When I was in fifth grade, I got the flu the week of my birthday. I missed the party my class would have held for me and only strayed—woozily—from the couch to head to the kitchen for more orange juice. On my birthday, my mom headed out in the morning to do some shopping; little did I know she was shopping for me. She returned home and began presenting me with gifts to open. Perhaps she took the time to wrap them; that part of my memory washed away with the fever.
That song single-handedly delivered me from my malaise. In its opening chords the song’s mood promised much, a triumphal chest-beating celebration. I had no idea who Susan B. Anthony was or the meaning of the term suffragette, but the energy of the song did not escape me. Within a day I was asking myself how I had survived 11 whole years without that song.
The very best things in life have the same quality to make you wonder just how you would manage in their absence. Refrigerators, toilet paper, the quick release, the best inventions have done more than just make life easier, they make us wonder how we’d get by without them.
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit Shimano’s Dura-Ace 9000, a group I do not wish to live without.
Many of your are pausing in the middle of this sentence to go back and re-read my last statement for obvious reasons. I might as well have just switched not just political parties, but from bleeding-heart liberal to sovereign citizen. I am truly a hardened-in-die fan of Campagnolo. I still save my Campy boxes, much to my wife’s chagrin. And I’ve welcomed the incredible work that SRAM has done in re-thinking how road components can function, not to mention starting from scratch in design and manufacturing.
Backpedaling complete, 9000 is the group we have all wanted ever since we started riding. Srsly. It’s got more cogs than your Schwinn Varsity had gears. It’s as easy to shift as it is to flick the turn indicator on your car. Chain movement is as smooth and flawless as the action of a doorknob. There are as many cassette choices as there are flavors of bagel at a Jewish deli. Brake action is light as a page of a book and easier to modulate than the temper of a toddler.
I submit: What’s not to like?
To be sure, this group isn’t new in the sense of heretofore nonexistent features; it’s a refinement of existing ideas, but sometimes that’s the space from which the best products emerge.
Unfortunately, the best way to frame the excellence of this group is by comparing it to its predecessor and competitors. If you rode the previous iteration of Dura-Ace (7900), think of all that you didn’t like about that group. Front derailleur shifts required a concerted effort accompanied by audible grunt. Rear shifts were easier, but still required a bit of forethought if you were going au bloc. Then there was the blocky shape to the levers. They weren’t difficult to grab, but their contours weren’t something you’d want to hold all day. Brake action might have been invented by Bill Gates in its binary, 0 or 1, on or off action. Modulation? What modulation?
The heart of any component group is its shifting. Get the shifting right and many people will overlook other flaws like flexing crank arms or chain rings, weak brakes or short-lived cassettes and chains. 9000 features the lightest shift action of any group I’ve used, including the new Red group and the precision of each shift exceeds that of Campagnolo’s Super Record group. There’s still some play in the lever before you begin up- or down-shifts, but because lever throw has been cut by 30 percent and the action is so light, it no longer bothers me. The 9000 group also sets a new standard for out-of-the-saddle shifts from small chainring to big. Honestly, the only other group that has performed nearly this well on that particular shift is the old 7800 group.
Also worth noting on the front shifting is the return of shifter trim and how it’s executed. The 7900 front shifter lacked trim and I never, ever got it set up perfectly for even one day; I really welcome trim. When downshifting from big ring to small, the shifter returns the front derailleur only part way; this offers two benefits. First is that the gears it makes immediately available without rub are the middle and high cogs of the cassette. It also prevents the chain from being dropped off the small ring without the aid of a chain catcher. I can attest to never having dropped the chain even once while riding this group.
For those of you who, like me, adjusted the lever throw for non-NBA-player-like hands, you’ll welcome the new design to the lever face which eliminates that slack-jawed look caused by the adjuster screw. It also eliminates the dirt-intake the lever opening created. You’ll notice that the hoods are two different colors; the light gray is a softer durometer material giving you a better grip, especially if you ride with no gloves. Best of all, the ergonomics of the new hood and lever body top anything Shimano previously offered. I’ve often struggled to decide just which previous design was my favorite. The 9-speed Ultegra featured one of my favorite lever bodies, but the 9000 has a smaller hood circumference, making it easier to grip with gloves or without, even if your hands are July-in-New Orleans sweaty.
Shimano claims that with their new polymer-coated cables front shift action is now 43-percent easier and rear shifting action is 47-percent easier, practically half the force required to shift as the previous group. Is that absolutely accurate? I wonder, but only because I suspect that the last 7900 group I rode probably didn’t work even as well as they claim it should have. I possess this generous suspicion that the improvement in shift action is more like 100 percent. Whatever the numbers are, the upshot is how I find myself shifting far more often than I used to.
Shimano is offering five cassette choices: 11-23, 11-25, 11-28, 12-25 and 12-28. That they have resisted the urge to offer nothing but cassettes that begin with an 11t cog had me doing a little happy dance in my garage (cue the Vince Guaraldi). The reality of the strength of the average cyclist is that an 50 x 11 gear is too big to effectively use. A 53 x 11? Yeah, and I play Peter Sagan in my dreams. There’s a comically contradictory effect to giving mortals like us a 50t chainring to create more usable gears while in the big ring, but then sticking an 11 on the end of the cassette. What the maker giveth, he taketh away.
Now, if they’d just offer a 12-23 for all that time spent on the flat lands.
When Oakley introduced the M-Frame and Heater lens in the early ’90s, I recoiled from them the way I do from slugs and flesh-eating bacteria. At some point I realized I couldn’t live without my own pair of slugs, I mean Heaters. I’m not sure what happened. I have this suspicion there will come a day when I have the same affinity for this crank set, but I delight in reporting that day has yet to arrive. I detest the look of those cranks, particularly the asymmetrical spider, which carries all the grace of a boxy pedal stroke.
Toothless hooker looks aside, Shimano deserves credit for offering the cranks in seven (7!) lengths—from 165 to 180mm in 2.5mm increments—and six ring configurations—50/34t, 52/36t, 52/38t, 53/39t, 54/42t and 55-42t. Whew.
It’s worth mentioning that the ginormous parallelogram of the front derailleur demands that the cable be trimmed manscape short, unless of course you want that cable end brushing your calf every time you shift into the big ring. So good is this group that all that’s left to complain about is the look of the crank and how much you trim the cables.
At 1978 grams, this group is heavier than Super Record and Red. That ought to be the sort of third-place finish to make me rethink my interest in the group, but it’s not. The weights are so close that the group’s ease of use is not only enough for me to want this on every bike I own, it’s enough to make wonder why Shimano even bothers with a Di2 version. Yeah, the shifting is that good.
Years from now there will probably come a day of reckoning, a point at which I’ll realize just how much Shimano got wrong in this group. I eventually came to recognize how nearly every song on Band on the Run was just hacked up reggae, but I enjoyed 30 years of adoration for that album until I wised up.
