A new definition for the word “difficult”

I have a habit of challenging myself a bit too much sometimes. Perhaps it is hubris, or ego, or simply being over-confident about my own abilities. In any case, sometimes I end up in trouble for it. I know it when I am walking up a steep grade that humans shouldn’t consider as roads, or when I am wondering how or what I am going to do about the undertaking I have started.

Tour of the Battenkill was no different. According to the stats, it is a “tough” ride, with 75 miles, and just around 5,500 ft of climbing.  There are 13 dirt sections, spanning 19 miles. It doesn’t sound terrible.

It was.

After 3 solid days of rain, those dirt sections were really soft. On 23cc tires (the only tires that fit on my Cervélo S5), that means I was sinking in the mud. Between the mud, the muddy hills and the headwind, my power was being sapped like a sponge.

The first 20 miles were either completely, or relatively uphill. It seems like we didn’t stop climbing. I expected to be like Icarus, and see my bike start to melt as we rode too close to the sun. The hills seemed to go on forever, on dirt, at 10-17% for mile after mile.

By mile 37, the halfway point, I was spent. My back hurt. My legs were jelly. I was completely, and utterly cooked. Unfortunately, I was only halfway done. So I tried to see if maybe there was a cliff I could throw myself off of. Perhaps my bike would have some unsalvageable mechanical issue from the abuse of streaming down pock-marked dirt roads at 40 mph. Perhaps one of these cows would jump the fence and trample me. No such luck. I soft pedaled for a while, hoping to recover some energy.

On I rolled. Past farms, up hills, over ridges, through foreign territory. I questioned my own existence at some point. I wasn’t sure if I was still in the race. How did I know I didn’t die somewhere and this was hell; being forced to ride a grueling ride forever.

By mile 50 I resigned to finishing. I wanted to cry. I wanted to quit. No, I was going to finish! I trained for this! I rode in 22 degrees up mountains to be ready for this.

When some of the dirt hills kicked up to 21% grade, I got off to walk for a section, and pass people trying to ride up the hills. I am not proud of walking up a hill, but self-preservation was the main concern. At mile 65, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and then the rain started. It was a cold, biting rain. It stung my arms and face, but I put my head down, and found whatever power I had left in my legs. I threw myself at the storm. I poured every last shred of energy left in my body in to the pedals.

After 6 grueling hours, I rolled over the finish line. I didn’t realize how spent I was until I got off of the bike. I almost collapsed. I was delirious. I drank a quart of the most delicious chocolate milk in under 2 minutes.

It has been 4 days since the race, and I finally feel like I can talk about it.

Would I do it again? Yeah, probably.

 

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Commodities of cycling

Cycling is an active sport. The rider is active.  The bike is active. There are items involved in the activity that see a lot of wear and tear.  One key difference between a novice to the sport and someone who is seasoned deals with these items, and the regular wear and tear on them.  In no particular order:

Clothing:

Jerseys/Socks/Shorts/Bibs.  These are the roadie’s clothing.  The jerseys are the easiest to deal with. They rarely have wear-related issues. There will be an occasional zipper mishap, or even a ripped rear pocket from an over-aggressive stowage of food or a spare tube. A good jersey should last for years and years. As an aside I find that many jerseys are made from some type of miracle space aged material woven by elves. In a crash a few years ago, I had severe road rash covering about 60% of my back and shoulder. The jersey survived somehow without even a popped stitch or pilling. On the other end of the spectrum, you have socks. For some reason, I tend to go through these more than anything else. The toes wear out, they get grease stains from chain contact, mud stains from some type of clay that can’t be removed though normal physics from rainy rides, and so on.  The good news is that they are very cheap and easy to replace. In the middle of the  maintenance road you have bibs and shorts. These items probably see the most movement, the most friction and the hardest wear. Three to four years of continuous wear might spell the life of a good pair of shorts or bibs. The chamois needs attention, the seams might rip, the Lycra might lose some elasticity. In the end, if there is wear, replace it. Having poor clothing on a bike can mean the difference between a good ride and a painful one.

Accessories:

Helmet/Shoes/Gloves/Glasses

There is no argument that the helmet is the most important piece of equipment a cyclist can wear.  The Snell Foundation (The certifying body for bicycle helmet safety) recommends that every helmet is replaced every 5 years due to a breakdown in glues and resins. Helmets aren’t generally cheap, ranging from $40 all the way up to $200+. That being said, do you want to be in a crash and say “Gee, I should have already replaced this a few years ago”. Your helmet is your insurance policy. You can’t be too careful. Shoe replacement is dependent on a number of items, generally around comfort, use, conditions you ride in, etc. There is no hard and fast rule for this, but a good pair of shoes should last 5+ years with moderate use. Gloves, on the other hand are relatively cheap and see a lot of wear and tear. I tend to go through a pair of gloves every two to three years. Glasses are at NOT cheap, and can cost upwards of $150 without getting in to name brands. Should you replace them? Are they scratched? Are they comfortable? Do you still look cool enough?

