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Team In Training

Driving Mr. Kornbluth

On Sunday I drove a car by myself for the first time in my life.  It was exhilarating!  It was scary!

We just started doing back-to-back training (bike) rides on Saturdays and Sundays, as we prepare for our mid-August, two-day, 188-mile event — and I’d found that BART didn’t leave from Berkeley early enough on Sunday morning.

So, with Sara out of town, I was in the position of having to self-drive myself to Pleasanton (about 45 minutes away).

I put on the bike rack, secured my bike to it, and started on my journey, following the loud instructions of the Lady in My Phone.  A few minutes into my drive, I found myself, confusingly, in the middle of the street surrounded by temporary barriers.  An older, African American man knocked on my car window, and I rolled it down (feeling great pride in my having pressed the right button, mixed with embarrassment that I’d obviously done something wrong).  “We’re setting up for our Juneteenth celebration,” he explained.  “This is the one day of the year you can’t drive through here!”

I said, “May I just say two things?”

He nodded.

“One,” I said, “this is my very first time driving a car by myself.  And two, wow, do we need a Juneteenth celebration this year!!”

He smiled and moved a barrier so I could drive through.

I followed the Lady’s directions and — amazingly — ended up at the correct parking lot in Pleasanton.  I pulled into a parking spot under a tree, put the car in park, turned it off, and got out.  I think my legs were shaking.  I was elated and relieved — and then I remembered that I still had a challenging bike ride ahead.

The ride went pretty much okay.  Below I’m posting click-on-able maps of both of my rides last weekend.  I’m sorry I haven’t been keeping up with my blog reports on my weekly training rides!  I was kidnapped by my own brain and held hostage for several months — but now I’m back.  (I have done all the training rides.)

After Sunday’s bike ride, I realized that — for the first time — I could change into dry clothes after the ride … since I’d arrived in a car, rather than (as before) just on my bike.  It felt quite civilized to change — kind of like a grown-up.  I drove back home without incident (other than many internal thoughts of wild surmise, ecstasy, and, finally, relief).

In the couple of days since then, I’ve started to look around at the other adult-aged people in the world with the feeling that, just maybe, I might indeed belong to their tribe.

Perhaps this coming weekend (with Sara still away) I will drive myself to a ride or two again.  One of them may involve parallel parking, which I don’t yet know how to do.  (I’m Googling it.)


If you’d like to donate towards my big ride this season — 188 miles from Seattle, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 15 & 16 (no car-driving involved!) — just click here.


Infinite Shades of Gray, Numerous Chins

Infinite Shades of Gray, Numerous Chins

I am now a badass.  This is entirely because of my new shades, which are prescription and change how dark they are depending on the ambient light.  I got them to use while cycling (everyone else on my Team in Training team seems to wear shades), but I’ve found that I sometimes wear them when I’m just walking around.  And, you know, I feel kind of different.  Not quite don’t-mess-with-me, but a little bit of a comfortable distance from some of life’s harshest rays.

Others in my (as yet unnamed) TNT speed group have taken to calling me Badásse, a Frenchified moniker that reminds me of early Godard, only without the cigarette.  Yes, they’re joking, but I must say: since I got these shades, I’ve felt stronger — cooler — on the bike.  This may simply be random variance, or it may have something to do with the hot (!) yoga (!) I’ve been trying out during the week — but until convinced otherwise, I’m going to say it’s the sunglasses.

Last week we did the ride that I dread every season (well, one of many): starting at Stafford Lake in Novato, then about 55 miles that include the infamous climb (after climb after climb) at the Marshall Wall.  Oh, and there’s also much wind.  Map and (if you click on it) details below:

Me at some bridge, in full road-cyclist regalia, just about to be unable to continue sucking in my tummy.

Me at some bridge, in full road-cyclist regalia, just about to be unable to continue sucking in my tummy.

