Padraig and I have been in the same zip code exactly once in the last four-and-a-half years, the length of our collaboration here on RKP. Nonetheless, I count him as one of my closest friends. We maintain what I like to think of as an old school correspondence, long emails spanning the distance between small editorial questions and life’s great challenges. I don’t write to anyone the things and volume of things that I share with Padraig.
And as we’ve been working together, the tone and tenor of the site have evolved. Where once we wrote largely about the pros (and some bemoan the lack of pro commentary here now), RKP seems to have evolved into a site more inclined to sift through life’s sundry.
It was almost comical when, two weeks ago, we asked where the readership is in their lives and discovered that the lion’s share (at least of those willing to comment) are exactly where we are, somewhere in their 40s, trying to manage family and career. And our ages don’t really matter, and our careers don’t really matter, and how manage it all doesn’t really matter either. The thing is, we’re all working on the same challenges. Birds of a feather, we flock.
And the contributors who find us, who submit work for consideration, are doing what we’re doing. They’ve arrived at that point in their lives where the urge to find better, and not necessarily more fun, ways to live has become important. The bike provides a perfect analogy, a perfect vehicle for this pursuit, because not every moment in the saddle is pleasant. We have fetishized suffering because it can be a useful component in getting better, both at cycling and at living.
In this sense, riding bikes is spiritual, right? It’s how we connect to each other. It’s how we get to know ourselves properly. It strips away that layer of obliviousness and draws the attention to a fine point.
The bike remains the thing that draws us together, but the site is less and less about the bike and more and more about using the bike as a lens through which to see ourselves more clearly. There is no RKP without the bike. We will always be thinking about cycling, but the urge to hold it at arm’s length, to treat it as something separate from ourselves, a curiosity to be examined, has mostly gone.
Rather than being a website that reviews bikes (we will keep doing this), comments on races (this, too), bemoans the excesses of those who make their living at the pedals (ayup), we have become more of a meeting room, a place for cyclists who are working hard at being better people to gather and discuss what works, and what doesn’t, even if sometimes that means evaluating a new to market jacket or wading into the moral shallows of racing for money.
Padraig and I maybe started out writing at you, riding along in the guise of quasi-journalists, but it’s hard to stay on the front for long like that. Sometimes we have the form for it. Sometimes we don’t.
Hopefully, as the site has become more personal, we have settled more comfortably into the pack, this laughing group which is neither too fast nor too troubled about getting to the finish line. We are no longer working hard at being the experts. Now, like you, we’re just working hard at being ourselves.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
At 5:45am, heavy fog sits in all the hollows and rolls up to the roadside and leaves everything beneath it wet. We park in the fresh-cut field and walk over to the registration tent where all is moving along in the proper subdued, pre-dawn manner.
During this, my third year at D2R2 (Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee), I realized how much I love this tent. The volunteers who staff it are uniformly cheerful and kind. There is never a time when someone isn’t having a friendly conversation there or warm food isn’t being spooned onto a plate. It feels like a good launching point for what will be my biggest day on the bike all year, and I hold it in my head throughout as an oasis at the end, those conversations multiplying exponentially, the smell of pulled pork heavy on the evening breeze. If I can just get back to that still, happy place, all will be well.
Soon we are at the business of nervously pinning on numbers and pulling on gloves. Everyone in the field is in some state of undress, bib straps dangling, shoes being buckled and re-buckled. The long route, the 180km (14,777 ft vertical) , leaves first, and so those who have camped in the adjacent field are still only just stirring in their sleeping bags or stumbling over to the main area for coffee and a bagel.
We roll out later than we intend to, as we always do, but there are enough miles in front of us that we can’t spend too much time caring about timeliness. D2R2 is not a ride you bang out and then head home to mow the lawn. D2R2 is your day, and the nature of the riding, mostly up and down in alternately daunting and thrilling bursts, defies your ability to over-plan it.
The morning is cool, verging on cold, just at the edge of arm-warmer range, but I resolve to go without so as to have less to carry throughout the day. My over-sized seat bag has multiple tubes, CO2 cartridges and tools in it; my jersey pockets are stuffed with food. I feel ready, in as much as you can ever be ready for a thing like D2R2.
Almost straight away we are climbing and we are on dirt. These are the event’s two main characteristics. If you are coming here to ride this course, any of the courses, you will be climbing and you will be on dirt.
