Faulkner said, “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it,” which is another way of saying that writing is less about a pen scratching against a piece of paper or fingers dancing on a keyboard than it is about thinking. The process of putting into print the ideas in your head forces you to confront and evaluate them in a concrete way that can often lead to quite surprising changes of view.
Cycling, I think it can be argued, is another metier that facilitates deep thought and truth seeking. A long solo ride can be meditative. It can help you strip away your fears and insecurities. It can help you see what’s happening in your life for what it really is.
Padraig and I have been working on his new book, and in it, this idea comes up again and again, that the bike brings clarity, that many of us make our life’s biggest decisions while in the saddle. To get married or not. To have children or not. To go back to school or break up with our boy/girlfriend. To quit our job or ride cross country.
I have yet to tell my wife, when she asks if I think we should adopt a baby elephant, “I don’t know. Let me ride on it,” but something like that thought does occur to me. Let me write about it. Let me ride about it. We’ll see.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is the biggest decision you’ve made on your bike? How did it turn out? Is there a certain place you ride to do your best thinking? Or will anywhere do? Do you need to be alone, or can you get to the same place even in a group? Or with a friend?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
If I had been cynical/skeptical/jaded about this Tour de France over the first two weeks, yesterday’s stage with its double ascent of Alpe d’Huez cured me. With riders leaping off the front and dropping off the back, there was so much going on, so much chaos, that I found myself riveted. I have always been a fan of the epic climbing stages, and this one delivered enough thrills to qualify for the four-ticket bounty at the state fair.
And though Chris Froome and his Sky minions have controlled the race with well-calculated and muscular performances whenever and wherever it’s been necessary, so too have his rivals taken ample opportunity to attack. The race has been anything but a stately promenade to Paris.
I was wrong in my initial belief that the green jersey competition would be more interesting than the GC. Peter Sagan is riding away with the points competition, despite not dominating either in the intermediate or finishing sprints. On the other hand, once you look past Froome, the next four GC riders are within 47 seconds of each other. With one last mountain stage to ride, podium spots are anything but assured.
The preeminence of Team Sky in three-week races seems confirmed now, though Bradley Wiggins failed to impress (or finish) the Giro. Still, the short reign of Alberto Contador is clearly over, and it remains to be seen whether racers like Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez can translate Giro and Vuelta performances into French success.
Sagan has stolen Mark Cavendish’s thunder, and even Andre Greipel is finding ways to win stages. The lack of real dominance is good for the sport, both from a fan’s perspective and from a credibility standpoint. It says something powerful that Froome’s ride in France has drawn so many questions, while the seeming parity of his rivals speaks volumes about the possible cleanliness of the top tier competitors. Maybe, just maybe, this has been a good Tour de France for cycling.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what have you enjoyed about this 100th Tour de France? Did it live up to your expectations? What were the surprises? And what does it say about the current state of Grand Tour racing?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
There is a place that we will know only once we have arrived there. It defies definition by latitude and longitude, lies at an indistinct distance from the starting point, and access may be denied if we are alone, or sometimes if we are not alone.
We know we’re there when the pedaling seems effortless or the weather seems perfect, even possibly when it’s snowing, or when we realize that a broad, stupid grin has appeared below our noses while we rolled along, wholly unaware.
Some days I can arrive there simply by rolling up the garage door, my left hand on my top tube, my right adjusting the cant of my helmet. Other times, I can ride and ride and ride, sweat pouring through my brows, stinging my eyes, straining at the pedals to achieve the correct velocity or find the right rhythm, only to find that place unreachable in the time I have allotted, or more accurately, in the time life has allotted me.
At some point, a prison break feels a drop in the pit of his stomach, a visceral sense that the chasing guards and their dogs have stopped chasing. We disappear into the pages of a novel. Jules Verne has taken us 20,000 leagues deep. H.G. Wells has us off in his time machine. For a few minutes, maybe more, it all goes non-linear.
