I tell my kids, on the rare occasion that we pass an accident on the highway, not to crane their necks and press their small noses against the window to gawk at the mayhem. You’ll blind yourselves staring into the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, I tell them, and your attention won’t help the injured. Be grateful that the road still hums under our tires, and that we are still, mercifully, on our way.
When I parted the blinds this morning, the sun was just splitting the clouds on the east side of Boston, the Hancock and Prudential Towers silhouetted beneath a purple and white cloud line. It reflected off the crust of still-white snow in the front yard and bathed the kitchen in brightness. The radio said it was cold out, but this is one of those sunny, crisp winter days that hints at Spring’s rebirth.
I stood on the shop floor yesterday and talked with Mike about the rides to come this year. Registration is open for a couple of the big gravel rides that cash in on end-of-summer fitness, and we talked about riding them together. He clued me into another private ride over some of that same terrain, 60 miles of New Hampshire hill climbing, and we made the kind of plans you make when it’s cold out and the summer is just an approaching dot on the horizon. It felt good.
This week’s Group Ride is about the good days to come. What events do you plan to ride? What trips are you going to take (with your bike)? Who will you ride with this year that you didn’t ride with last?
I sincerely hope to meet more of YOU this year. Padraig and I have spoken about connecting for any number of the larger fondos and off-road rides that have become highlights of the casual, US cycling season. When we know where we’ll be, we have every intention to connect with readers who will also be there.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
A friend of mine was telling a story about a guy he’s known for years, a guy who, whenever he calls, reminds this friend of all the stupid shit he’s done over the years. The guy is basically a nice guy, but he’s tactless, and my friend dreads his phone calls. It reminded me that adulthood is sometimes dotted with persistent characters you don’t really like, people you hesitate to call friends but for the fact they’re always around.
Bikes are like that, too.
I seem always to have at least one bike that I don’t love. There is nothing wrong with the bike, per se, but for some reason we don’t get along, for reasons of fit or configuration or style. And yet, the bike hangs around because at root it is a useful object, and it retains some sort of potential to be better than it is, like a friend who is painful to be around despite being, deep down, a good person.
In my case, there is a certain steel frame, bought for its basic-ness and versatility, that hangs in my garage and occasionally gets reconfigured to a new task, another attempt at finding its inherent symbiosis with my vague ideas about what I want it to do. I think I keep setting this bike up for failure, and I know, in my heart, I should just sell it to someone for whom it can be great.
Of course, the fear is that by eliminating this perfectly good, but not-good-for-me bike from my collection, I will simply transfer its status onto another poor and unsuspecting frame. Every ship has a Jonah that must be cast overboard for the sake of the others. Every journey is shadowed by an albatross.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What is your albatross? What do you have in your cycling life that just isn’t working for you? Is it a bike? A jacket? A pair of gloves? Maybe it’s a whole style of riding, like mountain, for example. You look at the thing and don’t see quite why it doesn’t work for you, but it just doesn’t. What is it?
Image: Gustav Doré’s engraving of The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, c 1850
In the winter I try to remember what I like about riding bikes. The cold mornings with the air still night-cold can be intimidating, but at least the sun promises better to come if only I will clip in and roll out. The ride home, straight into the darkness and the grind of traffic, can be more forbidding still. Stirring the near-dead ashes of motivation for the surviving coals beneath becomes a bigger job.
Today, I arrived at work the same time as Neil on his fixed commuter. He took the driveway in front of me, and as we came to the dip just before the parking lot, he did that little rear wheel hop you do when you ride fixed, a way to dump some speed quickly. I haven’t ridden fixed for a few years, since we moved to a house on a high hill, but I remember that hop and how it feels. It feels like mastery, and it feels like control. And I miss it, a little.
There is a moment, too, when you are riding along on a brisk winter day, and the cold recedes and heat rises in your core and flows out into your limbs, and suddenly you are less tense. Your movement becomes languid and comfortable, mist rising from the back of your neck, and you feel as though you could ride all day.