On October 10, 2012, I went for a bike ride. Nothing in that is unusual. Most days of each week I go for a bike ride. This particular ride wouldn’t really be worth noting at all were it not for the memorable feeling I had as I dropped down the south face of the Santa Monica Mountains. I felt the greatest sense of my and my bike’s limits, though that’s not what I was thinking about as I dove past some friends and held my braking fingers at bay.
The populace usually refer to the practitioners of any sport where agility—that curious combination of physical skill and crystalline judgment—is all that prevents raw velocity from ending in a sudden, careening explosion—think windmill in a tornado—adrenaline junkies. I can say from considerable experience that phrase is only half wrong, but the half that is wrong misses like getting on the Chicago train when your destination is New Orleans. I’ve had something of an addiction to dropping down mountains as if I was water in a river rushing out of the mountains. Nothing else in my life matches that sense of grace that washes over me, and that has to do with how the “adrenaline” part of adrenaline junkie is so wrong.
Adrenaline isn’t something you want to feel.
That’s the fight or flight response. It’s the taste of a 9-volt battery in your mouth, a sensation that every time encountered has been accompanied by fear. It is absolutely the physical presence of fear itself. Only a masochist would go in search of it.
What was washing over me as swung through turns tight enough to slow a good-sized sedan to idle was a soup of neurochemicals that kill pain, convince us we’re in love and turn the world brighter and more beautiful for as long as we concentrate. That sense of joy tempered by calm, a place for which I can conjure no image to remind us.
And then, in a turn in which I thought I would deliver the correct answer finally—for the first time ever—a place where my knowledge of the road, my control and the limits of the tires’ adhesion came together in what was to be a flourish at the end of a signature, well …
I rolled over some paint and my rear tire did a little mambo.
I have, on some occasions, permitted myself to play back the way things went wrong at that moment, how I steered into the turn and regained control of the bike to keep it upright but misjudged my ability to go off-road at that speed and thus flyswattered my face into loose dirt and gravel. On a very few occasions I’ve allowed myself to try to play out how things might have gone had I taken any action other than what I did. Of course, it’s all guesswork; cyclists fall and break shoulders when they figure it could have been a collarbone, they pick up a couple of gashes and no road rash in a slide, or as I did, tenderize and remove my chin when I thought I’d send a bowling ball through a styrofoam cooler. Still, in my imagination, all the other options, all the other ways I imagine that event could have played out end with me either spinning or sliding on the asphalt at 30 mph. My gut says I got off easy.
By easy, I mean that to everyone who isn’t me, all that was required to set me right was the skill (and thread) of one very artful plastic surgeon, a guy better known for making lips bigger not smaller, as he did in my case.
I’d trade one good Harrison Ford-like scar if he could have repaired the stuff on the inside as well.
Weeks later, my stepfather, Bryon, died. My mom had been married to him for 23 years, but my relationship to him stretched back more than 30 years, to when I was 14. Now, I should add here that my father is still alive and he and I have a great relationship. Losing my stepfather was not a matter of losing the only paternal figure in my life. And it’s not like my father was a felon and incapable of providing a healthy model for what an adult male might aspire to be. I’ve got a great dad, period. Losing Byron still represented a huge loss because of his unique qualities.
Byron was a passionate supporter of mine. He wanted to see me happy and successful. Fulfilled. Yet he never provided any input about courses of action except when morality or ethical considerations were at stake. Despite caring deeply for me, he was cautiously detached from the outcomes of my actions. He allowed me the freedom to do what I chose, and yet would talk to me at every turn, less guiding me than helping me to see what I might achieve on my own abilities.
I wasn’t supposed to reveal this, but he was so impressed by my standing up for Charles Pelkey and taking on what was a monumental expense for this blog—just because I thought it was the right thing to do—that he talked with my mom and offered me the money to bring John Wilcockson on board. You might say the first five months of John’s work here was an advance on my inheritance. Byron saw it as just giving me wood to fuel a fire I’d done a nice job of lighting. My job was to secure enough advertising in that period to afford John’s work going forward. And while we got through the summer and early fall well enough, advertiser drop-off in the winter (and getting stiffed by a few advertisers) put him back out of reach. I’m still paying him for last fall’s work.
I’m incredibly fortunate to still have both my parents. From sharing the latest photos to commiserating over the challenges of the American health care system, we enjoy being in touch, and I’m grateful that I can still turn to them with whatever financial hurdles I face—in only with the intent of asking for advice. But talking with Byron was different. His detachment meant that his guidance was couched as if through my own eyes, given with an understanding of what I wanted for myself. The loss of that voice in my life is something I haven’t adjusted to.
Seeing what his absence has done to my mother’s world has made me ache for all that we have the potential to offer each other. His was an example that showed how being mindful of our actions and moving gently, with kindness, can profoundly alter the quality of another person’s life. I don’t think I’m a bad guy, but I’m aware that if I could achieve what he did, my wife and children would have better lives than they already do.
In those weeks I spent in Memphis, just trying to be present with my mother as she grieved, I rode hundreds of miles, and none of it at a pace that would impress anyone. Byron was with me on those rides, his example ringing in my ears, his voice no closer than that last, saved, voicemail.
When we found out that the Deuce had an abnormality during what was to be a final, routine, visit to the OB/GYN, I knew I needed to call my parents to tell them. I did my best to reassure them that this would be a minor issue and we’d be sending baby photos and telling stories any day. How wrong I was. Because of the need I felt to set my parents at ease, the person I really wanted to talk to, the person to whom I felt I could have been 100 percent honest about my concerns was Byron. What would he have said to me?
It’s been a long time since I felt like I lived in the shadow cast by my parents, that I needed to distinguish myself as a person. It’s been even longer since I was naive enough to believe that their counsel was as outdated as a Corvair. I now understand that this phase of adulthood is one where we learn to live without the voices of our parents. It’s an absence distinct from the loss of them physically, it’s that ability to reach out to the people in whom you entrust those most important decisions, asking for the feedback that can only be given by someone who knows you as well as you do.
One morning, as I pedaled through the hills of Palos Verdes and wondering how to confront the issue of surgery for the Deuce, I caused myself to chuckle when I came up with the acronym WWBS—what would Byron say? I realized he’d tell me I was doing all right. He’d probably ask me if I was still riding. Even though he wasn’t a cyclist himself, he understood its more medicinal quality in my life. And he’d ask if Shana and I were talking. Then he’d ask me what my gut told me and what my fears were. Once I’d poured everything out to him, he’d invariably mirror back to me all that he’d heard, but in an especially concise reduction sauce. I can imagine he would have said something like, “I hear you saying you don’t like the surgery one damn bit, but that you trust the doctors and you don’t see any way around it. I’d be scared, too.”
I miss that voice.