Another primary characteristic is creaking. Chain ring bolts. Bottom brackets. Spokes. All of them straining and lurching against the grade. Torque making itself heard. Dozens of wheezing machines, off key, out of time. And then the whole mess popping and cracking down the descents. Rocks pinging off aluminum rims. Chains slapping stays. The occasional WHOOP of a rider whose rear wheel has momentarily lost traction in the sand.
After the first water break the riding goes from serious to extremely serious. We are only ever going up or coming down. It fatigues the body, but also the mind as it requires close and constant concentration. I force myself to run back down the cassette on the descents, to milk every ounce of gravity for what it’s worth. Up over 40 miles, over 50, we are just grinding them out, stroke-by-stroke.
And then, at last, there is a long, twisting descent that careens into the lunch stop at a grassy area by an idyllic covered bridge. Smiling faces pile in. Sandy, the svengali of this particular brand of suffering, is there, as he always is, stalking about in his heavy boots and shorts, making sure everyone is ok, but more importantly that everyone is having fun. The morning’s stories are already tumbling out. Minor crashes. Mechanicals. A general sense of disbelief at the scenery and the effort it takes to reach it.
If I am honest, I have been riding with a stomach full of doubt all morning. I have done the thing you must not do, which is to think too much about the miles to come rather than focusing on the road beneath your wheels. At lunch, that doubt lifts. I still feel good. I have seen the sun rise through the pines and haven’t put a tire wrong yet. We are past the halfway point.
I stuff my face with food, a sandwich, a handful of cookies, a banana, a bag of chips. I down three ibuprofen with a soda, and I’m ready to go. I know I can do the rest. My companions are going well, and in the early afternoon we crest four steep rises in a row with little effort. Then the course eases up, gives us some long stretches of smooth, easy travel. My Garmin, naively, reins in its estimate of our arrival time.
Free of the constraints of self-doubt and full of calories, the afternoon at D2R2 becomes a sort of spiritual experience. All year, as I ride my local hills and trails, as I incorporate dirt roads into as many road rides as I can, as I sit at my desk day-dreaming of my best moments on the bike, I am thinking of this part of D2R2. This is the part where I am finally inured to the suffering. This is the part where I am able to pick my head up from the bars and see the sweeping vistas, to smile at everyone on the road, knowing that we are all in that same magical place.
We roll inexorably to the finish, anxious to be done, to be back under that tent, but also savoring each mile. Of course, Sandy and his wide grin never allow it to be easy. There is a wall called Archambo, 27% of impossibility, loose and stupid in its difficulty. Of the 40 riders I see there, one makes it up. All others walk.
Then, somewhere past the 90th mile, the road pitches up vertiginously again. Patten Hill Road is a long, dusty, stair-step climb that pushes my heart rate dangerously close to its maximum. I have to find that point between blowing up and falling over, and somehow, just as I suspect I will put a foot down, the angles all tilt in my favor again. Then we are into the last rest station, water melon juice dripping off our chins.
We feel done and begin, at least mentally, to congratulate ourselves. We are not done.
At mile 105 we begin a serpentine downhill through deep sand and large stone. This is, perhaps, the worst road of the day, and it pushes each of us to the brink. Our forearms burn from the effort of steering and braking. Our legs go heavy from pushing through the soft surface. We are crawling again, so close to the finish, so close to finished.
Perhaps the final distinguishing characteristic of D2R2 is that it is relentless. You will need to ride hard all the way to the end.
By the time we spill back onto pavement, adrenaline has taken over the controls and we barrel into Deerfield at 20mph, headed for the salvation of the tent. We finish through the timing corral, which is, in our case, really just a way for the organizers to know we’re not still out there, dead in a ditch somewhere. And then we’re back at the car, half-dressed again, just trying to get some of the way back to clean and comfortable before attacking the buffet line.
I am not a high-fiver, by nature, but back in the tent I high-five Jesse, who I met on the 115km route two years ago. He lives just off the course himself, and seems to know everybody. We had ridden together throughout the day. He has the misfortune of being as
slow fast as I am.
I also high-five the guys from Brooklyn who I suffered through the 150km route with last year. They wonder why they only ever see me when they’re at the very end of their rope. I high-five this guy and this guy. I might be delirious with fatigue.
