The facts of my past include a host of nouns that people used to define me. Altar Boy. Skateboarder. Drummer. Boy Scout. Slacker. Cyclist. Writer. Each of those identities were just conduits for me to get at the verbs that made my life sometimes bearable, occasionally interesting. It’s true that there were times when I clung to one or more of those titles as if my very existence depended on the shape they gave to my identity.

Bits of each of those pasts can return like phone calls from long-lost friends.

When I studied music we followed the development of Western tonality through history, following the gradual addition of complexity in the music. That complexity could be largely summed up as dissonance. In the era of Gregorian Chant, there was very little dissonance. Johann Sebastian Bach was, by any standard, an exceedingly dissonant composer. We analyzed each fly in the ointment, notes referred to as passing tones, neighboring tones and little shockers called escape tones.

Every dissonance demanded a solution. From diminished sevenths to French sixths, every wayward chord was a gang banger in an ashram, Courtney Love at First Communion. Something had to be done.

This process of gradually increasing complexity and dissonance kept ratcheting up over centuries until we reached the German composer Richard Wagner. Examine a Wagner score on a count-by-count basis and you soon discover that he never stayed in a single key for more than a measure or two. The speed with which he moved was disorienting, and sometimes resulted in the ability to read passages in more than one key. It was fair to ask if you faced entry or exit.

Today, there’s a dissonance in my life that perhaps only Wagner could celebrate. I’ve been wrestling with a pinched nerve in my neck for years. I will go through periods where treatment allows me to forget about it and ride for eight hours pain-free. Other times, I’m relegated to two hours if I’m lucky. Recently, the old tricks haven’t been working, perhaps only because my riding life was too busy to allow me to hang up the bike for more than a day or two. I’ve wrestled with hanging up the bike for two weeks now, able to leave it for four or five days, then unable to resist the draw of the salt air and heading out once again.

There were times when I analyzed Wagner that I’d see a chord so dissonant I wasn’t sure how to define it, how it was being resolved. It was the aural equivalent of seeing a yard sale on the freeway and being unsure of which way to try to navigate around it. Is the problem the treatment I’m seeking? Could it be that I really just haven’t been patient enough? Have I not been aggressive and dedicated enough in my exercises? My ice?

Should I consider the possibility this is just age and what I’m relegated?

There’s no getting in the Wayback Machine and telling all those self-annointed masters of bicycle fit who put me on bikes that were too big for me to fuck off. Which is precisely what I should have done all those years ago. It’s why I have this trouble now. It’s why I vibrate when the departure time for my group rides passes. Why, when given the chance to begin work earlier, I sit down to the keyboard with something other than glee. Why shots on Facebook of a friend winning a ‘cross race left me grinding my teeth. Why I was stir-crazy shortly after lunch.

There’s a tension. Sure, there’s the literal tension in my shoulder. A Chinese massage therapist who worked on me today described it mostly by banging his fists together. There’s a tension between my urge to ride and my ability to ride. Between my past and my future. Between my willingness to work and my ability to work. Between my physical health and my mental health.

Knowing that what keeps me sane is also what keeps me sick is one of those Wagner chords. In it, I hear no music, just notes clashing with all the frayed calm of glass breaking. Were I to back up and listen to the whole of the phrase, music would pass through, making each of those lines a little story of building tension, followed by resolution.

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  1. Chris

    I can’t say I’m too familiar with Wagner, but I would imagine that in his music, as in life, resolution is fleeting and tension seems to be, in many ways, the norm. While physically I am well enough that bone, sinew and nerve rarely interfere with my riding, my tension comes from elsewhere.

    My wife recently went back to work after a year of maternity leave. Our son is in daycare and I am trying to finish my PhD thesis while also coming up with a post-PhD trajectory which will hopefully be more rewarding than graduate school.

    It’s exhausting spending hours a day pouring over the years of data that will make up my thesis, and it’s stressful knowing I am to be judged on what I write down. What’s required is frequent and intensive bike therapy. However, my wife reminds me that, these days, we spend less time together as a family than we used to. And she’s right.

    So I forego riding for trips to the aquarium, for walks to the park, to point out planes and garbage trucks, to climb ladders and slide down slides. It’s fantastic and I love every minute of it. But with each missed dose of spinning cogs and humming tires, the tensions builds, awaiting resolution.

  2. Robot

    @Chris – I know that mode of living. I know the road-debt that builds up when life demands a bit more than you can get back on the bike. What worked for me was expanding my day, getting up earlier and/or riding at night, after dark. It was still less than I wanted, but it was enough to keep the edge off. Good luck.

  3. Randomactsofcycling

    @Robot: ditto. I meet two or three other guys on weekdays at 5:30am just so we can squeeze in an hour of riding. Somedays I can do a couple of hours but even though I am usually exhausted by 9pm, it’s worth it and it doesn’t annoy the rest of my family.
    I’m in the situation where the prime athletic years of my life had already passed before i discovered bike racing. It’s tough to explain Masters racing to anyone that’s not a Masters racer. Why do I want to go out racing against a bunch of old guys anyway?

  4. Ben

    Oh Padraig…I feel for you my man. Injury is not good for the soul or the legs. Fortunately I’m just in the similar boat as Chris. Finishing an MA this semester on top of my job, 2 kiddos, wife, yadayadayada. Fortunately December will bring more bike time…of course that’ll be in the cold and dark or on the trainer. I wish you the best P. You’ve been eluding to this injury on earlier posts. The worst! Ugh! May Chinese massage be the answer!

  5. P Poppenjay

    Padraig, you amaze the reader. How you tie such complexities into thought and then word is synthesis, is it not? But then, you have always amazed…

  6. jorgensen

    When I was in 6th grade I read Breakfast of Champions, it had just been published. I was advised by the student teachers who were being trained in our classroom to skip doing a book report on THAT novel. It was quite a formative book for a 12 year old. There are many might have beens, there is hope that one is in control of their destiny. Many conflicts, So it goes.
    I have been able to ride more in the past 3 months, balancing a bike does keep life easier to balance.

  7. sophrosune

    Padraig, If you decide to enter RKP into any journalistic competitions, seriously consider entering this particular entry. Great stuff!

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