Greatest Chase

For an avid cyclist, country life beats city life hands down. The roads are wide open, have little traffic, and there are virtually no stop signs or lights. The few times I’ve visited big cities and rented bikes, I’ve come home with an even greater appreciation for country roads.

However, there is one downside to riding in the country: dogs. We tend to have a lot more of them running loose, and even those “invisible fences” don’t always work. We’ve gotten a pretty good idea of where every loose dog lives along our favorite routes, and are usually prepared for the inevitable chases. It’s usually not a big deal at all. The dog gallops along, barking, making a big show of ensuring you exit his personal territory as quickly as possible. As soon as you reach his invisible border line, he breaks off the chase and trots home. It’s virtually always more theater than genuine threat.

Last night, we had a very different experience. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this one.

My seven-year-old son and I were out for a nice, easy, evening ride on our tandem. Just pedaling along, enjoying a wonderful rural road, canopy of trees overhead. I was somewhat familiar with this road, but hadn’t ridden it in a long time. I chose it for our tandem ride in part because it was especially isolated and low-traffic.

About a half-mile down this particular rode, we came upon a run-down house, with four State Police vehicles parked in front of it. Cops everywhere. My first thought was “meth lab,” but there was no hazmat team. More likely, they’d tracked a fugitive to the house. I commented to my son that there sure were a lot of police cars there, and somebody dangerous was probably inside. We smiled and nodded at a young state trooper, and kept cruising along at about 15 MPH.

We pedaled on for a bit, everything seemingly normal. I heard and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I got an uneasy feeling. Something told me to look over my shoulder; in retrospect, I’m sure it was my guardian angel (and my son’s). Lo and behold, a huge dog was closing in on us like a heat-seeking missile. He immediately struck me as different from the typical “country dog” who’s just making a show of escorting us through his territory. For starters, he wasn’t barking. He was just running, and doing so with a sense of singular purpose. The way he was looking at us, and the intensity of the way he carried himself, he appeared to be a deadly serious professional. He wasn’t going to quit until he’d taken us down.

germanshepard

Stock photo. No, I didn’t take this picture from the bike.

I noticed something else that was different from the typical country dog: he was dragging a leash. That’s when I put two and two together, and realized this must’ve been an escaped police dog. He’d somehow confused me for the fugitive, and broken away. This dog actually had the skills and training to take me (and my seven year old) down hard. And that really scared the hell out of me.

Behind the dog, I could see a blue police car already joining the chase, but I doubted the cop could call the dog off in time. My son and I were on our own. I stomped on the pedals, and cranked like our lives depended on it. Problem is, it’s not easy accelerating a tandem with a young kid on the back; his power-to-weight ratio just hasn’t developed enough to be of much help. Still, thanks to a crazy adrenaline rush, I managed to get up to about 29 MPH, all the while glancing back. The dog closed to just behind our rear wheel, and was in the middle of the street, looking like he was trying to find a way to strike.

Fortunately, the police car was closing in as well. He was blowing his horn wildly over the PA speakers, doing everything he could to get the dog to break off the chase. As the dog got a bit winded, I was eventually able to pull away a little, and it looked like the cop pulled his car in front of the dog to cut him off.

I glanced back a couple of times, to make sure everything was contained, but otherwise hightailed it out of there and went straight home.

We never did find out what all the police activity was about. Coincidentally, just as we reached our driveway (several miles away, along a more major feeder route), the first couple of state police vehicles came cruising past. I thought about flagging one of them down, and asking if they’d caught whoever they’d been trying to catch — and, more importantly, how in the world they’d let that dog get loose.

But I supposed it didn’t matter, and it wasn’t worth raising a ruckus about. We’d made it home safely, and my son and I got some excitement we’ll never forget. This was definitely a dog chase for the books.

Great Book Reviews

My novel, Full Cycle, has gotten some very nice reviews this summer. In addition to what readers have posted at Amazon, Mark Livingood at The TandemGeek’s Blog recently put up a terrific review of the book. An excerpt:

Full Cycle struck me as being a very compelling, life’s lessons story of believable proportions.  In other words, all of the characters seemed very credible and real.  I suspect the latter may be because there’s apparently a lot of Christopher Blunt’s life experiences captured in the story and its characters.