Quiet, slow times when you’re alone and you think to slalom gently against the gyroscopic action of your wheels. Sometimes the sun catches the rims and projects a small mobius strip of light on the ground next to you, tracing in and out, suggesting something much more than simply rolling along, some sort of connection to the infinite. Whatever that is.
If I squint I can recall that first burst off the front on the Wednesday night ride in summer, not a race but a competitive ramble with some friends. If it were more competitive I’d never get off on my own, but sometimes they let me go, and I can feel the flush in my legs and breath rise in my chest, and all and everything comes into focus, not just trying to maintain that crazy cadence, but to hold the best line, to find a resting a place in the effort and to enjoy the moment.
Or, when twenty miles disappears in the craic of the group ride, swapping seamlessly off the front and slotting into new conversations. Zingers flying between partners, side-by-side, eyes rolling, directions shouted over shoulders. Distance dissolving in the raw good nature of the whole thing.
Even just bringing myself, as I did today, to ride when the thermometer lies about the day’s true intentions, when the wind has teeth. Water flows off the front lawns of my neighbors and freezes glassily across the road. We slip and slide, the kids and I, on the short walk to school, and I begin to convince myself that the car makes more sense than the bike.
But I know better. I know what the bike will give me that the car never can, despite the heater’s comforting blare and the soft sounds of the radio. The siren song of what is easier in the moment gives way to what is better in the long run. I pull on my winter tights, gather my things.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
When I turned on my glowing rectangle this morning, the news that Oprah Winfrey will interview Lance Armstrong screamed out at me from every tiny window and rivulet of news feed. I sighed a deep sigh, the same one we reserve, here in New England, for when it snows hard on April 1st.
Am I the only one who is really done with the Armstrong saga? Am I the only one dis-interested in a confession or a continuing prevarication or whatever comes next?
To be clear, I am not angry at Lance Armstrong. I don’t feel he owes me an apology. He’s got to deal with the consequences of his actions, just like anyone else. I am just not that interested in what comes next for him.
I am glad we know much of went on during cycling’s EPO era. The truth is always valuable, if only to reorder the past in our minds, to feel more comfortable with what we’ve seen, and what we will see. But the details of what went on and Lance’s personal story are two separate things. I am not interested in his perspective, his feelings.
I have closure now. I know what happened, and I know why it happened. It is, taken as a whole and in retrospect, a tragically human story, the weaknesses inherit in our collective character producing a tale the Greek’s would have coated in wax and feathers. If only it were fiction, we could all smile at the brilliance of it.
And also, there are things I enjoyed about watching the racing of that lost period, an enjoyment unspoiled by confirmation of what we all (or most of us) long suspected. I am comfortable with the moral ambiguity of the whole story. In a way, I believe, we have to fail this way, we humans. It’s in our nature.
But I feel tired of Lance Armstrong now. It’s that feeling of standing in the driveway during a late season snow storm, the fat flakes lazing down from the sky, having to move it all out of the way yet again before life can go on, unhampered by factors well beyond my control.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
There is snow on the ground here now, the remnants of last week’s storm. It’s been frigidly cold, and so the sun melt that comes during the day has really only shrunken and compacted what fell. The edges of the road are smeared with ice where the melt has run off the curb and refrozen overnight. It’s rideable, but narrowed and a little unpredictable.
And so the commute gets a little nervous, the six inches or foot we’ve lost to the ice making the whole parade of us, cars and bikes, a mite tighter than any of us would choose. Twice on the way in just this morning, I was nearly squeezed out coming into lights.
I think a lot about how we share the road now. Having been hit a couple times, just riding along minding my own business, following the rules, I am far more careful in traffic than I was ten years ago. This has made the whole city riding experience better and less fraught. The more I follow the rules and ease up on the speed, the more friendly waves and space I seem to get.
I have changed, and certainly the driving zeitgeist has changed as well. With the wholesale adoption of mobile phones came a dark period, every other driver seemingly barreling along with their head down, but that has possibly eased up a bit, the spate of accidents and deaths that resulted perhaps curbing the worst behavior most of the time. It’s hard to tell with all the variables changing almost all the time.
