I think about the bike a lot. Too much. I think about my bike. I think about your bike. I think about the next bike. I sell bikes, and I tell stories about bikes. I reminisce about bikes I used to have, and I try to convince my wife that the next bike is important, more important in whatever very specific way than all the ones that came before, the ones still crowding the garage and spilling into the basement, leaning against the cedar chest, blocking access to the laundry room.
The bike, however, is incidental.
I will pore over the details of the build, wondering if 12-32 isn’t maybe a better choice than 11-28 for where I want to go. I will consider 28mm vs. 32mm, because of the particular ruts that mark graded New England dirt roads and the washboards that develop during the latter stages of mud season, the ones that shudder through your whole body as you plummet off the top of some nowhere hill. I will consider lighter wheels.
I don’t want another bike. I think I do, but I don’t. I want to get to the places the next bike might take me, long fire roads that connect high lookouts to hidden ponds, ropey dirt paths that lead past people’s other homes or the retreats of those who no longer wish to live so close to the flame of peopled lunacy, simple sand and gravel throughways that ring farms and bisect primordial forests. I want to feel the gravel and hard pack beneath the tires of that next bike, and I want to fall off it and scrape my elbow, lay in the road laughing.
The bike is no more necessary to that experience than the elbow.
I want to ride with people who have that sort of bike, because those are cool people. They’ll give you a bottle when you’ve underestimated the day, the weather, or your own capacity for suffering, because really, suffering you can seek and tolerate is no suffering at all, but only a gilding for your flowery ego. The people who ride bikes are the best sorts of people, because they’re all kinds of people, and the bike only gives you a reason to speak to them, that and the sand and the gravel and your desperate need for water.
I will call Padraig on the phone and wander the parking lot at work while we plot and plan the stories we will write about riding our bikes up and down geological formations, places where glaciers scraped up against granite, and we will try to piece together a second living from our efforts, all of it wrapped around bikes and cycling, all of it combing through the details, panning for gold.
We have this friendship, he and I, that seems to have started in a correspondence about cycling, but later found us standing face to face in a casino, hugging each other in incredulous first meeting bemusement. We drove out past the strip malls in the Las Vegas hinterland to crowd around a greasy grass track and watch a bike race, all of an industry swirling around in the spotlit darkness. On the way back he bought a Mountain Dew and a bag of Peanut M&Ms, so he could stay up and write more stories about bikes.
I don’t know if any of this, the farm roads, the casino, the people, if any of it happens without the bike. I don’t know. I am under the impression that you can skate, surf, climb, hike, run to the same sorts of salvation the bike has brought me. I can take the thing itself too seriously. I can focus all my attention there, when it is only really a cipher for life’s cluttered bucket of fun and misery, a pivot point.
The bike is incidental, deeply important, but only incidental. I think.
We drove out in a rain storm, eyes tilted skyward, half in fear, half in silent prayer, but the sky cleared as we rolled into the meadow, the white registration tent like a beacon in a stormy sea. The field where we parked our car was fresh cut and the smell of earth and of farming hung in the air. We padded across to the tent, got our packets, and then returned to the car to pin numbers and pull on kits, mostly in silence.
As usual, the start of D2R2 is soft, which is to say, no gun goes off, no pack of riders spills into the road. What happens is you leave.
And not so long after you leave, you begin asking questions. There are obvious questions like, “Where is the next turn?” Some combination of GPS technology, cue sheet scrutiny and just following a rider in front of you will provide an answer. Other questions like, “Is this the top?” and “Are you sure this is the way?” and “Is that even a road?” come up also. Quick answers: “No. This is not the top. No, I am not sure this is the way, but it is a dirt path between two trees and the cue sheet says…and no, this is not a road,” but sometimes the way is not a road, but it is all beautiful, so keep your head up and keep pedaling.
And even if you have ridden D2R2 before, at some point not too far along you will ask: “Why am I doing this?”
Holy shit! What a question?!?!
