30 November 2007

See you next Wednesday

Wow. Saturday marks 25 years since Michael Jackson's Thriller album was released. No way. 25 years?

* A Mountain Goat prize for anyone who can name the reference in the blog title ...

And the Journal Sentinel

But the photo's a FIB!!

Sliding to state cyclocross championships



Where will YOU be on Sunday?

Update, 3 p.m.: OK, turns out the Kenda rider in the photo is NOT Debbie. Sorry Kristin!

NYT

yeah baby: Cyclocross: Mud, Sweat and Gears

All eyes on Portland

Holy crap. Seriously wish I could be in Portland this weekend. Check it: TJ is just SIX POINTS behind Tree Farm for the series title and subsequent automatic berth to Worlds. With whether predicted throughout the weekend, this is shaping up to be a classic Portland 'cross race, and I'd have to give the edge to TJ ... go TJ, go SRAM!

And in the U-23 race, just eight points separates first through third, with Bjorn sitting in second, only TWO points back. He was flying last week, so look for a serious battle shaping up ... GO BJORN!

Keep your eyes on cyclingnews.com for all the latest, and queue up Pure Sweet Hell to get a taste of what they're going through ...

29 November 2007

'Tis the season

Pensiveness has given way to excitement. Long variable efforts in the morning yesterday followed by practicing starts against a Chicago cop car at each stop sign and light on the way home. Level of competitiveness is directly in proportion to amount of coffee in my system; by Natz I should be mainlining the Munali I brought home with me.

Media interview this morning, lunch with another later. Things just seem to be coming together. Hales Corners looms large, Cricket Hill larger. Championship season is upon us.

28 November 2007

Kit drive

Don, thanks for the comment: The Zambian Kit Drive is on! If you have old kit to donate, please either ship it to me, give it to me at events, or drop it off at The Pony Shop in Evanston -- Lou has graciously offered to act as a collection point! THANK YOU LOU!

Shipping address: Chris Strout c/o World Bicycle Relief, 1333 N. Kingsbury, 4th Fl., Chicago, IL 60622.

I'll be at the next two 'cross events, Natz, and the Madison Bike Swap/Wisco 'cross banquet in early January for starters. Thank you all in advance!

Two hands

It's always a good time of the season when the weather turns, you're suffering in your 39x26 at 160bpm into a gale-force headwind, and you realize you can count the number of hard efforts you have left for the year on less than ten fingers. We're days away from the state championships, and just a couple of weeks from Natz ...

My pensiveness has given way to action, if you consider hunkering down in the flannel as activity. The business at work just got ratcheted up a notch -- or three -- so the next few weeks won't give me much time to worry about my preparation for racing. Take it as it comes, and see what happens!

I love a good turn of phrase -- deranged yuppies on their devil's wheels? Priceless!

27 November 2007

Philosophical

I'm feeling philosophical. Ever since Sunday, really. Lots (and lots) of Bob on the way home, a marked departure from my Disturbed marathon two years ago. It's funny to go back and read the reports -- John Meehan and I should have quite the rivalry going, if only I could keep it upright on day 2 each year!

Tons of year-end, important stuff to do for work. Very focused on that right now, with the "biggest" races to come. I dunno -- my motivation is there, but the impact of my job is so clear in my head right now. Had an interesting talk yesterday about racing and 'cross specifically -- this season's just been so different compared to years past. I don't think I'm too far off fitness-wise, but my head is elsewhere, especially in the past couple of weeks.

So three, maybe four to go, 19 days and counting. Hard to believe KC is just around the corner, we've been building to this for a long time!

26 November 2007

Ouch

Another front-row start, another squandered opportunity. With no time to work on starts this season between travel, I didn't have a chance when TWells took off ... and by the runup I was dead last. No power to the engine room, as they say. Ouch.

Sat up for a few seconds, reassessed, and decided to race. Caught and passed a few guys, closing in on Jim with 3 to go. TWells coming up hard, trying to get one more lap ... and I take myself out in a wide grassy corner. I'm down, still clipped in. I lose all my places, TWells passes, and my race is over. Ouch.

I take from this the knowledge that my technical skills have greatly improved in the past year (thanks to the MTB; I was riding the double log crossing both days!) and that, as with other areas in my life, it doesn't pay to try to be something I'm not. Yesterday was my last attempt at elite-level UCI racing; from here on out I'll pay attention to the "age" listing on my license and race the 35+. It was a fun couple of years, and I'm looking forward to killing it with the "old" guys in the future.

Now I just need to find the motivation to finish out the next couple of weeks ... coffee and donut anyone?

25 November 2007

Jingle, Jingle Jingle!

I realized on the drive over to Coralville, Iowa, that I owe a lot of my 'cross obsession to this very event: it was here, just 2 years ago, when I won money in a 'cross race for the first time. Totally different course, wide open and powerful, but that sort of whetted the appetite. Yesterday was a different story:

I was greeted in Coralville by the welcome center:And it was all uphill from there!


First cheering on the women -- Holly had an awesome race, and Renee, Michele and Heidi were looking good ...




And then it was our turn! Check out this starting grid: front row, Chris Horner, Todd Wells, and me?!?!



It didn't last long.



After that it was a fight, fighting the wind, fighting the hill that kept sliding down, fighting the uphills. Turns out, I was also fighting for the last money spot, but I couldn't quite keep it together enough to score and finished 27th. Very tough course: how often do we have a sustained climb in a 'cross race?!
Truth be told, I feel pretty beat up this morning. A few more hours of relaxing and I should be good to go, at least I hope so!
Big thanks to Renee and Shannon for the great photos!

23 November 2007

Gypsy wind is blowing warm tonight

Bob on the pod. Bikes dialed, body close. Locked and loaded. 7:30 departure. Bring on the Grinch!

