Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bicycling and the Art of Zen


A handlebar designed by Japanese artist Kosuke Masuda

Being present.  Finding a rhythm between my peddle strokes and breath.  Feeling the slight temperature change between the valleys and hilltops.  Smelling the thawing earth, decomposing leaves, distant cow pastures and the occasional dead skunk.  Seeing the countryside pass by at a rate fast enough to put miles behind me yet slow enough to absorb the details.  Hearing the call of spring peepers, cicadas, and sandhill cranes.  This is why I ride...and often times solo.

I've never been one for seated or still meditation.  For some reason I can't settle into it.  It's like wearing an ill-fitting pair of bike shorts for me.  Instead, I find I can relax into a meditative state while hiking or biking.  Travelling well known routes, ones that I haven't used a map for in years--my bike just seems to guide the way and my mind is allowed to release.

On these days, when everything seems to be "right", poetry sometimes floods my brain.  For a few years now, I've chosen to embrace this and have written quite a bit of Haiku while on two wheels.  Often times I allow it to drift out of my mind before I get home to a notebook and pen.  It's not really about writing it down, it's more about the "dance" I'm having with nature.  As a child I fell in love with Haiku.  The simplicity of it appealed to me as well as the non-rhyming nature.  I am also a lover of nature and Haiku tends to flow with it quite well.  The masters Basho, Busan and Issa all come to mind...writing about the fleeting moments that one cannot grasp.  While on my bike I often times feel this way.  I know that what I'm experiencing will never be repeated in the same sequence.  I could see the same oak tree daily on a ride and it will look different every time depending on the light, wind, time of year.  Instead of mourning this, I am trying to flow with it.  Once in a great while, a Haiku will stick with me.  One that I've never been able to shake is:

Grasshoppers please stay
out of my wheel spokes
you make a big mess

One I recently wrote on my first winter ride of the season is:

Winter wonderland
snow crunching beneath my tires
two tracks left behind

Here's one from Michael Rasmussen:

  Shadow emerges
cool morning soft light sharpens
chase myself Westward

And finally a piece from Basho (translated into English).  It's not on cycling but since I pass cranes almost daily on my rides it makes me smile.

The crane's legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain

When I raced and trained for specific events I tended to take myself too seriously.  Always thinking about the future and never truly enjoying what was going on in the present.  Basho wrote, "Make the universe your companion, always bearing in mind the true nature of things--mountains and rivers, trees and grasses, and humanity--and enjoy the falling blossoms and the scattering leaves."  

In 1999-2000 I lived in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.  I had the pleasure to train and work with many top triathletes.  I remember two sisters that both competed in Ironman competitions around the world.  Both trained seriously and paid their dues.  One of them went on to place well in just about every race she did while the other often struggled.  The difference I think was not in their training but rather in their mindset.  The one that consistently performed well seemed to "play" instead of train.  She received great pleasure in all movement and I rarely saw her without a smile. On the other hand, her sister beat herself up if she didn't do well in a race or during training.  I could tell that she was always making calculations in her head and followed her schedule to the letter...even if she didn't feel like training that day.  I have known many other athletes that seem to follow these patterns and only in the past six or seven years have I allowed myself to soften in my training as well.  The funny thing is that not only do I enjoy exercise more but I think I've actually become a better rider because of it!  It's as if a large sum of weight has been lifted off of me and I now have a new found freedom.
I can't say that I follow this "light" way of thinking all the time.  I succumb to pressures like everyone else.  I consider this all a learning experience and if I can improve just one day by being "here and now" it is all worth it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Biking in a winter wonderland!


A wintry chill is in the atmosphere,
As from the heaving lake the storm wind blows;
And weak-kneed brethren of the cycle fear
That brings the riding season to close.
Jack Frost assails us with his wicked thrusts;
Our polka-dotted mufflers are on guard
And many a good wheel in the basement rusts
Which should be speeding down the boulevard.

