Fear v. Fun

Both my knee and the weather were pretty fair last week. I got out on the road three times, even setting a Strava PR. Not bad for two and a half months after surgery. It’s been good to ride outside, but I’m still months away from hitting the trails again, a fact that does not keep me from thinking about hitting the trails again.

I wonder what that’s going to be like.

It will be tentative at first as I feel out my limitations. Of course, starting on easier trails will be the play, but eventually I’ll come to some feature that’s at the edge of my technical ability (As opposed to my physical ability, which I think of as strength and wind). Those are the places that strike fear in me, and a lot of times when I’ve gotten into trouble, it’s when I’ve reacted to that fear with bravado instead of patience and caution.

Bravado isn’t good. It isn’t fun, even. Even when bravado leads me to success, I find I’m only a little less scared the next time because I didn’t necessarily understand how I did what I did.

Part of what drives me is impatience. At 58, physical decline is inevitable. It often seems that if I don’t ride something now, it’s not going to happen. That’s a consequence of coming into the sport late in life. My friends have been riding for 10 or 20 or 30 years. I’ve got 3 under my saddle. This year would be 4 if I hadn’t lost it to injury.

No more injuries. Well, okay, cuts and bruises and scrapes. Nothing more that requires an orthopedic doctor. And maybe that means there are things I’ll never ride. And that’s okay. I do this for fun, not to prove anything.

Which leads me to the question of what I find fun about mountain biking. There’s the obvious. Time in the woods. Time with friends. Schralping the turns on the red trail at Waldo. Making it up a tough hill. Cleaning a rock garden. A controlled descent.

Those things are fun. They do not inspire fear. And therein lies the answer, I think. Like the hippies said, “If it feels good, do it.” Engel’s corollary will be, “If it scares you, walk around it until it looks like it will feel good.”


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If You Can’t Ride…

My friend had said that they would be out of the woods about dark. That’s when I pulled in, me and my healing knee, my bike hanging dusty at home. As I had driven over the ridge between there and here, the sun was setting. That hued cacophony of light quickly moved west. Its passing marked the time that we were supposed to vacate the dirt-road parking lot.

We broke out camp chairs. We cracked beers. 

Our rebellion causing no concern, we sat long enough to watch the moon glide through the high crotch of a bare beech, its branches a black lacework against the marine-blue sky. A north wind scudded the clouds overhead, their shadows a running tarnish on the silver ground.

It was cold, but we shrugged off winter’s entropy and traded warmth for an hour of companionship. A hiker’s headlamp flickered through the trees on the far side of the valley, telling us we weren’t alone in the pleasure of a winter evening. Nearly so, though. Three cars passed by, the drivers intent on home. Jets passed over, their red lights alien, the people in them utterly remote from our reality.

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More Zwift

Seven weeks ago today, my left ACL was replaced. Today, I rode London on Zwift again, taking one minute and twenty seconds off my previous 15 minute and eight second PR up Box Hill from a week ago. Maybe I could have gone a little harder, maybe not. Gauging sustained effort on a long climb is as much an art as a science. I did put out everything in the final 30 seconds, crossing the line as the nausea hit.

It was good. Twisted maybe, but life affirming.

Comparing myself against the 15 or so local folks I follow on Strava, I’m at the bottom of the Zwift PR barrel. Not always at the very bottom though, and I’m moving up. Most of these people have always been faster than me in any event, so it feels like I’ve lost surprisingly little ground. And it feels good to see that I’m sucking a little less each week.

I’m cautiously optimistic for the spring.

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Slow is Fast

I Zwifted yesterday morning. My PT session the night before included squats and thicker bungee cords on the resistance training. Mounting the bike yesterday, my quads were already sore. But ride I did.

Climbing London’s Box Hill is as tough as I want it to be. The grades aren’t terrible, mostly 5% to 9%, but by gearing up I can make that feel like our local fifteen-percenters. Yesterday, I pushed hard. Sweat and snot dripped and my quads burned just below my threshold for the whole 16 minute climb.

Which was a minute slower than I’d done it in a couple of days ago.

Some rides are like that. You work hard and you don’t do as well. And I think that’s okay. I think those are the days you build yourself up.

At least I fucking hope so.

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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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