In Betweens

Here in New England the spring has not yet sprung, but a recent week of summery warmth turned everyone out of their houses in shorts and t-shirts, maniacal grins plastered across their pasty mugs, such is the influence of sunlight on the normally turgid New England psyche.

But, true to cold seacoast form, relatively normal weather service has now resumed. Please forgive me for the gratuitous low country reference, but it’s pretty Belgian here lately.

And that got me thinking about all that time of year that is neither winter nor summer, the time in between. Your clothing never makes sense. It rains when you didn’t think it would. It doesn’t rain when you’ve got your rain gear on. Your bike is in between clean enough to be proud of and dirty enough to actually get the hose on. Your legs are neither particularly weak nor particularly strong.

It strikes me that when we talk about our riding we mostly do it in absolutes. You’re either super strong or you’re crap. What we mean when we say “crap” of course is: not quite as strong as our buddies, which really means in-between crap and good enough. It’s an in-between, in-between.

Think of all the pro riders, male and female, who would be the fastest people you’d ever ridden with, if you’d ever ridden with them, but they’re just domestiques who do a job all day. Not legends. Not amateurs. Just in between. They spent the early part of their careers chasing the promise of something more, desperately trying to escape in-between-ness, before settling in and accepting their lot. In this case, their simple mediocrity is head and shoulders above my very best. It looks down from on high and laughs, if it even bothers to notice.

Years ago, when I was in a loud, fast, talentless band, our bass player made a rule for us. Always play as fast as you can, but if you can’t, play slow, never in between. Man, could we play slow! Of course, we peaked the day we played first on a seven band bill at the Rat in Kenmore Square.

I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’m always chasing the perfect ride. I’ll go here. It’ll be like this. I’ll ride with that guy. He knows the best spots. And on and on, sometimes bailing on a ride if I don’t think it’s going to be great. This is actually “pre-bailing,” a term my friend Joe coined to describe the act of calculating in advance whether or not a ride is going to be good enough for you and deciding not to go. How many times have you pre-bailed and regretted it?

Yeah. Me too.

And then of course, because as cyclists we have this perverse love of suffering, we find ways to ennoble the ignoble, the rides that are really bad, like when it’s 37(F) and raining or when the headwind is so stiff you could lean your bike against it and walk away to get a drink.

Most of our riding is in the vast middle, and we either don’t appreciate it or dismiss it as unimportant. However, very seldom have I had a transcendent cycling experience that I expected to have. Mostly, you can’t schedule these things. Hell, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) spends all year and millions of Euros trying to design transcendent bike races. In fact, they try to do it 21 times-in-a-row every summer, but a lot of those turn out to be just another bike race, easily forgotten.

What I have to remind myself, over and over and over again, is that you have to ride to enjoy riding. Fast with your friends. Slow with your family. In between, by yourself, before work, or after the kids are in bed. And sure, epic locales can produce epic experiences, but so can my daily commute. 4.5 miles over pocked and rutted New England pavement.

Sometimes I throw a victory salute for the kids when I get home.


Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.

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  1. Ransom

    Well put.

    I can’t count or recall the number of times I had a great moment and attempted to recreate it.

    It doesn’t work that way. Not that I’m going to stop trying.

    Taking another bit of wisdom from rock and roll, this was related to me as being Keith Richards on songwriting. Here, misquoted, likely mis-attributed, but still very much about the search for moments of greatness: “Songwriting is like digging for buried treasure. Mostly you dig a lot of empty holes.”

  2. Paul I.

    Never got cold enough to stop riding this winter (in NJ), so I’ve been stronger than usual for the time of year, until I got a really bad cold and have been off the bike for almost 2 weeks. Can’t wait to ride again, dreading getting dropped when I do 🙁

    I’m tempted to pre-bail this weekend’s group ride and go out by myself to get my legs back, but then, I will probably regret the missed companionship. They might drop me, but they will wait at the top of the hill, or the next major junction.

  3. Graham I

    Exactly right.

    The best rides and experiences never seemed to start out that way.

    The best night with friends is never a well scripted New Years Eve but some rather random squalid event that transcends its lowly expectations.

