Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Exercise the Right Muscles

You come around the corner and see him, less than a mile up the road ... a fellow cyclist, going your way.

And so you speed up.

Maybe you're just bored. It's a long empty road, and lots of cyclists use it for training. Having a rabbit to chase for a bit might be a nice distraction. If he's doing about the same speed as you, maybe you could make a friend. Who knows? You might get to talking and find that you have a lot in common, and end up with a new favorite training partner.

So you close the gap. You tuck in a little lower, focus on spinning circles and engaging the big muscles, and soon you're 500 yards back, and then 100 yards, and then 10 yards. Somehow, you've also tried not to shift gears much, staying quiet, being sneaky, timing things so that you catch up to the guy just as you're coming to a piece of road where you have a competitive advantage -- an uphill if you're a climber or a downhill if you're a descender -- so you zip by and keep hammering.

Did you even say "On your left" or "Good morning" as you went by?

Here's an even bigger question: What do you do if the guy happens to speed up and get on your wheel? Do you keep going the same speed? Do you really put the hammer down in an effort to drop him? Do you begin working together and swap off pulls until you either go your separate ways, simultaneously back off and introduce yourselves, or one or the other of you gaps off the front and thus proves himself the Alpha Male of this stretch of road for today?

Did you just miss a chance to make a friend because you were too wrapped up in proving how strong and fast you are?

Or maybe you're riding a specific profile today -- tempo or intervals or whatever -- and you're heads-down hammering along when you see another cyclist going the other way. He nods, or waves, or calls out "Hello" as you come even. Did you at least nod, or raise your fingers from the aerobars in a pseudo-wave?

But this one is the worst. You're way out in the country and you see a rider on the side of the road, struggling to change a tire or fix something on his bike. Maybe you're doing that profile again today, or you've got a long way to go, or you need to get home soon or you'll miss the first half of the game. Do you slow down and ask that fellow cyclist if he needs any help?

Do you ask as if you really mean it?

We don't really expect kindness from cars -- although I've had more than a few of them offer help when I'm changing a flat or riding somewhere in the rain -- but you would think that cyclists would at least stick together. Cutting your tempo ride short 15 minutes one time isn't really going to ruin your lactic acid threshold, but leaving that new rider with the flat stuck out on Hwy 100 until he finally calls his wife to come get him could just be the thing that keeps that new rider from ever getting on his bike again. In case you haven't noticed, there ain't that many of us to begin with. We need every cyclist we can get.

So, stop when you see somebody that might need help. Slow down a bit when you pass another rider, and maybe take a shot at making a friend. At the very least, nod or wave or grunt "Hello" at every other cyclist that you see.

It takes 12 muscles to wave at someone. You only need one not to -- and, yeah, that muscle is a sphincter. Exercise the 12 muscles instead.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Changes - Ain't Entropy a Bitch?

You don't get a lot of days like Sunday in middle Tennessee in September: Just a touch of wind in a clear blue sky, with temperatures starting about 60 and barely tickling 80 come the afternoon. If you ever needed a message from the Powers That Be to go for a ride, Sunday was it.

Since I had all day and nobody to ride with, I decided this would be a good chance to see what had changed on some roads that I haven't visited since our return to Tennessee. For starters, I headed to the new Einstein Brothers just south of Hwy 96, near I-65.

It was just as tasty as my old Einstein Brothers down in Naples, but the busy roads made the trip rather hazardous. Since it was just after sunrise on a Sunday morning, this did not bode well. From there, I went through downtown Franklin and south on Carter's Creek Pike to Leiper's Fork. These areas were still quiet, and I began to feel better again.

Having spent Saturday supporting the Femme Fondo ride in this area, I considered just doing the metric route that the ladies had enjoyed the day before. As it was still a little chilly, however, I instead opted for the sunshine on the Natchez Trace.

Other than the new bridge for Hwy 840, the Trace seemed about the same since the last time I had ridden there. Some fields that had been just grass now had corn ...

... and there still seemed to be plenty of wild turkeys about.

The Park Service has also put up fancy new signs.

Eventually, I got to Hwy 412, which turns off towards Hohenwald. The Trace bridge there is being replaced, so I decided to limit my ride to just Tennessee, and got off the Trace there.

Apparently, this project also has them widening Hwy 412. This will be good when it's finished ... particularly if they keep the shoulders wide for those of us who regularly use this piece of pavement on brevets.

I started back north by turning onto Ridgetop Road. For those of you who haven't come up Ridgetop Road from this side (which is just about everybody by RandoGirl and me), let me tell you: It's steep. It hurts. Fortunately, this gets you up most of the climb rather quickly, so you can then enjoy a nice easy 2-3% grade.

After a couple of miles of this, you turn left onto one of my favorite roads in the world: Cathey's Creek Road. I like this road so much I designed a permanent to use it. My friends Lynn and Vida Greer like it so much that they put it on their Gran Fondo route.

