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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You Know What’s Coming

You know you don’t have to ride it this way, but you know you will for no reason other than that the notion is in your head today and you feel you can. It is hot. The leaky tree cover lets the sun flow down to the steep road whose dirt turns your tires brown. The dirt is moist and packed today, tight around the gray rocks and not loose and sandy and that’s good but your momentum fades anyway as the grade kicks into double digits and your derailleur drags the chain to the biggest cog. You know the hurt will start soon. First your back as the muscles tire of supporting your torso as it flattens out over the bars. It’s hard to breathe bent at the waist like this and what you need is to breathe, but you need to bend like this to find the balance to keep your front wheel on the ground and your back wheel from spinning out otherwise what’s the point to this whole exercise? It hits your arms next, pulling on the bars to anchor your pedaling, each stroke distinct now as you push past top dead center maybe 40 times a minute – That’s the thing, get the pedal past TDC and you’ve done the hard part of that revolution and then you do it again with the other leg. Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually the legs’ fires burn too hot. The quads first, fed up with driving the cranks around; then your calves. But this your head can still assign a secondary value to, one that’s lower than climbing the hill as well as you can. You push through it with your brain watching in journalistic isolation, but you know that what you can’t push through is coming, you can either dial it back right now or not and that choice becomes who you are and you know you’ve chosen when the burn in your quads suddenly spreads like butter breaking in a warming pan. You try push it away and focus on the breathing and on keeping the bike out of the gutter, trying to ignore what you can no longer avoid and you still try to deny the nausea and the panic-breathing and the vision closing in from the sides like you would try to deny drowning, but it’s coming and it’s coming and you think it’s probably a lot like a heart attack feels, and then you know you’ve timed it right as the wave crests just when you crest the steep and your legs begin to spin again without conscious command. And now your head is somewhere primal, where it goes at no other time, and then it’s flooded with gratitude for it being over and self-loathing for the self-imposed battering and pride because you beat your doubts and then you’re just alone for a while, just alone.

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First Hot Ride

I had a side gig with my friend Patrick this morning doing some demo in a basement. Even demo is fun when you’re working with someone who gets it. Got home around 11, and went for a bike ride. It was just shy of 90F when I left the house, the first time I’ve ridden in the heat this year. I was looking forward to it – Heat doesn’t bother me as much as it does some.

Cycling has been frustrating since I sprained my wrist – I’ve needed to take it easy enough for healing, but I don’t want to lose fitness that I’ll have to beat the shit out of myself to regain. I think I’ve managed that pretty well, first riding the trainer, then going out on paved roads. I rode a slow, 34 mile gravel grinder Thursday night with a couple of friends. I don’t want to ride with the fast guys or on the trails until I’m sure the wrist is good enough that that kind of riding won’t cause a setback. It hurt by the time I got home, but I was fine Friday morning.

Today, I went out alone with the intention of pushing hard on dirt roads. A normal ride here includes about 100 ft. of climbing per mile. Today, I did 16 miles and climbed 1900 feet – A lotta up. I set a Strava PR climbing Flag Swamp and one climbing Garnet, then slacked off for the rest of the ride. I was pretty confident of both PRs before I uploaded my Garmin to check. On the first, the hard parts weren’t crushing – They just felt like riding up a hill. The second, Garnet Road, is one with sections I was walking less than a year ago. As I rode it today there was no question I’d be able to ride the whole thing. It still hurt, but I’ve never had that kind of confidence there before.

So, my fitness is okay. And the wrist did okay, especially considering the work I did this morning.

The climb up Apple Lane was largely in the sun. By the top of Old Roxbury Road, the heat had me sagging. I stopped by the ancient cemetery and just enjoyed the breeze and the shade. Two monuments there explain how this was the site of the first church in Roxbury. They, the cemetery, and the trace of an old road through the woods are the only remaining hints of this.

 

From there, I pointed the GT down the hill to the beaver dam, and up the sharp, short climb after. Intersecting Bacon Road, I could have turned right and been home in 3 flat miles. But this was the first ride when my wrist had felt, if not fine, then at least not painful, so Gravel Gertie and I crossed Bacon and soft pedaled a few hundred feet higher up Grassy Hill before heading home.

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Chasing Limits

I’m no natural athlete. My efforts at organized sports all failed by 7th grade. Life changed though, and at 55, I’m in something like the 90th percentile of fitness for my age. A year ago, I decided to get a lot better at cycling. Speaking relatively, I’ve succeeded, although there’s still plenty of room to grow. However, I’ve beaten the shit out of myself in the process.

Most recently was spraining my right wrist a week ago Sunday. This one scared me – I initially though I’d broken it, and weeks or even months off the bike and a host of languishing home projects flashed through my head. More than a week later I’m pretty confident that nothing broke. The wrist hurts but improves daily. I rode the trainer Thursday night, and yesterday did 15 miles on the road. Still, working the right shifter hurt enough that I started reaching over with my left hand to go up the cogs. Braking is dicey, and even though the right hand only operates the back brake, I can’t ride with others or on trails until that improves.

That’s counterproductive.

It seems that improvement requires pushing at the edge of your abilities. Every sport has two aspects; strength (and endurance), and ability (balance, coordination). Gaining strength just requires gut-busting. I’m curious about growing abilities. Nearly everyone I mountain bike with has an order of magnitude more experience than I do. Clearly, there’s no direct comparison. Some things I see others do are things I don’t even aspire to. But I’m also sure I haven’t reached my potential yet.

Do other cyclists go through such growing pains? Did others crash a lot when they were younger? Or am I comparing myself to people who are just naturally more athletic than me? Riding with better cyclists is inspiring and educational. But does that lead me to take too many chances? How do you improve without taking chances? If the answer is that you don’t, how do you find your limit? Or am I asking the wrong questions? Overthinking?

A final note. More than one person has told me I’m too old to take up mountain biking. I think they’re projecting their own fear and weakness. Sure, age is a factor. I’m old enough I’ll never be Richie Rude – but I couldn’t have been him 30 years ago. I’m not too old to become as good as I can be right now.

 

 

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