Standing in the loom of the garage door with rain dripping from the wide jamb. Water pooling in oblong puddles in the road, small mirrors to the gray sky and power lines. The autumnal breeze sweeps the street and shuffles the few leaves not already stuck to the ground. It’s a fitful rain. Hard to tell whether what makes it to ground is from the clouds or just heavy globs stirred from the trees by the wind.
I stand there in my pristine kit, gloves still warm from the dryer, one hand on the bars, one on the saddle. This is the testing moment.
Dressed by the bedside in the shade-drawn bedroom, only the digital forecast beamed in through the phone to guide my clothing choices, now I wonder, have I gotten it right. I pull up my arm warmers, re-layer the jersey where they overlap. Snug up my light rain jacket at the collar. I try to imagine myself riding out into the maw of the weather. Without moving, I can feel the first fat, cold drops landing on my back.
I know that in an hour I will be wholly wet and not care. I will have been soaked by the rain and also from the upspray, my front wheel spitting against the downtube, the rear cascading water up my back, my chamois soaking through, cold at first, but then body-warm.
Even in this leaves-down cold I will sweat, my core temperature rising to meet the challenge of the weather. And everything will be fine and comfortable as long as I am moving, the effort drawing all my attention away from sodden socks and that one dangling drop at the front of my cap.
But in this testing moment I always waver. Those first minutes of soak-through and of real body cold are deeply imprinted. I know them like I know their opposites, the first sip of hot coffee on the other end of the ride, or the steamy warmth of the shower with road grime streaming off my legs.
I could not be doing this. I could turn and hang the bike from its hook and walk straight back up the stairs into the dry, warm kitchen. The wife would hardly bat an eye. The kids, anaesthetized by Saturday cartoons, never knew I left, wouldn’t register my return. No one is forcing me out. There is no noble purpose. This is a practical matter.
This is how I go to meet myself. This is how I reconnect to the world after I’ve spent the week with abstraction and distraction, gazing into this glowing rectangle, trying to make it pay. The way is cold and wet today, but it is the only way to get where I need to go.
It all comes full circle in my head, and then I’m just standing there in the half shelter of the garage. I throw my leg over and push out into the ride, cleats snapping into pedals, pedals turning over, the trees shaking their leaves in a warning I ignore.
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I am at the car, heaving my mountain bike back onto the roof rack. Mud-spattered shins. A water bottle too befouled to drink from. I lay a towel against the back of the seat. My wife drives this car most days.
I am on the ground. What a surprise! Some practical joker has deflated my lungs and is standing on my chest. Too funny. Eventually, and without panic, my breath returns. I have been here before. Damage report: Right palm bruise-y and scraped, left buttock screaming, right shoulder sore, left ankle mildly sprained. Friends get and give the thumbs up. We ride on.
Setting out, you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Anticipation. Nervousness. These aren’t butterflies. You poured coffee on those. This is excitement. Even as an adult, there is some magic to riding mountain bikes with your friends.
Sometimes the scenes are more powerful when they’re shown out of order, as in one of Jean-Luc Goddard’s movies, or in one of my favorite ever novels, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. This is non-linear story-telling.
Non-linear stories do two very interesting things. First, they remove episodes from their context, which allows us to see them differently, sometimes more completely, and second, they underline that often, despite our experience, the current of our lives isn’t as linear as we perceive it. Think of Heller’s Catch-22 or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
I don’t ride mountain bikes a lot, but when I do, I usually fall off. The main mistake I make on the trail is assuming that the difficulty of the conditions will increase and decrease in a linear fashion, and that is almost never true. What is, in the moment, hard, for example a rooted, rocky uphill section, may become instantly and entirely impassable by someone of my underwhelming skill set. A single stone in the middle of the path might put me off, even if I don’t think it ought to be there. A sharp right-hand turn running crossways to a root system is an unfair development in what had been an entirely enjoyable bit of single track.
Or think of that hard road ride you do with your friends. When you’re not all the way fit you sit on someone’s wheel and you try hard to stay there. When the pace ramps up, you go with it, but you think, “I only need to hold this for a minute.” I often think that right before I get spat out the back. Other people’s accelerations are almost never linear. That’s why I hate them.
Life is not a smooth-lined chart, with graceful transitions. It’s an EKG, with spikes and troughs, and the patient is hardly stable.
A month ago I was spinning toward real fitness, able to hang on all those fast group rides, able to pull when I needed to, and to do big miles when time permitted. I was feeling pretty good after the winter doldrums, and I was looking forward to a big summer in the saddle.
