Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tour de Quabbin 2011

Well, I did it. I completed the 2011 Tour de Quabbin. It was beautiful, and very, very ugly. 68 of the most beautiful miles of road in Massachusetts; 4700 of the most ugly vertical feet of climbing east of the Berkshires. This included three good-sized hills of up to 10%, and five lengthy stretches, some of them miles long, rising to 6 or 7%. Cruelly, the two most brutal sections came within the last 15 miles.

I had done this loop a couple years ago, and sailed through it, but that was at the tail end of the season. Yesterday, I was sadly undertrained, and I suffered like a dog on the last 15 or so miles. This included the classic "nearly fell off the bike" scenario, involving leg cramps so painful, I swore I might never stand upright again. I even walked the nasty 10% hill into Wendell -- only because the pain made it impossible to pedal.

But I finished the final seven miles on the bike (very, very slowly), as knackered as I've ever been on a bicycle. I cursed. I wheezed. I reached that point where simply thinking a thought was so painful, I had to empty my mind completely in order to complete the next turn of the pedals. I opened credit accounts with gods I made up on the spot, and instantly maxed them out. I flashed on Tim Krabbe's immortal quote, "I had to go on. I couldn't do it anymore, but I had to go on. Body and spirit shook hands and moved to their corners."

In the end, I rolled into the start zone alone, and nearly the last to finish. But you know what? I finished that sucker. Lots were faster than me -- but no one suffered as I did, and finished nonetheless. (I will, however, note as a point of pride that I was among the first to roll into the lunch zone, nearly halfway through the ride.)

A word of thanks to the warm people who did a stellar job organizing this terrific challenge; the vibe was family-friendly, very cool and helpful, the map was great, and there were super-nice folks in support vans (mostly parents ready to pick up their kids when they wore out) all along the way, though I will again vainly point out that I was helping others with tools and advice, but never used support myself.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, here are eleven thousand choice ones:

Waiting for the rain to let up at the start zone.

The eponymous Quabbin Reservoir, largest inland body of water in MA, around which we rode.

View in the other direction -- the Quabbin Reservation.

Lunch at a winery in Hardwick. Few partook of the grape...

Reaching Rte. 122 in Petersham, mile 47, called for a celebratory photo.

Finally at Wendell General Store. Wendell is home to quirkiness, like this floppy-hatted dude on his "bike."

More delightful Wendell quirkiness. There was an outdoor poetry reading going on across the road from the store.

This was gone in about five minutes.

Spent and grimy legs at the finish.

Vaya, looking like a Vaya should.

The tale of the tape.

When I was finished, the mere thought of being on a bicycle made me want to vomit. This morning, I'm pondering my next event. I think they call that, "punishment for gluttons."

Monday, May 30, 2011

T Minus 2 hrs.

Slept well -- against all odds.

Knee feels semi-good.

Body feels strongish.

Mind calm and focused.

Food, gear, map, laid out and ready.

Oatmeal and egg inside my body.

Let's go see what this is all about.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Welcome to the Rat's Nest

"My knee hurts a lot. I'm going to set up the Vaya with 23 mm tires and do the big Memorial Day charity ride with lower gears."

"Yeah! I'll be nice and comfy all the way and I can spin up the hills!"

"But then I'll be slow as molasses and won't be able to keep up with my friends!"

“Right, but I promised myself I wouldn't try to keep up with them; if it happens, it happens. I'm supposed to be riding for fun and stewarding my health!"

"Maybe I should set up the old Giant again -- yeah, triple in the front, lighter than the Vaya, still comfy."

"But I haven't ridden that bike more than an hour in nearly two years! Maybe the setup will be all wrong!"

"My knee hurts. Maybe I should just skip the ride altogether; I don't want to screw it up totally. I'd sacrifice a month of riding just to have one fun day..."

"Maybe the eleventh time I stretch my glutes 'til they're like overcooked noodles will cure the knee problem... but Mrs. V. is getting awfully tired of trying to talk to me while my face is buried in the rug..."

