Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Return to Pool

First I was a League Player

About 20 years ago, I got into my first pool league. It was in Winston-Salem NC and consisted of 3 person teams playing some form of 9 ball, with handicaps to make it fair. I don’t remember the name of the pool room but I recall it was a “private club” where I had to pay an annual fee in order to drink there.  (Ah, government!)

I can't really remember why I joined a pool league. I think I was in there having a beer and shooting by myself when the league operator walked up, introduced himself and invited me. Since I was new in town, it seemed like a good way to meet some new people.

The team that I was on was with 2 people, a guy and a girl, and none of us knew either of the others. By the end of the session, which lasted about 9 months, we were fairly decent friends and really good teammates.

Darren was a twenty-something musician who drank Natural Light beer and chain smoked Marlboro menthols. He was a decent player but he could choke under pressure so we always let him play his matches first.

Natalie was around thirty, attractive, with eyes that had seen too many sunrises (after staying up all night), too many boyfriends (she introduced us to a different one each week), and too many Michelob’s after her match, every week. She would play second and then start in on the post-game celebration, usually reaching the first Stage of Drunkenness (that’s Witty and Charming; for those of you who haven’t read any Dan Jenkins novels - Google 10 stages of drunkenness), pretty quickly.

I was mid-thirties, unattached, and returning to the game after not playing for close to twenty years.  Turned out I could still play a little, was pretty steady, occasionally very good, and loved to play with the match on the line. I batted cleanup and, because I was older, was elected captain. (Neither of the other two wanted to do it.)

By the last week of league, we had managed to get into 3rd place and were playing the 2nd place team. If we won by shut out, we’d leapfrog them into 2nd and each of us would win $150 more in the payout. The good news was, we couldn’t do worse than 3rd so we had nothing to lose. (I used this to calm my teammates down; poor Darren went through a pack of smokes just warming up.)

Darren got up in the first match and played their best player, getting the called 7 and 8 for his spot. In the race to six, he couldn’t seem to do anything wrong and won 6-1; seemed like he came to the table each time with a simple shot or combo on the winning ball and made every one of them.  He lit up two cigarettes in celebration.

Natalie stepped up and played a girl, even, in a tense battle which she won on the hill by making a table length bank on the 8 ball and got perfect shape on the nine.  When I asked her what was going through her head when she shot the 8, she said, “Just make the damn thing. I need a drink!”

The Zone

I stepped up to play their weakest player spotting 2 games on the wire and the wild 7 and 8. This is a tough spot to outrun but I was loose in the knowledge that we couldn’t lose position, so it was a chance to jump up.

As they were behind, the other team had the first break and my opponent was kind enough to snap in a winning ball, twice in a row putting me down 4-0 in the race to 6. All I could do was laugh as it was completely beyond my control. If the guy was going to go unconscious on me, all I could do was rack and watch.

Feeling cocky, he took a wild swing at the next break and the cue ball jumped off the table after contact giving me ball in hand for my opening shot. Good thing, as he’d made the 7 ball on a fluke kiss and I would have been down another game.

I picked up the cue ball and could immediately see the pattern for the runout. Not only could I see that, it was the only thing I could see as the rest of the world had, sort of, disappeared. I didn’t know it, but I’d just entered The Zone for the first time in my pool career.  I quickly ran out the rack and trailed 4-1.

My opponent racked and I broke, making 3 balls. I quickly ran out that rack to get to 4-2.  He racked again, I broke and the 9 went in to get to 4-3. He racked for a third time and I broke, made a ball, and had an easy 1-9 combo to get to 4-4.

I walked over and took a sip of my beer as he racked again. Darren was in the john and Natalie was drinking her second beer and chatting with her date so no one said anything to me.  I’m not even sure I saw them, to tell you the truth.

By this time because of the length of Natalie’s match, every other match had finished and people began to crowd around the table to watch; about 50 people in all. They were waiting for payouts, mainly, but pretty soon were all watching us play.  (I didn’t see them when it was happening. They all came up to tell me afterwards. Part of being in the zone, is you don’t see anything except what you’re doing.)

I stepped up to the next rack and made two balls. I worked my way through the rack fairly easily but got horrible position on the 7 for the pocket I’d planned but perfect shape for a table length combo on the 9. Normally, that’s a pretty low percentage shot for me. This time I didn’t even think about it, just shot it in to get to 5-4.

