Sunday, April 15, 2007

Trees, Light, Weather

No Reservations Required

In the Tejon Pass in Southern California, variously known as the “ridge route” north from Los Angeles, or just the Grapevine, the town of Gorman nestles among hills prone to explosions of wildflowers in the spring.

I’ve seen these hills covered in snow, and I’ve seen them richly carpeted with purple lupine, yellow mustard, orange California poppies, dotted with red and blue and white from other flowers. Every spring brings a different palette, sometimes richer, sometimes just a dusting.

Skies yesterday were overcast as I headed north, so colors were muted, but the hills were definitely in bloom. No telling whether it’ll get richer or fade as we wander on through April.

The orange smudge up near the ridge here may be a field of poppies. The purple in most of these pictures will be lupine. It’s really striking and beautiful on green grass lush from spring rain. The poppy field scene in The Wizard of Oz was filmed not far from here, in a preserve my mom visited when she was a girl and remembered the rest of her life.

These hills aren’t a preserve, just part of the free entertainment for truckers and tourists headed north into the Central Valley on California’s longest highway.

Changes Afoot

Standing down at Jones Bicycles waiting to pay for a chain-cleaning brush and a can of degreaser, I noticed these pedals in the glass case at the counter.

My complaint about pedals with special latches to hook cycling shoes into is that once you install them, you can’t really ride with anything but cycling shoes.

When I lived in New York, I used to ride with cycling pedals (for complicated reasons, they’re called “clipless,” because a “clip” on a pedal is something different). I used Looks, which were adapted from ski bindings. They were extremely efficient at transferring my leg’s efforts into the drive mechanism, and they let me cycle with both legs at once—pulling up with the hind leg as I pushed down with the front one. Clipless pedals also enforce a better riding position; without them I tend to let my foot slip forward so I’m pedaling with more of my arch than I should.

But once you’ve got Look pedals on your bike, you can’t ride in flipflops or sneakers or anything but your cycling shoes.

Which brings up the other objection I have to specialized cycling pedals—the cost. A typical set of shoes plus pedals can cost more than what I paid for my bike in the first place.

But the profile on these pedals caught my eye. They looked as if you could ride them in flipflops without that eggbeater in the middle sticking up into your foot. So if you want to go on a long ride on a beach trail or a highway, you can use cycling shoes and get maximum speed and endurance from your legs, but if you just want to jump on your bike and go down to the grocery store for some orange juice, you don’t have to strap on anything special, and when you get there you’ll be wearing something comfortable to walk in.

Also they didn’t cost too much. Unless you wanted the titanium version.

The eggbeater in the middle spins freely, and you can clip into it no matter what position it’s in. When you push your toe cleat down into it, the spring in the center gives a little, and the cleat drops in and hooks the eggbeater.

Note the freshly brushed and degreased chain.

The cleats come with the pedals—each pedal manufacturer uses a slightly different system, so they give you cleats that can be mounted to many different biking shoes. The shoes come without cleats, but with bolt holes on a plate that can slide forward and back depending on your riding position and the nature of the clipless system you’re using.

You clip into different pedals in slightly different ways, but the standard for unhooking is that you pivot your heel out slightly, and your foot pops right out. So in New York when I had to slam on the brakes at a treacherous intersection, I could get my foot down on the pavement right away.

These unhook a little more easily than the Looks, which I like. Haven’t decided yet whether they’re easier or harder to clip into, or whether the attachment to the pedal does the same job while you’re up and riding.

As a bonus, I was able to get shoes that had more normal soles than regular road cycling shoes, which are no fun to walk in. These aren’t quite as natural as regular shoes, but they’re a big step in the right direction.

I wore the shoes around on carpet at home for a few days to make sure they fit before I went out and scuffed them up on the road. Sizing can be tricky with bike shoes—you want them snug for efficient energy transfer, but not so tight they cut off blood flow.

And then after I finally put the pedals on, I made sure I jumped on with flipflops to confirm what I’d hoped. The answer is yes: You can ride these pedals comfortably with regular street shoes.

