Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cycle Cinema: The Nelson Vails Story

I realize that the film was actually released a couple of years ago, but I only just recently got a chance to watch Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story, which can now be seen on YouTube. It seemed like a fine idea after observing Martin Luther King's day to watch a film about the first African-American to win an Olympic medal in cycling.

Born and raised in Harlem, Vails was the youngest of 11 children. Surrounded by basketball in his neighborhood, Nelson set himself apart in pursuing cycling in his youth, despite the fact that it was generally considered a "White" sport. Okay - never mind that America's first World Champion cyclist was a Black athlete named Major Taylor. By the 1970s, few people knew or remembered Taylor's name. A big part of the legend of Nelson Vails was how he worked for a time as a bike messenger in New York City, and turned his talents to racing. Earning a living as a messenger meant riding hard in all kinds of weather in order to make more deliveries, and more deliveries meant more money. Vails developed a powerful build, with massive thighs, which made him perfect for track events like the Match Sprints in which he was champion.

The film mainly documents Nelson's rise from his childhood in Harlem and up through the bicycle racing scene, and culminates with his performance in the 1984 Olympics where he took the Silver medal in a close race with fellow American sprinter Mark Gorski. Their Gold and Silver matchup was one of the highlights of the Los Angeles games -- and along with a similar Gold and Silver victory between Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg in the Women's Road Race, marked a new birth for bicycle racing in the U.S.

After the Olympics, Vails became a huge celebrity - even more than the Gold Medal-winning Gorski. His humor, style, dynamic personality, and colorful backstory made him a natural in the spotlight, and he was flooded with sponsorships and endorsement deals, magazine articles, photo shoots, and television appearances in the following years. He also earned a fairly successful living as a professional racer, racing all around Europe, and later on the Keirin racing circuit in Japan. While that career is mentioned, it is only briefly, and I can't help but think there must be more to know.

Much of the story is told through personal interviews with Nelson Vails, along with his childhood friends and family - many of whom describe Nelson as a "spoiled" child (in the most affectionate way possible) and something of a family favorite. Other notable interviews include such people as Women's National Team cyclist Connie Paraskevin, former USCF President Mike Fraysse, former U.S. National Team Coach Eddie Borysewicz, and an extensive interview with friend and competitor Mark Gorski. The Olympic matchup between Gorski and Vails gets a full replay in the documentary, with commentary and descriptions on the action from both men. It's a moving scene when Vails describes that Gorski simply "out-pedalled me that day" and that the real victory was that his dad was able to see him on the podium.



If there is a weakness in the film, I'd say it's that the film leaves out what could be some really compelling information. As already mentioned, I'd like to know more about his professional racing career after the Olympics. I've heard that Vails made himself learn several European languages to be successful in that continent's racing scene. For another thing, it is implied in the film that Vails became fairly wealthy after the Olympics, but that he lost that wealth in subsequent years. Nelson mentions that like a lot of young successful professional athletes, he didn't really learn how to manage his money. But there must be more to the story. Also, the film doesn't really make it clear what Vails is doing today apart from making appearances at various races and charity rides.

One other thing that bugged me as I watched the film was a lack of professionalism in the production. I'm not criticizing the fact that this was likely a film with a limited production budget. I get that. But there are shortcuts and mistakes that are so avoidable regardless of the budget. There are many still-frame photos used in the film, but it's clear that a number of the photos were simply ripped from the internet, and they suffer from the pixelated low resolution that one often finds when they just snatch photos off a Google Images search, taking the first images that pop up. Even if sourcing photos from the internet, there isn't much excuse for not taking a little extra time to get the best quality photos available. What may be worse than the quality of some of the ripped images is the fact that the sources are not ever cited. But the worst gaffe of all is the misspellings of prominent names:

I was a bit dismayed to see that the filmmakers didn't verify the spelling of the famous USCF coach, Eddie Borysewicz. I mean, c'mon -- a two-second Google search would have cleared that up. The same thing occurs with former USCF President Mike Fraysee (displayed in the film as "Frazee").

Okay - enough griping.

