First Ride: Bogota

Getting here wasn’t easy. My plane landed in Atlanta shortly after the power went out. I was on one of the planes stuck on the runway that you probably saw on CNN. I spent the night in the airport like hundreds of other people, which you probably also saw on CNN (or Fox News, if you’re like my grandma). But eventually I arrived in Bogota, sleep-deprived and ragged. Yesterday I went for an eight-mile jog around the city to get a feel for the place and acclimate to the elevation–the city sits over 7,000 feet above sea level. My lungs seemed to do okay with that (thanks for raising me in Colorado, mom and dad!); the exhaust from the jampacked highways was the tougher part.

Today I met up with Julian, a cyclist and filmmaker who was a kind of local fixer in both the Aaron Gulley Bicycling article “Colombia Rising” and Therebouts III, which catalogued the exploits of the Morton brothers. Both pieces stoked my desire to ride here, so I’m happy to be able to have the same local guide.  Also, he’s letting me rent his bike, and speaks good English. Win-win-win.

This morning I took an Uber to his apartment, wandered around the block looking for the right building, asking where to go in mangled Spanish (apartamento? Julian?). I was turned away by multiple security guards and was starting to panic when I finally found him. He welcomed me in, I apologized, we got the bike set up, and headed out into the morning rush hour traffic. Fortunately, there are wide sidewalks with designated lanes for cyclists, which kept us off  the roads. But the amount of pedestrians, debris, and unsloped curbs that require bunny-hopping made for slow, stressful riding.

Eventually we arrived at the base of Alto de Patois, where we met up with Julian’s friend and began climbing. It’s the most popular climb around here (over 11,000 recorded attempts on Strava), and as we wound our way up the mountain we passed dozens of other cyclists, most of them riding mountain bikes and wearing Movistar or Orica jerseys like their professional heroes Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves. In the States, it’s considered lame to wear pro team jerseys, and lots of cyclists look down on people without pricey bikes or gear. Sometimes it seems like cycling is more about the gear, about looking cool (if that’s possible with shaved legs and lyrca). Here, people just ride bikes because they love riding bikes. It was refreshing to see that. And for what it’s worth, I can think of quite a few American riders who wouldn’t tackle that climb, especially on a secondhand bike. But ordinary-looking Colombians were doing it.

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After a short pause at the summit, we descended into a valley painted in all different shades of green. The road was jammed with cars and buses, and sections were under construction, so the going was slow. A few patches of gravel made me grateful for the 30 mm tires on my bike. A few miles later we turned onto what Julian called a “bonus” climb, which I will now call “a fucking steep climb with 20% switchbacks.” But it offered gorgeous panoramic views of the valley and nearby reservoir and homes stacked up against the mountains. I’m not complaining.

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More descending, then climbing (there are literally no stretches of flat road here), into a village where we stopped at a cafe and sat in plastic chairs sipping a warm drink that is basically straight sugarcane juice. Unfortunately no arepas for the vegan. My local guides didn’t seem upset or offended. They just laughed and said that not much in Colombia is vegan. I was just happy to be riding with locals, having a more authentic experience than if I had tried to choose routes on my own and ridden alone.

We retraced our route  back up and over Patois, descended with cars zooming by on our left and soldiers standing with their guns to our right. The city traffic was even more chaotic than when we had left two hours earlier, and I can’t say I enjoyed weaving our way back to Julian’s apartment. I’m just glad I didn’t hit anyone on the sidewalk.

Final stats from the ride: 28 miles. 3,500 feet of elevation gain. 2.5 hours in the saddle.

As crazy as it sounds, this was an “easy” warmup day. Tomorrow the route is 60 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing. I should never have converted the meters to feet, because I’m a bit intimidated. We’ll see how it goes.

Check out the Relive video

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Eighty Miles, Late November

It’s been awhile since I went for a long ride. Over the past couple months, marathon training, weddings, travel, and bad weather occupied my weekends and I wasn’t able to do what I love the most: spending a few hours on quiet country roads, exploring places I’ve never been, feeling my mind wipe itself clean as the miles roll by. When I did get on the bike, it was for shorter spins on the same routes close to home. It’s felt like ages since I was in certain parts of this county and others nearby, places that are beautiful to ride in but I somehow get to less often than I’d like.

But I’m done with the marathon (and running, in general, for a while), and we only have so many friends of marrying age. So this weekend I was finally able to get outside for a long ride.

Tyler joined me for an 80-mile loop down into Lancaster County. We left around 10:30 and by then the sun was already high and the temperature was a cool 43 degrees, perfect for knickers and a long-sleeve jersey, wind vest, and neck gaiter. I’m still taking it easy because the results aren’t in yet about my heart issue. Ten miles in I felt great, perfectly warm but not overheated. We headed south with a tailwind at our backs and I avoided thinking about what that meant for our return.

