Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Morning Ride Sonata

roll out at roughly 40 degrees
air is cold but sun has the optimistic, warm touch
of early spring

body recovering from fourth cold of the season, tired of
holding back, constantly re-starting from zero
too many cars
not enough juice in the legs
reach the turnaround point
turn back without hesitation

take a different way back
bike path
empty of bikes, people
sunlight pushes defiantly through trees
mountains in the middle distance behind them
flat-to-rolling means I get to do my roleur thing
amp it up a notch
keep it there
feeling good

take a right instead of a left
little traveled side road, infamous for bad surface
a nice steady climb
keep up the plus-one pace, breathing harder
more sun now, more trees, fewer houses, air fresher
heartmind levitating
this is what I must have come out for

if breathing hard is God’s gift
if the potholes are enjoyable challenges
I must be coming back.

- Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

Moab, Visually

First up is an edited photo album of our trip to Moab, with captions to help tell the story (make sure to scroll down from each picture). Roughly ten photos -- relatively painless. (Click on the photo in the window to go to the Bubbleshare page containing the full-size slideshow and the captions.)

BubbleShare: Share photos - Easy Photo Sharing

And for those who just can't get enough of the Southwest, or just want to see even more pretty pictures, try this:

BubbleShare: Share photos - Easy Photo Sharing


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Moab Training Camp

Day One: Fly to Salt Lake. Stay with Rob at his friends’ house; we go out for fish tacos at Rob’s favorite Mexican place in SLC. Stories of their past glories and spectacular crashes.

Day Two: Pack up borrowed road and mountain bikes, stock up on groceries on the way out of town, head south. In Provo, stop at the bike shop Rob’s same friends have recently taken over. Pick up supplies, ogle bikes, chitchat. Head south for real.

Mountain passes. Huge skies. Long, long roads, stretching from out there to nowhere. Then, suddenly, huge red rock cliffs, tables, spires. Then lots more. I am home – this is the doorway to my spiritual home on planet earth. This is the part of the world I dream about when I am in the east.

Moab: A little town, retaining the feel of a small outdoorsy place. Good juice and coffee joints, and something like 13 bike shops, almost all dedicated to mountain biking. If anyone has told you in overzealous terms that mountain biking is dead, send them to Moab. The place is overrun by people under the age of 30, and every one of them lives, eats and breathes hardcore M TB. Fashionably puffy beards over surprising baby faces, pre-weathered t-shirts with gear brands all over them, baggy shorts. Ultracool, giving off that faint aura of hangover, exhaustion from yesterday’s epic ride, and hyper-caffeination. Most everyone is friendly.

Mid-afternoon. Set up camp fast as possible. Set up the road bikes as fast as possible. Drop like stones down the “hill” Rob warned me about, which runs up to our campground. Ride north a tick to the place where the Colorado crosses the highway, and turn right… into the most beautiful road riding I’ve done in a long time. Supposed to go out an hour to test my legs, I’m recovering from pneumonia. Hypnotized by the slowly passing walls and stately spires of earthy brown and brick red, we hit the hill to the campground two hours later. Wheeeeeeeeze up the hill. Stop in the middle. Almost throw up. Rob asks, “You have that metallic feeling in the back of your throat?” “Don’t make me talk!” I wheeze.

Riding along the Colorado

First campfire of the trip. Rob makes killer foil dinners in the white, glowing coals, possibly to make up for nearly making me throw up. The firewood is juniper or piñon, and smells like incense. A million stars unfold across the rich, dark sky. As close to heaven as you can get on planet Earth.

Day Three: Up at 6:30 out of habit. No light. Climb up the swooping red rock behind camp, walk to view of the La Sals, popping up out of the high desert plains about 20 miles from here. Do yoga, watch the sky light up and fill with sun. Good start.

Sit in café with Rob while he puts in obligatory work hours. He apologizes every day for this; I couldn’t be happier, sitting in a beautiful place with a good book and happy folk all around. 20-somethings flirt and boast with each other.

Quick lunch. Set up mountain bikes. My first time on a real MTB trail. Rob insists Slickrock is a great introduction; we can see the entrance from our picnic table. We roll over to the parking lot. I am very disoriented, figuring out the gear levers (so different from a road bike’s), the feel of disc brakes, how to handle a tiny 22-tooth chainring. Begin Slickrock. Just the entrance to the trail feels overwhelming. Huge sign says something like, “Warning: Advanced skills required.” I excuse myself and tell Rob to go on. He coaxes, promises, persists. I continue. Feel like I’m riding a bike on the moon – except there’s far too much gravity. Bicycles were not meant to be ridden on curvy, hilly rock with jumps and turns and… a 12-year-old in flip-flops sails past me. I tell Rob, No, really. I really am turning around. I turn around. Head for trailhead.

