Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Messenger of Doom

A date and an anniversary coincide this week. It’s the Riverport Duathon this Sunday and I’m seriously considering racing on 70” fixed. It'll be the first time in a year I'll have turned a pedal in anger; it's going to hurt isn't it? I think going on fixed will remove some of the pressure. If I only have a 14 (and a 39), then I can't possibly compete against folk with full-on crabon and twenty gears to choose from, right? Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. This will be the first time I’ve raced on fixed since the Crest CC day out at Calshot velodrome in 1990 where I found out the hard way the stalling speed of a track-bike high on the 49° banking (one of the steepest angles in the world!).

Slip slidin' away

The end of September is also the anniversary of my “big” crash. I think we all have a favourite chute, be it for the circumstances, unaccountable and expensive mechanical damage (or lack of), the publicity (I bet Adbujaparov still thinks fondly of the Champs Elysee in the 1991 Tour from time to time, but he probably doesn’t drink Coke any more!), a spectacular set of injuries or a combination of all four that turned a mundane pratfall into a son et lumière. This is mine. Yes, it was seventeen years ago but no, I’m not living in the past as I can’t remember the actual date, I just remember “end of September”.

Once upon a long ago when I was young, fit, weighed under 70 kg for the last time in my life and still imbued with that feeling of invincibility and sense of indestructibility that even a couple of decent crashes can’t knock out of the young, I needed a job. I wasn’t in a rush to leave London (perhaps Samuel Johnson was right). So bike courier it was.

In TZ at the ‘91 Airebrough Tri. Check out the bad taste paint-job on my Orbit. Hot pink fades to fluorescent green? And the helmet matched! Sweet.

I got a gig with Arrow Express on Binney Street, W1, a side-street somewhere between Bond Street and Marble Arch. Back then we used radios, not cell-phones and Crackberries and ours were famously bad; my radio really only worked in line-of-sight with home-base! I also got my call-sign “Alpha Eight Eight”, a number that still makes me stop and turn even today .

The myth of the courier is swinging around Piccadilly or Marble Arch on the drops with your shades on, courier bag slung jauntily over one shoulder, possibly with a couple of interesting looking cardboard tubes sticking out of it, swigging Lucozade and getting chatted up by hot secretaries and foxy chicks in convertibles “’ello darling’, wots that? Do I shave my legs?” and I’m not going to kid you, some days it was like that. There were also the bad days; the days it poured with rain all day, you were wet before you’d even started and you ended up sitting under a shop awning in Knightsbridge with your feet in your bag and the Evening Standard stuffed up your jersey nursing a single coffee trying to keep warm, less “’ello darlin’” and more “Yes officer, I’ll move on”.

Working conditions were pretty poor, and not only for the obvious reasons. We got paid piece-rate, in other words a fixed amount of the cost of each delivery was ours; £3 was the going rate for a job, of which we saw £1.75. Back then I was spending maybe £20 on groceries, £40 on rent a week then they’d take £10 for the radio so that’s maybe forty-plus jobs, a couple of good days or three bad ones, before you got into “your” money. You could be on for 12 hours and only do tendeliveries. That’s’ about £15 for 12 hours work! I know the maths doesn’t work out but you see customers on account got reduced rates, say £2.50 a job which meant the riders’ cut went down proportionally. Not to mention that the ratio of hot secretaries (the ones in short skirts and low-cut white blouses) to sweaty, balding, middle-aged shipping clerks in ill-fitting grey polyester uniforms, is depressingly low. Told you it sucked.

Far fewer of these than lore predicts!

Traffic? Blimey. We need to talk. Halifax is nothing. I’ll say this though, unlike Halifax, bikes are usually faster than cars in central London, which actually makes life safer. Still, close shaves every day and probably about an accident a week. Mostly getting doored by yuppies bailing out of cabs and bouncing off tourists looking the wrong way, but I do remember lying on my back in Hannover Square and seeing my bike under a Volvo! Once going down the white line in the middle of Oxford Street I hit a bus coming the other way with the corner of my bag that stuck out over my right shoulder. How close was that? Every now and there'd be a bout of road-rage, not that anyone knew what road-rage was in 1992. Turning right off Regent Street one day three guys just walked out in front of me without looking. Having just battled my way down Oxford Street I thought “That’s just f$#%*&g it” and made a classic “right turn” signal, straight out of the highway code, and clipped one of the guys over the top of the head with my outstretched hand at 15 mph as I made the turn. Bet that scared him!

