The Bald Tire

Yesterday I did a 50 mile group ride from Urbana to Monticello and back. It was the first ride of this distance & intensity I have done in months, and it gave me a pretty good idea exactly how out of shape I am.

As we were just coming back into town I got a flat tire. Some other riders stopped to help me change it and we quickly realized that my rear tire had outlasted its usefulness by a number of miles. In many places the tread had completely worn through and the purple liner was visible.

I suppose that’s what happens with cheap tires. I got this tire in a pinch at a bike store in Peoria after discovering my rear Brontrager Race Lite had been sliced up somehow in the trunk of my old car. I still had a Race Lite tire in front and it has lasted over 5000 miles.

Needless to say it was time for new tires. Fortunately, Champaign Cycle was not too far away, so I decided to save myself a trip later in the day and just go straight to the bike shop on my way home. I picked up a pair of Bontrager Race Lite Hardcase tires, which have been highly recommended by multiple people.

The Escape

This is the unlikely story of my favorite race of all time.

Most every summer I attend Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in California. The first few years I attended the conference it took place in San Jose, then it later switched to San Francisco. Both fine choices.

In 2003 I was at the peak of my triathlon prowess. That summer I did a triathlon or ran a road race almost every weekend. Earlier in the spring I was planning which races I wanted to do, and on a whim I decided to search for races in San Francisco on the weekends before and after the conference. I lucked out. The Alcatraz “Escape from the Rock” Triathlon was taking place in San Francisco the day before WWDC started.

There was only one problem. Triathlons have become so popular that big races nearly always fill up months ahead of time. With just a few weeks to go until the race I was sure it would be full. I emailed the race organizers and I was delighted to hear back from them that there were 2 spots available. I promptly snapped one up. The race entry fee was rather large, but I figured that if this actually worked out it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.


I didn’t really want to deal with taking my own bike on the plane so I rented a bike from Bay City Bike. The organizers required all equipment to be set up the day before the race, so I arranged to fly out to San Francisco a day early. My flight arrived on time. I took a taxi to my hotel, unpacked, then took a bus to Bay City Bike. They had my reservation and I picked up the bike. It was a low end Giant road bike, which is not super great, but it was more than adequate for my needs.

I rode the bike with my backpack full of race gear to the transition area at an old warehouse near Crissy Field. I picked up my registration packet for the race and I set up the bike and all my other gear. Now it was time to return to my hotel. Except I no longer had the bike. And I didn’t see any taxis or buses. So I walked about 3 miles back to the bike shop (the only place I knew for sure where I could find a bus) then took the bus back downtown to my hotel. Given that this was the worse thing that had happened so far, and everything else had gone off without a hitch, I wasn’t too upset about it. I mean, think of all the things that could have gone wrong (delayed flight, missing hotel reservations, missing bike, missing registration, bad weather, etc.).

Race Day

I woke up very early the next morning. I gathered my running shoes, my wetsuit & goggles, and headed to the race start. I had no problems finding a taxi, as the city was dead at this time of the morning. Perhaps I was a little too early. I saw very few people near the race staging area, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I had worked so hard just to get to this point I wasn’t going to let it slip away. I set up my gear in the first transition area. It was time.

The course map

The Swim

All the race participants gathered onto a boat and headed to Alcatraz island. The organizers went over the race instructions on the way out there. The boat pulled up close to the east side of the island, they opened up the doors, and everybody started jumping into the water. I was one of the last people remaining on the boat and I was nervous as hell when it was my turn.

Then I jumped.

The mid-June 58˚ water of the San Francisco bay hit me like a blast of winter wind. I was wearing a wetsuit, but it still took a minute or so for the water in the wetsuit to heat up to a bearable temperature. My face on the other hand didn’t have the luxury of a neoprene covering. It was cold, and it would remain cold for the next 35 minutes.

As I treaded water, trying to catch my breath, I noticed that several people had started swimming already, even though the race hadn’t started yet. I was quite some distance back from the imaginary starting line anyway, so I started swimming as well. The boat horn blew to signal the start of the race just as I reached the line and I kept right on going.

My swim cap

Now, swimming in the San Francisco bay is notoriously difficult–it’s part of the mystique of Alcatraz. I was beginning to understand why. In addition to the frigid water, the waves were pretty rough. No amount of swimming laps in a pool, nor even short open water swims in muddy midwestern lakes, prepared me for the constant ups and downs of the ocean-like bay water. I had never swam in saltwater before and this also caused me some difficulties. In the normal course of swimming I sometimes get water in my mount and I inadvertently swallow some of it. Well, the salt water was causing me to gag and I had to stop for a few seconds a handful of times to prevent myself from puking.

