Sunday, May 15, 2011

Supercommuter, the Tire

Being someone who rides a bike like most people drive cars (but way harder), a good tire is more than a little important.  A tire needs to roll fast, wear long, grip in any weather, and resist assaults from all manner of roadside detritus.  Some years ago I find the Panaracer T-Serv (28mm), and have been riding them ever since.  This week I wore my third Panaracer T-Serv PT in a row all the way down to the threads with a grand total of two punctures over the life of all three tires.  That's less than 1 puncture per tire lifetime.  I don't know how many thousands of miles that is between punctures, but whatever the number is, it's a lot...  Panaracer, your messenger tires rock.  Please send me free ones. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Saving you from yourself

Continuing on the theme of injuries (I'm nearly all the way better, yeay!) Amy's dog, Everett had knee surgery today (and seriously, if I could recover like this guy I'd actually be invincible).  In the to-go bag from  the vet came one of those giant collars that dogs with wounds wear.  We decided to see how it worked for injured cyclists.

Moms, you'll never have to tell your kids not to pick their scabs again:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

All bleeding stops, one way or another.

Mountain bikers (and cyclocrossers), in sharp contrast to most roadies (present team affiliates excluded), are usually a lot of fun to hang out with.  I've often tried to put my finger on exactly what makes this true, and I'm sure there are a few key elements, but it was the one roughly described by the title of this post that pressed on me today. Those who love riding trail tend to have a pleasingly casual approach to adversity (and risk) that ensures just about whatever craziness occurs, it's gonna be a good time:  If you survive it makes for a decent story; if you don't, the story is probably much better. In either case, you're laughing all the way home.  Even if you are (this is a real list from the last few years):
  • Duct taped into your bike shoes for a 7 day stage race
  • Having gravel scraped out of your face with a piece of gauze
  • Wearing a monocle-shaped black eye from face-planting on the end of your handle bar
  • Braking by jamming your shoe in your rear tire
  • Freezing your entire hand to a CO2 cartridge
  • Falling in a river on a 25-degree day
  • Bending back a derailleur hanger with a rock
  • Riding singletrack all morning with only one crankarm
Or, as today might have it, finding out how fast you can ride a flat downhill on your way home from the woods:

It's cool, he races cross...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Things to Like About Being Injured

You're probably thinking to yourself, "man, this is gonna be a short post" but don't go jumping to conclusions already.  I'll admit the Things to Like About NOT Being Injured list is a little longer,  but if you think about it for a minute, you might agree that a little bit of gimp isn't such a bad thing every once in a while.   

As an endurance athlete, a professional or any other position in life where people are respected for strength, resilience, hard work, etc. being good at what you do doesn't necessarily make your life any easier.  For a person with any ambition, success makes life harder. Ever heard the saying, "people are promoted a level of incompetence"?  Whenever you succeed you get pushed harder until you're going flat out can't hold it together any more.   Despite knowing about this trap, must of us type-As end up falling into it anyway.

For the professional type, just deciding to have a rest is usually considered a sign of weakness.  Having to take a rest, for instance because you killed yourself getting that last big deal, is a badge of honor.  Similarly, shirking your training schedule because you don't feel like riding is lazy.  Watching movies all day with a bowl of popcorn and a beer because you had a spectacular crash in the reckless pursuit of glory is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged.

In a world of keeping appearances, a well gotten injury is the surest socially acceptable path to indulgence and sloth.  Let's examine some of the specific benefits:
  1. Personal Appearance:  While some elements of hygiene are pleasurable, like showers; others are a pain in the ass, like shaving and hair primping.  Injured?  No problem.  That five-o-clock [last Wednesday] shadow helps you communicate to the world just how badly you're hurting without having to complain (complaining is counter-productive, see #2).
  2. Around the Office:  If you manage to hurt yourself in a sufficiently spectacular way, the highly exaggerated stories of your near-death experience will precede you.  You'll get toughness points for playing down your injuries when your co-workers ask "OMG, are you okay?"
  3. Life's Little Annoyances: Forgot your keys downstairs?  "No, no, no! Don't get up.  You're hurt!  I'll get them for you."
  4. Prescription Painkillers:  There's a reason they keep these things away from regular people, but now you're special! (and as high as a kite)
  5. Priorities:  In athletics, most of your life resolves around causing yourself different sorts of pain: Lactic acidosis, eschemia, fatigue.  You've learned to endure it; even convince yourself that you like it.  Now your only objective in life is to make pain go away.  Refreshing isn't it?
  6. Significant Others:  All relationships are a compromise, but if you're hurt you get what you want.  My mom reads this blog, so let's just say you get to pick the TV shows. 
While all this is pretty sweet, one must be careful not to milk it too hard.  The entire magic of the injury phenomenon is that the perception of how bad you're hurting or how honorably you sustained your injury exceeds the reality.  Like airlines pricing into the demand curve, you're merely capturing the surplus sympathy between your actual disability and the perception of that disability.   The moment the perception and the reality come into line the gig is up, and if you get caught setting monopolistic sympathy prices for your gratitude you'll never enjoy being hurt again.