And shall we join the patient, suffering throng,
Which crowds the rumbling street cars to the door?
Which kicks against the service loud and long,
But keeps on riding as it did before?
Nay! Perish such a thought. On every street
The hardy wheelman has the right of way;
No ancient female comes to claims his seat;
No cable breaks, no lumbering teams delay.

Our hearts beat high, our life-blood dancing flows,
Though ice-flakes sparkle in the biting air;
While street-car heaters, every patron knows,
Are but a vain delusion and a snare.
The steed that bore us through the woods aglow
With sunshine, where the morning glories creep,
Will bear us safely through the mud-streaked snow
Until it lies at least five inches deep.

-PETER GRANT, late 1800's

My feet are blocks of ice.  My hands feel like there is sludge in their veins vs. blood.  My limbs are slow to respond to anything I ask of them.  My thoughts are foggy.  I think there is an icicle made of snot hanging from my nose.  Through all of this, there is a smile on my face--although you can't see it under the balaclava and layer of hoar frost.  It is winter in Wisconsin and I'm on my bike!
Am I crazy?  Maybe.  Am I happy?  The remaining unfrozen brain cells scream YES!.  Although this isn't my first choice of weather for riding, there is something to the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger".  

My winter steed is a Surly Cross Check.  A bit rusty form the salt that coats Madison roads.  Definitely grimy--even though it gets cleaned frequently.  My normal winter gear consists of a balaclava, ski goggles when it's below zero to prevent my eyelids from freezing together, several layers of synthetic tops and bottoms, a wind jacket and wind pants, vapor barrier socks, winter cycling boots and Outdoor Research mitts.

Long gone are the days of 50 mile rides.  Now I gear up for commuting into work, running a few errands and partaking in the Madison Bike Winter events.  It usually takes me longer to get ready for the ride than to do the ride itself but most of the time I consider it worthwhile.  I feel like a kid out there after a few inches of fresh snow have fallen (my version of making freshies since I'm not skiing much anymore).  There are times I feel like giving up and those days I choose to walk.  When the sky drops a layer of ice on the road or six inches of slush I just don't feel safe biking anymore (in my old age I've either become soft or smart).  I'm not too worried about falling since I usually take a few spills each winter.  I'm mainly concerned about cars driving out of control or not giving me enough passing room.

Here in Madison there are some really strong feelings about winter cyclists.  In December 2007, Paul Soglin, stated in his blog "The bicyclists who braved the week's second storm should be taken out and shot."  Mayor Soglin, just "Paul" at the time, was referring to a snowstorm that dumped 5 inches on top of a recent 6 inch snowstorm.  The statement went completely viral in a matter of days.  I was getting e-mails from friends around the country asking me if he really said this and if he was crazy.  The only crazy thing is that he calls himself a bike advocate and claims he has done more for Madison's cycling infrastructure than any other mayor.  Of course after he received hate mail galore, his editor made a snide comment stating "Paul wrote this tongue-in-cheek- you know, a joke.  It's called hyperbole.  Don't get your undies in a bundle.".

O.K., so let's dissect this a bit since I biked to work twice that week.  Were they the safest conditions?  No.  But the roads weren't even safe for cars and the sidewalks/paths were impassible for days.  My work didn't close and if I wanted to get paid, I had to make my way in.  It's funny how Soglin stated that the paths he saw were meticulously clear.  I'm not sure where he was but the paths that I take were actually covered in slush/ice for a month following that storm (even after several calls to the city).  

So here we are, entering another winter bike season.  Soglin is once again mayor and the conceal/carry law recently passed in Wisconsin.  Although I love winter biking, a little bit of me wonders if my base layer should now be a bullet proof vest vs. long underwear.  
Me showing off my base layer at the Winter Bike fashion show
Another winter bike...this one in Madison
One of the bikes from the 2011 Arrowhead Ultra 
Markham explaining the importance of wind proof briefs

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

7-Eleven isn't just about convienence

When you hear the word 7-Eleven what comes to your mind?  For many it's slurpies and big gulps.  For me it's one of the biggest shifts in U.S. cycling.  This past weekend I got the pleasure to work at the Saris Gala (largest fundraiser for the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation) and meet the 1986 7-Eleven team (including my hero Raul Alcala). 

