Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ode to a Headwind

"Spring" has arrived here in hoary New England, with quotation marks in full force. Time again to trot out that trusty piece of doggerel I penned a handful of years ago, and even tune it up a bit. Hope you enjoy the additions.
Ode to a Headwind

When the trees are all blown halfway over
And grit in your eyes makes you half-blind at best
When the handlebars fight you like cobras
and the roar of the wind in your ears makes you deaf 
When the roads are all pot-holed and mangled
And you struggle to keep your front wheel pointing straight
When you ride on the flats at 80-degree angle
At a glacial, detestable, techtonic rate

when the road surface looks like swiss cheese
and your teeth barely stay in your mouth
when the wind chill reads six degrees
and the birds are all flying back south

That's when you know that you're cycling New England
(Might as well go do an ultra in Finland)
When you're cycling New England in March
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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Goals: Both Helpful and Harmful

Whatever you ride, however you ride, for the love of everything real, PLEASE: Ride for your own reasons, ride to your own standards, and if you don't know what they are for all the screaming out there about what's important to others, just keep riding and keep thinking, and it will come to you, slowly, in increments.
~ Velophoria, September 25, 2013
I got back into biking with a passion seven-and-a-half years ago, and very quickly started swallowing all sorts of ideas about what kind of rider I should be, from all the media messages around me, like Internet message boards and cycling magazines. 

I set out to make myself in the mold of those lean, tough cheetahs in the Big Photos of the Big Races. In the process, especially at the beginning, I literally made myself sick. Long-term knee problems. Exhaustion. Pneumonia. Black moods from having to be off the bike and miss training.

Several time, I saw the light, and set off in search of my own muse, only to find some passionate dude on the other side of the country with a blog set up about exactly that kind of weird riding, with gorgeous photos and eloquent posts. VoilĂ : another picture in my head.

I've gone back and forth on the idea of formally competing so many times, my patient wife must shudder every time I mention I'm thinking of signing up for my first-ever race. 

I'm thankful for those painfully unreachable goals. Their allure has led me to glorious adventures, a boatload of knowledge, and even brief, exhilarating whiffs of fitness approaching the very lowest levels of the cheetahs. Over the years, I've gone from dyed-in-the-wool-jersey roadie to hard-core gravel rider to zealous fat bike convert to baggy-shorts-wearing mountain bike addict.

Even more interesting, something like a tiny reputation has grown up around me. It's far more humble than the one I was aiming for, but I love its quirkiness: I'm known as a guy who can point you to most of the roads and trails worth riding in the area, the dude with the unique bikes, the one connected to the local bike shop that everyone knows and loves. 

I spent a fair amount of time angsting over feeling forever trapped in that limbo between recreational rider and fit competitive cyclist. The fact is, I'm neither of those things, or perhaps some third thing that doesn't even come overlap with them at all. 

I guess what I really am is both much simpler and more complex: I'm a guy who loves to have new experiences on two wheels. 

I like that description, because it allows for the times I feel sprightly and torture myself with the idea of signing up for a race at the last minute, the times I want to meander at a crawl and find a new lane just a few miles away, the times I put together a six-township epic over hill and dale, and the time I want to do that 15-mile gravel hill climb. It allows for whatever new bike experience is over the horizon, or whatever old one is calling to me from the mists of time. It even allows me to get off the bike when my knees hurt, and let them heal.

This is not a young man's lesson. It's something that had to be forced on me by the unquestionable, concrete limits of middle age; less energy, body problems, loss of motivation for things that aren't right for me.

When I befriend both my limitations and strengths in cycling, I can thrive with them fully in the light. And that ripples out to the rest of my life. Beyond the disappointments of youth and middle age lies the freedom from those tyrannical pictures. They're like a coat I borrowed years ago. It doesn't really fit me or even look good on me, and yet I've been wearing it all this time. Now, I can finally sit down and sew my own coat of many colors, and wear it confidently and comfortably.

I like to say to my clients, "If you don't do your thing, who will?" If you go over to the giant bubble where the masses hang out, and act and dress like them, there's a small, crucial hole in the world where the real you--quirky, flawed, strong, flavorful--used to be. That's a pity. 

Let's live out to the edges of our true selves, and, when it's time to go, perhaps we'll be able to say good-bye with a sense of resolution instead of regret. Seems like a worthy goal--for riding, and for living.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Spend a Night in Jail

Well, it's been a long time
I shouldn't have left you
without a strong rhyme to step to
Think of how many weak shows you slept through --
times up. Sorry I kept you. 
     ~ Rakim 
Personal events, losses, changes. It's been a bumpy fall and winter here in Velophoriaville. I'm reporting in from the front.

