Monday, December 24, 2012

Grand Canyon for Christmas

I chose to spend my winter holiday in the Grand Canyon this year.

It's not that I'm 'anti-Christmas'. It's true that I hate commercialism, shopping, and the unfettered stupidity of the poor saps that line up outside of Wal-Mart three days before Thanksgiving so they can get that one thing their kids want that will finally create love and harmony at home.

And I'm not really fond of the impossible family expectations and obligations, and all the guilt and hurt that is dragged out every year at the same time as the plastic trees and gaudy ornaments.

But the worst of it for me is the religiosity: it gets harder and harder for me to buy all that 'reason for the season' crap when reality clearly sends a different message.  It's beyond surreal.

So I chose to run away and hide, I guess - something that anyone who knows me well shouldn't really be too surprised about. And I chose to run to the one place that I would say clearly and profoundly calls to my soul (if I were to actually have one).

Something about standing on the rim of this ancient and ever-changing chasm, listening to the wind whip around the rock walls, is deeply moving to me. It's being able to witness the awesomeness of the natural way of things - not the power of some god who requires my fear and obedience and ability to ass-kiss my way into some perceived eternal favor. I reserve my respect for the one thing I know to be beautiful and inspiring and life-giving, and at the same time powerful and unforgiving and cruel.

Mid-winter, for us Northern Hemispherians, always was about descending into deep darkness and cold stillness. It was about going underground for a while, back to where we could reconnect with the wild part of ourselves that followed the rhythms of the natural world.  And when the sun returned - and it always did - we'd have a big party. That's the reason for the season.

I think modern man suffers from a shortage of this connected-ness with nature. I think it's because we're so distracted by our manmade things (and our manmade mythology) to see that we're missing something important here. And I also think that we sometimes have to move far off our own beaten paths in order to find our way.

There's a wildness about the Canyon that touches some sort of wild place in me. I need to come back here every once in a while just to reconnect with that, just to remember that it's still there.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


I was facing down a 2 1/2 hour training ride, and I had a choice: ride inside on the trainer, or outside in a steady, cold rain.

I have to tell you, I'm not one of those people that can ride inside while watching a movie. Movies that are 2 1/2 hours long tend to bore me even when I'm not using them as a mental distraction. And there's something about riding my bike on a trainer for so long that doesn't appeal to my ass.

The indoor option was becoming less and less attractive.

But, outside, the rain wasn't becoming any less determined. I knew I couldn't wait for it to let up. It wasn't going to let up.

A cyclocross teammate introduced me to the term HTFU (Harden the F**k Up). It's delivered in response to an expressed aversion to less-than-ideal riding conditions. As I was looking out the front door, watching the rain not stopping, it was all I could think of, until it became my mantra. Something in my brain switched to autopilot, and I stopped thinking about how unpleasant it looked outside. I got my rain gear.

I look forward to hard interval training, and hill climbs, and spin-ups. I don't have the same enthusiasm for HTFU training, but I know it's working. It's getting easier for me to stop thinking about what I have to do, and just do it.

I'll need this kind of determination for winter snow bike rides, for Barry Roubaix, for whatever crap Mother Nature has in store for me this year at the Spring Century in Death Valley (that bitch as always full of surprises).

Except for my numb hands* and cold feet**, the ride really wasn't all that miserable. In fact, it was 2 1/2 hours of solitude that I couldn't have found anywhere else.

I have another long ride planned for tomorrow. I hope it rains.

*I've since learned that nitrile gloves inside my lobster claw mittens solve this problem.
** Shoe covers, duh!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Finally, the 'off-season'

The last of the Deerfield TTs ended a couple of weeks ago, and with it my planned race year.

I'm both happy and sad to see it end. Happy, because in the last few weeks of training I was creeping toward the sharp edge of burnout. After my last interval workout a few days before the TT, it seemed that my entire body was staging a protest. The miles were too long, the intensity too overwhelming. It was getting near time to stop.

And yet, I kind of already miss the routine of having distinct training days, knowing that it's gonna hurt - that it's SUPPOSED to hurt. And I love the way  all that hard work made me feel super strong, overflowing with energy, and loaded with confidence.

