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.
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AGR is almost one month old. If you’ve been along for the ride so far, thank you! If you’re just jumping in, welcome! One of the best aspects of blogging has been connecting with other bloggers who share a passion for riding a bike. Everyone has a story to tell, a perspective, insight, that’s what makes blogging and reading blogs so fun.
One blogger who I’ve recently connected with is Tony Steward over at Joe to Pro Cycling. Tony has a great blog and a really compelling story. He posted an interview he did with me last week and I’d thought I’d share one of my responses. You can read the full interview and check out Joe to Pro at the link at the end of this post. Thanks Tony!
What do you love most about cycling that gets you on the bike year after year?
This might sound kind of strange but one of the reasons I love cycling is that I’m fascinated with human transformation and growth. I once read that the human body is one of the only organisms in nature that doesn’t break down under stress but becomes stronger and more efficient (with appropriate recovery of course). Our bodies and minds are amazingly adaptable over long periods of time. When I first started training to race, I rode a lot with a friend who raced pro on the LA Sheriffs team back in the ’90′s. He had untold thousands of miles in his legs and always looked effortless on the bike. He told me that in your first 5 years of cycling, you’re literally teaching your body how to become more efficient – oxygen consumption, energy expenditure, muscles/heart/brain working in syncopation. There are changes and adaptations going on in your body on the cellular level.
The key, he told me, is to just relax and let the body and mind do their thing. You can’t rush growth and transformation. It takes years, not just a few months, for these changes to take place. It’s a much longer view than just “getting in shape.” That’s why riders in their 30′s, 40′s, and even 50′s can ride so hard and are often stronger than younger riders even if the older riders haven’t been riding much recently. It’s telling that the hardest, fastest amateur races here in California are often the 35+ and 40+ masters.
I find it fascinating that power in a cyclist can’t necessarily be seen off the bike like in other sports. Basketball players are tall; football players are physically huge, but aside from being lean the best cyclists in the world look like normal people on the street (maybe even frail). It’s like the inherent power in a strong rider is just sitting there unnoticed until the time comes to use it…then, bam. But even for the best cyclists in the world, the rules of growth and transformation still apply. That’s where we’re all in the same boat. The body learns, adapts, grows, transforms. Similar to the way human character grows and transforms over the course of your life, it takes patience and time. In microscopic ways, one ride at a time, you are becoming a different person.
You can read the rest of the interview here: Christmas Eve Interview with Matt Bond (cc: @artofthegroupride) | Joe to Pro Cycling.
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There’s a new rule in men’s professional bike racing. Beginning with this past summer’s Tour de France, UCI-sanctioned races now x-ray scan bicycles for electric motors. The reason? A silly internet rumor that went viral claiming that Spartacus used a motor in his Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flander’s wins. This is what happens when a rider this powerful doesn’t so much attack as simply rides away from the strongest bike racers on the planet.
Consider what had to happen for him to even be in the position in this video from De Ronde: all 200 or so riders at the start are looking at him (and Tom Boonen). The leash was as tight as it ever could be on a single rider. And yet, there he was with only 16k to go at the base of the decisive climb with just one other rider (Boonen, the other favorite). After a bike scan following his prologue win at the Tour, FC replied, “It’s a sad and really outrageous story. Believe me, my feats are the result of hard work. After the race, they scanned my bike, and I said to them, ‘You better scan me, because I am the motor, not my bike.’”
“One of the reasons I ride is because it hurts at times. There’s a certain discipline and freedom that comes when you push yourself to the limit. There have been times when my heart is about to jump out of my chest, my tongue is dragging in my spokes, and I’m sucking wind like a vacuum cleaner. And just when every nerve and fiber screams you can’t do anymore, somebody jumps and you take off after him, forgetting the pain. Later when you look inside yourself, you see things a little deeper, a little wider, and a little clearer. You realize that you can do things you never thought you could. Your dreams get a little bigger, your hopes a little stronger.”