Take a short, steep downhill too fast, try to make the quick right turn at the very bottom. It’s me versus momentum. Momentum wins. Bike and I go over to the left, I go down plenty hard on my hip, then, WHANG, helmet follows. I am conscious, but lose radio contact for a minute or so.

I am not well. Walk the bike out, Rob follows, increasingly worried. I do not curse him. Rob wants to take my bike, but I can’t walk without leaning on it. I return to camp, drop bike, ice hip for rest of afternoon. Rob rides Slickrock and goes on to a longer, harder trail. He is a monster. He is gone three hours. I am filled with a combination of envy and wonder. I find out days later he is a Cat 1 mountain bike racer. I never knew this. It would have helped to know this.

Day Four: Another 74-degree day, no clouds. I drive to Dead Horse Point. Rob rides up the 12-mile hill to the overlook and meets me there. I am busy being awestruck and deeply still. I stare and stare, drinking of the endless vista of enormous, gouged rock features, every color in the earth-tone rainbow. Whole snow-capped mountain ranges with charming names are visible in the distance. Most of all, silence, occasionally broken by a raven's caw! Hot sun bakes out my tension, questions. The dust in the air begins to blur out the vista at a certain distance. An awareness emerges of the very energy of the earth, a palpable thing all about me. It’s like being on the edge of Creation as it’s being created. I could stay here all afternoon. We go.

On the way, Rob and I have an involved conversation about the possible ways the all-star roster on team Astana will play out in the Tour this year.

A view from Dead Horse Point

Day Five: I’ve been testing my hip and doing some gentle rehab. Certain movements hurt like fire, but riding seems possible, it’s going to be another beautiful day, and you know what that all means. Despite the start of a head cold, I will try to ride.

I limp over to the parking lot for Sliprock (as it will hence be known in my household), scuttling slow as a seven-legged scorpion. Rob walks my borrowed road bike over. With some doing, I manage to get a leg over the frame. I clip in and ride around the lot. It doesn’t hurt. Might even feel good.

In this moment, I know for the umpteenth time that I am a road-biker.

We drive to the road heading down the Colorado River (the opposite direction from the first day’s ride), kit up, fuel up, roll out. Rob rides his mountain bike, to keep from pushing the pace too much, in deference to my injury. Flat-to-rolling, scenery even more breathtaking than ever. My spirits begin to lift. Other roadies pass us, two on stylish De Rosas, one of them a skinny guy dressed in impeccable Euro style, no helmet, just a Rapha-esque cycling cap matching his spotless black and white jersey. His elegance, so different from the frumpy mountain bikers I’ve seen for the last few days, further lifts my mood. We amble down the road, my hip loosens, the day’s horizons expand, and time disappears. At the turnaround point, we lay out on blazing hot flat red rocks by the timeless river and bake in the heat. I discover that the fresh tortillas with which I filled my jersey pocket have now become crispy, delicious corn chips in the superdry heat.

We turn around, pick up the pace, TTT back to the FourRunner. For ten glorious minutes, I am pulling Rob, I am the roleur I sometimes can be, I put us at 26 mph, aided by a felicitous tail wind. We disappear into our work. Rob, who we both know is a world stronger than me even when we are both at our fittest, says he had trouble holding my wheel, a nice note, but absurd, since he’s on a mountain bike, and has been hammering out epics twice a day lately. Yet I know the pulls were good, and they nourish me inside.

We eat at a restaurant for dinner, a rejuvenating taste of civilization, and we toast a good trip.

Day Six: Pack up camp first thing in morning, and with heavy hearts, bid adieu to our perfect home. Try to squeeze in a ride up the hill to Dead Horse Point. My head cold is setting in, sky is overcast, wind is tenacious and temps are way down. Not fun. We climb about half-way up, take a break at yet another breathtaking scenic overlook. The only other person around for miles is a cool, funky photographer, so I strike up a conversation. He’s an older guy, living in Kansas, but he’s from all over, a student of life, talks to people, gathers stories, does some marketing and commercial work. We talk about Kansas and the Dust Bowl. Good conversation. Time to leave. The descent is wonderful, I hit 50 mph, enjoy the wide, sweeping turns, it’s great fun.

