Riding in Rain

Even if it’s inevitable, you think about it, unless you’re from that kind of place and even possibly then, you think about it again, check the forecast for no reason since it’s only those first minutes that make real difference. Desaturated to grey and a tapping hiss, finally resolved more as an absence of the usual sounds than a sound itself, lonelier made worse by your drawn hood or pulled cap if you have one, maybe it’s that you keep your chin down a radian more than usual or that your shoulders shawl around you, maybe it’s that you ride far behind her to stay out of the rooster tail spray that already painted a greybrown streak vertical on your chest, blink bouldery grit and gutter efflux. The droplets are remarkable at first, you can count the early few dozen, your skin finds ways not to move so much against the clingy clammy fabrics. Coasting down a grade, you alternate feet forward, that one in a stream, can feel the ankle chill. Summertime hardly cold, but hardly exactly warm either in spite of your temptation to describe the rainfall that way.

The density of the mythology of it, the cumulonimbus stay inside alarm, persuasion’s pressure that the squeak of the chain in the deluge is catastrophe, shiver skid numb. Dread sufficiently inchoate that it ought but doesn’t make you suspicious of it. Always always after the initial shock reluctance resentment, while it’s happening and soon after you’re done that that’s not nearly as bad as you thought it might be. But you forget.

Cycling Letters

[This is a letter from Nathan Dahlberg, former professional road racer with 7-11, Motorola, and Spago, among others, and veteran of two Tours de France. Nathan still races bicycles, but is also a keen adventure cyclist. We've traveled together in Pakistan, China, and in his native New Zealand. Posted with permission.]

Dear All,

Yes, had a great time in Belgium and Holland over a period of 3 1/2 weeks, the highlights being, of course, meeting my old friends and also a certain amount of nostalgia over being back in familiar places (even watching a Pro Kermess in Sinaii bought back some good memories). Training from Mens house in Munster Geleen deep into the Ardennes alone and with Chris Macic reminded me of what a great (and very underrated) area that is to ride a bike, particularly around Stavelot, always hard even to return for home after training down there. I also got the great chance to race 11 more times in just under 3 weeks, and though cycling has slipped into being a relatively minor sport in the last 28 years since I first went to Europe (although the TDF thrives as always) there are still enough races and enough good riders to make it a 3 week period well worth the effort.

Racing hasn’t changed, it’s still very individualist and pure as sport goes although the roads are far different. Long gone are the cobbled lanes and even rough roads, now it’s all fast asphalt and racing is more a high speed dash like track racing than some of the grinds of years gone. The basics are the same (including the prize money or lack)…Continue Reading

xc racing

Woods pinball ricochet piloting by shoulders, hips, leaning into the grips and over brake bucking foiled if you think or plan too much. Approach an ascending series of switchbacks, drop three bike lengths off the wheel in front at every straightaway then out of the saddle throttle open full, swing high sit heavily back down, that poured concrete in the legs and ran barbed wire through your lungs. Haven’t done one of these for awhile, twenty minutes ago we the field burst clattered into pedals, looked up, wobbled, head down gravel crackled out of the bannered start/finish, flash of the tape in the periphery gives way to no spectators, not even the others, really.

Intractable contradiction: With no riders around there is no reference, no marker for one’s own movement. Gaining? Losing ground? Which way up to the surface? Can’t remember if this is how hard I can go and not more. Or in traffic, letting up to breath to rest to break, but no, must pass pass or in fairness let by. “Take it if you want it.” “Thanks, man.” If you’re in company something is probably wrong, you’re probably indulging yourself in too slow or fancying yourself unsustainably fast. The habit of racing is finding a way to compete against an imagined objective fixed point established by a marginal idealization of oneself, but the feel is quickly lost when you’re away from it.

Into the second hour and the last the third lap, now the ridges and the periodicity of the slopes is a bit in you, faster less desperate through these sections. Careful not to follow the tempting lines of the bikes with suspension, when someone goes by there’s a sheepish irresistible check for a derailleur through teary eyes and trembling sore heat. These short efforts are alien different, more about letting the conflagration bloom full, more about an incivility and ferocity. Unpracticed, it comes far too late, but enough so that snapping out of it into 1100 warm smiles at the finish feels like a tumble upside down and full heave of air from a kiss.

Much later I see more clearly the unexpected need in (not of) attention, the need to let thoughts come and evaporate like morning mist, having thoughts the enemy of skillful right activity. Back to emptiness to go faster.

