Seven things your W203 needs at 100,000 miles (160,000 kM), if you want to make it to 200,000 miles

MERCEDESBENZC-KlasseAMG-319_9If your W203 is at or over 100,000 miles (160,000 kM) you should attend to these items to prevent future costly repair bills:

  1. Check/replace the voltage regulator brushes. The Bosch alternator in your W203 has high output (the V6 models produced 150A) but the regulator brushes wear and need replacement after 100,000 miles. Unfortunately due to the location of the alternator, it’s not possible to remove the brushes without first removing the alternator from the car. It’s kind of a bear of a job, but if you don’t do it, you risk being stuck somewhere.
  2. On V6 models (C240, C320) replace the belt tensioner. The factory tensioners had a high failure rate, you may want to proactively replace the tensioner, otherwise you may find yourself stuck with a shredded belt. While you are doing the tensioner, install a new serpentine belt.
  3. Replace the plugs and plug wires. Your W203 came with Platinum spark plugs good for 100,000 miles. The V6 models used 2 per cylinder. A special tool is needed to remove the plug wires. Be warned the plugs at the two rearmost cylinders are hard to reach,
  4. Replace the antifreeze. The antifreeze is good for 7-10 years or 100k miles. Make sure to use only Mercedes Benz antifreeze from the dealer.
  5. Replace the differential fluid (front and rear for 4matic models). MB says you can use a standard 90W gear oil, consult your owners manual for the fluid spec.
  6. For 4matic models, replace the Transfer case fluid. Be warned, this is not a small job. It requires either a lift, or 2 sets of jack stands so that you can get all 4 wheels in the air. You will need to remove the transfer case cross member, a mount, a heat shield and disconnect the driveshaft and remove the flex disc.  If you’re not up to the task, have your mechanic do the Transfer case fluid at the same time you do the transmission service.
  7. Believe it or not MB did not specify a service interval for your 5-speed automatic transmission. Rather, the transmission was advertised as “sealed for life” and not requiring fluid changes. This concept later proved to be BS, and a wise owner will do a trans. service consisting of dropping the pan, new filter and fluid change, every 40-50k miles. The service costs about $200 and is well worth it.



Sometimes determination is your downfall

Getting a head start on a 3-day ski weekend, I loaded up the Benz wagon on a Thursday morning and left work sometime after lunch. About 40 miles south of Lebanon, NH the “battery/alternator” warning light came on, along with “visit workshop”. Uh-oh. Thinking that the car either had a bad battery or wasn’t charging, I called an Advance Auto Parts store in Lebanon and asked them if they could test my charging system.

I rolled into their parking lot at around 3:30 pm or so, the guy brought out his testing equipment and reported back to me that my battery was only at 17% capacity. He said he couldn’t test my charging system because the battery was too low.  He looked at the sticker on the battery and said, “well this battery is 4 years old, a car battery in New England only lasts 3 years.” This would turn out to be untrue.  Nevertheless they sold me a new battery for $150, and then tested the charging system again, and reported back that the system wasn’t charging properly.  He asked me how far I planned to go, and I told him I had another 90 min of driving. “Well you have a new battery, you should make it no problem.”

The shop gave me $20 for my old battery, which in retrospect, I should have kept (more on that later).  I set out again, with only 15 min. of daylight left and despite having the headlights on the last 75 min. I made it to the ski club with no problem.

On Friday morning, I hastily called a couple shops in the Mad River Valley thinking that one of them could fix my alternator. But the only one that would work on it was booked up until Monday. I could have tried Waterbury or farther away, but that would have meant messing with a car instead of skiing. So Friday morning I went out to ski. Knowing that fixing a Mercedes Alternator in Vermont would run a minimum of $600, being the cheapskate that I am, I decided I would order an alternator, have it delivered to my house and I would fix the car when I got back.

Knowing that I needed to charge the battery to go anywhere, I asked a friend at the ski school desk if anyone had a charger- someone else did, but he said he would “try” to bring it in the next day but couldn’t promise.  On Saturday I knocked on the Pierces’ door and Al said he had a charger. It took him a long while of rummaging in his garage to find it, but it was only a trickle charger meaning it could go all weekend and still not charge the battery.

On Saturday after skiing I bummed a ride from Cipriano to Waitsfield and bought a 10-amp battery charger at Bisbee for $60. Then connected that to my car and plugged it in outside the lodge.

