The comeback Jackson

May 16, 2015 § 26 Comments

I have never made any money riding bicycles but I have sure lost a lot.

The worst ride I ever did was a coffee ride seven years ago with Chief and Caron. Mrs. WM had given me a brand new $20 bill for my allowance and it was burning a hole in my pocket. We were headed over to San Pedro and I was bragging about all the coffee and muffins I was going to buy them, because in Pedro a Jackson will get you a lot of muffins and when you’re with the Chief a lot is how many you’re going to need.

We were screaming down the descent at the end of Western before it had fallen off into the ocean and I reached into my back pocket for my cap. We got to the coffee shop and I made a big flourish. “This is all together,” I said.

Chief and Caron had been giving me shit the whole way there. “I’ll believe you have a fresh Jackson when I see it,” said Chief.

“Better make sure we take pictures so we can prove you actually paid for something,” added Caron.

I dug into my jersey pocket but the Jackson was gone. They laughed as hard as I turned red. “I really had one,” I said.

“Sure you did, pal. We believe you.” Then Chief sorted through his hundreds and pulled out a Jackson and paid. “Let’s go sit outside and you can tell us what that Jackson looked like.”

“I’m not sitting outside. I’m gonna go find that fucking Jackson.” Their laughter trailed as I raced away. I got back to Western, got off my bike, and walked the entire length of road and back again, twice. No Jackson. After half an hour I gave up and rode back. Chief and Caron laughed even harder.

“You find that Jackson?” Caron asked.

“Even if he had had one, which is a highly doubtful proposition, in the fine city of San Pedro it would have lay unclaimed for somewhere between 1 and 1.5 seconds.”

They have given me shit about that Jackson for seven years. Every time I see him, Chief asks if I’ve found that Jackson, and it makes me mad all over again. That coffee ride plain old sucked, and today’s did, too. It never rains in California except when it does, and today it did.

I put on the cape and leg warmers and booties and beanie and gloves and went out for three miserable hours. There wasn’t another bike or walker on the entire bike path from Redondo to Playa del Rey. My bike was covered in sludge and sand, and my hands and feet went numb. In El Segundo it dumped and my shoes filled up with water, cold water.

Before I moved to California and became weak I was a tough guy. Fields used to say that everyone can finish in the rain, but only the hard ones start in it. I always make a point of going out when it’s nasty because it happens so seldom. It takes me back to my roots of heat, cold, sun, wind, and rain.

When I got to Malaga Cove I had to decide whether to take the easy way home up Via del Monte or to do the Cove wall, Paseo del Mar, and Lunada Bay. “Fuggit,” I said and took the right-hander down to the bottom of the wall. When I got to Lunada Bay I had another choice, the easier Donut route or the steep and nasty alley. I hooked right for the alley.

My rear wheel was skipping and I was really cold and miserable and wondering why I hadn’t made the beeline climb home. What the hell was wrong with me?

I popped out of the alley and something caught my eye. It was green and wet and half-folded over in the gutter.

I jumped off my bike and picked it up, then I did a little dance before tucking it safely into my jersey. I grinned all the way home and even threw in the gnarly Monaco climb instead of taking the easier ascent up Hawthorne. I got my payment for doing the hard ride the hard way. The comeback Jackson.

END

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A hundred or so down

May 15, 2015 § 42 Comments

Nothing is less inspiring the tales of already-skinny people about how they got skinnier. What inspires us are the people who came to cycling as way to deal with major health problems, and through cycling overcame them. One of those people is a South Bay regular, Dan K.

Below is his story, mostly in his own words, with a dab here and there of mine:

I was 250 lbs and in trouble. Every December, my doctor said the same thing. Cholesterol, high. Blood pressure, high. Fatty liver disease, just around the bend. And if you think it’s terrible having your kids say, “Dad died from a heart attack,” imagine them saying “Dad died of fatty liver disease.”

My doc would tell me I could carry on and get ready for a lifetime regimen of drugs, or make a change. I’d dutifully hop on the elliptical trainer, lose a few pounds, and then with Christmas and the New Year come roaring back to “normal.”

By 2011 I’d injured my back and had constant sciatic pain. I could hardly sleep. I also had periodic blinding pain in my side. I made a special trip to the doctor, got some codeine and PT, and went back to functioning with a legal Rx drug dependency. But I realized after three months that this was no way to live the rest of my life. So I finally decided, truly decided, to change.

