We were nearly 50 miles into what was supposed to be a 50 mile ride, not far by my standard of the time, but I was coming back from a shoulder injury, and it was the hottest day of the year so far, and what with the ride being near the Central Coast, just east of Lompoc, temperatures were already in the 90s, baking the fields of lettuce surrounding the little hill we were on, and that combined with my time off the bike meant my endurance wasn’t what I thought it was, plus we’d screwed up a turn, taking us off course for a good dozen miles; though we were back on course, our error was going to see us finish later than expected and I couldn’t figure out how we could still be so far from our finish based on our route sheet, a reality that utterly scrambled me.
What I didn’t know was that the organizer of the charity ride didn’t know much about cycling and they had given us the route to a metric century. This might have been tough for anyone to figure out on the course due to the simple fact that they had given us turns but no intermediate distances.
I couldn’t figure out much, honestly, because I was bonking.
My girlfriend looked down at my bike and noted that I had yet to drink either of my bottles. “Take a drink,” she said.
“I don’t need a drink.” In my memory, correctly or not, my teeth were clenched.
She suggested it again. Somehow she got me to pull over. When I rested my thigh on the top tube—bare titanium—it was hot to touch. I believe she employed a ruse, suggesting that she needed to stop in the shade. She took a few bites of a bar and sat down on the broken asphalt. With little else to do, I put my bike down and then sat down beside her. The air was utterly still beneath that oak. I was so dehydrated the Gatorade in my bottles seemed soda sweet.
My next memory is of me crying.
For as many times as I’d bonked in my life, I hadn’t seen that one coming and it broadsided me like a dump truck with no brakes. Given the conditions of our relationship at the time (we were so on-again-off-again we could have doubled for a strobe light at a dance club), I spent that year and a few successive ones confused about much of my life. Part of what confused me is how gentle she was being with me.
What I know now is that I was also depressed, one that would deepen over the next three years to the point that I began to explore ways to ease the burden of those around me. That’s how depression can go.
That my depression was indistinguishable from my carbohydrate-depleted state says much less about me than it does about depression and the nature of bonking. From where I sat at the time, the two were indistinguishable. And only now am I beginning to appreciate how lessons from one can inform the other.
My first bonk was little different from my first depressive episode. Sure, that bonk only lasted part of a single day, as opposed to six months, but once I got off the bike, I was emotional, testy; my body language spoke of defeat. I scowled. Everyone around me was an ass, and I know that’s not statistically possible. I wasn’t terribly nice to my (different) girlfriend at the time, a woman smart enough to see my needs better than I could, and sweet enough to act on them.
On both occasions I didn’t know what was happening for the simple reason that I didn’t know what either bonking or depression were. It’s hard to identify something you’ve never encountered. And without understanding what was happening, I didn’t know how to improve my situation, at least not at first.
Bonking isn’t what I’d call a useful tool, but it has taught me lessons. Having done it so many times, I can feel one coming long before it arrives, and that gives me a chance to brace myself, to pull away from the stress of the effort I’ve been giving, to downshift to a pace I can sustain and to feed myself with whatever is handy. I’ve bought a Coke because I know that in addition to the energy I’ll get from the calories, my mood will brighten thanks to the caffeine and sugar. It’s a patch, to be sure, but a patch only needs to be good enough to get you back safely.
Another grand truth I’ve learned thanks to the bonk is that when I can’t take a pull, I can’t help you; put another way: If I’m not able to meet my needs, I’m nearly useless to anyone else. It’s why self-care is so critical; make sure you’re fed and hydrated so you can help others.
Among the uglier truths I’ve encountered is that there are people who want you to bonk in the way they are most comfortable dealing with. They want you to announce you are bonking, rather than wait to have to figure it out because you’re falling off the back. They want you to have enough food so they don’t have to share theirs. They also want your bonk not to be more severe than not taking pulls. Blow badly enough that the whole group has to slow to get you home and someone will be irritated, guaranteed. I’m not sure if it’s worse or better, but some will just ride away.
Perhaps the best thing the bonk has taught me is how to see it in others and how to be more empathetic. I once saw a teammate’s head start to drop, his line start to waver and then, of course, he began to miss pulls. I suggested he sit at the back for the remaining miles and then, as we rolled into town, I told him what to do when he got in the door, right down to eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich over the sink; I actually contemplated going home with him to make the sandwich for him, but I thought that might seem weird. I didn’t think the advice was that big a deal until he walked up and thanked me the next time I saw him.
That I still make an effort to hide my bonk from the riders around me is a relic of my racing days, back when I had to exude nothing but tough. I’ve lied to friends and told them I was feeling strong even as I thought I was going to get dropped. However, when you have no opposition, there’s no good reason not to communicate. Who knows, someone might help you.
And that day beneath the oak? We sat there for what seemed an hour. I ate a bar, drank until the Gatorade no longer seemed sweet and eventually became myself again. Though our relationship blew apart as irreparably as a dropped lightbulb, I linger on how patient she was, that she was strong enough to be gentle with me.
Still from The Triplets of Belleville courtesy Les Armateurs.
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