The plan was now to NOT ski Sunday, so that I could drive home during the day (and thus not use the lights). With a fully charged battery, I thought, not using any of the accessories or lights, I would easily make it home on a fully charged new battery, right?  Since I wasn’t planning to use the heat or fan, I bundled up in my ski clothing, put heat packs in my boots and gloves. I could see my breath inside the car.

While I was driving, I began to have doubts if I could make it the whole way. So I called a friend in Littleton, Mass, who was 40 miles closer. I told him I was coming by for a coffee, but the ulterior motive was to plug in the battery charger so that I could make it home.

After about 2.5 hours of driving, somewhere on Rt 89 above Concord, NH the dash indicator went on “ABS” and then “Stability control” and a bunch of other stuff flashed on the screen. A few seconds later the engine lost power and shut off. I drifted into the shoulder. The car was dead. There was enough power to run the hazard lights but the engine wouldn’t start.  If only I’d kept my old battery, which wasn’t bad to begin with, I could have charged an extra battery before leaving, and then when the first one went dead, switch it out for a fresh one.

I called 911 and they dispatched a state trooper, who then called a tow truck.  My first impulse was to have the car towed to Concord and leave it, and then rent a car or take an Uber home. But I called my friend and he suggested I tow the car to his house in Littleton, we could charge the battery there and then I could drive it home.

The tow from NH down to Littleton cost over $450. We hooked up the car to the charger, and then I hung out inside for 2 hours, but when we came out the battery was not even halfway charged. My friend suggested I leave it on the charger overnight, and take an Uber home. So I spent another $50 on an Uber.  The next day, I bummed another ride from one of the ski racers going to Nashoba, picked up my car (battery now charged), did the ski race and made it home.

Another day later I tacked the job of installing the new alternator ($285 part). There is no way I could have done the repair in Vermont, because it was too cold out and I didn’t have the right tools with me.

The total cost for this mess:  $995

New Battery $150, battery charger $60, tow truck $450, Uber $50, new alternator $285.

If I had stayed over until Monday morning, and had Haps (Waitsfield) fix it, it likely would have cost half that (or less). In fact the part that goes bad (Voltage regulator) is only a $30 part.


Into the freezer


File this one under “riding mistakes”


The recent Rasputitsa event in Vermont’s northeast Kingdom might have been the most miserable I’ve ever been on a bike (more on this in my next blog). But it served to bring back a seemingly lost memory of one of my earliest cycling blunders. Yeah, we’ve all had those… like the time you went out in July for 7 hours, with no sunscreen and burned every part of your body not covered in lycra.

Time warp back to the late 1980s in North Jersey- I had finished grad school and was doing a post-doc at Roche in Nutley. At this point in my life I hadn’t discovered racing yet (although I had heard of Greg LeMond) and wasn’t necessarily well-versed in the best cycling clothing and gear. As a recreational cyclist, I joined BTCNJ (bicycle touring club of North Jersey) and ventured outside the industrial area of Essex county as far as say Basking Ridge, which back then to most people was “the country.”

After a good staple of BCTNJ 50-7- mile rides, I felt ready to tackle a 2-day ride, which I believe was an American Cancer Society event.  I remember registering for the event along with a coworker, Tom Watson, but as the weekend grew closer Tom became concerned with the weather and got cold feet.

“It’s going to rain, Doug”

“So, what’s a little rain?”

“It’s going to rain A LOT. It’s a major storm system”

“No big deal, it’s only water. So, we will get wet, we will dry out.”

But no amount of cajoling was going to convince Tom to ride. On Friday morning he bailed out. Determined to ride, I got my Fuji ready on Friday night and showed up at the start on Saturday. The ride started dry, in fact it was kind of warmer humid weather. I started the ride in short sleeves and shorts.  As we moved up through Sussex county though the weather deteriorated quickly. A driving rain, followed by a North wind and a temperature drop of 15-20 degrees. This is what happens when a cold front slams into a warm humid air mass. I cannot remember if there were thunderstorms (maybe) but those of us out on the road got quickly soaked.  My shoes filled up with water, the roads were flooding. Cars had their headlights on and probably were in disbelief of the crazy cyclists out there.

I cannot remember if I had a rain jacket, maybe, although It was not waterproof. Other riders who didn’t have any protection were given garbage bags with holes cut into the sides for their arms. Growing colder, I pushed my bike ahead as that was the only way I could generate body heat. Fortunately I had the fitness to do so. After 2+ hours of riding in cold rain and wind, we arrived at a Boy Scout camp in Port Jervis, where we were to have hot showers, dry clothes and then sleep overnight for day 2.

