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Archive for May, 2011

One of the joys of driving to bike races is the scenery. It’s not surprising; I’ve lived in Pennsylvania all my life. But even at 6 a.m. and working on a few hours’ sleep, it’s pleasant to drive through rolling farmlands or valleys or aging industrial towns.

It also helps give a sense of place. Certain landmarks and objects do this particularly well.

Among my favorite signifiers is the Mennonite horse and buggy setup, which I find striking because of the battery-powered turn and brake signals. At the same time they’re striving to hold on to the past, modernity has still found a way to inject itself in a sublime way, as it usually does.

Plus, there’s something amusing about sitting at a four-way stop, seeing a Ford F250 take its turn to proceed amid a cloud of exhaust, then watching a horse clomp through the intersection with that familiar hoof-on-cobblestone cadence.

I see many of these buggies when I travel to bike races, because a lot of them are held in the Lancaster area. And as much as they help define the geography of Pennsylvania for me, they let my subconscious self know that I’m about to race my bike.

I got that sense for the first time this year on Saturday, when I drove to Smoketown for my first race of the season.

I had wanted to do well because of my fundraiser and because I knew I had trained well and rested well leading into the event. But my goals changed slightly when it began to rain as soon as I pulled into the Smoketown Airport, where the event was held. Then the race became about finishing high and staying upright. I didn’t want to wipe out like I did last year, when I turned on a large patch of slick street paint and hit the deck.

So I was a bit hesitant and spent the first third of the 20-lap race getting a feel for the course, which was a mile long and shaped about like a paper clip. From the start-finish line, the course made a sweeping left-hand turn, and went into a short chicane onto a long downhill straightaway. A 180-degree left-hand turn at the bottom turned the course around onto the long, slightly uphill stretch back to the start-finish.

It’s a good course — the uphill finish definitely favored me, and I might have made a few attacks on a dry day. And I felt good physically. But the last thing I wanted to do was push my limits and wreck. Even though it had stopped raining by the time my race went off, the course was still very slick. So I spent most of my time early in the race trying to find good lines that avoided any paint.

With about eight laps to go I had a good handle on how to navigate the mile-long course, and knew I had to move up to the front in order to get a good finish. Being toward the rear of the field would leave me out of position for the final uphill sprint.

The trouble is, a lot of other riders had the same idea of how to do that, and I didn’t want to use a long pull to get near the front, only to go into a corner too hot or find myself alone in the wind. I’ve ruined enough races by getting to the front too soon. So it ended up being a ridiculous game of fade-and-surge, a clumsy Dosado of positioning.

The result? I was in the back third of the main group when we started the final stretch, far behind riders who were already starting their sprints. But my fitness allowed me to pass a bunch of riders on the uphill. I started sprinting with 400 meters left, and wound up 24th.

I drove home* wondering how I could have been in better position at the end, or if I should have taken more risks, but I’m pretty content with the result.

(*-Something I saw on my way home also put everything — not just the bike race, everything — in perspective. There was a guy cruising on a major highway, driving a red minivan while downing a can of Miller Lite. I can’t even comprehend. It was 11 a.m.! Not that there’s a good time to be doing that, but I can’t imagine how you get to that point.)

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I never ride my bike without a few items — helmet, spare tube, pump, identification, fluids and food, phone. Come to think of it, that’s more than a few items, which is fitting, because I often look like a pack mule when I head out the door. You know, if pack mules wore Lycra.

But there’s another item I never go without: my medal of Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers.

The small metal pendant hangs on a standard metal chain, and dangles from my narrow neck whenever I clip in. I’m not sure when I started this practice. I’m also not the most religious person in the world, nor am I the most superstitious, and I know wearing it will not prevent a car from running into me.

Still, I feel uneasy if, 20 miles into a ride, I realize I don’t have it on. So I continue to wear it, and there’s not one reason why.

It’s part belief that it will keep me safe, though rationally I know it can’t and hasn’t. I’ve had minor crashes and flats with it around my neck.

It’s also part ritual. I’ve never been in a serious accident, never broken a bone, never hit a car or been hit, while wearing it, so why stop?

More than anything, I think, it’s a security blanket. It gives me comfort and calm, and that calm gives me confidence, and that confidence allows me to get out and ride.

And of all the things I take with me out the door, that might be the most important.

On Monday, professional cyclist Wouter Weylandt died during a stage of the Giro d’Italia. He was younger than me and had a pregnant girlfriend, factors that shouldn’t necessarily make his death more sad, because every life has the same basic value. But they somehow do.