On the whole, I enjoyed the documentary. It was great to catch up a little with such a great rider and celebrity from the past. Nelson Vails' success story of poor kid from the Harlem streets to Olympic medalist is so compelling on its own, but more than that, Vails comes across as such a kind and genuinely likeable person.

Wrapping it up - one thing that doesn't really get mentioned in the documentary is that it is NOT the first time Nelson Vails has been on a movie screen. Does anybody out there remember this?:

"Messenger in Maroon Beret" - or so he was called in the credits of the 1986 movie Quicksilver, which starred Kevin Bacon as a stock trader turned bike messenger. A cheesy movie - but Nelson Vails steals the whole damn show in the first 5 minutes.

You can watch Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story on YouTube - or right here:



And if you want to see that opening scene of Vails in Quicksilver, you can see that here, too:


Enjoy!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Winter Commuting - Not for the Faint of Heart

Regular bicycle commuters are well familiar with the astonishment and disbelief that almost always comes with telling people "I ride my bike to work."

"How far is it?"
"How long does that take you?"
"Aren't you afraid of getting killed?"
"What do you do when it rains?
"What do you do when it's cold?"

Now just imagine the reactions that follow when you tell people you ride through the winter, too. You'll discover that many suddenly go from regarding you as a harmless curiosity to questioning your sanity -- at least if you live in northern climes.

There was a time in my adult or near-adult life when I generally did not ride if the temperature dipped into the 40s or lower. I can't believe I considered myself a dedicated cyclist in those days. Looking back on my life though, I realized that when I was a kid with a newspaper route, from the ages of about 8 or 9 through 14, I rode my bike to deliver the papers nearly year round. I often rode when snow was falling (and I took a number of spills when my tires hit icy patches). Only when the roads were so choked with snow and ice that they became truly unrideable did I leave the bike at home and go out on foot. Was it simply because I didn't have the option of driving?

Over the years, I've used my bike for commuting off and on, but it was overwhelmingly a "fair weather" prospect. For the past 4 - 5 years, I've been trying to ride to work more or less year round. When I started with that renewed dedication back in 2012, I remember people asking me "How long do you think you'll keep this up?" Although I suppose I could have interpreted a question like that as a disparagement on my mental status, I always assumed that they meant how long would I ride before it got too cold for me. At the time, I remember thinking that I really didn't know the answer. At first, I thought I'd probably be able to ride until temps dipped below 40. Well, 40 degree mornings came and went, and before I knew it, I was riding in the upper 30s. One morning, I'd feel the chill more than was comfortable, but then next time, I'd put on an extra layer, or buy a warmer jersey, or some warmer gloves, and soon my new "limit" was 35 - then 30 - and so on. Eventually, I settled on 20 degrees as my bottom limit.

For the past couple of years, my best cold weather gear consisted of an insulated base layer top with a fleece insulated jersey, and a nice soft-shell type of cold weather jacket. My warmest tights were/are Pearl Izumi AmFib tights which are thickly insulated, and have wind-stopping barrier material on all the front panels. My warmest gloves were a 2-part combination of a liner glove with a thicker "shell" glove on the outside. Thick wool socks on my feet, and neoprene/fleece overboots over my touring-type shoes were how I kept my feet warm. With all that gear, I was good down to about 20, but at that limit, I would still start to feel the cold creeping uncomfortably by the end of my commute - starting with fingers and toes. I know people who ride even colder than that, but I figured that 20 degrees was cold enough and wasn't going to feel bad about it.

I knew I could extend my limit by trying out battery-powered warming socks or gloves, but I really have no interest in that -- diminishing returns and all. I know people who have used and swear by winter riding boots, like those by 45Nrth - but all of them seem to require either an SPD or 3-bolt cleat, and I really prefer the versatility of old-school toe-clip pedals. Yes, I could put clipless pedals on my bike for the winter, but the way I see it, that just introduces more compatibility issues that I'd prefer to avoid. I have a pair of shoes that works on just about any bike I have, and I like that simplicity.

This winter, I replaced a few articles, and picked up a few new items to add to my winter arsenal, and the result is that have found I could lower my limit a little further. One item that I've already mentioned here was the pair of Pearl Izumi softshell pants. While the pants alone are good down into the upper 30s, the thing that really sold me on them was the possibility that I could easily layer them over another pair of tights without restricting my movement. The very bottom limit on the AmFib tights is just about 20 degrees, but I figured the softshell pants could extend that comfortably.

