Monday, November 23, 2015

Fall like a kid again

It's that time of year, again. Time to start fitting booties to shoes, vests are starting to give way to thick baselayers and jackets, and my regular gloves just aren't quite cutting it.

It's cold outside.

It also doesn't get light until pretty late in the morning and I'm aching to be outside.

Who flipped the switch?

But all this confusing transition brings some spectacular shades of leaves and open fields of view through otherwise dense foliage. Now I can see through the bare thicket of trees to the open farmers plot or meadows of wild grass and flowers still clinging to the last vestiges of warmth from the sun. The vineyards are mostly barren, their fruit plucked and already well on its way to becoming a sweet fermented treat in the spring.

Harvests are in, nothing but wide open views.
The crowds are changed too. Only the hardiest of the locals venture out into the cold morning air. Most are thickly bundled, the Nordic walkers in their snazzy tights and jackets, the cyclists sporting facemasks, neck gaiters, jackets and full length bibs. For some on the bike it's a chance to show off their full kit, sporting their favorite team's logos from beanie capped head to neoprene-bootied toes. For others it's just a nice break from the sweltering heat and humidity of summer.

And then there's that one unique pleasure that only comes once a year.

Riding through the leaves.

There's nothing that can transform a grown adult back into an elementary school child quicker than a pile of dry leaves just waiting for a bounding leap. The sharp crackle of crushing foliage and the cushion of compressed leaves underfoot is incomparable. Add to it the speed of racing along in a human powered machine, the breeze rushing across your face and scenery whizzing by. Oh joyous, crisply crackling, crunching leaves!

I am instantly a child on my bike, Mickey Mouse blue and tin bell singing as I pump my legs through the cold European fall. Stone sidewalks line the pavement partially obscured beneath the autumnal deluge. The stinging wind bites at my uncovered face, tears form in the corners of my eyes in the cold, but I'm smiling and laughing as I point my bike straight to the next pile of dry untouched leaves.

I'm not the only out to enjoy this brief window before winter sets in.

It's a brief respite from the imposed pressures of adulthood. Too often the days become one dogged march into another, responsibilities at work bleed into chores at home. Into the melee of an already busy schedule comes the challenge of finding time to ride. The single weekend ride, if that's all, suddenly becomes burdened with its own requirements. Enough hills for climbing, intervals for speed, distance for endurance. Which route will complement this week's training plan? The ride isn't fun anymore, it's another chore to be done on the checklist of life.

But sometimes nature changes the game and brings moments of clarity to the overburdened. Driving through piles of leaves is a reminder of why I began riding again after so many years and why I continue to ride every weekend. The freedom of traveling farther than my feet can carry me using the power of my own body and all the things to see on the ride! The rolling hills covered with grapevines and cornfields, the rows of plowed earth, the quaint Italian villas and neighborhoods, and the random collection of walkers, runners, cyclists, and even roller-skiers and -bladers on the roads and paths all make the ride worth while. For a few hours every weekend I am transported away from work, away from home, away from the busy stores and congested highways to a place of solitude.

Sure, sometimes it's important to ride for training, but it's important to enjoy what you do as well. Otherwise, what's the point? You can train as hard as you like, but if there's no enjoyment then there's no passion and the training becomes just a means to an end. Take a break from the burden of being grown up and remember the joy and fun that first inspired the running or riding.

Soon enough, the leaves will all be swept up and carted off. The mornings will be harsher, the roads covered in ice and the fields in snow. My pursuits will turn indoors to avoid the slippery roads, and I'll wait impatiently for spring to lift the cold imposing shroud of winter from our shoulders.

But this morning I'm just a kid on a bike, crashing through the leaves.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I can breathe underwater, and that’s pretty cool! Part Three.

Part Three. (Part One is here, Part Two is here.)

