A Glimpse

(Edited 8/3/20)

I had a professional bike fitting done on Friday. Andrea made some tweaks that definitely improved my position on the bike. One in particular smoothed my pedal stroke considerably. Early Saturday morning, I re-rode the 26 miler I’d done Wednesday with friends. Riding back roads alone is a simple joy. How fast or slow I go isn’t influenced by the presence of another cyclist. It’s entirely up to me. We rode one .7 mile Strava segment in Washington that I hold the 5th fastest time on, 2:09. I’m proud of this. I don’t have a lot of high standings on Strava. I’ve ridden with the other 4 guys who have faster times here and I know just how much better than me they are. The ride when I turned myself inside out to get that time stands clear in my memory. Yesterday, I did that segment in 2:12, my second best and still a top 10 Strava time. I’m starting to wonder how much work, how much weight loss, it would take for me to get the KOM on it. The segment suits me. It’s not all climbing – I’m too big to ever be a great climber. It rolls, calling for relatively short bursts of power, the kind of watts a carpenter’s quads can deliver. I would have to go 25% faster. Not all of that translates to power. Some of it translates to the day being right; to mastering the road, shifting right, getting out of the saddle right, and most importantly, gutting out the last 100 yards of climbing.

I write that because it occupied my mind yesterday. And that made me realize I haven’t been riding as much as I want to. If I put in the work, I could be as strong as cyclist as the guys who beat me on that segment. I think I’d like to be. But my job has been on my mind. Work around the house has been on my mind. I was grouchy. I resented all the things in life I say yes to. Small projects for clients or friends. Sitting on town boards. Even organizing rides.

These are all things I like to do. I’m lucky to have the chance to do them. But sometimes I do too many things. Sometimes I resent being an adult. Sometimes I wish I were the kind of person who could just say, “Fuck it. Sun’s over the yardarm somewhere.”

But I’m not. And maybe I’ll never be that cyclist of my fantasies. And that’s okay, because the rest of my life is pretty damn good.

Sunday morning, I sat on the porch for half an hour nursing a cup of coffee. At the end of the yard a woodpecker was having its way with a rotten birch. I could tell from the thuds of its beak in the soft wood that chips were flying from its felling ax of a beak. I imagined the bird’s occasional glance around for the redtail that frequents our woods, and, when the thudding quieted, Woody’s triumphant breakfast of some fat and wiggling grub. A shower passed through, followed by a hummingbird buzzing the hanging baskets. It glanced at me, decided I could be ignored, and went on needling for nectar.

I thought about why yesterday had disturbed me so much. Most of what I’m doing is exactly what I want to be doing.

It could be the politics of the moment. I fear for the country. I fear the looming fascism our mindless president is fostering. More so, I fear the mindful toadies that encourage that orange-haired motherfucker. I despair for my friends who don’t see the situation as I do. I wonder about the protests. I see the truth being lost between the two extremes. I wonder why people can’t just be. And I think that I need to take a break from social media so I can focus on these things that are important to me.

There’s a stretch of Judd’s Bridge Road where its packed dirt takes up all the space between the Shepaug River and the steep slope to its east. The slope is part of a hill leavened by a granite batholith that intruded below the overlying schist when North America divorced Europe, leaving their children to raise themselves above the Atlantic. There’s a visible uncomformity where the two kinds of rock meet a little further on. The west side of the river is a field where beef cattle graze. Above that is a ridge where granite has been quarried for two centuries. West of that ridge is a valley where limestone quarries give rise to the place name of Marbledale. Pangea meets the Appalachians here. The forest along the road consists of hemlocks. The river is well shaded, and it’s been dry enough lately that you could walk across the Shepaug and keep your feet dry. I’ve seen loose cattle wading the river on a hot day here. I’ve seen the river over its western bank here. I’ve seen ice floes and blazing maples. Lately, I’ve seen kids riding bikes here. They asked me for recommendations about where to ride more.

I want to spend more time in places like this.

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Analogy

I rode on Wednesday with a couple of old friends, guys I’ve ridden dirt with since I started riding dirt. Feeling strong, I hit some of the hills pretty hard, but we also just sat and talked sometimes. The ride was an excellent blend of camaraderie and of hard effort.