I also decided to try a pair of lobster-type gloves. If you've never tried them, lobster gloves are like a cross between a glove and a mitten. Fingers are paired up, which helps conserve heat, but the gloves still allow some dexterity for shifting and braking that one wouldn't get with regular mittens. Granted, they do make it impossible to use the most important finger for riding (guess which one) but I found that my fingers stay warm right to the end of my commute, with no hint of cold creeping in. In fact, in temperatures in the upper 20s, I almost found the lobster gloves to be too warm.

On my feet, my previous pair of neoprene overshoes were starting to wear out around the sole, so I went to replace them. My local shop was carrying a new line, Endura, and they had a very robust-looking pair of overshoes called "Freezing Point." A little thicker, with more fleece, and more substantial, they seemed like they would be worth trying out. The size guide on the tag said that I should be able to use the "large" size with my size 44 shoes, but I found that the "extra large" was much easier to put on without being loose or overly bulky. Even with the thick neoprene and fleece overshoes, I have not had any difficulty getting my feet into my old-school toe clip pedals. Also, the overshoes would work with cleated shoes, but also work just fine with my cleatless touring shoes. One of the things I like about overshoes as opposed to dedicated boots is the versatility. Weather in the morning can be very different from weather in the afternoon for the ride home, and there are plenty of days where I'd need the extra warmth in the morning, but am very glad to be able to leave the overshoes off in the afternoon and just pack them into one of my panniers.

The other day, the early morning temperature was only about 13 degrees, but otherwise it seemed like a good day to ride. I suited up with some of my new finds, and was pleased to discover that I was comfortable for the entire commute. My fingers in the lobster gloves stayed warm all the way to work. With the thickest wool socks I can fit into my shoes and the Endura overshoes, my toes never felt the chill. My legs were warm without overheating, and without the constriction I've encountered when trying to double up on tights. I added a lightweight windshell over my insulated softshell jacket, and was plenty warm enough in the upper body. A thin skull-cap under a fleece balaclava kept my head and face warm, and still fit inside my helmet.  I feel pretty confident that I can now lower my limit to somewhere near 10 degrees!

One other thing to mention about our winters:

Living in Northeast Ohio, I grew up often hearing this old joke. "Don't like the weather here? Wait a couple of hours." Well, the joke is true. I remember once on an early spring day having lunch at a little restaurant which happened to be across the street from a bank that had one of those time/temperature signs out front. As I sat there eating, I watched while the sign cycled from time to temperature and back again. With each minute that flashed on the screen, the temperature dropped one degree. Over the course of 15 minutes, the temperature dropped a full 15 degrees! Unbelieveable (but true!). Anyhow, this past weekend, we had temperatures in the low single digits. Monday was in the teens with a mix of clouds and sun in the afternoon. Tuesday started out with snow that turned to freezing rain, then was just regular rain in the afternoon when the temperature got up to nearly 40. Wednesday started out with everything coated in a layer of ice (I rode anyhow, but had some spooky experiences), and was up to 50 degrees by afternoon. Today its in the 50s but pouring non-stop heavy rain. Friday promises to be sunny but cold - back in the 20s. Predictions for next week seem to be just as ridiculous.

Through it all, I still hope to be able to at least ride a day or two each week.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Computerized Training For Toddlers - Dear God, NO

Remember Zwift, the computer-interactive stationary trainer for social-media-obsessed indoor cyclists? Well, why should adults be the only ones who get to pedal indoors while staring at an LCD display? As if to prove the point that nobody is too young to target with lobotomizing computer screens and hamster-wheel trainers, Fisher Price has just introduced the Think & Learn Smart Cycle for the preschool set.

The Smart Cycle is a plastic stationary trainer that pairs up with a computer tablet - and might probably remind people of something like a toddler turbo trainer, or "Kiddie Zwift." Various learning/gaming apps will be made available to keep the kiddies occupied while they pedal.