For tandem enthusiasts, yes… a tandem bicycle is very central to the story and the account of the main characters introduction to and riding experiences on the tandem was something that will resonate with all tandem riders, large and small.  And, small is the key to this story: it’s ultimately about a father and 12-year old son pairing up and taking on the annual Seattle to Portland (STP) ride.  The story offers a great perspective on how a tandem can build on strong family relationships between parents and their children as well as how cycling can play an important role in the modern family.

Earlier this summer, the Cascade Courier, the newspaper of the Pacific Northwest’s largest bicycle club, ran this wonderful review:

Cascade Full Cycle Review

Full Cycle is available in print at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle format at Amazon.

National 24-Hour Challenge 2016: Ride Report

Father’s Day weekend, I again headed out to Middleville, Michigan (about 90 minutes west of here) for the National 24-Hour Challenge. It’s not technically a race, but rather a “challenge yourself to do your personal best” event. It draws hundreds of people from all over the USA, and from other countries. Lots of fun, very festive, and something I look forward to each year.

This was my third time riding, and long-time blog readers will recall my ride reports from 2014 and 2015. The 2016 ride report, which follows below the break, is much longer than a typical blog post — and way off the blog’s usual focus. I put together these long write-ups mostly as a set of “lessons learned” that can be reviewed the next time I’m preparing for a similar event. I am sharing this one here largely for the benefit of other cyclists who might be considering taking the plunge and trying something crazy, and are led to this page by a Google search for information about the event.

But even if you’re not a cyclist, and have no interest in trying something crazy, I hope you find the story entertaining.

Continue reading

Boys Get to Do it, Too

A friend recently shared the story of how much her first-grade son enjoys ballet, despite ballet being predominantly a girls’ activity.

For the next year and a half, he talked relentlessly about the day he would take dance classes. (We don’t let the kids start extracurricular activities until First Grade, and we limit them to one at a time.) When other boys talked about the sports that they played, he would say “I do ballet” long before he set foot in his first class.

His dad wasn’t sure of the wisdom in having his son dance when we live in a place where competitive sports are an integral part of the definition of what it means to be a boy. Our son held firm, “Yeah, but I’m a boy, and I do ballet.”

On the first day of class, he grabbed my hand and dragged me from the car to the studio. He was the only boy in his class, and the girls gave him a few uncertain looks. A few of them asked out loud why there was a boy in their girl class.

“It’s not a girl class,” he told them. “It’s ballet, and boys get to do it too.”

How awesome is that? He (and, especially, the other boys his age) may not realize it yet, but the men who do ballet are among the greatest athletes out there. Ballet is a serious cardiovascular workout. And not only do they need strong leg muscles for dancing … the men also need to be able to lift and carry the ballerinas.  And they need to remain graceful in their movements the whole while. None of that is easy.

I never got bitten by the ballet bug when I was a kid. My sister did ballet for a time, and I don’t remember many boys (if any) in her class. I know ballet never appealed to me personally, and I remember being bored out of my mind having to sit through a performance of The Nutcracker one year at Christmastime.

However, my friend’s son’s story did bring back memories of something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. In junior high, I really got into a different “girl” activity: sewing. We got a brief introduction to sewing in the home economics course that everyone had to take in seventh or eighth grade. In the Home-Ec classroom, along with all the cooking and kitchen equipment, our school also had a bunch of nice sewing machines. We learned the basics about needles and threads, and how a sewing machine worked. I remember a lot of the boys grumbling about having to take Home-Ec, but I loved and looked forward to it for the same reason I looked forward to Industrial Arts (“Shop Class”): it was a wonderful break from the academic grind of the rest of the day. It was an opportunity to put the books away, and get my hands busy making something. Whether that “something” was made of wood, or made of cloth, or made of flour … it didn’t matter. I thought it was fun.

