My Secret Advantage

I know you’re probably getting tired of my writing about bicycling by now. But it is summer, the best time to indulge in the sport, and the Tour de France is still running. It’s on my mind for the time being.

So there.

The other day while I was out riding, my back wheel did not feel quite right. There seemed to be a periodic thump that I felt more than I heard. Sometimes this means a tire is losing air and becoming flat; sometimes it means the tire is not seated on the rim properly, and therefore has a low spot. I stopped briefly and checked the air pressure, which turned out to be fine. I spun the wheel, but did not immediately notice anything out-of-the-ordinary. I convinced myself that I was imagining the whole thing.

[Incidentally, this habit is probably left over from my early adult years, the ones during and right after college, when I  would not have had the money to fix whatever went wrong anyway. In terms of effects on me, this produced some rather intriguing knowledge: I now know it’s theoretically possible to put 211,000 miles on a set of rear car tires, as long as the car is front-wheel-drive, and I know what it sounds like when my car’s brake shoes no longer exist and the attachment bolts are creating the friction to stop the car.]

Anyway, when I got home, I investigated more thoroughly and observed this:


Hmm…that’s not good. Take a closer look:


Over time, the friction from the brake pads had almost worn through the aluminum. It didn’t look any better from another angle:


So, with the sidewall broken through, the tension from the spoke was cracking the inner part of the wheel. [I know Leonard Zinn must have a more exact name for it.]

I probably should not have felt a thrill at this point, but the wheel had not collapsed on the ride home, what with 35 other spokes holding it together. I had read in maintenance guides that rim wear was potentially dangerous, and now I had seen firsthand how the situation played out and how long it had taken.

But, wait a minute. Exactly how long had it taken? Knowledgeable riders will gain some insight from the label:


That’s right. Until yesterday I was riding on an MA 40. I know I had this wheel built before I graduated from college, and that was 1992. So that’s at least 23 years, and I rode it anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 miles each year, depending on whether my interest in training was at a low or high point. I guess I really have not changed since my starving student days. I mean that rim owed me absolutely nothing. It gave me everything it had to give. Greater love hath no component that to give its life for the rider.

This got me to thinking: that’s value. I know that there is no modern carbon fiber rim that will last anywhere near that long. And those things cost thousands of dollars. “SO WHAT?” you’re saying. “My carbon wheels make me go fast. And next year I’ll buy new ones that will make me go even faster!”

Are you sure? Let’s examine that a bit more deeply. To do so, I’ll take you on a tour of the bike that I ride the most.


A friend gave me this bike when his parents were cleaning out their garage. It has no brand name anywhere on it, but, based on some similarities to another frame I own, I believe it to be a St. Etienne. According to guru Sheldon Brown, this was a middle-of-the-road brand imported into the United States during the “bicycle boom” of the 1970s. It was built in 1973, and I guarantee that “TYPE TOUR DE FRANCE,” on the top tube decal, had nothing to do with racing. This is a lugged steel frame, with 72 degree head and seat tube angles. As you may know, this means a super-comfortable ride, because the shallow angles and steel tubing absorb much more road shock than anything made today. I have changed some of the components to give even more comfort.


Of course a bike like this deserves a real leather saddle, which has slowly molded to fit me perfectly, just like a favorite baseball glove. (By the way, the seatpost and rails are steel, too.)


Those are moustache-shaped handlebars which put your hands and arms in the best possible position for climbing. And, in case you haven’t guessed already, they’re made of steel! Why bother with a suspension fork or stem?

[Some of you may have noticed that I made my own bar-end shifter out of a clamp-on set:


Yes, I am the world’s cheapest human being, a topic I ‘ll explore much more in future posts.]

When I received it, this bike had cottered cranks, which I find cool, but the bottom bracket shell threads were damaged. I replaced the bottom bracket with a threadless one and put on- wait for it-


steel cranks! [In case you’re wondering about my abnormal obsession with all things ferrous, bike manufacturers these days boast about how they design carbon fiber frames to be “vertically compliant,” meaning somewhat flexible, for the comfort of the rider. Steel has been used for bicycles for at least 150 years, and it already had that quality.]

