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(Yesterday) I was Laurent Fignon’s Fat, Wheezing Neighbour

June 8, 2012

(Yesterday’s) Ride: 65km—Mineral Springs & Good Friday RR

Weather: Sunny

The problem with developing an aura of cycling invincibility is that it is always temporary. Just like the perpetually elusive search for la volupté, that sense of being able to do anything in the saddle—en forme, but so much more than that—is fleeting. After a good ride—such as Monday’s, where I felt I was able to emulate (poorly) Laurent Fignon’s smooth power—even off the bike, the arrogant confidence remains. One stands taller, prouder. One feels as though their entire body and psyche is emitting beams of confidence and invincibility. But that is all fleeting and the opposite is also true: after a poorer ride, the person reverts to their true, protean self.

Let’s be clear: I wasn’t wheezing. But stiffness and aches characterized the ride. And the energy that typified the past two rides was decidedly absent. The gears were smaller. The arrogance: gone Still, 65km over some nice hilly terrain, including Weirs Lane again, was fine—and, more importantly—a completion of the planned route, rather than looking for shortcuts. Finished and in good time. I felt better at the end, but not great. Enough to not be  total wreck the rest of the day. And a day on the bike is always better than not.

Unconscious

June 7, 2012

Today’s Ride: 26km—Mineral Springs & Weirs Lane

Weather: Sunny

Continuing the string of good form. I was on automatic during this morning’s ride. Unconscious. I got to Binkley Rd., and found myself wondering how I’d gotten there. It was going to be a short ride, but I’d ridden so smoothly, easily, and quickly—with limited exertion—that I elected to go up Weirs Lane, to tack on a few kilometres and take on a bit more climbing. Weirs Lane—600m @ 17%—can be tough, but I think I handled it fairly well. And recovered quickly.

Today I was Laurent Fignon

June 4, 2012

Today’s Ride: 120km—This

Weather: Cloudy, overcast, windy, stormy. Heavy rain at the end of the ride.

Over the past week or so, I’ve been reading Laurent Fignon’s autobiography, We Were Young and Carefree. Along with Steve Bauer taking the maillot jaune at the Tour de France, Laurent Fignon is one of my earliest memories of pro cycling. Among a host of cyclists, le professeur stood out with his spectacles and long blond hair. There was something fluid, natural, noble about his style. Even in years when the Tour didn’t go his way, Fignon—the former two-time Tour winner—always commanded the camera’s attention and respect. Even when his strength wasn’t there—at the end of his career when EPO-infused riders took the pace to inhuman levels—there was a beautiful efficiency in his stroke.

In his autobiography, Fignon described going on training rides, which consisted of his riding in the 53×14 or 53×15. Today, I was Laurent Fignon, riding almost exclusively in those two gears. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been running lower gears. Wondering when and hoping that I might be able to ratchet up the power more comfortably. Sometimes, of course, the problem is more psychological than physical. Today, in spite of wrestling with fatigue from not having ridden a great deal over the past week, I pushed myself. Several days off the bike, and I start to feel sluggish, flabby, weak. Regular riding, and everything is easy. But today didn’t really involve pushing, even though I was tired. My body responded, and the ride went well. I felt strong, but the rhythm itself took over.

I was ragged to start and worried about the length of the ride, since today seemed like it might be a jour sans. But patience—waiting to develop the strength, waiting to write off the day’s writing—paid dividends, and I settled into a comfortable cadence. The winds buffeted from in front and from the side, but I still moved well. The tailwinds allowed me to maintain a terrific speed with little effort. I was flying down 25 Sideroad, reminded of why I enjoyed riding and riding solo.

The grey clouds only added to the ride’s ambience. Until I was closing in on home and the heavens opened. In the space of twenty minutes I went from strong and fast to drowned rat. A moment of vanity had me admiring the glossy, wet sheen on my legs from the rain. And the pace only slackened a little in the wet, instigated likely as much by the fact that I was on the home stretch as because of the rain. I shifted down the cassette just a little, and rode 53×17 across the top of the escarpment and then down, squeezing on wet and fairly unresponsive brakes.

