In the languid summer, in the rise of the hill, as we work our way up and up and up, time suddenly slows and spreads, like a rain drop on the afternoon paper. The prickly tingle of sweat slants across my forehead and threatens to run saltily, stingingly, into my eye.
I wonder at the sand, hard-packed in places, that shushes beneath our tires. It has been rideable up to this point, but why should it stay that way? Why won’t we round some bend and come into a dry patch, unprotected by the swaying pines, that bears the sun’s full heat, so that each grain slips easily against the others, the cumulative friction of thousands and hundreds of thousands of very small rocks grinding against composite rubber and bringing us down, clattering into the dead dry grass of the verge.
How much sand must be here? I contemplate the impossibility of large numbers, fantasize about spending a life counting each granule, the road staked out like an archaeologist’s dig, the whole thing pointless but purposeful.
As my left knee crests its circular path, I become aware of the building acid in my legs, the dull ache forcing its way into the froth of thought. My heart pumps furiously to wash the muscles clean. How many beats per pedal stroke? I don’t know. And what volume of oxygen, distilled from the dusty air, commixes somewhere in my chest, air and fuel combusting in a chamber, firing a piston at some measurable output. All the math goes hypoxic though.
You don’t run these calculations when you’re fresh. It’s only in the desperate dwindling of resources that you begin to worry whether you’ve got what it takes to make the top, to relieve the burden of gravity, becoming a stone, plummeting, great gusts of heat bursting off your back, cooling the admixture of effort that earned you the descent.
My companion sits quietly just ahead and to the left, half a bike’s length on, but the hardness of the work separates us. He might as well be on another planet. I suspect in this moment that he is stronger than I am, that I am somehow holding him back, but this is only self-doubt creeping in, less a product of his superiority than of my own insecurity. We are not tethered together, he and I, but there is some not visible connection, a tension, like water bulging over the rim of a glass. His speed adds to mine. We react to each other’s whimsical surges, unconsciously. Much of the time I am only trying to hold him there, slightly forward and to the left.
I don’t know anyone who lives on this stretch. The houses are all struck back from the road, tucked in their own little glades. Trucks rumble and lurch from the ends of driveways, and I imagine their drivers shaking their heads and smiling bemusedly, wondering at these fools in lycra.
I think to drop my heel as I was taught to do, to scrape the sole of my shoe. In my water bottle, the electrolyte suspension, neon translucent, sloshes rhythmically, left to right, forward and back. It churns in liquid mimicry of my legs. I will wait until the road slackens to reach down, to pull the bottle from its cage and jam it into my gasping mouth. There is the urge to hold the liquid there, like the beach clutching at the tide line, but the need to breathe forces the drink down quickly. I can almost taste it. Almost.
This is a ride with nothing in it. We are not measuring ourselves with magnets or satellites. The route is a vague idea, not a careful plan, and we have only set out to test our legs and build some form. Of course, the test is always more stern than the idea of the test. In the flickering fantasy of riding, in the planning, we are always stronger than we are in the actual pedal stroke, this pedal stroke, with its heavy thud against the ego. Later, when we’ve had the chance to put these moments into the larger context, we will each pretend that we were not so far out into the hinterlands of our capacity, that it was more or less what we expected. This is the tacit agreement of riding friends, the first rule of Fight Club.
I am back to counting. My pedals have not yet completed one rotation, but I am trying to extrapolate the seconds per stroke, the strokes-per-meter or meters-per-stroke, the distance from the jagged stone we have just passed, jutting crudely into the side of the road, to the stump ahead, there at the limit of my vision when I think to tilt my head back, to lift my eyes from my top tube, from the slowly rolling bead of my tire. It could be a quarter mile or it could be a light year.
You can never get your glasses just right on a day like today. At the bottom of the climb the trees cluster tightly and the low angle of the sun leaves it dark. By the middle, the bright light is darting crossways, strobing past the corner of your lens, almost blindingly. And here, now, in the heart of the matter, far enough along to feel the full brunt of the topography but not yet in range of the relieving promise of the top, where the branches fall back and reach upward, everything is cracker-baked, only the dew of the morning and the rising water table, yesterday’s rain, keep the surface tacky and rideable. It all goes three shades whiter, washed out and harsh.
