The Ultimate Driving Machine

Mon Truck­er Mag­nifique

I am fifty years old, and I am fat. Not mid­dle-aged thick, not suck in your gut for pic­tures. I am Fat­ty d’Fat Fat, Lord Fatisi­mo of the Great and Wide Fat­ties. I am also male, most­ly white, most­ly Irish by way of the South, and I grew up a non-prac­tic­ing Epis­co­palian in the north­ern sub­urbs of Los Ange­les Coun­ty. Which makes me both obso­lete and redun­dant. I’m also part Venezue­lan, part Catholic, part Jew (how else can I explain my Irish Catholic pater­nal grandmother’s maid­en name : Lowen­stein?), and part Mor­mon.

The Mor­mon part is of my own doing. I joined the Mor­mon church when I was 17, and I left the church 13 years lat­er. I say that I am still part Mor­mon not because of any ves­ti­gial beliefs I might be wag­ging behind me, but because my two sons Hunter and Noah were raised in the church. Hunter’s rejec­tion and Noah’s embrace of the faith are both part­ly results of my choic­es. When you are a father, no deci­sion you make can be unmade. I can play music mod­er­ate­ly well. I can­not whistle. I sing poor­ly, but I sing much bet­ter than I should because I have tried all my life. I wish I could sing bet­ter, but it’s a great plea­sure to hear Noah sing so well. Oskar sings too, and while Hunter nev­er sings in front of me, he whistles with a per­fect pitch and a gor­geous tone.

I love most sports but I cant play any oth­er than base­ball. I did not exer­cise what­so­ev­er until high school. As a result entropy and resis­tance to fit­ness are my nat­u­ral mod­es. But how­ev­er unlike­ly, I fell in love with bicy­cles when I was a kid. My first bike was a Peu­got 10 speed, some­thing like this :

My Scout troop went on a two day 100 mile ride, and inex­plic­a­bly, I smoked every­one else in my troop, includ­ing the adults. The sup­port truck had to find me and tell me to slow down.

So when I got into high school, I trad­ed those wheels in for for a char­i­ot : a pur­ple and white Dat­sun B210 hatch­back. I didn’t even think about bikes for about six years, until I was a mis­sion­ary in Taipei. We rode bikes like this :

Cycling in Taipei thir­ty years ago involved thir­ty year old bikes, no hel­mets, grab­bing the back of bus­es and cabs to get a lit­tle help now and then, and an almost con­stant par­ty with death or injury. Not only did I love it, I missed the urban com­man­do style of cycling when I came back to the states. When I was in grad­u­ate school I bought my first Mac­in­tosh, a Mac Plus, an I bought a Bridge­stone MB-2.

This bike feels like I’ve had it forever. That’s because I have. While the Mac Plus was rel­e­gat­ed to the plas­tic mines of Indone­sia long ago, I hung onto this bike for 23 years, and it is still in excel­lent orig­i­nal con­di­tion. I guess I have to stop writ­ing in the present tense. My MB-2 was stolen out of my garage last mon­th.

One of my less adorable traits is that I secret­ly like it when valu­able things of mine dis­ap­pear. My first and only Rolex, a 1961 Sub­mariner, was stolen from a hotel room in Miami in 2003, and I’ve nev­er bought anoth­er watch. My Power­book was stolen when my house was robbed in 1994, and on it was every poem, sto­ry, and let­ter I’d writ­ten since 1980. No back­ups. No copies. I didn’t get upset. I was angry my world was vio­lat­ed, but, first, hav­ing valu­able things tak­en from you reminds you that noth­ing is real­ly valu­able at all. You’re still alive, you’re still mov­ing for­ward, so how impor­tant could those things real­ly be ? Sec­ond, it only con­firms that noth­ing lasts forever.

It’s not like I’m low on bikes any­way. I still have my Spe­cial­ized Stumpjumper Comp, my 90s Pinarel­lo Montvi­so (which I’ve given to my son Noah, but which I’m using while he’s away in France), my Spe­cial­ized Roubaix, and most impor­tant­ly, my Surly Long­haul Truck­er, pic­tured above.

