Padraig and I have been in the same zip code exactly once in the last four-and-a-half years, the length of our collaboration here on RKP. Nonetheless, I count him as one of my closest friends. We maintain what I like to think of as an old school correspondence, long emails spanning the distance between small editorial questions and life’s great challenges. I don’t write to anyone the things and volume of things that I share with Padraig.
And as we’ve been working together, the tone and tenor of the site have evolved. Where once we wrote largely about the pros (and some bemoan the lack of pro commentary here now), RKP seems to have evolved into a site more inclined to sift through life’s sundry.
It was almost comical when, two weeks ago, we asked where the readership is in their lives and discovered that the lion’s share (at least of those willing to comment) are exactly where we are, somewhere in their 40s, trying to manage family and career. And our ages don’t really matter, and our careers don’t really matter, and how manage it all doesn’t really matter either. The thing is, we’re all working on the same challenges. Birds of a feather, we flock.
And the contributors who find us, who submit work for consideration, are doing what we’re doing. They’ve arrived at that point in their lives where the urge to find better, and not necessarily more fun, ways to live has become important. The bike provides a perfect analogy, a perfect vehicle for this pursuit, because not every moment in the saddle is pleasant. We have fetishized suffering because it can be a useful component in getting better, both at cycling and at living.
In this sense, riding bikes is spiritual, right? It’s how we connect to each other. It’s how we get to know ourselves properly. It strips away that layer of obliviousness and draws the attention to a fine point.
The bike remains the thing that draws us together, but the site is less and less about the bike and more and more about using the bike as a lens through which to see ourselves more clearly. There is no RKP without the bike. We will always be thinking about cycling, but the urge to hold it at arm’s length, to treat it as something separate from ourselves, a curiosity to be examined, has mostly gone.
Rather than being a website that reviews bikes (we will keep doing this), comments on races (this, too), bemoans the excesses of those who make their living at the pedals (ayup), we have become more of a meeting room, a place for cyclists who are working hard at being better people to gather and discuss what works, and what doesn’t, even if sometimes that means evaluating a new to market jacket or wading into the moral shallows of racing for money.
Padraig and I maybe started out writing at you, riding along in the guise of quasi-journalists, but it’s hard to stay on the front for long like that. Sometimes we have the form for it. Sometimes we don’t.
Hopefully, as the site has become more personal, we have settled more comfortably into the pack, this laughing group which is neither too fast nor too troubled about getting to the finish line. We are no longer working hard at being the experts. Now, like you, we’re just working hard at being ourselves.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
When you tell a story over and over, fine details tend to fall out of the telling. It becomes shortened, efficient, boiled to its main points.
Here is an example of just such a story: I learned to ride a bike when I was a kid. The learning was one of the transcendent moments of my childhood and begat a lifelong love affair with the bike. The end.
Here is the (only slightly) more detailed version of that story: I learned to ride a bike when I was seven-years-old. Immediately I loved it and became one of the BMX terrors of the neighborhood. Approaching adolescence, I let the bike go a bit, too cool for a dirt bike, not yet even really aware of the exotic pursuit of road cycling.
As time wore on and hormones churned through my system like a chili dog on an empty stomach, I discovered my older brother’s abandoned road bike and used it to visit girls when their parents were away. The success of this strategy propagated a nearly Pavlovian response in my mind at the sight of a bicycle.
Then, when I was in college, the vogue for mountain biking reached fever pitch, and again cycling presented the perfect solution to a persistent problem, that of transporting myself around the city on a schedule not ruled by the capricious whim of bus drivers. Given previous history, I was already very open to the idea that the bike could be an integral part of my life, and the resulting adventures cemented a love for cycling that very nearly kept me rolling through my twenties.
See, the neat and tidy version of this tale has me wedded to a bike for the rest of my bike, til death (but preferably not) do us part. But this is the detailed edition, and after college I again gave in to external pressure to abandon cycling. In other words, I got a job, and not just a job, but a succession of increasingly good jobs, jobs that required ties, jobs that put me in meetings with important clients, jobs that were decidedly unsympathetic to the cycling lifestyle, or so I thought. For a brief time I confined my pedaling to occasional weekends. It was a sad and dark time. No more detail necessary.
But you know how this thing goes, this love of cycling. If it’s in you, it comes bubbling up again and again. It pushes other things, like the conventions of office life, aside. In the end, I reverted to form. I even left the world of ties and conference rooms for a bike job.