Because on the face of it, it makes no sense. There you are grinding your way up a wet dirt track in the woods. Your lungs hollow out as you labor up and up and up. Sweat burns at the corner of your eyes and your quads scream up at you, and you wonder if you will make it to a place where the road no longer goes up, or at the very least stops going up like a kid’s party balloon, carelessly held.
Of course, even in your abject state there are many answers to the question. First, you are doing this because you have never ridden your bike in such beautiful places, places you will never go by car or by foot. Every time you lift your eyes from your front wheel you are struck by your surroundings, narrow lanes through primeval forest, farms perched on the edge of sky top meadows, old tracks that ribbon along rivers and brooks. It is high and low and various and sundry but also uniformly gorgeous and always worth the effort of getting there.
Second, you are doing it, because all year you think of doing a ride like this, an epic (yes, epic) assault on the hinterlands, a gravel-grinding, soul-chewing exploit of a ride. In reality, however, very few humans have the will to force themselves to do anything so hard. Few of us have the clarity of purpose to scout, map and execute such a thing, so we pay our money and ride out with our friends and wonder at the suffering and beauty that greet us along the way.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, we ride this ride to know ourselves better. At RKP we say ‘to suffer is to learn,’ and D2R2 affords us that suffering in large and creative doses. D2R2 will tell you how good a climber you are. It will tell you how good a bike handler you are. It will break you down into your component parts and lay bare the truth of your riding.
It will teach you that you need to have an awful lot of food in your jersey pocket when lunch is 65 miles away. It will teach you that, though you feel strong and fast, it is best to keep your powder dry, because every ounce of that strength can be wrung out of your bones in a ten-minute struggle against a hill that has no name. You will find out that it is best to stick together and take care of your friends, because in ten miles they will be taking care of you. You, who normally eschew too-sweet sodas, will find that swilling a cold Coke at the top of a rise, with a smiling volunteer asking you how your day is going, will restore a humanity you didn’t even know you’d lost on that last dusty stretch of road.
Finally, you ride D2R2 to show yourself that you can. What a whopping large dose of self-doubt you can swallow after you do a thing like this. If you can ride D2R2, what can’t you ride? You are unstoppable.
We had a good day, my friends and I. Despite an early crash, one of our number soldiered bravely on to the finish, through double leg cramps and the creeping ache that comes from hitting the ground hard and then putting your body on permanent shake and grind for 60 miles. I felt as happy for him as I did for myself as the white tent hove back into sight after a full day on the course.
And, we met a lot of cool people as you will on a randonnee, riding together, helping with mechanicals, group-sourcing navigational duties. Next year I will look for the guys from New Hampshire whose buddy broke a spoke up on a nowhere hill in Southern Vermont, the young guys from Brooklyn who ground out the longest, hardest, meanest hill of the day with us, and all the volunteers who smilingly packed our faces with calories at each of the stops.
Safely back under the tent in the evening, the smell of pulled pork in the air, someone’s voice on a PA competing with the general din, I looked around the table at my friends and I felt happy, and I almost never wanted to move from that place. The air grew cool and the mosquitoes went away, and I sunk a Rice Krispies treat and washed it down with a ginger ale.
Finally, we stood before our legs seized and the plastic chairs ruined our backs. And then we drove home in the quiet car.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
They say an addict can’t begin to recover until he or she hits rock bottom. Read the literature. It’s full of the tales of men and women who have stared into the abyss, who’ve seen their own death writ large, in vivid color across the insides of their eyelids. Profound things happen. Human minds, roiling chemistry sets of hormone and electricity, change slowly, heal themselves, become worthy and admirable again. The word miracle gets thrown around like poker chips in a casino.
We say here at RKP that ‘to suffer is to learn.’ There is a parallel.
On the bike, we confront our limits. We push ourselves out to the edge of what we think we’re capable of, find trap doors, move on into undreamed of places. We do super human things.
What addicts do by virtue of their disease, cyclists do by their own volition. They empty themselves out and root around in their exhausted minds and bodies to see what’s left, panning for gold.
