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 October, 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.
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
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 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?
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
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?