Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Meaning of Life

I'm going to tell you right here!  Well, not me, exactly.  I'll pass it along from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, from the end of chapter 30 ("The Old Doctor") of his novel, Cancer Ward.  I think this may be the most beautiful and profound couple of paragraphs I've ever read, anywhere.

He had to take frequent rests nowadays.  His body demanded this chance to recoup its strength and with the same urgency his inner self demanded silent contemplation free of external sounds, conversations, thoughts of work, free of everything that made him a doctor.  Particularly after the death of his wife, his inner consciousness had seemed to crave a pure transparency.  It was just this sort of silent immobility, without planned or even floating thoughts, which gave him a sense of purity and fulfillment.
At such moments an image of the whole meaning of existence -- his own during the long past and the short future ahead, that of his late wife, of his young granddaughter and of everyone in the world -- came into his mind.  The image he saw did not seem to be embodied in the work or activity which occupied them, which they believed was central to their lives, and by which they were known to others.  The meaning of existence was to preserve unspoiled, undisturbed and undistorted the image of eternity with which each person is born.
Like a silver moon in a calm, still pond.
And there you have it.  Every now and then, calm down.  Be still.  And become a perfect mirror for that which you neither made, nor dreamed up.  And I'll try to do the same.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Two Wheels, Human-Powered, Part IV: Tour de Gruene

Three posts in one day?  It's a Chestnut Tree Cafe record, for sure.  Most unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.  Or ever.

I just got back from visiting my sister and her family in San Antonio, Texas, where I also rode in the Tour de Gruene.  Gruene is a small town near New Braunfels, which in turn is close to San Antonio.  The first thing I learned after arriving is the correct pronunciation of Gruene: you completely ignore the letter U and say "green."  It's that simple.

The Tour consists of recreational tours in several lengths, plus a set of individual and team time trials.  I tried too late to sign up for the individual time trials and was on standby in case someone didn't show up, but was not called.  Next year, I hope, I'll do better.  Meanwhile, my sister and her grandson (I believe that makes him my great-nephew) also wanted to ride.  They are not really experienced riders, so we opted for the shortest recreational tour, which was 35 miles.  (There were also routes of 45, 55, and 65 miles.)  My sister, who is senior to me by three years, was on a hybrid touring bike, while my great-nephew was using a mountain bike which he uses to go to and from school (a mile each way).

The team, ready to go.

I should stop here to note that this was the largest group ride I've ever seen.  Based on bib numbers, I think there must have been close to 3,000 people in all.

Now, my sister, as you can see, is quite fit.  But as it turns out, she must not have been feeling like cycling that particular morning, and she returned to the start after a few miles.  My great-nephew, however, was game to continue, so on we went, at an easy pace.  He was at a substantial disadvantage relative to the other riders: inexperienced, young (I don't think I saw anyone else who was near his tender age), and on a bike that is ill-suited to distance touring, given its heavy frame and wide, aggressively-treaded, low-pressure tires.  But he was undaunted.  "Quit" seems not to be in his vocabulary.

The touring route was promoted as "hilly."  Well, it was, although I was fresh off the Thriller Ride, and the slopes seemed pretty gentle to me.  My great-nephew, understandably, needed to walk his bike up a few of these hills.  But he was far from alone.  I saw lots and lots of twenty- and thirty-something riders on lightweight road bikes doing the same thing, when I hadn't even needed to shift to my smaller chainring yet (although I did need it for a couple of the hills).

Look at all those Texans behind the boy.  Many are walking their fancy road bikes up a modest hill.  Soft, they are -- very soft.

Quite a lot of the route followed the Guadalupe River.  It was very scenic, in an un-midwestern kind of way.  Trees in southern Texas tend to be kind of low and bushy.  But that makes for a very, very big sky.  I could get used to it, I think.

Lots of people go tubing on the Guadalupe.  Isn't that water nice and clear?  And this was one day after it flooded!

Check out that big sky.  It was a perfect day; high was 71°F, and not a cloud to be seen.
The Tour de Gruene is connected with a German-heritage festival in New Braunfels called "Wurstfest," and our Tour registration packets contained "free" admission tickets for Wurstfest.  It was a great time, later that evening.  Here we are, queued up for chow.  I enjoyed "pork chop on a stick."  Sounds unusual; tastes really good.