But it was a good ride. I managed the 120km in a whisker over four hours. Not a bad pace at all given the distance, the rolling hills, and the conditions.

Resolve

May 31, 2012

Growing up, I played competitive soccer in Vancouver. At 19, I had a professional trial with Oxford United; it’s become an old go-to line, but I like to claim that I’m the only academic who ever went to Oxford for the soccer. There’s something pure about soccer that I continue to appreciate, although I don’t play anymore and don’t really miss it. Something about the art of the game—how numbers and statistics can’t explain the result as well as they might in any number of other sports.

One teammate and old friend of mine comes to mind. Dave was one of the best players I’ve ever played with—and one of the few “soccer” friends I still have. He was a consummate goal-scorer; he had the necessary personality (that cold clarity in front of the goal) to finish, which is easier said than done. I’m not sure if it’s a skill (I never acquired it) or just something that’s ingrained or wired in certain people. At any rate, Dave had it. He was quite skilled, but something I noticed over years of playing with him was that he wasn’t all that fast. In the heat of the game, though, nobody was ever going to beat him to the ball. He spent the entire ninety minutes on the field in such a high state of determination that good things came to him. He had resolve.

Resolve isn’t something you can quantify. It doesn’t occur at a particular heart rate or require a special kind of musculature. It’s a mental or psychological aspect that allows an athlete to dig deeper, to push farther, to try harder. When athletes reach their physical threshold, the question becomes who can maintain that threshold longest? Cycling uphill is an especially rapid and acute method of reaching one’s physical limit. The lungs burn, the heart pounds, and the legs ache. But how long can you maintain the agony? How long can you put it aside? Bradley Wiggins once famously noted that you’re only ever one minute from bonking, so all you have to do is keep on going for one more minute.

Nice thought in theory, but that’s only a part of how resolve works. Resolve involves preparing for the hurt, too. Luck favours the prepared mind, claimed Louis Pasteur. Preparation (not “preparation”) is tantamount. On the bike. At work. At home. Resolve requires the single-mindedness to succeed. Whatever the odds or obstacles. To prepare for the struggle. To prepare to endure at (and beyond) the threshold.

Because I Could

May 30, 2012

Today’s Ride: 70km—Crooks Hollow, Sheffield, Harrisburg, Jerseyville

Weather: Sunny, mild

I rode this morning. Because I could. Or: because I could, I rode this morning. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or overly confident or too full of myself. On the contrary, I would like to push for a cycling campaign based on “because I can” as a sign of heightened humility. Interpret “because I could” in multiple ways.

1. Because I had available time in the morning without any other obligations, I went for a ride.

2. Because I had the physical ability to take on a hard ride, I went for a 70km ride.

3. Because I have the privilege of being able to own an expensive road bike and can spare the time away from work, I went for a ride.

4. Because a safe neighbourhood and safe roads are available to me, I went for a ride.

You get the point. When taken in isolation, “because I can” sounds selfish and egocentric. But it can also serve as a poignant reminder of the luxury and privilege associated with the freedom to ride. It’s an advantage I have over many people, near and far. I’m not tied to a desk or a factory, but I also live in a peaceful and affluent part of the world, where I can ride carefree.

Physical ability. This is a source of some personal pride—that my fitness has improved markedly over the past couple of years—my weight and cycling ability are much better than at almost any other point in my life. Also, after Sunday’s very long ride, I was itching to get out again—and able to do so without any aches, pains, or soreness (because I could). It was a good ride at a fairly relaxed pace. Spinning and just enjoying the fresh air (another luxury) and the motion. It was a peaceful experience.

Privilege. This blog was set up to raise funds and awareness for Bikes to Rwanda. I’ve moved away from that mission a little over the past few months. Not intentionally, and I plan to return to it, but I have been reluctant to turn to the same individuals for further sponsorship, and am investigating ways to expand the fundraising efforts (suggestions most welcome). It was designed as a constant reminder of the privilege I enjoy and typically take for granted. Today’s ride—its timing, its geography, its method, etc.—is especially indicative of this.