All of that is completely unnecessary as the off-season begins.

There will be other 'races' this year, of course, but all of them are races I do for fun. CX is all about mud and beer, my only goal to show up, get lapped, and have a good time. Not exactly the same mindset as training for summer racing, but I think it's a good diversion and a way to remember that cycling is, above all else, supposed to be fun.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

I'm starting to look like my bike

Common wisdom suggests that when you spend a lot of time together with someone, you begin to resemble each other.

Does the same hold true with bikes?

Between Neil and the Bianchi, we've spent a lot of time together. And it shows.

My legs have taken on the rigid, sleek lines of aerodynamically-engineered carbon. My arms meld into my TT bars like they've been fused. Every fiber of muscle is in tune with my gear selection, as if I'm now just another one of the components of my gruppo. My heart ticks in time to the cadence of the gear  I turn, blood and chain grease circulate through one interconnected system, and become indistinguishable.

Like a sailor confined to port, any time off the bike is disconcerting. Walking is too slow. Ascending stairs seems inefficient. The hours in between rides are purgatory. I hold my breath and start to shake until the next time I can mount up.

And then, it's as if I've crawled back into my true skin. I clip in, find my gear, breathe deep. I open it up.

I am redeemed.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Winding Down the 2012 Season

Leigh, Paul, Mike, me, Dave, Bob, Stu, Brad, and Tom in front of our sponsor's store

Only a few more weeks left for the Tuesday night "B" rides, and then this season is officially over. 

I'm not sure how I ended up the ride leader this year (I'll accept "Queen B"), but I've had a lot of fun with it. We've had a decent turnout every week, and quite a few new members joined our ranks since spring. I was pleased to see so many women join, and I've got some big ideas for a women's race squad next year.

I've witnessed the evolution of this "B" group over the years: from a handful of sometimes riders and stragglers who fell off the "A" train, to an organized and committed bunch that seem to want to ride as a team.  I can't speak for anyone else, but this club feels to me more like a band of brothers - and now sisters - who look out for each other, encourage, challenge, and root for one another. And, just like hanging out with my brothers, Tuesday night rides are guaranteed to include lots of banter, good-natured competitiveness, and plenty of camaraderie. And a fair share of trash talk.  

There was this unspoken code of coolness: Someone was always willing to hang back to help a teammate. Someone was always willing to take the lead to keep the ride moving smoothly, and at a decent pace. Someone was always willing to drop the hammer after we all summited the climb. No one complained about slower climbers, and there was no whining about the 'Hill Rule'.

Now that I think about it, my only job as 'ride leader' was to figure out a route, tell everybody when to show up, and make sure we didn't lose anyone. But really, the success of these rides came from within the dynamic of the group itself, and from the individual team members who took it upon themselves to make sure every rider would want to come back next week, and the week after that.  

Brad leading the pace, with an impressive rider turnout behind him

Tom waits until the last few miles, then he rides that bike like he stole it. 

Stu helps keep the pace consistent and reasonable, and is quick to offer encouragement

Bob's coaching on working together in a paceline really started to pay off towards mid-season

Brian's blistering pace up Highland Rd. ensured he would have to go back down and ascend it again

Me and Heather aren't planning on getting passed by any of the guys on the ascent

Bob on his borrowed Trek bike

Tiffany waited for me while I fixed the 2nd of 2 flats in the same night. Really, we just wanted to ditch the ride early and go have a drink up at Bricco. 

Brad loves Snowville. EVERYBODY loves Snowville.

Dave M is known to dole out some really great ride advice, often in the most abrasive way possible

A rare appearance by Ron, and then he broke a spoke. We haven't seen him since, but I hear he made it back OK.

Tad pretending he isn't part of the "A" group
Heather doesn't know it, but she helped resurrect this group just by showing up and doubling the number of women in the club. And now there are at least 5 women who regularly come out and ride with SFW. 

Leigh was always gracious about staying back with slower riders. And then he would come back up front and put the hammer down so hard we couldn't catch him. 

All photos used in this posting were taken by Leigh Atkins, except the top photo which was taken by a bystander  (with Leigh's camera) and for the one of Leigh, which was taken by me...

