I fired down the first piece of pizza cold while I jammed the rest in the toaster oven to warm up. I was that hungry, even though I’d topped my breakfast toast, four pieces washed down with three cups of coffee, with a donut and a half after my arrival at the office.
The off-season, or winter as civilians call it, provides something of a double dose of fitness trouble for me. On the one hand, I use the cold and snow as a reason not to be on the bike. On the other hand, I eat like Robinson Crusoe at a cruise ship buffet. Really, culturally, American’s set themselves up for failure, scheduling our Thanksgiving feast in late November, just as the cold is setting in. The caloric excesses of that holiday tend to dovetail nicely with the pre-Christmas calorie orgies, followed quickly by the holiday itself and then New Year, when food and drink again become the center of social interaction.
By then, bad food choices have become bad food habits. I spend January (and most of February) trying to get back to something like a reasonable daily intake, to incorporate a vegetable somewhere during the day, if not the week.
Really, I do the opposite of what makes sense. In the summer, when I’m riding the most, I eat the best. When I let myself go, late in the fall, I really let go.
I am lucky. My genes keep me thin and my cholesterol low. Outwardly, there is little indication that I am completely off the dietary rails. But when I get back on the bike I know it. I may only be five pounds from fighting weight, but I’m a lot farther from true fitness, and I know I need to eat better to feel better.
I know I’m not alone in this. The Group Ride this week asks how hard you think about your food? Do you carefully monitor everything that goes into the tank, or do you ride hard so you can eat whatever you want? Do you eat differently in the off-season, or do you maintain a consistent diet? What’s your weakness? Mine is sweets, but I have been known to abuse french fries, too.
The Spring Classics, and particularly their opening weekend, mean a lot to cycling fans. First, they herald changing weather. Freddy wasn’t feelin’ it because where he is looks and feels a lot like where I am, cold, snowy, and still dark. Trees are not budding. Birds perch silently. Snow still blankets the ground. But the racing won’t wait. Classics season comes whether we’re ready or not. With the desert pre-season over, the season proper is now on.
As it turned out, Tom Boonen froze his ass off in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (rolls right off the tongue) on Saturday, and Ian Stannard stole a march on Greg Van Avermaet, putting an Englishman on the top podium step of the opening race of Classics season for the first time since, oh, wait, an Englishman has never won this race. In 67 runnings, a Belgian has won 54 times, the Dutch 4, Italians 4, and the rest, including Stannard, remain outliers on the curve, a bit like this winter.
On Sunday, at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Boonen took one back for the home team. Order restored.
Perhaps in response, I’ve begun riding my bike again. It was 14F when I left home yesterday. But screw it. We have to start somewhere. If Tommeke can do it, so can I.
After my chat with Radio Freddy, Chris at Velobici emailed me to say they are running their Spring Classics Challenge again this year. I don’t Strava a lot (it’s a verb now), but I will take whatever motivation I can get this time of year. Chris was particularly excited about the competition between countries, which I took as a casting down of the gauntlet, a cheery, polite challenge. It made me want to ride. Of course, they’re giving away prizes, but I don’t need prizes nearly as much as I need the miles that lead to the prizes.
Somewhere in this flurry of Classics-related hijinks a shiny new copy of Les Woodland’s Tour of Flanders: The Inside Story showed up at my house. OK. OK. I get it. It’s time to HTFU. Woodland does a great job of evoking the spirit of early Flandrian cycling, painting pictures of the stoic hardmen who begat their eponymous race, including the race’s founder Karel van Wijnendaele who was very much the Belgian version of Henri Desgranges, a driven and tyrannical journalist/promoter who helped drag professional cycling into the modern era.
Woodland peppers his narrative with Belgian and European history to add context and color where it will help his story while keeping with the best tradition of character-based non-fiction. There are characters, and there is drama. The book is good as a history, good as a cycling book, and finally good as a motivator to pull on your tights and get back on your bike after a too-long off-season.
I have mentioned over a number of posts here over a number of months my dwindling interest in pro cycling, which may be a function of the short time I have to think about anything other than work and family as much as it is a result of a growing disillusionment with the whole idea of people racing bikes for money, and the decidedly mixed results therefrom. HOWEVER, some habits die hard (most of mine seem to), and there is something about Spring Classics season that stirs me, that motivates me, that excites me.
