Bike Off, Iowa

My 2020 cycling season got off to a bum start when my beloved Felt Z100 bike was stolen from our apartment’s garage, where it had been locked and chained, but not beyond the capabilities of a good bolt cutter, apparently. USAA took good care of me, as they do, and I was able to acquire a new bike, Trusty Steed Mach V. He’s a Masi. Here’s what he looked like at his very first rest stop in April, 27 miles into our first ride together:

Yesterday, I did a 78 mile ride (my longest of the season), and on the day’s final pit stop, Trusty Steed looked like this:

My cycling computer tells me that I spent 75 hours and 18 minutes in the saddle over the course of 2020 to date, covering 1,018 miles. Not my heaviest mileage experience over a summer season, but not bad, all things considered, and under the weird circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2020. Normally I’d get a lot of road time in while Marcia was golfing or at yoga or otherwise engaged, but those seasons never reached a point where they felt COVID-safe for her, so we spent much more time walking together as a healthy, companionable approach instead. We’ve walked about 2,150 miles in 2020 thus far, and will probably do even more of that once we get to Arizona. No complaints there. It’s become a great part of our daily rituals.

Those cycling numbers, though, are actually going to hold up and go on the record books for the year as a whole, as I’ll be packing up Trusty Steed into his shipping box this week for storage while we house-hunt in Arizona. I doubt that I will have the bike back before the end of December, meaning that I’ve ridden my last ride of the year, and my last ride in Iowa, nearly nine years after my first one. I note that 405 of my 2020 riding miles (84 more than my original six-ride goal) were done as part of my Tour des Trees Rollin’ in Place fundraiser, which raised $2,365 for TREE Fund, my former employer. I reached my personal goal, but TREE Fund is still about $22,000 under its aggregate organizational goal for all of its volunteer fundraisers. The campaign runs through November 15, so you can still help out TREE Fund with a tax-deductible donation, even if my own physical contribution to the event is over. Click my final ride report summary image below if you’d like to do so:

I also have to note that I’m frankly not sorry to have ridden my last ride in Iowa. I’ve had a “pending post” for months titled “Iowa Cyclists: Can We Talk?” that I’ve never quite got around to finishing, but it seems apt to summarize the points I’d wanted to make there as I say farewell to corn field country.

At bottom line: Central Iowa has a terrible cycling culture. Not every rider is awful, mind, and off the cuff, I could cite half a dozen truly inspiring and great cyclists of my acquaintance, mostly from our time together on various Tours des Trees over the years. They are strong on their wheels, sure, but equally strong on safely embodying and living the rules of the road that should make riding a most healthy and enjoyable experience, but are so thinly understood and enacted hereabouts that I often feel safer and more comfortable riding on country roads in high speed automobile traffic than I do on the maze of regional trails with other people on their bikes.

My key beefs on this front would include:

  • The ridiculous ubiquity of bike boom-boxes. So incredibly annoying. And so unsafe, since being able to hear is a key part of riding safely and signalling to others to help them do the same. While not as obviously annoying, the number of folks cycling and walking with ear-buds in on trails is just as unsafe, as I’ve had numerous cases of calling out “coming up on your left” as I prepare to pass someone, only to have them not hear me and obliviously drift into my line.
  • Alcohol culture. Most of the trails around Des Moines have favorite cycling bars where casual cyclists can wobble outbound for 10 miles or less, get shit-faced and loud, and then really wobble back to town, putting anybody near them at risk, as they also put themselves in harm’s way. Day-time drinking is a thing here, and it doesn’t mix well with cycling, at all. But it’s standard practice for many of the people you find on two wheels hereabouts.
  • Monopolizing the trails. Yes, cycling can be a very companionable, social activity, but when a group of cyclists (often stoked up on beer and with their boomboxes blasting) feel like they need to ride three, four or five abreast so they can chit-chat more readily, the opportunities for disaster are high. And it’s incredibly irritating when a mob like that is coming your way and refusing to yield or shift, because they’re having fun and talking and you lonely person on your own clearly need to get out of their entitled way.
  • Trying to play Greg LeMond on the trails. For better or worse, all of the trails around here are mixed-use, so there are lots of walkers, strollers, dogs, geese, and God knows what else on them. Roaring along at 20+ miles per hour and expecting people and animals to quickly get out of your way is another recipe for disaster. If you want to be a serious hardcore road cyclist, get out on the roads. If you want to ride the trails, slow down, and share them respectfully.