Above is a sampling of what makes me periodically think I should just give up doing events of any kind. Yes, sadly, all those thoughts come from one mind. My mind.

Believe it or not, almost every day, I get up and feed myself and manage reasonably well the multiple, demanding tasks of a professional job and a rewarding marriage. And then I set a cycling goal for myself, and the wheels start coming right off the wagon.

I know you have this same syndrome. It's these moments (hours?) that lead us to wonder yet one more time, "Why do I do this again? Cycling is supposed to be fun! If I want deadlines and drudgery, I can just go to work!"

I want to know what you do to cope, to make it better. Two days 'til roll-out.

In a word: Help!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ruins at Dawn

Another shot from another dawn ride. In case any of you think this former city slicker doesn't really live in Ruralville these days:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Life and How to Live It

Another soggy, gray day here in paradise. So, I went out anyway. (Insert smiley-face here.) I'm feeling fit and strong, like I might actually be able to make the super-hilly Memorial Day 70-miler my friend invited me to. I'm right on the razor-thin edge of over-training: I can go faster than ever, and rarely get winded, but I'm a le-e-etle bit tired all the time. Time to pull back to maintenance rides, to lay in wait in the bush, sharpening my machete and mixing the war paint. ("I will not ride competitively. I will not ride competitively. Etc.")

Meantime, I...

1) ... follow the Giro (yawn... Alberto "Babyface" Contador, contented and mature... as long as he's got 4:30 on his nearest competitor);
2) ... continue mad-scientist experiments to perfect my home espresso; and...
3) ... last, but certainly not least, deal with my dad's illness, and help him and the family deal with it.

You know -- life.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Skeptical Tolerance on a Cloudy Day

Been sleeping poorly lately, so I was pretty wiped when I awoke yesterday at 6:30, for what was supposed to be a fun road ride through some pretty good local hills. Decided to try my planned route of about 38 miles and 2200 feet anyway, because I'm contemplating a very hilly metric century with friends on Memorial Day, and I'm not sure I'm going to be up to it. (Insert rambling, neurotic, self-doubting paragraphs here.)

By taking it very slowly, I was able to enjoy myself and feel somewhat fresh for the first 25 or 30 miles. One of my secrets was to stop and photograph anything that caught my eye. Here are some shots from Hadley and Leverett:

Don't know why they cover these fields, but it makes a unique view.

Expand to see tractor tractoring through exact center of frame.

Parked in front of the Leverett Co-op for a pee break. Their bulletin board is a magnet for local crunchy-granolas.

For Rent: One gently-used robin's egg. Outside Shutesbury post office -- highest point of ride.

Sadly, one shot did not make it: A terrific banner tacked to quirky Leverett's tiny Historical Society building, reading, "Skeptical Tolerance Since at least 1810." I think this captures what I love about the Pioneer Valley: Nutty, but interesting.

I started melting down after the miles-long climb from the Connecticut River up to Shutesbury. Crankiness, tiredness -- you know the drill. It was the longest twelve miles I've done in a while. I must needs get me some rest.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Calling the Everyday Heroes

Sometimes it seems like the whole country has become addicted to extremes.

When I sit at my computer and surf the biking blogs, I get overwhelmed with messages of titanic effort, suffering, redemption, epicness.

Hundreds of miles of mountain biking in 36 hours! Raising thousands of dollars for an unimpeachable cause by exercising myself into the ground! Jumping off cliffs and flying! Drinking enough caffeine to power a small town for a week!

Bigger! Faster! Sronger! Richer! Go! GO! GO-O-O!!

Okay, America. Put your feet on the floor, relax, and take a dee-e-p breath. Hold it...........

Okay; let it out.

*   *   *

I still get suckered by the extreme side of my most beloved sport. I get lured by the esacpades of guys even older than my 47 years who pack survivalist essentials into a bike-frame bag every weekend and fly off to ride three days into the middle of the arctic tundra, without sleep, surviving on nothing but hand-ground artisan coffee and scavenged berries. I read about dudes who put in hundreds of austere  miles toward their race-readiness, perfectly kitted and floating effortlessly past the 150-mile-mark.

