Sunday, February 21, 2010

Velophoria Incident Report

Yesterday, it was 44 degrees and sunny enough to blind me, so I embarked with great anticipation on my first true (outdoor) “long ride” of the year. I was expecting pure Velophoria all the way, but to my surprise, about an hour in, I was sluggish, uninspired, and contemplating cutting down the length of the ride.

So, I’m leaning on my top tube by the side of the road, chomping on raisins and almonds, feeling the sun on my back, trying to make up my mind how much further to go. Over the rise comes a rider out of his saddle, and the colors of his jersey are familiar. A moment later I place them: the Kissena Cycling Club in New York City. Only one dude I know of around here flies the blue and orange of the Empire State: No One Line, who I’ve been lucky enough to have in my neighborhood for the duration of this school year. Is it him? The rider shouts a friendly, generic, “Hey” to me, which alone speaks in his favor; most cyclists will simply lift a hand, at best, or just ignore you. I check his bike: A brand-new, matte-black Spooky Skeletor, a truly sinister whip. It’s NOL, all right. I shout his name, and he hits the brakes, does a double-take, and yells, “What are YOU doing here?” – as if he didn’t know. There follows much hail-fellow-well-met.

We were headed in opposite directions, but that just seemed silly. My route puzzlement clearly answered by his fortuitous appearance, I glommed on to the opportunity to ride with a friend through the knife-like February wind, as a way of brightening the day. And brighten, it did. We chattered away like magpies, about everything from bikes (natch) to woman mathematicians (his partner is a hard-rockin’ example) to novel-writing.

If I could dream up a perfect ride partner, it would be one who was in far better shape than me, inspiring me to hammer up a few hills I wasn’t at all planning to hammer up – and then, too, a delightful conversationalist with a broad-ranging zest for life, so when we’re back in February Base mode, we reel in the miles unnoticed (except for the perfect New England scenery; NOL comes most recently from the Big City, so the contrast ‘round here leaves him agreeably gobsmacked at times).

I guess I was dreaming yesterday, because before I knew it, it was an hour later, and I was just hitting my stride. We parted ways with promises to be in touch, and I finished out the last of my 2:30 with a little left in the tank, and some extra gratitude on top of that for friends, and the marvelous and mysterious forces that nudge us across each others’ paths.

Velophoria, indeed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chasing Dave Stoller, Pt. II

[Read Part I here.]

So, this bike thing. Could it do for me what it did for Dave Stoller?

It seemed like Dave and I had similar personalities. What’s more, Dave’s vehicle to happiness and self-expression was a ten-speed. I had a ten-speed, too -- a brand-new ten speed. and I was going on a four-week, haul-ass trip on that shiny new thing in two months. What if I actually prepared for that? What if I showed up in shape and impressed everyone with my cycling prowess? What if I did what worked for Dave?

What if, indeed

The very next day, I was in Riverside Park, doing laps around the empty half-mile promenade alongside the broad, steely Hudson, which flowed to my left, and then my right, then back to my left. I wanted to experience riding fast, as fast as I could. Sure, I’d had a bike before, but that was for transportation, fun, freedom – not speed. So, I got down in the drops, stood on the pedals, and I felt a new, powerful connection with the bike as I bolted down the flat pavement.

I liked that.

After a couple days of this, it became clear I needed a bigger challenge. I got up the nerve to head in the other direction from the front door of my apartment building, over to the the five-mile bike loop in Central Park.

My first two laps left my lungs burning like a house afire. I decided right there and then to quit smoking. Popular friends? What popular friends? What did they know about oneness between body and machine? What did they know about the Dave Way? They were shallow, insecure; they wouldn’t be caught dead wobbling their bike down the road, un-ironically singing an aria at the top of their lungs. Me? I was on my way to Davehood.

I dove in head-first. I started getting up early on Saturdays to beat the crowds to Central Park, where I went 'round and 'round the loop, now including the extra mile and the more serious hill starting at 116th Street. I picked up speed, endurance. I drafted racers here and there. I began to understand how doing something hard over and over pays off. This was an insight that was to inspire me for the rest of my life.

I went on the trip, up through the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, and enjoyed riding strong. When I got back, I talked my best friend Kenny into signing up with me for an AYH trip the next summer, down the West Coast, from Portland to San Francisco (which is a whole ‘nother post). I bought my first issue of Bicycling magazine. I bought Richard’s Bike Book and learned to adjust my derailleurs, my brakes. I began taking apart my bicycle in my bedroom (to my parents’ dismay). I even learned to repack my hub bearings.

