Tag Archives: cycling

The Spaces In Between

There are spaces of nothing between bursts of something. This is where my mind gets busy, and I scheme feats of mid-life athletic amazement. This is where possibility takes root…along with its gnarly second cousin: fear.

Such was the case with the fondo a few weeks ago.

The fondo was my first experience riding in a big group. It was a pretty big group – several thousand cyclists. It had occupied my thoughts for weeks. The idea – the newness of it – thrilled me. But I was also worried. Not about the distance. I was doing the quarter and had covered the distance easily in training. As a typically solo rider, I was worried about maneuvering in a crowd of other cyclists. A crash. The dramatic highway pile-up. You know, skin grafts and such.

I like that about triathlons…you’re not allowed to ride near each other.

Well, I don’t know what went on at the front of the pack, but there was no sardine-packed peleton where I was. No inch-apart wheels. No tempting of fate with each twitch of the brakes. It was simply a bunch of folk of similar pace riding and keeping an eye on each other. And on the spaces in between.

Big groups are always like that really: just lots of you’s and me’s showing up until something aggregate takes shape.

The group thing, though – this posse of strangers moving together through air on wheels – brought out something new in me. As I found the slipstream of other cyclists, I could feel the rhythm of the collective. The air moved around me faster. The odometer ticked faster. Even when I found myself alone. Like during the last 10 km, as I whipped along the lakefront into the wind and barreled down the streets of Penticton. I could see my average speed was notably higher than I’d predicted. I began an instinctive race against my bike computer and the “point-9” at the end of my average speed. I tucked in and hunched down. My breath took on an unfamiliar tone. I pushed, pushed, pushed through the empty streets. I flew across the finish line – leaning in like Peter Sagan inching out a rival for the stage win. Yeah, I was exactly like Peter Sagan.

And the only crash was the one that came when I was going precisely 0 km/h and that was related to precisely zero other riders. At the rest stop, I couldn’t un-clip from my pedals fast enough. I toppled over on my left side right, bike still between my legs, in front a line of riders outside the port-a-potties. It was dramatic in its own special way.

In the end, there was plenty of space in between. The mental space required to imagine the fondo transformed into just the right amount of physical space to complete it. It reminded me that in the act of doing – distinct from thinking about doing – there is no fear. Just presence. Fear is a precursor of the mind. But it can’t exist in the bright light of action. The minute I clipped in and pushed down my first pedal, fear burned off like summer’s early morning haze.

Source: Axel Merckx Gran Fondo

Source: Axel Merckx Gran Fondo

A Good Ride

I left the campsite at 1:20 p.m. The afternoon sky sparkled blue behind the mountains. The sun felt hot. It had sprinkled rain earlier in the day as we walked through the wooded trails by the creek. But it looked all clear now.

A perfect afternoon for a ride.

It was about 29 or 30 km from the campground along Highway 40 to the intersection with the TransCanada Highway. I’d arranged with my husband to meet me at the Casino at the highways’ edge. There’d be plenty of room for him to pull in with the camper. From there, we’d cruise on home together.

“I should be there by 2:30,” I guestimated. Not sure of the highway grade, perhaps that was an optimistic estimate. No matter. Give or take five or ten minutes, it felt about right.

So as my husband and kids headed off around the campsite for one last wander, I pedalled out to the highway.

Making a left turn across traffic, I cruised east along the highway. Traffic wasn’t busy; a lucky break for the dwindling hours of a long weekend. I settled into the comfort of the wide shoulder.

The first while was slightly rolling. My legs warmed up and found their rhythm. As I rode, I gazed at the forest and up at the geological marvel that are the mountains of Kananaskis country. I gulped in the opportunity to propel myself through this moment, these surroundings.

About 7 or 8 minutes passed before I saw a sign indicating 23 km to the highway. My bike computer broken, I still wasn’t sure of the exact distance I would travel. My elapsed time, my pace, my energy output? No clue. I’d left my heart rate monitor at home.

Just ride, Susan. Just ride.