The first thing we discovered was that there was no hot water, because due to the large number of freezing cold people the hot water got quickly used up. Secondly the truck that was going to deliver our bags was late, because it had to stop to pickup riders that had abandoned. It was close to chaos at the overnight stop. There were large tents set up, but no heat, and we waited around in wet clothing, shivering. A bunch of us discussed the weather for day 2 of the ride. While it was supposed to be dry, it was also going to be clear and relative cold, with morning temperature of 40 degrees, and not much above 55. Knowing that I didn’t have warmer clothing (such as tights or a long sleeve jersey) for day 2, I found a pay phone and called my brother, who kindly drove a long way to get me.  Because there was no way I was going out on a bike the next morning without warmer clothing.  I remember cranking up the heat in the car, and how good it felt being warm and dry.

When I got back to the office on Monday, the first thing Tom said was “So, how was the ride??”Riding-in-the-rain


Can the Democrats win back the South?


The recent victory of Doug Jones has democrats enthused, because a year ago, a democrat winning a Senate seat in Alabama would be unthinkable.  Yes, Trump is unpopular nationwide, and that unpopularity extends into all parts of the country. The democrats can no longer rely just on the Northeast, a few midwestern states and the West Coast to win elections. While they may be able to win presidential elections, the South holds the key to control of the house and Senate.

It wasn’t always this way; Democrats had Southern voters with Kennedy and LBJ, Carter and Clinton. But the GOP, with Nixon’s Southern strategy, employed various tactics, some nefarious,  to swing Southern voters to their column. The GOP not only has a grip on Southern house and Senate seats, it controls most of the Governorships and State legislatures.  The control at the state level is a problem for the democrats- until they can break the GOP grip, congressional elections will be tilted by gerrymandering, aggressive voter ID laws and other intimidation tactics since the obliteration of the voting rights act.  Republican controlled states will also stack their courts with conservative judges who act in the interest of the governing party.   Alabama showed that the GOP grip on the South can be broken- Here’s how:

  1. Present a positive jobs and economic message for working families. It is not enough for democrats to just bash Trump, they have to offer an alternative. Trump won on a populist message that he was outside of Washington and could “change things.” The democrats can certainly dispel this and point out how much deeper the swamp is with Trump’s cronyism, his cabinet and tax bill. The democrats have to articulate to voters how they will grow the economy for working families. Because the South is home to many manufacturing plants (Nissan for example is in Tennessee) the democrats need to be careful about anti-trade and protectionist talk. In fact, I would advise being a proponent for NAFTA and TPP (Obama was for TPP) because that opens up foreign markets to American goods.  Democrats can also use green energy to their advantage.  If we’re going to be against fracking and coal, then we’d better be able to replace those jobs with solar and wind energy jobs.
  2. Move to the center. The whole party doesn’t need to come center, but the congressional and senate candidates do.  The candidates in the South cannot take up the extreme progressive positions that Northeast or California candidates do, because the liberal thinking on social issues doesn’t play well with Southern voters. This doesn’t mean that candidates have to abandon their principles, but they need to convince voters that they share their values.  Key to this are abortion and guns.  The message voters need to hear is : we support preventing unwanted pregnancies through sex education and birth control and we need to find middle ground on abortion laws that protect the mother’s rights and yes, place limits on late term abortions.  On guns, most gun owners support background checks and closing the gun show loopholes. Democratic candidates need to explain that they support the second amendment, but they value the life of children (Sandy Hook) and families and want to curtail gun violence and mass shootings. Those latter topics will play well with female voters.
  3. Show strong support for the military. Many blue collar families down South are military families or strongly support our troops. The Democrats should not let the GOP make voters think that only the GOP is pro-military. Therefore the democrats need to commit to strong funding for our armed forces, fixing the VA, shoring up benefits for military families.  Because of Trump’s lack of service and multiple deferments due to a dubious bone spur, democrats with a service record can run strongly in the South.
  4. Explain the environmental message. Southern states are subject to some of the worst environmental damage and pollution in the country. Voters, once they know the facts, will vote for someone committed to protecting wild lands, wetlands, rivers and streams from corporate polluters. The key is that the candidates cannot be seen as environmental extremists who want to have regulations for every minute activity.
  5. Health care and opiates.  This is a big, big issue down South. Many of the GOP house members who voted 50+ times to repeal the ACA are still out there.  The 2016 revolt against outright ACA repeal showed how important healthcare is to families. The South has more lower income 50+ people who are too young for medicare, many with chronic conditions. Add to that the ravaging effects of opiates in West Virginia and Kentucky and you have a formula to win over those voters. While Trump has talked about battling opiates, he’s put no money or resources behind it.  The democrats can send members to Congress who will deliver on real solutions for opiates.
  6. Family values. Do family values matter any more? Alabama says yes. While Southern voters went for Trump despite his Access Hollywood tape, multiple marriages and other non-Christian behavior, many voters do care about character. Democrats can still use this message, with candidates who behave ethically and really walk the walk, not just talk the talk and make empty promises.  Democrats can leverage the religious messaging without being religious. Stand up for families and communities- education, jobs, health care, working to bring people together and create bonds within the community.
  7. Women voters. Alabama showed that female voters disliked both Moore and Trump and Democrats can win female voters if they can link the GOP candidates to Trump and his misogyny.
  8. Minorities. Almost all Southern states have African American and Latino populations. If Democrats can get these voters out they can win seats.
  9. Fight off attacks. The right wing will of course try to link candidates to Schumer and Pelosi, or even to Obama. Democrats can fight off these attacks, as Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards did.
  10. College educated suburban white voters. Democrats have the ability to win these voters, who dislike Trump.

