New summer project: I’ve started a TinyLetter. If you want to receive sporadic notes about this and that, you can subscribe here.
I’m porting over some bits and pieces from older blogs . . . first, some ones about long-distance cycling from my onetime secret Tumblr. I’ll post them under the dates when they were originally written.
I wrote this last October (2012), after the San Francisco Randonneurs’ Del Puerto Canyon ride, my second 200k brevet. Just found it again. It hasn’t been edited at all.
Coming up out of the canyon, around mile 75 or 80—before, I should say, the big hill starts—I get what I think is a glimpse of what makes people ride ever-longer distances.
I am over the halfway mark, just past the point where setting out becomes returning. And while there’s a comfort and a victory in this—as What if I don’t make it? turns slowly into Let’s get this thing done, there’s a sadness too, like the way that afternoons are more melancholy and less hopeful than mornings. The course was mapped out all along, but the illusion to the mind is that the first half was more indeterminate. Then, we were headed away from the world and our problems. Now we’re headed back. That’s what it is, more than anything else. There’s a potent feeling of escape in a long brevet (long, for me, is 200k now, and I understand now how this distance might have to ratchet up, longer and longer distances being necessary, as one’s skill and familiarity with the activity improves, to provide equal-sized quanta of escape, in the well-known pattern of an escalating drug addiction). In the early morning hours, and the night before, all my attention was focused on the ride. Phone calls and email and work and friends were squeezed out. It was: how are your tires? Where’s the maltodextrin? Have you boiled the potatoes? It was the knowledge that there’d be no snoozing when the alarm clock went off, no fucking around, none of the choice that defines and, sometimes, sucks the life out of an ordinary day. For once, my purpose was singular.
For the first 15 miles of the course, my purpose was singular. It was: catch up. Find people. Get to the first control. Our BART train was late and we missed the formal set-off. There were four of us on the train. We found the volunteer and got our brevet cards. Jesse zoomed off, saying “I have to catch those guys!,” and for a moment I though no you don’t, felt like the martyred girlfriend. I left the parking lot with David and almost fell off the bike before even leaving it. I followed him as long as I could, trying to make it to the back of the peloton, pushing myself (“Find other riders and stay with them, even if it’s painful,” Jesse said once), worrying because conventional wisdom for getting through a long ride is not to push yourself in the first third, to save something.
This weekend, I went on a transportation adventure. I had some reporting to do up in Point Reyes. Getting there was like a story problem. Point Reyes is 42 miles from Berkeley. You have to be in Point Reyes at 11 a.m. on Saturday. You’re not allowed to ride your bike over the Bay Bridge or the San Rafael Bridge, but you can take BART under the Bay Bridge, or north to Richmond, where you can board a bus that will take you across the San Rafael Bridge.
Honestly, I had thought I was going to rent a car. Before that, I thought I might do Zipcar. That was before I realized that Zipcar doesn’t think I’m a member anymore, that joining would cost about $60, and the car would be $11 an hour, for at least five hours. Screw that, I thought, I’ll rent from Enterprise or something. The cheapest traditional rented car would be $24 for the day (more like $40 when you add the extra insurance I need because I’m not an insured driver), plus gas, plus bridge tolls, so at least $50. I would also need to take BART (several more dollars) to downtown Oakland to pick up the car around 9am (hassle), and then drop it off afterward and take BART back.
They were two unappealing enough scenarios that I talked myself/let Jesse talk me into a third option: gonzo transportation.
Maybe it was a nostalgia trip of sorts for Jesse, even though he didn’t go, because I was following the convoluted path he used to take on his bike when he was courting a woman who lived way up in Sebastopol. According to Google Maps’ public transit feature, I could leave the house at 7:45 a.m. and take BART to Richmond. From there, I could board Golden Gate Transit’s 42 bus for the trip across the bridge, past San Quentin, and into San Rafael by 8:52 a.m. From there, said Google Maps’ bike trip feature, it would be 19.4 not too hilly miles to Point Reyes Station, the big red barn, and my work-date, over some of the same roads I covered on my first brevet, the Point Reyes Populaire last fall. I sort of imagined someone might offer me a ride back to civilization (San Francisco, say), but if they didn’t, I would be prepared to return the way I came.
I let my contact know I would be arriving by bike. He seemed appropriately impressed-with-a-tinge-of-weirded-out.
I have a few minor resolutions for the future.
Stop writing a journal (I’ve been ignoring my journal anyway) and start writing a writer’s notebook. An hour each morning, after breakfast and over coffee. Before work-work begins.
Eat more vegetables.
Do some core work.
Such very bourgeois resolutions!
