Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Going Back to What's Important

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order
-John Burroughs

The past few months, to be honest the past year, I have been running around like a chicken with its head cut off. My divorce, selling the house, buying my condo, getting a roommate, pet sitting gigs and bike event trips have left me a bit depleted. I routinely wake up in the middle of the night, not knowing where I am or what day it is. I've been in a constant state of packing and unpacking (lately I've had two piles going in my room at all times depending on where I'm headed). I don't cook much anymore, instead opting to eat quick and easy meals yet still trying to get a balance of produce, protein and non-processed carbs (some days are better than others). There has been very little time to reflect, sit in silence or "just be" other than on long solo road rides. These rides have essentially been my saving grace. Bringing me, at least somewhat, back to the earth...back to what's most important to me. On long rides through the driftless, there is not much else to think about besides the cranes in cornfields, what flowers may be blooming at the time, the next big hill coming up and where the next water source is. Because these long rides are few and far between, and they weren't tiding me over, I felt it necessary to take several days following my 42nd birthday to get away from everything "city" and rediscover myself...and the world around me.

This takes me to where I sit currently. Looking out over the deck of a cabin unbelievably kind friends let me use. Looking out onto a small, no motor lake just outside of Lac du Flambeau, WI. Watching the remaining drops of rain fall out of the clouds which have been soaking the area the past couple days. In between the raindrops hitting the lake, I see ripples created by water bugs, fish and turtles. I have just dried off, am well fed, and am warming to the bone following an all morning exploration ride down long winding paved roads and over squishy gravel roads leading to lookout towers, marshlands, creeks and ponds. The scent of hemlocks, duff, rock, wintergreen and bog still hang in my nose. If I could bottle this smell, I would carry it with me wherever I went. I'm not sure how to put this, but I feel, for the first time in ages, so completely calm, present and content that not even two days of solid rain bother me. In fact, on my ride back to the cabin today, I was soaked so completely it looked as if my elbows were rain chains, and yet I noticed my cheeks hurting terribly. I paused a moment and wondered why my cheeks hurt so badly and then I realized I most likely hadn't stopped smiling for hours. I didn't even know I was smiling. It's in those moments, so genuine and true, I KNOW, without a doubt, how happy to be alive I am. And it's those moments, when I realize what a simple thing, like a wilderness ride in the rain, can do for me.

Each time I come up to the north woods, I wonder "could I live here permanently?" Although I love visiting, the answer always comes back "no". I wouldn't be happy without my circle of friends around me. I wouldn't be happy without good ethnic food, art or live music. And I would certainly not be happy with the onslaught of black flies and mosquitoes each spring. No, I belong, for the most part, in a small city. I've tried to do the northern girl thing in the past. It worked for awhile but , atvs, snowmachines and fishing just don't do it for me. So for now, I just need to carve out some time each year to come up here. To sit under tall pines and listen to the wind make music through the needles as I breathe in their heady aroma.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

RW24...the view from the other side.

This is RW24!!!
It's 11pm on the last Friday of July. My legs are tired, my eyes burn, I'm half buzzed from the free espresso shots donated by Colectivo and half drunk from Hamms and bourbon. I'm sitting in a garage in Riverwest, Milwaukee, a garage I've called "home" each year at this time for the past five years, with great friends watching the world go by. The Smiths and The Cure pour out of the speakers. I'm realizing I'll need to actually stand up soon to get over to Checkpoint 1 for my volunteer shift, because this year, for the first time ever, I'm not racing/riding Riverwest24, just volunteering and

For the first time in five years, I'm not on a team. It feels weird...really weird. I feel this sense of disconnect and am not sure I belong. Oh sure, friends from all over the midwest are here around me, and I'm still a part of the event as a volunteer, but there's still a slight pang in my heart, remembering what every year before has been. My legs, however, are happy I'm not racing since I just finished biking 100 miles out to the event, and will have to do the same Sunday for my return back home.

I somehow drag myself out of the camp chair, finish off the last sip of beer, and roll over to CP1 with my ex-husband and previous team mate. We wanted to do this together since every previous May Day, we'd make the trek to MKE for RW24 sign up and every previous year, we'd work on building up our team. This was our event and I was so happy he chose to ride out with me to volunteer.

