The Right Line

I am at the car, heaving my mountain bike back onto the roof rack. Mud-spattered shins. A water bottle too befouled to drink from. I lay a towel against the back of the seat. My wife drives this car most days.

I am on the ground. What a surprise! Some practical joker has deflated my lungs and is standing on my chest. Too funny. Eventually, and without panic, my breath returns. I have been here before. Damage report: Right palm bruise-y and scraped, left buttock screaming, right shoulder sore, left ankle mildly sprained. Friends get and give the thumbs up. We ride on.

Setting out, you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Anticipation. Nervousness. These aren’t butterflies. You poured coffee on those. This is excitement. Even as an adult, there is some magic to riding mountain bikes with your friends.

Sometimes the scenes are more powerful when they’re shown out of order, as in one of Jean-Luc Goddard’s movies, or in one of my favorite ever novels, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. This is non-linear story-telling.

Non-linear stories do two very interesting things. First, they remove episodes from their context, which allows us to see them differently, sometimes more completely, and second, they underline that often, despite our experience, the current of our lives isn’t as linear as we perceive it. Think of Heller’s Catch-22 or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

I don’t ride mountain bikes a lot, but when I do, I usually fall off. The main mistake I make on the trail is assuming that the difficulty of the conditions will increase and decrease in a linear fashion, and that is almost never true. What is, in the moment, hard, for example a rooted, rocky uphill section, may become instantly and entirely impassable by someone of my underwhelming skill set. A single stone in the middle of the path might put me off, even if I don’t think it ought to be there. A sharp right-hand turn running crossways to a root system is an unfair development in what had been an entirely enjoyable bit of single track.

Or think of that hard road ride you do with your friends. When you’re not all the way fit you sit on someone’s wheel and you try hard to stay there. When the pace ramps up, you go with it, but you think, “I only need to hold this for a minute.” I often think that right before I get spat out the back. Other people’s accelerations are almost never linear. That’s why I hate them.

Life is not a smooth-lined chart, with graceful transitions. It’s an EKG, with spikes and troughs, and the patient is hardly stable.

A month ago I was spinning toward real fitness, able to hang on all those fast group rides, able to pull when I needed to, and to do big miles when time permitted. I was feeling pretty good after the winter doldrums, and I was looking forward to a big summer in the saddle.

Then the rain came and baseball season started. A mild winter served up a warm, early spring here that last about 8 days. Then we entered a long spell of raw precipitation. This would have been a challenge to ride through, but challenges are what we’re after, right?

But, I have two boys, both of whom are playing our national pastime. They each have games on Saturdays and Sundays. That alone would eat some cycling time, but couple it with the heavy rain we’ve had, and you get rainouts, reschedules and midweek, after-work congestion. I began losing saddle time at an alarming rate. Stones in the path. Greasy roots channeling me off into the bushes.

Then I did an international business trip, which, while good and successful and fun, also included no cycling. This is the great irony of working in the bike industry, that you can devote your life to an endeavor you thereby no longer have time to pursue. So I missed a solid week off the bike there as well.

And lest it suddenly seem I am complaining, let me walk all this back a bit. I like watching my boys play ball. They’re still young enough to be charmingly awful at it, and yet they don’t mind and still have fun doing it, much like their father on a mountain bike. And coming out of a drought, we need all this rain, even if it does push the family schedule around like a shopping cart with a bad front wheel.

The irony is that the more scheduled my life becomes (we are completely beholden to the family’s shared Google calendar), the less predictable it is also. What looks like a clear opportunity to ride today, turns into a ball game or a rain out, or a rain-out reschedule which requires the rearrangement of necessary life tasks like laundry or grocery shopping. My form is, quite understandably, not high on the list of the family’s priorities.

And so, much as I assume, when rocketing down a rocky descent at the very edge of my technical ability and the stopping power of my disc brakes, that things are bound to get easier any second, I also believe (mistakenly) that the calendar will open up any time now, and I’ll be back to my normal mileage and fitness in no time.

It will require a hard right, across a root system, over a large stone, but I can make it. It’s all about momentum and belief and a lack of fear, right?

Sometimes the secret of a non-linear story is that events which seemed important in the context of time, e.g. my cycling escapades, are not actually important to the overall narrative. Sometimes the point the writer or filmmaker is trying to make is that, by passing everything through the wrong filter, you are missing the cherished sled, burning in the blazing fire, the childhood lost to life’s striving.

As you lay in the middle of the trail, a rock for a pillow, a branch stuck in your ribs, you think it’s about you and your bike and your friends, when in reality it is about the fickleness of weather, the charm of kids playing in a park, and a load of laundry that needs to be done. You would have missed that rock if you had been paying attention to the right story line.



Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot

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  1. El Tejan

    I can empathize with you and your baseball dilemma. But if you think it is bad now, wait until your kids get good…”select” ball means games two days a week and (at least) two practices a week. 10 hours of riding has been supplanted with 10 hours of throwing batting practice and hitting grounders. But the boys love it. And in the end, thats what really matters.

  2. Walt S

    I reached a milestone, so to speak, in May 2011. I retired from a lifetime of teaching. Now I would be able to pursue my passion for cycling, get fitter, do some touring, and even consider even getting back into racing. The Plan sound wonderful with the expectation of copious amounts of free time now available. But as you said, things do not necessarily work in a linear fashion. Life intervenes to derail the best laid cycling aspirations. Being single does make it easier to change course at whim, but habit and inertia are hard challenges to overcome by everyone.

    I had forgotten how much commitment getting into good cycling shape takes. It involves as much time as a part time job, the resolve and commitment to go out and ride when you really don’t want to, and the risk of becoming a social pariah when you are nodding off and need to leave when the party is just getting started.

    There is no way to hang on to that wheel when the pace accelerates unless you have done your training homework. Whether you are riding the latest carbon wonderbike or a twenty year old antique, your legs are the ultimate equalizer, as well as reckoning with moments of truth. Cycling is hard and there are no shortcuts. That’s why I love it so much, because it is so hard to do and brutally honest.

    The cycling dilemmas you may be different from others, but the challenges to try and become good daunt us all.

  3. Chris

    I watched the racers legs strain as the crested the top of the hill, out of the saddle, carbon rims humming with the effort and then accelerate away. They ran the stop sign on the road now closed for the race that I have rolled through countless times on training rides. Learning rides even, as these were the roads were I learned to ride, where I fell in love with the bicycle.

    Shortly after I started cycling about four years ago, I learned of this race that turned 8 or so laps of roads that skirted the university campus where I endured a decade of higher learning. I decided I needed to do that race one day.

    The following summer I found time, despite the obligations of being a new parents to make my racing debut: 3 crits and a hillclimb. Next year, I’ll do my race.

    It is now next year, and the race was yesterday. I let it go by, drop me hard, knowing that racing 75km would spell death for someone who hasn’t ridden a 75km ride since last fall. I watched the racers pedal away, their saddles marking their cadence like a pendulum on a grandfather clock, and I thought next time. Next year.

  4. RUV

    I was thinking the same thing this weekend on my ride Sunday morning. I came upon and rode along with this older couple whose cadence was silky buttery smooth (making me all to aware that mine was the complete opposite). They ride every day and gave me a knowing smile when I told them about trying to find time and energy with a 2 year old at home (with another due in 2 months). I haven’t been out riding nearly as often as I would like and it showed. But oh well. I’ll take what I can get. It was a great ride and pleasant conversation– a great reminder of what I love about cycling. Afterwords I was welcomed home with a big hug from my daughter.

  5. nrs5000

    Great article Robot. Now that summer is here the weekends are jam-packed with kid fun, pushing rides to the margins. I’ve been getting up at 5:30 to ride for the last couple of weekends. My legs don’t like it, I feel and am in fact slow, but it sure beats not riding at all. Plus, the roads are empty, and once the caffeine starts flowing I can appreciate the beauty of the early morning ride.

    1. Author

      @nrs5000 – Yes. I had a regular Saturday 6am ride going for a while, but alas, family commitments start at 7:15 Saturday morning now.

  6. Bill H-D

    Glad I’m not alone, off the back. Sounds lIke our own little grupetto. Or maybe we’re the peloton and the break is up the road, gaining time. Do we chase?

  7. Ryan Hedemark

    As always, fantastic piece. As the father of two young kids (not old enough to play ball yet, but living, breathing time constraints nonetheless) I am intimately aware of what you speak of. How awesome is it & on what other cycling blog would you ever see a right proper allusion to Citizen Kane (not better than The Godfather, but one of the best flicks ever!?!?!?) I always dig reading your stuff brother!

  8. Chromatic Dramatic

    And there I was thinking that when my kids got older I’d have more time to ride!

    But I’m fairly similar, in that my riding time is governed by family and work events.

    I do have one saving grace though, coming from a MTB background, I’m not too bad on the trails. Nothing special mind you, just that a lack of fitness doesn’t completely destroy my ability like it does on a group road ride.

    1. Author

      @Peter Kelley – I will be at D2R2 with whatever form I’ve got. That much I know.

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