs behind a row of dunes at Bolsa Chica State Beach, then comes up dramatically to reveal an unmatched scene of surf, sand and sky, dotted with surfers, kids and dogs playing in the crashing waves, here and there a boat--as you drive south and come up from behind the dunes, it's like a curtain suddenly falling to reveal a cathedral.

Every time you come up from behind the dunes, you get a different form of beauty. Sometimes the sun glitters and dances on the water. Sometimes boats are cutting through whitecaps. Sometimes storm clouds gather like knit brows from beachhead to horizon. I've seen the surf glow with phosphorescent algae on a summer night. It's never the same twice, but it's always a treat. It's one of my favorite shows for visitors from out of town.

The bridge comes before the rise now. Instead of being buried behind the dunes waiting for the surprise spectacle to come into view, now I drive over a bridge, above the dunes, and get to peek behind the curtain before the view opens up in one breathtaking panorama.

Normally I'd be more disappointed. But I know why they're building the bridge, so I don't mind so much.

Since it was built, the Pacific Coast Highway has blocked a natural tidal flow that filled and drained the Bolsa Chica marsh. As it is, the wetlands are rife with life, the rich variety that crowds the intertidal zone--from salt grass to shorebirds to mud snails. But the folks who pay attention to these things have had to artificially create the kind of waterflow that used to happen naturally, as twice-daily tides flushed rich seawater through the brackish shallows, feeding and cleaning the ecosystem.

This bridge will open up the old drainage again, letting the water flow naturally under the road where today a causeway blocks the channel.

So I'm not 100% opposed. But I'll miss my old surprise cathedral.

Now That's a Big Ol' Fat Guy, Uh?

I have great respect for overencumbered people who work out. Whether they're jogging, blading, cycling, even if they're just barely walking, mad props to them for trying. The easy thing is always to settle back in the easy chair and reach for the remote. It's hard to go out and lift a leg, not to mention in public where gawkers are easy to find.

But they do it anyhow, whether it's for health, for fresh air, for an extra jolt of energy--whatever their motivation, they're putting some effort into making their lives better, and I get all warm and mushy when I think about it.

So I'm riding along Pacific Coast Highway the other day, in a fairly urban stretch--not out where the waves crash against cliffs. I'm dodging parked cars and fire hydrants, and I look across the street to see a huge man riding along in the other direction. I'm no slim kid, 235 lbs. without trying, so guessing from my size I'll conservatively peg him at 350. Not huffing and puffing, mind you--he's just cruising along like nobody's business.

The first thing I thought was that I'd never seen a cycling jersey that large. I didn't know they made them that big. I know, because I'm 235 and on days when I'm being honest I'd say I'm too big for my extra-large jersey. They make these for elfin riders like Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie, who weigh about 150 lbs. wet. And yet here this guy is pedaling along in what I'd call a cycling jersey--bright colors, form-fitting cut, jersey fabric.

My wry observation would be that Spandex is a privilege, not a right, but of course I have great respect for folks who go out and try anyway. So I ride on, and as I pass a delivery truck on the right side of the road, the driver gets out of it and says, "Now that's a big ol' fat guy, uh?"

By the time I heard it, I was already really past the truck, so I just laughed as loud as I could and hoped he heard me. If I'd had the five seconds to react, I would have added, "And I'm just a little ol' fat guy, yeah." But he'd already nailed it en passant, and the only right thing to do was to appreciate it out loud.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Play that Phunkle Music

These guys I know--Louie, Dave, and Alex--are in a band.

Hey! Where'd the guitar player go?

Oh. There he is.

Over the Ocean Blue

On Memorial Day morning my cousin called and asked if I wanted to help him test winter repairs on a boat he's been fixing since he was in high school. I said sure. We both had a barbecue to go to later in the afternoon, so this was just a quick dart around the harbor to check systems on board.

I believe this is the Boeing Sea Launch platform used to lob rockets into space from a convenient spot near the Equator, instead of being stuck using launch pads on terra firma. When they're not using it, they tie it up in Long Beach. Note the refinery flare to the left of the ship. Wilmington, which sits just north of the harbor, can sometimes look like an otherworldly scene from The Road Warrior.

This gives you a different perspective on the two white objects (radome and water tank?) at the top of Palos Verdes Peninsula. From my balcony I see only one of these clearly. I'd have to study everything more carefully to figure out which one I rode by the other day.

The Gerald Desmond Bridge, not far from my home. I like this bridge. In fact, I like a lot of non-suspension bridges. Steel members reflect light beautifully in all kinds of different conditions, creating a bridge with shifting aesthetic moods. Sure, suspension bridges change some too in different light, but I don't think they're as expressive. I'm sensitive to the grace of this bridge because it's old, and much talk is made of replacing it. With something dreadful, I'm sure. CalTrans these days seems to prefer suspension bridges, I'm sure for engineering reasons. (Seismic flexibility?) I recognize that an important measure of a bridge is how well it carries traffic.

Every year at the summer solstice, the sun sets directly behind this bridge if you watch from Seapoint, down in Huntington Beach. Particularly because the arch of the bridge echoes the shape of the half-set sun, it's a charming sight that lasts no more than a few minutes: our updated Stonehenge.

It's wicked rough to catch the image with a camera, because the intensity of the light pretty much guarantees that either the bridge will be completely washed out in the sun or you'll lose the foreground palms and surfers, which complete the frame. Sometimes fiction seems more real than reality, but sometimes a camera image leaves you with only a wan replacement for the real thing.

Dust in the Wind

This big pile of yellow dust sits not far from one of the roads I regularly ride. It's down by the refineries of Wilmington. That, plus the color, makes me think it's sulfur. (Around here we see tanker trucks driving around with warning signs on them saying MOLTEN SULFUR.) I don't notice any strong smell as I go by.

I kinda think anything that color can't really be terribly healthy to have out where it can blow all over town.

I also suspect if it were really dangerous they wouldn't be allowed to just pour it out into the blowing wind.

If I wanted to learn more about it, I'm sure I could just turn off and stop by the place where the pile sits. It's a big enough pile that it's easy to spot in satellite shots on Google.

Particulate Matters

Each sunset, like each snowflake, is an entirely unique cliché.

It's remarkably difficult to get a picture of light. Light is usually busy on its way somewhere else and doesn't have time to stop and get into a camera. Generally you have to get something else to interact with the light--to reflect it, to refract it, to scatter it. It's a hit-and-miss operation.

Some would argue that it's actually quite easy to get pictures of light; it's objects that never come into the camera. All you see is the light after it's interacted with the objects, never the objects themselves. Objects are invisible. Light makes an impression on film, or a CCD in a digital camera.

I'd say they're about the same argument.

One way or another, I'm glad all the elements were there to participate for this sunset.