I struggled for a long time with the whole notion of spirituality. I’d never heard anyone define it in a way I could take seriously. I imagined spirits, floating and diaphanous, at the fringes of a room. I conjured religious iconography, saints with bright gold halos, garish depictions of the crucifixion. I shook my head and chuckled.
But then someone said to me, “Spirituality describes the connections you make to the world around you. You connect to your friends and family, but those connections are invisible. You can’t touch them. You can’t see them. They are spiritual.” Made sense to me. Finally.
Spiritual growth, then, is the strengthening of your connections to the people around you and the world as a whole. The stronger your spiritual connections the safer and less alone you feel. You gain mental strength. That strength may express itself as respect, considerateness, love, compassion, forgiveness, wonder, etc. I’m a cynic and skeptic by nature, but even I can buy into the value of that sort of spirituality.
My neighbor is a cyclist, until recently more of a mountain biker than a roadie. In fact, the other day he was talking about how much more he enjoys riding on the road than he’d expected to. For years, he had loved the feeling of being out in the woods, finding his rhythm on the trail, communing, as it were, with nature. He was surprised to be able to feel some of those same feelings on a skinny-tired machine, on the pavement, with a group of friends.
I told him, I think it’s about where the bike takes you. Whether your front shock is clicking and popping down a rooted section of single track or your freewheel is singing down a twisty stretch of asphalt, you are out at the edges of yourself, mind focused, senses saturated. This is our version of getting high, the absolute zenith of cycling, what my friend Padraig might call a ‘flow state.’
Buddhists have an interesting way of talking about these spiritual moments. They believe that we, as humans, draw a false line between ourselves and the world. We willfully sever the connection. And, the more we hold ourselves apart from the world, the more we suffer. The greater our connection to others and to the world around us, the greater our serenity.
The pivotal moment in recovery from addiction, that moment at which we hit bottom and see that we have to turn back, is a moment of spiritual awakening. I have been there, down the bottom of the mine shaft. It is not pretty. It is dark and terrifying.
Is this not like what we feel on the bike, when we’re in the red, when we’ve been in the red for too long. Our physical strength breaks down. We grow afraid that we can’t go on. The top? The bottom? They are just words that describe the edges of our experience. Our defenses are down. We’re too exhausted to keep them up.
And then, if we’re lucky, the line between our self and the world blurs, and we understand, if only for a moment, what’s really important.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I am strong, I believe, incorrectly, that I will remain strong indefinitely, as long as I continuing doing all the same things, all the time. So it’s always a big surprise to be five miles into a 60 mile ride and suffering like a worm on the end of a fishing hook, just dangling there, waiting for something big to come along and eat me.
As a cultivator of suffering, it’s astonishing how unpleasant it can get when you’re out of form. And I just think to myself, “Isn’t this what you came for? Isn’t this what you wanted?”
I try to believe that if I just hang in I’ll feel better in a kilometer or two, that I’ll get my legs under me and stop dropping off the back on every climb. Maybe if I eat something. Maybe if I drink a bit more. Maybe if I find a better gear, in the small ring. Maybe it’s just not my day.
The truth is, sometimes it’s just not. No one maintains their top level year-round. Right?
And yet, the surprise, the shock, when your regular companions ride away up the road, not because they want to hammer you, but because they can’t conceive of the idea that you’re not on their wheel. They pull off the front, expecting you to come through, and … nothing.
You have to be careful. Formless rides can be so dispiriting you struggle to pull on your bibs the next day. You begin a seemingly inexorable slide off the back of fitness. The couch gets that much more comfortable. You begin finding reasons not to ride. And then, a panic sets in. “Holy shit! I’ve got to get back on the bike!”
Sometimes you just needed a rest. Sometimes it’s a long slog back.
Fortunately, you will forget this. The season will change. It will get hotter or colder, and your legs will feel strong again. It will be you on the front, not even glancing over your shoulder. You’ll crest the tallest hill and shift back over into the big ring (if you even left it) and feel the power coursing through you, and you’ll forget that time, maybe not even a month before, when the sweat ran off the tip of your nose, your legs ached from ankle to hip, your vision blurred, staring down at your front wheel, praying for the end.