Which brings us back to sewing. I guess I never wrote sewing off as being “for girls,” because growing up I saw plenty of examples of men who were comfortable around a sewing machine. My father ran a men’s clothing store, and got lots of practice with minor alterations and repairs. Of course, most alterations (say, when a person is getting a suit fitted and hemmed) were sent out to a tailor. My summer job one year (when I was twelve) included literally running garments back and forth across downtown Seattle, to and from the tailor my dad used. He was an older Filipino guy, working out of a small office, and could do amazing things with a needle and thread.

So, in Home-Ec, I was excited to learn how to operate a sewing machine myself. I was a boy, and I loved machines. And making things. I wasn’t especially talented, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much, when ninth grade rolled around and I had an elective slot open on my schedule … I registered for “Sewing for Pleasure.” To my complete un-surprise, I discovered on the first day that I was the O-N-L-Y boy in the class. (A few weeks later, a second boy joined us — but only because he was a transfer student, and every other elective that would work with his schedule was already full.) As you might imagine, I had to endure a fair amount of ribbing from other boys. (“How’s your sooooooo-ing class going?”) I quickly settled on a stock response, which tended to silence the ribbers: “Hey! It’s a GREAT way to meet girls!” (My dad laughed heartily when I told him this.)

Meeting girls aside, I actually had a practical reason for taking the class. This was the fall of 1983, and I was starting to get very serious about long distance bicycling. I’d recently built my first real road bike (salvaged from a police auction, and then repainted and pieced together), and done a big weekend tour that summer with a friend. I’d even begun dreaming about doing my first Seattle to Portland ride the next June. The key accessory I lacked, and wanted, was a handlebar bag. That would allow me to keep lots of stuff close at hand — plus, with a clear plastic slot on the top, I could read maps or route guides as I rode. No more fishing the map from my pocket, trying to figure out when the next turn was coming.

cockpit

What a modern, professionally-made handlebar bag looks like

Problem is, I had virtually no money available to accessorize my bike. I’d invested all my savings (fueled by a paper route and collecting aluminum cans) in building the bike itself. The Cannondale handlebar bag I wanted was way beyond my budget. Then, while reading Bicycling magazine, I stumbled across a small ad from a company that sold patterns so you could sew your own bike bags. In a flash, I saw the way to get my handlebar bag: make my own! I ordered the pattern, and from the first day I walked into class I knew what my final project would be. Every technique I studied and mastered, I kept the ultimate goal in mind: my handlebar bag.

So, as class progressed, and all the girls were making fancy dresses or whatever … I plugged away on my handlebar bag. My mother shuttled me to the fabric store (where I was always the only boy who was there voluntarily), as I searched out just the right materials. (Getting the right length zipper was especially tricky, as was figuring out how to do the plastic map pouch.) My dad helped me cut a piece of sheet metal to serve as the internal frame; figuring out how to sew that in was pretty interesting.

I ended up getting an A in the course, but I got something else that was even more important: a handlebar bag that I’d crafted myself. It was far from the lightest, and far from the most nicely finished. But it was durable. Large. Got the job done. And, most critically, it was mine. Every time I took it on a big ride (and I did use it on my first STP that June), I thought about how I’d sourced all the materials and put the thing together. As easy as it would’ve been for my parents to have just given me a handlebar bag for Christmas, I’m grateful that they didn’t. Having gone through the process of making it myself made it so much more special.

Once the project was complete, I largely lost interest in sewing. Bicycling was consuming more and more of my time and interest, and my folks didn’t have a sewing machine at home I could use anyway.

Still, I never forgot the basics. Ten years after taking that class, I was flying somewhere on a business trip. Sitting there on the airplane, I realized I’d lost a button from the cuff of my dress shirt. Once we landed, I’d be going straight to the client meeting. There would be no time to fix the button. I flagged down a flight attendant, and asked her if by chance there was a sewing kit on the airplane. She said there wasn’t one officially, but she had a small kit (with a few needles, and lengths of thread in various colors) in her personal bag. “Do you know how to use it?” she asked, clearly trying to hide her surprise. I hadn’t thought about it, but I was probably the first young-twenty-something male she’d met who knew how to sew.

