I had essentially forgotten about this blog. Many months ago, I crafted a new, self-hosted WordPress page for my photography business. You can find it — as well as a new blog — at www.samlowephoto.com
I hope to see you there. Please feel free to comment! I enjoy discussion!
The Irish Wolfhound, despite being more than a football field away, sat proud as a sentinel along the rocky, unpaved driveway leading to the Paris, Kentucky horse barn. His breath was visible in the early morning sun.
As my little Volkswagen GTI completed it’s 2 hour trek from Cincinnati, it struggled over the terrain that was more fitting to a Jeep than a sports car. Up ahead, the motionless giant of a dog was passed by a more traditional watchdog, who I’d later learn was named, “Roscoe.” Roscoe blazed along the high grass, yelping and barreling toward me. Here is a dog that possesses the fearlessness and respect of the horses that inhabit the farm.
Welcome to Southern Elite Stables, Paris, Kentucky.
I was surrounded with horses growing up.
My hometown is Louisville, Kentucky; the home of the Kentucky Derby. My Mom was raised right here in Bourbon County, and had many horses on the farm as a child. The next-door neighbors were big into harness racing. I remember being fascinated with the helmets, the goggles, and the whips in their garage, not to mention the occasional sulky — the featherweight, 2-wheeled vehicle the standardbred would pull, complete with jockey — that would show up for repair.
Despite all that equine culture — heck, in my first ad agency the first account I worked on was for horse feeds and vaccines — I never learned to ride. Run for the roses and twin spires be damned, the only stallions I ever mounted as a Kentuckian were the horses on the merry-go-round at the State Fair.
When I moved to New Jersey, I discovered its rich dressage and hunter-jumper culture through a friend, and began photographing the events. I must say, the English saddles and tweed jackets caused my southern DNA to giggle a bit, although I did find the pomp and circumstance of it remarkably sexy.
Yankee or rebel, there is an undeniable confidence that comes with horse people. It’s earthy, it’s pragmatic, and I like it.
Thumbtack lead makes good
I received a request to quote for an equestrian team portrait thanks to my Thumbtack profile. Since my online portfolio already demonstrated a number of equine event shots, I pointed the client, Karen Massey of Rockin’ Double-J Farm of Monroe, North Carolina toward them, and I was delighted to get the assignment. To my further delight, the work went beyond simply a team photo; I was able to shoot their newest budding pro rider, Cheyenne, alongside a pair of their prized mares. Additionally, I designed a centerfold ad for their team and Southern Elite that will be featured in an upcoming Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse News magazine.
I’ve been privileged to visit their horses and trainers, based out of Paris, Kentucky’s Southern Elite Stables twice. The first day began on a frigid February morning, where, despite the biting cold, Cheyenne, and new trainers Travis, and Jessica, were true, hand-to-the-plow soldiers. They were gracious and patient with me — and their beautiful horses. Known for their gentle temperament, even these horses could only hold a pose for so long while a photographer experimented with lighting styles, gels, and color balances.
My assistant and I were treated to an incredible fried chicken lunch by the stable owner. I can still smell it now, as I type. As he rattled off all the various side dishes the nearby diner was famous for in an attempt to take my order, he seemed genuinely disappointed when I turned down the corn pudding. My first bike race was coming up in March, and I was being careful about what I ate. When the styrofoam-packaged meals arrived later, I had to do a double take. Only chickens on steroids could possibly grow that big! But man, was it good. It sounds like a cliche, but I thought of my Bourbon County mom while I took sips of the sweet tea and dredged the copper-brown chicken through the gravy. Huddled around space heaters, surrounded by their numerous show ribbons, and reveling in the mashed potatoes and green beans, I knew there was no way I could finish. I had to get back to setting up the lights.
Their breed is one I wasn’t familiar with: Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses. Their gait reminded me of a very easy-going Tennessee walker, but Karen quickly corrected my perception by instructing that their Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses are simply trained to enhance their normal, natural gait. Punitive training practices, called “soring,” are completely rejected by Karen and her team. “Our horses get lots of attention. We’re “high touch,” she proudly told me.