Into the Deep Blue

Gearing up for adventure.
Turns out I worried for naught. There was an issue with his passport and he couldn’t join us for the trip to Pula, Croatia, for the open water dives that would lead to our certification. I spent the weekend paired with either Ed or Popeye, meaning I had only myself to worry about and not a buddy bolting for the surface whenever a bit of saltwater leaked through his regulator.

We stayed in cabins at Camp Stoja along the edge of the Adriatic Sea. There were dire-looking weather systems rolling in during the first half of the weekend, so as soon as we arrived we dropped our bags off at the cabins and drug our dive gear to the water to start the first of the four required certification dives. The plan was to get at least two dives in that afternoon, then hopefully squeeze two more in on Saturday so that Sunday was free for a boat dive after we had been certified and could enjoy ourselves.

Next to the dive site was a natural rocky outcrop that the German vacationers were using for sunbathing and swimming. We used the shallow ramp shaped side to wade into the water and to exit, or the steep side for Giant-Stride (walk right off the edge) and Croatian Twist (jump and twist mid-air to fall in tank first) entries.
Buddy checks before another dive.

The dive site was hardly a stone’s throw from the shore, and with the hard blade fins I’d bought for myself, a few kick strokes was all it took. Ed swam to the site and tied our dive buoy and flag to a rock at the bottom before each dive. Here we practiced buddy surface tows, descending and ascending, mask replace and clearing, regulator recovery, shared air, and other basic skills required for our certification. Everything we’d already done in the pool we were now doing 7 meters under the water.

It doesn’t sound like much, but floating inches above the bottom staring up at the surface, it sure looks like a long ways to go. The pressure was a surprise, too. My first descent seemed to take ages. I had to stop every few feet to slowly work my jaw, ears, and finally try to dry swallow to clear my Eustachian tubes. Each dive was incrementally easier, but it was sobering to think how much a single extra atmosphere of pressure could affect the human body.

I swam amongst them all day, time to see how they taste.

We completed the first two dives that afternoon, then headed to downtown Pula for food, weary but excited at having our first open water experience behind us.

The next day we found a break in the weather and knocked out the last two required dives.

The last dive of the day started uneventful. The water was so calm that we waded out using the rocky ramp along the shore but were surprised when we started to descend that the chop was already picking up. At the bottom of the buoy line the current was tossing us back and forth like a plastic bag in an eddy of wind. The visibility was less than 5 meters in any direction and our compass navigation test was even more challenging when the navigation markers laid by Ed earlier were drug away by the current. We struggled to take a single group photo before calling it quits.

At the surface the conditions were much worse. There were five-foot swells and our exit ramp was a nightmare of crashing and foaming destruction. To the left was a small cove, slightly sheltered from the onslaught and full of German vacation goers jumping into the maelstrom. Crazy Germans. Popeye swam into the cove and enlisted the help of some of the onlookers to help him out. He returned with a rope and we each took turns swimming with the swells into the cove where we removed our equipment to be hauled out and then followed on the rope.

Charla and I were the last two to go. We swam in together just as the swells increased in energy and height. We looked straight up to the towering crest and then slid down the backside into the trough. 

Inside the cove we struggled to slide out of our equipment and tanks. The waves crashed into the cove, slamming us against the rough razor-edged rocks.

In that moment I remembered a story from a coworker about married couples panicking in the water during SCUBA classes, placing each other in danger when their self-preservation instincts took control. I also remembered watching the Guardian, my go to inspirational flick for anything swimming related, and the scene where the husband tries to push his wife out of the rescue basket. I was determined not to be “that guy” but also knew that I was not in a situation to act the hero.

For one, Charla didn’t need one. She’s always been stronger and more confident in the water than I can even hope to aspire. Second, I was wearing a 12lb aluminum tank on my back, strapped to it by a nylon vest, in a water logged wetsuit with fins while greater than five foot swells smashed us against the rocks. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do that wouldn’t make it all worse.

