Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Protectink der Noggin, Take II V. sent me this, and it fit so perfectly with the theme of my previous post, I just had to show it to you guys. Even the title of my post ties in, in a kind of psuedo-northern European way.

This seals it: We're moving to Denmark.

(I tried to embed the video, but it won't let me resize it, so here's the link. If you want a lift, you should watch this fun, short clip.)

Protectink der Noggin

Now that warmer weather has arrived in the Pioneer Valley (thank GOODNESS) , I'm seeing more and more cyclists on my regular rides. Which is a really good thing; I like it. What I don't like is seeing the ones without helmets. Frequently, we'll pass each other on a busy road or even a two-lane highway. I sometimes want to do what a well-known ride leader in the Boston area does, and point to my helmet as I pass them. Perhaps say something to put the fear of brain injury in them. What are they thinking?! Answer: They're not.

If they knew, really understood, how risky it is to ride without a helmet, and what could result, they wouldn't do it. For myself, the reality came fully home nearly 30 years ago, after a full mid-air somersault on Highway 1 in California, landing on my head, with a fully loaded touring bike coming down on top of me just for punctuation. I was fine (I was also 17), but if I hadn't been wearing the helmet... well, you know. And at the time, I was traveling only about 8 mph. So, the rule around our house is: You ride with a helmet on. Period.


There are days when I long for the wind in my hair. Yesterday, it was hot out, and the sun was blasting, and I just wanted to feel like that nine-year-old kid on the shiny red coaster again, looking for the steepest hill to fly down, just to feel the wind whistling over my scalp. I think I would be able to sense my relative speed so much more intuitively, and enjoy being on the bike that much more.

Then there's the style thing, the roadie couture. I mean, how cool would it be to get up in my sharpest kit, and then wedge on my cycling cap, brim pulled fashionably down over my brows, and go tooling around town to be the envy of all? I see guys doing the Fausto Coppi thing all the time, and I mutter to myself that they think they're just too cool to get injured. But it's just sour grapes. Let's face it; there was a lot more style in cycling before helmets became de rigeur.

So: Do you ever ride without? Under what conditions will you allow yourself that risky luxury?

Monday, April 27, 2009

People, people!

A follow-up on yesterday's Quabbin Road Race report. I've been in touch with two friends (who will go anonymous) who race on the local scene, and both emphatically confirmed my take in that post on the unpleasant vibe of the local road racing scene. One of them said that he disliked the attitude of local road racers so much that he tries to race as many mountain bike events as he can (because the attitude is more relaxed, according to him).

The other friend was actually in the Quabbin race. In a chase group, about halfway around the course, he heard another guy literally shouting at a teammate, "I didn't bring you here to suck wheels all day! Get out there and execute the plan!" My friend then playfully said something like, "You all heard it -- the plan is being executed!" Instead of taking a hint and lightening up, the first guy simply shouted at my friend, "Shut up!" Nice.

Now here's the good part: Which category was this guy in? Pro-1-2? Nope. Cat 3, maybe? Nope. He was a 45+. I would have hoped that by that age (i.e., my age) one would have garnered a morsel of wisdom or self-posession. As my friend put it, "It's not like we're competing for spots on the Olympic team."

Stories like this do nothing to tempt me to try racing. Dang, I already take myself way too seriously!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Visit to the Quabbin Road Race

It would have been a little hard for me to come up with an excuse not to go observe the Quabbin Road Race today. It was 75 degrees and sunny, and the finish line was seven miles from my house. I haven’t seen a lot of bike racing up close and personal, so I stopped by to absorb what I could and enjoy the day. You certainly can’t find a better race venue; miles of water and trees as far as the eye can see, and not a house or business in sight.

Upon arrival, there were maybe seven spectators in the area. Five or so folks manned the finish line tent, situated at the top of the hill that makes up the Quabbin park loop. About a quarter mile up another hill was the starting line and podium, and parking area. I’ve never seen so many cars in the Quabbin park since I moved here. But there was hardly a soul around; everyone was out on the course, giving the area a weird “abandoned disaster area” feeling.

