Indian Trail Opus

Indian Trail is a local icon. It’s dirt, and twisty, and steep. When you realize it’s part of a route, you to take a deep breath and look inward.

I climbed Indian Trail last night, with five other cyclists. But hard hills are not group experiences.  You can talk about the climb among yourselves later – And cyclists always do – but no one else gets you up a hard hill. Even the lanterne rouge gets kudos.

Climbing hard hills comes down to a combination of what’s in your head and what’s in your legs and your heart and your  core. There is no we. There is only mustering yourself over that 30% bump and recovering on the 15% bit that precedes the next 30% bump. There is only gauging how far you can push the burn in your thighs and across your lower back and weighing that against your expectations and your knowledge of the climb remaining.

I love that. It’s where I measure myself against myself. It’s work – Not in the productive sense of accomplishing a necessary task, but it satisfies the same part of me that likes digging holes and mixing concrete and turning a tree into firewood. The next day’s soreness is a pleasant reminder of accomplishment.

It’s a big part of why I ride bikes.


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Mind Over Mind

I had a great ride yesterday, and dreamed about mountain biking last night. The night after a good mountain biking session, I frequently dream of riding. I don’t remember any other activity having this effect. Why this is I don’t know for sure, but I can theorize.

Mountain biking engages both brain and body, and the less you have to think about connecting the two the faster you’ll react to changing terrain and the better you’ll be at riding. That takes either natural ability, or for those of us lacking that, mental training. The decisions and efforts link closely to the rewards. For example, I struggle with short steeps. A roadie by tradition, I see a steep, gear down, and sit up like I was riding a hill on a road. My front wheel comes up, and I lose steering and am forced into an awkward dismount only as far up the steep as momentum would take me. I was starting to accept that I couldn’t ride these, a self-fulfilling mind-set. From watching other riders and from my own corporal feedback, I knew intellectually that I had to gear up, throw my weight forward, and just attack.  Yesterday, I decided consciously to do what I had to do. And guess what? Boom! I was up every short steep I approached that way, creating a positive feedback loop by filling my brain with the feel-good hormones that reward jobs well done. To become a permanently better rider, that knowledge needs to get into my reptilian brain and make the actions instinctual.

Likewise with the idea of looking ahead not one, but two obstacles in situations such as rock gardens, drops, skinnies, and switchbacks. I’ve been halfway there for a while, noting an obstacle, plotting a route, and looking past. What I wasn’t doing, what I still need to work on, is not only looking past the obstacle, but also seeing past the obstacle; that is, registering what’s beyond and actively planning the next move. Thinking ahead shunts the immediate threat to some automatic part of the brain, that like a good subordinate, just handles your shit for you if you let it. I was doing that more and more on yesterday’s ride, and more and more successfully cleaning the trail. Not always, but better than in the past.

If, as I’ve read, dreams are a way the mind reconciles events with inputs, then it’s no surprise I dreamed about mountain biking. I think it’s a positive, a way my brain is reinforcing the lessons of the day in search of more of those addicting, feel-good hormones. I suppose it’s also why I write on the topic, a way to relive the moment and drive home the lesson.

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What’s the Hurry?

I got into an argument with a friend on Facebook about cyclists using the road. This particular fellow is a good guy, someone I’ve known for years, someone who’d help me if I needed it. Hell, he’d help you if you needed it and you don’t even know him. But he hates sharing the road with cyclists and nothing I say changes that. Every few months we get into it, and each time I eventually stop following the thread and walk away because all participating is doing is pissing me off and I don’t want to be pissed off.

This time though, it occurred to me to ask a bigger question: Why is everyone in such a hurry? In the larger context of your life, losing a few seconds to a cyclist isn’t a big deal. And it’s not just cyclists who annoy – It’s other drivers too. It’s traffic in general. It’s pedestrians crossing the street at anything less than a sprint. It’s horses. It’s farm equipment. It’s construction equipment.

But wait – There’s a common theme here. This anger only happens to us while driving. What is it about getting behind a wheel that changes how we interact with others?

There’s a lot going on. First, when we drive, we have an expectation of speed. We imagine we’ll reach our destination in the shortest possible time. We don’t allow for any interruptions, and any that occur put us behind our self-imposed schedules. Also, driving depersonalizes our interactions. Isolated in a steel and glass box, with the AC going and Shania Twain on the Bluetooth, the other people we encounter aren’t real in the same way they’d be if we met them on a sidewalk. And maybe there’s something visceral and atavistic going on as well. A car or a truck is a powerful thing, on one level equivalent to a weapon. We feel invulnerable behind the wheel, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, and it frustrates us not to be able to wield that power. And finally, I think we’re all just trying to cram too much into our lives. My parents weren’t this busy.