Friday, August 17, 2012

MN Adventure, Part 3: 125 Miles of Hills

After finishing 125 miles in 7:37.

Tim Marks is my hero, and he knows it.

This is a bad thing, for at least a couple of reasons. The first is that Tim seems to need to exhibit his cycling prowess in front of his adoring fans. The second is that I feel the need to prove to him that I'm actually worthy of riding his wheel.

The plan was simple: I would accompany Tim on his regularly-scheduled Saturday training ride. Jill, as usual, would be his rock-solid and uber-organized support team. I had the option of riding as many or as few miles as I wanted to, and then I could throw my bike and self into the support van and switch allegiances for the duration of the ride.

Of course, I wanted to go big,  or not at all (and I was wearing my lucky socks, after all).

And so, I'm proud to say that this was the longest one-day ride I've ever done, and I'm especially pleased with myself because of the elevation grade of this route.

The ~8000 feet of climbing over the 125 miles doesn't really give an accurate picture. It was mostly rolling, with some 'Death Valley-like' climbs (5%- 7% over a couple of miles - my favorite kind). But there were some 'monsters' thrown in to keep things interesting. Tim's designation of these was a bit haphazard. He told me that there were 5 'monster' climbs; I counted more like 9. And in between, the relatively easy 9% grades didn't even register a mild warning.

One of the highlights of this ride, besides the company and the incredible scenery (no, Tim, I'm not talking about your ass...) was the conversation. Or, lack thereof. I told Tim that I wouldn't be chatting, since I needed to conserve energy.

But that didn't stop him from imparting some of his own wisdom. Tim had some favorite sayings, I found:

#1: 'What's in the forecast? PAIN!" (This before every one of the 'monster climbs')

#2: (Also pre-Monster) "If you believe in any god or religion, I would start praying right now".

#3 (My personal favorite): "When are you going to shut the fuck up?"

I finished the ride elated, and maybe more than a bit surprised. And eternally grateful for Jill and her ready supply of cold drinks and encouragement. She's the one who told me to 'go for it' after Tim left me at a crossroads, without a clue which way to go. Once I was back on track, though, it was all over.

If finishing this ride weren't cool enough, Jill and Tim's neighbors were holding their annual block party/rib feast. We showed up just in time to grab a huge plate of food and down a few (many) beers.

Thanks to Jill and Tim for an amazing weekend! I love you two, and can't wait to see you in DVNP in February 2013!

(And GOOD LUCK, Tim, on your 3rd Furnace Creek 508 race. ROCK IT!!!)

Click here for all photos from this trip, on Flickr.

MN Adventure, Part 2: Urban Cycling MPLS

On the Stone Bridge, over the Mississippi

Somehow, Minneapolis has learned to be bicycle-friendly. The downtown area boasts bike lanes, rental bikes, bike parking, cyclists of all stripes, bike shops for every taste. It was eye candy for a Clevelander.

Jill and I left her home north of the city in the early morning, sharing popular highways with the work-bound traffic until we got to the bike route system that traverses downtown MPLS and vicinity.
Vending machine with bike stuff - great idea!

Our goal: a visitor's intro to Minneapolis. Jill was an excellent tour guide, choosing routes that would highlight bridges and locks on the river, the arts district, architecture, cool neighborhoods, and great local color. We stopped at 2 bike stores: Freewheel and The Angry Catfish (known for its fat bikes, a MN creation - and where I bought a pair of badass socks).

We rode at least 40 miles, stopping once for a late morning second breakfast at Anodyne, and then later we stopped for good (and drinks!) at Psycho Suzi's.

Urban cycling is nothing like road riding. It's really kind of stressful. You're always on guard for car traffic, there's a lot of starting and stopping and dodging and weaving - but the payoff is worth it.

MN Adventure, Part 1: The Reunion Tour

My long-awaited visit to Jill and Tim , on their home turf north of Minneapolis, proved to be an unforgettable weekend.
Farmer's market in downtown MPLS

The Bianchi arrived a day before I did, and so shortly after getting into town and having a coffee with Jill, Tim roped me into his Thursday training ride, on one of his typical afternoon routes.