The training cycle can also pair up with some web-connected televisions. Yippee.
Okay - I know that it's an unfortunate fact of life that a huge percentage of American kids today are already spending a disproportionate part of their day fixated on smartphones, tablets, computers, and television screens. No doubt they have screen-time overload. Do we really need to encourage it? And I get that having the little tots pedaling something as part of their entertainment - even a mini stationary bike - is probably better than having them lying around like couch slugs while they stare at their digital screens. But there's still something about this whole thing that I find really disappointing. Maybe even a bit unnerving. I don't believe we need another device to substitute virtual reality from actual reality.

Fisher Price claims that the Think & Learn apps will be educational (one of the games has kids pedaling down a cartoon-like road to find the letters of the alphabet, for example), and they cite research that says kids learn more and retain more when they're active. That might be so, but something tells me (and as a full-time teacher, I think I have some insight on this) that a child's learning and retention is better when they are active and interactive with an actual human being (parents come to mind -- studies show that most children have human parents) as opposed to an LCD screen. I'm also not convinced that many kids would be motivated enough by the apps to choose the Smart Cycle over the normal passive computerized entertainment.

Wouldn't it be better - physically, educationally, and socially - to actually take the kids out for a bike ride? Parents and children together - riding, talking, laughing, and interacting? I guess that would be asking too much of parents who can't break their own technology addictions.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

New Hour Record

The cycling world has a new Hour Record champion to celebrate. No, Bradley Wiggins's record of 54.526 km is still standing (that's 33.88 mph for us Amuricans). But on Jan. 4, a diminutive 105-yr. old Frenchman, Robert Marchand, set a new world record of 22.547 km/hr (about 14 mph) for his age category. If I understand correctly, the 105+ age category had to be created just for Marchand.


Marchand rode 92 laps at the Velodrome National near Paris and was surrounded by a large cheering crowd at the end of the hour ride.

A crowd surrounds Marchand at the finish.
According to reports, Marchand believes he could have done even better. He told the AP "I did not see the sign warning me I had 10 minutes left, otherwise I would have gone faster. I would have posted a better time." I don't know how many other people are out there capable of riding 14 miles in an hour at over 100 years of age, so who knows how long Marchand's record might stand.

Marchand is a former fireman who didn't really get active with cycling until he was 68 and retired. But since then, he has completed a number of impressive cycling feats. In 1992, at age 81, he rode from Paris to Moscow. And he previously held the hour record of 26.927 km for someone over age 100, and the record for the fastest 100 km for a man over age 100.

Just imagine all the things this man must have seen and experienced since his birth in 1911. And to think that he's up and riding nearly every day. That's something worth celebrating, and a great way to begin a new year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year

I know a lot of people who make it a tradition to get out for a ride on New Years Day, though that has not necessarily been a tradition for me. Nevertheless, when I woke up this morning, Jan 1, bright sunshine and clear blue skies made a bike ride practically a necessity.

A canal visitor center in Boston.
Despite the shining sun, the temperatures were only in the 20s early on, so I waited a couple of hours for things to warm slightly -- hey, I had nowhere else I needed to be. By 10:00 or so, the temperature had gotten up to 30, and I figured that was good enough that I wouldn't have multiple layers to peel off by the time it got into the upper 30s by noon.

I headed north from Akron, along the valley road through the little village of Peninsula and up to the even smaller village of Boston. Roads were wet in places, so it was nice to have fenders, and I had to keep my eyes peeled for ice on the shady stretches.

Under the Interstate 80 bridge that spans the
Cuyahoga Valley.
Once I hit Boston, which barely exists as a village anymore (having been mostly swallowed by the national park) I got a couple of photos, then thought about taking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath back to Peninsula but found the path to be a sloppy mess. Even with fenders, it seemed to me that the bike and I were going to be covered in mud. Most of the path is "paved" with packed, crushed limestone, and this time of year it isn't really a good biking choice. Not only is it less than pleasant (that limestone soup is tenacious), but bike tires will leave some pretty deep ruts when the path is so saturated and those ruts will become almost rock hard after the path dries out. Best leave it to the hikers for now. I stuck to the road for the return trip.