While Roscoe, skittishly approached me and my equipment before barking and kicking it into reverse, I set up for the main portrait. Meanwhile, Jessica washed one of their stallions while taking business calls like a CEO. Jessica — like the rest of the team and the horses she trains — is beautiful, confident, and carries herself in a way that says, “I’ve got stuff to do.” It was quickly apparent that she was a trainer of blue ribbon winners.
Rockin’ Double J is a good lookin’ team with beautiful horses and a noteworthy work ethic. As I packed up my speedlights and lenses, their old, faithful Wolfhound hobbled over, and carefully laid down near my bags. It felt like I had been accepted. I felt a connection with my past, thanks to my mom’s endless and colorful stories of Paris and her own horses. Thanks, Karen, for the opportunity to put your team and horses in the best light I could. Bring home some blues!
Years ago, I became fairly educated in esoteric topics like astrology, tarot, Jungian personality typing, and numerology. Nothing says “life of the party” quite like, “hey…can I read your cards?”
Great for meeting girls, too.
I was raised in a religious home, and as I grew older, I rejected religion in favor of spirituality. Part of the trip was learning — and agreeing with the fact — that we’re all part of One Big Groove Thing. We’re all interconnected. We all affect each other. And the sooner you can surf that groove, the more peaceful you’ll be.
After arriving at the Zanesfield, Ohio start location for my first ever mass-start race, I was especially anxious to receive my jersey number. I wanted to see how — to get all Shirley MacLaine on you — my energy and the energy of the race all synced up and reflected itself in the number I’d be wearing.
One thing you learn about The Groove Thing: stuff doesn’t just happen “to” you; you attract things, and you are a part of making things come into being. And — it’s not all about just you.
Suffice it to say: my reactions to the events of the morning would reflect the number rather well.
After presenting my license and signing the form that said I’d not sue the race organizers in the event of my untimely demise during the practice of hurtling along at bizarre speeds, I was handed the race number, “22.”
Numerologically, you add all the digits together of any number representing a person or place, and you get it’s base number. Simply, my numerological value was a “4.”
4 is, in a word, pedestrian. Hardworking, likes routine, matter-of-fact, wants to Get Things Done. But doesn’t necessarily do it with panache or flair. I was actually OK with that. 4 is very “salt of the earth.” Pragmatic. There is good reason behind the actions a 4 takes.
I took my 2 numbers (one for each side of the back of your jersey so the race officials on either side of you can see) and walked quietly back to my car through the intensely gusting wind. The wind speeds were hitting as high as 40mph, and were going to be a huge factor in the race. In the quiet of the car, the sounds of carbon race wheels over gravel and racers and their significant others hyped up on glucose and carbs were muffled. I began the pinning ritual.
Some racers find it tedious. They just want to get to their warm up, or head out on the course and give it a look-see. But, true to the energy of a 4, I’d arrived in town the night before, and already driven the course, carefully comparing it to the course map already posted online. I was minding the elevation change, and looking at the corners for how clean they were. Check.
My safety pins and I had an hour before my category’s designated start time. I reasoned that I’d only need 30 minutes of warm-up on the trainer, so I could allow the pinning of the numbers to be more — meditative.
I felt as prepared as I could possibly be for my first real race. I was familiar with the course, and had a plan for this 3-laps-of-15-miles race: stay near the front, and always have shelter from the wind. Don’t be a hero taking lots of pulls, or at least long ones, and just maybe, on the last lap, I might find myself in a breakaway. I reasoned that, with the incredible wind, and with 2 climbs of enough significance that would ultimately mean six hard efforts, the better part of the first lap would be little more than a rolling group ride.
