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The race: Liberty Criterium (Category 4)
The result: 32nd
The story:

Have you ever seen sunglasses with interchangeable lenses? A set of frames with multiple lenses for different conditions?

The Tour de France is a little like a set of those, in that you can swap out lenses and see the race however you want to see it. You can see it simply as a bike race, or you can swap lenses and see it as a poetic expression of struggle and success and triumph and failure. You can put in the cynic’s lenses and see it as a doping scandal waiting to happen or a three-week orgy of publicity.

But however you choose to view it, at no point does the set of frames reduce the sheer magnitude of the Tour de France. Things like this and this don’t happen just anywhere.

Everything at the Tour happens on a grand scale. Everything is panoramic and in high definition. Everything. Even the sublime.

The Tour ended today with Cadel Evans on top of the podium and in the yellow jersey. He clinched the victory Saturday with a fantastic performance in the individual time trial, erasing a deficit to both Schleck brothers.

But on the same day he won, others had to lose. Among them was Thomas Voeckler, the French rider who was already a folk hero after his performance in the 2004 Tour, when he unexpectedly wore the yellow jersey for 10 days.

Voeckler got back into the yellow jersey this year and, once again, defended it day after day. He was never expected to keep it as long as he did, but there he was still wearing the darn thing after Stage 18. He went from a cheeky underdog to a potential podium contender against all odds.

But Voeckler lost it Friday after a hard day in the mountains, falling to fourth overall. On Saturday he couldn’t ride a time trial fast enough to get on the podium and finished just off it. Now, don’t get me wrong, fourth place at the Tour de France is a great result. Only in the context of this year’s Tour, that finish was tinged with disappointment. After Saturday’s stage, I saw a series of tweets from David Millar, another Tour rider.

– If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

– In team car being driven to hotel. Chatting to [teammate Christian Vande Velde] & spot cyclist on autoroute ahead, dressed in full Europcar kit. Looks oddly familiar.

– Chat stops, tell car to slow. As we pass have time to look into eyes of a tired and broken Voeckler. Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.

Heading into Saturday’s time trial, Voeckler didn’t have much of a chance of riding his way onto the podium. He needed to make up a lot of time on the Schlecks and had used up a ton of energy riding in the yellow jersey.

There was still a chance, though, and when it didn’t happen, I have to imagine everything came crashing down on Thomas Voeckler — the thrill of wearing the yellow jersey and the pressure of defending it; the media and fan attention, day after day; the emotional tug of war, with the faint possibility he might actually win the damn race on one side, and probability on the other; the devastation he put his body through in pursuit of a dream.

And when that all evaporated, when he knew he wouldn’t be standing on that final podium in Paris, I have to imagine that Voeckler was finally spent. Whatever caused him to ride alone on a highway in the middle of France doesn’t reduce the feeling. He was broken.

He was not the first athlete to be broken by a performance and he will not be the last. And the fact that I’m a cyclist is likely distorting my view, but I find it extraordinarily sad that Voeckler needed to go ride around by himself for a while after finishing fourth.

But then, everything that happens at the Tour happens on a grand scale. Everything. Even the sublime, even the disappointment.

As a rider, I will never understand that level of disappointment or emotional investment. I don’t race for money or prestige, I don’t have a whole country cheering me on. But I can relate to the way competitive cycling can throw your emotions around.

One minute you’re heading into the last lap of a criterium in Malvern, plotting the move that will get you into a good position for a high placing. The next you’re riding up a hill, watching another rider’s blood trickle down after a crash that left riders strewn, bikes gnarled, and one competitor apparently unconscious.

I’m not sure what it was about today’s race that made it so sketchy. Maybe it was the fast, wide-open course that allowed fields to ride six people wide. Maybe people in my race were just so antsy to race that they left common sense behind.

Whatever it was, the whole 20-mile race was on edge. And on the last lap, I saw a bike 10 yards ahead go sideways and bodies fly. I nearly ran over the rider who was most seriously hurt, and when I saw the blood, I stopped giving two damns about a good result. I then rode to the start/finish line to make sure an ambulance was on its way before going back to the site of the accident.

