Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done. (Physically)*
*Next to moving. God. I hate moving.
When I moved out of my first Kansas apartment and into my Missouri place, my brother (who graciously made the road trip all the way from Kentucky) helped me carry all my stuff up 4 flights of stairs, outside, in the thick, wet, summer heat. Those stairs were made of big, rough-hewn timber. I remember because midway through the move, when my legs were quivering from exhaustion, I’d repeatedly hit my shins against the top few steps.
I started having stations of the cross hallucinations. It was brutal.
I’m a puny guy by Midwest football player standards: six feet tall, 155 pounds. In the winter, I bench press around 50 pounds, and struggle with it. In retrospect, moving is just like hard hill training on a bike for this skinny minnie: the lactic acid builds up in the quads, causing that injected Clorox burn. Your heart ends up in your throat. Sweat makes it hard to see, much less grip the boxes. Your thinking goes blurry. Toward the end of the effort, you’re shaky and disoriented. But throughout it all, the fact is, if you don’t get that truck unloaded and back to the rental place, you’re going to have to pay extra. And really, who has “extra?”
So you keep on keepin’ on.
Just like a bike racer.
The first object I ever purchased with my first “real” paycheck was a bike. Not a Huffy or some other department store bike, but a real bike. A bike store bike.
It was a Fuji. As in Japanese.
Pissed my dad off, big-time. He was a World War II vet. After putting me through college, the first thing I did with my fistful of low-hanging fruit was to bring home a reminder of bad memories for him. But that’s another story.
My best friend during high school, Sonny, went everywhere by bike. For him, riding a bike was just that: “riding a bike.” For me, riding with him on my old Huffy Santa Fe was also just “riding a bike.” But what I really wanted was to experience “cycling.” To fit hand-in-glove on a bike, to experience a sense of unity with a machine that would glide more than spin. To be a “cyclist,” I mused, required a bike that was designed for the task.
Amazing that I didn’t suffer from continual nosebleeds.
I wouldn’t have known the difference between riding a bike and cycling if it hadn’t been for Sonny’s energetic descriptions of cycling and what he knew of its heroes.
I’ve always had this annoying habit of being inspired by other people’s pure and simple loves, then taking the energy borne of their inspiration to a library and researching up a blue streak. All that reading and passion, no matter how selfish or misdirected, would turn me into an instant professor on that topic. My friend would tell me what he knew about cycling and bicycle racing as he and I rode from place to place in Louisville. His bike wasn’t any more high brow than my Santa Fe. He rode a Schwinn Varsity.
This was the mid-80’s. For American cycling, it was the era of a young, pre-Tour de France Greg LeMond and Mark Gorski. LeMond had broken into European racing, riding European bikes, and for the magazine researcher and brand whore in me, that meant financially out-of-reach European equipment. Mark Gorski, however, winning gold medals for the United States in the ’84 summer Olympics, won on a Fuji.
A Fuji was a bike that a newly-graduated graphic designer could afford.
Oh sure, I had my eye on a Peugeot. They had an entry-level model at the same price-point as the mid-level Fuji. But there was Sonny, right next to me, eyeing the Peugeot, as it hung in the fashionable east-end cycling boutique, next to the far pricier Italian models. “Man, don’t go buyin’ that bike just cause it’s French. Don’t forget you’ll need money left over for a helmet and stuff.”
And so, I became a Fuji owner, with a Bell Tourlite helmet on my head. Ah, the Tourlite — an oxymoron if ever there was one. It felt more like a sponge-lined milk crate lifted from the back of the nearby Food Basket grocery. But I wore it, along with Lycra shorts with tidy-whities underneath. I didn’t know that you were supposed to go commando with cycling shorts. I also supposed I’d just get used to the chafing after I ground out a few miles.
That was all 27 years ago. Despite the berating I took from my Kentucky family for looking so “gay,” and the chucked Big Gulps from out of passenger pickup truck windows in Kansas with my head as their target, I rode on, eventually wising up to the fact that comfort would lead to longer distances. I ditched the briefs beneath the shorts. Not sure if I learned that from a cycling magazine or if I just got tired of my genitals being worn to a ruby red hue with even the shortest of rides. (I didn’t discover the life-changing, ride-altering magnificence of chamois cream til many years later. Once you go goo, you’ll never ride dry.)