This week’s Group Ride asks: How did you become an adult cyclist? Did you tread an uninterrupted path from first childhood ride to this morning’s commute, or has the bike come and gone from your life? If the latter, what was the catalyst for your grown up self taking to the wheel again?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I don’t remember the last time my ass hurt, more specifically the lower connections of my gluteus maximus to my adductor magnus, that soft spot where sitting and pedaling come together. Before Sunday, I had been off the bike for something like six weeks, a combination of injury and bitter cold forcing me to concede that discretion was called for this winter, rather than valor.
But Sunday was warm, nearly 50F, and I didn’t feel I could sit on the couch any longer. Dawn cracked. I pulled up my big boy tights and set out to do some pedaling.
The first ride back is always revelatory, isn’t it? To feel your body working again, to be outside and engaged, to cover some ground under your own power, it calls up all those things elemental to cycling. And of course, there is the revelation of form, really the lack of it, the slowness, the struggling, the cruelty of the wind. Coming back up the hill to my house, I couldn’t believe how slow I was and how hard it felt. Except that I could.
My neighbor has been stealing rides between snow storms, running to keep up his fitness when the bike is a poor option. He asked me to ride with him on Saturday, and I should have gone, even just for an hour, but I was afraid. I wanted to suffer alone first, to see where I was before showing anyone else.
The good news is I still love riding bikes.
I took a slow spin into the city. No one rides into the city on purpose, but I do sometimes. The roads are all awful, snow plows and salt breaking down an already patchy network of asphalt, the pot holes spread like mines in a field. But the low winter light plays across the faces of buildings and throws shadows across the river. Winter ducks cluster at the water’s melted edge and the streets are quiet, too many people stuck in their cold weather routines to recognize the beautiful day dawning outside their windows.
It is a pain in the ass to start over, especially when there is little prospect of a quick return to form. The snow hasn’t finished with us yet, and this January thaw will fade back into frigid cold again. I won’t be piling up miles any time soon. But that’s ok. Sometimes it’s good just to remind yourself of what you’re waiting for, to roll around aimlessly and feel like a cyclist again.
My life is good, really good, and at the same time, really full. My boys both play hockey, which leads to 6-8 hours of ice-related commitment, and they both have reading and homework, which occupies our evenings. On weekends, we try to do something fun as a family that is not hockey and not homework.
Home ownership requires maintenance. Lawns must be mowed. Leaks must be fixed. Garages must be cleaned.
And staying married takes time, too. My wife has as many interests as I do. She needs time to herself, time away.
So where does cycling fit? I ride before work sometimes. I get up at 5 or 5:30 and try to get a few hours in. Sometimes I ride after work, but it’s hard for me to maintain motivation for that. I’m tired by then. And of course, there are weekends when a ride can be had, too. That also usually requires getting up before the sun.
I said to my wife once, “It is hard to be any kind of endurance athlete, when there is no time to endure.” The first hour of any ride, the warm-up, is often the whole ride. At that point, I’ve mostly just endured getting my arm warmers situated the way I want them. I’m only just starting to work at cycling.
Sometimes I dream about a future filled with free time, my retirement, the kids gone and the frenzy of work behind me, but you don’t want to start wishing your days away, not these days, filled as they are with the joy of parenthood and the satisfaction of hard work. To want anything other than exactly what I have is disrespectful to my family and the people I work with. It flies in the face of every decision I’ve made up to this point. That grass isn’t greener. It’s just somewhere else.
So I fit cycling in where I can. It’s not as much as I want, but I’m not interested in displacing any of the other aspects of my life to make more room. There is a see-saw of escape and guilt that goes along with taking long rides, an ever-present feeling of being on borrowed time, of inconveniencing someone else. And rather than seeing that guilt as a bad thing, something to overcome, I choose to see it as a safety valve, the necessary pressure of reality working against the uncheckable wanting of my ego.
Call it homeostasis, call it balance.
This weeks Group Ride asks where the balance is in your life? Are you in the freedom of your youth still, or are you spinning your way happily through retirement? Or are you, like me, fitting it in where you can? How do you manage your commitment to riding against your responsibilities? And are you happy with where you’re at?
I would marvel at the fact that this is the 200th Group Ride. I mean that’s a lot of questions, but my kids probably ask that many before lunch most days, so perhaps we’ve only just scratched the surface here.
The original idea for the Group Ride was a weekly post that really solicited the input of you, our readers. In as much as Padraig and Pelkey and I have opinions, we have a pulpit here from which to preach, but key to keeping perspective, maintaining appropriate humility and remaining open to the ideas of others, is listening. We have somehow managed to cultivate an intelligent and thoughtful readership, and while the Group Ride can sometimes seem predictable or trite (hey, you try writing 200 hits), what we get from performing the exercise over and over again can be less predictable.
