Sunday, November 20, 2011

Beauty Persists

A little bit of normalcy returned to Velophoriaville this week -- a full week of work, followed by many hours of catching up on chores around the property (cutting brush and raking leaves -- not exactly torture on a beautiful fall day). Finally, I took a couple hours yesterday to really get out there on a bike and vacate.

Six weeks of unrelenting intensity fell away. As my friend Herringbone once so aptly wrote (I'm paraphrasing here), "As soon as I got on the bike, I felt better." Miserable head colds, injuries and inactivity, four days in a chilly, dark house without power, endless tense waiting for Dad to die, hopeless wishing that he would never die, anguish over his suffering, and then the surreal visit to NYC last weekend after he passed on...

To say it all melted away is cliché: The more accurate statement is that it vanished, the moment I rolled out of the garage with an image of Atkins Reservoir, shining in the sun at the top of a dirt-road climb, crystallized in my mind's eye.



The day was untouchable, 48 degrees and clear as a bell, the shadows chilly and the sun toasty,  the colors of every object -- barns, trees, meadows, tarmac -- condensed and intensified in the surreal brilliant Kodachrome autumn light. Contrast was cranked up to 11. Everything seemed cut out of brilliantly hued paper and pasted on top of everything else.




I discovered a couple of new hiking trails and some broad singletrack well-suited to the Vaya's limited off-road capacities. Farther on, I paused at the reservoir to snap a shot, breathe, and feel grateful. The silence was golden, the air was scrubbed clean.



A middle-aged, fit-looking guy ran by with his dog, and we smiled at each other knowingly: "This is as good as it gets, it's why we do these crazy things." Caught up to him further down the road and he asked about the Vaya, said he lived on one of the many dirt roads in the area and rued his purchase of an upscale road bike poorly suited to local surfaces. Gave a hearty endorsement of my bike, and rolled on for home, powered up, as always, by a friendly interaction during a ride.

Last night, a deluxe dinner at an elegantly understated Argentinian steakhouse in Northampton. Mrs. V. and I chatted and laughed as if we were still courting, charged up with delight in each other's special-ness.

Death comes. Death goes. Grief is a process we're all involved in, know it or not. Everyone falls down and hurts themselves. Bodies heal -- or they don't. Power lines collapse, bad news comes in clusters, people will be mean and stupid. But there's a lot of good in this world.

Beauty persists.

Go find some.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Now Cracks a Noble Heart

So.

The man who, 44 Springs ago, happily lugged me around Central Park's bike loop on the back of Raleigh three-speed and then treated all of us to the famous soft serve at the Boat House, has left this Earth.

The guy who, 40 Springs ago, ran behind my candy-apple red bicycle (training wheels freshly removed) on the boardwalk in Riverside Park, with his hand steadying the seat until I gathered enough speed to stay upright for ten yards, has left us.

The man who, 31 Springs ago, booked me on my first bicycle tour, in which I ranged from Boston to the Green Mountains to the White Mountains, is gone.

That man bought me my first road bike for that trip, a burgundy Saint Tropez, a cheap, heavy, Asian, steel boat anchor, famous for nothing beyond hauling my tuchus all over the East and West Coasts during two high school summers. While I was still admiring the sparkly paint job, the movie Breaking Away was re-released (due to Academy Award nominations); one soft Friday night in April he pressed a ten-dollar bill in my hand and sent me to the Embassy on Broadway and 72nd Street, knowing that it would strike a chord -- but not knowing nearly how big a chord, nor how long-lasting.

That same man stubbornly forbid me to try organized bike racing during the very next summer.  He had so many admirable qualities, but he also could be controlling, distant, and overbearing, especially in those days. He decided I would earn money and get my teenaged rear end out of the house. Decent ideas, but I'll always regret not finding a way to sign up for local races anyway, even against his wishes, while I was young, strong, and reckless enough to be somewhat good at it.

*     *     *

But let us rewind to the beginning. Way back to Riverside Park, when I was about seven. Because what happened there not only is a primal bike memory, it also reflects something more profound about our relationship.

He took his hand off the seat. While running alongside, he took his hand away, to let me experience self-sufficiency.

I shot along the boardwalk on my own steam for a good ten yards before I turned to look over my shoulder and make sure he was still there, and not knowing better, I let my shoulder, arm and hand followed my chin, the front wheel came off-center, wobbled a little and then a lot -- and then I was down on the pebbly pavement. Top speed had probably been six miles per hour, but at that age, every crash is a disaster, life-threatening. But to be honest, I was more upset at what had happened just before the crash and the scraped skin. My father had deceived me. My own dad led me to think he was there when he wasn't. That was a new formulation in my little Technicolor child's world.

Eventually, he got me back on the bike, and the realization came over me (or perhaps he just talked me into seeing) that I had, actually, ridden on my own for thirty feet -- so perhaps I could do it again.

The next three or more decades would mostly be an awkward dance, in which he usually had his hand on my saddle when I didn't want him to, and didn't when I did. Throughout a dysfunctional childhood in my mom's house, Dad did his level best to provide me and my sister with a sense of confidence and a compass for this confusing world. He himself was confused, still a young man, freshly and very acrimoniously divorced. He was with us a lot, but he could only do triage.

So, I wandered all over the map for my first 40 years, unmoored, looking for Me, for Truth, for Safety and Inner Peace. I made some good things, and some glorious and bloody train wrecks. I broke my own heart and lost hope many times over, and, consequently, he suffered, silently, stoically, more than I'll ever know.

Finally, in middle age, I woke up. I went to grad school (his idea), found a career that I fit into, found an amazing woman, found a beautiful place to live, found a beautiful house to stay in for a long time, and found myself, ourselves, beginning the process of adoption. In about seven years, I did all the growing up and risk-taking I had managed to avoid for four decades. It's been harrowing, still is, but it's been good, too. Smartest seven years of my life, hands down.

Dad was so pleased all along, he probably popped buttons on four different shirts. I was finally out of the nest and flying. He was there for my joyous wedding, helped with expenses in grad school, there for my graduation, visited the house we finally bought... quietly smiling, and giving me congratulations each time.

In the last few years, noticing me become the man he always wanted me to be, he began steadily  confiding in me, treating me almost as an equal. This blew me away, of course -- my stoic, overbearing father was leaning on me? My life was sweetened immeasurably. Last Spring, when he received his diagnosis, he opened up yet more, quite a lot, in fact. Amongst the upset and anxiety, I was overjoyed. Ages before, he had his hand out to steady me, now, by the blessings of God, I could return the favor. More and more, he disclosed his fears, worries, and joys, and relied on me for perspective, for reflection. He recognized my growing steadyness and maturity, and reached for it to brace himself. I was  overwhelmed, even awed, but I can tell you this: I never took my hand off that saddle. I could finally pay him back for the steadfastness he gave me so unthinkingly over the years.

