[For the next couple of months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training (TNT), as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” (AMBBR) in Tahoe on June 1 — all to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. If you’d like to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.]
Our training ride — in Vacaville — was rained out today, sadly. So I’ll take this time to catch up on recounting our past two rides. Both were lovely, though at the time they seemed — alternately — scary, exhilarating, and painful. It’s still so weird to me to find myself road-cycling — something that just seems like an activity I wouldn’t ever do. At the start of each ride there are always moments when I wonder at the strangeness of what I’m doing, on a Saturday morning when God had originally intended for me to be sleeping in. Then we hit the first real climb, and the lactic acid kicks in, and I’m there: there is no more speculation or theory, only experience (and the occasional — okay, more than occasional — daydream of the post-ride bath and guilt-free cheeseburger). To my surprise and relief, I have found long-distance bike riding to be a depression-stopper — though not, fortunately, an introspection-killer.
Dang! — as I type up this blog post, I’m missing today’s ride more and more! But I’ll admit that at 5:45 a.m. this morning, when the email from head coach K.Sue came in announcing the ride’s cancelation, there was an element of temporary relief as my head quickly went back down to the pillow (and stayed there for some time).
A couple of weeks ago I had a non-weather reason for missing the Saturday ride — Sara and I went to Sacramento to join thousands of others in beseeching Gov. Jerry Brown to reverse his incomprehensible (and indefensible) pro-fracking stance. It was a beautiful day in Sacramento — by which I mean to say it was friggin’ hot. It’s the kind of weather that normal people — those less insulated and less bald than myself — tend to rhapsodize about. Sara helped me find some semblance of shade, from which I could more comfortably listen to the speakers. I guess it’s ironic that I’m for solar energy but also for standing in the shade, but what can I say? I am complex, and contain multitudes.
We demonstrators then spread ourselves into a big circle that surrounded the Capitol Building. I don’t think Jerry Brown was in there at the time — in fact, I’m not sure anyone was in there. And then we dispersed. And nothing had changed, at least not immediately: not Gov. Brown’s stance on fracking, not the (I hope) somehow exorable overheating of our planet. But it felt really good to be expressing our views, with like-minded others — much better than staying home and doing nothing. And it felt super-great to be back in Sara’s air-conditioned car — even though, yeah, car and fighting the fossil-fuel industry would seem to be somewhat incompatible concepts. You know: complexity.
Fortunately, my pal Richard Blevins graciously had offered to join me on Sunday and help me re-create the ride I’d missed the day before. Richard and his wife, Sue, were a big part of what made my first two seasons with TNT so much fun, as they drove me (and my bike) to and from all the training rides that weren’t BART-accessible. They’re both terrific cyclists, longtime TNT-ers and coaches, but they’re not on my AMBBR team this year — so it was a special treat to get to go riding with Richard this time. Plus, it was just him and me, so it was like having my own personal cycling coach.
Here’s our ride that day:
For the most part, you go up and up and up, and then you turn around and go down and down and down. I was having so much fun chatting with Richard on the way up that when we got to the top, I felt a bit of a letdown: the ride, thus far, hadn’t felt epic enough. So when Richard asked me if I wanted to do the “Wall,” I surprised myself by saying yes. I’d been on this ride twice before (once in each of my first two TNT seasons). The first time, when we got to the top, I was pretty sure that I’d reached the limits of human endurance. The second time, it felt maybe a smidge less punishing. But I’d never had any thought of taking on the mysterious and forbidding Wall, which all the really bad-ass cyclists on the team always made a point of doing, and which I’d always imagined as … well, a wall — a rock face going straight up — though I realize that such a thing probably wouldn’t be practical for even the best cyclist.
Well, it turns out that I was almost right: the Wall may not have been straight up and down, but it was … well, wow. After that summit we went on a steep descent — which, when we turned around at the bottom, turned out to be the Wall. Suddenly my leg muscles didn’t just sting; they screamed. And my breathing became this super-loud thing — so much so that a woman, ascending ahead of me, turned back in apparent alarm that she was about to be overtaken by a steam engine. It was almost — almost — un-doable for me, and each pedal-stroke began as a stubborn act of faith and defiance. But then we were back at the summit, and somehow I’d done the Wall, and I felt like a superhero.