The beauty of self-imposed suffering is that it leaves few marks, either physical or mental. Ask anyone who’s given birth. Ask anyone who’s ridden a double century. Ask anyone who’s raced Paris-Roubaix.
Even our most pathetic lack of form gives us something to ride away with. Does it hurt less the next time? Do we become less afraid of the ten miles post-bonk? Do we gain a little bit of compassion for our friends when they hit their own empty patch?
I can tell you I have been there lately, lungs heaving, eyes stinging with sweat, stomach sour on too much engineered glucose product, and limping up the hill to my house, barely able to clip out in the driveway, and then laying on the kitchen floor, where it’s coolest, waiting for my back to give up its spasm.
I am sure there is something beyond this, if I can only manage to keep turning over the pedals.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
There is a little man who sits at a control panel just behind my eyes. He wears a helmet, because the going often gets rough. His panel is littered with knobs and dials and gauges, like a Jules Verne submarine or a ’50s era space rocket. He has a hard job, that little man.
When the rubber meets the road (or the trail), you rapidly lose control, even of those things you previously thought fell firmly within your bailiwick. It is easy to see that the exigencies of climate and topography lie beyond your purview. It is sometimes harder to admit that you don’t entirely run the show, even within the confines of your own skin.
I learned this most recently while running up Haystack Mountain in Southern Vermont. The steeply-pitched, loose-rocked trail runs 2.5 miles to the summit, from which one can see much of the valley behind Mount Snow, a popular local ski hill. I expected to hammer for half-an-hour, see the pretty view and then amble down at a brisk jog.
It is hard to run up hill over loose rock, so I was pretty well in the red the entire time, my breath ragged, my footing unsure, the little man at the control panel barely able to keep the ship going in the right direction (up) as I quickly lost control of things I formerly might have said were well in hand. The function of my quadriceps. My balance. My max heart rate.
This is the fertile land tilled by sports psychologists. How do you maintain control when all the gauges run into the red, when oil pressure drops, when the tires go flat?
When you are on someone’s wheel, catching your breath and plotting your next move, you are in the flow of things. You are managing your resources well enough to get strategic about what comes next. Sports psychologists specialize in helping you make those same sorts of decisions when you are decidedly NOT in the flow of things. They help you get the little man comfortable in his chair.
In my upward struggle, I found it necessary to shut down certain systems so as to shift resources to others. I stopped trying to see anything other than my next foot step. This is akin to, on a long steep climb, staring down at your slowly churning cranks or just off the front of your wobbling front wheel. It narrows your focus enough that you can bring in other types of sensory input. I have, on particularly brutal climbs, both on foot and on the bike, been able to move the workload from one muscle group to another in order to recuperate while still making forward progress.
Pedal with your ankles. Run with your hips.
Breathing is an autonomic function (i.e. your reptile brain does it for you most of the time), but as you approach your maximum heart rate (none of the equations I’ve seen accurately predict my threshold incidentally), your reptile brain stops regulating the breaths and moves into gasp-mode.
If the little man can do one thing for me it is to turn those gasps into regular gasps, so that my muscles are getting measured sips of oxygen rather than willy-nilly blasts that come few at a time and too far in between.
By narrowing my focus to the ground in front of my feet, shifting the workload from quads to hips and back again, and forcing my breath into something resembling a pattern I was able to crest the summit of Mount Haystack in 25 minutes, where I discovered that the top was completely fogged in.
This felt like a triumph anyway, not because I ran up a (small) mountain, but rather because I learned some ways to retain control during peak effort.
We all know those moments where what we’re doing scrambles our thoughts sufficiently that our performance breaks down. This is “blowing up” in the common parlance. As each of us pushes against our limits, this is the real challenge, to keep your head straight enough to be able to manage the strain.
You’re slipping off the back of a pace line, facing the 30 mile ride home alone. Your legs are screaming, or they’ve turned to wood. Sensory input is flooding the control room. It is hard to know what to do.
This is your final frontier. This is piloting the ship.