I down a pile of mac n’ cheese and another of barbecue. I stuff down a roll. Sodas disappear like singles at the craps table. Everything settles. Someone mentions that there is hot coffee.
It’s just getting dark when I leave the comfort of the tent. I don’t want to leave. I want to bask in the warm glow a bit longer, but the ibuprofen I gobbled at lunch have long since quit and my back is starting to complain about the folding chair I’m in. Still, it’s hard to walk away from D2R2. I spend so much of my year idealizing it, visualizing it, looking forward to it. It has a strange hold on me.
And now I find myself in the same predicament I did in 2011 and 2012, sitting in front of a keyboard, trying to get my head around something larger than myself. There is the scale of it, 180km, nearly 15,000ft of climbing, a whole day on the bike. There is the scenery, picture book New England, technicolor and high-res. There are the people, the ones I only see at D2R2, the ones I meet every year (Hi, Dave Kraus!), and the ones who ride with me. And then there’s what happens in my head.
I never believe, despite the evidence, that I can have a day like this on my bike, this big, this beautiful. But year after year, D2R2 delivers. Whether that’s by design or by accident (or both), I can’t really tell you. This ride will push me forward all year, and maybe a piece of inspiration that size is worth whatever price and whatever effort it takes to get.
He is him, and I am me. This ought to be evident, but for some reason, initially, it is not. He is riding with one bottle, and I have two. His cassette looks like a small pine cone, mine a stack of pancakes. His quads challenge the elasticity of his bibs, while mine fit comfortably.
In the first hour, I try to be him, matching his speed if not his massive, crushing cadence. By the end of that first hour, I ought to have learned the lesson of our otherness, but I am stubborn, nigh on pig-headed, and so I go on pretending I am him and he is me.
We are flying. This is a thing he can do, and I can pretend to do, but apparently not for more than an hour-and-a-half. This became clear as he disappeared up a hill in front of me, still turning a huge gear despite the incline. He drops me without noticing, nonchalant, oblivious. I am an apple core flung to the roadside. Maybe an animal will happen by and carry me off.
But he sits up on the descents and I catch back on, still clawing at the air for oxygen as he turns back to the road, puts his head down and yanks me through the air in front of him. We do this over and over, silent except for the sound of my rasping breath.
Later we catch on with a larger group, and I am glad to see him go off on his own with faster riders. And yet somehow I still don’t have the sense to be myself. I ride to the front of the slower set, bridge the gap to the front, and then I’m on the back of his group again. It makes sense to me in the moment, as though I am just doing what’s in my legs to do.
This goes well for about 10 miles.
Then I am the yo-yo, straining at the end of the string, the leaf blown from the tree, drifting alone in the wind, finally there in no-man’s land by myself. I think to sit up and wait for the shelter of the slower group, but I resign myself to own this loneliness, to learn the lessons of my many mistakes.
That’s when it first occurs to me that I am me, and he is him. Training will not make me him. Persistence will not make me him. Cleverness will not make me him. He could be anybody who is constitutionally stronger than I am. It doesn’t matter.
A headwind kicks up and I am just crawling against the steepness, taking it full in the face. I concentrate only on moving forward. I question why I ride bikes. What business do I have even being here? I deserve to be alone (this much is true). A half-an-hour of slow pedaling and dark thinking pass in what feels like two hours.
And then he is behind me again suddenly, yelling a cheerful greeting that scares me very nearly off the shoulder of the road. They have taken a wrong turn, looped up and around and back onto the route, and they are with me again. I smile and curse my luck but resolve not to follow them again, to let them go and simply get back to my hard, lonely work.
But it doesn’t go that way. Apparently, I am not the only one who is not him. Two from the lead group have cracked, and they sit in with me, and we shamble onwards. Shamefully, I am buoyed by their suffering, and as I choke down synthetic calories and finish my water bottles I begin to rally.
I am still not him, but finally being me is not as painful as it has been. We all ride together to the end, some of us more happily than others. And then we’re eating cheeseburgers directly from the grill, swilling sugary sodas. The smell of hops takes the air. Feet go up.
The second group shows up an hour later, and by then I am mainly human again. We swap stories of suffering and joy. After the ride, we are all each other, and I suppose this is what’s important.
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