I’m an engineer so I started with the numbers, and that’s ultimately where I finished. I knew that the most important thing was not what I weighed today (can’t change that) or what I will weigh tomorrow (can’t really change that), but the trend line, i.e. what I will weigh next week or next month. Next month is something I can change. Incremental changes today could push the trend line of my weight and of my health in a positive direction. I knew I wouldn’t be healthy next month, but I knew I could be healthier.

I also realized that willpower is a finite resource, but it’s also like a muscle. In order to improve it, you have to stress your willpower towards the point of failure. The muscle and the will become stronger, but only if you exercise them.

Next, I challenged myself. I set a goal to start swimming for at least 30 minutes a day, every day, and to avoid eating junk and highly refined foods. The first day in the pool was a challenge. I don’t think I did more than seven laps. It was awful. But I came back the next morning and did eight. Within a few weeks, I was swimming farther and longer.

What’s key is that I didn’t turn myself around overnight. This was no 30-day success story.

Did I go swimming every day? No.

Did I eat healthy food every day? No.

Did I move in a positive direction more days than not? ABSOLUTELY. This was crucial because my goal was to move the trend, not to reach some magical end-point. In a sense, I made my objective goal—exercise every day–harder than my real goal, which was to simply move the trend line.

When I saw the doctor six weeks after staring my “new” life in mid-December of 2011, things were better. I was down to, um, 235 lbs. BP was down a bit.  Liver was still chubby, but perhaps not as fatty. Yet I was still on the wrong side of the healthy line and I was still in pain. So the doctor renewed my prescriptions and encouraged me. More importantly, I was able to encourage myself because I had entered the magical positive feedback loop. I could see that the trend line was heading in the right direction, and I wanted to keep it up.

My first bike ride on August 14, 2012, on a crappy old mountain bike, was 4.5 miles in 30 minutes over some “hills” near home. I think my heart rate must have been 190, and I thought I was going die. But I went out again on the 16th and cracked out nine whole miles. That Sunday I rode to the Strand and up to the end of Manhattan for a whopping 16 miles. I was slow but I was having fun. By the middle of the September I had made it to Ballona Creek, then Venice, then Santa Monica by October.

A year later my body was in a better place. My weight was 220. My liver enzymes were “good.” My cholesterol was normal, my back pain was gone, and I was off the prescription drugs.

I celebrated, bought a road bike, and started going farther and faster. Eventually I found Seth’s blog and started riding in PV. In February 2013 I pedaled out to where one of my aunts lives, and made it halfway up Hawthorne Blvd. I thought I was going to die, and got a ride home. A week later I sucked it up, made it around the peninsula, up and over the Switchbacks (13:48) all the while thinking the climb would never end. I’d occasionally see a mini-peloton go by and I’d try to latch on, though I always seemed to blow up in 15 seconds.  But I was getting stronger.

In July of 2013 I was down fifty pounds to a “svelte” 200. I gutted up and took the plunge, telling myself “It’s time for NPR!” I still remember getting blown off the back on Vista del Mar during the neutral rollout. The next time I blew up on Pershing Hill, the first earnest surge of the ride. A week later I got axed on Pershing proper. Then, I played roman candle on the overpass, followed by exploding a week later on Lap 1.

The whole time people helped and encouraged me. Manslaughter would yell at me to pedal hard and get back on. The Wily Greek pushed me physically as I was coming unhitched, numerous times. Eventually I stuck on the whole NPR from tip to tail. You can talk about climbing the highest mountain all you want. For me, toughing out that ride from start to finish was huge … and I did it!

For the next 18 months I stabilized around 195, gaining muscle mass and losing fat. I ran a marathon, rode some centuries, and did some epic climbs. I’ve gone from that to a current weight of about 175, and in addition to the NPR I also do the Flog Ride, and even completed the 2015 Belgian Waffle Ride.

How would I sum it up?

  1. Lie to yourself. Set a goal harder than what you need to achieve so you have some room to screw up.
  2. Set an exercise schedule and a calorie budget and follow it, accepting imperfection in all things!
  3. Follow the weekly-monthly-annual trend, not the daily fluctuation.
  4. Mix endurance rides with beatdowns like the NPR, Flog Ride, or Donut.
  5. Ride with wankers who are faster and stronger than you!
  6. Accept that everything hurts the first time, but that each time you do the same thing it gets a little easier. Or perhaps you just go a little faster, which is even better.
  7. Use free resources out there! Check out the “Hacker Diet,” a free e-book and an engineer’s guide to weight loss, and MyFitnessPal, which can help you know how many calories you’re downing at a sitting.
  8. Do what you enjoy! If you hate the activity you will quit.
  9. Start slowly!
  10. Find a peer group. Most cyclist types are nut jobs and love new people to hang out with, partly because more people means a higher probability someone will show up for the ride, and partly because they’ll enjoy breaking your legs.
  11. Real results will take a while.
  12. Changes occur inside before the things that everyone sees on the outside!