To top it all off, I attached

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full fenders, because it rains and snows a lot where I live.

Finally, I always carry a


full-size frame pump, because nothing else works as well.

So I have every possible component made of steel [except for the wheels, of course, because they don’t stop the bike well if they are at all wet], and I have the luxury of a leather saddle, 28mm tires, fenders, and a full-size pump. Imagine how comfortable I stay on long training rides! That means more miles under my belt. And think about how much stronger I become while pedaling this 25.5 lb. (without water bottles) machine up the hilly terrain around here. [As an added advantage, it’s so ugly and beaten-up that I never worry about riding it in bad weather or locking it in a city.]

Meanwhile, you’re training on your ultralight, harshly-riding racing setup. Your speed might be maxed out. If I ever feel motivated to race again, I’ll use

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my 19 lb. bike with 74 degree angles and tubular wheels. It’s probably still a lot heavier that what you’re riding, but to me it will feel insubstantial.

Whenever other cyclists see me on my purple monstrosity, they feel the need to comment on my “commuter” bike, and show off their race-worthy machines. They should remember, though, it’s the engine that matters. I might just be faster after all.

Here’s Another Way to Think About It

The performance of some of the riders in this year’s Tour de France means it’s time once again for the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs.


In stage 10 on July 14th, last year’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali, lost a great deal of time on the type of mountain stage he dominated last year. “I’m not the same Vincenzo Nibali as last year,” he himself admitted. His team, Astana, have not helped the situation. Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, considered revoking Astana’s racing license after five riders (but not Nibali) were caught doping. Their manager, Alexander Vinokourov, was suspended during his cycling career for improper blood transfusions. Clearly, this raises the question of whether Nibali won last year’s Tour “cleanly.” It would be hardly surprising if we learned that Nibali is avoiding whatever he took last year because of the increased scrutiny of his team. [Update: while I sit writing this, news just broke that Vinokourov has told Nibali to look for a new team next year because of his disappointing performance. Is that the aroma of hypocrisy?]

This year’s current leader, Chris Froome, who is climbing like Nibali did last year, uses an inhaler to treat asthma during races. We all know that there is no possibility he would ever use this to gain an advantage over his opponents when it wasn’t medically necessary. (That level of sarcasm causes physical pain.) Indeed, most everyone remembers the recent high-profile disqualifications of Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong, and the entire Festina team in 1998. Top riders’ use of substances to perform better is inextricably linked to the history of the sport: Pedro Delgado in the ’80s, Eddy Merckx in the ’70s, Tom Simpson in the ’60s, Charly Gaul in the ’50s, Fausto Coppi in the ’40s, and the Pelissier brothers in the ’20s. (That’s a fascinating story. Read about it here.) In fact, I’m surprised when anyone acts surprised each time a new case rears its head.

Baseball has also faced its share of performance-enhancing drug scandals. Steroid use has tainted the achievements of Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire, to name a few. In addition, amphetamine use has historically been common in order to help players gain an energy boost to deal with a long, hot season. This was responsible for the widespread cocaine use among major leaguers in the ’70s and ’80s. (Interestingly, Luca Paolini exited this year’s Tour de France after he tested positive for cocaine. Everything old is new again?)

It seems that we all love to see “cheaters” get what’s coming to them. Fans applaud when Major League Baseball puts an asterisk next to Barry Bonds’ career and single-season home run records. Fans hold up signs saying that Babe Ruth set his records while consuming nothing more than beer and hot dogs, forgetting (or never knowing because they fell asleep in U. S. History class) that beer was ILLEGAL for most of Ruth’s career.


Fans hope Lance Armstrong loses his sponsorship after winning seven tainted Tours de France. Fans hope Alex Rodriguez never makes the Hall of Fame.