Last week, Radio Freddy and I weren’t feeling it. This week, we’re riding our bikes.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I am no one and nothing. This is as much a statistical expression of my importance as it is an exercise in humility. One of roughly four billion of my species, alive for a picosecond of geologic time, my individual identity, diluted still further by a pseudonym and the ephemeral nature of this pixelated medium, is vague and fleeting to the point of comedy. The ‘I’ I refer to may not really exist, may just be a whorl of dust in infinity, is at the very most a product, a projection, of all those other whorls around me, all of us sheltering under an angry sky, capering across our lives in flight from predators both real and imagined.
I sometimes get all caught up in what people think of me, as if that matters, as if I know what they really think, and if I knew, as if I could change myself. I am, in no small measure, what I’ve been made by everyone else. Put me in a line of cyclists, and I will pedal. Put me in the grocery store, and I will shop.
Identity is a funny thing, how we perceive ourselves, how we define our “true selves.” I have mostly ceased to believe in such a thing. And while that may seem sad, the idea that there is no true me, nothing unique or special or abiding about my existence, it is also enormously freeing. It gives me less to maintain, less ego to coddle and stroke.
In looking at myself, I can break down almost completely what I am trying to express by putting on these shoes, this shirt, getting my hair cut just this way. It’s fun to paint that picture. It’s what we do, as humans. In fact, it may even be a reaction to our insignificance that we set so much store by our individual identities, tilting at the windmill of our comical sameness.
We love constructing identities so much that we even anthropomorphize objects. We name our cars, our bikes. We ascribe them genders and describe their personalities.
And while I’m not one to name my bikes, if I squint, I can just about see who they are. My road bike is a Frenchman, more of a swashbuckler than I am, a little more buttoned up, a little more confident. My mountain bike is a harried surgeon, very particular about his lines, very deliberate in all his decisions. I wish sometimes he’d let loose, but it’s not in his nature. I have another road bike who is clearly a college student with tastes which surpass his means. He’s that guy who will never properly grow up, but will wrinkle pre-maturely, maybe even color his hair and then pretend he hasn’t. He’s vain, with no real cause to be.
It is ridiculous to talk about bikes this way, but for me, it seems no more ridiculous than to talk about myself this way, and it’s more fun, less freighted, less (un)important.
This week’s Group Ride asks not who you are, but who is your bike? How did he/she/it get that way? Do bike identities change? How? Who do you wish your bike really was? I suspect my bike is better than me. Is yours better than you?
I recently experienced a surprising and unexpected musical performance, one that begged more questions than it answered. But before I get to the existential quandary that performance imposed on me, I should back up and talk a bit about what I saw.
There’s a tribute band called The Musical Box. They have devoted themselves to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. It’s like devoting your career as a film historian to the movies of Marlon Brando made prior to the death of James Dean. I need to get on record immediately with the admission that I’ve thought tribute acts, as a category, were silly, like hunting for Mexican Diet Coke, as if that were a thing. Look, I was in plenty of bands that did a more than adequate job of playing other peoples’ material, but the idea of going to see a bunch of guys perform nothing but songs from one band seemed weak at some elemental level. While I can’t say exactly why, the more cynical bones in my body thought it was a special lack of imagination. Let me be clear, I thought of tribute bands as a kind of glorified cover band, a self-absorbed frat party act.
I’m fortunate that I have friends who can point out when I’m being a pinhead and ought to remain more open-minded. I’m also fortunate that these same friends are easily as devoted to the early Genesis material as I am and had actually seen The Musical Box, so they could actively advocate for the superlative quality of their performances.
So on a recent Sunday night my wife, friends and I went to see these five Quebecois musicians perform a selection of songs from Genesis’ 1972 album “Foxtrot.” In addition to those songs they did three songs from earlier albums that appear on the album “Genesis Live.” This is stuff that serves as a textbook example for Progressive Rock, capital P, capital R, for better or worse, depending on your personal view. I know plenty of people who detest this stuff. It appeals to me on a multitude of levels, from the visceral fun of the music, to the technical dexterity required to play it, to the themes contained within the lyrics, right down to the production values and even the cover art. Early Genesis was, for me, the whole package.
What unfolded on stage that night was an event so unlikely as to be surreal. It was very nearly an elaborate joke. The performance wasn’t just an accurate performance of some material that was terribly difficult to perform correctly (I can report this from personal experience), it was a note-for-note replication of the performances contained on those two albums. Not only was every note replicated, they were played on the same period instruments (save the famously wonky mellotron), with the same tone, dynamics and demeanor. Hell, they wore the same clothing and the costumes that Peter Gabriel made to use during those performances. Peter Gabriel actually gave them his old costumes. And the between-song banter and song introductions? Nailed ‘em.
