Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hotter N Hell 2010

Last summer, I decided to ride 100 miles at the world's largest cycling event, the Hotter N' Hell Hundred.

But I didn't ride 100 miles last year. I knew I wasn't ready. Instead, I rode 50 miles on a borrowed Schwinn Paramount bike. While riding, I began thinking about attempting the century ride in 2010.

After a lot of research, I picked up my first real road bike, a 2009 Trek 1.5. Starting in late March, I began riding at least 3 times a week (except during travel or intense periods of work).

I rode in the heat (sometimes up to 103 degrees) and the wind. In Oklahoma, the wind never stops. I biked into the strong south winds that blow in hot from Mexico. I biked on roads that felt like a blast furnace, complete with those ominous, squiggly waves of heat dancing on the asphalt. By the end of July, I'd become accustomed to riding hard in extremely hot conditions. Cycling in July and August became a thing to be endured, not necessarily a thing to be enjoyed.

Still, I never managed to ride more than 50 miles in a single day. What would it feel like to ride twice that distance? Would my body break down?

The HHH is far and away the most important single event in Wichita Falls. Fourteen-thousand cyclists, much of the local police force, and an army of volunteers gather before dawn on the ninth day before Labor Day. My good friend and riding partner, Brent, and I unloaded our bikes in the dark and made our way to the starting line. But with 14,000 cyclists, it was impossible to even see the starting line. In fact, when the ride began at 7:00 (after a dramatic Air Force fly-over), it took nearly 30 minutes before we made it to the starting line. Riders can't really mount their bikes; you simply straddle the frame and walk a few steps forward, pause and repeat.

At 6:00 a.m, an endless line of cyclists drive toward the starting line.

Eventually you're able to start moving, but you've got to be cautious. Bikers are everywhere, on your left and ride, and close behind. Some are slow, but be careful when passing, or you're liable to cause a big pile-up.

Self-pic at 6:55 a.m. I got four hours sleep last night.

Even before 8:00, you see lots of locals standing along the road shouting encouragement and waving at us. They understand how important the HHH is to their city, and they clearly appreciate us. It's a good feeling, much better than the general contempt cyclists sense from aggressive drivers the other 364 days of the year.

I was feeling strong as the morning progressed, but Brent was beginning to feel sick. In order to complete the 100 mile course, riders must reach mile 62 (called "Hell's Gate") before 12:30 pm. At 12 noon, we were 10 miles away from Hell's Gate, and Brent was feeling worse. He's successfully ridden multiple century rides at the HHH, so he knew what he was up against. He wisely knew his body just wasn't feeling right on this particular day. He urged me to ride ahead for Hell's Gate, and with a fist bump, wished me luck. He would wait at the finish line for me.

But Hell's Gate wasn't a given. I now had to cover 10 miles in 30 minutes, which meant riding at a 20 mph clip, or waiting another year to complete my first century. All my training, all my preparation would have been for naught. I had a little pep talk with myself and rode as if my life depended on it.

Accelerating past slower riders, I rode on a smooth patch of flat asphalt at 24-25 mph, quite fast for me. My heart was pounding. But when the smooth road suddenly turned into a gravely aggregate, my speed dropped considerably. I was now riding at 17-18 mph, even though I was spinning as quickly as before. The bumpy road gave my wrists a beating as they absorbed the rough surface. I pushed hard, never allowing myself to be passed, only passing other riders. Hell's Gate was mine; I would rest later.

Indeed, the first rest stop after Hell's Gate was sweet. I took extra time to rest under a shade tree; speed was no longer foremost in my mind. During the push to reach Hell's Gate, my heart rate reach 170 bpm; now I let it ease back into the 110 range. I thought about the rode ahead. With 62 miles under my belt, I only needed to ride 40 more miles. If I broke those 40 miles into two 20-mile rides, with frequent breaks, there was little doubt I'd finish. It was now 1:00 pm. Riding at 13-15 mph, I could expect to finish around 3:30 pm. Not too shabby.

