Crashing Hard

“You okay, bud?” Jeff asked as I rode up to him.

“I’m not sure I didn’t just break my wrist.”

It began well. We’d ridden the same course a week ago. Last week, I was feeling the weakness from three weeks off the bike and lingering bronchitis. This week, I was riding strong. A climb that took 12 minutes last week took 10 yesterday. I cleaned a few sections for the first time, and was rocking the descents as well as I ever rock descents. And then I’m lying on my side in the small stream I’d just crossed, thinking that the water should feel colder than it does, trying to decide if the sound I’d heard was a bone in my wrist breaking or my helmet hitting a rock.

It was only the second time I’d ridden this trail, and last week I’d nailed the stream crossing. Nailed it this time too, but I was going faster and didn’t look far enough ahead. The trail immediately turns downhill and right, and I ended up high in the corner. Over-correcting, I focused on the stream bed and fall right into it, my right hand reaching out instinctively for the rock that’s going to break my fall.

I hung out in the stream for what? Thirty seconds? A minute? I can move my hand okay, but it’s sore. Probably not broken. My head is absolutely clear, so no brain injury. Disentangling from the bike, I stand up. The bike seems okay too. I walk out to level ground, get back on and pedal. I can’t put much weight on my right hand, so the ride for me is over. I’m thinking about losing time off the bike and losing fitness that’s so damn hard to get back. I’m thinking about the work I need to do in Pat’s nascent bakery. I’m thinking about the set I’m supposed to build for the video shoot I’m supposed to be the talent for on Tuesday. And I’m thinking about how rightly pissed Pat is going to be and all these right things are running up against the fact that I fucking love mountain biking and that there’s no way I’m going to stop doing that and instead I’m going to turn this injury, like every other one I’ve ever had, into a lesson that makes me better at riding while somehow taking into account that the risks I take affect other people too.

“Are you okay to ride?”

Jeff’s looking at me, talking to me, assessing me, and I’m back in the moment. It’s still a fantastic, cool, green May afternoon. Jeff points out that the way back to the cars is a three mile ride up the hill on 317 and down Weller’s Bridge. I assess myself again. Head is clear. I’m not shocky. That’s not just wishful thinking.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

We ride up the hill, Jeff making conversation all the way. In retrospect, I know he’s talking to engage me, to get a sense of my state of mind, to be sure I can handle the coming descents. And I know I can. It hurts to move my fingers to shift, but I can do it. I find a position where I can hold my right hand and put weight on it, and I can use the brake.

Back at the parking lot, I need Jeff to put the bike in the car and to remove my left glove.

“Are you okay to drive?”

“Yes.”

“Let me know how you’re doing.”

I’m doing fine. In retrospect, I’d ride yesterday’s ride a little differently if I could, but I wouldn’t take it back if I couldn’t.

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Other Places Don’t Have This

Last Sunday I had the fun of riding one of my favorite venues with my friend Mark. He lives outside of Philly now, but he’s a native New Englander. NEMBA built Waldo State Park’s trails with twists and swoops and climbs so flowy and gradual that you don’t notice the killer workout you get ascending them. Whoever designed the trails made a wonderful place to ride bikes in the woods. I heard Mark literally whoop with joy several times, something I’ve been known to do myself.

On Wednesday, I met Chris and Korey to ride a different preserve. It’s more primitive than Waldo, with none of its swoopy flow. The climbs are so tough that we all walked some parts. Instead of Mark whooping, I listened to Chris locomotive-chuffing as he drove himself up old wood roads. This preserve is very lightly used. I came home covered with mud and bleeding from brambles that overhang the trail. But at one point we stood in a clearing surrounded by hundreds of jack in the pulpit plants. At another, a red-breasted grosbeak called from a copse of cedars. Always I was aware of simply being in the woods, of the smell of the leaves and the dirt and the rocks, as if that were the point and cycling was secondary.