Through­out the 90s I rode a lot. I had a Gary Fish­er Pro­cal­iber that I rode into the ground. The San Gabriels, the San­ta Mon­i­cas, Ange­les Crest, San­ta Cruz, Moab, and a ton of places I can’t remem­ber. I wasn’t great or fast or aggres­sive. I just loved it, no mat­ter how hard it was. And it was hard. Even before I got fat, I was always big, and nobody big should be climb­ing trails on a bike. But I did, and I nev­er cared that I was last among my pals.

For rea­sons both drea­ry and self-destruc­tive, I stopped cycling and basi­cal­ly any­thing phys­i­cal for the past nine years. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, most doc­tors will tell you that if there were a decade or so when it was okay to not exer­cise at all, it wouldn’t be from age 41 to 50. May­be 3 to 12. May­be. But not 41 to 50. The human body is already in such accel­er­at­ed decline that the best you can hope for is to slow the inevitable. At the same time, I pupat­ed an inter­est in fast cars into a some­thing of a hob­by. It hap­pened one Sun­day when I hap­pened to see part of a For­mu­la One race on a TV in a pub in Lit­tle Britain (San­ta Mon­i­ca). I was cap­ti­vat­ed by the slav­ish atten­tion to speed, han­dling, and snot­ti­ness. I’d already been tak­en by the Tour de France (this was before you could watch every race of the sea­son in the US — from Aus­tralia to the three Grand Tours to the Worlds) so I was quick­ly alien­at­ing myself from most of my friends. I still loved foot base and bas­ket ball, but nobody I knew would get up at 4 in the morn­ing with me to watch an F1 Qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion from Dubai.

I sold my 1973 Porsche 911s when Oskar was born, because I didn’t feel like putting an infant side­ways in the back seat while I ham­mered the clutch around town. But I found the per­fect car, a race car dis­guised as a fam­i­ly car : the BMW M5. A four door sedan, plen­ty of room for kids, and when I took my moth­er some­place, with the touch of a cou­ple but­tons, it drove like a town car. But when I was alone, touch those but­tons again, and it was a sev­en speed 500 hp V10 hybrid. Not gas/electric, but cheetah/grizzly.

I trav­eled to see F1 races in Canada and Indi­anapolis, Champ Car races in Long Beach and Lagu­na Seca, and I drove for pure fun when­ev­er I could find the time and the con­di­tions. When the M5 start­ed to get ridicu­lous look­ing, I switched to the M3, the small­er, faster sib­ling that is even more fun. I had always been a good dri­ver, but I pushed myself and became even more capa­ble and less afraid of dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. I still have the car today.

But all that dri­ving only added to my decline. My men­tal nut (my wit, my mem­o­ry, my abil­i­ty to apply high lev­el rea­son­ing to com­plex ideas and sys­tems) had dimin­ished when I was 41 and numb­ing myself with cocaine and alco­hol, had almost dis­ap­peared by the time I was 44 and gnarled by grief and depres­sion over my father’s death, and was gone a year lat­er when I was addled with obe­si­ty, apnea, and insom­nia. It cul­mi­nat­ed in a 10 day hos­pi­tal stay last year that was as ter­ri­fy­ing as it was unsur­pris­ing. But when I got home and recov­ered, I began to change my diet, I began to sleep (thanks, tech­nol­o­gy), and by this time last year, I felt like Rip Van Win­kle, awake after almost a decade of slum­ber.

By which I mean I began to feel myself again. In the pre­ced­ing five or six years, I had read may­be ten books, and I doubt I fin­ished any of them. I had bare­ly writ­ten any­thing, and my jour­nal entries are more use­ful as a graph­ic illus­tra­tion of micro-nap­ping than as writ­ing. But from Decem­ber to Feb­ru­ary I had read four books, and I found myself able to final­ly sit down, con­cen­trate, and write. Not for very long, and not always with any kind of valu­able results. But it was a start. For six months I walked every day for an hour or more, and I began to feel a mod­est bit of weight loss. It might have been a tremen­dous bit of weight loss, but com­pared to how much extra weight I was car­ry­ing, it was mod­est. I couldn’t run. I knew if I joined a gym I wouldn’t go. I got an indoor bike train­er, but I could only use it for ten to twen­ty min­utes tops before bore­dom and exhaus­tion took over. I didn’t feel com­fort­able rid­ing my road bike around town because it’s so light and thin. So I did some­thing I hadn’t ever done before in my life. For my 50th birth­day I bought myself a present.