The previous Saturday, on what was (I believe) my first ride with the new cool shades, we went over many bridges (well, at least two) — and as we spun through Vallejo, a scary-looking man seemed to glare at me as I rode by, but I just Trusted in the the Power of the Shades (and also smiled and said “Hi!”) and the moment passed.  I was wearing all the pretentious-looking bike stuff that people find so off-putting when cyclists clank into the local Peet’s in their weird, clippy shoes.  But amazingly, every weird thing you wear makes a practical difference on the bike: the stretchy pants prevent (well, reduce) chafing and cushion your butt, the jersey wicks out your sweat, the gloves minimize injury if you fall off your bike and cushion your palms, the clippy shoes conserve energy as you pedal, the sunglasses make you seem really cool, and the helmet– well, I forget what the helmet does, but our head coach, K.Sue, makes us wear one.

Of course, despite all these neat accoutrements, I spend pretty much every moment of each ride in terror that I won’t finish it — that it will be too hard, and I will let down my teammates, my donors, my ancestors, et al.  But being dressed properly at least means that, amid that terror, I will be as comfortable and safe as possible.

Below is a map of that two-weeks-ago, bridge-to-bridge ride (click on it for juicy details):

If you’d like to donate towards my big ride this season — 188 badass miles from Seattle, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 15 & 16 — just click here.

Lessons Learned

Lesson one from this week: Never — never! — eat a big meal of Indian food the night before a training ride.  Late on Friday evening I had a delicious chicken-curry dinner from a local Indian eatery.  The next morning, about 10 minutes before our 8:30 a.m. “buddy ride” was to begin, I had a literally visceral understanding of my error.  Fortunately, our ride was beginning at the parking lot of the Orinda BART station, so I was able to zip back and use the BART restroom.  A short-ish time later I emerged, about 17 pounds lighter, and raced back to my teammates, who were already beginning to head out.  By the time I got myself sunblocked and on my bike, I was at the back of the pack.

Why are “buddy rides” called “buddy rides”?  I’ve never known.  Early each season, the Saturday training rides tend to alternate between “team rides” (in which we’re broken out into smaller “speed groups,” each with its own coaches) and the free-form “buddy rides,”  in which there are no sub-teams, just one big, blobby group.  I guess maybe I had a vague sense that this made us all buddies — bicycling comrades, if you will.

But on Saturday I found out the real meaning of the “buddy ride” — because I had a buddy for almost the whole ride.  One of the coaches, seeing me straggling near the back of the group, asked me to pair up with Emily.  Emily and I have been on a bunch of these teams together, and we’ve often been in the same speed sub-group (though, sneakily, she’s gotten faster than me in recent seasons) — but this was the first time that we’d ridden together throughout a buddy ride.  Initially, we made a bunch of wrong turns (mostly when I was leading), but Emily used the Google Map on her phone to find a way for us to get back on track.  As the ride progressed, we encouraged and joked with each other — especially during the toughest part, a very, very long ascent up Redwood Road.  I mean, it seemed infinitely long: you’d think, Just after the next turn, that’ll be the top — and then there would be more up.  But eventually we did reach the top — at which point Emily warned me that another tough climb (up Pinehurst) was approaching.

As we finally closed in on the last chunk of this 52-mile ride, I suddenly got the “buddy” part: it wasn’t just an amorphous group of riders — we had buddies, so that (as much as possible) no one rode alone.  Yeah, I know: Duh!  But I’d never before been so conscious of the benefits of having a ride partner.

So again, lesson one: no Indian food the night before a ride.  And now lesson two: biking buddies are cool.

If you’d like to donate toward my big ride this year (and thus help the fight against blood cancers), which will be a 188-mile route from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 15 & 16, just click here.  To get juicy (well, maybe sweaty) details from my ride this week, just click on the map below.

Catching Up

When I started this blog, I intended to write an entry every day.  It hasn’t worked out that way: I notice, for example, that my previous entry was on July 10, 2014 — and that entry described something that had happened back on June 1 of that year.  The thing is, I have this cool app — Remember The Milk — that gives me a to-do list each day.  And one of the items on that list that recurs daily tells me to write a blog item.  At the end of each day I delete the items I haven’t gotten to — one of which, pretty much always, is to write a blog item — and the app generates that very same to-do for the next day.  Which I then delete.  And so on.

So let me just say that it feels really great to be writing this entry, if for no other reason than that I’ll be able to check off “Write blog entry” as done.

