Sunday, November 05, 2006

America The Beautiful

Having been off the bike for a medical issue, I recently had some time to reflect on my many hours and miles on the roads of this beautiful country. I am sometimes asked, "what is the best thing you saw on the road?" I have experimented with a few different answers to that question, but I recently settled on one. My answer is, "America". Some people can accept that answer, but the more inquisitive people want to know specifically what it is about America that I am thinking about. That question is harder to answer with a single word or sentence. I guess that is the point of a somewhat open-ended answer. The answer changes given the nature of the conversation or the presence of a particularly fresh memory, but it always comes back to the American experience. With the election coming up, I started thinking about the importance of government in the American experience. So, I'm thinking out loud about the election...

If you had to define the essence of America in a single word, what would it be? "Democracy" would be a pretty good answer. Democracy in America has flourished for over 200 years, persevering through some pretty difficult times, including our own Civil War. We are, without a doubt, the most successful democracy in human history. And not in any simple way. We have, over the short course of our history, often led the world on a variety of issues. From economics, to education, to art and culture.

Why has America been so successful? I believe it is because the architects of our country carefully designed a system of government that was resistant to the occasional failings of its participants. Our founding fathers knew that the biggest asset in a democracy was its people. But they also knew that the biggest danger to a democratically governed society would be government itself.

The basic design of American democracy, and the fundamental reason for its success, is rooted in the separation of governmental power. It is the separate accountability of three branches of government, and the rules that delicately balance power among them, that have driven our success. Through this system, our democracy has survived countless moments of human weakness, both individual and collective, to keep the American dream alive.

But, while resistant to trangression, our system of goverment is not immune to it. The balance of power is delicate, and its survival requires that Americans understand and respect it. Sadly, Americans seem to be losing sight of the fragility and delicacy of our wonderfully unique democracy. Voter turnout is low. Policy awareness is even lower. Politicians seem to care little about balance and fairness. Almost every debate has become an unprincipled fight to the death between two parties -- with both sides taking intellectually and morally deficient positions. Most disturbingly, and of gravely immediate concern, is the progressive failure of Congress to operate as a body of independent thought, power, and accountability.

Two-party politics is on the verge of supplanting our delicate democracy. Politicians with party agendas, and their voters who offer them blind loyalty, have turned their backs on America. The problem exists at all levels of government, but is acutely infectious in our current Congress. Blind party loyalty has effectively eliminated the open-minded debate that is so crucial to the continued health of our country. Rather than serving Americans, politicians are serving themselves – attempting to ensure re-election by turning off their consciences and selling out to their party.

And the disease is spreading. Leaders of all stripes, in all age groups, all levels of government, and private enterprise, are taking cues from their government. The government that WE THE PEOPLE voted into power. Across the board, America's leaders are losing their focus on the enormous importance of independent thought, honesty, frugality, and ethical action. This is the example we are setting for ourselves, for our children, and for our international peers.

So who is at fault? Everyone, I suppose, although everyone will have an excuse. For my generation, maybe it was growing up during the greedy 80s and being raised by absentee parents. I'm not sure what excuse the older generation (many of whom are in the most powerful positions in America) can lay claim to. Maybe it was the drugs. Or Vietnam. It’s a mystery to me. Can we change? Can the younger generations see past the failings of their elders to grasp and love America for what is was meant to be? They have had few quality role models to follow, but one can still hope.

Whatever our individual reasons for losing sight of America, we can still act. We can all wake up and reacquaint ourselves with the system of government that built this country into the amazing place that it is. It is every American’s responsibility to bear witness to the unchecked erosion of accountability that is destroying our government. Left unchecked, this erosion will continue to damage all of our institutions and slowly destroy the everyday things that we love about life in America.

There are, of course, some people in America who are satisfied with the current situation. To those people, I would ask you to please consider what the future may bring as presidents and Supreme Court justices, of both parties, are rotated though the system unchecked by Congress. I fear that what we will get is a cyclical assault of increasingly extreme and incompatible policies. The result being a steady descent toward a perverse blend of fascism and welfare statehood.