Finally, the current is incredibly strong. We couldn’t just swim straight towards our destination or we would end up out in the Pacific ocean. We had to aim significantly to the east of our destination and the current would correct our course. When I was just a few hundred meters out I realized I had overshot the small entrance to municipal harbor and I started swimming vigorously against the current. By the time I reached the entrance I was still 20 meters or so down current of where I needed to be. That’s when the current slammed me (and everyone around me) into the pier. The force of hitting the pier wasn’t so bad, but it was covered with barnacles. As I pushed off of the pier to get back where I needed to be these tiny sharp crustacea sliced my bare fingers and toes in several places, leaving me bleeding as I exited the water and I ran up onto the shore.

All things considered it was actually a pretty decent swim. I did the 1.5-ish miles in 35 minutes, which put me roughly in the middle of the pack. I don’t think I could have expected any better.

The Run

Normally triathlons are arranged in swim-bike-run order, but this race was a little different. In order for the locations to work out correctly there was a 2.5 mile run between the swim and the bike, then another 7.5 mile run after the bike. So it was swim-run-bike-run.

After exiting the water I ran to the transition area put on my shoes and tried to wipe off as much blood as possible from my fingers. I didn’t want it on my triathlon suit, so I wiped it on my race number. Fortunately, the cuts were tiny and the bleeding stopped within a few minutes.

My somewhat bloody race bib

I did the first 2.5 mile run at a pretty easy pace and maintained my position in the middle of the pack. Normally in triathlons the run is where I excel, but there was a lot of racing left to do.

The Bike

I reached the transition area at the warehouse, grabbed my bike, and I was off. Immediately there was a large steep hill (this is San Francisco). The road went uphill for a mile, then downhill for a mile, then there was a turnaround, then uphill for a mile, then downhill for a mile, turnaround, repeat, repeat.

The bike ride was hilly. I had never trained on hills. There are no hills in central Illinois. But a funny thing happened during the race–a rather unexpected thing. I started passing people. And not just a few people, but I started passing a lot of people. Every uphill section I passed dozens of people. Every downhill section I passed a few more. After the hilly 12 mile bike ride there really weren’t that many people left ahead of me. Apparently I can bike well on hills.

Rob on the bike. Thanks to my mom for buying the official race photograph.

The Run

The second run was an out-and-back. It was longer (7.5 miles) and harder (hills, trails, sand, etc). It started up a trail that went right under the Golden Gate bridge. I mean right under. I could jumped up and touched the bottom of the bridge. The trail wound up, down, and around, and ended at Baker beach. It was at the end of the beach that I saw the race leader headed back the opposite direction. Hmm. How far is it to the turn around? How many people are ahead of me?

After a stroll through the sand the course wound through a neighborhood then up a hill to the Legion of Honor. Going up this hill another runner passed me. Again, the run is where I usually excelled, so it was rare that other people passed me while running in a triathlon. I wasn’t going let this slide. I reached the turnaround top of the hill after counting 24 people ahead of me.

On the downhill I caught back up with the runner who had passed me earlier and did likewise to him. Then after running back across Baker beach I reached the notorious sand ladder. The sand ladder is basically a set of stairs made out of wood and sand. It climbs the steep hill from Baker beach up to the trail that goes right under the Golden Gate bridge. There was no chance of running up this thing, so I just did the best I could to keep walking at a brisk pace until I got to the top. From there on it was all down hill.

The windy trail made its way back under the bridge then back down to sea level. I caught one other runner at the bottom of this hill as we both made a mad dash for the finish line.


I ended up finishing in 2:38:19, good enough for 23nd place overall (out of 440 finishers) and 2nd place in my age group. Not only was the race a whole lot of fun, it was my best triathlon performance ever, and one of my best performances ever in any kind of race.

I am still amazed to this day that all the necessary pieces came together to allow me to take part in this amazing event. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Until the next once in a lifetime opportunity comes along, I’m satisfied to have escaped from Alcatraz.

The Illini Chill

This morning was the Illini Chill bike ride in St. Joe, IL. It’s a 22 mile ride in the middle of winter that may or may not benefit the Boy Scouts (there were lots of Boy Scouts hanging around at the start and the half way point).

It started with a “lumberjack breakfast” at a church in St. Joe. For some reason I assumed this meant pancakes but I was way off. It was greasy biscuits, greasy gravy, greasy eggs, greasy sausage, greasy bacon, greasy hash browns. Fortunately I found a small table with bagels, toast, and an apple (all of which I at least consider to be edible). I had been expecting to meet several of my cycling friends from Champaign-Urbana, but I did not recognize a sole at the breakfast.