I don’t want to detail the scene too grotesquely, but he lost a lot of blood. Luckily, he was lucid after regaining consciousness. Before paramedics stabilized him on a backboard and took him to a hospital, they asked him his age. He said he was 40.

That struck me. I know that many people his age or older participate in bike racing. They do so for fun and to scratch a competitive itch, just like I do. And I know this isn’t the most serious incident in the world, like I’m aware this is not the first time somebody crashed in a bike race. Accidents happen. Everybody who pins on a number on knows that risk.

But again and again, my mind kept saying, “This poor guy.” The least he deserved — any rider deserves — was a safe race. He didn’t get it.

That’s disappointing, even if there was nothing grand about my race at all.

The race: Arsenal Crit – Cat 4
The result: 13th, and some beer

The story:
The race was held at the Navy Yard in Philly, which is a nice change from doing the PA Turnpike-to-202-to-30 progression of roads and spending hours in a car.

It was put on by QCW/Breakaway, a local club team, and it showed. My Cat 4 field was about 25-30 guys deep, and at least a third, maybe 40 percent, were from QCW. They were younger guys, including some juniors, and it’s great to see such a large group of riders getting into the sport.

We did 20 laps around a really fun course — about a mile long with eight corners and a wide, long, flat run to the finish. Positioning was super important. The constant changes in direction and some narrow corners strung out the field single-file for most of the race, making the back an especially terrible place to reside. You can waste a lot of energy sprinting out of corners just trying to hold somebody’s wheel.

There were a couple early moves in the race, but nothing serious. The QCW kids animated the race a lot, and one of them got up the road with somebody else with about 9 or 10 laps left. At this point the field had thinned, but I really wanted to be making the race, so I made a move along the finishing stretch and reeled in the front-runners over the span of two laps. I heard a “nice pull” from someone behind me when I made the catch. Thanks, guy.

Anyway, I was still drilling it at the front heading for a prime and figured I’d go for it. Prime is just a fancy word for intermediate sprint. They don’t decide the race, but they give riders extra chances to earn a prize. There were three in my race.

I didn’t think my effort would work. But lo, it did. Just after crossing the finish line, an explosive kid from QCW blew past me and motioned for me to get on his wheel. Why? I had somehow established a gap in front of the field and he saw a breakaway chance. Normally I’d think, “Awesome!” and be game, but I hadn’t recovered from the chase and sprint, then had to dig even deeper to bridge up to him.

He forged ahead alone for the final six laps and took a solo win — his teammates did a good job blocking and not contributing to a chase. It seems pretty basic that you shouldn’t help other riders catch one of your teammates, but I’ve seen it happen more than once. So, kudos.

As for the others, they didn’t seem like they wanted to organize a chase, so we were all racing for second. I stayed in the field and finished 13th.

Later, I picked up my prize for winning the prime: a six-pack sampler of Philly’s own Yards beer. Quite a tasty bonus.

Fundraiser update:
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)
Arsenal Crit – 13th (worth $10)

As a daily visitor to the Gawker family of networks, I will occasionally poke my head into Jalopnik’s garage. While I wish I didn’t need to own a car — mostly because of the expenses involved — I still like automobiles, and the site runs some very cool stuff.

But when I visited there today, I found this article about the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle.

In a little over a decade Volkswagen saw its Beetle transform from Adolf Hitler’s dream of the “people’s car” to the foulest of all marketing slurs — a “chick car.” Does the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle finally provide a more manly solution? We drove it today to find out.

I wasn’t all that surprised to read that lede in a review about the new VW Beetle. That critique of the car is well known and widespread. With the, as Jalopnik put it, “old New Beetle’s flower vase? Funky pastel colors? A body shape with the same side profile as the three-breasted alien hooker from Total Recall?” it’s not hard to imagine someone taking those as cues that it’s a ‘Chick Car.’

But I think the term — and how it’s valued — says more about us than the cars. After all, VW didn’t exactly market the car as exclusively for women. They marketed it as a new hippie machine. A car for artists, romantics, adventurers, and wits. It’s a car that will make you happy.

Yet that generation of Beetle is still somehow a Chick Car.