Eric Heiden racing around the Madison capitol in 1982
What makes the 7-Eleven team so special?  It was the first American team to race in the Tour de France in 1986...'nuf said.  The team was pulled together by Jim Ochowicz in 1981 who had spent years managing the U.S. national speed-skating team.*  Jim accomplished an amazing feat by landing sponsorship with 7-Eleven and Schwinn.  The team actually consisted of not only bike racers but also well known speed skaters like Eric Heiden (who is from Madison, Wisconsin).

In 1982 Schwinn dropped out but a women's team was added.  Although I was only 7 years old I remember being so excited about this.  Seeing women race on a pro level meant so much to me since I was just entering the road racing world.  One of the women that signed on, Rebecca Twigg, helped shape my world and I wrote about her in a previous post.  Davis Phinney (now married to Connie Carpenter and the father of Taylor Phinney), Ron Kiefel and Alex Stieda also were recruited.  Shortly after this team was formed, they were featured in the movie American Flyers.

Andy Hampsten
In 1985 the team went from amateur standings to professional and with the addition of Chris Carmichael, Tom Schuler and Alexi Grewal they won an Olympic bronze.  That same year, the team was invited to the Giro d'Italia (one of the classic European races) and Andy Hampsten was signed on with a 30-day contract.  Hampsten and Kiefel both won stages that year in the Giro and became the first Americans to ever win a stage in a Grand Tour.

1986 proved to be the biggest year for the team.  They were invited to the Tour de France and performed extremely well as a team with the additions of Raul Alcala, Jeff Pierce and Bob Roll.  In the following decade, the 7-Eleven team went through several sponsorship changes yet continued to be a major force to reckon with in the racing world.  They finally disbanded in 1996 yet many of the racers continued to be successful on different teams.

Although the names of Lance Armstrong and Greg Lemond are thrown around frequently as the best U.S. racers, I can't help but think of all the other workhorses out there that completely changed the face of American racing.  These guys deserve so much more recognition than they will ever get!

*Speed skating and road racing went hand in hand for many years.  People didn't train inside very much during the winter back in the 80's.  They opted to speed skate for their cross training instead.

Me with Raul Alcala (one of my heroes).  Raul won the Mexican Time Trial championships last year...when he was 46 years old!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again

This post is for my mom.  The woman that taught me how to take a really shitty situation and turn it into something positive and productive.  It's also for Bob Zim...thanks for putting me back together even when I feel like humpty dumpty.

Some of the strongest memories I have from my childhood are the ones where I marched in Take Back the Night rallies and took part in Bang On Pans For Peace.  You see my mom felt it was important to have her voice heard and this trait thankfully was passed on to me.  During a time where violence against women in the streets of Minneapolis was common and we all lived in fear of atomic war, my mom harnessed her personal anger and fear and spoke out to initiate change.  I, of course, was often standing by her side...watching and learning.

While I sit here, still licking my wounds from a hit and run incident while biking almost three weeks ago, I realize that if it were not for her teachings I could easily have become much more of a victim.  Yes, I still consider myself a "victim" since I was injured because of a reckless driver but I am choosing not to be "victimized".

Because of the nature of the incident, I was not able to collect the driver's license information.  That of course means he got away scott free.  There are, however, some good things that came out of all this.  First, I realized (if I hadn't known this already) how important cycling is to me...I rode to work two days after the crash.  Second, the bike community proved to be like an extended family and they came together to wish me well.  Third, changes will hopefully be made on the stretch of the road where I was hit thanks to the work of several city staff.  In the past few weeks I have had fantastic conversations with the DA's staff, police officers and aldermen.  My goal now is to prevent this from happening to another rider.

During all of this commotion, a rather serendipitous event occurred.  The UW research team of Maggie Grabow, Jonathon Patz and other colleagues released a study stating that by making 50% of short trips (2.5 miles or less) by bike, approximately 1,100 deaths per year would be prevented in the upper Midwest.  This, they say, is due to lowered health issues such as obesity and cardiac arrest as well as improving air quality saving  us roughly 7 billion dollars in health care costs annually.  Since I'm a numbers girl, this study speaks volumes.  I know that cycling has improved my life and health immensely but now this proves that it affects us all.

