I Can't Even Bring Myself to Read this Aloud

Kristin thinks this is hysterical. I think it is a sign that the end of the world is nigh.

We received the following advertisement in the mail today:

Poopless in Seattle
Your animal waste removal service

- One, two, three and four days a week pet waste removal service.
- For your convenience, we have early, late, and weekend times for waste removal.
- Last minute service available.
- Credit card billing an option.
- No contract required.
- Our employees have had thorough background screenings.
- We clean our tools to avoid contamination.

Prices starting as low as $45 per month.

I don't mean the enterprising people behind this any ill-will. Clearly they have identified a service that someone, somewhere, is willing to pay for and they are, er, marking their business territory sort of speak with these mailings [groan]. But shall we take a closer look at the material of the card? Lets.

For starters, the offering of last minute service scares me. I can move beyond the initial disgust I believe most sane people would have for those who would patronize this service and temporarily imagine a family with lots and lots of money and lots of large dogs. Nevertheless, I cannot fathom for the life of me how a poop emergency would require last minute service. Let's be honest here, if the family is using this service, the poop situation is rather well under control thanks to the weekly service. A last minute situation might involve, what, two or three piles? If you're the type of person who might be entertaining in the yard, then clearly you're also the type of person (or know someone who is) who is able-bodied enough to, you know, use a plastic bag and pick up a couple turds. I have two siberian huskies. We clean up the yard once a week on average, sometimes twice. It never takes more than 2-3 minutes. It's not a dirty job. It's rather benign.

Moving on, the card states that the employeed have had thorough background screenings. Are we really so mistrusting of people that we need background checks on the people who quite literally pick up poop for a living? Unless the dog is pooping in the house, I can't see this being an issue. Except maybe for the super-rich, in which case they should just have their butler do it. Or pay to have the dog sent to boarding school until it learns how to use the toilet.

They also clean their tools. I would hope so because, after all, in case you missed the gist of their flier, the tools are covered in shit.

The service starts at $45 per month, which means that the once-a-week clean-up runs you about $10/week. To put this into perspective, that's nearly 3x as much money as a week's worth of newspaper delivery. A product that not only has dozens of journalists, editors, and photographers contributing to daily, but also requires materials, manufacturing, and delivery.

Clearly the people enjoying this service don't have to forego the newspapers in order to have their dog's waste removed, but really? Do we really need to pay upwards of $10 per week to have someone drive to our houses to spend 5 minutes cleaning up after our dogs? Is this really what we've come to?

I always get the sneaking suspicion I lose a bit of my dog's respect when they see me pick up after them when out for a walk. I can't imagine what they'd say about me if they knew I was so lazy that I had to pay someone else to do it.

If you're elderly or handicapped, this is a great thing. No doubt. But if you aren't...? If you're just lazy or busy or, essentially, too pampered? Well, I hope your dog eats your favorite pair of shoes. And no, not the Easy Spirits. I hope he chomps down on those Bruno Magli pumps you love so much (and then poops in your Gucci bag). You'll deserve it.

An IGA Sympathy Shop

I know my more puritanical readers may object to the term, or may be unfamilliar with its original intent or the situations that lead to its relevance and, therefore, it's practice, but I've come to realize that shopping at the grocery store in our development is the equivalent of a sympathy f@#&.

It's there, it's open, it asks little and gives even less in return. It's convenient, it's simple, and fills you with regret before the job is even done. You pity it, so you give in. And it's embarrasing for the both of you and you're all but guaranteed to net nothing more than the filling of your most basic needs.

It's a sympathy f@#&.

It's shopping at the Village Foods IGA.

When the pantry is but a collection of empty wire shelves, the refrigerator bears little more than a row of condiments and dressings, and when the only thing keeping the Arm & Hammer in the freezer company is the salmon I bought 15 months ago, I know it's time to do the deed. To really do it. Oh, we're far beyond human guttural instincts and the meeting of needs. It's about something much, much more. It's the hunt for that magical combination of quality and quantity.

And when this time comes, I don't waste my effort and time slumming at the local shop. I'm on the prowl for a cartload of substance and perhaps a little surprise or two. And I venture out prepared. I spiff myself up with coupons and reusable canvas bags, I may even clean out the backseat of my car just in case I see something exotic that needs a little extra room to stretch out in. I'd hate for it to get jabbed with a stray bike pump or rub up against a sticky empty Gu wrapper. I want my quarry to arrive in one piece. And to be clean when it does.

But the cupboard isn't always bare. Sometimes the needs are few. Maybe just a dozen eggs or a gallon of milk or a bag of tortillas. Oh, the need is there, but the fulfillment needn't be fancy or elaborate or even attractive. It just needs to be quick.

We all know that one girl or guy from our past -- or maybe from our friend's past -- that could always be counted on to be there when one's needs were a bit more primal. Deep down you knew you could put on a cleaner shirt, maybe give yourself a shave or splash on some cologne and venture further from home to the bar/dancehall/frat-party that had the bigger, shinier selection, but sometimes you just didn't feel like it. You were lazy and weren't picky, so you took what was closest. You'd stop by the home of the sure-thing, find her without makeup, in stained sweatpants, and her hair already tousled. Maybe some balled-up Kleenex on the floor. But you didn't care. You rush in, get what you came for, find a strangely disappointing form of satisfaction, and leave. It didn't matter if you got your rocks off or not, you'd leave full of regret and shame regardless. That's how these things work.

Not unlike the homely girl (or guy) you knew in college, the Village Foods IGA has had a run of really bad luck. The fates have seemingly conspired against it and doomed it to a life of might-as-wells. When my needs are deep, I drive past it on the way to the Safeway. Sometimes I glance at it and wish it didn't have to be this way, othertimes I drive on past oblivious to its existence.

But on those rare occasions when my needs demand immediate gratification and aything will do, I hop on my bike and sympathy shop the IGA. I wander inside and find my footsteps echoing through its cavernous aisles devoid of shoppers. The row of check-out stations eternally staffed by a solitary employee makes me thankful for every part-time job I ever thought boring. I weave past the produce to the ailse of chips and soda and spot a selection so vacant of choices, it cannot be called a selection. Do you want Coke or do you want Coke? It's shopping in the Third World.

Meat certain to spoil before purchased fills the refrigerated troughs as if an entire king's army is due by any moment. Meanwhile, steps away, the pet food aisle barely has enough kibble to stave off starvation in a large chihuahua. The prices are meteoric, the quantity extra-terrestrial, minus the extra. I'm not sure what that means either, but I like the way it sounds.

I'm at once depressed, my hopes dashed, and I begin asking myself aloud, "How did I end up here?" I fill my basket -- never a cart -- with hot dogs, rolls, and a bag of sauer kraut. A bag?! In the land of IGA, jars and name-brands have yet to be invented. My search for pita bread is fruitless. The container of peppery-hummus I bought elsewhere will have to wait another day. The silence of the place isn't deafening (because saying so is cliched and really makes no sense at all) but it is indeed depressing. A bright, beautiful, Saturday morning. The neighborhood is abuzz with activity. Everywhere but here, in this store.

I head to the register and the clerk seems a little too happy to see me. She's lonely. I'm in a hurry, I have to leave this place before I scream, but she doesn't sense my lack of patience. I complete the transaction and hop back on my bike.

And a thought floods my brain: it's the check-out girl, sitting on the edge of the conveyor belt asking me if I really have to go so soon. Can't I just stay and keep her company a little longer? She's mindlessly twisting and curling a plastic shopping bag in her hands and looks about to cry.

The image continues to play in my mind even after I get home and begin cooking lunch. Right up to the point I notice the pakage of hot dogs only has 7 in it.

"That poor store can't do anything right."

BC Bike Race Pro Diary

VeloNews is posting a daily ride-diary from Nat Ross, a pro member of the Subaru/Gary Fisher team. It doesn't seem like he's putting a whole lot of effort into the details, but it's a chance to read a miniature race report from the pros. Check it out each day for updates right here.

Dancing Around the World

Came across this travel journal yesterday called, Where the Hell is Matt? and it's pretty incredible. Matt is a 31-year old Seattleite who lucked into a sponsorship deal with the Stride gum company to travel the world and make a video that, quite simply, guarantees to put a smile on your face.

Watch the video, smile, enjoy the human spirit, the scenery, the music, and bookmark it. Make watching it part of your daily ritual, like taking your cholesterol drugs or your birth-control pill. Watch it with your morning cup of coffee, or while brushing your teeth. You'll be in a better mood instantaneously.

Click the video to go to the Youtube site and select "watch in high quality" to get a much better resolution.

And those who can't get enough can watch the outtakes right here.

What's Keeping Me Home?

Lots and lots of anime-style role-playing, that's what.

See for yourself.

Beautiful graphics, great sound, a complex yet entertaining battle system, and a whole lot of gameplay.

CK None and Kristin's First BBTC Ride

Convinced Kristin to sign up for one of the social-paced rides on the BBTC calendar last night. David, a friend of mine, was leading a ride at the Tokul West trails, just a few miles outside of Snoqualmie. A really fun trail system with some decent climbing and plenty of fun, swoopy singletrack with intermediate tech. David had about a dozen or so signed up for the ride, which is more than I typically like to ride with, but there were some women also on the sign-up sheet and a few newcomers to BBTC so I thought it'd be a great ride for Kristin.