I can’t shake the feeling that my family has experienced a zero-sum event, that in losing Byron and gaining Matthew, we have reluctantly struck a new equilibrium where the burden of wisdom has shifted from Tennessee to California. I try to convince myself that the physical manifestation of that sense is what I felt when I first climbed on a full-suspension 29er. It felt big, really big while the suspension punished sloppy actions and rewarded grace, but it was still a bike, so on that first big descent, all I needed to do was convince myself I knew what to do.
Over the last six months, there have been little glimmers of my old self on the bike, but far more episodes where one sketchy moment shows me just how gun-shy I still am. Not just of crashing, but of anything that induces stress. Rather than being a way to discharge, cycling has mostly only been a way to recharge, to help sustain me through today’s crisis, or maybe whatever comes next.
The reason I’ve stuck with cycling no matter whatever else has been going on in my life has been that the sport has been a way to ask questions, a way to answer them and even a way to answer bigger questions, ones where the only wheels are metaphoric.
Of this much I’m certain: I’ve got two healthy, growing sons and bikes in the garage. Like knowing what was around that turn, the rest, I accept, is up for grabs.
Some months ago I made plans to join my friends for a little ride down in North County San Diego, the SPY Belgian Waffle Ride. SPY’s CEO, Michael Marckx is both someone I’ve been able to count as a friend and a certifiable creative type. I began hearing his vision for the ride a couple of years ago, shortly after he joined the company. He’d spitball ideas at me and I’d drool, if only on the inside.
I needn’t go into the reasons why a few days ago I sent MMX, as he’s known to friends, an email with the subject line, “Regrets.” But I did; pardon me while I use the passive construction and say, it had to be done.
In place of doing the Belgian Waffle Ride, I’ve had a pretty stellar day. I got a ride in, came home and hung out with the Deuce and watched Paris-Roubaix. Once Philip came back from a trip to the park with his mom, he curled up on the couch with me to play games on our iPad as the Deuce napped nearby. A terrific day, full stop.
The thing is, I missed something special today and that’s gnawing at me.
If I may be so bold, the BWR is a case study for everything wrong with bike events. Mind you, I’m not saying that the folks at SPY got it wrong; I’m saying that compared to the BWR, nearly everyone else is getting it wrong.
I gave up doing industrial park criteriums years ago. At a certain point I realized that I needed more out of a bike event than just proving I was faster than some other guy I’d probably enjoy riding with if the entire raison d’être for the event wasn’t predicated on proving who was fastest. And because those events were tucked into the disused weekend corners of communities as if they were an embarrassment to proper athletic endeavors, they seemed a disservice to actually promoting cycling as a sport worthy of watching. Nevermind the real-world challenges of securing a course, industrial parks aren’t so much low-hanging fruit as fallen fruit. Picking ripe fruit is worth the effort.
With the BWR, SPY has created an event meant to reward the fastest, so in that regards it does settle a question that never gets old, while re-imagining just what an experience can be. Thankfully, they dispensed with calling it a gran fondo. While a gran fondo is a special sort of event, and something I love doing, here in the U.S. the term has come to be applied to every century that was having trouble drawing a crowd before. Blech.
Promoters ought to take a close look at these flyers that SPY sent out counting down the days to the event. They are genius because they serve so many purposes. First, they build excitement for the event, and being excited about an event is key to having a special experience. They do the entrants a service because they offer insight into course challenges—a handy thing given the enormity of the undertaking. Finally, they pimp sponsors, something most race promoters devote too little effort to.
Abraham Maslow wrote about the ingredients that go into a peak experience. Anticipation and expectation offset by preparation. With the exception of the guys at Bike Monkey, who put on Levi’s Gran Fondo, I’ve never seen another outfit put half this much effort into ratcheting up excitement for an event in the run-up.
Perhaps there’s no truer measure of their success than the ache I feel for not having been there.
And if my own sense of missing out isn’t enough, I can tell you that several dozen riders from the Southbay drove down for the event. In all my years of riding with my peeps, not another ride has done more to unite to the locals’ ambition (and carpool skills) as the BWR.
The question I’d like to put to event promoters is: Why bother, if your aim isn’t to give everyone who enters a memorable experience? What have you given to anyone who is not the winner? SPY has created something memorable, even in the missing. Hell, they even got local TV coverage the other day. When was the last time a non-big-time bike event managed that?
Perhaps the best way to frame their achievement is with my favorite quote by Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
And here those poor spirits to which I refer are not athletes, but event promoters. I challenge you: Dream large.
I don’t live in the world of my parents. Yes, the house I grew up in still stands. Yes, the schools I went to still educate young people. Yes, the bike shop I first worked at still sells, fixes and fits bicycles to an ever-growing community of cyclists. But beyond those rudimentary similarities, my life has none of the surety, consistency or security their lives have enjoyed (and just to be clear, both of my parents are still with us). While there are plenty of people who still enjoy jobs that will pay pensions in their leisure years, I’ve occasionally had to engage each of my parents in conversations about how radically my life doesn’t resemble theirs. This is usually in response to me sharing some sort of garden-variety challenge of daily life. People who care about you never let these moments slide without a, “Well did you consider…?”
And that’s when I mention just how different my life is from what theirs was when they were my age.
I attempted to follow a career track similar to that of my father. I moved to California to go to work for a big publishing company, a place where a great many people spent entire careers writing for the same magazine. Within 90 days of my arrival—I’m not kidding—the publishing world began to implode. All the old rules about magazine publishing were incinerated along with a great many magazines. For the record, the magazine industry dove over the event horizon of former business models years before the music industry got sucker-punched by Sean Parker.
The one important lesson that stayed with me from that time was that your average enthusiast magazine was disinclined to celebrate the truly inventive, what management types love to call “out of the box thinking.” I don’t mind reporting that my most creative ideas were all shot down because I couldn’t justify the “user service.”
It’s easy to rail about the evils in today’s world—Monsanto, Wall Street, the U.S. health care system and … well, there’s plenty we can complain about without ever bringing up the UCI. If you’re a cynical type, the inevitable conclusion is that the world (or at least the U.S.) is going to a land of eternal fire by shopping cart. The reality is more complex. The world is just different.
To wit, I submit Facebook. Forgetting their nearly disastrous IPO, Facebook has had a profound effect on society. It has allowed us to connect more broadly than at any point in history. Sure, much of that connection lacks the depth of a one-on-one conversation with a trusted friend, but the benefit I derived from Facebook during the Deuce’s NICU stay was sustaining. Actually spending time in-person with friends was nearly impossible. Our schedule was too hectic, and the NICU rules regarding visitors ruled out everyone except us and grandparents. Facebook kept us in touch with people we simply couldn’t catch up with otherwise. Facebook takes a lot of knocks. In my view, it’s just a hammer. What you do with it is up to you. You can be a pinhead and break a bunch of windows with a hammer, or you can build a house with one. It’s up to you. Thanks to Facebook, metaphorically speaking, I’ve added an addition to my home.