Whether we are discussing a piece of equipment, a piece of clothing, or the state of pro cycling, by sharing our experiences we add to the collective wisdom and create a community. How many times have I logged into the comments on a Group Ride and seen something from a regular reader that made me see the cycling world from a different perspective? How many times has a comment touched me and made me feel glad to be a part of this thing?
Answer: a lot. A lot of times.
In some ways, I’m not sure the question even matters. People’s answers tend to connote something about our larger cycling culture. There is a zeitgeist to what we do, and you can read it in the answers to a question about the Tour de France just as easily as you can understand it from a question about bib shorts. No one of us tells the whole story of cycling, but taken together a picture emerges.
We have tried, over the previous 199 iterations of this feature, not to repeat ourselves, and if we have done so, it was more for want of memory than failure of effort. For myself, I am just shocked that in 200 weeks, I have only failed to post a Group Ride a handful of times. This is a weekly ritual that demands, regardless of the other things happening in my life, that I write something. It is valuable to me for its fixity.
But enough overwrought rambling. This week’s Group Ride is reflexive and reflective. What sorts of FGRs have you most enjoyed? Questions about the pros or about gear? Predictions or personal, ride-related explorations? What ground have we failed to cover? What questions would you like to have answered? We write this thing every week, but really, it belongs to you. What do you want it to be?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It is no secret that 2013 was a tough year here at RKP. From the post-percussions of Padraig’s crash to the somewhat dramatic Entrance of the Deuce, it was a year in which we never quite got on top of the gear.
Personally, I close the year off the bike, nursing a hand injury that doesn’t seem to want to heal under the stress of regular riding. They say time heals all wounds, but HOW MUCH time? How much?
Here on RKP, we both struggled to stay on top of things as family and outside projects vied for our attention. The Lance-amageddon took the wind out of the top level of our sport, and slumping bike sales led to a troubling conservatism among potential RKP advertisers. To work so hard and still face such uncertainty leaves you wondering about your life choices, except that there are no other choices to make.
We do our work as best we can, and we see where it takes us. Put another way, there will be chaos, keep pedaling.
All of this is not to say there weren’t bright spots. After the Deuce’s exit from hospital, he turned out to be a smiley, happy baby with a charming disposition. Padraig’s handsome mug healed, and, through the Beer Fund, you, our readers showed us what kind of community we belong to, both out on the road and here on the internet.
It wasn’t a bad year. It was just a tough one, a personal Roubaix if you will, hard in ways we never might have imagined, but ultimately glorious and rewarding for the effort.
This week’s Group Ride, the last of the year, the last of the second hundred, looks back on 2013. How was yours? What were the highs? What were the lows? How did the bike feature in your story? And what are you looking forward to in 2014?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I’d like to get my mother a bike this year. The snow on the ground and the smallness of my parents’ condominium make it an impractical Christmas gift, but maybe in the spring. She is 70 now and can see that the exercise and mobility it might giver her could well see her to 80. I’m thinking a step-through.
I bought my oldest son a bike before he was ready to ride. I was so excited to reenact the wheels-in-front-of-tree joy of my own childhood, that I set myself up for the disappointment of watching him tear wrapping paper to shreds in the corner, oblivious to the gift, oblivious to the moment. It is, apparently, the thought that counts, so best have some (thoughts) before giving gifts.
But then, of all the people I could give a bike to, or more accurately, give cycling to, my wife is at the very top of the list. I’ve given her bikes, a commuter I built her when we were in college, a mountain bike in the ’90s, a road bike a few years back. If I’m honest, those were gifts to myself, or maybe viewed in a kinder light, wishes that I could share this thing that I love so dearly with someone I love so dearly. She never really rode any of them. She is not a cyclist.
It’s easy to give someone a bike. It’s harder to give them cycling, to help them to connect to that feeling of freedom, joy, exploration, speed, solitude, connection, utility that keeps us all in the saddle. Nonetheless, I will keep trying.
This week’s Group Ride asks, in honor of Christmas, if you could give someone cycling, not a bicycle, but the love of the bicycle and the passion for riding that you have, who would you give it to?
The term he used was “expectation differential.” I was speaking with a custom bike builder about how people react to his bikes, TIG-welded, steel creations, beautifully painted, and he said that the biggest shock for most people was how well a steel bike could ride. He said there was a huge “expectation differential” between what they think steel is like, and what it is actually like here in the 21st century.