As my opponent racked, with me on the hill, all I could see 
was a 4x9 foot stretch of green cloth with pool balls on it. It was one of the most bizarre feelings I’ve ever had; almost as if I was floating above the table. An out of the body experience, downright spiritual in its feel.

The Zone ends

I broke the balls, making the 2 and 4 balls.  I quickly worked my way through the rack. After making the 7 ball, the cue was coming up table into perfect position for the 8 and 9 which were close together near the spot. It had almost stopped rolling when Darren jumped out of his seat, walked toward me and said, “Timeout.”

I stopped chalking my cue and looked up, surprised to find that there was anyone else there.  Darren dropped his voice and said, “How are you going to play this?”

I looked at the table. All that was left were 2 stop shots, about as easy as it could ever be.  I took a deep breath because I was pissed that his interruption had completely taken me out of that wonderful place I’d been for the last thirty minutes or so. (It felt like 30 seconds.)

“I’ve just run 5 racks and have two stop shots to run out the set, and you want to know how I’m going to play this?” I whispered in a barely controlled fury. “I’m going to make them and then I’m going to kick your ass if you don’t sit the f**k down, right now.”

Darren went paler than usual, said, “Sorry” and went back to his seat to light up a smoke. (He, clearly, had never seen anyone in the state I'd been in and had no idea what he should do. Given the circumstances, I could just as easily have made the same mistake. I apologized to him later.)

I took a couple of deep breaths as I walked slowly around the table, chalking my cue, pretending that I did this sort of thing all the time. I looked at the angles of the 3 balls on the table, one white, one black, one white with a yellow stripe. My heart was nearly back to normal and I felt like I could shoot. I shot both shots with the same speed that I’d used to shoot all the other ones (except I had to think about it, this time) and split the pocket with both shots. The crowd applauded, really loudly. 

(I hadn’t realized everyone was watching yet. The noise really snapped me back to reality.) Several people clapped me on the back or high fived me.  I shook my opponents hand and he said,

“Man, I’ve never seen anything like that. Nice shooting!”

The league operator handed out the prize fund right after that and my teammates and I each got $450 for finishing 2nd. Darren bought beers for the team. Natalie offered herself to me (I passed) and I was bitten by the competitive bug.

New Leagues

Fast forward about 15 years. I live in Richmond VA, now. I ran an 8 ball league for about six years, until last summer when the Side Pocket closed its doors for good. I made many friends, a few enemies, and established a reputation as a pretty good league operator.

My decision to take on a temporary committee role with our church took up a lot of my time for the past year so, I dropped out of the pool scene. I stopped by another pool room to get my cues worked on, played in the VA State 9 Ball tournament, and refereed it. But mostly, my pool time was spent playing on my table at home, whenever I could find a spare hour to practice.

A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to get back into playing. I sent an email to the operator of the BCA league at Diamonds, about twenty miles from my home, asking him when the next session started. He passed my name along to several team captains and I got a call the next day asking me to join a team for the summer session.  Last night was the first match and it felt great to be back.

Things I love about a pool room

No matter what part of the country you go into, there are some things that happen in every pool room. Without fail.

Swearing. (No one can swear like pool players. Trust me. My dad was a bricklayer.)

Players lying about how long it’s been since they played. (I haven’t picked up a cue in years… wanna play some cheap sets? I need the 7 ball.)

People that are glad to see you. (Hey, I haven’t seen you for a while. You playing any? Let’s play some cheap sets and catch up! Can I get the 7 ball? I haven’t been playing much…)

Couple that with beer, a lot of smokers, an occasional bar fight….damn, I do love a pool room!

Rack ‘em up!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Cap 2 Cap

As Richmond VA works to become a more bike friendly area, one of the coolest projects is a mixed use trail stretching the 55 miles from downtown Williamsburg – the original capital – to downtown Richmond – the current capital. This has been under construction for eight years and each of the past couple of years, there has been a fund raiser ride, called the Cap2Cap. (About 35 miles remains to be paved and all but one small section is currently under construction.)

The ride has expanded to four different distances. There’s a full century, a half century, and a quarter century, along with a short fun ride.  Rides begin at both ends of the trail and, oddly, don’t follow the trail at all.  Instead, they wind in big loops over local roads.