Absolutely, I replied. She returned a moment later with the kit, amused. I sourced a spare button from the bottom of my shirt, and threaded up a needle. However, I quickly realized the repair would be a lot easier if I wasn’t wearing the shirt. It’s hard to hold a cuff button in place when your hand is sticking out of that cuff. I slipped into the lavatory, put the toilet lid down, took off my shirt, and sat down to work. Within a few minutes, the button was secure. I put the shirt back on, and returned to my seat with a big smile on my face. The next time the flight attendant came by, I showed off my cuff triumphantly. I thanked her, and returned the sewing kit. I made a mental note to snag one of those kits the next time I saw one at a hotel, and to never leave home again without one.

So, whether it’s ballet or sewing (or something else), don’t be afraid to let your son do something he enjoys — even if he’s the O-N-L-Y boy in the room. Anyone who might make fun of him just needs to get over it. He’s not weird, and he’s not a sissy. He might just be picking up a valuable skill. And he’s definitely learning how to stick with something he loves, no matter what the rest of the world might think.

Full Cycle

My new novel has just been published!

Full Cycle tells the story of eleven-year-old Alex Peterson, whose physical disability makes him the least-athletic boy in his school. When he first hears about the 200-mile Seattle to Portland (STP) bicycle ride, he’s immediately intrigued and inspired — and begins dreaming of how he might somehow be able to take part. He soon discovers that the key lies in getting his father, Rob, to return to the sport and train with him as a partner. Over the course of the next year, the two of them end up on an adventure (both on and off the bike) to places that neither could have gotten to on his own.

Full Cycle Front Cover

Is this a story about cycling? Of course. But, more than that, it’s a story about growing up. About growing together as father and son. About overcoming what we think are disabilities. About supporting and encouraging our kids when they strive to push beyond their limits. It’s a story about pursuing a crazy dream — and how much more meaningful that pursuit can be when it’s shared with someone else. Above all, this is a story about family. It’s a story for everyone, no matter how many or how few miles you rode your bike last year.

Every novelist draws on his or her own experiences when writing. I’ve been an avid cyclist since my youth, and loved the freedom it gave to go as far as my own efforts would take me. However, when kids started coming along, I found it increasingly difficult to put in the training miles necessary for the ultramarathon events I’d been doing. Late in the year our second child was born, I chose to hang the bike up. Only when the kids grew older, and became interested in riding, did I reconsider. We ended up buying a tandem, which proved to be the perfect way to ride together.

Homeschooled Farm Girl got bitten by the long distance cycling bug as badly as I did as a young adolescent, and her enthusiasm got me back in the sport full force. By the time she turned ten or eleven, she was already wanting to travel with me to Seattle to ride STP. She got her wish when, the year she turned twelve, our whole family went to the Pacific Northwest for a summer vacation. She did 130 of the 202 miles with me on our tandem — and would have done the whole thing, if her brothers hadn’t wanted their own turns. In many ways, her dedication inspired me to tell the story of Alex and Rob.

Above all, I’m indebted to my kids (and HFG in particular) for helping me discover that sports don’t have to be a wedge that divides parents from kids. Sports don’t have to be something that parents pursue on their own. Sports don’t have to consume the family’s time and attention, as parents shuttle kids all over creation to practices and games. Sports, done right, can bring parents and kids together.

And in that vein, I wrote Full Cycle to be enjoyed by parents and kids alike. It’s completely G-rated. It includes no profanity, no sensuality, and no violence. I wanted to be able to share it with my own kids. It is not a “young adult” (YA) novel, however; it has an adult-level vocabulary and length, and does not follow YA conventions. It’s an adult-level book. But, that said, adolescents and pre-teens who enjoy reading beyond the typical “YA” genre will enjoy it a lot. It’s a fast-paced story, and a quick read.

Full Cycle is available in print at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle format at Amazon.

StoKid Riding High

With Spring weather here at last, Homeschooled Farm Girl (age almost 17) and I have been logging big miles on our bikes. We’re preparing for the Calvin’s Challenge 12-Hour race, approximately one month from now, and hoping to beat the 188.5 miles we managed to do last year.

