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Cheap Seal Blues

Cycling Myths Debunked, Part 2

The Tyranny of Extremism

Traffic safety: a culture of complacent incompetence

The Birds and the Bees

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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  2/1/2009

More Loose Ends

It's time again for another of my catch-all columns, where I go dumpster-diving through the scraps and leftovers of past essays and screeds, looking for tasty little morsels; for unresolved issues and fodder for further ruminations on past, tattered topics.

I always assume that you either have not read my previous columns or have forgotten anything you did read in them, so I will provide links to those past blasts of bombast so that you can bring yourself up to speed and gather together some context when reading these new thoughts on those old subjects.

Okay, here we go. First off, I want to revisit my column from just two months ago: Cheap Seal Blues. This was about the deplorable state of road surfaces in Sonoma County. In that lament, I noted that the county finishes last in road quality, year after year, in a regional review of counties around the San Francisco Bay. I was a little vague on the specifics, working only from memory and not from hard sources. Now, however, the new report for the latest review has come out, and I do have the details.

Guess what? Sonoma County finished last again. The report is generated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Using a scale of 1 to 100, the Commission rates the 2,730 miles of rural byways in Sonoma County at 44. This is compared to the average for the Bay Area of 65, and it is also a decline from the county's own past poor rating, which was a 48 in 2003. Not only is our county the worst, it's even worse than it used to be. And as the beleaguered local administrators concede, with belt-tightening all over the county budget, it's probably going to continue to get worse and worser.

As noted in another column from several years ago (Cycling Myths Debunked, Part 2), funding for roads comes from a combination of sources, including income and sales and property taxes, and also use fees, in particular the gas tax. Gax tax funding is allocated to the individual counties based on a complex formula that considers some combination of population, vehicle registration, and road miles. Compared to some Bay Area counties, Sonoma has fewer vehicles but more miles of roads. (I am swiping this copy almost verbatim from the report in our local paper.)

I suppose we should be happy that we have more miles of back roads and fewer cars on them. And as I noted before, if the price we pay for all those remote, low-traffic miles of swell roads is some lousy pavement, then that's a bargain I can probably live with.

Most of the predictions for the future are pretty glum. The only tiny bright spot is the possibility of funding trickling down from the new federal stimulus package. It would also be nice if the Governator—he of the eight personal Hummers—would reinstate the higher vehicle tax he repealed when he took office. We can hope...

What's next? Okay, last September I did a column called The Tyranny of Extremism. The title referred to the behavior of some absolutist jerks who, by their boneheaded, infantile radicalism, destroy the possibility of civil dialogue and conflict resolution for the rest of us. But the incident that brought on that fulmination concerned a bike path through a senior housing development on the east side of Santa Rosa...a path used by cyclists for years, but which the homeowners' association in the development had suddenly decided was going to be off-limits to bikes.

click to enlargeIn that column, I wrote this: "Unfortunately, when this development was working its way through the city's permit process back in the late 70's or early 80's, the city rather foolishly relinquished any control over an easement for this path." That, it turns out, was incorrect. Thanks to some diligent digging by Chris Culver of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, documentation has been unearthed from deep in the City of Santa Rosa's archives that shows quite clearly that the easement does in fact exist and was included in the original permit as a condition of its approval. (I have copies of all the documents in my files.) Moreover, the permit specs call for a path that is constructed to a somewhat higher standard than the path the developers eventually built. (It is a very narrow path by current bike path standards.) That means that the residents in that subdivision, having called the city's attention to the matter with their attempt at prohibiting cyclists, may in the end be liable for the cost of upgrading the path to the proper specs.

This is of course dripping with delicious irony: that the small-minded, mean-spirited curmudgeons would end up hoist on their own sign post. The matter has not been finally settled yet. The president of the Wild Oak homeowners' association, when confronted with the facts of the matter, went into full bluster mode for the press, saying something to the effect of, "just because it's the law doesn't mean we have to obey it!" And in fact, the signs are still up, as my photo will attest. There have even been reports of little old ladies trying to block cyclists on the path, pushing and jostling them as they go by. This brings to mind the old Monty Python sketch of hoodlum grannies terrorizing innocent citizens. But this is no laughing matter. I am told the various parties—that is, the city's attorneys and the development's representatives—are working out a solution.

The bike coalition was, for awhile, setting up a crew of volunteer monitors on the path to try and promote amity and cooperation between all users. In particular, they were there to remind cyclists to slow down and be nice. (This whole tempest in a tea pot is about a section of path hardly more than a hundred yards long, so it was pretty easy to monitor it.) But those grumpy old men in charge of the local association told the peacemakers to take a hike. These folks just don't want to budge. But budge they will have to do, sooner or later. The law is on the side of the cyclists, and at some point those folks are going to have to remove their signs and figure out how to get along with their neighbors.

In the meantime, cyclists are riding the path, right past the obnoxious signs (as I did when I took the photo). Most of the time, nobody says or does anything to confront or hassle the riders. Life goes on. But it won't feel right until the signs are gone.

