Tough as Nails: Through the Eyes of the Newly Converted
Recently, I learned more about suffering, toughness, and perseverance than I have in a long time from a dude who just started riding.
The bros over at Velominati (one of the best cycling blogs on the interwebs) recently posted about what it means to be a Cycling Sensei – guiding a newbie rider through the honeymoon phase of cycling discovery. It’s a great read and it got me thinking about the few times I’ve served as bike Sherpa to new riders.
I’ve had the privilege over the past few months to guide my brother Adam through this first phase of his cycling life, mostly via long phone calls. He’s been bitten by the bug and recently came out to California from his home in Florida to visit us. He’s only been riding for a short time but he already has one of the most important qualities that make up a devoted rider: he’s tough as nails. Always has been. When he was a starting offensive player for the Johns Hopkins University lacrosse team, he would regularly sacrifice body and blood to put the ball in the goal. I can’t remember exactly how many concussions he had during those years but it was indicative of his commitment that he did not know how to quit. He’s tackling cycling with the same crazed look in his eye.
I took him on a ride out to Half Moon Bay while he was here and honestly didn’t know if he was going to make it. It was the longest ride he’d undertaken up to that point. Just in case you needed a reminder about how great our sport is, here’s a great story through the eyes of the newly converted:
I reached a place beyond my limits yesterday.
My brother Matt (@artofgroupride) and I rode our bikes from Menlo Park, CA to Half Moon Bay–a 23 mile journey that took us through a forest, over a thousand foot high mountain, and ultimately to the Pacific Ocean. For many, this would have been a low-intensity Sunday activity, but for me it pressed my body to the very breaking point of my physical capabilities.
It began to look bleak only 20 minutes in when I suffered a severe cramp in my foot. Later my brother would tell me that when he saw me fall to the pavement in pain he was convinced we would be turning back at any moment. I kneaded the cramp out and climbed back on with determination, only to wince as the cramp returned immediately. The night before our ride, I watched a documentary film that followed a well-known German cycling team through the 2004 Tour de France. Its images of crashes, gashes, concussions and perseverance flashed in my mind as I pedaled up the long gentle slope in front of us. If they could do that, then I could do this. We continued forward towards the main 4 mile climb which wouldn’t begin for another 30 minutes. Matt set up a draft that allowed me to recover and rest–30mph over flat and lazily descending roads to our final checkpoint.
We rested for a moment at the base of the mountain and Matt gave me one more chance to back out. “We can either continue or go back, but if we continue now, we will have to finish no matter what.” I looked at him through clouded eyes. “This is not a choice. We’re going.” He half smiled and climbed on his bike. Around the first corner the ferocity of the ascent confronted me. Steeply up a narrow winding road we went, at a snail’s pace. The pain increased rapidly and my heart began to pound out of my chest. A mile in, as I was losing all sense of my situational awareness, I suddenly felt a hand on my lower back. I glanced to the left and saw my brother arduously spinning with one hand on his bars… he was pushing both of us up the mountain–legs for him and right hand for me. His calm voice occasionally broke the ambient hum of my breath, my bike and the traffic around us. “This is a good pace. Keep pedaling. We can almost see the top. Keep pedaling.” More images of emaciated German cyclists nursing their wounds and launching day after day into the Pyrenees switchbacks strobed behind my eyelids as I fought total collapse.
Finally we reached the summit after 23 minutes of blinding agony up 829 vertical feet. I unclipped and sat down. My lungs burned as I shallowly pumped the 40 degree air in out, in out. Stars danced in my periphery. I couldn’t put a single thought together. “That was… sick,” I heard my brother quietly cheer. For him really, it was nothing. He’s done over 40,000 miles on his current bike in the last four years. But for me, with just over 200 miles in the last 2 months, it was the impossible made possible. The last 7 miles led us down the western face at 50mph–an experience more frightening than painful–to a beached fishing trawler (which painted an accurate portrait of my emotional disposition at the moment), and finally to a small cliff–a club-level seat to the Pacific sunset in Half Moon Bay. We had done it.