*     *     *

Lutz, A. et al. (2008) Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Science, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 163-169.

Wallace, A. (2006) The Attention Revolution. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Herlihy Talk

David Herlihy — the author of The Lost Cyclist and Bicycle: The History — recently gave a terrific presentation on the portrayal of cycling in Puckan important turn of the 20th century humor magazine. The event was hosted by REI Soho in the sub basement of the historic building where Puck was edited and printed. Throughout, he weaved details from the history of cycling, including stories of the influence of Frank Lenz on the American popular imagination regarding the possibilities and promise of bicycle travel. Herlihy’s warm style and thoughtful responses to questions kept the audience engaged, and the images were amusing and informative.

What came through clearly is just how remarkable a cultural moment the advent of the bicycle was. The very idea of self powered mobility that was accessible regardless, to a degree, of class, gender, or race was transformative. The safety bicycle was not merely practical but also provocative and symbolic. The fact that bicycles figure so prominently in social commentary cartoons shows that this wasn’t latent or happening below awareness. Readers could readily make sense of the deep changes being portrayed by cartoons of women leaving their children with their husbands to ride around the countryside in knickers, or of a Rockefeller riding alongside a worker, or of a pastor’s flock riding past the church on a Sunday morning. Obviously, the bicycle was not the sole or even main cause of these changes, but bicycles played enough of a role to be a ready metaphor for them. Moreover, pressure to develop the bicycle played a significant role in accelerating manufacturing techniques and expertise to a level where motorcycles, automobiles, and airplanes were conceivable.Continue Reading

Return

Request a taxicab big enough to load the bike box into. Rolls up in the clinging arrogant heat that only cities, glorious historical ones, have, can see immediately it won’t work. But we make it do with the front passenger seat down, the corners crumpled, bisecting the car diagonally and I am still sweating in the back isolated from the driver, talk over the barrier but mostly quiet. Staring at the architecture the crowds the clouds against distance, but not so much seeing anything anymore, tired of seeing? or shifting to seeing something else, it will be days yet before coherence and coalescence will make the trip vivid again, I know it will. Now the airport, dragging gear, questions from strangers of what it is, so obvious to me like with x-ray vision, takeoff, folded too excited for sleeping a refutation of exhaustion, passport control and baggage claim and announcements in English and the language sounds wrong, and then there is home waving and standing and an embrace.

Bags stay in a pile just off the middle of the room, laziness and distraction, maybe, but also they were so long all that was with me it is hard to imagine them put away, where would my things be? Fascinating selection of clothing, disgust at all the things I don’t need, surprised at the things I thought I had but don’t or just didn’t remember that they looked like that. So many spoons in the drawer, out of habit I use one pot where three will be natural again in a week. I’m suspicious of the shower and of the thermostat.

Ride to work, a different bike and I fit it all wrong right now, shimmying on its unladenness, it’s mist and cold and an opposite season, sit in a chair I haven’t for awhile, I like it. Open a book, I’ll start reading it in a second and then it’s hard to say where I will be, but not yet.

Solitude

Famous hot spring nearly sunset all to myself washing the chalk white grime and drag and my battered threadbare from me. Hard wonderful days on tan orange greyblack windswept tracks close to the clouds. Now I watch the birds, the swirling horizon, the spring outflow and try to will my fatigue into a different register.

A group of twenty arrive in four SUV’s, no matter, had it in solitude for a long while, they strip down to trunks or bikinis hopping around in the forthright cold before getting in, I track the mix of English, Irish, Aussie and American, more or less all speaking the same language, and think about leaving but realize I crave the company and human postures. They have the jolly moronic giddy rapport of having known each other on a tour for a few days, I admire it. After awhile it occurs to someone to try to talk to me, “oh, you’re the guy on the push bike with fat tires, we saw you two days ago,” I want to make a feeble joke about how, yeah, but I wasn’t pushing, instead I ask if I was nice and she says that I was, that I smiled and waved cheerfully. Good, just checking.

A group now around or maybe I drifted into their circle, hard to distinguish, someone asks if I get lonely. And aren’t I concerned about going all Aron Ralston?, all and only us three Americans smile at the reference. I suppose you’re supposed to say “no” or “yes, but not much, it doesn’t matter, it’s fine.” Or there are stock perfectly true serious answers about how pedaling alone is importantly different, not as much locked into the eco system of you and your companion(s) and so forced or given the chance to be open to people in the place. That people react far differently to you when you are alone, curious and positive and more giving. That at desolate exhausting crushing freezing hypoxic heights, the body just does and there’s no direct signal of a missing sociality.

