I’m Afraid of my Bike

Last Thursday’s Dirty Thirty ran long. I did 46 miles, probably the longest ride I’ve done in a year. Sometime after the halfway point my back knotted up. On the final hills, every pedal stroke brought with it a corresponding iliac twinge. At home, walking to the house from the garage was a challenge. Getting through Friday took big doses of ibuprofen and viciously rubbing the monster knot in my lower back. By Sunday I was upright enough to go mountain biking, which seemed to loosen me up.

I didn’t blame the bike. Obviously, riding had been part of the equation, but how could a bike whose set-up I haven’t touched since dialing it in three years ago be at fault? I blamed the length of the ride – Since I took up mountain biking, I just don’t do long road rides anymore.

Tuesday night I had a meeting at town hall, five miles from home. My wife was on her way to her sister’s in Pennsylvania with our only car, and she dropped me and my bike off. I rode home, but by the time I got there, my back was starting to tweak.

Hmm.

I remembered how other rides on that bike in the past months had tweaked my back. There was a pattern, but nothing about the bike set-up had changed.

Or had it?

Something looked off.

I threw a level on my saddle.

Well, shit. That wasn’t right. The saddle pointed up like Evil Knievel’s Snake River ramp. What the fuck? My best guess is that I tweaked its position in a hard crash on Skiff Mountain last fall, and just hadn’t been paid attention. I think that the saddle position was tilting my pelvis upward, which in turn would have exaggerated the bend I have to make to put my hands on the bars. The extra stress on my back would essentially be the same as if I had lowered my bars.

The saddle is level now. I wonder though, whether this small change, dropping the saddle nose by maybe three quarters of an inch, will be as magical as I hope. It felt okay when I spun the bike around the driveway. Still, I didn’t ride this week’s Dirty Thirty out of, I was going to say trepidation, but fuck it, I’ll go all Anglo-Saxon and say fear. And it’s not so much fear of pain. Like a lot of cyclists, I’m practically a masochist. The real fear is that it’s not the saddle position. It’s fear that, to paraphrase an old and now dead friend, my middle-aged body is betraying me and there is no fix.

There is however, nothing else for it but to ride the bike and see. In a sense, every ride is an existential test. Where do I, do any of us, stand on life’s bell curve? There will come a day when the decline can’t be denied.

I don’t think that’s here yet though, and if it is, I’m not admitting it.

I’m thinking of riding Sunday.

 

 

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Why?

Last Thursday I went all in and cleaned a particularly gnarly climb for the first time. Shortly after that I found myself, lactic acid searing my quads, hammering three abreast across a long, empty, ridge top in the clear evening air. The speed, the night, and the companionship were Japanese in their ephemerality.

When we parted a little later and I rode the final two miles home alone, I was, to steal a phrase from Nora Jones, “as empty as a drum.”

Everything hurt.

Nothing hurt.

My grin lasted two days.

 

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Cleaning Paddy’s Hollow

“It’s not often we get to accomplish something new,” Jeff said, “especially as we grow older.”

It was dark now, and we were riding by headlight and talking about why we cycle as we ascended Wykham Road, the climb after the climb that ripped my guts out.

The Paddy Hollow climb is only 6/10 of a mile long, but the average grade is 11%. The dirt section though, screams to an insane 40% in three places. After the first such wall, you get 100 yards that’s only a 20% grade to recover in. Then there’s another 40% bump followed by another 20% recovery section that is no wider than a water bar. The final 40 percenter is followed by pavement at about 10%, which shallows out to 3% closer to the cemetery at the top.

I’d never made it up Paddy Hollow without putting down a foot. I’d often walked parts. Last night, I didn’t set out thinking I’d make it up.

The first wall is at the bottom. I got up that just fine. Jeff and Jay, both good climbers, were still in sight. Thinking about stopping for a breather where a drainage chute created a shallower grade to start pedaling from again, I thought, No, you can keep going. Maybe take a break at the bottom of the next wall. 

But there, I glimpsed Jeff’s orange helmet before he rounded the corner.

Fuck it. Your legs still work. Let’s see how far you can get.

The burn in my quads and calves had begun on the first wall. Now, stretching out over the bars to keep the front wheel down sent pain through my back. No nausea yet though. Approaching the top of the second wall my legs barely had power to turn the cranks. The bike wobbled toward the verge, but I corrected, staying on the outside of the curve where the grade is a little shallower. Standing on the pedals got me to the water bar.

The water bar. You made it to the water bar. You’ve never gotten this far before.

My brain was fuzzy, consumed by keeping the bike pointed the right way while its reptile id fought my Calvinist ego.

You can stop here. Breathe a minute, let the pain go. 

You made it this far. You’ve got to try. Try motherfucker, try. 

John Calvin wouldn’t have approved of my language, but he won the day.

I turned the cranks as the grade rose to the cyclist’s equivalent of a cliff. My torso almost touched the bars; my face overhung the front wheel like the prow of a sailing ship. Pain radiated through my lower back. My abs felt like they were at the tail end of 100 crunches. My biceps, my fucking biceps on a bike ride, hurt from pulling against the bars to anchor my pedal strokes.

