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


...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 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



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


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, 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