Last February, I wrote a column entitled Traffic safety: a culture of complacent incompetence. As the name implies, it was about clueless driving: all the ways in which drivers are asleep at the wheel. One of the most obvious, hot-button categories of inattention while driving is cell phone use, plus its ugly little sibling, text-messaging.

Recently, the congressionally chartered National Safety Council went public with a position advocating a total ban on all cell phone use while driving, hands-on or hands-off use being treated as all the same and all equally dangerous. This is the first time such a high hat national agency has advocated such a ban.

The Council examined 50 different scientific studies before reaching its decision. Among them, a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that cell phone use is responsible for about 2600 fatalities each year in this country. That's a big number that should get anyone's attention. I would like to make one point about it though. It has become something of a cultural cliché in recent years to say that cell phone use is just as dangerous as drunken driving. These numbers, if they are accurate, don't support that. There are 17,000 deaths attributed to driving under the influence each year, or six and a half times as many as this study lays at the doorstep of cell phone use.

I'm not sure what all that means. Maybe total fatalities is not the true measure of the relative danger of certain behaviors. But however you crunch the data, it is becoming more and more certain that talking on your cell phone is a bad thing to be doing while you're rolling two or three tons of metal down the road. In California, handheld phone use is now illegal while driving, and yet while I'm out riding, I see drivers with their left hands glued to their ears all the time. It may be that total hand-held phone use is down, but it hasn't entirely gone away. And if the studies are correct, the hands-free phones are just as bad.

There isn't a lot cyclists can do about this while riding, except to yell at people who are on the phone to hang up and drive. But we can do more in the wider world. We can, first of all, not phone-and-drive ourselves. We can also not be codependents for others who are doing it. If you call someone's cell and they pick up, you can ask them: are you driving now? If they are, you say: hey, call me when you get home, or to the office. Whatever...whenever they're not in traffic anymore. If someone calls you and you can hear traffic in the background, you can ask them: are you driving now? Listen, call me back when you get home...etc. Sometimes this might not be possible, but I'll bet this ploy can be put into play many times with next to no ruffled feathers for anyone. And if it becomes the standard response, over time, people will change their behavior: they will rethink the need to pick up that phone right this minute, even if this minute is in the middle of rush hour.

Moving on... Here's an Associated Press item I really love. This one harks back to any number of past columns I have written regarding doping in cycling. In particular, I have groused about the fact that professional cycling has become the whipping boy and laughing stock of the media for its various well-publicized doping violations. The headline in my local paper at the end of last summer's Tour de France, for instance: "Sastre wins doping-marred Tour." You know how the Tour went. Yes, some doping busts, but the huge majority of riders passing their dope screenings, etc. Doping should have been a footnote, not a headline.

So anyway, this AP article is about baseball. It says that 8% of all professional baseball players applied for and were granted a TUE last year, claiming they suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. A TUE is a therapeutic use exemption, which allows the player to take stimulants that would otherwise be on the banned drugs list.

It would appear that ADD is running rampant through the ranks of pro ballplayers. Dr. Gary Wadler, chairman of the committee that determines the banned substance list for the WADA, says, "This is incredible. This is quite spectacular. I've been in practice for a lot of years, and I can count on one hand the number of individuals that have ADD."

Well hey, perhaps ADD is endemic to baseball. I can vividly recall having enormous lapses of attention while snoozing around out in deep right field during little league. You see tots out there making daisy chains, looking at the clouds, contemplating the world's problems like Lucy VanPelt in Peanuts... So maybe it's true that baseball players really do have an incidence of this malaise that is hugely out of proportion to its occurance in the general population.

No, seriously folks...this is ridiculous. And here's another one: how about those NFL lineman who were popped for using HGH? You know the guys: the ones who weigh 300 pounds and can still do a 40-yard dash at near Olympic speed? Yeah, those guys. What happened to them? Honestly, I don't recall the details now. They got a slap on the wrist. That was only after their players' union went to bat for them, protesting their penalties. It's always nice to know your union has got your back when you get caught with your big mitt in the medicine chest. Wouldn't Floyd Landis or Michael Rasmussen like to have a union like that to run interference for them?

The point here, which I have made before and will continue to make until someone takes me out back and shoots me, is that ALL sports are dirty, and that cycling is no worse than any of the others and may, at this point, even be a little cleaner. In fact, its testing is far more rigorous and its penalties are far more severe than just about any other other sport you can name. So the next time you hear someone scoffing at pro cyclists as a bunch of junkies, tell them to shove a split-finger fastball right up where the sun don't shine.

Finally... This one isn't exactly in response to any recent column I've written. You could tie it back to one I banged out several years ago called The Birds and the Bees, which was about close encounters with critters on our bike rides. That was a long time ago, so the link is tenuous. But this definitely fits under the heading of Loose Ends or possibly Very Loose Ends. It's a little story I have to tell about a recent ride...