The plan was for me to hop onto the Moots at 5pm and ride down to the meeting spot. Kristin would come home from work and drive the truck down at 5:30. At least this was the plan until I noticed that my rear Chris King hub is loose again. Again! For those keeping score at home, I've had these wheels since April, 2007 and aside from having to give the hub a complete tear-down and rebuild just 2 months after purchase, I've also now had the rear hub come loose on me an average of every 3 months. And, better still, the problems with the freewheel that forced the complete disassemble-and-rebuild last June are resurfacing.

I'd be apt to call this a lemon hub, but the thing is that everyone I know with CK hubs is having the same problems. One friend had to DNF at the Cascade Creampuff last year on account of a siezed hub. I had to DNF last year because of the freewheel issue. Another friend's hubs are constantly loosening just like mine. And then last night, yet another guy with CK hubs came up to me ask if I ever had the freewheel problem with the hub because his was acting up constantly. Yes, yes, and yes!

My Giant NRS came with Deore hubs, yet I never had a problem with them in the 3 years I owned the bike. The CK rear hub cost more than the entire wheelset on my Giant and it's given me nothing but headaches.

Oh, sure, it looks fantastic and it makes a cool noise when you're coasting. That is, assuming the damn thing isn't rattling itself off the bike!

I'm ready to put the Chris King hubs right alongside the Crank Bros Candy pedals as the only bike products I've ever bought that completely, absolutely, regretted. I went through 3 pairs of Candies in a single summer, after never having had a problem with any other pedals in 10 years of mountain biking, and now the Chris King hubs are following suit. Not a single hub-related problem in years of mountain biking. Except for these. And how's this for irony -- these CK hubs are on the bike that I've taken the best care of out of all the bikes I've ever owned. I don't ever even let them play in the mud!


Anyway, but back to last night's ride. As much as I like to forget sometimes, I did have the singlespeed to ride so I jumped on that and spun myself out riding the 9 miles or so of rail-trail down to the trailhead. The group ride went great. Kristin did fantastic on the long climb up Pink Ribbon trail and was able to hang within sight of the group for the road portions. We descended Steakouse, climbed Outhouse, and then came down Outback to Full Bench. I rode nice and slow just in front of Kristin and helped coach her through the descents. I heard her hyper-ventilating once or twice (she gets nervous above 5mph) and she did fall a couple of times, but she actually did pretty good. Boot Camp obviously helped, now we just got to work on getting her out of the saddle so she can balance better when going over roots or rocks.

The group did have to do a fair bit of waiting at the bottom of the descents for Kristin, but I told her not to worry about it. It was a social-paced ride and she was doing fine. Besides, there are few people who come to these rides that I haven't spent some time waiting for on one ride or another (or another and another) so this is just an opportunity for them to repay the favor. And I say that in the nicest way possible. We won't show up every week until she's a little bit faster. In the meantime, I'm hoping she can start attending some of the LunaChix beginner's and women-only rides so she can ride with other people of her skill level with some good support and instruction... and without those pesky Y-chromosomes fouling it all up with our thirst for speed.


One last mountain biking note. The weather forecast for the Cascade Creampuff 100 is bright sun and 96-degrees. I'm still a bit annoyed to not be able to go, but I can say with near-absolute certainty that I would not have finished it anyway. 100 miles with 14,000+ feet of climbing would have been a very, very big challenge for me right now under perfect conditions. And 96 degrees in a hot, dusty environment is anything but perfect. Not to mention, the plan was to bring the dogs and camp the entire weekend -- we didn't have reservations at "puppy camp" and Kristin and the dogs would have likely had to stay home. Which meant, I would have been unable to come home until Monday -- three days away from work are three days I definitely don't have to spare.

The Technological Evolution of Screen Capturing

I started working as a strategy guide author back in the early summer of 2000: my first assignment was writing the 1-900 tip line script for the now-infamous PC shooter Daikatana. Humble beginnings, indeed. The nature of that particular project didn't require any screen captures or illustrations of any kind, but it wasn't long before I began writing IGN's guide to Covert Ops: Nuclear Dawn, an Activision game for the PSOne that could best be described as a poor-man's Syphon Filter, which itself was considered by many to be the poor man's Metal Gear Solid. That guide, which you can still view here (note that I also had to create the navigation banners), did require that I include screenshots and thus a never-ending struggle was begun.

Capturing screenshots on the PSone was typically done with a USB "clicker" device that I recall tapping with my foot while playing the game. The images were 640x480 jpegs and routinely required heavy editing in Photoshop. It wasn't unusual to need to crop off a black border, sharpen an image, adjust its saturation, and above all, crank up the gamma value. Repeat ad nauseum.

I used many of these devices before finally splurging on a mini-DV camcorder that accepted an S-video input. This was my setup for several years. I would record all of the gameplay on the mini-DV tapes then watch the gameplay back and either hit the Photo Button on the remote control to snap a freeze-frame image onto the built-in Memory Stick or output the video signal to the computer and use an off-the-shelf consumer-grade capture program to capture the screenshots (I actually often used Microsoft's freebie program Movie Maker for the actual screen capturing of stills). The advantage to doing this was that I could concentrate on playing the game with both hands (and feet) and then take the screenshots later while reviewing the video and writing the text. Unfortunately, even though this was the method of choice from about 2001 to 2004 and spanned more than one generation of gaming consoles, the screenshots still typically required moderate editing and gamma-adjusting after the fact. Not to mention the popularity of increased frame-rates meant a lot of blurred interlaced screenshots due to the equipments inability to capture faster than 30 fps. And they were still always in that low-res 640x480 jpeg resolution. Not the best for full-color glossy prints.

The arrival of component video and progressive scan graphics forced another technology upgrade for those of us doing heavy amounts of screen capturing. Oddly enough this meant retiring the thousand dollar mini-DV camcorder and, instead, opting for the much more affordable Pyro A/V Link, a device that had component inputs, composite and firewire outputs and could capture at 720x480 resolution. The trick with this device was to record all gameplay as an uncompressed avi file (4 gigs per 18 minutes) and, as with the camcorder footage, go back and capture stills from the video at a later time. The shots were a big improvement over what we were getting with the mini-DV, and I even used this technique for a few early X360 titles, but the eventual onslaught of High Definition gaming soon made this technique obsolete too.

I posted earlier about the upgrade of my machine for HD video capture and while it's true that I am fully equipped now to capture and edit HD-quality videos that could be made available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace, that's not the big improvement I want to discuss. No, what has me sitting here marveling at how far we've come are the 1920x1080 screenshots I'm currently sorting through.

The technology has finally evolved to the point where even us lowly strategy guide authors are given access to the screencapture utilities that allow for screen-capturing directly from the development kits. And all it takes is the hardware's software and a network cable. Oh, sure, you still have to have an HDMI cable and a monitor that can make use of the (relatively) new 1080p resolution. Imagine that! The technology has improved by leaps and bounds and now, finally, the captures not only don't require any touch-ups (they're pixel-perfect renders straight from the innards of the console) but there really isn't any superfluous capture devices cluttering the desk anymore either. All it takes is a right-click of the mouse. Well, actually, I use a macro program to do that right-clicking for me every several seconds while I'm playing the game.

I used to squint into the monitor and zoom in close on a particular screenshot to read the subtitles that might be on it or to check the score or to make sure it wasn't suffereing from any clipping or interlacing problems, but now? Now, I'm leaned back in my chair looking at a 26" widescreen monitor with a screenshot that literally fills the screen from edge to edge. And the zoom is 99% of the actual image size.

I think it can be hard sometimes for people to truly appreciate the technical advancement that has taken place over the past two generations of gaming. And part of this is the way these games are marketed. How many times have you read about high-definition graphics making it possible to see beads of sweat or arm hair or individual blades of grass. On the surface, these are pretty trivial details and certainly don't impact the gameplay experience. Even moreso when the images you've been playing all these years were always designed to scale up to fit your television screen, regardless the dimensions. But take the actual raw image from the consoles over the years and compare them side-by-side in their native resolutions, and the improvements are startling.

From 640x480 to 720x480 to 1080x720 to 1900x1080 in just a few short years?

Looking back over the years at the thousands upon thousands of screenshots I've captured, sorted, renamed, and submitted for publishing, I have to say that this advancement is not unlike a baby learning to crawl, walk and run, except it's more like learning to crawl, walk, then drive a Ferrari.

1900x1080 screenshots... hot damn!

Mind-Blowing Architecture for Dubai

Moving buildings. Skyscraper-turbines. Shape-shifting towers. $3,000 per square-foot?

Super Torture Super Century

The crazy hill-loving Frenchman who brought us the Native Planet Classic this past weekend is leading a 127 mile King County jaunt this weekend (with 13,000 feet of climbing). I spoke with J-Phillipe about this ride on Saturday and he said that of the 100 or so who attempted it last year, only 12 finished.