I find that a lot of my aspirations have to do with catching up.  Right now I’m taking driving lessons, and if all goes well I will get my first driver’s license on May 22, the day after my 56th birthday.  Also, there’s my senior thesis for Princeton, which was due in 1980.  Several years ago I submitted one of my monologues, Citizen Josh, as my thesis — but the current thesis adviser told me that, as he read the rules, I needed to add a section that was more, you know, thesis-y.  I’m working on that now. …  Well, I’m aspiring to work on that now, would be more accurate.  It could start happening at any moment.  I used to have a daily recurring item on my Remember The Milk list that said “Work on thesis” — but at some point, perhaps because of a stray keystroke, that item fell away.

*        *        *

I just tabbed over to Remember The Milk and added “Work on thesis.”  We’ll see if it sticks.

In the meantime, let me try to get caught up on my recent training rides with Team In Training (TNT).  This is my fourth season with TNT, which organizes events that raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  That last entry I wrote was about my third cycling century (that is, 100-mile ride) with TNT.  This year — because most of my former teammates were doing it, because I’ve always loved Seattle and wanted to visit Vancouver, B.C., and because of the invisible hand of a possibly sadistic cycling god — I’ve signed up for an even longer ride: 188 miles, over two days, from Seattle to Vancouver, on August 15 & 16.  (If you want to donate towards my ride, you can do so here.)

My goal has been to write up each weekly training ride as an entry on my blog, but for some reason I’ve had a harder-than-usual time getting going on that this year.  So this first entry of the 2015 season will cover the first bunch of rides — after which, I’m actually pretty confident, I’ll get back into the weekly blogging rhythm.

*        *        *

I’ll start with last Saturday’s ride — a 48.7 mile slog through the great flatness of Vacaville, Calif.  If you click on the map below, you can see all kinds of details from my ride, like heart rate, cadence, and other records of my glorious suffering:

This — due to a couple of beautiful bar and bat mitzvahs I’d attended on recent Saturdays, which kept me from training on those days — was my first ride with my newly assigned rider group.  (There are lots and lots of riders on the team, and we’re separated out into different mini-groups, according to our speed.)  My group’s coach, Kieran, is terrifically witty, and so I’d anticipated that she would be relatively easygoing as a coach.  Um, no.  She’s an ass-kicker (though still very funny).  We were practicing pace-lining — in which everyone takes turns at the front of the single-file line of riders, presumably blocking the wind for everybody — and we were going at what I thought was already a pretty challenging pace.  But after a SAG (refreshment) stop, Kieran casually mentioned to me that she was going to try to get us to push the pace by a couple mph.  So instead of going about 14 mph (along mostly flatness, against a moderate wind), we were doing around 16.  Which was kind of okay, until the flatness subtly became a slight uphillness — at which point pushing the pace became way harder to do.

It’s a mystery to me how other cyclists can go so much faster than I can.  Just by looking at many of them, I can deduce that at least part of their advantage is that, unlike me, they are so thin as to be essentially weightless.  Gravity cannot find them.  Wind goes through them.  They are made of muscle and sinew and bone and very little else: they were clearly designed by God for cycling.  Okay, I get that.  But how to account for all these other speedy cyclists — people who, like me, are not at all skinny?  Why are they so much faster than me?  I have no idea.  It’s not like I’m not trying.  It’s just that there’s this, like, invisible molasses surrounding me, kind of like Pigpen’s dirt-cloud in the Peanuts comics.

Well, I did try pushing the pace, with sporadic success — but it was a strain.  Literally.  I could feel my back and one of my legs straining a bit to keep going that fast.  And then, a couple of days later (yesterday), my hip and lower back started feeling wonky.  So I’m a little intimidated about continuing with Kieran’s ride group — rather than, say, asking to move down a speed group — but as a Kieran fanboy I’m quite reluctant to do so.  We’ll see.

*        *        *

Here’s a map of my previous training ride, in Marin:

I remember that ride (a “buddy ride” — that is, not in our speed groups but just kind of all together) as being pretty fun.  Though lots of times it doesn’t feel fun on a moment-by-moment basis, except for when I’m going downhill.  What’s cool/weird is that I’m actually almost always — even when struggling up a steep hill — having kind of a great time: I’m on my beautiful bike, in lovely surroundings, with my wonderful TNT pals.  I just don’t fully feel my enjoyment till afterwards, possibly around the time I’m back home and soaking in Epsom salts while reading the latest issue of Bicycling magazine — or, as it’s known to cyclists, “bike porn.”