The younger kids want to get in on the fun, but of course can’t keep up. The 13 year old is probably going to inherit HFG’s old Trek road bike; he’s taken it out a few times, and really likes it, even though he’s not in good enough shape to keep up with HFG (who got a new road bike over the winter). Little Brother (age 6) keeps begging to ride with us as well. What’s a dad to do?

The sixteen year old and I got out for 38+ miles early this afternoon. We thoroughly enjoyed the sunny, 50 degree March weather, especially given that most of our route was on quiet rural roads. Would a few more degrees have been nicer? Sure. But we had plenty enough clothing to be comfortable. I took my vintage Basso Gap road bike, as a fun change of pace, and was barely able to keep up HFG.

We got home, and then it was the boys’ turn to join us for an additional six miles. Big Brother is still getting the hang of his sister’s old road bike, so that’s plenty of miles for him for now. And as far as Little Brother goes … I don’t want to take him on too long of a ride too soon, and have him get discouraged. So, six miles is plenty for him as well.

How does a cyclist dad take a six-year-old on a six mile ride? In a such a way that the six-year-old can be a full participant, and not just a passenger?

Behold, our Co-Motion tandem bike:

IMG_20160326_165423874

I’ve zoomed in on the drivetrain, so you can get a better idea as to how it works. Each rider has a set of cranks. Mine (the “captain”), up front, are connected to the “stoker” cranks in the rear via a long chain on the left side of the bike. There is a regular set of chainrings and sprokets on the right side, just like any other bike would have.

If Big Brother were riding stoker, that would be the end of the story. However, Little Brother’s legs are way too short to reach the pedals at the bottom. That’s where the child conversion kit comes in. Notice that I’ve bolted an additional set of cranks to the tandem frame, just under the stoker’s seat. These are connected by the vertical chain to a second chainring on the lower left cranks.

Child Kit 2016

This whole kit can be attached, or removed, in about five minutes. The upper cranks are held in place by four hex bolts. All I have to do is remove them, remove the cranks, and the vertical chain simply slips off. Add a set of pedals to the main cranks at the bottom, adjust the seat height, and we’re in business for a new stoker. (The second chainring just stays in place; it isn’t interfering with anything, so it doesn’t need to be removed.)

Did Little Brother enjoy his first ride today? Oh, yeah! He had an absolute blast, cranking his pedals, as we flew along country roads. Yes, the captain supplies a huge proportion of the power. But that’s okay. StoKid is giving it everything he can. Best of all, he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up with Dad. And he’s close enough to carry on a conversation.

Our speed was naturally slower than what HFG and I rode earlier in the afternoon. And that’s fine. I still got a plenty-good workout, pedaling this beast. I sure enjoyed the change of pace. And the enthusiastic waves we got from other little kids as we cruised past them. And, above all, the smiles my StoKid gave.

Here’s hoping we have many more in the months to come.

Washington, DC Bike Rental

I recently spent several days in Washington, DC, for the March 1st Super Tuesday primary elections. I’m part of CNN’s decision team, which projects the outcomes of contests on election night. The whole team had meetings and rehearsals in the studio on Sunday and Monday (Feb 28-29), and then we reported for work late Tuesday afternoon.

The weather in DC was spectacular pretty much the whole time I was there. Low 60s and sunny, which felt like summer compared to Michigan. Fortunately, I’d seen the forecast before I left on the trip, and was able to plan accordingly. I packed my bike pedals, cleated shoes, helmet, shorts, jersey, and mini repair kit … and hoped I’d be able to use them. Since our rehearsals finished in the early afternoon on Sunday and Monday, and pretty much all of Tuesday could be open, I figured I had a good shot.

The challenge is always finding a good bike rental place. (There was no way I was packing up my bike and paying to ship it to DC so I could ride it for a few hours.) Fortunately, I found an excellent one that I can highly recommend: Bike and Roll. They have a number of locations throughout the District, not all of which were open yet for the season. The one at Union Station, however, was in full swing. This was only a couple of blocks from my hotel, and from CNN, so it worked out perfectly. Before leaving Michigan, I called ahead and confirmed they had road bikes.