Markham, my ex, working CP1

Steve Whitlow, THE MAN behind CP1 plus so much more (including peach whiskey)!

Jacob, one of my close friends, pulling the night shift for the tea

CP1 is in a way the quietest checkpoint. No huge parties, just a ton of camp chairs full of spectators, volunteers, and friends. It's on the northern most end of the course, and has honestly always been my favorite checkpoint because I love riding up to it in the middle of the night--having the Christmas lights lead the way. It's been run by, and in front of, Steve Whitlow's house (one of the founding organizers for RW24) since the beginning. Every couple hours, new bowls of food appear for riders coming through. Watermelon and bacon always seem to be the favorites. Because of my love for this checkpoint, I knew, when I wasn't actually riding in the event, I'd want to volunteer there. Oh sure, CP2 and 3 are just as fabulous with parties and music going all night long, but during the witching hour, I actually prefer the quiet, and of course the smiles on every volunteer's face.

Proving this is NOT a race!

CP2 and Robert after about 20 straight hours of volunteering

Visiting with friends. This event is about all types of bikes and riding styles.

I've volunteered for many alleycats in my life and many other types of bike events, but this one has got to have the strongest hold on my heart. I half considered volunteering all night long, but knew I'd be a waste the day after and wouldn't be able to roam the course and visit friends. Robert, a guy who drives to Wisconsin each year for this event, somehow pulls 24 hours of volunteering at CP2 each year. He is a god in my book and I would say in most RW24 rider's book. People like Robert, the organizers, and selfless volunteers truly make this event. Its magic would be completely lost without their energy and time. There is no way an event like this would have the same amount of power if it were run by a professional race company. It would feel robotic and I can assure you, I'd never participate again.

As our shifts ended, and we rolled back to our airbnb for a bit of sleep (just another odd thing...sleeping in a bed vs. in the car or a Westfalia for the event), I thought about what this event means to the local community and even to other communities across the Midwest since folks come from all over to participate. Although my love for it stems from it being a giant "family" reunion of sorts, I have also written blog posts and articles about it changing a neighborhood in the finest form of grass roots work. Almost every homeowner, and certainly every business owner, has to sacrifice something for this weekend. Whether it's a front yard, parking spot, not being able to pull your car out of your driveway, having to stay open longer hours, having a ton of sweaty, dirty cyclists essentially pillage your shelves (they pay for things of course...they just wipe restaurants, grocery and convenience stores out of their stock), or having to listen to music you may not like all throughout the night, there is a lot of patience and love that comes from this neighborhood even if the residents aren't cyclists. And in that lies the beauty. People who never ride bikes, sit out on their lawns cheering those who are riding on. I've called it, so many times, a 4.6 mile "block party" and I'm not sure how the community would react if it disappeared.

Towards the end of the 24 hours, we made our way back to Garage 707 to see the team we consider family off on their last lap. We were invited to join along, but it just didn't feel right since we weren't signed up for the event. Instead, we sauntered back to the airbnb, ate at Corazon, and just sat quietly for awhile...realizing the impact this event has made on our lives.

Will I ride in RW24 again? Honestly I'm not sure. I will most likely volunteer again, and may choose to ride solo next year (still basing myself out of Garage 707). People, events, and feelings change. Not for the bad, but life is organic. I'm guessing, come April, I'll be ready to head to the May Day sign up once again, but for now I'm just going to cherish the memories of this year and past years.

Once again, huge thanks go out to the community for hosting such an amazing event, the organizers for all the tireless and unpaid hours they put in, and the volunteers who make this thing happen!

Witnessing the rollout of the final lap for Riverwestfalia at Garage 707

Monday, July 18, 2016

Shut Up Legs

Rolling underneath wind turbines
I grew up riding in the flatlands. As juniors we rode fast and hard. Hill repeats were done, but only with deep sighs, heel dragging and on the only two big hills we could find (Ramsey Hill in St.Paul, and the climb out of Fort Snelling). Mention these two hills to any racer in Minneapolis and you'll most likely get an "uff" sound.