It hasn’t escaped my notice that two of the activities that have brought so much to my life recently — cycling, and volunteering at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco — call upon their practitioners to live in the moment.  Actually, cycling (especially going uphill, and/or against the wind) forces me to live in the moment — just focus on the next pedal stroke: sometimes, near the beginning of a long ride, I find myself wondering how I will possibly become the person who has finished that ride, hours later; but it happens, over and over again.  Amazing, this time thing.

*        *        *

The ride before that one — also in Marin — brings up painful memories for me … not because of the ride itself, but because my new Garmin device, which tracks my every move on the bike and then uploads to the Internet, turned out to be glitchy and only recorded the first 27 seconds of a 22.74-mile course.  Thus the map below gives a severely truncated account of that day’s ride:

After the ride, I went to the amazingly helpful folks at Mike’s Bikes in Berkeley, where I’d bought the Garmin, and they quickly swapped it out for another one — which works fine.

It’s a little scary to realize how emotionally dependent I am on the upload from each ride — almost as if, without a map and stats I can point to, the ride never happened!  It’s an if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest kind of thing.

*        *        *

Before that, I rode with my teammates around Orinda and environs:

And a week before that, we biked around Livermore:

Which leaves only the season-launching ride the previous Sunday, in Pinole:

The first ride of each season is always relatively easy, and is intended to lull the prospective participant into a false feeling of confidence.  This has always worked for me.  As the weeks go by, and the courses get more and more nearly-impossible, I will fleetingly think back longingly to that first ride.  And then I’ll get to the next nearly-straight-up hill, with the wind blowing vehemently into my face, and I’ll just have to pin my ears back and move ahead, one pedal-stroke at a time.

And then, the next week, I’ll do it again.  I know: it doesn’t sound like me, with all this persistence.  But it’s what’s happening.

Go figure.

*        *        *

Again, if you’d like to contribute toward my ride — and thus help to fight blood cancers, and to support cancer patients and their loved ones — you can do so here.

When You Are a Man, Sometimes You Wear Stretchy Pants

About a month ago (I’ve been resting my blogging muscles since then), I completed my third 100-mile bike ride — the accurately named “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” in Tahoe.  As with my two previous “centuries,” I did this one with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT — because, really, do you think they’d want to be known as “TiT”?).  Don’t want to bury the lede, so here it is: I had a blast!  I love my teammates!  And thanks to a bunch of very generous people, I was able to surpass my personal $2,700 fundraising goal, ending up with $4,238.22 to fight blood cancers and to support patients and their loved ones.  Thanks so much to everyone who donated, or who offered words of encouragement! A couple of big changes since my previous century ride:

  • New bike — a nifty “road bike,” instead of my heavier “hybrid,” which is much more suited for commuting than for very long (and hilly) rides.
  • Stretchy pants.
Just about to start riding in Tahoe (pants redacted).

Just about to start riding in Tahoe (pants redacted).

This second transition was arguably more nerve-wracking than the first.  I did not want to wear stretchy pants: I am a fellow who likes to preserve some mystery.  But my beloved (and sometimes intimidating) head coach, K.Sue, became increasingly adamant on this point.  As she saw it, I had already gotten so close to being a real, honest-to-God cyclist — road bike, “clipless” pedals (which means, paradoxically, pedals with clips), and such — but had stopped tantalizingly short: with my shorts.  The baggy shorts I favored were clearly knocking 0.000001 mph off my top speed, and this needed to be rectified.

So on June 1, amid thousands of other cyclists, I rode “naked.”  There was nothing between my lower parts and the warm mountain air other than a thin layer of stretchy stuff.  And it was … okay!  Someone on my team even complimented me on my shapely legs, though I think maybe she was kidding.  In any case, it felt like another step towards becoming the kind of person both of my brothers would see at Peet’s and laugh at — which is something.

Here’s the map of my ride; you can click on it to embiggen and to see all sorts of details (none of them involving my legs):


Oh My God Something Really Gross Happened on My Last Training Ride I Mean Nothing Terrible Just Yowza!