END

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The tired radicals

May 10, 2015 § 38 Comments

On Saturday morning I rolled up to the Manhattan Beach Pier and was pleasantly surprised to find a large group of riders who had made the 6:30 AM commitment to pedal north for a couple of hours, take the full lane on Pacific Coast Highway, and then lodge an informal protest at Malibu City Hall regarding the illegal ticketing of cyclists on PCH.

By the time we arrived we had added another ten riders or so, and a handful had only ridden part of the way. The pre-ride publicity was pushed by Greg Seyranian of Big Orange, and I got a lot of help from Mario Obejas at the Beach Cities Cycling Club, as he invited me to come speak to the group about our protest and included ride information in the club’s newsletter. I also greatly appreciated the efforts of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations, who sent their president from San Diego, Jim Baross, and his henchman from San Clemente, Pete van Nuys.

Don Ward of Wolfpack Hustle also put the word out on Facebook and Twitter, and a random and incomplete list of people who showed up includes Dan Kroboth, Steven Thorpe, Robert Cisneros, David Huntsman, Mikki Ozawa, Tamar Toister, Debbie Sullivan, Michael Barraclough, Pete van Nuys, Gary Cziko, Jim Baross, Eric Richardson, Bob Kellogg, Peter Richardson, Connie Perez, Alx Bns, Mark Jacobs, Don Young, and Les Borean.

The day before the ride I got a call from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The lieutenant and I spent close to an hour talking about cycling on PCH. Although the department understands the right of cyclists to control the lane when there are debris or other hazards that make riding as far to the right as practicable unsafe, the bone of contention continues to be what constitutes a substandard width lane, because it is this exception to the FTR law that cyclists use to get away from the fog line and out into the full lane on PCH.

Our position has always been that the statute, CVC 21202(a) is plain. It defines a substandard width lane as one in which a bike and a car cannot travel safely side by side. Some of the sheriff’s deputies believe that on PCH this is a matter of judgment and interpretation, whereas regular cyclists who simply want to follow the law insist that it’s no more subject to interpretation than the rules governing stopping at traffic lights.

Simple math shows beyond any reasonable dispute that the substandard width exception applies on PCH. Why? Because nowhere on the stretch from Santa Monica to the Ventura County Line do the lanes exceed 11 feet in width, 12 at the absolute most. The width of a cyclist, when you add in one foot for variation of the line of travel, is about 4 feet. California law now requires cars to pass bikes with a minimum 3-foot buffer. This puts the effective width of the cyclist at about 7 feet. The width of a car or truck, including its mirrors, is at least 6 feet.

6 + 7 = 13, and 13 > 12. In words, a 12-foot lane isn’t wide enough to accommodate 13 feet of bike and car. And of course along many sections of PCH, the lanes are only barely 10 feet wide.

We took the lane as soon as we exited onto PCH at Chautauqua, and the entire morning we saw only two squad cars, neither of which paid us any attention whatsoever. It’s my opinion that the upper management at the sheriff’s department agrees with our interpretation of the law, but I also think there are deputies on the line who simply don’t accept the right of cyclists to take the lane no matter what the law says. They see a group of riders who aren’t cowering in the gutter and think, “That can’t be legal.” But during our ride we got nothing but courtesy from the law, which was kind of the point: The ride was staged as a protest against a ticket issued to a Big Orange rider several months ago for failing to ride in the bike lane, and at the time there were no bike lanes on PCH.

At Temescal Canyon we took a break, waited for the West Side riders to show up, and tweeted/facebagged our protest ride info to the Lost Hills Substation, the City of Malibu, and the CHP.

The entire ride from Temescal to Cross Creek, about six miles, we got honked at exactly once and were chopped exactly once — by an asshole on a motorcycle, no less. I always find it hilarious and pathetic when the second-most vulnerable users on the road treat us with aggression and hatred.