And then I seriously feel I am missing out, or there is something flat-out wrong with me. Am I weak? Is my manhood in question here? Should I go see my doctor?

Where there is room for someone who just loves to ride a bike? Sometimes hard and fast, sometimes slow and pleasurably?  Stopping to take a few pictures (heresy!), chatting with a local. Where are the folks who feel good if they get 20 miles in?

Where are the people who aren't looking to completely redefine themselves every time they swing their leg over a saddle?

We are outliers. Persona non grata.

When I first started riding again a few years ago, I took myself way too seriously, and aimed at becoming one of the Extremers. Over time, my body gave me a serires of very clear messages that this was not my fate.

Without a doubt, I am sad I can't ride hundreds of miles at a stretch -- it sounds like a blast. But I am learning, (very) slowly, to enjoy what I can do. And I am learning that there are everyday heroes right here in the anonymous middle of the continuum: people who get up before the sun on Saturdays  so they can ride over both the hills they were contemplating the night before, and then go back and clean the house, shop for the food, play with the kids, and basically do a good life, contentedly below the radar.

If you're out there, send me a message in a bike bottle. Or better yet, start a blog. We need to remind each other that we're the 99% of the gene pool.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Cup of Zen

It's well known that cyclists love their coffee. Perhaps we are drawn to it as socially-approved dope. Or maybe it follows naturally from our inner nature, in love as we are with tradition, fancy gear, and pretty much anything European. In any case, I'm no exception. Traditionalist, esthete, and cyclist that I am, I also spend a fair amount of time seeking the perfect cup of rich, strong coffee. For months, as our recent trip to Italy approached, I became ever more excited by the opportunity to experience a culture famous for perfecting both of these mysterious arts. Italy did not disappoint.

Americans think they have gotten the art of coffee down pat in the last 20 years. News flash! The Italians have been working on it since the Dutch were stealing Manhattan from the Indians. Their coffee is so perfect, I nearly wept as I drank my final cup in the Rome airport, knowing that I was not to taste its like again until the next time I touched that distant shore.

In Italy, prendere un caffe, taking a coffee, is an old and gracious ritual, redolent with national character. Here are some of the principles I gleaned in my short time there:
  • Do not go to Italy if you prefer brewed coffee to what Americans call espresso. Brewed coffee doesn't really exist in Italy -- and where it does, you don't want to drink it. If you belly up to the bar and ask for un caffe`, you will receive an espresso. There are many other styles of coffee available there, but, with the exception of an occasional cappuccino for breakfast, I never saw anyone order them.
  • Less is more: I had something like 20 coffees while in Italy, and I never once was served more than an ounce or two. Four or five delicate sips is a serving. More would only confuse your ecstatic taste buds. That's why they use the iconic tazzinas, the tiny cups and saucers usually marked with the brand of the coffee served.
  • Less is more, II: You only need four minutes to enjoy the perfect caffe` in the perfect way. But you must never rush. You are engaged in a ritual far older than you; show respect.
  • Less is more, III: There's no need to order a second cup. (I never saw it happen.)  Five sips, a brief chat with the barkeep, and you're off, trailing a merry "Buon giorno!" in your wake. Taking a coffee is a pause in your day, a chance to chat with friends, or to quietly savor and reflect. There are many moments during the day ideal for pausing. Best is mid-morning, on your way somewhere. Four in the afternoon also works well, for a pick-me-up, hours before your 8:30 p.m. dinner.
  • While out and about town, you're never more than 50 paces from an espresso machine. However, I saw no equivalent to our trendy neighborhood coffee houses. You can go to a bar, a caffeteria, an osteria, or any other of the omnipresent establishments that serve food. But one law seemed immutable: The better the food, the better the coffee. I learned to stay away from the bars, which, during the day, are basically just snack shops. The most consistently excellent coffee I had in Italy, to my surprise, was in the dining room of our expensive hotel in Siena. Their food was unbelievably good.
  • Good coffee is inexpensive. Although food prices were dizzying, a caffe` universally costs one euro -- about $1.44 when we were there. It would be unseemly to overcharge a fellow citizen for what is, essentially, a civil right: Good coffee and good company.
  • If, like many Americans (especially the young), you like your coffee to leave you a bit breathless with adrenaline, stay in the States. Coffee in Italy picks you up, but that's less than half of its purpose. It never left me overcharged. (And I usually drink half-caf, which I found non-existent there.)
  • When an Italian has a coffee, there is nothing else being done. There is no working, there is no walking between shops, and there most certainly is no driving. From what I've read and witnessed, there is simply no such thing in Italy as a "to-go cup." It's not that it's forbidden; there's no consciousness that such a thing could exist.
  • Finally, taste. This is clearly a more subjective topic, but my observation showed that the inky-black, super-bitter stuff young American "experts" have turned espresso into, you'll only find at the cheap, inattentive joints on the street in Italy. The best eateries -- the places where they make food the way we would kiss our own children goodnight -- served a three-dimensional, aromatic cup, easy on the tongue, yet strong. It was never burnt or overpacked with "flavor."
In short, the experience of having a coffee in Italy is the fullest expression of one of their unique concepts: sprezzatura. Roughly translated, this means, "effortless beauty." It's probably the last thing left on Earth that's not for sale at Starbucks.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day, May Day!

