Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Monday, August 27, 2012

Singing in the rain

It was a thin grey rain: hard and fast and cold ... as was my custom in such elements, I hunched against the rain, drew my head into my collar, turned my eyes to the street, tensed my footsteps and proceeded in misery. But my hosts, I soon realized, reacted in quite another way. They strolled calmly and smoothly, their bodies perfectly relaxed. They did not lurch their faces to it and did not flinch as it drummed their cheeks. They almost revelled in it. Somehow I found this significant. They accepted the rain. They were not at odds with it, they did not deny it or combat it, they accepted it and went with it in harmony and ease.
I tried it myself. I relaxed my neck and shoulders and turned my gaze into the wet. I let it do to me what it would.  It was simply falling as rain, and I, as a man, another phenomenon of nature, was sharing the space in which it fell. I was much better regarding it that way. I got no wetter!

                                                                                                   -Tom Robbins

picture taken by Nathan Vergin

 Until this year, I would never have chosen to head out on a road ride while it was raining.  Oh sure, I'd commute to work by bike in the rain or keep riding if it started raining after five miles into the route, but starting when the sky has already opened up, with little chance for it to clear, is a whole different story.

What made me change my ways?  Ego and admiration had something to do with it, as well as not wanting to be left out.  You see, my Sunday ride group prides itself on riding through all conditions.  So far this year, we've done a blustery pancake ride in early March, have ridden through massive thunderstorms with hail (although most of that ride was spent either curled up in the fetal position under a metal shelter--the ducks nearby were even taking shelter--or huddling next to a fireplace at a local cafe), and we completed a century with temps. hovering in the mid 90's with high humidity.  Yesterday we added a beautiful, hilly ride West of Madison...in rain.  My husband and I were the ride "leaders" this week which simply means that we pick the route and if the weather isn't looking good, it's our job to call it off or say it's a go.  I hate this job.  If we call it off, and then it clears up, I feel miserable.  Besides, we all wanted to ride.

6:45 am, the texts started rolling in.  "Are we riding?", "Is it a go?", "Radar not looking good...what do you want to do?"  The East side crew had to mount their steads by 7:15 to get to the starting point by 8am.  No one wanted to call it--it was up to us to decide.  The banter went back and forth.  In the end I called it off after seeing some cells Southwest of Madison that we'd have to ride through--with no shelter to run to.  So there it was.  We weren't riding and I felt like it was my fault.  By some strange miracle, a text rolled in "10 late" by one of the group's founders.  "What?  What do you mean 10 late?" I yelled into the phone.  My reply was ":Call me".  Didn't he realize the ride was off?  Shit.  He was on his way from the other side of town.  What to do?  Call another group member.  "What?  What do you mean he's on his way, as is another member?!"  Double shit.  Okay.  Deep breath.  I quickly called the other riders I had just told the ride wasn't going to happen.  Somehow, we pulled together, met at our house and decided to give it a shot.  Hey, we could always cut it short and turn back.  Of course I realized, deep down inside, that with this group, short of a lightning storm or hurricane, there was no turning back.

Still smiling even near the end!
We pulled out of the driveway, only an hour late, already a bit soggy.  This was going to be fun...right?  It was.  It was more than fun.  Even though we were all starting the ride on three cylinders since we'd spent the previous night doing a birthday and beer ride, and were all running on only four or five hours of sleep, we had a fantastic time!  We wove through the driftless zone valleys, hit many of the notorious big climbs in the area and spotted thirty-nine red barns (hence the name of the ride "Red Barn Delight").  None of us had fenders on--which proved to be a slight problem while riding through wet cow manure--so the whites of our eyes and teeth came through even more clearly when we smiled.

None of us had melted, there was no complaining, and the only downside was having to clean the bikes afterwards.  Thank you guys for making me just a bit tougher and turning what would have been a no ride day around!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Embracing the urban jungle

Hennepin Avenue bridge in Minneapolis
Four days.  Three cities.  Two wheels.  One speed.
Ninety percent of the time, if you ask me whether I prefer country road or city riding, I would reply country.  I believe, however, it's good to mix things up once in awhile.  It awakens the senses and brings out the inner child.

This past weekend was conjured up a few weeks ago, with it's backbone being my twenty year high school reunion.  I had hemmed and hawed about going.  Was taking off work and leaving a weekend of excellent road riding behind worth the schlep to Minneapolis?  After deciding yes, my husband and I had to ensure the trip was worthwhile and we made the decision to take a pit stop in Eau Claire to visit with friends and see my husband's alma mater.  Then, we'd take a couple days to reacquaint ourselves with my home city by bike and follow it with a mad dash back to Madison for the WAAM social ride around Monona.