“Don’t you miss…”

But, no, yes I do and it’s devastating and gnashing and that’s part of the why and the point for me, I explain, to crack break everything that I am, all my assumptions and prejudices and ignorant half ambitions, let it all shatter in the absence of what and who I know and think I do, wait for it to reassemble just a little different, if I’ve been far enough away, then, I hope, a little bit better. That it’s sometimes misery, and it is, is relevant, certainly, but not in the sense of being a reason not to do it. They listen to me curiously and partway between that I’m just some cycling nutter and other possibilities.

Tent nearby, later listen to the locals splashing at 10pm, a sound that makes me happy alone except for boots in its juxtaposition with the earlier scene when we were talking loudly and consuming the mana of the place.

Markets

Here is not for the claustrophobic, bodies shuffling chaos very close at varying speeds according to age or browsing impulse or impatience. The streets are not closed to traffic, so taxi and bus horns punctuate the minuet, drivers not shy about using the bumpers to shoulder you aside as gently as can be done by polyhedral steel. It’s spatially continuous but architecturally heterogenous with permanent building storefronts, then semi-permanent structures leaning up against the brick or concrete, then stalls huddled together for vertical support in the middle of the thoroughfare resembling a tidy shantytown, all tarps and rope, not to mention the carts ranging from beer cooler size to full on NYC falafel trailer and then umbrellas over mats with vendors camped in optimism. Sometimes at the very center there is a vast enclosure like a hockey rink sheltering endless produce bins and boxes and butcher racks and cheese round piles and buckets of fish. The dogs patrol in well behaved trios or quintets, this is an eco system at a dozen levels of resolution from economic to social to trash management.

I keep attempting to conceptualize these enormous town markets by trying to divide areas into what seem to me natural kinds. I repeatedly fail. Certain items — mobile phones and their accessories, sunglasses*, squeezed juice, candy, fried foods — can appear anywhere, as likely to be found amidst the power tools as the sheep carcasses. Other cluster transitions make sense, the half block of DVD’s segueing into audio equipment leading to a maze of televisions all showing a match or a show where contestants vie for superlative resemblance to Britney Spears (yeah, I wish I was kidding, too). But the bicycle repair stalls are not near the hardware shops, which in turn remain distant from the gardening tool hawkers who are inexplicably near the colorful crappy plastic bins of all sizes sellers.

It is easy to default to the explanation that these organizational configurations reflect only the vagaries of history and accident, but I keep having the sensation, like a word on the tip of my tongue, that there is a rationale dictating the juxtapositions that is part of local cultural knowledge but that remains frustratingly elusive to me. There must be a key to the cipher, like at home learning that at the fancy grocery store the soymilk is with the smug organic products, not with the cereal as it is where ordinary folk shop. But it never comes: I ask for coffee at the stall that sells powdered milk and oatmeal, she regards me with lamenting disgust and says, no, I’ll have to go a block and a half to where the coffee grinder is, in between a shop that recharges phone cards and a futbol jersey store, which, by the way, is nowhere near the for sale footballs themselves. I’ve been walking for twenty minutes triangulating on the precious mantequilla de mani based on the assurances of numerous jarred products shopkeepers, never do find it. I’m looking for replacement hose clamps, but they’re not at the hoses store, they’re with other metal things like doorknobs and screws, and that’s back where I passed the belts and tight jeans. Uh huh, okay.

I know the image will snap into clear resolution someday. I just know it.

*Which is completely baffling, since I’ve literally seen fewer than ten people wearing sunglasses in this town, in spite of the abundance of sunglass sellers with life size cardboard cutouts of Halle Berry at the beach.

Travel companions

A diversion from the AM sun and road tilt, I expectantly spool up Schwalbe tire tracks and craft scant hint fictions about the pair of cyclists I am trailing. One rides the shortest line, the other the smoothest. One creates a clearly defined imprint in the sand, breaking off the track’s edges the way small ocean waves whittle and then abandon crumbling ledges on the beach. The other’s marks sometimes completely disappear to return in softer or wet patches. They are moving quickly and leave early in the day, once a woman doing wash in front of her house tells me my two friends came through at noon, it’s 4:00.