Not only was I very wrong about that, but just as with my very first race — last month’s time trial — I didn’t stick to the plan…
All 75 riders for the mixed Category 4/5 race were being addressed by a race official with a bullhorn. I was right up at the very front, where I knew I’d need to be, listening to instruction about not crossing the centerline, not passing farm machinery, and if a race official on a motorcycle in a striped shirt calls you out, it’s back of the line for you, you bad, bad rule-breaker.
I was pleased with how utterly un-nervous I was. All this training and planning was at least paying off in that regard. My bladder was behaving, and for this, I was very thankful, as I stood straddling my bike, relaxed.
Then, the whistle went off — and my first assumption was proven to be a naive one. I expected an easy rollout by a group of relatively new racers. This, after all, was the bottom of the category ladder, and there was a sharp pitch soon, and enough wind to sweep you up to meet Dorothy.
But no. The pack was off like a shot. Although this wasn’t a criterium race, you wouldn’t have known it by the immediate grunt of the group. I gave myself a couple of pedal revs with my clipped-in left leg, but try as I might, I couldn’t get my right foot into the pedal for several dozen meters.
Rider after rider passed me, and within seconds, I was literally the lantern rouge, and worse, on the inside approaching our first right hand turn — which began the first climb: a little over a mile in length with a certain little kick at 8%.
I allowed the peloton to pass me entirely, then made the corner, and moved over to the centerline, where I immediately began making my way up to the front. At the base of the climb, it was a yellow line to curb mass, but as the road steepened, the group began to huddle towards the right. I was delighted. Up and out of the saddle, I rode with plenty of room to myself near the middle of the road. In no time, I was at the head of the field in a line about 6 riders across.
That’s where my good, clear thinking unfortunately ends.
I moved my hands from the hoods to the tops, scooched my butt back on the saddle, and started tapping out a rhythm. My heart rate was very high — but so was the speed. Despite the pitch, we were climbing at over 18mph, and we weren’t 3 miles in to the first lap.
My cycle mates up in the front were not cool and collected. They were huffing and puffing and shifting hands. Seated. Standing. Repeat. They were obviously going too hard. And I was going too hard.
That’s where I made the mistake that still haunts me as I type, this evening. I presumed on the peloton. I channeled the pragmatic spirit of a 4. Oozing reason, and having watched far too many professional races on the TV, I thought, “There’s no way these kids can keep this pace up.” Nevermind that I’d be proved right.
“The wind is at our back on this climb, but when we turn right in a few miles, it’s swirling crosswinds and gusts.”
I figured they’d fade, so, I made up my mind to pace myself. “After all, I’ll start passing them as they blow up.”
I decided to just slip back in the group. No reason to crash and burn so soon. But more than simply slide back into the back of the pack, I actually lost my grip on the group. They did not ease the pace over the first climb or it’s subsequent rollers. If anything, they accelerated. Over the course of several lonely minutes, I watched the peloton slip away in a mass, discarding a rider here and a rider there.
I was now a chaser.
With a few stragglers also floating about me, I realized I’d just made a very serious error.
The peloton advanced. Shortly, the right turn that I knew would slow them down appeared: a classic midwestern intersection, open to the wind with no natural barriers of any kind, just surrounded by sweeping farm fields and dust. Think Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
They were about 400 meters up at that point, and when they turned, I saw them slow to a near crawl. The wind was harsh.
“I still have the wind behind me. I can make some ground. But once I make that turn — I’m alone against the crosswind. Without fellow riders, I won’t catch them.”
The motorcycle that was hovering behind me as the last sole rider with a chance to bridge ceased shadowing me as we entered the intersection. The corner marshals with their neon orange flags watched me in silence. When I did make the right turn, it was like I’d just ridden into a lake of jello. The wind made every pedal stroke cumbersome and heavy. Carbon and top notch wheels, be damned.
I ultimately came up on one dropped rider, than the two of us came upon another — and here’s where my dismay of being amongst other true noobs hits hard: my attempts to coax them into working a paceline to catch the still-in sight peloton failed. “Nah, the wind’s against us. There’s no way.”
