Winning the Tour de France

I never get tired of watching the crux stages of the 1989 Tour. The L’Alpe d’Huez climb where LeMond falters while wearing Yellow, the final day in the Alps when Fignon extends his lead. And then the time trial final stage. LeMond in his goofy to our eyes Oakley sunglasses and swaying on Scott aero bars, Fignon low in the drops orienting beams of intensity through prism spectacles. Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysées bricks, roaring crowds. Edge of my seat, lean forward, stand while LeMond himself crumples to the ground in elation. Yes! He makes up nearly a minute over 25k, beats Fignon and wins the Tour by eight seconds.

Us fans of pro bike racing—I’ve been and am—we celebrate the history, the landscapes, the spectacle, the drama of the competitions, strategy, and micro tactics within the race. We celebrate the teams of a team sport. We celebrate the riders. I’d be deflated to learn that LeMond cheated to achieve his ’89 victory. The disappointment would be over the fact that it was something other than what I thought it was, so what I think it is must be meaningful and important. The truth of it is essential to its power to inspire and elevate, and for the simple pleasure it gives to spectate. We look for sport to be true. Or, more accurately, we look for sport truly to match what we believe about it such that, under that description that we hold inside, we feel the surge of celebration, identification, admiration, and motivation.

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Home Roads

Touring, none of them are, even if fondness for rewoven recompositions makes for wishing it to be so, even if the delight and embrace makes it okay afterward to say. And, really, merely familiar terrain isn’t either sufficient, since accustomed scenery or unremarkable town names can sometimes still be conceptualized descriptive abstracta, where riding there all the time only means that one could readily recite impressively accurate directions. Home roads are instead ones where hills stop looking like photographs and have been transformed into volumes of gulped breath, coiled effortful measure, where unthought primed expectation leaps up out of the saddle just before body does, where the arcs of a descent and then sand patch sizzle  and then frostheave crack to smooth occur in a sequence that isn’t accepted but just is, nor could or would anything be said specifically about it. Home roads are more mood than map, less direction than innate want for motion. They are when that ride has been done so many times for so many reasons, therapy in the repetition, that reasons aren’t the right way to understand the why anymore. And home roads aren’t in a place, any more than serene quiet in oneself is somehow localized somewhere.

Just like some mantras, some poems, some things said to people cared about, just as they sing you when you sing them, home roads pedal themselves.

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?).