Wednesday, December 31, 2008

More Fun than Cycling...?!?




Okay, this isn't cycling. But c'mon, admit it: You're envious. Even Paul Fournel, the godpappy of French cycling poetry and lore, admits that the only difference between the bike and unassisted human flight is that "the bike is possible, and flight isn't, yet." Well, Paul: Voilá!

I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I like scary, high-speed descents on the bike well enough. But I don't seek out thrills for their own sake. The reason I would love to try wingsuit basejumping isn't for the rush. It's simply because I've always wanted to fly. Hasn't everyone?

And let's face it, these guys are flying -- I mean, like Superman flying.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Torture Room Less Torturous

This...


...leads to this.

Above, you see version 2.0 of MIMIC: The Meteorologically Immune Musculocardiorespiratory Improvement Center.

Okay, okay, it's our study. But the good news this year is that, having moved our butts all the way out to Western Mass, we're currently living in an apartment with no basement. The reason that's good news is that it means I don't have to ride the rollers in the basement. The missus gave me permission to ride upstairs, in the large, airy room that also holds our desks and a couple clothes closets.

I already spend way too much time in this room, because it's where I keep my stretching and physical therapy tools -- a big plastic bin filled with foam rollers (ouch!), yoga mat, tennis balls of all sizes (used for rolling, like the foam rollers -- again, ouch!), playground balls for doing wall slides, the shorter version of The Stick, and so on and so forth. Because of my IT band issues, I already stretch, foam-roll or otherwise torture myself in there at least twice a day. Now that Old Man Winter's arrived, I also spend some number of hours in there each week goin' round and round on the roller-thingies. No matter how miserable I get doing mile after mile (and -- as the saying goes -- not getting any closer to the wall), I try to remind myself how much better my current roller set-up is than last year.

  • I have two big windows. (I had one tiny one, far away, last year.)
  • I have a TV with a VCR built-in. (I only had my iPod last year.) (And I'm now interested in trading with anyone who has VHS tapes of cycling races, endurance sport movies, etc. Just post a comment.)
  • I have a comfortable, relatively bright, attractive room. (The basement was dark and dank, nothing but old cement everywhere.)
  • I don't have to clonk down two flights of stairs in my cleats and kit to start riding (and then realize I forgot something and clonk back up, and back down -- ad infinitum. On one of those trips, my cycling shoes were guaranteed to slip on the carpeted stairs and I'd go flying). I just walk in the room and hop on.
  • And get this: The bathroom is right across the hall. Woohoo for the small luxuries!

Let us now praise indoor riding! (OK, let us at least be less grumpy about it.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Velophoric Year

I love this cartoon. The first time I saw it, I was standing in the service area of my former LBS (much lamented), where it was posted on the wall. (Click on the graphic to enlarge it.)

The beauty behind the humor, of course, it's that there's so much truth to it. Cycling can be much, much more unpleasant than work. And I'm not talking about the long hill-climb or final interval unpleasant; we all not-so-secretly love that pain, or we wouldn't train in this crazy sport. I'm talking about frustration... dark nights of soul... cursing the day you first rode a bike... That kind of thing.

Now, Velophoriacs don't come to this blog for sarcasm or hopelessness. I fall into the "What you put your attention on, grows" school of thought, and, being a therapist myself, I try really hard to walk the talk of staying positive. But it's also important to be real, and part of reality is that even the best parts of life have some extremely crappy moments. Sometimes, especially the best parts of life. So, given that New Year's is right around the corner, and in the spirit of making light of the darkness, I'll do a classic "Year in Review" type piece by re-capping some of my low points for the last year.

In the 15 months since I started training again (after decades away), most of my frustration has come from injury, as is well documented here on Velophoria. Maybe four or five of those months, at most, have been free of worries about or pain from recurrent knee problems. And there were far too many rides cut short, the second half of which I usually spent cursing and grinding away in pain, trying to spin and get home with as little further injury as possible. Also, lots and lots of riding hours spent soft-pedaling, wondering when I'd be able to discover my limits again. Better than not riding at all, but pretty gray winter days, nonetheless.

There were sources of frustration beyond injury, too. I haven't had the money to get the equipment that reflects the type and level of riding I do. I also don't have the money to get a proper, full-scale bike fit, which would probably alleviate the recurring injury. There have been repairs during which I have crouched sweating and cursing next to my bike, running through the directions for the fourth time and still not getting the right results. There were the six or eight weeks of barely riding while recovering from classic overtraining (written up here). I was caught in numerous thunderstorms of biblical proportions 20 miles from home (like this one, for example). The one in Acadia National Park was just miserable, though the first half of the ride was blissful.

I was pretty frustrated when I first moved out here to beautiful Western Massachusetts, because the terrain is way more hilly than eastern Mass; my average speed went way down and I felt like a much weaker rider all of a sudden. That's changed a bit since then, and I've become a stronger rider for it, but I'm still adjusting to the hills to some degree.

Finally, there's the frustration that comes from being a fan of the sport and having to constantly adjust one's head to the "new normal," all the doping, the scandals, the politics and idiotic moves from governing bodies. I took that one head-on in June, in one of my favorite posts ever.

Now, I could sit here and spin all these frustrations into positives, and it's no surprise to loyal readers that each of these challenges has produced its own excellent crop of rewards and lessons for me. I won't bore you with that here. I was just looking through old graphics files and came upon an excellent Calvin and Hobbes, and decided we could all use a laugh, before we turn the calendar over and bump up into Base 2. Happy Season!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Stockings


Okay, okay -- I promise I won't turn Velophoria into one of those blogs that feature mile-long posts on the minute details of the writer's every piece of gear. But it's Christmas time, and I have to give a shout-out to the good people at Smartwool. The above is a (bad) photo of my gift to myself this year. (Yes, the budget is tight for us this year, as for all "Main Streeters.")

I've only owned one other pair of Smartwools, also in the "Hiking" style. I've had them for nearly ten years, and worn them countless times per year. They are, hands down (feet down?), the best pair of active-wear socks I have ever owned. They might even get my vote for "Best Piece of Active-wear, Period." They are soft inside -- softer than flannel pajamas, soft as a newborn lamb. They support my arches. They wick like crazy. And they are warm.

When I say they are warm, I mean I-have-a-wood-stove-in-each-of-my-shoes warm. I haven't yet been able to afford a pair of winter booties for cycling, so I wear my toughest socks and my very worn-out toe covers over my cycling shoes. If I have the Smartwools on, I can ride down to the mid-20s (Farenheit) and my toes will be fine. I can even ride down to the teens, and it will still be tolerable. Amazing. And then, I'll get home and my feet will be dry. Dry and warm. Doesn't that thought bring a wistful smile? If you do any kind of winter training, it does.

So, I bought my second pair. And I brought them home and compared them to my old pair. And here's the best part. After fiddling with both pairs for a minute, trying to see what changes they'd made to the product, two things happened: 1) I realized they'd made no visible changes whatever to the product, and 2) I got them confused, and it took me a full minute to figure out which two were the new ones. That's how little wear the old pair showed after ten-plus years of steady use. Can you think of a more ringing endorsement?

Thorlos. Sock Guy. The fashionable ankle-highs from the big-ticket European cycling gear manufacturers . Each has its place. But I heartily doubt they'll ever supplant the Smartwool in my footwear pantheon.

I get that happy, jumpy feeling inside when I think about them: My present to myself. Is there a better way to spend $17 in this austere year?

(Actually, I got them on sale, and paid way less than that. Stick that in your Christmas stocking and smoke it.)

Souplesse, Refined

After my post a couple days ago about the connection between rollers and souplesse, I thought I would ask the good folks who hang out at BikeForums.net whether anyone had a photo I could use to illustrate souplesse. It's such a visual thing, I thought it would be best to add an example. I started a thread, asking for just that.

I should have known that people who spend hours hanging out on an Internet forum arguing about cycling arcana (people like - ahem - me) would never just placidly post a photo and go back to lurking. Heaven forfend!

To be fair, as the thread gained steam, it became clear that this beautiful, slightly mysterious French term is as hard to illustrate as it is to define. What ended up happening was more like a debate crossed with a lecture in cycling history, complete with audiovisual aids.

Instead of choosing one example and attaching it to the original post, I feel compelled to share with you some of my favorite answers. Time constraints prohibit me from thanking everybody who posted. Even the condescending or cantankerous answers offered wisdom. Go to the thread (linked in first paragraph) if you're interested in more.

First credit goes to those who were brave enough to actually fulfill my request by posting a photo. There were pix of Jens Voigt at full throttle; of Jacques Anquetil looking suave; of Lance Armstrong in his inimitable, sleek time trial position inside a wind tunnel; one brave soul even posted a pic of himself on his time trial bike, doing trainer time in the basement. He wrote "lol" at the bottom of his post. Good man!