 See, being hurt isn't that bad, as long as you get better before it gets old...

(now back to that thesis)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Always Wear a Helmet

So I've always been a dirt rider, and an endurance rider a that, but sometimes all your friends decide to jump off a bridge and despite your better judgement you decide the drop looks like fun.  < leap >.  Rumor has it my current alma mater is pretty good at road racing, and since I used to ride bikes all the time, said pretty good road team is incessantly trying to to get me to pedal on pavement.  Fine.  You Win.  But I'm not gonna be fast! (the last time I was on a road bike was 2010).  And so begins the story of Hubris' ride and fall...

It all started in last weekend at the Tufts campus crit, which I'm told is one of the most technical criterium courses on the east coast.  As a trail rider who knows his way around a bike, I was excited and terrified all at the same time:  Excited because I'd be bringing Cat 1 off-road bike handling guns to a Cat 4 roadie knife fight; terrified because I'd be trying to ride a bike through a Cat 4 roadie knife fight.  Really, it's a wonder they avoid stabbing themselves most of the time. (while concurrently making me look like a couch potato fitness-wise)

Let's digress a moment to understand my perspective on this road racing thing:  I'm a guy who races with big spacing at average speeds of 14mph; on dirt, which is soft; dodging trees, which don't move; on a bike that eats obstacles the size of baseballs for breakfast.  Now take this same guy and put him on a bike that feels like a toy, speed him up to double the pace, replace dirt with concrete and add a couple dozen clean shaven 20-somethings as fit and aggressive as they are squirrely bike-handlers to swarm about while whipping around in circles until everyone is blind from oxygen-deprivation.  They tiptoe on the brink of disaster where the minimum penalty for failure is ending up like a lemon skin after an evening in a french kitchen.  This is pretty much the definition of scary. 

With the above perspective in mind, you can understand why the strategy for said most technical crit on the east coast was "Get to the front. Stay there.  Don't get in a wreck.  [win?]".  At the start of lap 2, I took the lead in an effort to test the field's cornering jones.  At the end of lap 2 it was me, two tails (Tufts, Villanova) and gaaaaaaaaaaap.  "Sonofa---, umm guess we gotta make this stick?"  With my current level of fitness (none), and the number of for-real crits I'd raced before (none), this development was less than ideal.  On the other hand, it was better than sitting-up in a writhing ball of sketchiness for 35 min, and we did eventually stick the break.  The few that managed to hang (the two originals plus a few that bridged on, including Steve from MIT) were glad to keep the ante up in the corners until we were sliding out one guy about every three laps in corner 2 (ouch).  Only five guys rolled to a sprint in the end, but MIT's winning move was blocked by yet another crash that ruined my lead out for a teammate.  If only we had a few more laps, we could have just crashed out the rest of the sprint and gone 1-2, but I'll take 3-5 any day.

Fast-forward to this week:

Coming off a successful race at Tufts, I was ready to make some moves in New Haven.  I was a little under the weather so the hilly circuit race was not my best performance, but this crit, man, this one was gonna be AWESOME.  I had one other teammate in the race (Loomis) and since I sprint like a little girl with a sprained ankle, the plan was to drag his 200lb diesel tractor to the finish and make him a hero on the downhill sprint.  I'd cover all the attacks, but otherwise sit in until the last lap where I'd bury myself on the the back stretch and give Loomis the clean line to the finish. Deal?  Deal. 

Everything started out according to plan.  Loomis and I were right up in the top five, and I was lazily grabbing all the wheels of riders trying to ride off the front.  Then came the first prime lap.  Now, remember that I sprint like a little girl but I'm also easily bored, and being up near the front I was in a great position to make some moves.  Even better, the guy making an early break for it was the climber who exploded the pack the day before in the hills.  In other words, the little girl with the busted ankle had a chance to throw down against another little girl with two broken legs. GAME. ON.