*     *     *

Dad died Sunday night, after a seven-month bout with cancer. He was strong and dignified to the end, and, thank God, did not have a lot of physical pain to deal with.

I know in my heart he is looking back over his shoulder, just like me all that time ago. He was a doting family man, and his greatest sadness was leaving his wife and children. But now there are no training wheels needed, nor anyone's hand on the saddle. Far from falling, he's flying.

Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. 
       ~ Hamlet, Act V, scene ii

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lines From the Front

Weird times continue. Waiting for a loved one to die is like living in a science fiction story; everything around me is familiar, but somehow changed. And someone with a very odd sense of reality is writing the scenes. It's as if every day were spent engulfed in an eerie orange glow. Or on a city floating in the sky. There are good people in the story, angelic beings proffering soothing ministrations; protective familiars trotting faithfully at your heel. They are among the legion of supporters of the benevolent King, lying on his deathbed. Yet there is an evil presence lurking in the background. You can't see or touch it, but something in the rhythm of the prose makes you stick your nose in the air and sniff nervously.

Nothing is as it was, but nothing has changed. Limbo. Perhaps you're stored cryogenically on an outer-space staging ship, floating in orbit, getting by on minimal power, life support systems only, waiting, waiting.

To add to the surreality, we had a freak 10 inches of wet, heavy snow here last weekend that took out power from a record 700,000 customers in Massachusetts alone. We were without power for almost five days. Living night and day in front of the fireplace, cooking in tiny camping pots over the flames. Remember how ready you were to go home after your last long camping trip, all rank, dank, and cold to the bone? Yeah. Like that, except already home.

My longest workout in the last month has lasted 27 minutes. My injuries and head-cold and a ton of busy-ness have kept me off the road. This has not helped mood. Tomorrow, I hope to go out and have a real adventure -- cover a shocking 12 or 15 miles. When I exercise, my quads turn to overheated oatmeal. They just disappear on me. I am not the man I was a month ago. Now I know why most of America refuses to start an exercise program. Working out when you're weak is one of the most unpleasant sensations available outside of a dentist's office. There's not one fun part of it until it's well over.

And yet none of this is a heartfelt complaint. More and more I feel like life just is what it is. Enjoy the pleasant stuff, don't run from the hard stuff. Be alive, be here. Blah, blah, blah: all that New Age stuff turns out to be annoyingly on target.

As for a Reward after it's all over, I know less about that than I ever have. There is nothing like watching a loved one go through extended suffering before he dies to winnow out the wheat from the chaff in your spiritual beliefs. The little bit of sturdy stuff stands after the rest has been whisked away like so many empty hulls on a stiff breeze. So what's the sturdy stuff, you ask? (Don't we all want to know that one?) For me, for today, it's summed up in my latest entry in a journal I've been keeping of my thoughts and feelings from the time of my Dad's diagnosis:
You can stop an organism, and if you don’t, it eventually winds down, like a watch that can no longer be wound. But you can not snuff out Life. I don’t know where it goes. I don’t know if it coheres as a “person” or “soul” once the organism stops. But I know that the Life in me, and the Life in Dad, will not die. Can not die.

It sure isn’t a lot. And it’s less than I used to think I knew, a whole lot less. But it’s a lot more than nothing, too.
 That's my postcard from the front today. Not cheery, but certainly not depressed. And that's saying quite a lot, considering.

Keep 'em turning.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Life and How to Live It

It's been a while. Sometimes life throws a few extra balls into the mix, and one of them just has to get dropped for a while. Here I am, though, bending at the knees, keeping the other balls going with one hand as I pick this one up.

Good to see you.

Bike riding has been at nil for a couple weeks. I went down, hard -- I mean very hard -- two Saturdays ago, riding the Vaya on trails that were, in fact beginner-level. That was, in fact, why I'd driven down there. A beautiful place, but let me tell you, I learned a lesson about riding in the fall: Leaves are treacherous. One second I was up and enjoying, the next thing I can remember, I am on my back, pulling hard for air, but only making this horrible sucking sound. No air. As in, none. For a good 30 seconds or so. I tore muscles in five different places around my shoulder and ribs, and haven't slept a normal night since. At first, a lot of "sleeping" sitting up on the couch; lately, I can actually lie on the bed.

Meantime, my body is so busy trying to patch itself back together that I catch my first head cold in a year. It was, let's just say, a humdinger. All the more fun because I couldn't blow my nose -- ribs hurt too much -- and coughing or sneezing produced such a blast of pain, you could hear my whimpering all over the house.

All of this would have been par for the course if my Dad's fight with cancer hadn't taken a serious downhill turn. A couple weeks ago, he made the decision to stop treatment, because it simply wasn't working. The cancer had spread from liver to both bones and lymph system.The Hail Mary treatment they offered him seemed like a cruel joke. Another round of chemo after four or five months of it with negative results? Um, no. Basically, at that point, you try to make the end as clean and dignified as possible. Your ticket has been punched, and you have to sit back and experience the ride. It's all over but the waiting and decaying.

As soon as I heard that, I picked my tuchus up out of my sick-bed and hauled ass down to NYC. Dad and I managed to have a conversation that, I now realize, will be our last real one. He's still talking, but hardly. It was an intense and wondrous and excruciatingly difficult talk. I went down knowing what I wanted to say, and I said it. I had no idea he was going to say so much -- it shocked me, really. I'm so grateful to have had that chance. But I was brain-dead for a good few days afterward.

There's even more big stuff going on elsewhere in my life, but I'll spare you. You get the idea.

As recently as few weeks ago, I'd just run my first 5K, with a decent time, and was getting stronger every week. I was riding like a champ, strong and true. Today, I went "running" and barely made two miles, with lots of walking breaks. I'm off bikes until my shoulder and ribs can support me more reliably. I'm very grateful to be running at all; I went down so hard, I'm pretty blessed not to have broken something.

I have good days and bad days. A bad morning can be followed by a great afternoon. I'll get a decent few hours, and then hear from family that Dad no longer can get out of the bed, can't really see anymore, and isn't making much sense when he talks.

I take it as it comes. My practice right now is to say a big "YES" to all of it -- the periods of clarity at work, the hikes with my wonderful wife, the bad news, the frailty and decay of my beloved dad. It's all YES. It's all life. Life is the middle-of-the-night doubts and pitch-blackness, and life is the surreal beauty of a technicolor morning run in the brilliant foliage, sun caressing the hills in the distance. I remind myself that I am not the one dying, that in fact, I have a great life, a better life than I ever imagined possible. That tends to work pretty well.

Maybe tomorrow I can even go for a ride. The one ride I've had recently gave me goosebumps -- 25 minutes of flat terrain that was more scintillating than the 50-mile charity ride I did back in September. I remembered, "Yes, this is how I experience the beauty of life."