Now I have to decide on my next group ride whether I want to wear these shoes and join the crowd of people popping and clipping at every rest stop. Of course it makes more sense to ride with the new shoes. But I’d lose track of about half the people who recognize me as that crazy guy who rides in flipflops.

Because April is the cruelest month (unless you’re the Internal Revenue Service), I’ve been spending most of the month in front of a computer screen staring at numbers. The shoes are my promise to myself that this too shall pass. I did finally get out on them yesterday morning for about twenty minutes, and I was delighted with how easily they mounted and rode. I came home without pushing down on the pedals at all—only pulling up. It exercises a whole different set of muscles, and leaves your legs better balanced. It felt good to be able to ride right again.

Here’s why I don’t go into bike stores, even to get degreaser and a chain brush: I could tell already, even on a short ride like that, that I need to sit higher above the pedals to get maximum benefit from my upstroke. Where my seat is now, and especially now that I’m pedaling with a more forward part of my foot, my leg doesn’t fully extend at the bottom of the cycle. So I could get more energy from every stroke (down and up, actually) if I raised my seat.

But my seat post is really at maximum extension already. So to raise it I’d need to get a longer seat post.

But to do the job right, rather than overextending my seat post, what I really should be doing is getting a frame with a longer shaft, which would fit my body better. And once you’re getting a new frame . . .

Turns out degreaser is more expensive than you’d expect.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Long Division With Roman Numerals

“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007

I don’t have time these days to write much here, but it would be wrong not to note the passing of a man who gave the world and its oddest creatures much thought.

“Our planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of people,” he complained, but he never gave up on humanity. He celebrated “humanism,” which he described as trying “to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishment in an afterlife.”

“If I should ever die, God forbid,” he wrote in 2005, “I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

Well, I guess Kurt’s up in heaven now.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Neither Rain, Nor Snow . . .

First of all, a big shout-out to NBC for bringing us a world-class cycling event live on regular broadcast TV right here in the U.S. of A.: today’s U.S. Open Cycling Championship in Virginia. It’s good to see there’s room for cycling in between all the other golf, NASCAR, Fear Factor, and other sporting events that do get broadcast time.

But then an even bigger lump of praise for Svein Tuft of British Columbia (Team Symmetrics) for riding 117 miles to finish first, starting in Williamsburg in snow and nasty crosswinds and finishing up in Richmond many seconds ahead of his nearest competition after eight laps on cobblestone hills and across railroad tracks—a definitive victory.

It’s not so much that he won; it’s how he defined it. After the race, he told Frankie Andreu, who’s ridden a few rough roads himself in his day:

“It comes down to, you know, who wants to suffer the most.”

That about sums it up.

I was so inspired I went downstairs and went out for an 11.7-mile ride through, um, overcast skies. Not too many cobblestones on the beach path. I may not be the one who wants to suffer most. For today, I’m happy being the one who admires best.

Words and Pictures

It was a different world.

I was on the brink of my first paying job in journalism: That summer I got up every morning before the dawn, strapped canvas bags over my shoulders, straddled my ten-speed bike and rode off to deliver the San Francisco Chronicle not too far from where I lived.

Back then, there was only one Star Wars movie, and it was called Star Wars. Purists raised on Star Trek reruns cocked an eyebrow at explosions that could be heard in space, but at least it was something fresh to watch. Star Trek was long past being renewed by any network, and on little TV screens its special effects couldn’t compete with the six-track theatrical hum of light sabers and the vast proportions of an Imperial battle cruiser. Carrie Fisher had not yet met Paul Simon, who back then was famous mostly for being half of the defunct singing duo Simon and Garfunkel.

I remember the television show Nova ran a really cool segment around that time about hydrogen-powered cars, the technology of the future. I remember when the phone company came out and replaced all our rotary-dial phones with pushbutton models. For some reason when we call someone on the phone today, we still say we’re “dialing” their number. Back then, the telephone company owned your telephone, and if it was broken, they’d come out and fix it. If you wanted a telephone that looked different, you could pay an extra monthly fee and they’d offer you some distinguished-looking custom telephone. Otherwise all our phones looked the same, except the color of the plastic.