Thursday night, I rode 30 miles of dirt roads with five other guys. They’re all faster than me on my best day, and I was still getting over a bout of bronchitis. Apart from the two previously mentioned rides, I’d been off the bike for three weeks. It hurt. From the start, I knew the penultimate climb up Shinar Mountain Road would be tough. At its bottom, I thought about abandoning. It would have been an easy ride home from there. But I followed the group, my heart sinking as I realized the road had been graded recently and hadn’t seen enough to traffic to pack it down into the hard dirt we all love. It was even muddy at points. Turning the pedals was all I could do. Yet as my tires sank into the soft dirt, the last glow of the sunset over a hillside pasture caught my eye. The air was quiet and the clear sky cooled my back. Coughing with lingering bronchitis, I had nothing more to give to the hill than I was giving. I let go of caring that my companions had pedaled out of sight, finding peace with the evening and the ride, knowing that the hurt of each pedal stroke was making me stronger. As the hill flattened at the top, my cadence increased and I geared up, finding joy even in that little acceleration up to my waiting friends.

These very different rides took place within 15 miles of each other, enabled by our landscape and by the character of the people I ride with. At one point on Sunday, Mark and I stopped to talk at a spot where I’ve stopped dozens of times. Mark noticed the view across the Housatonic valley to Newtown’s hills, bright with chartreuse green of spring.  He said, “This is fucking amazing! You don’t notice how beautiful New England is until you leave it. Other places don’t have this.”

 

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What is a Cyclist?

I’m sitting at home with the mother of all colds, drowning in snot on a gorgeous spring Sunday when my friends are all riding. So, time to finish writing this that I started weeks ago.

It’s been what? Sixteen years since I started cycling as an adult? Something like that. I ride maybe 4,000 miles a year, and in every month of the year. Those first wobbly, painful, doubtful, mid-adulthood rides in shorts and a T-shirt on my old mountain bike are still fresh in my mind. On certain climbs that I ride easily enough now, I remember having to stop and breathe and not puke in those early days.

I’m still not sure why I plodded through those early, difficult, miserable rides that left my quads sore for days. I think it comes back to images planted in my head in the 1970s, when my first 10-speed provided freedom, when a favorite teacher also owned a bike shop, and when in my adolescent brain the idea of a fossil-fuel-free and pedal-powered existance seemed ideal. It felt like bikes could be a big part of my life.

But for a long time they weren’t. Now they are, but some days I’m still not sure I qualify as a cyclist. Others I ride with are so much better they make me feel like a newbie. They’re gracious – the insecurity is all in my head – and in fact, riding with better riders can be a fine thing if you want to get stronger. But still, it’s humbling.

A cyclist is more than just someone who rides a bike. A lot of Americans who’d never call themselves cyclists ride bikes. There’s a transition point when you take on the identity. It’s not about having a nice bike(s) or wearing the ridiculous clothes, or about being someone who works to get better at cycling, although those things can relate. It’s more about feeling a draw to open roads or to trails away from roads or really, to anywhere two wheels that your legs make spin can go. And it’s relative. So, 4,000 miles a year is fair amount. Most people I know don’t ride 40 miles a year. But people I ride with do 9000 miles. I spend enough time riding that it’s often hard to balance cycling with the rest of my life. But people I ride with sometimes plan multi-day tours, and some ride across the USA.

Similarly, I know enough about cycling that beginners ask me questions. But again, I ride with people who know much more than I do, and I pester them with questions.

Other folks ask me how I can ride the hills around here, saying they’d ride if it weren’t for the hills. Well, I dunno how I ride hills. I start with the expectation that it will hurt. I turn the pedals, breathe a lot, tell my brain to shut up and ignore the pain, and occasionally stop to let my heart rate drop out of the megahertz range. Same way everyone rides the hills I guess. But I ride with people who climb literally twice as fast as I do. The ones I call friends wait at the top for me, like I wait at the top for those who are slower than me.

There’s no statutory point at which a person becomes a cyclist. It’s a feeling that develops somewhere along a continuum. There will always be riders who are better than you, and riders who aren’t as good as you are. What matters is recognizing that that continuum is also a community. Like in any community, the role of a good citizen is both to learn and to teach. Both of these rolls demand humility. You can’t learn if you think you already know. And you can’t teach if don’t remember being ignorant.

 

 

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Ah, Spring. It sucks so far.