I’ve been an active, engaged cyclist for my entire life, literally, and I was taught how to ride safely very early on, and I take that social contract seriously. So it’s an informed opinion that things in Central Iowa are inordinately, uniquely bad on the fronts mentioned above, among others. Why is this the case? I blame RAGBRAI, which is the annual rolling party that serves primarily to raise money for the State’s right-wing Gannett-owned newspaper, and to goose the Iowa tourism industry.

Seven days of riding, from the Missouri River to the Mississippi. Thousands of participants every year, along a different route each time. Seemed like something I’d really want to do when I first moved here, but having witnessed a  Des Moines over-night stop in 2012, and how the riders were riding and behaving, I realized that, nuh uh, not my thing, nope. There are, of course, a lot of great, safe cyclists who participate in RAGBRAI. But there are likely many more local people who sign up for RAGBRAI as their first experience of long-distance and/or group cycling, where they learn to ride in big, wobbly, loud, drunken packs. Year after year. Which may (?) be fine during RAGBRAI itself, when “everyone is doing it,” but is most decidedly not fine for the rest of the cycling season.

And lest you just think I’m being an opinionated crank with an axe to grind here, Iowa at large and Des Moines in particular routinely place among the nation’s worst states and cities in terms of cycling safety. Here’s one of numerous articles on that front. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Thankfully, I only had one significant cycling accident during my time here, caused by construction debris left in the road near our first house in Beaverdale. After I hit the pavement and was laying in the road bleeding, a guy at a patio bar on the adjacent corner shouted “Hey! Hey! HEY!” at me, then when I finally looked his way, he raised his beer toward me and told me it looked like I needed a drink, while his buddies laughed. Didn’t bother to ask if I was okay. Just equated cycling and drinking, because Iowa.

Good riddance on that front, though I’ll miss the friends here who ride right and respect the sport and the people who participate in it or use the trails that support it. Here’s hoping I find both a great cycling community in Arizona, and a culture that keeps us all reasonable safe and able to enjoy the sights and sounds and scenes without them being overwhelmed by some shitty Ted Nugent song cranking from the wobbly bike a quarter-mile up the road that you don’t want to get close enough to for a safe pass . . .

Tour des Trees 2020: Rollin’ in Place (Update #2)

I rode 75.1 miles today, the fourth jaunt in my “Rollin’ in Place” Anno Virum version of the Tour des Trees. That puts me at about 84% of my mileage goal, which I should finish early next week. I had originally planned to complete the 321 miles in six rides, but I’ve been going hard enough that I will get it done in five instead. Zoom zoom!

On the fundraising side, I’m at 69% of my goal. I’m truly grateful to those who have supported me and TREE Fund already. (See this post for more information on how these funds will be used). I’d be even more grateful if other readers would consider making a gift to the good cause. If you do it this weekend, I may be able to complete the money part of my commitment around the same time that I complete the physical challenge. That would be most satisfying. You can click the image above to get to my fundraising page. Easy peasy!

It was chilly out there today, in the high 30s when I rolled out, frost still visible in the fields. Hoping for a little balmier air next time I take Trusty Steed out . . . but if I need to be bundled up to get the job done, so be it. Worse things happen at sea.

Tour des Trees 2020: Rollin’ in Place

I retired from my role as President and CEO of Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund (TREE Fund) in November 2019. That was right around the time that we announced that the next installment of our premier community engagement event, the Tour des Trees, would be rolling through Colorado in September 2020. Having ridden in and fundraised for five prior Tours (click here for last year’s report), I had fully intended to ride that planned 2020 mountain route as well, but those plans changed last Spring when I was awarded the opportunity to visit Ideas Island in Sweden, creating an irreconcilable scheduling conflict.

Then, of course, Anno Virum happened, and everything changed. I’m not posting from Sweden right now, and the Tour did not roll through the Rockies as expected. Bummers on both fronts. While losing the opportunity to work on a project at Ideas Island impacted only me, the loss of the 2020 Tour had far more consequential impacts on TREE Fund, significantly cutting into its ability to provide community engagement and fundraising to support crucial arboricultural research programs. The West Coast is burning as I write this post, demonstrating clearly and painfully how necessary and valuable scientifically-robust research findings and practices are to mitigating climate change, combating invasive species, and capitalizing on the myriad benefits provided by healthy urban and community forests. TREE Fund is a major player in that effort, especially as Federal funding for such work has evaporated or been redirected in recent years.