The Twin Cities produces crit racers. They breed them in fact. All fast twitch muscles and explosive power. Hill climbing skills? Ha! A few folks I know there do okay at Almanzo or Horribly Hilly but by "okay" I mean, they can finish it. And for them to train for these events, they often come over to Wisconsin or down towards Winona.

Not until I moved to Connecticut did I start riding hills, and reluctantly start appreciating them. I've written about my love/hate cycle for climbing before and last weekend I was reminded that I've truly morphed into 90% mountain goat with very little chance of ever returning back to my sprinting days. Honestly, I just don't want to. I like hills. No, I LOVE hills (and the respite they offer on the descents).

Somehow a friend conned me into doing Tour de Fest, a century in the Fox River Valley connected with the event Paperfest. I was told I'd be fine the entire way down, then, for the last 40-50 miles it'll be a knife fight. Seven Hills road separated the two sections with seven steep farm rollers (which I should look forward to since I love climbing so much). I had no real clue how I'd feel since the only faster paced rides I've done since I was 17 years old were 30 milers and still hilly (but with a club).

The ride rolled out unceremoniously with an easy pace winding through Combined Locks to the East side of lake Winnebago. I knew I didn't dare move up front to pull, instead opting to just see how my legs did. Light Southwesterlies made for a little pushing depending where I was in the group but honestly, it all felt pretty easy and I thought, yeah, no worries, I've got this. Cue the sick, demented, Vincent Price laughter now.

A few miles before the hammer went down
Stop sign after stop sign and corner after corner, however, brought mini sprints and I had to push out of my saddle or allow a gap to form in the paceline. I just wasn't used to these explosive starts and my legs were getting punished because of it. At the fifty mile mark I thought "Crap! Lactic acid is building up. I'll be gimping the entire way back. What the hell?! I do frequent hill centuries and don't have this happen." And gimp it for about ten miles I did. But I must not have fallen apart too badly at Seven Hills since I caught up with the group at the next rest stop and hung with them for another ten miles (thanks to the friend who conned me into the ride and kept me moving forward that is). Then the hammer went down. Later than I had expected, but the pace jumped 5 mph within seconds to 27mph. I was able to hold on for, I'd like to say several miles, but in reality it was more like several seconds. I knew I had another 25 miles to go and I was all too happy throwing in the towel, falling off and enjoying the scenery around me.

Three or four miles before High Cliff and I realized one of my mistakes...not taking in enough calories during the ride (half a cookie and one banana). On my own centuries, I don't go crazy with food consumption but one peanut butter bagel and one bar or banana is what I've found I need (equalling about 500-550 calories vs. the measly 200-250 I took in). A quick inhalation of watermelon and a small piece of sweet bread and I was ready to roll again. Not fast, but roll.

I woke the next morning more sore than I've felt on even my 200k hilly rides, making me realize I am so NOT conditioned for this type of riding. Will I work on improving for this? Most likely not, but it was fun and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Thanks once again to my partner in crime who stuck with me even though I must have told him to ride ahead a hundred times (something I always do...but mean it). Here's to more bikefun and good beers to follow (with maybe a little less junk food after)!

With beautiful views like this, and great summer weather, how could I not
want to do this ride again?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

It's becoming more and more apparent to me that I'm a misfit of sorts in the cycling community. I ride steel, carbon and aluminum (and I'm jonesing for a ti gravel bike). I ride with roadies, tourers, gravel riders, mountain bikers, messengers, cyclocross racers and commuters. I ride slow and sometimes I ride "fastish". I ride for physical health and mental health. I like riding with groups of cool folks but I also adore riding solo. I know the road racing scene...I was in it heavily at one point, but I don't fit in anymore. I know the gravel racing scene...I'm not sure I fit into that anymore either. One could call me a chameleon I suppose, but I don't try to be. Honestly, I just ride.