And Tom and Sarah and I will ride as friends, we’ll meet up after two more grey afternoons, exchange of cyclists’ news, easy familiarity, remarks on bicycles and gear then making way for deeper themes. From western Australia (Tom originally from England), they started fourteen months ago in Banff, Canada, followed the Great Divide trail and onward through Central America, now this continent. Relaxed and efficient habits of having been on the road a long time, riding companions accepting my quirks for a span, fellowship and tales and kindnesses creating a cheerful team approach to the route, camping, cooking. We share an aesthetic for challenging rough dirt ways, for taking the long way to a destination, our riding animated by the thought that a detour on a beautiful track is worth the hours or week. Chats with both about books and ideas, future ambitions, Tom’s willingness to drink Cusquena Negra in the middle of the day a happy intersection.

It changes things, not worse or better, but different. Usually when I ride alone, and that is usual, I sway into an overt sociality with local people I meet, craving the contact for the spontaneous energetic spark, each conversation and encounter updrafting me higher into the place, giving me a certain sense of it, a crucial part of my being there. Touring with people that I know and care about is a contrasting way with the culture and landscape, affording chances to articulate and share subtle details, a quieter engagement, more serious than is possible in a flicker of a brief meeting, less heat or exclamation point, more sustained reflection on what is there or not. I appreciate the chance to undermine my habits for a while, we’ll part in affection and serious promises to ride together in future (Canning Stock and Munda Biddi in ’13 you say, Tom?).

Eating

There is no sign outside the concrete block like a garage, you’d spotted the tables and people sitting close. The bike is against the wall in a conspicuous place and ideally where you can see it from inside, or at least can see people’s eyes and posture as they look at it. You’ve already negotiated the checkpoint of children who want to touch the tires or fiddle with the grips and brakes, the young men who gather ’round were offered an opportunity to take a ride and often older men enthusiastically accepted honorary invitations to these sessions, unsteady circles in the street as everyone cheered and whooped. No matter how hungry or cranky or in a hurry you are, you’ll do this, everyone around now knows about the bike and cyclist, knows where you are from, heard your voice and your Spanish and where you are going, where you started, what’s in the bags because by now you’ve learned or reminded yourself of the words for esoteric camping equipment. All laughed together.

You walk in, there are four or five tables. You don’t necessarily get your own, you just find an open spot, perhaps people rotate around and bring in a chair to make room for you. If there are no chairs then you wait outside, diners know when there’s a queue and there isn’t any dallying after the meal. Usually men outnumber women five to one, sometimes no women at all, sometimes a more balanced ratio, very rarely a child, that’s not what this place is for. You take your seat wishing everyone who is already eating buen provecho, better just “provecho.” There’s likely a tv on, everyone staring up at it. When there’s not, the people not yet served can be joking, murmuring to one another quietly but that will stop when their food comes. The other electrical outlets are recharging mobiles. The men who work outside still have their stained ball caps and dirty work boots on, no one cares that you’re soaked with sweat, you’ve greeted everybody and everyone has acknowledged you in some way. Sometimes you’ve even clasped hands with the people at your table if they aren’t already eating, and you certainly have with the server if he’s a he but not if she’s a she. You wait, you don’t ask or interrupt, you were noticed and the arrival order is taken seriously, no matter that it’s full of regulars and you’re an outsider you won’t get served especially early nor be skipped over, and soon you will receive a small tray of utensils and immediately a bowl of soup. Napkins are likely already on the table, with not very hot hot sauce, catsup, a bowl of sugar, salt and sometimes pepper. If there aren’t these things on your table and you want them, you pardon yourself as you take them from another table, no one minds your reach.

When your soup is placed down you will be asked what version of the meal you would like, usually only two choices though what two will vary by region. Fish or chicken, or chicken or beef, or chicken or pork, or fish or beef. Fairly frequently there is no choice at all, and then you’re not asked. Shortly after your soup is finished, maybe it was chicken or potato or green vegetable or pasta, two or three or all, or quinoa, your plate arrives. Always a substantial bed of rice, then regional adornments, a few tomato and onion slices, red beans, lentils, hominy, cornmeal, some combination of these, cheesy spaghetti on the rice once, the animal on top of the heap. You could, of course, have declined the meat altogether which would be double checked to see if you’re serious and then honored indulgently since you’re a pain in the ass gringo with special needs and ideas and don’t really belong here or expect much to fit in in any serious way. Or you could unscruple communality, sociality, eating the same things in the same movements, your body in a parallel arc of energy transformation. Within a few minutes of your starting in you’ll receive a tall glass of fresh juice, once in awhile instead a cup of hot water for tea or to make coffee from the jar of instant now placed on the table. Some people will ask for a beer or Fanta Orange in addition, there can be a refrigerator in the room and you’ll just get them yourself. You’ll never eat with your hands no matter what, everyone around you works the utensils in the European custom, knife never leaves the right hand, everything is stabbed or scooped with the left hand fork, no switching. Unless it’s a very small town in which case you only received a spoon, then everything scooped, the meat manipulated with the spoon’s perpendicular edge.

