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.


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 SeƱor 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.