Been thinking a lot lately about rebuilding the egine of my life. Stripping down and turbo-charging my aging creativity. Been doing the same thing creatively for a long time. From the time I was nine, sitting at my mom's ancient Olivetti, banging out nonsensical Krazy Kat stories. Ever since.

I'm listeing to creative people in different disciplines. Artists, activists, clergy, filmmakers. Today, I came across a few of the four thousand things Werner Herzog has said about being creative. For anyone who's stuck in the muddy middle of their life, may this be your next to-do list:

Always take the initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the clichĂ© ... Keep your eyes open ... Carry bolt cutters everywhere. Thwart institutional cowardice. [My personal favorite.] Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Take your fate into your own hands … Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape [okay, also my favorite]… Guerrilla tactics are best … Get used to the bear behind you.

I don't care if you are laying on the couch playing Candy Crush all day with a film idea rattling around  the back of your mind... working a full-time job with dreams of hitting the local open mic stage... or crafting your next bike trip or homemade saddle bag. Do it right, and how you pimp your ride can be an expression of your innermost self. What you wear to work, too. The plans for your homemade chicken coop. Whatever it is, do it right: do it as an expression of who you are, warts and all. The dangerous parts -- the righteous anger, the pollyanna-ish, sunshiny bliss, the black questions that have no bottom -- go there. If you're not afraid of what a project will reveal about you, don't bother starting it. You're spinning your wheels.

Just to be clear, I'm not advocating quitting your day job. And I'm definitely not saying "do what you love and the money will follow."That phrase (and book) led me into near-bankruptcy 15 years ago.

Here's what I'm saying: Do what you love, period. Find a way. And don't just do something; say something.  Take it into those places that scare you way down inside. That story that makes you say, "Yeah, that would do the world some good, it needs to be said. But I can't say that out loud…" That's your next project.

Make it one page or five minutes long.

But make it.

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(With thanks to for the inspiring Herzog excerpts on their site.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What My Mountain Bike Taught Me About Life

If a bike falls in the woods...
Little did I suspect when I bought my Salsa Mukluk in January of this year—and later converted it to a rigid 29er and then a fat-front mountain bike -- that it was destined to teach me as much about how to live life as about how to ride bikes.

At the time, it was alien to me, this feeling of teetering off on two wheels down trails I might hesitate to essay in hiking boots. Being a roadie for thirty-plus years, biking meant smooth speed, the feeling of flying while still on the ground. The most technical I ever got was leaning the bike, not my body, into a turn on a fast, winding descent. 

Variable traction, sizable obstacles, branches flying at my head? These were not part of my picture. Mountain bikes, to me, were inelegant. Lumbering, steampunk contraptions, elaborately contrived to navigate places bicycles just weren't meant to go in the first place.

When I first rode the fabled Earl's Trails in Amherst, Mass., however, all that went out the window. This was fun, with a capital F! I was riding not by the forest, I was in it, right amongst the breathing trees and living soil. And the challenge! No longer did I need to ride for five hours through five towns to feel I'd actually accomplished something. A couple hours straight up and down the side of a mountain was plenty.

My lust for this new challenge knew no bounds. Starting at 50, though, meant there were few peers who would take me under their wing. People my age who were mountain biking had been doing so for decades. The beginners were mostly 20- and 30-somethings, who made up for lack of skills with the innate strength and grace of youth. I couldn't keep up with them, either -- though that hasn't stopped me from trying. 

Most of what I learned, I picked up through sheer diligence, or that failsafe library of the people: the Internet. Here are some lessons that have accrued as I've gone from rank novice to almost-skilled beginner. 

Where you look is where you go. 

This most familiar rule reflects the Karate Kid nature of so many mountain bike skills. When riding any trail I don't know by heart, I have to be constantly aware of my focus, which can be quite meditative in its own way. If I'm navigating a narrow, off-camber section with a steep drop on the outside edge, it simply becomes urgent. 

The act of forcibly turning my gaze and attitude away from the drop and toward the bend in the trail, repeated over and over as I meet new obstacles, seems to me as much about personal growth as about skill-building. Who wouldn't want to take a more constructive focus into their daily life?

The tighter you grab, the less control you have.

Really, it's amazing to me that a school of Zen hasn't grown up around this sport—some monastery in a remote mountain fastness of Tibet, replete with a garage full of tools, tubes, and grease-stained rags. Unlike road biking, so many off-road skills are counterintuitive.