Be among the first to ride the epic super-century that all PNW cyclists will soon be talking about! All experienced riders, regardless of their physical fitness, will find both distance and hills that will challenge them, but with an option they may survive. The Native Planet Super Torture—Super Century is by far the most challenging ride in the Seattle area. In 2007 less than 12% of those who attempted it were able to finish it. The fastest people took 11 hours to ride the entire course. Climbers, if you think you can go the distance, here is a challenge for you! Invite all your friends to come and ride with us on this challenging local ride. Choose the metric century (60 miles), the super-century (127 miles) or from many other options, and test yourself on the region's best hills.

If you're interested in the route, check it out right here.

I'll be sitting this one out.

All Aboard for XBLA!

They did it again. Everytime I really need to focus on work or on packing for a trip or something else, Microsoft goes ahead and releases another must-have digital board game for its Xbox Live Arcade service. This time it's the very popular Ticket to Ride, a strategy board game that pits players in competition to link North American cities with various rail lines. And it's available for 800 points tomorrow. The game is set in the nineteeth century (I suspect the inevitable sequel, Amtrak Deregulation Station, will be out later this fall - I kid) and seems to pack in quite a bit of charm with its strategy.

Watch the video of how to play the board game version of Ticket to Ride right here.

This, like Catan and Carcassonne, is another one of those games I've held in my hands countless times and never bought on account of not having enough people on hand to play it with. Sure, it can be played with just two players, but that gets old very quickly. Hopefully this game plays well enough on XBLA that it can draw a sizeable crowd of board gamers just like Catan, in which case there might still be people playing it in a few weeks when I have some time to commit to it.

In the meantime, check out the screenshots of the game and look for me online briefly in the mornings -- I'm sure to be playing while I have my coffee.

No Creampuffs for Me

It's official, I'm definitely going to be skipping the Cascade Creampuff 100 this weekend in Oregon. A deadline for one of my current projects moved up by nearly a month and there's simply no way I can afford the 2-3 days of missed work this weekend. I also had to cancel the 3-4 day backpacking trip Kristin and I were planning for 4th of July weekend -- we were going to circumnavigate Mount St. Helens on the Loowit Trail.

I'm not complaining though. I wasn't too excited about the 2-lap format of this year's CCP (and may not have been able to finish it anyway) and these weekend getaways were starting to really add up monetarily being that gas is around $4.45 a gallon now. Sucks to lose the $246 entry fee, but being that my employer/publisher is also my racing sponsor, it was ultimately their money not mine that paid the fee. And I'm pretty darn sure they prefer to pay me for my writing than my racing ability. Yeah, there's no question about it.

So this means that my next race will likely be the GearJammer on 7/26 in Squamish. I might decide to drop in on one of the Indie Series races in early July if I can squeeze in a nearby one, otherwise most of my July weekends will be spent staring at a monitor.

At least I had the entire month of May off. Of course, I was sick and it rained the entire time, but I did have it off!

Photos from the Methow Valley

My ride report from the Native Planet Classic is below. I'll upload some more to Flick'r later on tonight, but here are the highlights. Click the photos to see a larger version.

Kristin shot this of me rolling into the food stop at 83 miles.
This was the worst I felt all day.

Cresting the final major climb to Washington Pass (for the second time of the day).

Checking out the scenery behind me during the descent.

I took this photo and the one below it on Sunday during our drive home. This was just east of Washington Pass and I both climbed and descended this stretch on Saturday.

Much more fun going down than coming up!

We camped along the Methow River, just upstream from Twisp. Kayaked down the river on Sunday from Winthrop and beached the boats just steps from the tent.

Methow Valley scenery. You can see the river we kayaked in the foreground.

Ride Report: Native Planet Classic

My longest bicycle ride of the year thus far was the 56 miles I rode with the group out of Singletrack Cycles last Thursday. Not one to wade into things, I cast aside the swimmies, held my breath, pinched my nose shut, and took a head-first dive into the deep end of the cycling pool just two days later when I embarked on the Native Planet Classic, a 125-mile road ride with 10,000 feet of elevation gain. And I hereby impose a moratorium on all cliched swimming metaphors.

The ride was an out-and-back starting and finishing in the little town of Winthrop in the Methow Valley, one of my favorite places on Earth (or at least in Washington), and making its way through the North Cascades to Diablo Lake. The starting point on the north end of Winthrop was at 1,760 feet above sea level and the turnaround point at Colonial Creek Campground was at an elevation of 1,290. Between them stood Washington Pass, peering out above the valleys from a vantage point of 5,470 feet.


Click to enlarge.

There were several ride options for the 130 or so cyclists in attendance. Naturally, being the type of guy whose two frame-mounted water bottles are consistently filled with piss and vinegar, I opted for the whole enchilada. I also wanted to ride alone and figured my morale would benefit from a day spent passing others than vice-versa so I chose to ignore the 5:30 suggested starting time and began my ride at 6:15 instead. But I still didn't have time for a cup of coffee.

The first 17 miles or so led out of Winthrop on lightly rolling terrain. Your basic sagebrush-speckled landscape with towering snow-capped peaks in the distance. That and a couple of dead mule deer on the side of the road. Kristin kissed me goodbye at the starting line and went off on a 15-mile run around Winthrop and out to Pearrygin Lake State Park. I wasn't five miles into the ride and was already far more uncomfortable on the bike than I had expected to be. If I had my cell phone with me, I may have called her and asked for a pick-up, but I didn't so I kept riding. And the pain eventually subsided... either that or my nether-regions grew numb to it.

I eventually passed a sign that read: Avoid Radiator Boil-Over Turn Off Air Conditioning. The translation for cyclists is simple: Large Doses of Pain Ahead Turn Around If You Have Any Sense! Of course, the sign wasn't really necessary since it only took a glance out in front of me to see that the road was kicking up pretty steeply and since this was all in the name of training for the Leadville 100, how could I possibly turn back? No, I kept going and over the next 15 miles I climbed along with Route 20 from an elevation of about 2,000 feet to nearly 5,500. No reprieves. No mid-climb descents to catch your breath on. Just one continuous climb that only steepened as you rose. And the rewards at the top were incredible. Oh, sure, the views were fantastic, but the food stop had a giant thermos of hot coffee. I would have climbed a mountain for a fresh cup of joe at that point. Oh, wait I just did.

The descent was incredible. There was very little traffic, WADOT swept the roads free of rocks and debris before the event, and the sightlines were great. Being that the trailheads around the pass were still snowed in (this section of Route 20 is closed for 5 months of the year due to snow) I knew to bring my knee warmers, arm warmers, and a lightweight cycling jacket and I needed all of it during the descent down the west side from Washington Pass. The temperature couldn't have been above 50 degrees in the pass and I was cruising along at 35mph for much of the descent. It warmed up slightly below 4,500 feet then got really warm below 3,000 feet, but the sudden blast of cold air from nearby waterfalls and creeks was enough to give an instant case of goosebumps.

I clicked off the 32 miles between Washington Pass and Diablo Lake in little over an hour, despite two more small climbs during the descent. The final drop from the Ross Lake Dam trailhead down to Diablo Lake was the best of all. The road sign showed curves ahead and a suggested speed limit of 30mph. I glanced over my shoulder and saw no cars on my tail, so I moved to the center of the lane and carved the S-turns at around 38mph and was hooting-and-hollering the whole way. It wasn't as much fun as mountain biking, but it was definitely the most fun I've ever had on a road bike.

Native Planet's leader Jean-Philippe was waiting at the turnaround point with tons of homemade sandwich wraps and other assorted foods and drinks. Nutritionwise, I had been making a point of drinking Nuun every 10 minutes and eating a couple Cliff Bloks or a Gu every 10 miles and, of course, supplementing this with fruit and extras at the aid stations. I didn't plan on eating a turkey wrap, but damn it tasted good after 4 hours on the bike.

I expected the act of turning around and retracing the 62 miles back over the pass to Winthrop to be a bit harder to come to grips with than it was. I was in good spirits and feeling great on the bike (a 30-mile descent will do that), but this soaring high quickly blew away when faced with the massive headwind we were now encountering. Kristin was planning to meet me at the return-trip aid station at Easy Pass, roughly 21 miles after the turnaround point and I was really looking forward to seeing her. The climb back out from the lakes was dismal. I was using that 27-tooth cog I installed the prior night and battling to keep the speedometer above 5mph on account of the wind. I had passed dozens of riders on the out-bound portion, but was now gaining on nobody. The climb to Easy Pass took forever and I was all but out of water when I got there -- just 21 miles and I went through 40 ounces of Nuun -- but I did finally roll into the aid station and Kristin was there to give me some fruit and a couple of Advil. 83 miles down, 12 more miles of climbing to go, then it's all downhill.

The nice thing about this ride was knowing that the last 31 miles were quite literally all downhill. Sure, there were a couple bumps to get up and over on the ride into Winthrop, but nothing worth mentioning. So, with this in mind, I grit my teeth and mashed my way up the final 12 miles to the top of Washington Pass for the second time of the day. The clouds had rolled in, it was starting to rain, and it was damn cold at the pass, but the coffee was still hot and Kristin had one of my cans of V8 and some of that salty "giardia snack mix."