22 November 2007

Happy

Happy Thanksgiving! Happy birthday tomorrow, Shannon! Happy Jingle Cross weekend! Happy Zambian Munali coffee! Happy Pure Sweet Hell! Happy flannel sheets!

A new definition of happy!

21 November 2007

John, Paul, George, Ringo

and Chris. "Beatles Wednesday" at the Strout household. Stacks of nostalgia sitting in the living room, a free weekend back in September gone awry. White Album, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, A Hard Day's Night. Erstwhile poetry and fond memories packed in boxes. Who gave Ringo a microphone?

Trainer ride this afternoon, 60 minutes of fun vs. slick and cold outside. Tan lines starting to fade. Big-time 'cross on the horizon. Bring it on.

20 November 2007

Zambian flavor II

Some more thoughts from the trip, again in no particular order!

  • Water in Lusaka is clean, no problems using city water. Bottled everywhere else, unless the house is on a well. That said, beware the salads, just be smart!
  • Did I mention the coffee?
  • Currency is Kwatcha, at my visit, 3800 per dollar. KW1 million sounds like a lot until you make the conversion.
  • Meals are as high-calorie as possible, since there are so few of them. This is NOT the place to be on a diet, unless you are actively skipping mealtimes. The food is heavy, take-away is often fried, and chips (French fries) are everywhere ...
  • To that end, being heavier and with more children is a sign of prosperity.
  • Power is on the British system, sort of, with a mix of British and Continental outlets. Each switch must be turned on and off. That said, there are no ground wires in the homes, so fire is a constant threat.
  • The "Zambian handshake" is similar to the "cool kids" handshake of my youth -- straight on, then twist at the thumb, then back to straight on. Cool. (Alternatively, the "Zambian handshake" refers to the small extra you may pay a police official for say, stopping you with a traffic violation ...)
  • Corruption is here, but it's not too horrible. The Dutch embassy gave the police radar guns a while back, and it's been hell for the muzunu ever since! (see above)
  • Blue is the color of worker's outfits here -- they're everywhere, a short jacket and pants. I'll have the World Bicycle Relief version back in the States soon, or you can see it in my photos from the distribution
  • License plates and insurance are sold with the car (and is the main thing police are checking for at checkpoints); the license number is etched into the glass all around the car, and elsewhere on easy-to-steal parts
  • Last, but certainly not least, this is a wonderful, safe, beautiful country, and I encourage everyone who reads this to come over and see it for yourself!!

19 November 2007

Zambian flavor

It's Monday! I still can't quite believe I'm home ...

I collected random thoughts and observations during my week -- here they are in no particular order ...


  • First off, I had a chance to speak to Rick, and yes, the Zambian Cycling Assn. will accept donations of used kit. I know a few of you have asked. When I get back to the States, I will organize a kit drive, details to come. (NOTE: This is not a World Bicycle Relief initiative, this is something I want to do to help.)

  • There are very few bugs here in Lusaka during the dry season, but even after a few rains, they start to come out of the ground -- literally! The first night I was here, we were freaked out by flying termites -- right at dusk, they come out in swarms, and then start dropping their wings and dying soon after. And although I didn't get a chance to try, I understand they're quite the delicacy, along with caterpillars! (For the termites, you just put out a bowl of water and they drown ... guys on the race scene fill their pockets with them as energy food on long training rides! This is not BS, by the way ... think of that with your next Clif Shot!)

  • As noted, most everyone here has a cell phone. Ring tones are super-important, though, as phone etiquette here does not include announcing who it is when you call!

  • Bemba is the predominant non-English language here. "Good morning/good day" is mulabwanji in the city and mukabwanji in the bush -- dialects here are prevalent, and it's fascinating to learn which English words have leeched into Bemba.

  • Negotiation in the open markets is alive and well. I'm not very good at it, especially when you realize that you're negotiating for all of 50 cents. That makes me feel great, let me tell you.

  • There is a large influx of Zimbabwean refugees here, and many of them are "employed" making the trinkets you see at market (or they are bought directly in Zim and passed off as Zambian). It's kind of like all the paint-by-numbers crap you see in Berlin or Paris -- here, you're better off heading out of the city and buying from the folks on the side of the road, who have obviously made their straw baskets themselves!

... more later ...

16 November 2007

Re-entry

Friday morning, 3:20 a.m., U.K. arrivals lounge, Heathrow

I’ve been fighting congestion for a couple of days now, and a rotten stomach for almost as long. I think there may have been some bottle sharing on the road back from Kafue in Sunday’s race, as ever since then I’ve been struggling to keep nutrients in my body. Tonight I’ve been able to score the only three-pad open seat in all of Terminal 1, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give it up … but dinner isn’t sitting well, with horrible reflux adding to the pain, and after nearly 5 hours of off-and-on sleep, trying to ignore the battle raging in my gut, I don’t have a choice. I get up and head to the toilet.

When I come back, my space has been taken. That’s that, so I cram myself into the two-pad seat next to the snoring woman in white sweatpants and crack open my book. Since leaving Lusaka, I’ve been on a tear, working my way through When A Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. It the story of a son finding his father, juxtaposed over the dramatic destruction of Zimbabwe in the last decade. I carried this book with me across the Atlantic, but it remained shut: I know now that I was meant not to read it until I had traveled to Zambia, and had seen first-hand the refugees from Zim struggling to survive in the “compounds” (slum neighborhoods) of Lusaka.