Then we headed (mostly) down, and my overarching thought was, Whee! Though also, sometimes: Yikes! … Now that I have my cool new road bike, I have the stirrings of a desire for speed (rather than my previous goal, which was pretty much only to survive). Richard, after watching me descend a few times, suggested that I make a few adjustments — including relaxing my upper body and (dauntingly) going down into the drop bars.
My other, older bike, a “hybrid,” doesn’t have drop bars, so this was never an issue before. So far, on my sweet new Roubaix, I mostly ride with my hands at the top of the bars, by the “hoods” (I think) over the brake levers. In this position I’m already leaning over quite a bit more than on the hybrid; to get down into the drops I have to lean over even more — which is unlikely to happen, if my tummy has anything to say about it. But Richard explained how much faster you can go when you’re down in the drop bars — much less of you for the wind to resist — plus how much more control you have, and he urged me to start experimenting with that more-extreme position, for maybe 30 seconds at a time. He intended, I think, for this to be something I’d experiment with on future rides, but on one of our big descents I decided to give it a try. … It was some scary shit. I felt like I was going way faster, my nose seemed to be just centimeters from the blurry ground, and I had the sense that the slightest twitch could send me flying off the road. But I have to say: it was also kind of fun. … After a little while, I nervously climbed my hands back up to their usual, safer-feeling position at the top of the drops. But I was no longer a down-in-the-drop-bar virgin, and the future was full of promise. Now, if I could just afford liposuction. …
I realize, of course, that no matter how good I get at descending I will be no Nibali. Pro cyclist Vincenzo Nibali is the greatest descender in the world. My friend Karen worships him, kind of the way the Pope worships God, only with more justification and fervor. By his own reckoning, Nibali has gone as fast as 105 or 110 kilometers per hour while descending. (I don’t have the mental power to convert that into miles per hour — and I don’t feel like opening a new tab and Googling it — but I think it’s something like a billion mph.) Karen sent me an article from a cycling magazine in which Nibali gives descending tips — strangely, not once does he mention how difficult it is to bend over when you have a potbelly, which for me is the starting point of any discussion of drop-bar-related technique.
After we finished the ride, Richard insisted on driving me all the way home to Berkeley (rather than just dropping me off at the BART station where he’d picked me up, which was right by where he lives). He’d brought an extra bottle of water — with ice in it! — and asked whether I wanted to stop at In-N-Out Burger on the way back. … Now, in order to communicate to you how happy this made me, I need to explain that the day before — as Sara had been driving us back from the demo in Sacramento — we’d seen an In-N-Out Burger and I’d suggested that we stop there for a post-protest bite; but Sara wanted something less In-N-Out Burger-y, so we just stuck with the raw almonds we had in the car. … So when Richard made that suggestion, he was offering me nothing less than a gastronomic redemption for that earlier deprivation. And let me tell you, the experience of eating that burger (okay, double-burger) and fries, after a fun but strenuous ride, was one of those rare situations where the reality transcends the anticipation.
Shortly thereafter, I began a truly steep descent — one that I am sure I can do even faster than Nibali: into a deep sleep that was only briefly interrupted by the practical matter of getting myself and my bike from Richard’s truck up to my apartment. And no — I don’t let my Roubaix sleep with me and Sara in the big bed! I mean, even road bikes need to know there are limits.
* * *
For last week’s ride, I was back with my teammates. On a couple of descents I again experimented with going all the way down into the drops — and again, the experience was both exhilarating and just-on-the-edge-of-terrifying. But I’ll keep trying!
Here’s that ride (you can click on any of these maps to get all sorts of exciting granular details):
This ride was accessible via BART, so In-N-Out Burger wasn’t an option for me. Not that I’m all about the post-ride rewards.
Okay, I’m mostly about the post-ride rewards.
But afterwards, what I like to write about are the in-the-moment experiences — the ones I futilely try to resist living in while they’re happening. Because I’m not Nibali — I’m Kornbluth. And that’s how I roll.