This Tuesday, we all need to put aside our emotional attachment to the self-serving policies that we normally vote for. Namely, those policies that protect our personal short-term interests at the expense of the long-term health of our government, culture, and society. This congressional election is not about Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, or taxes. This congressional election is about the American people insisting that the legislative branch of our government operate in an independent, fair, and accountable manner.

Most citizens of America still have the right to vote, and thus, we are still directly accountable for the integrity of our government. So let's all get out and vote. Not for our taxes, love, hate, religion, or politics. Let's get out and vote for America.

P.S. Miles This Year: 7352

Monday, July 10, 2006

A Fat Guy Walks Into a Bar...

Yesterday was my second attempt at a 200 mile ride. A few local club riders, who had missed the official annual double century, organized a makeup ride and I joined in. This time, there were to be four riders and the route was modified to start at 5:30 from Sleepy Hollow, rather than 5:00 from Purchase. The anticipated extra 30 minutes of "sleep" did not materialize, given that a party nextdoor kept me awake most of the night. I doubt that I got more than two hours of fitful sleep. Earplugs are no match for overdriven subwoofers.

When I rolled into the starting lot at 5:15 am, one of the riders, Nate, was there ahead of me. Although I had never met him, he has a reputation for being one of the strongest riders in the club. As I shook his hand, I was starting to wonder if I had made a wise decision in agreeing to ride with this group. Then the second rider rolled in. Another 0% bodyfat guy. Now, I was getting nervous.

The final rider turned out to be someone that I had ridden with earlier in the year. The familiar face made me feel a little more relaxed, even if it was the lean face of a rider who was usually well ahead of me. Now that we were all ready, we rolled out. Three racehorses and a Clydesdale.

The plan was to stick together, but we soon found ourselves split. Once the climbing began, Nate was off the front of the group. Not so far off as to drop us (which he could have easily done at any time) but far enough to suggest that he wanted to ride faster. I tried to split the distance between Nate and the other two riders with the idea of keeping everyone in sight -- Nate ahead of me, Brad and Klaus behind me.

That did not really work. It seemed that the faster I rode, the faster Nate rode. Eventually, I felt that I had to choose between catching Nate or dropping back. It was time to make an informed, logical, and conservative decision. I made a quick assessment of the situation:

  • I was already pushing harder than I should have been, considering that we had 175 miles to go.

  • Being the heavy guy in the group, I was near my lactate threshold trying to keep sight of Nate (who is about 50 pounds lighter) on the climbs. It was reasonable to assume that everyone else was riding well below their aerobic limit.

  • We still had about 8000 feet of climbing left for the day.

  • I had never finished a 200 mile ride before.

  • I had little sleep the previous night.

  • It was getting warm and the humidity was picking up. If I stayed at my lactate threshold, I was going to need a lot more water than everyone else.

  • The facts seemed to indicate only one sensible choice. I should drop back and pace myself at a more sustainable power output and heart rate. I would be a barfing fainting fool to try to maintain this pace. Well, call me Jester -- because, against my own advice, I dug in and went after Nate.

    I eventually caught him, and we stopped at a deli near the 50 mile mark for food and water. I refilled my empty bottles, mixed in my food powder, drank an extra bottle while at the deli, and inhaled a sandwich. Meanwhile, Nate, who had only drank 1/2 of one of his bottles over the past 50 miles, sat sipping a coffee while I rushed to top everything off. While I had been time-trialing, Nate had apparently been on a leisurely recovery ride.

    About five minutes later, Brad and Klaus rolled in to fill up. We sat together for a couple of minutes, and we all got on the road again. By this time, I guess the idea of staying together had been abandoned. Nate and I did not see much of them after that.

    For the rest of the day, I time-trialed alongside (or behind) Nate. He stayed within sight the entire day -- giving me motivation to catch him. I gulped food and water all day. I would estimate that I drank 12 bottles to Nate's 4. Had it been much hotter, I might have run into trouble finding enough stops to fill my water. Nate was a good sport to stick with me. He gave me a lot of motivation and good advice.

    So, this attempt was successful. We finished the 200 miles in a little over 13.5 hours total time with an on-bike average speed of 16.8 mph. That's just under 12 hours on the bike. Nate really pushed the pace (by my standards) during the last 30 miles. By the time I got home, my back was locking up and I felt kind of sick. I had one celebratory beer and drifted off into a nauseated sleep.