No time to waste, man -- gotta stay busy living. When Dad needs me, or his wife needs a hand, I'll be down in a flash, and I'll try to live all of that, too. And I'll bring my running shoes.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Wire From the Front



HOME-TOWN YANKEES BROKE MY HEART STOP RAN MY FIRST 5K LAST WEEKEND STOP PLANNING TO RUN MY 1ST ORGANIZED 5K THIS MONTH STOP RIDING LESS ENJOYING MORE STOP GONNA GET ME SOME DIRT THIS PERFECT NEW ENGLAND FALL WEEKEND STOP TELEGRAM STYLE OF WRITING IS ADDICTIVE STOP CAN'T STOP STOP

Monday, September 26, 2011

BikeFest 2011

Yes, yes, I'm still here, lock up the messenger pigeons, and put away that cattle prod. I've been absorbed in, shall we say, "other stuff." Life stuff. You know -- what we do when not staring at a glowing screen? You do remember that, yes?

I've also been touched by the classic end-of-season malaise, but not as bad this year as previously. I'm still riding, still enjoying, but I have to double-check before I go out: Do I want to do intervals, or do I really want to cruise to the library and check out the latest Batman comics? More often than not, it's quirky rides, like 'splorin' new roads, riding to an event, or just slow-pedaling to the top of the hill by my house and checkin' out the sunset. Love it -- bikes were built for fun and transportation, back before the Victorian jocks got hold of them and decided they were one more way to prove their mustachioed manhood.

I did do a great little ride this past weekend, Northampton Cycling Club's annual BikeFest. Decided I was only in shape for the 43-miler, which turned out (of course) to be 48-miles-plus. Met up with a couple buddies, who promptly disappeared over the horizon about three miles from the start (no worries -- it's part of the unwritten group ride contract). Rode my own ride for about five miles -- as usual, floating in that no-man's land between the fast and the merely fit -- waiting patiently for a group of riders up ahead to realize that they'd let adrenaline get the better of them, and to start drifting back to a more humane pace. I saw them at the top of a hill and worked my way up to them; we finished together, more or less, and some of them were quite friendly and fun to ride with.

It was an ugly day, warm and soupy-humid, but the scenery -- distant, jagged peaks dressed in thick rolls of cotton-candy mist -- was fully up to par.

Back at the start/finish, we gathered for excellent jambalaya (speesy-spicy!) from the Lone Wolf in Amherst, and local hero Roger Salloom's excellent little combo doing rockin' Lonnie Smith and Chuck Berry covers, which added a little sunshine to a drab, wet day. Spirits were high, conversation was good, and I was glad I'd been talked into the day.

Here's to people getting together to do what they love!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What I Did for my Labor Day Weekend


Artifact of Tropical Storm Irene: Blocked trail in Monague on Saturday. Time for some hike-a-bike through the woods!

Cranberry Pond in Sunderland, on Labor Day. Dirty roads, dirty weather. I tried to climb the fire road up Mt. Toby (in the background) but didn't have low enough gears or fat enough tires (okay -- or strong enough legs).

When you have a bike that thrives on faux-roads, you have fun exploring under highway trestles.

And you find mysterious inscrptions on stone blocks by railroad tracks.

And you turn off trails or roads onto newly-discovered single-track networks. See that footbridge way at the bottom? Hike-a-bike, from there upward. Fun!


Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Pioneer Valley Three-Oh

Been well over a week since I stared at the blank screen with some kind of momentum building up behind my eyes. I've been in bike hibernation or something. Maybe it's the coming of September, all my young clients going back to school, sending me back into some kind of youthful transitional period. Just not thinking in terms of writing. Then, of course, tropical storm Irene was a bit distracting last weekend. No damage to house or property, I'm glad to report, unlike many towns close by, which are torn asunder. I'm sure I'll be finding washed out roads on my rides well into the fall.

Also, I've been writing up rides and tech and philosophy like a house afire since mid-February, and I think I'm feeling the psychic wear and tear, much as I feel the season wearing on my body. Mrs.V. has returned to her public school librarian job and needs some support. And we have other demanding stuff on the docket right now, too.

But don't worry, folks, I'm riding. Mostly on the Vaya, because both my road bikes are on the D.L. I've done what I can for them with my tech skills, and now have plans to haul them both in to a good local bike shop tomorrow and see what experienced hands can render.

I think that's one more reason for burnout: I haven't been able to take advantage of the diversity of riding because I've only had my gravel/dirt machine for the last few weeks or more. I had that brief fling with the 29er, but it didn't work out. (Flings rarely do.) I was hoping that would provide me a whole new angle on riding -- woods, mountains, trails. Turns out, I'm really only suited to a little of that, at least for now. The Vaya mostly scratches that itch pretty well.

I did three or four hours on hurricane day (Sunday) to plot out an extended dirt road ride here in the Valley. It turned out to be way more vertical than I was hoping; dirt roads in this part of New England generally lead upward. I haven't been able to find many of those lovely lo-o-ong, rolling roads they have out in Kansas and Iowa, where you could easily put together a century without ever riding pavement. So, we'll see if I'm up to what I have tentatively titled The Filthy Fifty. 4,000 feet of climbing, and composed of 75% dirt,gravel, and a smidgen of single track. Rigorous.

Aside from that, I'd like to go for a few long leaf-peeping rides this fall; I love kitting up with arm warmers and embrocation and rolling out in the chilly, clear weather. It's inspiring after a summer of sweat pooling incessantly under my helmet pads. I also find myself looking forward to the infamous cyclocross races at Look Park in early November; perhaps I'll attend on my Vaya and take a stab at the course in-between races, as many spectators do. 'Cross is coming, bundle up!



That's the three-oh from the Pioneer Valley today.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Look to This Day

As I said yesterday, I think the Salsa Vaya is my kind of bike. Today, I headed off for some reconn on a small area in the north of Amherst that I'd recently been told hides some short but lovely trails. Indeed they do -- flat, smooth, well-maintained, and scenic. The pleasure the Vaya allowed was riding up there on the road, then nosing off into the woods until I ran out of trail, then turning on to a gravel road and sniffing around for another trail, and so on. I've never seen a bike more perfectly suited to this kind of advenutre.
Scenes from a Tuesday morning well spent:

Memorial stone in Mill River Recreation Area

 
Mill River riffle


More Mill River trail

Presumably the site of the old mill


I even covered a snippet of the famed Robert Frost Trail (Puffer's Pond on left)

I think the Vaya wanted a souvenir of this lovely jaunt

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Fling Forgiven

Well, when you're pushing 50, these things happen.

We've all heard about the guy who runs out and buys the bright red sports car to compensate for his fading manhood. As for me, I bought a mountain bike. Like, with about 15 minutes of forethought.

I was gonna test ride it -- really, seriously! But this mysterious other buyer was circling around, and my friend selling the bike said I might want to move fast. I figured, what the hey! So I have almost no idea what to do with it. I want to learn more about single-track riding. It's a gorgeous bike. I'll grow into it.

I was wrong.