Democrats should not just assume they cannot win in the South, as they can win in Texas, in Louisiana, in North Carolina and Georgia.

At your next ‘Cross race, don’t focus solely on your placing

IMG_6851-2What? Isn’t it your placing that matters the most? Sure for elite racers, placing matters because the podium provides great visibility to your team sponsors, teammates, your competition and fans and spectators. Even if off the podium, a top 5 or top 10 in a tough field is an achievement worth mentioning.  In a packed masters race with 80 starters, a top 25 is still a good result to build on.

The point though is that a good placing is reflective of a solid effort, near-flawless execution and often a dose of good luck. Cyclocross races are unpredictable. In a criterium that you’ve raced 10 times, you know where the wind will be, you know the final corner, you know where the manhole cover is to avoid. The roads in that crit don’t change (other than if they are re-paved). In ‘Cross the actual course design may vary from year to year and then you have a multitude of variables: weather, amount of moisture, loose dirt, sand, ruts. What might have been a great race can often go south if you’re caught behind a crash or involved in one, even if you did everything right.

How good was your preparation?

That is why in ‘cross it’s not just the end result of placing, but ask yourself afterwards how well you executed.  Did you prepare correctly the days leading up the race, in terms of your usual workouts and pre-race openers? Did you arrive to the race early enough to pre-ride and practice the technical sections? Did you get in the full warmup that you planned? Did you run the right tires and pressure for the course? These are all things a racer can control. At KMC I saw the better riders taking multiple runs through the technical part of the course (aside from riding the flat routine parts) to get a feel for the flow and best way to tackle the trickier sections.  Watching the races before yours (if possible) will also provide a preview of what may happen during your race.

Once you’re in the race, it is really just a matter of following your game plan, or adjusting it as needed.  When do I go into the red zone? Where can I recover a bit? Where can I pickup places? It’s often said that ski racing is the sum of a hundred fractions. 1/10 of a second here, 0.2 second there. Small errors of 0.1-0.2 seconds each compound into larger time deficits. In a race that may only last a minute or two, 1 second may as well be an eternity. ‘Cross is raced over a longer time scale, but the principle is the same. Each feature whether it’s a corner, straightaway, sand or a barrier that you can gain 0.5 sec on your competitors is a chance to gain time.

When you finish your race, if you feel like you prepared 100%, you raced 100% and you executed well, then you should view your result in a positive light. Like a college student that scored a 95% on the Math exam, you should be happy (go drink a beer) with your score, and then later focus on the 5% you missed.  After each race most of us can point to the places where we lost time and use that information in the next race.  Use your time after your race to reflect on the positives of what you did, whether you were second or twentieth. And then go have a beer. You’ve earned it.

Two Freshmen, a frat house and a bottle of Jack Daniels

old_no7_01_optAuthor’s note: The recent hazing death of Timothy Piazza raised this memory from the depths of my brain

I don’t remember much about that night. Freshman rush at RPI started some time in the fall and basically the frat houses all open up to prospective members. Back in 1979 the drinking age was 18 and alcohol was prevalent throughout the campus, including fraternities.  Friday nights meant $2 pitchers of beer in the Rathskeller in the basement of the student union.  The beer was likely Genesee and the upstate NY Pizza was a far cry from the good NYC pie that I was raised on.

I don’t remember the name of the frat house, but they had what’s known as a “room party” which basically means a different drink in every room. What I do remember was that I brought someone from my dorm, let’s call him Dave. Dave had no intention of joining a frat I think, as he spent time outside of his classes in his dorm room listening to Neil Young and Pink Floyd and doing bong hits with his roommate. But there was free alcohol so Dave went along for the ride.