Over the past year, I've gone through a few big transformations. I've had to take stock on what's really important to me, who I want to be, and how I want to spend my time. Needless to say, cycling is one of the largest cornerstones in my life and I'm guessing that won't change in the near future. But here's the thing...even though I have more free time now than I did a year ago, I'm finding I'm more selfish regarding who I spend it with and how I spend it. It's not that I don't think everyone in my life could add something to it (because they can), it's just that I'm a bit tired of the clicky attitude in some riding groups and find myself steering clear of it. So what if I show up to a faster group road ride and have a handlebar bag and a map case on my carbon steed? So what if I ride my carbon road frame in a mostly steel group road ride? And so what if I'm not on Strava? Isn't what's important is that I'm on my bike? There's a part of me that wants to scream "Get over yourself!" to the folks who snicker, shun or question me or any other rider who marches to their own beat. I'm happy. I'm outside. I'm a good ambassador to the cycling community. There's nothing else I'm willing to give. And with that, I'm going to head out and run some errands on my not so well maintained single speed, and it'll be grand. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Doing my part to keep the border secure...

The border is secure!
A couple times each year, my friends and I make our way to the IL border via the H8TR (known as the BST to some). I'm not quite sure how this strange but wonderful tradition got started (there have been too many beers consumed since), but we all feel the strong need to pee on the border line.

Now don't get me wrong, most of us love biking in IL, and all of us have cycling friends who not only live there, but also own bike shops and run bike advocacy groups, but we are proud of our state (well we used to be before Scooter got elected) and marking our territory just seems like the thing to do. Stupid...I know. 

This tradition started a few years ago. Since then, most of my friends have joined me in either going down as a group or solo and posting pictures of not only the border marking, but also the actual "loading of ammo" (Bellville and Monroe are usually the top spots hit). We joke that the border line has now eroded quite a bit since there are usually two places all of us hit. 

Is this kosher? No way. But damn if it isn't a hilarious reason to ride 80-100 miles (depending on where you start from). Bike shenanigans are always the best shenanigans in my book. I look forward to spreading this tradition to others and assume the next time I head down there, the border will look like a mini canyon.

loading ammo

Friday, May 6, 2016 two one two

A perfect greeting at the top of a hard climb!

I'm not a procrastinator...ask any of my friends or co-workers. I'm one of those folks who gets everything done prior to deadlines, is usually early and ridiculously preventative. Call it a gift, call it boring, it's just something I think I was born with. But, to quote an All Hail the Black Market sticker "I don't fuck around, but when I do, I don't fuck around".

What's my spring training been like? I think the above quote says it all. My spring training has mostly consisted of moving boxes up and down stairs, moving stuff to the goodwill, riding to breweries with friends, finishing short rides at breweries and packing beer for flat gravel trail rides. What I'm saying is I have no business considering signing up for and riding an extremely hilly gravel ride next weekend...but I'm going to do it anyway.

Self judgement is a funny thing and I'm a master at it. If I'm not in "better shape" or "more prepared" this year than I was last year for an event, I tend to fret and beat myself up. The thing is...where does this viscous cycle end? Sure, being prepared for an event is good, and quite nescessary in many respects (especially in unsuppored events), but shit happens sometimes and you/I can't always be "better or stronger". In these circumstances is it better to throw in the towel and not take a risk? This is something that rolls through my head all the time, and this year, the answer is "nope".

Today I did a "shakedown" ride...a century I've done many times. The first 40 is flat with a few rollers, the last 60 is hill repeats. I knew if I could complete it, at least I wouldn't be a risk factor for those who I'm riding with next weekend. I wouldn't say I felt good or strong on it, but I completed it without a grimace. It was warm, the last half I had a tailwind, and I had the scent of lilacs blooming to blast any negative thoughts out of my head. I got home, showered, had a beer, ate a crap ton of food, and thought, for the first time in months, "it's all going to be okay".

Next week, I'll share how I felt/did on the gravel event. I'm guessing "interesting" will be the key word!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Back in Black: 2016 Dairy Roubaix

Back in black I hit the sack
I've been too long I'm glad to be back
Yes I am
Let loose from the noose
That's kept me hanging about
I keep looking at the sky cause it's gettin' me high
Forget the hearse cause I'll never die
I got nine lives cat's eyes
Using every one of them and runnin' wild

Moments before the start of the 2016 Dairy Roubaix
photo by Glenn Gernert

Being "back" came in two strong forms this past weekend. First, there was a brief thought in my cycling circle that my favorite bike event, Dairy Roubaix, would no longer be. Second, when it was officially in the books, I didn't think I'd have what it would take to get through it.