Others expressed frustration that they couldn't find a good photo of someone they thought exemplified the term. Francesco Moser was one example, put forth by QueerPunk. I Googled some photos of him, and boy, he could look beautiful on a bike:


Though citing a trackie as an example of souplesse is a slight breach of etiquette, I have to confess, this is about as close as a photo came to embodying the idea. It makes you catch your breath.

Then, the conversation deepened. CreakyKnees was the first to open Pandora's Box:

I dunno man, to me, souplesse is about motion; it's hard for a photo to capture that.

I pooh-poohed this at first (call it a knee-jerk reaction) until folks starting jumping on his bandwagon, and some of those posted links to video. CreakyKnees, you were right as rain.

So, the ultimate winner of the thread contest was – ta-DAAA! – dmb2786, who posted a link to a YouTube video covering the history of the Tour de France. From about 5:40 on, you can watch Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, the closest thing the Italians have had to a national saint, certifiably embodying cycling elegance:



Do not miss watching this poetry in motion. In it, another famous racer is quoted remarking on Coppi, making as good a definition of that squirrely term souplesse as I've ever heard:
He caresses rather than grips the handlebars. At the end of each pedal stroke, his ankles flex gracefully. All the moving parts turn in oil. His long face appears like the blade of knife as he climbs without apparent effort, like a great artist painting a watercolor.
Finally, to prove that souplesse is so mysterious that the best carry it with them wherever they go, I post my own contribution -- Coppi off the bike:


If you are elegant, you are elegant everywhere, and you never look like you're trying. And this is why so few Americans were proposed as examples in the thread. Souplesse is mysterious and elegant in a way that Americans are not, no matter how graceful they get. Perhaps Coppi would have called it sprezzatura. Souplesse, sprezzatura... Go find a similar word in the American English lexicon. It ain't there. And that's another reason I love cycling: We all link ourselves back and back to that ancient and mystical continental essence -- or we want to.

Viva Il Campionissimo!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rollers and Souplesse

My friend Luke posted some very interesting comments to my recent post about rollers. He writes:

I've heard one can get a better workout on a trainer by doing intervals w/varying degrees of resistance. But I like my rollers, if for nothing more then to say that I can ride them. And that must count for something.

Indeed. It’s amusing to hear riders from beginner to “beyond category” smoothly slip references to their rollers into their forum posts and conversations. I bought rollers instead of a trainer last fall for two simple reasons: 1) My fitter told me they would make my legs learn better form (when used with a modicum of consciousness); and 2) I couldn’t afford a good fluid trainer, and wasn’t interested in the magnetic or wind trainers. (Rollers cost less than trainers.)

Yet often, when I mention them, I get more credit for being old-school and authentically souplesse-oriented, than I ever expected. I thought they were the poor man’s trainer, but no, my friend. No. It seems that, in the road cycling ethos, one gets credit for building smoothness and economy into one’s form, especially if it involves 100-year-old technology. (Rollers haven’t changed much since the turn of the 20th century.) This is one of the reasons I love being a roadie: That whole old-world, European belief that beauty comes first, and from it flows all other important things. Things like speed, for instance.

I do think the rollers have made me a better rider than I would have been had I just hammered on a trainer last winter. “Better” in both tangible and esthetic ways: My pedal stroke is smoother, rounder, and more efficient. It uses more of the muscles in my core. But I am also more still on the bike. I have a long way to go in this department, but I love what little I have learned so far.

This stillness is the very first thing you notice about a dangerous rider. Even from a distance, you can tell if a cyclist has it. If so, I know there is power under the hood that you had best respect. It’s a deceptively lazy-looking grace. Everywhere above the waist, you’ll find a kind of lank ease that you can’t quite put your finger on. The lines are smooth. Arms curve slightly on the way to the bars. Spine curves upward and gently forward. The shoulders are relaxed and back. The face is calm. There is no rocking side to side, no strain showing anywhere. Below the waist, the legs turn simply and powerfully, neither flailing nor slowly grinding.

If you’re not looking closely, you’d never know there was effort involved. Don’t be fooled; nothing is wasted. If you dialed it up to pass him from behind, he would toast you in about 300 yards, and, curse him, he would still look like a ballet dancer relaxing on a divan.

More about rollers anon. I’ve got lots of time right now to think about them. If you go ahead and post some comments listing your favorite ways to keep roller riding interesting, I’ll try to incorporate it all. Let's all work together to make base period a little more communal and fun, eh?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bah.



Bah.

First accumulated snow of the season.

I know, I know, lots of you weirdos love snow. You probably don't live in Massachusetts. Clearing out my car this a.m., each shovelful weighed about ten pounds. You can't snowshoe in two inches of muck, you can't cross-country ski, and even if you could downhill ski in it, who could afford it?

But, by the same token, you can't ride, either. Who am I if I'm not on the road?!?

Scrooge. That's who.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rollerized

Yeah, it's that time of year again:



I don't always look that dazed on the rollers; I think that picture was probably taken in deep February ('08), which would mean two months of mostly indoor riding, hearing the same voices talk about the same topics on the same podcasts over and over and...

I'm lucky this year; our new house has no basement to ride in, so my wonderful wife allows me to ride in our study, where I can look out the window. And I can ride outside down to about freezing (after that, my knees and IT band rebel, no matter what clothing solutions I try), so I've managed to be on the road for at least one ride every week so far this fall, and sometimes more.

Even so, it's only mid-December, and I'm already turned off to the rollers; that can't mean good things for my training hours during base period.

I'd love to hear from someone out there who truly loves riding indoors. That would be a different perspective, eh? How many other bike blogs out there have posts right now that are singing the same plaintive song as mine?

Most of 'em. Most of 'em.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Insensibly Happy

On a chilly, gray December morning, the third or fourth such in a row, when it looks like I may not be able to ride outside for days, and amid the prospect of driving to and from work in freezing rain or heavy snow, it makes me insensibly happy to watch the tufted titmouse and black-capped chickadee flit around our seed bell on our back deck, and the squirrel on the ground below jump about scooping up the leftovers.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

If You Don't Want to Know, Stay at the Bottom

The Ventoux has no in-itself. It's the greatest revelation of your-self. It simply feeds back your fatigue and fear. It has total knowledge of the shape you're in, your capacity for cycling happiness, and for happiness in general. It's yourself you're climbing. If you don't want to know, stay at the bottom.

~ Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Velophoria Incident Report, December '08

Does anything beat a ride with a friend? Really, it’s sort of a sure-fire recipe for velophoria.

I rode over to J’s house today to pick him up, and we headed up into the hills north of Amherst. I told myself I’d keep it low-key today, but riding with friends makes all limits seem to go out the window roughly five minutes after roll-out. We jammed the hills (wheezing in harmony – hey, it’s base season, no worries!) and did a little two-man pacelining on the way back, during the flat-to-rolling stuff back into Amherst. Then we peeled off on a side road and put the hurtin’ on ourselves one last time on a couple short but steep hills close to J’s house. “Pain… good…” I dropped him off and headed for home.

I took the long way back, getting in a few more long, steady grades because I was feeling so good (except for my !@#$ knee, which I decided to ignore for once, because the rest of me was enjoying myself too much to worry about consequences today). Man, I should have eaten a little more on the road. I just about ran out of gas on that last long grade into town. Rolled into the driveway tired, but oh, so happy. My unbeatable wife was working on our new Christmas stockings, cheery as could be, and little birds of every stripe were flitting around the bird-seed bell on our back deck. Life… is… good.

J is one of my favorite riding partners, because when we’re doing base-pace, we can chat forever about anything from politics to nutrition to kings and cabbages, etc. However, when I feel like putting the hammer down, he sort of picks that up right away, and without a word, one of us drops in behind, and off we zing, down the road. I’ve read about people who have riding partners like that, and I always wanted one. Now I have one! I only wish he could get away a little more often – he has a ton of responsibilities. He really should try being a little more selfish and immature, like me. (No, seriously, it keeps you young.)

It was that kind of metallic-smelling cold out today that telegraphed tomorrow’s snow storm, and the wind was rough at times. Still, it was sunny much of the time, so we occasionally got that toasty feeling on our lower backs. Mmmm. Makes the quads go harder!

I’ll bet you one thing: If you didn’t ride today, you’re feeling really jealous right now. You should – we had a blast.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Competition and Joy

… being free of the need to win results in greater personal power and performance. Let the possibility of winning keep you alert and sharp. If you win, terrific; if not, feel the joy and satisfaction of having participated. Focus on how well you are mastering specific skills. Notice how the event provided you with an opportunity to display your skills against challenging competition. Win or lose, you have to dig down inside and discover other aspects of your essence.

Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch, Thinking Body, Dancing Mind
Is this something you can do? Can you compete just for the joy of it?

More and more these days, I’m convinced that it takes true self-esteem to do this. Personally, I don’t know if I’m capable of it. My worst self sometimes comes out in competition. I tend to become very “all or nothing,” and to take losing -- and winning -- much too personally.

