NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.
My wife rented “Glee,” the movie. I’m writing this instead of watching it. People have asked, “How do you have time to blog?” The answer is, I don’t get to watch “Glee.”
This is a post about other sacrifices I make, but really it’s about the sacrifices all cyclists make, and it’s a little bit about why we make them. I include the downside of the cycling lifestyle—the crummy rides you have. And then, finally, I recount a breakthrough on a recent ride that felt like an apotheosis—a particularly surprising Big Ring Tale (or at least, it could have been, on different terrain—but I’m getting ahead of myself).
The second kind of suffering
I have written at some length on this blog about the suffering cycling entails. Hearing my daughter gripe recently about her violin practice helped me realize there’s another level of suffering in life: drudgery. Cycling gives you both kinds. Leg-searing, lung-busting intense suffering is one thing; the tedium of all that day-in-day-out riding is another.
Drudgery isn’t the same thing as boredom—it’s worse. It’s the sheer repetition of something difficult. Playing the violin, my daughter’s hands get tired. Her neck gets tired. But most of all her brain gets tired, and that’s a form of suffering. Anybody who wants to achieve mastery of anything—whether it’s a sport, a craft, art, music, pretty much anything really difficult—must learn to tolerate tedium. Endless repetition produces the incremental improvements in performance that matter to the diehard. (And only to the diehard. This sport is full of poseurs with their über-expensive bikes, who don’t realize that all the technology in the world won’t give them the gumption to actually ride. As Bernard Hinault said, “No kind of [technological] progress will ever overcome the loneliness of the long-distance rider.”)
Why would a non-professional cyclist—and especially a forty-something former racer—ever submit to such drudgery? For those of us who used to race seriously, it’s a former habit that’s not so hard to pick back up. (If I were starting now there’s no way I’d try to get here.) The drudgery aspect mostly applies to our younger racing days. Getting to a high level is what takes the day-after-day no-dinking-around commitment, and interval training (typically something a racer does one day a week) is the epitome of the drudgery I’m talking about. Along the way to this high level there is a lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie, and once the discipline has been gained, the difficulty of the sport is easier to take. Besides, the veteran cyclist who no longer races so much can enjoy the payoffs without so many miles and without so much of the relentless effort. (And without the interval training.)There are other benefits of this sport. I won’t go into too much detail on them here (they’ll one day get a post of their own), but suffice to say the big payoff for me is gradually getting to know my body better, even after 30 years, and gleaning more performance from this body as an alternative to letting it get old and fat. These past three years I’ve derived an odd pleasure from training really hard during the six weeks leading up to the Everest Challenge, getting dropped by my pals on the brutal training rides all through August but then gradually finding my form and seeing it subtly insinuate itself just in time for the big event. And the event itself is a huge payback: I’m on the last pass of the first stage, in the baking heat, heading towards a 10,000 foot summit, and watching with astonishment as my legs crank along, practically by themselves, doing a far better job than I ever expected, and I look down at them and think, “Damn! Look at ‘em go!”
My own private Strava
Many cyclists add excitement thru Strava. Not me. I have my own private Strava, which is my training diary. I don’t log my routes via GPS—my ride repertoire isn’t that large anyway—but I log everything that matters: duration, heart rate, power output, rate of vertical gain, my times on all my favorite climbs. I put in copious comments. I don’t compare myself to strangers online: I compare myself to my younger self, and to a few pals.
I don’t want to beat faceless strangers. Throughout my decades of cycling my goal has always been to beat the guys who I know are better than me. Some of you reading this know who you are: the guys who routinely crush me but who, once in a great while, find yourselves unaccountably pwned! I’ve never been a good time trialist, and Strava is a just great big time trial. If I succeed at all in spontaneous, real-time throwdowns it’s through cunning or luck, and most often because I’ve been foolishly underestimated, perhaps left for dead. If I’ve got any chance at all of beating you, it’s because of the complicated dynamics of the head-to-head situation, perhaps some tactics, some psychology, my ability to cheat the wind, or because you crossed me during early September, that brief window when I get some good form. The all-time record wall on Strava? I might as well be a swimmer (i.e., “strong like bull, smart like tractor”).