So I stepped in some human poo.  Lots of it — a big, soft mound.  We were at our SAG stop — where kind volunteers offer us food and beverages — and I needed to pee.  I saw one of your garden-variety skinny cycling guys emerge from a path that led into the nearby woods and I thought (not unreasonably), Hey, that’s probably a good place for me to pee!  So I headed down that path, which was pretty narrow, and my focus was on some dicey-looking plants along the side: I was remembering my wife saying, “Leaves of three, let them be.”  So I’m looking left and right, worrying about leaves of three, when I stepped in something soft and gushy.  And big: my cycling shoes sunk in almost all the way.  And I thought, Please, dear God, let this be mud!  Only, it hadn’t been raining.  And when I re-emerged from the path, all my teammates started exclaiming (not unreasonably) that something smelled really bad.  I mean, it was epically awful.  People thought it might be from a nearby farm or something.  And I couldn’t get the stuff off my shoes!  The poo had glopped into all the nooks and crevices of the cleats, and up from there.  It was Biblical!  And I still had, like, 30 miles left to ride with my teammates!

I’m sure you stopped reading this disgusting account a while ago, so now I’m probably just re-living this horror to my own self … but, wow!!  I tried riding behind everyone else, but sometimes we all bunched up (like at a stoplight) and people would start yelling (quite understandably) that something smelled just awful.  And that something was me!  And there was nothing I could do about it!  (I mean, I’d used up a whole bunch of diaper wipes, and everything, on the damn shoes — it was hopeless.)

And now, because you’re not actually reading this, I’m going to tell you what happened when I first went to day camp.  I was, oh, I don’t know, maybe five or so?  And having grown up in Manhattan, I’d never been in nature before — which is to say, away from a normal bathroom.  And as I hiked with the other kids and our counselors, I realized that I needed to poo.  But there was no bathroom!  Finally, we got to this ancient Port-a-Potty type thing, and I was terrified to go in there.  But I really, really needed to go!  All the other kids were going in there, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.  Till finally, well, I just relaxed my sphincter and … you know. …  As we headed back to the bus, people started commenting that something smelled like poo.  I agreed, suggesting that it was perhaps from a wild animal.  This diversionary tactic became totally ineffective once we were actually back on the bus.  A counselor asked me why I had done what I’d done.  I don’t remember what I said in reply.  But I was, as you might imagine, quite embarrassed.

And then … 50 years went by, during which I never smelled strongly of poo (my own, or another’s).  Fifty years!  That’s a pretty good stretch of poo-less-ness.  But all good things must come to an end, and some bad things come from an end, and these two vectors of fate intersected on Saturday, because of a really, really inconsiderate cyclist with an impressive capacity for poo production (especially considering his overall skinniness).

At the end of our ride, there was — wait for it — a team cookout!  And no, I didn’t attend the cookout, of course.  Meanwhile, I noticed that sprinklers had gone on in a nearby field, so while everyone else was cookout-ing, I ran over and held my soiled cycling shoes up to the nozzle of a sprinkler.  My goal was to de-soil the shoes, but what this ended up doing was distributing the poo molecules throughout the entire shoe.  So I went over to where there was a dispenser of plastic bags for dog-walkers, and I took a bunch of them and totally wrapped up my drenched, poo-ey shoes (I had been offered a car ride back to BART, and I wasn’t about to inflict these shoes on anyone else!) and walked, barefoot and sad, back to the parking lot.  There were sharp things in the parking lot — splinters, and such — but what I’m telling you is, I just didn’t care!

Well, when I got back home I threw out those shoes.  Yes! — even though I’m broke-ass!  And I bought a new pair — because, well, POO!!  I know this was extravagant on my part, but before you cast the first stone, try riding a few miles in my old bike shoes.

And hey: otherwise, it was a lovely ride!  Here’s the map, which you can click on for all kinds of cool details (none of them, thankfully, olfactory):

And here are my two previous training rides:

This coming Sunday, June 1, I’ll finally be doing the big event: “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride,” a 100-miler, in Tahoe, with my teammates from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.  Thanks to everyone who donated towards my ride — it means the world to me, and to cancer patients and their loved ones!  (You can still contribute, if you want, by clicking here.)

I’m really sorry about the disgustingness of this blog entry, but I just had to write it, so that the healing could begin.

I mean, yeesh!