I leave my house and ride an ugly, meandering loop, a child’s scrawl on a map, and I return home, and I haven’t been anywhere near this place, never arrived there but simply rode around in the ultimately nonsensical way of the cyclist, leaving home, traveling for hours, only to arrive where I started. Solipsistic. Self-referential.
With friends, I can ride along with my hands on top of the bars, my head swiveled to one side, riffing on the same joke we’ve been telling since the 20th century put us on a two-wheeled machine in the first place, or else digging deep in the mine of shared human experience, exhuming what diamonds we might, and again time disappears and miles burn like so many calories flying invisibly off our back tires like road spray.
When I dream of this holy place, when I see it in my mind, I am climbing up a narrow, heavily wooded road by myself. My heart is in my throat. I can almost hear it pulsing in one of my ears. I am close to my limit, but at that pace, that rhythm that suggests I can hold and hover there until the crest passes, my head sawing back and forth over the top tube like a metronome. Click. Click. Click.
And there’s nothing else, just me and the work, time slowed down and dripping like molasses, every other thought crowded out like children in a game of musical chairs.
Every time I set out, every time I agree to meet someone for a ride, I am hoping to get to that place, if only I knew just where it was.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
My takeaways from the first week of the 100th Tour de France are as follows: 1) Corsica is beautiful, and despite the narrow, nervous, crashy, not-altogether-organized nature of the opening stages there, I need to put it on my “Places I Need to Ride My Bike” list; 2) As always, there are some tough sons-a-bitches in that peloton, including three of my favorites, Ryder Hesjedal, Ted King and Geraint Thomas; and 3) the sprint competition is going to be more fun to watch than usual, with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans and Mark Cavendish all taking sprint wins (and intermediate points) through the first week.
When you toss in that Daryl Impey has just become the first African to wear the yellow jersey, it is hard to argue that this version of the Grande Boucle lacks for drama, grit and flair.
You will note that I have not yet even mentioned the GC competition (Impey is in yellow, but he is not in the GC mix). On that score, rather than attempting anything resembling expert prognostication, a task better left to the right honorable Pelkey and/or his Irish partner in crime, I will only say that Nicolas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Alejandro Valverde and a whole gaggle of Garmins are still comfortably within touching distance of the top.
That means, to me, that weeks two and possibly three will have more real players involved in the struggle for the jaundiced shirt than past iterations of this race have allowed. So that’s cool.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is the story of this Tour for you so far? What are the surprises? What magic is yet to come? Take this wherever you want, the Tour does not submit itself to easy reduction. We could, quite possibly, talk about this all day. So start now.
We rolled out of the grocery store parking lot, the meet up, and shimmied along the shoulder of the road to where the trail banked away up the hill. I said to Rob, “I just don’t ride mountain bikes enough to be any good at it,” and he said, “You seem like a capable enough rider.”
On the face of it, this was a compliment, but as I pistoned away awkwardly at the pedals, I circled back to that word, capable, and sussed it for its true meaning.
I recall sitting in my college counselor’s office, her in a high-backed leather chair, me in the standard issue plastic bowl chair endemic to high schools the world over, and her saying, “Well, John, we should maybe readjust your expectations a little. Your test scores suggest you’re capable of a lot more than your grades bear out.” The ensuing paragraph is lost to me now, but it certainly included the words ‘underachiever,’ ‘wasted potential,’ and ‘lazy.’
I nodded not-sagely. I could see her point, but that horse had already left the barn. “What does it really take,” I thought, “to sit through a liberal arts degree anyway?”
I had not yet broken a sweat, winding up through the rocks and soft dirt of the first climb, when all of this crystallized in my mind. Unwittingly, Rob had called out one of my great struggles.
To be capable is good. It is always preferable to to the other option, that state which finds you prone in a ditch off the side of the road or trail waiting for heart rate and will to return. Capable connotes the intersection of ability and potential. It is the blue sky overhead, the capacious mind, the hot-burning fire of imagination.