What you are about to read involves no bike. In this case, it really isn’t about the bike, because there isn’t one. There is only snow and ice and slush and wind, narrow, choked roadways, invisible sidewalks, copious amounts of wool and down, rock salt and sand.
Here in New England we are enduring a winter that failed to read the record books before unleashing its snowy fury on us. I could wax all hyperbolic about it, but suffice it to say that even the hardiest souls have nowhere to ride their bicycles. Mine are hanging from the rafters of the garage. I’ll not mention them again.
In the morning, I take my oldest son to kindergarten. Normally, this is a short walk across a beautiful park, but this isn’t normal and the walk, despite remaining the same distance, is no longer short.
Just today, my boy and I were inching our way down the street (the park is waist deep) clinging to the four foot snow banks to keep passing cars from spraying us with a syrupy mix of salt, sand and melting snow. I had the dog with me, because he hasn’t been out except to answer nature’s call in three days. Every few feet we had to stop to scrape the salt out from in between his paws. It collects there and stings until he’s limping and whimpering and sorry he didn’t just stay on the couch. Even with two cups of coffee sloshing around in the tank, I was struggling to put a happy face on the day.
And then it occurred to me.
This is just a different flavor of suffering. And I know about suffering. In better weather, this is a thing I seek out, cultivate and measure myself against it. It is an essential ingredient in my sanity, such as it is.
So beneath my hood and under my wool hat, down between my ears where I am always warm, I simply shifted gears. It is true that life is all headwind at the moment, but if I down shift and keep my head down, if I hide in the peloton and keep the pedals ticking over, eventually I will arrive.
I know how to suffer.
I’m not sure I really ever experienced ambivalence until I became a cyclist. Prior to cycling, my world was one of startling clarity. As a musician, I either liked a piece of music, or not. I either liked a performer or band, or not. Same for foods and movies.
But as a cyclist, I came to experience the thrill of seeing an utterly dominant ride by a guy I didn’t like, such as Andrei Tchmil. Everyone I know in the industry uses the D-word to describe him. But dude, seeing him in action at a race like Paris-Roubaix was a thing of beauty.
More recently, I’ve had to contend with performances such as Alberto Contador’s in stage 16 of the Tour de France. I plain didn’t like the move. However, seeing that acceleration and watching him keep the pressure on left me breathless. At the end of the day, what we want of our champions is a performance so impressive their dominance is apparent.
My real education in ambivalence came with regard to my own body. During my periods of sharpest fitness my hardest workouts leave me shattered. I’ll be able to walk when I get home; I can get through the shower, dress and eat without any real difficulty. But an hour or two after the ride ends the desire for a nap—a consciousness-blotting entombment of body—comes at me like the villain of a horror movie. Escape is as uncertain and tenuous as survival is in said movie.
While I marvel at the destruction I can impose on myself in just two hours, the fact that my legs feel like the Ninth Ward for the rest of the day really isn’t any fun. In fact, the only reason I can tolerate it is because I know what it does for my organic savings account. It’s embarrassing to walk around like a physical therapy project and the leaky concentration while I attempt to work is as frustrating as trying to win the lottery.
Like I said, there’s one reason I tolerate this feeling: At some point in the not-too-distant future I’m going to be fast—at least, faster than I’ve been—and that’s fun enough to pay for in blood. My own, in fact.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
What has the bike taught you? What is it that keeps you going when you’re on the rivet, in the red, on the limit?
The bicycle can be a difference engine. You move its pedals. It yields information. It’s a tool for taking you to that place right at the edge of what you’re capable of, forces you to acknowledge your limits, like a spoonful of castor oil for the soul. As we push on into the suffering we learn more and more about who we are. We become more comfortable with paradox and uncertainty. We gain more specific data about the mathematical location of our breaking points.
Your bits of wisdom included some real gems this week. Everyone said something I could identify with. The ones that stuck out for me were:
randomactsofcycling said: “Success is a consequence and should never be a goal.”
James said: “I can exceed the limits I think I have.”
dacrizzow:” I HAVE NO CHOICE. For whatever reason, it motivates me in all of my life activities, and i don’t question it.”