Up ahead I could see the skies darkening. A distant thunder rumbled. A few minutes later, I felt the first drops of rain.

kananaskis ride

The highway ebbed and flowed. After a good downhill stretch, the first real incline came. My gears bottomed out. I sat up and loosened my grip on the handlebars. And pushed. My legs burned. But I knew the strength and power would come. Strength and power are always there, lurking just below the burn.

The sprinkles turned to a steady rain. The sky closed in. The rain eventually turned to sheets, bouncing off the highway. Each passing vehicle sent an extra wall of water into my path. Despite the hail spiking on my skin, my body felt warm. But I felt alone and unguarded in the grey mist, with vehicles hurtling by. My pace quickened.

Up ahead, a big hill. I’ve learned that hills always look worse in their approach. And there’s never anything you can do except keep pedalling.  I dropped my gears and buckled down.

Within a minute the grade forced me off my seat. There was no other option but to stand and climb. There never is. Stand and climb, baby, climb. I could hear myself panting, a guttural sigh escaping with each outward breath as I moved myself up the mountain.  At some point there are no more tactics. It all comes down to legs and lungs.

At the top of the climb, I stopped to let the panting subside. The rain was coming at me sideways. I could hear my drenched socks squelching in my shoes. My glasses were fogged. I watched the water stream from the crook of my elbows. Despite the highway traffic and moving water, all I could hear was my breath.

I started pedalling again. A tentative downhill. Easy does it. Downhill always makes me nervous.

Eventually the rain eased up. I passed a sign saying 7 km to the main highway. Shouldn’t be long now. Shouldn’t be long.

Around the last bend, I could see the Casino in the distance. A few blue patches were breaking through the clouds.

I glanced at my watch. It was 2:27. A moment later, I pulled into the parking lot. The rain had also stopped. Or perhaps I’d simply moved through it.

Another moment later I saw my husband pulling in off the highway. Perfect timing. I hopped into the camper and changed out of my soaked gear. Within another few moments we were moving again.

In the warm truck, my hair wet and skin tight and dry, my body tingled with gratitude.  Music played as our girls sang in the back seat. We turned back out on the highway, heading for home.

It was a good ride.


Freestyle Training, baby. Yeah.

I figure that 21 days before competing in a triathlon is a good time to actually get on a real bike.

I’ve been feeling pretty relaxed about my race on June 9th.  There’s been no particular “triathlon” training.

You see, I’ve been training constantly for the last couple of years.  For things specific and things not.  You know, for life.  There’s been a lot of jumping around in my basement.  A lot of lifting, pulling and pushing of heavy things.  There’s been a lot of running, sometimes fast and sometimes long.  There’s been spinning on a fake bike that doesn’t move.

Somewhere in me I just feel ready. Like I can do this.

I figure I’ve been Freestyle Training.  I capitalize that because it sounds like a thing.  I’ve been doing a whole bunch of moving and sweating in various forms.  Along the way, I’ve improved the capacity of my lungs, my muscles, and my belief in myself.

Freestyle Training.  Yeah, I like that.  Just move…a lot.  Enough that you sweat and breathe heavily.  Don’t over think it.  Then at some point, sign up for a race and see how it all translates.

Does it work?  No clue.  But I’ll let you know.

In this highly scientific approach, though, at some point it’s good to practice the actual movements the race will require.  Like get on real bike.  Or maybe go for a swim.

So for the first time in ages, last week that’s what I did.  I got my bike down from the roof of the garage (meaning my husband did).  I checked the tires “and stuff” (meaning my husband did).  I dug up my bike shoes and helmet (I figured that part out myself). Then at 6:00 a.m. last Sunday, I planted my butt on my beautiful, yellow, almost-10-year-old, road bike and took it for a spin.

It all came back to me.  My toes automatically clipped in and out of the pedals.  I didn’t fall down sideways into a heap at road-crossings.  I flipped up and down my gears, by instinct, as the road rose and fell.  My breathing and cadence quickly found a pattern.  I’d forgotten, though, how cold it is at 6:00 a.m. in May in Calgary, when whipping along a rural road on your bike into the wind.  My head and fingers froze.  My feet too.  You don’t get that when sitting on a fake bike in your basement.  Oh well, these are the things that happen when you’re going at the speed of light.