The fans along the road were quite nice, and I struck up a couple of enjoyable conversations. There was a little bit of finish line dramatics, but only one category actually featured a field sprint. The reason for the mellow scene was a finish at the top of a one-mile, roughly 6% climb, after 61 or so miles of hammering. I saw so many tongues hanging out I thought I was at a dog race.

In a humorous turn, the pro field got split up about three-quarters of the way around the 62-mile course. The break went the right way, and the field went the wrong way, which resulted in a slightly ironic situation: The first people across the line for the day were racing for positions eight through 10. Positions one through seven rolled in about five minutes behind them.

Blasting across the line after a hard 62 miles of rollers and hills.
(Look closely to see the fist in the air.)

Now, I don’t like to report this part, but I think I have to. Interactions with organizers at the finishing tent were sometimes pretty unpleasant, even surly. A half hour before any finishers rolled in, when I was practically the only fan there, I asked for a quick update. Folks in the tent mainly rolled their eyes. Eventually, I got about half of the story. I heard roughly the same from another fan.

An hour later, as the lower categories were rolling in, it occurred to me: Okay, they didn’t have a loudspeaker, and therefore of course no race announcer… but the folks in the tent weren’t even bothering to say anything to anyone about what was going on. Something simple in a loud voice, like, “The 35+ field is approaching the final hill, led by a seven-man break” would have been neighborly and useful. And not too difficult; they were getting constant updates via radio. Help like this was all too rare, and was clearly an afterthought. Fans usually didn’t know what field was currently rolling across the line, or who was behind them just out of sight, so there was no anticipation building, no excitement.

An exciting breakaway finish by... someone... from, uh... some category.

In fairness, they had a lot to do today, and they had a split field heading the wrong direction. Putting on a race in general is probably a very challenging thing to do. They did a reasonable job for the racers overall. I think the general problem is, they think that’s all they need to focus on.

Finally, I got further confirmation of the unpleasant attitude of higher category racers. One of them was hanging out at the booth, and when there were just a few of us around, I said a couple of things to him, and he responded quickly and evasively, as if it was physically painful for him to speak to me. Yet he was being quite expansive and friendly with the organizer. The pro riders were equally detached, with an air of desperate intensity hanging over them. As far as I could tell, not one of them was actually having a good time. Some of the cat fours, on the other hand, were chatting amiably with each other as they rolled across the line. Some of them even playfully sprinted against each other at the last moment, laughing like two ten-year-olds on their way back from the corner store. Now that’s the way I’d want to race.

All in all, I’m glad I went. I learned a lot. It was a beautiful morning. I gather it’s a pretty challenging, good race; it’s long, and there’s a lot of big rollers and some long stretches of climbing. I enjoyed the triumph on the face of some of the finishers, and the camaraderie of some of the more humble ones.

Neutral support dudes hang out and complain of mistreatment by racers.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Code of the Road

Like hoards of others yesterday (I imagine)I snuck out of work a bit early and got out on the road for an hour of that glorious sunshine and warmth. I even worked up a light sheen of sweat on my uncovered lower legs. What a day!

About a third of the way out, I had that sixth sense you get when a rider has pulled up on your wheel, right behind you. Then I saw his shadow sneaking up on my left, and to my surprise, he pulled up alongside and said hi to me. This is New England; cyclists are rarely friendly or outgoing. There’s too much status and image at stake. But I was glad of it; I’m always the one waving to other cyclists, and I only get a wave back maybe half the time.

Anyway, we chatted a bit, about the weather, the colds and illnesses that kept us off our bikes during the winter, the ins and outs of the local roads. Turns out he lives roughly a twelve-minute ride from my house. Since he’d reached out to me, I thought I’d reach back, and told him I’d be happy to ride sometime. I mentioned the distances and average speeds I usually ride. We exchanged names and shook hands.