My quads passed from painful to barely functioning.

Dude, you’re halfway up the last pitch. Do not quit.

But the quads didn’t have another half a crank in them. Strength ebbed and weakness flooded in.

Out of the saddle, motherfucker. Stand up. Maybe you’ll puke, but maybe you won’t.

Standing found strength that hadn’t been there seated. I turned the cranks. Once. Twice. The rear tire slipped. Shifting my hips slightly back regained traction. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.

Queue the Everly Brothers: Here comes that puking feeling.

Ten feet. You cannot stop ten feet from the pavement. 

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.

Sit.

Holy shit, motherfucker. You made it up Paddy Hollow. 

A 10% grade was never more welcome. The nausea receded, but reptile-me still wanted to stop. Godzilla was beaten though. Slowly, disbelievingly, I spun the pedals. The pain eased. The grade dropped and I increased cadence and gearing.

Jay and Jeff waited at the top.

Feeling hollow and light, maybe a little let down by how easy the last few hundred feet were, I said to them, “I need a minute. I just cleaned Paddy Hollow.”

 

 

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Riding with Glinda

Cycling is a simple equation:

Success = fitness/physics, or S=F/P

Except it isn’t.

I won’t bog down in discussing the value of S or the corollary idea that “Any nice bike ride is a success.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s stipulate that S means getting up Extra Credit on the Purple trail at George Waldo state park in Southbury, CT.

P is the constant in the equation. Physics is physics. Gravity and vector and friction equal honey badgers in their narcissism – They give not one shit about you. F is where it’s at.

You have the strength to climb that hill or you don’t. Rule #4 applies.

That’s a true statement, but it’s incomplete because the mind co-opts the body’s abilities.

Extra Credit is true singletrack – Two bikes can’t pass unless one stops and moves to the side. I’ve ridden EC 50 times, including one day last year when I sessioned it for half an hour before making it up for the first time ever. Until recently, I’ve made it up about every tenth attempt. It’s a bench traversing a steep hillside with a dodgy little tree-chicane in the middle. But it’s really not that hard. Put that same grade and chicane on a trail that didn’t traverse a steep slope and I would make it every time. My issue stems from my first mtb ride, a little less than two years ago. EC scared me that day and I’ve found it hard to focus on anything other than what happens if I ride off the down-slope side, which, in fulfilling my own prophecy, I have of course done.

But yesterday, EC rolled below my tires like it was paved. What made the difference? P is unchanging. My F is no better than it was a year ago. The difference is that I look up the trail now, and not to the sides, and that I committed mentally to the climb. It’s like Glinda said to Dorothy – “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”

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Number Eight

You’ve tried this climb eight times. You know this because, well, Strava. The first six that little hollow got you. Last time you got that little hollow, but the rock just below the top stopped you like the bumper at the end of a railroad siding. It’s all in your head and you know this but you don’t know for sure that that knowledge matters. And now you’re not quite done with a cold and you’re tired because this is the end of this stupidly climby ride that you all hate and that you all love but fuck it you’re going to clean this climb this time. And you do. You roll that little hollow and you get out of the saddle where the trail steepens below the rock and the line to its left is suddenly as obvious as a Miley Cyrus twerk and you nail that line like a fucking laser and half a crank more makes the rear wheel bite and you’re up and your abs are screaming in a Satanic chorus with your quads and your heart is hammering like it’s half a century younger than it is and then it’s just calm in the woods as your knobbies roll over the carpet of hemlock needles.

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The Desolation of Smaug

The macroburst that went through Connecticut two weeks ago did major damage to two of my favorite mtb parks, Gussy and Waldo. These photos are from Waldo. While there are trees down in random locations through the park, there’s one particular alley that’s maybe 100 yards wide and a quarter of a mile long where there’s nothing by one 70 foot  oak or beech laid down on top of the next one. Unfortunately, this is in area where two of the major trails run.

With apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m calling the area the “Desolation of Smaug.”

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After

Scenes from rides run through my head like post-game films – Things I did right, things I did wrong. These images are like videos taken with a drone-camera; I can move the camera around for a look from any angle. Usually, it’s while I’m lying in bed that night, tired but amped on hormones such that I’m unable to sleep. Then, I can even feel the motion from the moment. Often, it’s then that the lessons begin to gel.

Almost making it up Pink String’s first hill, then looking down and stopping cold on the spot where I looked. Never look down. Nothing to see there.

Getting into some slow speed trouble, then the magic of glancing where I wanted to be and suddenly being there.

The splash of cold water on my legs from crossing the stream, and then spinning out my rear tire on the far bank. So close.

Spinning the back tire out on several climbs. Time to lower the pressure.

Making it up a hill for the first time with Korey behind me yelling, “Dig, Andy! Dig!”

The shot of adrenaline that comes with suddenly finding my rear wheel off the ground and one foot unclipped, and then the gift of not going over the bars but landing back on my seat and keeping going.

 

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