Kristin would later tell me she was proud of me for not climbing into the truck and hitching a ride back into town, especially since the rain was picking up. My response was one of shock, "I didn't spend 3 hours pedaling up this damn mountain to not get a chance to ride down the other side!"

That descent proved mighty scary. The rain abated once I got back below 4,000 feet but the wind didn't. I'm a bit timid on the bike at high speeds but was feeling pretty confident this day and decided to really open it up on a lengthy straightaway. Just as I was cranking up the speed and watching the speedometer tick past 42mph, I got blasted with a vicious cross-wind. I swerved mightily, my heart leapt into my throat, and images of Beloki's infamous crash leapt to the center of my mind. I was nearly blown completely off the bike, but I somehow recovered. Fortunately. I eased it back below 35mph and allowed my heartrate to recover and was thankful to roll back into Winthrop in one piece.

I covered the 125 mile course completely alone, not drafting for a single moment, and just enjoying the scenery and the music playing in my right-ear. I spent over an hour at the various food and water stations and finished with a total time of 9:12, a far cry from my nearly sub-5:00 century ride last summer in Redmond, but this course most certainly earned its "Super Century" title.

This is a good time to note that Native Planet is a non-profit organization working with various foreign NGOs to preserve indigenous cultures around the world, particularly in the jungles of Indonesia. You can read more about Native Planet's mission and the other bicycle tours the group leads right here. The organization's leader Jean-Philippe Soule is a super nice guy, and is a valuable asset to the Seattle cycling community, as well as the world community at large. Definitely stop by their website and check out what they do. And if you're thinking of doing the NPC next year, do it! I totally recommend this event. The support was fantastic, the organizers and volunteers were super-friendly, and the post-ride dinner was a very pleasant addition.

Lastly, I want to thank my sponsors BradyGames and Singletrack Cycles for their help in making these endeavours possible. Thanks everyone, especially you Kristin!

Note: I'll have some photos posted from the ride tomorrow. Kristin and I camped the weekend near Twisp and kayaked the Methow River on Sunday before breaking camp and taking the scenic route back home through the North Cascades. A fantastic weekend.

Sonic is Back

No, this isn't a post about Seattle's current lawsuit with the NBA franchise, but rather about Sonic Unleashed, the new installment in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise that, frankly, I thought should have received its one-way trip to the shadowy corner of the woodshed two decades ago.

That is, until this showed up:

Now that is pure Sonic gameplay. Super fast gameplay, brightly-colored graphics, music that raises your heartrate, and subtley intricate levels that can be navigated at warp speed. No, at Sonic speed.

Put me down for a copy. I don't care when it comes out (11/4) or for what platform (all of them). I just have to have it.

International Diplomacy

I've been giving some thought to the recent economic problem/crisis/recession/downturn/holy-shit-the-sky-is-falling situation here in the United States, and I believe I've thought of a solution that nobody in Washington, D.C. has yet to consider publicly.

I propose we join the European Union.

What better way to solve the problem of a declining dollar than by switching to the Euro for our currency? Much of the rest of the world now considers the Euro the benchmark currency, and we Americans love benches (and Marks!) so why shouldn't we use it too? Secondly, we need more friends these days and the EU is really like a big happy gang. A big multi-lingual, imported-beer swilling, hooliganing gang. If you think Canada is hesitant to mess with us now, wait till they take a look at our homies across the pond! Nobody messes with you when Romania has your back!

Another good reason to join the EU is the travel. Not only will Italy and the UK be cheap again to visit, but we won't have to stand in long lines at customs anymore either -- Europeans whisk across other member nation's borders with no fuss at all. And since we'll be using their currency we'll no longer have to become walking calculators when shopping for souveniers. Which is a good thing, because we all know how poor Americans are with math. And back home in the US, we might finally get some impetus for high-speed rail travel -- they can call it USrail, like Eurorail, but pronounce it yoos-rail like as if Joe Peschi was saying it. It will be as classic as apple pie, baseball, and croissants.

There are some downsides to all of this, however. Like, for instance, the fact that much of Europe pays nearly double what we do at the gas pump. That would suck. On the bright side, I suspect most Americans would still resist buying smaller cars, so we'll still get to stare upwards and marvel at those Hummers and Escalades... while crossing our fingers and toes in hopes that they don't plow into us. I suspect it would also be tough developing a number of languages and dialects that sound like clearing one's throat of phlegm -- after all, if England can't convince its neighbors to speak English, how can we? And then there are the sports. I admit the current UEFA tournament has been fun to watch, but I don't think I can take daily cricket highlights on ESPN.

But I guess the worst part of potentially joining the European Union would be the influx of American college kids staying home for a semester abroad.

On second thought, forget the EU. I hear gas is only $2.20 a gallon in Mexico. Somebody ask the President of Mexico what he thinks of the number 51. Tell him it's a great number; let him know Ichiro wears that number.

Tell him "51" could be his...

Media Rundown

Combo-post time!

Saw the new Adam Sandler flick "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" this weekend. It's stupid. It's vulgar. It's hysterical. And I can't wait to pick it up on DVD when it comes out (which might be any day now based on the reviews).

Adam Sandler is the Zohan (aka Scrappy Coco), an Israeli counter-terrorist with super-human strength, flexibility, and pubic hair. He tires of the constant fighting with the Palestinians and longs to leave Israel for America where he can pursue his life-long dream... to cut and style hair. He wants to make America "silky smooth." He finally gets his chance in a Palestinian-run beauty parlor in New York City and garners quite the fanbase due to his willingness to satisfy the elderly women who patronize the shop. That is, until he falls in love.

I'll be honest here, this movie isn't for everyone. It's pretty over the top in terms of stupidity and has a pretty high raunch factor, but those who want to laugh will certainly do so. Those looking for cinema or an art-house experience should look elsewhere. It's true that the movie does actually address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a pretty humorous way, and it's also true that there are a number of funny cameo appearances in the film. This movie is not unlike Austion Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It's moronic to say the least, but that might be its best feature.

Haven't been playing much lately, but I did come across something very interesting in the paper yesterday. A Bellevue vascular surgeon has developed a vest gamers can wear that uses an air compressor to, essentially, inflict the force of explosions and being hit with bullets for those playing action games.

From the Seattle Times:

Coming soon is a helmet in which players can feel head shots and a racing-game vest that simulates the g-forces felt by a Formula One driver.

Yet another model was created for military training. Ombrellaro said he's close to a deal with the Canadian military for units with wireless connections and gas cylinders that can be turned up high enough to leave bruises when soldiers are "hit" during training exercises.

The standard $169 vest includes a book-size air compressor and a USB cable. The compressor fills air bladders in the vest. When you start playing, it feels a little like getting a blood-pressure check, and the air drives eight quarter-sized actuators on the front, back and sides.

Hits are pretty gentle and don't sting. They have about 5 pounds of force, the equivalent of a roll of pennies dropped from about 6 inches above your stomach, Ombrellaro said.

But that's not enough for some early users, so TN developed an upgraded compressor with about 70 percent more pressure. It will sell for around $50 extra later this year.

The top priority for the company, however, is building relationships with game developers so that the vest activation codes are built into their games. It's also pushing hard to break into the console market.

You can read the full article and see a photo of the vest at Brier Dudley's blog. I can't help but recall a toy I had when I was a kid that tried to provide some physical pain as an incentive to not "get shot" by your friends. The guns took 4 D batteries, were connected to a helmet that you wore, and fired an infrared beam. When "hit" by one of your friends a small plastic piston would rapidly tap you in the temple over and over for several seconds. It didn't hurt, but I can tell you from experience that it sure as hell didn't feel good. Kids today have it too easy...

Oh, one other thing: Gamasutra has a pretty interesting analysis of each of the online game stores available through the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii. The gist of the article is to try and show a downturn in the number of games being offered in 2008 versus 2007, but it's using the latter half of 2007 and the first half of 2008 to base the comparison on, which I think is a rather small sample size. See the graphs and read the study right here.

I read Willie Weir's book Spokesongs during my weekend flying back and forth to NJ and readily enjoyed it. The book is divided into three sections with each containing over a dozen brief essays from one of his annual 5-month long bike trips. The book covers his bicycle tour of India, a trip he made throughout South Africa, and also a trip around the Balkans.

I was hoping for a bit more how-to advice or even a little bit more discussion about gear or the logistics of transporting his bike and what he packed, but the book was still enjoyable. Probably more than it would have been if he had made it a how-to book, actually. Many of his stories were entertaining or filled with some sense of dread or excitement, and nearly all of them were just 3-5 pages long so reading the book can be consumed in bite-size portions.

Willie is a fine writer and really paints the portrait well of where he is and the people he's with. And while I'm not so sure extended bicycle touring is something that truly interests me, I did enjoy reading his tales enough to pick up another book on the subject. I'll be digging into the book titled, Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents later this week hopefully. The book chronicles Jim Malusa's bicycle journeys to the lowest point on each of the major inhabited continents. Should be fun.

The Forecast Calls for Pain!

The Cascade Creampuff course has been 98% finalized and I believe Kristin summed it up rather nicely when she said, "That doesn't sound like fun."