So thoroughly did these guys capture the essence of Genesis that there were times when as I watched them, I simply forgot that I was watching an ensemble other than Genesis. I’d blink my eyes and remember that the vocalist’s first language was French. Interviews with the members of Genesis reveal long-simmering tensions about the challenge of performing their material correctly night after night. The performance by The Musical Box was flawless, and that points to a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not! moment: those guys are actually better than the original.
Not only did Peter Gabriel give them his old costumes, their web site features testimonials by the members of Genesis on just how good they are. Gabriel says he took his kids to see them so they “could see what their father did back then.” But Phil Collins’ testimonial is perhaps the most effective. Collins says, “They are not a tribute band, they are taking a period and faithfully reproducing it in the same way that someone would do a theater production.”
As I walked out I told my wife that what we’d just seen was, from a musical standpoint, the best performance I’d seen in years. It wasn’t just that what they played was technically accurate; rather, what they did honored the original intent of the music. It reminded me of a recording I have of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The conductor worked with the record label to go back through Tchaikovsky’s original score and look at the parts for the cannons at the end of the piece. They noted the rhythms and dynamic markings and then went out to a field and had someone fire period-correct cannons that they recorded and integrated into the final recording. The first time the final mix of that recording was playing in the studio was the first time in history that Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was heard as it was intended. How’s that for mind-blowing?
The Musical Box’s performance came from a place of such deep respect that they could be called a tribute band in the truest sense of the word. Still, I had trouble articulating to her and to myself why I’d found the performance so rousing. A religious experience this was not, but it reached something in me that almost no other musical performance I’ve seen in the last 20 years has managed.
As I struggled with the question of why I was so wowed, I considered how I’ve passed on going to see the Rolling Stones (and a number of other aging acts) over the last 20, maybe even 30 years; it was for exactly the opposite reason. If you watch a live performance by the Stones, you see that the underlying fire to their music is largely gone. Mick Jagger’s voice is more gravel than tone and the loose rhythm to Keith Richards’ guitar work, which was once stylish seems now just to be sloppy. There’s little left to them other than Jaggers’ swagger, which is something to marvel at, but isn’t enough to command me to spend upwards of $100 for an opportunity to sit in the next area code.
That—now that—begs the question of just what we are looking for in a live performance. I’ve realized that it’s not enough for me to be in the same room with performers who were once great. I want to hear music. Shouldn’t that really be the first priority? It’s the music that got me interested in the first place. If you play great and can shake your ass, then great, but I’m not showing up just to see you shake your ass. If your priority is the dancing there’s this thing called ballet, or you can go see a tango recital.
And so I’m back around to why that performance was so affecting that four days later another friend and I drove 100 miles to go see these guys again. Same bunch of songs. No matter. At root, it was a chance to witness someone being very, very good at something, something that was damn difficult. Nothing against AC/DC, but “Back in Black” this ain’t. This material is difficult the way quantum mechanics is difficult. I also recognized a special regard for the audience. Anyone going to this trouble really cares about the people buying tickets, really wants them to have a memorable experience. Given the number of acts I’ve seen that barely phoned in their performances, this is a kind of commerce the world needs more of.
There was no obvious need for me to relate my reaction to those performances back to larger issues in my life, but I’m much too introspective to let something like this go. Within the collective urge by these guys to honor Genesis’ music I see a parallel in the bike industry. I find it in the people who toil somewhat anonymously in building for a name like Waterford or Seven, cutting fabric for Assos and Castelli. Those names are an implicit mark of quality and demand a level of precision difficult to achieve without a commensurate passion for the work itself. Does anything really need to be that difficult, that precise? No, but excellence is rarely found without bucketfuls of passion. Being witness to such an intense replication of that music was first-kiss heady. I’m awed to say that these play-actors performed with such faithfulness that my connection to that material is stronger than ever. I came to appreciate nuances—playfulness and irony—of songs I’d missed by only listening to the albums.
All-in is a favorite descriptor of mine. It speaks to a commitment that isn’t possible without an underlying fire. Those five guys reminded me why I’ve been writing about bicycles for 20 years. Quality matters. It always matters.