Which brings me to Kickstarter. When I first heard about it last year, I must admit I didn’t really understand it. The concept seemed only slightly removed from gambling, and as I’ve got as much interest in gambling as I do intravenous drug use, I tuned out more or less instantly. Then I started reading about it. Here’s where I have to admit my initial reaction was as ill-considered as Kin Jung Un’s latest rhetoric.
Kickstarter, if I may say, is genius. If this had existed when I was trying to launch Asphalt I might have managed to publish a dozen or more issues before it got swallowed by its own gravity.
Over the last month or so I’ve become something of a student of Kickstarter. While it is the obvious repository for nearly every ill-conceived get-rich-quick scheme by a dilettante with no experise, it is more properly known as the ultimate expression of the crowd-sourced effort.
Kickstarter is the ultimate elevator pitch. It’s up to you to convince people you’ve got the goods to make cool things happen. It’s not a place that will reward the mundane. You’ve designed the next $39 toaster that might outsell the Sunbeam unit at Walmart? No one cares. Commodities are destined for grave stones in Kickstarter.
How cool is that?
I offer this as a prelude to a coming Kickstarter project of my own. I don’t mind saying it’s one of the more audacious efforts I’ve undertaken, just the sort of thing that would have been shot down—with prejudice—at my former employer.
If there’s one thing we can say about this new world that we live in is that it tends to reward more creative, more inventive ideas. Hey, I gotta celebrate what I can, when I can.
UPDATE: With all the excitement (if we want to call it that) in my life of late, I haven’t been tending to the store quite as I should have. A few orders were backed up a couple of weeks; I’m sorry about that. I also meant to put the Roubaix shirt back into circulation before now. Well, it’s finally up and I’ll be filling orders today and tomorrow. If you’re nearby, there is still a chance I’ll get these to you before the race—Padraig
Paris-Roubaix is among the purest of pursuits. The cobbles cause it to instantly resonate with you, or not. There really isn’t much middle ground on this race. Either you love it or wonder, “WTF?”
The 29 stretches of pavé are each rated on a five-point scale. Not a single section receives a 1-point score. It is as if the French are suggesting that the pavé, by their very nature, are more difficult than any ordinary road.
It’s a truth no one needed to confirm for us.
And really, in this race, the road is nothing more than a pavé-delivery device. The attacks don’t go on the asphalt, they all go over the stone. If the entire race could be run over pavé, we, the fans, would be that much happier.
This shirt is intended for the former, rather than the latter. I went to Joe Yule and his recently launch apparel company Stage One Sports. Joe is responsible for the RKP logo, the kit as well as this T-shirt. Stage One will offer an a la carte collection as well as custom work for team designs coming soon to a peloton near you.
I wear a lot of T-shirts. This is the first time I’ve ever had someone design a shirt pimping my love for something. And really, when it comes down to it, as much as we love the riders who contest Paris-Roubaix, what makes the day memorable isn’t so much the racer as it is the pavé.
The pavé is the real star of Roubaix.
The shirt is a high-quality 100% cotton all-black Anvil T-shirt that should render invisible any grease stains you might pick up while working on your bike.
Order yours here.
Questions? Drop us a note.
BTW: We’d gotten complaints about the cost of shipping from a few readers. After talking with the post office, I learned of another way to do priority that brought the cost down. This should be a bit more palatable. Also, if you plan to order several items, let us know and we can bundle them in shipping and refund a bit of the cost to you.
There’s some scary shit in there. But it’s all part of the history and tradition of the race, whether you come in first or 40 minutes behind, like my first time. You get into the velodrome and go into the showers, and De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Hinault—all these legends have been in there before you, and you’re scrubbing mud out of your ears. It’s all part of the adventure.
In 1966, Paris–Roubaix became Chantilly–Roubaix, at least on the map. It moved out of Paris and off to the east to include cobbles that mayors hadn’t seen the need to resurface. And in 1968 it took in Jean Stablinski’s road through the Arenberg forest.
The Arenberg created a sensation. The British journalist, Jock Wadley, arrived in France to find newspapers predicting “only 30 at most will finish this race. Even fewer if it rains.” Another suggested riders would need a sprung saddle, padded bars and fat wired-on tires to finish in the first 10. One official said nobody would finish at all if it rained.
There were now 57 kilometers of cobbles. The 15 kilometers between Templeuve and Bachy had almost no tar at all.
Pascal Sergent wrote: “The press announced that the 1968 edition would be, without doubt, the most difficult and the most extraordinary in history and that the Queen of Classics would see a legendary winner in the style of cycling’s heroic period.”
It remained to see who it would be, for the order was changing. Where Rik van Steenbergen had had to succumb to Rik van Looy, now van Looy was also threatened. Eddy Merckx had won “his” world championship. Van Looy’s not inconsiderable pride was dented.
In 1965 Merckx had been in van Looy’s Solo-Superia team, sponsored by a margarine company and a bike maker. But he had committed the crime of threatening his boss and he moved to the French team, Peugeot. There he won Milan–San Remo for the first of seven times. But Peugeot was skinflint and its riders had to buy their own wheels and tires. It wasn’t hard to move to a new team supported by Faema, an Italian maker of coffee machines returning to the sport. And there, 1967, he became world champion.
Van Looy was grudging. When Merckx started 1968 badly, losing Milan–San Remo and abandoning Paris–Nice, he scoffed: “If Merckx is the boss, let him prove it.” The two were so wary of each other in the break in the GP E3 in Belgium that Jacques de Boever won instead. De Boever had never won a decent race in his life and never did again.
Before Paris–Roubaix, van Looy, now 35, said he was delighted by the tougher route. “It will make the legs of the young hurt,” he said pointedly.
Nerves in the peloton made the first break go at 17 kilometers. It had four minutes by Solesmes. There, riders seemed almost surprised to find cobbles. They got going just as the break began flagging. News of their weakening came back via the blackboard man and Merckx attacked, taking 13 others with him. The notable exception was van Looy.
At Coutiches, Merckx looked over his shoulder and counted. There were too many. He attacked. Only Ward Sels and Willy Bocklandt stayed with him. Of those, Sels was the greater worry. He was a sprinter of Rik van Looy’s level and sometimes his lead-out man. A little later things grew worse with the arrival of the mournful-looking Herman van Springel, whom any film director would cast perfectly as a pall-bearer. Van Springel didn’t have the same talent but Merckx was now fighting on two fronts.
Imagine, then, his relief when Sels punctured 26 kilometers from the finish. Merckx hunched his shoulders and spread his elbows in a style that was just becoming familiar and attacked. Van Springel had to sprint out of every corner to hold his back wheel. Merckx swooped past his rival at the finish by rising to the top of the banking at the finish and accelerating down and past him. He won, his right arm raised, by a wheel.