Which is why I’ve stayed away from racing so far. If I trained for racing, I would likely take the whole thing ridiculously seriously, all out of proportion to my low level of experience and talent. And all because I can’t stand to perform one iota less than my ultimate. And – to give the full confession -- because I hate losing more than I love winning. Sri Bobke says this is the secret to being a great racer. The problem is, if you start from there, you can never enjoy yourself – you’re always trying to pedal faster than the inner hounds snapping at your metaphorical heels. And those suckers have no ceiling on their VO2 max.

Still, I can’t stay away from the thought of racing. I tease myself with it over and over. And, if I do it, being the good therapist I am (or try to be), I would have to take the challenge that Huang and Lynch throw down in that quote. So, there’s a chance it could be a healing and empowering experience on an important level.


Last night, I was browsing around the ‘net trying to find out if anyone else out there is bent enough to think about the kinds of things I do when I’m riding my bike. I found the following at epicriding.com, a blog by a fellow who calls himself Grizzly Adam:
I see myself focusing more on speed in the coming year. More on racing, on competition, on winning. The last several months have seen me explore the intangible, even spiritual side of mountain biking… If the idealism I am envisioning is possible in reality, then 2009 will see a merging of both sentiments, both aspects of riding. That is, the speed and the serenity will combine into what I hope will be something like the observations of Abbey and the competitive cruelty of Eddie Merckx.
(Go here for the whole piece – and check the rest of the blog out while you’re there. It’s good writing.)

So, we might be few, but clearly I’m not alone out here, trying to pedal holistic circles long enough to alchemically merge some of these polar opposites inside me. Wish me luck, and lots of glucose.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Flight from Sadness

A bicycle ride is a flight from sadness.

~ James E. Starrs, The Literary Cyclist

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Cyclist's Prayer

Well, it’s the fourth Thursday in November, and while I can’t say I’m exactly grateful for what happened this morning on my ride, I am grateful for some of the insights it’s provided me. Somehow, I’ve managed to either injure or re-injure my left knee. Velophoriacs will know that I spent a good part of the last 12 months trying to shake a very nagging knee injury – actually, both knees, which have chondromalacia.

I have a bunch of theories about how I got it, how I usually am able to fix it, and why it cropped up again today, but I’ll bypass those right now.

I got in a perfectly horrible mood as the pain set in. It started right about when I got all the way “out” for my out-and-back route, and was about to turn “back”. The further I rode, the more it hurt, the slower I went, and the more I started bona fide, vile, base cursing at the top of my lungs. I was thinking about how many months total out of the last year I’ve actually been able to ride the way I wanted. Between knee injuries, overtraining, finishing grad school, moving, and so on, it wasn’t a good number. I was losing it.

Now, I’m back at the house. I’ve showered, had a bite, and some time to relax a bit and think. My usual thing is to take an injury or piece of bad luck and expand it into a disaster – very black and white. As a therapist, I know just how harmful this is to one’s mental health. Doesn’t stop me. I drag myself down into the pit of despair.

Yet today, for right now, I’m just chilling. I’m feeling more… factual about this injury. It’s not because “I’ve done this so many times, I can’t do it to myself again.” It’s not because I know that, every time I do this, it almost never turns out as bad as I think it will – even though I know it’s as possible I’ll feel better tomorrow as it is that I’ll be off the bike for a week or even much more.It’s a different reason this time.

It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m grateful. I came very close to having a bad car accident earlier this week, but God saw fit to make the whole thing pass in the blink of an eye, and I drove on – fully amazed. Not a scratch. It made me think; my life is so much better than I know it is. I was grateful that night, you better believe.

Probably the most important lesson I have to learn to make my life better is this: I have what I have. It’s as simple as that.

In my first year on the bike, which just ended a couple months ago, I pushed, pushed, PUSHED myself to be a faster, stronger rider. I wanted to be a great rider so badly, I could taste it. I thought about it day and night. Nearly drove my saintly wife crazy. Partly as a result of that, I spent much of the year injured or so exhausted I could barely function.

Slowly -- very, very slowly -- those “negative” results are teaching me that I often become obsessed with an idea that is not based in reality. Then I make myself miserable trying to realize it, no matter what it takes.

Like life itself, training can be very confusing: Sometimes we need to push harder, and sometimes we need to pull back – or walk away. When I get fixated on one idea, one goal, it becomes just about impossible for me to pull back. I tend to either want it all, or say “It’s not worth the frustration; I’m ditching the whole thing.”

Today, for Thanksgiving 2008, in addition to all the other wonderful things in my life – my loving and kind wife, my job and career, which I like, my relative good health, my nuclear family all alive and relatively okay, and so much more – I want to say a prayer of thanks for the GOOD rides I had this year. The ones where I really enjoyed myself, whether because of gorgeous scenery, incredible fitness that let me fly past previous limits, great company, or any of the other delightful things that can happen to me on two wheels. And a prayer of EQUAL thanks for the pure flame of desire that keeps me banging up against my shortcomings as a human, so I can learn to balance them out and be happier with what I already have.

Maybe, because of the built-in limits of my body and my life, maybe I’m not destined to be the rider I thought I could be. Or, maybe it won’t happen for a few years, while I work out the kinks as a beginning serious cyclist. Either way, I will live on. And that life is a gift much, much larger than any one goal, no matter how alluring.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Establish a Dialog with Your Thighs

By remaining attentive to the messages your body sends, through exercise and in pleasure, you can take an elegant inner voyage on the bike. A lasting voyage, a permanent school, continuous retraining. The dialog you establish with your thighs is a rich one that helps you set your limits, improve your endurance, tolerate pain, and recognize the intolerable.

I find it useful every day.

~ Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Joys of Cold-weather Riding

During each of my rides through September and October, I felt a combination of joy and sadness rising up within me. The joy came from the comfortable riding temps and the panoply of changing leaves – New England at its best. The sadness arose because summer was dying. Soon, no more plentiful sunlight and warmth for riding upon arriving home from work. Cold. Dark. Rollers. Wearing out my favorite podcasts and music playlists, while I pedal nowhere for hours.

But… I forgot how much fun cold weather riding can be. Oh, yeah – right! You can still ride outdoors for much of late fall and winter! In its own strange way, it’s as pleasing as summer riding. (Until the snows come, that is.)

Last week, I went for a long ride in a heavy fog, temps in the low 50s. As I shot down the road, moody light emanated from all directions at once. I freight-trained along through huge fingers of mist, the mountains to one side of me all draped in soft foggy lace.

I love feeling toasty-warm under my winter gear, protected from the harsh elements I am rocketing through. I love hoping that the people passing me in cars are thinking, “That guy must be nuts!” when, in fact, I feel great. I love the snap my legs get when its cold outside (once I’ve warmed up, which takes extra time).


This weekend, I laid out a big chunk of change for serious winter riding tights. I rode through all of last winter in a double layer of polypropylene beneath a pair of running tights that bagged and wrinkled too much. Once home, I put on my sleek new black tights and topped them with a silver-and-black jersey, and I felt like a rocket waiting for blast-off. There was a ferocious wind that day, and the windfront fabric worked like a charm – warm and dry in front, breathable in back. I felt cozy and I looked fast – what could be better?

For my Tuesday a.m. ride tomorrow, it’s supposed to be in the low 20s. We’ll see just how well this recovered affection for cold-weather riding holds up then.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

They Don't Call It a "Personal Best" for Nothing

It's worth noting that this was essentially a private victory. The world barely notices the Olympic steeplechase champion.... The forty-year-old steeplechase champion of the World Masters Games is slightly more prominent than the employee-of-the-month at the Shop'N'Save. No, his triumpth had nothing to do with fame and everything to do with the fact that down that last stretch he went when he could have eased up. And it is a victory (or a failure) equally available to the less genetically endowed stuck in the middle of the pack. As with writing a book, exactly one person knows if you've given it your best shot, or if you've been satisfied with something less.

Bill McKibben, Long Distance: Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously
Sometimes, when I'm pushing myself like mad to edge up my average speed record for a familiar route by a measly one tenth of a mile per hour, I ask myself, "Who's going to know if I accomplish this? Why does it matter so much?" It's a really good question to use when I want to find out if it's worth it to use up so much of my limited weekly amount of bodily energy -- my wattage account, if you will.

Sometimes, the only thing to do is GO. Other times, I realize I want to spend that energy elsewhere -- either on Saturday's hard ride with my friend, or perhaps on a dinner date with my wife on Friday night. I'm 44, I've been under quite a lot of life stress lately (see recent posts), and this is only the beginning of my second year of sustained endurance training. I only have so much wattage to go around, and I've blown myself up big-time -- out of commission for many weeks at a time, more than once -- acting like I had more in the bank than I do.

Our society places a highly exacting value system on athletes: Those who suffer the most are called "heroes." And those whose busy lives, or limited bodies, demand moderation, get zero air-time or magazine covers. They are -- judging by their absence -- worthless, in the eyes of the media and the public at large.

The point is this: For most of us, not one other soul in the world cares whether we put in that extra interval. So, make sure it's worth it to you.