A glorious April weekend, the first warm one following March’s leonine exit. I was dying to hit some trails, particularly after rocking the Scrhalpin’ Turns at Waldo last week. Friday I was thinking I might ride both days. One friend said he planned to ride Gussie Saturday, and I hung my hopes on that. But the day got away from him, and he texted mid-day that he couldn’t come out to play. By then I was engaged in my own chores and gave up on a trail ride.

Instead, I decided to work on some skills, specifically on doing a manual. I can get the front wheel off the ground, but haven’t dialed in riding it out, something I could do for a hundred feet at a stretch when I was ten. The one time I got close ended badly. I landed spectacularly and painfully on my ass, to the point that when Pat ran over to comfort her writhing-in-pain-on-the-driveway husband, my response was, “Leave me the fuck alone.” The pain subsided in a minute, but damn! Note to self – apologize to spouse and switch to flat pedals for this exercise.

Determined to make Sunday better, I committed to riding at 4PM, and put out Facebook and email feelers. Everyone had different plans. A lot of my friends did long dirt road rides in the morning. Another was at a conference in NH. Still another had committed to teaching a Congolese refugee how to ride a bike so he could get to work.

You can’t make this shit up. Seriously – Couldn’t the Congolese dude use some trail skills?

By 3:15 I resolved to ride alone, and got my kit on. I’m not wild about riding alone. It worries Pat. I learn from and am inspired by other riders. But perhaps most importantly, sharing outdoor experiences bumps them a notch – It’s an atavistic thing that’s encoded in our DNA, a remnant from a time when cooperation within a tribe literally meant life or death. Plus there’s the beer in the parking lot after the ride.

But my tribe didn’t want me Sunday. Fuck ’em. I was riding anyway.

It started well. Despite every pedal stroke pulling the muscles in my bruised ass, I cleaned the rock garden off the fire road for the first time ever by just following the rules – Head up, shoulders relaxed, feet spinning. Score one for me. Fast down Thing’s twists and then panting up the Red Steeps to Yellow, where I rolled the doubstacle of the rock wall and the sassafras log like walking down a sidewalk. Then it soured. Back on Red, in an abbreviation of the Schralpin’ Turns, I was slow and cornering wide. At the bottom, I couldn’t climb Extra Credit, losing my balance over and over.

Riding back up Thing, I didn’t have the energy to roll the easy rock garden, and even fell on the easiest bit from going too slow. At the top by the quartz mine, I stopped. I’d planned to ride up Red but was starting to think that wasn’t happening. Sucking the last water from my Camelback, I took its deflated bladder as a sign to head out, and rode the easy trail back to the fire road. Not wanting to suck quite that much, I turned off to ride the log and the boardwalk. I fell off the log, then rode off the boardwalk. At the truck, I found I’d only been out an hour, but I was fork-sticking done.

Monday morning, I felt like death and went to the doctor to find I had an antibiotic-worthy sinus infection. Which was good to know, because it told me I didn’t suck as badly on Sunday as I thought.

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Snow

Huntington3-11-17A month or so back, after a spate of good weather that had us out mountain biking nearly every weekend from October through January, it snowed. Only a few inches, but it also turned cold and windy. Not wanting to end the streak, Jeff, Ben, and I met at Huntington State Park, formerly the estate of railroad baron Collis Potter Huntington. I’d ridden here once or twice before 15 years ago but then got sidetracked by road riding.

The skies were Canadian-cold-air-mass blue and wind shook the car in the parking lot. As soon as I opened the door, even fully kitted up, the Sam-McGee-cold hit. My cycling shoes had no grip on the ice, and I wondered just why I’d thought riding today was a good idea. Still, clipping in and heading down into the woods got us out of the wind. And the day was beautiful in that winter-Kodachrome way. The trees and rocks stood out distinctly against the snow instead of blending into the brown and gray of a leaf-strewn forest floor or disappearing in a fugue of green, providing the forest with a sense of scale and distance lacking the rest of the year.

It was afternoon, and the trails had been found and packed nicely by the fat-tire crowd, but they hadn’t turned muddy. The conditions were as perfect as winter trails could be. But the perfect conditions and the beautiful day were belied by that same feeling of anagnorisis I’ve had looking down from the top of a black diamond ski slope. I was underdressed. I didn’t know the trails. The low traction situation scared me all out of proportion to the real risks. And topping it off, I’d suggested the ride. The only way I’m constitutionally able to deal with circumstances such as this is to suck it up.