I rode that stunning beauty four times, and never once had a really good time. It was like being on someone else's bike. The 700c wheels -- my norm -- felt huge with those fat tires sitting on them. I couldn't really get over very much that I couldn't get over with the much narrower tires on my beloved, fully rigid Vaya. Between all that air in the tires and the suspension fork, I just couldn't feel the surface of the trails or roads, which led to worse handling, not better.

Maybe it's just too advanced a bike for me, or maybe I need a 26er; my friends who race say that smaller wheels allow them to pick their way through the rocks, roots, and tight turns of New England more nimbly. Or maybe I just wasn't built for mountain bikes.

Saturday, after another frustrating ride, I called the shop and asked my pal if he'd take the Mariachi back as a straight trade for the Vaya I had swapped. He was very understanding, and to my great relief, said simply, "Sure!"


It's good to have that bike back in the stable where it belongs. I plan to lay slightly fatter rubber on it, maybe 40 or 43 mm, so I can reel in those those nasty gravel and washed-out fire roads a bit more handily. But nothing like the 2.2" tires on the Mariachi. Beasts, they were.

I grew up a road rider, and perhaps I'll always be defined by that provenance. But that doesn't mean I don't like to get dirty. Salsa's Web site says of the Vaya, "Designed to take on any surface that someone might consider a road." In the end, that might neatly describe yours truly, as well.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I've Been Turned

Well, the dirt-loving virus that took hold of me when I bought my Salsa Vaya has completed its hijacking of my brain and legs: Yesterday, in a feverish haze no doubt brought on by too much time on single-track (or too many blows to the head falling off of single-track)...

...I purchased a mountain bike.

To be specific, a Salsa El Mariachi, with 29-inch wheels, a metallic-flaked dark charcoal and ruby-red paint job, classy components, tubeless-ready rims, and snappy WTB Bronson 2.2-inch tires.


I'm both thrilled and nervous. Will I like real mountain biking as much as I think? Did I give away that beautiful root-beer-brown Vaya in vain?

I managed a straight trade for the Vaya (also a Salsa), a bike that I am certainly grieving today. If I could have kept both, I surely would have. The Vaya is a solid, lovely bike, well-built to its purposes, but those main functions -- touring/commuting or gravel-grinding -- aren't things I can do enough of around here to justify keeping such a nice bike in the stable. My master plan includes a separate treasonous act: trading in my racy Cannondale for a slightly more comfortable but still-swift bike, which would handle both pavement and gravel, and be more forgiving of my middle-aged back on longer rides. At that point, I'll be able to do single-track and rougher fire roads/double-track on the 29er, and longer gravel and road rides on the road bike. (I sure wish I had the scratch to keep all the beauties that have passed through my clutches.)

Words can't describe my disorientation when I enter my garage and spy that broad-shouldered draft horse leaning against the wall. I'm used to a featherweight thoroughbred with wafer-thin tires. It's a weird thrill -- sort of like the day I bought my Ford Bronco when I moved to the mountains of New Mexico years ago, after having driven only economy cars to that point.

I'm really looking forward to taking the Mariachi out on the trails I've already mastered (and, especially, the ones I've almost mastered) on the Vaya, to experience the difference between riding dirt on a modestly-geared touring bike with cyclocross tires and drop handlebars, and on a wide-bar bike with monster-truck wheels, a classy suspension fork, and silky-smooth disc brakes.

I suspect some of you old (uh, I mean old-school) mountain bikers out there are cringing at the idea of a 293er, thinking "When I was starting out, the wheels were the size of a silver dollar, and you could have put Action Jackson on my saddle and he would have reached the pedals! Harrumph!" Well, have mercy on me. I'm a 47-year-old rank beginner to this discipline. I have the most grown-up job I've ever held, a terrific marriage, a new house, and kids in the not-too-distant future. To top it all off, it's not like I'm starting off with a bumper crop of athletic talent. In short, I need my energy and body intact at the end of the weekend. My impression has been that 29ers make mountain biking a little easier (or a lot, depending on who you ask), especially on the rooty, rocky, narrow trails of Olde New England.

Besides, this is a looker, with an outstanding reputation, and made by a small, still-funky company run by people who really ride and love bikes. What's more, the guy who sold me the Vaya was looking to get rid of the Mariachi right at the moment I was considering 29ers -- it was another one of those "right place, right time, right bike" deals I seem to have a knack for.

So rejoice for me. And then hook me up with some beginner's trails, because I can't seem to find any around here, and I'm tired of falling on my popo.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wendell State Forest: A Land Apart

Dear Pioneer Valley nature lovers who haven't been to Wendell Sate Forest: You are missing a gem, and it's right under your nose.

I spent two hours surfing the double-track up there on Saturday, and I'm not sure I've seen a prettier patch of land in our corner of Olde New England.

There are many miles of NEMBA-groomed single-track here, but I can't vouch for it, because, as rugged as the Vaya is for a road bike, it was barely tough enough to withstand some of the two-track. I didn't get pictures of the truly rough stuff in the first mile or two of Jerusalem Road; I was too busy puffing and sweating over the jagged, closely-spaced, shark-tooth rollers. More than gravel, the roads there are lined with stones, ranging from marble- to golf ball-size. Not great for maintaining control on steep downhills with narrow tires and drop bars. Eventually, death-grip braking on the descents, with my popo hanging out over my rear tire, became as tiring (and tiresome) as the constant climbs, and I sought out friendlier terrain.

Below are scenes from Brook, Wickett Pond, Carlton and Dirth Roads; more rolling in feel, yet with enough zingers to keep the quads softened and the esprit challenged.

Trust me: mere snapshots from a cell phone won't do justice to the back-of-beyond peace and spiritual vibe out there. I saw not one other human being the entire morning (other than a grounds guy on a bush trimmer giving the roads a haircut). Nor biker, nor hiker, nor vehicle humming, on a lovely morning in August.

While I was delighted with the solitude, I also felt a twinge of worry. Don't give the State House reason to cut back on funds for this remarkable treasure folks. It took me 25 minutes to drive there from my front door; load up the bike and just go. It's a win-win.













Strange Gods

August 2011 -- Expeditions into the hills of Amherst, though strenuous, have borne fruit. Stumbled upon unspoiled evidence of a race bearing the runic moniker of MTBers. The stone likeness below was erected beside a mountain trail -- mysteriously, not used for transport to other important locations or for the bearing of goods. Purpose of trail still to be determined. Apparently, this primitive, perplexing people worshiped a deity not recorded in other annals of the time.




Monday, August 8, 2011

No Country for Old Men

Pondering the imponderables is just what I do, both for a living and for "fun."  Whenever my mind isn't occupied with something concrete, I launch inward, soaring ever-tighter circles on whatever updrafts I can find in that bizarre land called the Great Mystery. It's just how I'm wired.