It was in just such a compound that I spent my last day in Africa, leaving as I arrived, with sport. It was Wednesday, and so we visited Chikumbuso, the school in Ngombe Compound founded by Linda, the wife of RAPIDS head Bruce Wilkinson. “Mama Linda” purchased this land a year ago, deep inside Ngombe, and has since built classrooms for grades 1 through 5, for the children of the widows who congregate here on Wednesdays to weave baskets out of plastic grocery bags, to sell. “Chikumbuso” means to remember what others have done for you and to give back in return; by any measure, the work of Mama Linda will impact generations to come in Lusaka.

Dave and I swing by the house to pick up Maureen, his housekeeper, who lives on the grounds behind the house. As we pull through the gate, I see her running back to her home, to collect her things for the short trip to the school. She is a recent addition to the Chikumbuso family, improving rapidly on her craft. Like the other women of Chikumbuso, Maureen is a widow looking after several children, and like many of them, Maureen is HIV positive.

We pull up to the gates of the school, and children are tripping over themselves to open the gate for us. They smile and wave at “Mr. Dave,” asking again and again in their clipped English, “How are you? How are you?” We roll over the dirt, rocky path, the truck tilting from side to side as we work our way in.

Once there, a muzungu volunteer named Kelly shows me around quickly – it can only be quickly, as there is but two buildings, with a total of 5 rooms, in an L shape around a courtyard. The ground slopes steeply toward the main building, meaning that the 4th and 5th grade classroom is somewhat shorter than those of the 2nd graders and the rest. Renovations are under way, so that each class will have its own room, but for now many of the classes are doubling up. Which means that each classroom is hot, especially the 4th and 5th graders, in their shortened classroom.

I greet the teachers, and the children, who are eager for the distraction. Lunch was late today, because the rainy season has not yet fully begun, and so all the compounds of Lusaka are short of water. That is, they have none: as we drive through town, we see children of all ages with water jugs double their size, walking along the road to find it wherever they can. Bathing and washing has been halted to preserve water for drinking only, and even then Mama Linda had to implement the emergency plan of trucking in water from elsewhere for the school. Even with that, when we arrive at the end of lunch, the hand-washing stations are empty.

Maureen has made her way into the main hall, and sits cross-legged with the other widows. There are other muzungu there, volunteers from churches in the States who have come to see Africa. And although there is one other guy there, I can sense that my testosterone is not welcome – when Kelly says she needs to drive a teacher up to Chomba Valley, I hop in the back of the truck and we head out.

It is only a 20-minute drive, but it may as well have been hours. The tarmack ends to the south of a large hill, and although we are still in Lusaka, we make our way ‘round the hill and turn left on an ever-degenerating series of dirt roads. A mile or so later, we are behind the hill, and Kelly makes a sharp left, through a drainage ditch, and begins a half-mile descent to the base, where a small squatters village has sprung up. Chikumbuso is affiliated with the school recently built here, two small, low-slung structures with barely enough room for me to stand properly. Kelly and the teacher head off to look for the headmaster, and I wander away to the soccer pitch.

As I’m photographing the village, a small, mangy dog makes its way across the dirt field. Then, as I’m snapping away, I hear the excited shouts of children, and before I know it, I am surrounded by several kids, all talking over each other in Bemba. They point excitedly at my camera, and chatter away – I try to tell them I can’t understand, but they don’t seem to care. They are happy to see a muzungu, and the littlest one takes my large finger in her hand, staring up at me expectantly. I smile and keep talking, although we don’t know what the other is saying, and eventually I point to myself: “Chris.” A little boy takes my other hand, and they begin walking me toward the school, still chatting away. I have become the pied piper, but my heart is breaking – beneath the veneer of happiness, these children are filthy, faces and bodies covered in grime, clothes torn, sores open. It is all I can do to choke back tears through the smile I show them.

We head back, and I get filled in on the situation: squatters started this “village,” and so it was chosen for a school. They’re supposed to get a well, but there are land issues – because, technically, they’re not even supposed to be there, there is no proper place to drill a bore-hole. And so the cycle of rape, incest, disease and poverty perpetuates itself. I wonder just how long those children will survive.

Back at Chikumbuso, we find the widows dancing in a circle, singing loudly and ululating wildly. They are happy for the congregation, happy to learn a skill that will help them. And most of all, happy for Mama Linda, who has made this all possible.

Another reminder of why we're here: a muzungu visitor shares her story of being abused as a child. As she speaks, the women around her can identify: each time the volunteer mentions another crime, another hurt against her, the collective group shows its agreement in a near-moan, coming from the back of the throat. It's not quite the "uh-huh" you hear in the States, but the meaning is clear: each of these women, from the youngest to the oldest, has endured abuse, and pain, on a scale I cannot even imagine.

I duck out, and go next door to speak to the 2nd-grade teacher, a pretty young Zambian who has been with the school 2 years. The last of her kids are cleaning the classroom around us as we talk, and she tells me her story: she managed to finish her schooling and earn a spot in teacher’s college, but no schools will hire teachers without experience, and you cannot get experience unless you are hired. “So I am a widow,” she says, matter-of-factly, and she took to selling shikende (traditional wrap-around dresses) at the side of the Great North Road. One day, Mama Linda was driving by and happened to stop there – she needed a ride, so Linda took her into town, and they began to talk. At that point, Chikumbuso was just a dream, but it was a dream Linda shared with her – and when it opened, Linda hired her on. “Now,” she says, “I am a teacher and also have learned to make baskets, so I am no longer a burden to my family.” Wow.

She is trying to finish her day, so she cheerfully suggests I take the boys out to the courtyard to kick the ball around. I still can’t get over that Zambians call it soccer despite their English heritage, but football is football, and we soon have a spirited game of muzungu-baiting going on. Thankfully they’re much younger than I, so I’m able to keep up – they do their best to kick the ball to my head-height, to watch me head it this way and that across the courtyard. All the while, they are chattering away in Bemba, except for the odd English expression that makes its way in. As with everything here, though, it isn’t entirely what it seems: the courtyard is rocky and dusty, I am the only one wearing shoes, and there is a large piece of rebar sticking out of the ground, right in the middle of our play area. I keep a careful eye on it as we dance around, and we are all having fun.

