Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Tale of Two Rides, Or: The Ballad of the Melancholy Reindeer

APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
What Eliot had in mind?
Dull roots with spring rain.
- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

And so it was on yesterday's (Saturday's) ride, which was supposed to have been a nice, easy spin north to Crystal Lake and back. It started with relative optimism that I'd be able to dodge any serious precipitation, at least according to my last glance at the weather radar. No matter, I donned my old Pearl-Izumi 'typhoon' booties, mittens, and "rain-cape" as they say in Britain, just the same. Mind you, this is April in Chicagoland. *APRIL*.

Unaware of the smackdown ahead...
So Moira Miyata and I ventured forth, figuring a nice spin up, stop for a quick mint tea, and head back to get on with the rest of the afternoon. Wouldn't you know it? ... the drizzle begins in earnest.. a few miles go by, I'm doing ok.. Now the drizzle has turned into a steady rain with the wind picking up out of the northwest. Great.

Hey, the rain now turns to sleet, and what's this?... Giant snowflakes! Hey, it's snowing sideways!!! Welcome to mid-April in the Midwest, SUCKAAA!!! Damn.

While it's a pleasant enough wonderment-at-nature sensation to feel snowflakes land on one's lips every now and again, I'd gladly opt out in April, thank-you-very-much. Did I happen to mention it is April? *Cruel* Or, say it with me in Spanish: Cruel. 

Made with *real* reindeer tears
(because you don't recycle)
So I arrive at the Caribou Coffee I was slogging towards, and sit and thaw with said mint tea for a bit. I'm being eyeballed by a gathering of some sort of obnoxiously loud suburban mommy-to-be support cult (seriously, we're talking 3rd trimester), and one bespectacled, portly pug-faced graduate student who should, if not already thus, take immediate steps to change his name to "Quasimodo" (or at least use that as an alias). Yes, we are ALL freaks in our own, special way. I'm the idiot who just emerged from the mini-blizzard on his bike.

Of course, I notice that the friendly Caribou's confines are making a huge production about its observation of the upcoming Earth Day. How? By hawking travel mugs and other such containers in the interest of doing its corporate "green" bit. Unfortunately, there are STILL NO RECYCLING bins in the place for used (paper) cups, napkins, plastic lids, etc. * F A I L * I'm sure a lone caribou in Alaska pauses at that moment to shed a silent tear (and one would hope, get on with his day. Sorry, does not include mating calls and such, for that's a fall activity for these majestic creatures, in anticipation of the Santa Claus sled gig audition...) But, I digress...

The ride home was much less dramatic, for after a while, the snow and sleet regressed to drizzle, and I had a slight tailwind.

The NEXT day:

In order of awesomeness, from L to R.
If it doesn't fit, you must acquit...
Today's slog was to be the usual cycling club Sunday ride out of the Panera in Deer Park, IL (what IS IT with caribou and deer in this posting?). A pretty good turnout of about 8 riders, plus another two we'd pick up on the road. I got off on the wrong foot, err.. hand, when I hastily rolled away with a lame Performance-brand "wind-proof" glove on my left hand, and a Pearl-Izumi "lobster" mitt on the right. I'm no particular fan of Pearl-Izumi gear, as in my opinion, their stuff tends to run too small and is most definitely *overpriced* for the current quality they are producing (unlike the no-longer-produced fleece mittens and booties I wore yesterday). Out of fairness though, the lobster mitt performed wonderfully in today's mid-30s blustery misery. My other hand was but a wretched t-rex claw minutes into the ride (now, I FELT like Quasimodo!).

Anyway, miserable cold and wind aside, the rollout was lead by one of our team's elite riders, whom we shall here, simply refer to as "Stainless" (because he's tough and resilient like stainless steel, no doubt). He's a Hungarian-American badass who comes to the sport of bicycle racing from the sport of ice hockey, so no caribou tears here. He thrives on inflicting sweet pain upon friend and foe alike. Ouch.