It was the beginning of the end for van Looy. Three punctures had done nothing to help his chances but the eclipse was starting. It’s not even sure what happened to him. Pascal Sergent says he was in a group sprinting for ninth place, eight minutes down. The result shows the sprint was for eighth, but that matters less than that van Looy’s name isn’t there at all. He rode just once more, in 1969, came 22nd and never rode it again.
And the Arenberg? An anticlimax. Merckx finished with barely a splash of mud on his white jersey.
There had never been a talent like Eddy Merckx’s. He is the only rider to have sent the sport into recession through his own success. Riders became disillusioned because they rarely raced for anything better than second place. Their salaries fell because sponsors saw little value in backing a team they knew would be beaten. And contract fees for village races tumbled because promoters had to pay so much for Merckx, whose simple presence guaranteed a crowd and advertisers, that there was less left for the rest. And this continued for season after season.
For him, Paris–Roubaix was just one classic among many. “I took a particular interest in my equipment,” he said, “especially if the forecast was for rain but, for me, it was a classic like the rest, with its own demands and a particular character.”
In 1970 he won Paris–Roubaix by more than five minutes. The rain fell, lightning was forecast over the northern plains, and riders fell and tore skin. Jean-Marie Leblanc, who went on to organize the Tour de France, broke his frame. Merckx left the Arenberg forest with six riders behind him. He punctured at Bouvignies, 56 kilometers from the finish, changed a wheel, re-caught the leaders and went straight back to the front. And, before long, off the front. He won by 5 minutes 20 seconds.
In second place that day—and fifth the year before—was a dark-haired, gypsy-looking man with long sideburns: Roger De Vlaeminck.
“In a country in love with Eddy Merckx to the point of servitude,” said the writer Olivier Dazat, “literally dead drunk on his repeated exploits, the showers of stones and thorns from the Gypsy constituted, along with the Mannequin Pis [the statue in Brussels of a small boy peeing], the last bastion of independence and humor, a refusal of uniformity in a conquered land.”
De Vlaeminck—it’s pronounced Roshay De Vlah-mink—won 16 classics and 22 stages of major Tours. He rode Paris–Roubaix 10 times and always finished, four times in first place. The only laurels he lacked were a world road championship and, because he was only a moderate climber, a big stage race.
He had a characteristic position. He crouched low across the top tube, his hands on the brake hoods, his elbows lower than his wrists. It provided bounce, springing against the shocks. When he got going seriously, he lowered his hands to the bends of his bars and pushed his body horizontal, a cyclo-cross man turned track pursuiter. He gave, said Olivier Dazat, “the impression of gliding, of being in a perpetual search for speed, like a skier perfecting his schluss.”
The weather in 1972 was apocalyptic. It drizzled throughout the race. Water lay between the cobbles and, more treacherously, on the irregular sides of the roads, hiding missing stones, displacing others under the weight of the cars and motorbikes that preceded the riders. There could be no worse setting for the Arenberg. The break entered it at full speed as usual, riders trying to get there first to avoid piling into fallen riders.
Their speed in the rain brought down a heap of riders, including Merckx. De Vlaeminck rode on and feinted an attack where the old mining road rejoins the tar. The others matched him and he sat up. It allowed Merckx to catch them.
There was a brief hope that a local would win when Alain Santy, a northerner, got clear with Willy van Malderghem, winner of the previous year’s Quatre Jours de Dunkerque. His moment lasted until 35 kilometers from the end, when his weakness showed. Van Malderghem pushed on alone with more than a minute and half in hand.
De Vlaeminck waited. The lead stayed unchanged. Then he set off and caught van Malderghem at Cysoing, dangerously close to the end. He pressed on and crossed the line, his left hand raised, a fraction less than two minutes ahead of André Dierickx and 2 minutes 13 seconds before Barry Hoban. Merckx was seventh at 2 minutes 39 seconds.
De Vlaeminck said: “When you’re really fit, you rarely get a flat tire because you’re more lucid. I had a puncture once, in 1970, and then never again in 10 years. The other secret is confidence. I often started with the idea that I was going to win. I missed my chance once or twice but no more than that. I knew how to get ready for Paris–Roubaix. I used to ride three days of 350 kilometers a day in the week before. I used to ride Gent–Wevelgem and then ride another 130 kilometers having just changed my jersey. One year I rode 430 kilometers in a day. I needed that, that sort of training, to start the race in a good frame of mind.”
He’d got it right. In 1974 he won by 57 seconds, ahead of Francesco Moser, who had crashed.
De Vlaeminck rode now for Brooklyn, a team sponsored by a chewing gum maker owned by brothers named Perfetti. The team—he rode there with his brother Erik and with Patrick Sercu—wore a garish jersey based on the American flag. The curious thing was that for all the American connections in the name and jersey, and the image of the Brooklyn bridge, the chewing gum sold in the USA only three decades after the team folded.
And why did it fold? Because a member of the Perfetti family was kidnapped and there was no money left for a team after paying the ransom.
By now, De Vlaeminck had started training in secret. His technique was straightforward if arduous: “I used to get up at 5am. When it was good weather I went out behind a Derny with my lights on. I used to meet Godefroot to go training and I’d already ridden 120 kilometers. I used to pretend that I was tired because I’d just got out of bed and try to persuade him we should have a shorter ride together. I don’t know if I took him in but I needed to bluff the others to raise my own morale.”
Godefroot trained with De Vlaeminck because the schisms in Belgium cycling meant he never spoke to Merckx. He said of De Vlaeminck: “In the evening he’d call me to ask me if we could go out later than we’d agreed. ‘It’s not worth doing too much,’ he used to say to me. The next day, he’d get up at six, train for two hours behind a Derny, and then he’d turn up at the rendezvous as though nothing had happened. That was Roger.”
In 1975, April 13 started dull with an occasional beam of sun. It had rained the previous days, though, and the race hit a bog of wet mud when it reached the first cobbles at Neuvilly. Chaos followed. Cars got stuck in the swamp at the side of the road and motorcyclists came sliding off. Riders who stayed upright picked their way through and the field shattered. By the time the cobbles ended there were just six in the lead. De Vlaeminck wasn’t there but he came up a little later with Merckx, and then at the approach to Valenciennes, they were joined by a group including Francesco Moser.
There were four by Roubaix, all Belgian. Merckx began the sprint on the back straight. De Vlaeminck looked beaten but struggled back. He passed Merckx just before the line and won with his pedals opposite Merckx’s front tire. He didn’t even have time to lift his arm.
“It’s nice to win,” he said, “especially when Merckx is beaten.”
André Dierickx was third and Marc Demeyer came fourth.
It was the following year that Demeyer both won and started promoting another brand of chewing gum, Stimorol, from Denmark. The success that caused such an exciting advertisement on Radio Mi Amigo wasn’t a surprise; in 1975 he had ridden alone in the lead for 50 kilometers. He was a gentle giant, Demeyer. He turned professional in 1972 with almost casual disregard, spreading his contract on the roof of a car just before a race. And, equally casually he then won the race, the Dwars door België.
