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.