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Thu, 30 Mar 2006

Cloning Around on the Bike

"As we seek to improve human life, we must always preserve human dignity. And therefore, we must prevent human cloning by stopping it before it starts." – George W. Bush

I used to work with a guy named Jack R____ who was a clone. He was a son of a clone. An SOC. I believe he was also the grandson of a clone. Yes, he was a clone descended from a long line of clones.

Jack was an identical twin – actually an identical triplet – with two identical brothers. His cloning happened in utero rather than in vitro, so it didn't make the evening news or piss off George Bush. In fact, I didn't even know Jack was a clone until the events I'm about to recount transpired.

No, I didn't even suspect him to be a clone. Certainly he wasn't a clone of anyone I knew at the time. Anyone other than me, that is. He and I had many similarities in our approach to the world. Jack and I were clones, personality wise, despite the differences in our base pair sequences.

Jack was a brilliant (if he said so himself), practical minded software engineer with a MSCS from a three letter school. He was also a local tennis champion with a cagey style play. He had a bitterly sarcastic wit, a BMW sports car, a superwoman wife, and 2 kids. The kids were clones: two identical baby boys. It seems that twinning runs in families.

As a software professional, Jack had a low tolerance for bullshit and an active aggressive style of combating BS (one of those characteristics in which we were identical). He hated pointless meetings, especially "methodology review" meetings. This being 1989, we had a lot of meetings as our company fantasized about CMM compliance and ISO9000.

I remember one particularly tedious meeting where for two consecutive hours the dozen attendees discussed, ad nauseum, the proper process-standard-compliant and continuous-improvement-facilitating phrasing of the functional spec for a certain subroutine. Halfway into this "late equine flagellation" Jack excuses himself. He returns about an hour later and listens for a moment to determine that the topic had indeed not changed. When he is sure they are still beating the same dead horse he clears his throat.

"I just spent the last hour on a proposed rearchitecting the system," Jack announces, "reducing its complexity and cost by a factor of 2. The routine you have been discussing is no longer necessary and, thus, these discussions now seem moot. Perhaps everyone would like to glance at my improved design," he says as he hands out a set of documents. "I took the liberty of writing this little summary of my improvements for your review. I've already coded most of the critical routines and checked them into CVS. Revised schedules are in the appendix"

Pulling stunts like that doesn't win you friends, but Damn! If we could clone that talent, maybe the American programmer wouldn't be declining and falling. Sadly, Jack's thorough yet balls-out approach to software was unique in my experience. It seemed inconceivable that there could be more software engineers exactly like him anywhere else in the world. There weren't, actually. There were just some body clones who were totally different, other than looking like Jack, and having the same DNA. And there was me, his personality clone.

I wasn't working full time back then, and I was primarily a hardware engineer anyway, so I didn't have the opportunity to compare myself with Jack all that often. But I could just look in a mirror. I was a brilliant (if I say so myself), practical minded hardware engineer with a MSEE from a three letter school. I was also a local cycling champion with a cagey style of riding. I had a bitterly sarcastic wit, a Honda sports car, a superwoman wife – no kids yet.

Jack had ended his full time competitive tennis career when his twins were born, trading in his racket and part time software contracting for a full-time software engineer gig. Kids were just around the corner for me, as was the same lifestyle change. But back in 1989 I was still racing bicycles full time and only holding down the annoying distraction of an engineering job as required to pay for all the titanium and carbon fiber I obliterated in the summer.

Befitting my spiritual genotype, my approach to being a bike racer was thorough and balls-out. First of all, I made myself absolutely fit as bike racing defines fit. I was five foot ten, 150 pounds. Thighs like watermelons, arms like toothpicks. I talked the talk and did everything I possibly could to walk the bike racer walk, which, on wood-soled, cleated cycling shoes is a gait akin to that of a cerebral palsy patient.

