Thursday, April 3, 2008

Spring Is Here

Establishing shot: Cyclist shown from shins down walking up stairs. With each step water squeezes from his booties. The brand is unrecognizable thanks to a mellange of mud and sand. As the camera backs up you see the thick tights and jacket covered in sand too. The bike on his shoulder is covered in grime. The cyclist shivers uncontrollably, drops his keys twice before ramming one into the lock on his apartment. He opens the door, sets the bike down and begins to strip: First the neoprene gloves, then the glasses, helmet, struggles with the jacket zipper and as he staggers, naked, from the foyer, we see a wet, dirty spot on the wall where he leaned while he struggled with his socks.

That’s a memory I have of a succession of springs I spent in New Belgium. I would ride the eight miles to the university to go train with my cycling team, ride some 40 miles with them, then turn off and head back to my apartment. I’d do this two or three days during week while I was a graduate student and the oldest guy on the team.

On phone calls home to my mother she’d ask me about spring. I’d tell her about eight inches of snow, about sand on the shoulders of roads, about stretches of black ice, the ride nicknamed “DMC,” not in honor of a rap star, but rather Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Corner,” how the name was apt, how I couldn’t keep my bike clean, that, in short, spring did not exist in New Belgium.

Then, every year, at some point in May the daily temperatures would rise into the 70s, I’d notice the piles of black snow were gone, and gardens sprouting full of flowers; all this, seemingly overnight. Frankly, sitting thousands of miles away, I can’t remember a single ride I did in the spring that featured 60-degree temperatures and that distinctly “springy” smell: you know, the one that is part rain, part fresh manure, and part pollen. I hated spring in New Belgium. Loved summer, was crazy about the fall, and as a ski instructor, I couldn’t get enough of the winter … but spring … spring was a prison.

Miserable training ride after wet, miserable training ride went by and I’d gradually ride myself into shape. I’d arrive home each day humbled—nay—humiliated by the conditions. I’d stagger into the shower and turn the hot water up gradually until I stopped shivering.

I’ve been away now for nearly 12 years. Or have I? I recently heard the editor of a prominent mountain bike magazine say that Central California was being called “New Belgium” as a result of all the rain that fell during the Amgen Tour of California. New Belgium was meant to refer to a different place, one with snow and maple syrup. But he had a point.

New Belgium is anywhere where the riding is unpleasant. Where 20 miles can be epic. Where the stench on the road is organic, stronger than mustard gas and likely to stain a jersey the color of chocolate. The roads are nastier than a Hollywood attitude and the skies grayer than a battleship.

Here I must take a page from my mentor, James Tate. In his poem “Stella Maris” he concludes a harrowing account of an overwhelming encounter with a “beaten, disheveled” priest with the statement “only now do I look back on my darkest hour with nostalgia.” I relish the New Belgium spring. I treasure the shivering, the frozen roads, the sand, the frost heaves, my shattered, wretched self, a landscape too hard to love outright.

Photo courtesy John Pierce/Photosport International

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Padraig. That was a pleasure to read.

Every day in the office is just a countdown to my weekend battle in the mountains, and I can always count on this site to make the wait a little more bearable.

Fletcher

Ryan Sherlock said...

Excellent post - your first paragraph exactly covers so much of my winter training in Ireland. The one part to add is when your so cold, your hands don't work and you have to use your teeth to turn the key to your house... My girlfriends training experience at the weekend: http://melaniespath.blogspot.com/2008/03/weekend-riding.html

The other bit to add is when you have to walk back into the shared hallway, still shivering with a cloth in hand to mop up all the mucky wet stops before the woman down stairs starts to give out...

Excellent - I love the blog :)

Jim said...

Good. Sums up late winter / early spring training in the Mid-Atlantic, though thankfully it's a little less harsh here. After a hideous rain fest impaired training at team camp in the Blue Ridge during early April last year, I resolved this year to ride outdoors no matter what, and stocked up on appropriate clothes, built up a fendered winter bike, bought embrocations, etc. I've had several hypothermia rides ending with uncontrollable shivering treatable only by a hot bathtub, hot tea with whisky, fleece sweats and wool socks; a couple rain rides where I didn't dare go into the house and stripped near naked on the front step, since I'd rather be cold and alone and naked outside for 2 minutes, than cold and alone all night as a result of messing up *her* house; and I've generally had a lot of rides filled with coughing, spluttering, the uncomfortable jarring of frost heaves, painful fingers, chapped lips, scary moments in corners on road grit, and a lot of days sitting at my desk at work never quite warming up after the morning ride.

It takes the more easily enjoyed pleasure out of riding, to be sure, and adds a note of grimness to what would normally be lighthearted long slow rides. But I'm coming into the season in decent shape for a change, and the hard rides are becoming easier to stomach, much in the way one gets used to a bad tasting cough syrup. As an added bonus, on the days when the weather lightens up into the 60s or low 70s, the wind drops below 10-15 MPH, the pleasure of just being outside on the bike on those days is unsurpassed. I am now thankful for the most mundane of things, an average-to-below-average spring day, and more appreciative of it than the nicest, most sultry summer morning.

The road is harsh and unsparing, never moreso than in the off-season, and it does not give many rewards, and those that it gives are small. Yet because it is harsh and unsparing and miserly, the rewards it does offer are received like treasures. And if morale truly slumps, then a little winter mountain bike riding with friends is usually enough to keep everybody off suicide watch, at least until it's warm enough to take the arm warmers off.