Long drive up to Provo, reunion with bike shop buddies, drop borrowed bikes, thanks and goodbyes. I play DJ with Rob’s iPod as we drive and we discover we have huge overlap in musical tastes. We rock out to good tunes and talking songwriting.Continue north past Salt Lake to Rob’s parents in Logan to drop off camping gear and a bike and stay the night.

Meet the fam. First shower in a week. Quick dinner of good steak. Head cold sets in. Sleep hard.

Day Seven: Laundry. Clean and detail the borrowed FourRunner with Rob. Sunday dinner, get to know Rob’s delightful family, all kinds of incriminating stories I can now hold over him. Drive an hour south to Rob’s sister-in-law’s house. She happens to be one of the best female snowboarders in the world. She is back east, winning a major competition. We stay in her interesting, well-appointed house, but bum out because her hot tub has been drained and Rob’s friends can’t make it over. Last-evening-itis. Head cold is now for real. But I cheer up at the chance to use all my leftovers to make a nice little dinner in a lovely kitchen.

Day Eight: Up at 4:30 a.m. Fly across America in a Bonine-and-NyQuil-induced haze, limp around the Baltimore airport marvelling at the power of narcotics. Baltimore to Hartford, shuttle from Hartford to Western Mass, and a long, hot shower. Rest the painful hip. Await the return from work of my wonderful wife, who I haven’t seen in eight nights.

Turn the page; tomorrow is a workday and I look forward to returning, refreshed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yoga: The Ultimate Cross-Training

I do yoga.

There, I said it.

That's right, I'm one of those sensitive, New-Age guys. I've studied and/or practiced yoga for 17 years now. I liked it from the first day I tried it. It started with the fact that I simply enjoy the challenge of actually doing the poses. For those who haven't tried it because you think it's wimpy, I guarantee you that yoga is a lot more physically challenging than you think. It's far more than simply "stretching" or "holding a pose." There's no way to fully describe the physical challenge. Suffice to say, it works you out so deep in your muscles, you've never experienced anything like it.

On top of the pleasure of that challenge, it boasts an impressive list of physical benefits:

- Increased overall strength
- Greatly increased core strength
- Healthier and more effective lungs, organs and glands
- Decrease in physical tension (including headaches, back problems, etc.)
- It's weight-bearing, so you get healthier bones in the deal
- Increased flexibility and protection from injury in sports
- Improved balance and physical grace
- Improved posture
- Development of the entire body, inside and out, as a balanced system. It's cross-training on the uber level.

Almost every one of these is a benefit that most serious cyclists avidly pursue to improve their overall training.

There are plenty of cycling-specific ways to strengthen oneself through yoga. I did a one-hour session this morning, and my quads and hip flexors now feel like I was on a hard and hilly two-hour ride. You can go into various forms of a deep squat and hold the position for painfully long periods of time. Lactic acid for breakfast, anyone?

I know of a pair of very experienced cyclists who, during one winter, substituted one day of yoga per week for a day of cycling training. They claimed that almost all their on-bike performance stats went up that year.

* * *

Then there are the intangibles. They are at least as important to me as the physical side.

I do at least a little yoga every morning, followed by meditation, and I would have to write a pretty thick book to sum up the positive impact that practice has had on my life. Far from making me a pale, navel-gazing wimp, it increases my physical and mental energy, improves my concentration, clarifies my priorites, and gets me excited about, and actively engaged in, my daily life.

I do a kind of yoga that's a little outdated for it's emphasis on the combo of inner and outer development. You can still find it out there if you know where to look. The Americanization of yoga has changed the face of the discipline forever -- a discipline proven and perfected over literally thousands of years. Most classes have completely cut out even the broad-based, non-religious inner aspects such as brief meditations, and using mindfulness while in the poses.

I knew this was inevitable the day Madonna told the world she loves yoga. But it still makes me sad, because growing the inner life was the reason yoga was developed all that time ago. The physical benefits, as vital as they are, were considered bonuses (and inseparable from the inner growth). So, I find it hard to watch the proliferation of hard-driving, goal-oriented, platitude-shouting American yoga instructors. They've turned the thing into a football camp -- and they're raking in the dough. So be it.

* * *

As for me, after a good yoga session (and they're almost all good) I feel more joyful in my body. My mind is calm and clear. My connection to what I call God is markedly stronger, and it permeates my being; it isn't just a thought or a brief moment of clarity. Climbing into the shower with trembling legs and core muscles, I feel at least as high as I do after a really good ride. And, I feel strong -- from the bones on outward.

Okay. Maybe this post belongs on "Yogaphoria," not Velophoria. But there's more than one way to be happy in this life. Why not try them all?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tone Poem, 3/7/09

First decent ride outside in weeks. Rock and roll!