All this fucking snow. Excuse the f-bomb, but as I tell my kids, if the context demands it there is nothing at all wrong with the word. It’s not all the snow’s fault, either. Its enabler, the cold, is lingering at 30-year-lows.
The snow is so nice, so beautiful, as it falls, limning the leafless branches of the trees. The road disappears into the neighbor’s lawn, all of it paper white, a giant blank canvas to imagine the summer against. Cognitive dissonance creeps in here, looking out the window, trying to hold the winter stillness in mind, contemplating warmer weather, less clothing, more riding. Snow storms more or less demand you stand in windows, staring vacantly, thinking these thoughts.
Once the plows come rumbling, dropping their blades concussively to the pavement to scrape away what they can, and once the salt trucks visit, broadcasting sand and calcium chloride across the resulting mess, you are left with something that looks not unlike the bark of the white birch, mottled and rough, dark in patches. The main roads are the trunk, the side roads the branches. The white birch is also sometimes called the canoe birch, because some native tribes used it to skin their canoes.
During every storm, a great levy rises at the edge of the plow line where the snow piles, churned by the broad plow blades into a sort of cement. The shoveling can be easy until you reach this levy, and then you need dynamite and a crew of metal shovels to break through, to reconnect yourself to the world.
This snow bank, which shrinks the useable asphalt to a narrow strip, will look like the tide as it recedes, melting, all froth and sand pulling back, dwindling, going away. Bits of garbage melt out like fetid time capsules.
While it’s not true that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, there is a period in the life of each flake during which it is rideable. One of my very favorite times to ride is between the first dusting and the fall of the third inch. There are complicating factors, of course. If the snow is too cold, and there is a frozen under-layer, then you can’t ride it. The meteorological dominoes have to fall the right way. When they do, and the temperature remains cold and stable, this magic snow can remain tacky for as many as two or even three days. Once the first melt comes on, even a momentary thaw, the whole surface turns to ice again, and you’re lost. It’s over.
I like it best when the snow is actively falling.
My first snow ride this season featured 12F temperatures and a stiff wind. I set out at night, the flakes swirling in my headlights, and the cars idling in stand-still traffic like little huts of misery, their drivers watching me pass, thinking I was crazy but wishing they could be moving, too.
The next weekend it snowed again, and with more time on my hands, I headed for the woods. Alone there except for a few cross country skiers, I struggled to remember all the features of the trails I’ve ridden hundreds of times before, like going to your favorite restaurant only to discover they’ve changed the menu, and the cuisine, and the decor.
All that fucking snow. It gets hard to know what to do with it. By the driveway it got high enough that I struggled to throw more over the top of the bank. On the bike, some kids with sleds pointed and laughed as I churned through the fresh snow in the park by the house, on my way where exactly? I have been off the bike more than I have been on it, but I have stood in the window thinking hard on it. It’s so lovely, as it falls.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It’s been a hard winter. I won’t elaborate too much here (because I’ll do it elsewhere), but suffice it to say it’s been hard to get rides in. Even when you summon the will to leave in sub-20F temperatures, ice and snow make the proposition tricky. The roadway is much smaller, and utilizing main roads to connect more bucolic sections gets more tense. The level of planning necessary to pull off a good ride in this weather is often more than I can manage, given the other requirements of my middle class existence, chief among them youth hockey.
My wife said, “What makes this time of year so hard is that you can’t pin your hopes on spring. It’s too far off still. So you don’t have anything to look forward to.” It was that sentiment that led us to purchase four plane tickets to visit family in Wales. Something to look forward to. Whether we can afford it or not.
Then, this morning, Dan said, “You know what’s good for the winter blahs? A bike project.”
Yes. Something to look forward to. I can’t ride, but I can build a new bike to ride when the ice pulls back from the asphalt, when the mud starts harden on the trail. Again, whether I can afford it or not, this makes good sense.
The riding I have been enjoying the most over the last few seasons is this sort of mixed terrain stuff sometimes called gravel grinding, which, while alliterative, makes me cringe every time I hear it. Because I live on the fringe of the city, the trails and dirt patches we ride are often tucked behind people’s houses or stuck on the back of public parks. It feels like poaching on someone else’s land. For me it has, a little bit, the same vibe as the So Cal kids of the ’70s and ’80s skating people’s empty pools while they were away at work during the day. It stokes the coals of (extremely) latent teen rebellion that still churn in my over-stimulated brain.
