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.