With 100yds, a 90-degree corner and a long downhill straight to the finish, I jumped into chase.  He was on the inside.  Coming through fast, I wanted the inside but with the pack coming on I couldn't count on a clean cut behind him from the wide side so I opted for the wide line. In retrospect, I should have given the rest of the pack a curt, "I'm cutting in and if you're there, I WILL run you over", then taken the inside line but hindsight is 20/20. I went wide and hot.

Unsurprisingly, the leader (Williams) took a terrible line through the corner from the middle of the road and took it all the way out to the curb, cutting me off and causing me to scrub all my speed. I still had position so I got on the gas, coming out of the saddle to a full sprint.  Being cut off turned me into a ball of blind, snarling rage.  BLIND. SNARLING. RAGE.  Williams would be buried for his insolence, save for divine intervention, and I don't have much belief in god at the moment so I was pretty confident of the outcome. 

God may or may not exist, but if he does he realllly wants to remind me that I am NOT a sprinter.  Three pedal strokes into my merciless attack, my left cleat released on an upstroke and threw me over my bars at a speed I care not estimate. Thanks to some MTB ninja skills I managed to roll through the impact with only a bit of road rash (and maybe a cracked rib) but returning to my bike I found my wheels would not spin.  My helmet, well, looked like this: 

...and so ended my second for-real criterium.  Down two wheels, short a pound of flesh and in the market for pedals that don't suck.  As a whole, this pretty good road racing team of ours had a pretty solid week, running away with the team omnium and taking top 5 spots in lots of categories.
The MIT success story is not in small part due to the fact that they're a scrappy bunch, Including this lady at right who rode back to a top 5 after dragging her crashed butt out of a ditch, and her teammate who blew out a knee on Saturday and then finished not one, but two crits on Sunday.  If only we could get some of them on mountain bikes!

Fortunately the collegiate field as a whole, but especially team MIT, has a great sense of humor.  While I may not be much of a roadie I toss a mean heckle, and our team has its own megaphone... 

Thanks team MIT for a great weekend, even if you did try to kill me.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Couch Surfing Nairobi, big goals, small world

Again I suck at blogging real-time, so here's a little retrospective wrap up of the last couple months crashing an ex-colonial African state:

A friend of mine recently mentioned in a blog post about how when you become more and more at home in a place it gets harder and harder to step back and remember to write about it (that's sort of how I feel about my head and extracting its contents for a graduate thesis, but I digress...). After a couple months in Kenya, I completely get what she's talking about. It only takes a few friends on top of a full-blown project to make stepping outside your tiny little universe an impossible time burden. The unique intensity and incestuous isolation of the expat lifestyle is easy to become consumed by -- a world of problems that all need fixed and an intimate social circle that does nothing but think about fixing them. If you imagine a world where all of those people were highly competent an capable, expat life would be an engineer's wet dream. An even with metza-metza on the HR quality scale, it's still not so bad.

If it weren't for this silly school detail, I'd probably still be in Nairobi and not sitting in PRET at Heathrow blogging the time away until a flight home (History suggests the only place I can consistently blog is in airports -- a truism so immutable that I now own three laptop batteries), but alas all things have their beginnings and their end; and this trip, along with the contents of its budget, has been diagnosed terminal (though I won't know which one till around 18:00 hours). Coming up to today I put a number of advanced life (and budget) saving measures in place to prolong the inevitable. After starting off at a reasonable hotel with wifi and breakfast, I spent about a week of the trip effectively homeless in an effort to save money, alternately travelling to the Flying Kites orphanage for hard (geek) labor and free room/board. As it turns out, meeting new people and sleeping in new places every couple of nights is a great way to expand your window to a city. You know you can get decent sushi (that won't kill you) in Nairobi?

In the process of lengthening and liberalising my stay, I began to realise exactly how small the world actually is. My first roommate was a Tufts grad working on "Digital Democracy". I didn't pay enough attention in my policy classes to know what that is, but SMS seems to be a major component. I met this roommate through some other MIT students who were also working in Nairobi. (much like you could get just about anything in the '90s by smoking enough Marlboros and saving the "miles", every problem in development can now be solved by sending a certain number of SMSes. I believe curing endemic poverty costs something like 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 SMS per country, but you get 25% off if you plot the origins of the SMSes on a map)*.

