Seeing Things

Last time I rode up along the Susquehanna to Millersburg it was August. The ridges were green then, impossibly dense with foliage, and the valleys were thick with cornfields swaying in the breeze, heavy with cobs waiting for harvest. In August I was there to watch a race. The downtown was full of lean people with shaved legs walking in cleats like high heels. There were sidewalks lined with lawn chairs, stop signs protected by hay bales, side streets cordoned off. There were carbon bikes, each worth more than 10% of what the average townie earns in a year, pretty much everywhere. I wore my most breathable jersey, zipped down, and drank cold seltzer to stave off the heat.

Yesterday Millersburg was quiet. Everyone was at home or in church and the streets were empty and the stores were closed and nobody was thinking about biking. Not in December. When we crisscrossed up and over Peters Mountain the forest was gaunt in the first stages of winter, all browns and grays, thin enough to look through to see the land spread out down below. When we bombed across the valley the corn was either down or brittle like old paper left unprotected. I wore gloves and oversocks and there was no sweat, only condensation in my glasses when we stopped.


One of the beautiful things about cycling is that it returns you to the same places, season after season, year after year. In our cities and suburbs we don’t notice changes as easily; we are absorbed in private dramas for which the landscape is a backdrop, a movie set we are too busy to look at closely except when it invades our stories in some striking way.

But when you are out riding there is nothing to do but look. Around at the roadside world, down at the pavement below your top tube, above at the sky and anything it might be holding. You are out in it, really out in it, with no distractions, no other occupations. You notice the way time warps everything, the difference a year or a hard frost or a fire makes. On bikes, you do is move through the world with your eyes open. That is all you do.

The landscape is the foreground, the middle ground, the background. It is the backdrop, the stage floor, the house lights, the seats, the theater itself. The ridgelines layer into the distance, going on forever.


The Rider in Winter

It’s that time of year. The mornings are cold enough to make me shiver in my denim jacket. As I walk home from work the light is already fading fast, and by the time I eat dinner it is all blackness outside. The commuters driving home on Front Street splash their headlights across my windows. A couple days ago, big wet snowflakes spiraled out of the sky as I walked to the church on Verbeke Street to vote.

What’s that have to do with cycling? Perhaps, nothing.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about cycling in winter. How it feels, what it means. I haven’t reached any conclusions. But I know a few things. I know that the mood, the way you experience the season on a bike, the world around you, is totally unique. You are bundled up against the air; rather than welcoming its cooling touch on descents, you try to keep it from your skin. Breath rises in front of your face like steam. Water bottles and fingers and toes freeze. The forests are stripped bare and seemingly shrunk in their nakedness, and you can see right through them. After harvest the fields are brown or snow-covered, picked at by crows that descend in noisy murders.

riding in winter

When you ride in the winter, you go slower–it’s the off-season, after all. You put miles in the legs. You skip interval sessions, or ditch them altogether. You get in long rides when the weather allows. You appreciate little things: roads cleared of snow, a few hours of sunlight, a fifty-degree day, warm feet, a cup of coffee as morning dawns frigid, a bowl of soup after you come in from the gloaming.

I don’t think that riding in the winter is more fun, or even more rewarding, than riding in the other seasons. But there is a special, hardy kind of romance to it. A joy in going outside, in continuing on, damn the elements. A satisfaction borne less of conquering things inside you and more of conquering things without.

Hunting Season

I’ll be the first one to say that going after KOMs is kind of lame. I’ll be the first one to say that if you want to compete with other riders, you should pin on a number and race against them instead of chasing virtual trophies. I’ll be the first one to say that Strava KOM hunters, especially those who don’t race, are likely to be jerks who take themselves way too seriously.

That being said, I’ve been getting into it lately.

Rather, getting back into it. When I upgraded from a basic speedometer to my Garmin about six months into my cycling career, Strava was a revelation. I’m a competitive person, and I wasn’t racing at the time, so I threw myself into the KOM business big time. (It helped that I lived on a farm out in the country and there were a few segments literally pedal strokes from my front door.) I had a lot of fun building segments into my rides, looking for new KOM opportunities, hoping for a tailwind to give me a couple extra seconds. It was validating, as a new rider, to see that I was not terrible at my new sport. Comparing myself against my own times and the times of others gave me a way to measure my progress and fueled my motivation to keep improving. Without Strava, I would have only been measuring myself against some middle-aged dudes on the Chapel Hill group ride I frequented, waiting all week for the one or two town line sprints on our route. With Strava, I could challenge myself and feel the thrill of competition as much as I wanted.

king of the mountain
Nope, not this one.

