Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Zestfully Clean

Don't ask me why I decided to clean my drive train today.

I mean, it's middle of January, and this is my winter bike (or at least will be, the day I click "Bid" on the right bike on eBay, which will hopefully be soon). In a week, the chain will bristle once again with the sound of grit between the bushings. (That sound always makes me grimace.) But today was an at-home day, with snow and freezing rain keeping me and my wife from even getting up the hill at the end of our road. I'd done all the work I'd brought home from the office, things were all set around the house, and I've been meaning to give the beast a good cleaning for a while now. Winter riding in New England is rough on a bike.

And let's be honest, it's just fun to clean a bike. I mean, really fun -- like being six years old all over again, with the irredeemably filthy hands to prove it. Like I said to Velophoriana, "As a therapist, much of the time you don't know if you're making progress, or even what you're supposed to be making progress on. When you've properly cleaned a bike, it's right there in front of you." Plus, there's the sensory gratification: The smell of the solvent, the feel of the grease and grit on your hands, the bite of the chainrings against your skin when the rag slips. And let's not forget the visual satisfaction of gleaming metal everywhere you look, once you're done. Talking with clients, sitting in meetings and doing paperwork don't engage the senses anything like that, do they?

Of course, now the house smells like we're living inside a giant orange.

We are renting right now, and our apartment has no basement or garage. How do people in tiny city apartments clean their bikes? I guess their houses always smell like a giant citrus fruit, too.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wheels within Wheels

Pardon the involuted, post-modern self-referentialism ("The what?"), but I just have to refer any recent converts to Velophoria over to a post I wrote almost two months ago, because a really interesting conversation has developed lately in the comments section, and I don't want you to miss all the goodness. It really embodies the kind of marriage between doing and thinking-about-doing that I envisioned for Velophoria when I launched it.

Scroll down for the great comments. And thanks to Suitcase of Courage, No One Line and new reader De.corday for their great contributions.

Hands Off

Yeah, yeah, yeah: Riding rollers is boring. Right. I've been complaining about it since November.

But today, I'm not complaining. In fact, I'm stoked.

Because today, I did 2 x 30 sec on the rollers.... NO HANDS.

That's right, Velophoriacs.You read right. (Buffing fingernails on shirtfront.) Rollers with no hands, for half a minute -- twice. I could have gone a lot longer, but I was doing intervals today and didn't want to mess with my heart rate. I did, however, whoop with joy. I know people who've been cycling for decades and still can't take one hand off the bars while on rollers.

I hope you won't think less of me for bragging. Given that my training and racing plans have been sabotaged lately by a cold, the miserable weather, and general life stress, I kinda feel like celebrating this little triumph. I'm not sayin' I'm a "hard man," or equating myself with a pro cyclist. I'm just sayin' I can now do one thing that those people do. Which is cool!

I guess it's the old "Look ma, no hands!"

I once saw a video of Lance Armstrong taking his jacket off while on the rollers. It looked disgustingly easy for him, so commonplace that he didn't even bother to try looking casual about it. And I thought, "Well, I'll never do that." Today, it doesn't look so far off.
Now I call that a souplesse surplus.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Antidote for Winter Whining

Sorry 'bout that last post, folks, sometimes things just get the better of me.

I just read Sri Bobke's latest at and immediately felt much better.

I don't necessarily agree with every one of his points, and his spelling and grammar are frightening. But, well -- c'mon. He's Sri Bobke. Like a guru whose beard is always dripping with soup and who flirts with the female disciples a little too much, you have to take the good with the bad. The bad spelling and outrageousness is just part of his charm.

Even a decent blast from Bobke-ji clears the sinuses, know what I mean? That's all I'm sayin'.

Enough, Already.

Five degrees below zero when I awoke this a.m. Icicles slicing up the view from every window. Two layers of sweats while eating breakfast and waiting for the house to warm.

Last winter was filled with days in the 30s and 40s, and I rode outside once or twice a week, sometimes more. This month, with the exception of this past Friday, we've had about three-plus weeks of single-digits through the twenties. I rode outside yesterday out of desperation, because I'm tired of the rollers. It wasn't terrible, but it sure wasn't fun -- 24° and falling at rollout, winds gusting up to 18 mph. Being barely on the mend after a 10-day chest cold, I did 50 minutes and called it a day. Came back home to nurse Velophoriana, who is hosting a truly bad cold right now; makes mine look like a walk in the park.