The label undoubtedly has a lot to do with how the car looks. It’s soft around the edges, doesn’t have a menacing stance, it has a happy face. It has the flower vase. It’s cute. And for those reasons, the Beetle is called feminine.

That’s not necessarily a criticism. Cars have a certain element of gender expression — they have faces and body shapes. But the thing about gender is that, with people, it doesn’t have to be binary. People can express themselves in masculine and feminine ways that don’t necessarily match their biological sex, and to varying degrees. That could also extend to automobile design.

And if the same characteristics of masculine and feminine apply to car design, you could, for instance, posit that a Beetle is a very feminine car and a Ford F-350 is a very masculine car.

A lot of cars would fall into the middle of that spectrum because the person-to-car parallel isn’t perfect. Cars stop looking and acting like people at a certain point.

But there is some similarity, and if you’re using the adjectives masculine and feminine merely as descriptors, fine, I can deal with that. I’m most bothered when they’re used a key words for bad and good, thrown out there as coarse value judgments.

Let’s go back to the Jalopnik article and one graf that stuck out to me.

Sure, a car with a feminine side can be a novelty at first — especially if it strikes a chord with a public looking desperately for anything reminiscent of times gone by. But keep the design around too long and it’s tantamount to sales suicide.

First, I’m not sure if that’s true. Jalopnik cites massively reduced sales numbers as proof that the Beetle’s femininity is to blame, when there could be loads of other reasons. It could be that most people nostalgic for the old Beetle got a new one, and don’t need another fix. It could be that the economy stinks and there are better options. It could be that the car is just old and boring, like many, many other models.

But let’s say Jalopnik’s right in stating that the Beetle was too feminine for its own good. I wonder why that is. Why is a car with a feminine side, a Chick Car, only good enough to be a fad and a temporary sales boost? Why couldn’t it be marketed to the masses over the long term? Why is Chick Car a slur?

It’s not because so-called Chick Cars are inherently bad. Bad cars come in all shapes and sizes.

I’d guess because many men would rather not drive a so-called Chick Car. And because men have traditionally (and still have) held buying and owning power disproportionate to population, alienating them means you stand to lose a lot of sales.

Personally, I think it’s a bunch of rigid gender role baloney.

Calling something a Chick Car is only insulating for men because it insinuates that you’re effeminate and/or gay, and oh, God, when will society be done with that being an insult?

My old car was a 2009 Volkswagen Rabbit, which was called “cute” by a friend when we got some coffee last year. Initially I was embarrassed. Why? Because I’m male, and my ideal car should be a granite-solid beast with Space Shuttle power and jungle cat prowl. It should make you pee your pants when you see it in the rear view and shoot testosterone out the exhaust. So the myth goes.

The Rabbit was not quite like that. It was fun to drive, reliable and had loads of utility. Hell yeah, it was cute, and I loved it. My desire to put my money toward other things is the only reason I don’t have it anymore.

But I’m not here to advocate for some androgynous automobile utopia. People should be free to drive what they want and can, without absurd labels like Chick Car. That decision shouldn’t meant anything other than “I like this car.”

I am, though, wondering something else. If indeed it’s not profitable for an auto manufacturer to have a so-called Chick Car in its lineup, why aren’t we examining the reasons for that? Why aren’t we plotting an authentic remedy, rather than seeing masculinity as the cure?

Sometime around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, I steered my bike toward my car, exhausted, hot and dehydrated. I had just finished a 57-mile race and was interested only in finding a half-full bottle of water I’d left in my back seat. So I unclipped from my pedals, reached into my jersey pocket and grabbed my keys, along with a couple empty gel packets. I grabbed the bottle, unscrewed the cap and took a nice, long gulp of hot water.

I can’t say it was a surprise. That’s just what happens to liquids when you leave them in a car for three-plus hours in July. But I still drank it. And if you’ll permit me a groan and a metaphor, that bottle was like my weekend of racing — some satisfaction, some drawbacks, but something I’ll definitely take.

Because of my fundraiser (still plenty of time to join in!), I want to give myself as many opportunities to get good results as possible. So I signed up for two events this weekend — a Cat 4 criterium at the Rodale Fitness Park on Sunday, and a Cat 3/4 road race in Coatesville on Monday.