They had no heart for it.
I was willing. I had the heart. But I was alone. I had made my bed, and now I had to pedal in it.
I ultimately lost sight of the peloton, realizing that they were barreling down the one descent in the race together, and therefore reaching great speeds. Alone, I would hit nearly 47mph on that downhill. I can only imagine how fast they were flying.
As I neared the part of the course that swept past the parking lot, I had a decision to make: go on, just for pride, or call it a day.
I picked Door No. 2.
A Little Less Inexperienced
After hanging my bike on my car’s rack, and nabbing my water bottle, I sat with other spectators near the parking entrance, and waited to see what shape the Cat 4/5’s would be in when they came round after their 2nd lap. What I saw, made me realize I’d given in simply too early: a solo rider came through with the lead car. He was in incredible form, low, fast, and looking scarily fresh. After what seemed to be a full 2 minutes came a lone pair of chasers, not really riding fast enough to earn the description. And then, another 3 or perhaps 4 minutes later, came the shattered remains of the peloton: a paltry group of about 10 riders, followed by the debris of a mere handful of others, one at a time, as the clock ticked away.
They were but shrapnel.
What transpired is easy to formulate: the group stayed together until they returned to that first climb — the one where I made my miscalculation — and that’s when the attacks started. By then, the peloton of new racers, long since having started too hot — blew apart.
In my attempts to be “realistic,” I gave up my birthright as a bike racer, and with that, I’ve been besieged with doubts. “Could I have hung with the big group all the way back to that first climb?” Did I have the fitness? Certainly I could have found shelter in the group, regardless of wether or not they’d work to form real, solid pacelines. I sacrificed protection for a “saner pace,” and in the end, got neither.
What I got was a DNF. “Did Not Finish.”
A DNF means that my planning, my participation in that fast lap (I averaged nearly 19 miles an hour, and my heart rate averaged 1 beat over my lactate threshold) the arriving early, the recon of the course in the car, the weight training — none of it — counts on my cycling record. A Cat 5 rider only needs to complete 10 mass start races to move to Cat 4.
As I sit here, I have no races complete. I pulled over, and watched many other riders throw in the towel, when they could have at least finished what would have amounted to a mere 45 mile training ride. On my final lap, even if I couldn’t have stayed with the peloton up the sharp ascent, I could have started picking off many of those stragglers who were cooking themselves in the beginning.
But this is now just speculation.
Pragmatism Won’t Make You Competitive
Two game plans, and I made neither my Plan Of The Day: Plan One: stay near the head of the group and keep your shelter from the wind, or…ease off the pace, run your own race, and pick off those who exploded too early
A week from today, is another race.
I won’t be as reserved. And barring a mishap, I’ll be able to notch a “1” on my water bottle.
There’s a small love seat in the front of my somewhat largish kitchen. It is L-shaped, and sits snug between a front window and a portable chopping block on which I have a blue banker’s lamp. It’s proven to be a perfect little nook to retreat to immediately upon the completion of eggs, toast, and tea, or freshly-drawn espresso, or when the lemon juice has just lighted upon the seared salmon. Feet up on the long portion of the “L,” iPad tuned to www.steephill.tv or http://www.lynda.com or http://www.vimeo.com, and I’m all set to be inspired, by the aromas of the food, the instruction of the learned, or the antics of the professionally two-wheeled.
This morning’s culinary self-cuddling was interrupted, however, by an increasingly frequent — and always jarring — occurrence. Something that I’m beginning to wonder about as being either an inevitability of having more and more laps round a certain dying star, or just a consequence of not paying better attention to my surroundings.
With my last morsel of fried egg, toast, and apricot preserves waiting for me on the plate, I reached for the large, frosted glass mug of milk that I always set on the far edge of the wide arm of the love seat.
I know what you’re thinking. You’d never allow anyone to balance plates and glasses on the arms of your furniture while eating. “You deserve what’s coming, Sam.”
