Archive for the ‘Vignettes on Cycling’ Category

Winter Wandering


Having to miss the Saturday group ride is always depressing to me, especially when the reason is work related. As often as this happens, which isn’t often, I try to at least get a decent ride in on Sunday.

My riding club has a forum where you can post rides and look for responses from others who wouldn’t mind a little company out on the road. Taking advantage of this communication tool, I posted the following:

It’s 10:00am; I’m going to do a ride today and I’m looking for some company. I have no plan. You give me a time and a place, and I’ll show up and do your ride with you. I’ll go fast, or slow, flat or climbing. You make
the call, I’ll show up. (999) 999-9999

No response – which is common when you don’t have any friends. I tried to make myself feel better by thinking no one showed up because they feared my legs of steel – which might have made sense, if in fact I had legs of steel. So I fed myself a self-deprecating line of crap that was meant to be humorous and bring levity to the moment; unfortunately it wasn’t funny, not even to me. And so this became the low point in my ride and I hadn’t even turned a pedal yet.

At 1:00pm I set out, still with no plan, just a guy with a bike and a passion for turning pedals. I wondered to myself: is it possible to get in 3,000 feet of climbing in less than 30 miles without getting any farther than ten miles from home? The quest to answer this question would give my ride its purpose.

The regular Tuesday night ride has 2,700 feet of climbing over 28 miles; so it seemed possible. The caveat being that I wanted to find climbs that weren’t necessarily part of the usual route, so I made turns where I never turned before, crossed a field, forged a creek, talked with a dog for about seven or eight minutes and, ultimately, accomplished my goal.

Silly String, drapped over and across the hillsides, provides a plausible mental image of the new route I pioneered that Sunday; there were lots of out-and-back legs where I tried out roads that either dead-ended or lead to flat areas, so I made u-turns to get in more climbing or to return to a “through” street.

This would become a “Coffee Cap” ride, meaning that I had to put the coffee caps on and walk a couple hundred yards on packed gravel and dirt paths, including the crossing of a creek and speaking with a dog.

Yeah, the dog was all bent out of shape because some clickety-footed “roadie” with a bike on his shoulder was creeping up toward the yard over which she held dominion. Bark, bark, bark: she was cussing me out like a drunken sailor on liberty until I eased up along the chain-link fence barrier between her dominion and the hardpacked gravel fire road that ran behind the houses there.

As I came within ten yards, she gave up the facade of guard dog, calmed down, wagged her tail in a friendly fashion and woofed a few words of encouragement; something to effect of: you rode down into this hole, you know there’s no way out but to climb out, right?

She cautioned against riding the packed gravel road, owing to the skinny tires, the steepness of the road and the abundance of short field grasses growing along the steepest section. She said traction isn’t that good even on four legs when you put power to the ground. She also woofed out a sly comment about my legs of steel; I told her my dogs were barkin’ and I needed to get back on the road and finish my ride. A poor comeback, I know, but I was embarrassed and unprepared for her teasing remarks. I took some solace, however, since my line did elicit a little woofer-snicker from my new friend and advisor.

I heeded her words of caution and walked the hundred yards to where the road surface was paved. Probably a good idea since I was slipping and sliding just walking on the coffee caps.

Continuing my ride I was able to zig-zag my way over the ridge and back again, and again, and again so that I was always either climbing or descending. And ultimately, I was able to accomplish my goal, having logged 28 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing – all without ever venturing more than seven miles from my home (as the crow flies).  And making a new friend in the process?  Priceless.


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Mix Canyon


Mix Canyon - Upper Ridge

Mix Canyon - Upper Ridge


Olympians are born with it. Warriors and conquerors breathe it. Aaron Ralston certainly has it; that indomitable will that lifts one above the circumstances and allows him to overcome, whether it is achieving a goal, winning a competition or surviving a certain death.

Sir Ernest Shackelton definitely had it, leading an ill-fated expedition during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration through a shipwreck (the Endurance) and ultimately back to civilization after over 497 days of living on ice packs, crossing the southern ocean in life boats, and trudging over mountainous terrain – all without losing a single man!

As to the aforementioned Aaron Ralston, pray you never find yourself in circumstances where your will is tested as completely, and where the consequence of either failing or succeeding carries such a heavy penalty.

At twenty seven years old, Aaron, an Aspen mountaineer trekking alone in a remote canyon near Moab, Utah, found himself pinned in a three foot wide slot canyon. As he was transiting this slotted canyon a boulder weighing an estimated 800-1,000 pounds shifted and came to rest on his arm, trapping him for several days. Aaron, with no hope of outside assistance, his food and water supplies exhausted, concluded that he had but one option remaining: using a pocket knife he amputated his own arm just below the elbow and set himself free.

Undefeatable will. Perhaps among the most potent forces a person can possess. History records innumerable accounts of people who came to a point in their life’s journey where only two options remained: lie down and die, or overcome an oppressive force of nature, man or spirit where the outcome would be the same in either case – a physical death.

In this crucible some will find peace in lying down, others will find theirs in engaging their oppressor right up to the very end; and in doing so may overcome, but at the ultimate cost of giving their own life in its pursuit.