So, I grabbed the rope in one hand and wrapped my arms around Charla and became a human punching bag for the rocks and waves. At one point I’m pretty sure we were upside down, lost in a white frothy world of turbulent water, but with regulators still in our mouths there wasn’t much cause to panic. We still had the rope, we had each other, and we had plenty of air.

Eventually, our classmates helped us doff the gear and hauled us out of the foaming mess, just as the swells died off and calm returned to the bay.

Tired, bruised, and elated, we were certified SCUBA divers.

Mandatory class graduation photo taken the next morning.
Note the lack of  5-foot swells and crashing waves.

Underwater Sunshine

We scheduled two boat dives with the local dive shop for our last full day in Croatia. We rode the rubber Zodiac-style speedboat out of the bay and into the blue waters surrounding Croatia. It was all very exciting and yet very relaxing. We weathered truly terrible weather during our certifying dives and this day was nothing but warm blue clear skies and smooth waters. We dropped off the side of the boat and descended almost 10 meters to the bottom.

And that’s when we lost Ed.

The tagalong diver that had certified earlier in the summer had some sort of equipment malfunction once on the bottom. It might have been a bad regulator, and I don’t know if she tried her octopus back-up, but at some point she headed for the surface with Ed in tow. They went up too fast and his dive computer shut down, a built-in safety feature to let him know not to dive anymore for at least 24 hours. What I’d failed to do to Ed in multiple attempts to demonstrate surface tows and diver rescue, she accomplished with one break for the surface.

The rest of us continued on, following the local dive master, Micky, in a scene right out of Life Aquatic. I even had the whimsical synthesizer beat playing in my head while we followed him along the sea floor. He guided us down to a max depth of 17 meters and then through stone arches, along coral, and then into a dark cave where we surfaced to watch bats flitter along the ceiling. It was a unique and unparalleled experience, and no one considered that we were floating in bat guano until much later.

Photobombed! I have nitrogen narcossis, what's your excuse?

I had been breathing heavy all weekend and both Popeye and Ed were keeping a keen eye on my tank pressure during each dive. When we exited the cave, Popeye even offered me his octopus to try prolonging my dive time long enough to avoid the surface swim back to the boat. I tried it, got mostly salt water and handed it back. He stuck it in his own mouth, and immediately pulled it out. We each shrugged and he signaled for the surface. Safety is safety, and not something to be toyed around with just for the sake of a few extra minutes underwater.

Might have forgot the sunscreen again.
Our second boat dive and last dive of the weekend was with a much smaller group. We’d lost Ed and the tagalong, and two other divers were not feeling recovered from the last dive. We dropped down alongside a coral reef and easily cruised along spotting jellyfish, scorpion fish, a giant starfish and sea cucumbers swaying in the gentle current. Once again I was sucking down enough air for two people but we finished the entire dive without having to surface early and rode back into the bay having just finished the first six SCUBA dives of our lives.

Popeye took us to the Safari Bar, a local family friendly restaurant and recreation area, to celebrate. 

Some of the class jumped off the cliff into the crystal blue waters, rode the giant wooden swings, climbed up a wooden tower to watch the sunset on the Adriatic, and sampled the local Sangria made with cheap red wine and canned fruit. It was easily the worst Sangria I’ve ever had, but tasted like the finest champagne after the exploits of the last three days.

As the sun finished setting behind the ocean waves, and the stars and moon took over the sky, our adventure in Croatia came to a close but our SCUBA adventures had only just begun.

Before, I trembled at the thought of what might be lurking under the waves, but now I know what’s down there.

It’s Charla and me, and we can breathe underwater.

I can breathe underwater, and that’s pretty cool! Part Two.

Part Two. (Part One is here.)


When first registering for the SCUBA course, each student was issued a textbook, accompanying workbook, cd, various stickers and swag, and access to the online course of which completion was mandatory before the first day of class. Char and I both managed to procrastinate much of the online course until the day prior where we spent a majority of the day reading, studying, quizzing and swearing. There were nine chapters, each with an online quiz required before moving on to the next chapter and one of these chapters was wholly dedicated to the functionality of dive tables.