And if it is, then kill it. And enjoy the suffering all you can. 'Cause there's no-one to impress.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How to Overtrain

It’s been quite a long time since the last post. I’m hoping to keep this blog alive, but I recently moved to a new part of the state and started a new job, and getting settled took more time and energy than I predicted.

I also increased my training load considerably after moving. I’ve written here about the much more numerous and serious hills in my new location; in addition to riding much more vertically, between mid-August and late September I also greatly increased my distances while simultaneously trying to increase my average speed. All within the first four weeks of a very stressful move, and starting the new job.

For those of you who are considering greatly increasing both volume and intensity in your training, while going through a big life stressor, allow me to offer a word of advice:

Don’t.

In mid-September, after about a month of this ridiculous load, my body simply said, “I quit.”

It took me too long to figure what was happening. Being in my first year of real endurance training, I’d read about overtraining, but I’d never gone through it, so I didn’t recognize it. It started innocently enough; I was sleeping very poorly. Since I occasionally go through bouts of this, I trained right through it, thinking perhaps the extra effort I was putting in was helping relieve the stress. Mistake number one. Life stress and riding stress have to be added together when considering training load. They are two halves of a whole.

I kept adding intensity and volume. I hit my distance goal for the season about three weeks after the move, riding farther than I’d ridden in two and a half decades. Each long ride included numerous hills far steeper and longer than the ones I was used to in my previous location. Meanwhile, my performance stats kept improving. I figured, as long as I was adapting positively, I should keep increasing my load (provided I took rest days and lighter weeks here and there). Mistake number two. If you’re increasing your training stress in more than one factor (intensity, frequency, or duration), be aware that your body is bearing an enormous stress.

I did five days of lighter riding after my personal distance record. After that, I felt like Superman – like I could ride anywhere at any speed I wanted. So, after the rest week, I did a six-day stretch with two intense time trial workouts and two separate days with hill repeats on that big hill – the final day including a few one minute max efforts within the hill repeats. Crazy.

I simply lost sight of the how often I rode intensely. It was like crack; the more and harder I rode, the faster I got. On the road, I was thinking, “I’m ready to ride with the big dogs. I know I can hold my own.” I felt so excited.

All this, of course, during the first three weeks of a stressful new job, and a new apartment in a brand new area.

I’m sure you can guess what came next.

The Saturday after those hill repeats, during a routine, moderate spin, I realized I felt like utter crap. The entry from my training log says:

Feeling sluggish, irrtiable, uninspired today. Seasonal allergies bad.

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!!!

Yet, onward I pushed. Thinking it was a fluke, the next day I rode a moderate distance, and ended up dragging myself through it. I hated a good portion of that ride. I had started feeling exhausted at work, sometimes to the point where I had to turn out the lights in my office and sleep for 25 minutes just to finish the day. I did finally figured out that I had gone too far, but there, too, I made a mistake. I only backed off a little, instead of getting off the bike altogether for at least a week as I should have. I just didn’t see the big picture.

I dug a huge hole for myself, and, long story short, I ended up having to do little to no riding for the better part of three long weeks. My allergies were raging. I was sickly-thin and couldn’t gain weight.

I started doubling up on helpful nutritional supplements like ginseng and B vitamins, eating mountains of healthy greens, and adding red meat to my diet. I firmly re-established my sleep cycle, and did light cross-training like hiking, yoga and long walks. By the time I started feeling even a little healthy again, I had lost months’ worth of fitness, which I’m currently still regaining -- slowly.

And so it was that I learned the limits of my body. Overtraining is a very real thing. In retrospect, and after a lot of research, it’s easy to see the signposts. The exhaustion during the day, poor sleep at night, and increased allergies all started long before I had problems while riding. I could have started extra rest right then and probably saved many weeks of recovery time later.

And then again, had I taken a serious break once I did find that I couldn’t ride well and that I was hating the act of riding (other common signs of overtraining), I could have still saved time and fitness.

Training is tricky; usually “less is more,” especially for those of us solidly into middle age and with demanding lives. Then again, sometimes “more is more;” some days that extra intensity is just what I need to blast out the blahs. But when a lot of symptoms are cropping up at once, it’s time to get off the bike and rest.

I can’t say that you’ll always come back stronger – sometimes, you might lose a bit of fitness. But at the very least, you’ll lose a lot less than you would if you pushed through it.

So, that’s where I’ve been all these weeks. With luck, I’m solidly back now, and you’ll be hearing from me.

Friday, September 19, 2008

When I first moved here to Western Mass, I wrote a piece on Velophoria about my concern that the hillier terrain out here would drag my average speed backward and make me dread riding instead of savor it. Well, I’ve been riding out here for the better part of a month, and things haven’t turned out quite like I thought.

At first the hills certainly did slow me down, and I found myself hating the feeling of being a weaker rider. However, after building up distance and intensity for a few weeks, I began to feel a bit more confident. I also found a climbing repeat hill not too far from my house, a two-miler that goes consistently up (and up). After a few weeks doing hard repeats on that baby, I’ve found my average speed sneaking upward on other rides.

Last Sunday, I was out for a moderate 30-miler on a nice, warm September afternoon. I was motoring along, listening to some great tunes (turned very low, through over-ear, not in-ear, headphones) and the music was lifting my spirits, which were low before the ride. About half-way through, I glanced down and saw that my average speed was a full two miles an hour faster than my average during my rides during the last month. I had one of those amusing moments of cognitive dissonance: “Shoot, my cyclometer’s broken… Hey, wait a minute!”

Taking the hills out here head-on as a challenge, instead of shrinking from them, seems to be paying off in spades. It seems like, instead of feeling like a weaker rider in harder terrain, I feel like (and am riding like) a stronger rider than I was on the easier terrain! Perhaps I have to add a new principle to my personal training manual: Take on a moderate challenge, and I’ll become a moderately good rider. But take on a big challenge whole-heartedly and with a good program, and I’ll become an exponentially better rider. Meaning, I think it would have taken me longer to get that two-mile-per-hour increase on the easier (flatter) terrain in Eastern Massachusetts!

Ironic, no?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Draining the Dregs of the Summer Cup

When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it
When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it
When the teenage car gets the cop down on it
That time is here for one more year

And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life

- Jonathan Richman
Riding in my new surroundings of Western Massachusetts has been extremely rewarding. Even with starting my new job and being out of town five of the thirteeen days we’ve been based out here, I’ve managed to squeeze in just over 145 miles of riding, and I have to say, nearly every one has been more beautiful than the last. It seems we’ve got the best of New England right outside our new door. Well, all right!

I’m also becoming a little more proficient on the hills, which is a relief. I’ve found some long, steady climbs on which to build my strength and technique. I no longer hate the idea of serious hills quite so much. I still have a long way to go before I can scurry up them with confidence and pleasure.

All this pleasurably strenuous riding is bittersweet, though: Tomorrow is September 1. Just as last year, I feel like I’m hitting my stride just as autumn and the rigors of the work world kick in. I find myself worrying whether my new job will allow me to ride as much as I have in the year since I got back on the bike. So far, when I’m high in the hills on a beautiful day (like today – high 70s and clear blue skies), I’ve managed to force the question to the back of my mind and focus on the satisfying work at hand. But there’s no denying the larger point. I once wrote a song about this time of year, and one of the lines is, “Summer’s not gone, but it’s gone too far.”

I hate that feeling. I’m not one of those “eternal sunshine creates a desert” people. I like the desert; I lived there and loved it. There’s no such thing as too much sun and sweet, warm weather, green trees, lake-swimming and campfires.

Yet “bittersweet” means there’s also a nice side to it, right? On the long, flat section of my ride today, from about 50% to about 80% of the way through my route, I was inspired to really look around me and use my senses to squeeze the drops of beauty out of one of the last classic summer days this year.

I noticed the way the snakey sound of the bearings in my hubs bounced off the walls of the long barns I rode by, classic brick-red paint faded by years of sun, set against a perfect backdrop of shimmering river or fields stretching out for miles.

I noticed the lift in my spirits as the small mountain range near my house hovered into view, like great whales drifting on an ocean of tree tops.

I savored the sweetness of the cool, earthy breeze emanating from the forests along the road on a warm day, how the trees almost seemed to want to help me along by offering a little refreshment.

Friends, don’t miss the dregs of that lovely summer cup; it’s playing right now, on a long stretch of road near you. Get out there and notice and savor; roll it around on your tongue. We’re not kids anymore, and summer doesn’t last forever like it used to.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Climb West, Young Man

Friends, friends, friends -- I'm still here! After packing the house frantically for 10 days, moving frantically across state, and then vacating our new home for a family gathering in a neighboring state, I've returned home (such as it is, with boxes everywhere) and plan to make more regular contributions again. Sorry for the absence!

We're now living in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, an area renowned for its culture, beauty and quality of life. I start a new job next week, about which I'm excited.