Not long afterward, an old MIT friend who's now a googler came through Nairobi and we went to show the locals the meaning of the word Mizungu, at Hell's gate National Park. Faced with a tourism traffic jam in one of Hell's gate's slot canyons, Christiaan decided we could bypass the crowd of locals climbing up a 12' rock face on a makeshift ladder by executing a body-jam style boulder problem on the other side (with an audience of 50).

This was done without too much difficulty, after which Christiaan was nearly pushed off the precipice by awed locals trying to congratulate him. Then I had to follow...

To complete the incestuous circle, I brought Christiaan up to the Flying Kites  orphanage where an Adventure Challenge trip was coming through that included the former Bassist of The Ben Folds Five and two contestants from the bachelor, all of whom were being shuffled around by a team that included BC grad and a ROTC cadet that trains at MIT

I finally also met the bandwidth provider for my project, who's also an MIT grad. It's starting to look more and more probable that MIT is the center of the earth, though I'm suspect the Harvardians would disagree.

To end, ever wonder where those old clothes go when you give them to charity? Now I do... (would insert photo here but my small camera disappeared before I could download it) The not-pictured t-shirt, being worn by a local in Nairobi, is from from my local fire department.

At any rate, I'm a little sad to be on the way back, simply because I can see the value that another month would add to Fabfi Nairobi, but I think Team TJN has come far enough that they might just be able to pull off the endgame with only remote support. At least I hope so.

Now anybody know how to turn all this into research?

The Two Faces of Egypt Air

I don't care how many miles you give me. I'm never flying Egypt Air Again.

It's usually to be expected that when you're trying to get on a flight at 4am in a developing country when there's only one airline desk open and the people from that airline are running the whole show that you're gonna need to push around a little graft, but the systematic and coordinated screw job operating at Jomo Kenyatta this evening was nothing short of appalling.  With the currency desk closed, all other airlines absent and no oversight to be found these two characters had the run of the departures hall, and were taking no prisoners:


Literally EVERY person getting on my flight was compelled to pay some sort of cash fee.  In my case, an airline container that has been taken on literally hundreds of flights, and is in fact designed to be airline-legal, was deemed oversize by 3cm, and therefore counted as two pieces of luggage (a decision that I successfully waited my way out of {crosses arms and blocks progress of the scheme to the next passenger}). When it was clear that I wasn't gonna go quietly, I was made to sit in Egypt Air's dishevelled, smoke-filled office while the two decided whether to let me off with the correct fee or to continue to anger the white giant (I think I was supposed to pay for one bag).

After a bit, they seem to have decided that they weren't gonna get anywhere pushing me too far, but the game was not over.  With the cashier and currency exhange closed and the ATM in another terminal, it was insisted that fees be paid in british pounds, even after being shown an official email with fees for different destinations listed in different currencies that did little more than prove that they could take any currency (presumably for the convenience of the customer?).

From the rest of the email, I suspect that the recent trouble in the homeland has pushed EA to crack down on fee collection to make ends meet, but the sheer number of people getting hassled was unreal.  There was, at times (and yes I was there for a while), a line out the door of the office full of riled travellers with cash in hand.

While the bag check was nothing less than draconian, security was another matter.  The simple act of declaring "I win! I win!" when going through the metal detector was enough to absolve me of any excess ferrous-ness and right onto the plane, where I was treated to a nearly unpalatable breakfast on an old plane with ceiling-mounted LCD screens that folded up and down randomly for the first 30min of the flight.

The part that's most remarkable about the Egypt Air experience is the about-face the company takes when you pass from the African to the European side of the route.  The food doesn't get much better or the staff much more patient, but all of a sudden you're on a nice new plane with mostly-professional acting staff that all of a sudden can take credit cards.

...And the entertainment system runs (RedHat) Linux:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Feel-Good Media?

If there's one thing Kenyan papers don't do, it's mince words. These guys stake out positions like the US gov't does for oil fields in the Middle East.  Saw the following in the Daily Nation this morning:

I mean, if you don't have hair, who needs a prostate anyway? Not like you'll be using it (or the nerves that usually get damaged when it's removed).

Yeah, and Southern Sudan is totally re-  er, se-ceding...

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Here's something in Nairobi that's not bolted down but not being actively stolen.  Why?  It is often covered in meat and then left in the sun.  That's right, want a theft-proof solution for your laptop?  Hot, raw steak sandwich. 