Put the two together and you uncover another kind of privilege. That I am not just able to ride, in terms of the social freedom and geography I enjoy, but also because I have the requisite health and fitness, derived from ample time to train and exercise.

I’d like to explore this notion of “because I can” further in the future, so it likely seems strange to finish with the pics below, but this was my greeting as I hit Sager Rd., about the furthest point from home on today’s ride. Not, I hope, any symbolic representation of my riding, abilities, or future riding—and certainly not suggestive of what I mean by “because I can.”

Vulture in the middle of the road.

I got rather close before it decided to get out of the way. One of three or four circling…

Ontario Cogal

May 29, 2012

Sunday’s Ride: 190km—Erin, Fork of the Credit

Weather: Overcast, warm

Some rides serve as strong reminders of why I love to ride, and Sunday’s Ontario Cogal was just such a ride. 190 kilometres, taking in some of the big climbs in the area: Sydenham, Snake Rd., Rattlesnake were all on the cards on our way out to the Shed Coffee Bar in Erin (which, incidentally, I can strongly recommend: beautiful place with great food, coffee, and service).

Sunday’s ride was a bunch of things for me. First and foremost, it was the first Canadian Cogal. What’s a Cogal? Well, the Illuminati had their cabals; the Velominati have their cogals. Basically a group of like-minded cycling misfits—for whom looking pro is almost as important as riding like one—congregated at Café Domestique for a challenging ride through some of southern Ontario’s beautiful cycling country. The course was not for the weak of heart, but we were six departing from Dundas under cloudy skies. The forecasted thunderstorms never materialized, but they seemed like an ever-present threat.

Furthermore, I was the host, so I was proud to show off some of the great riding available around here, and picked out a course that took in a number of my favourite roads and some of the climbs that would present a bit of a challenge.

At the same time, we were tasked with special cargo. In addition to the Cogal, the group served as the first espresso post ride. We took with us a Café Domestique jersey to deliver to the Shed and returned with a Shed jersey for Domestique. Kind of cool exchange. And neat to be a part of that.

Finally, the ride was kind of preparation for the Vermont ride. 190 kilometres is a long day, but I felt good. I was strong going up, solid on the flats, and confident descending. Even better: I definitely could have maintained the pace longer. In a lot of ways, this ride was the acid test to see if I could actually manage Vermont. Today was a good sign.

Riding in company was nice, too. There was a range of fitness and strength in the ride, but everyone survived, and I enjoyed riding up and down the ranks and chatting with everyone as the group accordioned out on the road and came together. I also enjoyed the moments of exertion as I raced to catch up with the lead riders. Legs felt good. And not so tired the next day. All good.

Meeting the Man with the Hammer

May 24, 2012

Today’s Ride: 91km—Jerseyville, Harrisburg, Clyde, Valens

Weather: Sunny: hot & humid

Paul Fournel has a lovely short essay about bonking: about meeting the man with the hammer, who taps a rider on the back of the neck, after which the body cannot continue. The body just shuts down and the simple rhythm of turning the cranks—such an obvious and easy activity not two minutes earlier—becomes an other-worldly impossibility. The head drops. Eyes fall on the bottom bracket, almost with incredulity.

Bonking isn’t just about physical exhaustion; it’s an expression of total and utter defeat. In this sense, it’s as much psychological. Debilitatingly so. The invincibility that comes with the pain associated with riding or climbing well evaporates. On Tuesday’s ride I was invincible; today I was broken. Fournel:

The Man with the Hammer is hidden behind a turn (you don’t know which one), and he’s waiting for you. When you go by with sprightly legs, he smashes his big old hammer on your neck and turns you into a wreck.

It wasn’t my first blow-up, but it always comes as a surprise. And knowing what’s happening does little to mitigate the horror. As Fournel correctly observes:

You can’t anticipate this kind of fatigue. It appears suddenly and it is terrible. You’d sell your soul to get rid of it.

