Going by the numbers, or not

Bike racing is a sport of numbers.

Watts produced, oxygen sucked, skinfold numbers (I only have the one gut, personally), time to the break, distance to the finish, grade of the next climb.  You can spend an entire ride glued to a four-inch screen measuring how high you pissed up the toilet wall compared to last week, then hook it up to Strava and compare tidelines with the pros.   You can be weighed and measured by whatever computerized Gradgrind you choose, safe in the knowledge that when it finds you wanting, it’ll be almost as dispassionate. And then, if you like,  it’ll tell all your friends.

The lack of ready access to a huge wad of cash prevents me joining in – by the time you’ve hooked up a Garmin to a Powertap or whatever, you’re in for more money than I’d spend on a bike, being as I am something of an ebay Prince.  Jealousy of the better-heeled and coveting Another Man’s Wheels are sometime sins which I’ll freely admit to, but here – nah.  I just don’t get it.

I raced this weekend, first after a break.  A Garmin might have told me that it was fifteen degrees and dry, but it would have missed the cotton tailed clouds that bunny-hopped off the peak of the mountain into a blue, blue sky.  It would have missed too, the gravel on the corners that spoke of washouts recently passed, of winter roads that we rode on and through, of what a lucky day this was.

It would though, have told me my heart rate was somewhere near the end when the bloke who no-one had seen before tried to go on the last part of a ramping climb, but I knew that anyway.  It would have missed how I got onto his wheel though – just enough to not have let him go.

Maybe they’re thinking of something that would have told me before I cramped, five miles from home, but I don’t know what you’d do with that because when there’s five of you out front you just do until you really, really, can’t, and the computer don’t know that.

I lay on my back in the verge, trying not to kick myself in the back of the head as my hamstring threatened to snap, then repeated the performance a mile down the road.  Groups rolled past, friends laughed.  I rolled home, didn’t DNF.  Sore as hell the day after.

Find me a computer that’ll tell you the real story of your ride.

Let prejudice be your light

Back in the old country, I lost my way.  Starting a career and a family pushed the bike out of my life for a while.  Things became scrambled, so that when eventually it found its way back in it did so sandwiched between a swim and a run.

For a long time, I was in denial.  A new challenge, and all that.  But the truth is, deep down, I knew I’d never be able to be as good as I was before.   Pounds had been piled on, and with swimming in the mix I could kid myself that gee, all those laps were really piling on the muscle.

But there was, really, no getting away from it.

I flat out suck at running, very nearly as much as I find it hatefully boring.

Surfing since forever means I’m comfortable in the water and a fair swimmer: it also means that if I’m in the water, I’d rather there be a board involved.  Swimming is for rehabilitation.  (Besides, they shave their chests, and that’s just weird.)

Whenever I staggered in, mid-pack fodder, my thoughts turned to the results sheet.  And I knew that on that results sheet I’d see a story that no-one else would: passed you in the first transition. Passed you after a k or two on the bike.  Passed the next ten on the first hill.  I’d check my bike split.  The other two – meh.  I was racing a bike, in disguise.

I thought of my short and unstoried triathlon history today, because I set out for a training session and then glanced over my shoulder to see, bearing down on me, a cloud that not only housed the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but more than likely their stables too.  Being a gentleman of mostly sound mind and judgement, I pussied out on the spot, although not before the fucker hit me like a lorry load of de-icing freezers, slamming me into the verge.  I picked my way home via braille, sheets of freezing sleet keeping me virtually blind.

(I should mention here that I live on the west coast of New Zealand, and a quick glance at any map will reveal the absence of anything except a large expanse of watery bugger-all between here, Antarctica, or Chile – squalls have room to build up steam, is all I’m saying.)

One of the things that Triathlon does terrifically is act as a confessional for the be-problemed,  There are reams of stuff online about how Joe or Cynthia finally came out of a loveless marriage or had a leg removed from their other leg, or recovered from years of bad haircuts, and kinda thought they might try this triathlon thing, and how they nervously went along to a swimming pool and lost nine hundred pounds and one day looked in a mirror and you know what? They didn’t know the guy who was there but they kinda liked him.  Which is brilliant and all that stuff.  Way better than cycling does it, but then cycling is filled with people like me.

