My first New England winter was an ordeal of such profound and biting discomfort that it served as not just an education, but an expansion of the possible, both in terms of conditions man could live in, and a larger indication of just how inhospitable the universe can be. I nailed a blanket over my drafty bedroom window, dressed in four layers and gave up all cold foods for the season, thus depriving myself of peanut butter and jelly, a staple of such reliable presence in my life I never once considered giving it up for Lent, good Catholic that I was.
In February, when I got my courage up enough to attempt road rides that passed the wind-scarred potato fields of the Hadley farmers, I struggled to find the exact mix of wardrobe necessary to prevent the wind’s blade from penetrating straight to my marrow. I had neither the knowledge nor the patience to understand how riding easy would allow me to generate enough heat to keep me warm. Instead, I would charge out my door and sprint past sensibility and straight to ill-advised, drippy perspiration. I’d return home sooner than anticipated, but long after I’d started to go hypothermic, too destroyed to reflect on my mistakes, thus doomed to repeat them a day or two later.
I took note of what the local Cat. Is and IIs were wearing. We had a half dozen of them and I did my best to do whatever they were willing to suggest. I pestered them with questions, and while I use the plural, “questions,” the fact is, I kept asking a single question over and over: “What’s that?” Coming from well below the Mason-Dixon Line, I was familiar with shorts, jerseys, thin Lycra tights and windbreakers, but nothing more sophisticated or specialized than that. I’d yet to even learn what bib shorts were.
I couldn’t help but notice that all the cool team kits that I had eyed with envy the previous fall had been interrupted by garments awash in sponsor names new to me. Guys were pulling out their very heaviest pieces, thermal jerseys, Roubaix tights and bibs, insulated and windproof arm warmers and booties, lobster gloves not to mention secret-weapon base layers we never saw.
The combined effect was a garish mish-mash of earth tones and neons, pastels offset by saturated vibrant hues. In short, it was a kaleidoscope disaster as offensive to the eye as static is to the ear. Of course, at a certain point, wearing the most retinal-scorching combination became a kind of competition, evolving beyond one’s need for insulation on those coldest rides to the worst possible combination on merely cold days. These were the occasions to pull out those Roubaix bibs, no matter what they said on the side. Extra points went to those who could make a pair of team tights or leg warmers peak from beneath a pair of another team’s bibs. Ditto for combining a thermal vest with mismatched jersey and arm warmers. Double points if that short-sleeve jersey was thermal. The nod always seemed to go to the riders with the greatest history, the Cat Is and IIs who through dint of their experience could turn a pile of Lycra into an abstract expressionist’s canvas, slashing the air with more light than the optic nerve was designed to carry.
At its heart, the anti-kit is about comfort rather than looks, even if the look cultivated is deliberately contrary. It’s an acknowledgement that mother nature trumps all other loyalties, and beating the elements is survival itself. It embodies the message that form doesn’t always follow function, that suffering isn’t in the gear but in the effort, that a body wrapped to face the elements is the body that meets the winter willingly, able to find a reason—after all these years—to stay out, rather than turn home.
I know Belgians who are not so tough. There. I said it. I will add that wearing the lion of Flanders on your chest/hat/socks will not make you tougher either. It has no mystical powers. At some point, Belgian-ness (and what about Wallonia?) became shorthand for toughness, for hardness, and while shorthand is good at conveying general meaning, there is so much more to hardness than simply riding around on crappy roads in cold rain. There is also more to being Belgian.
I am not tough. Let’s just get that right out of the way, even though I’ve pretended to be tough here on RKP and on group rides around town. My over-blown ego inspired me to crow about how cold it was or how much snow was falling or how far I went, but I’m not tough. I get cold, and I quit, and I fail to do rides I devise for myself because they’re too hard. I am tougher than some, but a long way off of some (many) of the people I know.
As the weather shifts toward raw and cold here in my New England home, I am, once again, faced with the limits of my own will. I peek through the blinds at the gray morning, feel the draft at the edges of the window, shiver in the core of myself, but still resolve to ride. Except when I don’t.