It's going to be a two-lap race with each lap being roughly 54 miles in length with approximately 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Most of the climbing is done on forest roads, almost all of the descending is reportedly on singletrack. Nevertheless, there will be four 3,000 feet ascents over the course of the 100+ mile long course.

I was planning on leading a BBTC ride covering the infamous Triple Crown in the Greenwater area near Mount Rainier. There's no longer a need. The CCP is essentially a quadruple crown... against the clock.

Four mountain passes on 6/21 on the road bike and four more on 6/29 on the mountain bike. If this doesn't get me in shape, nothing will.

Race Report: Test of Metal

I passed.

The second race in the newly-constructed Squamish Triple Crown race series is the ever-popular Test of Metal, a 67-kilometer race that not only packs over one thousand racers onto the singletrack around Squamish, but is known as Canada's premiere mountain bike race and attracts Olympic-caliber athletes from across the Great White North. And let me just say that having now experienced it, it is easy to understand why this race sells out within minutes each year. Everything about the race from the organization to the volunteers to the course to the schwag to the scenery to the spectators was absolutely top-notch. This was beyond a doubt the single best event I had ever experienced.

And no, it doesn't hurt that the weather was sunny and 70 degrees and that the trails were in primo condition. Nor did I mind being one of the hundred or so lucky winners of a prize bag valued at roughly $200 -- each bag was different, but mine had a Test of Metal pint glass, a long-sleeve New Balance coolmax-type shirt, and a carbon fiber Race Face Next SL seatpost (retail price of $125). And, I suppose I should mention how happy I was to find a carpool-buddy (Erik Brooks) to chip in for gas and to split the hotel cost with. But while all of these things did factor into my enjoyment of the weekend, I was primarily thankful to finally have a good race this season.

I've not kept it a secret this year that work, being sick, and a weather-induced malaise has combined to really put a damper on my training these past couple months... with damp-er being the operative word. But nonetheless I was optimistic about this event. My first step towards positive thinking came when it was time to self-seed myself. I knew a lot of above-average riders aimed to finish in under 4 hours (finishing times range between 2:30 and 6:15) so, despite not knowing much at all about the course or trail conditions, I took up a spot in the area reserved for those expecting a 3:45 to 4:00 finish and crossed my fingers that I wasn't out of my league.

The race started with a moment of silence, followed by the singing of "O Canada" and instead of a gun blast or someone yelling GO!, racers were instructed to begin pedaling on the last note of the song. Being that there were several hundred canucks in front of me, I didn't have to be concerned with not knowing the words to the Canadian national anthem. I just started pedaling when everyone else did.

Miles 0 to 10
Time - 55:29
Ascent - 1562 feet
Descent - 614 feet

The first few miles provided a tour through the town of Squamish. We climbed gradually away from the Sea to Sky highway up into some neighborhoods and the residents of nearly every house were on the sidewalk cheering us on, playing music, ringing cowbells, and hooting and holllering. From there it was onto the singletrack to continue the climb. Things were moving a bit slowly through here on account of the occasional techy section of trail and the sheer volume of racers (1050 started the race) but all in all it was a nice gradual climb with no stopping.

I decided to record split-times every 10 miles to get a feel for how well I was doing with regards to the goal of breaking 4 hours. Finished the first 10-mile stretch at 55 minutes, which I thought was pretty good since it was primarily all uphill.

Miles 10 to 20
Time - 55:13
Ascent - 947 feet
Descent - 1358 feet

We eventually made our way to the infamous Rock n' Roll hill. I'm told this used to be a bit of a gut-busting hike-a-bike section up an incredibly steep scree field. Some racers still opted for the hike-a-bike, but I followed the line of folks in front of me onto the newly-constructed trail that was not only completely rideable, but a pretty enjoyable climb. Just a nice smooth, sit n' spin climb that lasted no more than 5 or so minutes. From there it was time to make the first big descent of the day down a snaking section of well-bermed singletrack under the powerlines. This was really fast, super fun, and also a bit exciting as one racer's brakes emptied entering a hairpin and he went off-course just as I was passing him.

Not long after this sandy, sunny, descent we re-entered the woods and descended even further via a section of singletrack that could I only describe as a high-banked bobsled run. It had excellent construction and featured a few big step-downs that could be rolled at speed and, without exagerration, this 1/4 mile was among the most fun I've ever had on a bike. From there, we rolled quickly through town again and past the first feed zone on the course. Both sides of the dirt road were lines with spectators and volunteers. Those who weren't handing out cups of water or orange slices were screaming and ringing cowbells. Music was blaring, the wall of people on the sides of the course was impenetrable and for just a minute, in a very small way, I thought I knew what it might be like to summit one of the major climbs in the Tour de France. Sort of.

Miles 20 to 30
Time - 1:13:39
Ascent - 1702 feet
Descent - 1246 feet

We were soon ascending Nine Mile Hill, a gradual rocky forest road ascent not unlike the climb to Sun Top. In talking with other racers during some of the slower singletrack portions of the race, I had already learned that the climbing isn't over at the end of the road. There's still another mile or so of climbing on singletrack after crossing the river bridge at the top. This is precisely the kind of knowledge one needs to avoid a major dose of depression. After all, there's little that compares to the demoralizing nature of reaching the top of a climb, only to find that it goes on for another mile. Fortunately, I was prepared.

I saw Erik halfway up the climb and thought I was going to catch him, but when I stopped to grab some oranges from the the aid station two-thirds of the way up the road, I lost sight of him. I was starting to get a bit tired and was ever thankful when the climbing was finally over... at least for this stretch. From the top, we enjoyed a very fast, stutter-bump laced double-track descent. This could have been really fast if not for the sensation of having the muscles rattled loose from your bones. I couldn't help but think back to someone comparing a section at TransRockies to the act of holding onto the paint shakers at the Home Depot. That was what this felt like. A volunteer was on the course warning of a sharp hairpin turn at the end of a long straightaway and the guy in front of me didn't brake in time. First a fishtail, then a head slammed to the ground. I fortunately avoided running over his noggin' and rounded the bend with a case of goosebumps. I don't like seeing crashes.

Miles 30 to 37.2
Time - 1:03:09
Ascent - 686 feet
Descent - 1681 feet

Now it was time for the Powerhouse Plunge, a descent of over 700 feet in little more than 1.2 miles. It started out with a gentle slope, plenty of rocks and ladder bridges, and some pretty challenging trail. Then it became the single-most technical mile of singletrack I've ever ridden. I'd like to say I cleaned the whole section, but I cannot. Although I only had to walk about 15-20 yards of the trail, I definitely had my fair share of dabs and near-endos. I had no trouble with the dozens of ladder bridges, and managed to kick-out my way around each of the switchbacks (to the delight of the crowds lined up to see the carnage) but I also had a few very close calls on some of the larger, exposed rock drops. More than once I felt my seat slip between my legs as I tried to get back behind it on the rocky step-downs and all I can say is that if my seat were even 2 millimeters higher, it would have definitely snagged my shorts and catapulted me into the rocky abyss. I saw some bad wrecks, some frayed nerves, and even a bit of blood.

There was a very high pucker factor on this descent, and I'm not talking about blowing kisses.

Once at the bottom, we mercifully were spit back out onto the road and routed back through the feed zone again. Same cowbells, same music, same orange slices, same girls in bikinis. Canada rocks!

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. Tired from the climb, sore from the descent, and just all-around drained from three hours with an average heart rate of 153, it was time to enter Crumpitt Woods, nicknamed Cramp-it woods by veterans of the event. Another long singletrack climb. It was here where I kissed goodbye to my hopes of finishing under 4 hours. I wasn't bonking, I was just really tired. This is where the relative lack of conditioning this season reared its ugly head. I pretty much doled out my energy in perfect bite-size quantities throughout the race and was now simply running on fumes. Nevertheless, I struggled onward and before long volunteers and spectators could be heard once more. The few on the course urged me forward, telling me it was only another 15 minutes to the finish. Then only another 5 minutes. Then, finally, I could heard the music and the crowd and I was done.

4:07:31, 37.1 miles, 4,897 feet of ascent

*Note that everyone I spoke to had a GPS or bike-computer readout of less than the stated 67 kilometers. I was expecting 41 miles and can't say I minded that the race ended up being just 37.1 according to my Garmin Edge 305. Others I spoke to recorded between 60 and 62 kilometers which is in perfect agreement with my numbers.

I don't know the official results, but last I looked I had finished 52nd out of 83 in the Male 30-34 age group. There may have still be some stragglers on the course as of that update. Erik, my carpool-buddy, finished in 3:57 and took home the second place medal for the male 56-59 age group. I noticed on the results board that my TransRockies partner, Brett, finished in 3:37 on his singlespeed. His friend Nat finished in 3:17 on his singlespeed. The winning time was 2:31 and there were a few dozen finishers who rolled in after the 6 hour mark.