Although getting our message across to law enforcement and to the City of Malibu was the main purpose of the ride, as it turns out the real impact of this type of cycling is the message it sends to cagers. Hundreds of motorists were educated this morning about the rights of cyclists to take the lane on PCH–it was a lesson worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in radio spots or TV ads. Forcing drivers to see cyclists in the lane and accept the reality that as with a slow moving bus or cement mixer you have to slow down, put on your blinker, change lanes, and pass on the left, are the most important results of this type of activity.

Which leads to a couple of other observations: First, of the couple of hundred cyclists we saw on PCH that morning, none was in the lane, all were huddled in the gutter. Several times we even had riders catch up to us, sit on for a few minutes, and then come racing around on the left, only to dive back into the gutter. Whereas law enforcement seems to be coming around to our point of view, judging from the cyclists on PCH, most riders prefer to be entirely out of the roadway. This is where the actions of large groups like La Grange, Big Orange, and semi-organized rides such as NOW and Kettle need to continue pounding home the message that the lane is legal and it’s safe. In fact, when I did the NOW ride a few weeks ago it was amazing to see the entire 70-person peloton crammed up onto the shoulder.

The most extreme example of the cower mentality was on the BWR a few weeks ago, when riders refused to take the lane even when protected by a police-escorted, full rolling enclosure. Old habits die hard.

On the other hand, you can’t force people to do what they don’t feel comfortable doing, and the main point is that riders who understand that they’re safer in the lane now have a pretty strong reason to take it without too much fear of harassment. Even as I’m writing this the California Highway Patrol from West Valley tweeted to say that they agreed cyclists can ride in the lane as long as they’re not impeding traffic.

A final point was recognizing that despite all of the advocacy and fundraising by the numerous bicycling organizations in Southern California, the most effective thing you can do is to get a group together and take the lane. All the emails and fundraising campaigns in the world don’t speak as loudly as 25 riders legally riding in the lane.

Related to that there’s this issue: Getting riders to commit to a Saturday or Sunday of cycling advocacy is tough because the weather’s nice, the early morning roads are relatively empty, and would you rather get in your workout with your pals … or try to change the world with a little two-wheeled advocacy? Most people will choose the former, but for those who took the time to make themselves seen and heard on PCH, thank YOU!

END

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Letter to a buddy

May 5, 2015 § 36 Comments

Hey, Buddy

Very bummed to hear about your fall. The worst thing about crashing is that it makes you think about crashing. However, there’s a cure. “Get back on the horse” isn’t just an old adage.

I was even more bummed to know you’re questioning the whole cycling endeavor. I ride my bike fully cognizant of the risks and I embrace them. Those risks – death and catastrophic injury – are definitely worth it because the alternative is … what? Golf?

Pedaling lazily down the bike path isn’t my thing, and from what I’ve seen, it’s not yours, either. Our mutual friend’s terror-stricken approach to bicycles (only rides by himself, restricts his cycling to ITT’s on the track) is an equally unacceptable compromise.

In fact, I ride and race precisely because there is an element of danger to it. It is the danger that crowds out complacency and boredom. I’ve had some hard falls too; we all have. Track crash in 2010, head splat on the NPR in Oct. 2013, splat on the back of my skull doing a wheelie in 2014 up Ganado (cracked the helmet and got a “little” concussion), falls in ‘cross races in 2012, ‘13, and ‘14, and a high speed crash on the BWR two weeks ago that miraculously didn’t deliver me to the ER.

That doesn’t even begin to count the thousands of close calls with motorists and the thousands of close calls I’ve had in packs over the years, nor does it include the race crashes and road accidents I’ve had in the 30 years prior to 2010.

I get where you’re coming from about avoiding the dangerous stuff, but the problem with limiting yourself to safe rides is that there’s no such thing. You can only pick less and less congested,  less amped-up situations, and the problem with that is that your skill level quickly deteriorates to the level of whatever your average ride happens to be. I’m not an especially good bike handler, so I need the challenging scenarios to stay sharp, or rather to slow the inevitable rate of decline.

One guy I know in his late 80’s only cycles on the bike path because his hearing, vision, and reaction time aren’t good enough to handle riding in traffic. I’m not there yet, and neither are you.

Cycling for me is more than an outlet. It is a source of connection to social, political, philosophical, economic, and personal journeys, 99% of which have nothing to do with cycling. It is a switch or conduit and one that is well worth the risk. It has helped me in my struggle with alcoholism and keeps my nose to the grindstone with regard to work. It’s been a passport and an instant friendship potion.