Did you catch what was the same in all of those instances? These sentiments come from fans of sport. Who has not, at one time or another, dreamed of PLAYING a sport for a living? Who does not like to imagine that what our sporting heroes do in the competitive arena is not really that different from what we do, and we all could have been there except for my broken collarbone in 1990 or my parents’ lack of support for anything competitive in my youth? (Wow. My therapist would have a field day with that one.) The unethical things athletes do in order to excel spoil this fantasy for us.

Almost everyone forgets that competing at a sport is a professional athlete’s job. It’s how he pays the bills, feeds the family, and keeps up on the mortgage payments. I’ll bet that when a pro athlete talks about his job over dinner at home, it sounds remarkably similar to when we do it: “I can’t believe my boss [coach]. Do you know what he made me do? File all of the paperwork while his secretary was on vacation [bunt to move the runner over/carry water bottles for the other riders]! Why doesn’t he appreciate me?”


“But wait,” you say, “they make so much more money than I do that it’s not the same thing!” Oh, but it is. Why did you file the paperwork when you did not want to? Because you knew that there was a job seeker out there who would willingly do the filing, and  for less money than you make. So, clearly, a person who is trying to preserve his job from the intense competition out there will do whatever it takes to keep an edge. Fausto Coppi hit the nail on the head when he stated (in 1949) that a cyclist had to take amphetamines to remain competitive. If the taking of performance-enhancing drugs is rampant, an athlete must do so, just to level the playing field. Regardless of their rate of compensation, if an athlete does not perform, he will be replaced, just like you  (or Nibali).

Still not convinced? In essence, what is a professional athlete? First, he is an entertainer. He only makes more money than you do because you pay to see him do his job. If he doesn’t do what you want to see (go fast, hit far, break records), you’ll stop paying, and he’ll be replaced by someone who does what you want, even with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Second, he is an advertiser. Companies pay athletes good money to wear logos and endorse products.

(My favorite cycling endorsement this year is a caffeinated shampoo!)


Will you still be willing to buy the product if the athlete flies out all the time, or finishes at the back of the peloton? No. The sponsors want athletes to do well, regardless of what it takes. It seems the only ones who care about “pure competition,” who are upholding some mythical standard of sports performance, are the customers, and they are the reason athletes “cheat.”

What if we had these expectations for other professionals in our lives? Be honest. Would you ever say: “Well, the vegetables got to my supermarket in time for my week’s grocery shopping, but that’s tainted by the fact that the tractor trailer driver broke speed limits to get here. I won’t buy them?”

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You want the vegetables.

Would you ever say: “My realtor found me my dream house, and she got in touch with me so quickly that I beat out all of the other bidders, but she should not have used her mobile phone while driving. I’ll pass on the house?”

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You’ll take the house.

Would you ever say: “That actress only looks good because she took an illegal and dangerous weight-loss drug. I’m boycotting her movie and pin-up pictures?”

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You’ll do whatever it is you do while watching that movie and looking at those pictures.

Would you ever say: “I’m going to give back all of the money my stock broker made me, because he used some inside information when conducting my trades?”

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You’ll open a Swiss bank account.

So, am I saying that it’s all right that athletes cheat? No way. I hate when anybody breaks rules, including the truck driver, realtor, actress, and stock broker.

I just want you to remember that when professional athletes dope, It’s our fault.

Do We Really Want This?

On the desk next to me sits the June issue of The Atlantic, face down. Staring up at me from the back cover, there is an ad for Qualcomm. It is built around a picture of a brain made of electrical wires:



and it reads: “When will our devices think for themselves? When we connected the phone to the Internet, the phone became smart. When our next inventions connect billions more things, life will be even smarter. Why Wait™”

I would ask a different question: who in his right mind would want devices to think for themselves? (I know, and you’ll need to read on to find out.) I find so many facets of this ad objectionable that I have a hard time knowing where to start.

