Finally, spring is in full swing in the midwest after what was an agonizingly long winter. For cyclists, spring brings hope like no other. It’s a fresh start. More time to ride in better weather and longer days. We all feel it, racers and non-racers alike. This year spring sprung about a month later in many parts of the country, with large swaths seeing snow into the first week of May.
Back in my youth, the first real sign of spring was the Good Friday Road Race that kicked off the racing season in Ontario. There was always something magical about the lead up to that race. The tension and excitement was as palpable as the scent of liniment permeating the start line. I put in the most amount of work possible during the winter to ensure I was in the mix at the end of that day. How you did on Good Friday set the tone for the rest of the season. Were you on track, or did you need to pile on the miles and speed? The race and your legs would let you know.
I spent the waning hours of daylight from November to March sprinting against the sunset. The cold of winter always gave way to miserable dampness. I was happy to put in the work though, dreaming of Good Friday glory. In the extremity numbing cold and darkness, thoughts went beyond local races. A teenagers dream of tifosi lined roads against the backdrop of blue sky and snowy peaks passed the grinding miles.
Riding in the elements of the harsh Canadian winter was as good for my soul as it was the legs. I imagined the hard men of the hell of the north training in similar conditions, brothers, separated by an ocean, joined by similar resolve. When the weather was too inhospitable, I sought refuge in the basement. On the rollers for hours, stoking the fire were thoughts of souplesse perfection. I suffered for the promise of spring and the possibilities Good Friday would bring.
25 years on I am no longer fueled by racing or dreams of Europe. My riding time is defined by daylight savings, the elements, work and family. I try not to slug it out in sloppy weather, raging winter winds or anything below freezing. I don’t own a trainer or rollers anymore. Running and xc-skiing take up more of my fall and winter now. If its windy and snowing, I seek solace on groomed tracks in the forest. If its cold and raining, a quick run does the trick. Maybe I have gone soft.
While I love running and skiing, the first hint of spring sees me dropping them like a bad habit. I welcome the coming of spring with as much enthusiasm as I did 25 years ago, even if it means something different now. Except this year, spring never came. But Good Friday is still a psychological point on the calendar, it lets me know I will be riding soon and allows me to gauge how my fitness is shaping up.
So when in mid-February I realized I had not sat on my bike in almost 3 months and Good Friday was only six weeks away, I started to get the itch. The weather had something to say about that though. Temperatures 20 degrees below normal is frigid in the upper midwest. When it wasn’t cold, we were hammered with a series of snowstorms. I thought when daylight savings time hit things would change. It didn’t. I started to question whether I had clinical Seasonal Affective Disorder and convinced I wouldn’t throw a leg over my bike before April. Day after day, I passed my bike in the garage, thumbing the slowly deflating tires which matched my mood.
As Good Friday approached, I decided I’d had enough and forced myself to ride in conditions that were less than optimal for the older, wiser me. Suffering from lack of time in the saddle and whatever mother nature wanted to throw at me, I actually didn’t feel too bad save the the tenderness of those first few rides around my sit bones.
On that Friday I awoke to blue skies, a forecasted high of 50 and no wind. The same weather report stated we set an all time record: the most snow on the ground that late in the season, which coincidentally, lined up with my own record of least miles that late in the season.
No matter, the roads were dry and I soaked up a much needed 50 soul quenching miles. And then, we got more snow, roads un-ridable for two weeks and weather uncooperative for two more.
Its now late May, more than two weeks from our last measurable snow, and I just got back from a long ride and turned it over fairly well, the sit bones no longer aching. I couldn’t help to think back to Good Friday and how, as in years past, I still use it as a silly gauge as to how I am coming along. It was 89 degrees today, I have the tell-tale tan lines on my arms and legs and the winter from hell has already subsided into a distant memory.
There is one thing I do remember though: that Friday, the break in the weather and that ride. It was a victory and good Friday indeed. Bring on the summer.
The deleterious effects of Hurricane Sandy notwithstanding, fall is normally my favorite riding season of the year. The cooler temperatures mean I can go farther, faster than I do in the oppressive summer months. I seem to be particularly susceptible to the heat, sweating like a cold coke on a summer dashboard. I dehydrate like astronaut ice cream, like the sand at the edge of the tide line.