I believe fiercely in keeping a positive attitude. I'm a mental health counselor for children and youth, and it's very important to walk the talk. Besides, it just makes life better. But there are weeks, even months when it's hard.

January's been pretty nasty at work. All my colleagues and I agree that all our clients/students colluded to melt down this month. Which led to some pretty long days and nights. When people fall apart who have long-standing mental health challenges to begin with, it leads to stuff no one should have to witness, much less go through first-hand. I'm pretty sure I'd be stronger with it all if I were able to ride outside with some degree of comfort and regularity. I haven't slept well since December, when I still had regular weekly road rides, and insomnia doesn't help when dealing with the rest of the puzzle pieces.

I think that 2.5 hour jaunt in the 14° temps two weeks ago might have set me up for this cold (along with work crises and all the other stuff). Gotta watch that metabolism; I turn 45 in five weeks or so. The old car will still roll along pretty well once I warm it up and unwind it... but the OEM battery sure don't hold the charge like it used to.

Ah, winter! Insomnia. Mental illness. Indoor riding. Darkness. Frigid chill. Colds. Intimations of mortality.

How many weeks until April?

[Ed. note: With our next post, we banish Velomisery, and return you to our regularly scheduled upbeat content.]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

First Quadrennial Inaugural Ride'n'Sweat

If you look closely, you can see the computer monitor streaming live video of the coronation proceedings on Tuesday. Had Velophoriana been home, I'd have had her take a picture with me on the bike, but this is all I got for ya. I had a blast watching, and you better believe I sprinted like Eric Zabel when O. took the stage. I whooped for joy.

I suppose that's the first time I've tipped my political hand here on Velophoria, but, I mean, c'mon. I live in the Pioneer Valley, one of the more liberal corners of an already liberal state. (And, if you're a sometime political junkie like me, you'll enjoy that link I just provided.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Private, Absolutely Rigorous World

There is an interesting distinction to be made between individual play and team play; the former involves a complex psychological and physical encounter between a person and time obstacle or competitor. It is a defined encounter with epic implications. (Such athletes are) perhaps the quintesential heroes, because they operate in a private, absolutely rigorous world, where there are no excuses, and a person's triumph or loss is his or her own, not his team's.... The outcome is total--one man won, the other man lost.

~ Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Rarest Cyclist?

When I was in high school during the early '80s, during my first torrid love affair with the road bike, I had a classmate named Larry who was a racer, a more serious rider than I. Larry occasionally offered cycling advice to me out of the goodness of his heart. He was a decent guy, another in the legion of city riders who would file out over the Bridge on a weekend morning and tool up the Jersey shore, the only place they could get decent miles and challenging terrain.

Nothing unusual about this story: High school acquaintances, both cyclists, connect.

Well, there was one thing: Larry was Black. A Black road cyclist is a rare thing.

It's Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday weekend, and that's got me thinking: I have never seeen many Blacks in any discipline of cycling. Neither back in the '80s, nor in the years since. What is it about our sport that seems to exclude black people? Is there anything we can do to change the situation? I'm certainly not the first to ask this question; legions of others seem to be wondering the same thing. As interesting as that subject is, it's for another post. This post is about history; it's the story of an astonishing man.

It really is a remarkable tale. Even though cycling has always been predominantly white, there was a man, not only extremely talented but also outrageously courageous and transparently upstanding, who broke the color line in cycling in a very out-sized way. I'm speaking of the late 1800s, when blacks in the U.S. were freely and routinely terrorized or killed by Whites as a matter of whim. His name was Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, and he lived much of his professional life just an hour's drive east of my home, in Worcester (pronounced WOOS-ter), Massachusetts.

In those days, cycling was king, and attendance at baseball stadiums suffered terribly by comparison, especially if there was a concurrent race in a nearby velodrome (and there were scores in the U.S., not to mention Europe).