I spoke with Jonathan Patz just before this study was released.  He was aware of my incident and jokingly said that he may have to revise the study seeing that he felt I was harmed while cycling (of course my route to work is just over 3 miles so the study doesn't pertain to me).  As I stated before, I'm a numbers girl.  This was only the third serious crash I've had during the 31 years I've been road riding.  Not too bad.  Of course I would like that number to be lower and that's where my voice comes in and can hopefully make a difference.

I am determined to keep pushing the aldermen, mayor, governor and president to take the necessary steps in making the city, state, country more bike and pedestrian friendly.  I do this not only by talking with the leaders but by also volunteering with the bicycle federation and becoming a leader myself.  There is a saying by Victor Frankl "Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds meaning" and I have found meaning.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Let's Hear It For The Girls

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling.  I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.  It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.  I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."
                                                                                                       -Susan B. Anthony 1896

Inga Thompson (she was my hero growing up)

When I began my journey of becoming a cyclist there weren't many girls my age interested in the sport.  I found myself having to train primarily with boys and got a bit discouraged when I had to race with them as well.  Don't get me wrong, looking back I think it made me a stronger rider and got me to "toughen" up a bit but it would have been nice to have a choice.  Luckily two of my junior coaches were women and the early 80's were a highlight for women's pro racing with the Tour de France and Coor's Classic.  To this day the names Jeannie Longo, Connie Carpenter, Rebecca Twigg, and Inga Thompson provide a spark for me and I consider them the trailblazers that made it possible for the female cyclists today.

Rebecca Twigg
Jeannie Longo
Connie Carpenter

Since bike racing wasn't really considered a "normal" sport for boys let alone girls in the 80's and  Title IX was still struggling in the courts , there wasn't much available to me as far as training with other girls.  We were put on the back burner and just barely hung on.  I still remember the day that the women's Tour de France was cancelled and the year Celestial Seasonings chose to cancel it's sponsorship for their women's racing team.  Even the "normal" girls sports were struggling since most schools chose not to follow the rules of Title IX (to this day, thousands of schools across the country are not in compliance with this law).  You can understand how discouraged I was and can see some of the reasons I chose not to continue racing.  Also, at that time, trying to explain biker tan lines was just about impossible.  I found myself saying "No, I'm not a farmer" or "No, I don't golf" all the time.  Heck, I found it difficult just to find women's specific shorts and jerseys at bike shops.

Jumping ahead 30 years and things have really changed.  No, the women don't get the race coverage that the men get and the race purses are much smaller than the men's, however, ESPN just covered the entire women's Nature Valley Grand Prix and the field just about blew my socks off.  The real changes aren't just about racing.  Women are now all over the bike industry... wrenching, building bikes, and putting on all women bike events (which are getting great turnouts).

The start of Babes in Bikeland 5 in Minneapolis

Gathering up for the first Madtown Maidens Alleycat

This past year, I, along with Lisa Snyder and Ali Dwyer put on Madtown Maidens Alleycat (Madison's first all women's alleycat).  Women of all abilities and ages showed up and from the feedback I got had a great time.  Plans are already in place for Madtown Maidens part 2 and I'm hoping to pull in more than 100 women this year.  This, however, is just a drop in the bucket compared to a Minneapolis event called Babes in Bikeland.  Kayla Dotson has done the unthinkable and is now entering the 6th year of the largest women's alleycat in the world.  Lucky for me it's just a short 4.5 hour trip away in Minneapolis!  Her drive and determination to get more women on bikes is contagious and now many of the major cities in the country are trying their hands at all female bike events.

Although I could blather on about my experiences as a woman in the bike world...I thought it would be a hell of a lot more interesting to throw out some questions to other big time movers and shakers in the bike world...and yes, they are women.  So read on and get to know some really cool ladies.

