Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why I Ride

People have a multitude of reasons why they ride bikes. For that matter, reasons change with time. The reason that you start riding may well not be the reason that you continue riding. For me, I was always fascinated by bicycles. As a kid growing up in the middle of nowhere with few others directly nearby with which to play, I used the bicycle as my escape. I think that this is a common thread for so many of my generation, for the bicycle was their sole means of transit. We would amass in roving bands and plot trips throughout the local area. Competition quickly crept into the mix in the form of wheelie, long-jump and no hands riding. Feats of daring or more often, stupidity. Lack of skills coupled with inferior quality product and questionable engineering practices often lead to catastrophic failures.

Bicycles were also one of the very first objects of my desire, so to speak, that I can recall truly wanting for. I grew up very modestly and as such, bicycles and so many other non necessity items made their way to me as used or salvaged goods. To that end, there were very few in my neck of the woods who had the where with all to have much in the line of brand new and if they did, it was department or hardware store as there literally were no bike shops in Northeastern Vermont in those days.

I can't begin to convey the countless hours spent sourcing used parts from the few local hot bed stashes of bike parts and then cobbling together something to ride. The pure satisfaction of building up a viable form of transit from a collection of odd and dissimilar parts and pieces is something that stays with me to this very day. It is something that I still take great pleasure and satisfaction from and fully expect that I always will. There is a sense of accomplishment that one gets initially from the build but then from actually riding the bike that they built. The experience affords an escape like few others.

As much as bicycling historically helped define not only me but my generation, it has further become a major part of my life and with that, it has become a part of Cathy's as well. We are largely who we are today because of it. In many ways, it defines us. I like to think that we are better because of it and as such, we try to be good hosts and ambassadors to the sport that has given us so much.

This is why I ride bikes but there is also another reason why I ride, train and race with purpose that I do. I am one of the many people who has been totally changed by biking. As a kid I was always husky (that means fat). Growing up rural in a family that was not into recreational physical activity and didn't necessarily have the means, motivation or understanding to make really healthy nutritional choices set the stage. As such, I constantly battled with my weight, often being the biggest kid in my class as I was always tall as well as fat. This was the case right through my freshman year of high-school where I topped out at about 210# just about the same time my height maxed at 6'1". My sophomore year I started playing football. With that a change occurred, which got me started on the road of legitimate physical activity. I played football (poorly) through the rest of high-school as well as track and field in the spring. This got me to the point where I "looked normal" and got my weight in check at just over 190#, where it would hover through the remainder of high-school.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the tale of the scale. It never is. College helped pack a solid 20# back on thanks to beer and unhealthy eating choices and quantities, despite remaining active with recreational running, hockey and racquetball. My freshman year I hit 216#, a new record, but one that would not be the ultimate plateau. No, that would be post college, when I started working and regular physical activity took a huge dip. I'd picked up tennis and loved to play though I wasn't very good, but the couple times a week that I could play just wasn't enough to do it. I climbed steadily to the point where I topped out at 236#. That was just about the time when I started getting into mountain biking in earnest. Though I'd owned a really nice TREK 950 MTB for a while, I hadn't really ridden it much. I was new to the area and didn't know all that many people.

This changed when I meet a couple of other folks at work who also rode bikes. Through that networking I learned of local places to ride. Yes, this was back in the days of finding information first hand, back before Google or the internet or even Cathy for that matter. Things are so much easier today as information is so easily accessible. Anyhow, we started riding the Middlesex Fells once a week and our work based ride group swelled. We learned of Lynn Woods and started riding there as well. Keep in mind, however, that the rides were not exactly high impact. We would ride really technical trails for a couple of hours and cover 5 or 6 miles. The hook was set though for what would be a lifestyle change.

Soon I met people who not only rode recreationally but raced as well. A couple of the crew learned of a mountain bike race on the Cape and we decided to give it a try. This was my first bicycle race ever, the Surf n' Dirt in Orleans, MA. I did the beginner race, which was only 5 miles. I remember being unable to fathom how the higher classes could do 10 or 20 miles; it simply did not seem possible to me at that point. I struggled mightily in that race just to finish and though that I was going to die. As you can see from the post race picture of all of me, there was some excess baggage. And yes, that is a full suspension TREK 9200 that I am stranding next to.

From there a few of us kept racing and I ended up getting hooked on it. The weight came off slowly and over time I managed to get back down closer to 210#. This would remain my core weight for some time. My fitness and stamina steadily improved as the amount of time I spent riding increased. I upgraded categories and continued racing for a number of years, always easily qualifying for the clydesdale class. My winter weight would shoot up to near 220# and the summer weight would be between 205-210#. Though it didn't seem like it at the time, I look back now at some of the pictures and am aghast. Over the course of the following few years we became disenchanted with racing bicycles and walked away from it, though we never stopped riding. Not for a minute.

Fast forward to the current epoch. This time-line started in and around 2006, when Cathy and I got back into racing bicycles. This time we had become well established in the cycling community and came at racing from a different avenue, from the road rather than offroad. That is a whole different ball game, is incredibly competitive and requires a much higher level of fitness just to hang. I remember meeting Johnny Mo' for the first time on a late winter/early spring, NEBC Saturday morning library ride. I was on a cyclocross bike that I'd built as an exploration and sight-seeing vehicle. We talked about cross and he set the idea of racing, an idea I'd toyed with since a brief and failed attempt back in the previous century. I also distinctly recall talking about weight and the fact that I was about 218# at the time. I can only imagine what he though.

That season Cathy and I would take up racing in earnest and race many road races, as well as weekly training time-trials. We also took up a full season of cyclocross in the fall. Add into the mix the constant riding and training and weight came off, paring me down below 200#. Despite the activity, my love of food and beer kept me right around that mark steadily. That is, until the competition bug sunk it's teeth a little deeper. I was finally starting to see some better results and like any addictive substance, I wanted more. This clear solution was to ride, race and train harder. I did and another weight hurdle was met, getting me to the 190# range. The final stage has only been in the past few years. Through some steady and consistent training, riding and racing as well as other activities like X-C skiing thrown in to keep it interesting, I've been able to hit the low 180# range in the summer and stay right around 190# in the winter. That is where I am now.

I'd really love to drop another level but find it difficult to balance. Again, my problem is my compulsiveness. The same thing that keeps me riding my bike is also working against me when I open the refrigerator or step into the pantry. I realize that and in truth, it scares the crap out of me. I know how easy it would be to get back to where I was and fear every day of inactivity risks a relapse. I honestly think of it that way, like it is an addiction.

I ride my bike because I love to ride my bike. I ride and race my bike with the level of conviction that I do because I'm always riding scared. Scared not necessarily as much of the competition though, as I am of myself.

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