The pace will be steady, verging on hurried. When you’re done and especially if there are others waiting, you’ll stand and find the server in the kitchen. It will cost $1,50 or $2, or if it was dinner and the portions were a bit bigger, as much as $3. You’ll walk out wishing provecho to anyone who arrived after you did.

You’ll pedal off, a few people will wave and wish you a good, safe journey.

Ecuador Postcard

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End of the day, descending into the town square next to the basilica, I am on a one-way street going in the correct direction, motorcycle red blue red lights coming towards me. Pull over, there is a slow moving car and a long procession, cask aloft by four men, people walking close in groups of two or fives, some solo in reflection, flowers, black clothing. Children swarming aunts, cousins, friends. I remove my cap, watch, nod at eyes met. It’s far from silent, a flash of laughter, a murmur of affirmation, burst of voices. In the last rank a trio of men start arguing about whether my bicycle has motorcycle tires on it, they ask me, somewhat dubiously I sense, wondering if I’ll get the question. I explain that they are not normal bicycle tires, they are for special bicycles. This satisfies everyone, they declare the wisdom in it, and they walk on, shuffling shoe heels now the only sound.

This blend of solemnity but also an acknowledgment that life is full and humorous and curious, that people walk connected at varying but never infinite distance from one another, is a placeholder for my thoughts on those I have met here. Not the full on boisterousness I’ve known, but, how to say?, always almost on the brink of it, willing for it.

Earlier, passing near a technical university. A little shop, I can’t quite tell, a garage, ten or eight in their twenties, half men half women, clink of beer laughter bottles. The gang’s extrovert calls out to me, “have a beer with us!” It would be rude to say no but I explain where I am headed, he says “oh, you’ll be there in a half hour” in the spatially distorted confusion of someone who gets around by motor vehicles (it will actually take me two hours). I circle, hop off, I drink the offered yellow can pilsener, we talk about Ecuador and bicycles, about the jungle that I’m headed to, I continue on with that dehydrated and had an ill-advised beer wobble, too quickly for real politeness, I regret it.

Relaxed, a bit shy, curious but reserved, supportive, a lot of thumbs up. Drivers are enough on the shoulder of chaos so that when I, say, ride in the median to pass traffic or weave through construction, there is no righteous judgment. Truckers and cabbies and adolescent men in fauxFastandFurious whaletail lowriders, they are all perfect, they pass close but predictably and expect me to mind myself. Others if anything are a bit too accommodating, won’t go past.

I like it that people dress up a bit, ties, smart cardigans, shiny shoes, never sneakers, jeans tight and designer. Then there is the traditional clothing — though this is a precarious phrase given the manifest imperialism of it — of villagers in the mountains. For women, black or dark green just below the knee skirt, copper or maroon sweater over a white blouse, a hat like a cross between a tyrolian and a fedora, color-matched to the skirt. Did I mention the white stockings or the black pumps? Kindergardeners to grandmothers wearing this without exception, chopping wood, running to catch a pickup truck, tending sheep.

Strangers, if they see you eating, under any circumstances including shattered disheveled and sweaty stuffing crackers with peanut butter into your mouth, wish you buen provecho, enjoy your meal. Three course lunch is usually $1,50. And so is a Snickers bar.

Soaking my tired legs in a hot springs at 10pm, I’m in the pool with the old folks pretending to read my book but eavesdropping on conversations: family, aches, holidays. I’m drawn in with the usual questions one asks a stranger. I’m told of a nephew in New Jersey but times are tough, buys houses, fixes them, sells them, everyone grimly acknowledges that now is not a great time for this enterprise in the USA, but all other jobs are closed. I ask how things are locally, depressed, too. Someone else, I can’t quite decipher the emotion behind it, maybe it’s not fully resolved, says that since dollarization — i.e., the adoption of US currency in an effort to control inflation — Ecuador is just an economic colony. I’ve wondered about the effect on Ecuadorians, eleven years on now, of taking out an Abraham Lincoln five dollar bill or an Alexander Hamilton ten to pay for gas, dinner, or groceries.