We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
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Wednesday, June 21. 2006
The start of the bike trip through the Negev. May 19 2006
Bike. A punchy, short word. For five days, over 535 kilometers from Jerusalem to Eilat, through the Negev desert, I biked. “Bicycle,” smoother, more fluent, more melifluous begin with a plosive at the lips, then to the sibilant in front of the mouth, ending with the gutteral flowing into the sinuous tongue, which touches its tip lightly to the back of the teeth for the “el.” I rode on a geometric matter of triangles, circles and one comet-like ellipse. With a group dwindling to some 28, I had much time to reflect on this machine’s simplicity, elegance, and because of its minimalist construction, highly responsive to your movements.
Before Mies van der Rohe, before the Internationalist movement, bike makers understood “form following function.” Triangles and circles; one ellipse. Its body is almost an isoceles triangle, tipped with one corner of its base facing groundwards, it’s apex facing forwards, beneath your breastbone; from the final corner emerges the saddle post, upon which rests a triangular wedge, a saddle. This is minimalist: a wedge for your pudendum; an irritant for your ischial tuberosities. Sharing the bike’s main triangle’s base is a second triangle, rearwards and angling slightly downwards, its apex culminating in the axle of the rear wheel. From above, you can see that the top side of this rearward triangle splits and forms a narrow triangle, forks for the rear axle. In front, through the apex of the main triangle, travels another very narrow triangle, the front forks, that sit upon and hold firm the front axle. Four triangles make its body; a fifth the saddle.
Four circles, two major, two minor. The front and rear wheels upon which everything rides. A tube within each tire, a tube the thickness of my forefinger, holds 100 pounds per square inch. I have ribbons of fiberglass inserted between tube and tire to prevent punctures from glass, thorns, debris. On day one, these fail. Twice. Two minor dentate circles make front and rear cogs, actually a series of concentric circles -- three in front, nine in back, permitting a combination of 27 gears; not enough to make the steep climbs feel feasible. The elliptical comet ties these cogs together, transmits through pedals all my power to drive the machine forwards. Brakes on handlebars that make an almost parabolic backwards sweep complete the machine.
Triangles, circles an ellipse. All else is commentary. Little can be added, almost nothing subtracted to make a road bike. Materials make variations on a theme. The old Raleigh I once owned was a steel horse: heavy, responsive. “Steel is real,” an SF bicyclist announced to me when I was about to switch. Aluminum was next and stolen in San Francisco. My new mount has aluminum triangles and carbon fiber forks, the latter lighten the load. Our lead rider, Yaniv -- a former Israel road champion -- has a magnesium alloy bike. Lance Armstrong’s bike, I am told, has been drilled out wherever possible to lighten the bike. Yet the frame must also efficiently transmit your work: too much flex wastes energy.
All else is commentary. And much commentary through bikes there is on this ride. Two groups we were. About 100 in the easier route; over 30 began in the chalutzim (pioneers). Commentary includes bike types. K. from New York, beefy, hefty, rides a dainty, ruby all-carbon body hand-made. Its body from California; its components, Shimano; its assembler, Mt. Kisco; four fittings, like a bridal gown; costs about five G’s. Its luster, like that of a ruby from within the material, emerges. D. a first-time road cyclist, independently wealthy, orders an all-carbon, dark graphite beauty, a Specialized, like mine, but with aristocratic credentials. His odometer/spedometer is wireless and also is a Global Positioning System, we should always know where we are. M. rides a pumpkin orange machine,a Klein, generally passing me about mid-way through a ride. Klein, aluminum body and carbon fiber forks, uses a high grade of aluminum; can lift the bike with two fingers. Feels like riding on air (which we all do so-to-speak; but his feels that way.) To my surprise, Kfir, one of our guides and a former Sayeret (Special Forces) officer, just graduating from the Wingate sports training institute, rides an off-road bike the whole way: its tires nubby, sound a bit like a freight train approaching you from behind. Off-roaders are heavier bikes, fatter wheels, not as easy to ride long distance as road bikes. Kfir proves that all wrong. As we are about to exit a park, we stop short, abruptly as we face the tire-shredders at the entrance: Kfir, upon seeing us, accelerates, launches over the shredders. There is another group of riders, the more touring voyage, easier routes. One rider is literally laid-back in a recumbent bike, his belly like a proud cantelope facing the desert sun. He reminds us that the land-speed record for bikes was broken by a recumbent bicyclist. Not he, we understand.