The cycling here is quite different, folks. I'm not very good at making allowances, but I supposed some have to be made for the amount of stress I've endured in the last few months, between finals, graduation, job searching, interviewing (77 miles away), apartment searching (77 miles away), moving (doing it ourselves, no professionals involved), and so on and so forth. All of that in three months. So, I reckon there's some effect on my energy, endurance and strength. I feel pretty off much of the time these days.

Even with that said, riding is different out here. As soon as I could, I bought the regional bike map from the redoubtable people at Rubel Bike Maps, and to my dismay, noted that roads I’d ridden since I’ve gotten here (three rides total) that I considered quite hilly don’t even get the Rubel symbol for a small hill. Hills that, on their Eastern Mass map, would have gotten an unmistakeable middle-intensity notation are completely unmarked on the Western Mass map. In our fine state, the terrain heaves more and more as one moves west toward the Berkshires, Massachusetts’ most notable mountain range, running all along our western border.

Now, like a lot of cyclists, I don’t like hills.

I don’t mind them, but I certainly don’t gravitate toward them. I can zip along faster than average on the flats – I think I have a closet time-trialist hidden inside me. A clandestine roleur, if you will. But when I hit the first long hill, those suprisingly fit riders I’ve been keeping pace with suddenly fade into the distance, along with my morale and my energy. I've done climbing repeats, not as much as I should have this season, mind you, but most weeks. And this is where I've ended up: I'm slogging on the hills. Really slogging.

Looks like I’ve got to change. I came home from a 28-mile ride – a distance I would have tossed off almost as an afterthought back in the Boston area – wearier than I expected. Which made me cranky, of course; I was at one riding level two weeks ago (before the move west), and now, magically, I’ve been demoted half a notch. The folks out here who’ve been riding this terrain all along are naturally way ahead of me.

Of course, it’s all relative: Send an experienced rider from around here out to Boulder, say, and set her against a woman who rides the same number of hours per week, and see what happens there. Same deal.

Anyway, I can see that my next project as a rider is to befriend the incline. Part of me bemoans the idea, and part of me is excited at a new challenge. Stay tuned for further exploits of a budding climber.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beauty and the Bike

The desire to have a beautiful bike is something shared by everyone. This desire comes with childhood; some cultivate it, others repress it, but it's always there.... Beautiful bikes have a special virtue, cast a secret spell: they make you want to do more.

- Paul Fournel, The Need for the Bike

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Finding the Body-bike-road Continuum

In the last couple of days, while riding my regular workouts – distance, climbing repeats, etc. – I’ve discovered a kind of consciousness arising in me that I am very, very interested in. When it happens, the word animal arises in my mind spontaneously. I watch the athletes on the Olympic broadcasts and see something similar sometimes – a blend of power and looseness, a total absorption in their activity at that moment.

On Sunday, I was just starting the final third of my long ride for the week. It had been a good morning; I’d gotten out early, picked a good route, ridden within myself and was feeling up. I’d made the decision before I left to hold a little back until the final third, and then, if I felt strong, to unwind the engine a bit and treat the last stretch more like a time trial – just to see how it worked. A few miles into that, I was flying down a pretty, winding country road, and something just came over me. I hate to sound corny, but it really was like the bike, the road and my body became one thing.

I’ve had breakthroughs in cycling fitness, and leaps in my technique, too, but this is only the second time that I have experienced the entire feeling of being on the bike in a very different way. I felt like I was a gazelle or a leopard, leaping down the road in a feral, fluid blur. (Not that I was going super-fast – the feeling involved more than just speed.)

I guess it’s popular to call that the zone these days, and perhaps that’s what it is. All I know is, my day-to-day mind falls away unexpectedly; it stops thinking about the very long list of annoying details awaiting my attention, or interpersonal struggles, or questions about the future. It’s like I become entirely body all of a sudden – or maybe more like my mind deserts its habitual post (churning away just behind my forehead) and, like some fluid special effect in a wizard movie, just floods my muscles and bones and nerve endings. It didn’t last long; a few minutes, probably. Same thing yesterday on my climbing repeats.

I tell you, it’s really quite a feeling. I want more of it.

I’ve been meditating for 15 years. Some mornings I get into a good place, and body and mind also join together at those times, along with – if I’m lucky -- spirit. But this is different – it’s even different from the feeling I get from yoga, which I’ve been doing even longer. One stated goal of yoga is roughly the same: To synch up body, mind and spirit. But this feeling on the bike is different from both of those practices. It’s like I’m achieving that state, but in a highly active way, body working hard, moving fast. It usually comes when I find that place where only the muscles I need are doing the work; the rest of me is relaxed. (Very yoga, by the way.) This is something I’ve been focusing on lately in my cycling, because I’ve heard it’s a great way to improve performance and endurance. I never imagined it would leap me across a gap I didn’t even know was there. I sure hope I can continue to cultivate that state, because, simply put, it’s really addictive.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Improving TV Coverage of Cycling

So, what do you know? The Olympics are here, and NBC is actually broadcasting some of the cycling. Hip-hooray! It’s wonderful to finally see pro cyclists in some detail on the television screen, after following most of the international racing season on my Mac. On TV, there’s no jumpy “slide-show” video, no tinny audio, no tedious hours of poor commentating.

However.

Even the Olympic coverage is annoyingly scant. And though NBC did go to the considerable trouble of creating a complicated Web site that lists exactly when every half hour of cycling would be broadcast, so far the schedule has been completely unreliable. It’ll get you watching on the right day of the week, but that’s it.

My wife and I have been discussing what it would take to get better TV coverage of cycling in the United States. What’s available now really just outright stinks. In order to watch the Giro D’Italia, I had to subscribe to an Italian-language cable station for the month of June – and I don’t speak Italian. (See a fun report on that experience here). The Giro is the second most popular bike race on the planet.

If I’d wanted to watch the Tour de France on TV, I’d have had to pay for a month of a new level of cable subscription-- $48.00 extra. I just finished grad school and am about to start a job in what I refer to as a “personally rewarding field.” (Translation: I’m a mental health counselor.) I watched the wrap-ups on the Web, streamed some of the free but mind-numbing live broadcasting from Eurosport, and tuned in to the excellent Daily Tour podcasts from the FredCast. But it just wasn't the same.

Why is it that I can watch bowling or poker any week I might want to, but not the three most important cycling races in the world, which have tens of millions of viewers elsewhere? Races that dominate European TV for weeks, and that sponsors spend gajillions of dollars on?

A first response might be, “Broadcasters have to sense a much bigger market in the U.S. than they do now. Money talks, and cycling just doesn’t have the same audience as baseball or even poker.” But I question that answer. Are Europeans genetically more inclined to cycling than we are? Their mania had to start somewhere! Early journalists knew that stage races made a terrific story, and conveyed that story in such a way that it sank deep into the local psyche. Did poker have a huge audience in the U.S. before channels started broadcasting it right and left? It all starts somewhere.

I remember reading somewhere that Americans have more recreational bikes per capita than nearly any other nation (don’t count China; that’s mainly commuting). That means we love to get on our bikes, right? On a given Saturday, I wager I’ll see way more people on the local bike trail than I will if I trundle down to the all the nearby bowling alleys that evening and count up folks rolling frames. How hard would it be to cultivate in those people an appreciation of a few of the finer points of racing, so that they would get hooked after watching some tastefully condensed coverage of a major road race?

The Tour of California is garnering more viewers and sponsors every year, and there’s even talk of it being respected as highly as some of the more prestigious European races. And then there are the countless classics themselves, in France, Belgium, beautiful places with storied terrain that make terrific videography.

Maybe this is all idealism, and it really couldn't happen that way. But I ask you, doesn't it seem entirely possible?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Rubber Side Up

I went for a pleasant recovery spin today – the first time we’ve had anything like sun for many days. I was a little sluggish after some intense intervals yesterday, and a bit bogged down with the complications and worries related to our impending move to the other side of the state (10 days and counting). Still, I was decidedly better for being out and moving.

I rode over to the Minuteman Bike Path, our local rails-to-trails MUP, which is nice enough, especially if you’re not trying to hammer. Unfortunately, on the way back, I came upon the scene of a bike crash.

A woman was lying right in the middle of the path, stretched out on her back with her eyes closed and her limp arms akimbo. A younger woman – who turned out to be the injured woman’s daughter – was wandering around talking in urgent tones into a cell phone. A man in his twenties or thirties had gotten off his bike, and was standing at a slight distance looking concerned and a bit lost. A man in his 60s or 70s was a bit closer; he had contributed a solid plastic ice pack the woman was holding to her forehead and wrist, alternately. At first I thought he was with the two women, but it turned out he’d witnessed the crash that led to this scene and had also stopped to help.

All in all, things were in a fine state of disarray. For all the people there, the woman was nevertheless lying alone across the useable part of the path, while the two men looked on from a small distance. (I want to make clear that I don’t fault the guys; they didn’t know what to do. Anyone who stops and doesn’t actually impede things can eventually become an asset at the scene of an accident.)