Well, what came probably isn’t what you thought.
I always savor the last nibble of whatever I’m eating. What’s more, I actually plan for a little oral celebration, carefully pacing the drink and bite sizes. It’s kinda like that old Oreo commercial of making sure you’ve got that perfect final gulp of milk in order to make the entire culinary session a reflection of universal harmony.
Mug in hand, I brought it’s frigid glassy heft to my lips. On the plate below was the final, buttery, fruity-clad corner of toast, and an artful ooze of golden yolk. I was poised for the finishing stroke.
Next thing I knew, I was playing the part of a mis-dressed contestant at a roadhouse wet t-shirt contest. Extra kinky, because it was milk, not water.
Somehow, I had lost my grip on the mug’s handle. My warm, flavorful melange was now a pale wash of white, and my favorite button-down shirt was arrayed in a holstein pattern. How apropos.
I sat there, shoulders hunched, glass held aloft. As I felt the slow, cold creep of milk through my shirt and underwear, making contact with my skin down in the fragrant depths, I watched the yolk and milk mingle on my plate. My toast corner was now a sponge.
Like a statue with language, I muttered to myself, “No use crying over…”
I stopped short. Still motionless, I tried to get a handle on what had just happened. And not just because I was confused: Did I not hold the handle tightly enough? Did I hold it too tight, causing the handle somehow to squirt out of my grasp? Did I experience a bizarre spasm of some sort?
No, I was so deep in retrospection because — this hasn’t been an isolated event.
For example, I have developed a growing angst regarding stairs. Invariably, partway up a flight — no matter how long or brief — I will misstep. I will get out of sync with the process of walking up stairs. It’s almost always my right foot. It won’t lift quite high enough to clear a step, and then, let’s just say I’m thankful I’m gripping the bannister so tightly.
Routinely, I will:
And, what’s worse, little did I know that, as they day would unfurl, I would build upon these experiences.
This morning, not terribly long after my nipple-hardening iced milk experience, I was eating my mid-morning snack at my desk. A bowl of banana and strawberry slices sat in front of my chest. My forearms cradled the bowl, as I typed out some meaningless blather designed to make a pharmaceutical company richer. Two or three spoonfuls in, amidst a loud clink and a wet thwack, I had somehow come down on the handle of the spoon resting in the bowl. The result was a catapulting of a strawberry slice in a way that would have impressed Moe, Larry, and Curly. Its summersault ended in a rosy, damp face plant on — I kid you not — a manuscript regarding schizophrenia.
Deep in my cold-shirt reverie, a number of these events fast-forwarded through my mind. If these experiences remained wholly physical, having only to do with coordination, I’d probably not be so concerned. One of my kung fu teachers (I studied for a total of 12 years, in New York and Michigan) used to constantly intone, “Mr. Lowe! Hold your head UP! Your body goes where your eyes go!” He’s right, of course. As both a cyclist and a motorcyclist, I know very well just how the whole body follows the gaze of the eye.
But dang it, I was looking right down the barrel of that milk, this morning.
My real concern lies in what I feel must be the peripheral victims of whatever is causing these awareness snafus. And I believe my soul-sapping day job is the biggest culprit.
Forgetfulness comes in many forms. The mind can be dulled by bad habits. Your brain is a muscle that must be used — or else atrophy will set in. Rust never sleeps, and it doesn’t only gnaw away at metal.
When I write, or sketch, or paint, or prepare a complicated photo or video shoot, my heart and mind are engaged in a level that animates my entire body. I’ve been told by others that I “change.” I’m focused. Confident. Alive. When I’m on my bike, I have no need of a GPS, I am sensing my way to my destination; my body is an antennae, and my brain is the receiver. However, behind the wheel, I’m forever referring to the snaking cartoon map playing out my progress on the screen of my cell phone. I have become a dumb terminal.