So I’m building a bike. I am piecing together a parts spec. I am making up my mind, then changing it, making not very much progress, but achieving my chief aim, which is to think about something other than the 6 inches of snow still sitting heavily on the roof of my house, melting out into stalactites of ice during the day, building itself into ice dams and tearing at the shingles.
This week’s Group Ride is about projects, about the things we’re looking forward to. What are you working on? What is the point? Is it a new bike or a new training program? Is it a trip or just cleaning your chain and getting back on the road? Cyclists are very seldom still. We are always plotting and planning. Maybe it’s just cleaning the garage. What is your plan?
Images: Matt O’Keefe
I knew this day was coming. I was even looking forward to it, for marking a year is how we celebrate endurance. Still, as I typed the title, I found myself getting choked up. Those words, “Enter the Deuce,” take me back to a place scarier than the underside of any car, harder to fathom than any prose written in the Middle Ages. But they are also a reminder of how thousands upon thousands of people I don’t know, not to mention hundreds that I do know read with rapt attention Matthews difficult entry to this world.
And the reason those days are still so difficult, the reason that despite our relief at his blossoming is both simple and yet inverted. Fifty years ago he wouldn’t have survived his first hour, but now, a year later, he’s so much more than he was that morning. He’s got a personality that is happy, sunny enough to engage even people who don’t like babies and an appetite that seems to be a rebellion against all that time on a feeding tube. This. This is what we almost didn’t get. The more he is, the more I see what we would have lost.
And so how is he? He’s fine, in broad strokes. He has no lingering issues from the chylothorax effusion—that leaky doohicky that collapsed his right lung and forced the NICU to recommend what was ultimately a very successful surgery. That said, all that time in the NICU on his back in the incubator meant that he was starved for human interaction and he became very proficient at turning his head right and looking up so he could see his nurses when we weren’t there, which was a hell of a lot of time given the best we could do was usually only 10, maybe 11 hours per day. And there were days I missed. That still hurts.
So our little Deuce was really good at turning his head to the right and looking up. Turning his head left? Well, on that his performance was lackluster. We couldn’t fault him; all the incentive was at his right. It also meant that his head was a bit misshapen. A bit flat on the back and to the right and his right ear was forward of his left ear and stuck out a bit, in comparison. So there has been some physical therapy and a bunch of exercises and any time I hold him I try to position him so that he will have to turn to his left to see what’s going on. We visited with a doctor for a helmet evaluation and she said he was on the bubble, diagnosis-wise. She recommended against it, telling us that by the time he enters kindergarten he’ll be fine. Honestly, we’ve seen such an improvement just in the last two months, I have to really look to find the issues. He looks like a normal baby.
All that time in the incubator had another effect on him; he started moving around much later than most babies and the fact that he’d picked up a fair amount of weight with no corresponding increase in strength meant that he was really behind in learning how to roll over, sit up and crawl. As a matter of fact, he’s only managed to start getting his knees under himself in the last week. So he’s a bit behind developmentally. That could have happened even without the NICU, so I’m not worried.
In my last post about Matthew I shared that he had a couple of visible scars and my hopes for how they might fade over time. I’m pleased to say that the last time I made an effort to look, all I could find was the biggest of them, at the incision site for the tube that drained the fluid from his chest.
Of the many goals I had for RKP when I launched it, posting highly personal stories wasn’t on the list. The circumstances that took us down this road continue to amaze me. Had there not been such an outpouring of support following my crash, I could never have published the “Enter the Deuce” series. But there’s no question I would have written it, so I can’t help but wonder how RKP would have suffered as a result. There were some slightly awkward meetings with potential sponsors at the Sea Otter Classic. Wayne, our ad sales director would try to explain, delicately, that we had deviated a bit from our usual content for a few weeks. Eventually, I just started volunteering, “Look, I didn’t do my job for six weeks. But it didn’t hurt the readership.”
There are rules against that, you know?
So here again, I have to say thank you. Your support bolstered me through what was a nightmare existence in which the stress got so bad it compromised my balance on the bike. I had to stick to flat rides for more than a month. You also bolstered a site that might not have survived had you not been willing to tune in to read about a baby you had no reason to care for. That continues to make me wonder.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t understand the reasons the bunch of you continued to read, but at root there is a simple and mysterious human act. You bestowed on me a kindness. I’ll be grateful for it to the end of my life.