Dive tables allow a diver to plan dives to safely off gas the excess nitrogen in their blood accrued by spending time underwater at various depths. The charts are supposedly designed to simplify these calculations and to be intuitive in their use.

I pride myself on my ability to pick up new material, especially anything math or formula related. My job demands that I be able to learn new things, not so much to master them but at least to apply the concepts in new situations under duress.

I had assumed that SCUBA would be no different.

Somehow the dive tables eluded my comprehension for several hours. The ensuing yelling, swearing, and throwing of objects across the room did not bode well for my ability to figure out how to breathe underwater without killing myself.

So far, still not going well.

Into the blue

The first day of class was spent reviewing the online course and previewing the week’s academic and pool sessions. We learned about the horrible ways to die by descending too quickly, ascending too quickly, playing with the local wildlife and ignoring our dive tables. I paid close attention to the all the horrible things that happen when you rise too quickly: reverse blocks, burst sinus blood vessels, air embolisms, and decompression sickness.

JD explains dive tables to the class in the hopes that we
won't accidentally explode underwater.

A true child of the 90s I was already familiar with decompression sickness having recalled a particular Baywatch episode from my youth when the Hof rescued a SCUBA diver and then spent a good portion of the episode in a hyperbaric chamber watching flashbacks roll by. Everything I know about saving lives I learned from Baywatch or Rescue 911.

We discussed the alcohol-like effects of nitrogen narcosis, caused by being too deep for too long. 

While this typically doesn’t happen above 24 meters, and we weren’t planning on any dives deeper than 18 meters, it still sounded like an easy way to put yourself in a bad situation very quickly.

We were also assigned our dive buddies. For safety and liability reasons most husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, groom/bride, father/son, mother/daughter teams are banned. Apparently, being underwater with minimal guidance makes for a great place to hide the body and previously hidden subconscious desires or tendencies sometimes reveal themselves in “accidents.”

They also don’t allow students to wear a dive knife, bring spear guns, or carry harpoons. Go figure.

We were introduced to our cadre of instructors, who would hold our hands through the process of learning to dive and help us survive our first open water experiences in the coming weekend.

There was JD, a retired military officer turned kept man volunteering with ODR to teach SCUBA to first timers. He would be with us all week through the classroom and pool sessions but miss the trip to Croatia for a family obligation.

Popeye would be our main instructor, a former soldier and current adventure sports guide for ODR. 

As his nickname suggests, he’s intimidating in the weight room at the local gym and seems right at home under about 10 meters of water. I’m not sure about any actual affinity for spinach, but he definitely has a penchant for smashing unguarded sandwiches. Whatever you do, don’t leave your sandwich alone.

Finally, Ed was the assistant trainer, current soldier and volunteer with ODR. He would suffer multiple failed attempts on his life by my poor ability to wrangle another body through the water during rescue dive training while burdened with a steel tank. Who knows how many gallons of saltwater he must have swallowed while I foundered alongside during surface tows. Good sport, really. Though, the final attempt on his life would come from another diver tagging along with our small crew for the weekend during one of our last dives.

We finished off the first evening at a local dive shop, procuring the personal gear to augment the gear issued to us by the Outdoor Recreation MWR shop hosting the SCUBA course.

The second night of class was our first night in the pool, and where we demonstrated our comfort in the water with basic swim skills. My own history with swimming is long and sordid and not something I will delve too deeply into here except to say, I was intimidated.

We settled our gear in buddy teams and got our first of many safety briefs from the instructors. They demonstrated a few acceptable swim strokes and lined us up alongside one end of the pool with a simple instruction: swim to the other side and back.

No goggles, no noseplug.