Anyway, one of the articles I read was some aspiring ironman who hunkered away from the weather on his turbo trainer, and how his daughter came into the garage or the cellar or wherever he was doing it, and asked him if the weather was bad on race day would they let him ride his bike indoors, and lo and behold our hero…yadayadaya.  You know how it finishes.  Headwind heroics.  Snow conquered.  Frost fought.

And so today as I rode home, chilled face as red as a prostitute’s back door, wrestling with the wind, canted over to silly angles just to ride straight, I thought of this hero, and wondered what he was up to now.  I wondered if he’d have turned around.  What the story of his ride would have been.

Then I remembered.

Triathlete.  He’d have fallen off ages ago.

I took my clothes off in the hall, let them lie in a puddle, and then settled down to a second breakfast involving croissants, milky coffee, and a large helping of self-satisfaction. And I resolved to get up later tomorrow, and spend an hour on the trainer instead.

Coming off the bottom

As far as I’m concerned, the phrase “base period”  is – to put it kindly – disingenuous.  It conjures up visions of an off-season of forced athletic abstention, smugly smirking over beetroot salads and yogic retreats.   There are few glimpses of a more accurate truth – the orgies of drinking and pie-eating that inevitably follow the end of my seasons.  Muscles get shorter, bikes go unwashed. The first couple of weeks back should be more accurately referred to as “rehab”, and like any rehabilitation, the effort here is primarily a mental one.

Sure, there’ll be a couple of rides.  More likely I’ll be dodging weather, and a few twenty minute sessions on the trainer will yield enough sweat that, for a while at least,  I can languish under the misapprehension that foundations are being laid, house is being built.

This is of course, a lie.  The habits of post-ride beers, a quart a week of chocolate milk – for recovery, cakes to fuel the afternoon ride – these are for later in the season – these are relics clung to, treasured.  The will to discard them must needs be strong, and strength of anything is something in short supply at this time of year.

Eventually though, rehab finishes, the latter parts of which are taken up with generally avoiding domestic turmoil by doing all the shit jobs I thought I’d got out of last season, and the second part of base period begins, known as “panic”.

In an effort to get as much mileage in as possible, I cram in five or six rides a week, but none of them are long enough, none of them are fast enough, and I know, deep down, that I still haven’t resigned myself to the pain that has to come. Starving myself might help on the hills, but after so long as a glutton, even resuming a normal diet feels like unbearable flagellation. A week without beer looms ahead like an iceberg to the Titanic.  Doubts haven’t just crept in -they’ve kicked down the front door and climbed into bed with the wife.  I’m this far from taking up competitive pipe smoking, or popping into town for some elasticated slacks to get fat in.

Maybe, a voice says, this could be your big year. In the garden.

Somehow, I keep going.  Some undead and unkillable streak of blind optimism pushes past the cold logic of age, fatherhood, and financial responsibility, tells me the career will always be there – and besides, I’m probably even worse at that than I am at this. It pushes me through the humiliations of crawling up hills I stomped two months ago, tells me that the spare roll in my bib shorts’ll go if I just do one more lap.

Somehow though, just before I give up, I’ll be ready for the Day, the ride that heralds the end of the beginning.  The day when I’ll feel like a cyclist again.

A hard, hilly century-plus, ridden on my own,  in the rain and wind, that might be it.

It could be a twenty minute time trial preceded by too much coffee, or an hour’s breathless, dying slog up the local alp.

Or it might be as it was this week:  I got home from work early, fussed about my bike for a while, fought myself into my gear, which combined took enough time for the clouds the weatherman promised would be the day’s due to materialise, remnants of the blue skies that had reigned while I was office-bound scudded down the coast.  With the correct level of rage for this inevitable confluence of circumstance I warmed up and went full gas, resolving that once the rain hit I’d pull on a jacket and twiddle home, figuring I had perhaps ten or twenty minutes to wrestle my inner five-year old into submission.

The rain never came.  I rode a fifty-k time trial, caffeine and rage fuelling me to the point some way around when I realised I was on a ride that could be, if I let it, become the Day.

When I realise this, the only course of action is to press harder, to crouch lower.  To change up, not down, To not worry about the mess you’ll be tomorrow.   Right now, there is only the road, and the top of the next hill, and the wind to be beaten.  It’s the first victory of the year, and the taste is sweet.




The Life of Bikes

Today I fixed the Rain Bike, and I got to thinking about how it became the rain bike and what would happen to it next.