So we’re going to have a bit of a birthday party His Tininess the Deuce this Saturday, February 22—the Deuce’s actual birthday. I am compelled to invite each of you reading this. If you’re in the greater LA metropolis, you’re welcome to join me for a ride Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon, we’ll have a little picnic at a local park complete with food and beverages (some benign, others less so). If you’re interested in joining us and raising a glass to the Deuce, drop us a note or friend me on Facebook and I’ll add you to our invitation list.
Again, thank you for your support. Now, if I can just get him to sleep through the night.
No matter what your interest in cycling is, the last year has been one disappointment after another. The fallout from the USADA investigation and the Reasoned Decision made a mockery of cycling’s favorite rags-to-riches story. The implosion of Divine Cycling Group shuttered three brands—Serotta, Mad Fiber and Blue (though Blue has recently returned)—and stiffed more contractors than an auto-industry bailout. And how can we forget the Café Roubaix debacle? Independent of what we know for sure, people have used this as an example of all they find most reprehensible in American business.
As spectators to all of this, none of these events have really affected us in any personal way. Even the masters doping fiascos involving riders like Rich Meeker and David LeDuc haven’t harmed anyone in any significant way. But what these events have in common is that they have each, at some level, violated what many of us believe to be the social contract of a community we hold dear. We want cycling to be free of cheating, free of bullying, free of the kinds of business deals that make us long for nothing so much a bike ride to get away from the bullshit of business. I write this as someone who’s just been through the wringer with someone I once thought was a friend.
Perhaps we’re naive to think that cycling could be as pure as the joy of a bike ride itself, but because most people don’t work in the bike industry, cycling is meant to be an escape, a way to get away from the rest of the garbage that can make a day a disappointment. That desire is perfectly human. We each need at least one safe harbor, one place where we can turn to be free of the rest of our frustrations, and for those of us who have fallen for the bike, a ride shouldn’t be a reminder that some MBA is driving small brands under so he can make a mint on real estate.
My recent frustration with a business deal in which I think no one really got what they wanted got me to thinking about what could have been done differently, what I could have done differently, what the other side could have done differently, how at the end, we could all have wanted to get a beer together rather than me wanting a shot of whiskey—alone.
Clearly, cycling is in a state of transition. Mom and pop shops are being replaced by bigger, and in some ways more professional, bike shops. Pro racing seems to be the cleanest it has ever been, but at what cost? The rate of innovation on the product side is staggering and while some of those changes have been embraced (who doesn’t love GPS?), others have left some us of wary and suspicious (hydraulic disc brakes on road bikes). The ten-speed boom this ain’t.
So here’s this week’s question: Suppose for an instant you were the president of the UCI or WADA or the new CEO for some big bike company or maybe a brilliant engineer being courted by a bunch of VC money. Better yet, suppose you were some all-powerful god-like being, but just for 15 minutes. Suppose you had the power to change some fundamental piece of cycling for the better, what would you choose? What would you devote your energy to, how would you improve our world?
I remember reading, a long time ago now, the story of a pilot confronted with the failure of his plane’s engine and all the thoughts that raced through his mind in the brief time between the last sputtering of his propeller and the surprise instant when the engine restarted. The point of the piece, beyond the improbability of surviving such an incident, was that the human mind is capable of processing a lot of information very quickly so that seconds seem to stretch into minutes and quite complex ideas can form and pass in a flash.
We all have this experience sometimes when we crash, don’t we? There are those crashes that seem to happen before we know it, i.e. we find ourselves on the ground before we are aware that anything is even amiss, but then there are crashes where everything seems to happen is slow motion. I remember once going over the handlebars when a car stopped in front of me unexpectedly, and in the fractional seconds of flying through the air I became aware of my elbow hitting the ground first, the blooming pain of skin being ground off that elbow by the pavement, and the realization that when I came to rest, there would be blood.
Consider too Padraig’s description of his big crash from last season. He is more informed than I am on the neurochemical explanation for our experiences of these visceral moments.
But adrenaline isn’t the only way to make amber of your time. Hard effort can get you there, too. This quality of the elasticity of time was mostly the inspiration for In the Space of a Pedal Stroke from earlier this week, that and a root-level need to think about summer instead of this cruel, persistent winter.
How many times have I been to that painful place at the edge of effort, sawing my way up a steep hill or trying in vain to cling to a wheel I have no business following? How many times have I been out in shitty weather, sleet cutting sideways, my cheeks going numb or the summer heat like a smothering pillow held over my face? It’s interesting the thoughts that bubble up in these circumstances, when things get hard.