    My back is still feeling pretty sore and my head hurts a bit. I doubt that I will get much done today -- other than figuring out how I am going to increase my speed for the next 200.

    Ride Summary

    Past Two Weeks: Miscellaneous short training rides
    Sunday: 200 Mile loop from Sleep Hollow, NY to Great Barrington, MA and back.

    Miles this year: 6457

    Friday, June 02, 2006

    Home at Last?

    Well, I made it... I'm sitting in my kitchen with a cup of coffee, listening to music and posting this final blog. Being that this is the final post, I should probably attempt to draw some overarching conclusions about the trip. People expect that sort of thing.

    In trying to find one word to summarize the quality of the experience, I am gravitating toward 'diversity'. In crossing the country, I encountered a wide variety of geography and culture. In doing so, I learned a little more about the places and people of the world. The experiences that I have absorbed on the road will, as all life experiences do, influence my perspective of the world around me and of humanity.

    We all experience life differently. How we react to, and learn from, new situations and diversity varies among us. When I experience new things, I tend to place myself on the outside of the situation -- processing the experience as more of an observer than a participant. Often, it is not until I return to familiar places and people that I am able to 'experience' whatever it was that I just encountered or did. Sometimes, an experience does not affect my perspective until years later.

    An adequate conveyance of my experiences on the road would probably take weeks of writing. It would also require significant passage of time to reflect. And complicating things is the fact that I only scratched the proverbial surface of the North American experience. Although I covered a lot of miles, passing through 13 states (plus Ontario), my route cut a fairly narrow path across the country -- despite the fact that I did not take the shortest path from coast to coast. There is a lot out there that I missed.

    What I can comment on, in the limited space and time that I have, is something that I learned about the region in which I currently live. As I mentioned earlier, I often need to return to familiar surroundings before I can begin to incorporate an experience into my psyche. Riding east, there were two moments where I felt that I had returned to familiar surroundings. The first was geographical. The second was cultural.

    The feeling of geographic familiarity occurred as I was crossing the border from Kansas into Missouri. I will admit that I am almost completely ignorant of the manner in which the state borders were drawn. But, after riding across a dozen of them, I have to believe that contrasting geographic features played heavily into the decisions. While riding across the country, I could usually tell when I was crossing a border -- just by noting the changes in terrain. Crossing into Missouri, everything had suddenly become green and hilly again. I remember thinking at the time that I had forgotten just how much greenery there is in the Northeast. At that moment, I felt that I was geographically 'home' -- even though I was still about 1500 miles from my house. I could then begin to reflect on the terrain of the previous weeks in the context of 'home'. I began to realize that I had really missed the geography of the Northeast.

    The second moment of familiarity, the moment of cultural identification, occurred as I encountered other cyclists about 50 miles north of New York City. Over the past 5000+ miles of riding this year, I have become accustomed to waving to other cyclists. Not a dramatically flailing arm, mind you. Just a simple hand gesture a few inches off the handlebars. Most of the time, they would return the gesture -- excepting the times when they waived first, and I would return the gesture.

    After descending Bear Mountain, I passed a few other cyclists -- about 10 minutes apart. I waved to the first guy. No reaction. That's odd, I thought. Oh well, I guess he was focused on the road. Passing the second cyclist, I waved again. Again, no reaction. I guess she was concentrating too. It was not until I passed the third, about 15 minutes later, and received only an icy stare in response to my wave, that I realized what was going on. Things are different in New York. Most cyclists don't wave here. They zip around on their $6,000 bikes neither initiating, nor responding to, gestures of recognition. I had forgotten about that.

    To be fair to New York state, this not true for the entire state. My amateur sociological assessment of the situation, based on 15 years of residence here, is as follows.

    There are few places in the country where the road between the rich and poor is as long and convoluted as in the New York metro area. The Old Money, various Wall Street heavies, corporate soldiers, me, the local store owner, the college student, and the below-minimum-wage immigrants. We are all neighbors. The long and steep wealth gradient in the area is accompanied by an exaggerated social strata. The social tension here is not limited to rich vs. poor. Social climbers are jockeying for position on a ladder with innumerable, and shifting, rungs. The list of rungs includes: obscenely wealthy, mega wealthy, extremely wealthy, very wealthy, wealthy, well-to-do, etc, etc, etc, all the way down to dirt poor.