Too soon, it is time to go, and we enjoy a quiet dinner that evening with World Vision folks who happen to be on the same flight as me – we arrived together, not knowing, and now leave together, as there are only 3 flights per week to London from Lusaka. Airport security the next morning is not exactly an issue – they seem more concerned that I’ve paid my exit tax of US$25 than they do about the full water bottle and laptop in my carry-on backpack.

I spent the flight reading of Zimbabwe’s collapse, lucky enough to have scored an exit aisle facing the flight attendant jump seat. As we taxi into Heathrow, he tells us how beautiful Harare used to be, and how now BA must pack food for their crews, as it is impossible to buy anything in-country. It is a confirmation of everything that I just read, a sad reality that I was hoping was a fiction.

Re-entry was brutal. I took the Express to Paddington, and spent the next 3 hours wandering London in a daze. Everything that had seemed to fun and new a week ago, suddenly seemed crowded, unimportant. I made my way down to Marble Arch, looking for a place to eat, and it was damn near impossible to recalibrate. On the one hand, I hated that I had become a cliché, affected so by Africa; on the other hand, our friend Kristin had said, “I don’t want to meet the person who is not affected by Africa.”

And so here I sit, finishing a book that I understand so much better now, tears streaming down my face. Later I will depart for Manchester, where – without the demarcation of Thanksgiving – Christmas carols are already playing in the terminal, and where I will spend a few minutes gathering my thoughts and searching desperately through the W.H. Smith bookstore for something else of Africa. By the time I land in Chicago, Lusaka will be two continents away, but will occupy a permanent place in my heart.

14 November 2007

Scenes

I was able to grab a bunch of photos from our travels yesterday, so here they are. I've loaded the wonderful, inspirational photos and story on the other site, please visit http://sharethepower.blogspot.com/. This may be my last post until I get to London, so ... tally ho and cheers!

The leaning Tower of Lusaka. Not quite sure what it houses, but there's a definite list as you look at it from the ground.
Cairo Road at 6 a.m. is quite pretty. And empty!
But it's a very different story at 4 p.m. This photo doesn't do justice to the crowds of people walking on both sides of the roads around Lusaka. But also check out all the parked cars -- traffic isn't nearly as bad as, say, Chicago, but there are some very interesting rules of the road!
The rail yards with a couple of buildings in the distance. This is parallel to Cairo Road, looking south.
The Revenue House, or home to the Zambian version of the IRS. We had to make a couple of stops there to work on our VAT exemption. Interesting building, definitely a pre-colonial government building -- that is, it hasn't seen any improvements in 45 years.
Los Angeles Blvd in the morning. This was known as Sadam Hussein Blvd. until very recently!
It doesn't take long to get out of the city.
And these are some of the roads we raced on this past Sunday.
Our trip yesterday was very definitely into the bush, with many kms up and down on a long dirt road -- complete with passing trucks, steep grades, cows and bicycles! (That's the road that cuts across the photo ahead of us, going upward left to right!)
At the distribution, some local folks showed up with their own bikes. Chicago represent, yo! (But really, a Chicago mountain bike?)
As with many places, the use of the English language can be very creative!
And what day would be complete without a stopover at the Tooters Roadhouse? Or the Golden Pillow Lodge? (Speaking of Tooters, so far my gut has held out pretty well, although I think the travel is starting to get to me. We'll see how the next few days go!)

12 November 2007

The Zambian National Championships

Monday morning, 9:30 a.m., World Bicycle Relief offices, Lusaka

I’m in the office this morning, arms burning from the African sun yesterday, a bit weary but definitely refreshed after a quiet afternoon and a long night’s sleep. Dave, our man on the ground here, is a fabulous cook, and the homemade chicken salad sandwich I had for dinner last night was a great compliment to the lunch at Sandy’s after the race …

Oh, and have I mentioned the coffee? What a way to wake up every morning. But more on that later …

The race yesterday was fantastic. On reflection, it really is exciting to see the hope that sport gives to the youth. The Zambian Cycling Association is fairly small – encompassing just the Lusaka region for now – but it is growing, and through various programs they are reaching out and providing an opportunity for kids to earn a bit of money, build their self-esteem, and offer them hope. Sure, there are challenges – we think we have a hard time with discipline, imagine sending a kid to a camp in Joburg when he’s never seen a McDonald’s before – but there are also successes: the young man who won yesterday earned money at the sprint, money for the win, and money for the use of his likeness on promotional posters. You should have seen the smile on his face at the end – he was so excited, because now he could continue his construction project on his home, and buy some blocks of cement.

(Here, you build only when you have money, so there are numerous partially-completed structures – you buy the land when you have money, put down brick when you have money, continue building when you have money, put a roof on when you have money. In between, the space sits dormant and vacant, or – in his case – you live in partially-completed homes. And a home, in this case, is converting a shack to a concrete hut, a major enterprise.)

Many of the kids race on bikes provided by their programs, and many more have bicycles that we might have seen 10 or 15 years ago. As you progress through the C’s and B’s, you work to make an impression on the selection people behind the teams, and that may earn you a spot on the A’s, with access to a nice bike. (Returned each day to the program, with group practices and races.) In fact, the kid who won was on a CR1 owned by his team, and although the component selection was low-end, that’s a pretty fantastic machine to be riding! (He has proven himself repeatedly, as evidenced by his performance yesterday – solo, he closed an 8-minute gap on the breakaway and then rode away to take the win by 2-3 minutes. He’s 22 years old, and it sounds like they’re going to send him to J’burg next year, a pretty incredible opportunity in its own right!)