To be clear, expectation differential is the difference between how you expect something to be and how it actually is.
Most folks last rode steel in the ’80s. They’ve been riding aluminum and carbon (sometimes Ti), and now they expect today’s steel to be heavy and clunky. Then they get on a modern steel bike and they can’t believe how well it rides. It’s not that they can’t have their socks knocked off by a new carbon fiber bike. It’s that they expect to have their socks knocked off. The differential is smaller.
Another example from my own experience is the modern suspension fork. I am a very occasional, if enthusiastic, mountain biker, so I went something like a decade (it was more actually) without updating my trail bike. When finally I did it, it was really to get to a different wheel size, rather than feeling I was going to get great benefit from a new bike.
I was wrong. Suspension forks have come a long way. First time out on my new bike, my mind was veritably blown as I floated over rock and root. I was faster, more confident, and finished the ride feeling less beaten. Huge expectation differential.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what cycling product or experience has provided you the greatest expectation differential? Where were you coming from, and where did you get to? Was it a bike? A shoe? A tire lever?
Every Christmas my mother buys me a book. We are book people, and the gift is a great way to reconnect with each other over the words that have knit us together since I was a kid raiding her shelves to stoke a literary curiosity which, thankfully, burns on.
In recent years, this book has been a cycling tomb. The Death of Marco Pantani, Merkx: Half Man, Half Bike and Laurent Fignon’s We Were Young and Carefree have all appeared beneath my tree, and so I have come to associate the holiday with cycling books, if only because it’s the one time of year I get a few days to read in (mostly) uninterrupted stretches.
If cycling literature is part of your holiday as well, you might consider Andrew Homan’s Life in the Slipstream: The Legend of Bobby Walthour, Sr. Walthour was a leading light in the turn-of-the-century racing scene in America, an Atlanta bicycle messenger turned velodrome sprinter and pace-following pioneer.
For those who have read and enjoyed Todd Balf’s Major Taylor biography, Homan’s Walthour treatment fills in that history with sketches of still more of the characters who populated early pro cycling in this country. While the mercurial Georgia boy serves as main character, the really compelling thing about the book is the way Homan conjures the passions of rapidly evolving sports entertainment.
Part endurance sport, part daredevil show, the cycling of those times was big business and the nation was in thrall to its drama and personalities. Much the way Balf’s book shone the light on an era when cycling was king, Homan’s book reinforces the idea that sport as entertainment was born of the same forces that gave us, by turns, baseball, basketball and football, a reminder that any sport’s time in the limelight can be generationally fleeting.
Homan writes in the McPhee style, the story moving forward on a tide of well-researched details brought vividly to life with the odd, well-chosen adjective. The author knows that, in Walthour, he has all the character he needs, so he dutifully stays out of the way to let the story tell itself. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read. You might finish it in a few sittings, maybe off to the side of the holiday proceedings, with a cup of coffee or a (small) glass of egg nog.
When you just stand there in the basement or garage admiring your bike as it hangs clean and tuned in the stand.
When you hammer over the top and drop down the cassette and hit the front side of the next climb and crest that rise without slowing.
When you’ve got all the motivation in the world, but injuries keep you from doing anything with it.
When you’re finally so wet that you can’t be more wet, so you settle in and just ride, even though the sky has fallen and everybody else is running for cover.
When you find yourself right on top of the gear, zipping along, perfect tension in the pedals and the road smooth under your tires.
When your favorite fades in the last kilometer, just pops and shoots backwards, and the whole damn race is lost, and you really believed he/she could do it, and now you have to think about the race differently and pray for a miracle, though we’ve come to suspect miracles…sadly.
When you lay out your clothes the night before, and fill your bottles, and adjust the pressure in your tires, and point your front wheel at the door and go to bed, sure you’ve forgotten something.
When you’re unconsciously good and you keep pulling inadvertently off the front and then sitting up to wait for your friends, and they all seem to be working hard and you can’t make it compute, but there it is, form.
When you feel fast and congratulate yourself for being so fit, and then it suddenly dawns on you that you have a stiff tailwind.
When you know you’ve waited too long to eat, and your head starts to feel thick and your legs go wooden, and you cram everything you’ve got in your jersey pocket into your mouth and empty your bottles, but you know it won’t help, and you just have to limp home and try to be smarter the next time.
When you descend the stairs all wobbly-legged and smile knowing you went hard.
This week’s Group Ride just asks the simple question: When?