Then the rain came and baseball season started. A mild winter served up a warm, early spring here that last about 8 days. Then we entered a long spell of raw precipitation. This would have been a challenge to ride through, but challenges are what we’re after, right?
But, I have two boys, both of whom are playing our national pastime. They each have games on Saturdays and Sundays. That alone would eat some cycling time, but couple it with the heavy rain we’ve had, and you get rainouts, reschedules and midweek, after-work congestion. I began losing saddle time at an alarming rate. Stones in the path. Greasy roots channeling me off into the bushes.
Then I did an international business trip, which, while good and successful and fun, also included no cycling. This is the great irony of working in the bike industry, that you can devote your life to an endeavor you thereby no longer have time to pursue. So I missed a solid week off the bike there as well.
And lest it suddenly seem I am complaining, let me walk all this back a bit. I like watching my boys play ball. They’re still young enough to be charmingly awful at it, and yet they don’t mind and still have fun doing it, much like their father on a mountain bike. And coming out of a drought, we need all this rain, even if it does push the family schedule around like a shopping cart with a bad front wheel.
The irony is that the more scheduled my life becomes (we are completely beholden to the family’s shared Google calendar), the less predictable it is also. What looks like a clear opportunity to ride today, turns into a ball game or a rain out, or a rain-out reschedule which requires the rearrangement of necessary life tasks like laundry or grocery shopping. My form is, quite understandably, not high on the list of the family’s priorities.
And so, much as I assume, when rocketing down a rocky descent at the very edge of my technical ability and the stopping power of my disc brakes, that things are bound to get easier any second, I also believe (mistakenly) that the calendar will open up any time now, and I’ll be back to my normal mileage and fitness in no time.
It will require a hard right, across a root system, over a large stone, but I can make it. It’s all about momentum and belief and a lack of fear, right?
Sometimes the secret of a non-linear story is that events which seemed important in the context of time, e.g. my cycling escapades, are not actually important to the overall narrative. Sometimes the point the writer or filmmaker is trying to make is that, by passing everything through the wrong filter, you are missing the cherished sled, burning in the blazing fire, the childhood lost to life’s striving.
As you lay in the middle of the trail, a rock for a pillow, a branch stuck in your ribs, you think it’s about you and your bike and your friends, when in reality it is about the fickleness of weather, the charm of kids playing in a park, and a load of laundry that needs to be done. You would have missed that rock if you had been paying attention to the right story line.
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After flogging my road bikes around town all summer and early fall, the change in the weather has me thinking about the perfect everyday bike. Of course, where you live has a lot to do with what you ride.
I live in Boston. It snowed here last night shortly after it finished raining daggers. I was on my road bike with a stupid, clipped-on fender, and I got soaked and spent too much ride time wondering what hypothermia actually feels like. You start to feel warm, don’t you?
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
My challenges are: 1) I like to go fast. I do not have the patience to ride an upright bike with fat tires, fenders, panniers, etc. 2) I live at the top of a steep hill. The end of every ride features a kilometer that varies between 6% and 14%. It’s not a back breaker at all, but it’s always there whether I feel strong…or not. 3) We get a lot of rain, snow and in between slop.
So how do I go fast, keep a gear small enough to climb a real hill and keep the weather off me, all at the same time?
My current thinking is to build out a titanium cross bike with an internally geared rear hub. I’d run mini V-brakes for better stopping power. I’d put 28mm or 30mm tires on it and a good pair of fenders.
The titanium will resist the rust that comes from so much water and salt being sprayed at the frame for so many months out of the year. The internal hub will also add to weatherproofness and simplicity. I need my everyday bike to need less tuning. Simplicity is good. The mini Vs will stop when they’re wet. I have never run a pair of cantis that had that ability. In Boston’s winter rush hour, you want to be able to stop. Your life depends on it. Finally, the slightly wider tires give me stability in bad conditions, but still stay skinny enough to make time across town. I hate fenders, but they’re a no-brainer.
I think I will build this bike. Given my time constraints, I should have it ready for the first sunny day of Spring.
Anyway…this week’s Group Ride asks the question: What is your perfect everyday bike? Build it out for us. Explain your choices.
Do you live in the flats where a single-speed demon will do the trick? Do you live in a warm, dry place, where you can ride your carbon race bike 360 days a year? Do you live in the Yukon and have designs on a snow bike with 4inch tires? I cling to the perhaps foolish belief that there really is a perfect bike out there, and that if I listen to those who know better, and think as hard as I can, I will eventually build that bike and ride it all the way to the grave.