So, late this afternoon, after yet another piece of hard news about my dad's health, I velcroed up the bike shoes and rolled out the Vaya for some local dirt: The paths of the cemetery just down the street from us.

I don't like graveyards, as a rule; they have always elicited a sullen downwardness in me. Tonight, though, it was the place to be. I found that rolling slowly up and down the swales and vales was much better than walking, standing or sitting, the three typical modes in such a haunt. I kept moving, just faster than the moist tendrils of entropy insistently trying to twine themselves around my rear spokes. That meditative speed enabled me to feel myself alive among the dead -- yet alert enough to catch, out of the corner of my eye (where all worthy revelations show up) whatever it was that called me down there today.

It became clearer than ever to me this afternoon that no one has any idea how long my old man will be hanging about this earthly veil. Being who I am, my reaction was, head for where the dead folks are.

I was the little kid who, when there was a bully lying in wait for me after school, sought him out in the hopes he would do his worst. I have always had a feisty hatred of the dread unknown. Living in fear is far worse to me than whatever punishment today might dish out.

This graveyard is pretty, really. It's small, lined with maples and oaks; there are no paved paths, only dirt. Lots of old-time gravestones from antiquity. Soft woodsy smells everywhere. The afternoon was hot and sticky, but not stifling. I let the fire of the sun bite into my skin; it's summer, I'm alive, and I didn't want to miss a fleck of sunlight, no matter the temperature.

As I circled around for the third time, I became aware of an unseen boundary forming about the cemetery, perhaps called up by my ritualistic revolutions. I was alone, and suddenly knew myself to be in a land apart, a twilight place, where colors were vivid, but also translucent, shot through with late-summer light. The air took on a gentle tension, as if a miasma were gathering. I flashed on my father telling me, on a walk a couple months ago, that he felt like he was in a different country. He was referring to the odd land of Clinicalia -- hospitals, specialists, big, loud, "imaging" machines, biopsies taken at mysterious, capricious intervals. Yet I think some part of him knew that, past the shore of that strange new territory, lurking in the dark interior, lay yet another reality altogether. I was lingering in a gateway to that farther land this afternoon, gazing past the stones, leaning on the handlebars, thinking how Dad's become the best friend I've ever had, and that, in the long view, I have nothing to complain about. I checked myself for anger, sadness, fear. They had all retreated, at least momentarily, driven back by the ghostly golden summer light, and the unquestioning, unquestionable presence of the Big What.

I moved on. Rolled a few circles about a big cross in the middle of the cemetery, where there were mysterious gifts laid out for... the Madonna? The deceased? A few rags, dirty from cleaning headstones. A muddy cloth doll. A CD, still packaged, of children's songs.

I turned to go. On the path leading to a gap in the fence, I glimpsed -- out of the corner of my eye -- a large headstone engraved with the word Joy in bold letters. I always get my insight if I go knowing that I might not.

I pedaled easily home, and joined my wife for dinner and a cheesy old movie -- a Sunday night in the land of the well.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Confessions

dear diary,

am so ashamed!!!!! spent 3 of my last five rides on singl track!! what will my group ride frends say when they see mudd on my legs?? the paint job on my newest bike is getting, like, all chuwed up from rocks or sticks or something. every day i ride up to the trailhead with my helmet pulled so lo i can't see, just in case one of my roadie frends goes by and is all, like, "doood! what is up with the baggies + t-shirt???!!!"

OMG! Who am i???

=v=

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Zen and the Art of Dirt

Zen tip number one for dyed-in-the-wool-jersey roadies just building basic dirt skills: Hit the trails early. Mountain bikers are slackers, and will never show up at the trailhead before 11 a.m.  As the old koan goes, "If a biker falls in the forest and no one is there to see it, did he really fall?"

I'm so thoroughly enjoying taking my new Salsa Vaya (a dirt-road touring bike with 35 millimeter tires) onto single track to see if I can pick up a thing or two about trail riding. Here are some of the principles that seem to be arising, like satori sneaking up on an unsuspecting monk sweeping the hallways.  Like most of Zen—another study of how to deal with rocky and unpredictable paths—they're often counter-intuitive:

- Handlebars are not for steering. Use your hips instead; wither points thy pupik, so goes thy bicycle.  If you have enough momentum, the front wheel will flow in the right direction, no matter how rooty or washed out the trail. Body English, first, last and always.

- The old chestnut, "Look where you want to go," could not be more true. The sharper the turn, the more you need to point your nose through the apex (your shoulders and hips tend to follow). Scary at first, but works like a stinkin' charm.

- Momentum will cover a multitude of sins (though a better line will always win in the end). If you don't got the mo' when you meet an obstacle or ramp, you'll have to manufacture it with a sudden surge. This will make you strong -- eventually. Better yet, just go a little faster generally. Again, scary, but right.

- Braking is not helpful for anything except a full stop, or scrubbing speed before a sharp turn. You can't do almost anything else well or safely while you're braking. If you're scared, the last thing you should (and always will want to) do is grab a handful of brakes. Go back to look more closely where you're going. Keep your grip as loose as possible (all the more necessary with a fully-rigid road bike).

- Finally, don't shoot low on your gear choice; you might not be able to power through that next scary patch. Again, not logical; I mean, if you see obstacles, you want to be able to have torque, right? Wrong; you'll spin like a pinwheel and land on your side in the dirt (at best). See "Momentum," above.

*     *     *

Like any new zealot, I'm feeling all wise and accomplished today. Yeah, well. That wise old Zen master, the Mountain, just smiles. Tomorrow, bike and body are bound to part again, in a fascinating new way. And that, too, will be learning, will it not, Daniel-san?

Well, I'm off polish my bike. Wax on, wax off.





Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sixes and Sevens

A hard, but rewarding weekend – and believe it or not, I’m not referring to cycling. Although, in a sense, the difficulty-to-reward ratio was similar to an epic ride.

Mrs. V. and I were over in the Catskills for a family gathering with my father, quite sick with cancer since April, and my step-mom. Dad’s not doing great. I won’t waste words trying to describe how hard it is to see my vibrant Old Man failing and suffering and scared. Suffice it to say,I would run through brick walls if I thought it would lighten his load even a little. The hardest part is, there’s nothing I can do on that front. Chemotherapy is a cure that’s almost as bad as the disease. There were lots of strange vibes in the air this weekend, lots of spoken and unspoken changes in the family dynamic, but overall, a very positive visit. We're growing closer and deeper as a family, and for that, I am very grateful.

I awoke quite out of it Monday morning, sporting something like an emotional hangover, or maybe more like a hairball. Intestines acting weird, head heavy, mood sludgy. The day was gray, sticky, and still. I spent the morning at sixes and sevens, drifting uneasily from one thing to the next.

Finally, despite threatening clouds, I did what you’re thinking I did, what I know how to do. I kitted up and steered my beloved Vaya out toward some local flowy trails about five miles from our door.