From all the accounts I’ve read, he was descending at a high rate of speed, looked behind him for other riders, clipped a wall and crashed head-first, dying almost instantly. The incident is incredibly sad and tragic, and a stark reminder about the dangers of cycling.

Even if you’re not flying down a hill at 40-plus miles per hour, cycling is dangerous. I can’t count the ways in which everything can go wrong. I could crash after hitting a pothole obscured by a shadow. I could be hit by a car driven by a person trying to send a text. I could run over a nail that happened to bounce out of the bed of a pickup truck, flat, and go careening into traffic.

Or I could hit a groundhog that darted into the street, flip over the handlebars and have a car crush me. That nearly happened last year.
When a random, rogue groundhog could be the catalyst for disaster, you know you’re doing something risky.

Right now you’re probably thinking, “Why, that’s pretty morbid and frightening.”

And it is. But if I thought about that every time I got in the saddle, if I thought about Wouter every time I started a descent, if I kept all the risks in the front of my mind, then I start to fear. And then bad stuff does happen.

Luckily, some of those dangers are eliminated in closed-course cycling races, like the one I’m doing tomorrow, the Smoketown Criterium, which is run around an airport. The course is a mile loop and my race is 20 miles long. It will almost certainly be hectic and nervous.

The weather looks slightly discouraging. But my race goes off at 8:30 a.m., so maybe we can sneak it in before rain starts to fall.

Compared to May 2010, I feel much more prepared to race. I’m in better shape, I have a better position on my bike, and I’ve trained better. I put in a lot of miles since December and can feel them paying off.

Now all I need is a little luck. Luck is very underrated as a factor in the sporting world and is incredibly important for success in bike racing. In a field of 50-some riders, so many bizarre things can happen. I might have great legs, but if a rider behind me decides to cross my wheel, there’s not much I can do.

Of course, luck improves by riding smart, both in races and training on public roads. But stuff still happens. You can only decrease risk, not eliminate it.

And that’s why I’ll roll up to the start line with that medal around my neck. I don’t want to think about what might happen if I didn’t.

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There’s a certain kind of face people make when they casually dismiss something. They don’t ignore, or say no thanks. They recognize that you’re trying to tell them something or present them with an idea, quickly know they don’t want to hear about it, then contort their faces into this expression to let you know that they’re not going to let you waste their time with, well, whatever it is you’ve got there.

It’s a versatile expression, I must admit. It can look like a sneer, it can look like a scoff, and it can look like a smirk. And I’ve seen a few varieties of it in the last few months while tabling for A Woman’s Place.

Part of what I want to do with this fund-raising project is keep my supporters involved, because that makes the whole experience enjoyable and informative for everyone. And cycling race reports are nice — you’ll see many of them — but I also want to illustrate what it is I actually do when I volunteer.

In order to volunteer at all I had to go through training. The version I did this winter lasted six hours, split over two sessions. There’s a more extensive (45) training that would allow me to work directly with AWP’s clients, but there was no way I would have been able to swing that with my work schedule, and you know, bills and all.

Still, I can be involved in a lot of ways, one of which is tabling. Essentially, it’s going to different events and setting up a table with a tri-fold board and lots of information about AWP’s services and domestic abuse in general. It’s a great way to let people know about AWP and be involved in the community.

I’ve done it twice, and if you told me in November that I’d be at a bridal show in February, I would have told you that’s way too fast to get engaged. And actually, that’s what most people thought when I told them that’s where I was that Sunday. Bridal show? You’re getting married?

Yep. Surprise! I’m getting married and didn’t tell anyone. I have to wonder why it’s so unbelievable that an engaged guy would voluntarily go to a bridal show.

Anyway, it was the first time I’d tabled and I had to set everything up myself — another volunteer joined me during the show, but I was flying solo for the first hour or two. I was so nervous I became gregarious, which is something I do when I feel uneasy. I do it on planes when we’re about to take off, and make a lot of five-minute friends that way. And I did it at the bridal show. As a consequence, now I know a whole lot about limousine services, Homewood Suites, and the current state of affairs in cake decorating techniques.

But my worrying was unfounded. Most people were receptive and, in fact, a lot of folks were looking for our table (we were collecting dresses for the thrift shop benefiting AWP, and collected two car loads worth of them.)

I also ran into two people I didn’t expect to see — my dentist, who is a hilarious human being and managed to make a root canal fun, and a girl I hadn’t seen since freshman year of college.