'The Shrine'
'Typical', for Jill and Tim, is a little different than what I'm used to. And so, on Thursday afternoon, Tim and I rode out for an 'easy' 70 mile loop that included a 25 mph headwind all the way out. And that was just the first day. I was nervous.

Jill met us about 5 miles from the end of the ride, with ice water in fresh bottles. Is Tim really that spoiled? Turns out that, yes, he is - and Jill would prove herself to be not only the strong cyclist I knew her to be, but the world's greatest domestique. Ever.

Thursday night ended wtih plenty of beer, homemade bruschetta, and a plan for the next few days. Jill and I would ride into town tomorrow (Friday) to do some sightseeing, and then on Saturday I would ride with Tim on his typical weekend training route. Jill, driving support, would let me throw my bike in the car whenever I decided enough was enough.
Jill taught me how to make bruschetta. I taught her how to make a gardener martini.

I was ecstatic to be hanging out with Jill and Tim again (seems stupid that friends from the midwest only see each other once a year, in Death Valley). And I was looking forward to whatever adventures awaited me, whether or not I was ready.

Click here for all photos from this trip, on Flicker.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Long Ride Ruminations

The bottle says it all...

We got off to an early start, Neil and I, so we could take advantage of the still-shady morning and the fleeting coolness. I had a long ride planned for today, to get ready to ride with Jill and Tim next weekend, and the Ohio Gran Fondo in early September.

I like to ride solo, for a lot of reasons. I like the feeling of disappearing for a while, unreachable. And I don't necessarily like to have to hold a conversation with anyone, especially when I know I'll be out for hours and hours.

 But you would never know that from the chatter going on between my ears.

I wish I could somehow turn it all off, just stay in the moment, Zen-like. I guess that's not how I'm wired, though, and so there's always something running through my head all the time.

The 4+ hour stream-of-consciousness included these neural firings:
  • Can't wait to see Jill! The day I met her, we were riding past the Opera House in Death Valley when she belted out one single,  perfect note. And so I asked her to sing when we were back there again this spring:

  • But how in the world am I ever gonna be able to keep up with that beast Tim??
  • How good is that watermelon I just bought yesterday gonna taste later? (Answer: REALLY good!
  • I'm hearing voices again. Wait, it's just Jack it's Lemmy...and...Ian Astbury???
  • What goes good with a Founder's All Day IPA? (A big ol' heaping plate of smug satisfaction after an 80-mile ride, that's what!)
  • I remember the last time I did an unsupported solo was the unforgettable  road to Rhyolite...
  • I wonder if I'm gonna run out of water before I get back to Bolanz...
  • Who would I not mind having along with me today? What would we be talking about - or would we be talking at all?

  I'm hoping to do this ride again sometime before the end of August. Any takers?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Update on the stolen Bianchi

Actual text message conversation (from this past Monday) between me and Beate:

Beate:      My bike just past me! Was too slow to catch the son of a bitch. Waiting now again for the police...

Me:          NO WAY!

Beate:       I was pumping gas at my ghetto gas station and my bike passes me...

Me:          GTFO!  Did you get a good look at the rider? What did you do??

Beate:      I called the police and yelled at him...

Me:          OMG - he didn't sell it, what is he a bike connoisseur drug dealer?  Needs a fast getaway vehicle and can't drive a car?

Beate:    He was rocking his pink polo shirt on MY BIANCHI! At least he tries to ride in style.

Apparently, there was another guy riding with pink polo bastard. He stopped when he saw Beate running toward him and screaming 'he stole my bike!'. The guy claims he doesn't know Pink Polo (just ran into him today, as a matter of fact), but if he sees him, he'll give him a message from Beate: Return my bike by tomorrow, I won't get the police involved, and I'll give you $100 if it's not damaged (although apparently the guy was riding it with a flat rear tire.)

Later that day, she got a phone call from the non-thief (well, not the thief who stole her Bianchi, anyway), saying that he miraculously found Pink Polo. Beate restated her offer, leaving out the part that if she ever catches the MF'er in her neighborhood again, he will be unable to ever father children. I told her she was probably too late for that.