I hesitated for several seconds before pushing off, thinking about the water that was sure to shoot right up my nose, the fact that I could barely see without my goggles under the water, and how embarrassing this whole adventure was going to be after everyone saw me swim half the length of the pool, diagonally, before sputtering and coughing until someone pulled me out to sit soggy and crying on the sidelines for the rest of the evening.

Instead, I managed to keep most of the water out and could even, though just barely, follow the black line along the bottom of the pool to the other side. Once there I struggled to resist jumping out and doing a victory dance before swimming back.

The rest of the skills testing passed relatively uneventful. Even the 10 minutes of treading water was only approaching dramatic once the Taco Bell I had unwisely consumed a couple hours before began an apparently eventful journey through my digestive tract. Each prospective burp became a roll of the dice as to just what was going to come out, and no one wants to be the guy puking in the pool during SCUBA class.

We spent the rest of the evening with fins and snorkel masks learning to surface dive, swim with fins on, and basic rescue surface tows.

"Shark Bait" ready to try breathing underwater
for the first time.
The final two nights of class incorporated the tanks and wetsuits and we spent a lot of time at the bottom of the pool. We took our masks off and then put them back on and cleared them. We took our regulators out then recovered them. We pretended to run out of air so our buddy could share their alternate regulator (the “octopus”) with us. We did more rescue training and learned how to control our buoyancy to keep from sinking too deep or rocketing to the surface.

The basic skills training was simple and confidence building. I began looking forward to the weekend of open water dives for the first time. That is, until I my buddy started breaking for the surface every time something didn’t go quite right. A little water leaked into his mask, poof, he’s gone. Trouble putting his regulator back into his mouth, he’s up, up, and away. Couldn’t equalize the pressure in his ears, at 12 feet in a swimming pool, and the next thing I knew I was staring up at the bottoms of his fins.

Maybe the weekend was going to be more difficult than I thought.

To be continued...

I can breathe underwater, and that’s pretty cool! Part One.

A couple weeks ago, on a warm Labor day weekend afternoon, I was floating a mere inches above the floor of the warm Adriatic Sea just off the coast of Pula, Croatia. Sea cucumbers, urchins, and schools of tiny colorful fish, all blissfully ignorant of my intruding presence, surrounded me. I looked up and could see the distorted rays of sunlight filtering down through several meters of clear, blue Mediterranean water. I took a deep breath and exhaled, bubbles flowing across my mask as I breathed underwater for the first time in my life and, also for the first time, with no sense of panic or fear of being eaten alive.

Just a preview and maybe spoiler for the end of this story.
How did I end up here?

Char and I made the leap a few weeks ago and signed up for a NAUI basic open water SCUBA certification course. I don’t know what I was thinking, but somehow, in the back of my mind, I was pretty sure it would never happen. The course would be cancelled due to lack of participation or funding or weather or natural disaster or alien invasion. I believed this because for my whole life I never truly believed I would ever actually go SCUBA diving and would never enjoy it or be able to do it.

Part One.


As a kid I dreamed about growing up to be a marine biologist. I gleefully watched Jacques Cousteau effortlessly swimming along the bottom of the sea pointing out the impossibly colorful and varied life and narrated by his calm yet enthusiastic and accented voice. I was glued to the television weekly to experience the newest adventure of the crew of the SeaQuest and Roy Scheider as they explored the deepest depths of the unexplored oceans.

But as I grew older, my own relationship with water, especially open water, turned sour. Maybe I watched Jaws one too many times. Somehow Roy Scheider both motivated to get in the water, and terrified me of it.

That's a big pile of nope for me!
By the time I was an adult, I could barely swim across a pool and had an irrational fear of the open water. What was swimming underneath me? What just touched me? What was about to eat me?

Over the last couple years I’ve worked hard to overcome that fear. I’ve spent countless hours in the pool relearning how to swim and even competed in a few sprint triathlons, but almost suffered a panic attack in my first open water event. I’ve gone snorkeling several times, and almost always have to quell the sudden urge to flee the water and make a break for shore at the first shiver of anxiety.

