Monday, August 31, 2015

The Five Phases of Cycling (at least for me)

A recent email exchange with a new connection got me to thinking about the place of cycling in my life. 

Of course, I am a runner, I see myself as a runner, it’s even tied up in my sense of identity. Running has been and most-likely will always be my favorite way to engage with myself and with the world around me. I prefer to run outdoors, if possible on narrow trails in the deep woods, floating along, fully alive. There was once a time when I would run every day, year-round. Now, as I get older and parts of the old machine are wearing out, I just can’t run all of the time. Heck, lately I’m not even running at all! Sigh. But I have been doing a bit of cycling, in fact lately it's nearly every day. Admittedly, cycling will never live up to running in my heart-of-hearts, but it’s still pretty good in my humble opinion. It gets me outside, gets my heart and lungs and muscles working, and lets me cover some ground in the process.

When I reflect back on the place that cycling has had in my life, I think there have been five distinct phases.

As a kid, I initially struggled with getting going on a two-wheeler. My father tried and tried, but I think the combination of too many instructions and the clear disappointment he seemed to have in my repeated failures just made matters worse. Then, one day in the middle of winter - I think I was six years old - right at sundown and with no one looking, I dragged my bike out of the garage on its half-inflated tires, jumped on, and road away! It felt like some kind of miracle, but I'm sure it was just a bit of physical development and probably those soft tires that helped make it happen. By spring, I was riding all over my small town of Baraboo, Wisconsin. So for me cycling started with failure, but built up to mastery - which led to freedom, the sensation of speed, and even daredevil jumps! We built a crude ramp out of plywood and "soared" over our lined-up Matchbox cars, like miniature Evel Knievels. In fact, I pushed it so hard that I ended up breaking the welds on the frame of my metallic orange Huffy single speed with the silver banana seat!
I wish I had a photo of my old Huffy - it was something like this, though mine only had coaster brakes.
During college, cycling was transportation, and I biked everywhere on my trusty yellow Schwinn Continental. But I was a runner, so I never considered it training and never logged any of it. But I'd wager I was at times doing close to 100 miles a week, it probably helped augment my running success. I never even considered bike racing, I didn't know much about it and I was already entirely focused on running.
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On and off, from the late-1980s through the early 2000s, I rode and even sometimes raced on mountain bikes off-road. I wasn't all that successful, partly because (again) I didn't make it any kind of focus - it was just fun. Visiting my best friend in Sonoma County, California was always great fun, we'd ride on Mount Tam or in Annadel Park, the very places where off-road cycling was born. For me, mountain biking was a total blast but admittedly almost always involved crashing and bleeding - not such a good idea now for someone my age and with the blood thinners I take!
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In the mid-1990s, I developed a pretty severe hamstring injury from running, a partial tear that was just not healing. I took up cycling again because pedaling just didn't seem to hit that muscle the same way, so I could ride and ride with very little pain. By putting in the miles and (for the first time) basically concentrating on cycling, I quickly got better at it despite being in my mid-30s already. Eventually, I caught the racing bug. My first Cat 5 race (What's a "Cat" in bike racing?) was an easy victory, I rode off the front of the pack in a CRCA race in Central Park and won by a couple of minutes. I then raced one year at Cat 4 and earned the points to move up to Cat 3. Unfortunately, I was taken out in a crash caused by a poor bike handler during a road race in the Tour of Texas in 1996. No broken bones but a very severe concussion that led to short term memory impairment and light sensitivity - not to mention road rash all over my body. Ow. Big ow. When I finally felt better - thank goodness - I went back to running - it just seemed safer!
Ow! Ow! Ow! (Image is not of my crash, of course, these guys are world class, I'm DEFINITELY not)
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Now, in my 50s and post-heart attack, I'm using cycling mainly for fresh air and fitness, and because I just can't run much without getting injured or incredibly sore. I haven't raced a bike in many years, but I'm somewhat intrigued by the gravel race concept - I suppose it's much less technical than mountain biking, so for a klutz like me there should be fewer crashing and entirely less bleeding! I don't currently own the kind of bike to race in gravel, but I've been told that gravel racing is truly grass roots, welcoming, and low-key. Something to consider, if that old racing bug bites me again.
How I feel, most days.
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When it comes to cycling, your experience may be similar to mine, or very different, but I think we can all agree that anything that gets us off the couch and out into the world is ultimately a good thing. Whether you are a hard-core cyclist, a recreational rider, or a total beginner, I hope that your rides are safe and fun and leave you happily fit.

If you're of that ilk, you can follow me on Strava (a cycling app that tracks rides and allows cyclists to compare themselves to others).

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