Fear is a hairy beast with razor claws and dripping fangs. It is there in the dark, and it is there in the light, and it is there in the rain, sun, sleet and snow. Fear spills off station wagons swerving wildly with cell phone gesticulations, and it drops heavily off of box trucks, threatening to swallow the lane. It lurks quietly in potholes, and swings freely on the hinges of driver’s side doors. Fear will eat you if you let it. It never stops being hungry.
Two weeks ago I got bumped by a Ford Explorer pulling up to a stop sign. Its driver thought that he and his vehicle could get around me before reaching the end of the street. He yanked his wheel to the left, veered into the other lane and gunned his engine, swerving back into my lane at the last possible moment. At best he’d have cut me off. At worst, he’d have run me over. I was lucky simply to have been bumped.
I stayed upright. And angry.
Having been in this situation before, which is to say, uncomfortably close to another human being playing fast and loose with my safety, I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to get over it. The driver, in fact drivers generally, are not bothered when they do things like this. They simply drive away, maybe shaking their heads in disbelief at the folly of those of us who would dare to ride bikes on public roads. Occasionally I come in contact with a driver who is willing to take responsibility when he or she makes a mistake, but for the most part, those who drive badly do so because they are unwilling to be responsible for their actions.
If bad drivers don’t care about their close calls, why should I? Should they be able to driveway carelessly, while I am left behind to simmer and stew, to spew profanity and froth in impotent self-righteousness? No. The thing to do is accept what’s happened, swallow it whole for what it was, and then move on. A wise person told me that nursing resentments of this sort is like allowing morons to live, rent-free, in your head.
So when I am well-adjusted and fully in control of my faculties (very seldom) I can balance the need to beware of large moving objects with the need to continue riding, for transportation, physical health and sanity. The trick, and oh, what a trick it is, is to remain consciously blind to the danger that surrounds you, and simultaneously hyper-aware of every hard bit of pavement or sharp bit of metal that enters your air space. This is the Zen koan of riding your bicycle on the road.
As is typical, I have had difficulty letting go of these near death encounters. It is a thing much easier said than done. Since the encounter with my not-friend in the Explorer, I have been on edge whenever I have been on my bike. I have been quick to anger, even when I’ve been consciously resisting the impulse. This, it would seem, is the order of events. I simply have to wait until the feeling subsides, until I feel relatively safe again.
Last night, it was pouring rain. The light has recently fled our evening commute, so we’ve added darkness to the joy of being soaking wet. Stubborn git that I am, I pulled on my rain gear and disembarked from the office. Within a few moments I was enduring the gritty spray off Volvos and Subarus. With the verge entirely swamped, I tried to take a little of the lane to prevent myself from having to ride through 4 inches of standing water. My road companions in their cars mostly failed to yield any space. I was buzzed by a Chevy Suburban and then by a minivan. I began to seethe, and then to feel sad. To feel such little disregard for your bodily safety can be massively discouraging.
When I arrived home, my wife knew exactly what I was thinking and feeling. What a relief to be able to come home to someone who understands. Is this what inspired Dylan to write Shelter From the Storm?
I have to let these things go. I have to take responsibility for my own part. I choose to put myself in harm’s way. Traffic is traffic. You can complain about it. You can wish for people to change, for things to get better, but mostly those things are achieved at a glacial pace, and I intend to keep riding. Come hell AND high water, I intend to keep riding.
So I hug my wife, and I sit down to dinner with my kids, who talk too much and play with their food rather than eating it, and all is right and well with the world. And I return to the Zen koan of riding with both a keen attention to life-threatening danger and a blissful disregard for the monsters that lurk round every corner.
* Taken from Kipling’s Fear.
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Any time I travel I do what I can to find a way to ride a bicycle. It may be one ride, or it may be four, but I won’t feel like I’ve explored a place properly until I have managed to ride a bicycle around whatever town I’m in.
My father’s family is from the Gulf Coast. I’ve been visiting New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and Mobile since before I could speak. In the more than 20 years I’ve been a cyclist I had never ridden in any of these communities with the exception of one ride on the outskirts of Mobile in 1996.
With the help of a friend, I lined up a bike and got in a number of rides in New Orleans and Gulfport. It was on the final day of my trip that I set out to join the morning group ride in New Orleans that heads west on the levee bike path.
Of course, the Fates had other plans for me.