Bike Parts:

Tires/Chain/Drivetrain components

Tires are by far the most replaceable item on a bike. A soft and grippy race tire might get you 750 miles on good road conditions, but will likely fail before that due to deep nicks and cuts. On the other hand, a good training tire could last you 3000 miles or more under the decent road conditions. Either way, you are talking about replacing them fairly often. The chain should be checked for stretch and be replaced at 1000-2000 miles depending on its condition.  The chain replacement is tied directly to the drivetrain components. If you replace your chain before the stretch is too much, you minimize the impact on the other components. If you neglect replacing the chain, you will begin to put excessive wear on the rear cassette and will need to replace it. The chain is cheaper than a cassette.

Perhaps I am a little obsessed over some of these items, and keep a journal of the mileage when I replaced certain items, but I find it compelling to know that tire brand “A” gave me 2000 miles through various summer and winter conditions while brand “B” only gave me 800 miles on summer roads. Additionally, knowing it has been 1000 miles since my last chain replacement will prompt me to begin checking it every month or so.

If you are like me though, and put as many, if not more miles on your bike than you do on your car, why wouldn’t you care for the bike and the parts as much as you do for your car? Think of these items like an oil change every 3000 miles.

Disclaimer** This is advice based on my experience. I am sure others have a different experiences based on how and where they ride.

 

A funny thing about suffering…

I have often written about suffering on the bike.  To me at least, suffering is where you have pushed yourself beyond the comfort zone, in to discomfort. As you wave at the discomfort zone in your rear view mirror, you have begun to enter the pain cave.  If you stay in the pain cave long enough, you will be introduced to suffering.  There are a few ways to tell if you are truly suffering:

  1. Are you having thoughts about doing anything else at that moment, including stopping, walking, sleeping, pretending to fall just to rest?
  2. Are you having these thoughts every few seconds?
  3. Do you consider that what your are doing might not be possible?
  4. Are you weighing the option of defeat?
  5. Are you questioning your own sanity?
  6. Are you hallucinating?

Ok, maybe not hallucinating, hopefully. This past Sunday an old riding buddy wanted to get back out there, and we picked one of the few days we have had in between our weekly Nor’easters. It was cold,  22° cold but we were committed.  The ride is set for a moderate distance, about 45 miles or so, but to include some large climbs.

I have a healthy respect for this route. 45 miles, 4,000+ ft of climbing. One climb over 4 miles which tops out over 16%. My buddy might have overestimated where we are in the season, and I was not going to correct him. It is a challenge. How bad could it be? Famous last words.

The biggest climb starts about 15 miles in, so we are both warm from the climbing so far. He heads off up the hill, and I keep back a bit, trying to stay out of the pain cave. When the gradient kicked up past 10% consistently, I realize I am suffering. Lungs are burning, legs feel like lead, heart is pounding, sweat is streaming off of me, and freezing immediately as I climb past the snow line. And then it happened. I realized this is awesome. Sure, I might end up with frostbite on my toes, or hypothermia, but this is great.

I am in all of this agony, and I am alone on this remote road in the mountains, the only sounds are the nearby brook, my own breathing the sound of my pulse in my ears. I know I will make it to the top (but I think about stopping, walking, falling off when the gradient ticks up beyond 15%). I keep turning the pedals.

The rest of the ride was more hills, albeit smaller, but after 40 miles of a hilly route, even a speed bump seems like a challenge. My lungs hurt from the cold air and my body is fatigued from the effort of the day.

I’ve now had 24 hours to reflect on this frigid, painful ride, where I put out more effort on the bike than I have in a long time. I suffered both mentally and physically, but through suffering we discover who we are and what we are made of.

This was my friend’s text later that day:

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Sometimes, it just hurts

Spring training is just that. Training. It isn’t necessarily fun, it is fraught with challenges, the weather is iffy at best, and it hurts.

Alex and I went out yesterday for about a 50 mile ride. It was a cold day, about 40 degrees or so. We started later than expected. Just 5 miles out, Alex falls in some road scree, and I crash in to him. We both go do down. Battered, bruised and nothing broken, we recollect our belongings scattered across the road, check the bikes, and saddle up.