The trick, and this is especially true if the well of capacity runs deep, is that it takes a long time and a lot of effort to hoist that heavy bucket of capability up and out into the sunshine. Capability is good, but when it’s not wed to the drive to explore its every depth and contour, college counselors go branding you a lazy, underachiever.
In the end, I secured a B.A. cum laude in philosophy at a well-respected private university. It would have been a complete waste of time had I not met my wife while there and been pushed to take composition classes with a wise and patient author, a man whose kindness as regards my then (and possibly still) immature prose-style launched me on this path you find me now.
Being a capable cyclist has also allowed me to log a lot of miles over a period of decades. Very few of them passed quickly, and rare is the person who has marveled at my great skill on the bike. I am capable, but maybe not a natural.
The things is, somewhere in my soul, I reject many of the measures of capability. I have usually not seen the point of achievements, at least as they are commonly measured: grades, degrees, race placings, bank balances. If you can have these things, they are nice to have. If you can not, there are other things to focus your energy on.
The things I aspire to, patience, decency, peace, acceptance, truth and love, don’t chart very well. The things I got out of school, out of cycling, out of life, were never likely to be quantifiable in a way that meant something to anyone other than me. Maybe this is the patent rationalization of an underachiever, or maybe it’s just a simpler, more realistic way to live.
I am capable of showing up, of behaving reasonably well, and of enjoying myself. As near as I can tell, that’s the whole game, the whole challenge. And if there is one great thing I have become capable of, it is seeing that, at last, no matter how bad I am on a mountain bike.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Perhaps we should discuss this elephant, the Tour de France, camped in our virtual living room. We have not been writing about the pros so much lately. This is less a conscious decision, and more just a reflection of natural inclinations. We are less interested in the pros generally and the Tour specifically, Padraig and I, than we have been in a loooongg time.
And why is that? Sadly, it seems to be a result of doping burnout. Perhaps we labored under a set of willful delusions, even after we knew how widespread doping was in the pro ranks, that allowed us to parse out teams and characters whom we like and on some level believed in. Thinking back on many of the posts and comment threads here on RKP over recent years, much of the discussion centers not on whether doping has been endemic, but rather on who is and who isn’t believable.
But when things came to a head last year, and confessions began flowing like champagne at a wedding, our ability to single out and separate the good guys from the bad guys was badly hampered. Seemingly good guys, minor players, had done bad things. We knew, but didn’t want to know. We thought we had accepted it, but we hadn’t. Our skepticism about the pro peloton was shown to be too conservative, not too cynical. Our ability to be entertained by the drama was overtaken by the burgeoning farce.
And so…this elephant.
Normally, this Group Ride would center on predictions for the race. Froome or Contador? What will Evans make of himself here in the twilight of his racing career? Which of the young pretenders will distinguish himself? Is Andy Schleck back, at last? Will he even finish? Those are just the tip of the French iceberg.
In some diminished way, we are interested in the answers. When you have cared so much for so long, it is hard to let go of the reflexive curiosity, the desire to engage friends in a serious discussion about a not-serious thing. But for us, the heat’s just not there, and we find ourselves far more interested in our kids’ riding or in the bikes and routes and stories of our friends.
Still, this week’s Group Ride is about the Tour de France. How do you feel about it now? Do you care who wins? If not, why not? You can tell us, Froome or Contador. You can answer any of the questions above, if that’s where you’re at, or maybe you can help us explain this feeling which is, in many ways, worse than the anger we used to indulge over the bad behavior of small and distant men. What is this new indifference, and will we, some of us, most of us, get back to that place of caring passionately?
The email came in from Coach Peter, a digital ray of sunshine at the end of a rainy spring. The final baseball game of the season, the one they added as a “fun” add-on for the boys after a relentless stretch of games that had us slumped in our fold up chairs, swatting mosquitoes in the grassy verge off the 3rd baseline.
I love to watch my boys play baseball, but I am extremely excited that baseball is over. Maybe I’ll see what bike riding is like.