I spent the last eternity of today’s ride—it was probably only about an hour—an absolute wreck. I’m not quite sure when it started, but I think I was already weak by the time I had turned into the easterly wind. My body ached; my saddle felt like granite; my shoulder and neck became stiff; my thoughts became dark and gloomy. Fournel again:

Every blowup is a serious descent into oneself, into murky regions where things seem to knot up incessantly.

My legs seemed fine, actually, but with the rest of my body in revolt, there was little they could do to rally the troops.

And the ride had started very well. I felt very strong riding up Wilson Street, and maintained that form through Jerseyville and into Harrisburg. I was riding well, in the big ring. Everything was fluid. I don’t think I over-extended myself or pushed too hard. Everything just… stopped. Maybe it was the heat, or starting an hour later than usual, or going out with just a handful of dried figs and energy drink, or wearing an older pair of shorts, or the glass of chianti I had after dinner last night. Or some combination of all these things. Or maybe the Man with the Hammer decided today was my turn to bonk—or he just happened into my path, purely by accident.

But there’s hope. As Fournel pointed out in the conclusion of his piece:

After a blowup your organism is altered. There’s a kind of purification in falling flat, an impression of fasting. A threshold is crossed that brings you closer to being in shape—the next day, when the worst of the tiredness is over, you feel it. To such an extent that some racers include a blowup in their training. I remember Fignon, three days before the world championships, setting off to do three hundred kilometres alone, with a cereal bar. He went out to meet the Man with the Hammer.

The view from Jerseyville Road.

One of many leafy tunnels on today’s ride.

The View from Rattlesnake Point

May 22, 2012

Today’s Ride: 90lm—Rattlesnake Point, down to Lakeshore, back up the escarpment, and down again

Weather: Warm, muggy

I found myself ruminating on Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” on my ride this morning. It occurs to me that “I hurt myself today/Just to see if I could feel” serves as something of a badge for most cyclists. Cycling is most glorious when it’s painful—when sensations are at their most heightened. Being able to suffer the pain and overcome it offers a kind of physical success that many contemporary cyclists—in their white-collar lives and worlds—can rarely experience in other facets of everyday life. It’s a curious juxtaposition that my body does its hardest “work” in the saddle rather than at the office. That I can feel my muscles and lungs during exertions on the bicycle is both painful and wonderful at the same time. It is a reminder that this body is meant to work, meant to strain. And become stronger in so doing.

I climbed Rattlesnake Point this morning for the first time this year. It hurt. But pain is temporary. Too quickly, I found myself in the lowest gear, and worried that I still had a long way to go. I tried to control my breathing as best I could, but even that was soon ragged, and I hadn’t yet hit the hairpin turn, after which another 200m would get me to the top. Rattlesnake Point tops out at 22%, but it’s not the steepness as much as it is the unrelenting grade, much sooner than you imagine. From Derry Rd., the road starts to climb—slightly at first, but already quite noticeably before you hit the trees. At the first turn, you’re already fully immersed in the climb and the pitch is fierce. 500m away, the Bell School Line offers an alternative ramp up to the same point. It’s milder, with two steps of roughly 100m each at 17%, but the break in the middle allows the rider to recover just slightly in order to assault the second ramp. Not so on Appleby Line, where the climb is fiercer and longer and unremitting.

From the top of Rattlesnake Point

The leafy green belies both the steepness and the length of the hurt required to get to this point. It almost looks serene. To compound the discomfort, I’ve been struggling with a sore throat and a bit of congestion this week; neither could have done much for my breathing.

The main objective of today’s ride was to take in this climb and continue on. I feel I passed the test. Sydenham was not troubling today and I maintained a good pace up that. And within a minute or so after getting to the top of Rattlesnake Point (and the briefest of stops to snap the picture above), my breathing and heart rate had recovered and I was back on pace for the rest of the ride. In keeping with recent rides, I’ve been wanting to shoot for roughly 100k on each ride; this one came in a bit short—90—but I enjoyed the ride down to the lakeshore and then back up the escarpment before wheeling down Sydenham Rd. into Dundas. Pace, speed, and power were good, and but for a bit of congestion and a chesty cough, sensation felt good.