And this text, received last night:

Beate:     I'm gonna meet the son of a bitch tomorrow at 3 to get my bike back! Yeah, the Bianchi comes home!

Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reasons to Ride, Part 6

Jackie, Dave, me, Angie, and Kim (George was taking the picture) at the Medina Bike Club's Ice Cream Odyssey yesterday.

Sometimes, after lots of weeks of racing and training for racing (and more of that to look forward to), the best thing to do is just go for a ride with friends to get ice cream.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Have you seen this bike?

$200 reward for safe return, no questions asked.

Last seen on July 3rd in it's garage in the Gordon Park area.

If you see this bike, please contact Beate Smith: 440-409-1649.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The One to Beat

A newbie triathlete friend met me for a ride early Saturday. Since we both have a bunch of races coming up, I assumed she wanted a mildly challenging training ride. I chose a course that I described to her as 'a reasonable route with a little bit of everything'. I even sent her a map and elevation chart ahead of time. We would ride from one end of the Valley to the other, with a few warm-up hills early on to get us going.

I soon learned a valuable lesson in assuming things. We weren't maybe more than 3 miles in, when my friend's heavy breathing abruptly turned into a steady and increasingly vitreolic stream of choice expletives, aimed directly at my ability to choose an appropriate cycling route.

At first I thought she was kidding. I had ridden with her before and, although I knew she didn't exactly love hills, she was more than capable of climbing the one in front of her. But the tirade continued, maybe picking up ferocity with the elevation gain. Not quite knowing what to say, I simply told her that the road would flatten out a bit once we crossed Rt. 303 in Peninsula.

Or so I thought. My friend, who I will simply refer to as "Hill Bitch", saw the slight rise in the road ahead and practically shrieked "I SAID NO MORE F**KING HILLS!" At that point it hit me that she was serious, and that if I couldn't alter our route plan in a hurry I would be in grave danger.

I stopped and gave it to her straight.

"Look," I said. "I can't exactly iron out the road and make it flatter."

"I know, " she said, suddenly calmer. Like we were in the eye of the storm. "You just witnessed my hill personality. I'll be OK as soon as we're on the flat part."

Hill Personality. Hmmm.

I immediately understood where she was coming from. It wasn't the grade, or the length, or the pace that was bothering her. It was the lack of confidence.

Been there, done that.

I think that most of us have our moments of self-doubt, those nagging thoughts that say "I can't do this". I know I have my share, often as I'm pulling into the parking lot before a race or a high-intensity group ride.

Not that the Voice in my Head isn't occasionally right. Sometimes, it really IS likely that I will break a collarbone in a crit race, or my heart will explode on a 15% grade. More often, though, the Voice is dead wrong, and believing it makes me my own worst enemy. When you start believing what the Voice is saying, you risk not even trying. It defeats you before you even start.

I can't tell you how many times I've let a lack of self-confidence hold me back: from sprinting at the finish, from thinking I could actually win this race, to continuing to turn the wheels over when the course gets too tricky. But I'm learning to manage my attitude, and am always coming up with ways to tune out the negativity and focus on the task at hand.

My strategy is often as simple as this: Decide on the destination, and then start driving. Turn the Voice of Unreasonable Fear into a GPS Voice, so it starts working for me like I'm following a road map without route options. This is often what it takes just to get me to the starting line. Never mind who else shows up, my fiercest competitor will always be myself. Racing is a game that is won or lost in the space between one's own ears.

I gave my friend a pass - this one time - and we took the flat and rather unpleasant route back. I assured her that her climbing ability was fine and that once she got more hilly miles on her odometer, her confidence would follow. It's all a matter of reaching deep into the suitcase of courage, throwing out all the smelly stuff, and pulling out a different outfit to wear on hill-climbing day. Maybe something that has "I can do this" written all over it.

I'm guessing that she's going to one day learn to love hills, maybe even seek them out. I can't wait for the day when I can officially change her nickname to "Hill Climbing Bitch".

Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Death Ride" 2012

It's funny that something can be called the "Death Ride", and yet be an annual event.