Next was the small matter of the 22 miles in sub-freezing temperatures with a considerable amount of wind. There was a much smaller crowd at the start than anyone anticipated. Eventually, the ride organizers realized that many people were waiting at the location where the ride started last year, rather than the new location where it started this year. Both groups started at roughly the same time and we all met up once we got out of town.

I was now riding with some of my friends (Karl, Luke, Larry, Tom, Mark), but it was very slow going. The country roads were in terrible shape. They were very slick. There were huge drifts. In some places we couldn’t even tell we were on a road. After the first turn when we got a cross wind, 3 people hit the deck right away. Fortunately the considerable snow padded their falls and nobody was injured.

It was actually pretty fun. All I could do was grin and think to myself, this is some crazy shit.

I was wearing 3 layers of socks (including my magic Gore-Tex socks), 3 layers of pants, and 3 layers of shirts/jackets. I was overdressed. With the wind at our backs I was sweating buckets. I had been cold standing around the parking lot before the ride so I thought it better to err on the side of warmth.

We made our way to the half way point at a church in Royal, IL. More Boy Scouts were waiting with some hot chocolate and granola bars. After a short rest we decided to deviate from the set course in order to travel on roads which were more likely to be cleared of snow. We started quickly on the way back, only to turn into a strong headwind for several miles. This was less fun… but we made it back without incident.

After the ride was a spaghetti lunch at yet another church. It was a good time with some exciting (if a tad scary at times) riding.

Our route for the 2008 Illini Chill ride

The Snowfall

The snow began while I was eating lunch at El Toro yesterday. By the time I left work a few inches of snow had accumulated on the ground and it made for some difficult bicycling on the way home. I bided my time until about 10:30 pm or so, at which point I could wait any longer. I had to go skiing.

I changed clothes, grabbed my skis, and walked 2 blocks to the Arboretum. I was pleasantly surprised to find a fresh set of ski tracks in the snow–I was not the only person in Urbana with this idea. About half way around the 1.5 mile loop I saw the other skier. He was heading the opposite direction at a pretty good clip. I found out today the mystery skier was none other than Gary Cziko, who I know from Champaign County Bikes. Apparently, he’s quite the cross country skier.

3/4 of the way around the loop I went up the (artificial, of course) hill. This hill is short, steep, and one of only two places in Urbana to sled. So, of course, at 11 pm it was packed with people. I worked my way up to the top (it seemed to be mostly kids sledding, but I did see several fresh, empty beer bottles), then back down the other side to complete my loop. The snow was still falling at this point, so by the time I reached my initial tracks they were pretty well covered up by fresh snowfall.

This morning we awoke to a fresh 6-8″ of snow which needed to be shoveled off the driveway and sidewalk. Melissa & I made short, sweaty work of it.

The bike ride to work went slowly, as the roads had a lot of mushy snow (which is hard to navigate through on a bike). Fortunately, with the local schools cancelled and many people staying home from work, the roads were not at all busy. On the way home the road conditions were considerably better, but still not great.

Tonight more skiing is on the agenda, then tomorrow is the Illini Chill bike ride in St. Joe. That should make for some good outdoor fun.

The Bitter Cold

Today was probably the coldest weather in which I have ever bicycled, though not the coldest I have ever felt while bicycling. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. It was -2˚ Fahrenheit when I left this morning for physical therapy (right shoulder) on the other side of town.

I am the proud owner what could possibly be the greatest invention of all time, Gore-Tex socks. When I wear these things over my regular socks my feet never get cold, no matter how cold or windy it is, and they stay very dry unless I happen to be wading in water for a significant duration of time. I was very sad when I discovered a couple of weeks ago that I misplaced one of my treasured Gore-Tex socks. Since that time I’ve had to get by simply wearing multiple layers of regular socks.

Today was a 3 sock pair day. My shoes would barely fit me and it didn’t even work. My toes were frozen by the time I arrived at my destination. It was then that I resolved to do whatever it took to find my missing Gore-Tex sock. When I got home I looked through all my drawers, behind the washer & dryer, under the bed, all to no avail. Finally, out of desperation, I searched the garage and I found the missing sock in the trunk of Iris (our car). It was still dirty from whenever I last wore it.

At one point during the day Melissa mentioned to me that the UIUC weather page listed the current weather conditions as “bitterly cold.” I could not have agreed more.

And apparently I’m not the only one. On the coldest of winter days, generally when the wind is blowing from the west, I’m joined at my east-facing office window by several small black and brown birds. They fly up to the 5th floor of my building and take shelter from the harsh winds. I don’t think they can see clearly through the tinted windows, though they are startled by sudden motion. If I approach very slowly I can often come within inches of them without them noticing my presence. I managed to snap a few pictures today.