A steady rain started on my way to the trailhead. It felt so much like an extension of my mood, I almost didn’t notice it at first. I considered turning around, but instantly rejected the idea. I needed to ride, period. I emptied my mind as best I could and pressed on toward the trailhead, hoping things would work themselves out once I got into the woods. They often do.

 I’ve spent most of the last few weeks on the road bike, so when I first reached the dirt, I was all over the place. After a while, the rain abated a bit, I could see the trail a little better, and I picked up a little speed. I poked around, discovering a lovely loop: Good-sized, flat-to-rolling, with just a few steep ramps of loose soil and roots which I could enjoy powering up, and enough washed-out, rooty sections to get the adrenal glands firing over something more substantial than the feverish thoughts haunting me of late.



Riding mountain bike trails with 35 millimeter tires, a rigid road frame, and traditional touring gearing does more than just soak up your power like a loamy sponge; it demands a lot of  desperate maneuvering and bucking-bronco-style handling skills. The first time I rode real single-track (a test ride of the Vaya this spring) I had the simultaneous experience of being a rank beginner, and yet falling in love and picking up skills surprisingly smoothly. I still feel that way. Half the tricky sections I clear are due to pure luck or sheer momentum. I have more narrow misses than I care to think about. But when they come, I often stop, turn around, and study the root or rock that nearly threw me, and get clear on what happened. Frequently, I’ll ride that section again, and even again, until I have a better feel for the dynamic. That part reminds me of my days as a guitarist, going over and over a lick on a recording by some hotshot gunslinger. That moment when I got it cold – when I couldn’t tell the difference between his guitar line and mine – gave up a feeling quite similar to nailing a patch of trail I could only skitter through before. That sensation is quite a useful antidepressant; it’s called agency in the psychotherapy world.


 
I stopped for a while beside a pond to nibble at a Clif bar and watch puffs of dense mist being blown across the surface of the water.  It wasn’t a Zen moment. The rain didn’t come down like a blessing, didn't wash away my cares and leave me reborn. My father was still deadly ill, I still needed a better job, on and on; all the stressors were still stubbornly tangible. But for the moment, they were surrounded by damp forest smells and total isolation and flowy, earthy trails, and new-found agency pulsing through me with each heartbeat. The mean and the grand, the fun and the dreadful; in the wet woods, there was room for everything to rest side by side in a grudging truce, which might last only until I pulled, soaking wet, into my garage, but it was enough. There was a balance. My sixes were sevened, and my sevens sixed.

 I wiped the rain-sweat from my face and time-trialed home.



Monday, July 18, 2011

A Midsummer Break


My man Juancho recently quoth,, "nothing sucks like a rest day," so I'm guessing the mid-summer heat and constant hammering since February has got nearly everyone feeling flat these days.

Everyone, that is, except Joel and Rob, the two sandbaggers I rode with yesterday. They're regulars at the Wednesday night ride I've been attending, and they seemed to be just beyond my fitness level, so I invited 'em for a hilly 40-miler yesterday, to sharpen myself a bit. Well, they ate my lunch, and let me tell you, it would have been steep and hot enough out there even if I had kept my lunch.

Even with the aid of legal dope (an espresso from the redoubtable Cushman Market baristas) and enough cool liquids to float an ocean liner, I struggled up the S-curves into Shutesbury (a hill I'm usually smart enough to ride downward). Yeah, it was hot and all, but it was just as hot for those guys. Weaving and wheezing around a bend and seeing your ride buddies nowhere in sight is enough to turn your esprit de corps into esprit de corpse. (No knock on them -- I'd've done the same if I could). My heart was pounding so hard in the melting heat, my carotid arteries seemed to be trying to burst out of my neck. You know -- the kind of pounding that makes you see flashes of light with every beat. Pure suffering.

By the time we hit the final flattish 15 miles, I was cooked -- literally. I sheepishly tucked in behind Joel, who bravely led the charge for home into relentless, baking head winds. If any local gals on the market want to know what his cheeks look like, I can offer a detailed description of their ripple-tude. Body was saying "Quit, quit, drop back, let them wait for you at the next intersection!" The only thing keeping me pummeling the cranks as the heat came off the pavement in shimmering waves to cook us dry like chicken breasts was pride, pure and simple. That, and telling myself it would feel worse to see them pulling away yet again than it would to just keep pushing. Suffice it to say, I stayed with them.

I spent that afternoon on the couch guzzling ice water and vitamin C, eyes glazed, body limp, consoling myself by getting lost in the heroics of that day's Tour stage. (Andy Shleck for the top of the podium in Paris, by the way.)

I think I'll take it easy this week. I've been noticing dwindling enthusiasm lately, and that's a bright red flag for overtraining. If nothing sucks like a rest day, I better find something to distract myself for seven of them. It's time to recharge.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I'm One of Them

I joined that local Wednesday night ride for the third time last night, and it seems I am strong enough to make a showing, at least. After three years in the Pioneer Valley searching for a group that is neither too fast nor too slow, I think I've finally found one. We rode up into the hills above Northampton, and, after going flat and fast the first two outings, I got to find out how my climbing stacked up next to riders I've been getting to know. This is the benefit of a regular group; I begin to sort out how fast I actually am, instead of constantly wondering, without anyone with whom to compare.

This is one the slowest of the rides the Northampton Cycling Club sponsors, although everyone agrees (perhaps self-servingly) that it's not a true "C" ride, because NCC is simply a bunch of hammerheads. You may discount this argument, having heard it before, and that's fine. I'm buying it -- it's the way I sleep at night. For what it's worth, most of us in the group have been B or even A riders in other clubs in other locations. Why NCC is so amped up is a question for another post. I have tried their B rides more than once, and been unceremoniously dropped -- I mean those guys were flying, in a double rotating paceline, and constantly ramping up the speed.

So, okay. Here's the verdict: Currently, it looks like I'm faster than most of the (relatively) slow, but not all of them. Some guys in this group are more hardcore than I am. For now. When they peel away on the flats, they stay away, and I'm caught chasing them, solo. When they make a move on a steep hill, I have trouble keeping up with them -- but again, I'm far ahead of the "peloton."

With that said, I did discover last night, to my pleasant surprise, that I am far and away the fastest descender. I'm either stupid enough or skilled enough (I like to think it's both) to hammer through steep curves others brake into. The extra few pounds around my middle probably don't hurt either; gravity is your friend, kids!

I can't help feeling like  being the fastest descender is sort of a condolence prize -- "You're not really in shape, but man, you sure can eat up those downhills!" But you know what? I'll take it.

I know. I've become one of those bloggers, posting excruciating details about tiny, invisible victories and defeats no one who wasn't there cares about. "But enough about me; let's talk about what you think of me!"
So sue me. I'm having fun trying to beat people -- something I've ached for these four years, since I swung my leg over a saddle for the first time in 25 years. The folks are super-friendly and the competition is just fierce enough, without that nasty "I beat you so I deserve to live -- for today" edge.