I was pleased, therefore, when TREE Fund announced plans for a “Rollin’ In Place” Tour designed to allow riders, runners, walkers, swimmers, hikers, whatevers support the organization safely from and in their own home communities. They’ve set a goal of $150,000, around the theme of “3-2-1 Go!,” explained thusly:

Traditionally, Tour des Trees riders would spend a week riding through a state or region, engaging with communities and raising funds for TREE Fund. Instead of riding 321 miles in the Rockies this year, we challenge you to take on 321 your own way! Ride 321 km a month the entire duration of the campaign, run 3.21 miles a day, do 321 pushups a week, walk your dog 321 miles, pogo-stick jump to a new record of 321 . . . you get the idea. 321 is the magic number!

I’m down to do my part on that front to help TREE Fund reach its event goals. I’m sticking with cycling as my activity, with a 321 mile goal, ridden out on the road, like a normal Tour. While I can’t get the climbing experience in Iowa that I would have gotten in Colorado, I do want to replicate the daily endurance aspect of the Tour, so my objective is reach 321 miles in six rides (a typical Tour week), ideally including one century (100+ mile) ride. We are moving from Iowa on October 22, so I intend to complete the miles and the related fundraising before then.

I’ve kicked things off by making my own contribution to the cause, and would greatly appreciate it if you would support TREE Fund via my “Rollin’ In Place” campaign. Here’s my fundraising page, where you can make your own gift to support the mission and goal. That page is linked to my cycling computer, so it will show progress updates as they occur, and I will also report them here, of course. Thanks in advance for whatever you can chip in to the effort. I am grateful, as will be the entire TREE Fund team.

Last year’s Tour team. We’re not together in person this year, but the communal spirit remains strong. (Click to enlarge and see if you can spot the very professional Ex-President/CEO throwing the metal horns. BRUTAL!!)

Setting That Solidest of Picks: Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

Basketball great Wes Unseld flew off to his great reward today at the age of 74, having endured several years of poor health before his passing. The NBA Hall of Famer was one of only two players (Wilt Chamberlain being the other) to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He spent his entire playing career (1968-1981) with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), playing more games for the team than any other player, and capping his career with the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. Unseld then spent his entire post-playing career as an executive and coach with the Bullets, making him, more than anybody else, the life-long face and soul of the franchise.

I started following Unseld avidly in 1973. We lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time, chasing my father’s Marine Corps career up and down the East Coast. The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, playing their first season as the Capital Bullets before adopting Washington as their home city in name, if not geography. Unseld and Elvin “The Big E” Hayes were the heart of the Bullets’ great 1970s teams, with Hayes racking up the points and Unseld owning the paint and dishing out lightning-strike assists like nobody’s business. He was solid and strong, routinely holding taller players at bay and regularly featuring at or near the top of the league’s rebounding leader board. Formidable, for sure.

I count the experience of watching the Bullets win the 1978 title in a thrilling seven-game series against the Seattle SuperSonics as one of the most memorable moments of my personal sports fan history. It’s right up there with watching Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in my lifetime (I was in my 40s when it happened), the Kansas City Royals winning the 1985 World Series through a nearly-laughable series of fluke calls and games, and the Washington Capitols finally getting past their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and winning their first (and also only) Stanley Cup a few seasons back. I can still rattle off most of the roster of the 1977-1978 Bullets without checking references, so invested was I in their activities and successes that season. We were living at Mitchel Field on Long Island at the time, so I was the only one celebrating much in my neighborhood when they won, but it still felt wonderful, and I still have great affection for the players who delivered that moment, Unseld (who won Finals MVP honors) first and foremost among them.

So I lift a virtual toast to the memory of Wes Unseld this morning and hope you’ll join me in remembering one of the greatest players of his game, an epic sporting presence who made everybody around him better than they were in his absence. It would be a much more fitting tribute if I could go out and set a hard pick on somebody in the paint today, but, you know, social distancing and suchlike as COVID-19 owns the lane right now, alas.

Don’t mess with Wes. It’s his key, and your job is just to watch for the outlet pass.

A New Trusty Steed

I didn’t mention it here at the time, since I was deeply annoyed and didn’t want to talk about it any more, but when we returned from our January trip to New Mexico, I discovered that my Felt road bike was missing from where it had been hung and locked inside our apartment building’s communal garage. I filed a police report and notified the property manager, and after reviewing security footage, they confirmed that on Christmas morning, a group of well-equipped thieves cut cables, broke locks, and made away with numerous bikes from our building and from the building next door, where our daughter and her boyfriend live.