The beauty of this road is that the pavement is perfect, and the descent is straightforward and nicely shaded. There's one spot where you may want to touch your brakes a bit, and then it's just easy rolling for miles and miles. It's also a very empty stretch of road ... just you and the cows in fields of clover.

And, of course, a creek runs by it.

Eventually, I turned onto Stephenson Schoolhouse Road, where church was just letting out. I think that this is the first time that I have ever biked past that church when there were services, and folks were just as nice as could be.

The same dogs that have chased me for years were still at the house just past the top of Love's Branch Road. As I started down the hill, the little brown one shot like a rocket out from under the porch, and I had to sprint hard to beat him on his intercept course.

Which just goes to show that some changes could be good.

I stopped at the store in Williamsport. With 80 miles in by then, I needed to just sit and eat a bag of chips. Fortunately, that store hasn't changed much, and they still have some of the best shade around.

Opting for the short, painful way back, I continued up Snow Creek Road. Just before Theta, the pavement tilts up a bit, but it shaved off a couple of miles. Then I went and screwed it all up by turning on Fairview Road rather than just taking Les Robinson all the way to Carter's Creek. I did this because I know that the shoulder on Carter's Creek is rumbled down that way. Unfortunately, that meant that I had to climb back up to Mobley's Cut, then descend and climb Bear Creek.

All in all, I'd have to say that the area hasn't changed much in the year that I was gone. I just wish that I could say the same for my legs, since they seem to have forgotten how to climb.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The State of Cycling in Alaska

As I mentioned in my last, disjointed post (and, if you read that, why are you reading this?), RandoGirl and I took an Alaska cruise last week. We sailed from Seattle, stopping at the Tracy Arms fjord, Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, and Victoria. Victoria is in British Columbia, which is a province of Canada, which is a country to the north of the United States of America, in which Tennessee and Florida are currently located until the inhabitants decide that they will not pay for anyone else's health care and start lobbing "Sorry, your medical insurance claim has been rejected for no good reason" letters at Fort Sumter, turning Charleston harbor into a soggy mess so that the Ashley and Cooper Rivers back up and flood the world. At which point Kevin Costner will be the only man-fish to survive, and he will laugh and laugh and laugh as he sails off into the sunset.

But I digress.

This being a cruise, and the airlines being the selfish butt-heads that they have been forced to become by paying egregious prices for their forlorn employees' healthcare, we did not bring bicycles. We managed to take some spin classes while on the ship -- an activity that I've decided is eerily similar to a form of self-abuse that I frequented in my teens, but rather than Mom ruining things by yelling at me to come downstairs for dinner I had a stringy Serb named Olecks shouting at me to keep my shoulders down, chin up, spin faster, turn up the resistance, and "smile ... smile ... DA!"

Nonetheless, irregardless, and ionothermically, between having fun doing mostly non-cycling things and enduring bouts of interval interruptus with Olecks, I did manage to observe the state of bicycling in Alaska. To be honest, I don't think that I could avoid such observation unless I was somewhere that had absolutely no bicycles (maybe Antarctica?) since I just love looking at bikes.

I really didn't expect to see as many bicycles as I did, since the part of the world in which we were cruising is quite remote and I did not think the roads would be much fun to ride on other than from June through August. As so frequently happens, however, I was wrong. This turns out to be because we were in coastal towns (duh), which get more rain than snow, and most of the bicycles that we saw are used just to get around town. With gas over $6/gallon, this kind of cycling has more of an economic foundation than a fitness one ... but whatever gets people out of cars and onto a bike works for me.

Since it was still the "salad days" of cycling in Alaska (meaning that they would put a sprig of dill on your salmon steak), I also saw a few tourists. Since we were taking buses to tourist spots like glaciers, many of them looked as if they had stashed the big bags at the hotel and ridden their bikes there. Since gas is, as I said, over $6/gallon, there were usually not too many cars out there, which seemed as if it would make for rather comfortable distance riding.

As to the bikes themselves, they tended to be mountain bikes or distance cruisers. I saw a lot of bikes from REI, a few rusty Mongooses (Mongeese?), and lots of Surly Long Haul Truckers. The serious bikes all had fenders -- either full or of the little plastic appendage "keep the spray off my butt" variety -- and wider tires. Knobbies were rare, but probably came out when things turned more icy. There were a few filthy chains, but not that many really rusty ones. One of the bikes had a small tupperware box mounted on the handlebars with a screw. At first I thought was a poor man's iPhone case, but upon reflection I decided that it was just a smart man's iPhone case.

RandoGirl and I actually did get on real bicycles for an hour or so. In Skagway, we took an old train up the valley, following the route used by the prospectors heading to the Yukon during the Alaskan gold rush. The scenery going up was incredible, and we even saw a caribou in a field. He was drinking coffee, of course, and he promptly mooned us, yelled "Starbucks sucks!" and headed off into the underbrush with the remnants of his fat-free banana walnut cake leaving a crumbly trail.

