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
Stop! Do you hear that? That tense silence between the Flanders and Ardennes Classics? It’s like that frozen moment where everyone on the group ride looks up, sees the town line sign, and does the difficult math that will determine whether or not they’ll even bother to sprint for it.
Right now, even as the week winds down, the pro riders are assessing their physical condition, their dodgy knees and raspy chests, trying to decide whether they even dare to start Amstel Gold. Because now the season is under way. They’ve been up mountains and over cobbles. They’ve crashed. They’ve put themselves through wringers and limped across finishes into the merciful hands of soigneurs and masseurs.
We should all be so lucky.
In honor of this tense juncture, we would like to talk about YOUR hardest ride. What was it? Where did you go, and why was it so hard? Was it the distance? A crash? An injury? A mechanical? Did you bleed? How long did it take to recover? Give us detail. Exaggerate. Paint it in vivid, thick strokes like Van Gogh or Van Halen.
While we’re at it, name the winner of Amstel Gold. The first post with the right rider gets a free RKP sticker pack. I’ll give you a hint, it won’t be Cancellara. You’re welcome.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It’s still winter. It’s still cold. There’s snow down. Ice. Sand and grit. The wind is a flying dagger and the pavement is a black hole. Every night as I ride home in the dark, pedaling in and out of the glare of a million hostile headlights, I feel as though I’m on the moon. The wintertime road is a lonely place, a seeming light year from spring.
They say that discretion is the better part of valor, and that truism has been echoing in my head for the last month. Some weeks ago, I rode home with the air temperature at 9 and the wind gusting to 45mph. It was, as the kids say, epic. And perhaps stupid. My doctor friends warned me of the possible consequences of “exercising” in extreme temperatures. My wife looked at me askance and shook her head. Her eyes said, “Would it have killed you to take the bus?”
Of course, I’ve been reading a lot of my fellow sufferers lately. They talk about the form they’ll have in the spring, the misery of couchtime, the boredom of the trainer.
But I come back to discretion. Perhaps it would be better to take this time off, rest my body and hit the spring fresh. I could scale the mountain of books by my bedside with two full hours of reading on the train each day. The trainer is boring, but I can do laundry while I spin in place. To everything turn, turn, turn.
This winter is taking its toll on me. I am physically exhausted from riding into the wind every day. I have a chest cold that is moving into its third week of residency in my thorax. My skin appears to be sagging like the legs of a fat man’s bike shorts. I am slow. I am worn smooth, like a river stone. I am a winter shadow of my summer self.
Is this what the last section of pavé in Roubaix feels like? Is this what the third week of a Grand Tour comes down to? Is this my Mont Ventoux?
The word ‘toll’ denotes a price paid for some privilege, usually passage over a road. In that regard, I’ve certainly thrown the metaphoric coins in the metaphoric basket by continuing to scale the snow bank in front of my house with my bicycle slung over my shoulder.
In a tertiary definition, Webster’s also talks of that price being “grievous or ruinous.” In this connotation of the word, the toll is seen to be excessive, and maybe this is how I resolve my enduring ambivalence about this daily struggle. On the one hand, I’m paying for a privilege. I’m gaining access to something others aren’t allowed. And if that toll isn’t, in the final analysis, either grievous or ruinous, then perhaps the strictest discretion, those bits of reason that would put me on the couch in front of winter reruns or on the trainer, in the basement, next to the dryer, that discretion is not the better part of valor.
The better part of valor is softening your knees as you roll through a patch of slushy ice, keeping your weight back slightly to keep the front wheel from sliding out from underneath you. And, upon arrival, telling whomever asks that no, it’s not really that cold out.