Training Rides #8 & #9: Near-Bonk Experience

[For the next month, 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.]

Me during the May 3 ride (after my near-bonk), with some of my TNT teammates -- each one of them a bicycling bad-ass and a lovely person.

Me during the May 3 ride (after my near-bonk), with some of my TNT teammates — each one of them a bicycling bad-ass and a lovely person.

I was climbing up a hill during last week’s training ride, in and around Half Moon Bay, when I suddenly felt like a machine that was overheating and out of fuel — which, I guess, is what I was.  I’d missed two full weeks of training and working out, but the early part of this ride had seemed to go okay.  Now, though, I was on this difficult ascent, and suddenly it wasn’t just difficult — it was kind of hallucinogenic.  So I did something I hadn’t done before, in (now) three years of endurance training with TNT: I got off my bike during a climb.

My body felt clammy now, and my legs were shaky.  I took a long drink from one of my water bottles (to which I’d added a “hydration mix” called Skratch), then wolfed down an entire package of super-sweet gummy Shot Bloks.  Possibly I was just on the edge of bonking, the dreaded affliction that comes upon all endurance cyclists at some point (I’m told): basically, your body runs out of fuel, and shuts down.  People have told me of crying uncontrollably by the side of the road and other yucky post-bonk manifestations; it sounds horrible, and usually you can’t recover from a bonk in time to finish your ride.

I was probably fortunate that the heatwave that attacked the Bay Area during the previous week had given way to a lovely coolness: had the temperatures been higher, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to recover.  But the moments’ rest, along with the hydration and sugar rush, revived me enough to get back on my bike and finish that hill.

But then there were still many more miles — and climbs — left to go!  And what happened was, I reconnected with my speed-group teammates (I’d briefly gotten separated from them during my near-bonk experience), and I got a second wind (or something), and I mostly felt stronger and stronger for the rest of the 69-mile ride (you can click on this map to see more details):

Afterwards, I reflected on how there are two big, bad things you can feel on a tough ride:  One is pain — and that seems to be unavoidable, and even can become something you kind of enjoy (in a masochistic sort of way), especially after the fact.  But the other — the bonk — is a sudden negation of self, and it’s terrifying and sad and empty.  I didn’t go there last weekend, but I got closer than I’d like.

*       *       *

My previous training ride, two weeks earlier (see map below), was a tough one as well.  Starting and ending at lovely Stafford Lake in Novato, we did a bunch of climbing — including the notorious Marshall Wall.  The Marshall Wall goes straight up, into infinity.  Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one.

Lots of aches and pains during this ride, but — thankfully — no hint of bonking.  And when it was over, I could eat anything I wanted to, guilt-free — which is a big part of the sport’s appeal to me (another part being the celebratory, post-ride Epsom-salt bath).

Training Rides #6 & #7: Speed 3

[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.]

So there I was last Saturday, going downhill in or around San Leandro (see map below; click on it for ride details), and I realized that I was going really fast — for me, at least.  When I hit little things in the road, my bike seemed to kind of launch into the air for a bit, and also my helmet (which I’d thought was really on tightly) started flopping up and down.  I found this interesting.  Then my front wheel went over a manhole cover, which has a swirly pattern on it (I think), and all of a sudden my bike was acting like a drunkard: trying really hard to swerve, alternately to the left and to the right.  I held on for dear life, as traffic zoomed by to the left of me; it felt as though there was a very good chance that I would lose control of the bike and find myself on the pavement, going (at least initially) 34.4 mph.  But — within seconds, probably, though it felt much longer at the time — things were back to normal and I was moving forward again, under control.

All of which is to say that I’ve been riding a bit faster lately.  I’d already moved up from the slowest group (my hangout in the past) to the next-fastest group, and on Saturday I’m going to move up yet another notch.  (Just to be clear, I’m still way slower than lots and lots of the riders on our team — I think maybe they have secret electric motors somewhere.)

But unlike last week — a “Buddy Ride,” not organized by speed groups — on this next ride I’ll be with a coach and teammates, which should be much safer.

Psychologically, it’s an adjustment not being in the slowest group, where my only goal was to — please, dear God! — finish each ride.  Now my identity is in flux, and my goals are less clear: I mean, I still want to finish, of course, but I also want to see improvement each time I go out.  So I’m kind of competing with myself, which I wasn’t doing before.  And the thing about competing with yourself is that, no matter what, one version of yourself will always lose.

