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Posts tagged ‘The Rules’

Mind, Body, and Machine

Shattered.  Any cyclist could tell you that the adjective isn’t all about glass.  There may be other sports that share cycling’s terminology of physical and mental exhaustion, that understand suffering that would “ennoble the muscles” as Henri Desgrange put it when he founded the Tour de France.   There is something profound about the bicycle: if your running shoes tried to draw as much sheer effort as a bicycle can, you would simply fall over.  Suspended by a bicycle saddle, the immolation of your legs can always be arranged to leave you breathing, moving, yet completely shattered by day’s end.

I was steeped in a culture of road cycling since I started college, cutting my teeth on collegiate racing and the four seasons of Vermont dirt roads and New Hampshire mountains.  Occasional sacrilege had put me on a mountain bike during my years at Dartmouth but my heart was always with road and cyclocross racing bikes.  I was never a phenomenal competitor, mind you.  I rode well and hard and knew The Rules and the art of a group ride. I loved the sport and racing with all my heart despite my lackluster results.

No matter how strong you are, cycling humbles you.  There is always someone faster or a ride that is harder.  I’ve eaten my fair share of humble pie, my last serving being an epic 150 miles through New Hampshire.  Hubris suggested that this Alaska to Argentina thing wouldn’t be that big of a deal.  We’ve got most of the day to go our average 110k, meet new people, take photos, eat 5,000 calories, and set up our tent.  The third day of our journey was a very hard hundred miles in the mountains to Cantwell, AK that we began at noon.  We got it done in a little over ten hours.  Barely.

New life springs from below the burned forest

I knew this journey wasn’t going to be easy.  Deep down, I didn’t think it would be quite this hard.  Pushing heavy bikes through the wind and up hills is an exercise in constant mental toughness.  We are getting stronger every day.  Yesterday we had our first true tailwind of the trip with southwest winds helping us along to Vanderhoof, BC.  It was spectacular.  The three of us flew past farm country and pasturelands at speeds that rivaled a spirited road ride on skinny tires and race bikes.  A humming paceline is music for the soul.  It almost made up for the day before, a grueling ride of 150k to Fraser Lake that proved the inverse rule correct: once you leave the spectacular scenery of the mountains, endless rolling hills and winds conspire against you.  We had done longer and harder days already, but there was something profound about that ride in particular.  I felt beaten, even if I finished the ride like any other.

We love Canadian signs.

The intensity of that feeling subsided once we were taken in by an older couple who stuffed us with spaghetti that night and huckleberry pancakes the next morning.  Yet the feeling of that cruel brush against my limits still lingers and reminds me somewhat of human nature.  We would rather eschew the cold rain, the long climbs, the achy legs, the doubt and the mental stress of life on the road because it brings us uncomfortably close to the limits of our own mortality and nature.  Yet only by facing those austere limits can we appreciate the vast expanses of the little worlds between Alaska and Argentina.  There are corollaries in faith and love and family and life.  If we take the time to listen, there is much to learn on the road south.

Looking down through the Barrage Bridge

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Away From Alaska

We learned our lessons after Whitehorse.  Surging through 100 mile days in the mountains, only to need frequent rest days and battle mental and physical fatigue, was not a sustainable way to move south.  We adopted the maxim “slow, smooth, and steady”; we have been covering ~100 kilometers each day since Whitehorse and have just left the Alaska Highway forever.  Originally a simple WWII supply route, the Alaska Highway taught us a great deal.

Here I will present a few of our new Rules as we have learned them:

Riding into the storm.

1.  The difficulty of a ride will be inverse to the beauty of the scenery.  The more spectacular mountains around you, the better.  The more endless timber-forested hills around you, the worse.  The Alaska Highway brought us consecutive days of bone-chilling cold and steady downpours.  The scenery  from Teslin to the Continental Divide was relatively unremarkable while the climbs and conditions were miserable.  The day after, the spectacular valleys east of the Divide made for beautiful and sunny riding. 

The Continental Divide Lodge saved us from the storm and inundated us with borscht, sandwiches, and more.

2.  You can only eat so much, and then some more.  Sometimes you arrive at dinnertime cold and hungry.  Wielding the appetite of a touring cyclist, you know you are capable of devouring 2,000 calories in a sitting like it was a handful of trail mix.  Your hosts seem to know this, and because they get some kind of sick satisfaction from this challenge, they do their very best to overfeed you.  Tragedy ensues.  You find not one, but two or three bowls of delicious Russian borscht in front of you along with sandwiches.  And just when you think you’ve vanquished the foe of hunger forever, a surprise attack of cinnamon rolls brings you to your knees.  Or perhaps strawberry rhubarb coffee cake; and don’t forget, you have to finish all of the meat loaf and potatoes.  Our Wonderful Hosts 1, Bound South 0.  Except everyone wins.

Teslin Bridge in the Yukon.

3.  The generosity and goodness of people rises in proportion to how wet and cold and pitiable you are, with few exceptions.  This rule is connected to #2; if you are ever asked, “How can I show love to a touring cyclist?” you can correctly respond, “By feeding them.”  But this is about more than that.  In innumerable ways, people rise to the occasion in the smallest ways to help you when you need it.  You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.  Sometimes you’re looking for some shelter to set up your tent out of the rain or perhaps a simple furnace to dry out your boots.  The little gestures of kindness make all of the difference in the world, no matter where you are.

Mud Lake in British Columbia before night falls.

4.  Avoid riding a bicycle through a dark night in the mountains, but if you must, enjoy the ride.   Despite our best efforts we sometimes underestimate the terrain and overestimate our abilities.  The result is a dreaded late arrival.  When one has been pedaling since 9AM, you don’t want to be pedaling after 9PM.  Once darkness falls the headlamps come on and the world compresses to the patches of mountain road illuminated by your lights.  At first it is terrifying; one might pass by a bull moose or grizzly bear on the side of the road without either realizing it.  We yelled out a few songs to warn the wildlife and to lift our spirits.  We hurtled through the darkness of the Cassiar as the drizzle turned to snow.

This present autumn is fleeing the mountains.

One day off the Alaska, one day on the Cassiar.  One day is all it takes to be unforgettable.  Winter threatens the northern latitudes and we’re Bound South on the Cassiar as fast as our legs can carry us.