At one point, he hit a classic spring pothole and his frame pump fell clattering to the road. As a courtesy to a new acquaintance, and to show that I wanted to continue the conversation, I soft-pedaled a ways down the road while he gathered and re-mounted the pump, and then rode out of the saddle till he caught up with me.

I really love the courtesies and customs of the road. An unspoken code arranges our interactions. Subtle rituals, a century old, pass between us. We checked each other’s bikes out discreetly – first riding with me on the right, then, when the opportunity arose, switching sides, so that each of us could, without making a show of it, take in the other’s frame, components, whatever other details we wished. He slipped behind me as cars approached from the back, and without a word, we fell into an easy two-man paceline for a while.

I love also the secret code, hidden in many obscure details, that communicates riders’ ability level. I don’t have to ride hours with them to know the basics about them. I can watch their form, their level of souplesse. I can also check out their gear; this fellow had a custom-built bike, and he had bar-end shifters. He had 32c tires on. Everything about the bike and the rider’s easy position on it, told me he was into distance riding, that his legs were probably cast iron.

Then there’s the verbal way to find out about a rider, but even that is subtle. At one point, we were discussing a well-known metric century route in the area, one with a fair amount of altitude gain spread out over giant rollers and miles-long stretches of 6% climbing. He quietly let me know that he had ridden that route in various ways, including with his daughter in a stroller behind him; as part of a four man team time trial; and finally – the coup de grace – in a regional championship race, in which competitors completed the route twice. He was quietly presenting his bona fides, and I took the point quite clearly, and without a trace of resentment.

He graciously then told me where he lives and invited me to stop by, but it was clear to me at that point that I’d have to be feeling better than I am these days before I do that. It was a quiet, nice exchange, tastefully done. I didn't feel "schooled." I turned around at that point, because I had to get home, but I left feeling that he genuinely welcomed me to come find him and ride... if I felt ready.

Road cycling is teaching me to be strong, to be humble, to be generous. It's also teaching me to be subtle, to be tasteful. To let the facts speak for themselves.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mastery Validates Itself

Mastery is this wonderful, exciting feeling: I'm better at it today than I was last week. It doesn't mean I'm the best in the world; it doesn't mean I won the Nobel Prize; it means simply: I'm getting better. I can do it better now than I could before--that is the root of motivation and self-esteem, and it's really magical.

~ Edward Hallowell, M.D., psychiatrist and author

The part I love about my field is reading stuff like this, stuff that captures an essential particle of the inner life, holds it up to a bright light, and makes three dimensional for me what happens inside people every day (or what can, if things are going right).

The experience Hallowell is describing here applies 100% to the oneI had on the bike Sunday. (Well, one of the experiences-- there were others, like, "WOW, what a beautiful day," or "CRAP, this hill is harder after 40 miles than it is after 20.")

I rode a pretty long ways on Sunday. It wasn't an epic by many people's standards. It certainly wasn't epic by the standards of my accomplishments last season, or by the standards of where I had originally intended to be at this time of year, a plan I hatched before months of pneumonia and injury befell me. But that's not the point. Hallowell's point is that knowing that I rode further and faster than I have so far this year, further and faster than I did last week and the week before that, was a wonderful tonic for my confidence, my sense of adventure, and my need to get out of the daily rut of overwhelm and drudgery.

One more lesson well-learned in the school of self-referential assessment. I might not get to race this season; I might not reach the peak I would have reached had I remained healthy all the way through. But the fun and upliftment of a long, hard solo ride on a beautiful day stand alone. They don't need to trump anyone else's experience in order to sparkle in my memory. In order to make me smile when recalled as I'm falling asleep after a bruising day.