That said, I don’t descend the local weekend slugfests with others, certainly not with groups. Some riders are crazy, or bad, or simply unable to control their bikes at the high speeds at which they insist on descending. I’ll go somewhere else rather than be anywhere near people who are truly hazardous. Certain riders are going to harm you if you give them a chance.

You ride intelligently and with a high level of awareness, and as you know, the more you ride, the more you will fall down. Isolation is no savior; our other mutual buddy who’s the ultimate road hermit still had that terrible accident on the track a couple of years back that put him in the ICU.

I’m not encouraging you to keep riding, but I’m not discouraging you, either. Riding seems to have a very important place in your life, and if the only thing you have is a broken bike, some rash, and soreness, then HTFU. The bike is replaceable. You’re not a crash magnet, so don’t let one event overshadow all else. We know plenty of cyclists who have had catastrophic accidents and they keep on pedaling because the alternative is so very unattractive.

I also get the thing with your family and their wish that you dial it back. As for your kids, unfortunately it’s not their decision to make, and parents who live for their kids don’t, in my opinion, make very impressive role models. Moreover, your life is much more endangered by sitting behind the wheel of your car than it is by riding your bike, and even if it weren’t, quality matters.

Glad the worst you got were some bumps, road rash, busted equipment, and a splash of self-doubt. But unless I’m missing something … get back on the horse.

Seth

END

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Double douchery

May 3, 2015 § 8 Comments

One common thread that runs through every German novel I’ve ever read is that what I think I understood was completely wrong. However, thanks to its brevity, simple vocabulary, and translucent prose, I’m pretty sure I got this much right out of Herman Hesse’s novella “Siddhartha.”

When asked by his prospective employer what he could do, since he’d spent his life wandering around not bathing and doing mostly nothing, Siddhartha answered, “I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.”

Now there may be a better mantra for a bike racer, but if there is I’ve never heard it.

Age lays you low if you like to race. You’re not only not as good once as you ever were, you ultimately reach a point where you’re not even as generally bad as you once were, but generally so, or even worse. The decline is vicious, steep, inevitable, and cruel.

On the plus side, plunging recovery, waning strength, and diluted pain tolerance have forced me to adapt since I ride so much with riders who are so much younger. It is shameful to admit, but I have begun resorting to tactics. Sneaky, wheel-sucking, despicable tactics that are the signature of every card-carrying bike douche and, parenthetically, every successful one.

My only defense is that I have come to it late whereas most of my peers, and whole swathes of younger riders, have never known anything else. And to its credit, tactical douchery does have its rewards.

Take the most recent Thursday Flog Ride. Although the Wily Greek had temporarily vacated for the Tour of the Gila, NJ Pedal Beater was there along with a very small handful of other riders. NJ’s approach is to go out so hard that he immediately drops everyone. Failing that, he deliberately tries to kill you. More about that later.

On the first lap NJPB made short work of half the small group with a repeated series of attacks so vicious and fast, and unleashed at such difficult points in the ride, that after a few minutes the only remaining victims were me, EA Sports Inc., King Harold, and Uglystroke. As an aside, NJPB had done the 140-mile Belgian Waffle Ride the previous Sunday in a scorching 7:11, winning his category and putting him in the top-20 overall even though he essentially time-trialed the entire route.

I knew that any exposure to the wind would be fatal, particularly since NJPB is tiny and provides minimal draft to begin with. I also knew that his vastly superior recovery and excessive tininess meant that any time at the front by me would be rewarded with more searing attacks. Then I factored in this detail: I’d never beaten him on this ride because the handful of times we’d reached the final steeps of 18-percent Via la Cuesta together, he had dusted me off like an energetic maid with a feather broom.

This, of course, is the iron law of cycling: The best predictor of future results is past performance.

So I sat. By the end of the second lap it was just me, Uglystroke, and NJPB, whose attacks had diminished a bit in frequency and ferocity. However, furious at being unable to shake us, NJPB took the approach of “kill what you can’t beat” by insanely attacking into the two wet 180-degree hairpins that are frequently populated with giant peacocks, not to mention oncoming traffic if you cross the yellow line.

The desire to kill people who you ostensibly pretend to like is interesting because it tends to nullify the “people you like” part of the statement, especially when done repeatedly. NJPB was unconcerned with the fact that after each descent we easily floated back to his rear wheel; the goal seemed simply to either terrify us (it succeeded) or crash us out (it failed).