I've made a date for a ride this weekend with a couple guys from the group who're faster than me. Everyone better be looking for me over their shoulders on Wednesday nights. After all... it's only July.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Vaya con Rios

No apologies for the post title. I've been storing that one up.

A quick hour or so early on a Sat. morning, before the townfolk are on the roads, down to a peaceful area along the Connecticut River in Hadley, a place where everyone goes for solace, beauty, reconnection.

First the gravel roads down there, described in a recent post, then wound my way onto a six-inch-wide trail through a cornfield, the leaves whacking me bupbupbupbupbup -- first time I've been shucked by corn -- and I am wet through my clothes by the end of one row. Onto the footpath, at first a raised bed that runs above the fields. I stop and lay the bike down to stand at one particular place where, in the early mornings, you can face east to the ascending fire of the sun, masked comfortably behind a single regal tree rising at the edge of a cornfield. Birds singing madly everywhere, a little tai chi breathing and gazing at the amazing. Crops EVERYWHERE, as far as the I can see... green, green, green... redolent musk of flowers, moist warm earth, pollen, basically the perfume of GROWTH and LIFE hanging heavy in the heavy air. Clouds burning off.

A few hundred yards down that path, I'm riding along the river, mist rising off mirror-still water, birds yet in concert all around, and the sole human in sight a fellow out on a scull, the morning so gentle I can hear his oars (if that's what they're called in sculling) working in their fixings. I race him along the path, back to the road, and then I'm off up the hill by more farms and farms, 'til I pull on to our lawn.

Yes. This is where I live.

Monday, July 4, 2011

There Will Be Mud

Scenes from a Saturday morning well-spent. Used the Vaya to explore some gravel ascents on Mt. Toby in Sunderland, then found some of the highly-reputed singletrack up on top. Did a little climbing on that, too; some day, I'll have to get a pair of decently fat tires to put on the Delgado Cross rims the Vaya came with.

For a long-time road rider trying to recover from all the fussiness of that discipline, the joy of intentionally riding through a mucky puddle or sketching out my rear tire is new to me. I felt like a six-year-old set free in the woods.

So, the dreck on my bike (below) might not look like a lot of mud to some of y'all, but it was sure fun for me.





Thursday, June 30, 2011

Strength in Numbers

I rarely do group rides, because it usually works out that I'm faster than the slower folks, but slower than the fastest folks. I end up soloing much of the ride, with only the thought of those before and behind me to keep me company. Kind of disappointing after all the effort of getting to the roll-out on time.

Last night was different. I joined an after-work ride. It was, for once in recent weeks, a gorgeous night in Western Mass, a true early-summer evening: Temps in the high 70s, cool breeze, big puffy clouds against lucid blue sky. Folks were friendly -- a good sign. Yeah, there was a little "my hard ride was harder than your hard ride," but very little.

Early on, I was in a group that slowly broke away, eventually also breaking the speed limit of the ride. We were forgiven, and allowed to run at our own speed. Run we did, working hard to keep up a brisk canter into the familiar Connecticut River headwind. As we crossed the bridge at South Deerfield and buzzed south on the other bank, the evening sky was stretched out on our right, and the fields, mountains and water all around us nearly glowed with perfection. I had a grand smile on my face the whole way, thinking, "I live here!"

What a refreshing change from solo riding all the time. I am, by nature, a social person; I generally feel most alive in interaction with others (hence my job as a psychotherapist). I ride solo a lot because it's hard to find friends who ride at my pace. I've had three dependable riding buddies in the three years since we moved to the Pioneer Valley, but all of them have since moved out of state. (The Valley is a very transient area, because its main industry is higher education.)

Solo has its rewards, but in a group, there's that constant sense of camaraderie, working together. Chatting is lots of fun -- jobs, good routes, bike parts -- but there's something subtle but powerful that happens when everyone clams up and falls to work. A mutual, unspoken agreement passes from the front to the back of the paceline, and in the silence, the whirring of gears, the insistent squeak of someone's cranky cranks, the click of gears changing, the wind in helmet straps, and the constant stream of data from my legs and lungs, all recede. In their place, for a few moments or minutes, comes an active calm, like being one of a swiftly moving school of fish that decides and acts as one, instantly and thoughtlessly. The worries that nibble at me all day -- and, to some degree, make me the individual that I am -- fall away, and it is good, good, good, to be part of a unit, and nothing more or less.

All in all, a good ride. There was a spontaneous sprint for a speed-reading unit along the road. There were half-serious breaks chased down half-seriously. There was bonhomie and soaking up of the sun. I think I'll be back.

Monday, June 27, 2011

To Texture


Saturday, I felt good. I'd slept two complete nights in a row -- like manna from heaven these days. I just had to go spend my new-found energy.

I cooked up a mostly-gravel ride for my Salsa Vaya; there were some roads I'd learned of from reading the route maps of an infamous annual late-winter ride in these parts, called Cushman-Roubaix. I strung them together with some of the other gravel I've found in recent months, and voila! 37 miles, almost half of it unpave'. Much of that was very vertical, and therein lay the rub; before long, I found myself humping up a 14% sandy grade. There was lots more like that over there in Pelham, and, after an hour of such labors, I was inspired to name the route, "The Tenderizer." The first 40% will definitely soften you up.

The overall ride, however, was so rewarding that the town of Pelham was fully forgiven for dressing its most ridiculous grades in a costume of loose sand and rock. (It seems like most towns do that out here, and it's baffling; wouldn't steep roads be easier to maintain if they were paved?)  Even on the uphills, I had the feeling I was riding on singletrack, so close, deep and verdant were the woods:




 Brooks babbled and burbled through lush roadsides:



I passed a neatly coiffed and perfectly-set house, surrounded by natural beauty...


 

A closer look revealed a 6-foot-high burger boy ready to serve rowers on the pond...




Mists enshrouded fertile hillsides...



And a friend was readily made in an upland pasture.



That was just during the climbing. I was moving too fast to get any shots of the long, exhilarating descent from Shutesbury Center to North Leverett Road and the Leverett Co-op, my frequent lunch stop. I can't recommend Montague Road highly enough, a lengthy, snaking bobsled ride that occassionally found little whoops of joy escaping my lips as my rear wheel did small fishtails around bends. From the Co-op (after a quick field repair of my rear derailluer) came another great gravelly descent, down Hemenway Road all the way to Route 63.

I am loving graveling more and more. Paved roads around here mostly have surfaces chopped up by other weather-related damage. That chop will slow you down and jounce you without remorse -- it's effect is wearing, interfering, annoying. Gravel, on the other hand, while also quite irregular, feels more like texture. It forgives, it lets me lose traction for an exciting moment or two (and I've come to love rather than fear that moment), it keeps me on alert.  

Most of all, it feels real.