The other time I tabled was at a wellness fair at a local college. That time we were situated across an aisle from a woman who was a Lyme disease expert. I’ve never seen so much information. She had pamphlets, fact sheets, a computer presentation, an award-winning documentary. The whole spread covered two or three tables, and more impressive than the volume of information was her passion for spreading it. If she saw an opening to tell you something about the disease or correct a myth, she ran through it. It was impressive.

Now, tabling twice doesn’t make me an expert. But it did notice a few themes.

First was the number of people who I’d try to engage in conversation only to have them tell me they know about or have used AWP’s services, or have assisted AWP’s efforts in the past. That’s both encouraging and saddening. Encouraging because that’s one more person who knows about the organization and can be part of that Fibonacci tree, and encouraging because they found help through AWP. But also saddening because I don’t want people to have to require the services. In a perfect world, all relationships would be healthy and respectful.

The other thing I couldn’t help notice was that look I wrote about above, and I saw it at both events.

The bridal show put the AWP table in a small alcove, along with tables for a limousine service, a wedding planning company, a hotel chain, and a local inn. Show-goers typically started at one end of the nook and circled around to the other side, and by the time they got to our table, more than a few grew this perplexed look, as if to say, “Wait, what’s this have to do with weddings?”

But because there were so many people attending this bridal show, groups of people were often left standing around, waiting to gain access to a particular table. That meant they were often left standing in front of our table.

At one point, a large group of young women entered the Alcove of Fun — there had to be about a dozen of them. And, of course, some of them were left standing in front of the AWP table. I tried talking to one, who told me, “Sorry, I don’t care about that.”

Other times during the show I heard women say, “Oh, I don’t need that, my boyfriend/husband doesn’t beat me.”

The wellness fair provided a different twist. Being on a college campus, most of the people there were college kids trying to scope out the different fitness exhibits. And then they’d stroll to our aisle.

It’s hard to describe the look almost every guy who walked by gave me and the other volunteer. They saw the “A Woman’s Place” sign affixed to the top of the tri-fold board and instantly dropped whatever interest they might have had. It’s a very withering look.

We managed to engage a group of guys in discussion, and they really had no idea what to say. One of them told me that the name of the organization was discriminatory to men, which is apparently not a unique statement. It’s also not true, because AWP offers its services to men.

A little later, we were talking to a girl who was genuinely interested in AWP. Her boyfriend came up moments later and made a joke about her abusing him.

Those parts of the wellness fair definitely got to me, because the attitudes I saw from the guys there were very reminiscent of attitudes I saw when I attended an all-boys’ high school. You can sense the privilege, which affords men, particularly young heterosexual cisgender men, the ability to go throughout life cocksure and with swagger. It was like they saw AWP’s efforts as a big joke, and I was at a loss for how to connect with them.

That’s something I need to work on — finding ways to engage people who aren’t necessarily familiar with AWP or domestic violence. Because the table is open to anyone.

Everyone should care about domestic abuse and violence, and everyone should want to have healthy relationships be the norm. Of course, should is a tricky word. There are so many issues people should care about, and there are so many tables asking for attention. I’m not trying to say everyone has to make it their top priority.

But to pretend that eradicating domestic violence is not important is a shame, because it affects a lot of people. And to give that look is to pretend it doesn’t even exist.

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The last thing I want to write about now or any time is Facebook. But this weekend is forcing my hand. I have seen numerous people on Facebook change their profile pictures in the last few days, and it didn’t dawn on me why, at first. Of course, today being Mother’s Day, the new pictures were of people and their moms. It’s interesting to see, mostly because there’s only a 30 percent chance their moms will ever see those pictures on Facebook.

I don’t have a picture like that on my hard drive. But I do have a picture like that in my mind. And in my possession, after some searching.

The snapshot was taken the weekend I moved into an apartment my sophomore year of college. It’s a little trippy to look at it because it captures a moment about eight years old, now, but the photograph doesn’t seem so old that it crosses into nostalgia.

I look relatively the same now as I did then. I’m still the same height. I still have the same build, the same tiny neck and long, narrow face. I’m not sure why I chose to look like an official at a swim meet — navy blue shorts and a white polo shirt — but the photo version of me is still very close to who I am now. My mom is also relatively the same. Same hair style, same attire she might wear now.

It’s not the type of photo that causes embarrassment or elicits an “oh my god” because you looked so absurd way back when. Because it’s not way back when.