Let’s do the Half…..

MB and I signed up to ride the half century beginning in Richmond and sent in our entry fees a few months before. We also ordered event jerseys (another fundraising effort) so we could look like teammates.  (Really, it was for the fundraising. We noticed that about 25% of the participants had the jerseys on, though, so it looked kind of cool!)

Packet pickup at a brewery??? 
Why, yes, I think I will!

The organizers arranged for Friday night packet pickups at a local craft brewery, Hardywood Brewing. They’ve been open for almost two years and are growing very quickly. (Along with biking, Richmond is also becoming a craft beer town.  Coincidence? I think not!) Of course, you could get your packets on ride day and skip going to the brewery but why would you?

Good food, good beer, good times!
MB and I met at my office and road down together. There was a huge crowd due to: a) packet pickup, b) food trucks in the parking lot, c) beer, d) live music being played, e) all of the above. We parked several blocks away and walked back to enjoy e) all of the above.  We concentrated on the beer.

After hanging out for an hour or so, we headed home.

Off to ride

It always seems counterproductive to me to load up your bike and drive somewhere to take a ride.  But when the starting point is about 25 miles away, you need to do that.  So, we loaded up.

As I walked to our shed for the bike rack and bikes, it started to rain. Hard.  Really hard. My first thought was, “This is going to suck.” But by the time I’d gotten the rack out and started to attach it to the car, the rain had nearly stopped although it was still pretty overcast. The weather forecast wasn’t promising.

I went back inside and told MB that we might be in for a wet ride but it appeared to bother me more than her. (Yeah, I’m a wuss.)

We loaded up the bikes and the gear and headed to the starting point, a place called Rockett’s Landing. It’s an historic site right next to the James River that has made a remarkable comeback in the past 15 years as it went from abandoned, former manufacturing blight to a funky neighborhood with apartments and condos that have been created from old warehouses, coupled with some very old and historic homes.  It’s got a very cool vibe!

Just a small section of Rocketts Landing
By the time we found a parking spot, the clouds had broken up and the sun made an appearance. It suddenly looked like it might be a decent day! 

We rolled down near the starting area with about fifteen minutes to kill before the official start. I positioned us just behind a police car that I figured was going to be leading the pack for the first couple of miles; about 400 other cyclists were queued up about 100 meters further down under a start/finish tower. There was a large clock showing elapsed time from when the century riders had gone off an hour before.
All dressed up with 50 miles to go!
I get nervous in huge starts like that. There are a huge number of riders, in close formation, who rarely ride in groups. (Like me.) I get hinky because that’s a great place for a big pile up and I didn’t want to be the guy who needed to be “cleaned up on aisle 3!” That’s why I moved us up into a potentially safer spot.

Hizzoner the mayor was on hand and counted down the last ten seconds till the start. As I suspected, the police car began to pull out and we tucked in behind it completely out of the crowd during that first crazy few minutes.  The cop turned right, out onto the start of the route and we rolled on with MB setting the pace as we had agreed.

Rolling along

The first few miles had some rolling hills and the early adrenaline allowed us to hold a pretty good pace.  Other riders began to pass us within a half mile of the start but by then there was plenty of room for everyone.

I had never ridden on this, the eastern, side of town before. It turned out to be a delightful course with few hills, decent quality pavement, room to ride, and idyllic scenery.  Lots of old farm houses, some occasional new development / suburbia and reasonable traffic. I would venture to say that there were fewer cars than I usually encounter on the other side of town but it’s probably a toss up.

Around the 14 mile mark, we came upon the first SAG station. It was in a state park (whose name escapes me now) with decent rest rooms as well as the porta potties we all know and love.  Snacks were plentiful and we took advantage of these along with water refills.  All in, we were stopped for about fifteen minutes.  After a quick stretch, we headed off again.

Urban Bike Club

We were only a few minutes down the road when we were passed by a group of about 10 riders, all in their teens and kitted out in the uniform of the Richmond Cycling Corps.
I had read various articles about this group over the years. They use cycling as a platform for changing the lives of youth that live in housing projects in the Richmond area.  They’re headed up by a couple of very impressive guys, both really good cyclists with a heart.

This group of kids were all grinning and pedaling along, clearly enjoying the day’s ride. They also had their own camera person, a videographer who was riding on the back of a scooter recording the ride.  It was very cool!