Sunday will bring the Velominati Ontario Cogal, which will start at Café Domestique in Dundas and make its way up to Erin for lunch—via Rattlesnake Point. And then back again along some interesting roads and up some fun climbs. Roughly 185km in total: that should be a good test.

Hunting New Game

May 19, 2012

Today’s Ride: 20km—Mineral Springs loop

Weather: Sunny, warming. It will be a hot day

Out shortly after 9:00 this morning. The chill was gone and it was clear that today would be a very warm day. But not yet. Typically, I’m very happy to ride my own pace, but this morning ahead of me on my way up Wilson St., there were a string of cyclists out ahead of me. After a couple of longer rides this week, this morning’s ride was always going to be a short 20k, so why not bury myself? I was happy turning a higher gear than usual, and felt pretty strong in doing so. Sometimes, all you need is a bit of motivation. Moving well and quickly on the mild incline, I realize that this is where my fitness tells.

Moving comfortably past cyclists, controlling my breathing, was a nice feeling. I didn’t feel over my limit at all, in spite of the greater effort. At the light, a couple of young, lean cyclists were clearly waiting for a friend before they started their way up Wilson St. I had an eerie feeling that the hunter (me) could become the hunted if their companion were to join them shortly. I never found out. One. Two. Three. Passing cyclists and maintaining a nice and fluid rhythm and not insignificant amount of speed. The fitness is coming along. I was in the inner ring, but on the 14t cog. By summer, I’ll be hammering up this in the big ring, but maybe the 17; not a lot in, maybe (I’ll need to do the math on that). Almost there. The final cyclist saw me coming and pushed hard as we reached Sulphur Springs Rd. I shifted into the big ring and powered my way along the rolling, but flatter terrain. He was clearly working much harder than I was, but I was gaining. Not enough, before the end of the road. He turned left; I turned right. I could almost sense his sigh of relief as he let off the pedals on his turn and hunched his shoulders from the exertion, as I turned the other way. Winding down towards Mineral Springs. I felt good. Even the faux flat at the bottom, which invariably kills my momentum caused no difficulty and I stayed in the big ring. It was a good day for a short, hard effort. And nice to see the improvement in fitness in a relatively short period of time.

Form: Where Art Thou?

May 17, 2012

Today’s Ride: 87km—Lower Base Line & back

Weather: Sunny, mild

Something doesn’t feel right. Form is absent. Returning, certainly: today was better than Tuesday, and my body was in less discomfort over the ride. And I was faster again. But I feel like I’m fighting the bike rather than working in unison with it. You can spot an adept cyclist by their form. Speed is secondary. Someone who is steady and smooth always looks better in the saddle. The stroke is fluid and the bike rolls, barely touching the ground. When form is absent, gravity becomes the enemy and every turn of the pedals is a struggle.

In part, this is a fitness issue, and the heavier rides over the past week have served as defibrillation; shocking the body back into shape. It’s coming, but the ease and smoothness that was hard-earned in October remains a distant memory. Speed is secondary. I don’t race, and while covering more ground in less time is unquestionably a good thing, doing so with a degree of style is paramount.

Morning chaos in the Velonista household meant I was late leaving for my ride. The eldest Velonista left very early for a school trip, while the littlest Velonista couldn’t find the “right” shorts for school. Meanwhile, the middle Velonista forgot her lunch, which meant I had to scurry off to her school to drop it off before getting out. All this was quickly forgotten as I rolled out for the ride. Up Sydenham, up Snake and along 1 Sideroad and out to Sixth Line along Lower Base Line. Some nice little hills and a change of scenery after doing the same route twice in different directions over the past two rides (although Sydenham has remained the constant. 1.3km @ 10%: this is a good starter and necessary test).