It sure still feels like the off-season. Last Sunday, I went on my first bike ride in two weeks. I went by myself, for 2.5 hours, up Tunnel, down Redwood, up Pinehurst. I rode the mark of the infinity symbol on the mountain. The weather was cool but sunny. I could get into this winter-in-California thing. More frequent rains wash the air very clear and make the sunny days count. It’s not so much the cold that sends the cue that it’s winter as the quality of light. The shadows are long at 3 p.m.
I’m getting a real fondness for descending Tunnel. Plenty of people coming up as I was going down. Well exercised, high on body chemicals, I thought, ‘Hello, my spandex brothers and sisters!’
Still, it’s definitely the off-season. It gets dark early, it’s cold in the house, and psychological resistance to exercise is high. I’m not as strong as I was. Sometimes I jog half-assedly. Sometimes Jesse and I go to 9 p.m. yoga. It feels good and it’s better than nothing. It’s also fine and seasonal to cram into a warm room full of other people at night, to drive off the cold and the darkness with shared sweat and giggles and farts. (Someone started making actual baby noises during happy baby last night. It broke the room up.) Still, all those years I thought that yoga was sufficient exercise? Benighted years. I like yoga, but my heart and lungs know better now.
This time is making me grateful for the existence of the R12 as a goal. A randonneuring thing: at least one 200-kilometer brevet each month. I may do the easiest ones I can find, in the winter, but it gives me something to try to do. I am now at R2 (October, November). I’ll be R3 if I make the “last chance” ride from Davis to Auburn on December 31. If I want to play roulette with the weather like that. Fail to get a brevet completed in December and I’m back to R nothing.
In heady pursuits, I just read “The Rider” by Tim Krabbé (1978, translated from the Dutch). It’s a short, gem-like book. If there’s a better piece of bicycling literature out there, I’d like to know about it.
Tim Krabbé on suffering:
“In interviews with riders that I’ve read and in conversations that I’ve had with them, the same thing always comes up: the best part was the suffering. In Amsterdam I once trained with a Canadian rider who was living in Holland. A notorious creampuff: in the sterile art of track racing he was Canadian champion in at least six disciplines, but when it came to toughing it out on the road he didn’t have the character.
The sky turned black, the water in the ditch rippled, a heavy storm broke loose. The Canadian sat up straight, raised his arms to heaven and shouted: ‘Rain! Soak me! Ooh, rain, soak me, make me wet!’
How can that be: suffering is suffering, isn’t it?
In 1910, Milan—San Remo was won by a rider who spent half an hour in a mountain hut, hiding from a snowstorm. Man, did he suffer!
In 1919, Brussels—Amiens was won by a rider who rode the last forty kilometers with a flat front tire. Talk about suffering! He arrived at 11.30 at night, with a ninety-minute lead on the only other two riders who finished the race. The day had been like night, trees had whipped back and forth, farmers were blown back into their barns, there were hailstones, bomb craters from the war, crossroads where the gendarmes had run away, and riders had to climb onto one another’s shoulders to wipe clean the muddied road signs.
Oh, to have been a rider then. Because after the finish all the suffering turns into memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering. Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride. ‘Good for you.’ Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lay with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.
That’s why there are riders.
Suffering you need; literature is baloney.”
Tim Krabbé on what goes through a rider’s head:
“When I withdrew to Anduze in 1973 for my first period of cyclo-literary hermitry, I believed that, while cycling, I would come up with thoughts and ideas for the stories I’d be writing the rest of the time. Fat chance. The rest of my time I spent jotting in my cycling logbook and keeping statistics on my distances and times, and while cycling I thought of nothing at all.
On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets. Every thought that arises is immediately and utterly true, every unexpected event is something you’d known all along would happen but had only forgotten for a moment. A pounding riff from a song, a bit of long division that starts over and over, a magnified anger at someone, is enough to fill your thoughts.
During the race, what goes around in the rider’s mind is a monolithic ball bearing, so smooth, so uniform, you can’t even see it spin. Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought. Almost nothing, that is—sometimes a microscopic flaw still manages to strike a chord. From race number 203 (evening criterium at Groot Ammers, May 30, 1975) I remember the sound brr-ink, pronounced as two syllables, that popped into my mind at the same street corner, twenty, thirty, sixty laps long, that I ruminated over, the way tongue and teeth can play with a half-forgotten wad of gum a feature film long, until I was back at that corner and brr-ink was refreshed in its original form.
Why not some other corner? Why brr-ink? We know little of the workings of the human mind, as a mass-murderer’s lawyer once told the courtroom.
I once gave myself the assignment of inventing a completely random word. Completely random, is that possible? All of a sudden, there it was: Battoowoo Greekgreek.