Again most of that night is a foggy memory, but I remember this: We went upstairs to t he room that had Jack Daniels, because that was Dave’s drink of choice. I’d never had hard liquor before, only wine (at Passover) and beer in high school – which at that time was relatively low grade Bud, Miller or Pabst.  Dave thought it would be fun if we did shots and the frat guy in the room was happy to refill our glasses.  The first shot of 80-proof whiskey kind of burned, the second went smoother and after that I didn’t even notice.  Dave- who had no problem doing 6 shots of Whiskey in succession. After we’d drank 5  or 6 shots of Jack Daniels whiskey, in the space of less than 10 minutes the frat guy started reminding us where the door was and where the window was, because he probably knew what was coming. But he didn’t know that Dave could hold his liquor and if memory serves correct he served up 3 more shots of Jack Daniels.  At no point did he ever say “OK you guys have had enough” or there is a 2-drink limit.

At that point, I doubt we’d been in the frat more than 30 minutes and I’d had 9 shots of 80-proof Whiskey. Dave may have stayed to have more, I really don’t know.  I wasn’t feeling so great, and I left the frat. I think it was still light outside. I staggered back to my dorm somehow, but the world was spinning under me.  Once I got inside the dorm the spinning got worse and I found myself in the bathroom face pointing into the toilet bowl. By this point, some other dorm residents heard me and came into the bathroom to see if I needed help.  Fortunately much of the whiskey I’d drank was still in my stomach and I likely threw up half of what I’d drank.  According to a BAC calculator, if you drink 9 shots of whiskey in the space of an hour, at my body weight your BAC would be 0.24, you would be in a stupor and potentially black out. Despite my stomach being empty the vomiting continued into the dry heaves.

The guys in the dorm tried to get me to drink some water but whatever I swallowed just got puked up again. At some point, it might have been 20 minutes, my stomach finally settled and they helped me back to my room.  I took a few sips of water, they made sure that I was sleeping face down, and someone came every so often to check on me to make sure I was alive.  I was lucky- the next day I had a bad hangover, was dehydrated with a massive headache and stomach in knots, but had learned an important lesson about not messing around with whiskey.

At RPI, others weren’t so lucky. With the heavy drinking at the school, alcohol poisoning was a regular occurrence and I wasn’t the only freshman to go through this. Others wound up at the campus health center, some wound up at the morgue.

A lot has changed since 1979. The drinking age is now 21, Fraternity rush is no longer centered around alcohol. I never went back to that fraternity house. I never learned anything about that fraternity house other than they would pour freshmen drink after drink without regard for whether they could handle it or not.  The frat brothers serving the whiskey were not much more mature than the freshmen receiving it.

Fast forward to Tim Piazza.  Forced drinking after initiation. Peer pressure. Joining a fraternity should be a happy time, it is the beginning of forming new friendships that could last a lifetime.  Fraternities need to think of better ways to handle new brothers: mission impossible, a search and rescue, an obstacle course like the marines do. Anything but getting them stone drunk and then laughing when they fall down the stairs.

I have never touched Jack Daniels (or any Whiskey or Bourbon) since that day.

Why I will never lease a car

Relationships matter.  We have relationships with the people in our lives, but there are also the relationships to our vehicles. screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-1-37-35-pm

We’ve all owned a car that we loved, that we looked forward to driving, and it became an extension of ourselves. Many people have owned a car they disliked or even hated over time.  Cars can come and go for different reasons or they can just plain wear out and reach the end of their lifespans.

Leasing a car has become more common, especially with luxury brands. It allows people to drive in a new BMW without the huge up front cost of buying one. Of course there are those pesky lease payments, and the fact that you have to watch your mileage. To me, leasing a car would be like getting married, and then getting a new wife after 3 years, just when you were getting comfortable with her. With vehicle lifespans of 10+ years and 200,000 miles, a 3 year old car is just getting started. It’s a thoroughbred horse, not a cranky old mare.keep-calm-and-lease-a-car

Whether you bought your car new or used, if it’s something you saved for or yearned for, once you have it, the car becomes part of your experience. It takes you not just to work, but on road trips, on errands, to kids soccer games and whatever else you have going on in your life.  You worked hard to buy it, now that you have it you will wash it, wax it, vacuum it and make sure it’s maintained, right?  But what  of the leased car? If you know you’re dumping something in 36 months, will you treat it the same?