At the top of the mountain, after crossing into British Columbia (which is part of Canada, which is ... well, you know), we got into a van and back-tracked a few miles to the top of the mountain, where we were given bicycles. You see, they couldn't give us the bikes and expect us to actually pedal them up any hill, since that is not the level of pampering that people on cruise ships demand. All hardships beyond the periodic suffering of standing in line for another pizza are forbidden -- with the exception of that painful cash extraction that you suffer at the beginning, end, and during most shore excursions.

Once given our clunky hybrids (which, frankly, had enough gears so that you could climb just about anything out that way), we rode the 15 miles back to town. It was almost all downhill, and we probably never hit 20 mph ... although, in Canada, I think we were allowed to go 30 kph. With regular stops to admire the incredible views, it was definitely the easiest bicycle ride that I have ever been on.

At one point, heading down the mountain, we saw a bicycle tourist coming up. He was fully loaded with panniers and camping gear, and had probably been climbing for almost 10 miles by then. Smiling, he waved and called out "hello" as we coasted wobbly past, and we all hollered "hey" in return. Our guide -- a young man named Ryan who I found out has already biked across the US once and plans to work in Nashville during the winter as a bike messenger or mechanic -- told me later that the tourist was probably nearing the end of his trip. The roads up there would only be passable for a few more weeks, and there aren't any good routes south from that point.

As he was telling me this, Ryan and I kept looking up the mountain that we had just come down, thinking about the long climb up. I'm pretty sure that we were also thinking of the solitude and beauty to be found up there, and the peace of setting up your tent by one of the many alpine lakes. It would be a little scary, sure, with bears and moose and angry caffeine-addled caribou roaming around, and the next day would probably bring another long climb and tough miles over ice-cracked roads. I would be riding in a seaplane over another gorgeous fjord, and Ryan had two cruise ships coming in with folks to wanting to coast bikes down a mountain. Ryan and I smiled at each other and got back on our bikes, trying to forget about the lone guy working his bike and its 100 pounds of gear up that hill.

Lucky bastard.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Go Away

A note of warning: I wrote the following post the evening of our first day cruising the coast of Alaska. I was coming down with a head cold. I thought that I would have more access to wi-fi or 3G, but such was not the case ... or I was having too much fun doing other things and/or too laid up sick to pursue it. Regardless (or is it "irregardless?"), I wanted to share this with you, and promise to return to my regularly scheduled junk later this week. If you don't like today's post, I will fall back on the Jerry McGuire defense: It was just a mission statement.

How many things have you seen in your life that are, literally, so beautiful that they take your breath away?

Think about it a bit before you answer. Think about the things that you've been so lucky to see, or hear, or feel that were so magnificent that they literally stunned you, leaving you just standing there, agape in a flood of emotions that bordered on a visceral pain.

Now, who made those things?

Some of you are saying some great artist. Maybe you're thinking of Leonardo DaVinci and the Mona Lisa or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or perhaps Beethoven's Ninth or the first time you heard the Allman Brothers's “Dreams I'll Never See.” Some of you may be remembering the first time that you had real Key Lime Pie, or the way that your baby daughter's wispy smelled just after a bath on an early spring day.

For me, Man has had little or nothing to do with the really beautiful things that I've been lucky enough to see in this lifetime. They are things that just happened in Nature, on this incredible planet that we've all been so damned fortunate to be born on. Rainbows. A new budding plant. Tadpoles. The smell of the ocean. Wind. The calm of a deep forest. The high desert sky on a clear moonless night when the stars form a scintillating pixel river.



They happen every day, and sadly we so often let ourselves get wrapped up in our own foolishness that we let them slide past unbidden. It's a sin of omission.

I mention these things here because I've been so incredibly fortunate today to see a part of the world that is new to me. I was surrounded by a thousand other people on the same boat with me, and was surprised how few of them even noticed the glory of the planet we were sailing past. Peaks layered above ocean highlighted by curtains of cloud, with shafts of sunlight dappling green fields before sliding on to leave them gunmetal gray dim cold. Paired seabirds skimming by in the wind shadow of our 10-story hull, and then cutting hard over towards the better fishing on our windward side. A stiff breeze knocking foamy whitecaps off of long breakers, their backs ridged and rippling above silent stentorian rumbling.

Today, we were drowning in a flood of these things, but most of us were ignoring it. I only noticed it because they were new to me, and I slowed down a little bit to look around. Can you imagine being one of the people that actually live here?

Yeah, you can. Because, although you may not know it, you are one of those people, too. You live in a world of beauty, but it's probably become commonplace to you. Maybe you need to slow down a bit and look around, and quit wasting your time reading my blog.

Now get out of here. You're missing it.