Treeless prairie, scorching heat, West Texas in late August.

But the West Texas heat was beginning to intensify, and the wind was blowing strongly. For a time, my 13-15 mph pace slipped to 10-12 mph. I settled in behind a line of riders to let them absorb some of the wind. I drank constantly. In fact, I drank so much that I started to bloat. A sloshy mix of Gatorade and water chugged around in my stomach, leaving me feeling heavy and slow, not lean and quick. But I was parched and I emptied my bottles so fast that I had to stop to refill (and subsequently pee) twice before reaching the 70 mile mark. This ate up valuable time.

Then, at mile 75, my front tire started to wobble in a strange way. My speed dropped. I looked down at the tire. "Dear God, no..."

My heart sank. I most definitely did not want to deal with a flat tire, not now. After several hours of riding, my brain had entered a comfortable, trancelike state. Now, the trance was disturbed, and my brain was required to shift gears into problem solving mode.

I sat under a large shade tree in front of an old-fashioned orchard storefront. An old coot (and I mean that in the kindest way) was literally sitting on a rocking chair while a scruffy old dog slept at his feet. It was like the Cracker Barrel logo had suddenly come to life. And the logo wanted to chat.

"Where 'ya from?" the old coot asked.

"Oklahoma City," I said, without elaboration.

"I've never been to Oklahoma City," the coot replied.

It's not my character to disengage from a conversation with a kindly stranger, but I didn't reply. I was busy trying to change a inner tube so I could get back on the road.

"If you need to fill up your water bottle, there's a hose over yonder by the sign." The old coot used the phrase "over yonder." I couldn't believe it.

"Thanks," I said. "Actually, I've got plenty of water. I'm just trying to fix a flat tire."

I looked up at the waves of cyclists passing me. This only made me more frustrated. "Focus, Grizzard," I told myself. "Don't worry about the coot, don't worry about the other riders passing you by. Just focus on getting this tube replaced."

Still, I struggled. My pump wouldn't work. The tube wouldn't fill up with air. I pumped and pumped. Nothing happened. I didn't know what to do. I looked toward the sky in exasperation.

The old coot was kindly beyond all human goodness. He offered to go fetch some sort air pump that he used for his old tractors. I thanked him but told him by inner tube used a special valve size that wasn't compatible with larger tires. As wonderful a man as he was, the old coot was sucking away all my mental energy. Besides that, my clumsy hands kept fumbling around with the tire, and I was becoming more frustrated by the minute. A quick tube change turned into a 15 minute ordeal. Still, I thanked the old coot before riding off. "Thanks for letting me use your shade tree," I said with a smile. "It's my pleasure," he said. "Best of luck to 'ya."

With my front tire working again, it was time to put some miles behind me. A 3:30 finish was now out of the question. Four o'clock was more likely. I rode hard, past the orchards of Burkburnett, TX, through the barren, treeless prairie. The wind was blowing hard, but I zipped past other riders, one after the other. As I passed one young woman, she shouted "Miyf ryte!!" At least that's what it sounded like.

"I'm sorry?" I said, slowing down.

"I said, 'Nice bike!' And it matches your jersey!"

"Thanks," I said. "I bought this jersey yesterday at the Expo."

Her compliment gave me an extra burst of speed. In my mind, I was riding great (and with style, to boot!) At least that's what I let my vain self believe.

Pushing onward I passed rider after rider. Everyone else seemed to be weakening, but me. I was becoming stronger! The finish line was no longer a question; the only question was how quickly I reach it.

That's when I noticed my front tire was flat. Again.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Arcade Fire: Are They The New U2?

It took me a while to discover Arcade Fire. They seemed kind of pretentious, and way overblown. I wondered why their live performances required nearly a dozen people. I wondered why so many people loved them (they've played high profile gigs at Coachella and Lollapolooza, not to mention TV appearances on Letterman, SNL, and The Daily Show).
So, I ignored them.

