Musings on Bicycling and Buddhism

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Cheerful Caboose: My First Century

Tales from the Road
Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased.
Thus we refute entropy.
--Spider Robinson

Last Sunday I rode my first century. In bicycle-speak that's a 100 mile ride. I'd ridden a metric century, 100k, before - every time I've ridden to my childhood home where my mother still resides has meant another. One hundred kilometers is a good ride these days, but it doesn't represent the distance challenge it used to. (On the other hand if you fill it with hills, it's still just as difficult.)

But to this point, never yet 100 miles.

In the cycle-verse a century is some kind of stepping stone. Maybe even a right of passage? And mine was a long time coming. Within the past 3 months I have taken to my most consistent longer-distance riding. I'm not talking anything like what endurance teams do or what stage races mean, I just mean for me anything over 60 miles still feels like a pretty long way.

And I voyaged into clipless about a month ago.

All to do this.

Rapha Women's 100

July 7th marked the Rapha Women's 100 - all around the world, women on bikes riding perhaps a metric century, perhaps an imperial century. I participated in a joint ride effort put together by the most excellent folks at RAWRbikes in concert with RideStudioCafe in Lexington. This was my first group ride of this nature.

Last fall was my first Hub on Wheels - my first large-scale, coordinated bike ride for a purpose; and in June the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon was my second. In both of these I rode primarily amongst many other strangers and acquaintances, primarily with the Bandit Man as my only dedicated riding companion. Social bike rides and themed bike rides, like Boston by Bike at Night or the Boston Bike Party are familiar to me. 

The ethos and protocol of this kind of road ride was pretty new to me. Any training I completed was either solo or with the Bandit Man. I signal my stops and directions but much more than the idea of don't leave anyone behind, I was new to.

Our ride was divided into different speed groups. The faster 17-19 mph group left first. In the promotional/planning materials we were told that there would be a 14-15 mph group and a 13 mph group.

One other thing I have very little knowledge of is how fast I actually ride. I can guess from how long certain rides take, but I generally map them after and forget to keep track of how long my stops are.

I do not yet have a bicycle computer.

From conversations in passing I had a pretty good idea that 14mph would be a challenge for me to maintain with so much climbing for so long a distance. 

And I was correct.

Of my marvelous century group several of us were first timers. I was grateful not to be the only one. 

So we set off - our fearless leader consistently setting us on the true course.


On a hill in Stow I met my lungs. This hill has a decently steep grade (~9%) and I attacked it. And I forgot to breathe. I started hyperventilating half way up the hill. I vaguely recognized a need to stop but I couldn't unclip. So I performed a strategic fall over on someone's lawn. Unclipped, got up - lungs heaving. By this point everyone had gone by. I was anxious and not at all recovered. I was faced with how I really was not conditioned well enough for a hill of this magnitude, not at that speed at any rate.

So I pulled air and made it up the last part of the hill where my group was waiting. And then the hyperventilating began in earnest. Looking back I think this was equal parts lack of air and confronting my very apparent limits in this situation. 

Most of my hill battles, moments of truth, and failures have been on solo missions, or with the Bandit Man.

Struggling for breath, tears streaming down my face - this was my public moment of truth.

One of our participants was a physician who inquired about my heart rate, if I'd eaten enough, and was generally very helpful and calming - I have an immense appreciation for her. 

After that as we climbed each hill - and there were a lot of hills - everyone asked how I was doing.

I was mildly embarrassed at first, but the genuine concern of people you've only just met is an encouraging thing.

I don't consider myself to be a strong climber but over the course of the day I think I actually got better.

Problems I've had all along as I've taken on longer distance rides - pacing, cadence, which gear, do I stand up or stay in the saddle, remembering to breathe, suddenly started to sort themselves out. Yes I did have to walk up a couple of steep grades (according to what I looked up on ridewithgps these were more than 9% grades), and yes I was incredibly slow, but some of the painful mystery became empowering realizations.

Overall my cycling is not the the point where I could even maintain the 14 mph to stay with my group. I was consistently the last person, losing sight of our mini-peloton. At each navigational stop they waited for those of us who had fallen behind, myself usually the farthest back. 

As my jersey was red and I was at the end, so most naturally I was named myself the caboose.

And as the miles went on I was told I was a very cheerful caboose.

The Cheerful Caboose

The hyperventilating moment of truth unlocked something important. That moment was a struggle in the deepest sense - a struggle we all face again and again in life, the place where expectation meets reality. We have goals, or expectations of perhaps a level of performance or insert yours here and eventually when it meets reality we must face it for exactly what it is

Sometimes it delights and enthralls us. Sometimes it disappoints. These moments of publicly discovering either weakness or strength have always been deeply changing for me. When I competed in horseback riding in college I cried every time I rode in a show, whether I placed well or poorly. It never failed. On some of these long bike rides I have been reduced to tears.

But that hill, that moment let me shed the transient and reveal the truth - that no matter what I was going to do this. That my present level of climbing or biking or strength or what-have-you is only the beginning of what is possible. Maybe I'm not "good at bikes" the way racers and long-time enthusiasts are yet, but my love of cycling powers my persistence to get me there.

After that moment of truth I was free to learn to climb better. Appreciate another one of our group members teaching me to draft, which I was not able to maintain. Appreciate the birds, the land, the potholes, the deer flies, the sun, the music in my heart - each and every sore muscle, delay, or advance.

I was the cheerful caboose because I was weighed, measured, and found myself wanting - and wanting to continue anyway. Having been revitalized by others I did my utmost to reciprocate - when a fellow first timer centurian dropped a chain I stopped to help. When one of my fellow riders was the last on the climbs with me, we stayed together. 

I also must shout my gratitude to our amazing ride leader (vocabulary word: domestique) for waiting for my lagging self at the turns then riding all the way back to the front to lead the main group onward. Patience thy name is domestique (or maybe just Cindy?).

I was one of the few to ride to RSC before the ride, a simple seven or so miles from my house. But as the ride concluded and the rain began (which I relished!), the simple seven miles home seemed a very long way indeed. The Bandit Man in his kindness rode out in the rain from Somerville to meet my dirty, smelly, exhausted husk on the Minuteman to ride back home. 

By the end of the day it was 115 miles and more climbing than I have ever done before. And I am gaming for more!

Future cycling education will probably include, pacelines, drafting, a bicycle computer, and more miles of self discovery.

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Tour de What You Will by Jessie Calkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License