Monday, May 9, 2011

I Am Fred

I believe that there is an evolution of attitude that accompanies experience, and that this evolution is often disgustingly evident in cycling.

We start as happy idiots, not knowing just how much we don't know. It's all new to us, and it's fun and frightening at the same time. We don't know about biking shorts and lycra jerseys, other than we think that we would look fat in them, and so we don't wear them. We don't know about the drag of wind resistance, or how much easier it is to go uphill on a lighter bike, so we buy hybrids with the biggest, softest saddles we can find. We put our helmets on backwards, get the laces of our tennis shoes caught in our chains, and spin blithely along all day on 25-mile rides. Forrest Gump on a bike.

Eventually, we roam further from the nest. On a 40-mile t-shirt ride, in the middle of a June afternoon when the air temperature is on par with your body's temperature, we realize that we may be missing something. Those blue jean shorts soaked with sweat chaff for the last 10 miles, and riders 10 years older (and 10 pounds heavier) on fancy "racing bikes" roll by, jeering at us with smug cries of "on your left!" Like the six-year-old after five minutes of first grade, we feel an aching need to fit in ... to become, if not one of the "cool kids," at least no longer the freaky dweeb in the front row with the chronic runny nose. So we buy the cycling equivalent of the Abercrombie and Fitch hoodie and Battlestar Gallactica lunch box -- biking clothes and a road bike.

Just as with the hoodie and lunch box, we make early mistakes. Nobody tells the first grader that he has to have a pink Hollister polo shirt under the hoodie, or that string cheese is for losers, just like nobody tells the novice cyclist not to wear his tightie whities under his biking shorts. We buy cycling shoes, and flail our feet at the pedals vainly hoping to hear that magical click. We forget to unclip as we come up to the red light, and do that painful wheel-wobbling slow roll to the asphalt. The riders around you chuckle briefly, but they also help you up. They've been there ... like the freshman pledge scurrying across campus wearing a poodle skirt, you've survived a rite of passage. It is a bond forged in road rash.

During our cycling adolescence we adopt a jaded air. Many of us begin racing, so that we no longer do "bike rides." We do Tempo for two hours at 90% of threshold, or stair-step intervals to push our lactic acid threshold another tic or two. We don't climb a mountain to enjoy the view at the top, but to see whether we can climb it faster than we did last month. Once on top, we zip down the other side ... not for the exhiliration of a roaring descent, but because we don't want to cool down before we reach the bottom, turn around, and climb the mountain again.

Many of us become Mean Kids during this period. We poke fun at the "Freds" in yellow Primal jerseys with big saddle bags swinging pendulously from heavy Brooks saddles ... even when that Fred is passing us on a long climb. We tell ourselves that he didn't race last week, and that our coach wants us to hold something back for next week's crit. We are, ultimately, better than him ... just not faster than he is right now.

Saturday, RandoGirl and I did the Three-State Three-Mountain century in Chattanooga, TN. I started as a Mean Kid.

I don't know how it started. We were standing around at the start, looking at a sea of at least 1,400 cyclists, and I couldn't help thinking, "What a Flock of Freds."

It was a little chilly and a lot of the riders obviously had not been watching the weather reports ... or don't have any cool-weather clothes. There were triathletes in sleeveless jerseys with arm warmers -- never a good look -- and not nearly enough knee warmers in evidence. There were also a lot of riders that didn't know how to mount race numbers.

Hint: The side with the number goes out, and the side with the advertisement goes in.

There were also a lot of Bike Borgs -- folks riding with headlights and tail lights (in spite of it being a sunny day), and with video cameras mounted on top of their helmets and clunky GPS's on their handlebars. They were digitally saving every scene and satellite sounding ... as Jimmy Buffett sang, "taking Polaroid pictures that are never in focus, just to look at when they finally slow down."

But, so what? This was no skin off my nose. So long as they managed to hold their line (and most of them did) so that they didn't crash into RandoGirl or me, what did I care? They were just out for a bike ride, having fun, stopping at rest stops to eat, and forming long lines for the Porta-Potties.

And if they wanted to lay their bikes in the grass, drive-side down, that didn't hurt me.

Eventually, the crowd thinned out a bit. I saw a few friends, including some of Max Watzz's Gran Fondo teammates. They were also just out enjoying a bike ride on a pretty day.

By the second rest stop, near the Tennessee River, I was feeling less mean. Soon after this, we started on some new parts of the route -- a tornado the week before had closed some of the roads, so it was more like the Three-State Two-Mountain 90-Mile Bike Ride this year. We climbed Sand Mountain using a road that was new to me, and I pulled over to take a picture of the valley below.

When we got on top of Sand Mountain, we rolled along for a few miles to another great overlook.

A bunch of riders had pulled over, and everyone had their camera out. We had to dodge cyclists passing by on the road behind us, but we got some beautiful pictures on this spectacular day. I took a picture for one group of five guys, and they took a picture of RandoGirl and me.

At the next rest stop, we caught up with our friend Bill Glass. We finished up the last 30 miles with him, and I got him to take another picture of us on our bikes.

RandoGirl had a goal of 6:30 bike time, and we finished in 5:40. We could have done the "missing" 10 miles in 50 minutes pretty easily, so she made her goal.

At the finish, we had a sandwich and rested. Eventually, a bunch of other riders from the Harpeth Bike Club came in.

Looking at this sea of Freds in their club jerseys, I thought, "These are my people." Perhaps my resentment of all of the Freds in the first few miles of the ride was just a bit of self-loathing on my part -- anger at that child-like part of me that can go do a ride without looking to set a new personal best. The part that has nothing to prove and no enemy to vanquish, but just wants to ride a bicycle over nice roads through pretty scenery, stopping at the rest stops to eat a cookie or 10 and chat with old friends.

Peace comes when you embrace your inner Fred.


  1. One of your best posts, Robert (and there are many I like). Good job...

  2. To quote Huey Lewis and the News, "It's hip to be square."

    Great post!