Saturday, June 6, 2009

unsteady states

As the weather finally warms up in the Pacific Northwest, I am finally past the worst of my allergy onslaught and am able to ride my bike more. And as my distances and the number of bike trips increase, I find myself wavering back and forth between two very distinct cycling states. 

State One: I wear padded bike shorts, a jersey with rear pockets and stiff-soled bike shoes, and take the drop-bar road bike out for a longer ride. This ride is often done alone, though occasionally with faster friends who need a "rest day" ride and are therefore more willing and able to match my pace. We average speeds of 13 to 14 mph, which is on the speedy side of things for me. The reason I know how fast we're going is because my drop-bar bike has a computer on it, something I added when I started riding populaires a couple of years ago and needed a computer that was accurate enough to sync up with the cue sheets. On days when I feel limber and fluid, my pedaling is effortless and smooth and I enjoy the feeling of fleetness, even as I struggle to keep up with my faster friends. On the days when I'm wrestling with my perennially bad knees and my breath is wheezy from allergies, or I'm beset by too many bathroom stops, my pedaling slows and I feel frustrated. In this state, trying to be an athlete reminds me precisely that I am NOT one. 
State Two: I wear street clothes, occasionally with special, padded cycling underwear but more often not, and I am more inclined to ride my city bike with its upright bars, racks and heavy U-lock. Although there is an old-school mechanical cyclometer on my front wheel, I usually have no idea how fast I'm going, and most of the time don't care. My flat-soled sneakers push BMX platform pedals with toe-cages bolted on, the toe-cage a holdover from my teenage years that I cannot let go of even in street clothes. I still wear a helmet -- I like my brain too much to take chances without it -- but the rest of my ensemble seems to give me permission to putter along, spinning in low gears and not worrying in the least when I am passed by every other rider on the road. I make many stops, at yard sales and gardens and friends' homes, and don't pay much attention to the clock. In this state I don't mind looking -- or riding -- like a non-athlete, a "schlub", a regular person with no pretensions to athletic greatness, and no concern about it either. 
The odd thing is that I am unwilling to give up on either kind of riding. And so I waver back and forth, seeking out a new "athletic" cycling goal each year and trying it on for size. For the last two years it's been long-distance riding, hanging out with the Rando crowd. The rides, mostly on the west side of town, have been beautiful, and I've enjoyed -- or suffered -- my way through each. With distance rather than time being the primary goal, I've surprised myself and achieved things I didn't think possible. Now I know I'm capable of metric centuries (100k/62.5 miles) and have completed several of them. Will I try going for a 200k brevet? It's not clear, and lately it doesn't seem to matter so much. The fact that I've ridden SIX metric centuries in the last two years is amazing enough for someone like me, and knowing that I can go out and do it again feels good. 
I have observed many lovely days in which I ride my bike just to ride it, and wonder if ultimately I can give up the desire for athletic "greatness" and just settle into a steady diet of State Two and stop worrying about being a jock already. 
But in truth, I can't just let things go. This year, in what feels like another grasp at athletic greatness, I've decided to try my hand at cyclocross, that crazy sport where people buy fancy, knobby-tired bikes and run through the mud while carrying them over their shoulders. Why on earth would I even attempt this? 
The awful truth: I grew up in an extended family of schlubs, super-ordinary people who did not engage in anything athletic and who in fact were so sedentary that most of them grew fat and slow and horribly unhealthy. I came from people who were known for mental calisthenics, not physical feats of strength and agility. While I was certainly smart, I was also the odd child with the short attention span, the one who could not sit still long enough to read a chapter in a novel -- or even sit all the way through a hourlong TV show -- before I got itchy feet, "shpilkes", and had to get outside and just move around, climbing trees, wading through creeks and riding my bike all over town. Short and skinny and plagued by the recurring fatigue of a disorder -- Crohn's -- that would not be diagnosed until I was in my thirties, I sometimes nearly killed myself trying to do crazy stuff that perhaps I shouldn't have done, and never stopped dreaming of being a real athlete. I marched in drum and bugle corps, wilting in the heat and staggering under the weight of an enormous drum my wiry frame had no business carrying. I went out for track, ran the middle distances and sometimes collapsed from fatigue while trying to keep up with bigger, stronger kids. A running injury diverted my path towards bicycling, with twenty-mile rides in the country and Breaking Away and still more dreaming. And that dreaming is what has kept me coming back for more; more of State One and the lycra and the helmet that makes me look like an angry insect, more of the 60-mile rides and now this venture into the insanity that is cyclocross. 
I come from a people with virtually NO history of athletic prowess; Hank Greenberg and a few other stars aside, Ashkenazic Jews are generally known for their brains rather than their brawn. My father was a child prodigy who studied piano at a conservatory; my mother was a writer, singer and would-be fashion designer. P.E. class was something to be suffered through, the only class in which a "C" would be a perfectly acceptable grade, and nothing more. When my physicality expressed itself my parents looked on in confusion, not really knowing what to do with their active younger child except to let her be. They never came to my drum corps or marching band contests, or to my track meets, but they did let me go for those long rides in the country and gave me money to bring back treats from the farmers' stalls. I grew still more wiry and tan and became a weird object of both admiration and envy for my parents, both of whom smoked, ate badly and were sedentary; and neither of whom lived to see 70. 
When I look back on my beginnings, it is sometimes amazing that I have made the choices I've made -- to ride my bike as much as possible, to try my hand at unlikely things that make no sense and to see what I can do with this body before it gets too old to find out. 
So this summer it will be short-track mountain biking; and in the fall, look for me out on the cyclocross course. I'll likely be in last place, schlepping through the dirt and mud and dragging a cheap mountain bike behind me, stutter-stepping and hoping that, if I don't finish before getting lapped, I'll at least get filthy and have a grand time breathing hard and being among people who understand my need to get out and move.

(graphic designed by J. Edgar; t-shirts available at

1 comment:

Christopher Johnson said...

I so GET that.

After years of training for speed and racing, I still think I should have some kind of fitness or achievement goal. But then, like this morning, I think, "Why spoil a perfectly great bicycle ride by turning it into training?".

But then...