By most reports (including his own, although there are plenty of others both in print and on the Web), the Worcester Whirlwind was the best there was at this very popular sport. Yet he not only withstood unending mistreatment at the hands of miscreants everywhere, but did so with dignity and a positive attitude. He was, according to many, the fastest man on two wheels anywhere, but was never able to fully prove this because of abhorrent exclusion from key races, mainly in the American south.

He was at least as courageous, and certainly 40 years ahead of, Jackie Robinson. (Nothing against the outstanding Robinson, who is a hero in my family. Both my parents separately got to meet him during his Major League peak in the late 1940s.)

Long story short, Taylor finally succeeded in becoming only the second Black world champion in any sport.

I exhort you to check out this fairly readable, if quite cursory, review of his life, and if it peaks your interest, feel free to dig around on the Web, Amazon, and so on. There's plenty out there on him.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Unpopular Opinion

Well, I've held off writing about the topic of this month's poll (see upper portion of right-hand column) for too long. There are reasons I've been hesitating. Mainly, I don't want to lose any readers.

I appreciate all those who took part. I'm glad to know you guys are optimistic about Lance Armstrong's return to the upper reaches of the sport.

Ahem. I was the one negative vote.

I'm somewhat loath to admit this now, after the rest of you voted in favor. So, let me try to explain myself. I tried this once before, but trashed the draft of the post before it ever saw daylight. It was full of meanderings and justifications. I also don't want to sound like a curmudgeon.

So, I warmly welcome dissenting opinions in your comments on this post. Okay? Okay. Here we go.

Simply put, I feel two ways about Armstrong. On the positive side, there is no doubt about a few important facts:

1) In his Tour de France years, he did for the sport what Babe Ruth did for baseball, or, to choose a more recent and perhaps more apt example, Michael Jordan for basketball. Today, the most casual sports fan or newspaper reader knows what the Tour de France is. When neighbors see me in my kit headed out for a ride, they joke about me being (or maybe trying to be) the local Armstrong. Greg Lemond achieved something like this, but let's be honest; Armstrong is much more famous than Lemond was.

2) Armstrong is undeniably one of the most talented cyclists of his generation -- possibly the most talented. I don't need to recap his accomplishments here; if you're reading this blog, you know. I have one word which more or less makes the point: Seven.

3) He's done almost as much for the cause of cancer as he has for cycling. Laudable and very helpful to people with real problems. (At least I assume it is -- I don't know much about the Lance Armstrong Foundation's inner workings.)

4) His ferocity of focus and desire can be very inspirational. His victory over cancer, and subsequent rise to glory, were extremely impressive, and to a great degree, attributable to that ferocity.

Okay. Those are some very, very strong points. Now, here's the stuff I don't like. Let me start by saying that every one of these is far more a matter of opinion than any of the points listed above. Also, I don't know the man personally, and I might feel differently if I did. This is simply my take:

1) He's got an ego the size of Everest. He is supremely self-involved. Everything he does smacks of self-promotion. Sadly, that extends to his charity, too. (For example, it allows him to make one of the most publicized comebacks in sports history while wearing a jersey bearing, in oversize letters, the name of his own charity -- not that of his team. The jersey, not coincidentally, incorporates his own name: Livestrong. Every photo I've seen of him riding with the team in the last few months has featured that jersey. Yet, he can't be criticized for this, because he's "doing it all for the cancer victims." Except when he says that he is in it to win the races. He's got it wired every which way. This is but one of many, many examples.)

2) He's an outstanding example of the lamentable American fixation on winning. He has an "All or nothing" attitude that is at the heart of a lot of serious dysfunction (both personal and global) in our society. You're either a hero... or a zero. You either give every ounce of energy and moment of your time to a goal, or you might as well quit now. You're either my unwavering ally, or my mortal enemy. We mental health professionals spend our time helping people work their way out of these these polarizing and damaging ways of thinking. (Please note that I am not saying that Armstrong has a mental health problem; I'm saying his attitude, held up as an wonderful example to us all, can be damaging.)

So, in my view, Armstrong is a dynamo that generates lots of good, and lots of bad. I guess where you come out on him just depends which one you give more weight to. I do think his return will re-inject some positive interest into road racing, which could use all it can get.

That's just not enough.

