Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Turning Something Bad into a Possible Good

Folks rolling in for the start of the ride
photo by Tim Reinhardt

The route I have to take at least twice a day

Once in awhile, an experience is presented to us when something really bad can be turned into something possibly good. It's usually a split second decision that will tip it in one direction or another. This past week, I was given a chance to prove, not to anyone else but myself, that this can sometimes happen.

I was biking home from work on a sunny Monday afternoon around 2pm. Traffic on the road I take at least twice a day was a bit heavier than usual, but nowhere near rush hour intensity. This road I am forced to take, because there is no other good alternatives, is a narrow four lane which runs through a mostly residential area. There are no bike lanes or paths, even though many of the bike commuters and parents in the area have been begging the city for ages to build one or the other. The speed limit is 35mph (too fast in my mind for a residential area with parks, a plethora of children and poorly maintained sidewalks). People, however, never travel 35mph. Most travel 45-50 and the police won't ticket anyone unless they are at the 45+mph mark. This road is a corridor leading to more suburbs or an alternative route to the East side of the city. Drivers always seem either in a hurry or extremely distracted since weekly I have "close calls" even though I am a very courteous, predictable and skilled cyclist. That Monday, I was the victim of a road bully. A driver who chooses to use their vehicle as a weapon vs. transportation. I was forced off the road, went over my bars and landed on my shoulder and neck. I was hurt, thankfully not badly, and yet not one person stopped, including of course the person who ran me off the road. I got up, did the head to toe check, checked my bike and proceeded to walk the rest of the way since I was so shaken up and my bike needed some TLC.  I went into urgent care to get checked out fearing a fracture and impinged nerve, called the cops to make a report and began to think. I thought about what this incident meant to me. I knew the next day, and the day after that it could happen again, if not to me, to anyone else in the neighborhood. I knew the next time it could mean death.

Because the issue of poor bike/pedestrian infrastructure was not a new one for my area of Middleton, I had such little hope that changes would be made if I just reported it to the city, as I normally do. I knew I had to raise my voice a bit and get others to do the same in a constructive way. That night, I planned an infrastructure ride for the following Monday. I invited people through Facebook, Nextdoor, and word of mouth. I wanted to get other's view on the problems in the area and I wanted them to report the things they felt needed to be changed. I essentially didn't want to stand alone anymore on these issues and decided the only way I could do it was to get folks out on bikes to experience riding this and other unsafe roads in the area.

The route I chose was a measly 3.5 miles, but from past experiences, I knew overwhelming folks with too many problems wouldn't solve anything. Instead, my hope was to point out key projects and issues and if it worked, plan another ride for a different area come spring. Eighteen people showed (including several parents and three children). Almost everyone had the same reaction to the lack of safe infrastructure and lack of city support. I no longer felt alone or without a voice. Although eighteen isn't many people, it was a start, and since I also got an overwhelming amount of feedback via social media from those who couldn't make the ride, I began to think, "yeah, maybe things can and will change".

Working in a grassroots way isn't by any means a new thing. Madison Bikes was just formed this year due to an overwhelming need to have a stronger local advocacy group vs. just a state wide one. In a matter of months, their membership has grown to over 500 and cycling, as well as walking, has become safer in the city almost overnight. I always believed change starts with one drop of water, and groups like this are proof that big changes can be made by small starts. My hope, by planning this ride, and educating myself and others in Middleton about how we can make it safer for children to bike to school and adults to work or for errands, that slowly changes will occur. I'm also hoping a group similar to Madison Bikes, will form in Middleton and work with not only Madison, but other suburbs in the county. It takes a village...

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!