So what about the race? It was funny, the similarities. The biggest difference is the police checkpoints you have to go through at each regional border. That, and the social nature of racing here – even on the road side. Groups of kids came riding in together, or drove in their microbuses with trailers on the back carrying bikes. Other than that, it was pretty much business as usual – the UCI commissar was in his own little world, registration ran late, the race started late (more than an hour, in this case, which was a bit much), and the kids jumped from the gun.

The racing itself was pretty normal – about 35 guys, including our composite team of World Bicycle Relief expats: Rick (the Zambian coach), Jesper from Sweden, and me. We were up against Finish Line (Rick’s real team that he supports), and Munali Coffee (THE team to beat), led by “Big Jesper,” the scion of the Munali Coffee family, a Zambian muzungu whose family has been here for 35+ years (he was born here, and we raced past the hills of his family farm) and who used to race downhill back in the day (against guys like Greg Herbold, Hans Rey, etc.).

With the downhill, cross-wind start, everything stayed pretty together in the beginning. No huge accelerations, but by 10km a Finish Line guy had gone off the front, with a small break forming behind him. He stayed strong, and for the first hour we grabbed back a couple of guys while more guys launched, until we hit the hot spot at 40km (I was 4th across the line, paying 3 deep), in Kafue [ka-foo-eh] and a break was established with the Finish Line guy, two of his teammates, and two other teams – but no Munali. Which meant everyone looked at each other, waiting for Munali to chase, and we sat up.

We covered 41.5kms in the first hour, and then only 30-some in the second – at times crawling at about 22kph. Eventually, we hit two really fast downhills that ended in short gravel sections – thanks to the rains, they were packed down, but the second one had an immediate uphill at about 10%! I drilled it on the downhill, wanting to get a gap to sag-climb the uphill – it worked, and the group only caught me 50m from the top … but then the strongest Munali rider attacked, splitting the group across the road in the wind as a semi-truck drove between us! I was just about done, and had to watch as his yellow and green kit disappeared up the road, putting 2 minutes on us in the first 3kms following the climb!

From there it was a series of tough rollers to the turnaround, and although a few attacks were launched, the group was pretty much together through the turn. We had fallen 8 minutes behind the now three-strong group of Finish Line guys, and the Munali rider was 2 minutes behind them and closing fast. We hit the turnaround climb hard, and then began the long slog back up toward Lusaka … it was going to be a very long 75kms, based on how my legs felt!

Rick was done, but our Jesper was still in the group with me, along with Big Jesper and his cadre of Munali riders. This included, incredibly, a young man (awarded Most Improved Rider of the Year later) with just one arm – the stump of his left arm rested on a TT elbow pad, and he drilled it just using his good right hand to shift. There was also Justin, No. 013, who I later learned worked in a sugar factory – he was wheezing and coughing the whole ride, and began to retch whenever the going got really tough: as it turns out, his lungs were so destroyed that he couldn’t breathe properly. So instead he churned a massive gear, and used his strength to stay with the pack. That’s dedication.

(I should note here that the better riders wore matching kit and had the bikes of the team’s program; the rest wore donated kit or older clothing that was mismatched and barely fit at times. This was even more evident in the B’s and C’s, so that I was racing everyone from a full-on Finish Line guy to a guy in Koga/Miyata MTB clothing.)

We got over the worst of the rollers and crossed a bridge at about 50kms to go – Big Jesper attacked, and I knew this was the time to go. I grabbed onto his wheel, with Justin right behind, and we drilled it – before long, the group was out of sight behind the hills, and we were rolling along with a good gap. Jesper did all the work, with Justin and I hanging on – I took a few pulls, but no sooner did I go to the front than Jesper would come right back around and carry us up the hill. Eventually we dropped down a long grade and crossed the railroad tracks outside Kafue, and began the long slog up the other side as we approached 30kms to go. I thought we had a gap at that point, but there were cars in the way – it turns out, the group caught sight of us on the downhill, and no sooner did I take a feed from the car than a Finish Line guy was snaking up the left side and almost taking me out! Whoa!

So then it was group together, with only three up the road – we reeled in everyone else. The attacks started flying, and it was all I could do to stay on the wheels as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed some more. Temps reached the mid-30s, and I was baking – I went through bottle after bottle of water, and even then just barely made it to the finish without cramping completely. Our Jesper got taken down with about 10kms to go, and finished up in the car. Then, the last 3kms were tough, a long, long steady grade with the pace slow enough to keep everyone together … I knew it was going to come down to a sprint, so stayed near the front … when it went, though, I had nothing in the tank! Big Jesper took 5th, with one of his riders just in front of him, and I rolled it in, spent and exhausted. And happy – it was great to see such an awesome group of supporters making sure that each rider got lunch, and that the prizes actually meant something.
I was surprised when we pulled up to the college where the race started to find a motocross track across the street. Another example of breaking down my preconcieved notions of "Africa."
This is one of the trucks used to get the racers to the start. We're still not quite sure how a "fishing team" operates, or how it came to be part of the bike scene!
Our first-ever World Bicycle Relief road team! Jesper, me, and Rick, with Rick's son Sebastian and his home-made World Bicycle Relief banner. Pretty awesome!
After the race, before awards, lunch with nshima and chicken, watermelon, and plenty of fluids on this 90+ degree day!
The Zambian Women's National Champion! The association is working to improve women's cycling, and at one race they had 20 women. Unfortunately, yesterday saw just one entrant. (Sound like home on our local scene?)
The C's podium. The B podium had to be nullified because none of the racers crossed the turnaround, saying they didn't see it. Vigilance is necessary the world 'round!
Most Improved Rider. Note that he only has one good arm -- and this guy was a hammer. He was incredible out there.
And ladies and gentlemen, your 2007 Zambian National Champion! (That's also his image on the banner behind.) What a race!
... and finally, Krispy Kreme has nothing on Sandy! Homemade donuts at the cafe/garden center/toy store/Italian sundries/ice cream/convention center/expat hangout. What an eclectic mix, but what an amazing chocolate shake!