I am excited, mutedly, for the Tour de France. Is it possible to be mutedly excited? Maybe not. I’ll tell you, I could care less who wins this Tour. I don’t care about Team Sky’s internal dynamic. I don’t care what Alberto Contador thinks about anything. But I am excited for the sound of the Tour in the background, the site of the peloton snaking its way around France, the rhythm of it, day-after-day. It defines my July and suggests a vacation is in the offing. I am excited for a vacation.
I’m building myself a new bike, a sort of burly road, gravel-grinding, winter commuter bike, custom paint, maximal nerdery. What is more exciting than a new bike? It’s a rhetorical question. Nothing. Nothing is more exciting. Stop even thinking about the birth of your children. Lighten up. This is a bike blog.
I’m also excited about RKP. This will sound silly and perhaps a little immodest, but the work of the last few months, especially on Padraig’s forthcoming book, has me feeling bullish about what we’re doing here. We have always understood the mandate to write about cycling, but events of the past year have broadened that mandate. It feels like we have a better sense of what we’re doing now than we ever have before. Sometimes I get bogged down in writing and rewriting individual pieces, and I lose sight of the larger project, but I’m excited that I see it now and am happy to be a small part of it.
This week’s Group Ride, not mysteriously, asks what YOU are excited about. Doesn’t have to be bike-related. Can be, but doesn’t have to be. Sometimes we have to look outside our small lives and narrow focuses for the inspiration to continue on, to try to do what we do better. What’s going on that we ought to be excited about?
Mostly Sunny. That’s what I was promised, both by the weather app on my phone, and a quick consult with the weather site I look to for more detailed back up. Before leaving the house, I removed the clip-on fender I had affixed. That’s how confident I was in the guidance I’d received.
So when, in the waning hours of my work day, a massive black cloud slid across the horizon, a cloud so pregnant with watery anger that it was tinged with a menacing yellow, I knew I had been betrayed.
As a cyclist, practitioners of the meteorological arts have generally been my friends down the years. How many times have they warned me of a possible drenching? How many times have they informed of a dramatic temperature shift in the offing? If not exactly oracular in their pronouncements, I’d bet on my local weather people as the house bets its own hand in Vegas.
When at last the cloud burst, thunder rumbling from its edges, the deluge overwhelmed drains and gutters and sprang up from the pavement in rebellion at being cast down. We peered from the front office window and wondered at the fragility of our pale forms. Someone, somewhere penned a fresh bible verse.
At that point, there was the suggestion we might load our bikes into the company van and decamp with our tails tucked, but then Neil said flatly, “I’m riding.” And just as quickly as the storm had pitched up, the mood in the room changed as well. The consensus came that, while not Devo, we were still, in fact, men.
Mine is a short commute, five miles, and so I had little more than a pair of regular shorts and a cotton t-shirt with which to steel myself against the elements. I resigned myself to a drenching. I’ve been drenched before and will be again. NBD.
But maybe the thing you just never get used to is that sensation of cold water flying up your backside, that direct assault on your comfort zone. It unsettles. It offends. The cyclist’s bidet.
When I arrived home my wife cheerfully asked, “How was your ride?” This cheery greeting is the just dessert of the cyclo-spouse, the small recompense for having been abandoned for the bike over a period of years. I chuckled when I heard it. Betrayed by the weatherman, mocked by the wife.
Then I turned and showed her my wet, sandy ass. “Pretty good,” I said, “mostly sunny.”
Image: Matt O’Keefe
In my mind I am slugging away at the long climb west of Brattleboro on the way up to Marlboro and beyond to Hogback Mountain. The road is packed dirt, graded in spring, in mud season, and left to the elements for the rest of the year. It bisects thick pine forest flanked by pre-historic fern. Always wet, rain collects in the channels just off the shoulder, run off from the woods above trickling in rivulets constantly. The air is cool.