Grrr!!! There’s a special place in hell for bike thieves, and ones who violate people’s residential spaces on a special holiday should get some extra terrible punishments inflicted upon them when they get there. Bikes, especially road bikes that get a lot of mileage put on them, are really very personal items on some plane, specially selected and configured to the rider’s body and riding style and skill. When I find one I really like, I stick with it: counting the Felt, I’ve only had five Trusty Steeds since college, with my 1984 Bianchi Reparto Corse Piaggio being the longest lived of the bunch.

I have had USAA insurance since 1982, and they did their usual fine job of quickly assessing and covering the cost of the bike and the numerous custom items that were on it when it was pilfered. There are no authorized distributors of the Felt brand around Des Moines, (I bought mine when I lived in Chicago), and I like to have bikes from lines supported by local shops, so I elected not to get another one of those. I did some online and in-store shopping and comparing, and elected to buy a Masi bike this time around from Ichi Bike in Des Moines’ East Village, which has become my go-to service shop since we moved back here. I especially wanted to support them now given the pandemic-driven business slump. I also popped for a pair of these. Grumble.

I took my new Trusty Steed out for its first spin today, a 50.1 mile loop out to Dallas Center and back. I made a couple of stops for tweaky adjustments along the way, and have a couple of others that I will do before I ride again, but overall, it felt good, and rode well. Great success! There are some differences from the Felt that I need to get used to and/or change, most notably a lack of in-line brake levers and different crank and cassette gear configurations, but that’s easy enough to do, so long as the bike itself is solid and sound, which it is.

I hope to put at least 2,000 miles on Trusty Steed this cycling season, subject to move and travel constraints, so I’ll let you know when we get to the latter part of 2020 if it feels as good at the end of the season as it does at the beginning. Fingers crossed!

Trusty Steed at his first pit stop, about 27 miles out from home in Dallas Center.

Into The Woods (Again and Again)

When I was a kid, the woods were my second home. My friends and I would come home from school every day, get handed a snack, and then get thrown out of the house until dinner time, expected to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t bother any grownups. Most days, we’d trot down the well-worn trails into the woods behind our neighborhood, where we’d climb trees, build forts, splash about in creeks, investigate the detritus dumped in the woods, and otherwise have unstructured fun beneath the untended wild canopy that’s fairly typical of most suburban communities.

Years later, when I lived near Albany, New York, I kept on exploring my local woods, eventually creating a photo essay series called “Hidden in Suburbia.” The premise behind this project was that I did regular deep dives into the woods around my community, never going more than five miles from my home, essentially recreating those childhood days of walking into the woods and being receptive to whatever I found there. Given the deep history of that part of Upstate New York, there were truly some amazing, forgotten finds back in those woods, which I was always happy to share.

Fast forward to 2019: I moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, a couple of months ago. My daughter (mostly raised in New York) and her boyfriend (a Des Moines native) live here, so it’s been wonderful to be close to them again. Last week, on one of the rare nice days we’ve had here this spring, my daughter’s boyfriend and I decided to go on a trek through the woods where he spent his own time as a kid. We had a great day, slogging across creeks, pushing through brambles, scaling post-industrial escarpments created by generations of landfill dumping, investigating all sorts of illicit detritus left in the woods, trekking across a meadow that generations have used for dirt bike riding, quietly tiptoeing away from a homeless camp we found, and just generally enjoying being in the moment, there in the woods. It was a full, rich day.

But you know what we didn’t see while we loped about in the woods? Young people, nor even any signs that they’d been there. We saw no tree forts, no stones placed to facilitate creek crossings, no cairns, nor any other evidence that these woods were routinely accessed by the kids who live around them. That seems sad to me, on some plane. Yes, I know that today’s children have opportunities for all sorts of global engagement via their televisions and phones and tablets, but still, I can’t help but think that climbing trees and damming creeks and building forts gave me more meaningful, resonant life skills than anything I’ve ever accessed on a computer, and what a loss it is if kids don’t get to have such experiences anymore.

Do you have a young person in your life? If so, here’s hoping you have some woods near your home, and that you can take them out for an unstructured adventure therein. I guarantee they will love it, and 50 years hence, they may be writing about it as I am today!

As a kid finding this in the woods, I’d have immediately been trying to figure out how to get that engine block out, and what I could build with it . . .