Breeeeezy

The title is one of grandson Ben’s former favorite words.  Ben has always liked language, talks a “blue streak” (original meaning is a reference to lightning), and loves new words.  On any given day, a word may strike him funny and become a source of ongoing merriment.  Such was “breeeeeeezy” some windy spring day a couple of years ago.

Today a cold front passing through made it just that.  But I’d been deprived of riding by schedules and bad weather too much recently, and I took off into a stiff westerly wind.  Such a wind evoked a great Ode from Percy Bysshe  Shelley a couple of centuries ago, but his was “the breath of Autumn’s being.”  Actually his wind might not be too out of place in our winter of 2011-2012, since true winter has yet to be ushered in, despite many false starts.  A little “wintry mix” made the trail impassable for a couple of days last weekend, but basically we’ve been above average in temperature for January, and downright mild much of the time.  As I rolled into the street today it was 62° and sunny.

I’ve blogged before about cycling in the wind.  The trick is not to struggle against the wind, but to roll evenly into it, hold your line, and minimize your profile by getting into the least upright position that’s reasonable.  I also rode the heavier Fuji today, since lighter bikes tend to get blown around, even with heavyweights like me on them.  And I always like to make the first leg of the trip into the wind, so that I am fresher when I have to expend the most energy, and can anticipate a surging tailwind on the way home.

The temperature dropped all along my route as the cooler wind blew in behind the front.  I had dressed for a cool-down, but still the shorts and sweatband reflected thermal optimism.  I let the louring clouds of the squall line, complete with a downpour and a couple of thunderclaps, pass on by, but was on the Trail to observe the clearing line of clouds with the vibrant blue sky behind it.  The air had a tang to it, so fresh and pure, and why shouldn’t it be, since it was probably somewhere north of Winnipeg yesterday.   It cleared my head, filled my brain with energy.  I’m so much more conscious of everything when I’m in that state.

When I got back, tailwind-assisted all the way, the temperature was 8° colder than it had been less than two hours earlier.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012

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Massive Victory Margins

One of bike racing’s many pleasures is the sprint finish.  All the muscle men, the guys with the huge quads and the hyperactive fast-twitch muscles, get in position behind their lead-out riders with a few kilometers to go.  Each of the lead-outs, also strong men but not quite so quick and powerful, tows the sprinters in his slipstream in turn, peeling off when his short-term power is burned up, his muscles burning with lactic acid.  Finally with a few hundred meters to go one of the contenders makes a move, surging with all-out power.  Who is the first to go depends on the course: is it uphill or downhill, wide or narrow, straight or curved?  And on the rider: who is on form, having a good day with just that little bit of extra zip?  And on the position: who has the best gap to burst through while his rivals are a bit boxed in?  It can be quite a melee, even though in a multi-day stage race the climbers and time trialists, candidates for overall victory, just stay a little bit behind, out of the way, to avoid a serious crash.  Sprinters’ speeds can get up around 60 kmh at the finish.

There can also be close finishes among leading riders ahead of the pack on crucial mountain days.  In the 2004 Tour Lance Armstrong was climbing ahead of the pack with his rivals Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden, and teammate Floyd Landis over five (!) peaks toward a sprint finish in Le Grand Bornand.  Landis had done heroic work towing the others up the tough climbs, and Armstrong, with a comfortable overall lead, wanted Floyd to take the stage victory as a reward.  Klöden spoiled that plan by sprinting ahead inside the final kilometer.  With 500 m left, he had a 100m lead.  But Lance, in his anger and competitive fury, chased the German down with an impressive surge of raw power, passing Klöden (who looked back over the wrong shoulder) just before the line.

Cycling has metrics to assess these things and assure the winner has been correctly identified.  The metrics are those of distance, not time.  Cameras purposely elongate the images at the photo finish, transform the background from pavement-gray to white so that the dark tires and rims stand out, and superimpose vertical lines to measure victory margins: half a wheel, the thickness of a tire, two millimeters.  Both riders get the “same time,” but only one stands on the highest podium spot at the awards ceremony.

The one exception to this measure of victory in cycling is the time trial, the “race of truth,” contre-la-montre, against the clock.  Here absolute time differences prevail, and the margins can be, and are, measured in hundredths of seconds.  In the 2009 Tour, Armstrong’s first comeback year, he and his team picked up in the Team Time Trial nearly all of the 41 seconds needed to put Lance in the race leader’s yellow jersey.  But Fabian Cancellara (nicknamed “Spartacus” for his toughness) held on to the overall lead that day by 0.22 seconds.