I said earlier how great this event was and I think I should elaborate here. This is what happens as soon as you finish the race. Teenage volunteers helped me off the bike, handed me a ticket for a free meal of lasagna, salad, and drink. They then wrote the number 208 on my left foreardm with a black Sharpie and put a piece of tape with the same number on the front tire of my bike which was promptly whisked away to a secured area. They asked if I wanted it washed. Sure! I then wandered around the large finisher's area and helped myself to a plate of fresh fruit and some water, then got my dinner. I was still hungry so, for 3 dollars I got a fantastic hot dog and a cup of coffee. Then I learned about the prize bags. We were also given free access to the nearby community center for a chance to shower and get changed (I skipped a swim) and by the time we were done with that, they were already giving out the awards. Erik also won for having the most banged up body. He was pretty battered from an endo early in the race and then also gashed his shins pretty bad (from the pedals) while walking down the Powerhouse Plunge.

Everything about the day was perfect and I for one can't wait to do it again. Just not in 2009 because I'm told Kristin's graduation is that weekend.


Moab Freeride Bails Video

One more quick post before I head to the food bank and then over the border to Canada for the weekend.

Please note that I am NOT the guy in the yellow helmet.

Heroic Tragedy on Mount Rainier

It's one thing to sit behind a monitor and complain about the cold and rain. It's funny to see a front-page article in the paper about Siberia being off to a warmer June than Seattle. And it's easy to marvel at the fact that nearby Snoqualmie Pass received half a foot of snow on Tuesday. Unfortunately, it's also easy to forget what a freak storm like this could mean if you're out in it; especially if you're on a mountain.

SEATTLE - A hiker who lost his life on Mount Rainier lay down in the snow and used his body's warmth to protect his wife and a friend from the 70-mph winds of a freak June blizzard, national park officials said.

When it became obvious the trio could not find their way back to base camp in whiteout conditions, they dug a snow trench with their hands. Eduard Burceag, 31, lay down in the snow while his wife and friend lay on top of him. Later, when they begged him to switch places, Burceag refused, saying he was OK.

"In doing so, he probably saved their lives," park spokesman Kevin Bacher said Thursday.

Mariana Burceag, also 31, survived the storm, as did the couple's friend, Daniel Vlad, 34.

You can read the rest of the article at Yahoo.

Same Bike New Wheels

Late last week, before flying to NJ, I went into Singletrack Cycles to take a look at their assortment of road bikes and before I knew it, I was being fitted to a spectacular 2008 Trek Madone that, even with the absurd deal I was offered, was still out of my price-range for what I consider the necessary evil of road biking. The combination of being a deal I couldn't refuse and the sextacular look of the bike weakened my knees and being that I was lining myself up for a month of sleeping on the couch (or in a tent in the yard), I figured I'd get some new shoes as well.

As luck would have it, the bike was too small. I told Loren that my other bikes were all size 60cm, but he was positive I'd fit on a 58cm. Nope. The only bike they had in my size was a low-end Trek that simply wouldn't cut it. I was running late to meet Kristin and friends to see the play, so I skipped out without further negotiations.

And I was glad I did because at best, I would have ridden the bike and suffered the blow to our finances and, at worse, I would have sold it in the fall and inadvertently totally taken advantage of the generosity afforded me by the owners of the shop. I didn't want either of those situations to take place. Not to mention, Kristin and I have been talking an awful lot about building up a pair of touring bikes for next year.

I returned to the shop the next day and this time decided I simply wanted to put a pair of stiff, lightweight wheels on my existing bike. It turned out that all of the flex I was experiencing on my Scattante R-660 was not due to the frame -- it's aluminum after all -- but rather due to the very cheap wheels it shipped with. Again, Loren and Brandon offered me a great deal on a set of '07 Bontrager Race Lite wheels and, to this, I happily swiped the plastic. They're not a super lightweight racing wheel by any means, but they are a fine wheel for my purposes.

So I went to retrieve my bike from the queu at Performance Bike where I left it for the free tune-up they offer. And that's when I realized I made a terrible mistake in an earlier post when I was talking about running a 30 tooth cog and wanting a 32. Rubbish. My bike actually came with a 12-25t 10-speed Ultegra cassette, not a 30t. Rather than counting the teeth, I was looking at the inscription on the cog and some gobbleygook looked like it said 30. It didn't. They didn't have any 12-27 cassettes in stock, so I picked up another 12-25t and a new chain and was out the door, dragging my still-limping bike behind me.

I mounted up the new cassette, chain, and wheels last night and something seemed very wrong. The front wheel was great, but there was a problem with the skewer in the rear hub that basically caused the rear wheel not to spin. I thought it was just me making another bone-headed bicycle mechanic move so I brought everything over to Singletrack Cycles today. Loren dropped what he was doing to look at it -- I didn't do anything wrong, there's a problem in the hub. I left the bike with him and two hours later got a call saying he swapped the suspect wheel out for one of the 08's they had on another bike. Problem solved.

When I picked it up I also made sure to get the new shoes and pedals I was going to put on the Madone. I've been wearing the same beat-up pair of Sidi road shoes since 1998 and with the Native Planet Classic and RAMROD on the calendar -- and memories of the pain I suffered during last year's STP still fresh in my mind -- I figured I was do. The new Ultegra pedals offer a fantastically wide platform to clip into and the Specialized Pro Carbon shoes are not only very comfortable, but also very light and stiff. A fine investment that, hopefully, will last at least half as long as my Sidis.


So how did it all go? I took my suped-up fake Italian bike out for a 20 mile group ride tonight and it felt great. The bike is definitely stiffer and even feels a little lighter too. Acceleration is great. Erik took us up Uplands Way in North Bend -- a hill that he's been tauting me with for quite some time. It climbs about 600 feet in 1.4 miles so, essentially, it's just like Tolt Hill Road in Carnation. The difference, however, is that this road has incredible mountain views, is very smooth, and passes multi-million dollar gated estates.

I felt very sluggish on the climb and I can't tell if that was because I hadn't ridden in 10 days or because I pushed too hard early in the climb, but I was definitely expecting a crew of folks to pass me halfway up the hill. Nobody did, so perhaps it was imagination, but I'm definitely counting the teeth on that cassette tomorrow to make sure it does in fact have 25 of them.

And I'm ordering a 12-27t for next weekend's trip through the North Cascades either way. I don't have a compact drivetrain on this bike and with four mountain passes to climb, I'm going to want a bail-out ring.

I leave tomorrow for the Test of Metal in Squamish, BC. Fortunately, this time I have someone carpooling with me and will not only save some money in gas, but he's splitting the room with me too.

Lets hope I can finally get a good race under my belt this year and get a jump on the rest of the summer events. Have a good weekend and happy father's day to the dads among you.

For the Shenmue Fans

Saw this on Destructoid and simply had to post it. The guys at Tapezilla recorded snippets of Ryo Hazuki's speech from the game Shenmue (one of my top three all-time favorites) and used it to then prank call a store owned by a man named Terry. Terry, of course, was one of the people Ryo was actively searching for in the game.

This might be funny to those who haven't played the game, but I have a feeling those who played the game through will likely find this to be quite funny.

I'd Check Tiki's House First

Someone stole the New York Giants' Super Bowl rings. My smirk is so wide, my ears are filing a restraining order.

In the Name of Better Posture

The jump to HD video editing via the Black Magic Design's Intensity Pro capture card has necessitated upgrading to a computer monitor that not only supports DVI-D for when I'm working, but also HDMI so I can pass along along the signal from an Xbox 360 or PS3. I've been running two 20" LCD monitors side-by-side and will still need a second monitor for taking notes and writing while playing games. Because of this I was hesitant about getting too big of a monitor for fear of running out of space on my desk.

It's amazing how you can make things fit when you come across a superb 26" widescreen monitor for nearly half the price I paid just 4 years ago for a dramatically inferior 20" one.

I ended up picking up the Samsung SyncMaster 2693HM at Fry's yesterday afternoon (nobody local had the 24" model in stock, else I would have gotten that one... and Fry's had a $50 mail-in rebate on the 26" model) and I have been giggling like a schoolgirl ever since.

The monitor is sleek, bright, has zero dead pixels (not always a gimme), and with a native resolution of 1920x1200 and full support for 1080p, is not only making my photos pop off the screen, but my games look better than ever too. I typically sit hunched over my desk, leaning heavily on my elbows, staring into the monitor at a range far too close to be healthy on my eyes, but not anymore. I'm kicked back in the chair, arms outstretched, and finally after so many years of deskjockeying, am finally comfortable.

I had no idea a monitor of this caliber could be had for so (relatively) little money. It even boasts built-in (albeit tinny) speakers, has a height-adustable stand, and can swivel and rotate into vertical mode. The only complaint I have is the same one that many people registered on Best Buy's website and that is that there is no remote control and the source, volume, and menu buttons are essentially touch-screens on the bevel and are impossible to see without shining a spotlight on the lower right-hand corner of the monitor and squinting. But, in all honesty, this is a fairly minor complaint, as the only time I'm really using those buttons is to switch input sources.

A Circus, a Baptism, and Good Times With Family

There was so much cream cheese on the two egg bagels before me that I was tempted to ask the girl behind the counter if she had a few dairy cows working overtime out back. I resisted -- it was 103 degrees out and if there were any cattle around I would have smelled them by now. I was in the Knot Just Bagels bagel shop on Main Street in Woodbridge, NJ and this was the first place I found that met the minimal two of my three search criteria: 1) coffee, 2) air conditioning, and 3) a comfortable chair to read in. I was killing time before my flight home and although there were no coffee shops to speak of on this busy road in one of America's most densely-populated areas, two out of three wasn't bad.