Bjarne and Jan in happier times...
On today's ride, his lieutenant in pain dishing is one of our other elite riders whom we shall call "Bjarne," since he resembles Denmark's Bjarne Riis in his (EPO-enhanced) prime. Our guy is of course, squeaky-clean.

These two are a sight to behold on two wheels. Stainless is all lean muscle and power (think ice hockey), and Bjarne is all lanky sinew. Not only is the physical vista a bit foreboding, but once they start chattering with each other, it surely places riders within earshot at a disadvantage. They are, simply, HILARIOUS.

Of course, this is something that their level of fitness allows them to pull off with great aplomb, the ability to actually talk, to happily converse with each other while the rest of the peloton they tow in their wake gasp for air and mercy. And what exactly, is so funny about the content of their idle chit-chat on a bike? I'll save it for another entry. One thing is for certain, the whole scene only adds to the cruel, cruel month that is April on a bike in Chicagoland.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Stem of All Things (Or: This Life Behind Bars)

As Hoth conditions give way to Dagobah climate, it's been a bit slow-going (literally) in my spring training base miles for this 2011 season. No worries, for it is good to be in the midsts of the yearly routine and ritual of trying to "find my legs" again, after a winter of sloth, daydreaming, and wishful but inconsistent cross-country skiing whilst avoiding the occasional wampa.

More aggressive approach GROWL!
One thing that is different this year is that I seem to be more diligent in obsessing over my position on the bike, specifically, with regards to the height of my handlebars. While it is only the first week of April, I feel as though I've already switched back and forth, up and down, between a more "aggressive," lower, stem-parallel-to-the-ground position, and a more "relaxed," upright, easier-on-the-back-and-neck position.

I think such apparently mundane flip-flopping might offer insight to some psychological / self-concept issues that the bikes and I have to work out.

Italian champ Bartoli
on the hunt!
In our teens, twenties, and early thirties on this planet, it seemed that we bike geeks / burgeoning racers could not get our stems and bars low enough. We were going for "aero," or figured perhaps that the closer we were TO the bike, the more we'd become one WITH the bike... Like a Jedi, the Force, and his lightsaber... ("Strong on bike you are yet NOT," says Yoda)

Now, as I enter my first "Masters 40+" racing season, ("About to turn 40, better FLIP that stem!") I contemplate the implications of stem-and-bar position with the solemn gravitas that only a vain, self-important, delusional bike racer could conjure up... Wait a minute, vain? self-important? delusional? I suppose that'd be MOST bike racers!

The human body changes as we age. We become less limber, less able to maintain the (insert your favorite predator animal here) about to pounce stance we were able to posture around with in our more youthful trips around the sun. Fine, it does not take a Ph.D. in sports physiology to grasp this concept.

Please, add some fiber to my sports drink
In my case, it's not so much that my body was starting to tell me that the more aggressive position on the bike was uncomfortable... In fact, I don't recall any back or neck pain last season, or going into the current new season. What IS different, is that I seem to be more at ease and comfortable with the aesthetic and concept of the upright tilted, more relaxed riding position. Though, when I glance at the bike's silhouette and profile in its current relaxed approach, I cannot but help think about what is being "lost" by training and racing in a less "youthful" stance. Bike responsiveness? Intimidation of my rivals as they see me roll up to the line? (hear them quake (or quack?) in their duck-waddling-cleated cycling shoes)

It's more that I seem comfortable, not necessarily with my physical position on the bike, but with the abstraction of what it means to grow ever-so-slightly (hey!) *OLDER* even if not much wiser. One thing is for certain, it is easier to be in the drops (the lower part of the handlebars) for longer periods, and that IS more aero! So perhaps the whole thing is a ruse after all, and it's not about seeking two-wheeled creature comforts, but about speed, efficiency, and body mechanics at the expense of youthful velo-aesthetics.

I also suspect that I can more easily apply power to the pedals, in the more upright position... I just don't look as cool doing it. I *still* look cooler than some hippie-bearded Star Trek physicist on a recumbent flying a little day-glo triangle flag though. Hey, I earlier invoked Star Wars, not Star Trek! There IS a difference! And so too with the stem-bar-ego setup.