    In such a socially competitive environment, people often interact in strange and unpleasant ways -- revering (or at least pretending to) those above them in the hierarchy, while dismissing those they deem to be below. Friendly gestures are generally interpreted as a sign of weakness or of diminutive social standing. Being nice at the wrong time can cost you serious points.

    My one-sided interaction with the third cyclist brought it all back. I was home. Well, technically speaking anyway.

    Photo Journal

    A couple of shots from the ride into NYC. The haze was heavier than the point and shoot could deal with, so the day's shots are not so great. I have, however, tried to make up for it by organizing a collection of some of my favorites from the year -- as a kind of photo summary of the traveling that I have done on the bicycle. They are not in any sort of order. Maybe some day, I'll organize them to tell a deliberate story. Or maybe not...

    Thursday's Photo Journal

    Favorites Photo Journal

    Ride Summary

    Thursday: 77 Miles from Newburgh to Manhattan (Battery Park then back up to midtown)

    Miles this year: 5665

    Wednesday, May 31, 2006

    Almost Home

    By this time tomorrow, I'll be asleep in my own bed. It has been just under two months since Ro and I left for California. After almost 4000 miles of cycling my way back east, I am looking forward to getting home.

    Today, we rode to Newburgh along 9W -- splitting the difference between Albany and Manhattan. Tomorrow, we will continue south on 9W to Bear Mountain, then on to the George Washington Bridge where we will cross to the east side of the Hudson river and make our way through the Manhattan chaos to the shore.

    Stay tuned for the finale...

    Photo Journal

    A few shots from the road, and a dozen or so shots from the FDR Museum and the ground of the Roosevelt house in Hyde Park. The shots from inside the museum are a bit fuzzy given the fact that flash photography was not allowed and the lighting was low.
    Photo Journal

    Ride Summary

    Wednesday: 94 Miles from Albany, NY to Newburgh, NY

    Miles this year: 5588

    Tuesday, May 30, 2006


    For the past several days, we have been improvising our routes -- having abandoned the Adventure Cycling maps to plot a more direct course between Rochester and Albany. For the ride from Rochester to Syracuse, we mostly used the NY Bike 5 route, which is marked on the road. The 5 route is fairly direct, and has some nice off-road sections along the Erie Canal. It was, however, a bit too urban for our liking. Most of the scenery consisted of cars and strip malls. Nice for finding supplies, but not very interesting.

    So, today we abandoned NY5 in favor of whatever my new Garmin Nuvi decided was a suitable route for bicycles. Since we could not bring the Nuvi on the ride (Ro needed it in the car) we just wrote down the turns and hit the road. The route was beautiful, but we were lost during much of the day. Turns out that the Nuvi refers to the county roads by their CR numbers -- but the road signs use English names.

    Since leaving Syracuse, the Catskill mountains have been increasingly present. We cut back our mileage a little to accommodate the slower pace of climbing. I also switched to the Opera a few days ago to improve my climbing. Wow. I had become numb to the mass of the Rivendell. The first day on the Opera, I spent the better part of the day over 20 mph -- even while climbing. Amazing what a difference saving 15 pounds and adding a little crank length can do. I guess I really did get faster during this trip. I even dropped David on a few climbs...

    Today's ride was a real hillfest -- the Catskills are almost at full strength now. There were 6 or 8 descents over 40 mph, but the steep inclines kept the average speed for the day to somewhere near 13 mph. It was also hot as hell. I'm not sure how hot is was, but it felt like it was well into the 90s. I didn't even feel like eating lunch -- even though I was bonked. But then again, I've been finding it harder and harder to keep the calorie intake up. 6000+ calories a day was fun for a while, but I'm long over it. When I get home, I'm looking forward to not eating anything for a day or two.