Forget fast. The angle of ascent and the inconsistency of the surface force you into a slow rhythm. The road ripples and ribbons, fords ad hoc streams, pitches up steeply and then meanders.
This is where I want to be.
Mostly I roll around under the basic premise that other locales, both foreign and domestic, serve up larger slices of idyllic beauty, of cyclo-specific wonder, than where I live, and yet year after year I find more and more to like about my native roads (and trails).
Padraig said of New England, “There’s a piece of my heart I was unable to pack and bring with me when I moved west.” We had been talking about the particular beauty of this place where I live, and though it was just one line in an email chain that stretches back deep into our friendship, it stuck with me, such a nice way to think about a place.
This week’s Group Ride is about where you ride. Is it great? Why? Give us your best prose. Show, don’t tell. And if it’s not great, tell us about a great place you HAVE ridden. We want details, not place names. We want description. We want to go there with you.
Images: Matt O’Keefe
I forgot a pump. I often forget a pump. I have come to a strange place in my cycling experience where I neither completely believe in CO2, nor love jamming a small hand pump in my jersey pocket. And despite having a pump peg welded to my head tube, I have also passed up every opportunity to buy a frame pump that would nestle there conveniently beneath my top tube. Anyway, I didn’t bring a pump, leaving me at the mercy of my more conscientious companions and the shifting winds of fortune.
I also forgot which turn it is. There is a lovely serpentine route here somewhere, a quick left off the main road that ducks and dives between horse-grazed pastures and hidden ponds, a way to get three extra miles in without getting any further from home, a way to make wealthy people nervous that their expansive manses, their country estates, are being cased by a pack of lycra-clad burglars. The road is called Dow, or Dawes, or Dove. I think we passed it.
I forget what time I told my wife I’d be back, which is beside the point, because I also forgot to check what time it is. Saddle time is fluid and elastic and entirely unpredictable. That first ten miles seems to take about two hours, while the next 40 disappear in ten minutes. Did we do 50 miles in an hour and ten? No. It’s two o’clock. When did it get to be two o’clock?
I forgot that my front tire was a little soft, and instead of turning back at the end of my street to firm it up with the floor pump that perches next to the garbage can in the garage, I blew it off, and now every time I go round a turn I’m convinced it’s going flat. But it’s not. Until it does. Does anyone have a pump?
I forgot to eat. There was a banana before I left and the thought that I should begin topping up the tank at about the ten-mile mark, but I was going so well that I didn’t think of it again until my stomach rang hollow on the front side of a long climb. At that point, you’ve got to get on top of your calories tout suite or risk turning the ride into a bonk-fighting, death march. How many times have I made this mistake?
I forgot how strong this one guy is, all of us fighting to hold the wheel in front of us when he goes to take his pull. I hate this guy, except that he is actually pretty nice. I forget his name, Matt or Mark or Max. I’m going to ask someone, and then I’m going to intentionally forget it again, just to spite him.
There are times I wish I had my wits about me a bit better. Certainly, standing by the side of the road with a flat tube in one hand and a dawning realization that I have no way to inflate it, I chide myself for not having it more together. At the same time, my life doesn’t admit of more organization. Work, family and home tax my capacity for organization and effort, so that I don’t really have it in me, sometimes, to stalk about the night before a ride, gathering every last detail and bit of equipment.
I wing it.
I could do more, but I can’t do more, you know? And forgetting is at the core of why I ride anyway. I ride to slough off the remains of the day, to burn off my troubles, to disappear from my own life. As soon as I try to bring the same focus to my cycling that I bring to my work and the rest, cycling ceases to have the same power to soothe.
So I forget and I forgive myself for forgetting, and that doesn’t mean I don’t sit there frustrated as hell by the side of the road with a flat. But I accept, at some point, that this is what I am and this is what I need to do if I am ever going to get away from the things that are chasing me, which is all and everything most days. If I can remember that I ride for fun, to remember what it’s like to be free, then I’m willing to forget the rest and stand and wait for someone with a pump to happen by.