The Suffering, and the Pleasure

It’s sad I’m cribbing from my own cycling blog a post I wrote more than a decade ago. But reflecing on some old cycling memories — and maybe I’ll write more about those in a day or two or three — this is a passage that means a lot tonight. It’s a short passage from the novel “The Rider,” by Tim Krabbé:

“In 1919, Brussells-Amiens was won by a rider who rode the last forty kilometers with a flat front tire. Talk about suffering! He arrived at 11.30 at night, with a ninety-minute leave on the only other two riders who finished the race. That day had been like night, trees whipped back and forth, farmers were blown back into their barns, there were hailstones, bomb craters from the war, crossroads where the gendarmes had run away and riders had to climb onto one another’s shoulders to wipe clean the muddied road signs.

“After the finish, all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride. ‘Good for you.’ Instead of expressing gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.”

The King is Dead; Long May He Whine

As a connoisseur of bad news for Cadel Evans, the defending champion of the Tour de France, I can’t help but savor the bitterness in this hometown report of his latest Tour travails:

“Cadel Evans’s Tour de France miseries have continued with more struggles on the final mountain phase of the race. The defending champion finished the 143.5km stage from Bagneres to Peyragudes in 18th place, 2mins,10secs behind convicted drug cheat Alejandro Valverde.”

That is a thing of beauty. The hero is struggling. But let’s put the spotlight on someone who was once busted for doping (and has served his penalty. If memory serves, he’s the second rider on this Tour, along with Garmin’s David Millar, to come back from a doping ban to win a stage).

As for Cadel: Yes, I half-ashamedly admit I’ve rooted against him for most of his career. And he reminded me why yesterday, when he blew up during a brutally tough stage in the Pyrenees and then explained it all happened because he had a bad tummy. That is the Cadel we had come to know and love before last year’s victory: the one who was quick with an alibi for every bad day. You just wonder why he doesn’t do what most of the other riders seem to do and say something like, “You know, I just didn’t have it today.”

In the end, I think Phil Liggett had it right in his recap for Australian TV: Evans didn’t have the form he had last year, “and the Tour always finds you out.”

Berkeley Cycling: Going to a Dangerous Place

[Update: ‘A Dangerous Place, Part II’]

The week before last, a cyclist was killed descending South Park Drive in the Berkeley Hills. News reports say the rider, Kim Flint, crossed the center line and hit the side of an uphill-bound vehicle. He was airlifted to a hospital in Walnut Creek, where he died.

Here’s the twist to the tragedy, as reported in a subsequent story carried on The Bay Citizen and in the Bay Area pages of The New York Times: Flint may have been attempting to set a speed record on the descent to maintain his first-place ranking on a site called Strava, like other sites, allows riders to upload data about their cycling performance and create publicly viewable online training and ride logs. Unlike other sites (that I know of), it keeps records of times for defined road segments. Until shortly after Flint’s death, there was a “King of the Mountain” ranking listed for South Park downhills.

What I find interesting about the Bay Citizen/Times article is the series of leaps it makes to more or less attribute Flint’s death to his activity on Strava. I say “interesting” because it’s from the same reporter who put together a complete, well-reasoned, and sensitive piece for the local news blog Berkeleyside then produced this second story that suggests Strava was an “obsession” for Flint, who recorded the fastest Strava time down South Park in early June. “But on June 15,” the second story says, “another rider bested his time by four seconds, prompting Mr. Flint to ride that stretch again four days later.” There’s no support in the story–statements from Flint or from his fellow riders–for the notion that Flint was “obsessed” with Strava or that his fatal ride on June 19 was driven by a hunger to reclaim his Strava record. In fact, based on the evidence available on Strava, there’s little to suggest that Flint or anyone else is particularly obsessed with the South Park descent. The site lists 71 total descents of the segment since the fall of 2007, with 34 of those this year. Flint is listed twice–once last August, and once during his “record” run in early June–before the ride on which he crashed. Just one quote from another cyclist about what sort of rider Flint was, how he handled himself on the road or on this hill, would be persuasive in helping us understand his “obsession.” The second story offers nothing; the first story includes a long quote from a friend and fellow rider who emphasized Flint was not a reckless type.