L-R: Tiffany, Angie, Jen, and Marie at the start of DR2012
I guess it's a  Snakebite Racing Team tradition evey Memorial Day weekend to ride 80+ miles and 11 (or so) of the best climbs in the Cuyahoga Valley. This year, I wanted to try it.

There were 5 of us gals who opted to ride an hour earlier than the rest of the group, trying to beat the heat and humidity. We also opted to shorten the route to accomodate family gatherings in the afternoon.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that this was one of my favorite rides, ever. The 5 of us agreed that we weren't going to 'hammer' up the hills, as we assume the guys/rest of the team would be doing. Instead, we realized that the challenge was all about the actual climbing. All of us were of similar ability, and so nobody pulled way ahead or fell way behind the group. It was the perfect ride.

53.7 miles
3100 feet of climbing
(6 ascents: Vaugh Rd, Boston Mills east, Truxell, Everett, Major, and Snowville)

Halfway into the ride, and we're still having fun!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Everlasting Century

I have never finished it, and this year I decided to not even begin. The wind warnings proved accurate, and then some. By late morning, anyone who was out on the road would be returning to Furnace Creek into an intense headwind and a soul crushing (and gear-munching) sandstorm.

Having ridden through Death Valley's windstorms every year for the past 3 years, I think I've finally figured out what should have been obvious to me from the start: Riding through Death Valley isn't as much a physical endeavor as it is a philosophical problem.

My friend Chris Cameron, in his description of his attempt at the Hell's Gate Metric Century, calls riding here "a negotiation between oneself and nature".

For me, this place has always been where I've allowed Nature to take me by the hand and walk me to the edge of my limitations. Not so that She could expose all my weaknesses, but so that I could learn to be respectful of Her enormous power, and perhaps overcome my limitations by relying on my smarts rather than my ego. (No surprise that it has taken me three years to understand this!)

Back home, in Cleveland or Toronto or Minneapolis or almost anywhere but Death Valley, riding a Century is, indeed, a way to highlight individual strength. And if adverse conditions arise while on these local rides - thunderstorms, multiple mechanical issues, intense heat and humidity, even high winds - there is usually a viable option available. Wait it out in a cafe, call for a ride home, take a shortcut, rehydrate from a garden hose.

In Death Valley, none of these options are on the table. Riding here is challenging under the best conditions.  When those conditions deteriorate, missteps and bad decisions can be deadly. No water, no cell phone service, wind gusts that can blow a cyclist over (or into traffic), not a living soul for miles and miles - all of these things are real. Riding a bike through the vastness and grandeur that is Death Valley National Park, it's surprisingly easy to dismiss any of these factors, especially when you've never had to consider them.

Of course, AdventureCorps provides excellent SAG support for all their rides, including the Hell's Gate Hundred. But I wasn't going to start a ride that I knew I might not be able to finish under my own volition. I didn't come out here to get rescued again.

And so, as Chris C. describes, I negotiated - not with Mother Nature (she can be a terrible bitch, and not open to negotiation), but with myself. Could I take advantage of the perfect conditions the day before the HGH, and ride to Rhyolite, truly my one 'real' goal? Would I be able to watch riders leave the morning of the HGH and not feel like I'm wimping out by not joining in? Would I be perfectly content to not ride into the same dusty fury that has been my nemesis every year since we started riding here every spring?

Yes, yes, and hell yes.

And so there will have to be a next year, because in spite of my being OK (more than OK) with the decisions I made this year, I would one day like to start - and finish - a Century ride in Death Valley.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


I made it to Rhyolite and back!

Something about this ride feels like redemption for all those failed century attempts here over the past two years.  I think it's because this ride was all mine: a solo ride that covered 75 miles and over 6000 feet of climbing, mostly unsupported until I rejoined the group back at Hell's Gate on the way down.

I'm really happy that I got the two new climbing gears on my Bianchi for this ride (thanks to Century Cycles for this). I don't think I ever came out of those last two gears in the 2 hours it took me to get to Daylight Pass!

At 7 AM, the sun was just starting to break over the mountains. I knew it was going to be a perfect day.

You get to Daylight Pass by riding about 15 miles of ~6% average grade. 

Self portrait at the summit, before heading down the other side, into Nevada.

Check out GPS data for this ride: