Tuesday, December 6, 2016

In between a rock and a hard place

So here I am, a single female cyclist, and I'm caught between a rock and a hard place. For you guys who think it's easy being a single female cyclist, I beg to differ. It sucks. I mean it really sucks. For the women who don't ride who think we (single female cyclists) are any threat to your partners who do ride, think again...we are very little, if any threat at all. Let me explain all of this, to the guys and the non-riding girls...and let me say I am speaking only for myself, but I have heard similar thoughts from many of my female cycling friends.

First, most of us are seen as guys. Yep, that's right. In fact, one friend of mine told me "you are more dude than dude". What am I supposed to say to that? I've grown up training and racing with guys. I hang out with guys after races, and I'd much rather talk about upcoming rides/adventures than shopping. Does that make me a "dude"? No. That makes me a woman who loves her bikes, loves adventure and loves swilling beers post ride while still on that ride high. Sure, I am seen in my cycling wardrobe (lycra and cycling t-shirts) more than my sundresses, but underneath those clothes, I'm still a woman. And yes, I may sport hideous tan lines when I do choose to wear a dress, but that just shows I'm passionate about being outside on summer days!

Secondly, most guys like to test us female cyclists...some may like it, I do not. Does a throwdown somehow make you feel good about yourself? Do you feel like you need to either prove yourself to me or see if I can keep up (aka am I worthy)? Guys, this is bullshit. I ride because I like to ride. I work hard, sometimes I like to push, but if I'm feeling "off" one night, don't pound me into the ground. You won't win any brownie points and I'll just think you're a Strava thumping douche.

Third, and this is for the females who don't ride, if you think we are hitting on your significant others when we ride with them, think again. We are just happy to ride with others who are passionate about riding. Sure, there may be a woman who is looking to "hook up" with a guy, but this is pretty damn rare. What are we thinking about on these rides? Hanging on, not looking like idiots, making sure we take pulls, and the beer at the end. Yep, this is what goes through my mind on group rides.

So let me talk about this whole dating thing. Since cycling communities are way too small, almost everyone is connected in one form or another. This doesn't bode well when you're searching for someone new. Essentially, the cycling community tends to be ridiculously small and incestuous and that's just gross. I really don't need anyone knowing my personal business and I certainly don't appreciate rumors which can spread like wildfire in tight groups like this, but it happens, and cyclists tend to act like little kids about it. In fact, I've heard cyclists bragging about who they "hooked up with" in a very similar fashion to their Strava bragging. Nope. Sorry. I want nothing to do with that. And yet, at the same time, I'm not keen on dating someone who doesn't like cycling. Trying to explain to someone why I'd rather go on an 8 hour gravel ride vs. go to a Packer game doesn't bode well with non-cyclists. I've seen marriages break up over stuff like this (even when it's been discussed early in the relationship). I will almost always choose my bike/health/passion over a relationship, but that's not to say a person isn't important to me. It's just that cycling is my therapy. If I don't have it in my life, I'm not a nice person, and non-cyclists just don't seem to understand that. So ideally, that leaves me with trying to find a guy who loves riding, is someone I find attractive, is age appropriate and likes/respects me enough not to be a douche while we ride together. Much tougher than you think. I laugh and say this is more rare than planetary alignment. I don't think I'm the only woman out there that feels this way. In fact, I think we, female cyclists, should form our own dating website! Until this happens, you'll find me riding solo or with packs of male friends.

Monday, November 14, 2016

So this happened...

Cyclists like to talk about cycling (a lot). When two great friends asked to interview me for their podcast, I went into fits of laughter. But because I love biking, and I'm not going to lie, I like talking about it too, I said "yes". I wouldn't have done this for just anyone though. Listen to Mark and Sean and you'll know why I agreed to do it! Listen here.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Conquerors of the Useless

A Dirt Road

Somewhere there is a dirt road
Long and narrow and traveled much, 
Where trees form a blanket, 
And branches lightly touch.

Shadows from the sun
Float down through the trees
Like patterns of light
Caught in a breeze.

Many footprints line this road
Left by travelers on their way
The road ahead promised more
The road behind begged them to stay.

Along this road in wild profusion
Berry vines twist along the fences, 
And growing in colored masses
Wild flowers swell the senses.

In the trees along this road
Songbirds spend their days
And in the roadside meadows
Horses quietly graze.

This road has all the feel
Of an old and trusted friend, 
And I could travel along this road
Time and time again.

Richard Netherland Cook 


Adventure cyclists, mountaineers, rock climbers, trail runners and backpackers. We are, in essence, conquerors of the useless. We go out searching for adventure. Searching for that place very few people know of or want to go. In search of the high that comes from summiting a mountain, descending a river or hiking as far as possible from civilization. Are we searching for a place per se, or are we searching for solace? And in that solace, are we quietly hoping to find a few answers? 

At this current period in my life, climbing, mountaineering and wilderness canoeing have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes I think I should feel bad about this, but the lifestyle I had to lead to get me on these trips was one I needed a break from. My roots were tired of being pulled up every year to move around the country, and I couldn't face the thought of working outdoor retail my entire life. So the camping gear got placed in my closet, and I ended up stumbling onto a form of travel I never thought I'd love (or even like for that matter). Yes, this skinny tire/high psi raised, baby bottom smooth road searching girl is completely hooked on gravel. I kid you not. I actually search these roads out now vs. sitting on the side of the road shaking and crying (as I did 6 years ago) after descending one.

No, these rural roads aren't really wilderness, and the chance of getting hip deep in shit is pretty low, but I do know people who have had to hike their bike out for more than twenty miles before they got help after having bike parts essentially explode on them. Try that in cycling shoes, through peanut butter like roads, while being swarmed by mosquitoes, and you may just consider this as challenging as summiting peaks. In fact, as I age, I no longer look for the "biggest", "best" and "least traveled". A backpacking trip on the Appalachian trail in Maine and New Hampshire, just after a backpacking trip in Montana, proved to me that a well trodden path can often be much more difficult than a wilderness path. That brief hiking trip out East wrecked me mentally and physically and made me see the world in a very different way. It isn't about the fame and glory about doing something which will cause others to "ooooo" and "ahhhhh". It's about doing something you love and doing it in a place you love being. I love the driftless area of the midwest. I love it so much I usually plan most of my vacation time around it now.

Please don't think I'm comparing what I do to what true adventures do. In fact, I'm barely dipping my toes in the water when I think of what adventure cyclists like Kelsey Regan, Steve Fuller, Greg Gleason and Joe and Tina Stiller do. But I'm out there exploring new roads, often having no clue what the next hill or corner will bring, and that satiates me (for the time being) and usually fuels my fire for life.

So why gravel riding vs. climbing/mountaineering or wilderness canoeing? Lack of time and lack of desire for copious amounts of gear is what comes to mind first. No longer are the days I can take off for a month or two at a time without losing my job, and no longer are the days when I want to spend weeks prepping my gear, knowing if I forget one thing, the trip could end in a disaster. No, I'm quite happy riding the endless hills of the driftless zone, admiring lone oaks in farm fields, trying to stay upright in sand barrens, finding pine stands in Northern Wisconsin which smell like Montana and sometimes rolling through bottom bracket deep water when the marshes have flooded. Call me weak, call me a quitter, but at the same time, call me happy. Kelsey Regan actually made a blog post explaining why gravel riders do what they do. I'll be honest, before I fell in love with this type of riding, I would have laughed my ass off reading this (while secretly I would have been queasy with fear), but those days are thankfully gone.

This year, with so many changes under my belt, I didn't get to many of the gravel events I would have liked to. I allowed myself, essentially, to be a bit lazy and complacent. I needed it. I needed to go back to a bit of adventure on my own terms, and so I opted to spend most of the spring and summer riding smooth asphalt. This, of course, got a bit boring, and by fall I was searching for my daily dose of vitamin G. Sadly, since I live in dairy country, almost all the roads are paved for the milk trucks, so I had to either ride the gravel rail trails (which honestly almost ride better than a lot of roads) or travel a couple hours to find some much needed dirt, sand and rock. I'm pretty lucky to have friends who are also passionate about this type of riding, so we'd pack up for day trips, or sometimes multi-days to go play. And now, since winter is knocking at my door, I feel a great pull to get one or two more adventures in with them.

A few weeks ago, on one of the day long jaunts into Southern Minnesota (Houston Co. to be exact), I remember looking over at my riding friend, after climbing a three mile long gravel hill to the top of a coulee, and feeling my heart swell. Honest. I actually felt so overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding us, and feeling so blessed to be where I was, I almost started crying. These are the moments I keep tucked inside me...to pull out later when I'm cursing mother nature for dumping massive amounts of snow along with biting cold wind. Even now, just thinking about that ride and how many more roads there are to explore in the area, makes me giddy for spring.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong...
-John Denver


Exploring Northern Wisconsin near Lac du Flambeau


Riding to the IL border at midnight

Riding the Dairy Roubaix route in fall for the second time this year

Friendly farm dogs are sprinting

Dairy Roubaix

The famous B road on Ten Thousand

Ten Thousand

Badger State Trail

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
observing.

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?