Before I could get to racin’, I had to take care of my bike, which, as they say in car parlance, was running rough. Even though I’d replaced the chain and cassette two weeks ago, pedaling felt gummy and too tough, and I couldn’t figure out the problem.

The excellent mechanics at Guy’s did after I scrambled over there on Friday afternoon: one of my rear derailleur pulleys was missing a part. I ended up replacing the whole thing and had it back Saturday morning.

The mechanic actually called me on Saturday morning, before the shop even opened, to tell me he had been working on my bike. And that’s why I love local bike shops, specifically mine, and won’t go anywhere else.

Thanks to his work, I had a proper race bike heading into the events.

Sunday
The race: Rodale Fitness Park Criterium (Category 4)
The result: 10th

The 20-lap, 20-mile event rolled off at noon, and it was humid, but thankfully not raining. The course is fun — a lot of sweeping turns, a short big-ring rise, and a straight run into the finish line.

An early breakaway attempt and crash made the start hectic, but the bunch settled in after about five laps. I had to put in an occasional pull to stay near the front and make sure I made any split, but no attacks stuck. Even though a split started to develop a few times, riders would seemingly sit up. Frustrating.

Making things more frustrating was the fact that my saddle came loose midway through. I sat down and the nose just…dropped. So, every once in a while I’d have to plop down on the back of it to make sure I didn’t slide off the front.

Thankfully, it wasn’t that big a problem. Coming into the last few laps, I knew I wanted to follow the wheels of a few kids from a Philly-based team, Breakaway. They’re always there at the end of crits, and one of them has serious speed. So I gradually moved up and used the rise to gain a bunch of positions, and was around seventh wheel going toward the finish line — good for somebody with sprint speed. Unfortunately, I don’t have that, but I held on for 10th.

I was pleased to get a good result, especially because I suspected the Coatesville race would kick my butt.

Monday
The race: Coatesville Road Race (Category 3/4)
The result: Butt kicked

I will admit to feeling a bit intimidated heading into this race. I’d never raced with Cat 3s before, and had only upgraded to Cat 4 this winter. It’s hard to judge just how talented the separate categories are, but the numbers lend some weight. The numbers sort of imply that Category 3 riders should be one order faster than Category 4s, and one order slower than Category 2s.

While it’s not that tidy, I figured I’d give it a shot. I like road races better than crits, anyway, I thought. WELL.

The 11-mile long course had some nice rollers, twists, fun descents, and a primary climb that served as the end of the lap. But it also had some obstacles, including metal-grate bridges, speed humps, one undulating stretch of road, and a covered bridge that could swallow a bike tire. The biggest gaps in the wood were covered by carpet on race day, but you still had to pay close attention to where your wheels were going.

But, as it turned out, none of those things created a problem. What torpedoed my race was a pothole at the top of the climb. I hit it at the end of the second of five laps and dropped my chain. The rider in front of me avoided it at the last moment; I couldn’t. I needed to wait for other riders to pass me before I could pull over and throw the chain back on, and couldn’t make up the gap.

It bummed me out because I had decent position and gained confidence. So I rode the last three laps mostly solo in the extremely humid conditions. I’m not sure how far back I finished from the main group, but I finished, and that was enough for me.

As they say, that’s racin’. I’m glad to have done both events, pushed myself and explored my limits. Hopefully I can use that experience when I’m back in action in a couple weeks.

Fundraising update:
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)
Rodale Park Crit – 10th (worth $10)
Coatesville Road Race – ? Seriously, my name isn’t on the results. (worth $0)

I’ve been sitting on this idea for a post for a few days, letting it roll around my head, partly out of procrastination, and partly because I want to make sure I was making a correct judgment.

On Friday I read a story about a man who stabbed his girlfriend with their children in the house. Horrifying, of course. But I still can’t get past the lede of the story:

Six months. If Jacob Rodriguez could stay out of trouble for that long, charges that he harassed and stalked his girlfriend last June would be dismissed.

But he couldn’t, authorities say.

On Wednesday, according to police, Rodriguez stabbed and slashed his girlfriend, Brittany L. Hickman, on the first level of the West Deptford townhouse they shared, while the couple’s 2-year-old daughter and Hickman’s 5-year-old son were upstairs.