Walking back to my hotel after Sunday’s rehearsal, I stopped and made the rental arrangements. Turns out, they had a newish Trek Madone 2.1 in my size. I filled out the paperwork as the mechanic installed my pedals and raised the seat to my level (I measured from pedal spindle to top of saddle on my own bike before leaving town, which made it quick and easy for the mechanic to get the rental bike set up perfectly). I then rode the bike the rest of the way to my hotel, mounted my Garmin Edge 500 cyclometer to the stem, attached my repair kit, changed into cycling clothes, and hit the road.

The most frustrating part was dealing with the afternoon traffic. With the beautiful weather, and the beginning of Spring Break for some schools, there were lots of tourists out downtown. I kept getting stopped at traffic light after traffic light — very frustrating for a guy who lives out in the country, and can usually just put his head down and hammer for the whole ride. I eventually made it to the Memorial Bridge, and rode across to Arlington Cemetery. From there, I’d hoped to find the W&OD trail and take it west; I’m familiar with that, from when we lived in Falls Church 20 years ago. Problem was, I couldn’t find the trail. I ended up on a major highway (US 50), with lots of traffic. At least the shoulder was reasonable, and there were few traffic lights. I went as far as Glebe Road (Virginia State Route 120), then turned around and rode back to the District. Just over 15 miles, and just over one hour of riding time (lots more, when you count stoplight time). Pretty slow, and not as much distance as I would’ve liked, but still really glad for the chance to get out.

I got the bike back to Bike and Roll in exactly two hours, so was charged $30 plus tax. I thought about just keeping the bike with me, but the daily rate would’ve been $85 – and it would’ve been due back at about the time our meetings ended on Monday…so I would’ve been paying for additional hours on top of it.

Instead, I simply told the rental guys I was likely coming back the next day. Which I did. On my way back from the rehearsal, I again stopped and got the bike. This time, the process went more quickly. I also had a better plan for riding. Went west across the District, past the Mall, and then swung up to hit Rock Creek Parkway. I got onto the nice paved bike trail that parallels the Parkway all the wabeach_drive_in_rock_creek_parky up. The trail wasn’t perfect, but still a lot better than my Virginia mis-adventure. Weather was perfect, and I had plenty of time, so just kept going and going. I eventually got back on the road (Beach Drive), cleared the District boundaries, and crossed under the Capital Beltway. Climbed a huge hill, just past the enormous Mormon Temple. I turned around at the top of that hill, which was about 16 miles from where I’d started. Went screaming all the way back down into the District. The road surface wasn’t great (I dodged a lot of potholes), but it’s hard to do much better in an urban environment. BTW, I averaged 15.1 MPH on the way up, and 17.2 MPH on the way down. My return route was about a mile shorter, so I logged 30.7 miles. That’s 46 miles over the course of the two days.

I returned the bike after three hours, so was charged $45 plus tax. With tax, that’s a little less than $80 for the two afternoons (I ended up needing to work all day Tuesday before the rehearsal, so couldn’t rent the bike a third day). Was the $80 worth it? I sure think so. Sure beat sitting around a hotel room, or strolling along the Mall, which is what I would’ve been doing otherwise. I was able to log some quality miles, and to see a new part of the District. Next time, I plan to chart a more efficient route to Rock Creek, so I’ll hopefully be able to go even farther into Maryland. Once I cleared the Beltway, the roads were getting downright rural. I could’ve stayed on roads like that for hours. Another possibility might be to take the bike on the Metro, so I could begin the ride out in Maryland.

Again, I highly recommend Bike and Roll if you’re going to be in DC. They have all kinds of bikes, depending on the kind of riding you want to do. The Madone 2.1 was perfect for my needs. Good geometry, solid Shimano 105 10-speed components, and fit me close enough. Would I want it as my main bike? No. Was it an excellent rental for a couple of afternoons? Absolutely. It’s hard to find a bike this good at a rental spot.

And for those who have asked: Yes, I was on television Tuesday evening. Sort of. The decision team works behind the scenes, which is my preference. I don’t like being in the spotlight. However, whenever CNN’s political director wCCB at CNNas on camera discussing exit poll results, I happened to be visible over his left shoulder in the background. Not in great focus, but clear enough so the kids back home were able to recognize me. My son snapped this screenshot: