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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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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