When I was a junior there was an old guy in my club who wore mid-length socks ten years before Lance did.  He had calves the thickness of my torso hewn from teak and forearms so hairy they threatened to eat his watch.  He rolled around in the middle of the pack come race time, happily opening gaps for me, calling the race, telling me this would be where it’d go in a lap or three’s time and he’d be right nine times out of ten, and then some time around ten miles he’d gracefully slide out back and meander to the finish on a beautiful pearlescent off-white Daccordi with blue Benotto tape and a matching Rolls saddle.  The sound it made is what I remember the most…it ticked, like the kind of Swiss watch that thinks a Rolex is nothing more than a Casio for a rich man’s blind son.

Later, although still back when Pinarello still made metal frames – still made anything, actually, before they became a design house for an identikit factory in Taiwan, back when you could send them back you twenty-year old frame and the craftsmen who’d made it would renovate and paint it just as you want as nobody else could or ever will again – back then, right at the end of back then to put a time on it, I stumbled upon the frame of the Rain Bike.

It wasn’t the Rain Bike back then, obviously.

In the pantheon of Pinarellos, it was a relatively humble model – the Galileo, although not so humble that Alex Zulle wouldn’t ride one in the tour that year.  It was pearlescent white, with an electric blue fade just the same shade as that Benotto tape.  The amount of money that changed hands was significant enough to ensure that I committed a cardinal sin right off the bat – then, and ever since, it’s worn Shimano rather than the campy which should have been its birthright – one of the last generations of the polished chorus or records – that would have suited it to a tee.

But it never mattered then, and doesn’t now.  It’s always felt special.  I still look at it and see beauty, although these days too, there’s also a wry humour that something so – old, for want of a better word – should still be part of my life, and I question whether that must mean that I’m clinging onto something far surpassed, an anchor, and I wonder just how much longer it’ll be before it dies, or the current number one slides down a step and it sits in the corner, forlorn and unridden, and what will happen to it then.

I could strip it down and wax it, hang it on the wall, and watch visitors to my house edge away as I start to bore the arse off them with meaningless anecdotes of the insignificant and generally unremarkable life of a bicycle.  They might realize just how sad I really am.

I could do the same, but hang it in the garage – a private shrine.  But then it’d be in the company of all the other bikes, and it’d feel bad because they all had parts and it didn’t, and then I’d feel that and put some on it and then we’d be right back to square one.

I could turn it into garden art, or an interesting lamp, and that’d be a crime akin to turning a classic Aston Martin into a potting shed, or wiring up a turntable to listen to all the vinyl you’ve still got stored away that was never quite good enough to beg, steal or borrow in digital form, that never gets played on the radio, because they just don’t make ‘em like they used to, and the reason they don’t do that is because the way they used to make ‘em was … shit.

Inevitably, the best course of action seems to me to be the one that answers most calls in my life:  do nothing.  Let it have that corner.  Maybe one day there’ll be a l’eroica for nineties alloy, or something more fitting for the period – a ride of some sort preceded by a group jacking up of horse steroids round the back of a public toilet.  Then one day I’ll die, and someone’ll come to clean out the shed and find it under a layer of dust and grime, and the scratches and the nicks and the wear and the little things that speak of love once lavished will tell the story of our lives and trials together more eloquently than I could ever manage – and maybe they’ll wonder at the heroics that must have taken place right here, opine about how if these things could speak what stories they could tell, perhaps recollect Grandad having one that looked kinda similar.

Then, and only then, will they pronounce it worn beyond all hope of reasonable salvage, then chuck it in the skip right next to the record player and the Vanilla Ice b-sides box set.

I can’t imagine a better way to go.

First rides

So, day one of what is hopefully a year of doing everything right, but which is more likely to be a year of doing more things right and hopefully, a few things less hideously wrong.

A little about me:  I’m a 43-year old masters racer who spends rather more time getting shelled than I’d like, but sometimes the stars mysteriously align.  More often good form goes unrewarded, bar the distinctly juvenile pleasure of putting the nail in the coffin of other people’s hopes, which is really – if I’m honest – a large part of what keeps me coming back for more.

I’ve got definite, strong views on many cycling topics, and these are probably as wrong as nearly everyone else’s.  It doesn’t necessarily follow that I know what these opinions are or will have the same one two days running.  I do like beer though.

However, this is for the future.    Hello.



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