Consider how many inanimate objects popular culture calls “smart.” Cellular telephones


miniature automobiles


performance goals


white boards for presentations


and even grade-level assessments in schools. But, how smart are they? I’ll bet you have no trouble remembering an occasion where a work presentation or a phone call or a car ride came to a screeching halt because of a technical glitch. After tapping a few keys and maybe jiggling a plug or two, everyone looked at everyone else, grinned sheepishly, shrugged, and said, “Technology!” Then, they either proceeded without it or CALLED A PERSON with technical expertise to fix it.

If the device had actually been smart, it would have diagnosed and remedied the problem by itself, or even prevented the glitch in the first place. On the other hand, the guy who saved your bacon actually is smart. Machines cannot do anything more than follow directions from people. (Remember this point for later.)

Consider my experience house sitting recently. The owners had collected quite a few machines that were labeled as “smart.” One was an electric kettle. Why was it “smart?” Because it could bring your water to any temperature less than or equal to the boiling point and hold it there. How could it accomplish such magic? It contained A THERMOSTAT, a simple mechanical device found in virtually every house and automobile engine throughout the TWENTIETH CENTURY. A second was a water dispenser on a refrigerator that could also make crushed or cubed ice. The Brady Bunch ‘fridge could do that!


The third was a stick blender. A hand-held device that used a motor to spin blades. (?) Why are we as a society so eager to call things smart that aren’t?


As humans evolved,  our physical prowess was much less than that of the animals against which we competed. We only survived as a species because we could figure out solutions with our brains. Indeed, our species name, Homo sapiens, means “wise man.” Look at any classic science fiction.


Pundits predicted that, in the future, machines would be for manual labor, freeing up humans to do what they do best: think and solve problems. But we have actually done the opposite: we want our machines to think while we do more manual labor than we used to. (Photographing food, anyone? Doing thousands of curls a day by checking the ‘phone?)


We already feel helpless to spell, navigate while driving, or talk to “friends” without devices. How soon until we completely become the victims, like the extinct animals who did not have the thinking ability of humans? I experienced the early stages of this during the aforementioned house sitting episode.  Every night, I would set the temperature control to make the room comfortably cool while I slept. By the early morning, I would wake up sweating. The system “thought” the proper temperature for the overnight hours was ten degrees higher than what I wanted, and there was nothing I could do to change it. How bad will it get when we let computers control our shopping habits?


Oh, right. They already do that. And people want to introduce voting by personal device?

We should also think about the emphasis schools now place on “integrating technology into lessons.” Learning now equals being surrounded by computerized gadgets. What is this except government-sanctioned product placement? Everyone knows that President Eisenhower warned about the danger of empowering the military-industrial complex. Few remember that, in this farewell speech, he identified a decrease in intellectual curiosity as an important symptom of the problem. And how would we recognize that the decrease was occurring? Computers in schools would outnumber blackboards. Really. Read the speech.

So, who really wants this? Who wants society to believe that machines can think and people cannot? Who wants individual humans to be completely reliant on devices?




(The guy who gives directions to the devices, whom you’re making rich by buying them.)

So, Why Wait™ for our devices to think for themselves? Because it means they will no longer be ours. Jane, get me off this crazy thing.

Update-It Gets Stranger

After documenting the obstacles and garbage that faced me on a bicycle ride the last time, I went for a longer ride today. I was not carrying a camera, but I wish I had been. In my path I saw:

1). a 4″ soccer ball (too small for a real game, too big for foosball)

2). Junior’s shoe

3). a completely-eaten cob of corn (I doubt that was cycling food, although eating it in a car wouldn’t be much more convenient), and

4). a hypodermic syringe (which, if tossed by a cyclist, means these guys are even more desperate to be like pros that I previously suspected).


Remember this?


I guess they were able to predict the future in the ’70s.


Let Him Without Sin Cast the First Stone

When we were in high school, my friend Wes decided that we should get into competitive cycling. It was a heady time: Alexi Grewal had won the men’s cycling road race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Greg LeMond was starting to make waves in the European peloton, and bicycles were beautiful.

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(Tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.)