About a month ago, I was sad to the point of depression over yet-again misplacing an item that’s dear to me: my black fountain pen. It’s the one I use for sketching rather than writing because it’s line is just a smidge too broad. My last memory of it — before misplacing it — was of finding it. After the joyous reunion, I distinctly remember having placed it, with a satisfying click, on the desk upstairs in my home. The visual was as clear as a Kodachrome transparency.
And yet, again, it was lost.
I had absolutely no recollection of putting it anywhere or using it at any time after it had been firmly put on that desktop.
Yet I found it when I randomly opened all the zippered pockets on an old, too-small camera bag. I had no real reason to explore that unused bag, other than a simple curiosity regarding anything that I may have left in it. Bang. There it was, tucked away and zipped closed, snug and safe. Apparently, right where I put it, albeit not nearly as definitively as when I had put it on the desk. I held it, dumbfounded, turning it so it’s glossy black and chrome caught the light. It really was as if I didn’t believe I’d ever see it again. I stared with a look that must have been very similar to the one I threw at my nearly-empty milk mug this morning.
The experience of finding things in places completely divorced from any remembrance of putting them there has given birth to a new quirk: I will now randomly open a drawer, just to see what’s inside. I’ll pull a coat out of a closet, never knowing what rabbit I might extract from a pocket. If I were more of an optimist, I’d think the whole world is just there for the discovering. But I’m not. The truth is, I have a list of things I’ve misplaced, and I’ve sort of acquiesced into the role of “passenger of my body,” a scavenger body. I have become both gremlin and gleaner.
A new perceptual paradigm was reached yesterday, as I relaxed into a relatively low-thought exercise for a photographer: calibrating my graphic monitor. As the various colors appeared before me, and I moved sliders and dials that made them juicy and saturated and then soft and grayed, I had recollections of happy childhood memories; events I’ve not relived and experienced for years.
The zinger was my own response to these memories, rich with visuals and sensory recollections: “I forgot how much I loved to do that…”
Talk about a wake up call to self.
With your head down and your hands punching the clock, you forget that a potent side effect of tunnel vision is “happiness atrophy.” Physically, you begin to move and make decisions as if you’re isolated. But you aren’t. You’re just as close to your environment and your fellow terrestrials as the rest of us.
The extended winter has caused races I’ve been signed up for to be postponed. But this aging cube-dweller is anxious to get to the start line, and into the thick of it. My trick ankle is happiest when riding hard and often. My heartbeat has become stronger and slower during the past few months of hard and focused training on the bike.
Here’s hoping for less spilled milk and smoother stair climbs.
Fridays are always wonderful. Even one of my perpetually dark musical obsessions, The Cure, once unwrapped themselves from their ever-present black to yodel, “It’s Friday! I’m in Love!”
This day is no different. But there is an added urgency; the urgency that an impending yo-yo of incredible contrast and newness brings.
I got the oil changed in my GTI, today; my beloved red zipster I’ve nicknamed “Freya.” She will be transporting me to some real adventures, beginning tomorrow; adventures in the realm of speed and self-perception.
First on the devirginizing checklist is my first-ever sanctioned race. Despite having been classified as a “fast recreational” cyclist since before I purchased my first racing bike with my first paycheck from my first job, I’ve never, ever raced. That ends tomorrow with a 10.3 mile time trial along a road that is travelled primarily by huge chemical trucks on their way to a nearby DuPont plant. Outrunning them will be an interesting diversion — that and the fact that riders are released in 60-second increments. While I’m straining my sight around each corner for a glimpse of the rider ahead, I’ll also be playing the part of the rabbit to the fox behind. Please don’t pass me, please don’t pass me…
Time trials are, perhaps, the perfect first race. The perils of hurtling along with other cyclists located mere inches from you is nonexistent. The constant, looming danger of a cyclist felled by an unseen pothole, himself becoming the first in a string of dominoes laced with snapped elbows, knees, and ankles isn’t something you have to contend with.