Then I started racing, and training for racing, and I more or less lost interest in KOMs. “That’s for losers,” I thought as I buried myself in my intervals and periodized training plan. I was concerned with race results, not some meaningless online leaderboards. Then, eventually, I stopped racing.

For a while I was perfectly happy to just cruise. There were a few months this summer where I probably didn’t get out of Zone 3. I certainly wasn’t gunning for KOMs. I continued ignoring the post-ride Achievements listing because there was never anything there worth looking at. I watched Phil Gaimon killing himself up mountains during his first year of “retirement” and thought about how miserable it looked.

But lately I’ve kinda, sorta, maybe rekindled my interest in KOM hunting. At least a little bit, sometimes. I definitely don’t want to race anymore–too dangerous, too expensive, not worth all the soul-sucking training. But I’m competitive. Always have been. I enjoy sports more when there is an element of beating another person. And Strava KOMs, for better or worse, are a way to exercise that competitive muscle without all the downsides of racing. Yes, there aren’t the benefits either–you don’t get to cross a finish line with your arms raised and people cheering. But I’ll take the trade-off.

Plus, segments are sort of like intervals, so maybe I won’t lose my fitness completely and be embarrassed on the next group ride when the boys kick it up a notch.

Cars and Mindfulness

“Get the fuck off the road!”

-Abraham Lincoln, from the “Gettysburg Address”

Just kidding. This gem was–you guessed it–yelled at me by a guy in a passing car on my ride today as I waited in a turn lane.

Every cyclist has heard someone shout that, or something like it. Unfortunately, unless you live in Amsterdam or Majorca or another cycling paradise, you deal with rude drivers. Hell, I’m sure it happens even in the most shining, glossy, polished, platinum bike-friendly cities. At best, they are angry. At worst, they are a threat to your life.

But there is a second part to this story. As he drove away I aimed a not-quiet “Fuck you!” in the general direction of his quickly receding black sedan. He was already too far away to hear, and with the noise of traffic wouldn’t have heard it unless I was right next to his rolled down window.

After I made the turn and continued riding, I pondered my split-second interaction. First I thought about him, an anonymous angry man who apparently had a problem with me using a public road in a vehicle that wasn’t breathing carbon dioxide into the air. Screw him. How uneducated and unhappy do you have to be to yell at cyclists? What kind of power trip are you on? But those thoughts didn’t lead anywhere, at least anywhere new or interesting. Unfortunately there are assholes on the road, and dealing with them is part of being a cyclist. Being upset about them, without further action (getting involved in advocacy, riding as safely as possible), won’t accomplish anything.

Then I thought about my reaction. And I was ashamed of it. What if he had heard me, if I had said it right to his face? Would it have changed his already-formed opinion of me as a douche in lyrca? Unlikely. It would have only confirmed his opinion, transforming it from baseless to plausible. And he would have carried that opinion around and yelled at the next cyclist he passed, maybe getting a similar reaction, another confirmation of an opinion that began as a mirage.

It would have been much more decent of me, I realized, to say nothing. Or, better yet, to say “Have a nice day, sir,” with a smile on my face. I won’t lie and say this would be a genuine sentiment. It wouldn’t be. But it would have a couple benefits. First, seeing his reaction would be a lot of fun. When people are spoiling for a fight and get the opposite, it throws them off. Their response is either more anger or less anger. Which brings me to the second benefit: the chance of de-escalation. Maybe he would have freaked out and yelled some more. That’s certainly a possibility. But it’s just as likely that he would have felt shame, and reconsidered why exactly he felt the need to yell at a perfectly nice fellow human just out for a bike ride on a beautiful day, and maybe not yelled at the next cyclist.

Problem is, my reaction was so instantaneous. So utterly thoughtless. It escaped my lips before I even fully comprehended the situation, like a shriek in a haunted house or a string of curse words from someone who has just dropped an anvil on their foot. In fact, a couple more times on this very ride, I responded in similar ways to other drivers. Yes, they were being idiots and endangering my life, but still. I need to be more mindful, more measured in my responses. I don’t want to be the person who yells “fuck you” when something happens. I just don’t. I want to either be able to pause and actually think before reacting, or at least to ingrain a new set of instantaneous responses that aren’t so defensive and aggressive. Re-committing to daily meditation would be a good first step.

So, in summary: As cyclists, let’s not act in a way that confirms stereotypes and makes it more likely that people will continue drive in a manner that puts our friends and family at risk. We can be better than that. We are better than that. So the next time someone cuts me off or tells me to ride on the sidewalk (LOL), I’m going to try to do my part.