Chalutzim, we are named after the hardy pioneers who settled and built this “land that eats its inhabitants.” Only at the end of the ride, at the closing dinner, do I learn that the 26 year-old in my group is also a triathelete; that another rider had trained for the year. The one biker senior to me, at 62, retired, bikes daily through Virginia hills. J. a thirty year old evangelical Christian, tells me that he uses a single gear road bike to take the hills of rural South Carolina.
I “enlist” three weeks before, spending two of those weeks working in San Francisco, one week riding an hour or two daily. I am encouraged to enlist because my neighbor and newly-found biking buddy, Jon Sumroy signs up. I stay in chalutzim because he is there. I am not the oldest, but the second oldest. Chutzpah, I find myself thinking at better moments; the most physically gruelling task I have undertaken in my life. In the kibbutz Keturah pool at the end of the fourth day, Yaniv, our main guide and former Israeli bike champ, grabs my fist, in a rather old fashioned abbreviated Black power salute, and tells me that I have been through an experience like tironut, basic training in the army. He seems sincerely proud of me, perhaps a bit surprised that I have made it so far. I, by day four, am simply exhausted, scorched, parched. I do a few pool laps simply to feel wet and cold surround me, then stumble to bed.
But the bike. So miminalist that it demands miminimalism, yet focus, concentration. For five days I do not so much see landscape, as focus on the road a few meters before me, the yellow painted stripe on the side, the rider in front -- mostly his rear wheel -- the feels of the road. The feels, as my bike is more respectful of gravity than I. It senses a slight rise in the road often before I can see it. My bike informs my legs. My right hand begins flicking the rear gears downwards. Then, I realize that I am on the rise.
Before mounting hills, one must mount the bike. There is a formula for distance from crank to bike saddle: measure your inseam, then multply by .886 and add 1.5 cm (for shoe sole). If you have variable length legs, as I do, off a centimeter or so, then so be it; or put a spacer in your shoe. In fact, there are those who will measure your body and fit you -- as best as they can for a prait a porter -- to your bike. For my Procrustrean steed, I stretch my limbs, back, adjust my saddle, keep the handle bar true dead center.
Before mounting, give front a rear wheels a spin off the ground; watch for wobbling which tells you to tune the spokes; check the brakes. No sounds should be heard; sounds mean wasted energy. Waste no energy is one of the biker’s ten commandmants. (Another could be, “And you shall have no other bike before me -- unless it is drafting for you.”)
Pace, I recall reading about Armstrong. Keep a pace. His is about 80-100 per minute: less lactic acid accumulation (hence less tiring and pain) at that rate; but far too difficult to maintain for me. Knee movement, piston-like directly upwards, into my belly. At times, at times of inattention, or tiredness, I find a slight outwards oblique movement creeps into my legs. I am pumping like the old Dodge Dart slant six engine. A waste of quadriceps energy. Directly up and down, my mantra, when I remember it. No body sway: wastes energy. Keep body centered over this triangle, look to where you are riding or turning. The latter I learn from my Harley: if you don’t look into, in fact, beyond your turn, you may overshoot or undershoot. Your bike will go where you look. No hunching shoulders, no squeezing those trapeziae. Wastes energy, cramps shoulders. Let your shoulders ride downwards, tuck your scapulae -- those vestigial wings -- downwards as if into imaginary back pockets. When I find my shoulders up around my ears, generally on a steep hill, I imagine that I want my scapulae to spread hidden wings. To no avail No gripping handlebars. Wastes energy, cramps hands. Lean on. Hold tight for uphill climps, but only as if your hands were hooks, not grabbers. Three basic hand positions: knuckles forward, near stem; knuckles sideways, thenar eminance over the brake; hands down on lower bars.