Phase 1: The honeymoon.


She’s all I wanted….

When you first get a car, its like a giddy honeymoon. It’s new. OK, it may be used, but hey, it’s new to you. You’re just learning all the bells and whistles, knobs and controls, reading the owners manual (all 400 pages of it). You’ll think of any excuse to drive it.

“We need milk”

“No, we have milk in the fridge.”

“Yeah but that’s 2% milk, I want 1% milk”

There is no eating or drinking in the car during the honeymoon period. It must stay clean. Kids must take off their dirty shoes and God forbid if they spill a milkshake on the new Italian leather, or worse get bubble gum on the carpet.

Phase 2: Settling in

In the next phase, you’ve settled into the fact that you’ve had her a while and she’s growing on you. You know where all the controls are without having to think about it, the seats and mirrors are all where they need to be and the radio has the right presets. You’ve learned how to use the adaptive cruise control, synch your iPod to the built in infotainment system and what speed the windshield wipers need to be on, based on how hard it’s raining.  You’ve explored her limits of speed, acceleration and corning. You’re familiar with the sound of the engine or the nice burst of torque when you want to speed up on the highway.  You’re at the point now where a rental car just annoys you, because it’s either not as nice as your baby, or the controls on the rental car are too much effort to learn. We all like the familiar.

Phase 3: This is getting old

After several years of ownership and many miles, now the relationship can start to go sour. It needs new tires. The 60,000 mile service. Things start to break and it’s making a dent in your bank account.  Hang on though, you’re not done with her yet. Now you have no problem having a coffee or burger in the front seat, you can park close to the store because you’ve got dings and scratches and your wet, muddy dog may come for a ride.  Remember though, she’s gotten you this far.

Phase 4: Parting ways


There are  many reasons why we end up getting rid of a car. My first car, a 1973 Fiat Spider, rusted out where the front control arms mounted to the body. Aside from the rust in the floor and wheel wells, and a host of mechanical and electrical problems, the car was no longer safe to be on the road.  After the Fiat, I ended up with my dad’s Datsun, which after 5 years was also destroyed by New York state road salt.  I had a mid 70s Ford Galaxie XL that burned a quart of oil every 200 miles (bad valve stem seals probably). Never the less it had good heat and I think the AC might even have worked. We would pile 5 or 6 students in that car and drive it from Illinois to New Jersey and it would make the trip, so long as you kept putting oil in it.  But I had no loyalty to the Galaxie. It wasn’t a car that I cared about. When something went wrong with the flex plate on the transmission, a gear tooth was broken off and sometimes the starter wouldn’t turn the motor. That was the end of that car. I had a somewhat nice ’67 Cougar XR7 but when I finished school and had to move back east, I didn’t want to take it with me.  I sold it and drove a rental truck back east. I am convinced that my 2002 Subaru ruined my lower back because of the marginals seats, but managed to get that car over 200,000 miles. While there was no strong attachment to the Subaru, I didn’t want to subject a new car to the harsh realities of driving all winter long to my kids skiing programs. The winter driving, sand, salt and cold all take their toll on a car.

When the Subaru was close to the end, I found a Mercedes C240 wagon and at that point I said “why did I keep that Subaru for so long?”  The Mercedes was a better car in every way. It had a smooth V6 engine with plenty of torque, it was quiet and comfortable. In short, it was a car I could build a new relationship with.

Some owners will get rid of a car not just because of mechanical issues, but just because they don’t like it. I’ve known several people dump their Minis for other models. Maybe your car rides too hard. It’s no longer quiet. It feels cheap. It’s too small. It’s too big or uses too much gas. It has no power.  Maybe it has 10 little things wrong with it and you don’t want the nuisance of fixing them.  Maybe you drove something else and liked it better.  When it is time to get rid of your car and move on you will know it.

Back in 1970 my dad broke ranks (his previous cars were Pontiacs) and got a new Oldsmobile. He ordered it how he wanted it.  It was a Cutlass Supreme, red with a white vinyl top and white interior. While it wasn’t a true muscle car like the 442, he did get the rally wheels and dual gate shifter. For the era, it was a stylish, cool car. It had bucket seats, great a/c and V-8 power.


Olds had a winner in the ’70 Cutlass. What happened?

This was a car that we did a lot of family trips in, and my brother and I used to take turns washing and polishing it, each of us hoping that some day it might be ours. I can’t remember exactly how the Olds met its end, but it ended up in a shop needing a lot of repairs and was sold off.  So much for having a cool Olds for high school. The car that replaced it was awful- a 1975 Dodge Dart swinger that had a gutless 225-slant 6. By this point horsepower was way down, cars were running on unleaded gas and catalytic converters. A few years later I saw our Cutlass for sale, and almost bought it but didn’t. But I still have fond memories of the Cutlass.