Battoowoo Greekgreek. Is that a name? I don’t know anyone who answers to that. No one will ever be able to tell me where Battoowoo Greekgreek came from. A few million years of evolution haven’t resulted in brains that can understand themselves. Why is there, somewhere along a training route near Amsterdam, an elm that reminds me of the chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner? Every time I see that elm I think ‘Donner,’ and then I see him before me ten meters tall.’”
Krabbé—also a chess-player, and therefore likely Jesse’s soul-brother—is virulently anti-fitness, or at least, he has a high disdain for anything as degraded as “fitness” as a goal. He’s interested in strenuosity, skill, improvement; competing with oneself, beating others; toughness and extremis; simultaneous mortification and elevation of the flesh. The dynamics of pain. Cycling lore. Imagining his connection to the greats of the past (and creating dry humor out of it). The catalog of famous-cyclist dreams! Self-analysis masquerading as outward pursuit. Like any great book, a whiff of death and a crack at transcendence.
Do yourself an off-season favor and read it.
Jesse and I are discussing plans for the weekend. It may rain. I’m threatening to go to my first-ever Quaker meeting on Sunday morning, all but disqualifying Sunday for bike riding. The most interesting ride on Saturday starts far away. But wait—Jesse has an idea! He’s showing me on Google maps. What if we do a ride that starts like the regular Morgan Territories ride, but instead of taking the road that goes South past Mount Diablo, what if we take the road that continues East? What if we go to the Sacramento River Delta? What if we go all the way to Stockton?!
And you know what? We could. I know that now.
Yet I found myself thinking with one half of my brain, ‘Okay, cool,’ while with the other half I was wondering what else goes on on a Saturday around here. If we didn’t go on a bike ride, would we spend the time volunteering, going to an art museum, writing, brunching, doing a Cultural Event? And what would that feel like?
I think I’m at that exact point in my pursuit of this sport where what you can do produces a diminishing return of thrills. Oh, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a long way to go as a cyclist. I know I do. I could get a lot stronger, a lot faster. I could get a better bike, become a safer rider, improve my descending skills. There are whole echelons of slang I haven’t adopted yet. I could start talking about VO2 max or get able to know what the hell people are talking about when they use numbers to talk about their chainrings. I could take a bike on an airplane. I could do a charity century, a multi-state ride. I could get better gear.
It seems awful early to be having burn-out, so maybe I’d better think of it more like a plateau: I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s going to be another quantum of amazement for me in this sport that’s quite as large as the one that described the span between “I haven’t ridden a bike except as a commuter or a recreating child” and “Ride over 100 miles in a day, over some small mountains? I can totally do that.” It was a physical adjustment, to get in shape for that, but even more so, it was a mental one.
Mentally, I went from rejecting certain feats out of hand as crazy or impossible, to greeting them with a calmer attitude. It was more like a change of identity than anything else. I can figure out how to do that. I am the *kind* of person who could. And while I can imagine being in twice as good of shape as I am now, the mental adjustment seems like a one-time deal.
Why do I mention this now? I think it’s because in my first months of riding, the thrill of making that mental adjustment was a prime motivator for me. Almost every time I went out, I did something I hadn’t done before or didn’t know I could do. I rode fifty miles for the first time. I beat a man (albeit, a man twice my age, but a man damnit, and an experienced rider at that) up a fierce hill. I rode seventy-five miles for the first time. I rode Diablo. I did the Roanoke wall. Then, I did the Roanoke wall without wanting to throw up once I reached the top.
The question that forms is: Why keep going? If the guiding thought is no longer “can I?,” then what is it? That’s what I’m asking myself this off-season.
Tomorrow’s agenda. A Hercules-Winters lasso, with elevation by miles in red at the bottom.
The main reason I think I might be able to do this crazy ride is that it’s flat—flattish—well, it has +5,837 feet of elevation gain, which actually doesn’t sound so flat at all, does it? But it is a lot less than most rides of comparable length. Actually I’m sitting here playing with Ride With GPS and trying to figure out how much less, and to imagine what it might feel like.
Mount Diablo is about +3,800 feet, spread over 11 miles. And you may not even start at sea level, but let’s just say you do.
In terms of stuff I do more often, Tunnel Road has about +1250 feet of gain from Rockridge. Pinehurst feels like pure evil, but it’s only about +900 feet. The grades are around 4 and 5% on Tunnel, up to 8.5% on the last reaches of Pinehurst. If you do that whole ride, it says you gain +2,800 feet.
So okay, okay. I can imagine doing that twice in a day. I think.
Winters looks like no drama grade-wise till mile 65, then there’s some hill action till mile 80. Then miles 80 to 105 are all downhill (!), with a couple bumps before the end—the morning ride in reverse.