The bike racers season starts early in the Northeast USA. December first to be precise. It begins with six weeks of development training: free weights and Nautilus, treadmill, hill running, Nordic Skiing. Mid January we say our first hello to Mister Bicycle: six excruciating weeks comprising a thousand road miles on a fixed-gear bike. Pedal through the snow, sleet, and icy rain on a 42x18 gear with no coasting. Then in March I would typically quit any engineering job I had and move to Florida, where I would train and coach at the Walden school of Cycling near Orlando.

Racers in Florida were at the peak of their season in March and their race-fit legs happily entertained pale, flabby riders from snow country like me. After six weeks of this torture, my glove tan was well defined and my legs were starting to show some snap.

According to my logbook from 1989, I raced 4 times that April. My best result was a third-place finish in the Myakka River 100-mile road race. Time of race: 3 hours, 40 minutes. Not too shabby.

In the best cycling form of my life, I traveled back up to Pennsylvania as racing began in the Northeast. June 4th was district championships – the first hurdle on the way to joining the US Olympic team. I wanted to have at least 10 races in my legs before then, so I registered for everything I could find that May. Most of them were local races with local Northeastern riders still working off their winter sluggishness, a step down from the level I was riding in Florida. But there was one race that May that stood out: The National Capitol Open on 14 May, Mothers Day in Washington DC.

The NCO was the premiere spring event on the East Coast. It was a criterium, a short course bike race, run around the Ellipse – a literally elliptical road, one kilometer around, just south of the White House. The National Christmas Tree is planted at one of the foci. Rest rooms at the other focus. Today, that is: in 1989 the rest rooms hadn't yet been built.

Owing to the lack of sharp corners or steep hills to slow down the pack, the Ellipse was a very fast race course. It should also have been a simple, predictable race course, and thus a safe race course, as velodrome racing tends to be.

Unfortunately, after the race organizers satisfied the needs of downtown DC auto traffic routing and the urinary needs of the crowd it expected, and after paranoid Secret Service agents finished installing their terrorist detectors and assassin monitoring systems, the perimeter of the Ellipse looked more like a construction-zone cattle chute than a smooth racing oval. Littered unpredictably around the course were irregular concrete barriers, stockade fences, barrels, cones, and other random obstructions.

Seeing the hazards during our warm up spin around the course, riders ominously re-dubbed the race "The National Crashonal". But it shouldn't be construed that there was an unusual excess of pre-race fear. As I recall, it was a beautiful spring day, and we were all in high spirits. Bike racers may be individualists in most other things, but are exact clones in their cavalier attitude toward any real chance of serious injury during a race.

In fact, racers love to tell crash stories, this story itself being an example of the genre. I hope you judge it to be a good one, but I must humbly admit while I was casually spinning around the Ellipse in DC, soon to have my high spirits become one with the pavement, Davis Phinney (the winningest US bike racer in history) was gathering material for his own personal-best crash story. A story that surely beats mine, impact wise.

On that same day, Phinney was in France riding the spring classic Lige-Bastogne-Lige. He was hammering full-bore, head down, when his team car, a Volvo station wagon, stopped unexpectedly in front of him. He smashed head first through the rear window at high-speed. His injuries were horrific. His lacerated face was a patchwork of stitches, bruising and swelling, but the very next day found him at a cafe recounting the story with many brutal enhancements. Soon afterward, Phinney was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's disease, a factor that may have contributed to the accident, or visa versa.

Anyway, while doctors were picking shards of safety glass out of Davis Phinney's eyelids, I was lining up for the start of National Crashonal. Most times bike races in the US go off with little or no fanfare. They start very early Sunday or Saturday morning, usually on secluded stretches of low-traffic highway.

Not so with the NCO. This was downtown Washington DC. It was 11 AM on a sunny spring weekend day. Cherry blossoms in bloom and 400 bus loads of tourists strolling down the Mall. The NCO organizers had provided all the ingredients of a gala festival to attract spectators. There were clowns, mimes, dancers, musicians, "there was Beauty, there was beer" (sic). TV crews were filming. A crowd of maybe 5000 had gathered. Nice people. Well dressed. Cheering. Quite an unusual sight for us riders. Last week we lined up at 6AM for 25 laps around a defunct meat packing plant in Newark, NJ, our only spectators a few winos staggering to new hiding spots, forced to slither out from under their usual rocks by us stretchy-pants fagot early morning bike riding motherfuckers.