Wow, the driveway looks like a swamp… My cleats are going to get sanded down pretty good inside the pedals today, with all this mud and grit.

Yeesh, my legs feel like they’re filled with sand. Pneumonia sucks.

What’s that funny smell? Oh, yeah – earth and trees and things. Been a long time.

Sun is warm on my back. Nice.

My legs feel like they’re filled with sand.

How far… oh, yeah, decided not to take the cyclocomputer today. Good move. Trying to listen to the body more. So, how does my body feel? Hmm… ready for a little more. Cool!

What’s that smell? Right: horses. Been a long time. Nice.

Before the pneumonia, I wouldn’t have even noticed this little bump. Now it feels like Mont Ventoux… Crap.

Wheeze. Wheeeeze.

Pnuemonia sucks.


Wow, check out all the phlegm that comes up from my lungs after a hard effort! Cool. I do love hawking on the fly, it's almost as good as blowing snot. Two of the best things about riding.

Huh – guess pnuemonia has an upside.

Okay. I wish I was home already. My legs feel like… Right, stop thinking that.

Good to be home. After 55 minutes, feel like I used to after four hours. But you know what? Glad I went out. Real glad.

Supposed to be sunny tomorrow, too. Do it again.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Real Joy of Cycling

If you do a Web search for “joy + cycling”, you won’t come up with a whole lot of stuff that’s inspirational. Most of what's out there on cycling either focuses on it as a tool for adults who have let their fitness go, or presents training tips for going faster and farther.

In general, exercise in this culture is viewed strictly as a means to an end. Lose weight. Strengthen your heart and lungs. Look better in your swimsuit. Prove you’re better than the person in front of you at the race on Saturday.

There’s also mood elevation. As a counselor, I suggest exercise to clients all the time for this purpose. Even more abstract is the quest for self-knowledge – meeting challenges, facing down fears, stretching physical limits, to better understand yourself. I’m a huge fan of this side of life, and lately, this has been the main reason that I ride.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these approaches. However, until I had the ability to exercise almost completely taken away for the better part of two solid months by illness, I didn’t realize the most important reason I ride. Now that I've been nearly in tears from the ache for a simple 20-minute ride down a ribbon of clear road, what I value most about the bike has come into sharp focus:

It’s fun.

* * *

I’m a boy of nine, living twelve stories above 1970s Manhattan, a gritty city in dire straits. My childhood is not storybook; too many things have been too wrong at home for too long. But what is on my mind is that it’s a sunny spring day. I roll my candy-apple red two-wheeler into the elevator and out the front door. I ride west, toward Riverside Park, because, after hours of stuffy classrooms, I want to feel the earthy spring air rush over my skin. I want to feel free for once, want to spin and dart where my whim takes me.

I approach the 83nd Street entrance to the park, which consists of a sharp downhill. My heart beats a little faster. 70 yards, perhaps, at maybe nine per cent, with a slight curve. My heart goes into my throat as I tuck and shoot it like an Olympic skier, daring myself not to brake even a little to take the edge off the fear. I manage a razor-thin line, straight as possible, through the moms pushing carriages uphill. I can still feel the the slight whump in my stomach at the bottom of the slope, as the bike hits level ground at speed and takes the run-out: I’ve successfully conquered the fear and achieved the rush, and now I get the bonus of sailing all the way past the playground just to see how far I can go without pedaling -- a measure of how fast I must have been going.

Gone is the tension at home, gone the clueless, overbearing teachers, the ammonia-smelling hallways. I’m free.

* * *

These days, my riding is inspired more by the desire to increase my performance. And it is often fun and good for me. But it can go too far. If I freewheel for more than a minute now (can’t call it coasting; that’s kids’ stuff, right?) there’s often a slight feeling of guilt in the back of my mind: I should be pedaling, increasing my fitness, lowering my average speed for the route I’m on.

I can count on one hand the number of times in the last year I’ve swung a leg over a bike just to be outside or feel the amazement of the bicycle – the closest thing there is to flying while still anchored to the ground. Every single mile is part of a work-out, and gets logged in my training chart.

I’ve forgotten the magic. Once I start down that road, it isn’t very long before I’m going out to ride even though my body is telling me not to. And that’s what got me in the over-training hole back in late summer, and probably exacerbated (caused?) the pneumonia. I am quite prone to “overfocusing,” as one ex-boss kindly put it.

So, I’m trying to figure out a way to enjoy myself more on the bike the rest of this season, while still focusing on the performance aspect I love so much. Any thoughts are welcome. And, as always, I'll keep you posted.