That number perhaps frames my reaction to the item in today’s sports page about downhill ski racing.  Like time trials on bikes, in downhill ski races each skier is measured against the clock.  The report today was of women’s World Cup skiing, specifically of American Lindsey Vonn winning a Super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo.  She got down the hill in 1:26:16.  That’s minutes/seconds/hundredths of seconds.  That time constituted an “emphatic victory” because it was a “massive 0.61 of a second” faster than the second place finisher Maria Hoefl-Riesch.  Bicycle racing may be fast, close, and exciting, but it is not a world in which 6/10 of a second is “massive.”  I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that.  [And is there a latent unintentional “Americans besting Germans” theme in this blog?]

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

First Snowfall

On Monday the weather forecast was for mostly cloudy weather and a 50% chance of showers, mostly in the afternoon, with a high temperature around 45°.  I considered riding outside but decided against it, as the air was taking quite a while to warm up much above the mid-30°s.  By mid-afternoon there were sporadic bursts of snowflakes drifting through the air.  And by sunset the air was full of heavy snow.  It stuck first to the branches and leaves, then to the grass, and finally to the pavement, which was relatively warm but colder than it had been a week earlier, thanks to a few days of chilly weather.  By supper time it was a soft, white, albeit it temporary Winter Wonderland, everything covered with a layer that rounded edges and muffled sounds.

It began melting right away.  This is after all Virginia.  And the total was only about 1″ to 1½,” which resolves to about .10″ melted.  Not that much moisture actually fell out of the sky.  But with this first salvo, the icy hand of winter has at last fallen on our land

What is most unusual is how late this first snow came this year.  A mere token of things to come, the first measurable snowfall usually happened no later than mid-November in the Massachusetts of my childhood.  At college in the Berkshires I experienced it in mid-October, with a permanent winter snow covering usually on the ground when we returned from Thanksgiving weekend.  Even here in the Old Dominion (not the “Dominion State,” as the now-apparently-editorless Washington Post recently called it) the W&OD bike trail has always been impassable for at least a few days by this date, January 12.  But in this winter of 2011-12 there have been no significant winter weather events yet, and none in the forecast.  Not that that means much, as paragraph one bears out.  When the snow came it was a total surprise to everybody, all the renowned professional prognosticators included.  And every news channel and station loves to be able to view the s-word with hyperbolic alarm whenever possible, so it wasn’t even on anybody’s radar screens.

Tuesday’s ride, though, was in relatively balmy upper-40°s temperature, and (after a deluge of rain last night) today’s ride saw the temperature rise 10° between my departure and return, to sit some 15° above normal.  On Tuesday just a bit of snow was left, nestled in the protective eddies of northern exposures.  Today the concerns were puddles, as well as mud fields and high-water debris clumps on the Trail where it underpasses roadways and skirts Four Mile Run.  The Run, a notorious flooder, must have been a good 4′ above normal levels at some point last night.

However, that soft, romantic first snowfall has delivered its message: Winter is at hand.  After tonight’s (predicted!) rainfall and frontal squall-line winds, we are supposed to be looking for a high in the 30°s tomorrow, a good 20°+ drop from today.

Good thing I have winter cycling gear.

©Arnold Bradford, 2012.

Raison d’être

What is it that compels a rider to don decidedly un-gay apparel and venture out into the somber cold of a winter day?  Why does one risk dehydration, fatigue, muscle cramps, oxygen deficit, and injury or death at the hands of Type-A bullies wielding 4000 lb.  internal combustion machines?  There’s probably no real answer to this, or any other, recreational obsession.  The obsessed find a pleasure deeper than the superficial pain.  But a correspondent recently suggested that I “should either become a full time cyclist or go back to teaching full time” because I criticize only “the organic and not the intellect” when I write these blogs.  And that got me thinking as I went on my ride today, wearing bib shorts in 58° sunshine.

Cycling is not an intellectual activity.  It demands intelligence and constant attention, but those attributes are evoked in the service of the body.  I have written before about the binary attitudes I generate while riding.  On the one hand I love being in control of my bicycle and yet apart from it.  It is a machine and I am operating it efficiently.  On the other hand I discover “zen” states when I and the bike are one.  It is an extension of my body and my will; I think and it responds.