These roads are made of stuff you can find on a walk in the woods. They have the same surface our cycling ancestors pioneered the sport on -- first on bone-rattling, precarious high-wheelers, later on the relatively sporty, 28-pound safety bike. They completed the first centuries and cross-country tours on those beastly machines, on roads just like these (maybe worse) probably in times I couldn't beat on silkiest tarmac. They competed in the first stage races, grinding themselves to a filthy pulp day and night for weeks. They were hard, hard people.

But I think they also knew, more deeply than we hard-paved roadies, forever seeking the smoothest, slickest ride, that dirt equals fun. Why do you think folks who ride the looser surfaces almost always post a shot or two of their grubby bikes and splattered legs?

Dirt equals fun. Go ride some.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fields at Dawn

I'll be spending today at work, like most weekdays, except today, I'll be ttrying not to think about my father's appointment with his oncologist, to receive the verdict after his first round of chemotherapy.

Not surprisingly, I haven't slept well in weeks. I was feeling typically leaden and blurry this morning -- frustratingly opposite the feeling I had in April and May, awakening bright-eyed and ready for bear. For me, bad sleep is like Kryptonite. My mood and concetration drop like a stone; on the bike, my legs feel weak and my motivation roller-coasters.

So this morning, common sense said, "Sleep in." My cycling sense said, "Squeeze in a Dawn Ride." Which do you think I went with?

We are lucky enough to live in the Produce Basket of Massachusetts. Our town, I think, has more farms per square mile than any other on our side the Pioneer Valley. Below, some evidence, produced on my ride, of the deightful fertility we see everywhere we go.



 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shame-faced

It happens every year.

I love riding fast. I love feeling strong. Crushing a 30- or 40-miler is just pure joy. So, when I get on a bike alone, I find it very hard not to push. And when I push, I get stronger. (So far, so good.) And when I get stronger, I set racing-type goals. (Uh-huh…) Then I push more. (Uh, wait…) Somewhere around there, a major stressor (or two, or three) pops up in my life. Still I push. (Yes, I do include recovery weeks.) Slowly, subtly, I start losing sleep. Start feeling dead in the legs. Start not wanting to ride, and feeling cranky all the time.

Still I push – because I set a goal, and reaching goals is noble, right? It makes us feel good, right? Onward!

But is that really why I push so hard? No.

I push because I hate myself. Or some part of me does.

The part of me that wants to prove that bully from summer camp wrong by ripping the legs off of his stand-in on the latest group ride – but at the same time, agrees with him that I’m a worthless lump. It’s shame, pure and simple.

It’s sometimes said (a little simplistically) that strong competitors either love to win or hate to lose. I’d have to put myself in the second category. If I can ride faster than someone, I often feel an unhealthy high, which comes more from relief than joy. “Phew!! I'm okay. I beat someone, so I must be okay!” How far is that from the pure joy of crushing a solo 40-miler? It’s measurable only in light-years.

This stuff feeds off shame like a cancer. After decades of working on myself, I like to think there isn’t any self-hatred left; then I start to feel strong on the bike, and Voila! Mr. Kill-or-be-Worthless comes crashing through the locked door to the basement of my psyche, and starts setting off M-80s and stink bombs.

I’ve basically never known the bright joy of healthy competition. I have friends who compete that way; the rush, the effort, the jostling for position… it’s all goodness to them. If they win, great! If not, oh, well – they have a killer story. I would really like to know what that feels like.

Until that day, I may have to steer clear of most competition -- or find a way to sneak up on it and take it by surprise. All suggesions are welcome.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Winds of One Hundred

Thirty quick ones up into Leverett and over Cave Hill today. I forgot to take the cell phone for photo purposes, which worked out well, because I soon decided I was going to time trial the whole route. Without the camera, I forced myself to take mental photos of some of the striking stuff I saw. Verdant fields in the misty morning, the life-green crops popping more than usual in the suffused light. Slight wisps of moisture daintily caressing the slopes of Mount Toby. Peeks of steely-gray Connecticut River through the trees along Route 47, north of Sunderland's historic center.

The blessing of all the suffering I did on Memorial Day is that it seems to have added to my overall endurance and strength -- instead of simply exhausting me for a month, as all-out, desperate efforts have in the past. So, I rode strong today, and that's better than caffeine or antidepressants for the mood. Of course, saddling up the featherweight aluminum racing steed made for a feeling of superpowers, after all my steel and wide-tired Vaya-riding.

I was hesitant to take on a serious goal like the Tour de Quabbin so early in the season. All that climbing and mileage, before I was really ready for it...? Now, I'm thinking it might have been just the thing. Having recovered well and feeling rambunctious, I'm thinking century... as in, "imperial." As in the big One-Zero-Zero. Old friend Kenny says we did one together on our AYH West Coast tour, back in um, er, cough, cough... 1980. (?!?) That would have been with seriously weighty panniers, a cheap steel bike, and probably standard gearing, not to mention California grades. Never mind: if true, I hereby declare it an accomplishment of another lifetime. I was 16, strong, and worry-free; literally anything was possible. I plan to be much, much more impressed with my 2011 version.

Any ideas for what to call it? A medieval century? The Second Century, A.D. (After Domestication)?


One important note I forgot from last week's gravelly 35: On my way up silent, beautiful Pratt Corner Road, I startled a deer immediately at the edge of the woods, not twenty feet from me. You should have seen, and heard, his white-tailed rump bounding over the bushes.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rattlesnakes, Mosquitoes and Bananas

Thirty-five glorious, hard miles this afternoon, about 60% of it dirt/gravel. The first half was nearly all climbing, some long six and seven per cent hills, and some oh-so-lovely ramps of 15 and even 17 per cent. My first extended dirt ride on the Vaya was a delight. That bike is an albatross on paved road, and a rocket on gravel. It was built for it, and you can feel it wanting to fly the moment the road turns gritty.

My first time on three of the dirt roads, and were they fun! Well, all but Rattlesnake Gutter Road, a local legend I had to try to believe. The first quarter mile or so was more vertical than anything I've ever ridden on a bike -- and on a washed-out, loose-rock road. It was devilish -- straining along at 5 mph, standing on the pedals, tires slipping, going slow enough for the mosquitoes to swarm me. To escape the bugs, I went so anaerobic I had to get off the bike and walk up the 17% pitch, swatting all the way. Oh, joy!

I will bathe in DEET before my next gravel ride.

No regrets, though -- just the opposite. You see things you won't see any other way when you ride the "unimproved" roads. Observe:

Classic New England small-town burying grounds

Cue ominous music...

Cliff walls along the eponymous gutter
As a reward for the brutal climb, a gorgeous little falls at the top

Still Life with Banana

Leverett Co-op's sundial sign, and stained glass windows

Cranberry Pond, Mt. Toby looming behind


I'd never even known the pond, cemetery, falls, or rock formations existed, though they are all just off of roads I ride all the time. The beauty of dirt is that you get off the beaten tarmac.