The opponent in La Course du Vérité — is you. It’s up to you, from before you wake on race day, to have driven yourself in training past redline, so that you can define what redline is. It’s up to you to go within, when you get into bed before race morning, with a spirit of inner calm; a calm that comes from having made peace with the suffering of setting your internal gauges to one notch under that redline, and then keeping it there, from start to finish. You wake, you have your morning routine, you know what fuels you can ingest that won’t disturb your system with it’s renewed nerves, and then you load up your previously laid-out kit, and strap the bike on the car and head out. Once there, the spirit of quiet before storm continues, as you mount your bike to the trainer, and begin the warm up.
It’s interesting that such a short event requires such a long warmup. I’ll be pedaling on that trainer for the better part of an hour, ramping up my core temperature and heart rate to race levels, so that the countdown from 3, 2, 1 in the start house is more of a gentle transition than an all-out explosion. The acceleration gear will have been pre-selected, I’ll already be thinking of my breathing pattern, and then — I’ll be released to accomplish what I’ve been training for for months — not to crush my competitors, but to fulfill my greatest potential performance.
Down the ramp, out of the saddle, into an all-out sprint that is nonetheless a controlled one. Up to speed, then shift down a few cogs and land lightly on the saddle in my aero position. Hands in the drops, elbows bent and relaxed despite the torque I’m applying from the waist down, and a head that doesn’t bob, increasing turbulence. My computer is my guide. I don’t have a power meter, but I have learned that my highest sustained output occurs between 94 and 100 rpm’s, and a heartbeat that hovers between 148 and 153 beats per minute.
Those cold numbers define so many things: my best sustained effort, my most consistent speed, and…the self-imposed pain that I’ve learned is my razor’s edge. Any more, and I’m pretty sure I’d crack, but I know that it’s the first race of the season; I have to push into that edge. I have to redefine what I can handle. There must be a new redline as March turns into April.
Then, after the time trial, the speed dial gets pulled back. Way back.
There will be a recovery shake. There will be an infusion of tasty protein. There will be clean, dry clothes. And there will be a long drive from Cincinnati to Asheville, North Carolina, and another first for me: the slow effort of climbing. But not just any hills. Mountains.
A core group of cyclists that proudly call Element Cycles in Cincinnati as our home shop have rented a large house in Asheville, and will be spending Sunday through Wednesday loping up — and careening down — the Blue Ridge.
I’m much, much more nervous about those ascents than I am about tomorrow’s rolling 10.3 miles.
Time trials are amazingly hard.
But miles of steady, unrelenting climbs followed by 50mph+ descents that you navigate with muscles shaky from the up-n-over? That has all the ear marks of soul crushing. All the investments in diet, equipment, clothing, schedules, scientific tests, and planned workouts bring you face to face with how puny you are while you’re climbing one of the wrinkles on the ancient face of the earth. And while you’re doing so, you’re expending the same effort at 8mph going up that on Saturday brought you to 26mph on the flats.
In an accordion of agony and ecstasy, I’ll be riding through some of the most beautiful country in America. I’ve had the pleasure of driving the Blue Ridge before, and all along, I was telling myself, “Oh, I’d love to bike this.” A panorama that unfolds in varying hues of silvery blues and greens on all sides. Serpentine roads that undulate like a Chinese serpent. Cue The Who: “I can see for miles and miles…”
On Sunday, for 80 miles, I will be one of those rolling little specks. Trying to find that same sense of inner peace in the midst of suffering; the right hand position on the top of the bar, the perfect angle between hip and thigh, and the perfect rhythm to pump and push.
Experience tells me that there will be moments of transcendence: the rhythm will be found, albeit in fits and starts. There will be moments of effortless floating, both during ascent and descent; the bike will respond as if by telepathy and the chorus of enmeshed gears, reverberating tires and pavement, and wind in the helmet will be like angel-song.
