This post does not concern the TV cartoon “South Park.” If you were looking for something about that show, you won’t find it here, but wait! Don’t leave just yet. I really like that show (though I’ve only seen one episode, the one with the babysitter and the cat and Cartman pretending he’s protecting Salma Hayek), so your sensibilities and mine might be compatible.
The following sonnet is an ode not to a TV show but to one of my favorite roads for bike riding, in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. Obviously my ode will have special resonance for those who have ridden this road, but should also strike a chord with anybody who has a favorite climb, or anybody who seeks out a challenging course precisely because he knows it will kick his ass.
Ode to South Park
Of course I like this road—what’s not to like?
It’s quiet here and green, and lush, and there’soooooooooo2
A grade of 10.5 percent: to bike
Up here’s about like running flights of stairs.
When young and strong, obsessed with going fast,
I feared this road and thus avoided it. Ooooooooooooiooo6
Then age, though slowing, helped me to amass
The muster to be humble and submit.
Until last fall I liked this climb the best,
With pals or not, it was a battleground. Oooooooooooooo10
And then cruel fate decided to divest
Me of my strength. Can I rebound?
This South Park climb will force the turning worm:
I slowly beat myself back into form. Oooooooooooooooo14
Footnotes & Commentary
Line 1: like this road
The perspective here is of the poet in real-time as he pedals up the road. I had the oxygen-starved inspiration for this sonnet while riding South Park the other day.
Line 2: quiet
South Park Drive is particularly quiet from November through March when it’s closed to cars due to the mating season for newts, which has them crossing the road en masse. One year, at the end of October, the newts got started a little early and I saw just how important the road closure is. It was depressing: I saw like two dozen of them, smashed completely flat. As it happened, I had bad legs that day and the dead newts were such a blow to my morale, I almost turned around and went home. South Park is that kind of climb: the kind that has you searching for excuses not to go on.
Line 2: green, and lush
I’m not botanist, but I can tell you the trees and plants along South Park Drive are the kind that are green and lush year-round. It’s never dead and grey and brown like you get in places with real winters. Sometimes fog gives the landscape a bleak, blasted look, but even that’s pleasurable; I always associate such conditions with the play “King Lear,” where the dethroned king is blind and groping and miserable on some vast wind-swept tundra.
Once, we had snow on South Park. It’s close to 1,700 feet above sea level and very likely the only place in Berkeley that ever gets snow.
Line 3: 10.5 percent
A grade of 10.5 percent is pretty serious. The steepest 0.9 miles of the road are particularly steep, climbing about 600 feet per mile for a grade of 11.4%:
Line 3: to bike
You might think I used the word “bike” instead of “cycle” or “bicycle” simply to fit the meter of the poem. No, I would never do that. The word “bike” is a challenge to relative newcomers to the sport who, ever obsessed with image, insist on “cycling” over “biking.” As I’ve documented elsewhere, crusty old veterans like me prefer “biking,” to show how little we care for semantic flourishes.
Line 5: young and strong
As I have gloomily pondered before, I am no longer young and strong. This is a bit different from saying I’m no longer young or strong. Forty-somethings can still be strong, but it’s more of a battle. When you’re young, the strength is something fresh and new and renewable. Most importantly, you’re still growing it—your best fitness is still ahead of you. As you age, strength becomes something you cling to: the residue of your youth. This strength is still a satisfaction, of course, but there’s also something slightly pathetic about it. (Not, however, as pathetic as just letting it go.)
Line 5: going fast
In cycling—er, biking—parlance, “fast” and “strong” aren’t quite the same thing. Fast is more impressive. First you get “in shape,” and then you get “fit,” and then you get “strong,” and then, if you train just right, you get “fast.” The twenty-something racer takes little satisfaction in the century-ride goal of just finishing. He must finish fast. If he can’t do this—and only on a good day could a fit racer-type make it up a grade like South Park with anything that feels like speed—he can be surprisingly cowardly. At least, I could, when I was young and strong.
Line 7: amass
I believe it is possible to age without acquiring wisdom. I don’t think you can chase wisdom. I hope that my life experience, and all the great stuff I read, will gradually cause wisdom to accumulate. So it is with muster in the next line of the poem.
Line 8: the muster to be humble and submit
This is really what it takes to routinely attack a climb like South Park. When I first started riding South Park with any regularity at all, I’d only do it when I was rested and fresh. But as I got more disciplined about my training, those days grew scarce. Something finally shifted in my attitude: I realized it was okay for a climb to kick my ass. I couldn’t keep pretending I could lick any road in my midst. I learned to blow myself out completely without feeling a sense of loss. I made South Park my go-to climb, that I would do almost every time I rode. This didn’t make me any faster, but it made me tougher. Gradually, this humility shaded into something more complex, involving the pride of hardened character.
Line 9: until last fall
Both senses of “fall” are intended here: autumn and crash.