Up on a hill west of our neighborhood was Hewlett Packard. Their buildings were nondescript, but we all knew who they were. HP made computers. Handheld digital calculators were pretty neat back in those days—you could multiply or divide numbers as long as eight digits—but those were the domain of Texas Instruments. Hewlett Packard made serious computers—the kind you could program.

And I had, because our school district had one of these, its own computer, an HP 2000. We kids could could sign up for a timeshare account and learn to program in BASIC (Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). You could program a little tic-tac-toe game, for example. Each time you or the computer moved, the teletype would chatter away and print a fresh diagram—using only uppercase letters and the symbols available on a typewriter—showing what the game looked like now. We went through roll after roll of computer paper. I wrote programs more than a hundred lines long.

Up behind Hewlett Packard, near the top of the hill, was another long low-lying building: the West Coast headquarters of the Wall Street Journal. The Journal had a West Coast printing plant so folks in the business world could read its reports they day they were published. The New York Times could be delivered by air mail, but that meant you’d get it a few days late. Unless you worked in an office that spent the money to rent a teletype machine with access to wire services, there was no other way to see Wall Street news before it appeared in the local papers.

Our neighbors got the Wall Street Journal, a serious paper with no comics page. In my room in the front of the house, I heard the car drive up our cul-de-sac early every morning to toss their copy into their driveway. I thought what intelligent people they must be.

I remember touring the printing plant of the Palo Alto Times, a noisy place with lots of fast-moving newsprint. They used hot lead plates to put the ink on the paper. To change a page, you had to make a new mold, then cast a new metal plate. I was fascinated to see how black-and-white pictures could be converted into tiny dots of different sizes, then transferred to the page. This was nothing new, of course, but I was young and learning.

There was a girl in some of my classes whose older brother was friends with mine. We met, then, because she knew who Albert was and I knew who her brother Andy was. Our brothers were off in high school, doing the mythic things that older brothers in high school do, like rebelling and discovering really cool new music. What I knew of Andy was mostly gleaned third-hand from conversations Albert had with my parents. I did know that older people were more intelligent.

It really was a different world.

If you had told me back then that one day I’d be able to type up some words over breakfast and have them show up on TV screens attached to computers of six friends all over the world, I probably would have believed you, because I’d seen movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. (If you had told me I’d have friends who lived on space stations, I would have believed that too.) I would have been thrilled if you’d added that I would have a flip-open communicator just like on the Enterprise.

If you had told me that in less than ten years I’d be helping typeset a weekly trade magazine about the computer industry, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But if you told me that twenty years after that a better medium than paper would make the print version of that journal obsolete, I would have been baffled. Movies about the future, Nova—none of these showed new ways to read. And yet there it is on my sofa, a headline proudly proclaiming InfoWorld’sFinal Print Issue,” articles inside bragging about how they’re keeping their staff and saving trees. Berners-Lee trumps Gutenberg. I checked the dateline to be sure, and it was April 2, not April 1. I remember making dummy April Fool’s Day covers to circulate in the office, back when we used to use a mainframe to set type electronically.

Back then, if you had asked me back then what some friend of my hugely intelligent older brother might do that would find its way into the pages (yes, pages) of the Wall Street Journal thirty years hence, I might have guessed he’d be an inventor, or some kind of new corporate executive bringing humanity to a boardroom, or a technological miracle worker bringing relief to famine-stricken countries in Africa.

I would not have guessed that this new medium that let the masses publish what they like would have left stately old icons of serious news gasping for oxygen, or that the Wall Street Journal would have added a weekend entertainment section (and colored ink!) in a struggle to stay relevant. Nor would I have guessed that Janet’s older brother Andy would have been spotlighted in a rather hefty thought-piece in the Journal for his performance on a TV game show.

No, reportage on game shows wouldn’t have sounded like the Journal, and it wouldn’t seem like what one of our brothers would get famous for. Something to do with saving the world, maybe.

But it was a different world then.