When Char informed me that we’d signed up for the SCUBA class (we?) that same sense of panic that I usually experience when chest deep in water that I can’t see through gripped me while I was safely ensconced inside a hotel room on a work-related trip. Char ensured me that I’d agreed to this plan some weeks before, however, in the moment of commitment I had no recollection of making any such life-altering, and assuredly life-ending, decision.

I think you're right, Roy!

Treading Water

Less than two weeks before the class began, Char and I were in the pool where I had just struggled to finish a solid mile of lap swimming. In preparation for the upcoming SCUBA lessons she informed me that we’d need to tread water in the class and that we should begin training now. Remembering my swim training from Boy Scouts I assumed the requirement wouldn’t exceed more than a minute or two, which was good because that’s probably all I could manage. My body was built for sinking, not floating. Regardless, I side stroked down the pool to the deep end, lolled along by Charla’s irresistible siren call. With legs and lungs already exhausted from swimming I began treading, watching the clock on the wall deliberately. When a full minute elapsed I glanced over at where Charla sat perched, on top of the water, bobbing along effortlessly, naturally buoyant and relaxed while I strained against the pull of the deep, my pained face barely clearing the gently lapping waves of the indoor pool.

Another minute passed before I finally asked her, “so… how long are we supposed to do this?”

“For about ten minutes, babe.”

Fortunately for us both, I was too tired to reach out of the water and shake her violently. Instead, it was all I could do to maintain the motion of my cramping and burning and exhausted legs and arms and keep from drowning only four feet from the edge of the pool.

I managed a full five minutes before I was too spent to keep kicking and was tired of staring angrily in her direction.

This was not going well.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

When in Rome, transform your perspective

Char and I have some crazy ideas when it comes to doing stuff for fun, and the three days we spent in Rome with her parents were no exception. (Here it is.) 

Question: What do you get when you drop two aspiring endurance athletes into the middle of ancient Rome?

Down the not-so-deserted streets of Rome we go!
Answer: An uncontrollable urge to recreate Abebe Bikila’s 1960 marathon victory.

Ok, so that wasn’t going to happen, but we did go for a run.

We’d spent the previous day walking some of the oldest and most renowned historical sites in Rome. Everywhere we went the streets were crowded with like-minded visitors and after a while it became routine to round a corner and see something ancient, snap some photos, and move on to the next one. The excitement waned, and boredom began to set in.

Maybe we were burned out, maybe we just needed to see the city from a different perspective.

Cheesy grins in front of the Roman Coliseum.
We woke up before sunrise, thinking that the streets would be empty and quiet and perfect for a quick scavenger hunt run past some of the most historic sites from the ancient, classic and renaissance world. Surprise! Cars, taxis, buses, scooters and motorcycles were already zooming along the streets, horns blaring and people bustling to get wherever they needed to be at 530 in the morning.

Double-checking directions on the map at Piazza Navona.

No worries, we padded off along the mixture of concrete and stone paved roads and sidewalks to the sites on our list that included Santa Maria Maggiore, the Coliseum, a huge memorial to Vittorio Emmanuelle II, Piazza Navona, the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River), Castello Sant’Angelo. (Ok, it was in the background when we got to the river, but come on! We were running out of time for breakfast!) We finished off the run with a sprint (sort of) up the Spanish Steps and drank in the view across the rooftops of Rome. In the distance, Saint Peter’s Basilica barely reached into the early morning rays of sunshine. (Later that day, we’d fully tour the Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peters, but it was a bit too far for our tight timeline that morning.)

Even with the early morning rush hour of traffic, the historical sites usually crawling with tourists were almost entirely empty leaving us free to appreciate them without the usual hectic multicultural fray. And being up early enough to watch the sun slowly illuminate the city, to watch the cloud of darkness peeled back to reveal aging stone, marble, and brick, was worth it.