I confess that I'm very demanding of my heroes. I work with children and teens for a living, the everyday variety who are struggling under poor, neglectful parents, insufficient schools, and the wearying effects of trying to decide who they will become in a society that gives them but a few unappetizing choices. If someone's going to go gliding like an Adonis through the glossy TV ads they unconsciously soak up every day, it damn well better be someone who is worth emulating in every way.

I, too, need role models who get me through the daily drag with a spark of hope, of courage, of fire in the belly. Not people I can use like an action figure toy, to fantasize ruling my little corner of the world. Folks who do what I love to do, but in a stunning, inspiring way. And, who manage to successfully navigate the difficult, swampy business we call life and maintain their integrity, and their kindness.

So that's a lot, right? They have to be more than just gifted and fierce. They have to be transparently good people, from the inside out.

They're out there. (In fact, I met one of them.) There are lots of them -- many more, in fact, than the bigshots. Most of them aren't as well known, because, usually, you can't be that good a person and rise all the way to the top of a field in which thousands are trying to cut you down. But it's okay with me that my heroes are number three, or 27, in the world. They're still incredibly talented and a joy to watch when they do their thing -- and when they stop, and talk to the media, you can tell: They prefer to win, but really, they're doing this because it embodies goodness for them. Not because of the demons snapping at their heels, not for the joy of being the best, not to prove they are better than someone else.

May I be blessed with a fraction of that grace in any part of my life. And you, too, if that's what you want.

As for Armstrong, I admire his talent. And I wish him peace. It looks to me like he needs it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hoarfrost and Rime

So, does it earn me bragging rights that I rode two and a half hours in the 16° weather yesterday? I had a long ride due on my training plan, and it was supposed to snow a lot that night and today. So, it was either get out -- or do hours on the rollers.

I began flinging winter gear out of my closet.

When I left, it was 14°, and it took me at least 45 minutes to fully warm up. I wasn't sure if it was going to work; I'd ridden earlier in December with temps in the teens, and my IT bands contracted so far that I got ITBS for the first time (oh, joy). But I've been stretching and foam rolling for weeks now, and it seems to have worked out the worst of it.

I had three layers on my lower body, and four on top (more like five, once you count the bibs from my shorts and my tights). I had a pair of running pants on over my windfront tights, trying to keep those knees warm. I don't have booties (saving dough for a new bike), so I put half a plastic bag over each of my Smartwool socks, then the shoe, then covered the shoe with the usual toe covers.

I came dangerously close to going down a couple times on icy back roads, so I detoured onto the local two-lane highway, cleared surprisingly well (if a bit trafficky).

If I stopped to adjust my face mask or grab a quick bite, when I got back on the bike, the mask would be hardened and warped inward. I couldn't figure out why until I realized... Duh! The condensation from my breath on the mask was freezing solid, in the two minutes I had been off the bike.

I had confidently predicted to my wife that I would be one of four riders in the Pioneer Valley on the road that morning. Lo, but I did see a guy in a Northampton Cycling Club jersey exiting the Quabbin Reservoir nature reservation on what looked like a 'cross bike, as I tooled by on Route 9. We nodded grimly to each other.

Here's how I looked before departing:

And here's how red my hands were after being back in the house at least five minutes:

(In a whiny tone of voice:) "Am I a hard man yet??"

Automatically disqualified just for asking.

Photos © 2009, Mrs. Velophoria

Saturday, January 10, 2009

"That Which Does Not Kill Me, Makes Me Stranger"

Sifting through an excellent site on sports psychology (Marvin Zauderer's personal site has a wonderfully long page filled with a broad array of articles on that topic), I tripped over a fascinating New York Times article on Jure Robic, one of the most successful ultracyclists out there. These are guys who ride as far they can in 24 hours, or ride across the continental United States in just a few days. Many days and thousands of continuous miles on the bike, with very little sleep interspersed. In other words, they're a little crazy to start with. (As well as physiologically different from you and me).

But Robic goes beyond the usual "embrace the pain" banalities. Far beyond.

As the race progresses, he literally descends into a swamp of mental illness. And the article is a wonderful, fresh lens on the very tenuous difference between the "mentally ill" and "the rest of us."