I’m not writing from any position of moral superiority. I’ve felt these emotions myself. I’ve been an asshole behind the wheel. Maybe it’s maturity (Finally!), or maybe it’s the perspective gained from being a cyclist, but in the past few years, I’ve tried to be more mindful of these issues while driving. I leave a little early. I extend courtesies to other drivers, to cyclists, pedestrians, and equestrians. I count the seconds it takes to pass a bike or a horse, and it’s rarely more than 30 of those precious little clock-ticks.

I mostly drive the speed limit, especially on local roads.  Driving the speed limit to work in the morning, I’ll stack half a dozen cars up behind me. I used to feel pressure to speed up and please those tailgating drivers, but I’ve lost sympathy. The people who live along the roads I drive have kids and pets and driveways they back out of. They deserve my respect and care at least as much as the seething driver behind me who is rushing his way to work because he stayed up late and couldn’t drag his ass out of bed ten minutes earlier.

An unexpected benefit of driving the speed limit is that I rarely end up stuck behind a slower driver – The road in front of me is my own.

That feels pretty damn nice.

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Please Don’t Tell Me to Be Careful

It’s a refrain every cyclist has heard: “Be careful!”

I know people mean well, but every time I hear it, “Be careful!”, pisses me off just a little. Do people think that idea never would have occurred to me otherwise? That’s a little insulting. Or do they think that my intention when I clip into my pedals is to be reckless? That’s a little insulting too. And if the person actually thinks that their directive has any chance of changing my behavior, well, they don’t know me very well.

I think that the words, “Be careful!”, mainly mean the person hasn’t thought about the meaning. Cycling has risks. So does sitting on the couch. I’ve done the research and the mental calculus. Sure, I’ve left some skin on the road and perhaps broken a bone,  but these things are within my tolerance for risk, particularly when balanced against all the benefits cycling dispenses.  When some non-cyclist tells me to be careful, I think they’re projecting their own fears and ignorance on me. Rather than try to understand the rational thought process that led me to embrace cycling, they’re content in their own cocoon.

Sometimes I answer facetiously, “Where’s the fun in that?” But maybe I should ask, “Why? Why should I be careful? What does that even mean?”

Whenever someone says, “Be careful!”, some dark part of me wants to respond, “I am being careful. Careful not to get fat sitting on the couch. Careful not to stop having fun just because I’m getting old. Careful to avoid buying a second car.” But I don’t say these things because, as when someone says, “I’ll pray for you”, I know they’re just trying to find a way to connect with me, to mesh their world with mine in a positive way.

Still, rather than, “Be careful!”, I’d much rather people said something along the lines of, “Have a great ride!”

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On the Continuum

Turning the corner from Purchase Brook onto River Road about 6:15 on Tuesday morning, another cyclist hove into view. I don’t know about you, but when I see another cyclist my brain goes into full assessment mode, trying to place that person somewhere on a somewhat tongue-in-cheek continuum that ranges from “DUI” (riding an old bike in jeans and work boots and with no helmet, often smoking a cigarette) to “Skinny Fast Fucker” (riding a 15 lb. carbon-rimmed bike in full kit and with hips barely wider than their saddle). Me? I’m a MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra), or sometimes a FLAMB (flailing mountain biker), and define the midpoint of my continuum, maybe even 2/3 of the way between DUI and SFF.

Now, lest we take ourselves too seriously, it’s important to keep in mind that most people view all cyclists as MAGGOETs (middle aged guys/gals on expensive toys). Sure, they don’t know about the work and the pleasures and camaraderie, but the fact is that the funny clothes many of us wear make us easy targets. And that we often do take ourselves too seriously while wearing those clothes doesn’t help.

The cyclist I saw this morning was a voluntary rider, and so well to the right of the DUI rider on the continuum. He rode a new hybrid bike, was heavyset, in a T-shirt and sneakers and with a helmet, so not a MAMIL. At first I thought SUDD (sunny day dabbler), but that turned out not to be right. I think he was that rare cyclist, the MONG (motivated new guy), but I only reached that conclusion after I caught up to him and chatted for a while.

I liked Jerry (Gerry? How can you tell?) because right away as I came alongside him, he busted my balls by saying, “Show off.”

I grinned and said something like, “Well, it took me 15 years to get here.”

Then Jerry further endeared himself by saying, “I live a couple of houses up the hill. I see you guys all the time riding that like it’s nothing, holding a conversation as you go.”

Jerry included me in “…you guys…”. He saw me as a SFF. I don’t think anyone has ever thought that about me before.

Jerry went on to talk about how he’d been fishing with his boys and “…just didn’t feel right.” That decided him. He’d been riding for 5 weeks and had lost 25 lbs.

Color me impressed.

I said, “I’ll bet you can feel that,” to which he respond, “Oh yeah. I felt it after 15 lbs.”