What an astonishingly bizarre and irresponsible way to introduce the pertinent information. Look, I get the reporter’s instinct to find an angle, and I understand the desire to present a compelling account of the facts. But good gravy, this is not the way to do it.

Let’s just consider a few things.

First, the news is that the girlfriend was stabbed. It’s absolutely an incident of domestic violence and should be judged as such.

Secondly, the context is that this is not the first — or, likely, even the second — time he’s shown abusive behavior. We learn later in the story that Rodriguez was charged with stalking and harassing last June after trying to run his girlfriend off the road. Because his girlfriend withdrew a temporary restraining order after that incident, those charges could be dropped. It’s a pretty important detail.

But instead of using the history to set the context for the stabbing, the reporter decides to frame the story as some sort of struggle and personal hardship for Rodriguez. As though he’s just so damn unlucky to be in more legal trouble. Yes, Rodriguez would be a free man in Jersey (so unfettered and alive) right about now, if only he hadn’t been so unfortunate as to stab his girlfriend.

Heavens. Using the straightforward inverted pyramid style would have been loads better, and using the facts to identify the stabbing as another act of an abuser would have been loads more accurate.

Instead, we get flippant language.

“If Jacob Rodriguez could stay out of trouble…”

“But he couldn’t, authorities say.”

The phrasing takes the blame off Rodriguez and makes it disappear — It wasn’t his fault. It was nobody’s! He couldn’t help himself.

Sorry. The blame’s all on him, and given his history, the incident can be a lesson about how abusers continue to try to gain power and control in a multitude of ways. It should have been prevented. And it’s a tragedy. Just not for him.

The race: Tour of Mt. Nebo
The date: 6/11
The result: 9th (Category 4)

The story…

There’s something seductively romantic about road trips. Hitting the open road with nothing but some gas, clothes, money and a direction — it’s very poetic. The seams in the road make tires ka-chunk in iambs or anapests, the miles tick by in uniform couplets, and if you’re lucky, the scenery washes over the windshield in free verse.

There’s also something romantic about cycling. Everything about it is defined by rhythm. The cadence of pedal strokes, the sway of handlebars during a steady climb, the lub-dub of the engine that powers it all.

That might be true. I was looking forward to taking my new-old car on its first extended trip today, and I was looking forward to a potentially awesome race, but there was nothing romantic, poetic, or seductive about getting lost in Lancaster at 7 in the morning.

It’s true! Even though I’d been to this race several times, I still wasted 40 miles and about an hour meandering around Pennsylvania farm country. How did I manage to do this? Mostly because I was distracted by my own thoughts.

A handful of miles before I had to make a left turn onto a Swan Road, I noticed that one heck of a storm system was building in the sky. Then, a few miles later, I noticed a sign for a Sadsbury Township, which sounds like the place where all the mopes in the world are assigned to live, or a kind of corny slang.

With the clouds and Sadsbury occupying the two functioning channels of my brain, I zoomed past Swan Road without seeing the tiny green sign.

That I kept recognizing landmarks only compounded the problem. Dutch Wonderland, a teepee stand for shoo-fly pie, a giant bear carved out of wood: I saw all these things and thought I was heading in the right direction (yeah, for FUN!). Not so.

Thus, I had to embark on a furious edition of Ask the Locals. No one could point me in the right direction until a potato chip delivery man overheard me ask the woman behind the Wawa sandwich counter. He gave me detailed instructions, including landmarks. And I, in turn, did not buy a bag of chips. But hey, it wasn’t even 8 a.m.

But it was close, and that put me into Urgent Mode. I sped to the course in a whirlwind, blowing the flies off the cows’ ears along the way, kitted up, pinned my number on, pumped up my tires, got in the world’s worst warmup, sucked down an energy gel, and pedaled my lycra-clad butt to the start line.

It wasn’t ideal. Normally I like to arrive early so I can calmly get ready and warm up well. That usually makes for a better performance. But it’s funny how things work out. Despite all the preceding shenanigans, I felt good and rode a smart race.