Don't worry. I still hope to rip some legs off at some point this season, just for the sake of trying. But if it never happens, perhaps I can continue to make the best of what I do have -- sunny days, long hours in the saddle, and a gorgeous region to explore. And the opportunity -- the certainty, really -- of growing in mastery. May you see the same bright prospect before you.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Old and New – Again

A follow-up to last week's post on antique bicycle posters and their related companies: The redoubtable Mrs. V. dug up some great related articles and book chapters this week. You can't beat having a bona fide librarian in the family.
First up, a delightful and engrossing account of the earliest manufacturers of bicycles in Massachusetts (and, by extension, the U.S.). Quite a bit of detail about the illustrious Albert Pope, known to all and sundry by his honorific, "Colonel." Tasty details about how and why he started the Columbia Bicycle Company, and about the roiling market for early bicycles. At one point in the late 19th century, there were over 100 separate bicycle manufacturing companies in Boston alone. I keep telling you people: Cycling was it in those days in this country. All other sports took a back seat. I don't know about you, but when I read stuff like this, I start thinking I was born too late. I particularly enjoy the fact that my adoptive state of Massachusetts was a hot-bed of cycling history. (See earlier post about Major Taylor, "The Worcester Whirlwind" and one of the first African-American sports superstars.)

As for the Northampton Cycle Company, the subject of the second print hanging on our study wall, Mrs V. exhumed a more specific article from an 1898 edition of the New York Times. It seems they were indeed real -- but perhaps short-lived. Now, this might have had something to do with a nefarious bank president from Northampton, who absconded with some of the bike company's funds one fine day. Hm... banks making off with undeserved loot... sounds awfully familiar... let's see...

A sighting of the fleeing bank officer in nearby Westfield is mentioned at the end of that short blurb. The next we hear of him, he is apprehended in Louisville, KY, "posing as a man of some means... on the lookout to invest his capital to advantage." He had $7 in his pocket. You can't make this stuff up.

In a strange way, I find it comforting to be reminded that the news themes that outrage us today -- financial turmoil, shady dealings, outsized egos jostling for worldly position -- are as old as the hills. Perhaps just as comforting, the Columbia company rolls on today, 132 years later, under the same name... and just a few towns away from where I'm living now. Everything old really is new again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

False Positive

Some days, my ride just seems meant to be great.

And then it just turns out the opposite.

Woke up with energy to spare? Check.
Legs feel relatively fresh before roll out? Check.
Sunshine and temps climbing from the 30s to the 50s? Check.

Should've been a no-brainer, a Velophoria Incident Report, right? Right.

Nope. It was blah. Blah, blah, blah. Sodden legs. Disconnected state of mind. Weak as a baby on the hills. When I got home, I was simply glad it was over. What can you do? There are probably two or three good reasons for it, but I don't feel inclined to over-analyze today. Some days are like that. It's hardly a tragedy. For all I know, the next time I saddle up, I could be on fire.

Turn the page. Go to work. Do the best I can, enjoy the weather as much as possible, and don't worry.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Everything Old is New Again

A bicycle similar to the one in the 1881 advertisement

The art of wheelmanship is a gentlemanly and fascinating one, once acquired never forgotten, which no young man should neglect to acquire.

The bicycle is practical everywhere that a buggy is, and enables you to dispense with the horse and the care and cost of keeping him….

Parents should favor bicycle riding by their boys, because it gives them so much enjoyment, makes them lithe and strong, keeps them from evil associations and increases their knowledge and their self-reliance. There is no outdoor game or amusement so safe and wholesome.
Sage words, and though they apply no less today, they are to be found in a Columbia Bicycles advertisement printed in 1881. The ever-wonderful Mrs. V. purchased a framed reproduction of this ad while I was far away, cavorting in Moab for my spring vacation. She hung it on the wall opposite where I ride my rollers through the winter. Can you top a woman like that? I’m playing on vacation, she’s at home working, and she thinks to buy something tuned to my interests. I’m a blessed man.

I enjoy noting that the young gentleman depicted on the highwheeler in the ad (which I unfortunately could not find a graphic of to post here) sports a bushy beard and a closely fitted cap with a short brim... that is, he looks just exactly like a college boy wheeling through Boston or Amherst today. Well... except that he's wearing a sport coat and tie over his cycling tights, and features two-toned lace-ups instead of Sidis. But then, I'd wager it's only a matter of time before some daring young chap shows up on campus in the exact same get-up.

