Thursday, June 17, 2010

Living Down to the Stereotype

Just when I thought we Aggies had outgrown the eternal Aggie joke, the one that depicts us as uncouth louts, I read today's Houston Chronicle article that gleefully recounts the e-mail and voicemail exchange between an A&M former student and our current athletic director.

I'll summarize.

One of the many thousands of former students who agonize over everything associated with the football team, a guy who had his heart set on A&M joining the Southeast Conference, was not content with venting his spleen on the many web pages set up as forums for that discussion. No, no. He sent an e-mail directly to the athletic director. The e-mail contained extremely unflattering comments containing both anal and, um, lingual-anal references. Now, keep in mind this is a graduate of Texas A&M, not an 8th grader.

Not to be outdone, the athletic director, a man with a great deal of experience, who should be much smarter than this, called the guy up and left a threatening voicemail message expressing the desire to introduce his wing-tips to the man's hindparts. The former student, thrilled that he had enticed the athletic director to respond angrily to his childish provocation, posted the voicemail message to the internet, where it has gotten a great deal of play.

I saw this same thing play out when I was the Marine Officer Instructor at A&M over ten years ago. When we made efforts to change some things in the Corps of Cadets to try to improve the environment and make better leaders, we got the same kind of reaction from Old Ags. I never attempted to answer the nasty e-mails I got. When the other Major on the staff with me, a guy who since went on to be wounded in combat in Iraq and today commands a Marine regiment, tried to explain what we were trying to do, he got a response that trashed him in the most personal way and then went on to slander his wife and family in the most crude fashion imaginable.

So here's how it works: some guy or gal in Waxahachie who graduated from A&M, armed with shreds of rumors and out-of-context information, lashes out at the people (many of whom are also Aggies) who are on the spot, on top of the issue, doing what they believe is best for A&M. He/she does so believing that having an Aggie ring and internet access entitles him/her to personally, crudely attack people from a safe distance and the anonymity of an e-mail address.

I'm firmly convinced that the greatest threat to A&M is neither the state legislature, nor the t-sips, nor Islamic fundamentalists. It's Aggies.

So the lesson learned (that I occasionally forget) is to never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig loves it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Fredericksburg Road Race with my bro

Sunday my brother, Ben, and I did a bike race out in the Texas Hill Country at Doss, TX near Fredericksburg. First, some explanation of technical bicycle terms: this was our first road race and it was sanctioned by USA Cycling. In USA Cycling the racers are divided into Pros and Category 1’s at the top of the food chain, Cat 2’s and 3’s below them, and Cat 4’s and 5’s at the bottom. When you first get a license and start racing, you’re a Cat 5 no matter what. After you do 10 races as a Cat 5 you’re automatically a Cat 4. To work your way from Cat 4’s into Cat 3’s you actually have to finish high in some Cat 4 races and accumulate enough points to move up. It’s like the difference between graduating from college and being released from a mental institution. To get out of the mental institution you have to demonstrate that you’ve improved.

Let me specify that this was not a “ride.” I’ve done those and they’re great. This was a race. For the serious dudes. The course featured two loops of a 22 mile course on farm roads with some cattle guards and water crossings. By some cattle guards I mean about 40. By water crossings I mean 1. There was also a twisty, steep downhill portion and many small hills. One big nasty hill was about 6 miles into the course. I had two goals that Norman Vincent Peale would be disappointed to see were stated negatively:

1. Don’t DNF. DNF is “Did Not Finish.”

2. Don’t DFL. DFL is “Dead Freakin’ Last (I believe).

Everything beyond that, for my first road race, would be gravy.

Race morning found us out at the start line warmed up and ready to go with our group of about 80 guys: Cat 4/5 over 35 years old. It was very warm and humid at 8 a.m., but the pastoral countryside is really beautiful this time of year. This is the Texas Hill Country people fall in love with and write songs about.

The gun went off for our group at 8:10 and we rode out in a dense pack. I’ve ridden plenty in a pace line, but was a little unnerved by having three or four guys on each side of me. A mile into the ride someone’s tire exploded with a loud bang and we maneuvered around him as he slowed down. Soon after that a guy to my left veered off the road and into the ditch. He was shrieking an expletive as the tall grass slowed him from 25 to 20 to 10 miles an hour. I didn’t see how he stopped. I felt like the guy in Jurassic Park who sees someone next to him get snatched up screaming in the jaws of a T-Rex. I just pedaled faster.