My son Hunter sug­gest­ed this bike to me last May. I don’t take cred­it for Hunter’s abil­i­ties because they far out­strip my own, but I have to think my love of bikes plant­ed a seed. He has count­less bikes of his own and he lives at the base of Wilder Ranch north of San­ta Cruz which is basi­cal­ly moun­tain bike nir­vana. He’s a pro­fes­sion­al bike mechan­ic for pro rac­ing teams, so when I told him I was tired of being El Rey del Gor­do he sug­gest­ed I get the best tour­ing bike around, the Long Haul Truck­er.

A tour­ing bike looks like a reg­u­lar road bike, but it’s made to go far, not fast. The LHT is odd­ly old fash­ioned — steel frame, bar end shifters, can­tilever brakes — but it can be repaired any­where in the world. It even comes with extra spokes tucked into the chain stay. It is true that you nev­er for­get how to ride a bike, but you do for­get how to get off one grace­ful­ly, how to antic­i­pate brak­ing and shift­ing, and how much your ass will hurt for at least the first two weeks. Tip : plush seats, foam seats, springy seats — the­se are all crap. Even a big rid­er will do much bet­ter with a tra­di­tion­al hard nar­row sad­dle. The key to com­fort is match­ing your sit bones with the sad­dle. That’s why leather sad­dles are use­ful — they will mold exact­ly to your geom­e­try and with­in a mon­th or so, your sad­dle will feel like an old friend.

It wasn’t weird rid­ing a bike after such a long hia­tus, but it was humil­i­at­ing. At first, rid­ing five or six miles around my neigh­bor­hood was tax­ing. And that was if I care­ful­ly avoid­ed all ele­va­tion changes. Even the slight­est incline would force me to get off and rest. But start­ing on June 1, I rode the bike every day until July 15th, and then I took one day off. But that time I was rid­ing 10 or so miles a shot, but much quick­er. And I had begun to resign myself that Venice is down­hill from every­where. So every ride was going to be either a slow slog uphill or a quick scream uphill.

I have been rid­ing now for almost six months. The oth­er day I rode into Los Feliz to see my cous­in Mike for break­fast, and that was a 35 mile trip. The next day my thighs were a lit­tle sore, but instead of lay­ing off, I rode for an hour, and the sore­ness dis­ap­peared. Now I look for hills to climb. I don’t always make the steep ones, but I don’t care. The thing is, I love it. I love being on a bicy­cle. Every time I get on and ride, I am instant­ly hap­py. I don’t care that the roads are hor­ri­fic, that bike lanes are spot­ty, that most dri­vers feel bikes don’t belong on the road and want you to know it — I don’t care about any of that because it’s just good to be on my bike.

I’ve lost 75 pounds since last last year. I still have more to lose. I’ve also start­ed to lose inter­est in my car. I’ve put bare­ly 7000 miles on my M3 in a year, and the only rea­son it’s that many is that I’ve dri­ven to Utah, San Diego and San Fran­cis­co twice each, and up to the Sier­ras over the sum­mer. With­out those trips it’s less than 4000. It’s not that I don’t like to dri­ve any­more, but traf­fic is now com­i­cal­ly awful. I can ride my bike most places faster than I can dri­ve dur­ing week­day rush hours.

So I’ve made a plan. When my lease runs out in 18 months, I am not going to get anoth­er car. I want to live for a year with­out a car. This is easy for some peo­ple, but I have fam­i­ly between 45 and 65 miles away in two dif­fer­ent direc­tions, and I have a son who is involved in var­i­ous activ­i­ties, there will be times not own­ing a car could be prob­lem­at­ic. But the metro and the sub­way are use­ful, and Zip Cars are becom­ing more com­mon every day in San­ta Mon­i­ca. I can always rent a car if I absolute­ly need one, but for trips under 4o miles round trip, I plan to rely on the LHT and on myself. I’ve already start­ed, and in fact I need to post this so I can run over to Cost­co with Oskar and pick up some clean­ing sup­plies.

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