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August 7, 1997

Full Flaps

Roads to Ride

Two months since I'd ridden. Cajoling a nagging injury to finally heal properly. Some days, though, I couldn't resist: rolling the bike in front of the sideboard mirror in the dining room and mounting, making sure the sense-memory of butt, hands and feet on leather and steel hadn't withered. My reflected profile reassuring: these brazed tubes still an integral appendage. Perhaps it ain't time yet, Mr. Yeats, to separate the dancer from the dance.

And then one afternoon, the sweet mesh-click sound of cleats to pedal again. I'd been envisioning the route: the swoop-glide down Sacramento, traffic jockeying out Larkin, the brisk roll along Green toward the water.

Dazzling sunshine, mid-70s, first pleasant day in weeks. The wind a mere pat. Pinch the shrill out of the brakes. Slide along the saddle and feel for the familiar ridges. Rotate the pelvis forward and flatten out. I do the rest of the checklist: elbows almost parallel, head low and tilted, draw the imaginary plumbline from kneecap to pedal platform.

My racing season, my first, is over. I'd started late and competed only once before my injury. Got dropped after 10 miles in the Master's-class category in the Berkeley hills race in May. I figured I'd do my initiation against the elite riders in that class, go up against many years of experience. Run with the big dogs, and you gotta piss with them, it is said, though I counted it less an object lesson than a serious training ride. My invalid mother, recently disabled by a stroke, had unintentionally provided similar perspective for the event some months before: "Just stay on your feet," was her all-purpose counsel to me from her nursing home bed. Wise, as Celtic gallows humor can often be. I kept it in mind as the Cat 3 women riders came up behind me that morning. Coincidentally, it happened to be Mother's Day. "Lookin' good," one of them yelled over in encouragement. I found myself in the middle of their breakaway on a two-mile descent. Sunrise at 42 mph, tucked in low, blood pounding, all senses actuated. The wind shrieked a lullaby, cooing the promise of roads left to ride.

* * *

Stay in the middle ring I tell myself. I spin in the 19 like I had through the first clear skies in March. Knees close to the top tube, pointing high and arcing, toes down. The sun on my neck is a balm, and I'm not bothered that my rhythm is off. The body remembers, the French riders say, and this loosening, the ritual of souplesse, is key to regaining form. I visualize a spot one inch behind each kneecap and imagine those points thrusting through the hollows where the bar and stem join. The knees reach and fall and my cadence begins to smooth. On Chestnut Street it appears that the warm weather hasn't diminished the locals' need to don college sweatshirts. I contemplate the gridlock that would occur if all these jeeps and Range Rovers parked outside the taquerias actually drove out into the countryside. I'm suddenly conscious that I've started to pull my feet back through the downstroke, and the bike surges forward. The French are right: the muscles sense the terrain.

* * *

Alone on Gorgas, just inside the Presidio, no witnesses but this landscape of empty buildings. There's sublimity in their wooden-sad forlorness, and expectation. The first bubbles of sweat on my forehead feel good, my hands feel almost weightless on the hoods. My legs pump easily as I move past, a quiet metrical for stilled voices and histories, decay and renewal.

The panorama of the Bay hits me as I coast under Doyle Drive. I stand off the saddle as if in acknowledgment. Along the shoreline windsurfers in wetsuits scramble like seals to ready their rigs, the daylong reveries in office cubicles now realized. Whitecaps drive and shear between the lip of beach and sky. I'm in the drops now on Mason, facing 20 mph headwinds. An ugly bank of dark, wet fog swiftly convoys the Gate and blots the sun. More rare summer rain nearby, possibly. I shift into the 15 and stand on the pedals a couple of times on the old airfield runway. I'm amused, imagining how I must appear from afar on this expanse of plain. A mote of crabbed determination, hurrying against the pressing gusts and chill.