The fields are brown this time of year. Any corn still left has long since gone golden and brittle. The trees are mostly naked, giving the forests a hollowed-out look, casting prison bar shadows across the road. On open stretches of road we squinted into the sunlight and hunkered down against the crosswind. It felt like Belgium.

About halfway we rolled into Mt. Gretna, a Chautauqua-like village nestled in the hills. I refilled my bottles at the pizza shop soda machine and we ate outside on the picnic tables, bathed in sunlight. Sometimes the perfect rest stop appears in the perfect town at the perfect point in your ride. This was one of those times.

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We climbed out of Mt. Gretna and descended down into the valley. Forty miles, then fifty. We turned north to head back home and were greeted by a relentless, brutal headwind. The kind of headwind that makes you wish you were the size of a gymnast. The kind that makes you start calculating how long it will take you to get home going 13 miles an hour. The kind that makes you shift into the small ring on the flats and not be embarrassed about it.

We ground our way north, cursing silently at the rolling hills undulating before us and the heartless wind. I set my Garmin on the map screen because watching the miles tick by like molasses was too discouraging. We’d ride for what felt like 10 miles, only to see the odometer click up another three. Neither of us had brought enough food and our legs started to protest. Don’t bonk, I told myself. Just don’t bonk.

But I did. By the time we passed under the Christmas lights strung up over the joyless streets of Steelton, a town huddled along the train tracks that looks like a place Springsteen would sing about, I had nothing left. Tyler pulled most of the way, because I couldn’t really go fast enough to get around him and go in front. My quads hurt. My butt hurt, which has never happened to me, even on much longer rides. Tyler’s shoulders were giving him hell. I felt myself sliding into the bonked headspace: whiny, clouded thoughts, self-pity, all that nonsense. Normally I’d yell into the wind, but with company I was polite and kept my misery to myself, though I’m sure my grimace revealed it. I thought about Rule #5.

Finally, mercifully, we made it to the greenbelt, then to my apartment. Poor Tyler still had three miles to go, into the wind, to his place in Uptown. I unclipped, climbed off my bike, and dug into my back pocket for my keys, feeling battered but mostly elated.

Heart Trouble

Two weeks ago I went to the blood bank to donate. I followed the typical routine: waited in the empty lobby for an inexplicably long time before a nurse emerges, confirmed on the checklist that I was not in Eastern Europe between 1992 and 1997, avoided eye contact while answering sexual history questions that the nurse felt even more awkward asking, have my blood drawn and my pulse taken.

It was all smooth sailing until the last part.

Long story short, the nurse noticed an irregular heartbeat and, after consulting the thicker-than-a-Bible (and less organized) manual, disqualified me from donating. A couple days later an EKG revealed that I have PVCs (premature ventricular contractions) and RBBB (something like right bundle blockage). Yesterday I was in the waiting room of the cardiology department. And today I’m wearing a bundle of wires strapped to my chest like I’m going undercover to help nab a mafia boss.

It’s been a weird few days. I still don’t have any answers; hopefully those will come after the battery of tests I’m doing over the next couple weeks, including the Holter monitor, a stress test, and an echocardiogram. All signs point to a harmless “athlete’s heart”-like condition, where the muscle is just too damn strong and is sending electrical impulses to beat when it shouldn’t. I haven’t had pain or other symptoms. But then again, PVCs can be the result of more serious structural issues, and there’s a history of heart issues in my family (thanks a lot, grandma).

When you’re young, you don’t think about your heart. You don’t worry about your body failing you. I know I never thought about it. I exercise and eat healthy. Why would I need to worry?

But, at least for the time being, I am worried. It is scary to feel your pulse jump and wonder if that beating thing inside your chest is suddenly going to give way. It is scary to ponder a future without your favorite activities, the things that comprise part of your identity. It is scary to listen to your heart thundering in your ears against the pillow at night, wondering if your fears are making it worse. It is scary to sit in a waiting room surrounded by people decades older than you and notice something like curious pity in their eyes. You shouldn’t be here, they seem to say. I know why I’m here. But you?

I wasn’t really considering returning to racing and interval training, but now those are out of the question. Strava KOM hunting may be as well. After this scare, I’ll be happy to just be able to stay on the bike, to keep things moderate. My hammering days are likely over, whether or not my condition turns out to be serious or not. The risk/reward calculation just doesn’t work out. There’s no point–I don’t love hammering enough to threaten my life.

I’ll be taking it easy until the tests all come back, probably just going for long walks and spinning on the trainer. Not a fun way to close out 2017, but I think it’s the smart thing to do.

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.