The man working in the booth at the Pleasant Hill BART station yesterday morning was writing in a composition notebook. His hand, which gripped a pen, was twisted in a way that suggested he suffered from some kind of palsy. He wrote in clear, non-cursive print. The man had white hair and seemed kindly — in fact, was proved to be kindly when I asked him where I could find the base of the bridge that goes over Treat Blvd. He told me how to get there (it was just around the corner) and then said, “Have a great ride!”
I wondered, as a wandered off, how he had known that I was about to go cycling. Then it occurred to me that I was wearing a bicycle helmet, as well as a shiny cycling jacket, padded cycling shorts, elbow- and knee-warmers, and cycling shoes. Also, I had a bike. … And yet, from inside myself, I wasn’t yet a cyclist — and thus it came as a surprise to be recognized as one, even with all the accoutrements.
It was cold — in the 30s — as I waited at the base of that bridge. Then Richard, one of the coaches with Team in Training, swung by on his bike to lead me to where the rest of our group was riding. (They had started a few miles earlier.) And as soon as I began pedaling, I warmed right up. Well, except for my fingertips.
This ride would take us through Martinez and into Crockett, and it promised to be incrementally tougher than the previous ride. But I felt prepared, somewhat: the day before I’d bought “clipless” pedals, along with the shoes that connect to them. The “clipless” name seems a bit misleading, as what distinguishes these pedals is that they have clips on them — but no matter. The idea is that, with your feet stuck to the pedals, you can use more of your leg muscles when pedaling: you can pull up with one leg while you’re pushing down with the other one. In general, you are made into a more-efficient cycling machine, with less of your precious energy being wasted. The problem, potentially, is that if you don’t get your feet disconnected from the pedals before you stop (by twisting your heels outward), then you will fall down.
Fortunately, Richard kept me distracted and entertained with conversation, and so I kind of forgot to be scared. One coach always goes behind all the other cyclists, so no one will get lost. I felt kind of guilty slowing him down by having to ride with me, but he assured me that this was all part of the coaching gig. In a way, I guess, coaches are the Jews of cycle teams: they suffer so that the rest of us may glide into the future.
This ride was longer, and hillier, than our previous ones — but it felt easier to me because of the clipless pedals: there still was pain, especially during the long ascent — but it was a more under-control pain. In endurance training, I’m learning, you live for increments: a bit more lung capacity, a smidge slower heart rate. In fact, that’s what makes the long distances doable: breaking them down, mentally, into increments. You’re not biking for 35 miles, or 100 miles; you’re just pedaling one more time. And then another. And another. And, God, another. And eventually you reach the top of the hill, or the end of the whole ride, and it feels as though someone else did the biking, someone tough and strong and resolute — someone, in other words, who is not you (if you’re me).
I didn’t fall down, not once. Nor did I crash when going downhill, even though there were a bunch of switchbacks and I was going quite fast (for me). I also found places to pee that were semi-hidden from the road — though the wind kept changing directions, making it quite tricky to pick a direction to pee in. I stayed hydrated (if you’re not hydrated, you won’t need to pee) and ate all three of the somewhat yucky sports bars that I’d stuffed into my jersey (note to self: try packing some peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for next week’s ride). I thought of people suffering from cancer and wished them well in their treatment — and suddenly felt blessed that I was physically able to go cycling on this fine day. I saw some cows and some horses, and two wild turkeys. Once, going downhill after the longest climb, I sang a Ramones song quite loudly (no one was around to hear).
After the ride, I rolled my bike back into the Pleasant Hill BART station. The guy from the booth was walking around, checking the ticket machines or something. “How was your ride?” he asked. “Great!” I said. “It was my longest ride yet!” He smiled, and walked off, limping in a way that he probably has for his whole walking life. I carried my bike up the stairs and waited, huffing, on the platform. And I have to say: I kind of actually felt like a cyclist!
Thank you to everyone who’s donated towards my upcoming (March 10) ride of the Solvang Century! If you’d like to make a donation yourself, which would support finding a cure for blood cancers, you can go to my TNT fundraising page.
Below is a map of yesterday’s training ride; if you click on it, you can get lots of extra info. I note from the linked-to website that experienced cyclists have nicknamed one of the steepest segments of this ride the “Get me the hell out of Crockett climb” — which sounds just about right.