To stay with a big group is better for you because you work less – you can get in this mass of moving air and go much faster with less effort. That’s the point of the peloton. The first big hill, though, is where we all started to separate because the fastest guys wanted to shake off all the wheel-suckers. So 8 miles into the race I found myself separated from all groups and I fought like crazy to get caught up to a group of 6 guys. We worked together and took turns in the wind until about the 13 mile point, when, after a hard pull at the front up a hill, I couldn’t keep up with them. I tried, too. When you lose the group, you’re going to go significantly slower.

But I couldn’t stay with them. I was absolutely cooked. They rode off from me. I watched, forlorn, as they pulled away like a train carrying a dear relative. I was now by myself. Normally, the thing to do would be to catch on with another group behind you and work together, but after so much chaos I didn’t know if there WAS another group. I never really seriously thought of quitting. That’d be a DNF.

Completely obliterated and pouring sweat, I started on the second lap of the course, the final 22 miles. I started to re-climb the hills of the first lap and here’s where I learned a valuable lesson the hard way: if the course description contains the word, “hilly,” if the race is held in a place that is called “The Hill Country,” if you suspect that someone in the race may have “Hill” for a last name, make very sure your bike can shift into its lowest two gears. I foolishly did not and my bike, alas, could not. It wasn’t a factor on the first lap when I was fresh and with other riders but now, with my quads devastated, when I desperately needed to shift into my easiest gear (my 25 tooth) to creep up a hill, the chain would dance back and forth between my two lowest gears (25 and 23) and my freewheel would rattle like Uncle Jed Clampett’s truck transmission. I weaved up the hardest hills in my 19 tooth gear, which I highly recommend as therapy for optimism. Early into my climb I saw two guys riding back down the hill toward me. They weren’t lost. They were quitting.

I saw no other riders for the remainder of the race. The natural, magnificent beauty of the Texas Hill Country had become a post-apocalyptic landscape swept clean of human life and viewed through a film of mucus and blood.

I eventually rolled into the finish and saw my brother, who had finished probably 20 minutes ahead of me. I doubt if it speaks well of me, but I could scarcely contain my surprise and delight when I saw that a few guys from our group were coming in behind me, looking like the race had meticulously and thoroughly kicked every square millimeter of their behinds as it did mine. Not DFL.

It was a humbling and instructive experience that put a hurtin' on my like few things I've ever done. So why am I trolling the internet for training tips and another ride to do?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Take No Prisoners ride

There's a local bicycle club - I mean tribe - that I go out and ride with once or twice a week. I started riding with these guys a couple of summers ago to try to get better in the bike leg of the triathlon and the things I've seen, learned, and experienced will probably be the subject of several future blog posts.

On Tuesdays we have the TNP - the Take No Prisoners ride that features three loops where the strongest riders really turn on the speed and the rest of us hang on for dear life. The whole thing works out to about 45 miles if I ride from home.

Since I've had a Tuesday night class for the last 2 semesters I haven't been out there, but since school ended I've been able to do TNP a few times and each one is an investment in getting a little bit tougher. TNP is where you go to get strong - country strong.

So I dedicate the following poem to my tribal cycling brothers and sisters:

Take No Prisoners

We will gather at the Shellron and joke and fret with the rattles of our machines

We will dodge Dodge pickups driven by faceless drivers who hate us and don’t know why

We will be dogged by country dogs and slurry skinny wheels in dirt and rock

We will suck the baked air and bellow in code and dive into graveled corners

The wildflowers in the ditches will bow down as we pass

And when we hit the 2038 slope we will be passed by a surging swerving maniac

Suicidal, quixotic, alone we will attack for momentary respect

Until the machine spits us out the back like yesterday’s chewed gum

spent, pitiful, domesticated and repentant

We will love, admire, and hate each other

We will be cowardly, petty, noble, and heroic

We will drain the last drops of plastic flavored water and limp home

A whole life in two hours

And tomorrow’s tortilla will have a holy bicycle browned into its surface.