The Penance Continues

I slept well last night, five hours followed by three more, instead of the usual five hours followed by one more, and if I’m lucky one more, and if I’m very lucky, one more.

The growl of my belly may have been what woke me. It was something sudden like that instead of my usual disengagement from Morpheus; the gradual changes in my breathing that alert the dogs to the imminence of our breakfasts. Today, only the pup was on the bed and instead of nudging and licking me, there was just his chin resting on my knee and the solidness of his body spooned against the back of my legs.

Rolling out of bed and standing, I wobbled. I’ve come to expect that, but this morning’s unsteadiness wasn’t because of weakness in my knee. Rather, it sprang from a general stiffness extending from my calves to my quads. The first few steps were more of a hobble, then I got the slack out of the reins made my way to the bathroom. Stepping into the shower, I became aware of a vague burn in my lungs and a soreness around my diaphragm.

My belly growled again and it all fit together.

I rode the bike yesterday. Hard. But instead of keeping up on a Dirty 30, it was on a trainer, staring at Zwift on this same screen I’m now filling with words. Halfway into Knickerbocker is an eight minute climb with 15 percent grades. I rode it like I was watching everyone else’s taillights disappearing up Shinar Mountain.

The advice in the books and the magazines is to spin up the hills. I don’t know who writes that bullshit. Mortals cannot spin up the hills in New England. So, I stayed in the middle ring and ground out this virtual hill like I grind out the real ones I live in. At times, the tunnel closed around me and the only awareness was of the effort it took to turn the cranks. I’ve felt that before, riding with my only care being to keep moving forward between the gravel windrows of a steep and untraveled dirt road.

The remaining half hour of the session passed by in something like a trance. I thought about my knee. It felt fine. The tiredness was normal, arising from the kind of hard effort I sometimes make toward the end of a ride when there’s no reason to leave any gas in the tank.

I PRed the segment, although compared to my friends’ results, rather pathetically. On the other hand, their PRs didn’t happen five weeks after surgery. This soreness is a friendly one, a sense of my body I haven’t felt since June. Today began with the awareness that I’m stronger than I was yesterday. How many 58 year old men can say that?

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Baby Steps

I have ten rides in on Zwift now. The first was just two weeks ago; 2.1 flat miles and 10 minutes long. The knee was stiff, and until it loosened up after a minute or so, painful as well.

Today though, I rode an hour on a respectably hilly course. Pushing hard, I chased down Zwifters who passed. On the long hill, riding right at my lactate threshold cut my time from 15 minutes and change to 14 minutes and change over my previous attempt. Overall, an hour netted me 16.8 miles, a pretty good average speed.

But then I made the mistake of comparing my Zwift PRs on Strava to those of my friends. Despite the fact that I used all the sizzle in my pizzle, I was mostly dead last in PRs. Now, I’m rarely at the top of that chart, but neither am I at the bottom.  It was sobering. And it’s not the knee that’s slowing me down, but the fact I’ve been off the bike for five months. A lot of fitness has evaporated. 

So, that was depressing, although not unexpected by my rational brain. I rode hard this morning. My relative effort exceeded my normal when riding roads and trails. My quads were burning and I was sucking in air and the sweat and the snot were flowing at flood stage.

And I sucked.

But then I thought about my first ride two weeks ago, and compared to that, I was on rocket fuel, Baby! Rocket fuel! Five months since my 58 year old body had ridden regularly and one month since surgery. Of course I sucked. This is just the baseline. There’s the whole winter in front of me now, months when I can explore the pain cave. Come spring, I think I won’t suck.

As much.


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I Never Thought I’d Do It

Zwift, that is, with a smart trainer. Ever the Luddite, I’ve looked down on smart trainers. This is despite the fact that Zwifting friends have burst lean and mean into the fresh light of spring to leave me gasping in their wake (You know who you are, and you know I’m thinking “Fucking insert-your-name-here” as I watch your ass disappear up the hill). Most winters, I get out in fits and starts, slogging through slush, and riding my old fluid trainer when I can’t find an excuse not to. Analog trainers at least suck, but smart trainers look like video games, a corruption of the purity of cycling, one more step toward replacing reality with shadows on the cave wall. If you ride a bike, you should ride it outside whenever possible, and it should suck a little bit so that you become a better person morally as well as physically.

And then I tore my ACL, had it replaced, and I’m the situation where I have to both strengthen my knee and protect the new ligament (Stein, after Frankenstein, I call it). Of course it’s not just about strengthening the knee, but also about making up the fitness I’ve lost since June 29, the day of the tear. While cycling is an excellent way to recover, it will be months more before I can risk a crash or even a minor bobble that could damage Stein.

And so I bought a used Wahoo smart trainer. At least saving money on the trainer soothed my Yankee soul. Once I could turn the pedals on the exercise bike at physical therapy, I got onto Zwift at home and rode for 10 minutes. A week and a half later, I’m riding for 45 minutes, trying to close the gap when I get passed, and cranking out 350 watts on the climbs.