This week’s Group Ride asks what you think about in your difficult moments? Do you have a go-to thought? A mantra? Is this where your great epiphanies comes from? Or have you perfected the art of blankness? I sometimes try to think about the aching in my quads as something apart from myself, to observe it rather than feel it. I always fail at this.
Image: PhotoSport International
I found this out riding a Citi Bike in Manhattan this winter.
I’ve seen some tricky times on the bike. Sliding along the wet Colorado asphalt at 30 m.p.h. during the opening miles of the collegiate nationals road race in Durango. Being chased off my bike by a Corsican bull enraged by the sight of a Bridgestone with panniers. Feeling my front wheel wash out in an icy West Philadelphia intersection, and then trying to scramble out of traffic with one foot covered only by a sock.
In those cases, catastrophe came unannounced. When you ride a Citi Bike in New York you know within a minute of pedaling the unwieldy machine into traffic what can do you in. Everything.
My route began on Lexington Ave, near the southern end of Central Park. I had a few hours between two appointments, and for the second one I needed to be energized and clear headed. What better way than a bike ride to get ready? It seemed like the right time to try out the Citi Bike system, helmet or not.
My second visit of the day was the culmination of a lifelong ambition to write a book, so I really did not want to die before meeting my editor for the first time. I would have to count on the storied qualities of my trench coat to keep me safe.
Then I found that going crosstown in Manhattan on a Citi Bike is no different than inching crosstown in a car. It’s soul crushing. The bike is too heavy and too wide to zip in and out of traffic, leaving a rider at something slower than walking pace. At least it’s not that cold. When you go slow enough, the engines and exhaust of the delivery trucks and taxis go a long way toward creating a pack-like warmth. Just know where you stand lest you find yourself fighting for the same stretch of street with a panel truck creeping to the left with the same care an elephant shows before it unloads its breakfast.
Visitors once saw New York as a really dangerous place, rife with sharp knives and a serrated demeanor that has largely been purged from Manhattan. It’s been years since you could smoke in a bar. Bottles are feared not for their utility as a street fighter’s weapon but for their caloric payload. Yet there is still a way to taste the perils of the past. The Citi Bike is your time machine. Just head southbound in traffic on the West Side as I did on the next leg of my trip.
Spartan rites of passage must have had fewer deadly pitfalls and traps. There was the taxi driver who made eye contact in the mirror and then opened his door into my path. Potholes that could stun a Boston driver into silence. Gleaming Town Cars driven with the post-apocalyptic abandon that comes from being chased by a sprinting horde of decaying flesh. Pedestrians using thumbs and not brains when they cross the street with a New Yorker’s indifference.
There was a better option: I headed to the river and stuck to the deserted Hudson River Greenway. I glimpsed how great New York could be with more bikes and far fewer cars.
Any worthwhile journey has its moment of respite, and mine came at the Rapha store in the Meatpacking district. I parked my Citi Bike nearby, trying to avoid being charged for taking too long because I was doing the great things commuting by bike enables you to do. I may have been slow because I stopped for photos and notes, but if riding a bike interferes with pictures and words, what good is it?
Rapha spelled relief. The retail outpost of the British brand has the cordial sense of purpose of a small consulate. One of the interesting things about really effective lifestyle brands is that it is hard to discern just what is for sale and the ultimate value of what you are considering buying. So much so that after eating a sandwich, gorging on free but expensive magazine,s and departing with an on-target caffeine buzz and no intention of ever owning anything from the company, I took a few paces out the door and then froze. I returned and bought a pair of plain black bib shorts that cost more than the new wheels on my bike. Just as every pro cyclist loses a battle with the desert tray from time to time, the recreational rider also inevitably slips and overspends when they least should.
As anyone trying to write fiction can tell you, that time is all the time.
The irony of the stop was that my riding was effectively done for the day before I even walked in. It was only a mile or so to my last appointment and I had decided to finish the trip on foot before I even shoved the Citi Bike into its rack with an indelicate, industrial move akin to train cars coupling. On the walk, I occasionally passed racks of the blue bikes and could not help but think, “there waits a machine wholly indifferent to whether it is being ridden.” It is a perfect bike for somebody who does not care about cycling.
When I left the Rapha store, they cheerily told me to bring my bike next visit for the midweek “Freelancer’s Ride.” Next time I am in New York, I might just do that. If you’re going to make it in New York, especially as a cyclist, there’s only one bike for you.