My family is waiting for me, back home. I can imagine my wife reading a book on the back porch, a glass of tea, unsweetened, in front of her. The kids swirl and caper in the road, our dead end drawing scab-kneed boys from all over for roiling games of hide and seek. Excited shouts go up from beyond the widow’s house at the corner, and then all falls tensely silent, kids stuck in the gaps behind garbage cans or perched anxiously at the corner of the garage. I wonder at what point my absence will become problematic.
There is a relief to completing one pedal stroke. Each revolution is a challenge, a microcosm of the whole ride, with struggle at top and bottom, strength somewhere in the middle, the search for rhythm. You have to believe you can keep going, round and round, up and up and up. You have to know you can finish.
Often enough, the joy for me is in letting the hardness of turning the pedals over draw me into the moment. I don’t live there as a rule, too bound up in doing the next thing, planning for future exigencies, sifting through the inadequacies of the past. The present is the only place I can do anything, but it is also the hardest place to be. Sometimes, in the heat of the afternoon, out with a friend, I can drive myself there, an ox plowing a furrow, an idiot riding a bike.
I don’t know why I read books, paper and ink bound together rather than agglomerations of dots on glowing rectangles. My mother made me love them as objects, and set the example of reading hard books, so that I became one of those overly serious young men who plodded through Hesse and Dostoyevsky and thought it made me smarter.
Yeah. No such luck.
Still, I love books the way I love bikes. I love them as the things they are, as well as for what they give me. Like reading a difficult book, finishing a difficult ride can push at your understanding of the world. It can change you.
I finished a novel a few weeks ago, Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem. The book is about an astronaut who returns to Earth after a ten year mission to the far reaches of the galaxy. In those ten years of space travel more than a hundred have passed at home. All the main character’s family and friends have died, and the society that welcomes him back views him as a savage. The planet he returns to has overcome violence. Murder and war are things of the past, but so too is curiosity for its own sake, so too is love. The whole idea of exploration has become passé.
What then, he wonders, was the point of his trip?
And yes, what is the point? Why do we leave home, travel along a circular path, or worse yet a straight line, only to return to where we started? Lem’s astronaut struggles with this problem before finally realizing that going is the whole point of going. We go because we go. It’s what we do. You can conjure reasons, for exercise, for adventure, for the environment, but are those real reasons or just excuses?
There is a great line in the book, the astronaut, conceding that he won’t reconcile his drives with the comfort of his fellows, says, “I have probably experienced too little, and thought too much of it.”
And maybe I have that problem, too. I have ridden too little, and thought too much of it. But, this week’s Group Ride asks, what is the point of cycling? Why do we care? Why is it good for us, but not for everyone? Are we in some ways comical, working hard at riding in circles? In the end, Lem’s adventurer signs on for a new space mission, a secret project, contrived by some like-minded souls, not yet ready to give up on going, despite its apparent futility. I’m not ready either, but I don’t know why.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I was on the phone with some folks at a bike shop today, and they asked what I thought would happen with disc brakes for road bikes. This happens to be a sore subject for me, and not because I dislike disc brakes, although I do. So many people at the shop level are trying to figure out what’s going to happen, whether the trend is going to take hold and birth a new sub-category.
Here’s my problem. I don’t know anyone who has experienced brake fade on a long road descent. I don’t know anyone who has blown out a tire from an over-heated rim. I understand that these things have happened, but that I don’t know anyone who has experienced them suggests that any statistically significant shift in the number of disc brakes on the road is an over-reaction to the few incidences of these things happening.
Yes, I have disc brakes on my mountain bike. Yes, I think a winter commuter is a good candidate for disc brakes, because snow and ice are real problems for those kinds of bikes. Discs are good, but are they good everywhere?
Someone smarter than I am told me he thought, in 5 years, half of all road bikes would be disc-equipped. Let’s not even get into the maybe-not-ready-for-primetime-ness of the current component options. Let’s just think about how much weight we’re adding to the machine at the end of a cycle of carbonification (my word) that drove grams out of the average bike like they were rats in a place called Hamelin. Now we’re going to pack them back on for a small percentage gain in braking power?
OK. I’m a Luddite. More often than not, I don’t see the point of the next technological leap. And there are consequences to each of the these “steps forward” for compatibility, upgradeability and long-term usefulness. I could go on and on, but I already did that on the phone this afternoon.
But it’s not for me to tell you what to ride, so this week’s Group Ride asks, do you want disc brakes on your road bike? Do you see the benefit for your riding? Do you plan to upgrade in the next year? Or are you just curious to see what they’re like? Am I crazy? You would tell me, right?
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?