My smartest move was making a conscious effort to stay near the front early on, especially approaching climbs. Sure, my training helped me do that, but the hilly nature of the course and first-lap adrenaline strung the field out, making it impossible to catch back on by yourself. My approach today made life a lot easier; I was part of a small lead group after one lap.

The pace settled into a rhythm after that, and the lead group was reduced to 10 after the second. I led us up the climb to the start-finish line, figuring I’d try to push the pace and shed some riders. I did that so well, in fact, that I created a small gap.

I could have pushed on but knew that would never work with nine tough miles still to go, and sat up.

My plan for the third lap was to stay in the group and conserve energy for the finish. Unfortunately, that was thwarted when I fell off the back with only a couple miles to go. We made a hard right turn onto a short riser…and, boom. My legs just turned into concrete.

However, I ripped down the following descent and re-joined the other nine riders for the finale, and at that point it seemed like the winner would be the one who slowed down the least. It was tough.

One guy made a solo bid for glory with a little more than a kilometer to go and blew halfway up the hill. He was the one I passed on the way to my ninth-place finish. I didn’t think I had another surge left.

I watched other races from that hill later in the day, and saw the most exquisite series of grimaces. Clenched teeth, furrowed brows, the works. It would make a fine scrapbook.

It would also serve as a reminder. The Tour of Mt. Nebo can be easily poeticized. It’s pretty fun to imagine yourself flying up the finishing climb, tap-dancing on the pedals. But then you see those faces and remember the reality. Not every poem is romantic. Then again, it doesn’t have to be.

————-

For those keeping track of my fundraiser, a quick recap.
Smoketown Criterium – 24th (worth $5)
Tour of Mt. Nebo – 9th (worth $10)

So, yay! Progress.

Tomorrow marks the second race in my fundraising project, and it is one of the more unique races on the local circuit — The Tour of Mt. Nebo.

The course is a nine-mile loop in the Lancaster area, featuring about 1,000 feet of climbing per lap. My race will do three laps, so while the actual distance isn’t that long, it’s going to hurt. Check out a video of the course shot by the race promoter:

I’ve done this race twice before, and it’s definitely challenging. The fun — or sinister, I guess — part about the course is that the climbs aren’t all that long. There are a lot of short, steep pitches, and even the two primary climbs can’t be longer than a mile. The course was made for punchy climbers who have the strength to zip up those pitches, which can top 20 percent in places.

I’ve used the weeks between my first race and Nebo to put in some targeted training on hills that mimic the climbs. Hill repeats, experimenting with gear ratios, fiddling with climbing position — I can’t say it was fun, but I hope the work pays off.

(I feel obliged to point something out. In these entries, I’ll write about training and races as though I’m some kind of professional cyclist. That’s more a reflection of my writing ability than my cycling talent, and should indicate the kind of dedication it takes to be an actual pro, or even an elite amateur. In the world of competitive cycling, I’m small potatoes. I’m home fries. I’m Potato Stix.)

The last time I did Nebo, I went in completely unprepared for the hills and suffered. I know I’m going to suffer tomorrow, just like everyone is going to suffer. I only hope others’ suffering is greater than my own.

Actually, what I really hope is that I can create that suffering, through well timed attacks or a high tempo up climbs. I would be filled with glee if, halfway up a climb and feeling strong, I looked to the rider next to me and saw his face filled with pain.

That’s a truly bizarre thing to type. I created the fundraiser with the ultimate goal of helping to eradicate domestic violence — eliminating that suffering — and here I am writing about creating pain.

The ideas are at odds, and this is how it sounds in my brain:

“Hey, everybody! So, my goal is to create a TON of suffering in this race, and, hey, you know, raise a little dough for a domestic violence organization. Peace. Feminism.”

Coincidentally, the most suffering I can create, the better I’ll do. And the better I’ll do, the better the donation I’ll eventually have for A Woman’s Place.

Of course, all suffering is not created equal. Everyone who pins on a race number tomorrow expects that suffering. Nobody in any kind of intimate relationship should expect to suffer. We cyclists are essentially asking for it; victims of domestic violence never do.

And when there is still plenty of victim-blaming happening in the world, that is a point worth reiterating.