The Crissy Overlook looms ahead. It's been a while, but there's no hesitation: relax the arms and shoulders, slide back and go. I drop into the granny, then the 23, and spin up, turning it hard. The bike jumps through the first curve and the momentum carries. My heart rate reads 138, 20 beats above my normal for this hill, with the steepest part to come. I lift over the bars and click up two cogs and stamp, keeping the sway minimal and hoping it's enough. There's too much slack in the gear, my legs are a rubbery dangle and I'm at 160 and near blood lactate. I bend and grind out the last 30 feet and crest onto Lincoln, reeling and wheezing in expurgation. I peer over momentarily and glimpse my ascent, then push down again on instinct, my groggy wobble a clammy trust in the next horizon.

* * *

I stop and drink on the ocean side of the trail under the bridge stanchions. A pool of sunlight cleaves the murk off Point Bonita, and a small fishing boat rolls in the chop. Directly below me is Fort Point, built to defend against an expected attack from the Confederate raider Shenandoah during the Civil War. My great-grandfather served as a seaman aboard her, a boy from the Glasgow slums who had signed on the British merchantman Sea King, which became the Shenandoah when Confederate officers took it over in the mid-Atlantic in 1864. Mercenary and progenitor: those facts about him are unassailable. The remainder is of more interest. Landfalls, adventure, contending with the elements, a bit of glory, perhaps: were these the fancies that pushed him on, the poetry beyond the necessities of labor and survival? What he and his shipmates dared, I think to myself as I stand there, is at least deserving of skewed plaudits: The faith that a single ship could capture San Francisco and hold it for ransom by training its guns shoreward.

The dauntlessness of that notion makes me chuckle as I reverse the trail. I can see the sun breaking the cover over the yacht harbor and Marine Drive. Sailboards glint as they lift and dart. The illumined patch of water is a brilliant, almost metallic green, and as I wind down Lincoln the smear of color seems mere feet away. Reach is a vista; grasp, all your days in motion toward it. A satori a day..., I actually hear myself murmur, and laugh out loud.

The roadbed levels off and feels firm. I extend, square my shoulders, and settle in. Why not, I think, and suddenly I know it's time. Into the big ring, rise up, hammer it for six revs, and sit. Work the cluster: 52 x 17, then the 15, do a double click, now one more, the 12, bring the elbows in. Yes, this is how it can be. The banks of the curves are perfect and I ride them tight. The bike is taut and forgiving, and I lean it low, hands in the drops like a gunner. Three minutes along and my rhythm is steady, sure, nothing wasted: 26, 29, 31 mph, no thought of lactate at 128, the burn is something else entirely: seeing it fresh and moving through it, the body in suspension, the present infinite, just this and nothing more, while you have it and it's yours, those other reminders everywhere and nowhere, the harmony of lessons on the long road home.

-- Copyright John Hutchison 1997



A Shaggy Fish Story

It all began when I cleaned the fish tank. I don't have any rare tropical varieties, just five plain old goldfish, the inch-long kind you buy (or used to buy) at Woolworth's for a quarter. But during the years they've swum in the aquarium in my kitchen, they've grown to four or five inches. And they've acquired a family lore of their own: Irwin and Gloria, I am told, own a fancy underwater restaurant; nobody has ever been able to tell Tweety and Egbert apart; and Fish'l is Jewish. I'd hate to be the one who was responsible for their demise.

These are tough fish who have always thrived quite well on water straight from the tap. As I poured in clean water this time, however, I recalled a newspaper article I had read months ago about changes in water treatment that would endanger fish. Had I just killed mine? A phone call to EBMUD assured me that Tweety and the gang could swim safely for many months to come. It also opened a floodgate to dozens of questions I had never forced myself to consider about the water we drink.

* * *

Beginning in February 1998, EBMUD is planning to disinfect the East Bay's water supply with chloramine, instead of the chlorine it now uses. Funding for a similar change is included in a bond measure that will go to San Francisco voters in November. The conversion, which is also being implemented in many other cities in the United States and Canada, is usually described as a way to make our water safer and better-tasting.