Demeyer spent most of his short life as lead-out man for Freddy Maertens. He could win races for himself, as Paris–Roubaix proved in 1976, but he was self-effacing by nature and happy to ride as Maertens’ knecht, closing gaps and opening sprints.
There was no greater bitterness than between Maertens and his fans and the Eddy Merckx camp. They were opposites, Maertens the near-unbeatable sprinter and Merckx the rouleur.
Philippe Brunel of L’Équipe asked Merckx if it was true what journalists wrote, that there was an anti-Merckx brigade.
“And how!” he answered. “You’ve only got to remember the names of the riders there were at Flandria: Godefroot, the De Vlaeminck brothers, Dierickx, Leman, and then later on, Maertens. They all rode against me.”
De Vlaeminck’s response was: “It’s simple: we were all against him. Even my wife! During meals with the Flandria team, Merckx was all we spoke about, from morning to evening, to work out what we were going to do to beat him.”
That was the atmosphere when Paris–Roubaix set off for the 74th time, delayed by a protest which blocked the start. It got away only after the demonstrators had deflated all the tires on the car which Félix Lévitan, the co-organizer, had been expecting to drive. He considered the situation with a mixture of anger and puzzled offense. What had he done to upset the demonstrators, beyond giving them a piece of his mind?
The Belgian civil war between Merckx and Maertens reached an armistice when both fell off at Neuvilly. Maertens abandoned the race and Merckx finished sixth at 1 minute 36 seconds. Freed from his duty to Maertens, Demeyer had a free hand.
De Vlaeminck wanted the race, of course, and tried to split it by sending away two teammates. Johann Demuynck and Marcello Osler stayed away through the Arenberg cobbles but impressed few into chasing. Guy Sibille rode alone in the lead for 35 kilometers but that threatened nobody. Who on earth was this Sibille man, anyway? He’d come third in Milan–San Remo the previous year but he’d never won better than stages in regional tours. He did, in fact, win the 1976 French national championship, but that came after rather than before Paris–Roubaix. The others could ignore him, and they did—for three-quarters of an hour.
In the end, De Vlaeminck sorted things out for himself. There were still 30 kilometers to go. He went so decisively that Merckx couldn’t go with him, his legs and will hurt by having to change bikes five times and chase back to the leaders each time. Francesco Moser was there, though, and so were Godefroot and the lightly stammering Hennie Kuiper—and Marc Demeyer.
But De Vlaeminck was overconfident. He mastered Moser’s efforts to dislodge him and no longer had to worry about Godefroot, who had flatted a tire. He led on to the track, sure he had the best sprint. But he’d ridden too hard in the last 30 minutes and he’d gambled too much on the final dash for the line. Moser came past him and then Demeyer came by them both.
“They just sat on my wheel for the last 20 kilometers,” De Vlaeminck said miserably.
On January 20, 1982, Marc Demeyer went training for 100 kilometers in the morning, then went to collect new equipment from his team manager, Bert De Kimpe, boss of a team supported by Splendor, a bike company whose sponsorship went back to 1936.
That evening he was sitting at home, doing a crossword. He never finished it. He had a heart attack and died. He was 31. He is buried in the Outrijve churchyard at Alveringem, 40 kilometers east of Ypres in West Flanders.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Deuce is home.
It’s a piece of information that needs no introduction, requires no preface, begs no questions. It’s a bottom line, an endpoint, a conclusion. Is it all the resolution I’ve wanted? That’s a question I asked myself this morning as I looked out over Santa Monica Bay as I pedaled toward home. I was aware that I’m still not really ready for group rides, that I’m still not back to my old self. I’m done with suspense, with surprise, with anxiety, with all the factors that make stress stress.
Of course, nothing will release me more from the weight of the Deuce’s 37 days in the NICU than just having him here at home.
Two nights into this and it still hasn’t completely sunk in.
Frankly, after more than 30 days in the NICU, the suddenness with which he went from “improving” to “discharged” could teach jai alai players a thing or two about speed. The day after his doctor removed his chest tube he said to me that they would soon begin discussing when he could go home. In my mind, given how things had moved with all the hurried pace of rush-hour traffic on the freeway, reading between the lines suggested that he might be released the middle of this week. And that would be fine. With the danger seemingly past, patience was something I had by the liter.
The next real surprise was when we arrived at the hospital later that morning and the nurse tending him said to us in a conspiratorial tone, “The doctor might release him at the beginning of the week.”
Oh, well, wait, what? Come again?
My wife turned to me with the high-eyebrowed look of someone betraying a lack of preparation, I knew what she was feeling, what she’d say next. So when she said, “I’m not sure I even feel ready,” it wasn’t necessary.
After all the waiting, all the worry, all the tears, I was surprised that my reaction to his looming discharge was to wonder if I was prepared to care for him. Though he was already five weeks old, his condition had left me with the indelible perception that he was fragile, more fragile than his brother Philip was at two days, when he went home. With his two incisions sutured shut and his various picc lines and IVs removed he was a baby—no more, and certainly not less.
Just a day later the doctor approaches us for our daily consult and says, “I’m going to release the baby tomorrow.”
I’d like a large serving of ‘whoa’ with a side of ‘hang on a sec.’
There wasn’t much to discuss. We made arrangements to allow our son Philip to go with a friend to an Easter Egg hunt while we picked up the Deuce. There were forms to fill out, instructions to listen to, guidelines to impart, appointments to make. It felt a bit like buying a car from a car lot with only one car.
As we went through the paperwork the stoner parents of the 480g baby dropped by for 15 minutes or so. It was the first time I’d seen them in more than a week. I had the feeling we were seeing the first act in what would be a tragedy that would unfold over a lifetime. I hope I’m wrong. I’ll add that I don’t really mean to pass judgment on them, but I can’t fathom the choices they are making; maybe their disconnect is just a coping mechanism but my sense of a parent’s love looks at them and says, ‘No way.’ Even though the Deuce is fine, I doubt I’ll ever get over the feeling that I wasn’t at the hospital enough. I spend more time in Trader Joe’s than these two do at the hospital.
So Matthew was released on Easter Sunday. I’m not a practicing Catholic; it’s a fact that pains my parents, but the whys and implications are the stuff of another work. Whether or not you go to church says little, though, about the spiritual life you live. The symbolism of Matthew’s release on Easter wasn’t lost on me. It was unavoidable. Walking out of the hospital into the sun with him felt less like rebirth than birth itself. It was our first time to be outside with him and there was no denying that was a greater testament to his life than the previous 37 days. This was real life—no safety net. In that regard it struck me that the experience was not unlike what Easter represents, in that Jesus Christ’s rise from the dead was the miracle of his life, and it matters not if you’re speaking literally or metaphorically. And no, I’m not comparing my son to Jesus Christ.