The people I know who are actually tough don’t talk about their toughness. They do long, long rides, by themselves, and you don’t find out about it except sometimes by accident. They ride in horrible conditions, but don’t blog/tweet/Strava the results, like so many virtual trophies. They ride the way they ride because they love to ride, and not to impress other people or rack up stats. Their egos don’t need to put their every effort on exhibit.
It’s natural to fetishize toughness when you’re a cyclist. Cycling is a hard sport. The hardness of the ride is an obvious way to measure it. The world is big, and we are small, and we rage against it and scream our lungs out trying to move the needle on existence.
Honestly, I am not even the toughest person in my own home.
All of this quickly devolves into cheap shorthand and ego-stroking bravado. The truth is, hardness is an elusive quality. Hard is the thing you haven’t done yet. Hard is the thing you don’t believe you can do. Dream about it, stalk it and hunt it down. Look for it in the dark. Seek it at the edge of your endurance.
You will find hardness occasionally, but you will not be able to mount it on the wall like a twelve point buck. Hardness has no fixed symbol, no permanent status. Hardness is not uniquely Belgian, nor the province of the fast and furious. Some of the hardest people I know are old and slow, strong and quiet.
The days are still shortening here in New England. The jet stream is yet to push the arctic air that makes up our winter far enough south to really test our mettle. But it is coming. It’s hard to know what kind of winter we’ll have, how much snow, how many truly frigid days.
I will try to be tough. I will go out and look for it, except on the days when I don’t because I just don’t have it in me.
Photo © Matt O’Keefe
Here in New England the spring has not yet sprung, but a recent week of summery warmth turned everyone out of their houses in shorts and t-shirts, maniacal grins plastered across their pasty mugs, such is the influence of sunlight on the normally turgid New England psyche.
But, true to cold seacoast form, relatively normal weather service has now resumed. Please forgive me for the gratuitous low country reference, but it’s pretty Belgian here lately.
And that got me thinking about all that time of year that is neither winter nor summer, the time in between. Your clothing never makes sense. It rains when you didn’t think it would. It doesn’t rain when you’ve got your rain gear on. Your bike is in between clean enough to be proud of and dirty enough to actually get the hose on. Your legs are neither particularly weak nor particularly strong.
It strikes me that when we talk about our riding we mostly do it in absolutes. You’re either super strong or you’re crap. What we mean when we say “crap” of course is: not quite as strong as our buddies, which really means in-between crap and good enough. It’s an in-between, in-between.
Think of all the pro riders, male and female, who would be the fastest people you’d ever ridden with, if you’d ever ridden with them, but they’re just domestiques who do a job all day. Not legends. Not amateurs. Just in between. They spent the early part of their careers chasing the promise of something more, desperately trying to escape in-between-ness, before settling in and accepting their lot. In this case, their simple mediocrity is head and shoulders above my very best. It looks down from on high and laughs, if it even bothers to notice.
Years ago, when I was in a loud, fast, talentless band, our bass player made a rule for us. Always play as fast as you can, but if you can’t, play slow, never in between. Man, could we play slow! Of course, we peaked the day we played first on a seven band bill at the Rat in Kenmore Square.
I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’m always chasing the perfect ride. I’ll go here. It’ll be like this. I’ll ride with that guy. He knows the best spots. And on and on, sometimes bailing on a ride if I don’t think it’s going to be great. This is actually “pre-bailing,” a term my friend Joe coined to describe the act of calculating in advance whether or not a ride is going to be good enough for you and deciding not to go. How many times have you pre-bailed and regretted it?
Yeah. Me too.
And then of course, because as cyclists we have this perverse love of suffering, we find ways to ennoble the ignoble, the rides that are really bad, like when it’s 37(F) and raining or when the headwind is so stiff you could lean your bike against it and walk away to get a drink.
Most of our riding is in the vast middle, and we either don’t appreciate it or dismiss it as unimportant. However, very seldom have I had a transcendent cycling experience that I expected to have. Mostly, you can’t schedule these things. Hell, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) spends all year and millions of Euros trying to design transcendent bike races. In fact, they try to do it 21 times-in-a-row every summer, but a lot of those turn out to be just another bike race, easily forgotten.