On the fifth lap I tested him with two surges which he easily followed. Then I returned to the not-especially-draftable rear wheel and waited for the finale. Incredibly, when we hit Via la Cuesta he crumpled, something I’d never seen, much less imagined. I sped away, enjoying the fruits of my tactical douchery, never quite believing I’d hold it to the end.

And perhaps I didn’t. He recovered and sprinted up the final 21-percent mini-wall such that he either beat me by a tire or I beat him. In any case, I marked it down as a success to sneakiness.

Two days later a similar game played itself out on the Saturday Donut Ride, where I’ve never beaten or even followed 27-year-old Colin Dong, a Ph.D. dental student who weighs twelve pounds and goes uphill, shall we say, quickly.

On the big climb, a 20-minute-ish effort that really begins in Portuguese Bend and finishes atop the radar domes, I sat. And sat. And sat. All on Colin’s wheel, and briefly on Chris’s before he swung over.

As the pain intensified I simply reminded myself of Siddhartha: I can think, and my plan is to hunker down and suck wheel and don’t counter when he slows and don’t let him trick me onto the front. I can wait, so I simply have to wait for the end. There will be no glory other than the glory of waiting. And I can fast, which, over the past two months, has allowed me to shed enough blubber so that I’ve gone from 165 to 155.

As we hit the final turn, of course, I lost the ability to think as my plan turned to “Quit now.”

I lost my ability to wait as I realized that waiting even one more second wasn’t worth the collapsing pain box.

I retained my ability to fast, but that was only because I’d forgotten to pack a gel.

Colin sprinted away over the final 300 or so yards, but I’d finished with him in sight, and nearly in reach.

Douchery works.

END

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The great empty

May 1, 2015 § 35 Comments

The verdict is in on power meters, Strava, and computerized ride data. They make you faster.

A professionally designed power-based training plan, scrupulously followed, and including adaptations for the times when you are sick, injured, or beset by the things otherwise known as life, will turn you into someone who turns the pedals faster.

Faster.

Faster.

Faster.

What it will also do — and the verdict is in on this as well — is make you unhappier.

If you are a professional, that is a meaningless consequence. Your sponsors don’t give you money to ensure your happiness, they do it to ensure your success, which theoretically leads to better sales. But what about YOU?

I have three case studies, not including my own, that I’ve followed over the last six years. Here they are. Judge for yourself.

Case Study #1: The happy racer

This guy got into cycling from marathoning and “high risk” action sports. When he came onto the scene he fit the profile we’ve all seen, zooming from freddie to feared hammer in a single season. We’ll call him Tom. Tom rode his bicycle with abandon and zest, and saw nothing wrong with Mile 1 breakaways on the Saturday Donut Ride, breakaways that sometimes succeeded but that always inflicted carnage on those left behind, not to mention those who foolishly tried to follow his wheel.

He rode instinctively, and though his instincts were often wrong, occasionally they were right and they put him on the podium. More importantly, the act of riding was an act of irrepressible joy. Win or lose he embodied the same pleasure that you can find in any little kid zooming full speed down the local hill. Not that little kids are allowed to do that anymore, of course.

As part of his “progression,” Tom’s engineering mind made technology-based training a natural area of investigation. He “computered up,” and over a few seasons mastered the fundamentals of power-based training. His natural ability, an already sharpened knife, became a razor. His grasp of training and innate desire to share made him a lightning rod for new riders in his club, with whom he gladly shared training information, workout plans, and swapped training data.

After about three years, Tom no longer took risks on group rides by attacking early. He became calculating and efficient. If the pace exceeded his training targets, he sat up. If it wasn’t hard enough, he went off and did something by himself. Tom became a slave to his data. It made him faster, but it also turned the freedom of cycling into the prison of golf, where you are constantly reminded that there are absolute numbers beyond which you can never progress. Tom’s beauty, which had always been the bright light in his eyes, had dimmed.

Enslaved to the numbers, when Tom had a really bad year with some significant medical problems that ruined his carefully regulated train-by-the-numbers approach, instead of digging into the mental bucket, bucking up and rallying, he began doing something he’d never done before: throwing in the towel, DNF-ing, quitting. The thing that had always sustained him, his mental attitude and his enjoyment of the sport, had been replaced with numbers and data that had no real strength to carry him through the rough spots other than their unflinching message of inadequacy and defeat. The last time we rode together he was still struggling.