The truth: I’m enjoying the procrasturbatory comfort of the internet and its maps very much right now, as well as basking in past accomplishments. But no map I look at can tell me what this thing tomorrow is going to feel like—and that unknowability is giving some fear to this moment, but also a palpable, primal thrill.
On Wednesday night, I went to the RUSA website and signed up for the 200km Winters Brevet on Saturday.
Last weekend’s long ride, while not nearly as long as the Winters ride tomorrow, was emboldening. While I felt exhausted by the end, I didn’t experience any pain or numbness that might portend trouble if I were to spend a longer time in the saddle.
But what pushed me over the edge, r/e committing to the upcoming long ride, was the encouragement I got from others.
To my surprise, when I told people this week that I was thinking of crushing my previous distance record by doing a 126-mile ride this weekend, the reaction wasn’t, “Are you out of your fucking mind?!” but usually some variant on, “Cool, you’ll be fine, and here’s some advice.”
Steph from the bicycle club said, “Just be sure to eat before you’re hungry.”
Eric H said, “It’s amazing how much farther you go than you think you can.”
Matt said “I love things like that.” Barb said “I’m glad you’re coming.” The guy at the bike shop asked whether I’d checked the weather report and said good luck. Jesse told me I’ll be all right as long as I find a small group to pedal with and then stay close to them no matter what.
(The realist in the group, perhaps, he added: “You are going to be in some pain before the day is over.”)
What I find myself wondering is, do these confident people know something I don’t know about what’s possible in sport? Are they sensing something in me, either that I can do it, or that I really want to try? Or is this just a thoughtless psychological law at work, one that decrees that it’s a lot more fun to say “Dooooo it!” than it is to advise against?
Tomorrow may tell. If nothing else, I’ll have hours of pedaling time to think in detail about why I wanted to let myself be persuaded to try.
Bike rides are piling up faster than I can write about them.
I remember this dilemma from writing: every experience has so many facets. How do you choose the most salient ones, and lavish your energy on them and not the others?
What were those thoughts you were having on your bike?, you ask yourself. They were so vivid, so urgent, so pure.
Yesterday we took a 70-mile ride with the GPC. The first 50 miles were a group ride in Alameda, and the last 20 were the two of us returning home via Redwood, north and west over the hill and back to Berkeley. The ostensible purpose of this adventure, and of last weekend’s long ride, was to see whether I’m ready to really consider something tempting but crazy—to ride in the San Francisco Randonneurs’ Winters 200k next weekend. The distance is almost certainly too long for me. I haven’t ridden 100 miles yet, 70 is a challenge, and 126 would probably be just foolhardy. Yet I am infected with Randonneur-itis, an infection all the more powerful because I don’t fully understand the reasons for it yet. This brevet would be the last of their events I would be able to do until the season starts up again next year. I’m told the course is pretty flat.
Today, my legs are sore. Yesterday, I felt exhausted by the end of the ride. Too exhausted to go home by the steeper, longer route of Pinehurst. I bonked a little in the last segment, and while I want to blame it on Sports Drink Fail (we mixed too much sports drink powder into our water in Castro Valley, resulting in something that tasted like bilge and felt more dehydrating than the opposite), I think a good part of the truth is that I was simply exhausted.
Maybe 70-ish miles is just my upper reach right now. Or maybe, with smarter nutrition and hydration, on an easier course, I’d be amazed what kind of mileage I can make happen. I’m going to think about it for a day or two.
The ride yesterday took us through the Southern Alameda hills, from the Fremont BART station, up a famously aggravating hill called Calaveras, through about 15 miles of beautiful rolling hills to the west of the Calaveras Reservoir, through the tiny town of Sunol, and up a long (but, for whatever reason, satisfying to me that day*) hill called Palomares.
Then our little group—two men and six women, a highly unusual ratio for a group ride in my experience, and very welcome for a change—discovered that the pizza joint where we’d been planning to eat lunch after our 50-mile excursion had closed for good. We found a Mexican restaurant instead, a cavernous place where they let us sit on their patio and keep an eye on our herd of bikes through the wrought-iron fence.
One thing I’m secretly fond of about these rides is the strip malls in which they often start and end up. They remind me of the place where I grew up. To my surprise (in my family, “strip mall” was an epithet, a symbol for everything we were against and did not value), the echo that they offer of home and of childhood is comforting. The Ross Dress For Lesses and the Trader Joes, the chain coffee stores and the occasional ethnic restaurant or cafe trying its best to create something unique in these aseptic spaces. I spent years trotting after my mom in shopping centers like these, dawdling, daydreaming, fondling products, checking myself out in striated plate glass windows. Maybe they make me feel protected and prepared. I know how to interact with a strip mall.