    Only two more riding days to the finish. We are probably going to stay near Poughkeepsie on Wednesday night, and ride into Manhattan on Thursday. The tentative plan is to ride down to Battery Park and end the ride at the Statue of Liberty -- but the traffic on Broadway is going to be pretty crazy by the time we get to Manhattan. Riding the bike path on the West Side could help avoid the traffic, but David doesn't want to ride it. He enjoys tempting death on Broadway. I usually do too, but we usually only ride it a few miles south to midtown -- not all the way to the shore. It would be kind of a bummer to get clocked 10 blocks from the finish. I guess we'll decide when we get there.


    Highlights include... some fireworks from Niagra Falls, a few shots from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a war memorial that we visited on Memorial day, and a few shots from the road in NY farm country. It was too hazy today to get good shots of the farmland, but I took some anyway...
    Photo Journal

    Ride Summary

    Saturday: 101 Miles Niagra, Ontario to Rochester, NY
    Sunday: 103 Miles Rochester to Syracuse, NY
    Monday: 76 Miles from Syracuse to Little Falls, NY
    Tuesday: 79 Miles from Little Falls to Albany, NY

    Miles this year: 5494

    Friday, May 26, 2006

    Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario

    I guess it has been a few days since I blogged. Since then, we passed through the Erie region of Pennsylavia and northwestern New York on our way to Ontario. We took today (Friday) off for rest. We expect to ride straight through for the final 650 miles over 5 or 6 days.

    We stopped an did some touristy things over the past few days -- making the trip fun again. Stopping to talk to the locals makes a world of difference.

    Some advice. If you have not yet visited the falls, and plan to, don't stay long. You can fully experience the falls in only a few hours, there is nothing else to do here, and it costs a fortune to stay. $3 can of soda. $50 entrees in bad restaurants. %7 surcharge on everything for currency conversion and/or GST. Oh, and the falling US dollar against the rising Canadian dollar is not helping either.

    That said, the falls are impressive. It's worth a visit if you are nearby...

    Photo Journal

    A Pennsylvania vineyard, Lakefront at Dunkirk, NY, A bicycle museum near Buffalo, and Niagra Falls Ontario.
    Photo Journal

    Video Journal

    Behind the falls
    Beside the falls
    Below the falls

    Ride Summary

    Wednesday: 105 Miles from Astubabula, through Pennsyvania, to Dunkirk, NY
    Thursday: 81 Miles from Dunkirk to Ontario, Canada
    Friday: Rest day in Niagra

    Miles this year: 5105

    Tuesday, May 23, 2006


    Well, we have spent a few days riding through Ohio. At first, it was a lot like Indiana -- nice rural roads, farms, etc. However, as we approached Lake Erie the scene changed. An increase in population density, some rolling hills, the view of the lake (of course), and a sharp drop in road surface quality. The Ohio roads near the lake are in worse shape than a lot of Route 66. As a result, I am still riding the Rivendell. The Opera may not come out before we reach the mountains.

    By tomorrow, we will be in New York -- although we will still have about 700 miles to go once we get there, because we are not taking the shortest route home. We want to get to Niagra Falls and go to Canada first.

    I'm getting pretty tired. The four days off in Chicago were not enough to recover. In fact, I think I might have been better off not stopping at all. We might take a day off in Niagra to sight see before the final push to Manhattan. At this point, I'm mostly just looking forward to getting home. Hopefully, I will not be too cranky to blog.

    After we visit Niagra, I am tempted to try to cover a direct 450 mile route to NYC in two 225 mile rides. David would probably be willing to give it a try, but Ro would try to stop me. But then again, she wants to get home too...

    Photo Journal

    A couple of shots from the road in Ohio, and a several shots of the harbour surrounding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cameras were not allowed inside the museum, so I did not get any shots of the exhibits. Don't fret about it. The reason cameras are not allowed inside, is because nobody would bother paying the $20 to get in if they knew what was in there.

    Photo Journal

    Ride Summary

    Sunday: 115 Miles from Fort Wayne, IN to Bowling Green, OH
    Monday: 118 Miles from Bowling Green to Cleveland
    Tuesday: 71 Miles (We lost 5 riding hours by visiting the Rock and Roll Museum) from Cleveland to Ashtabula, OH

    Miles this year: 4919