    Strangely had an awful day out two weeks sago – first long ride of year with dead legs and no kick – but persevered and finished (and caught the two people who passed me). So while from a pure performance point of view it was very, very bad from a triumph of the spirit angle it was epic and brave.

    When you get a load of lemons – best to make lemonade.

  4. PeterLeach

    Three simple sentences: “How many times have you pre-bailed and regretted it? Yeah. Me too.”

    One simple concept: “… you have to ride to enjoy riding …”

    I ‘pre-bailed’ on one of my favourite events last month. Now I can never get that enjoyment.

    I’ve promised myself lemonade this weekend.

  5. WV Cycling

    The weather in WV is quite pleasant, requiring only an underarmour shirt below the jersey.

    Sadly, this is also the time of year where we’re all getting flats like all get-out… Sigh…

  6. CptCrnch

    The last paragraph is so true. I’ve been racing for the last several years both road and CX. But this year I’m not doing anything (well maybe some charity century rides). I wasn’t enjoying riding my bike anymore. I was only on the bike to train for the upcoming season or next race. This year I’m aiming to get that joy back. No training schedule, no set goals, just riding my bike. Fast, slow, 1 mile, or 100 miles it doesn’t matter. I may even drive around the northeast USA following the path of the Rapha continental rides that are up this way.

  7. Peter Lin

    Even though I’m addicted to riding, I do it purely for the enjoyment. I remind myself to cherish every day I get to ride and enjoy the ride as much as I can. Doesn’t matter if I get dropped or if my legs burn. The fact I’m riding instead of stuck in the gym on a stupid trainer, is more than enough to make it worth while. Even on days where it’s horribly cold, my feet and hands are freezing, I still try to enjoy it. Not that it’s easy to enjoy freezing, but it beats being dead and six feet under. For me, doesn’t matter if it’s fast, slow or in-between. Riding rejuvenates me and fill my soul.

  8. Eto

    Robot, love the piece.
    I enjoyed the part when you talked about the pros and the relevancy of what it means to be good, better or the best. I used to race years back and could be competitive in my age group, in my state, in my region… etc. We all look for those markers along the road to take reference from. Competitiveness can take many forms in one’s life and in one’s life stages. For me, getting out to ride with a good friend or on my own is enough for the potential of achieving some level of accomplishment.

    Thank you.

  9. ChrisB.

    I raced quite a bit as a late teen/early 20 something. I mostly enjoyed it, although I’m not sure I ever enjoyed as much as going for a long ride along the rolling hills of Southern New England. Then I too started a band and spent the next 15-18 years chasing my rock n’ roll, folk, country, etc. dreams. I still rode my bike around town, but I also smoked cigarettes and kept odd hours.

    Eventually, I quit smoking, got married, and became a father. Riding my bicycle just a little bit more with each rite of passage, until finally restoring my deep love for long rides upon many of those same rolling hills. And then I started racing again. I made slow, but evident progrees. And I mostly enjoyed it.

    This past weekend I entered my first race of the year, a criterium and for the first time ever I wasn’t even slightest bit nervous; I also wasn’t even the slightest bit excited. I stayed in race for ten laps before quietly drifting off the back, riding to my car, packing up my bike and driving home. That was it, I couldn’t do it anymore, not another criterium. Not another hour of going around the same turns over and over again: braking, then speeding up. Not another hour of worrying that the guy in front of me, or next to me might do something stupid. Not another morning in a parking lot listening to some bearded hipster blast hardcore music, devoid of melody and feeling.

    I actually enjoy watching criteriums. They’re dynamic. But when I’m in one I wonder if they too are devoid of melody and feeling. And maybe romance.And adventure. And my soul seems to require those things. That’s why started racing in the first place, but eventually, almost without my knowing, turned into something else: the need to progress in tangible, measurable, accountable way. I’d become a “professional” amateur racer.

    In my moment of clarity I realized that I love cycling as a deep ontological experience, not as an escape from existential crisis and not as an existential crisis in and of itself: going around and around the same course . . . checking the results online Monday morning.

    So that’s it for now, no more criteriums. I might do a few road races. I like those, they’re melodic,. I’ll probably do some other things like trail races (one of my favorite “offseason” activities). But mostly I’ll just look forward to those Sunday rides with the locals that often turn into unofficial, pick-up races.

    I’m free.

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