There was a time when I believed that a war of sorts would develop between riders and drivers, so hectic and angry were my commutes, but in retrospect, I think that was more about me and my attitude than the world at large. I felt entitled to my piece of the road, and I made a lot of noise when I didn’t get what I thought was mine. I was younger, and thought I knew things.
Today, I ride pretty easy, though conflicts occasionally arise. I have bad days with my own attitude, and my analogs behind their wheels have their own trying times. We are all just trying to get somewhere, and sometimes we step on each others toes (faces).
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: How is it where you are? Do cars and drivers get along? Is it getting better or worse? How are you changing? And what future do you see for riding your bike on the road?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It’s like the classic trust fall, except facing forward, with your eyes open and your wheels spinning freely beneath you. And despite the eyes-wide nature of it, the consequences for misplaced trust are, perhaps, even more dire. I have not heard of corporate retreat attendees breaking collar bones or sustaining concussions. Larry from accounting skulking into an ambulance after Sheila failed to catch his plummeting girth.
Learning to ride in a paceline is one of the core skills of cycling on the road, and at some point, someone tells us how to do it. Stay close. Don’t overlap wheels. Rotate outwards off the front. Signal the potholes and oncoming bullshit. Don’t panic. The directions are simpler to follow than the ones that come with most build-yourself bookcases.
These are the basic rules, but what you find over time is that there are wheels you can ride and wheels you cannot. Mainly, I think, this is a matter of trust. There are people I trust to lead me, and those I don’t, and the difference isn’t always in the speed or quality of the rider.
I ride fairly often with my neighbor, Jon. Jon is relatively new to road cycling, but he is strong and fast, and he and I have a rapport on and off the bike that makes him one of my favorite cycling companions. We can roll along side-by-side, chatting, or we can put our heads down and cover ground, swapping turns on the front. This can be wordless, which is nice.
There are plenty of really experienced cyclists I won’t tuck in behind. I find myself drifting off their outside shoulder to see what’s coming, slotting back in, poking back out. It’s nervous and tiring and probably annoying for the rider behind me, but there are just some people I can’t get all the way to that trusting place with, no matter how I want to.
Life has these parallels.
Padraig and I were talking last week about the “simpatico” we’ve developed. As we ride RKP down the road, we trust each other to make the right decisions for day-to-day posting, including editorial decisions, images, etc. I accept his editing more readily than I do other editors, and he takes my feedback gracefully, and the end product is something we’re both happy with. This is not to say there aren’t better writers and editors out there. It’s just that we trust each other in that way. Our styles are compatible.
And that’s what it comes down to, for me, on the bike.
You can be fast and smooth, but if your riding style doesn’t mesh with mine, I’m probably going to spend a lot of time drifting off your shoulder. Or you can be a newbie, just coming to terms with moving quickly in close quarters, but if you intuit the road the way I do, put out all the cues I expect to see, I will sit blindly on your wheel all day (my pulls notwithstanding).
Riding someone else’s wheel asks a lot of you, like the classic trust fall of so many corporate bonding sessions. The paceline is where you find out who you can work with, and who you can’t, and I would wager that your regular riding buddies are all people whose wheels you can follow without too much thinking, that there are plenty of really nice people you don’t ride with, mainly because it’s too stressful. I have met old hands with tens-of-thousands of miles in their legs who are simply too blase on the road to follow with any sense of confidence.
There is an etiquette to riding in a group that ensures everyone’s safety, but there are things beyond that make you feel comfortable on the bike, on a wheel, at top speed. I have done the trust fall, a hotel conference room, poorly lit and badly carpeted, giggling nervously and then leaning back into the eager clutches of people whose names I don’t remember now. It was over in second.