Take the time, sacrifice a little comfort, and appreciate what’s around you like you’ve never seen it before. What you see and what you learn just might surprise you.

The Tiber River just before sunrise.
This wasn’t our first scavenger hunt run through historical sites. To read about our DC adventure, click here.

Spanish steps and Rome skyline just after sunrise.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cow poop and bike grease

The story of how I got stuck in an Italian cattle drive and almost made it home.

I stood along the road, my bike in pieces at my feet, both of us covered in bike grease and cow manure, waiting for Char to come rescue me. I was two miles from home, and I quit.

Five hours ago, I had a simple mission. Ride to Turcio just outside Asiago, where I could get a well-deserved cafe and pastry, then head home in time to join Char and the in-laws for brunch. It had rained a little when I started the ride, but stopped before I had covered the 20 miles to the mountains. I stopped at the Chiesa della Madonna della Ciclista on the way up the mountain to pay my respects and for a quick clean bathroom and snack break and made great time up into the Dolomites.

Staring down at the town of Conco (Kunken in German) is always a great view. It's like a city up in the clouds on a rainy day, with the Veneto Po River Valley spread out far below it.
It was totally uneventful, and almost entirely devoid of other cyclists, which should have been my first clue that I probably didn’t want to be out on the road. When the birds in the forest stop chirping, you’re probably in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Four miles from Turcio I came across an Italian cattle drive. They had wagons, horses, an entire caravan of support vehicles, lots of guys walking with sticks and Alpini feathered hats, and even a massage table set up along the road where they were working over some of the cattle herders.

Italian cowboys!

But they were all off the road in the adjacent fields so I took a few pics and carried on my merry way.

On the way home, well, that’s when things got interesting.

Mandatory selfie with Italian cowboys and cowgirls. 
A few miles down the road I ran smack into the back end of the cattle drive that had taken over the entire road. Everything was covered in manure, and I tried unsuccessfully to weave between the worst piles of muck, passing cars and working my way along the convoy of cattle herding vehicles, polizia cars, trucks, tractors, wagons and horses before I found myself stuck staring at the butt end, literally, of a couple hundred head of cattle heading down the mountain switchbacks.

A horse drawn wagon, why not?
I followed another Italian cyclist, one of the very few on the road that morning, back up the mountain and he showed me a back road that looped and carved down the mountain to get us ahead of the herd.  As I followed him back onto the main road my bike began rattling frighteningly and I looked down to see my bike bottle cage rocking wildly against the frame. A few quick moments on the side of the road with my mini-tool and I was once again rocketing towards home.

Now I was really running late and pushing my already spent legs and lungs hard to beat my best times on a familiar route home. I was making good time and feeling great about the ride despite the persistent smell of cow dung on everything when I felt and heard the pop. The evil hiss that followed told me everything I needed to know, and my back tire even began to fishtail precariously.

Sometimes, when things start to go wrong, they keep getting worse.

Standing at the side of the road looking at the fibers pushing out from the gaping maw in my tire, and all the euphoria of the ride vanished. I started going through the familiar routine of removing the tire to put in a dollar-bill shim and new tube while texting Char that I was running even later when we both realized that I was only two miles from home. By the time I’d fix the bike, she’d be there with the Jeep to give me a lift and we were already so late for brunch that we were running the risk of missing it.

I started to put the wheel back on the frame so it would fit on the bike rack when my manual dexterity disappeared. I couldn’t get the wheel back on, the chain slipped off the front chainring, the front fork turned awkwardly and I very nearly found myself tumbling down into a ditch full of stagnant farm runoff.

And that’s how Charla found me, standing alongside the road in my disheveled kit, covered in cow manure and bike grease, reeking of dung and sweat, furious and exhausted and ready to throw my bike into oncoming traffic to end my misery.

This is the face of someone who has given up hope of doing anything useful.
I’m surprised she let me in the Jeep at all.

And that’s how a simple ride turned into a – wait for it – crappy adventure!