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At first I tried to sell this story to Bicycling Magazine because, well, they were paying me to write stuff. I attended an "Editorial Breakfast" where we were supposed to pitch our ideas. When I got my turn, I said, "I have this story about a guy who's so anal about his riding that he knows how far and exactly how fast he has ridden every inch of the year, so he never has any fun."
Every head turned toward a particular editor who fit the description, and the story idea died with the look on his face. When the magazine fired me a while later, this is the guy who got to pull the trigger.
I can't remember whether I ever sold this article. If I did, it would have run somewhere around 1988.
Copyright? You bet.
How to Take All the Fun out of Cycling Without Spending Too Much
I remember the day Al got his new bike computer. How could anyone know that it was the beginning of a new era in bike riding?
I got over to Al's house on a sunny morning, just as he was unwrapping the little gizmo and inspecting the fragile-looking wires and the gizmo itself and its little handlebar attachment.
"What's that?" I asked, innocently.
"Don't you read the bike publications? These new computers are all the rage. All the top racers use them."
When I was a kid, all the top geeks used them."
"Those were old mechanical speedometers. They weren't very accurate. Plus, they only told you speed."
"Yeah, I remember Eddie Fallon's speedometer said he was going sixty miles an hour all the time, even when his bike was parked."
"After I calibrate this baby, I'll know within an accuracy of plus-or-minus .00062 how fast I'm going, plus I'll know my average speed, elapsed time, and distance."
"What about your IQ?"
"You wanna go on a ride?"
"I'm going to hang around here and get this thing installed and calibrated. Go ahead without me."
The next day I went over to his house again, and he had everything installed and checked out. "Ready to ride?" I asked.
"Yep. And for the first time we'll know how far and how fast we really go."
We took off on a favorite trail. We grunted our way to the top of the ridge, and stopped to catch our breath and enjoy the view. It was an exceptionally clear day, and I said, "Just check that out."
"Yeah, we only averaged six miles an hour all the way up here. We could have run up here faster than that."
"No, I meant the view."
"The bright sunlight reflects off the glass and makes this computer hard to read sometimes." I wasn't sure what that had to do with the view, but I let it pass.
"Which way do you want to go down?" I asked. "The Old Swede Trail is right over there, or we could go along the ridge and back on the road."
"Let's go on the ridge. I always wanted to see how fast you could go through those big rolling downhills. And if we finish be going back on the paved road, we might raise our average speed for the ride to over ten miles an hour."
I wasn't sure why it was important to raise our average speed to that figure, but I let it pass. We got back on our bikes, and Al punched a button on his computer. "this thing has a Time Out for stops. Wouldn't want it calculating rest time into Average Speed, would we now?"
"I guess not."
We started up the road, blasting through a steep set of rollers where the road is wide open. Al got a little ahead of me, and as we slowed down, he yelled something over his shoulder that I didn't hear. Finally I caught up to him. "What was that?"
"I said, we only got going twenty-eight point four-two-three miles an hour. Do you call that fast?"
"It seemed like we were going pretty fast. I got a little scared."
"Well, we weren't going that fast. We were only going twenty-eight point four-two-three miles an hour. Actually, you were probably even slower than that, because you were behind me."
I wasn't sure why that was important, but I let it pass.
"That's a great downhill, anyway," I said.
"It's not as fast as you thought it was." Al punched his computer button again and took off down the paved road. He yelled something over his shoulder again that I didn't hear, and I didn't catch him again until we were back in town.
"What was that you were saying as you took off?" I asked, although by now I figured it had something to do with average speed or distance or time.
"I was saying, that after I push the Time Out when we stop for a rest, I shouldn't start it again until we get back up to speed, because that affects our average speed."
"The difference must be microscopic whichever way you do it," I said.
"Yeah, but we fell just two-thousandths of a mile-per-hour short of averaging ten miles an hour for that whole ride."
"So what?" I asked.
"Well, you know... It would have been nice to break the ten-mile-an-hour barrier." I didn't understand why ten miles an hour was a barrier, but I let it pass.
Al and I rode together fairly often, but after he got his computer, the character of the rides changed. He announced average speed goals before rides and after the rides he deflated egos by declaring how short the ride had actually been or how slow we had been going. Because he didn't count rest time as average speed, he started riding in a series of short bursts, racing from stopping point to stopping point, at each one punching the button on his computer for the Time Out while he flopped and gasped and prepared for the next mad sprint. I would usually arrive a few minutes later, just as Al got his breath back.
He would always greet me with the result of whatever arithmetic he had been working on with his pocket calculator. "If I can maintain an average of sixteen-point-two miles per hour the rest of the way back, I'll average fifteen miles per hour for the whole ride."
Al hardly saw scenery any more. If you talked about the view, he kind of stared at you and responded with more numbers. The purpose of each ride became the generation of statistics, which he began cataloging and charting on a personal computer when he got home. He started carrying gridlike forms which he filled with numbers at each stop, to be entered later into his computer spreadsheet.
Considering all this, Al was almost too weird for anyone to ride with, including me. We rode less and less, as each ride became an attempt to edge his record average speed upward by a hundredth of a mile per hour. When I saw him around town, he would immediately start spouting the numbers, as though anyone but himself cared. He had pie charts, line graphs, column graphs and spreadsheets in a file folder that he carried with him, and if you he could buttonhole you for more than a minute, he would start showing them to you. By now he had added a pulse meter, and he was charting body fat, weight, caloric input, and projecting his miles per year. In his struggle to keep all the lines on all the charts riding, he was beginning to look a little haggard. Actually he was beginning to look a lot haggard.
Even though I wasn't riding much with Al any more, one morning I found myself riding past his house and I stopped in. Al's wife told me that he had already gone on a ride, and she told me which trail he had planned on using. "If you hurry, you might catch him."
I didn't figure I could catch him, but I took the same trail anyway, and after riding a short distance I was surprised to see Al sitting beside the trail next to his bike. As I approached I could see that his knee and elbow were bleeding; he had apparently fallen very hard.
"Hey buddy, are you all right?" I asked as I rode up.
"Yeah, I'm okay, but I broke my speedometer."
"Gee, that's too bad," I said, while thinking just the opposite.
"At least everything else works, so I can get home." He spun a wheel to check for straightness. "It's a nice day to be sitting out here anyway."
"What about your average speed?" I couldn't resist a little dig.
"My what? Oh yeah. Well, I won't be able to figure it out anyway, and my knee hurts, so I guess I'll take it easy for the rest of the way."
"You want to go back?"
"We're already out here, and I can keep up if you want to take it easy. Let's finish the ride."
We rode along casually, and for the first time in a while, Al looked at more than his handlebars and the road directly ahead. "Look at that big tree that fell over."
"Al, that tree went down six months ago. Haven't you been out here since then?"
"Plenty of times. But I hadn't noticed it."
Al was in a talkative mood. He mentioned the fine weather, then he noticed a set of deer tracks and stopped to speculate on where the deer might have been going. When he stopped to inspect the tracks, he stabbed reflexively at the place where his computer should have been on his handlebars, then looked around sheepishly to see whether I had noticed. After a while he picked a flower and put it into his empty clamp.
Finally we arrived back at Al's house. In spite of his skinned elbow and aching knee, Al was in a great mood as he put his bike away in the garage. "Hey, that was a good ride. Do you want to go out again tomorrow?"
"Sure. Uh, do you think you'll have your computer fixed by then?"
Al was already taking the remains of the clamp off his handlebar. "No, I don't think so." He put the parts into the original box, and placed the box on the highest shelf above his workbench. "Let's just go out and have a good time."
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