Nairobi, overall is a pretty nice place, but graft and grift are nothing short of rampant.  The gov't is currently undergoing a comical process of trying to root out the independent body they created to root out corruption, and on the streets the scammers, while unsophisticated, are alive and well.  Today, I had a tasty sample of the local stylings (don't worry I didn't get scammed) that was rather elaborate.

So I'm walking down a busy main street in the middle of the day minding my own business when some a middle-aged guy with some pretty serious hepatitis eyes walks up to me and asks if he can ask me some questions about universities in America.  Not having any particular agenda, I figured I'd humor him and see where it went (given that we were in a public place in the middle of the day).  He walks with me very deliberately to a particular open-fronted coffee shop where he proceeds to suggest we have a cup of coffee.  Not wanting to get too deep into whatever he had planned I declined having anything to drink, but seated myself diagonally across from him such that I could watch him and the street at the same time. As he proceeds to tell me how he's a refugee from Zimbabwe and how he needs money to get on this boat to America (What, that's not where you thought this was going?) he is clearly paying as much attention over my shoulder as he is to me, and after not too long I resolved I'd rather not stick around to find out what he was waiting for and politely bid him adieu (making sure to take careful stock of where he went on the way out).

So here's where I'm impressed:  As I come around the block I am met by another guy who flags me down and starts asking me what I was doing with the other guy, telling me "he's not a good man" and "migrants like that cause all sorts of trouble".  This second man then shows me a rather pathetic looking ID and claims to be from the government.  He suggests that I come with him so he can tell me more about "these people".  Really, are you kidding?  The government?  You might try a uniform, or fixing your teeth, or realising that the last thing a government official is going to be doing is paying attention to this sort of BS.  Needless to say I told this one I had somewhere to be and hoofed it quickly away, but I did look back enough to immediately see him get on his phone (presumably to the bad-cop half of this little routine) as he walked off in the other direction.  I'd rather not guess what might have been in store had I accompanied helpful local number two where he wanted to lead. Makes one feel a bit like a the slab of beef on the back of the Chinese bike.

Just another day in the neighborhood...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Heathrow Airport can . . .

So it's been some time since the last post.  Such is the way when you're trying to get a degree or whatever.  At any rate, it's in-between time in the land of academia, and I'm on the road again to Nairobi.  Sadly not with bikes, but with any luck the blogging will be OK even with the pedestrian lifestyle (pun intended). 

Since I'm flying solo on this trip, I'm going to try to be a little freer with the posting than usual to keep the world up to date (you'd be amazed how long it takes to write a good blog post).  In that spirit.  Let me talk about Heathrow Airport...

To start, I really do enjoy travelling.  It's exciting: new places, fun jobs, crazy food, war-torn countries with effectively no rule of law -- these are all things that make me a little warm in the nether, but not all travel is fun and games. 

There's something about London-Heathrow that makes me feel like a sheep being herded to the shear.  The similarities are striking,really.  First, it's gonna be a mile of walking. Period.  In the same terminal?  Mile of walking.  Staying on the same plane?  Mile of walking.  Wanna change terminals?  Two buses, a boat, a train, mile of walking. 

The walking wouldn't be so bad however if you didn't feel you were in a corral the whole time:  Queue, narrow hallway, guy barking at you, bigger queue.  Have you ever seen the PETA videos where the animals are in the narrow corral and moving slow like congealing bacon grease, but every once in a while one freaks out and tries to jump over all the rest to get ahead?  Yeah, the people do that here. 

Who wouldn't be a little spooked while being herded through a maze of camera-studded hallways punctuated by a boarding pass checks so ubiquitous you can see one from the next?  Not to mention the angry GB-TSA (Yes, I made that up) types yelling at people to dump their liquids AFTER they just got off their planes.  (what, is someone gonna make a bio-bomb by peeing in a cup between planes?)

Unsurprisingly, nobody wants to talk to anybody or at least not to a scrubby American hack like myself, and you can't even get a drink of water in the airport without paying almost 2 pounds (that's like a million dollars) to buy it in a bottle.  Are water fountains illegal here?  I HATE buying bottled water waste of money and energy.

To sum up: Like a sheep to the shear you'll leave Heathrow dehydrated, a little humiliated, and never with your shirt.  Nairobi, here I come...

P. S. In Nairobi now, giggity.