11 November 2007

Quick update

Sunday night, 7:30 p.m., Dave's house, Lusaka

Just a quick update this evening, with race report and photos to come tomorrow. The Zambian National Champsionships were TOUGH!! 150km, 75km out to a turnaround and 75km back. Only you lose something like 300m in elevation going out, over a series of ever-larger rolling hills, and then have to make that all back up on the return leg. OUCH!

I was in a break, racing for 4th, for about 25kms or so on the return, and then fought like hell to stay on the wheels through the last, uphill 20kms. When it came time for the sprint, I was outclassed, and rolled across the line in 11th or 12th. Not a bad result for having been in the country for 72 hours, but you're always looking for more ...

I will say this: I began to find "my" Zambia today. As we headed down south, toward Livingstone, and as the hills began to get steeper and longer, I was in heaven. It is so beautiful, and so expansive -- you can't even imagine it. Yes, you are passing small huts and shacks that barely serve as shelter for people. But the landscapes and the vistas are beyond compare. Wow.

Day in the office tomorrow, distribution Tuesday, office and a visit to another program on Wedneday, and then I'm out of here. How time flies!

10 November 2007

Expats

Saturday afternoon, 1:45 p.m., Dave’s house, Lusaka

One of the preconceptions I have held of Africa is that of the “Expat,” those folks (muzungu – white man – as well as Indians, Chinese and others) who come here to live and work among the people of this continent, in a variety of capacities – missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, relief workers, bankers, manufacturing managers. My visions of the expat life have been shaped, as all my visions are, by the media – in my case, movies such as Out of Africa, Blood Diamond, or even Empire of the Sun, which depicts British life in China at the cusp of World War II.

Zambia was a British colony, where the official language is still English, and so the staccato calls of “How are you” from children as young as 3 rang out on our ride this morning. This was definitely a muzungu ride – although we started this morning with a group of young, promising Zambian racers, by the end it was five of us: Rick, me, a Swedish PhD student in public health, the American head of a bank, and a South African banker who also sponsors a local development squad. This was my experience of Zambia today, heading out on the Great Northern Road, 50km to a roadside stop where we turned and rode 50km back, complete with a follow car. We finished, as all good group rides do, with time spent around the coffee shop table, and later a dip in the icy pool at the banker’s house. Talk about surreal!

Apparently, cycle racing was a big deal here in Zambia in the 1970s, pretty much until the copper mines began their steep decline and the economy began to disintegrate. Now, there is a committed group of expats trying to revive it, as a way to encourage the youth – some of their best racers are 14 and 15 years old. Which sounds so amazing, until you remember that half the population is under 16.

In some ways, this encouragement is very good, in that it gives the next generation an outlet, and something to think about in their future. That seems to be a difficult recurring theme here – the future – as so many Zambians do not live their lives “deliberately,” or with planning. And in a world in which death comes every day, can you blame them?

So it was sort of strange to be rolling along the road, being called to by the young children, trying to reconcile the fact that here I was on a group ride, and those children were calling to me from huts, literally. Or as we entered the city, we passed by an area populated mainly by Zimbabwean refugees, where small children were playing in the drainage ditch, which I’m sure was not just street runoff. It is said that Zambia is a good introduction to Africa, because it is not quite as harsh as other countries – but when you see the strife in the compounds, it is hard to ignore the tragedies these people face each day.

So today has still been “Africa Light,” which in a way is good as I prep for some pretty big emotional hits in the next couple of days. At the same time, though, there are reminders everywhere of why so many muzungu are here, trying to help. The best we can do is create solutions that empower Zambians to help themselves, and give them that glimpse of a future.

Race tomorrow, 150km starting with about 30km of descent, and then a long battle uphill on the way back, as Lusaka is on a plateau – it’s going to be a tough one!

09 November 2007

A day in the life

Friday morning, 11:30 a.m., offices of World Bicycle Relief, Lusaka

The first few days of this trip are going to be weird.

Not weird in substance, but weird in structure -- so far, I have done nothing different than what I do at home. Wake up, eat a banana and some muesli, have a couple of cups of coffee, check e-mail, and then go for a ride. Now I'm in the office, with the sounds of phones, an Internet connection, and bikes in the hallway. Seriously.

I know things will change after Sunday, when next week we head into a rural area for a delivery, but for now I am in the reality of a working day in Lusaka. Sure, there are differences -- the accents of the people on the phone, the breeze blowing through my office window, the surroundings of the RAPIDS compound. (Check out a bit more on that in my World Bicycle Relief blog.) When on vacation in the past, Kim and I have wondered about what it would be like to live in an area we visit -- Paris, Berlin -- and the answer is, it's can be pretty mundane. We all go about living our lives, it's the surroundings that change.


(That's one of the issues I have with taking photos for the sake of taking photos. Folks here are just going about their business; who am I to gawk?)


I just got back from a 40km ride with the Zambian national cycling coach -- a 47-year-old expat from Durango named Rick. Even before he got here, there was a burgeoning national road series, and with his cycling background he quickly integrated into the scene and eventually was tabbed as the coach. He has me signed up for the Zambian National Championships on Sunday -- a 150km race from here, southwest to Choma, and then back up and around. Short hills and winds are what to expect -- he tells me the competition will be fierce, but not very deep. He's confident that the "World Bicycle Relief composite team" of expats -- him, me, and a big Swede sprinter -- can put a man on the podium. No pressure, really!