My chosen route is less than stellar and adds an extra half mile to my commute, and while I don’t object to bonus miles (who does?), my timeline is compressed due to oversleeping by a whopping eight minutes. My perfect timing is looking less and less perfect. Then it starts raining.
Every other day of my trip the rain holds off until after lunch. I wouldn’t care—I probably would even enjoy it—but my concerns for the camera hanging on my shoulder force me to pull over at a gas station for a plastic bag which I wrap around the camera before tucking it into my pocket.
I get to the bike path and start hammering. I have no idea how fast the group is or to what degree my effort will be futile. My hope is to get to the turnaround point and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be stopped and hanging out for a moment’s recovery before heading back.
I eventually ride out of the rain and just as I consider checking the time and mileage to gauge my distance from the turnaround, I see the group ahead on their return. A slight bend gives me some sense of their speed (hammerfest) and size (15-16 and shrinking). I see two guys weigh anchor just before I begin to slow down.
I stay to the right of the eight-foot path, and the lead rider puts out the call to let the group know a rider is up; they skinny and we pass each other comfortably. I hit the brakes, downshift, bang a U-turn and dig in. Instantly, the gap to the group is 60 feet.
Now, I could have turned around before they reached me and started to accelerate so that by the time the last guy passes me I am doing at least 25 mph. But while I’ve never discussed this with anyone, such a tactic seems tantamount to sitting out a lap in a training crit and then jumping back in. Definitely not PRO.
So it let them pass and give chase. Now, on my own bike at home this would have been plenty difficult, but my situation is a bit more complicated. I am on a borrowed bike. A travel bike. With 24-inch wheels. And a flat bar.
To recap: I’m in full team kit on a bike that probably wasn’t really intended for its current use, don’t look remotely PRO, trying to catch a good-sized group that is currently turning strong riders into exhaust.
What on earth am I thinking?
Turns out I was oddly suited to the bike. I ran out of gears at exactly the point I ran out of strength. a 52×12 can be turned over at about 29.5 mph, or at least, that’s what I think I saw as the distance to the group finally began to shrink.
A guy playing goal tender turns around to check what is behind. I doubt he expects what he sees. I assume his worst case scenario is to behold someone on aero bars gradually clawing his way back, meter by painful meter.
What he does see—I can assure you—is one of the stranger things he’ll see this year. Some 880-1408 heartbeats later (I’m a little rough on just how many because my heartrate was 176 and it was about five to eight seconds later), he looks back again and this time I am bigger. We repeat this routine twice more and then something wonderful happens.
But first, I must digress. If I was on one of my group rides, doing what group rides are meant to do (go fast until it hurts) and I looked back and saw some interloper trying to chase my group down while riding a bike that clearly didn’t fit the bill, I can tell you one of the things that would go through my head—go to the front and hammer. I don’t mean attack my group, but slither up to the front and gradually torque the pace up in such a way as to incite the boys into inflicting even greater pain on each other, and in so doing, open the gap to the interloper back up. Yes, I’ve been that guy from time to time.
I pull to within 15 feet of the group—close enough to think I’ve got them, but still too far to taste their draft. My legs are beyond painful; I’m on the bubble and wondering if I’m going to make it across and thinking that if I don’t find something deep down inside to finish this off, I’m going to look quite the fool. And then it happens. The goal tender begins to soft pedal and backs out of the group.
I make the catch when the gap from him to the group is about eight feet. He gives a little glance and then eases on the gas ever so slightly. A couple of seconds later we are in. The subtlety of his move is unspeakably PRO.
My excitement to make the catch is completely overshadowed by my admiration for this guy’s generosity. He doesn’t know me and my bike is clearly out of the norm, so he has no duty to me, but something in my effort speaks to him enough that he decides to lend a hand in an unspoken fellowship of the road.
His effort is subtle, artful, even and to me speaks volumes about experience picked up racing. His speed varies by only a mile per hour, making his move an unremarkable effort, but it makes all the difference in the world to me.
He waits a couple of minutes and then begins making his way up through the group and I follow him. He pauses for a few pedal strokes when he reaches the front and then turns on the gas just as subtly as he had before, but this time he goes much deeper: 26, 26.5, 27, 27.5 and then my unrecovered legs blow while he and three guys on his wheel pull away from the dozen or so left in the group.
I’ve been trying to read his jersey and memorize the club. There is a big “AR”—Alison-something Racing. There needs to be a study on what lactic acid does not to muscles, but the mind.