Case Study #2: Escape from New York

I’ll call this guy Snake Pliskin. He was whatever type is more aggro than Type A … Type A positive? He also came from a running background and migrated to cycling when his knees gave out. Mentally tough and physically gifted, for Snake the act of riding a bike was the act of riding away from the stresses of work.

Snake had a grind-em-up attitude to riding. He didn’t race but he approached every ride as a competition. And though he was often put to the sword on long climbs, when placed in his element of flat or undulating road, preferably with a stiff crosswind, he could put paid to all but the very best of the best. Snake finished his rides spent and satisfied, regardless of whether he was the last man standing. The act of full commitment and giving it his all recharged him for the real battles that remained to be fought in his workaday world.

For him, cycling was the beautiful escape.

Somewhere along the way he became a complete Strava addict. Multiple devices to record rides, pages and pages of KOM’s, and a ferocious response on the bike to those who took his trophies. Yet the more he buried himself in the world of Strava, the more he opened himself up to attack, as countless riders took shots — many of which were successful — at his virtual winnings. This of course drove him to ride more, ride harder, create more segments, and further extend his pages of KOM’s.

Along the way cycling mutated from a refuge into a prison. With everything measured and quantified, with every foot of roadway a possible place to take a KOM or lose one, he spiraled from the incredible pressures of his job to the equally crushing pressures of riding his bicycle.

As with Tom, Snake’s numbers told him that however good he was, on some segment, on some day, someone else was better. The awfulness was reflected in the fact that not only had Snake’s escape become a wearying burden, but it was now on full public display. Unlike the real world, where your buddy kicks your ass, rubs your nose in it, and you remind him of the drubbing you gave him the week before, Snake was locked in Strava kudo hell, where anonymous people with strange nicknames have the same right to comment as your closest buddies who suffered stroke for stroke all the way up the climb, and where the interaction is a binary “kudos” or an “uh-oh.”

The humanity of friends trading jokes and trading pulls, laughing at the funny shit that happens on a ride, commiserating about life, sharing triumphs, and making fun of each other’s foibles had been reduced to a fake interface of 0’s and 1’s artfully designed to imitate real people, real relationships, real lives. The escape was now the cage and it wasn’t even gilded.

The last time I rode with Snake he crushed everyone, grimly.

Case Study #3: The old school

I will call her Harriet. She had been around forever and was still dominating the local women’s race scene into her late 40’s, outsmarting and intimidating women half her age. She eschewed data and Strava and wattage-based training plans. Harriet’s MO was simple: ride and train with the fast men. She couldn’t beat them, but she could hang on and it made her strong enough to beat her peers, even when they were young enough to be her daughters.

She paid no attention to technology and refused to join Strava. She’d ridden as a pro and knew three things: how to train, how to win, and how to have fun.

And in her own way, her pleasure in riding a bicycle remained as vibrant and undiminished as it ever was. The last time I rode with her she gapped me out, shouted at me for running a red light, and dusted me in the sprint. Then she pedaled gaily off to work, ready to start the day.

This great empty is hardly confined to cycling. It repeats itself in myriad ways for modern Americans whether they ride bikes or not. When people think about the rise of the machines they imagine cyborgs and androids and sci-fi creations, but those aren’t the machines that rule us. The machines are pieces of software that are piped to us by phones, Garmins, desktops, and laptops, they are algorithms that have reduced the complexity of life and human interaction into 0’s and 1’s.

And they dominate us because at its most basic form, life is that simple. But who wants that level of simplicity? Isn’t life better with messiness, with the nonlinear slop and jostle of emotions and feelings and real human contact?

Of course it is, and that’s the big lie that the great empty has to spend billions to paper over. When your emotions are tugged by the 0’s and 1’s that show the precious pug or the newborn of your best friend or the KOM on that 200-yard bike path segment (tailwind, natch), something deep inside is left empty and unfulfilled, the zipless fuck of the digital age. How do I know? Because after the little jolt you have to hit refresh or like or kudo or scroll eternally and in desperation down the feed.

Answers I don’t have, but this I know — when you ride a bicycle untethered to 0’s and 1’s, you may not become any faster. But you will, over time, become happier and more at peace with the ragged, raging, sloppy and jostling world that, despite the best PR efforts of Facebag, Google, SRM, and Strava, hasn’t yet learned that reality is denser and more complex than two simple numbers.