Our son Philip is three and has shown all the interest in learning about Matthew that he shows in anything that isn’t a toy he can play with—very little. On one occasion I took a photo of a picture of him next to a picture of Matthew and then showed that to him. I thought the equivalence might help bring the lesson home for him and it did. For about 30 seconds. Next!
We arrived at the friends’ to pick him up and before climbing up into his seat, I opened the side door so he could peak in and get his first look at Matthew in person. His curiosity and regard for his little brother expressed a kind of love new to me. It was like learning about chocolate.
This stuff has been around all these years and I didn’t know?
We’re finally getting to know our son. Really getting to know him. Life in that isolette stripped him not just of his ability to move but the sounds he makes and his opportunity to connect with anyone by locking eyes.
Here are a few of the things we’ve learned about him: He’s a night-owl. Loves to be up from about 1:00 to 4:00 every night/morning. And he’s noisy. He’s got a veritable vocabulary of grunts, squeaks and gurgles. Then there’s his gaze. This kid is taking the world in. Shana and I have compared him to Stewie on “Family Guy.” We have this ever-present sense that he’s scheming and planning, that his opinions and desires outstrip his abilities much the way we kid our cats believe they could run the house if only they had opposable thumbs. The intensity with which he’ll look into my eyes is nearly unnerving. This is not something his brother was doing at this age.
But I like it. I think we’ve both been craving this connection.
At his first follow-up appointment this morning the pediatrician asked if we’d learned the cause of the effusion. His question concerned mechanism, the way a stab wound is the mechanism for blood loss. No, we never learned why. And we never learned why in a larger sense either. Early in his stay in the NICU I asked his doctor at a point when the two of us were alone if this was in any way related to advanced maternal or paternal age. Did being over 40 have anything to do with this? He told me no and then quickly added how there was another baby in the NICU had the same thing but the parents of that baby were of prime parenting age. We’ll never know. He was a 1-in-10,000 baby and though that could have played out in many other ways, we scored the lucky break with a mortal scare, but a condition that was only temporary. My nerves are shot, but he’ll grow up fine.
“Alex, can I have ‘Beating the odds’ for $2000?”
As I changed his diaper following lunch I looked down at him. Two small scars dot his chest on the right; that’s the only evidence left of his 37 days. They’re each about 5mm long. They’ll fade in the coming years, of course, and that’s an outcome that will serve him. The day I can no longer find them will be a sad one for me I expect. They are my one physical reminder of what we went through and for now at least, they are a kind of talisman, a reminder of just what we all have survived, what we are all capable of surviving.
I get a lot of press releases. Most require no reading. However, the press release announcing a left-handed bicycle was so mirth-inducing as to elicit giggles from me even as I was making my peanut butter sandwich for lunch. When a press release for a product I don’t actually want stays with me that long, well I have to think about why.
Then I thought about the date, so I clicked on the link. Nothing happened. I don’t know if this is a joke or not, but I figured, why should I decide? I’ll let you all be the judge on this.
Here’s the text that was included:
My relationship to my weight for the last five years or so has been one that isn’t entirely dysfunctional, but it doesn’t operate by any of the norms that characterize the rest of my life. I can make significant efforts for whole calendar sheets and see nothing in return. Or I can take a vacation from all discipline for a weekend and pay dearly. I’m someone who needs a scale, if only to remind me that discipline is a daily task.
So when my old scale died a watery death thanks to my toddler sending his bathwater skyward as if he were the tiniest cetacean going, I figured I’d upgrade to a scale that would give me solid body fat percentage numbers. Truth be told, while I wasn’t psyched to be buying another scale, the death of this one was just the occasion I needed to purchase something that could determine my body fat composition with at least rudimentary accuracy. The dead one claimed to do it, but the numbers were so high I don’t think it would have been accurate even on a sort of normal person.
I ran across the Fitbit Aria while in the Apple Store. My sense is that the few non-Apple items that are carried in an Apple Store are pretty well curated. If the Aria was the only scale they were carrying, well it must be okay, right? I will admit that the $129.95 price tag gave me pause, but I was already prepared to drop $80 or so on a Tanita unit and what intrigued me about the Aria was the ability to use the wifi in my home to send my daily weight to my computer and track it the way I track my time on the bike. Maybe, just maybe, that would give me the extra input I needed to better control, well, I’m not going to say just what needs controlling.
In broad strokes, the scale’s setup seemed simple enough. Pull out a battery and reinsert it to put it in setup mode, make sure the scale is within 12 feet of the wireless router and then a few other steps to make sure the computer was seeing the scale.
This would be where everything went to hell.
In short, I was never able to pair the scale—to anything. Not my desktop unit, not my laptop and not even to my phone, which struck me as a ridiculous suggestion, but one that came up in my reading through of their troubleshooting FAQ. After spending two evenings working on this rather than hanging out with my family, I emailed the company to ask what other suggestions they had. My worst fears about their tech support were realized when, despite a thorough description of actions I’d taken which included (from my email to tech support):
I have restarted my computer (as stated in my previous email)
I have placed the Aria within 10 feet of the router
My router is compatible with 802.11b protocol
My wifi password has no spaces and does not exceed 31 characters, nor does it contain any unusual characters
I have spelled the password correctly
I turned off my Airport Express during setup (as stated in my previous email)
I have tried setting up the scale using my iPhone
Tech support bro Fernando suggested, among other things that I might try restarting my computer and making sure my Airport Express was turned off. I even gave them the make and model on my wireless router and checked to make sure the scale’s firmware was up to date; I went so far as to provide them with the version of the firmware in question.
I should note that I made this purchase more than a month ago.
I’ll cut to the chase: I never, ever got the scale to work. Part of the tragedy in this for Fitbit is that because the scale won’t work at all until it is connected to your computer via wifi it does nothing. Had the device at least functioned as a traditional low-tech scale, I’d have been incented just enough to keep trying. However, because it performed none of its advertised functions, I harbored no hope for future success because following my most recent inquiry to tech support five days have passed with no response.
People wonder why they don’t see more negative reviews on RKP (for the record, until the publication of this post there had been exactly one bad review). The point I’ve made previously is that there is so little drive for it; I just don’t believe there are many products out there that you need to be warned against. It is entirely possible that there are scores of these scales out there and functioning as advertised. Some of them may even be in use among you. The point of this post isn’t that this product can’t work, it’s that if your tech support is monumentally ineffective, you can end up with an utterly unusable product.
Let me hasten to add that I was excited about this product; I wanted it to work well. This is not some Venus Flytrap of a review like the New York Times did on Tesla where they gave an electric car to a reviewer who hates electric cars. That review resulted in quite a lot of controversy, not the least of which is Tesla CEO’s accusation that the bad and inaccurate review cost the company $100 million—the actual value of canceled orders. Even the Times’ public editor found problems with the review.