(Interesting side note -- because of the elevation of Lusaka, there really isn't malaria, except in some of the compounds. He suggested that the malaria medicine may be detrimental to fitness -- in his words, it all has side effects and the stronger, the scarier -- visions of volunteers strung out and stoned around the Continent ...)


Riding around was a bit more strange -- this was a British colony, after all, so the roads are opposite the States. The shoulders are dirt, with large drop-offs, and the lanes are super-narrow. Stop signs and lights are optional, and once you get out into the country the roads turn to chip-seal ... that is, until they end in some random location and turn to dirt. We managed a full 40km, but that was out-and-back-and-out-and-back and finally back into the city. We even rode past the President's house. A little weird, but dodging potholes and crazy drivers is the same here as it is back home ...


And then there's the views. The rolling hillsides are beautiful -- and then you pass a set of mud huts, with children in tattered clothing calling out "Good day, how are you" in clipped English as you pass. Or you roll past the vast cemetery, the left half with tombstones and a wall for the more "wealthy"; the right half with no wall and just a vast sea of dirt mounds marked by chalked wooden boards, many of them with more than one, marking a multiple burial site. Seeing that is when the fun of being in a new place wears off quickly, and the reality of death surrounds you.


The sun is climbing higher now, as noon is passing, and the humidity is building palpably in the air. The clouds are building outside of my window -- it will rain soon, off and on for the rest of the day, until nightfall. As regular as this day has been so far, there's no telling what the next few hours can bring -- after all, this is Africa.


This is the view from the road I spoke of yesterday. This is a main drag through Lusaka, and there is a large market of mostly tin shacks and stands such as the ones here ... and every few meters, a cluster of headstones for sale. Death is a daily visitor for Zambian families. Note the man walking, cell phone in hand.


This was one street over, sort of a store district. It was raining, but even through the rain there were lines of people walking along the streets, going about their business. Life is much more "organic" here, with stop signs and lights being optional, and despite marked crosswalks, people flowing this way and that across the road.


And this is the view out in the country, near the home of the Zambian president. The dot far off on the hill is a man walking his utility bike upward. There was little traffic out this way, just a few km from the city. It's easy to say "This is Africa" based on our movie cinemetography at home, but you have to remember that the above photos are just as authentic.

08 November 2007

Description

Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Dave's house, Lusaka

I'm too tired to fight with Blogger tonight, so my first picture will have to wait until tomorrow. I'm struggling a bit with taking photos -- I don't want to be "that guy," the muzungu (white man) staring out of the 4WD Toyota, taking pictures of the plight of the Zambians. And, quite frankly, I can't be -- everything here is photogenic, but the photo cannot tell the story, it can only capture the moment. And there are so many stories.

I mean, how does a photo describe the feeling of being surrounded by a sea of black faces, being obviously foreign, and yet reading every sign in English? Or of walking into the grocery store and purchasing Philadelphia Cream Cheese, All Bran cereal and veggie burgers, and then looking across the street at the decrepid open city market -- complete with headstone vendors out front? Or of living most of your life with pre-conceived notions of "Africa" as a land of backward, militaristic, tribal nations, only to realize that, in the city at least, cell phones are plastered to the ear of almost everyone you pass on the street?

The answer is, it doesn't. I heard a great truism today about Africa for the Westerner: "It takes a week to get it, and a lifetime to get over it." I've been here 12 hours, and for me comprehension has only just begun.

The other side of the World

Thursday morning, 10:30 a.m., offices of World Bicycle Relief, Lusaka, Zambia


My first glimpse of the African sun came about 5 this morning, high above the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Looking out the left side of the plane, I could see a massive thunderhead building in the east; below us, the soft pillow of clouds obscured a vast landscape -- from the inside of the plane, we could have been about to land anywhere.


I've been on the ground now for nearly 4 hours, and I'm not quite sure where to begin. My thoughts are all jumbled, from lack of sleep and too much coffee. But mostly everything just feels surreal.


Surreal in so many ways. From the moment Dave picked me up at the airport, as we drove the narrow streets of Lusaka, I was suddenly surrounded by reality. But it's a strange reality -- I've spent the past 9 months looking at photos of Zambia every day, photos that have been published and not, and now, for the first time, it's all real. Leah's camera captures this place so well, it's as if I've stepped into one of her frames. Because of that, it's the sounds and smells that define the world around me. It is at once familiar and foreign, and I'm not quite sure how to process it all.

We're going to be out and about this afternoon, hopefully I'll get a chance to update this evening. Later.

07 November 2007

The other side of the Pond

Wednesday morning, 8 a.m., Garfunkel’s restaurant, outside Paddington Station, London.

There’s something surreal about sitting in a London restaurant with “Your Mother Should Know” playing overhead. Especially while watching through the window as a guy on a silver Stumpjumper roll a pseudo-track stand, waiting for the light to change.

The departure from Chicago was pretty seamless, and the half-full flight lent itself well to the couple of hours of sleep I was able to catch. It was tough to fall asleep after watching the video-on-demand: of course, it had to be The Flying Scotsman, the biopic of Graham Obree. Not a great movie, but it depicted well the highs and lows that come from suffering from depression. In fact, it may not have been strong enough in that department, but I was watching it on a small screen after all.

So I’ve got a few hours to kill here in London-town; my flight to Lusaka doesn’t leave until 6:40 this evening. Back-timing it, that means arriving at Heathrow around 4:15, just to be safe, which means being back at Paddington around 3:50 or so. In the meantime, I’m less than a mile from Kensington Gardens, with plenty of time to hang out and see a part of London I’ve never visited. First I just need to find the loo, and then make sure to look the other way when crossing the street!