It’s the memory of this in my life prior to this coming week that leads to its anticipation. It’s enough to cause the parallel knowledge of lactic burn and starving lungs to be repositioned; misery is converted to maturation. Agony becomes ascendance. Penance becomes passion.
And I’ll be traversing those same roads Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Sure hope the house we’re renting has a hot tub.
Any racer — or racer wannabe who has spent any serious time with cycling can quote 3-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond’s famous injunction about suffering and fortitude:
“It never gets any easier; you just go faster.”
Cyclists love to talk about the hurt. Seemingly everything physical surrounding cycling is couched in extremes:
Lactic acid burn. Digging deep. Epic climb. Sufferfest. Suitcase of pain. The terms go on and on, becoming ever more colorful. Cycling is apparently a band of brothers and sisters held fast by a strange, joyful, self-imposed circular flagellation, complete with it’s own vocabulary, not only about training pain, racing pain, topographic pain, but also, it’s equally curious recovery rituals and spells. You’ve got to do something to cope, right?
Cyclists measure pain in terms of length of time endured, intensity experienced, and for some, the number of beers consumed to quell the ache.
We regale our families and office mates with stories of endless rides against harsh elements and at speeds that beg the death wish question. We obsess over our diets one minute, then gorge ourselves post-event the next.
And I wonder why none of my sons have even the faintest interest in watching the spring classics with me, after I show them online news photos of a grimacing Boonen, Rodriquez, Cavendish, or Wiggins.
It’s not that they think I’ve “lost it,” or gone over some kind of edge. They’ve never known me any other way.
What I wonder is, do they think every cyclist they pass, while sitting in the back seat of their Mom’s car is equally daft, equally masochistic? Do they even bother to crane their necks to make a visual comparison of that rider, in his or her racing kit, to their Dad?
Consider this recent conversations with my erudite and witty middle son; a whip-smart Saggitarian who is vying to replace the legacy of Paul Lynde as the center square:
“So, father, what did you do this morning?”
“I rode 45 miles over the hilliest route in town.”
“But — it’s below freezing outside. And you call this”fun?””
“Well, yes. It is fun. But even more, it’s that I feel — accomplished.”
Taking up a Playstation controller, he says, “Father,” (Yes, he almost always calls me “father” in that Mid-Atlantic English way of actors from the 1930’s) I’m about to level up, both in Medal of Honor and Little Big Planet. I will do so without the danger of frostbite, being hit by a car or run off the road, or waking up the next morning with soreness.
This, I call “accomplishment.””
For those of you who are devoted cycling fans, you know that last week, the cyclocross world championships were held in my home town of Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll fess up, fellow ‘crossers, this roadie has always only known cyclocross as “that Euro sport that ends just before the Spring Classics.”
That, and it’s super ultra-fun to shoot.
I’ve been slogging it out in the gym and on the trainer, a.k.a “the pain closet,” enjoying (as much as disciplined agony is enjoyable) grinding to videos from The Sufferfest and following my carefully constructed training calendar thanks to guidance from The Cyclist’s Training Bible by Joe Friel.
With nutritional information guided by Dawn Weatherwax and my blood lactate measured during a test at the University of Cincinnati, I’m more informationally-equipped than ever before.
In between it all, I’ve taken the better part of a year to complete the redressing of my beloved old steel Cilo; a handmade Swiss bike from the Reagan era. I had intended for her to be my “beater bike,” and my winter trainer, but she turned out so beautifully, that I can’t bear the notion of her getting wet or scratched!
Bizarre that I’d rather ride my carbon race bike on post-monsoon Ohio roads than my steel one…
Thanks to Adobe’s fantastic color-planning website, a little peace and quiet with my Prismacolor’s and Moleskine notebook, a lot of elbow grease, steel wool, Krylon, masking tape, and a gas mask, she’s all done, and ready to make me that much stronger in the hills.
I’ve never been so in love with a heavy, steel bike.
My first race is early March; a la course de verité: a time trial. Just me, my training, my bike, and a clock. I’ll let you know how it goes.