I talked a little about my own weight loss, and told him he’d chosen the most fun approach imaginable. I wish I’d thought to suggest Class Cycle’s no-drop Wednesday night ride, but I think he’ll find it. Or I’ll see him again and mention it. In fact, I’m certain we’ll meet again. There was just something about Jerry – He was proud of how far he’d come, aware of how far he could go, and he seemed to be enjoying the ride.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It sure as hell isn’t the fashion.


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Riding in the Rain, Just Riding in the Rain

It was a good week – Nearly 100 miles in. Between bronchitis and injury, I’ve lost the better part of two months of riding this spring. But finally, I can breathe without coughing up a lung and it doesn’t hurt much to shift and brake with my right hand, although I’m still not ready to ride without a wrist brace. Sprains suck – You think, “It’s just a sprain – should be good in a week.” Not always.

In any event, I commuted both ways Monday and Tuesday. I was on the road for work on Thursday, so I rode in on Wednesday, left my bike in my cube and took a company car home and then in on Friday morning, and then rode home on Friday. And that’s when it got fun.

Thursday was a 12 hour day for me, so I bugged out a little early Friday, about 2:30. The air was thick and pudding-like, and as soon as I left the building raindrops began to patter down in a gentle shower. No thunder sounded, so I wasn’t worried. Nonetheless, I dawdled not at all, setting a couple of downhill PRs on Glen Road. When I hit the flats of River Road though, I decided that it was just too humid to bury myself in the ride, so I pushed only moderately hard and relaxed into the rain.

Water dripped from the brim of my helmet, and I could feel my cotton socks getting heavier. My tires hissed along the wet asphalt. At the decision point at Stillson Road, I chose dirt. The rain was light and I knew that Flag Swamp would be nicely packed. However, at the top of that descent, the skies opened and the road became a mud-fest. And at about the bottom of hill, right after the dirt section ended, the rain dialed back again, stopping a mile or so further on. That was some serious Type 2 fun.

At home, Gravel Gertie got a shower before I did.


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Epic Vignettes

With a lingering wrist sprain limiting my riding, I’ve been remembering some of the times I could ride.

Flying along the cinders of the old Erie Lackawanna rail bed on my Stingray with my best friends Doug and Mike. Both held cigarettes in their mouths, the first time I’d seen them smoke. I’m sure they felt the height of cool for an 11 year old in the 1970s, but it was also when I realized I’d never smoke, and that maybe these guys weren’t so much like me as I’d thought. (Mike died in his 30s from a smoking-related disease.)

Two years later, an epic 15 mile ride on 10-speeds with my two best friends, Nathan and Tracy, to Hartung’s Store in Hope, NJ, where we ate microwaved hot dogs and thought we were the height of cool.

Lost all day without food and water at 9,000 feet in New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, bonking and irritated with Nathan. Drinking Lone Star beer and eating canned bacon around a campfire with him later that night, the epicness of our ride taking hold. Crawling out of my bag early enough the next morning to strip naked and wash the ride’s crud off in the melt-fed creek behind our tents without offending the neighbors. I had the foresight to get the fire going first, because it’s cold at 6 AM at 9,000 feet even in July.

Riding the streets of Salt Lake City alone a couple of days later.

Getting on my old mountain bike to poke at the idea of adult riding, and nearly puking partway up a hill on Old Roxbury Road that’s no big deal today.

Riding mountain bikes on dirt roads with Tom and Anatole, taking one corner at such an insane speed that Anatole complimented me, and not telling him I hadn’t realized how fast I was going into the turn until my only option was to make it.

Riding a road bike that Tom left leaning against my cubicle for me to borrow up a different hill, on Purchase Brook Road, that’s no big deal today and having to stop to avoid puking.

Not a ride, although it led to many, but returning Tom’s loaner bike because I’d bought my own road bike.

Riding with my son’s Scout troop around Block Island, and another time, around the Gettysburg battlefield.

Being invited on my first OGRE group ride and not believing how much fun pacelining down 202 was.

Watching a pleasant video of the D2R2, then getting sucked into some of the hardest and most rewarding rides of my life.

Helping Joe through a bonk on his first century ride.

My first Dirty Thirty with a group of faster riders who had the patience to wait for me.

My first serious single track mountain bike ride with Chris on my 1986 full-rigid Ross Mount Hood, which threw me over the bars, had me walking rock gardens, scared the hell out of, thrilled the hell out of me, and introduced me to the tradition of the post-ride beer in the parking lot, even when it’s freakin’ cold.

My first mountain bike ride with Chris on my new 21st century Specialized, cleaning techie stuff like never before which showed me that yes, equipment does make a difference, while the techie stuff I still didn’t clean showed me that skill still matters more.

The next ride I do.

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