Quite different in DC that day. When the gun sounded and we tore off on our first lap around the course, I felt an exhilaration that rivaled any sex I've ever had – any artificial drug I've ever taken. The adrenaline-endorphin cocktail that nature deals to bike racers is superb junk, and I was flying high on it.

Other than the glorious joy of zooming around the Ellipse at 30+ MPH, shoulder to shoulder with 100 other stretchy-pants motherfuckers, I don't remember that year's NCO being a remarkable race. Other than the nervous moments occasioned by periodic narrowing of the course, the race was rather mundane. Boring even. The unrelenting high speed combined with a course devoid of severely disruptive challenges made it nearly impossible for any small group to break away for very long. Forty-nine uneventful times around the park; then we heard the bell ring with most of the 100 starters in the peleton. One lap to go.

With benefit of hindsight, I should have conceded the race, drifted to the back and spun in easy the last lap. I was never much of a sprinter, not having the build for it. Today would go to the sprinters. It would be best to watch from a safe distance.

Such prudence was not to be found in my thinking that day. I was at the peak of my form, and at the peak of my competitive passion for the sport. I was also at the peak of my body's adrenaline rush, and when the pack picked up speed for the final sprint, I gritted my teeth and fought my way to the front. I would contest the sprint.

Bicycle sprinters pass each other a lot like the way cars pass each other in NASCAR races. Riders in the front row 'lead out' the sprint, barreling toward the finish as fast as they possibly can go. Riders behind them rest, drafting inches from their rear wheel, waiting to pass with a burst of power and an 'aerodynamic sling shot' maneuver, moving to the front the very last instant before the finish line.

Not being a strong sprinter, I would never lead out. I always chose to draft, hoping that my timing and skill could defeat the raw strength of the lead out man. On that day there were about 20 riders leading out, with about 50 drafting on their wheels. Myself included. I was two places back from the front.

This was all wonderfully exciting, and for the briefest of instants I thought I actually was going to do it – a top 10 place at the NCO would be just the kind of result I needed to build my confidence before districts. With about 100 meters left in the race, and the speed hitting upwards of 38 MPH, my lead out man began to lose some steam. This was the moment to ease the tiniest bit so as to create a small gap between my front wheel, and the rear wheel of the second place rider in front of me. I would then accelerate in the slipstream, and shoot by at the last instant, victorious. Unfortunately, this plan never had the opportunity to be executed.

Crashes during a bike race happen too fast for the brain to process right away. Too many things happen, too quickly. The memory is shattered like the rear window of that Volvo wagon was shattered by Davis Phinney's head. Yet in the days and weeks that follow a crash, our brains somehow reassemble these broken pieces, our subconscious puzzling events back together into a remarkably complete assembly, albeit with some of the pieces misplaced.

This reintegration can happen gradually or all at once. In the case of my crash at the NCO in 1989, I made little progress understanding events until about a week later, when I had a nightmare. I relived the whole experience in slow motion like I was watching from the sidelines – a delayed out-of-body experience – and woke in a pool of sweat.

My consciousness jumped discontinuously from calculating the timing of my aerodynamic sling-shot attack on the fading lead out man, to suddenly laying crumpled on the pavement. My first thought was how restful it was, laying there. I didn't hurt. The sun was warm. The sky was blue. It was quiet. Birds were chirping. Yes, birds. Exactly like in a road runner cartoon when the coyote gets clobbered on the head by a falling boulder. Tweeting birds around my head. I can't believe it really happens. After what seems like a few hours of this reverie, the real world sound-track found its way back in to my brain. Suddenly I'm aware of people shouting – shouting at me. This is most annoying. Couldn't I just rest here a little longer? Somebody is hovering over me. They reach down. Another gap.