Hey, this is great — I’m finding new ways to humiliate myself!!

*     *     *

My previous ride (see map below) was in and around Walnut Creek.  It was both beautiful and full of pain and heavy breathing (which is how I hope critics receive my erotic novel, if I ever write one).  I see from (click on the map) that my highest speed that day was only 31.3 mph — so apparently between that speed and 34.4 my bike and I enter a new state of being — one that involves floating in the air and swerving and some helmet mishegas.

This coming Saturday I will try to test my theory (based on hearsay) that, if I can get myself to descend with my hands down in the drops, instead of on top of the bars (as I currently do), my lowered center of gravity will give me more stickiness on the road.  Also, I will try to avoid swirly-topped manhole covers — which, dear reader, I recommend you do as well.

Training Rides #4 & #5: The Descents of Man

[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.

Drop bars, as they exist in nature.

Drop bars, as they exist in nature.

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. …

The Great Nibali (tummy not included).

The Great Nibali (tummy not included).

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.

Training Rides #2 & #3: Roubaix, Mon Amour

[For the next several months, I will be posting dispatches from my weekly training rides with Team In Training, as I prepare for the 100-mile “America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride” 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.]

My second and third rides were both in Marin, and were both lovely and pretty relaxing, so they’re kind of mixing together in my mind.  Here’s the first one, on March 1 (you can click on the map to get more details):

Last Saturday’s ride took us along the Paradise Loop, which left me feeling paradisiacal and loopy:

Neither ride was very challenging, so both gave me plenty of time to daydream about how incredibly hard the rides were soon going to get. After a few years of training on my hybrid bike, riding my new bike — my lovely Roubaix — feels like almost a different sport entirely: this bike wants to go forward.  I think my new bike might secretly look down on me, as perhaps it was hoping to be ridden by a pro — or at least one of those road-biking bad-asses who un-secretly look down on me.  (Last season, at a brief stop during a long training ride, I found myself walking directly towards a gentleman who was perhaps in his 60s.  Clearly an excellent and seasoned biker, he wore his stretchy biking clothes like a second skin; and of course he had the wraparound shades.  I was feeling proud and happy to have gotten to wherever we were in the mountains, and I gave him a big smile and wave and a “Hi!” — you know, as one road-cyclist to another.  He didn’t even acknowledge me — didn’t smile or wave back or even pause.  And I knew why: He was a cycling bad-ass; I wasn’t.  Maybe one day, when I’ve gotten really good and have begun to wear wraparound shades and have zero-point-zero-one body fat, he will finally acknowledge me.  Of course, by then he will be over 100 and the world will all be underwater.)  But I think I can win over my new bike.  When it sees how hard I work, how determined I am to improve, it will — at first begrudgingly — cut me some slack.  Eventually, it may even come to admire me, the way Sherlock came to admire Dr. Watson.

But here’s the thing, no matter how many bad things my bike may think about me, it treats me royally!  There were a few times, in the last two rides, when I had to stop at a red light and fell behind some of the other riders.  On each occasion, I … well, what it felt like is that I just thought about going faster.  I must have been pressing the pedals a bit harder as well, but it felt more natural, more organic and magical than that.  It felt as though, once I’d had the thought that it would be really nice to catch up with the folks ahead of me, my bike just started zooming forward.  This linkage — of intention, to power, to speed — was exhilarating.

Now, don’t get me wrong: climbing is still really hard.  This isn’t an electric bike!  And the climbing is only going to get harder on our upcoming rides.  But it’s quite a feeling to be riding a machine that is so exquisitely designed for the task of zipping along roadways.  As you may know, I don’t know how to drive a car (yet!), so this is my first inkling of what all you normal people are talking about when you rave about how it feels to drive a great car.  My new bike makes me smile, and I can’t wait till 2097, when I will finally have paid it off!

P.S.: Apropos of nothing, here’s a bike-related secret thought that I can share with you: Every time a teammate calls out “Gravel!” as a warning to us fellow cyclists, I think “Gravel agent!”  You know, like travel agent, only with gravel.  This delights me.  I don’t know why. …  That is all.