Mrs. V. also bought a nice reproduction of an ad for a company called Northampton Cycle Company, from an original which looks to be roughly 100 years old. It's hanging right next to the first print.

Now, I find no record of this company anywhere on the web, despite the fact that the print is featured in many of the shops in the area of the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, where we moved last August. I suspect the company may be mythical, but, if true, this only adds to the appeal of the print: Where else but in the Valley would one find people talented and twisted enough to create a beautiful poster for a fictional one-hundred-year-old bicycle company, just to enhance an already healthy sense of local pride? It's all a good thing, no matter how it played out.

To quote the closing line of the Columbia promotion, "Why don't every boy have a bicycle?"

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Need for the Bike: Don't Miss It

Biking smells good.

In the Haute-Loire, it smells of pine and moss, with touches of new-mown hay. Here and there, a spot of cow.

Sometimes in hamlets a cowshed makes its presence known. But also the smell of open windows: beef stew, wax, detergent, roast chicken. Thrown over a line, sheets and blankets emit a night odor, quickly lost in the blue of the sky.

The summer itself has a very strong smell. You pass through pockets of sweet-smelling heat, when the road cuts through a wheat or rye field, where you come out of a forest and enter a clearing. The heat activates the smell of the resins, and brings up out of the road the smell of tar, the profound background to all the summer scents.

~ Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike

Velophoriacs are used to reading quotes on this blog from this excellent little book. But I feel the need right now to sing its praises once more. If you love cycling partly for its sophisticated European roots, if you love the aesthetics and the rituals, and how they've descended from a long line of purists before us, if you love thoughtful, crafted prose that is also quite down-to-earth, I beseech you to get hold of this little tome. The small paperback edition is only $15 and 150 pages: Not a towering commitment, but it has paid me back dozens of times. Just the other night, weary and worn from the day to day, I pulled out Need for the Bike and read a few pieces before turning in. (There are no chapters, per se -- the book consists instead of a series of loosely grouped, short essays.) I'd read them before, some recently; no matter. They always refresh me like a ride through a shaded glade in summer heat.

If you like Belgium Knee Warmers because of the charming Euro perspective, you very much owe it to yourself to go to this even purer source. Fournel is part racer, part tourist, part poet... and all French. The best of what it means to be French: Thoughtful, articulate, funny, and, most of all, a gourmet, masterfully savoring the many nuances life dishes up (and by life, I mean cycling).

Oh -- and he has a killer French moustache.

Like the similarly brief Tao te Ching, this book has taught me how to enjoy and experience. Chapeau, Monsieur Fournel!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cycle of Karma

I did a good-karma do-si-do with a co-worker this week. She's the nurse practitioner for the mental health clinic where I work, and also an avid cyclist (she owns a beautiful Soma). When I told her I had caught another head-cold while I was in Moab, and it was hanging on way too long, and I was thinking of going to the doctor to get some kind of insight into my immune system, she asked a handful of questions and drew the simple conclusion that my system is still recovering from pneumonia; tiredness, catching colds, etc., are part of that. This was amazing to me; I haven't had obvious symptoms in weeks. But it explained a lot, so I was grateful, even though it extends the whole "take it easy" period by yet more weeks to come. (She said it can take six to eight weeks after symptoms have disappeared until the body has normal energy... No hard training until then. Sob! I haven't truly trained since January, and words can't describe how I miss it.)

Yesterday, she left me a voicemail saying she'd gotten a flat on the way to work, and, surprisingly, didn't know how to begin repairing it. Would I have time to help? Well... of course. We wheeled the bike outside, and I taught her how to remove her rear wheel, check for debris, properly seat the tube, all that good stuff. She was very grateful, and just that was worth it. (Plus I got to stand in the sun and work on a bike during work hours!)

Later, I was driving home and saw a cyclist up ahead. I'd never seen her either coming to or going from work, even though she rides my road once a week. But lo, it was her, pedaling along happily.

Talk about payoff! I'd helped her fix that very wheel just hours earlier! It made me happy to see her chuffing along toward home.