END

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This town ain’t big enough for the two of ya

April 24, 2015 § 25 Comments

Every Thursday we have a little ride called the Flog Ride, or Love & Thursday, or the Joe’s Sleeping in Again Ride. You can’t always count on who’s going to show up, but you can count on this:

  1. NJ Pedal Beater will be there.
  2. You will get dropped.

NJ Pedal Beater is English, but he’s lived in the U.S long enough so that we can sort of understand him. Not that we get to chat with him much, because he rides on the front as hard as he can until he either drops everyone or until he blows, or both. NJ Pedal Beater always smiles and is hail-fellow-well-met, but he doesn’t ride 25 miles one-way on Thursdays to make the Flog Ride’s 6:35 AM liftoff in order to make small talk.

He does it because the Flog Ride provides the only non-racing weekday opportunity unencumbered by stop lights or shrieking ride bosses demanding that you pull through, or stop for traffic, or take reasonable steps to prevent killing yourself and others. No, the Flog Ride is a kind of delectably rare truffle that simply offers up a relentless, hilly beating for 60 minutes before work.

Unlike the Flog Ride’s Thursday competition, the New Pier Ride, you can’t sit in. Essentially you get up early, drink your coffee, roll to the start, say hello, and spend the rest of the morning by yourself. It is a great ride for introverts. NJ Pedal Beater is a very social introvert in that he always says “Hello” before zooming away. If you’re unlucky enough to be strong enough to hold his wheel, you had better stay alert because NJ Pedal Beater has a bad case of the droops, where his head hangs down and he fearlessly plows over metal grates, rocks, tree limbs, and anything else in his way.

As much as you’d love to advise him on proper etiquette (avoiding large chasms, pointing shit out, not descending the wet 180-degree peacock-filled turns full gas, not crossing the DYL, not making the 90-degree right hook onto PV Drive North full tilt) you never actually can because he’s always in front of you and you’re gassed or he’s dangling off the front and you’re gassed or he’s attacking and you’re gassed or he’s a tiny little speck in a galaxy far, far, away.

NJ Pedal Beater is the toughest rider in the wankoton, hands down. He recently awoke at 2:35 AM, hopped on his bike, and did a 300-mile round trip ride, stopping once and averaging 18.6 mph. He has the recovery of a small child, and no matter how cracked and broken he appears to be, as soon as he gulps twice he’s back pounding at the front.

This morning was no different. NJ Pedal Beater zoomed off, followed by the Wily Greek. This was our cue for an easier flogging on the Flog Ride, and it was easier–for a moment or two. That’s when a new face rolled to front and began administering a very painful Brazilian wax. Soon enough we were in the gutter, breathless, cursing, and livid at being made to grovel on the wheel of a youngish wanker with more leg hair than a silverback, midget socks, and a complete lack of concern for our misery.

In addition, as if any were needed, he pointed out all obstacles well in advance, took safe and clean lines, kept his head up, and held a steady, surge-free, nut-crunching pace.

I flatted, thank dog, and what was left of the chasers raced away.

Many minutes later I clawed to the finish atop La Cuesta. NJ Pedal Beater and the others were there. I went up to the new kid. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Alx Bns,” he said.

“Bns? That’s a weird name.”

“No, it’s ‘Bns,'” he said, which sounded suspiciously like what he’d said a second ago.

“Been riding long?” I asked.

The response shocked me. I can’t even approximate it, but it sounded like this: “Istaatdsmtimbkprpsayrrrtoagonnmrdnwthbgrnge.”

“Dude,” I said, fearing the worst, “don’t be so stingy with the vowels. They’re free here in America.”

He muttered some more singsong consonants and then I looked over at NJ Pedal Beater, who had clearly understood everything he’d said. A light went on: Bns was another Englishman. Or maybe just another mad dog. I hesitated before calling him a wanker, knowing that among those of the green citrus persuasion it’s a mild insult, kind of like calling someone “anus face.”

“Look here, wanker,” I said. “You’re beastly strong, bloody tough, tea and crumpets and all that rot. But we already have one crazy strong Englishman who kicks us in the groin every Thursday, and we don’t need another.”

Bns warbled some more consonants and smiled pleasantly.

“Fuggit,” I said. “Wanna go grab coffee?”

He said something unintelligible and smiled in a friendly way that indicated he did not understand the depth of our anger and lifelong enmity at having been smushed to a pulp by a hairy-legged newbie who couldn’t even talk English goodly. But that’s okay. He’ll learn.

END

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