Flying down a boudler-strewn descent, every brain cell wants to cinch up my arm muscles to brace me for the next impact. (Especially on a rigid bike like mine.) Locked elbows, hands, and wrists, however, will lead to dangerous rebounds off of obstacles, and will eventually twist my front wheel perpendicular to my path, sending me flying over the bars or skidding off the trail into a tree. Over time, I'm learning to keep a loose-but-sure grip on the bars, with deeply bent, flexy elbows absorbing most of the shock. It's amazing how the front wheel will find its own path through rock gardens when I use my hands only to keep it from the most extreme angles.

Speed is not always your friend. 

The popular idea that "faster equals more flow" is perpetuated by young riders, who can afford to crash--financially, physically, and temporally. This is one case in which intuition can be your friend.

Sometimes a little more speed will, indeed, get me over the scary obstacles just down the trail, and certainly, braking out of fear is usually a mistake. But you have to learn the limits of your bike and your skills. Often, scrubbing speed and proceding carefully over slippery roots or a craggy rock garden is best. 

I like to focus on momentum more than speed. If I shift up or gently squeeze the rear brake, and pedal so as to constantly apply moderate power, I can usually make it all the way through a sketchy patch with little trouble, and more control than if I'd tried to bomb it.

Speed can also be just plain dangerous. My motto, oft repeated to myself on gnarly descents, is, "Don't ride faster than you can see." If the jarring of the front wheel means that my glasses are doing a flamenco dance on my nose, I can't see the what's coming up. We all know what comes after that.

Which leads to the next axiom:

You have to go slow to go fast.

Yup, another "wax on, wax off" moment. Slowing into a turn to accelerate out of it, dealing with craggy rock gardens at the pace that's right for you; these will help you stay upright. 

Upright is faster than not upright.

Not only are you slower if you fall a lot -- that's obvious. You're also slower if you simply get off-course a lot by blazing into sharp turns and correcting too late, or if you have to dab your foot every few minutes. Staying upright isn't as sexy as "ripping" a trail (a phrase I have very mixed feelings about) but you may very well beat your more impulsive friends to the next intersection. 

When I was learning to solo on the guitar, I had to constantly, willfully slow myself down while practicing complicated sections. It was painful speeding them up so slowly that I barely noticed the difference, but before I knew it, I could play the passage at speed, sounding like I'd been born playing it. You don't get that kind of finesse by bombing trails before you're ready. All you get is either injury, or a rush of relief that you didn't die. 

Personally, I get more satisfaction out of skillfully cleaning a section of trail at five miles an hour than I do blasting it at 15 miles an hour and barely escaping with my neck intact. 

*     *     *

Now, I wouldn't undertake to try and prove to you that I've become a more focused, relaxed, and self-assured person as a result of applying these principles every time I swing a leg over my hybrid Mukluk. But, as I see it, just writing this post is evidence that the ideas are taking root, however slowly.

That's a heck of a lot more personal growth than I could have claimed if I'd chickened out and tried to find yet another road biking challenge. 

Well, Daniel-san, I have to get back to catching flies with chopsticks. 

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Riding the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst

A quick, late-night photo report on a stellar ride today on single-track I'd not explored before: The Robert Frost  Trail, specifically the segment from behind Cherry Hill golf course in North Amherst to Atkins Reservoir, and back again.

I started out by climbing the long hill up the south side of the golf course, for which effort I was amply rewarded at the top.

Working my way past the back of the course and on to the RFT led me through much ruggedness. If you have full suspension, bring it. If you got no suspension (beyond a fat front tire) like me -- leave the Advil out for that night when you go to bed. You'll be aching here and there.

A long climb and some road crossing brought me to a narrow, off-camber passage up to Bridge Street, with a sparkling autumnal brook crashing down below. I walked much of this very narrow and rocky/rooty passage, and found that plenty challenging as it was. Note the thin trail at bottom right, squeezing past the tree.

Further on, and more road crossings down the trail, a picture-perfect bend in the river.

Finally -- for today, at least -- a lovely rolling section between Flat Hills and the Atkins Reservoir, worth the whole bouncy, steep trip to that point. The vista at the res was of the moody Octoberish variety .

On the return trip, I discovered a brief short cut that removed the worst of the dangerous, narrow, and stupid-steep stuff. Eight miles total, and almost 900 feet of climbing. You can bet I'll be back, as soon as possible.

In a only somewhat coincidental note, I've been reading a Frost collection this week, rediscovering the many faces of this master many think of as the avuncular rock-ribbed uncle, but who, in fact, knew as much of the dark as he did of the light that both make our home place so entrancing.

As I say to anyone who'll listen, people come from all around the world to see this area at this time of year. Get out there -- and take a few minutes at the vistas to let it soak in. 

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.