Mix Canyon, although probably not life threatening, is a test for any cyclist, even at the Elite Pro level. It is an oppressor of body and spirit, a living, breathing, cunning, calculating and effective grim reaper of wills both weak and strong.

The eye of this grim reaper has, as its vantage point, the pinnacle of Mount Vaca from where every twitch of your muscles fibers can be seen, your every weakness observed. This malevolent reaper begins to plot against you, taking stock of every breath you take, each beat of your heart, every ounce of electrolytes that ooze from your skin to deplete your muscles ability to contract and release.

For each cyclist who tempts his or her fate, who keeps a well maintained bike, who trains both hard and intelligently, who clips in and saddles up and rolls that front wheel across the white stripe that marks the demarcation point between Pleasants Valley Road and Mix Canyon Road – a line is crossed.

There is no going back, not without failure and humility – or success; and a form of death that may occur regardless of failure or success.

And then it’s real. There is an anxious, palpable, almost spasmodic sensation coursing through your being as anticipation and expectation begin to meld with the now clear and present. You can feel the surface of the road transmitting emotion through rubber, carbon, leather and Lycra, vibrating subtly into skin and bone. The mood of the mountain is evident to you in much the same way that animals are aware of an earthquake moments before its fury is unleashed.

The air is crisp, although heavy and brooding as if exhaled from the top of the mountain, cooling as it cascades from ridge to canyon, gliding eerily along Ulatis creek. Newts make a slow, slogging almost cult-like ascension toward the summit as if being drawn into the reaper’s lair by some hypnotic force.

The tension rises within as you pedal over the rolling lower slopes wondering with each rise if it will mark the point where the climbing begins in earnest. As another rider moves up the road, you check your heart rate questioning whether it is prudent to mark that person’s wheel or continue with your present effort.

The reaper sees and notes your apprehension.  The reaper sees and notes that other rider’s arrogance.

Transitioning from the crease of the canyon up onto the crest of the ridge you are overcome by the forces of gravity and begin cursing the name of Sir Isaac Newton. Spreading, slowly at first, and then building impetus, the floodgates are breached and a torrent of lactic acid penetrates your legs. And burning incessantly, they scream for relief that will not come.

It is the opening gambit by the reaper, the first test of your will; simply the sampling volley of a serial killer gauging the reaction of his victim.

Conjuring an oasis of respite is your mind’s way of battling back, attempting to waylay the signals of pain overloading your neural receptors. You envision a leveling of the road just around the next corner, not much, but just enough to allow your body to transition back into a hurtful place from the state of shock that it’s now enduring.

This is pleasing to the reaper, and taking great joy in your suffering he increases the test.

There is no oasis around that next corner. What appears is a series of track points that when expressed over 5.8 second intervals equates to grades of: 15.6, 17.3, 18.9, 19.7, 22.0, 32.1, 28.2, 18.2 and 15.7 percent. Then the cycle repeats in equal measure three more times.

From Odysseus we learned that the Siren’s Song is seductive and alluring and that those who answer its call can expect a calamitous end. And so it is with Mix Canyon. It’s not a particularly well know climb outside of the immediate area, perhaps because it leads nowhere. The pavement simply ends at the top of Mount Vaca making this an out-and-back climb. The intensity of its attraction tends to strengthen in proportion to the brashness of the cyclist.

Oh how sweet the Siren’s song. Oh how calamitous it is for those who heed her sonorous call.

Many distortions begin to occur, increasing in number in proportion to the distance you progress toward the summit. At first there are pangs and twitches: you feel tiny little ripples of failure, minute tears in the fabric of your muscles. They are warning signs, omens of doom; your once elegant pedaling stroke now resembling a hillbilly in a knee-high slog through a Mississippi mud bog. Arms, chest, shoulders, hands and lower back are in distress, there is nothing that can be done to ease the suffering…except that you surrender your will to that of the reaper.

He whispers in your ear: “I shall ease your pain if only you shall desist in your efforts, clip out, bow down and acknowledge me.”

Your resolve is gone, your will a far and distant recollection. But you push on for reasons you cannot discern, perhaps some electrical synapse continues to fire in some reptilian recess of your brain stem.

Bouncing up and down with all your weight, or perhaps dangling from strings like a gangly puppet being played from above in the not so deft hands of a sleep deprived meth freak coming in for a landing on the runway of a barbiturate bender, the scene is one of a dying creature in the last throws of its struggle for life after all but the last breath has been effectively snatched from it.

And after an eternity it’s suddenly over. You’ve either entered the throne room of the reaper and slain him, or become chaff in the fields, blown about, and carried along directionless in shifting winds. In the case of the former there is little if any joy, where the concept of victory is just some ideal whose meaning now seems vague and somehow disconnected from the experience.

Crossing that stripe back onto Pleasants Valley Road there is no gloating for those who summited, nor is there humiliation for those who did not. What remains is the eternal bond of those who shared an experience culminating in the expiration of every facet of your being. Having given everything, a metamorphosis of immense magnitude transpires and the rider is left to grapple with its meaning. There is no victory, there is no humiliation; there is only the aftermath.

Something is lost in the canyon, and something is gained on the ridge. The cyclist who enters the former and returns from the latter is someone else altogether – humble, but not humiliated; wiser, yet without pride.

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