Q & A with Kayla Dotson, co-creator of Babes in Bikeland

Q:  What is your earliest memory of being on a bike?

A:  I guess my first memory of riding a bike is my neighbor teaching my how to ride. I fell down a lot, but I always needed to scrape my knees a couple times to consider it a successful summer
Q:  What are you riding now?

A: My current favorite bike is a old pink Mercier track frame that I used to build up a coaster brake cruiser. It's a completely custom build, so it's a pretty fast cruiser. I also have a Steamroller track bike, a vintage steel Rossin road bike, and a beater Peugeot for my winter bike.
Q:  What made you decide to create Babes in Bikeland?

A:  When I first started getting into riding and hanging out within the bike community, I realized that the women I met through riding were consistently some of the most solid and awesome women I've ever met. The only unfortunate part about it was that the men very much so outnumbered the women. I knew that more women rode than were typically represented at bike events, so I wanted to get more women out riding together to let them know that they were welcome in the bike community and that it wasn't just a boy's club. I also wanted women who ride bikes to get to know each other, so they will have other women to ride with. I think that men (or bike shops or people in general or whatever) typically underestimate how important the social aspect of biking is for women. So Babes is a way to try to help create that.

Q:  Where would you like to see the world of women's biking go?

A: Oh man, what a question. I have no idea. I'd just like to see as many women as men out on their bikes - just as much as I'd like to see an equal representation of minority groups as well.

Q & A with Ali Dwyer, co-owner of WAAM (We are All Mechanics)

Q:  What is your earliest memory of being on a bike?

A:   Riding around in circles in the big backyard of my childhood home. I would pretend I was riding in the Big Top, as a circus stunt rider.

Q:  What are you riding right now?

A:  Most of my miles are logged on my commuter bike, a Trek Pilot frame (covered with reflective tape) with an Xtracycle FreeRadical attached.
Q:  Why did you and India Viola start WAAM?

A:  In short, I love teaching and I love bicycling. Collaborating with India to create and maintain We Are All Mechanics is perfect because I can do what I love and not have to be good at all the aspects of all that we do (we complement each other nicely).
We set out to share our love of bicycles and technical knowledge with other women in our community.

Q:  If there's one tip you could give women just starting to bike what would it be?

A:  Get informed in order for your early rides to be as safe, successful, and fun as possible. Get familiar with your bike, if needed, in a really low-stress environment, even if that means some laps of a quiet parking lot or empty bike/ped path.
Speaking of comfort, talk with other women (research) and try out MANY different saddles, to find the right one for you. the one that comes with the bike may not be a very good fit for your body!

Q & A with Toni Gnewuch, Executive Director of Dreambikes 

Q:  What is your earliest memory of being on a bike?

A:    My first memories on a bike are when my sister, cousin and I would ride our bikes to a little candy store a couple miles away from where we lived.  We would sneak a bit of money out of our piggy bank to buy some candy at the store.

Q:  What are you riding right now?

A:  I have a few bikes that I ride now.  I have an old Trek hybrid bike from the mid 90's that I still absolutely love.  I use this bike to ride around the neighborhood with my boys (ages 8 & 10).  I also have a Trek road bike that I purchased a couple years ago that I take out when the boys are not riding with me, and/or I am riding with some friends.
Q:  How do you think bicycles can help improve people's lives in low income neighborhoods?

A:  Bicycles are not only an affordable form of transportation, they are also a great form of physical activity and a positive way to spend time.  Bicycles have utilitarian benefits, are a great recreational activity, and offer many positive health benefits too!

Q:  What would you most like to see change in the next 10 years for the cycling community?

A:  Many people don't ride bicycles now because they are concerned about safety.  It would be great if more trails and bike lanes were created, more people were aware of and accepting of bicycle as a form of transportation, and as a result - more people from all generations were out riding their bicycle. 

I want to end this by thanking all of the women that make the bike world what it is today.  I'm amazed by how much has changed since I first got on two wheels and I'm so excited to see the impact women have 30 years from can only get better!