Mmmm, Wurstfest!  That's my younger great-nephew down in the corner, leaning on his big 35-mile-riding brother.

Looking forward to next year!  Hopefully, I make it into the time trials then.

Two Wheels, Human-Powered, Part III: Thriller Ride

Looking back a month, to October 12, the Cumberland Valley Cycling Club put on the 2013 edition of their Thriller Ride, and I was there.  "There" is London, Kentucky, right off I-75 a little north of the Tennessee state line, and they have hills.  Boy, do they have hills!  I'm sure there's places with more hills, but I don't know that I want to ride my bicycle in any of those places.  I found Laurel and Jackson Counties, KY, to be quite sufficiently challenging.  This was a 64-mile mass tour.  Now, if you ride much, and you're on decent equipment, 64 miles is not all that far to ride, as long as you don't mind devoting half the day to it.  But that's in the flatlands where I live.  In southeast Kentucky, those 64 miles often seem to aspire to verticality, and the tour gets a little challenging.  It's also breathtakingly pretty country.

It was about six hours' driving for me to get to London, so I elected to travel the day before so I could sleep on-site.  This was a good idea.  After the ride, I returned the same day, which was tiring but necessary, since the choir was singing at church and I was scheduled to be half the bass section (we have quite a small choir).  After I arrived in London, I realized that I didn't know when the starting time was for the ride on Saturday.  So I showed up at about 7:30 am, thinking that would surely be early enough.  It was.  I had an hour and a half to kill before the 9 am start.  I spent part of it napping in my truck.

I won a prize for being the first rider to check in: a certificate for $15 off from Road ID.  I used it, too.

As the proper start time approached, riders started to gather.

Hey, the sun's up!  Can you tell which way it is to the start?

It was a little chilly at the start, but we soon warmed up nicely.  This was partly because the air got warmer as time passed, but mostly because we didn't have far to go before we got to the first 12% uphill slope.  Twelve per cent doesn't sound like a lot, does it?  Yeah, well, go try it.  That's one meter of vertical for every eight meters of horizontal.  It'll get your attention.  I knew about the 12% because whoever had marked out the route had also painted the "12%" on the road surface.

Your humble reporter, laboring up one of the Thriller's hills.

The most severe slope wasn't labeled numerically, though.  I found out later it was a 17% gradient, but it was marked simply by the words "SWEET MOTHER."  Truer words have never been painted onto asphalt.

Every uphill implies a subsequent downhill.  These downhills, however, were simply a different sort of problem.  My highest available gear ratio didn't let me pedal long on most of those downhills, because I was just going too fast and the legs couldn't keep up.  So I'd freewheel down until my speed exceeded such values as 35 mph -- which doesn't sound like much to us motorists, but is scary-fast on a bike -- and then I'd start riding the brakes, wondering how bicycle brakes behave when they get hot.  (I didn't notice any particular problems, by the way.)  I'd never been on these roads, and lots of times, you couldn't really see what was coming up.  Frequently, there was a STOP sign at the bottoms of these hills.  You definitely had to keep your head up at all times.

The Thriller Ride was so named because Hallowe'en was coming up, and provided the general theme.  The captivating ladies at the SAG stops disguised themselves charmingly as witches, but I certainly didn't see a wart or a hooked nose anywhere.  What I did see, gratefully, included water, bananas, apple slices, orange segments, grapes, cookies, and everything else that you need to keep body and soul together on a challenging ride.

Witches?  I don't think so.  Angels of mercy, in disguise.

You meet nice people at these events.  Mr. Larry Erhardt and I seemed to be riding at about the same pace and in proximity, so we decided to ride the tour together.  He's from the Cincinnati area.  When I return to London next spring for the Redbud Ride, I'll be looking for him.  He takes a unique approach to the occasional problem of being chased by dogs.  I've seen some cyclists who carry pepper spray.  Larry carries dog treats.  He pretty much tosses one to every dog encountered, whether it chases or not.  Seems like a good thing.

Yes, I'm the one catching flies.  Lesson: either talk or get your picture taken, but not both at once.
The obligatory event T-shirt, modeled here by your humble reporter, reflected the Hallowe'en theme.  We rode past more than a few homes with elaborate decorations, too.  Those folks do love their Hallowe'en.

The nose on that skull ... yeah, looks like a set of TruckNutz to me, too.  What were they thinking of?
All in all, a great ride.  I hope to return next fall for another lap.

Two Wheels, Human-Powered, Part II: Tour de Donut

Question: how can you gain weight by riding in a 32-mile bicycle race?  Answer: enter the Tour de Donut.

Roger and Christina Bowersock put on this event on the Saturday after Labor Day each year, in (or, well, starting and ending in, anyway) the small town of Arcanum, Ohio, which is not far from Dayton.  It's a race, but probably not too serious a race for many of its participants.  And I was there for my second Tour de Donut on this past September 7.

How does the race work?  There's an entertaining video that explains it in some detail.  Briefly, though, there are two locations on the course at which the riders stop and eat donuts.  For each donut eaten (and held down, at least to the finish line), the rider gets five minutes deducted from his or her time.  The number of donuts is tracked by volunteer workers who mark them on the rider's bib.  All donuts must be eaten at the stop, not carried away.  At the finish, another volunteer records the number of donuts, and thus the rider is credited.

Wanting to sleep onsite the night before (Arcanum's a couple of hours from my home), I took advantage of a good deal offered by the Faith United Methodist Church, located about two blocks from the start-finish line.  For $25, you get sleeping-bag space on their floor plus a very good spaghetti supper, including bread, salad, and dessert, the night before.  Whoever makes the spaghetti sauce does an exceptionally fine job of it, too.

My Tour de Donut home-away-from-home, for the second time.  Highly recommended.

Timing is done by RFID chip, so there's no hurry about getting to the start line.  And that's just as well; as you can see, the population of Arcanum is swelled considerably by the Tour.  I was fairly near the front of the crowd, but I hear it takes about 15 minutes after the gun before the last rider crosses the timing mat.

More than a few folks are gathering for the 8:30 start.  It's quite the crowd to be a part of.

The 2012 Tour was my first, and I was on older, heavier equipment.  That year, I took 2 hours and 4 minutes (and some seconds) to get around the 32 miles, eating two donuts at each stop for a total of four.  That got me 35th place out of 163 men, aged 51 and up, in "raw" time, and 32nd place in net or donut-adjusted time.  This year, I was on my newer, lighter bike, and I opted for a different donut strategy:  I didn't stop at the first stop (it's optional), and I ate two donuts at the second stop, and did it all in 1 hour 44 minutes (and, again, some seconds).  This year, there were 211 men in my 51-and-up age category, and I came in 20th in raw time, but a poor 40th in donut-adjusted.

I took this just after finishing.  Note that there are relatively few riders in the shot.  Not to boast or anything, but that's because most of them are still out on the course, somewhere behind me!

Now, please don't laugh, but I went into this race intending to win it.  And when I finished, I thought maybe there was some chance I'd done that, because I'd been keeping track of who passed me.  Of those who did, it seemed to me that they were all younger folks.  I saw no fellow geezers go by.  On inspecting the results, however, I see that I can forget about ever winning this event, either in raw time or donut-adjusted.  The guy who won the raw time this year made no donut stops and finished in an hour and 19 minutes; that's 25 minutes quicker than my time.  Okay, knock off five minutes for the donut stop that I made and he didn't; he was still 20 minutes faster.  Now, I could train a lot harder and maybe reduce my time by a minute or three; but there's no way in this universe that I can ride that course 20 minutes faster than I did.  Whoever that guy is, he's just a way-better cyclist than me.  Similarly, the donut-adjusted winner finished just a couple of minutes quicker than I did.  But he did so while eating: twelve.  Twelve.  Freaking.  Donuts.  Again, there's no way for me.  If I had eaten a dozen donuts, I'd probably still be out there somewhere in Darke County, Ohio today.  And still puking, no doubt.

I'm here to tell you, though, that there's nothing like a race.  It's easy to find organized rides or tours; around here, you could do one most every weekend throughout the season.  And I enjoy them.  But a race -- that's different. I went pretty hard.  I turned that last corner and hit that last six blocks or so, on the brick-paved main drag in Arcanum, with the finish-line arch in sight, going as fast as I possibly could, with people in the area being nice enough to ring some cowbells and even cheer a little.  Across the finish line, I could just barely walk.  But that huge rush of endorphins you get at that point ... I'm not going to say that it's "better than sex," but I will say it's better than some sex.  It's amazingly gratifying.

So now you know how to gain weight while riding 32 miles.  And have a lot of fun in the bargain, too.