The best cars over the years have been the ones that generated some emotional connection. Maybe it was the car you took on your first date, or the one when you learned to drive a stick.  Perhaps it was the one you bought after that promotion or raise, or when you felt that you earned it. Maybe it was the one you wanted for so long and finally found it.

The Zwift Paradigm- what it is and what it’s not

IMG_0772Back in the days before cycling melded with modern technology and electronics, riding a bike was a more austere endeavor.  Riders would head out in the elements, either alone or with teammates or friends and ride, probably on a steel frame bike.  Back in the early 1990s, you either followed someone who knew the route, or you carried a paper map. There were no smartphones; there were no cell phones period.  We probably kept a few quarters in our seat pack to use a payphone.  The limit of my technology back then was an Avocet 40 bike computer, which was hardwired to a sensor mounted on the front fork. At the time this technology was used by the TDF riders.  With the Avocet 40, you knew your speed, time and distance. On a good day it would tell you your average speed. On a bad day, I’d seen riders throw their Avocet into a lake.

Despite the seemingly luddite existence and lack of technology, we managed to ride a lot of miles and climb a lot of hills. We did this with downtube shifters, 42 tooth chainrings and 6 or 7 speed freewheels.  Winter training had particular challenges. Not so much in San Diego where a “cold winter day” is more like a warm spring day in Boston but on the east coast from October through March. I remember the first winter back in New Jersey, where I joined in a Somerset Wheelmen ride and was chatting with Joe Saling, the club leader.  “So there will be a few 60 degree days, right?” I asked.  “Not until the spring” he replied.  Sure enough, Joe was correct, the winter of 2002/2003 was one of the coldest, snowiest winters in NJ of that decade. It literally did not go above 40 much of the winter, and I spent more time on cross country skis than I did on my bike.  Still, we did get out for winter rides, though the pace was 16 mph and many riders were still on fixed gears.  I did a lot of winter rides back then and enjoyed the bright sunny days.  But in the past 5 years I noticed with each successive winter it became harder to get motivated to ride in the cold, particularly when many of the group rides dissolved.

I’d always had a love-hate relationship with my trainer. I hated getting on it, in the cold dark pain cave of a basement- but I loved having ridden it.  Beat music and electronica made it bearable. Riding  in a studio with others made it motivating. Despite the knowledge that the indoor workouts were better interval training for me, I still preferred going outside.  But with the Boston winter beating me into submission, I decided to investigate the Zwift phenomena that had been infiltrating my Strava feed.

So, what is Zwift?  Simply put, Zwift is an interactive cycling game that lets you ride your stationary trainer, and it translates your power, cadence and speed into an Avatar that moves along a simulated course, along with other riders.  Zwift is at its heart a video game and will appeal to gamers who relish reaching the next level, which affords more options in team kit, bikes and wheels.  The better equipment (for example Zipp wheels) may translate into more speed versus other riders on the course.IMG_0768-1

Unlike most video games, Zwift requires you to exercise and sweat. A lot. This is definitely not flappy bird, as you go anaerobic at the sprint points and KOMs.  At any given time, dozens or hundreds of riders may be connected to Zwift and on the course.  I’ve ridden with friends 300 miles away.  Using TeamSpeak, an iPhone app that lets you talk to other riders, makes it more like a real ride.  Like a real ride, stronger and weaker riders can ride together, as Zwift accommodates drafting.  The common link to all riders is a power source, either a power meter at the rear wheel, crank or a power capable trainer.  Riders who don’t have a power meter can still play, using Z-power, which estimates power based on rear wheel speed and the type of trainer being used. While Z-power seemingly violates the code of the Velominati, it at least lets those users in the club.   A more expensive smart trainer such as the Wahoo KickR will adjust the effort level according to the course profile and whether or not you’re at the front or drafting.  This is an extra expense, but it provides a more realistic experience.