The Practice Leave

This morning on my way to work I had a practice leave. What is a practice leave, you ask? A practice leave is when you get your stuff ready and head out the door, only to realize you forgot something and have to go back inside to get it. It’s when the first leave doesn’t really take… it’s just practice. The next leave is the real deal.

This morning it was the little reflective straps I wear around my ankles while bicycling to keep my jeans from getting caught in the bike chain. I wouldn’t have gotten very far without them. In the past I’ve left without my wallet, keys, bike helmet, bike lock, bike headlight, bike taillight, computer, gloves, hat, glasses, you name it.

I’ve done this literally dozens of times. It’s slightly embarrassing when I walk back inside only to hear Melissa shout “Practice leave!” at me. I’ve gotten to the point where I now preemptively shout “Practice leave!” before she gets the chance.

The Scariest as Hell

This morning while driving on North Allen Road in Peoria:

    Melissa: This is a bike route?
    Rob: I’ve ridden on this road before.
    Melissa: Was it scary as hell?
    Rob: Well, not the scariest as hell.
    Melissa: What was the scariest as hell? Tell me your scariest moment on a bike for each of 3 different categories: traffic, weather, and terrain.

That was a rather elaborate question to be made up on the spot, but here goes…

Scariest traffic related moment. This took a bit of thought and I even surprised myself with the answer. It took place neither in San Fransisco nor in Chicago, but very close to home in Champaign. Mattis Ave north of I-74 is a zoo. The roads are narrow and people drive like maniacs. One particular ride on that section of road I think holds the record for the rate at which idiot drivers passed within inches of hitting me for no apparent reason.

Scariest weather related moment. Spring weather in central Illinois is fairly ridiculous. One Wednesday evening during a ride a tornado rapidly approached my group as we were riding between Sadorus and Ivesdale. We were warned by some motorists and we hastily took shelter at the first house we saw. An older couple was nice enough to let our entire group stay in their garage until the worst part passed over, at which point it was dark and still a little nasty so we all had to call for rides home.

Scariest terrain related moment. This was the last mile to the visitor center at Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawaii. After having ridden almost 40 miles of steep uphill from sea level I was at 8000 ft of elevation looking up a 17% grade on a rented road bike with relatively high gearing. I really struggled that last mile, but I finally made it to the end of the paved road on the highest mountain in Hawaii. Then I turned around. It had started to rain at this point and at 9000 ft it was much colder than it was at sea level. Looking down this incredibly steep hill, scared shitless, I wondered to myself how I was ever going to make it back down. I had very little confidence in the soft brakes on the rented bike. In the end I declined to descend Mauna Kea and put the bike in the car Melissa was driving behind me.

The First Ride of 2008

I tend to struggle with down time.  I would generally always prefer to be doing something rather than nothing.  It is this tendency that often leads me to plan more activities than any mortal could hope to accomplish, mostly out of fear and loathe of wasting a few moments.

Last week Melissa and I drove to Dallas to spend the New Year holiday with my two brothers who live in that area, their families, and my folks who flew in as well.  Our tiny car was packed full of clothes, presents, and of course, my bike, the Thundercougarfalconbird.  We met my 3 week old niece and saw my 2 year old nephew for just the second time.  The festivities were joyous and a great time was had by all.

I found an hour of down time on Wednesday afternoon.  It was incredibly cold, colder than it should be in Texas (even in January).  It was getting dark, and the Dallas rush hour traffic was picking up.  I had plenty of reasons not to go, but I couldn’t bear the thought of having driven 900 miles with my bike in the back of the car and not getting in a single ride.  So I rode.

Riding in a strange place is always fun, but I was a little more apprehensive about this ride.  The arterial roads were narrow and busy.  The residential roads didn’t seem to go very far.  Fortunately, as I made my way out of my brother’s neighborhood I came across a newish housing development, which wasn’t on the map.  It had good roads and not a lot of traffic.  I was surprised that after I wound through this neighborhood for a while the road connected to the next subdivision, then the next, then the next.  Before I knew it I had gone 7-8 miles through residential neighborhoods and I was out of time.  I found a good turnaround point when I reached a lake, then retraced my path back home.  I got 15 or so miles in for the first ride of 2008. I didn’t freeze. I didn’t get run over.  Mission accomplished.

I always find signs that state the obvious to be amusing.

The route.  Google’s satellite imagery is a little out of date for this area.

 There were some small rolling hills, but the total elevation change was less than 100 ft.