We had just finished moving me in and decided to take a picture before she drove back home. So we quickly posed behind the rented van we used to tote all my garbage around, her hand around my waist, my hand on her shoulder. I had to lean slightly because I’m so much taller. The dusk light still allows you to see a sheen of sweat caused by a day of moving in late-summer heat.

And of all the pictures I’ve seen of me and my mom together, this is my favorite. I don’t know why.

It’s tempting for me to write about the symbolism of the photo’s elements.

I could say the dusk represents — and prepare to cringe — the end of another summer break and another move, which leads to the dawn of a new school year. But I’ve moved many times since then, and many seasons have changed, notably and unremarkably.

I could argue I like it because it captures a good time, and we’re both truly happy at that moment. I had spent the summer getting my priorities straight after an irresponsible freshman year. So the moment shows me ready to be grown up, at long last. But the truth is, you could find this same quality in pictures from many stages of my life, and I was irresponsible in some ways in the following years.

I could tell you that I had a close relationship with my mom at the time of the photo. But we’ve been close for a long time. I can remember my mom handing me a small notebook during my senior year of high school and telling me to write my thoughts down. That, as much as anything, set me on the path toward being a writer. And I can remember moments of tumult occurring after the picture was taken.

I’d be reaching with all those explanations.

What might get more to the point is something that always strikes me about the photo, which is how easy it seems.

It’s a nice photograph. We both have nice smiles and we’re looking at the camera, and it’s as picturesque as you can get with a Chrysler Town & Country minivan in frame. But more than that, the stances are natural. It’s not stiffly posed or forced. Hand and arm here, hand and arm there.

And maybe that’s the appeal — that without being privy to any context clues or facial features, I can tell that’s me and my mom. That’s an ability she made possible, and that’s an ability I’m incredibly privileged to have.

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Readers of this site know that a new post usually means you’re getting at least 800 words of…something. I have a post category called “fruit,” for crying out loud. Well, this is not 800 words. But it is important.

Most, if not all, of you know that I’m a competitive cyclist. But some of you might not know that over the winter I became a volunteer at A Woman’s Place, the only domestic violence organization in Bucks County.

Since I started, I’ve gone through one of AWP’s training programs, represented the organization at various events, picked up a weekly volunteer shift, and participated in a food drive. It is a fantastic organization that provides service and support for victims, and also has programs for education, outreach and advocacy.

So I want to help out however I can. And that’s how cycling is involved.

What I’ve come up with is a results-based fundraising program. Basically, donations are determined by how well I do in races. Participants sign on for the season and donate at the end. Any prize money I win also goes into the fund, and every cent of every donation goes toward AWP. I’m funding registration and gas money out of pocket, because it’s just right, and I would anyway.

I plan to do 8-10 races, and will provide race reports on here, as well as on my cycling team’s website. Information on donations and a tentative schedule are below.

Why am I doing this? Why do I care about what AWP does? I have a lot of reasons and could be long-winded in explaining them. But abusive relationships get to me. The isolation they cause makes me want to hold out a hand. Myths about domestic abuse make me want to get on a soapbox and scream. An abuser’s motivations make me want to set people straight on power and control and privilege and respect and what a healthy relationship looks like.

And it all breaks my heart just a little. But that I can afford. And I can also do something about it, so here I am. I do care, quite a bit, and that will be my motivation.

I sincerely appreciate people who sign on for this. If you’d like to commit, let me know at mpg167[at]gmail.com. Getting top results will be extra challenging because I moved into a more advanced racing category this year. Crashes, bad luck and bad form have funny ways of getting in the way of good results. Wins and top fives may be rare, but I’ll be trying my hardest.

Sincerely,
Mike Garvey

Donations*:
Top 25: $5
Top 15: $10
Top 5: $20
Win: $25
*I’ll add this. I have no idea how well I’ll do. I don’t expect many top 5s and wins, but in the event I stumble across great form and the final tally is more expensive than you thought, I would happily accept an amount you’re comfortable with.

Tentative schedule:
5/14 – Smoketown Criterium
6/11 – Tour of Mt. Nebo
6/12 – Luzerne Criterium
6/18 – Bethlehem Criterium
6/19 – Cargas Criterium
7/3 – Rodale Park Criterium
7/24- Liberty Criterium
7/31 – Robeson Twp State Road Race
8/7 – Doylestown Circuit Race
8/21 – Wilkes-Barre Twilight Criterium

Key Links:
A Woman’s Place
Guy’s Racing Club, my awesome team
Guy’s Racing Club blog

My email, again: mpg167[at]gmail.com

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