I got quiet and rode. Well, I walked a lot. But I rode a lot, too. Jeff coached Ben and me through the same rock garden several times. I almost cleaned it on my last attempt, and felt good about having almost cleaned it in the snow. Jeff said, “This ride will make every other ride easier.” I tried my dropper post, feeling how the lower seat moved my center of gravity in a confident way on gnarly descents.

Despite these boons, I was tense and fighting myself. Flow I did not. I came off the bike several times, once notably when I got sideways in the snow on what would be a fun descent on dirt. The resulting sleigh ride fetched my side up against a tree – the bruise is very colorful, and caused me to spend half a minute wondering whether I’d cracked a rib. Another time I found my leg tangled up inside the bike’s frame while I fell sideways. Catching myself with my arm against a downed tree, muscles pulled on bruised ribs. I felt that. Still another time I vaulted entirely clear of Moby (I call my white, mid-fat bike Moby), somehow unclipping and landing in the snow as cat-like as I’ve ever done. Which is to say, not very.

By the end, my shoulders ached from tension I hadn’t shrugged off. As we rode along a flat carriage road, with each stroke I wrapped my toes around the pedal like a monkey would to encourage blood flow. I was too cold to feel my bruises. Paraphrasing Service, why I’d left my home in the south to roam ’round the poles God only knows. I was mentally done even before facing the hill up to the parking lot. Petulant with fatigue and cold, the idea of climbing it pissed me off. Almost immediately my rear tire spun in the snow, but anger bred determination and I kept the pedals turning until the tire bit. And then my front wheel was off the packed trail and into the deeper snow, but again, channelled infantilism kept my feet spinning. Two thirds of the way up that part of my brain dedicated to failure told me to quit. But I decided not to. Topping out, I hadn’t beaten the hill, but rather my own self.

We shook hands, and Jeff and Ben headed out. I don’t think they knew how mentally hard that ride had been for me. I took a moment to luxuriate in my bruises, while sitting in dry clothes in a sun-warmed Honda. Biting ice from the nipple of my Camelback, I drank water as delightfully cold as liquid water can be. I ground a handful of trail mix between my molars, the raisins and the chocolate covered espresso beans instantaneous mood changers. I remembered how the hemlocks looked against the snow, and Jeff’s words came back to my mind; “This ride will make every other ride easier.”

I thought about riding Huntington in the jungley misery of a July afternoon when I’d drain a full Camelback and salt-stain my gloves and wonder just when the thunderstorm would hit.

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Where I Learned How to Ride

cows

Cows wade in the Shepaug below Judd’s Bridge

Several years ago, before I ever rode epics such as the D2R2, in the morning of a gloriously hot New England May day, I set out from home on a solo ride that changed my view of where one should ride bikes. I don’t remember what led me to the dirt of Judd’s Bridge Road. Probably I thought it would be cooler along the Shepaug, cool enough to draw me off the pavement and risk flatting on the dirt.

I do know that I didn’t know where I’d go at the actual bridge on Judd’s Bridge Road. The likely option was turning around. I could have gone straight onto Tunnel Road, but that was abandoned and I wasn’t sure my road bike could handle it. I could have gone right and up Battle Swamp, but at that point I hadn’t yet embraced climbing, and Battle Swamp is one gnarly climb. That left turning left over the river and continuing on Judd’s Bridge toward New Milford. And while I didn’t know that road well then, the fact that it pointed directly at the side of Second Hill, which tops out 500 feet higher than the Shepaug, made it obvious that there’d be some gnarly climbing there as well. I decided to just poke my nose across the river, staying on the flats, maybe try to see where the old railroad had gone, and then turn home.

Crossing the Shepaug on the wooden deck of Judd’s Bridge, the air buzzed with insects and the hillsides that enclosed me were covered with the green lace of early summer. Passing through Judd’s Bridge Farm, black beef cows languished in the shade. A tenth of a mile in, Judd’s Bridge Road went vertical. But another road turned right, north up the valley, one I’d never travelled before. Walker Brook Road, the sign said.