My ride ended up being about 25 miles and left me tired but satisfied. What a great way to start a new year.

Wherever you are, I hope you got to start the year as well as I did.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day Ride

Once again, I managed to get out for a Christmas bike ride - a tradition I've managed to uphold a lot more often than a person would expect for Northeast Ohio. There have only been a few years when the weather was too cold or too snowy to ride either on Christmas, or at least the day before or after (which I still count). And on the few occasions where I couldn't ride, I was able to get out for a little cross-country skiing.
A quiet, soggy, gray morning in the Cuyahoga Valley.
After opening presents with the family (I got Smartwool socks, a sweater, and a gift card for the bike shop -- all very satisfying) I figured I had a few hours before relatives started arriving so I suited up for a fairly manageable 30 degree ride under gray skies. We still had some snow on the ground from about a week ago, but Saturday, Christmas Eve, saw drizzly rain and temps in the 40s, which got rid of most of the snow save for a few patches here and there.

I headed down to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to explore some of the quieter, more scenic roads in the area. I rode the Rivendell Long-Low because even though the rain had stopped, I knew things were likely to be soggy and I wanted a relatively light road bike with fenders to keep the mess to a minimum. It's probably my favorite bike for casual rambles through the valley.

By the old covered bridge near Hale Farm & Village I ended up having to take a little detour from my planned route. The road past the bridge has been closed by the park service for a few years now, though it is still passable by bike or on foot - one just needs to thread their way between the barricades. Of course, being closed to traffic, it also doesn't get plowed or salted and the snow that covered the road had turned into a thick layer ice. It was treacherous even to walk on, much less try to ride over with fine-tread road tires, so I figured it wasn't worth the trouble. I crossed the covered bridge and found a different way.

I was surprised that I didn't see any other riders along my way. I saw a couple of joggers, and that was it. Overall, it was a nice quiet Christmas morning ride.

Wherever you are, I hope you're enjoying your holiday - and if you're able to get out for a ride, so much the better. Merry Christmas from the Retrogrouch.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Current Commuting Numbers

I've just wrapped up another semester at work and it's time to look back at how I did on my bike commuting numbers. Overall, there's some good, and some disappointment.

First, I should remind regular readers, or inform new ones, that as a full-time teacher, I mark the passage of a year not from January through December like "normal" people, but from mid-August through May: fall semester, and spring semester.

A morning in August - with a bit of mist over the still-green
 farm fields. 
At the start of this year, I made it my personal goal to ride at least 60 days by winter break and the end of the semester. My all-time record for the same period was 63 days (set last year) and I knew I would be unlikely to beat that, but I wanted to get close. Although I was doing quite well, especially through November and even the first week of December, nasty winter weather hit us suddenly last weekend and has continued through this last week of the semester. We had snow and freezing rain at the start of the week, and single digit temperatures by the end of it. I ended up at 58 days -- so close, yet frustratingly short.

Here's what that translates to:

Riding 58 days works out to a bike-to-work average of about 70%. At 28.5 miles per day, that's 1653 miles ridden in 4½ months of commuting. With an observed average of 30 mpg in my car, and gas prices averaging just over $2.00/gal for the past few months, I estimate a savings of about $115 in fuel costs.

Most of my morning rides start in darkness, but until November
I'll get to see some gorgeous sunrises before I arrive at work.
 By late November, it's dark from start to finish.
My best months were September and November, during which I managed an average of about 80%. I had only driven three times during the course of each of those two months. The worst month was December, which really shouldn't be a surprise, but with the lousy weather and bitter cold of the last week, I only managed 50% for the month.

My goal for the whole year is to reach at least 90 days by Memorial Day and the end of the school year. That would give me a bike-to-work average of about 50% for the whole year. Being nearly ⅔ of the way there at the half-way point of the year sounds great -- I need only 32 more riding days over the next five months. Keep in mind, however, that the reality is not so certain. Remember that three of those months are January, February, and March - which are typically the lousiest months imaginable for riding a bike here in Northeast Ohio. Still, the more days I can ride in the fall semester, the better my odds are for reaching my yearly goal. And while 58 days is not quite where I wanted to be at this point, it's still pretty good for the longer goal.