The image of a large urban population sickened or decimated by a water-borne illness must haunt the nightmares of water company executives. Confronted with an endless procession of problems, they no sooner solve one than another pops up, like ducks in a shooting gallery. Growing populations and changes in lifestyles have upped demands: in 1928 EBMUD delivered an average of 60 gallons a day to each of its 460,000 customers; its 1.2 million customers in 1994 each used close to 160 gallons a day. Years of careless agricultural and industrial practices have increased the possibility of polluted water supplies at the same time that technological advances are turning up new threats: in 1925 the U.S. government regulated 4 contaminants found in drinking water; in 1995 it regulated 111. Even a company like EBMUD, which draws most of its water from the relatively clean Mokelumne River, must constantly monitor for the presence of everything from aluminum to xylenes.

And for disease-causing germs. Here's where the chlorine came in, in ever-increasing doses, because it kills microorganisms very efficiently. But then a new row of ducks appeared on the scene. Chlorine creates new problems in the form of byproducts, especially trihalomethanes (THMs) such as chloroform, that may cause cancer and other health problems in humans. The EPA began to prod local water companies to find alternatives, and many -- including Boston, Denver, and New Orleans -- sighted on chloramine (a combination of chlorine and ammonia), which drastically curtails the production of THMs.

Less THMs, but more ducks. Or fish. Fish in chloraminated water suffocate because their gills are no longer able to transfer oxygen from the water to their bloodstream. Concerned fishowners can prevent a disaster by adding a neutralizing chemical to the water before pouring it into the tank. (Nevertheless, unowned fish in rivers may lie awake nights worrying about the possibility of a broken pipe nearby.) In addition, chloraminated water is toxic when used for kidney dialysis, but hospital staffers need not worry, because pretreatment systems are also available to make this process safe. The same is true for industries and laboratories that require unchloraminated water: there's always something they can add. The water treatment process is beginning to sound like a patient who receives a series of ten different prescriptions, each designed to ameliorate the side effects of the previous one. Wouldn't it make more sense simply to change the original medication?

You wouldn't know it from EBMUD's publications, but many water companies have done exactly that. Americans made chlorine their disinfectant of choice early in the twentieth century when they first began to seriously tackle the problems of water-borne infections such as cholera and typhoid fever. For some reason -- one theory is that the horrors caused by chlorine gas during World War I were too vivid -- Europeans sought other solutions, settling primarily on ozonation. The EPA has been reluctant to endorse this method as a replacement for chlorination, citing a need for more research. But a number of cities in North America, notably Vancouver and Los Angeles, adopted it when they became aware of the problems connected with chlorine. And even San Francisco and the East Bay have introduced ozonation as a way of killing cryptosporidium, the tiny chlorine-resistant parasite that caused a flu-like epidemic in Milwaukee in 1993 and has particularly deleterious effects on people with weakened immune systems.

Again, I see the ducks lining up. Treating water with ozone doesn't necessarily circumvent every worrisome byproduct, so that the addition of small amounts of other disinfectants might still be necessary. More important, ozonated water must be filtered through granular activated carbon, significantly raising the cost of treatment. And despite decades of European experience, the method and its aftereffects are relatively unknown in the North American water world. But then, so is chloramination.

* * *

Why has there been so little public discussion in the Bay Area of a decision that may have long-term health consequences? Why has there been such universal reneging of responsibility. The general public, perhaps put off by long words and complex chemical concepts, has remained silent, bestowing its proxy vote on the water companies. The local press abdicated its educational function, limiting coverage in the past year to a general discussion of water treatment problems and an announcement, with no elaboration, of the water companies' plans for conversion to chloramine. The water companies played lord-of-the-manor, instituting a new policy without letting us common folk in on the deliberations.

How different from the recent experience of Vancouver, where they take the welfare of the fish population very seriously! There everybody got into the act. After a year jam-packed with petitions and public meetings, newspaper, radio and TV coverage, and intense negotiations between the water company and a citizens' committee, the Greater Vancouver Regional District Board opted in 1994 for chlorine as a secondary disinfectant, because of "its lesser potential environmental impact than chloramine," and agreed to continue testing ozone as a primary disinfectant. The fish in the Fraser River must have breathed easier. I only hope that mine will continue to breathe.

-- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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