A Smarter Man

A Smarter Man

That we reserve math for numbers is a mistake, I say. There are many other kinds of math: educated guesses, emotional calculations, risk assessments made at the tops of trails. These considerations don’t require elaborate equations with square roots, cosines or long division. But honestly, most folks would add 12 days off the bike multiplied by a cold and come up with no race. This is simple A x B = C. And C for every sane person is sleep in and hang out on the couch with the kids.

But I have brain damage. My elevator doesn’t go to the top. I’m of suspect judgment. My idea of a good time is to exercise for four hours and get splattered with mud on terrain that’s much too technical to allow for proper eating.


I know I’m supposed to show my work with math problems, but this is one time where I think you don’t need it. I decided that the best thing was to drive up to Lake Sonoma and do the next installment in the Grasshopper Adventure Series, a 24-mile mountain bike race on a course that looks like the edge of a lumberjack’s tool. What I’m saying is that I got the wrong answer and I don’t think I really need to prove it.

We were on the opening climb on the road that offers a pleasant pre-sort before the singletrack starts when I picked up on some of the prevailing conditions. My cold had really only passed enough for me to claim I felt good on the day before the race, so I lined up with only one ride in my legs since the last Grasshopper. People I can climb with rode away from me. And then people I can outclimb pedaled away from me. Next, people I often try to encourage felt the need to pass me. Don’t worry, I kept encouraging them as they rode into the distance.


This wasn’t so much a slice of humble pie as the entire pie. It’s just the sort of occasion where you find out just how invested in your ego you are. Some of the steepest mountain bike terrain I’ve encountered makes up the trail system at Lake Sonoma. Steep isn’t the occasion; it’s the guiding principle. Even with a 22×40 low gear there were occasions where I still dismounted.

I took a few opportunities before remounting to look around at the landscape. The hillsides were Crayola green, a liquid emerald that was nearly cartoonish. This is how a child would draw the grass. And the trees were either a white-gray or deep umber. With temperatures hovering in the low 60s, you could ask for a prettier day, but you’d have to be a jerk to do so.

IMG_8404The rains had removed some sections of trail. 

The first time I ever attempted to set up the suspension for a mountain bike I was going to ride, I got it wrong. I set the air pressure too low and so when I climbed on the bike it was instantly through most of its travel, probably 80mm out of 120mm. Practically speaking it meant that while the bike felt very plush, with each bump I bottomed out the suspension. There was just no operating range. That’s how my legs were. I could pedal, but it didn’t feel like I could dig at all. Of course, I’m wrong about that, too. Strava tells me I had an average heart rate of 143, which isn’t exactly couch surfing.

But as rider after rider rolled past, I simply acknowledged that this was a reminder of something I forget with surprising ease. Post-illness me isn’t normal me. I could be embarrassed. I’ve been that guy. I could be angry. Been him too. But I was sanguine. I really just wanted to enjoy myself, though a different piece of math showed how my idea of having a fun ride at Lake Sonoma in post-illness condition deserved mockery. Still, the course went down some, and I had fun there. To get upset about my lack of legs was silly in the grand scheme. Besides, I was around the chillest bunch of cyclists I could imagine. I’m sure there were elbows here and there, but that was an hour, maybe two, ahead of me.

IMG_8408I hadn’t known that T. Rex will wait behind a tree for its next victim. That wasn’t in Jurassic Park.

It’s an interesting question: What kind of person are you when you’re not at your best? I’ve asked myself this with some frequency lately. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to a better person when I’m at my best and just eliminating or ignoring those occasions when I’m at my worst. But I’m a parent, and my worst moments seem to come in the presence of my kids. So now I think about who I am when I’m at my worst and who do I want to be when I’m less than who I want to be. It’s not a question I want to ask, but it’s part of my responsibility now. I don’t really have an answer. I don’t know how you answer that. I know who I want to be. How do you decide who you will be when you’re not yourself? This isn’t just biting your tongue when you bonk. This is remaining calm in the face of mayhem. One kid is imitating Rob Halford’s operatic eruptions while the other is ninja-ing his way across a dresser and two beds. I do excitable, so this hasn’t always played well for all involved. The only answer is have is I want to be calmer.

And I can do that. The dissonance of all the effort I could muster juxtaposed against an attitude that accepted this was going to be a long day elicited a wry chuckle. Then there was the fact that everyone around me was clear that they’d been just as humbled as I had been. So we had that to share. I traded spots with Darcy from Roaring Mouse enough that I lost count. Okay, I never counted, but we had a solid routine of me getting out of her way on hills and the moment there was a significant descent she pulled off the trail to let me by. After the race she told me that the way I’d been talking at the rest stop—the one with beer and a T-Rex (I’m not joking, though they were)—she assumed I was quitting. When she saw me on the trail later I was something of a surprise. I do that to people. Surprise them, that is.


Peeling back the ego is a lot like sleep. You can’t really decide to sleep. You have to let it come to you. You relax, you open yourself to it, and it arrives when you aren’t looking. I can’t sit at my desk and do this stuff. So I ride, I ride until I can’t feel my feet, until I can’t remember by name, until anger, frustration and anxiety aren’t just a waste of energy, they aren’t even possible.

The trick is to remember how useless those emotions are off the bike. So I’ll keep peeling back the ego, one ride at a time.


Selected images: Jorge Flores, JustPedal


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  1. Chris

    Padraig, your readers all ride bikes and all benefit, in one way or another, from the perspective it brings to our off-bike lives. Some even write about it. But few are able to glean truth like you do without falling into cliché.

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