I was sitting on a chair. Still no pain. People milling about. My girlfriend Elizabeth was there. Liz was telling me to breathe. Another gap.

I'm in a car – no, a truck – no, an ambulance. I'm in the front seat. Am I driving? No. There's an EMT driving. Time jumps backwards.

There must have been 20 of us scattered on the road. Some were being fitted to backboards by EMTs. Liz was there reaching down to me, telling me to breathe. I tried to stand – I did stand. Haha! See, Liz. I'm fine. No worries. I'll wait my turn. I'll sit over there. Help me up. "Can't I just lay here a while longer?"

"Can I ride in front?" I will ask. The driver will let me. There will be too many bloody riders in the back. Haha, funny joke. I will even get to run the siren.

At the hospital, the nurse cuts off my torn jersey and shorts. Wait here, she commands. I'm standing naked except for my wood soled shoes. I start to shiver. Lift your arms over your head and stand up against the metal wall for your X-ray. You've got to be kidding. The pain finally hits me. I collapse. A shot of Demerol later, I giddily raise my arms to the icy metal wall. The grinding sound from my shoulder nauseates me and I choke down some vomit.

X-rays will say that I have shattered my left clavicle and dislocated my right shoulder. I have abrasions as bad as third degree burns over much of my left side. I don't remember the nurse callously scrubbing the pebbles out of my road rash with a stiff bristle brush soaked in Betadene. I don't remember the doctor putting my shoulder back in, but I do remember the doctor.

It was Jack. Right there in front of me. I remember reading the George Washington University hospital ID on his white coat. Dr. J. R_____. He's reaching for my shoulder. Jack, please leave my shoulder alone. He yanks on it and the world goes all white.

I was starting my run at the leadout. I was going to switch right as I could see that the number-two man was planning to switch right himself. I would thereby be executing a double slingshot up the right side. I could see daylight to the line all the way over and I knew there was nobody on my wheel. I had a shot.

But at 100 meters to the finish, the left side of the road was suddenly narrowed by an obstruction. There was a concrete barrier arranged around a group of port-a-johns that for some incomprehensible reason had to be set up exactly there in the racecourse. Like a rock in the current sends standing waves across the river, this obstruction sent a wave through the sprinting pack of riders, forcing them all to steer suddenly to the right. My plan to double-switch the lead out man would have worked if the rider in front of me hadn't crossed the leadout man's wheel. Number-two man wouldn't have crossed the wheel if the lead out had not been forced suddenly to the right as he lost steam, exactly at the vulnerable moment when number-two man's wheel was just sliding by. Number two went down. I went down. Most all the riders behind us to the right also went down.

And I'm staring at Dr. R_____, incredulous. It's like meeting your pastor at the titty bar. Am I dreaming? Am I actually back at work, daydreaming during a tedious ISO9000 meeting? Or could it be that I'm naked, shivering, wearing wooden shoes, stoned on barbiturates, in shock, busted up and bleeding, being attended to by someone from a totally different life context? My reality flys off into the void as fast as a rubber band shot off a finger tip. I'm in a M. Night Shyamalan film. I'm in Stepford Connecticut. Norman correlate. Soylent Green is People!

It takes me several months to sort this out. Looking back, years later, my confusion seems silly. Obviously, Dr R___ wasn't the Jack I knew. He was my colleague Jack's identical twin brother Jason. J.R____, Dr. Jason R_____. I eventually remember Jack mentioning that his brother was a Doctor down in DC. In fact, I recall him telling me that most of the men in his side of the family marched lock-step like an army of clones. They all went into medical school and became physicians.

Jack, the rebel clone, instead became a software engineer, although last I heard, Jack was working on a new genetic-engineering startup in collaboration with one of his brothers. They patented a some breakthrough techniques for gene sequencing algorithms integrated with embryo development simulation that have application to cloning. From what little I understand of the technology, it changes the process so significantly that it will render moot much of the current ethical debate about human cloning.

Posted Mar 30, 2006 at 02:50 UTC, 3399 words,  [/danPermalink

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