I like group rides, of course, but they’re harder to work in with my overall goal for cycling. And what is that goal? It’s not just to be faster, stronger, better, and the next best thing to younger. It’s to fine-tune the balance of cycling as it intersects the rest of my life. It’s like a crazy decathlon: the cycling itself; having time for my wife and kids; having time to read; having time to write; keeping enough meat on my bones that I don’t disgust my wife; doing enough cycling to be good but not so much that I burn out.
The downside of cycling
For the cyclist who doesn’t race regularly and can skip the interval training and not always be worrying about his form, the sport is less arduous than it is for the beginning racer—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The most difficult thing about this sport, at least for me, is that on many a day when you have every expectation of feeling good, you (or at least I) simply don’t. The Bad Day is the curse of the cyclist. I mix up two big bottles of energy drink, pack some gels, caffeinate, hit the road with all kinds of big plans, and then discover fifteen minutes in that my legs are crap. They won’t do what they’re supposed to. They’re like somebody else’s legs, like they were swapped with a golfer’s in the middle of the night. My heart rate won’t climb, because there’s so little work for my heart to do. It sends one of its ventricles home. “I’ll call you if things pick up.”
This can happen any time. There’s no warning. As many years as I’ve spent trying to learn how this body works, I still never know when the weakness will strike. The menu isn’t published in advance. (“Today’s special? El crotcho grande!”) The unpredictability is so frustrating. It makes me superstitious. I’ll be picking out my socks, wondering which ones I wore on that Diablo ride when I felt so good. I’m reminded of a quote from “Drugstore Cowboy,” about how the junkie takes drugs to escape the unpredictability of the human experience: “Most people don't know how they’re gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles....” (Combine this notion with David Millar’s statement about EPO—“It’s like having the best day you’ve ever had as an athlete – every day”—and you can start to imagine how those amoral doping cyclists might have started down their cowardly path.)
So when—surprise!—I feel lousy on the bike, I get demoralized, and I’m tempted to head home, and sometimes I actually do. But usually I think, damn, I carved out time for this, and I need this training, and of course I can’t feel great for every ride, so I should just do it. So I plod miserably on. And because I keep such close tabs on my performance, the slow days threaten to drag me into depression and I flirt with self-loathing. I combat these impulses through a philosophical perspective that I sometimes struggle to maintain.
Then there’s this damaged leg. Soft-tissue & nerve damage from my broken femur still dogs me. On a good day, when I’ve got adrenaline and endorphins and I’m riding well—when I’m blessed with what so many pro cyclists quoted on cyclingnews call “positive sensations”—I gush internally with gratitude that I can still do this sport, and that I can do it well enough that it’s not just physical therapy. It’s easy to be grateful then. But on a bad day, all I can think of is how deep a hole I’ve been working, for six months, to climb out of. It’s hard to be grateful then. It’s hard to be patient. Friends and family say, “Give yourself some credit—you broke your fricking femur! You’re doing great for a guy who’s had that serious an injury!” But I don’t want that “for a guy” trailer—that note, that asterisk. It’s too much like when I was a kid trying to keep up with my brothers on the bike and would be told, “You’re doing great for your age!” Right or wrong, I figured if I was only ever good for my age, I’ll never get to be anything but a little brother. Likewise, I’m tired of being a recovering cripple. I want to be whole.
Case in point
Sunday was one of those bad days on the bike. I faked myself out for awhile—under four minutes to Monterey and The Alameda, under six minutes to the Arlington Circle, just over eight minutes to Los Angeles and Spruce—but by Wildcat Canyon Road I knew the legs didn’t have it. Crap. On a glorious sunny day I might have retained my spirits, but it was early, and cool, and foggy, and my leg warmers were sagging, and though I hope one day to break eight minutes on South Park again (I used to do this routinely), I clocked a pathetic 10:16. I rode to the edge of the road, dismounted, and pulled my leg warmers up practically to my groin, just to make them not sag anymore, rolled my shorts back down over them, and with a sigh remounted and continued my ride. At least I could get some miles.
From there to the intersection of Canyon Road and Pinehurst Road, a distance of 14.6 miles, my heart rate averaged just 116. If I were a Strava guy you could look online and see that my maximum heart rate for this section was only 144, my peak power a paltry 252 watts. What Strava couldn’t tell you is what happened on the little climb, South Pinehurst, along the way. I was poking along like a sleepy beetle when a guy overtook me. He had pretty good form, was wearing some local club kit, and gave me a little nod as he came by.