I was certified back in January for First Aid, so I figured I’d stop and see if I could help. I have to admit to hesitation about approaching the injured woman, because once I interacted with her, I became at least partly responsible, and this was the first time I’ve used my training. I was unsure how much I would remember, and she looked pretty badly off. Still, approach her I did. At first, she seemed little more than half-conscious, but she aroused herself a bit as I began to talk to her, asking her questions, and answering hers (the ones I could and should). She promised me that she’d suffered no head injury, and I asked enough questions to make sure she wasn’t disoriented. You have to be cautious if someone is laying half out of it, with her eyes half-closed, after a bike crash. It could be shock or fainting… or it could be a concussion or spinal injury.

Eventually, we figured out that the main, and perhaps only, injury was her wrist. I tell you true, folks, her wrist was something to behold. She asked me very quickly not to tell her how it looked (“I faint really easily,” she said.) I don’t blame her; I think she knew. Suffice to say, it looked exactly like the following letter: S. It couldn’t have been more contorted and still have had the hand attached.

I asked her to raise her knees to help blood flow to the head a tad (to decrease the faintness). I checked that the daughter was talking to 911. I had the older man stand in front of the injured woman and direct bikes around us, since the woman felt unable to move, and cyclists in heavy training mode sometimes whip down that narrow path at top speed, thinking they can get around anything at the last moment.

I sent the younger man scrambling up to the top of the overpass just above us to find out what cross-street we were at (no street signs on the path), to help the EMS guys find us. As it turned out, he was up there as the ambulance came in view, so he was able to flag them down and direct them.

A cop arrived first. He was a nice guy, but a bit goofy and ineffectual. Needless to say, the EMS guys were terrific. They were very patient with the woman, who simply did not want to move her injured arm. They continually talked to her; they were honest without being scary; and of course, they knew just what to do. (Even after the woman disclaimed any head injury, one of the paramedics checked her helmet for dents or dings. Smart move – I’ll do that next time. Things happen fast in a crash and she might have hit her head without being aware of it.)

After they managed to get her up on the rolling stretcher, we bystanders quietly shook hands and thanked each other for stopping and helping. Then I mounted up and began rolling toward home.

No more than five seconds later, I heard someone behind me – back towards the EMS guys, who were only about 40 feet away at this point – yell “Heads up!” I glanced back, and a road biker came flying up toward me, yelling all the way. “Don’t slow down! Heads up means move out of the way!” He went by me at about 20 mph.

After having witnessed the scene I’ve just described, I have to admit that the guy left me speechless with anger and bewilderment. I couldn’t believe how callous and stupid (and, by the way, wrong) humans can be. He must have flown by the paramedics and the stretcher, with very little room to spare (they were inside the tunnel under the overpass). It was obvious he hadn't slowed down in the least, and now was looking to fling himself past me without inconveniencing himself. It is this very type of jerk that gives road bikers our well-deserved bad name.

If I’d had any more momentum, I would have caught up with him, and given him an education he wouldn't soon forget (verbal only, folks, no need to re-involve the paramedics here). And by the way, friend: You don’t say “Heads up!” when you’re coming up behind someone. The correct phrase is, “On your left.” “Heads up” means “Look out” – which is just what I did.

From the low (the crash) to the high (the paramedics and helpful bystanders) to the low (Mr. Macho) all in about 20 minutes. Cycling really is a way to see the world.

Keep your heads up and the rubber side down. Enjoy your ride.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

It’s All About the Bike

Lately, while riding and pondering (as velosophers are wont to do), I’ve had the phrase, It’s all about the bike jump up at me on a few different occasions. I’m not sure what it means, but it comes to me fiercely, almost like a declaration. In the moment, it makes perfect sense, on a kind of bodily level – I feel it in my muscles and bones. But sitting here hoping to share that insight with you, I’m drawing a blank. So, if you’ll indulge, I’ll try to wend my way back to what it meant during those fervent moments.

Of course, it’s originates with el Señor Armstrong’s famous dictum, “It’s not about the bike.” It’s even the title of one of his books. I haven’t read that volume (or any of his), but I know his philosophy, and I’m guessing he was saying that your performance is more directly related to your level of mental focus and the quality of your physical training than to the relatively small differences between a costly bike and a breathtakingly expensive one. “Clarity of mind, singularity of purpose, and faithfulness in execution will trump a few less ounces or a fancy Italian name every time.” Something to that effect, right?

Well, my version – It’s all about the bike – is decidedly not intended to contradict that idea. Generally, I agree with Lance on that subject (if on very little else).

I think the point of It’s all about the bike is instead to point out to myself the apparently obvious fact that I am riding a bike. How lucky I am! And yet, how far I have to go! How much work there is to be done – training, tuning the bike, learning about nutrition and technique. How wonderful it is to have that work ahead of me. And how marvelous it is to have two working legs to move the pedals around today – right this moment. The breeze, rich with the scent of mown grass or pine trees. The sun beating on the skin of my arms. The effort in my body.

In one way of looking at it, I sit on my bike like I sit on my meditation seat. Rain or shine, good mood or bad, I ride. I reach for ideals and goals on the bike, and often learn about myself in the process. If those goals turn out unattainable, I learn about acceptance and flexibility – or, persistence in the face of obstacles. If it turns out I attain a goal, I learn either a) how to thoroughly enjoy the delectable taste of success without latching on to it (because who knows if injury or busy-ness will allow me to achieve this same level tomorrow?), or b) that the goal didn’t fulfill me as I thought it would, life can be bittersweet, and I need to re-arrange my goals.

And if I can’t ride that day or that week, I’m still in relationship with the bike – wanting to ride. That’s a meditation in itself.

You’ll notice that this approach doesn't mention my training regimen. It’s not about the numbers my cyclocomputer spits back at me after a ride, reducing a vivid, complex experience to a few digits that prove either my worth or worthlessness. It’s not about that lethally cool jersey that all my friends would wet their chamois pads over (if I could afford it). It’s not about whether I look like too much like a Fred and not enough like a racer. It’s not about whether I get dropped by someone I thought I could beat.

I won’t insult you by pretending I don’t care about these things -- some days way too much. But even on those days, some part of me knows they’re not the most important thing.

Not for me, anyway.

For me, It’s all about the bike means just what it says. Perhaps this phrase arose in my consciousness now because I’m finally (mostly) injury-free after nine months of infuriatingly up-and-down recovery from a nagging injury. Perhaps my whole being is simply rejoicing that I can ride pain- and worry-free right now. If you can, too, please -- for crying out loud, please -- remember to enjoy every hour on your bike.

As the great Belgian oracle Eddy Merckx famously quoth, what matters is that you “ride lots.” That man vibrated with hunger for saddle-time; it was his life; it’s been said he was never right with the world unless he was on the bike. For Merckx, as for many of us, it was all about the bike.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Velophoria Incident Report

Apologies to all for my prolonged absence from these pages. First it was job searching, then it was long-distance apartment searching (my wife and I are moving to another part of the state), and finally, we took a week-long camping trip to Acadia National Park, in Maine. Hence the inexcusably long two-and-a-half week lag between posts.

For reasons too hard to explain (and I still don't completely understand them myself), I couldn't take my bike to Acadia. I missed it terribly. For the first few days, every single time I saw any kind of bike whatsoever, I had the worst pangs you could imagine. Bear in mind, one sees a lot of bikes in Acadia during July. On day four or so, my wife got weary of my pining and kindly bundled me off to the highest-end bike rental place we could find, shelled out an obscene amount of money (for a decent entry-level mountain bike), and I rode off, map in hand, to find the most challenging trail on the island. (It was weird spending money to ride someone else’s bike. I’ll try to never do that again.)

There is no off-road riding allowed in the Park, for obvious reasons, but they do have excellent carriage roads designed by none other than John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had a pied-a-terre in the area, and was a horse-and-carriage fanatic. He loved landscape architecture, as well – learned it from his daddy – and by all accounts, lavished quite a lot of his time and energies supervising the construction of these paths. They're laid with large gravel, and offer a relatively even surface -- which presents a small, pleasing technical challenge on extra-fast descents.

Now, don’t kid yourself thinking that rich-boy carriage trails are all a walk in the park. Most of them are flat-to-rolling, but the Around the Mountain trail does gain quite a bit of altitude on a very long, constant grade with little let-up. It loops around six mountains, passes three gorgeous waterfalls, and has inspiring views of mountains, lakes, harbors and ocean. You really can’t ask for more. I looped that in with a bunch of other trails and some road riding back to my campground, and ended up with roughly 23 miles of riding (I didn’t have an odometer on my rented bike to get a specific distance).

I got caught in a thunderstorm of biblical proportions during the last third of this ride, which devolved into nearly an hour of pedaling in torrential rain and blinding wind. I’ve never seen more fickle weather than on Mount Desert Island, the home of Acadia. The weather was sparkling for most of the ride, and the clouds moved in so quickly I didn’t even notice them until the heavens opened up. This was common during our stay, though we were lucky, with mostly pleasant days. The hiking was just as good as the biking, and there were plentiful other pleasures to enjoy.

So rest assured: Though I may be absent from the pages of Velophoria, I am nevertheless always in search of velophoria. And if you seek such yourself, you could do no better than to hie thee to glorious Acadia National Park.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Et Tu, Ricco?

So, lots of folks over at the bikeforums Tour de France sub-forum are all up in arms about the fact that Ricardo Ricco of team Saunier Duval failed a doping test and the entire team today pulled out of the 2008 Tour de France.

I said it on the forum today, and I'll say it here: "If you find yourself shocked or surprised by this news, I really think you ought to find yourself a good therapist and have a talk about your grasp on reality." A decade or more of scandals, ejected riders, disgraced or dis-invited teams, and governing bodies eating their own tails, and people continue to feel shocked and disappointed?

I am angry. I am sad. But I don't think I can ever be shocked by the behavior of professional athletes -- or their teams or governing bodies -- again, especially not in cycling.

I purposely did not pay the extra $45 to my cable provider so I could watch the (very good) coverage on Versus this year. Every day, I sorely miss Phil Ligget's voice, the super-extensive coverage, and the abundant, lucid graphics on Versus. I do tune in to the race via the Eurosport audio feed (and sometimes watch one of the free European video feeds along with it on Pop UP TV), but it's a poor man's Tour over there. The various problems with that include 1) unreliable video, 2) visuals not matched to audio commentary, and 3) (and by far the worst:) Sean Kelly's achingly monotonous brogue droning on and on, and adding precious little to my understanding of the proceedings. Sean, you were undisputed royalty on the bike, but I'm begging you: Stop talking. You make my hair hurt.

Still, for all the fun I'm missing on Versus, I have successfully achieved my two main goals: 1) I avoided the inevitable disgust that would ensue at the point when I got totally hooked on the drama unfolding in full color on my big screen – and then some yutz (or yutzes) in the thick of the fight for the jerseys turned up positive; and 2) I'm putting zero francs in the pantalons of ASO, the private company that owns the Tour (and just about every other major bike race in the world -- they even recently started a marketing partnership with the as-yet unsullied Tour of California). I won't get into ASO's surrealistic "business" practices here, nor how they've contributed mightily to the irrelevancy of their own event, and the sport in general. Look here if you want to know more. But remember, you were warned.

Finally, if you want to know where I stand on doping and sport (and personally, I find my position fascinatingly nuanced, not to mention substantiated with masterful dabs of historical reference), check out this earlier post. I really enjoyed writing it, even though the conclusion continues to pain me today -- and apparently will for the foreseeable future.

Monday, July 14, 2008

How Do You Keep it Fun?

My recent post about what it means to be a serious rider spurred some interesting comments from reader Dave (scroll down at the original post, linked above, for the comments) about how to keep riding fun. It got me thinking about the tricks I use. I’m going to post a couple, and then I’m going to ask you to use the comments link, at the bottom of this post, to add your ideas to the list. Do you ever hit the doldrums with your riding? What do you do for it? Without further ado, some ways that I keep it fun:
  • Remove the cyclocomputer from my bike (sacrilege!) and go for a ride just to go for a ride – for ice cream, to see the top of a local hill, to explore a new neighborhood.
  • If I can’t stand the idea of losing track of my miles, I’ll cut down a Post-it note to stick over my cyclocomputer display while I ride. Depending on my mood, I’ll use one of two kinds of Post-its: a) those tiny page-saving rectangles. If I cut off all but the sticky part, it fits right over the speedometer portion of my display, but I can still view other stats – which I restrict to either total time or total miles, basic info that I can’t use to push myself too much; b) Other times, I don’t want to see any info while I ride, but I still want to track my data. At those times, I cut out a larger Post-it to cover my whole display (leaving in the sticky part to hold the note on the display). Costs nearly nothing; works like a charm. A word of warning: Just knowing that my data is being tracked can push me to ride too hard. Sometimes it's just better to leave the computer at home.
  • Take a couple days -- or more -- off the bike altogether. When I first started riding last year, this seemed impossible. I had to ride my standard six days a week. These days, I ride more like four or five. (Not everyone is lucky enough to have that much riding time; I just finished grad school and still haven't found a job, so my schedule has been flexible). These days, I try to take one week out of every four or five to chill out. During these breaks, I ride less mileage on fewer days. Or I'll plan a week off around a long weekend away with my wife -- that way, we get a chunk of quality time together. (I'm often far away on the bike during her days off, or in the basement adjusting on my derailleur, etc.) As these breaks approach, I often feel apprehensive, like I will lose something precious without my riding days. But frequently I have my best riding weeks ever after a break like this. The body and mind become so refreshed by a break from my daily obsession.
OK. I know this is a relatively new blog and doesn't have a ton of readers. But there are definitely a handful of you who come daily. It would be great fun to hear from you.

I know some people are a little leery of commenting on a public blog, but rest assured: You do not have to be a Blogger member, and you can simply click on the Anonymous button to submit your comments without any identifying info at all. (You might want to also click the button that will send you updates, because then you can keep track of the conversation.)

OK, so – how do you keep it fun?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Touch of the Wild at the Cemetery

Well, today’s ride was as washed-out and weary as yesterday’s was turbo-charged. I suppose you have to expect that, especially considering that yesterday was the first time in many weeks my fickle knees have let me put out an effort like that.

But… there was a redeeming moment.

I’d gone out with the intention of a moderate ride, but it soon became apparent that I didn’t have enough in the tank for even that. During the first half of the ride, I unconsciously resisted the growing awareness that I would be wise to make today an active recovery day, pedaling easy through my short route.

Cranky and tired, I got all the way out on my out-and-back course, and before I turned around, I took a break in a very nice, manicured cemetery on Dedham Road in Newton. Rolling emerald lawns, quietude and cool breezes. I leaned my bike against a lovely pine tree offering sweet shade, and sat with my back against the trunk for some time, allowing my body and mind to slow down in a way I sometimes don’t on rides. The bad mood was seeping out of me.

Unfortunately, when I got up to go, I had lots of pine resin sticking to me. I started to get irritated again, but then noticed that at least there was a water spigot right on the other side of the tree. I was nearly done trying to wash off my hands, shorts, and jersey when I saw something moving in my peripheral vision, out in the sun, amongst the gravestones, not too far from a thin fringe of trees.

At first glance, I thought, “Some neighborhood dog is running loose” – no big news there. But immediately on the heels of that thought, I noticed something different about its lines – a sort of coiled energy in the hind end, and a slinking, feral gait that neighborhood dogs simply don’t have.

I froze. "That’s a coyote," I thought.

And then, “Wait – this is a highly settled suburb of Boston.” And then, “Maybe, but that’s a coyote. Period.”

I only spotted one or two individual coyotes when I lived in New Mexico, years ago (though I did hear the trademark yowling of their packs much more often than that). Since then, I’d learned that coyotes have spread throughout much of North America, including genteel New England, ever since we wise humans all but eliminated their natural competitor, the wolf. But right here in busy Newton?

I’d certainly never seen one so close; this guy was about 80 yards away. He didn’t see me. He trotted in that distinct style for a few steps, then made to sit on his haunches and look around a bit. But he didn’t feel at ease, maybe because he was out in the open. He moved on, slowly, head on a swivel, showing a kind of electric readiness in each step that you just don’t see in tame animals. Even though he would almost certainly have been way more scared of me than vice versa, I was amused to feel a little comfort in the fact that he was far away, and didn’t notice me. He was big enough – about like a good-sized German Shepherd.

After he disappeared, I coasted slowly and silently down to where I’d seen him, but – of course – he had vanished.

I mused to myself for a moment, leaning on my handlebars. I’d come into this cemetery hesitantly; I’m not crazy about hanging around dead people, not because I’m superstitious, but because it’s a bit of a bummer. Yet, I’d been touched by wildness twice during my brief ten minute respite in the cool shade. On my hands and clothes was stuck the strong musk of pine resin. And on my mind was imprinted the kinetic image of a wild dog, out of place and without a home, constantly on the lookout for danger – or lunch.

Just another ride, right?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Velophoria Incident Report

From the moment I opened my eyes, today was just one of those days destined for velophoria.

After days of overbearing heat and humidity, we awoke this morning to cool breezes wafting through the curtains and bright blue skies. I had to get some desk work out of the way first thing, but I’ll tell you, I was chomping at the bit to get out there.

Once I did, boy, the cool air was like a turbo charge in my legs. I just couldn’t hold myself back. I took the back way over to Arlington and hopped on the Minuteman MUP there, boosting out toward Bedford. There weren’t many users on the path, my nutrition was firing on all cylinders, and the new regimen I’ve found for my knees seems to be creating a lot more spaciousness and fluidity down there.

What I mean is, I flew.

Instead of a moderate ride, worrying about this or that pain or ache, I just took off down the long, black macadam and didn’t look back. I tried not to ride the whole thing like a time trial, but it was one of those days when you pull back for a minute or two, telling yourself it’s the right thing to do, and then before you know it, you’re hammering again, blissed out on sweat, sun, wind and endorphins aplenty.