After staying up far too late the night before, we pried our eyes open and I doused myself with strong coffee before heading out to explore Eau Claire by bike.  The last time we had ridden there was during our tenth wedding anniversary tour--over three years ago.  Since that visit consisted of showering, gorging ourselves and visiting friends, we never really saw Eau Claire the way it was meant to be seen.

Urban riding is a different beast.  The gap between it and rural road riding is made that much bigger when straddling a single speed or fixed gear.  You have to stay on.  There is no drifting or thinking about what to make for dinner.  It becomes meditative in it's own way since to stay alive, you must be present.  For me, people and cars tend to move to imaginary music in my head.  It all becomes one giant dance that I'm trying to choreograph on the fly.  There are, however, times when urban riding begins to wear me down.  If I'm not in the correct mindset, or am on sensory overload, I get cranky and begin to take my frustrations out on runners on the bike paths or dog walkers with retractable leashes.  It's not a pretty sight...just ask my husband.  Thankfully, there is usually a coffee shop or pub near by to refuel and decompress.

Carson Park in Eau Claire
Getting back to Eau Claire, a city I have fallen in love with.  For over fifteen years I've been watching EC evolve.  I have seen bike paths installed, watched the city embrace the river and also rebuild it's downtown.  On this visit, I was elated to see "sharrows" on some of the busier roads--making it safer for cyclists.  I am so excited to see what EC has up it's sleeve for the next ten years.  Although the biking was fantastic; weaving our way through Carson park, Putnam park and along the river, the true highlight was reconnecting with old friends.  Years can slip by all too easily so it's good having reasons to slow down.

Riding the Greenway through Minneapolis

Crossing the stone arch bridge
Onward to my home city, Minneapolis.  Every time I get into the city proper, I experience what a cycling friend calls "Minneapolitis".  Why?  Because of the infrastructure set up for urban spinning of course!  I have travelled and lived across the country, and believe me when I say that Mpls. deserves to be rated first or second every year for the best cycling city.  The one downfall--and no, it's not the winters since the paths are usually plowed before the streets--is that there are too many cyclists for the amount of commuter paths, trails or bike lanes.  Maybe I should rephrase this.  People in Minneapolis need to start using some of that "Minnesota nice" a bit more when riding, walking or running.  Surprisingly enough, the drivers were so much better than the ones in Madison and I would rank them a close second to the drivers in Seattle when it comes to bike awareness.

Sharrows on Bryant Avenue in Minneapolis

One of my favorite spots...the sculpture garden
Driving into the city, I realized that it had been far too long since I had spent much time there.  I grew up riding through the entire city and yet when driving in, I felt turned around and disoriented.  I began to think that carrying a map would be necessary.  I didn't trust my instincts.  So much had changed since I lived there.  Thankfully within a couple hours of riding, it all started coming back to me.  I remembered short cuts, which roads were one-ways, and which roads were cyclist friendly.  The true test came while riding in the dark.  It's a test of trust and knowledge.  As we wound our way from the Southwest side to the far South side, my smile grew.  I knew this area like the back of my hand and even though I was riding a bike that had never rolled through Mpls., it led the way with grace and ease.

Leaving Minneapolis is always a bit bittersweet.  There are times when I think I could move back there... and then I remember how much I detest the road riding.  Madison is now my home and has one hell of a magnetic pull.  No, it doesn't have the glorious restaurants, the plethora of music or the kick ass coffee shops but it holds my new family (non blood) and a lot of other really cool things--this is where my husband yells out "SAILING!"  When we arrived back home, we quickly unpacked and once again, straddled our bikes for a weekly social ride around lake Monona with great friends.  We put on about 140 miles in four days of solid city riding and I wouldn't have changed a thing.

WAAM (We Are All Mechanics) ride

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Finding peace

For the past year, I've been working on my anger issues.  I'm not saying that beforehand I was a raging lunatic, I just tended to take the world on.  Maybe it's the 25% German side of me who wants everyone to do the right thing.  Maybe it's the little control freak inside trying to take over. Either way, I know it's not healthy.

Until this year, I would listen to NPR daily, and would get utterly pissed off at the world.  It was if I were a ten year old boy, jacked up on redbulls with a lightsaver in my hands.  Sure, I'd be educated on the world's happenings but it wasn't exactly a win-win situation.  My energy would be drained and my husband had to deal with my rants.  He always knew when I had listened to NPR or the BBC because I'd start a sentence with "Can you believe...?"