There were really only two ways to make money in this game. One was distance. That’s how the motorbikes made their cash. Us bikes were used in central London; EC1-4, WC1, WC2, W1, W2, NW1, SW1, SE1. Inside this zone, where the bikes are the fastest things on wheels, it cost the flat rate of £3.00 per package (£1.75 to me) to take a package from say EC4 to W1. Outside this zone, where the bikes were no longer kings of the road, it was the flat rate plus mileage, say 50p/mile. This was the domain of the motorbike guys. Give a package to a bloke on a motorbike and tell him to take it to Heathrow or Bristol by 2 o’clock and ker-ching, the guy’s a winner. Bikes got few mileage jobs. Once I was asked if I could make it out to the BBC at Shepherds Bush, five or six miles from our usual haunts “8-8, that’s a ten mile round trip” they cautioned. I radioed back that I’d raced a 100 mile time-trial two days earlier, and yes, I think I had the gas. “Very funny 8-8, get yourself over there pronto”. That trip turned out to be a nice little earner ’cos I also hit the second way of making money on that trip; multiple jobs. It’s three quid per packet right? If you’ve got two packets on board then that’s six quid, or £3.50 to you. Having multiple packets going both ways and on mileage I was quids in. Of course you’ve got to prove to the controllers that you can carry one packet first and not get lost on the way, we all heard of the guy who went to Queen Street EC4, not Queen’s Square WC1 (muppet!), so it takes a few weeks before controllers start to trust you. Thus the first few weeks as a courier are pretty lean, and more than once you find yourself doing the math “have I eaten more than I’ve earned today/this week?”. It could get pretty close some times!

Our patch; the orangey bit in the middle (hmmmm, Jaffa Cakes) and the surrounding postal codes....

One thing about a courier is your days are never the same. I’d leave the house at about 06:45 and swing by the all night bagel bakery at the Hackney Road end of Brick Lane on my way to Liverpool Street station to sign in when the circuits opened at 07:30. Why there? Well firstly I was coming in from east London and it was the first bit of the “The City” I hit, especially if I’d just picked up a days’ supply of bagels. Besides, I could sit down and read a bit, get a coffee and they had toilets. Signing on that early got me a nice little earner, six to ten packages from a commercial bank behind Bishopsgate to various places around the City and the West End, which usually left me at the Chemical Bank on Hannover Street up west. It netted about £7 for just under an hour’s work, not a bad little earner. Not minimum wage either, but it could be the most productive hour of my day!

Hot salt beef bagels.....

There are certain industries you can’t stay too long in. Porn is one, they say. I reckon couriering is another. I know there are guys who’ve been doing the rounds in London or New York or San Fran and who are legendary within the community but for most of us, no, not long. The physical toll mounts while your ration of luck decreases. It only takes a moments inattention; yours, someone else's, maybe the guardian angel on your shoulder was checking out his reflection in a shop window but sooner or later you’re going to see the underside of a bus or the inside of an ambulance. My exit came courtesy of an innocuous little, poorly filled in trench on Bloomsbury way. I was going up west at a great rate of knots and bunny-hopped it. Or at least I tried to. I landed all wrong which is to say everything but the tyres hit the ground. Ker-runch.

What had actually gone ker-runch was my face: a depressed tripod fracture of the left zygoma and a fractured mandibular condyle (that’s the lower jaw) to boot. A surprisingly negligible amount of actual road-rash however (I still wear the jersey!). The jaw would set on it’s own but the zygoma required surgery a week later to re-set it and I still have the screws in; they’re titanium and no they don’t go beep in airports (but I remember was traveling a month after 9-11 and I seemed to set everything off so I did get to wondering…...) . The fractured zygoma was pressing on the trigeminal nerve and my upper lip was numb for ages afterwards.