In Missouri, I rode on, completing my first century, starting it with a misty kiss from my seemingly always pregnant little wife and a negative balance in my checking account. In car-crazed Michigan, I would ride to work in snow storms along roads that cut through orchards and vineyards, the sweet fruit-impregnated soil giving up its perfume despite the wind chills.
I have never raced. Yet.
My commute and training route from an income-controlled apartment in Leawood, Kansas to my job as a graphic designer in Westport, Missouri was 22 miles, one way. This was 1989. Atop my first carbon bike, a Trek 1200, I would go on early-morning Saturday shop rides with guys who were Category 3 racers. I barely hung on. More than once, I was dropped, in the middle of the prairie, with only a rough map given to me by one of the shop owners, himself a triathlete before the ride. With my heart pulsing in my throat like a horny bunny, I surrendered to the fact that I’d have to just relax, cool down, and reorient myself.
The map did me little good. Hell. Pin the tail on the donkey utterly disorients me. I have no sense of ordinal direction even to this day. It frustrates friends and family that I can take the same route many times, and still need to ask “where do I turn?” And this was years before cell phones. I have only the fact that it was Kansas that saved me. Straight roads. Sunlight. Let’s see, rises in the east, sets in the west. I can do this. Easy peasy. Just go home.
Saturday after Saturday, leaving the aforementioned little wife saddled with additional tiny babies sleeping in their warm beds, I rode on. Some days, I could see my breath but not feel my toes. Other days, I melted.
I am fascinated with speed and distance and exploration. As a kid, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but corrective lenses said “no way.” As I aged, my fear of being uncoordinated kept me away from motorcycles until I was 42. Now I’m a proud Ducati owner. But there was always the feeling of rushing over the pavement on a bike. Cycling when your own body is the engine can mean great speed…and I’m not afraid of it.
But I don’t race.
Or rather, I’ve never raced.
Cycling is hard. Remarkably hard. A 100 mile century ride, with a goal to complete it “sub 6” is challenging. I beat it once, by mere seconds, and just two weekends ago missed completing a very hilly century sub 6 by about 15 minutes. But I keep trying.
I keep getting caught up in those moments that, despite the burning in the legs, or my face swimming in contact lens stinging sweat, I am floating. My legs beat like wings. My back is flat, my elbows bent just outside my fluid knees, and my chin is near the stem. I am low. I am lithe. I am a snake, and a panther, and a dolphin all in one. On those days, 50 miles are a walk in the park. To quote Peter Murphy, I am gliding like a whale. The sea, and me, are one, and I sing the song of my chain, enmeshed in my gears.
I can only think of two things that compare to the sheer physical agony of hard training, and only one of them really counts, because it’s self-imposed: moving. As in moving yourself. Renting the U-haul, packing the boxes, and hauling those endless boat anchors down the stairs and up that bouncy metal ramp, then hoisting them up into place in the truck. For hours. In the heat, or the cold, or the rain. Then driving to wherever you’re going to call home, and doing it all over again, in reverse.
I think we can all relate to that endless suckage.
Cycling has something else that drives us gear heads. And I’m not exactly sure what it is. It’s not pride. It’s not financial. It’s more like a sense of wholeness. Completing the efforts we start are the definition of being whole. The hill climbs must be done. The intervals that are blindingly painful must not be skipped. Goals are set, and we set them for ourselves. No boss sets them. No client drives it. This has nothing to do with any kind of economy.
It goes beyond the bike, too: watch the fats, measure the carbs, make the sugars rare. Keep the drivetrain humming and lubed. Protein after the efforts to rebuild muscle. Wrap the bar with clean tape after you adjust its angle only 2 degrees. Dream about gliding while you get your power sleep.
Physically, nothing is more painful than moving. But nothing is more painful and yet holistically satisfying to me than my integration with my bike.
27 years after my first heavy steel Fuji, I have another one. This one’s carbon. I bought it from a racer in Pennsylvania when I lived in New Jersey. Somehow, it seems right that I’m back in the midwest, riding on the marque that first carried me along. No, it’s not a Colnago, Tommasini, Basso, Olmo, Pinarello, or Bianchi. It isn’t dripping with Campagnolo or SRAM. But it fits me, it’s strong and light. I’ve meticulously tweaked every little aspect of where it contacts my hands, my feet, and my increasingly firm derriere. It’s beautiful to look at. And it will grow with me.
Even if I do decide to race.
Sometime in my fifties.