It was quiet there. An old barn stood before me, and I felt light and alone in the way that I had sometimes felt as a boy during summer vacations. It was as if I could pass through the landscape unnoticed; in this Twilight Zone moment, Walker Brook Road called me to ride its shady dirt.

Walker Brook Road rose gradually, following first the Shepaug valley and then its own eponymous one. The riverine woods were open on both sides, and it was half a mile to the first house. In a Robert Frost moment, other dirt roads came in from both sides there, but I stayed my course. Soon, I was pedaling alongside a narrow pasture, dodging sandy spots in the road, the air smelling sweet and grassy, and then I was back into the woods. The valley narrowed, and the climb steepened just a little, but that was concurrent with the shade deepening and the air cooling because of the brook running along the road.

“I’ll turn back when this road Ts with another,” I thought. Chores called, and Pat would be worried.

Meanwhile, I climbed for miles through the summer day, passing just a few side roads and not many houses. I felt free, like I have driving endless roads in the West. I felt wonderment, discovering this place ten miles from home. Eventually reaching a T-intersection, the dream ended and I knew where I was. Even if I hadn’t promised myself I’d reverse here, even if home wasn’t calling me, I wouldn’t have wanted to cross that T. I knew the road ahead. It was nice, but it wasn’t what lay behind. Turning around, I descended what I’d climbed, making a perfect flight down the valley. There were no cars, no people; only me pedaling fast down a dirt road on a summer day, and knowing that this was how I should ride bikes.

 

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Oooph…

I’ve ridden a lot in the dark, but never much on anything resembling singletrack. This week’s Thursday night saw me on my first real night trail ride. I expected it to challenge me, but I hey, I know the trail – been there three times already this week. Well, it was a lot harder, and made even more so by how the day’s heavy wind had rearranged the leaves on the ground.

Mentally processing the trail wasn’t as easy at night. You don’t get a big picture, just a series of narrow samples in the helmet-light’s beam. It was hard to focus on looking ahead and picking a line, because my eyes followed the light, jumping far out into the woods on turns, wanting to lead me astray. More than once I caught a shoulder on a tree, led there by a flash of light shining on the trunk just before I reached it. One plus is that I saw lines never noticed in the daylight. Maybe the directional light picks out details better. I’l try to remember them next ride.

I rode focusing on the mantra of “Relax, look ahead, pedal.” Generous guy that he is, Jeff put me in front, but that didn’t last long. I was not the one to lead that night. For me, it was a short series of mountain bike fails.

Within the first ten minutes, I miss the turn at the T to hit the boardwalk, stopping the group. I ride off the boardwalk. Doing a slow turn around a boulder, my right foot catches the rock on its upstroke and throws me over on my left side. Getting up, the right shoe is loose and I realize I broke a ratchet strap.

I catch up, the group rides on. We meet Sean and Don coming towards us. They change direction and we ride together. Up the yellow trail to the red trail, cross a stone wall, thread the first pair of big trees, the ones with the twin rocks between them and the tight center line, feeling like I’m riding well. Not long ago I was riding around those trees. There’s a second pair of trees just up the hill, with a little chicane and a big rock just past them. The left tree puts the rock in shadow. Forgetting that it’s there, I bury my front wheel into the rock. The bike and I change vector, going from linear motion to forward rotation. Endoing in the dark, illuminated only by a helmet mounted light, is surreal, disorienting; a Blair Witch moment. It’s a weightless cartwheel of black with an FX streak of light. I feel the bike fly over me and realize I’m still clipped in. Landing hard on my shoulder with the bike atop, I hear my own, “Oooph.”

But I’m okay. The bike looks fine too. Hopping back on, I ride up the trail and the pain subsides in moments. But the helmet feels loose and keeps dropping into my field of view. I must have hit my head too, although it didn’t seem that way. With the helmet moving about, there’s a disconcerting randomness to where I can point the light. Fifteen minutes on, I realize I shouldn’t be riding with a damaged helmet and poor lighting. At the next stop, I say that I’m done. That’s the impetus everyone else seemed to need too, although I suspect we’d have done another lap otherwise, and we all ride out.

Apologies to the group for my clumsiness, and kudos to Joe, who kept up on unfamiliar trails, in the dark, on his fourth mountain bike ride!

 

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