I bring this up because when I read about the controversy, my feeling was that the Times had sandbagged Tesla. It looked to me like the reviewer could have spent some time talking to Tesla to better understand the car and thereby give it a fairer shake. It’s my personal belief that by the time you write a review of a product, you had better know it nearly as well as the company’s PR team, if not better. I didn’t believe that the reviewer, John Broder, had really done the job of a responsible reviewer; worse, his bias against electric cars suggests someone else with a more open-minded outlook should have reviewed the car.
Like I said, I wanted to like this product. After my final request for assistance to their tech support folks, 12 days elapsed before they got back to me with a half-baked excuse about their email not working right.
I swear, I’m not making this up.
Tech support and customer service are aspects of a company’s function that have the ability to make or break a brand’s reputation. I hear complaints from friends about various bike companies’ customer service departments from time to time. In nearly every instance, I’ve heard a countervailing experience from someone else. But bike stuff has the benefit of (usually) being so obvious in function and installation that very few people ever experience a problem that renders a product completely inoperable. That said, I’d love to hear some worst-case-scenario stories.
I’m still fascinated by what this scale might do, but it seems unlikely that I’ll ever find out. I will say that I’m grateful to Apple for extending me a full refund, though they were unwilling to do so until I showed the manager a photo of the Deuce in the NICU.
For purposes of my own entertainment, I plan to send a link to this review to Fitbit’s tech support guys. I’ll let you know if they ever respond.
When reassuring people, we like to say, ‘The dawn brings a new day.’ It’s meant to remind us that the passage of time changes us, that healing takes time, that options that weren’t open to us yesterday may yet be presented to us. Well, we finally got that new day for the Deuce.
Yesterday, Matthew’s doctor removed his chest tube. His total inventory of tubes—the chest tube, an IV and a pica line—had been dropping, the removal of his chest tube was a big step. Originally, the plan had been to wait another day, but based on his x-rays the doctor decided he was ready. The decision may have been driven, in part, by the fact that hours after his IV and picc line had been removed he developed a fever. So, of course, an IV line went back in for the antibiotics. A classic case of two steps forward, one step back.
But in deciding to remove the Deuce’s chest tube, his doctor was minimizing one potential source for infection. Fine by us, but the bigger piece of news was that the medical team reviewing his x-rays had concluded that there was no more effusion. The Deuce was a leak-free zone.
Removing the chest tube was the definitive testament to the Deuce’s condition. As the surgeon had put it before, his was a binary issue. Either he is leaking or he is not.
Well, bitches, my boy ain’t leakin’ no mo’.
The immediate dividends this change in status paid were the very definition of life-affirming. My wife was able to hold him and breastfeed him for the first time in his (or her) life. She’d spent more than a month of pumping her milk five or six (seven?) times per day—so many times I would lose count. And compared to the way both mother and child’s brains are washed in oxytocin—a powerful neurotransmitter that has been called the “love hormone”—when breastfeeding, pumping breast milk has all the payoff of taking allergy medication to soothe depression.
I may not get quite the reward that either of them do by bottle feeding him, but I can tell you that holding him for the first time and cradling him in my arm as I gave him his bottle was powerful medicine for both him and me. It has been so long since he was born—more than a month—that holding him for the first time today was almost like experiencing his birth. For the first time. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to have him hang out on my bare chest in just his diaper, but I’m sure we’ll get that time once he’s home.
He’s got another day to go on the antibiotics, something that reminds me we have a few hurdles yet. Saturday he will be x-rayed again; I don’t know how important it will rank as a step toward his release, but my guess is that the results of that x-ray will be pretty important.
Equally remarkable as this has been his utter transformation since the bottle feedings began last weekend. Almost from the very outset of the first 10ml feeding—he was still being heavily supplemented by a TPN drip—he began acting more like a baby. He became more alert, began turning his head and looking around more and interacting more with us. If I’d been asked to guess, this change in behavior is something I would have anticipated to be more gradual and to have begun after the surgery.
That he perked up following his first feedings feels rather anti-scientific, as if it were the fulfillment of a promise made by some religion posing as science. I find miracles and science to make for poor bedfellows. Put another way, I don’t believe in magic. But there is something in the Deuce’s improvement once he started feeding on his mother’s breast milk that is nothing short of miraculous. It’s a fair word, I think, because it encompasses both the magnitude of his change and my surprise.
As the size of his feedings increased and the amount of TPN he received dropped each day, he has left what seems a twilight existence where he was never very awake and his sleep was lengthy and frequent but never seemed to refresh him. When he wakes now he is inquisitive, looking around his surroundings and moving far more than I ever recall his brother doing at the one-month mark.
When I bring him to my shoulder to burp, he lifts his head and looks around. He’s unsteady, but a lack of strength doesn’t do much to deter him. How he could progress so much in just five days boggles me.
Matthew’s stay in the NICU is nearing the end of its fifth week. To my knowledge, he is the oldest baby present. We’ve watched babies that were admitted after the Deuce progress and graduate. But despite the length of this stay, the nurses are talking about him as a real success story, an example of just how good the care is, how babies that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance at survival go on to live perfectly normal lives, that by the time they are old enough to inspect their own bodies, the scars of surgery are gone.
There are two other babies in the NICU with effusions. Neither the doctors nor the nurses really share any of this information, but you meet other parents and occasionally you’ll overhear someone talking. One of those babies is the child of the stoner parents who showed up without their ID bracelets. Their little girl was a pound at birth and still weighs less than two pounds.
I’ve not seen them this week; neither has my wife. The last family member I saw drop by was a grandmother who spent her time dissing the mother for not being there. I struggle to comprehend the road the parents are traveling. I can accept under certain circumstances it may be hard to see your child with tubes and wires running in and out of its body, but at a certain point I would imagine that a parent’s love would take over and you just wade through just to be at your child’s side. My heart aches for that poor child that is getting more love from the nurses than she is from her own blood.
The other baby, who had surgery the same day as ours hasn’t recovered as thoroughly as Matthew. While the nurses won’t say anything and we haven’t seen the parents lately—they seem to do most of their visits at night after the dad gets off work—we’ve overheard descriptors that suggest the recovery could be going better. I have the sense that there may still be fluid leaking.
To have three babies in a NICU with chylothorax effusions is unheard of. It’s a one-in-a-million possibility, and while most children get through it, the Deuce’s cohorts in this condition make for a stark demonstration of just how serious the condition is.
We are owed nothing by no one and asking the universe to give us a break is only slightly less silly than rubbing a lucky penny before exposing the results of a scratch ticket. But the heart wants what the heart wants. Right now, what I want is the Deuce home and to cuddle up with him on the couch, me shirtless, him in a diaper, and just let him sleep on my chest. For a week. I want that. I. Want. That.