All endurance athletes have reached that certain point in a ride or race when our demons bash down the locked door to the cellar in the back of our minds and emerge to taunt us. The difference is, Robic's demons come all the way out; they do the macarena on the dining room table. He doesn't have -- or chooses to deactivate -- the mental security gate that most of us would never mess with, the one that keeps those demons at a certain distance, no matter how close. You and I might enjoy facing down pain, fear, harsh memories of the past (see Suitcase of Courage's recent post on Bill Strickland's fine book, Ten Points, for a perfect example of the latter), low self-esteem -- all kinds of worthy adversaries -- as part of the challenge and reward of riding. Hate to say it, but your very harshest day on the bike makes Robic's happiest day look like a Hieronymous Bosch painting. He is John Howard and August Strindberg rolled into one.

Now, I'm not romanticizing this idea. For all his talent, I don't envy Robic. I'm a mental health counselor, and even at this early stage in my career (thanks to a mid-life job switch), I have seen enough of demons and the destruction they inspire to last a lifetime. But there's a difference: When Robic's not on the bike, he's at least in balance enough to be socially acceptable. He's more or less sane, in control.

So it's okay that the article is funny. I found myself wishing I'd thought of the title first: "That Which Does Not Kill Me, Makes Me Stranger."

There's also some super-cool stuff in there about the psychological nature of endurance-related pain. This is the kind of stuff I really dig. (Guess it's not surprising, since I'm a therapist and an endurance athlete.) Turns out it may be closer in nature to an emotion (i.e., a way of perceiving reality) than to an actual, biological reality.

See, there seems to be a "governor" built in to the brain/mind that keeps us from pushing past a certain level of endurance, because our evolutionary genetic makeup "believes" that we might need the last bit of reserves for something important -- say, running from a sabertooth tiger. So the brain/mind actually creates a sensation of pain when it's not there (or amplifies it, at least), to get us to back off.

Thing is, when you're on the bike, there are no sabertooths (except for that joker in the green jersey who's been on your wheel the entire break). And there appears to be only "trivial" consequences to turning off that governor and pushing beyond -- way beyond. It might feel like our body's on fire, and of course, there's always the danger of overtraining, but we won't die, which, at a certain point, is what the ultracyclist's body is stridently trying to tell him will happen. The theory goes that Robic's "unique" psychological make-up -- his mental illness -- disengages that governor. It just bypasses it altogether.

What lies beyond is strange country, indeed. And beyond that? Podiums.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Velophoria Incident Report, Jan. '09

I've felt like a landlocked sailor for the past couple of weeks.

It's been at least that long since I've been able to ride outside, what with the holiday travel and the nasty weather in Massachusetts. I've been like some ancient salt forced to live in Kansas or Nebraska. Broad vistas of pleasant seas and sunny skies fill his dreams at night. Daily he wakes to an unremitting funk. Nothing terribly wrong. Just not quite... right.

Friel warned me about it. Carmicheal warned me about it. Even I warned me about it: Roller burnout. And it's only January!

This morning, though I slept poorly last night and the temps were in the teens when I awoke, I was determined to get out for a ride before work. It might have been my last chance for the week, since we're expecting a messy winter storm tonight.

Despite the ill tidings and exhaustion, despite the time away from the road, I had a lovely ride.

The small mountains near our home hovered on the horizon, the farm fields stretched away on all sides in an eternity of frozen white silence. It was sere, icy, forbidding -- in other words, beautiful. I had sun (or at least brightness) for most of the hour and a half I was out there. And best of all, the iPod, on Shuffle mode, kept dishing up the very best of the deep recesses of my music collection, stuff I love and hadn't heard for a while. Sometimes it seems my iPod is determined to bore me; even on Shuffle, it seems to go through the same old tunes and artists. Not today; today was sing-along day. Good tunes always get me moving on the bike.

True, two-plus weeks off the road have taken much of the oomph out of my legs. The "same old" hills brought rude awakenings. But I got a good workout in (right on target for my periodized plan), got fresh, icy air on my face, got genuine daylight in my eyes, and covered some ground. Best of all, no significant knee issues today. I rode like I wanted to.

Once home, face flush, warmed from the inside by a steaming flagon of hot chocolate, I felt rich, new, ready for the day.

Velophoria is why I ride. It only happens once in a while, and I can't plan it. I am grateful when it catches me. I'm grateful today.