But the real point here isn’t whether someone’s sensationalizing a story by suggesting that a speed-crazed cyclist may have been driven to his death by a website that encourages dangerous behavior. No, it’s this: Cycling can be dangerous, and never is the danger more present (though perhaps not obvious) than during a steep descent. Strava or no Strava, the ride down South Park Drive demands skill and attention. Many riders, including me, have hit 50 mph on their way down. When I read that someone had been killed up there, I could imagine two or three places that could happen, including the spot where the accident occurred. All it takes is carrying a little bit too much speed into a corner, finding something in the road you weren’t expecting–some gravel or an animal, say–or a moment’s distraction, and you can be in trouble fast.

That having been said, the focus on Strava is misguided. The virtual competition encouraged by the site is simply another version of what happens whenever groups of fast, fit, competitive cyclists get together. They’ll often ride aggressively–on the climbs, on the flats, in sprints, and yes, on descents, too. Why? Bottom line, it’s challenging and fun. I remember seeing a couple of longboard skateboarders on Grizzly Peak, getting ready to go down Claremont. I followed on my bike to see how fast they’d go. I can’t really tell you, though, because my top speed, in the high 40s, wasn’t fast enough to keep them in sight. I did see the guys at the bottom. They were getting a ride back to the top to do it again. They were were doing something that was very hazardous and required a high degree of courage and ability, and they were having a blast.

None of which is to discount the tragedy of Mr. Flint’s death. Most of us who have ridden the roads hereabouts take an incident like this to heart. We can all too easily remember at least once when, whether through our own error or another’s, we’ve narrowly avoided serious injury or worse. Point is, it’s really the nature of the activity itself and the sum of all our habits, skills, and even emotions that lead us to this dangerous place, not the inducements of a Death Race website. That being the case, it’s important to ride with some discipline–this coming from someone who got stopped by the UC police for rolling through a stoplight on Friday night–and with a commitment to being safe.

On the Bike: Most Memorable Road Food

The Grizzly Peak Cyclists, a local club here in Berkeley, has a slogan: “Eat to Ride, Ride to Eat.” You’ve got both sides of the cyclist’s eating equation right there: you need to fuel up to do this calorie-burning exercise, and this calorie-burning exercise allows you to indulge in one of the major pleasures in life–good food. The GPC holds a century every May, a hilly tour of the East Bay, and it justly prides itself on offering the best spread of any cycling event anywhere. Lots of fresh fruit and roasted potatoes at every stop along with a wide assortment of home-made cookies and quick breads that would be really bad for you if you weren’t out riding your bike. The lunch and end stop are renowned for having all of the above plus roast chicken and salads and more.
But for cyclists, fueling up is often–nearly always?–a matter of bowing to the necessity for jamming calories down one’s gullet, not enjoying the experience of eating. The two main reasons: Time and convenience. To cover distance, you have to eat fast or on the bike. To eat fast, you eat processed, packaged items. To climb off the bike, walk in a cafe or restaurant and actually order something to eat? What an indulgence.

A good meal or a decent restaurant experience in the midst of a ride can be nourishing beyond one’s simple nutritional requirements. It can give you a break when a ride has become a grind. It can give you a chance to meet some of those strangers we’re always zipping past. And, if you’re lucky, it might even give you a chance to eat real, identifiable, tasty food that will give you a boost when you’re back on the bike.
I know everyone’s got their own list of favorites–tell me about them!–but here are a few of the rewarding food stops I’ve had along the road. Most are commercial ventures you can visit yourself; a couple are one-off food offerings that cannot be replicated unless you have some very, very good and dedicated foody friends.

1. Marshall Store/Marshall, California: Go for the chowder, stay for the Sierra Nevada. The Marshall Store is on Highway 1 in Marin County, on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay. It’s also on the route of some of the brevets put on by the San Francisco Randonneurs. My very first 200-kilometer brevet with that club, in 2003, began as a rainy day and then turned blustery and cool. The route included a 10-mile leg north along Highway 1 from Point Reyes Station into what had built into a pretty healthy headwind that had whipped up whitecaps on the bay. I’ll ever forget getting to the store, where we had been told they’d have extra chowder ready for us. I got a cup, some bread, and a ginger beer. Wow! Restorative! Also exhilarating: The knowledge that heading back south I had a tailwind waiting for me. I’ve stopped here many times since and on one wet ride even had a Sierra Nevada pale ale along with my chowder (across the table from me: one of the brewery’s sales managers).
2. Pete’s home-cooked soup/Calistoga, California: Again from ’03. I did my first 600-kilometer brevet that year. That’s 375 miles in the course of a weekend, and while I was in good enough shape, I was barely prepared for the lack of sleep or the misery of a night and morning of cold rain on a tough climb. Come to think of it, I had a series of bad and good food moments on that brevet. Early on, I went into a state where I found food very unpalatable, almost nauseating. As I failed to take any significant calories on board, I started to fade and struggled out to the turnaround point, situated in a sodden campground in the redwoods along Highway 128 west of Boonville. It was pouring rain out there, and I stood under a tarp and unenthusiastically ate a Cup o’ Noodles. I got back on my bike wondering whether I really had another 190 miles in me. Then, a roadside apple cider stand appeared. I stopped and got some fresh apple juice, which somehow went down with no complaint. I had a second glass, and got on my bike. I made it to Boonville, where I passed a restaurant called Horn of Zees (that’s “cup of coffee” in the local argot, called Boontling). Suddenly I was hungry. I parked my bike, took off all my wet stuff, went in and ordered eggs and toast and potatoes. It tasted great. I still had a big climb ahead, on Highway 253 between the Anderson Valley and Ukiah. But the food was working, and I managed to grind up the ascent, taking my time but not stopping. The weather was improving — some showery rain on the descent. And by the time I got in and out of Ukiah, it was a sunny, warm May afternoon with a freshening northerly wind. I hit Calistoga, about 75 miles from the finish in Davis, just after dark. My friend Pete drove up from Napa to meet me. In addition to moral support, he brought some outrageously good split pea soup, some home-made bread, and a big cookie he had whipped up. I don’t think anything has ever tasted better. As it happened, I had a long night ahead of me, but that food and the gift of bringing it to me on the roadside kept me pushing.
3. Cook’s Station/Pioneer, California: Another memory of 2003. My friend Bruce and I took on an epic training tour of the northern Sierra as our final training for that year’s Paris-Brest-Paris. We took the train up to Sacramento on the last Wednesday night in July, then hit the road at 6 a.m. Thursday morning bound for South Lake Tahoe–about 145 miles and 13,000 feet of climbing away. Bruce had a rack and bag mounted to a seatpost, I was carrying clothes, supplies, and water in a large Camelbak. We fueled up at a Denny’s in Fair Oaks, then headed up HIghway 16 to Plymouth. I remember passing through Fiddletown and riding up something called Shake Ridge Road. Given the season, it was blazing hot. We emerged onto Highway 88, and started riding east and up. At about the 5,000 foot level, and I’m guessing maybe 80 miles or so into our ride, we saw a cafe: Cook’s Station. All I remember is hamburgers and fries and Cokes with lots of ice, and friendly service and more ice to go into our water bottles and Camelbaks when we left the place. I have no idea how the food would taste if I pulled over on a car trip, but on this day, it was an oasis, and one still fondly remembered.
4. The Polka Dot/Quincy, California: On Day Two of our Sierra epic, Bruce and I rode up along the west side of Lake Tahoe, through Truckee, then up Highway 89 to Sierraville. Right at the crossroads there–89 meets 49 there–we ate at the Round Up Cafe. Perhaps we weren’t in desperate-enough straits to love the place, but the memory is: decent food, very long wait.  We rode north on 89 through Graeagle (ice-cream stop) and on to Quincy. For some reason, the heat really hit us there. Luckily, as we came into town we passed a drive-in, the Polka Dot, which advertised “Frosties.” Don’t know what Bruce had, but I had a big root-beer float. Like every root-beer float on a hot day, it was the best one ever. What may have given this one the edge: the presence of a little picnic area next to the drive-in that had a small irrigation ditch with ice-cold water in it. Without a doubt the best float/foot-soak combo ever. Come to think of it, this day ended with another food experience: We wound up in a battered little motel in Greenville, cleaned up, then hopped on our bikes and the six or seven miles back to the hotel in Crescent Mills for a great dinner. Sadly, the hotel and the restaurant have shut down since our visit.
5. Veronica’s house/Marin County, California: In 2007, I did a 24-hour event called a fleche (French for arrow) with a squad of like-minded long-distance cyclists (each group in the event is limited to five riders). The challenge in a fleche is to set a schedule that lets you comfortably cover the required minimum distance (360 kilometers, about 225 miles) without working too hard or not hard enough. It’s a different mindset–this is a 200-mile ride! gotta take care of business!–than the one that takes hold when you have a long way to go. There’s time to socialize, there’s time to stop and eat, and there’s an enforced halt that bars you from being closer to 25 miles to the end with two hours to go (why this requirement? Ask the French). On the ’07 fleche, we started from Berkeley, rode up to Winters (which has two fine eateries for cyclists–the Putah Creek Cafe and Steady Eddy’s Coffee), then headed over to the Napa Valley and from there into Sonoma County. We ate dinner in Healdsburg, then commenced our leisurely nightlong leg toward the Golden Gate Bridge. One of our teammates, Veronica, lived along the route, and we made her house our last stop). She had prepared some dishes and enlisted her two teenage kids to get everything ready for us when we arrived–I think she made a call home to them at about 4 in the morning to alert them of our arrival within the hour). I’ll be honest–I don’t remember what I ate, other than the fact it was breakfasty, hot, and good and with plenty of juice and coffee. But the experience, having the kids take care of a pack of strange, smelly, cyclists in the middle of the night, was one of the best I’ve ever had on a ride.
6. Motel cafe/St. Francis, Kansas: How good is the food in St. Francis? While doing a 1,000-kilometer brevet that ran from Boulder, Colorado, out to north-central Kansas and back, I rode for a while with the ride organizer, John Lee. As we neared St. Francis, on U.S. 36 just east of the Colorado line, he waxed enthusiastic about the culinary choices ahead: “They’ve got pizza,” he enthused. So I imagined … pizza. What he had in mind was the quick-stop market that included a row of molded plastic booths and display cases of pre-fab, foil-wrapped food items kept hot under infrared lamps. “Pizza” turned out to be one of those pre-fab items. I think I opted for “cheeseburger.” Eventually I washed the taste away with a Bud imbibed in a cinder-block bar along the highway in an even smaller town, McDonald. The ride grew tougher after that. A strong southerly breeze was blowing by the time I hit the road at my overnight stop, Acton, Kansas. All day long, I fought a 25 mph crosswind. The first open cafe we came to, in Norton, was lousy. The turnaround town, Kensington, had a town market with a cafeteria-style lunch counter. It looked like great food, a bunch of townspeople were there for lunch, and the other riders all raved about it. But I was in one of my “can’t-eat, don’t want to eat” moments and rode on without lunch. Instead, I ate at a fly-blown McDonald’s back in Norton. Bad news, and more to come in Oberlin, where I ate the gas-station quick mart (more Kansas “pizza”). The wind seemed to drop a bit on the final leg back to Atwood, where, with about 470 miles in my legs in 40 hours, all I wanted to do was sleep.
The wind was blowing the next morning, too, where the first open cafe we’d find would be in St. Francis. I can tell you that it took about four hours to go fewer than 50 miles and that the stars out there on the Plains were incredible. St. Francis is nestled in a narrow valley created by the Republican River, and on first sight looks green and welcoming, an oasis. Up close, it’s a little harder on the eyes, but rolling in after a long battle with the wind was a relief. John Lee had advised there were two cafes in town and recommended one–I honestly can’t remember which now–maybe The Dusty Farmer. Another Bay Area rider and I stopped there. The food–just eggs, bacon, toast and coffee–was actually pretty tasty. I commented on that to the owner, and asked why the place was empty at 7:30 on a weekday. Well, he said, he was new in town, and had bought the cafe and an adjoining motel as an investment. He thought he had an inside track for local business–his son was the town football coach. But he was finding that even though he’d gone out and found a good cook, no one would give the place a chance. Most of his business was coming from crews drilling for oil nearby. It was a sad scene–the guy had egg on his shirt, as I remember, a couple days’ growth of beard, and was missing his upper front teeth. Would I go back? Next time I’m riding through Kansas in a wind storm.

Top Reasons Not to Ride Your Bike

1. No more altercations with surly, clueless motorists.

3. Carry your spare tire with you everywhere, not just on the road.

5. Fewer saddle sores and miscellaneous numbness issues.

6. Drive more, do your part to hasten end of Oil Era and onset of Clean, Green Age

8. More couch time for aerobically challenging sports on TV.

9. More leisure to drink beer, set up empties in a “pace line.”

The Reward


A basic Berkeley bike ride: Start at my house, 120 feet above sea level. Take your favorite route up through the neighborhoods towards Spruce Street, one of the main roads into the hills (I ride up the north, purely residential end of Shattuck Avenue to Indian Rock, then to Santa Barbara, then the short, sharp climb up Northampton to Spruce). At the top of Spruce, roughly 2.2 meandering miles from home and at an elevation of about 800 feet, turn right on Grizzly Peak. The direction you’re conscious of going is up; you may not perceive until looking at a map later that you’ve been riding mostly north on Spruce and that as you climb the ridge on Grizzly Peak you’ve doubled back south. After the first quarter-mile on Grizzly Peak, you get to a long stretch where the climb is pretty gentle. You’re around 960 feet or so when cross Marin Avenue and just under 1100 as you approach the Shasta Gate into Tilden Park. Then you plunge down past the intersection with Shasta Road and climb again to the city limits and cross Centennial Drive where it tops out on its ascent from the UC-Berkeley campus, elevation about 1250 and about 5 miles from my front door. The road then climbs more twistily, steadily and steeply–though far from punishingly steep–for another 1.7 miles or so to the top of the road–a shade under 1700 feet.

So if you’re keeping track of all that, that’s a climb of something like 1550 vertical feet in 6.7 miles right outside the front door. Again, the way it unfolds with its long, gradual stretches is not a killer. But it’s not a bad workout, either.

When I first went up Grizzly Peak, in 1980, I think, I was stunned by the views. The road clings to the western slope of a very steep ridge, so you have a pretty much wide open view across Berkeley to the Bay and beyond. About a quarter-mile or so before the top of the road, where the pops over a last little rise before leveling out and pitching down toward toward the Claremont/Fish Ranch saddle, there’s a nice turnout with a stone wall. I used to stop there every time I went up the road to take in the view. I thought of it as my reward for working to get there. It was also a good place to take a breather. Then at some point I became more focused on getting up across the top as quickly as I could, and I didn’t stop there much anymore.

Today I did. For a minute. To see the view. To drink in the warmth of this amazing October day. To take a couple of pictures. It was a good reward.

Short Sunday Ride: Quotes from the Road

Three things people said to me while I was out riding yesterday (a 1.5-hour loop from North Berkeley, up Tunnel Road, down Grizzly Peak):

*”Hi.” (One of four cyclist who passed while I was dropping off something at a friend’s house).

*Be careful!” (Another cyclist on Tunnel Road warning me about a car approaching from behind. I was in an awkward spot on a curve, trying to turn left. Everything turned out fine.)

*F— you! You punk!” (A driver on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley. He had pulled his aged white Mazda in front of me when I was doing about 30 down the hill. It was an oblivious move, but didn’t result in too close a call. Within a block or two, he put on his turn signal to go right, and was staring at me as I passed him (I knew because I looked over at him). I said, “Honest to God …” in a sort of resigned way, and he responded with the above. It came out in an enraged scream that made me realize 1) he probably didn’t hear what I said and 2) he had worse problems than careless driving. I was relieved he didn’t follow me.)

Friday Night Ferry: The Walk


On Mariposa Street, just east of Potrero Avenue. This one-block slope is at the beginning of my Friday evening walk from KQED to the Ferry Building. From that stop sign up above, I turn right, then cross U.S. 101 on the pedestrian overpass that connects to 18th Street on the east side of the freeway. One more block up from there is Kansas Street, a corner with one of the great views of downtown. From there, I walk north and east down the slope of Potrero Hill and across the South of Market flats to the Bay, sometimes walking over the low eminence of Rincon Hill. What I noticed most about the walk this week: It’s getting dark much earlier than it did just a month ago.

Friday Night Ferry: The Walk


On Mariposa Street, just east of Potrero Avenue. This one-block slope is at the beginning of my Friday evening walk from KQED to the Ferry Building. From that stop sign up above, I turn right, then cross U.S. 101 on the pedestrian overpass that connects to 18th Street on the east side of the freeway. One more block up from there is Kansas Street, a corner with one of the great views of downtown. From there, I walk north and east down the slope of Potrero Hill and across the South of Market flats to the Bay, sometimes walking over the low eminence of Rincon Hill. What I noticed most about the walk this week: It’s getting dark much earlier than it did just a month ago.