You make it look easy... easy!
But really it's driving long distance, dialing in the gear
Studying the balance, quieting the fear
All the hard landings, all the tough breaks
Learning all of your lessons, making all the mistakes
That's how you make it look easy.. easy... easy!
~ David Wilcox, Make it Look Easy
Yesterday I did my first group ride in Western Mass. We moved here last August, and I’ve been absorbed with either work, illness, injury, or just plain settling in. Finally, on Friday, I committed to going. Saturday morning, I was a bit nervous, hoping to make a good impression. Still, I felt strong and confident. I’d been riding well lately. I heard a great song by The Gourds on the car radio just before I parked. I even found a lucky penny in the park where I was waiting to meet the group.
Turns out the good omens were misleading, because my introduction to the group was inauspicious at best.
Three minutes after roll-out, I popped a loud flat. PFSSSSST! We weren’t even out of town yet. The group kindly waited while I fixed it, with help from a club regular in order to save everyone some time. Then, as we were rolling out of town and picking up a bit of speed, I found I just couldn’t keep up. I kept thinking, “I was pretty sure I could stay with this group!” The leaders drifted behind me, and I heard fragments of their conversation: “…two different paces today…” Frustrated and embarassed, I knew I was the one at the “different pace.” So I did the right thing: I fell on my sword and waved them on, only 15 or so minutes in to the ride. They protested (they’re a friendly group), but I insisted. One guy, shaking his head, said, “You can do this!” It was more a statement of disbelief than encouragement – like it seemed weird to him that I wasn’t making it. It was weird to me too.
Off they swung, over the horizon. I don’t need to describe the feeling in my gut to anyone who’s had this experience.
We’d been riding over roads I know well, and as I continued, I found that I just couldn’t ride like I normally do. The idea that I was overtrained seemed silly – I’d just finished taking a week at about 60% of normal volume and intensity (I don’t fool around with overtraining anymore, after this experience.) My body felt like it had good energy. Yet small hills I’d been shooting up lately were killing me.
Finally, I rode home in disgust. My wife was there to greet me, bewildered -- I wasn’t due back for hours. She was sweet, and I was in a foul mood. As I picked up the bike to move it through our doors, I noticed something weird; the back wheel wasn’t moving. At all.
Back in town, I had noticed that the guy who was helping me change tubes had yanked both of my wheels out of the dropouts, and pushed them back in, without opening the brake releases. Odd, but there it is. He’d first taken off the back wheel, mistakenly thinking that was the flat one, then jammed it back on and took off the front. Turns out when the guy pushed the rear wheel back in the dropouts, the brakes got way out of whack, and by the time I got home, I’d ridden almost an hour with one pad fully mashed against my rear rim. It was visibly more worn than the other pad.
I was pretty frustrated. No wonder I hadn’t kept up! No wonder I was wheezing on familiar hills!
In truth, I blame myself. I am responsible for the condition of my bike, and I climbed back on it without checking the brakes after the wheels were replaced, something I’ll never do again. I also haven’t had severe brake rub before, so I guess I needed to learn: If I am weirdly underperforming, check the brakes, front and back.
I immediately left the house and tacked another 25 miles of hills on to my ride just because I could, and should. Sadly, I came home with a very sore knee, which now needs tending. Don’t know yet if it’s ongoing fit issues or just due to fighting the brakes for the first hour. (Imagine riding hard for an hour with your right brake lever duct-taped to the handlebar.)
* * *
Sometimes it seems like life tosses up endless lessons for me to learn before I can just settle down and ride with the big dogs like I’ve wanted to for a couple years. Lessons on how bike fit can cause injury (as in my chronic chondromalacia), how important caring for and listening to my body is (as in my overtraining, and pneumonia), and now, add basic, embarrassing maintenance stuff like “check your %$#! brakes.”
I started riding (again) at 43. I’m 45 now, with thousands of miles behind me, and I’m still not riding even close to my potential. I long for the time when I’ve learned enough lessons, ridden enough miles, gathered enough experience, that I can just sit in with the local gazelles and enjoy myself. Maybe it’ll take another two years still. Who can say?
In the meantime, do I love bikes enough to hang with all that frustration and zig-zag progress?
I don't think I really have a choice. This bike thing came back up and bit me out of the blue after decades away, and now, even with all those setbacks, I can't seem to stop. While writing this post, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the fifteenth stage of the Giro d’Italia, and feeling around my knee, wondering if it can withstand a ride today.
It seems to me like I might benefit from viewing the learning curve itself as my goal right now. I don't want that; I like to think I'm only inches away from being ready to ride with the veterans. But that's not really for me to say. And thinking that way only makes me frustrated when it doesn't come true. If I were ready... I'd be doing it. The only thing I know for sure is I can't give this up. So I might as well try to take a step back, and live in harmony with the obstacles and set-backs. And thoroughly enjoy the steps forward.
What can I do? I’m hooked. And -- taken all in all -- that's a good thing.