Winter is under-rated. The snowy season has given me some of my coolest riding experiences and most challenging circumstances. From the pure joy of a cold, bright morning ride, to testing yourself against driving wind and sleet, I would never call winter my favorite, but, like an old girlfriend, we’ve had some good times together.
Spring, at least where I live, is a pretty blessed time. Exiting the cave of winter, you get that first taste of warmth, the expanding light of lengthening days. Again, you are doing more than the bare minimum. Your cycling pops like a daffodil from the frozen soil.
And let me not completely disparage summer. The salad days run long and give rise to improbable after-work rambles with friends. I struggle with hydration and the challenges of being soaked with sweat for hours on end, but it is all worth it, returning home with road grime pasted to your ankles and your helmet straps white and distended.
This week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: What is your favorite season to ride and why? Our Southern Hemispheric friends are all exiting winter now, not plunging into Autumn. I wonder how they feel about it. I wonder if anyone else suffers the summer quite the way I do.
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.
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I am naked. In the basement. Stuffing my shoes with newspaper. My clothes are in a heap by the washing machine. There is a drop of water dangling from one of my ears, like a pearl earring.
It starts in winter. In anticipation of snow, the cities and towns put down salt and sand. Every storm calls forth the sanders. When the spring comes, such as it is, the roads show multiple layers of sand and gravel, and over the initial weeks of the thaw, all that mess finds its way to the shoulders of the road.
l try to get the newspaper in the shoes as soon as I can. It’s the only way to dry them, and there is nothing worse than strapping into wet cycling shoes. Not to mention the aroma.
There is a gap between the last snow and the first appearance of the street sweepers, and during this time cycling in the verges becomes a dicey proposition. The great lumbering yellow hulks eventually come and clean things up, but as budgets struggle to cope with the weather, the cities and towns take an increasingly inconsistent approach to their spring cleaning, so that even now, in mid-May, there’s still a lot of crap on the roads.
My neighbor said, this morning, “I’ve always wondered what it was like to live in Seattle,” and laughed. It’s been a cold, rainy spring, and we’re in the middle of roughly ten days of constant precipitation. The coffee doesn’t seem to be any better, though.
Because it’s spring there are great washes of pollen and seed pods beneath the trees, and the rain mixes with this organic sputum and creates a sort of road snot, slippery and yellow. It gets gritty where the winter sand mixes in, and all of that comes up as spray as your tires knife through it.
You have to wear glasses in the city because of all the junk that gets churned up by cars and buses and robots whizzing by on their bikes. Even on rainy days, when you’re forced to clear your lenses every five blocks, the glasses are essential equipment. For some reason, all that mess seems to find its way to your face, or at least that’s how it feels.
In a meeting, earlier in the afternoon, I said, “I hate this job so much that I would trade being inside, in the warm office with a cup of coffee, for being outside, in the cold and rain, on my bike, on a steep hill.” Later on, when I was outside, in the cold and rain, on my bike, on a steep hill, I had to smile. I’m kind of an idiot.
As I crouch there, naked, in the basement, I can see how thick the muck is because it clings to my ankles in a dark band above where my socks ended. I lean into the garage to wring out my gloves, socks and hat. Charming. I’m naked in the garage. No good stories start or end that way.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the Contador verdict and the Armstrong retirement, I really, really, really needed to focus this week’s Group Ride on something cycling-related, rather legalistic, medicinal or scientific. This need derives not so much from a lack of interest in the former, but rather in a desire to push back the tide of outrage and despair as regards our sport at its pointiest end.
You see, I rode my bicycle this morning. After my plaintive cry of a post earlier in the week, I have been gifted some good weather. Flesh has seen sunlight. Vitamin D has been absorbed. It’s not yet Spring really, but we’ve been given a taste, and for that I am thankful.