On some of the hills I felt particularly good. Toward the end of the ride, I climbed Apple Lane one gear higher than usual and went right up. Having a little power to spare feels great. Thinking on it, my early season climbs remind me of the first time I drove through the Rockies back in 1982. Going uphill, I’d have my battered, 1973 Plymouth Duster floored, the 225 C.I. slant six giving its all. Running through my head would be words like, “Come on you piece of shit, make it up the hill.”

Things haven’t changed much. I just ride a bike now.  

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Flat Out Riding

Since getting back on the MTB post-surgery, my mind hasn’t quite been in the game. It’s been hard to relax, and I’m too cautious, with the caution kicking in involuntarily at bad moments. Consequently, I’ve fallen a few times at very low speeds when I couldn’t unclip. Mostly it’s not a big deal, but a couple of weeks ago I landed on the end of my bars. 20200710_185301

It looks worse than it was, and in fact looked worse than the photo before fading like a sunset. Still, that fall made me realize that if I’d been riding flats, I wouldn’t have gone down because I would  have been able to put down a foot.

A couple of days after that ride, I dropped some money with John the pedal peddler. Now I’m riding on a new ACL, a new-to-me bike that I’ve had out maybe ten times, and new pedals. It’s like learning to ride all over again.

This morning marked my third ride on flats. I’m starting to understand them and like them on their own merits. Riding clipped in lets you get away with a lot of sloppiness. Flats don’t. If you want to stay on the pedals, you have to keep them weighted.

Descending, I’m off the saddle, heels down, knees bent. If my legs are too tense, I get bounced off the pedals, so I relax more. Riding like this, the bike is far more nimble, the ride far smoother. Riding through rocks will bounce me off the pedals if I don’t weight them correctly. Weighting them correctly lowers my center of gravity and makes me more stable. Climbing, my roadie spin-instincts always want to kick in and I’m often one gear too low. If I pedal hard in too low a gear, my feet spin out and come off the pedals. If I’m in the right gear, especially for short bumps, I swear a little and go right up.

In short, riding flats requires me to be more conscious of the basics. It engages my head in a way that riding clipless didn’t. And not having to unclip has given me back some lost confidence. There’s still work to do, but riding flats is going to make me a better mtber.

 

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Tennessee Williams Humidity

Wearing wife-beaters and bellowing “Stella!” at the bottom of each hill, we rode the Preserves last night. Eye-burning freshets of sweat gushed from below our helmets. Hordes of deer flies chased us through the woods. Our tires spun freely on rocks slick with condensation. We pushed through the climbs, hearts pumping overheated blood to our hammering quads; stopping at the tops so as not to vomit.

Parking lot beer never tasted so good.

This morning came the payback, a feeling I haven’t had in two years, a feeling I want every day; one I never had in my fat and indolent youth. I woke up feeling lean and fit. Nothing hurt except for a few souvenir bruises. The scale showed the lowest number in three years, and 20 lbs. less than six months ago.

Fuck yeah!

 

 

 

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Anniversary Musings

One year ago today I rode a log skinny faster than I should have, came off the side, and panicked at the rapid approach of a tree. Putting my left foot down at speed, the lower leg stopped while the upper leg continued forward. It felt very wrong. I went down. It didn’t hurt, but as I lay on the forest floor, it was clear some damage had been done.

Ben’s voice came back from ahead. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know.”

With Ben’s help, I got untangled from the bike. Using it as a crutch, I walked out of the woods.

Then we sat in camp chairs in the parking lot and drank a beer. It was a mountain bike ride after all.

About a week later, the orthopedist drained, oh, I don’t know, about a gallon of blood from the knee and diagnosed a torn ACL. An MRI confirmed that as well as identifying some minor tears to the meniscus. Apart from those things though, the doc said the knee looked pretty good for a guy of my years.

Following that came several weeks when I enjoyed the summer weather, as well as our new pup, Owen, sitting on my porch with my knee elevated. I read. I started physical therapy. I went back to work doing estimating instead of carpentry, and began work on a model for a demonstration my boss wanted to give. Within a month I was limping around on the jobsite again, carpentering as well as a cripple could.