So, that in a nutshell is what Zwift is, so what is it NOT? Well put bluntly, Zwift is not a real bike ride. It’s easy to forget that, as you fixate on the TV screen that  you are on a stationary trainer going nowhere. The miles you rode are virtual miles. According to Einstein, have you done any work?  While the Avatar based cyclists on Zwift all appear like calorie counting Pros in terms of their pedaling and form, who is behind them?  My svelte, Norwegian looking rider might be Thor Hushovd or some other cycling overlord, but behind the Avatar I could be a beer swilling, fast food junkie with a belly the size of a medicine ball.  There are many real cyclists on Zwift, including some very high level riders. But I’ve also encountered people who’ve never ridden a bike outside, who have no idea how to draft, or ride in an actual pace line. There are racers on Zwift and there are people who found Zwift to be the next step up from spin class.  When the Zwift ride ends, you’re not sitting at Rojo’s or Factory Fuel enjoying a cappuccino with y our buddies.  You’re alone in your living room and your next interaction will likely be checking your ride on Strava.

At the end of the day, does Zwift work? For me it does. I rode close to 1,000 (virtual) miles in January and February and Zwift says I burned the equivalent of 78 slices of new Jersey cheese pizza.  Given the cold and darkness of a New England winter and my full-time job, there is no way I could have ridden 1000 miles outside since New Year’s day.   With Zwift, I can ride any time of day, and there will be someone else or a group to ride with. I’ve definitely seen my power increase and when I did finally get outside, I felt some zip in my legs.  The biggest challenge you may face with Zwift, is that it becomes easier to ride inside than go out in the real world.


Stand Your Ground: The Self-defense that isn’t

mourning-jordan-davisA classmate of Jordan Davis, age 17, weeps outside the memorial service

Imagine for a moment that someone cuts Joseph off in traffic, or does something that endangers him. Joe follows them into a 7-11 store and confronts them. The person who cut Joe off isn’t interested in hearing the criticism and becomes belligerent. He moves towards Joe in a threatening way, and tells him to get the hell out of the store, or he’ll F- him up.  Under normal self defense laws, Joe can either retreat (i.e. leave the store), or if physical harm is imminent (for example if the other person pulled out a switchblade), Joe can legally defend himself.

But under the “Stand your Ground” law in Florida, and 20+ other Red states, if Joe feels threatened, he can pull out a concealed weapon and shoot the other person dead.  Under “Stand your Ground” it doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or not, only whether the person in their own mind feels threatened.

The Stand Your Ground law, heavily supported by the NRA, basically allows gun-toting cowards to shoot an unarmed person dead, and then get away with murder, since they can claim “they felt threatened..”  Several high profile cases show how dangerous this law is. First, Florida,Georgia, Texas and other red states already have both open and conceal carry laws that allow people to tote guns in public. These weapons, presumably for personal defense have now be used in arguments over cell phones and loud music.

In the Jordan Davis case, Davis, a 17 yr. old high school student, with no previous criminal history and generally a good student was shot to death in a gas station parking lot by Michael Dunn.  Dunn had parked his car next to an SUV with four black high school students- all unarmed, and in an argument over the volume of the rap music, Dunn reached into his glove box and fired 10 shots into the SUV, killing Jordan Davis.  In the initial trial the defense invoked “Stand Your Ground” claiming that Dunn feared for his life.  Dunn tried to claim that Davis pointed a weapon out the window of the SUV, but there was no evidence of any weapon and Dunn’s finance’s testimony contradicted his claims. However, in the initial trial the First degree murder charge was declared a mistrial, presumably because the jurors could not agree.

In another high profile case, a retired police captain, Curtis Reeves shot and killed an unarmed theater goer Chad Oulson, age 43. During the previews, Oulson was texting on his cell phone, which apparently annoyed Reeves.  The argument continued, with Oulson grabbing Reeves popcorn and throwing it at him.  Apparently, that was enough to make Reeves feel threatened and that his life was in danger. He grabbed his concealed handgun and shot Oulson in chest.  Olson’s wife, and mother of their young daughter, was seated next to him as he was killed.oulson

Chad Oulson, with his wife and daughter before he was killed in a movie theater.

These two cases illustrate why it is so dangerous for people to carry weapons in public, and  how under the guise self-defense and a misguided Stand Your Ground law the shooters in these cases can literally get away with murder.  These were not life and death situations. Loud rap music and some black teenagers in an SUV, someone (God forbid) texting in a movie theater during the previews. Without guns, a rational person would choose a different parking spot (away from the rap music) or just ignore it. You can ignore texting in a theater, or if it really bothers you, change your seat or get the manager.  Humans are unpredictable, conflicts with strangers can escalate and this is a great reason why the general public should not be walking around armed.

As for Stand Your Ground, the law does away with all reason, and provides a license to kill on a perceived threat that may or may not be real. A jury cannot determine what was in the mind of a shooter, it is better to rely on the evidence around a situation and determine whether a person genuinely faced an imminent threat or not.