Another mile or so up the road, we were passed by two more riders in the same outfits. One was a young team member. The other I recognized as one of the directors of the program. He had a hand on the little guy’s back and was helping him charge back up to join the rest of the team, evidently recovering from a mechanical of some kind.

Another Rest Stop

Around mile 28 we hit the second SAG stop, set up in the parking lot of a country convenience store.  There was clearly a big crowd on this ride as there were several hundred riders hanging around, catching a break. I was actually worried about getting snacks but we managed to grab a few cookies and refill our bottles before taking off again.

High Speed Limits, Limited Shoulders

The next section of the ride started along a two lane road that was fairly wide with a decent shoulder of about two feet.  The speed limit, almost immediately went from 45 to 55 mph, making me a little nervous.

In western Hanover, where I live and ride, this type of condition can be a little dicey.  If it’s a workday, drivers can get a little antsy about getting to work or wherever and may take more chances than a cyclist would like to see.  Since it was a weekend, I was less concerned but wary just the same.

We had traveled about half of the 7 miles that we were on this road when I saw a tractor trailer approaching from behind at a high rate of speed. I alerted MB to it and she hugged the edge of the road, along with the other five or six riders in our proximity. As the truck approached, it swung several feet over into the oncoming lane, passed all of us at once, and whipped back onto the correct side of the double yellow line missing the rider in front by about 10 feet or so (I expect it seemed much closer!) while avoiding a head on collision with a pickup truck by about 3 feet. 

The driver of the pickup truck blew his horn and gave a one finger salute to the tractor trailer driver who continued down the road.

We learned later that two Cap2Cap riders had been struck in a hit and run by a tractor trailer, somewhere behind us, on the same stretch of road at about the same time of day. I don’t know if it was the same driver or not and none of us got an ID on the truck. The two riders had to be Medivacced to the hospital with severe injuries. One was released a couple of days later but the other is still in the hospital, having lost a leg to amputation and with severe organ and tissue damage.

(As of today, VA State Police have identified the driver but there has been no announcement of charges or results of the investigation.)

I was glad when we finally made a left turn onto far less frightening pavement.

There was one other accident that passed about 5 miles from the end. This one didn’t have a motor vehicle involved, but a cyclist who appeared to have a pretty bad leg and head injury. She was being attended to by EMTs as we rolled past.

Last Stop

The last SAG stop was at another convenience store where we managed another quick snack, some cookies and fruit, and bottle refills.  While we were heading to our bikes, a local patron (who looked like an extra from Deliverance, frankly) admired our bikes and mentioned that he’d heard that people paid “a thousand dollars for some of them.”  I told him some folks would think that was a cheap bike.

"Y'all look good in them tight pants!"
He responded with, “I think I’ll just drive!” Then he laughed through his missing teeth and wandered off to his pickup truck.  Yessireebob!  (You have to wonder what it looks like when several hundred people, mostly middle aged, suddenly show up in a place like this and we’re all wearing brightly colored Spandex.  It’s got to be pretty weird!)

Kick it in, second wind

With about twelve miles or so to go, we headed off again. Long rides, for me anyway, always seem really long when I know that I’m within striking distance.  Those last five to ten miles seem to take forever.  This one was no exception.
The good news was that it was, except for one small climb at the end, nearly flat.  The bad news was that it turned into the wind the last five miles.  You know the old saying, “Hills make you stronger, the wind just makes you mad.”  It’s true.

MB and I switched off and on, taking the lead for several miles. A woman joined us in that for another couple of miles as we rode past the airport.  Then we rode downhill into this park like area that neither of us had seen before. It was glorious!

We turned onto another road, under a railway trestle, and then up a hill. I knew that we were close to the finish.  After slowly grinding out way up the hill, we spotted signs that looked familiar and we charged down a slight hill and turned back into the Rockett’s Landing area.  Another turn and we crossed the finish line in less than four hours.

It was time for BBQ, cold beer, and some bluegrass music by a local band before loading up the bikes and heading home. With that, MB completed her first half-century ride.  And is still talking to me!

Next up for me, the Tour de Cure century ride!  (Wherein, the old guy finally learns how to properly climb the Blue Ridge Mountains and lives to tell the tale.)

Happy with a beer and BBQ.