Four months after my crash, the doc installed a used ACL. That was followed up by more physical therapy. There are not enough good words to say about PTs and the work they do. I miss Drew, Erin, and Mighty Mouse from PT for Life in Southbury. We talked about beer. And movies. And food. We busted balls. PT was something I looked forward to, and it was key to my recovery.

Within a month of surgery I was on my bike on a trainer. At first, the knee wouldn’t bend enough to complete a pedal stroke. Then it could. Soon, I was beating the shit out of myself on Zwift. By January, I was road riding. Slowly, but riding. Pat worried, but that’s her job. Not long after that, Drew kicked me out of PT, saying he’d done all he could and the rest was up to me.

I paid the bills with freelance writing gigs, many of which have continued now that I’m back to work as a carpenter. I quit my previous carpentry job in February due to a lack of work there. Now I’m partnered up with an old friend and that feels like one of the better moves I’ve ever made.

I kept riding gravel roads, even managing some good Strava times. I started mtbing again about 6 weeks ago. It’s scary, but getting less so, and getting to be fun again.

They say it takes a full year to completely recover from an ACL replacement. I suppose a lot of folks would be angry at themselves for losing an entire year. I feel a bit of that. But more, I feel gratitude. My family and friends came through for me. I could afford the surgery and the PT. Someone who died donated an ACL that’s now in me. My career situation improved, in part due to having to scare up a way to keep the cash flowing. There, I credit my former colleagues from The Taunton Press and beyond for still wanting to work with me.

The knee is mending well, and the anger I do feel with myself has made me more introspective about riding. I understand my limits better, and I’m patient about pushing them. Trail obstacles scare me much like when I started, and when I clean something new, that same joy comes back.

I won’t say I’m glad I tore my ACL. But I don’t regret it either.

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An Effect of Covid

Not that I have it. I don’t think. Who knows though? Anyway, I’m talking about a demographic effect. On this morning’s 18 miler, I saw a gaggle of people. I’m talking more people than miles. Thinking back, I passed 26 pedestrians, runners, or cyclists. A year ago on this route I might have seen 3 or 4 folks.

It’s Covid. About a third of the homes in Roxbury are owned by New Yorkers who come up for weekends and holidays, and, evidently, pandemics and protests. There’s a no vacancy sign at the border now. Every house is occupied. Houses here are selling in days; even in hours. Folks can’t flee the city fast enough.

Personally, I don’t blame them, but I’ve always been a country mouse, raised knowing how to make my own fun. Compared to Manhattan though, there’s not a lot to do in Roxbury, and so people get out and about. It’s pretty cool, actually, although I do wish they’d drive a little slower.

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Stopping by the Woods

Joe and I rode gravel on Wednesday night. The evening was warm, and I planned the route to keep us in the shade, mostly. There’s always a penance though, and the first climb, Grassy Hill, was in the full sun. Within 3 miles of home my jersey was soaked in sweat.  It hasn’t rained in a couple of weeks, and more than once on climbs I heard my back tire spin in the grit while at the same moment feeling the load from my pedal suddenly go to almost zero. In addition to being loose, the roads were also washboarded, often putting us on the outside of curves when the line was inside.

It was hard and our average speed didn’t make it to 11 mph, but as they say in A League of Their Own, “Of course it’s hard. It’s the hard that makes it good.”

On the return leg, I was watching Joe’s taillight advancing up Judd’s Bridge. Suddenly, he stopped. Joe never stops on hills.

“What’s up?” I asked upon reaching him.

“Black bear. Crossed the road right there,” he said, indicating a patch of briars. “Figured we should wait a few minutes in case there are babies.”

We waited, but there were no babies.

Coming home on Old Roxbury Road, there’s a roller-coaster – A delicious, curving descent followed by a short and sharp climb. Everyone rides it the same way: bombing down, cutting the corners, and climbing out of the saddle. Wednesday night, I downshifted too late. Under load, the chain refused to move off the second smallest sprocket. Near the top, all my weight on the pedal barely advanced the bike and I was thinking, Come on! Come on! One more crank! 

I may also have uttered a profanity.

And indeed, one more turn got me past the apex. The load off, the bike downshifted, the chain stayed intact, and it was just two miles home.

Back at my house, the porch beer Joe brought was damn good.