I’m not the kind of ego maniac who automatically gets ticked when somebody passes him—I can take it. Countless times over the decades I’ve been bested like this, with no ill will toward my chance rival. This guy wasn’t going that fast, though. There was a lot I’d have liked to tell him. Such as, I’m in a 39 x 22 right now but when I came over this hill one day last fall I was in my 53 x 20. I’d also like to tell him that my latest physical therapy breakthrough, achieved just yesterday, was being able to stand up from the toilet without bracing my hand on the seat. Or that my current goal is to be able to put on my socks and shoes without sitting on the floor like a toddler. Or that, my slow healing notwithstanding, just a couple days ago I’d have been taking this hill twice this fast and he’d never have caught me.
Still, I was tranquillo about this tiny defeat. Philosophical. Mellow. This just wasn’t my day. Still, I was hoping I’d start to feel better—stranger things have happened—and when I came off the short descent before Pinehurst Road hits Canyon Road, and I made a left and began the 2.8-mile, shallow (2%) grade before the Pinehurst climb proper begins, I decided to try harder. I’d wring whatever I could out of my deflated legs and see if I couldn’t manage some intensity on the climb. I’d only ridden Pinehurst once since my crash, about a month before, and it had taken me about nine minutes; maybe I could beat that today.
(The run-up to the main climb is the long straight section of Pinehurst, before the twisty, highlighted section of this map.)
As if Fate read my mind and decided to mock me, another cyclist passed me. This time it was harder to take. For one thing, he didn’t say hi or anything. In case you don’t know it, silence in this circumstance makes a statement. It means either “I consider you one of the little people, not worthy of acknowledging” or “I consider you a rival.” So right away I was not predisposed to approve of this guy. And then there was the matter of his cadence: he was spinning pretty fast, like he’d been watching old Lance Armstrong videos or something, or was some kind of “Prevention” magazine type who thinks cycling is like yoga or Pilates instead of a manly sport where you push a big gear because it’s the next best thing to eating red meat. To top it off, his jacket was starting to fall out of his jersey pocket, one sleeve hanging lower than the other. In my grumpy state I found this as offensive as if his balls were hanging out of his shorts.
For awhile I watched him gradually ride away. I tried to ignore the silent insult. I tried to let this be an exercise in humility. But there’s such a thing as too much humility; just because I’d been passed and dropped by one wanker didn’t mean my soul could handle getting passed and dropped by any wanker who came along. Meanwhile, I couldn’t bear to disgrace my bike club by getting tooled by this guy while flying the team colors. So I tried to dig in and see if I could keep the gap down, and just maybe have a crack at this guy later. The alternative was to have to resist feeling sorry for myself—and I wanted to feel sorry for him!
To my pleasant surprise, my legs started to wake up, and as my heart rate climbed into the 130s and—imagine!—the 140s, the gap to the guy held and actually started to slightly decrease. He wasn’t smooth enough to keep from bobbing: a “tell” that showed me he was actually working fairly hard. There are some little rollers before the main climb, and on the last one the guy got out of the saddle and seemed to struggle a bit, and I saw his gap start to suddenly erode. What a joke! Suddenly I was outraged. Who was this weakling to have passed me in the first place?
Before I knew what I was doing I’d accelerated and cut the gap in half. Did you know a hippo can run at 20 mph? My legs ... where had they been all my life? Doesn’t matter—they’d finally shown up to work. The guy glanced back and picked up his pace. Now he was running scared. We hit the switchback that signals the start of the real climb. I started my stopwatch.
I was narrowing in, but not as abruptly now. I couldn’t know how much this guy had been holding back. I was careful to be patient: if I passed him too soon, he’d have the whole climb to sit on and bide his time before launching an attack. Better to hold out until the climb has really drained him, and do something dramatic toward the top where the grade is steeper and can work its own magic on his untested psyche. Yes, untested: that’s what this was really about. I raced a damn bike for years and years. I paid my dues. I did countless brutal training rides, I put myself through the wringer in race after race, I trained when I was tired or bored and didn’t want to train. No half-cocked wannabe deserves to get the better of me, even on my worst day.