From here on we were slower, more careful, and rightfully so. The roads are terrible this winter.  Pot holes that you would need a ladder to climb out of, completely eroded shoulders, limbs and trees sticking in to the road from the recent storms. It was a challenge to say the least. Drivers were less considerate than I have seen in a long time, buzzing us too close, honking or yelling. It was almost miserable.

Nearing the end, I was spent. We had a bit of climbing to go, and my battered and bruised body was refusing to cooperate. We got back later than I thought we would, and with numb toes from the cold, I got in the shower only to discover that the hot water wasn’t working. Oh, great, a cold shower after a cold hard ride. An hour or so later, hot water is fixed, I am warm and laying on the couch, the crash pain and the difficult ride setting in.

I doesn’t sound fun, right? But it is spring training. Those 55 miles will go a long way towards success later in the year. New York this time of year is known to be cold and damp. With another Nor’easter on the way tomorrow, I hope the roads are clear for next weekend. I might need a different route though, one with less traffic.

Burning out, and rising from the ashes

Anyone who has followed my blog over the years saw the same thing I did. I loved to ride. I obsessed with training. I signed up and rode some really big rides. I saw a lot of success on the bike, and suffered just as much. I embraced the suffering as part of the sport, but then something strange happened – I looked for new levels of suffering. I began to believe that suffering defined the sport. I joined rides I knew I could hardly achieve in my best condition, and I prepared poorly for them. The result was that I felt religious-levels of suffering.

I burned out. I lost passion. I started to ride a little again, with friends, for fun. I didn’t push hard. I refused to suffer. I would spend a Saturday with perfect weather sleeping in, eating waffles, hanging out, BBQ’ing for dinner. My bike all but forgotten.

Every New Year, I would pledge to make it a better year, and last year I was closer. I had a strong spring, but the momentum died. People were busy, no one was around to ride with, and riding alone felt like suffering.

Now here we are. Like many others, I have to drop some weight and I am well along my way. I have signed up for a few rides, like the Tour of Battenkill, but nothing along the lines of epic suffering I experienced. I have a few centuries planned, but not back to back like I did in previous years.

I don’t need this year to be my best year ever. I need this year to be a little better than last year, and I am along my way to make that happen. As an example of the above, I found this great video online by VeganCyclist. This is absolutely, 100% a relate-able story to my cycling so far.

An Early Spring…

It appears for now at least that on the east coast of the US, we are going to have an early spring.  I am sure we are in for more snow at some point and shouldn’t be lulled in to a false sense of security too soon.  For now though, enjoy it while it lasts.

Two days ago it was 70 degrees and sunny, so I did the only reasonable thing. I took the day off and went for a ride. It wasn’t long, and it wasn’t epic, but it WAS EPIC!!!! I discovered some new roads, and had the complete joy of being alone on quiet country roads, only the sound of my own breath, the sunlight streaming though the still-bare trees, rolling past reservoirs and lakes that are still frozen on their surface, seeing wildlife wake up from the long cold dark of winter.

Riding is like falling in love. No matter how much you think you know about it, you aren’t quite prepared for how much you love it every time.  I suppose that same truth could be extended to any passion, but in my opinion cycling amplifies it through its extension of euphoric freedom and sense of flying.

Goodbye 2016

According to valuable and reputable sources (the Internet of course), 2016 by all accounts was a disaster. It was fraught with bad news, celebrity deaths, hard choices, media mishaps and fiery presidential debates. We won’t even discuss the riots, looting, court cases, war, famine, etc. The list goes on and on, and so do the Internet Memes about the horrors of 2016, and how 2017 will be a fresh start.

I don’t necessarily buy in to the hoopla about that, but I can guess that there is a sigh of relief as 2016 drew to a close and Mariah Carey dropped the mic at the New Years Eve ball. Additionally, I guess there are probably a lot of New Years Resolutions. I forgot to make any. In fact, I fell asleep laying on the couch, my wife in the love seat and daughter on the recliner. At ten after midnight my wife woke up and said “Hey, we all missed it!”. True story, none of us stayed awake.

But with that done and over with, my goals haven’t changed. Lose weight, ride more, be a better person, end world hunger, invent(ed) a time machine, and  putting on underwear BEFORE I put on pants. (I really have to write that one down sometimes)

My advice to all of you? Keep it up. Whatever it is you do well, keep doing what you’re doing. For those things you do poorly, fix it or quit doing it. Insanity is defined by doing the same actions over and over expecting different results.

For you, I will try to be the sanest person I know.