So rather than roll around in the misery and controversy, I thought we should talk about riding bikes. After all, as I sped (oh, yes, I sped) across town on my faithful Torelli, neither Alberto nor Lance was riding shotgun. I encountered no blood bags or McQuaids. Cycling, it must be said, doesn’t depend on any of those persons or things.
And so, with all due apology to our readers in the Southern Hemisphere, this week’s Group Ride asks: What are you looking forward to this spring? Is it a long ride, a return to regular training? A big race perhaps? Have you allowed yourself to utter the names Het Volk or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne yet? Has razor met leg? Is there a new bike in your near future?
Share your hopes and dreams with us. Wax optimistic. Start now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Oh, the feel of spring, as my legs come back to life. Finally, the grip of winter has gone and my legs wake from latency. The tightness in my tendons eases as that the cold north wind turns to a warm southerly flow, and old man winter is but a fading memory. And the anticipation of spring’s warmth is enough to elevate one’s will, and I welcome the change in season.
Everything in my universe rotates around cycling and the lengthening days of spring now offer more opportunities for riding, more regularity daily and none of the hesitation of dealing with the perils of winter. Spring is Utopia for the cyclist, you may say. There is however one caveat in spring: The acrimony that comes from realizing spring doesn’t come free of charge.
Each spring riders must swallow a bitter pill of atonement. Even PROs have to regard this helpless estate. Less daily mileage during winter, Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie and a daily morning Cappuccino all translate into at least some weight gain during winter. Not to mention the legs suffer without having the long daily rides, or the regular grind we take for granted in summer and fall. Lucky for me (or not), it affects many of my fellow riders similarly, and it is during spring that the rider must pay back for all those extras that have been lavishly enjoyed.
Just as the priest goes before the tabernacle and offers sacrificial atonement for the sins of many, so too must the rider pay penitence now in spring for winter’s excesses.
For some, they may never acknowledge winter’s decline, nor ever ride in their best form come spring and summer. For those riders who are honest though, there is a payback required in spring. Padraig wrote of a similar concept, of being ‘at terms’ during a race, when a few individuals come to the reality that they control a destiny, an outcome, and they are at terms with themselves and with the race. It’s a harsh thing, honesty with oneself, yet a fruitful outcome is possible if one recognizes it. There can be no excuses, no denials, and no transference of accountability at this time.
Atonement for the rider in spring is useful. When the rider comes to this awareness of form or lack thereof, in an honest self-assessment; spring’s work will be obvious. In such an assessment, we move toward being at one with ourselves. It is an utterly essential process, that the rider be ‘at onement’ in order to move up and move on. That is literally what atonement means, to be at one. I have also heard it explained that ‘the end depends upon its beginning’ and in fact spring marks the beginning for each rider each year. It’s a very orderly concept. The rider can focus on those weaknesses that can be mastered, and realize what lies ahead. The sting of self-affliction, the torment of correction, the lactate thrashing, and the effectual gasping for air are all required at the hand of spring.
And now we can accept this because we, in fact, realize we are indebted only to ourselves. Acceptance of this allows the rider to taper the body down, to chisel and to prepare for the season ahead. The dividends of such work will also be paid as we anticipate pulling the group with respect, hanging with riders better than ourselves and dropping our buddies in friendly local ‘world championship’ rides on summer evenings.
The catharsis of atonement in spring enables the rider to master all physical and mental aspects of riding. In the end, atonement liberates us from winter, seeking pardon and purification of those lavish excesses we enjoy. Atonement can allow us to prepare for and anticipate moving us into summertime form with success.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
By almost any ordinary definition the season is spring. The Spring Classics have begun. Spring training is on the minds of cyclists and baseball fans alike. Some schools are on Spring Break. Snow has stopped falling in most states and most European countries.
Not that it’s necessarily warm, mind you, but the weather is cooperative enough in theory to allow most cyclists to train. Now’s the time when many cyclists are trying to build or complete their base miles for the season.
You’ve been at this a long time and know that there’s more to logging base miles than just decent weather. Work, children, better halves, any of these can derail a three-hour ride faster than instant coffee.
That said, we know your heart. We know you want to be out there. So tell us, just how cooperative has your life been? How many hours a week have you been able to train on average?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International