Check the helmet too. A huge chunk of it didn’t make it as far as the hospital and the remaining pieces were only held together by the straps. I dare-say if I hadn’t been wearing it a huge chunk of my brain probably wouldn’t have made it either (and my skull would only have been held together by the helmet straps). The scary thing is this didn’t convince me right away that wearing helmets was a good thing (it actually took another crash!) . This still gives me cold chills; almost as if like a goose is walking over my grave in a parallel universe, the one where I put on the little bakers' cap that morning instead.

Back then helmets were only legal for road-racing, where accidents were to be expected, given the close proximity of all those bikes, speed, corners and cyclists’ brain (which is like runners brain but with a Phil Liggett/Paul Sherwen laugh-track). We all used to ride to the Thursday night crits at Eastway with our helmets slung over the stem or clipped to our musette bags; seems kinda ridiculous now doesn’t it (but I've seen it in Quebec!)? I definitely didn’t wear one for time-trials back then, I mean riding on your own, what could possibly happen?

Helmets in TTs? What could possibly go wrong? Oh, wait....

So, even though it has it glamour moments (“‘ello darlin’”), couriering is a hard slog and unlike most of our jobs, requires one take almost suicidal risks on a daily basis. But hey, I was getting paid to ride my bike, and how many of you can say that? I was doing it in a city I loved and knew like the back of my hand, which hardly made it a great intellectual drain and besides, there were the hot secretaries and foxy chicks in convertibles!

At Cyclesmith a couple of years ago we had a courier come out and do the race on fixed. He said “oh, so you’re the ex-messenger they were talking about, do you want to come out to the courier races?”. You know, for a second there the temptation was there, to go screeching around town on the drops on fixed wearing shades with a couple of cardboard tubes sticking out of a cordura courier bag slung jauntily over one shoulder, checking delivery-schedules on a Crackberry while swigging Red Bull and “’ello darlin’ yeah, they’re shaved”, but you know, I reckon couriering is a young man’s game. I no longer feel indestructible or invincible, I weigh more than 70 kg, I’ve used up all my luck and besides I think my guardian angel has also grown up and has forsaken me to do postgraduate work. So sure, I was a courier, but as countless young actresses have said before me, hey I was young and I needed the money!


Monday, September 28, 2009

Rum Ran

Me the day before a race....

To be honest, I'm a complete basket-case before a race, prone to catastrophising, introspection and a whack-load of good old-fashioned performance anxiety. These feelings were heightened by the circumstances of the relay. In a full-strength RNS event over this kind of distance, such as Enfield, Natal Day or Berwick, a top ten position would be expected, maybe top five. The nature of the event, a ten-person relay team, meant that most of the guys and gals who usually put the boot to me every other Sunday were on my team. Furthermore, in this ten-leg relay, the probability of the other guys and gals who put the boot in me, running the same leg was also substantially reduced. This left the uncomfortable feeling that I could win the leg. There's nothing wrong with winning, but it's nice to come as a surprise, for me at least. Going in as the odds-on favourite (even if it is only in your own mind) is a bit too much pressure. Of course, you always tell yourself that it's not the win that counts, its the time. After all, one's placing is an artifact of who turns up (an unknown quantity) whereas one's time is more of an absolute (known) quantity and at least it is one you can control. Plus, with the Barrel at stake it only mattered if I put time into (or at least didn't concede too much time to) the Oxfool! But who doesn't want the win eh?

I got to the start at 05:45, a bit too early for a runner and having chivied la belle out of the apartment at 05:15 for the relatively short drive to the start I rather suspect I'll be hearing about this for a while! I tried to kid myself this was to check in with the Gonzo Tech Crew (even more so as it was her first time on the crew) but in reality it was to keep my anxiety levels down to the size of a small Easter-egg basket rather than a fully fledged picnic hamper. I missed all the early excitement, a two-car fender-bender at the car-park entrance as I was out warming up. I saw it and remember thinking, hoping, that a relay-associated accident before the event had even started wasn't a bad omen. I tried not to think about that, or the competition, and used my iPod to keep my focus on my personal performance, the performace of others is out of your control and to a point, not worth worrying about (but who doesn't get a bit Tonya Harding at times like this?). I picked up my dossard from team captain Jeff Courish, who didn't know who the Oxfools were running in this leg. I was hoping it wasn't team captain Harry Neynens.