 

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Hard Things

One of the things that draws me to cycling is how it’s as much mental as it is physical. Wednesday night brought one of those moments when my mind created a choice: My legs were burning with lactic acid. I was cooked. Facing the last hill, I thought, It would be okay if I walked this. 

I am not sure why I didn’t. Walking would have been the easy choice. Instead, I pedaled, each down-stroke the result of a decision.

Left leg.

Right leg.

Repeat.

The brown dirt of the road passed under my wheels. On the first turn, I stayed to the inside, steeper, section because the outside was washboarded.

Left leg.

Right leg.

Repeat.

I looked down, noting the windrows of gravel along the side, keeping the tires on the packed, smoother dirt of the wheel ruts. Each pedal stroke hurt, but not that badly.

Left leg.

Right leg.

Repeat.

Pedal slowly enough, and each leg rests while the other works. Breathe. Choose. Turn the cranks.

Reaching where the grade lessens at the second turn, I knew I had beaten the hill.

Except I didn’t beat the hill.

I beat my own negative thinking. Over. And over. And over.

 

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Hard Ride on a Warm Evening

It was clear last night that I’m no longer a roadie. Joe kicked my ass on the same route we rode two weeks ago. It was good though – Since I don’t commute to work on the bike anymore and focus more on mtbing, these long rides that push my quads to cramping don’t happen much. Looking on Strava, it’s tempting to say that I’m in pretty good shape for someone seven months past ACL replacement. That’s a lazy attitude though. I’m not in as good a shape as I was four years ago, and that’s within my reach if I focus on it.

In any event, riding last night was plain old masochistic fun. I pushed beyond what was comfortable. At the bottom of the last hill, Old Roxbury, I wasn’t sure I had the legs to ride it. Thoughts of doing the walk of shame up the hill entered my mind. But I didn’t put a foot down. I ground it out. It hurt, but not as much as walking would have. Once over the hill, flying down the other side felt sweet.

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A Ride in the Woods

Thursday night I met some of my old crew at Waldo, then rode into the woods for the first time in 11 months. The last time I rode there, I crashed, burned, and tore my left ACL. The doc installed a used one (a big thanks to the donor and their family) 4 months to the day after my crash. Now, 7 months post surgery, not only was I on my new-to-me ACL , I was in Waldo, where I did the damage, on my new-to-me bike, Don and then Jeff’s Niner with the Chris King hubs (I love that the bike has a pedigree in local mtb circles – I feel like part of a continuum). 

Maybe the combination wasn’t the wisest, but it wasn’t a big deal either. It’s going to take some time to learn the Niner’s capabilities, and it gave me a reason to take it easy. As if the debts I owe my ligament donor and my wife Pat for nursing me through and not giving me undue shit weren’t enough…

The Niner’s suspension was slack – too slack. It had hung in my garage since Jeff sold it to me right after my surgery; unattended if not unloved. A novice to full-sus, I had no idea how much air should be in the shocks. I bottomed them out a couple of times, once burping the front tire crossing a stone wall. Jeff came by this morning and dialed in the suspension for me. The next ride should give a far better idea of the Niner’s capabilities.

At the start, fear took the place of the joy I normally feel. Even the little bumps I cleaned four years ago on my rigid 26er looked scary. I walked around the first rock on Red, the one I don’t always clean but should, because I didn’t want to put my left foot down if I didn’t clean it. But then I rolled over some logs and cleaned the first three rock gardens. By the time we got to the Schralpin’ Turns, I was having fun. My thoughts turned from my knee to how the bike handled and shifted. As I negotiate the Niner’s learning curve, it’s going to begin to feel natural again.

Riding Waldo was the right move. It’s my home park. It’s where Chris took me out for my first mtb ride four or five years ago. It’s where I spent weeks clearing trees after the storm in May 2018, and where I’ve kept the trails clear when I could only Jones about riding them. It’s where I shepherded in a new boardwalk with NEMBA a month before my surgery, the one I finally rode Thursday.

And my friends? Chris, Korey, and Ben? They’re mensches. They rode slow. They watched out for me and waited for me. They didn’t tempt me to do anything stupid. They told me they’d missed me, and after the ride, they gave me beer. While I missed riding, what I missed more was them, them and my other riding buddies who weren’t there.

It’s good to be back.

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