In the ancient, earth-based religions, May 1st was a very significant moment in the turning of the calendar. Called Beltaine by some traditions, it's a cross-quarter day, occurring half-way between the start of two seasons, and in those days, it marked the beginning of farmable weather, supremely significant in that deeply agrarian time. Celebrations got raucous and lusty, involving food, spirits, and running ribbons around a Maypole (phallic symbol, anyone?). Christians later morphed the celebration into May Day, the name more familiar to us Post-post-moderns.

Currently in Velophoriaville, it's a supernal spring morning. Sun-kissed, dewy, and chilly, but with a promise of warmth later on. Delicate white violets are scattered like confetti on the front lawn, and new greenness is everywhere, banishing memories of the long, hard winter. The steam rises from a mug of freshly-brewed coffee nearby. And I'm prepping for a dirt/gravel adventure.

One weekday morning last month, I turned off my usual road to work, Route 9, which blessedly runs through the Quabbin Reservoir nature reservation, a gigantic swath of woods and water in Central Massachusetts. I'd always been curious about a certain little side road on the Western edge of the town of Ware. Not least alluring is the name of the road: Enoch Sanford. (Who...?) The paved part runs down a beauteous part of the small, picturesque Swift River, and then ends quickly at a dirt turnaround; however, right there some double-track runs off into the woods.

I made inquiries with a local about that double-track one morning this week before work, and learned that it runs at least four or five miles, and is supposed to be pretty. Google maps more or less confirms this, and says it is part of the Swift River Wildlife Management Area. However, most of the satellite view of the road is hidden in trees (promising...!) so the precise truth is unclear. I have a Salsa Vaya now, and discovering the exact truth down a stretch of disused double-track is just exactly what it was made for ("...designed to take on any surface that someone might consider a ‘road’," the company says on their site). Hand-crafted steel and 35 mm tires will pave the way -- so to speak.

I have an additional reason to ride in the woods today. I received some very challenging news about my father's health yesterday. I'm 47, and he's 77, so it doesn't come as a total surprise, but you're never fully ready to get that call. He's my Old Man, you know? He's going to live forever. Anyway, this means it's time for some serious nature therapy, and my prescription is to ride deep into the woods, on a new bike, on an old road, by a pretty little river.

How are you going to celebrate Beltaine, a day of passing and of rebirth? I'm going to find out what's down the double-track at the end of Enoch Sanford Road. Email me quick if you want to come along.