And God damn it, it’s fun.

Plus, my knee feels better and better. My therapist says to keep doing what I’m doing. And I’m having visions of leaving the cave in the springtime in a way that makes my friends insert a vulgar gerund as a modifier before my name.

Note: My old Cyclops fluid trainer is for sale on consignment at Bike Express in New Milford…

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…and Not to Yield

Last I wrote, I wrote of mountain biking as a way of giving death the finger. Apparently, physical effort as a reaction to aging isn’t unique to our age. It’s been going on a long time, according to Tennyson, at least.


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
         This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
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Impulse Control

Most serious crashes I’ve had were the result of an impulse that took me outside of my skills. This recent one, the one that tore my ACL and will keep me off the bike for half a year; the one where the stitches from the surgery just came out and where the knee brace will be my constant companion for months, that happened because I obeyed an impulse.

The impulse didn’t just happen. Probably it grew out of an existential struggle with aging. For the past few years, I’d been becoming a better cyclist. Pushing my limits, I lost a lot of fat and got pretty strong on the road. I was riding with the fast guys, and almost keeping up. And then I found mountain biking, found new and different limits, and got a lot better at them. And that felt like I was saying, “Fuck you, old age. Fuck you, death.”

That feels really good to say.

But this year, I started a new job that didn’t afford as much time for cycling. I felt my fitness slipping. The week I fucked up knee, I decided discipline was the answer. I rode a couple of times during the week. Then I rode a hilly solo course on Saturday. My legs were tired, but it felt good. It felt like that decision to push myself was right. And so I mountain biked on Sunday, despite that tiredness, with a mindset of pushing through.

I’m not a great technical rider. Features scare me and I tend to take the coward-line. And that bugs me. It shouldn’t. I didn’t start mountain biking until my mid-50s, and I’ve never won awards for balance and coordination. I like flowy stuff. I like the challenge of climbing. I love the camaraderie of trail riding. But features? Nah. And that pisses me off about me. 

So when Ben, who’s a far better rider than me, hit the skinny with skill and aplomb, two neurons in my brain shook hands and said, “Go for it!” Now, I’d ridden that skinny before. I’d cleaned it some times and other times I’d just come off it. But those times I was riding slowly. This time, I hit it fast. And I couldn’t handle it and when I came off I put down my left foot and my knee moved in mysterious ways.

It made sense in the moment and in the grand narrative of pushing limits and getting better, particularly in the looming face of the big six-oh.

But in the big sense, it made no sense. And I think the big lesson is self-awareness. My mindset was reckless that day. I should have spent a few minutes focusing and assessing before the ride. And now I know that. And I’ll have a lot of time to think about that this winter when my knee becomes flexible enough to ride a bike again and pedal my trainer and watch virtual climbs slip under my spinning rear tire.


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A Week Past Surgery

I have a new ACL and an expensive new knee brace. The ACL is from a cadaver, a fact that drives home the value of checking the organ-donor box on one’s driver’s license. I started PT Monday and had a second session today. The goal is strength, flexibility, and stability, but the real time frame is long. The donor tendon is actually nothing more than a length of collagen with a bone wedge on one end. It fits into holes drilled into my femur and tibia, the wedge holding one end and a screw the other. It’s carpentry. The tendon needs to ossify into place; in essence, the glue needs to set. But there the carpentry simile ends. My body needs to grow a blood supply and its own cells into the matrix the donor tendon creates.

It’s pretty damn cool, but the process takes months. Months where my main goal is not to damage the new tendon. So, I’m not going to be doing a lot of cycling soon, and certainly no mountain biking until well into next year.

I am buying a smart trainer this week though, a used Wahoo Kickr I can set my old Specialized up on. As soon as I have the range of motion, I’ll be riding the Zwift. Zwifting along. Upzwifting and downzwifting. Zooming the Zwift Zephyr.

Such is the price of one moment of stupidity, one moment of saying, “What the fuck? Let’s go for it.”

But all experiences become part of one’s narrative, and I’m grateful to live a comfortable enough life to have that perspective. I learned something about myself that day back in June, drawing the line between athletic growth and recklessness just a little more sharply. I’ll be a better rider for it.

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Still Waiting

I’ve got paying writing work I should be doing, but I haven’t updated here since August, so…

Still no knee surgery. Insurance is delaying things, but the surgery is scheduled now for the end of this month. Looking forward to having it done. I’ve been cleared to ride for some time, just not on trails. But I haven’t wanted to. The knowledge that the surgery will set me back months makes riding feel futile and pointless.

I’m waiting for the bottom, the moment when the only direction is up, when the effort I put into the bike will be a building block that won’t just be torn out again.

That said, I did take the Niner out on some dirt roads last weekend. The saddle needs some adjustment, but overall the bike is as smooth and sexy as Jennifer Aniston in silk. The bumps are there, but they’re a pleasure.

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