Cycling can have its spiritual moments, times when my concentration narrows and my awareness of forces around me becomes consuming.  But narrowed concentration is dangerous on a bike; awareness needs to be broad enough to perceive the car running the stop sign into my path, or to avoid the veering toddler with the oblivious parent.  Cycling can also have its absent-minded moments, when one gets lulled into complacency by a long, straight stretch of empty trail and begins to think about the Red Sox’ problems in right field or the talented student who refuses to take assignments seriously.  The other end of the spectrum from narrowed concentration, but vulnerable to the same kinds of dangers.

What I have found in cycling is an awareness and understanding of my physical self on a level more complete than I have ever found in other life experience.  Endurance activities force one to be aware of the body and the psychological states that both feed into and evolve out of physical activity.  Certain attributes apply especially in endurance:  strength, power, fatigue, pain, repetitive action.  I have learned my limits, I have learned how to expand those limits, I have learned the nature and quality of pain in several forms, I have learned how to trick myself into pressing on when I “can’t do it any more.”  Needless to say, all this occurs for me on a low level compared to elite athletes.  But it’s valid for me, being as I am of a certain age and definitely never a prime physical specimen, but just a tall ectomorphic competitor.  I now know when I am getting dehydrated; I can tell the difference between the feeling of a tired muscle and an injured one.  I can tell how far to push it without getting too far over my lactate threshold, a point from which there is indeed no recovery other than shutting down.

The trick is to know how to expand my limits by, paradoxically, not pushing my body too hard.  My tendency is to always want to go as fast as I can without overcooking it on a given ride.  The wisdom I embrace, however, is that not every bike ride is an Individual Time Trial.  The Socratic dictum “know thyself” applies equally to the physical life, to listening to the messages from my own body.  On the other hand, new studies show that when cyclists had their speeds under-reported to them, they were able to go 15% faster, at a speed they “thought” was their usual.  So the mind does enter into this.  A healthy optimism about one’s potential is a definite asset.

Essentially, what cycling does for me is to put me in touch with a side of myself that I otherwise would not think much about in my cerebral, verbal, literary, cultural professional and social life.  And I will continue to venture into that world of my organic being often and intentionally to become more of a whole person.  I will also continue to write about my cycling experience as it is, and not to make for it pretentious or fraudulent claims in pretentious or fraudulent language.  Cycling is authentic as it truly is.  To make something other of it would be ridiculous.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

Fast Away the Old Year Passes

Abnormally warm sun made it even easier for me to squeeze in one last ride for 2011 yesterday.  As I rolled out I wondered (on the left) if there would be many people on the trail, since it (on the left) was Saturday and New Year’s (on the left) Eve day as well.  Actually (on the left) more of them were walkers and joggers than (on the left) cyclists, but there were tons of (on the left) folks on the trail.  Lots (on the left) were families, with the inevitable veering six-year-old, and a few >on the left< were faster than me.  I saw (on the left) one guy pushing an empty jogging stroller, carrying (on the left) the kid who was the putative passenger.  He was (on the left) probably just practicing for the Parental Triathlon, in which the parent pushes the (on the left) kid, carries the kid, and  makes the kid walk about equal amounts.  We’ve all done that one.

After an easy, breezy ride on a fine day in my vintage wool Peugeot/BP jersey I sat down to add up the year’s totals.  I was way off my best, and recently usual, annual total of about 3000-3200 miles.  My total was only 2707 for 2011.  I blame a combination of difficult weather and frustrating time conflicts.  This was the hottest summer on record in DC as measured by average high temperatures, and although we had no prolonged extreme heat (let’s say 98°-105°), we did have many days in the low to mid 90°s.  We also had two extremely wet months in June and September, usually prime riding time, and a few extra out-of-town traveling dates too.  From April 30 until June 12 I rode only seven times!  And several other off-periods caused by travel or illness required me to re-start my conditioning, meaning shorter rides when I did ride.  From 2008 through 2010 I averaged just about 125 rides per year.  This year I had 114.  With eleven more rides I probably would have hit the 3000 mark, at least.

So I have convinced myself that I am not slowing down losing interest.  I’ll find more opportunities in 2012, and look forward to another great year on the bike.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.