The same transaction on the bike can last all day, your body hurtling through space, spanning distances, suspended above the ground by a whisper of carbon or metal, and your life in the hands of the people around you. These are bonding sessions, in the classic sense, and there is more to the game than simply falling backwards and hoping for the best. This is where you find out who you can trust.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I don’t get hung up on mileage anymore. I had a watershed moment about 15 years ago, when I was struggling to maintain 14mph into a head wind. I know I was going 14mph, because I was staring at the small digital display clipped to my stem, and I became angry that I was riding the computer rather than the bike, and I pulled it off its mount and stuck it in my pocket and I have not ridden with a visible computer since.
I do occasionally wonder how far I’ve gone on a given ride, and I’m sure some of my regular riding companions have grown tired of me asking what we’ve done. For a short time, I ran Strava, so I didn’t have to ask, but I got bored with that pretty quickly and returned to blissful ignorance.
But you know, mileage can equal goals, and goals can be motivating, so if you’re obsessed with numbers, I get it. If that’s what gets you on the bike, that’s what you use. I have not yet reached the point of diminishing returns for riding my bike. More is pretty much always better.
My friend Padraig is on the verge of 8,000 miles for the year, which given his life situation is a whole lot of distance. My friend Bryan, who commutes year round in Southern Maine, also puts up a pretty good number. In a small way, I envy them their milestones, but not enough to ruin my rides with data collection. This is what works for me.
So as the year winds down, all I can do is some basic estimation. With organized and disorganized weekend jaunts and commutes all stuck together, I’m going to guess I did somewhere between 2500 and 3000 miles. I could ride more. I could make fewer excuses.
This week’s Group Ride wonders what you did. How many miles or kilometers did you put up? Did you measure them exactly, or did you take a more offhand approach? Will you do more or less next year? Why?
With the Mayan apocalypse now firmly behind us, it feels a little safer to come up out of the RKP survival shelter into the rain-swept, gray-light of a new day. And as these trying times slouch toward the New Year, I find myself looking for new sources of hope.
From the Lancepocalypse, which now strikes me as tantamount to a teenage acne problem, to the divisiveness of our national election, the unstoppable force of Hurricane Sandy and then to the reality-warping attack in Connecticut and the “fiscal cliff,” it feels easy, just lately, to sit and wonder what the hell is wrong with us collectively.
To quote Marvin Gaye, “What’s going on?”
As a bike person, I take great comfort in the sure knowledge that, no matter what happens out in the larger world, I can mostly pedal my way to a better (mental) place. And so when I’ve cast about in search of some sign that the apocalypse isn’t actually nigh and come up empty, I look to my garage for evidence that things will get better.
I guess I do it like anyone fortunate enough to have a thing called a garage. I hang my bikes from hooks, rear wheel up and evenly spaced, right in a line down one wall, and just seeing them dangling there stirs something warm in my chest.
Hung there (and carefully aligned, if only after the garage’s quarterly cleaning) they seem so perfect. In their inert state, I am not yet riding them badly. Striving and straining and second-guessing aren’t happening. Their energy accrues potentially, each bike limning the happiness still to come.
The kids’ bikes hang in between mine, their shorter wheel-bases making them perfect for space-filling. And there too I see deep wells of potential energy, future me on my road bike slowly slaloming behind one or both of my boys as they thrash away at their plastic platform pedals. This is idealized familial bliss, the making of memories to be cherished in advance. I find I need this theoretical future positive when the careening present seems at its most chaotic and dark.
Phrases like “stay in the moment” and “be here now” have all kinds of new-agey currency at the moment, and certainly as a general rule, it seems best not to dwell too long on the past nor to obsess too much about a theoretical future. But what is hope made of if not the notion of a better tomorrow, and what image conveys the feeling of that incipient change in our fortunes quite as well as a bicycle, cleaned and ready to roll?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It feels strange to even speak of it after so long, but you know what? Professional road racing is about to start happening again. Rising up from the ashes of the Lancepocalypse, spindly legged racers are due to crawl out from under their off-season rocks, emerging into the blinking light of the 2013 season.
What’s gonna happen?