Ben said...

This: “only now do I look back on my darkest hour with nostalgia.” is spot on. We are having a similar time in Chicago and I do not think at any one point I have looked at the conditions you describe as enjoyable. When the temperature hits 90 degrees with 100% humidity, I will be looking back at these rides and wishing for similar conditions. You glamorize the pain in cycling so well, it makes me feel like a wuss.

oomplaloompa said...

you said without saying what is an underlying foundation that is the universal and absolute truth behind all of our commitment to getting out when the weather compels most not to even think of outdoor exercise--the cycle.
that what we do today and suffer through is with the memory of all those past death marches that we have survived or heard others speak of as well as the thoughts that look forward to the seasons cycling forward and that the work now makes the future efforts more effortless. we live for that change and that knowledge that we are making small deposits everyday for that day when we will make a big withdrawl. everyone has had an off season, an off week an off day when the easy sprints aren't easy and the small hills kill you--and everyone has also had the superhuman days when a flick of the knees rockets you over mountains and you are sure that your computer must have broken because the data doesn't look like yours. so to make those big days happen when you want to, need to you have to put in those days when its just grim and you can't even let yourself back in the house because your blood hasn't been in that part of your body for the last few hours. its part of the the big metaphoric cycle we all ride together.

thanks for putting it all so well.
and keeping the motivation high for the upcoming change in the weather.

brettok said...

As you guys prepare for summer, in my part of the world we are gritting our teeth in preparation for the winter. The cap is already deployed under the helmet, arm warmers won't be far away and some BKW action has seen duty for the commute. There's something intriguing about riding in filthy wind and cold, but I'm not sure if I'll ever fully embrace it.

Matt said...

All this discussion reminds me of how much riding in awful weather is very much about our pasts and futures. On one level, I'd like to think that I enjoy suffering through the nasty weather we get here in the snow belt of eastern Canada for itself, for the mere experience of enduring. But its really more than that. Suffering through an "epic 20 mile ride" is very much about rides past and to come. We endure because we know we can, we've done it before. We evaluate our present against our prior experience. Either its like before, better, or worse than ever. If worse than ever, its still good, because we redefine our capacity to suffer for the future. We look ahead, project ourselves forward knowing that when its all done we'll be able to draw on this experience. Only when things come easily do we really ride in the moment. Spring riding, New Belgium riding, is thus really about mental training. So when others ask, 'Are you crazy,' you can reply, 'No, I'm putting in some mental training...Bit of work for the rest too.' At least, this is how I think of it.

All that said, I am inspired to carry out my plan to do a 100k ride tomorrow in the rain, with a high of +4 celcius. And love it.

oldFonzie said...

The only difference in Old Belgium, it'd be washing up in a sink with cold water, or if you're lucky a cold shower.

At least that's what it was like in the eighties.

bikesgonewild said...

...it does take a hard man or woman to ride in the described conditions & do it time & time again...

...but the funny thing is, as kids we'd go out in the middle of winter w/ snow down our necks & in the tops of our mitts & just happily play for hours on end, half frozen to the core...
...habit development perchance ???...

Matt said...

"habit development perchance?"

I'd say yeah, that's part of it; we learn about what ought to count as unnecessary discomfort as we spend time with others. Habit is totally apt, also referred to as social habitus: that “nonreflective’ process of bodily self-regulation” composed of the “dispositions of a social class or group due to their common codes of conduct and the similar patterns of their upbringing” (Pierre Bourdieu).

The other part is hyper awareness of bodily states. Road riding - at least in my experience where there is really not a ton to be concerned with other than my effort - is a practice where we are very focussed on our bodies rhythm and feedback. In contrast, mountain biking demands much of our attention be spent on handling the bike. Children tend to enter flow states much more readily than adults. We hear about these states all the time when athletes talk about being 'in the zone' or 'being in the moment.' In flow states, we are not caught up evaluating our bio-feedbacks; we simply do what we are doing. Kids don't tend to be phased by snow and their boots etc, because they are absorbed in their activity. They are not self-reflexive in the way we are as adults.

Recall, riding your bike is usually about both past rides and future ones. We compare our present against past ones as we ride (especially on the road). I find that letting all that go, diverting my attention away from my speed , and attending to the feel of the road and what is up ahead helps me ride better when I am suffering. Take language (discursive thinking) out of the game and you'll be able to ride better.

MWHack said...

Wow...great stuff. Poem really hits it.

bikesgonewild said...

...some great points, matt...
...when people inquire which i prefer, road or dirt & why, i have to admit to loving both...

...i differentiate by using the explanation of road cycling being more of a zen state of riding...i've found that by relaxing & centering my focus, i can finesse a lot of power & my body just flows w/ the bike...
...to me, it's a more "pure" form of cycling...

...on the dirt, where i prefer a cross bike to an mtb, (which ups the stakes) i'm looking more for the centered physical balance of my body & bike together & working them to flow over the terrain's variables...it's like a form of yoga...
...riding in the dirt, adds a "natural purity" not found on the road...

...recognizing body tension on a bike is key because means it can be utilized to help or at least relaxed so that it's not a hindrance to riding...

...& as a kid, none of this matters cuz ya just go out & do stuff & have a great time...