Mike: “Cycling has taught me patience, perseverance, humility, self control, and to appreciate (beauty, limits, strength, solitude and friendship, the little things).”
Amityskinnyguy: “It has taught me that it’s OK to act like a kid sometimes.”
I like to get all philosophical about it and try to string a bunch of pretty words together, but another thing the bike has taught me, especially when I’m straining at the leash, is to take myself much, much less seriously.
I am not fast. I am not strong. I am not cool. I am not PRO. These are truths that help me in the rest of my life as well.
I am not smart. I am not strong. I am not cool. I am not special. I’m just one more bozo on a bike, trying to stay upright, just trying to get where I’m going. Leave it to a human-powered vehicle to help you feel more human.
And suffering is a like a foreign country. It’s not really comfortable, and you don’t want to stay forever, but it’s good to know what it’s like there, if only so you can appreciate home. You come back with good stories. And espresso on your breath.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Sometimes, when I feel weak, when my muscles hurt, when the sweat is stinging my eyes, I stop and ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” It is, I think, a fairly common-sensical question. You put your hand on the stove. It burns. You pull it back. Why, when you throw your leg over the bicycle, and your quads go leaden, and your body gives up its salt, do you keep pedaling?
It’s not because you’re a moron, though to be fair, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe another way of asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” is “What is the bike teaching me right now?”
If you’ve read Joyce, or Pynchon, or Shakespeare for that matter, you know what it means to wade into the intellectual deep end, suffer a bit, become confused, glean a few truths and come out the other side a little wiser (if only by knowing you’re not up to the challenge just yet).
I like to think the bicycle is the physical equivalent of that same sort of intellectual challenge. Most days I ride (and read) for entertainment. Most of the miles disappear under my front wheel without attracting much notice or eliciting much response. Sometimes when I am riding, I am merely traveling, point A joined to point B. Sometimes when I am riding, I am actually just looking at the woods/river/pretty girls. The bicycle is only a chair.
And then sometimes when I’m riding, I’m Hamlet, poor tortured Hamlet. Is he crazy? Upon whom is he really visiting his revenge? What is the point of all this violence, of all this pedaling, into the wind, only to return home again, an absurd circle of suffering?
Quickly now, before I torture this metaphor any further, let me put the question to you? What has the bike taught you? What have been its lessons, and what do you tell yourself when the tires stop wanting to roll, your muscles stop wanting to fire and the fun turns to hurt?
One of two things is true. Either the heavy hitters of the Ardennes portion of the season have completely failed to grasp Philipe Gilbert’s best trick, springing an early break on the would-be sprinters, OR Gilbert is deceptively powerful at the ragged end of the race. Ah, but then both could be true, right?
Someone pointed out to me that Mr. Gilbert, the less-imposing of the Belgian Classics contenders (Mr. Boonen is the other, obviously), has won three of the last seven Classics he’s contested. That’s pretty good, really. I’ve tried and not even come close to that.
The winner of the prediction contest was Michael, who not only correctly predicted Gilbert’s top finish, but also got Ryder Hesjedal’s second place. So, he’s won well, with style, like Gilbert. Bravo, Michael. Shoot me an email (robot at redkiteprayer dot com) with your own personal address, and we’ll hook you up with an RKP sticker pack that you can use to deface the fine frames that carry you over hill and dale. Or a car. Whatever. Your choice. I hang out at donut shops and stick ‘em on police cruisers, cause I’m edgy.
Bravo also to each of you for spinning your tough guy yarns. I read them in slack-jawed awe. Some of you have pedaled the road to Painsville and come out better for it. Others of you have just done some really stupid stuff and lived to share the cautionary tales. Some of you live in that murky space between the two. You should be proud.
The main thing I learned from reading them all is that I’m not that tough, and that’s a valuable lesson. There are whole vistas of pain and suffering still waiting out there for me to explore. So much to look forward to. So thanks for that.
This week continues the fun with Fleche Wallone on Wednesday and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday. Let the suffering continue!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International