After all the months of agonizing over the condition of my knees, it was like heaven to toss all that to the wind and ride like a kid again. Tomorrow, my knees will tell me if the new regimen is really working or not. Today? Today, I rode it like I stole it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Sketch from Fitchburg Longsjo

My wife and I were out in Western Mass last weekend for much-needed R&R. On the way back yesterday, she kindly consented to visit the Fitchburg Longjso Classic, a road race going on all that weekend – as far as I know, the only stage race held in our fine state. It’s been graced by the likes of Lemond, Armstrong and the Heiden siblings. Go here for good information and a nice history of the racer after whom the event was named.


We were there for the final stage, a criterium. Here’s a little tone poem on what we saw:
  • A lot of happy people hanging out downtown on a fine summer day, making noise every time the peloton buzzed by – sounding like a swarm of very fast, angry bees; looking like a river of neon colors and sweat and jostling and effort.

  • Riders from around the world hanging out on shady side-streets, speaking various languages, donning their radio earsets, warming up on trainers next to team buses silk-screened with cool graphics for teams I’d only read about.

  • So much drool-worthy bikeage that I could barely contain myself. I asked my wife if she thought the SRAM tent would notice if I strolled by and palmed a couple of high-performance wheels (there were scores of them lined up). Surprisingly, she discouraged that idea.

  • A pretty good race announcer who, despite being young and bald-headed in a hip way, exclaimed, “Oh, my stars!” every time something exciting happened. We liked that.

  • On the penultimate lap of the men’s Category Four race (essentially, amateur hour), the rider who crossed the line first threw his arms in the air in the classic winner’s pose and coasted – only to have the peloton swarm past him at full tilt. He’d thought it was the last lap. We got an awful feeling in the pit of our stomach for him; unless he’s got a superhuman psyche, it will be a long time before the memory of throwing away 60 minutes of successful, all-out effort stops torturing him. At the finish, I thought I saw him solidly ensconced in the middle of the pack.

We stuck around long enough to watch most of the women’s pro race, which was exciting – lots of spirited sprints, especially the one for the $100 premium thrown down by a good-hearted local. You should have seen the bikes rockin’ and rollin’ at the line for that one. We left after that; my wife had been more than generous in taking a chunk out of our last weekend day to indulge my obsession with anything velo. She is a great woman.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Heal Already! Living With a Nagging Injury • iii

Third and Final Part. (Read Part One and Part Two.)
The second most annoying thing about nagging injuries: The variables.

Sometimes, I get to feeling a little better. I might even be able to do a hard ride and not suffer too much afterward. Was it the fish oil capsules a friend recommended to me? The glucosamine I started taking this week? The new stretch I’ve been trying? Or maybe it was just the cumulative effect of all the original stuff I’ve been doing for weeks and weeks – did I finally accrue enough benefit from the stuff the PT prescribed, so that I just now turned a corner?

Maybe it’s even some maddening, nebulous combination of the above. Probably is, actually.

Finding what I call “the end of the knot” (so I can pull on it and finally unravel the problem) can be really, truly, infuriatingly hard. Sometimes it seems foolish to even try; by tomorrow, I’ll probably just have another guess as to what caused my improvement. It takes a vast amount of will to keep at the project of figuring out what will help. I admit to three separate days when I was nearly in tears, wondering if I really cared for this sport enough to keep at this whole through the looking glass experience. I was barely a breath away from burying my bike under a bunch of junk in the back of my garage and resigning myself to long walks for exercise. Grim times.

And just going to the “expert” doesn’t usually dispel the darkness. Sure, I always walk out with hope springing eternal that the new diagnosis or exercise they’ve given me is finally the end of this. However, as I’ve said, doctors can be a bit glib about getting to the very bottom of a problem. Well, to be honest, it’s not very efficient for them to sit with me, digging endlessly through the layers of complication. So, I try to strike a balance: I do a little research on my own. I try out some stuff friends recommend. And when I get completely mired in the variables I’ve introduced by myself, I go back to the physical therapist (who is a great guy), do a brain-dump of the whole thing, and see if maybe I have managed to introduce some tiny new wrinkle that will help him finally solve this thing.

Now, here's where I admit that he actually seems to have done just that, about ten days ago. I went back to him after a long stretch of trying to solve it myself, and did one of those brain-dumps. I just blurted out, with no small relief, all the ups and downs and each and every desperate measure I've tried. He actually listened very carefully (you can't imagine how good that feels after weeks of obsession), and then he started trying a little of this and a little of that, all the while explaining some new levels of skeletal detail.

While he was chatting away explaining stuff, he almost off-handedly tried something that felt really different to me. I made him show it to me, went home and expanded on it, and voila – nearly instant and apparently reliable improvement. I won’t bore you with the fine points; if you have chondromalacia or ileotibial band issues, feel free to post a comment here and I’ll be glad to give details. The point is, I think… for today… that I’m out of the woods. Like the twelve-step people say: “One day at a time.” Fingers crossed!

And maybe that’s the upside of all that maddening confusion: You just never know when the next stinkin’ thing you try is actually going to be the end of all your worries.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Are You Serious?

How serious a rider are you?

No, really: I mean this question quite genuinely. How serious are you?

I hear you ask, “Well, how should we judge that?”

Well, how about this: Do you count your miles in a ride log? Do you keep a cycling computer connected to your bicycle? Do you worry about whether your jersey matches the color scheme of your bike?

Are you a triathlete, duathlete, monathlete, or just a half-lete? Can you ride 100 miles? 50? 10? Are you one of those superhuman folks who can reel off two or three hundred in one go? Does that make you a more serious rider than the gal next door, who just finished her first 20-mile ride ever yesterday, and is telling everyone she knows? Is she serious enough?

It seems to me there are as many kinds of riders as there are actual riders. Dividing them up into serious and not is pretty absurd. Yet I – and most of my friends – do it every single day. It's rampant in road biking culture, in fact. In the guise of just sharing a good road story, guys will tell, with unimpeachable humility, of that time last week when they got caught in some jam and had to ride an extra 60 miles in withering heat, on top of their normal century, due to (fill in the blank). But, shucks -- t'weren't nothin'.

Speaking for myself:

I spend a lot of time shopping for that right jersey. I finally bought a nifty one at a good price yesterday, having shopped for weeks. I also shopped for weeks for water bottles that set off my bike’s color scheme – now that I have them, I think the overall effect is dangerously cool, actually. I occasionally catch myself admiring my new body in the mirror when I’m all done up in biking shorts and a sleek, colorful jersey. I love my new, highly-defined quads and my widening calves and shrinking body fat percentage.

I’ve done the base miles, the hill repeats, the intervals, the hundreds of hours on the rollers to improve my form, the heart rate zones, the calorie counting, the stretches, the recovery drinks. I have read every technical cycling book in two local public libraries, and I’m currently working on a third. And I’m teaching myself to fix my own bike.

Now: Am I a serious cyclist?

See, here’s the rub: The more serious I became about my cycling experience, the more impoverished it became.

Any and all of the pastimes above can be great fun; stress-reducing, joyful, healthy, creative. Or they can be one more way to feel like I am not quite enough. There are days when I compare myself to every rider I see on the road, or compare my stats to those of my veteran friends on the Internet cycling forums. Needless to say, on those days, I don’t come out well in the comparison. On the days when I’m really enjoying myself, I don’t compare – I’m just plain happy for every person I see out on a bike, whether beginner, pro or in-between.

So, in order to not self-destruct my cycling passion, I began to work on distinguishing between the kinds of priorities that help and those that hurt. Here’s what I came up with: If I am enjoying myself, it’s helpful. If I’m not, it’s hurtful.

Pretty fancy, huh?

Note that enjoying myself can take many forms. On many days, it’s long, grueling effort and pushing past personal records. Especially if I'm doing that for my own reasons. But even then, I have to mix in some riding just to ride – to enjoy the sunshine, to see the wind in the grass, to have an adventure someplace new, to get the feeling of flying that comes over me on long, flat stretches, when I hit that rolling groove, and time and mind slip away. When I was a kid on that shiny new red bike, I didn't ride to look better than my friend. I rode because riding rocks.

Above all, I have to avoid comparing myself to other riders. I find that ridiculously tricky, although the more months of riding I string together, the easier it gets. After all, if I’m still cycling now, it’s got to be because I found something I hold dear, something real.

The trick answer to the trick question, “Am I a serious rider?” is no – because being serious is the wrong goal for me. It’s a trap. It hangs its hat on the wrong hook: What do/would others think of my mileage, my kit, my bike, my wins? If you think about it for 15 seconds, that becomes an utterly pointless question, spiralling back in on itself. However, precisely because it’s pointless, it suddenly becomes very dangerous when I invest it with importance, with priority. If being taken seriously is your goal, well, take it from me: You can never get enough. If, however, I can manage to truly take the enjoyment credo to heart, make it my engine of growth, I can look forward to many more years of true velophoria.

So, tell me: Are you serious?