Anyway, I had fun training, but I was hopeless at racing. Since college, I have ridden varying amounts from year to year, and I’ve begun to train more seriously in the last three. It takes some courage and dedication, as cyclists encounter many hazards in the course of a ride. To show you what I mean, I took a gentle sixteen-mile spin on a summer afternoon, and I encountered all of the following.

First, the pavement on the part of the road I use is awful.

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And it continues.

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(What line can I take?)

And, lest you thing this is an isolated area, look at this:

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“That’s not so bad,” you might be saying. But look more closely:

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See that? The town has re-painted the lines over the places where the top layer has chipped away. It considers this normal!

Some of the permanent road fixtures can cause problems, too.

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In order to avoid that grating, I’d need to be in the gravel on the right-hand side or halfway out into the lane of traffic. And here’s how the town alerts drivers to that possibility:

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(That will be hidden by the brush in a matter of weeks.)

There are plenty of hazards if I stay to the right. Some can cause flats and/or crashes:

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bars of sharp, rusty metal,

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elevated drains and protruding barrels,

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objects made for puncturing other things.

But wait, there’s more.

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If the rock doesn’t crash you, the gravel still can.

Here’s an oldie but a goodie:

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(“One third more flats than our regular beer.”)

This looks promising and picturesque:

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But beware! Because here a picture is worth exactly one word:

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(Insert your favorite excremental euphemism.)

The cow sign was a warning, not a promise.

Some thing I see just make me wonder.

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(“Many roadway users ignore the importance of oral hygiene. Imagine trying to avoid oncoming traffic with popcorn husks lodged in your teeth. A recipe for disaster.”)

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At least they’re concerned about skin cancer.

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That must have been an interesting night.

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I have absolutely no idea.

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Got tired of scrubbing dishes while driving?

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(“Light my fire!”)

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(“Since you’ve already lost your shoe, Junior, there’s no reason to keep your sock on.”)

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The detritus by the side of the road can really throw a

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into your ride.

Given the amount of litter that, at best, spoils the scenery, and, at worst, can injure you, it’s not surprising that cyclists often campaign for clean, safe, well-paved roads. That’s why I am so surprised to note a peculiar phenomenon in the past few months.

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What’s that?

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Some CYCLIST, eating a natural source of potassium, just jettisoned the skin into the path of other riders. Just a little way up the road,

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And another!

This is dangerous. Question: why has the banana peel been a staple of slapstick comedy for a century?


If you said “Low coefficient of static friction,” you’re correct! There are enough hazards out there without cyclists themselves creating slipping danger. Plus it’s unsightly. “But,” you’re saying, “a banana is natural! It will just biodegrade.” Well, consider the following peel cluster:

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They dry out and blacken, but they don’t go away. You can still see the sticker on this one:

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This one’s been around so long that it has become part of a litter still-life:

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Here’s what it looks like when a cyclist throws one on someone’s lawn:

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Riders are not only throwing banana peels. They are tossing orange peels

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and even water bottles before climbs.

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(“That’s so pro.”)

I know what you’re thinking now: “How do you know cyclists threw those thing away and not drivers?” I posit that, these days, this

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is far more likely to have come from an automobile.

So, why are cyclists doing this? Are they trying to look like pros? They still don’t. Are they marking their territory like dogs?


Disgusting. If we as cyclists want people to be considerate of us and stop littering, we need to lead by example. Bring a plastic sandwich bag and carry your garbage home. Otherwise, all we’ll have is

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‘Murica the Beautiful,

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the land of the free and the home of the bros.

Let’s be better than that.


You know that Independence Day is actually today, right? Look it up. On July 2nd, the Continental Congress approved the resolution (introduced by Virginia, no matter what people from Massachusetts want you to think) that the American colonies were free from the political control of Great Britain.

So why do people think it’s the fourth?


(“See? It says it right there on the top!”)

They voted for the text of the Declaration on the fourth, after having removed Jefferson’s accusation that the King was responsible for black slavery in the colonies. In the Enlightenment, they knew that some levels of hyperbole were beyond the pale.

Happy Independence Day.