The ride was good.  So was the one this morning, which I followed with jello-legged run.  And, hey, I’ve gone for two swims (two!).  They felt pretty good as well.

I figure I’ll doing this sort of thing for a few more weeks. Then I’ll arrive at the lake shore in my wetsuit on race day, poised for glory.   Or something like that.

Freestyle Training, baby.  Yeah.

a cyclist’s confession

Last Sunday morning was my last long bike/run workout before my triathlon, which is two weeks away.   The plan was to get out on the highway and ride the full 40 kilometres followed immediately by a 45 minute run.  I figured the whole affair would take me about two and a half hours.  Excluding any time wasted if I decided to detour somewhere to get a sandwich. 

I was really looking forward to it.    

I should clarify.  I was really looking forward to it until it snowed on Saturday.  And until I looked out the window on Sunday morning at the wet, cold misery and saw the thermometer hovering dangerously close to zero.  On the 30th of May.  But no matter, I thought.   This is my last big hurrah before race day.  My last chance to push my endurance. I’m doing this rain or shine.  Hell or high water.  I am focused and ready.  I am Lance freaking Armstrong.  

The Chariots of Fire theme song played in my mind as I layered up and headed out to the murky damp morning.

As I eased into the ride, the wind was cold and biting.  Within moments my finger tips froze right through my gloves.  I pedaled out of my sleeping neighbourhood and onto the highway.  No big hills on this ride, just a strong and steady pace to test the distance. Time to settle in and do the work.

The kilometres clicked away. I began to feel really awake and alive.  I focused on a steady cadence and keeping my heart rate in check.  I might be able to ride forever.  Five kilometres gone.  Then ten.  Then 15.  Then…why is my bike wobbling?  What in the hell was that sound? 

I slowed down to a stop on the side of the highway, unclipped, and peered over at my wheels.  And there it was.  Staring me down.   The cyclist’s nemesis.  The moment I knew would come someday. 

The flight tire. 

The dreaded, blasted, wreck-your-ride flat tire.  I stared in disbelief.  My heart sank.  Expletives were muttered.    

I stood there for a long second, listening to my breath and watching my perfectly planned ride slip away.  In fact, this was a moment I’d dreaded for a long time.  In all the years I’ve been cycling, in all the kilometres I’ve ridden, this was my first flat.  By luck and by chance, it had never happened before.  And somewhere along the way, against all rules of logic and cycling safety protocol, I just stopped worrying about it.  Being prepared for a flat tire just fell off the radar.  Sure I carry a spare tube and tools.  But the confession is this: I don’t know how to change a flat tire.  I don’t even know where to start. 

I’ve thought about taking a bike clinic.  What a smart thing to do.  And over the years my husband has offered to “show me stuff” related to bike maintenance.  He’s got a whole set up in the garage and is really good at that kind of thing.  Every year he tunes my bike, he notices if I need new tires, he oils things, and tightens things.  I don’t know what he does, but my bike is always ready.  Like magic.  I always thank him profusely.  But I’ve never once taken him up on his offer to teach me how to do it myself.  And the clinics?  I’ve heard they’re great. 

So on the side of the highway, alone, in the rain, with my bike fail, I just felt stupid.  And helpless.  And mad.  Did I say stupid?  Have I mentioned I’m 40, not 17?  There has been plenty of time to learn.  And I’m smart enough to know better.  What if this had been race day, and I blew all my months of training because I don’t know bike maintenance 1o1?  Someone from Bow Cycle should just show up at my door and take my bike away.   

After I called my husband to come and get me, I began walking in the direction of home .  Clip-clopping in my bike shoes along the wet highway, pushing my bike with helmet in hand.  The walk of shame.  So much for Lance Armstrong.  Ten bucks says he can change a flat tire. 

Driving home quietly in the van, I eventually said to my husband “Can you teach me how to change a flat tire before the race?”

“Any time you want,” he said, kindly.  “You’ve got to want to learn.”

You’ve got to want to learn.  Damn, so wise and philosophical during my time of indignity.  I hate that.  No, actually, I love that. 

“It’s time.”  I said.

It’s time.