Once at the start-line, I took a place in the front row and looked around. No Harry! Shawn Delu looked at me and said "oh no, I've got to chase you again"; you know, it's nice to be seen as a bit of a nemesis! Perhaps its because one is seen as an animator in the event, someone who makes the racing rather than follows it? I remember doing a road-race back in the UK and I managed to sneak into the winning break, from which I was spectacularly dropped on the last lap when I blew up so hard I think there are still bits of me in trees near Ipswitch. Anyway, far from being disconsolate at going from lead break to lanterne rouge in about three minutes I was pleased at having been part of the pointy end of the race for a while, rather than grinding around eastern Essex in the peleton for two hours for no apparent reason and to no avail.

Enough navel-gazing. Seconds before the off a semi-familiar face introduced himself; it was Derek Estabrooks, with whom I'd had quite the duel with at Cole Harbour. We'd pushed each other all the way for six miles at CH and two weeks later here we were again, with an extra two miles this time. And he was the Oxfool. Ah-ha, here's the competition, the game is afoot!

At 06:30 Mark Stein released the 60 of us from the start-line. I took a few strong strides to get off the front and looked around after 100m or so to see who had come with me; Shawn and Derek. Given that we were obviously together for the long-haul (well 13 km) I asked Shawn and Derek if they knew each other. They did not. When Derek introduced himself Shawn asked "oh, don't you still own a couple of junior records?". Uh-oh, this didn't sound good. Apparently Derek was quite the junior trackie, 1000 and 1500m kind of thing. Oh crap, I thought; here is a guy with track-smarts and I definitely didn't need to get into a sprint with him! So it was Plan A then; take a flier and don't get involved in a finish-line scrap.

Unfortunately Plan A did not go to plan, as Derek and I matched each other stride for stride on the rolling and seemingly trending uphill course. Fortunately it was still dark and I couldn't see the Garmin, but you know, who needs it? This was a race, a duel, and what mattered was not getting dropped by Derek, not the numbers on the idiot box. We were both racing as hard as we could and what did it matter of we were doing 4:30 or 3:30 kilometres, if my HR was at 80 or 180 bpm, as long as I was on his heels?

We kept the pace up hill and down dale, but it seemed to be more hill than dale, and Shawn was dropped after 5 kms or so, leaving the two of us in front. I still had no idea of the pace but was feeling good and that's what counts in these situations. It wasn't an easy pace but it was in my limits. I tried to run smart, maybe force the pace a bit on the uphills to see how Derek ran them (Cole Harbour was a pretty flat course) and tried to cruise whatever downhills there were. The team showed up at the side of the road too to cheer not too long after the start, and I saw them every kilometre or so. Big thanks to Rami, Denise, Minh, Louis, Ray, Jeff, Charles, Randall and Nick who all showed up at oh-dark-thirty and cheered their guts out. Poor Derek didn't get a cheer until 10 kms and even then it was a pretty restrained "Looking good man" floating out from the drivers' window of a passing truck.

Around 8 kms, with 5 km to go, the coach in Louis came out and in addition to the "you go"and "looking strong" I started to hear "be patient". Louis was reading my mind and despite having a serious case of runners' brain going on the message finally sunk in. Plan A, the "gun-to-tape" looooooong flier (a la RRR Leg #4 2007), was gone and Louis obviously knew I was contemplating Plan B, the long flier from several miles out (a la 2007 Moose). To be honest I couldn't shake Derek (or he couldn't shake me) and not wanting to get involved in the sprint, Plan B was looking attractive. Even if I wasn't sure I had the legs I thought I had to go for it. Coach L convinced me to stay. So we cruised down the long downhill past Exhibition Park to the left-hand turn and with 3 km to go immediately started to climb again. I had entertained thoughts that I'd be able to drop Derek here by doing nothing but keeping my tempo but the climb was deceptively tough and it was still gruppo compacto at the Timmies at the top. Last year the Tech Crew stopped here for breakfast on the way to set up the Leg#1 finish but I was somewhat distracted this year; the thought of a coffee and a breakfast sandwich (sausage on a sesame bagel) didn't even cross my mind (and that should tell you something).

Pas ici, pas maintenant

So, two kilometres to go and I had an ex-junior trackie on my heels who like all good record-holding trackies was probably visualising his sprint. I, however, was visualising my breakfast, but more in a déjà mangé kinda way. Now granted, Derek is in the age-group above mine but two weeks before we'd really taken it to each other and I was entertaining no illusions about his ability to win the sprint. Unfortunately it was looking like Plan C (go hard with less than a 1000 metres to go) or Plan D (elbows out, head down, sprint and may the best man win), neither of which I had experience with and neither of which suit my temperament. I racked my brains as to how the road went, trying to find some element of local knowledge that could help but unfortunately I always ride this road the other way, so that was no good!

For the first time that morning I checked the Garmin. I'd been told the leg was 13.1 km so I bided my time through 11 and 12 kilometres, waiting, waiting, waiting. It seemed like forever but it must have been only five or six minutes (tops). At 12.6 km the road went up again (quelle surprise) and I thought this was it; 13.1 km leg, 500 m to go, hill, GO! So I booted it. The merest of shoulder-checks said the gap was there so as I crested the hill I scanned the scene in front of me and ........

....... nothing. No school, no cones, no marshals in reflective vests , no Mark Stein music, no lit-up lead-car. NOTHING. Saint ciboire de crisse de sacrement de TABARNAK!! Had I gone too early? I had gone too early! The leg clearly wasn't 13.1 kilometres so what was it? 13.2, 13.3, 13.7? If you are mid-pack wanting to finish, the difference between 13.1 and 13.7 is a couple of minutes but kinda academic and unlikely to ruin your day (unless a PB is in the cards) but in a tight finish and having just fired your finishing kick (evidently too early) every 100 m counted now. Could Derek close that gap? How long could I keep that pace. What did Derek have in the tank? What was his finishing kick like?

The guys were still at the side of the road cheering; I don't know why but I looked around. It's finish line ettiquette 101; "no point looking back once you've gone for the line, 'cos you're committed (like the pig)". Now I think about it there are a few more finish line rules like "there is nothing uncooler than sprinting for 20th place" or "only a cad and a bounder outsprints a woman if she's paced you all the way". Both rules would be broken many, many times this day but unfortunately the Gonzos don't have rules for this yet. Anyway, back to that half-assed sprint. Maybe there was change in their tone, perhaps even panic. The shoulder-check showed the one sight I didn't want to see: Derek was on a charge and closing the gap. I could see the finishing chute now, in fact everything I looked for a minute earlier was there now; the marshals, the cones, the flashing cars and, God bless him, Mark Stein (but the music was off in deference to being in a residential nieghbourhood at 07:20 but what wouldn't I have given for a blast of "Gonna Fly Now"?). I squeezed out another few metres per second, Derek wasn't coming back now but it was still too early to ease up. Meanwhile Louis was shouting like a Lamzes coach (push push, its time its time be strong mazel tov, it's a boy!).

I dug in for the final few metres and blew through the finishing line at full tilt, with my arms in the air, knowing I had squeezed a victory by the merest of margins (two seconds was the official gap). In the grand scheme of things, a two second gap over the Oxfools with only 13.7 kms of racing down and another 97 km to go, two seconds in a race which would be 6.5 hrs long was not a lot. It did, however, give us the pyschological edge and perhaps this early in the relay being on the ascendancy was a good thing. Or perhaps being on the back foot would spur the Oxfools on. Who knew?

After spending the traditional two minutes on the floor, I went to get changed, only stopping for Tom Rogers who wanted to get photographic evidence of a huge fashion faux pas. The socks were white, don't worry, but I'd done something much, much worse. That story and more later....

Thanks for reading


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rum Happenings

Tomorrow is the Rum Runners Relay. I'll be running for the Halifax Running Club 'A' team, winners of the eponymous Rum barrel these last two years. For some teams RRR is a bit of a lark, a 14 hour, 110km long rolling party on old Rte 3. I understand that "taking it seriously" is almost enough to get you turfed from some teams. For other teams, less so. I rather suspect HRC-A are in the second category given the club is gunning for a three-peat this year. The first year HRC-A won the barrel, the competition was from Les Garçons de Pierre et St Miquleon and frankly it would have been a closer race if les Garçons hadn't accumulated so many penalties, seemingly at a leg-by-leg rate. Last year the race wasn't so close, or so it seemed from the relative comfort of the tech crew convoy. This year however, we've been promised the "Oxford At 8" (or as I heard them referred to recently "Oxfools at 8 minutes behind us") team will have us in their sights. The trash-talking is reaching high-school proportions and if we're not careful the team captains will be coordinating a fight behind the cafeteria after final bell.

Your's truly is strapping on Leg #1, less an ego-boost (give the fast bloke the opener) as it is practical: I'll be on my plates doing rules enforcement for the rest of the day and the club need a good run from each runner given the relatively unknown quality of the competition; at least we knew where we stood with the "Descendants" (guaranteed kicking). Speaking of kickings, as for my chances, don't expect a repeat of previous RRR success, (see Tyler below trying to shoot me with a make-believe ray-gun). I don't think a summer of standing in TZ giving out complimentary TNS handlebar plugs is going to be much help when the lactic kicks in and the Oxfool kicks off with a kilometre to go. No, I'm thinking it'll be a more tactical race (beat the Oxfool) than a flat out vomitathon (a la Enfield, Antigonish, Cobequid, Berwick, Cole Harbour ad nauseum). Oh, and I hope I don't get girled too badly.

It'll be pitch black on this years leg!

So, in honour of RRR, the socksnob's first Sock Of The Week is the humble running sock. No tennis or field-hockey socks here please, nothing that will fall down in bunches around your ankles like Jennifer Beal's legwarmers in Flashdance. You want that ruched ankle look, go back to the eighties, RRR is tomorrow! So we'll be going with a light mesh sock, plain white with just a makers logo and not too long, only a couple of centimetres above the talus. If Audrey Hepburn was a runner, she'd have worn something like this. Classy, timeless, easy.

You just can't go wrong with a sock like this. Discuss


Blogosphere Apocalyse

It may be a sign of the blogosphere apocalypse but it looks like I'm starting a blog. Somewhere I can be more myself than, say Facebook (which I have an ongoing love-hate relationship with) and decidedly more myself than my departmental homepage (which from the looks of, even I hate myself). Somewhere I can be thoroughly self-indulgent.

Firsts first, I am a guy staring at 40 and wondering what happened to 30 and generally having a hard time with it. My actual profession will likely become apparent with time but to ballpark it, it starts with 'g' and ends in 'eek'. I seem to have a love-hate, or at least ambigous, relationship with many things other than Facebook and I'm sure with time many of these things will also become apparent.

If asked to self-identify a sport it would be cycling. I'm a kind of old-school, retro roadie cyclist and to establish my credentials I have two wool jerseys and two fixies but I haven't gone the full Sheldon Brown with the facial hair (not "yet" but "ever"). I do shave my legs though. As an old-school, retro roadie kinda guy I seem to have acquired a rather snobbish reputation for socks, the rule of thumb being cycling socks (and by extension running socks and athletics socks in general) be ankle-length and white. Those knee-high black ones Lance Armstrong wears should be reserved for births, deaths, weddings and court appearances only (oops, there I go, ranting in my first entry, is that a blogging faux pas or what?). So between the whys and wherefores and woes-are-me I hope to start a critical dissection of cycling socks; I mean it's what the world has been waiting for, non?

Start as we mean to go on: shorty short white ankle socks.
Nary a sport these wouldn't be suitable for!