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


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.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


On the way into work this morning, I stopped off, as I occasionally do, at my favorite little stretch of the Swift River, studded with lacy trees, briskly running a glassy, cool green. Five minutes sitting by one particular noisy riffle there always lifts my spirits.

Friends will sometimes disappoint you, even let you fall, hard. Pivotal, beloved parents fall ill and face death. Clients can come in one after the other, complaining, and looking to lay blame. Tornadoes can even lay waste in the middle of bucolic New England. But the river, the water, pushes on and on. The burbling, glooping and whooshing have been going on in that one tiny spot for ten thousand years -- that's maybe four hundred thousand perfect spring mornings like this one, cool breezes in the glade, warm sun peeking through the leaves, river singing its song a few feet away.

Life goes sour for a time, but the river persists. Beauty persists. Life persists.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pick Your Poison

An overcast, warmish-cool morning, with peeks of sun. Legs feel surprisingly strong after Monday's extravaganza. That's always a treat after an epic ride -- the heap of fitness that's been added to the pile. To keep it at recovery level, I did a photo safari, and came up with these shots. Amazing what you can find in your own neighborhood if you just open your eyes and try a new road here and there.

Since the Memorial Day sufferfest, I've wanted to do nothing but ride more and more. Not sure I want to know what that says about me.

Til next time, keep 'em turnin'!