I ended up catching up to him before I even wanted to, about a third of the way up. I decided not to get on his wheel—that would be showing him too much respect. As I came by, I glanced over and discovered that, like me, he was riding an Orbea. I scoffed at this because he wasn’t sticking to the script. The script had him on one of those immensely popular, vulgar bikes whose brands I won’t specify, because I’d hate to insult any of my albertnet readers, and besides, these companies are solid sponsors of pro cycling. For this guy to be on an Orbea seemed (in my distorted state of mind) an affront to the brand. I spontaneously decided to shift into a higher gear, and did so under full pedaling pressure: a nice loud gear change, a little fuck-you to the guy as I dropped him. (It must be said that though my neocortex cleans up pretty well and manages civilized social interactions, my lizard brain can be a real dick.)
Though I accelerated at this point, I didn’t get out of the saddle. I didn’t want to be obviously on the attack. I wanted to Cancellara the guy. (I’m coining a term here; think of Cancellara dropping Boonen in the 2010 Tour of Flanders without even standing on the pedals.) I kept on hammering even after I was sure I had the guy. I approached the really sharp hairpin (about the 2/3 point) and took it wide—I was going fast enough to clip a pedal. I could have looked down across the switchback to see where he was, but figured it was better not to know the gap, in case it was huge: for now I was no longer focused on beating this guy. I was thinking about my time for the climb, and the prospect of beating eight minutes (something I always try to do on Pinehurst but rarely actually achieve). The phantom behind me was like a whip cracking on my back.
I got toward the top and was underwater, just dying, suffering absolutely terribly. This was the most intense effort I’d made since the 2010 Mount San Bruno hill climb. It was the kind of agony that reminds me why I’ve (mostly) quit racing. The only way to assuage the pain would be to ease up a bit, but of course that would just prolong the misery. So I dug deep and dug deeper and went crosseyed and on the final pitch tried to accelerate one more time because I was coming up on ... could it be? A sub-seven-minute ride?
Almost. A 7:02. Certainly my fastest in years ... and yet I’d felt so crappy all day! As much as I hone my ability, as many miles as I log, as much training data as I pore through, I think I’ll never understand this body. I guess that helps to keep things interesting.
Of course I couldn’t let up just because the climb was over. I wanted to make sure that my rival never managed to catch up to me. I wanted him to never see me again, and to feel utterly schooled. I wanted him to pedal home in shame, tail between his legs, spinning that useless ineffectual low gear, and then have a good cry, maybe talk things over with a close friend, and then go get a manicure.
The rest of my ride was decent, and when I got home I sifted through my old training diaries to see how long it had been since I’d ridden Pinehurst that fast. Last year I’d only managed an 8:16. In 2010 my best was a 7:14. In 2009, a 7:52. In 2008, pretty close: a 7:05. But I hadn’t actually beaten this time since March 16, 2007 ... over five years ago. Here is my training diary entry for that day:
I duked it out with this guy on Pinehurst. He came by me toward the top after sitting on my wheel, and he was going for it, going a good bit faster. I’d just decided I was whupped, and was planning to limp over the top in my lowest gear. After all, I had been feeling tired before the climb even started, and it had taken me miles to catch him. So I was in the process of pussing out when I noticed that this guy had one of those stems that raise the bars up a bit higher than bars really ought to be, like the guy was looking out for his back or something. He was an older guy, and I can’t fault him for reading “Prevention” magazine and getting plenty of lycopene for his prostate and such, but that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate his beating me. So I determined, in a flash calculation, that since he wasn’t in his lowest gear, there was no way to beat him without shifting up, even though I seemed to lack the strength to push a big gear up that top part. But what did I have to lose? If I didn’t try, I was surely whupped. So I senselessly shifted into like fourth and really lit it up. It was a rush, suddenly accelerating like that. Totally irresponsible, like writing a $5,000 check and just hoping that it’ll magically go through or something. Man, the pain was excruciating, but since I was quickly catching him there was no way my body was going to abandon the effort. And then, a flash of insight: if I shifted up again, just as I passed him, I might crush his spirit, which couldn’t hurt my chances of besting him. So this I did. Man, I died a thousand deaths and thought I might burst my lungs, or blow my lips off by breathing so hard, but it worked. I schooled that guy! He probably started crying or something! I didn’t stick around to watch, though. I hit the top, stopped my stopwatch (6:50, a new record for the year for Pinehurst, by a significant 12 seconds), and kept hammering because I didn’t want the guy to try again. It would be like escalating an arms race. So I kept hammering for the next several miles and never saw him again. Really, really fun.
Of course it had been fun. I’d actually felt good that day!