Line 10: with pals or not, a battleground
Riding with pals is a great way to stay motivated and ride jolly hard. When I ride alone, which is most of the time, I’m often tempted to slack off. The beauty of a steep climb is that you can’t choose to loaf: like it or not, you’re trapped in the struggle of Man vs. Nature. Often, the battle against nature turns into a battle against yourself: naturally, “can I make it?” becomes “how fast can I make it?”
On a brutal climb, Man vs. Man becomes a fearsome endeavor. At high speeds, savvy and tactical know-how can shelter you from your physical shortcomings. On a climb, there’s nowhere to hide. When I think back to the epic showdowns I’ve had with pals, the best ones always involve climbs. So it was with South Park. Here’s a excerpt from my training diary, dated March 27, 2008:
We started off pretty mellow, but three minutes in Kromer unexpectedly threw down. Suddenly he had a huge gap. I started chasing him down. Man, it was absurd how gradually I was gaining on him. He’s a big, strong guy , a rolleur, a sprinter, and a fair bit older than I: surely he couldn’t dispatch me this swiftly! I finally caught on and, pretending I wasn’t redlined, nonchalantly asked him what his power was. He said 460 watts. I took his wheel. On this steep pitch we were only going 8 mph so it’s not like I was getting a sweet draft or anything, but I stayed close so as not to give psychological comfort to the enemy. Towards the top there’s a very short downhill section before the final wall. I’ve found in the past that dudes instinctively let up a bit on that downhill. This comes naturally, I think, when you’re suffering so badly. Approaching this section, while still climbing, Kromer seemed to speed up even more, and the weak part of my brain took this as a sign that I was about to get dropped. Meanwhile, the strong part of my brain, or at least the stubborn part, wondered if perhaps this meant he was cagily trying to finish me off before the really steep part at the very end. I figured that no matter how bad I felt, I would attack on the little downhill and see what I could do. Kind of like the dying general whose last words were a request to his men to turn him back around to face the enemy, so he wouldn’t die in shame. I punched it over the top before the little downhill, and Kromer fell back: no doubt to rest for a second or two on my wheel before slingshotting around and trouncing me. Up until the moment I crested the climb, I was sure he had me, but amazingly my little ruse worked. I crushed out the climb in 7:15, my best time of the year! My agony, of course, was absolute.
Here’s a graph of that effort. You can see here the kind of elevated heart rate, and power output, involved. (Why the disparity between Kromer’s 460-watt output and mine? Two reasons. One, he’s heavier. Two, what you see below are “dog watts,” measured by a bike computer calculation involving barometric pressure, altitude gain, gravity, and my mass, and not factoring in wind resistance, rolling resistance, etc.)
You may wonder if my training diary also contains tales of battles lost. Of course not: why would it? Being crushed by my pals isn’t news. It isn’t salient. The exceptions to the status quo, when all the planets align and I snatch a bit of glory, are what I bother to note.
Line 11: cruel fate
Like line 9, this refers to a crash I had in November, sustaining a broken femur. For months, the prospect of merely riding a bike again, much less climbing South Park, seemed sadly absurd. In the poem I almost didn’t use “cruel fate,” because I’m not a particularly fatalistic person and am tormented by the idea that my crash could have been avoided. But “cruel fate” is a nice Shakespearean reference, and in a vague, metaphorical sense I suppose we can acknowledge the role of fate in our lives.
Line 12: can I rebound?
That is the question. The doctors who treated me were wary about assuring me I’d be as good as new one day. Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to ride my bike again, but with greatly reduced ambitions. A tough ride for me now is Wildcat Canyon Road, a climb I’ve never thought difficult (and which in fact I used to call Pussycat). Well, the other day I didn’t have time to ride all of Wildcat, but thought it would demoralize me to only ride part of it (I demoralize easily these days). So I decided just to try South Park, which is closer to home. I doubted I was quite ready, but remembered my long history with this road: how I’d gone from only riding it when I was fresh to riding it no matter what. This gave me the confidence, bordering I suppose on foolishness, for the attempt. I barely made it to the end. On the final steep pitch, I really wondered if my pedals would actually slow to a stop. Would I clip out in time? Would I fall over? At the top I had to stop and rest (something I almost never do). I didn’t have the energy to turn around and coast back down the hill. Had there been a bench, I’d have sat down, or stretched out, on it. My stopwatch time for the climb—more than a minute slower than my slowest trip up South Park of all last year—will give me something to improve on.
Line 13: the turning worm
It is impossible to ride my bike and feel a pure gladness at my gradual progress, because I cannot help but compare my current self to my six-month-ago self. These days I feel small and vulnerable and spineless. The phrase “turning worm” is a reference to Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part 3”:
To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
The smallest worm will turn being trodden on
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.
In my small, wormlike, dovelike way I’m turning against the injury encroaching on my body. South Park Drive is a perfect surface against which to beat myself back into shape. It is the opponent that may yet be my salvation.