Breathe. Remember to breathe, particularly well before a climb. I often forget to breathe, feel a tiredness, then remember to release my lungs. The desert air is perhaps the sweetest I have ever breathed. But, even the reach for the bottle is a moment of concentration. Left hand moves to above the brake, right down. In the beginning, I heft the bottle to squeeze its sides and drink; after two bottle drops, I minimize the movement: grab, hold, suck, a brief glance downwards, and reinsert.
Drink. In desert riding, two liters of fluids evaporate hourly. Drink water, also electrolytes. We each have some magic formulae, Gatorade being most popular. I, to avoid sugar, find mineral tablets in San Francisico -- NUUN’s (pronounced, “new ones.”). Lime flavored and colored. Fizzy, like Alka Seltzer. Just salts. My former weight trainer in SF, on a century ride ( one hundred miles) resorted to salting fruit at each rest stop to replenish salts. How much to drink? Two liters hourly is a start. To monitor: pee. If you are not whizzing hourly, if your pee becomes jaundiced, you ain’t drinking enough. Get shade. Here I suffered on day one. Heat exhaustion, leading to heat stroke is dangerous, can be deadly. The inner core temperatures try to cool off through sweating; if not enough sweating, or fluids, or simply too much sun, then core temperature rise too much, even your bowel begins to leak inwards, organ failure and disseminated intervascular coagulation can occur. You begin cooking your innards. The first day, arriving Ashkelon after some 90 km from Jerusalem, there was to be a celebration at the beach: tom-toms, speeches, maybe a rider or to into the Mediterranean. I found myself increasingly irritable. Said I would go to the hotel; ask directions; get lost. Realize that I am a bit out-of-it, not just tired. Some hour or two in the room, my roomate, Jon notices that I am not fully connected. I recover. I hear later that others will suffer such symptoms. The ride organizers (not the guides), do not seem to want to hear that this is happening; insist that one woman who fainted after lunch, had become hypoglycemic! We protest before the last day of the ride, that we must leave earlier; that praying four one hour in the desert, followed by another hour of photo opportunties, left us dangerously exposed to the midday sun. For maddogs and Englishman. The last day, anticipating a revolt, the ride directors agree that we will be roadside at 7 am. The last was the easiest and most pleasant day of the ride.
Rules of safety: stay to the right; call out as passing on the left; no “drafting” (riding within centimeters of the rider in front to have him deflect the wind drag). It’s not a race. We don’t do very well with the rules the first few days.
As for not being a race, this kind of enterprise seems to attract a few who think that all of life is a race. A spindly-legged, beak-nosed, chisel-faced New Yorker was leaving breakfast. Another rider kidded Beaky that he usually burns rubber, passes people at the start. Beaky swivels back, retorts: “Don’t worry, I will wait to pass you until we are going uphill, you are exhausted, down and nearly dead. That’s when I will pass you.” I found myself thinking how glad I am this is not an army unit and he is not in my unit. Beaky rides like a cow pisses: in waving, weaving lines, and seems unaware of the bike behind as he cuts in. One of the senior riders cautioned him about this and Beaky responded,”Well, let me ride in front of you and you can tutor me.” The veteran road warrior explained that he couldn’t tutor from behind (to dangerous for him), but road next to him and instructed him. Later that day, I saw no clear evidence that Beaky had benefited from the patient tutoring. I thought to myself, if we were an infantry unit, he would be the type of fellow who would misfire, kill a buddy, but would escape unscathed, unbothered.
But, we are, after all, just two-wheelers, fortunately, on a desert trek.