Somewhere along the line, thoughts of Dave began to drift to the background, as I discovered, in my wide-eyed, teenage way, my own reasons for, and style of, riding the bike and enjoying it as a way of life. At some point, we all have to branch off from our source of inspiration and forge our own path, yes?

Which, when I think about it, is just exactly what happened to Dave.

For me, Breaking Away will always be more than just a great movie about a great era in cycling. It was the right parable, appearing to the right student, at just the right time. For this confused 16-year-old, it was a bridge to strength, self-worth and a boatload of fun. Grazie, Steve Tesich – I’ll always be grateful.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chasing Dave Stoller

I am 16 years old, and it is spring on the Upper West Side of New York City. The breeze off the Hudson River has lost its icy edge, become a tad warmer and more fishy. The trees are greening out. Somewhere far away, a very young Greg LeMond is training with the doomed 1980 Olympic cycling team, but I’m not aware of anything beyond homework and friends.

My dad, wanting to make sure I don’t sit around and rot all summer, has just recently signed me up for a crazy month-long bike trip with something called American Youth Hostels. He then shepherded me to Angelo’s bike store on Amsterdam Avenue (with soft-worn wooden floors and a perpetual aroma of bike oil and new rubber) to buy a burgundy ten-speed with a fancy badge on the front reading “St. Tropez.” Maybe it was made in Japan, maybe it was cheap, but it was pretty and it did have a French name. We were told it would last as long as I wanted to ride it.

Since then, the bike had been sitting in my room collecting dust, awaiting my departure for the trip. Then, one Friday night, my parents were going out with friends. Dad pressed ten dollars into my palm and told me to grab some pizza, and then head down to the Embassy 72nd Street and take a look at this little movie they’d seen and liked. It was called Breaking Away, and it was about teenagers, and cycling. Since I was going on a bike trip soon, who knows, maybe I’d like it.

I walked out of the Embassy four hours later a different person. How had someone climbed inside my head and made a movie about me? Dave Stoller was me. Eccentric. Obsessive. An incurable dreamer. With a father who ceaselessly worried about and pestered him, but who also, somewhere inside, loved and cared for him. They knew me, for crying out loud, they knew me somehow!

But bigger yet: The idea that you could be passionate, geeky, confused, and athletically successful. What?!? Why, Dave was happy, he had a niche! Huh. I had loved playing touch football, softball, frisbee. But I’d given that all up in a search for more friends, girls and popularity. I was smoking cigarettes, shifting from one group of friends to another. You know: Teenage identity crisis.

So, this bike thing. Could it do for me what it did for Dave Stoller?

Tune in next time and find out.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

C'est impossible!

In classic old-guard style, Anquetil makes today's ultracyclists look tame. Perhaps the best part isn't Anquetil himself, but the technicolor commentary from his directeur, Raphael GĂ©miniani.

This was too delectable not to repost from VELOGOGO (apologies, guys!).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Today is Imbolc (pronounced either IM-ulk or IM-bulk), an ancient festival predating Christianity, and even the Celtic tradition, dating, in fact, all the way back to Neolithic times. It marks the day halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The age-old tradition of weather prognostication on this day is echoed in the modern North American version: Groundhog Day.

The day originally was based on the beginning of lactation for the ewes, who were preparing for lambing season. But it soon evolved into a recognition that the ground is warming just a bit under the snow; seeds and tree roots are starting to stir in their sleep. It won't be long before the first early flowers peek up through the whiteness.

I'm not a pagan or a Wiccan, but I have to admit that this festival has always been special to me since a friend introduced me to it while I was living in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Ever since, I begin to notice the changes in my surroundings that begin in late January. It might still be frigid outside, but the sun itself feels a little bit warmer on my back during an afternoon ride than it did a few weeks ago. Another example: Last night, as I was leaving work at 6:00 p.m., I noted the last dribble of sunset still in the western sky (appropriately , it was the night the festival begins -- February 1). This is certainly a marked change from the sunsets of early January, which sometimes seem to begin not long after the end of a late lunch.

Wikipedia says, "Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods, divination or simply watching for omens (whether performed in all seriousness or as children's games), a great deal of candles, and perhaps an outdoor bonfire if the weather permits." All great ideas; sometimes I simply go for a walk and look around for signs of the change.

Shamefully, Wikipedia omits the critical ritual cyclists have evolved over the last century or so: The purchase of new tires and bar tape. Some sects, it seems, focus instead on a shiny new chain and cassette. Modern historians agree that, in fact, any sundries will do which make our bikes look and feel new again for those first pre-spring group rides or races in a month or so.

Renewal is on its way. Have hope, and light a candle.