The Classics, perhaps the least dope-tarnished races of the calendar, will once again give us the Boonen v. Cancellara races we all want to see, assuming Fabian Cancellara has killed whatever chicken he needed to to dispel the voodoo curse that ruined his 2012. We should also see the return of Thor Hushovd to the rutted cart paths of Northern Europe and find out just how serious Peter Sagan is about mixing it up with these infernal cobblers.
The first question of this week’s Group Ride is who will be this year’s Classics star? Can Boonen thrive with Cancellara in the mix, or will someone else rise to the challenge?
Stage racing, if we’re honest, is more of a shit show. TdF champ Bradley Wiggins is talking about skipping the July race in favor of the seemingly more favorable Giro, which puts Chris Froome in the captain’s seat for Sky. Alberto Contador is back in full swing. Purito Rodriguez showed his class last season, but will his team even make the races? And what of the Schlecks? The younger is coming back from an injury-blighted 2012, and the older will probably be suspended.
The second question for this week’s Group Ride mirrors the first. Who will be this year’s Grand Tour star? Can Ryder Hesjedal repeat his Giro heroics? Can any of 2012′s bit part players, Thomas de Gendt, Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali, take another step up the podium?
It feels odd to me to be talking about these things. It feels as though some great schism occurred at the end of 2012, and that the future can’t be quite like the past. All I know how to do, at this point, is to look at what’s happened and wonder what will be, and hopefully, in the process, it will all be as fascinating as ever, if only that little bit better.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
I typically confuse actions with feelings. I say, “Man, I’d love to go for a ride right now,” or “I really need to sit down and do some writing,” but what I really mean is that there are feelings I want to have, brain states that frighten and soothe. I want flow, and I want progress, and I want forward movement that mostly lives inside me and only looks like moving through the world, sometimes on a bike, sometimes at a keyboard, sometimes not moving at all.
I want that bursting sense of possibility I get when I hammer out of the driveway and up the slight rise at the end of the road, the launch of a new ride and its palpable feeling of freedom, of escape, a buzzing in my guts as adrenalin collides with serotonin up in the old brain box. I fairly sprint for the top of the hill, the faster to get out into the world.
The first minutes, fingers to keyboard can be the same, escaping into my thoughts, spewing pre-formed phrases out onto the screen, bits of language that have been tumbling around temporally for hours and days. Sprinting to get them all out before the flow falters, before the dependent clauses dangle off the ends of their sentences and break, like a slipping chain, like a mental mis-shift.
I want to feel the desperate equilibrium of a long climb, the way head and lungs strike their fragile bargain, teetering there between capacity and rhythm, hovering in that magical place where I can’t seem to do more and can’t seem to do less, legs screaming but not loud enough to be heard, breathing heavy but not too heavy to lift, every track beneath my train of thought fully occupied by forward movement, and everything melts away but the climbing, the up.
I want that well worn spot at the end of the couch and a book in my hand and coffee cup perched there beneath the lamp, the clock’s ticking inaudible and unimportant, nowhere to be but fully inhabiting the ideas bound in ink and paper, racing through the pages, synapses singing, warm and wholly calm, every minute a moment and every hour an eternity at the same time. Timeless. Mental.
The frenetic moments off the front of the ride/race/ramble, when I marvel at my strength, wonder what I should do next, doubt it will last. All of it thrilling, even when it ends, like a solar flare of energy, accidental and necessary.
Or the post-ride feed. Sitting around a table with friends, cups steaming or ice jumbling against sugary salvation, the food arrayed before us like a trophy cabinet, and the inquest begins. Everyone did either more or less than they actually did, as suits their ego and the careful arrangements among friends. The mind capers in triumph at having done something worth doing, at having earned the reward.
Action and feeling are inseparable, the one leading to the other and back again in a tight loop of motivation and energy, and the cruel truth is that the same actions don’t always lead to the same feelings. The recipe is never so neat and easy. The rabbit is not always to be found in the hat, but sometimes only out in front of us, hovering in the mind’s eye just out of reach, and each of us a greyhound at the track, loping madly in circles.
Image: Matt O’Keefe