I took the red-eye flight to New Jersey on Thursday night and met my sister, Jessica, in Philadelphia at Jim's Steaks on South & 4th at noon. I had seen her for all of 3 hours back in December and, well, I can't remember when I last saw her before that. I ordered my "Whiz with" and a cream soda and was quickly upstairs, sharing a table with a couple enjoying equally messy sandwiches. My sister's expressed shock at me not hesitating to ask to join the other couple at their table -- there was nowhere else to sit -- was just one of many pieces of evidence I've noticed over the years that proves we live in very different worlds these days. Seattle is to Philadelphia as day is to night.

With stomachs full, we made the walk through Philly's beautiful "Old City" neighborhood to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The over-reaching security measures in place at these sites really dampened my enthusiasm for the history on display so we beat feet through the heart of downtown to Love Park. I wanted to finally see the place I spent countless hours kickflipping through in the many guidebooks I've written for the games in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise. It looked just as it does in the games. I had my sister take a photo of me in front of the LOVE statue that I hope to Photoshop into one of the screenshots I have stored on a disc sometime in the future.

We sat and talked in the park for a while then continued our march to Scoop DeVille, an ice-cream parlor I had seen featured on a "10 Best" show on the Travel Channel recently. Their list of ice cream flavors is pretty basic, but the list of extras that get run through a machine and mixed into them is anything but. I had butterscotch vanilla ice cream mixed with dark chocolate espresso beans and hot fudge. Absolutely fantastic.

After a stop at my sister's office in a very scenic part of the city not far from the Franklin Institute, the two of us pulled up a couple of chairs al fresco and enjoyed a couple pints. Actually, I enjoyed a pint while she begrudgingly sipped a watermelon martini with far too much vodka. Beer for the win, as always.

Our afternoon in Philadelphia was coming to an end, but the big treat for me still lied ahead. My sister arranged to have my mother drive down after work so they could spend the weekend together. My mother had no idea I was coming to visit and got to my sister's apartment early and let herself in. The look on her face when I walked in a few minutes later was priceless. She was really happy -- and shocked -- to see me and even moreso to learn that this wasn't going to be another 3-hour pit-stop visit that has become de rigueur due to our attempts to always cram too much into too short of a visit (Kristin and I have finally learned our lessons and now do our east coast trips separately so we can focus on one family at a time... and not have to spend hundreds boarding the dogs).

We had reservations for a nice Italian restaurant in Collingswood, NJ just a few minutes from where my sister lives with her soon-to-be fiance. My mother excitedly volunteered to iron my shirt and pants -- something she hasn't had a chance to do since I was a teenager. Who was I to deny her the pleasure? But I paid her back by letting her know that Jessica and I had gotten the three of us tickets to see Cirque du Soleil's show "Kooza" for the next day. My mother, as expected, had no idea what Circus doo Soolay was and was at first apprehensive -- she doesn't like clowns and isn't a big fan of large animals either. It took some trying (and a few wine spritzers) but we were able to convince her that it was, in my sister's parlance, a "fancy-pants" show and didn't have any animals. Clowns, maybe.

I awoke Saturday in the cocoon of a nearly-deflated air mattress with a stiff back and a slight headache, but this discomfort was washed away the second I had seen my sister and mother sitting on the couch in the other room. I hadn't awaken in the same house with this many pieces of my family (two) in 16 years and it was great to sit on the couch, drink coffee, and watch the end of Caddyshack together. My sister had left a stack of boxes of Tastykakes on my bed and while I was tempted to rip into the carton of east coast delicacies, I opted for the pork roll sandwich she made instead.

Conversation soon shifted to the heat. It was going to be 95 degrees and while we optimistically hoped the Cirque du Soleil tent was air conditioned, we didn't know for sure. We had tickets for the 4 o'clock showing and it wasn't long before we had to brave the heat and make the drive back into the city. Fortunately the show wasn't only excellent, but the tent was air-conditioned. The contortionists, unicyclists, and juggler were very impressive, but the two acts that really put us on the edge of our seats were the guy balancing (one-armed handstand) on a stack of chairs thirty feet in the air and the two guys in the suspended hamster wheels. One of them missed the landing on one of his weightlessness jumps and got flung out of the wheel as it came low to the ground. He shook the cobwebs out and got back in the wheel and went right back at it. We Americans love somebody who gets back up after falling and as you might expect, the applause he received was thunderous. Sure, he's not supposed to fall, but seeing him fall and then get up and conquer the stunt on the next try was even better than him landing it clean on the first try. The same goes for one of the tightwire walkers who also fell while trying to do a flip over another performer.

See a Kooza video clip right here.

I was hitching a ride back to Central Jersey with my mom Saturday night to go and visit my friends, but first I had to see my possible future brother-in-law's 1951 Buick Eight. He's doing the restoration himself and has much of the car in pieces and down to the bare metal, but he's got it running and it sounds like a champ. It's got a straight eight cylinder configuration, something I hadn't ever seen before, and is understandably tough to get parts for, but he's chipping away at it and hopes to be showing off his first hot rod before long. Even more interesting than the car in the garage was the ring in his pocket. Yes, he showed me the ring he hopes to give my sister once the time is right (through an absurd mix-up with the jeweler, she's unfortunately already aware he has it). He's a great guy and I didn't hesitate to give him my blessing when he asked. Of course, being the big brother, I had to also play Mr. Tough Guy and warn him of the consequences of ever hitting her or cheating on her but I'm pretty sure he was just laughing on the inside just as I was when my father-in-law gave me the same speech. Nonetheless, we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't say these things and I think all guys understand that.

My mom dropped me off Saturday night at my friend Ed's house and not long after I was standing in a bar in New Brunswick surrounded by friends, just like I never left. Bad music drove us to a dive bar closer to home where we proceeded to drink cheap beer and play shuffleboard and darts well into the morning. A mandatory diner stop at 3am completed the night. Who says you can't go home again?

Sunday, as luck would have it, was the baptism for my friend Dan's two-month old baby girl, Kyra. I now know what you get when you combine 100 degree heat, crazy Catholic pamphlets about the threats of same-sex marriage, pornography, and Islam, an African priest with a barely coherent accent, and a sermon about drug users being killed by rebels in Columbia. What you get is hilarity and barely-disguised madness. The ceremony was so absurd that everyone was unabashedly cracking jokes and letting loose with barely-stifled laughter. We even got a "Dunk the Babies" chant going at one point to try and speed the whole thing up. I know this must sound absolutely sacrilegious to those who weren't there, but seriously, it was like attending a Saturday Night Live skit masquerading as a baptism.

The post-dunk party was a good time though. I got to see Dan's new house and the 10 of us "youngsters" all promptly emptied a cooler of Yuengling and retreated to the air-conditioned basement to watch baseball (those damn Yankee fans tell me it was Joba-Time) and make further jokes about the undecipherable priest. Half-pound slabs of cake were consumed, hands were shaken, cheeks were kissed, and six hours later I was back at Ed's apartment looking at the map of the cross-country motorcycle trip he's taking later this month. Despite him having to be out in front of his school the next morning to picket at 7am, he volunteered to go see the 10pm showing of Iron Man. Neither of us had seen it and I was glad to finally get the chance. I'm always reluctant to see comic book movies on account of having zero interest in superheroes, but the movie was fantastic. Seriously. It also serves as an example of how good Transformers could have been when it came time for the actual transforming. Iron Man deserved the praise it got and I'm already looking forward to the sequel. Seeing it served as a very nice conclusion to a rather perfect three-day weekend back in NJ with family and friends.


Back from my weekend in NJ (Eric, you have 1 week to collect your Tastykakes else I eat them) and am unpacked, my office is cleaned up, and I'm about to dig into not one but two projects for the Xbox 360. I've had about a month off since finishing my last book (guidebook giveaways galore in September) and unfortunately spent most of that time pretty sick, Nevertheless, it's good to be back to work.

I'll make a proper post in the morning about my trip. In the meantime I'll leave you with the following signature I saw on a message board tonight.

My Pokémon bring all the nerds to the yard, and they're like, you wanna trade cards? Darn right, I wanna trade cards, I'll trade this but not my Charizard.

I'm going to blame thinking that is funny on the jet-lag and the fact that I got on a plane in a city where it was 103 degrees and got off in one where it was 48 degrees. That and the onset of depression from the fact that 6 to 12 inches of fresh snow is falling tonight in the mountains near my house. At this rate, I might be able to ride my favorite trails by the end of August...

Of 2010.

Might it be time to invest in a Pugsley?

To Grandmother's House We Go

The great thing about being an American is you can move two thousand miles from family and still be in the same country.