I often think of the quote from Toby Depaw, previous owner of North Central Cyclery and event organizer, "All good events should have a shelf life". I believe in this full heartedly, but any time I think about this for Dairy Roubaix, I begin to get a bit weepy. You see Stew and Michelle Schilling have been doing such an amazing job with this for so many years—making hundreds of cyclists smile from ear to ear while riding their bikes up endless gravel hills—that I couldn't handle the thought of it disappearing. Neither could they I guess since instead of chucking the event, they passed it off to another couple, Pete and Alycann Taylor who own Bluedog Cycles in Viroqua.

Now first you have to understand how detail oriented and what perfectionists the Schillings are. They make all of their events run so smoothly, you'd think very little work went into them. Wrong. They put so much into all of them you "think" this way even if it just about kills them. This is one of the reasons they needed a little breather. Knowing this, you can imagine it wouldn't be easy to find anyone up to par to carry their torch. Thankfully, they knew just where to look, and that was Vernon Trails/Bluedog Cycles. You see Pete and Alycann run a bike shop, build mountain bike trails, lead adult and kid mountain bike camps and run advocacy programs. When you're used to juggling that many things, adding a weekend gravel event isn't easy, but you sort of know what to expect. 

From a participant's viewpoint, the event was flawless. They even ordered up sun, light winds and temps nearing 80! Oh sure it was hard for me not to see Stew and Michelle there for the whole weekend (they were there the first night and through the morning of the ride), but almost instantly, Pete and Alycann felt like family and I was so unbelievably excited to hear they were already planning on doing it again next year.

Now, to get back to the actual event. For the first time since my inaugural gravel ride, I stood on the starting line cursing myself and fretting over if I could make it through. I knew I had done less training this spring than any other in almost ten years. More than half the rides I did complete, I found myself gimping it back home exhausted and in pain. I HATE going into events unprepared and that's exactly where I thought I was. Because of this mindset, I made a vow to ride any pace I wanted (alone or with friends) and take as many rests as I needed.

Come to find out, a little bit of sun and warmth can be ridiculously healing for both mind and body. Five miles into the ride and I thought "Huh, I'm not feeling that bad". Ten miles into the ride and I thought "Where the hell is this energy coming from?". Twenty miles into the ride and I thought "Oh shit, there's no way I can keep this pace...I'm going to crash and burn if I try." But I didn't crash and burn. I did, however, get a flat which a great friend helped me fix in a flash to get me back up moving in about five minutes. And although I kept looking down at my tires for fear of having another flat, I didn't get one. I rode the last ten or so miles essentially alone. Pushing when I could, letting up on the throttle when the energy bar and whiskey shot I had fifteen miles back started coming up. I put my head down for the long climb up Co.Rd. C (a climb I usually like) and pushed hard back through Wyalusing park. 

Sandy Hollow Road

Although I didn't have much in me left when I finished the cross course, I also didn't feel terrible either. I felt relieved, and honestly a bit shocked by what I had just accomplished. Here's the funny thing. By no means is the 54 mile course "hard" compared to other rides I've done. Essentially, it would be something I'd go out and do almost every weekend if I lived near it. What had been hard was breaking the barriers in my mind. In essence, it was a full circle. The first time I completed Dairy Roubaix I was a nervous wreck beforehand since it was my first gravel ride. Only after being on the course for about ten miles did I allow myself to relax and have fun. After that first ride, I didn't care at all where I finished in the group—I was just so happy to have finished...with friends. And this is exactly how I felt Saturday. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can beat being on two wheels on beautiful terrain, and when the ride is over, sitting in the grass with great folks enjoying cold beer. For 36 hours, I allowed myself to forget all of my stress, worries and checklists, but more importantly, I allowed myself to heal and come back into the cycling community. 

Post ride refueling with friends
photo by John Driscoll

So many thanks go out to Stew and Michelle for starting this whole thing, Pete and Alycann for picking up the torch, all of the volunteers working hard behind the scenes and all of my friends who helped me through some really dark hours.