But then, by chance, I heard "Ready To Start" off their just-released third CD, "Suburbs." It immediately hooked me. I listened to their brand new CD,"Suburbs." I was blown away. I watched some YouTube performances. Each live performance showed a young band singing and playing as if their lives depended on it. They clearly made a conscious decision to always perform with intensity and focus, like a "War"-era U2. There aren't many rock acts that approach their professions with this sort of work ethic. I've seen a lot of sloppy shows by bands with huge names. When you watch Arcade Fire perform, you realize they're simply head and shoulders above their peers. Their only comparisons are big names, like Springsteen, Bowie, Radiohead, The Cure, and yes, U2.

Some more things to like:
• The band is from Montreal, probably my favorite city in the world.
• As a Montreal band, they have a unique, Francophilian approach to art (i.e., they're not afraid of sentimentalism that teeters on the gauche). This is a good thing.
• Though Montrealers, the lead singer and his multi-instrumentalist brother are former Mormon kids from a rich suburb of Houston.
• These brothers, Win and Will, went to elite schools like Philip Exeter Academy, Northwestern, Sarah Lawrence College, and MacGill University, but managed to escape the establishment.
• Win is married to a woman named Reginé, who came to Montreal from Haiti. She is also in the band.
• Reginé wears stylish dresses and has a full head of dark brown, naturally curly hair.
• Reginé plays drums, keyboards and the hurdy-gurdy (pure Montreal).
• Win is vaguely Nordic, and sort of suggests a younger Christopher Walken.
• Win sounds a LOT like Bruce Springsteen or John Cafferty.
• Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters once said he listens to "Keep The Car Running" the first thing when he wakes up in the morning.

Enough gushing. Check them out, they're big, epic and passionate, sinister and sullen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What Is "Indie" Rock

I'm 42 years old.

Over the years I've listened to a lot of music. I've seen a lot of bands. I've attempted to write and record rudimentary songs. A couple of them aren't half bad!

A long time ago, I taught myself to play guitar (with a friend). I've entered and won (with a different friend) a college talent competition, even though I'm terrified of performing in front of an audience. In fact, I would almost rather die than be asked to perform in public.

As a moderately educated white man, my musical tastes lean toward Indie Rock. If you're not sure what I mean by "Indie Rock," well, I'm thinking about bands like The Smiths, early R.E.M., The Replacements, and more recently, Arcade Fire.

Niche bands. Bands with a cerebral bent. White bands.

Here's my take on "Indie" Rock.

• There's an established social/economic caste in the United States. These families make decisions that affect entire country. They have names like "Bush," "Hilton," and Kennedy." Their children listen to indie rock.
• Indie rock audiences love to watch live music, because it gives them a chance to (a) stand completely still in one spot; (b) smoke cigarettes; (c) not dance.
• Indie rock pretends that black music simply does not exist. Remember the MTV racial controversy of the early 80's? (Basically, MTV refused to play videos by Black artists until an asexual, sanitized Michael Jackson arrived on the scene.) Indie rock continues to avoid any acknowledgement of soul, funk or hip-hop.
• Indie rock is white, but it's beyond "white." It's white, upscale, college-educated and professional.
• If you're the child of an elite U.S. family; you will likely be drawn to indie rock.
• Elite, white audiences in places like France, Spain and Germany, enjoy U.S. indie rock, even though they're inclined to be skeptical of Americans and American culture.
• Indie rock receives disproportionate coverage in the media.
• Fans of indie rock are likely to read books.
• Fans of indie rock are skeptical of religion, capitalism, and The Establishment.
• Indie rock is often about ideas. Large ideas.
• You rarely see African-American faces in the audience at an indie rock show, but you will see Asian, and occasionally Latin faces.

I sincerely hope this helps.