Hello, I'm Kierstin, and I'm a recovering news addict.  Since I've been on a news diet (I still read the Economist and The Huffington Post), I find that I'm happier, I sleep better and my husband is in turn happier...until I hear about cyclists being hit by cars or cyclist's rights being taken away.  Within an instant, as if someone has flipped an "on" switch, I am back on the war path.  My cycling friends have, I hope, gotten used to this and have learned to tune me out when needed.  I'm sure they know what's coming when I call them and bypass all niceties.  There's no "Hey, what's happening?" or "How are you?"  Sometimes I think they would like to shake or slap me if they were in the same room.  Believe me, I am working on this and hope improve over time!

So, what set me off this past week?  While out on a ride, I came across a cyclist that had just been struck by a car.  I won't go into every detail, I'll just say that he was not breaking any laws and had the right of way. The driver not only hit him but did not want the ambulance or police called even though the cyclist was injured.  I was completely calm and collect while helping the cyclist.  I got the police called, helped the rider off the road and made sure the driver of car wouldn't leave the scene.  I guess this calmness goes back to why I wanted to be an EMT years ago and why I got certified in it as well as my Wilderness First Responder.  I do well in traumatic scenes.  I can sift through what needs to be done quickly and then act accordingly.  I don't start thinking about the "issue" until later.  When the police arrived and I was dismissed, I continued on my ride.  That is when the wheels started churning in my head, not just on my bike.  I began to run the situation over and over again in my mind until I was mad at every driver on the road.  I started seeing cars as the problem to most issues in the world and the taste of bile lingered in my mouth.  I realized I wasn't gaining joy, as I usually do, from my ride.

Looking back at the situation, I made myself a victim of sorts.  I allowed this unknown driver to affect me much more deeply than I should have.  Don't get me wrong, what he did was horrible and he should have been punished.  The cyclist should have also been treated in a much better manner.  It's how I reacted after the fact that I should have changed.  I've learned from past experiences that change occurs more quickly when frantic energy isn't the force behind it.  Practicing what I've learned isn't that easy.  Although I hope this type of incident will never happen again, if I do come across it, I will do what I can and know that it's all I can do.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The hills are alive!

Here in Madison, Wisconsin, mention names like Cleveland, Enchanted Valley, Blue Mounds Parkway, Garfoot, or Knight Hollow to cyclists and you'll get an all knowing look.  A look that says "I feel your pain."  These names essentially translate to17-18% climbs that make you look down at your cassette to see if you really are in the lowest gear.  Another kicker is that you can head West of Madison and hit ten of these hills in less than fifty miles.  If you're a real masochist, you may even sign up for events like the Horribly Hilly Hundreds (100,200 or 300 km) or the Darilyland Dare.  I tend to shy away from these since riding next to my friends or husband and having my ass handed to me is plenty grounding enough.  I don't need several thousand riders watching me blow up on a final accent.

When my husband and I moved to Madison, I can't say I was fond of hills.  Two grueling hills that my junior team trained on back in Minneapolis--Ramsey and Fort Snelling--still taunt me at times in my dreams.  When my coaches said it would be a hill repeat workout, I would be begging them to do pacelines or sprints instead.  It wasn't until I was forced into appreciating hills that my mind shifted.

You see, my husband is a natural born climber.  He's the type that doesn't have to train much and can still dance on the pedals.  He'll put in less than half my miles and still out climb me...with easy breathing I might add.  If I wanted to ride with him, I had to look at hills as a positive instead of a negative.  I had to see their beauty--that they offer jaw dropping views, that my lungs feel enormous once on top, and of course there's the wild ride down after the hill crests that has maxed me out at 54 mph (I'm still hoping to break 55).

This past weekend, I had three days of ups and downs...literally.  Not the wisest training but it sure was fun.  Friday was my early morning solo ride.  One that brought me gifts of hawks, wild turkey and deer.  Spotting wildlife is easier when not in deep conversation.  Saturday, which is supposed to be a group ride from my workplace, turned out being with just one good friend who was new to the hills yet did amazingly well.  Sunday was a "date ride" with my hubby.  I let him plan the route and he picked a winner.  Red barns everywhere, tight valleys, 6 or 7 hard climbs, a ride by our CSA farm and smiles galore.  In my head, I thanked him for easing me into this terrain many years ago.

Looking back, it took me four or five seasons to really fall in love with climbing.  Now, it feels strange to go on a flat ride.  My body even hurts a bit more on non undulating rides than on big climbing days.  I've lost my ability to sprint and I'm sure my pace line skills are worthless.  I'm okay with that.  What I've gained in the process is the ability to go anywhere I wish.  No longer are tight lines on a topographic map blockades.  Instead there are only panoramic views and a childlike "wheeeeeee" sound coming from my lips on the way down.