My friend Emilio and I were heading south on Bohemian Highway, bombing downhill from the town of Occidental. We were just rolling it out at the bottom of that sweet descent and were still carrying some pretty good speed as we came around a long, sweeping right-hand bend near Salmon Creek School. (All this detail is in case you know your Sonoma County geography.) I had just pulled through and was on the front. On this long sweeper, the brush beside the road grows thick, right up to the edge of the pavement.

Suddenly, a huge bird rocketed out of the brush, right into my path. It was so close, all I saw was a great mass of grey and black. Emilio says it was a buzzard...a turkey vulture. It was so close, I hit it a glancing blow as it wheeled away from me, and in that second of contact, I felt a great mass of something wet and gloppy splatter all over the front of me. After I collected myself and decided I wasn't going to crash, I looked down and was amazed to see several large areas of my body covered in the most disgusting slimy slop you can imagine. All down my legs and onto my fancy shoes; splattered across my arms on my snazzy red California Triple Crown arm warmers; here and there on my pretty bike... I do not want to overstate this, but I also do not want you to think this was just a dainty little plop of bird poop. The quantity and technicolor lavishness of this mass of glop was incredible.

It looked as if someone had nailed me with a pie. Or maybe thrown a full dish of chocolate sundae all over me. The stuff had the look and consistency of a combination of caramel syrup and cherry pie filling, with little stringy, greasy chunks that might have been plum skins but were probably more like strips of flesh.

The great mass of it was so vividly raw and colorful that my first thought was the bird had dropped a putrid, decomposing chunk of carcase as it took flight. And I thought: oh boy, this is gonna stink! But on further review, that didn't seem quite right, so I figured maybe I had quite literally scared the shit out of the big bird, and been the recipient of all that alimentary largesse.

Well, whatever it was, it was a major mess. I was a major mess. As we were just passing the driveway for the school, I turned in there and rode up to the office. Stuck my head in the door and said: "I've just been crapped on by a buzzard; have you got any paper towels?" The nice lady, keeping a commendably straight face, brought me both wet and dry towels, and I was able to remove about 90% of the awful offal and then continue on the ride. I thanked her, and then suggested she call 911 for my friend Emilio, who was rolling around on the ground outside, laughing himself silly. In fact, he kept laughing for the rest of the ride. He insisted that I post a note to the club's e-mail chat list later that day to share this charming anecdote with all our friends. And those friends insisted I retell the tale at the club meeting that evening. Everyone loved it. Best bike joke of the week.

But there's something about the the story that doesn't ring quite true for me, and I was the one who was at ground zero, so to speak. First of all, the great volume of stuff. I have wild turkeys roosting in my forest and browsing all around my property. They leave prodigious quantities of crap around the place, which we are forever getting on our shoes and tracking across the carpets. I've also been around a fair amount of goose poop in my time, even as recently as yesterday, riding along a local nature trail. I know their poop production pretty well: maybe two or three tablespoons at a pop. Now, according to my Sibley Guide to Birds, a wild turkey can weigh up to 16 pounds and a Canada Goose can tip the scales at ten pounds. But an adult buzzard, for all its majestic wing span, only weighs four pounds. So how is it possible that a bird one quarter the weight of a turkey can have a throw weight of crap that is at least--at least--one hundred times as much? It doesn't compute.

And then there's the question of the stink. I have a neighbor and cycling friend named Carl Poppe who had a close encounter of a more serious kind with a buzzard. (Carl is a very experienced rider, a veteran of the Terrible Two and the Furnace Creek 508.) He was descending at about 40-mph--descending Burnside Road, if you know where that is--when he had a head-on collision with a buzzard. I mean head-on: the bird few straight into his face. Carl suffered substantial injuries. Many broken bones and all sorts of nasty blunt trauma. But he told me the thing he remembers most vividly from that terrible moment while he was wrapped up in wings and feathers and talons, tumbling and crunching down the road and getting beat all to hell...the thing he remembers most was the stench. Being inside it, enveloped by it.

Now, back to my more comical encounter with a buzzard. What struck me, as I was toweling this yucky goo off of me, was that it hardly smelled at all. Okay, a little funky, but nothing like I expected. No putrid, rancid, rotten smell, nor any of the noxious odors we associate with the waste of carnivores. I thought it would stink. I'm sure anyone would think it would stink. But it didn't. As proof it didn't stink, Emilio was quite happy to suck my wheel, all the way home (laughing all the way). No frangrance plume wafting out behind me.

So what's the deal? Was it a dead animal? Was it vulture crap? And if not one of those two choice options, what was it? All I know is that I got nailed big time by an unidentified flying object of the most objectionable sort. Or actually, not quite as objectionable as it would have been had its aroma lived up to its appearance and its delivery mechanism. I do know this: it was very hard to wash out of my clothes and off my bike. It took two washings and a heavy dose of spot remover and even then, I can still see traces of it on my snazzy red arm warmers...a smudgy little reminder of the wild world through which we ride.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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