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.”

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.

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.

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.

Bicycle Wheels

bicyclewheel1.jpgUpdate (January 2013): Here's a fresh post, by a French blogger, recounting the history of "Bicycle Wheel," Duchamp, and the many iterations of this work: "A Hundred Years Ago: 'Bicycle Wheel,' by Marcel Duchamp."

Original 2009 post:

A few days ago, I was looking for an online image of a bicycle wheel that I could use as a Twitter icon. Talk about having a high purpose.

I happened upon a Museum of Modern Art image of "Bicycle Wheel," a found or "readymade" art object by French artist Marcel Duchamp. It's a sweet and goofy construction: a bicycle wheel and fork mounted upside-down on a tall stool. Many aspects of a bike lend themselves to wonder and introspection–everything from the the double-triangle frame design to the bearings and races in a hub–but the wheel ranks right up there at the top with its combination of fragility and strength. Duchamp is said to have enjoyed spinning his stool-mounted wheel and is widely quoted as saying, ""I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace."

The MoMa site has a nice picture of one of the three Bicycle Wheel constructions Duchamp is said to have made The first of the three Bicycle Wheels, dated in 1913, was "lost." The MoMa wheel is dated 1951, is said to be the thirdand features a classic raked-forward fork. The way it's presented on the site, there's no question it's an objet d'arte. (The version pictured here appears to be the same sculpture; it's uncredited and found here. I'm seeking permission to publish the MoMa's image here; we'll see if I get it).

Below is another another Duchamp "Bicycle Wheel" that appears (with no copyright notices) here and there on the Web (this image is from Wikicommons). The source says "replica," but I believe that refers to the fact it's a Duchamp copy of the lost original.


What I love about dipping into something like this is the impromptu museum tour that happens. "Bicycle Wheel" in MoMa: check. Another version in some other exhibition: check. The next stop is (if picture captions are to be believed) is Duchamp's studio a few years after he first put wheel and stool together.


There it is, the object pre-veneration, the wheel askew, apparently just part of the disarray in an artist's quarters. You can appreciate the inspiration and the execution–and the suggestion the creator apparently didn't take it too seriously.

All of which brings us to our final display: the continuing life of "Bicycle Wheel" outside the gallery. For starters, we have the creation of "The Duchamp," a found musical instrument. And this alternate take on the concept. And finally: Duchamp Reloaded, by an artist who liberates "Bicycle Wheel" to experience the life of New York's streets.


(Photo: Ji Lee, "Duchamp Reloaded." Used with permission.)

Long-Distance Riders

I’ve meant to note for the last couple of days that this is the week of the Gold Rush Randonee. My explanation of a randonee usually prompts a reaction combining puzzlement (why would someone do such a thing?) with horror (you mean people really do that without being forced?). Here’s your basic randonee: 750 miles in 90 hours, with a series of checkpoints on the way to make sure you’re moving along smartly and not taking shortcuts.

So far, you’re just quizzical: “Yes? Hmmm. That’s a long way.”

You are correct. In ballpark numbers, 750 miles is a distance akin to San Francisco to Seattle. If you’re very motivated, you can probably do that drive in 13 hours up Interstate 5. On a bike, you want to build up to the adventure. Nice 50-mile increments would be pleasant. Take a couple of weeks to enjoy the scenery. Or maybe you’re a cycling animal and you do a 100 miles per diem, a century a day for eight days.

Here’s where curiosity encounters fear. “Ninety hours? How many days is that?”

Three and three-quarters. So to do your 750 miles in that time means pedaling a cool double-century a day. Yes, people actually do it. I can bear witness. But I won’t detour into some of the odder realities of the randonee–the night-time starts, the all-night rides, the naps in the ditches, the slow descent into an often less than coherent or rational frame of mind.

Still, you can’t help but ask: “How do you sit on a bike seat after all those miles?”

I just wanted to note the Gold Rush riders are out there, toiling from Davis, at the southwestern corner of the Sacramento Valley, across mountains and high desert to Davis Creek, just below the Oregon border on U.S. 395. They left Monday at 6 p.m., and the first rider of the 117 who started will be back in Davis in two hours or so — only 54 or 55 hours on the road. I’d like to know how much that guy slept. I know several folks on the ride, and it’s been fun to follow their progress in the Davis Bike Club’s updates. My friend Bruce, who will turn 63 this August, seems to be several hours ahead of his pace four years ago. Amazing, really.

Anyway, check out the proceedings:

Gold Rush Randonee ride updates

Gold Rush Randonee rider times

Tweeting the Tour

Yes, the Tour de France started today, which is the annual early-July signal to take even more leave of my senses than usual. As the late, mostly unlamented Church Lady said, “Isn’t that special?”

My Tour Twitter feed:

My cycling blog, which goes sadly neglected most of the time: re: Cycling

Regularly unscheduled programming will continue here at Infospigot, with occasional break-ins with cycling news of cosmic significance.

Former Bike Rider Reminisces

As a former bike rider, I still remember how to balance a two-wheeler and sometimes venture out into the world to remind myself what it feels like to roll along the local pavements.

This morning I had an appointment over on Solano Avenue, a couple miles from home. I rode over. Then afterward, I rode up Solano and wound my way into the hills. Just to remind myself what that uphill trudge feels like.

I got to the top of Los Angeles Avenue, which is short and no big deal though it has a semi-steep pitch at the end. I was taking it very easy and riding in my lowest low gear.

Turning uphill on Spruce, perhaps the most popular way into the hills on the north end of Berkeley, another rider appeared alongside me. He was going faster than I and was visibly fitter, too. We said hi and wished each other a good ride, and within a few seconds he was pulling away. As I got ready to turn uphill on Keith Avenue, a quiet and steepish side street, the Other Cyclist was maybe 100 feet ahead of me.

I stayed in my low gear up Keith and crossed Euclid Avenue. Then I started a sort of side-step up the ridge toward Grizzly Peak Boulevard. From Keith, which has a gentle grade east of Euclid, I turned on to Bret Harte Way, which probably has a 16 or 17 percent grade (and grade is a measure of a road’s slope: 10 percent means a 10-unit vertical change for every 100 linear units; 10 feet in 100 feet, or 10 meters in 100 meters. Given my out-of-shape linebacker physique, which my legs have to carry up these hills, I regard 10 percent as pretty steep. In Berkeley, Marin Avenue climbs into the hills with gradients of roughly 20 to 30 percent, and the steepest street I’ve heard of in town is said to be 31 percent. That’s another way of saying darn near impossible for mere mortals and former bike riders).

At each corner, I tried to turn uphill. The way it worked out, I alternated between steep eastbound pitches like Bret Harte Way and flatter south-trending pieces like Cragmont. And so it went, up Bret Harte Road (steep again, and different from B.H. Way), Keeler Avenue (flattish), Twain Avenue (steep), Sterling (gentle), Whitaker (steep), Miller (easy), and Stevenson, a short street that I knew topped out at Grizzly Peak. And that was as far up as I intended to go.

I finished the climb and turned left on Grizzly Peak. As it happened, I was about 100 feet or so in front of the guy who had just passed me down below. We waved at each other, and I called out that he could have taken the short cut, and he laughed. It was a lovely piece of symmetry in a short ride into the hills, but the neatness of the coincidence made me want to try to account for it.

So here’s some arithmetic. The corner of Keith Avenue, roughly where the Other Cyclist passed me, is at an elevation of 499 feet if online sources are to be believed. The corner where we met again is at 1,082 feet. So both of us climbed 583 feet. Now, how far did we ride in linear distance? Again using an online tool–Gmaps Pedometer, which you ought to try if you haven’t already–my ride was 1.21 miles. His: 2.47. That’s another neat coincidence: His route being twice as long and the net climb being the same, his net grade (4.5 percent) is half of mine (9.2 percent). He also had to maintain an average speed roughly double mine, which would have been no problem since I was probably poking along at about 5 mph or less when the road got steep.

So those are the numbers. Interesting, but they don’t quite sum up that moment of delight when I saw the Other Rider again.


Don’t go out for your first real bike ride in months and try to go hard. Just don’t do it.

But if you do, don’t let your heart rate go into the red zone. Red zone meaning you’re not sure whether you’re heart’s really supposed to beat that fast.

But if you do find yourself looking at that high heart rate, don’t engage in hijinks like trying to show the other guys how fast you can go — even for just a couple minutes, which is really all your atrophied legs have in them.

But if you do start showing off, don’t let anyone talk you into taking the hard climb back home when there’s an easier one you know you really should take.

But if you do let reason be overruled, don’t ride out ahead of the other guys, even if you’re telling them you’re just warming up for the hard part of the climb (note: it’s all hard).

But if you do go off the front a little, don’t lose track of where your friends are. They might take a turn you weren’t expecting.

But if you do get separated, don’t waste a lot of time looking for them, and don’t hesitate to take easy bail-out route back home you had in mind instead of trying to push yourself up the wall in front of you.

But if you do look for them, and if you do try the wall, don’t get off your bike, whatever you do.

But if the damned hill is just too hard for you in your broken-down state — OK, get off. And if you do, take a look around at all the stuff you’d miss if you were just grinding your way up the grade. When you get back on your bike, and finally hit the top of the hill, you’ll be amazed that you ever thought it was hard. Don’t tell anyone it was.