Kristin and I went to see the play Over the River and Through the Woods last night at the Taproot Theatre in Seattle. It's about a young Italian man named Nicholas who lives alone in New Jersey -- his parents are in Florida and his sister in San Diego -- yet remains very close to both sets of grandparents. He joins them every Sunday, without fail, for dinner. They are a very traditional pair of Italian couples; they are first-generation immigrants who retain much of the customs of the "old country" and believe that the only measure of a good life is being able to marry, have kids, and provide food and shelter for them without dropping dead in the process.

Nicholas is the only member of the family who has stayed close by and is all that keeps them from feeling cast aside and forgotten. Nicholas just received an incredible promotion at work, but it requires that he relocate to Seattle.

Over the River and Through the Woods is a fantastic two-act play that evokes a wide range of emotions. The first act is laugh-out-loud funny. The actors playing the roles of the grandparents did a marvelous job of aging for the parts, but of also capturing the idiosyncracies of easily-distracted doting grandparents. Always with the food. The two grandmothers were like watching an aged version of my own mother. I can't tell you how many times Kristin and I looked at each other laughing uncontrollably, and commenting between the hearty fits of laughing that it was like watching my mother.

Photo from the Seattle Times, Erik Stuhaug

Case in point: Nicholas finally manages to corral the four grandparents into sitting down so he can make his big announcement and just as he's about to begin one of the grandmothers jumps off the couch, realizing she forgot the coffee cake in the other room. And before Nicholas can try and get her to sit back down for two minutes, she hurries off into the kitchen and the topic is switched yet again. This is but one example of dozens in which it was like watching my mother on stage. There were many other moments that reminded us of Kristin's grandmother. These moments usually involved one of the grandmother's making a rather offensive comment about someone's appearance or what they eat. Of course the grandmothers -- fictional and real -- don't realize how inappropriate those remarks are, and that's what makes them so funny.

Naturally, the grandparents don't take the news well. At first they think Seattle is "by the shore off of Exit 94" (that would be the town of Seaside, but close enough gramps) then they realize it's in Washington "and not the close-by Washington, the one near California." But rather than try to guilt him into staying, they instead try to fix him up with the neice of a friend and invite her to join them next Sunday for dinner. Hilarity ensues.

The second act was not nearly as funny for us, as it hits a little close to home. Nicholas was still trying to get everyone to understand why he was leaving and why it was good for him, but the pain he was causing his family brought tears to the eye. I can tell you from first-hand experience, it's not easy to explain to your family that you're moving 3000 miles away, especially to a mother who lives in a house 10 minutes from the one she grew up in and whose only time travelling more than a couple hours from home was to visit her son (me) in North Carolina, where I lived before moving to Washington.

Rather than risk spoiling any of the other developments for those who get a chance to see the play or read the script, I'll just say that there are some other trying moments in the second act that are pretty emotional. The actors at the Taproot have once again done a fantastic job, and this is easily one of the best plays we've seen in the few years we've had our season tickets. I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you've ever done a similar move or had family move away from you.

The play is running through June 14th so hurry over and see it, it's definitely worth it. But don't take my word for it, check out the review at the Seattle Times.

And if you live elsewhere and want to read the script instead, you can get a copy pretty cheaply right here.

Million Dollar Bike

Super aerodynamic track bike that reportedly cost $1,000,000 to develop for Theo Boss, a Dutch Olympic track specialist.

Watch the video on Yahoo right here.

Travel Stuff

If you've been following along with me on this blog recently you know that I've got a few trips to Squamish, BC lined up, already drove to Spokane, WA, have a trip or two to Oregon in the coming weeks, and will be driving to Leadville, CO later this summer. Although the thought of buying gas for these trips makes me want to cry (I paid $4.35 per gallon this past Saturday morning), there is one thing that has been making these lengthy road-trips much more enjoyable: Rick Steves.

Yes, that Rick Steves. I downloaded nearly 120 of his nearly hour-long "Travel With Rick Steves" podcasts from iTunes and I am totally hooked. These are taken right from his weekly radio shows (without the commercials) and usually feature a few callers with questions, one or two lengthy interviews with tour guides or travel writers, and some really poignant observations and tips. I'm not a big podcast fan. I've tried to listen to a few gaming and mountain biking related ones and they've always bored and/or annoyed me. But not this one. I can listen to these shows all day long. If you enjoy travel and have some lengthy road trips planned, I highly recommend downloading Rick's free podcasts and giving them a listening to. The topics are vast and vary wildly and although his shows on PBS and his books deal only with Europe, his radio shows cover the world. One of my favorite episodes was when he was talking with the guidebook author of Lonely Planet's Afghanistan travel guide. Very, very entertaining!

Since Rick is a Seattle-area resident, he often gets to interview some local experts for his radio show. One of the regular guests on his show Willie Weir, a Seattle area expert in bicycle touring who has criss-crossed the planet several times under his own pedal-power. Willie has a book titled "Spokesongs: Bicycle Adventures on Three Continents" and has discussed some fascinating bicycle journeys with Rick on the radio show, including a trip across northern Thailand and Laos. I had Barnes & Noble order me a copy of the book and will be picking it up today. I'll be sure to let you know what I think. If you see me with panniers, that will be a good indication I liked it.

Speaking of books, I recently read "The Kindness of Strangers" which was a collection of travel stories edited by Don George of Lonely Planet. Despite the preface by the Dalai Lama and alson containing a story from one of the my favorite authors, Simon Winchester, I have to say the book as a whole was disappointing. It was a collection of tales from people who found sudden generosity and potentially life-saving kindness in strangers, but many of the stories were poorly written, dull, and didn't really showcase any noteworth acts of kindness. I'm sure most people who have ventured outside their nation's borders have experienced similar acts. There were a couple of stories that certainly stand out, but oddly enough the one that was perhaps the most memorable was about a woman buying sexy underwear in South America. Go figure. Sure, there were one or two that were far more adventurous than that, but all in all the book was a big letdown. I suppose only those people who have an aversion to travel or who have a tendency to mistrust strangers would find the stores contained within it impressive or entertaining.

But back to Rick Steves for a second. Having finished the travel books on my shelf, I decided to pick up a copy of his seminal "Europe Through the Back Door" how-to book. This particular tome isn't a travel guide per se, but rather a very detailed guide to infiltrating Europe not as tourist, but as someone who fits in and is seen as more than a source of revenue. Consider this small portion of the preface:

The average American traveler enters Europe through the front door. This Europe greets you with cash registers cocked, $5 cups of coffee, and service with a purchased smile.

To give your trip an extra, more real dimension, come with me through the back door. Through the back oor, a warm, relaxed, personable Europe welcomes us as friends. We're part of the party -- not part of the economy.

Traveling this way, we become temporary Europeans, members of the family --
approaching Europe on its level, accepting and enjoying its unique ways of life. We'll demand nothing, except that no fuss be made over us.

"This "Back Door-style" travel is better because of -- not in spite of -- your budget. Spending money has little to do with enjoying your trip. In fact, spending less money brings you closer to Europe. A lot of money forces you through Europe's grand front entrance, where people in uniforms greet you with formal smiles. But the back door is what keeps me in my wonderful European rut.

The book is nearly 700 pages long and is chock full of great tips and advice including some sample itineraries for those who want them. Our grand RTW trip is 4-5 years off (saving for it is going very well, thank you for asking) but reading this book has me already itching to go and taking plenty of notes on what to bring, where to go, and how to do it. I look back on our trip two summers ago along the Danube River and while we definitely had a good time with Kristin's grandmother and saw some spectacular sites, I can't recall talking to a single European who wasn't in one way or another being paid to talk to us. Tour groups certainly have their place -- I hope to take my mother on a similar river cruise in the coming years -- but I can't wait to get back across the pond and break free from the travelling herd. The people you meet can certainly become more memorable than the sights you're striving for. My trip up Cerro Chirripo was far more memorable for the international collection of fellow hikers and locals I met than for the view from the summit (although that was pretty spectacular too).

And speaking of our RTW trip, I came across a fantastic travel-themed encyclopedia for North Africa and the Middle East. The project is called Looklex and although they are striving to create a free online travel guide for the world, the current Lexicorient section conains only the areas I just mentioned. The site has fantastic info, photos, travel tips, and maps and although taking a ferry from Portugal to Morocco was already on our must-do list, I now think a stop in Tunisia is going to be mandatory as well. If only getting across Algeria could be done reasonably by land...

Lastly, there is this site, www.savingfortravel.com that contains a form designed to tell you how much money (in Pounds Sterling) you'll need for so many weeks of budget travel in different countries. The individual country estimates expect you to go as no-frills as possible and don't include major transportation costs or other niceties.That said, I entered in a bunch of countries and the number of weeks we assume we might want to stay in them for and then took the number it gave us and multiplied it by 3 before coverting it to US dollars. I multiplied by 3 because there are two of us going and because we're not going to want to stick to the absolute cheapest option for sleeping and eating all the time. As I suspected, this ends up bringing us closer to the $125/day average I anticipate us having to stick close to. And I think the word "average" can't be stressed enough. There will be some parts of the world where we'll find it hard to spend less than twice that amount and other parts where we'll find it hard to spend half that much. Either way, the site does help reveal which countries are cheaper and which are more expensive. Give it a look.

Planning a trip like this has been such a great source of pleasant daydreaming. I highly recommend it.