Monday, January 5, 2009

No, really -- Take the poll.

Folks, folks, folks -- I know there are a good number of you reading Velophoria, and yet only three of you have answered the poll. Now, I appreciate everyone stopping by just to read. But I appreciate even more those who take a moment to pitch in to the conversation.

If you like what you've read here, and stop by occasionally (or more than occasionally), all I ask in return is a tiny bit of interactivity: Just click one answer on the poll.

It'll take you less than 10 seconds. It's fun to find out what other like-minded folk are thinking. I'll do a post about the results, if we get enough answers to merit it.

Okay, I'm off my soap-box. Thanks.

Friday, January 2, 2009

If You Don't Go When You Want to Go...

"Riders ready..."

I have a personal New Year's resolution this year, but I am also going to have lots of them for cycling, as well. Some of them are pretty straight-up training goals, like adhering to a fully periodized riding program (per Joe Friel) for the first time.

Others are a little more incendiary. I plan to participate in my first cycling race in 2009. That's a pretty exciting one, init?

The thing that makes me most nervous about that one isn't the idea of losing, or winning, or crashing, or even having no #$?%&! idea what I'm doing. (Those do make me nervous, by the way.) The most scary thing about it is that I'll like it.

I already spend quite a lot of time training on my bike, or fixing my bike, or buying stuff for my bike -- or thinking about training, fixing or buying stuff for my bike. I have a somewhat obsessive personality, and if I jump into this whole culture around bike racing, I could be done for. There's so much to learn, so many ways to improve, so many events to try, books to read, goodies to buy.


I've been waffling about this a long time. I've gone over and over the (perfectly sound) reasons why I shouldn't try racing, things like "I'll be 45 in a couple months, I'm older and more tired and more physically fragile and more busy, and involved in a really good marriage I'd like to keep that way, blah blah blah blah blah..."

Yeah, right. And then I look at those perfectly functional guys in their 50s and 60s still rippin' up the field every weekend. And I know in my secret little black heart that I am envious of them. End of whining.

Then there are other reasons, too, some of them strong, most of them not. All of them have buzzed around in my head for a year or more.

On the other hand... I can't stop thinking about it.

My wife and I were watching a fun little soap-bubble of a movie last night called, "The Fastest Indian in the World." Anthony Hopkins plays a quirky old gearhead whose life consists of upgrading his beloved 40-year-old Indian motorcycle. (Hmm, constant absorption in a two-wheeled vehicle... sound familiar?) His dearest dream is to travel with it from his native New Zealand to Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, to see if he can break the land speed record. It won't surprise you that a heart-warming series of events allows him to go. As he's leaving, he turns to a young boy, a neighbor who's worked his way into the old man's heart. He winks at the boy and spits out a homespun Kiwi aphorism: "If you don't go when you want to go, when you do go, you'll find you've gone."

Corny as it was, it hit the inner nail right on the head.

If I continue to flip-flop about racing, the excuses I mentioned will get more true every year. Or, I could admit to myself that my constant picking at this question tells me there's something in there for me. If I love it -- or even just can't let go of it -- then there's got to be something in it custom-made for me to learn from, grow by, chew on. Of such stuff is the righteous life made. And if I don't like it, at least the question will be settled. But I have to try it.

I talked it over with my wife, to make sure I had her support. I made certain promises (e.g., not to disappear from her life, not to get too whiny if I get hurt or injured, that kind of thing) and the deal is on. (She's a real good'un.)

So, there's a big one for Aught-nine. I guarantee you you'll be hearing more about this. Stay tuned.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Take the Poll!

I know the topic isn't the freshest news by now, but I'm certainly still thinking about it, and I really want to know what you think. My readers' worldview is important to me.

It's in the upper part of the right-hand column. It takes one click.

Oh, yeah: Happy new year!! I'm off to ride the rollers, because it's been in the single digits most of the day and most of the roads are ice and snow. Kind of hard when the sun is blasting; I have to remind myself once an hour, "Just because the sun is out doesn't mean I can ride!" Almost every day, I have this moment where I can feel spring, way off in the distance... but coming. It's like it's here for a moment, laid over the ice and snow: A clear black ribbon of road, green everywhere, and a warm breeze, whispering, "Come ride for hours!"