Look for updates here and on my "work blog" -- a bit of a different perspective from each ...

03 November 2007

Psssssttttt ...

BIG congrats to Levi and Gabe, who both completed the kids race today! It was one loop of the Sport-to-Tech loop at McDowell Mountain, and they both did AWESOME. I swear I didn't encourage them to race at all, they've been wanting to do this for MONTHS. Very cool!

My race went OK. I think I got 4th (what else?!), I'll check again later, mixup on the computer at the race finish. 6:30 a.m. registration, 8 a.m. start for the 41-mile marathon -- Tech to Long to Sport to Tech to Long to Tech to Long to Sport to Tech to Long to Sport to Tech. Got that? Thankfully I had it taped to my bars in two places, just to make sure.

Second onto the trail behind a guy from Michael's Cycles -- shouldn't we be back on a 'cross course? We were joking about Don telling us to be kind to each other ... before the MC guy revealed he hadn't raced in a year ... oh, yeah ...

I hear the announcer as we head in "And there go the marathoners, first onto the Tech loop and down the drops ..." DROPS? WHAT? Bam! Down we go -- thank goodness I didn't grab the hole shot, or there would have been some massive carnage. Instead, I follow the MC guy's line, good to go, and as we come to the second one, after a right turn, I grab the brakes a bit before diving down.

"Only p*$$ies grab their brakes" I hear behind me. WTF? Bugger off, dude! This from some spank who has his own YouTube page. It got even better when I bobbled the sand right after and had to dab. Consequently, he did too, and then by the time MC dude and I crest the hill, he's nowhere to be seen. Take that -- if you don't have the legs to back it up, shut the F* up.

I follow MC for the first lap, prolly 5-10 seconds off, 15 at some points. He was on full sus, which definitely was an advantage on the rocky downhills, but the hardtail was railing the corners and blasting the climbs, so we were pretty close to each other. We roll through the start/finish, I grab a bottle from Superwoman Kim, and we blast onto the Sport loop.

I had preridden this section earlier, so I knew what to expect. All of a sudden, we're headed uphill and MC guy is slowing ... knowing Cannonspank is behind us, I blast up the sandy part and I'm away. What? I'm leading? Um ...

Down, up, around, Tech, Long. Climbing, descending, through the wash, climbing again. Red Dot Hill. Up and over. Down and then up again -- I see MC dude behind me, prolly 50 seconds. Crest the hill, and we're dropping on the rocks, over the rocks, around the rocks, and PSSSSSSTTTTT. Damn. I stop, Stans going everywhere. CO2. No seal. 90 seconds pass, and MC goes rolling past. Another CO2. Finally tube it. Prolly 2 minutes later, Cannonspank goes past, not a word. Another 30 seconds, another rider, he checks on me, all good.

I start to roll, low on air and nursing the heck out of the trail. I think I may have gotten passed again, but between thinking about giving up and finding the smoothest line, I decide to keep rolling. It's a marathon, the kids are coming to see me race, and we're not even halfway ...

Roll into the feed, grab a pump, maybe lost another spot? Crash on some sand right out of the gate, rip open my left knee. Again a few minutes later, right knee just a spot. Settle in, calm down, and apend the next two long laps killing it, pushing as hard as I can uphill and railing where I can to boost speed out of every corner. Carnage from flats everywhere, I'm passing XC guys on every trail, no idea where the next marathoner is. This is just FUN as the temps climb and I grab every water I can ...

3:30 shows on the watch as I enter the last feed, "Kids on the course," Kim shouts. I'm extra-vigiliant, inadvertently nearly running down some poor kid whose mom couldn't figure out how to move him off the trail. (Really, I was being careful!) Isaac and Charles, however, were great, and I thanked them and got really cute "Your welcomes" in return. And then, there it is, the last junction, just 2km to go ... up and over, down and around, and BLESSED RELIEF, the finish line and COLD, COLD water, and a nice shower!!!

I didn't get a chance to talk to Cannonspank face-to-face, a bunmer considering I had spent the better part of 3 hours figuring out what to say. Darned if I missed him, although Kim passed him as we drove out of town and I was tempted to roll down the window. Another day, perhaps, when I rip his semi-pro legs off head-to-head with no mechanicals ...

It's 85 and sunny as we head to Levi's next gig, a competition at a city fair. We just polished off a huge lunch from Tres Banderos, yummy in my tummy ...

Good luck to all you 'crossers today and tomorrow! Stay warm!

02 November 2007

Is 'cross detrimental to MTB?

First ride on my mountain bike in a month today -- more, if you consider my last ride lasted all of 8 minutes. It's funny, I've spent so much time on my 'cross bike, and I'm definitely riding better because of my mountain biking, but today it took me only about 17 minutes to wash out on some sand and ditch the hardtail in a corner. The dynamics aren't that different, but they're different enough that my motor skills have to realign just a bit ...

Anyway, a solid 2-1/4 hours on the Usery Pass trails (the flats at the base of the mountain), with some timed efforts aimed at opening up the legs. Riding desert singletrack is definitely up my alley, and it's fun to be out here to experience it on a hardtail vs. the Rush from this spring. It's faster in some spots, but the corners require a bit more care given my tire selection and speed.

Racing tomorrow -- it's hot here, so the racing starts EARLY ... registration opens at 6:30, an hour away from here. I'm still undecided about the Marathon vs. the XC, leaning toward the 40-miler to take the intensity down a notch and get in a longer day, but I'll see how the rest of today goes in terms of recovery. Either way, should be a fun way to finish out the MTB season for good and get some intensity before spending a ton of times in airplanes in the next few days!

Good luck to everyone back home this weekend, kick some butt!