Watching him ride away bugs me less for getting dropped than for the fact that I’ll never get a chance to talk to him. Scratch that. I don’t want to talk to him, I want to buy him a beer. He may forget the effort, but I can assure you, I’ll remember it for as long as I ride.
When I think about what we do as cyclists, certain words recur with pop-hit chorus regularity. There’s ‘hard.’ There’s ‘challenging.’ There’s ‘suffering.’ There’s ‘difficult.’ We can add dozens more, but I’ve established the pattern. You won’t find ‘easy’ on the list. Nor will you find ‘lazy.’
‘Fun’ is problematic. You and I think what we do is fun, but most of the world thinks we’re off our rockers just for wearing the Lycra. That’s before they find out that four hours is more fun than three. Most folks don’t trust our definition of fun.
I don’t know about you, but I take a bit of perverse delight in gradually paying out the crazy details of my life as a cyclist. Dinner parties are perfect for this particular hobby. I can usually guess the questions that will come, depending on the time of year. In the summer, they revolve around the L-word and the Tour de France. In the winter it goes like so:
“You didn’t ride today, did you?”
“Really? Wasn’t it cold?”
“Where’d you go?”
“How far is that?”
“Holy cow. How long did it take you?”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun.”
And that’s when it isn’t raining. Rain changes the stakes of the game. And the colder the rain, the higher the stakes. No regularly occurring weather event can make a cyclist skip training as easily as rain.
In Southern California, where months will pass without a drop falling from the sky, those first rains fall on oil-slick streets, turning them into SoCal’s answer to black ice. As hazards go, it’s as sure as the toaster in the bathtub, if not quite as deadly. But in an el nino year, there comes a point when they are as safe as, say, swimming with sharks.
Still, in a world full of hard deeds, among the hardest I’ve ever undertaken in my quest for my skewed sense of a good time is leaving home for a training ride in the rain. It ranks right up there on Moh’s scale of hardness alongside rubies and sapphires.
As many times as I’ve done it, I can remember a remarkable number of rides I’ve done in the rain. There was the time I had to climb 90 percent of the Col du Lauteret in an ever-cooling rain to get back to our hotel, only to arrive and learn there was no hot water.On another occasion, moments after it started raining on me on I-70 in Colorado that lightning struck a tree 200 meters away and I thought, “I need to be somewhere else.”
I once spent four hours riding in torrential rain and 50-degree temps to review a Mountain Cycle road bike. Two days later the bike tech poured two pounds of water from the frame. We knew this because he weighed it once without knowing there was water caught in the down tube and chainstays. He flipped the frame around to put it in the stand for the rebuild and a six-pack’s-worth of hazardous waste escaped the frame. After shaking and turning the frame around a bit more, he re-weighed it. Oops. Turns out the frame really was pretty light.
One late spring day, in the middle of a UMASS training ride, a trap door opened in the clouds and the rain hit the road with such force that I could see it splashing up, creating a mist that my front wheel cut through with the swift passage of a knife through Brie. A teammate turned to me and said, “Well Mr. Brady, this is a ride you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” Indeed.
I separate in my mind training in the rain from racing in the rain. They just aren’t the same. You’re supposed to suffer during a race. And if rain is suffering, then racing can’t possibly preclude rain. Avoiding a race because of rain is like wanting to skip the first 100k because it would make the race too long.
I always raced well in cold, wet conditions. The first time trial, the first crit and the first road race I ever won were all run in cold, rainy conditions. Irish blood is an easy excuse, but that’s hardly the point. It’s easy to skip a training ride when it rains. But skipping a rainy race could impugn one’s manhood. Gads. We race bikes to demonstrate precisely the opposite. And because it’s fun.
Even so, training in the rain isn’t about racing in the rain. A long ride in the rain teaches us what we can endure. It’s the x-ray that reveals the steel rebar deep down inside. After an crushing rain ride you can’t help but think, “If I can do this….”
But let’s be honest: Our idea of fun really is odd. It is measurably obtuse. That is to say, what we think is fun is somewhere between 90 and 180 degrees off from what the average person would consider an advisably, suggestably good time. The sort of thing you put in a guide for tourists.
The truth is, we can’t be trusted. With our clickety-clack shoes, stretchy clothing coated in postcard colors and billboard logos, we are, to most of the world, a fun antidote. They think we’re one roll of tinfoil shy of a hat. Thank God. It keeps us off the radar and ensures our secrets. Confidence comes from doing a long, hard ride in the rain, and that isn’t something we want the whole world to know.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International