What I have to remind myself, over and over and over again, is that you have to ride to enjoy riding. Fast with your friends. Slow with your family. In between, by yourself, before work, or after the kids are in bed. And sure, epic locales can produce epic experiences, but so can my daily commute. 4.5 miles over pocked and rutted New England pavement.
Sometimes I throw a victory salute for the kids when I get home.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Red Kite Prayer has been around almost two-and-a-half years. In that time any proper corporate media conglomerate would have had at least a half dozen toothless contests to determine the next toothpaste Fabian Cancellara should use. We’ve avoided that urge, but not because we think we’re smarter than they are. It just never occurred to us to have a contest.
Maybe we’re not all that smart. Please do us a favor: Don’t consult our wives. They’ll confirm that for you and shred what little ego we have left.
So here’s the deal—We need a new name. No, not a new name for the blog, we like that just fine. We need a name for a little adventure we’re going to have. Late next summer RKP is going to host its first-ever reader event. We’re headed to New England where we’re going to ride some dirt roads, eat some fantastic food, enjoy some time with a special guest or two and make some new friends. As we’re still nailing down a few details, we’re not ready to make a proper announcement just yet.
In the meantime, this thing needs a name. It’s going to be large-scale fun in a location that is one of cycling’s undiscovered gems. And, frankly, if this one goes half as well as I imagine it at night when I wait for sleep, we’re going to have to do it again. In that place and others.
Here are a few other details: Seven days, six nights and only 20 spots for riders (there will be room for family). Ballpark price of $2500.
Robot and I have been texting ideas back and forth. Our musings have yielded Red Kite Player, Ronde van Red Kite, Red Kite Revenge, Tour du Kite, Prayer Week and Seven Days of the Kite. I think we were on the right track, but this would be so much more entertaining with the addition of some more horsepower. So we’re turning to you, dear readers. Name this thing. Come up with something awesome to help point out its impending awesomeness. Something that makes you want to attend. Any of those above are still game as well; if you like one, feel free to nominate it, or tweak it.
Robot, Pelkey and I will determine the winner with the aid of a secret military junta. There will be no recounts. Our choice will be entirely subjective. And final.
As the outcome will be entirely arbitrary, so will the length of the contest. We’ll call it a day when we stop seeing good entries, so act quickly. That should see us through to at least Tuesday.
The winner will receive a “To Suffer Is To Learn” T-shirt and an RKP cap.
Cast your vote in the comments section. Comments of “+1″ could potentially sway the judges.
I want to wear less clothing. I don’t want to ride nude (insert your own saddle sore joke here), but about half of what was required this morning would be a delight. Today, there are bib knickers, baselayer, midlayer, windproof jersey, wind tights, under socks, wool oversocks, shoes and toe warmers. Two pairs of gloves. A skull cap and wool over hat. Oh, and a jacket.
To that end, I want some warmth; 40 degrees (F) will do. Not the 12 I encountered at ride time today. Just enough that my sweat won’t threaten hypothermia at a long traffic light. Let me not seem greedy. I need no langourous Bermudan heat. Just a temperature not expressed in negative degrees centigrade.
I want a lane. It need not be painted. It need only exist, a space between here and there in which to roll. A dry, flat substrate, bereft of ice, sand and salt. An unpocked surface, without the sand traps and water hazards of a PGA golf course.
I want time. Not the half hour I have to dash from kindergarten drop off to early work meeting. I want hours. Multiple. To roll and roll and roll. To purge my weary mind of its weariness. I want to ride up and out of the city, to where the smell of cow shit hangs in the air, to turn around at a coffee shop that also sells shotgun shells.
I want a champion. Not a litany of chemically-enhanced avatars. I want to watch races and forget there are rules. I want to un-know the names of UCI officials and blood-modifying serums. I want to read stories that contain no quotes from lawyers or PR reps.
Wanting is wishing, and wishing is dreaming. My roots, in the hills of mid-Wales and the cities of New England, have taught me not to dream too big. There comes a point where your subconscious sets the bar so high that real world disappointment is the only inevitable result. I want to be a better me, but I have given up on x-ray vision and the ability to fly.
I just want to ride.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International