Thursday, December 29, 2011

Emotional Landscapes

Pamela and Patria, Ride Studio Cafe Women's Ride
Two days after struggling through a hill training ride last week, I found myself on the bike again - doing what ended up being a 52 mile ride counting my trip there and back. 50 miles seems to be the magic number at the moment: shorter than that and I am left feeling regretful; longer than that and I become more aware of the difference between myself and the stronger riders I am with. Interestingly, I have not gone on a proper ride on my own for over a month: I've met so many cyclists to ride with lately, that I am always with someone. Among the benefits of this is discovering local roads that I've never ridden before - and noticing what an enormous role landscape plays in how subjectively easy or difficult a ride feels. 

Riding with the Ride Studio Cafe women last week, we did a loop that on the map appeared near-identical to a route I usually do alone, only along the back roads. The landscape, bathed in the ethereal late-December light, was so stunning that I did not notice the miles or the hills. Where were we? These hardly looked like the tired suburbs I had become so familiar with. Here moss-covered trees grew out of green bogs under cerulean skies. Sleepy farms peaked out coyly from the mist. The remains of frost on dried grass turned meadows into expanses of delicate lace. The sun shone through black, leafless branches, casting high-contrast shadows upon the road. We rode under canopies of fragrant pine trees, which then opened up to reveal enchanted vistas. Climbing one particular hill, I felt such a surge of emotion from the surrounding beauty, that I could not help but go faster. The desire to reach the top and see what more awaited there, made the bike feel weightless.

Roadcycling for me is not about suffering. It is about this emotional connection. Somehow the feel of being on the bike, the sensation of speed, and even the pain in my legs become associated with the reward of seeing an affecting landscape. Once it forms, the association is difficult to break, and it makes cycling addictive - apparently not just for me. Some of my riding partners are experienced racers and randonneurs, and when I listen to them describe rides I notice that they rarely speak of difficulty or pain. Words such as "epic" and "sufferfest" are simply not in their vocabulary. It's not because they don't feel pain and exhaustion, but because they do not consider these sensations to be the point. It's about fulfillment through a visceral connection with one's surroundings. The rest is not important.

42 comments:

  1. Cycling is the most social sport.
    What a wonderful world.

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  2. Of course there's pain. Everyone experiences it. To talk about it - why? It's not like anyone cares.
    Epic and sufferfest are beyond played out. Just ride.

    Funny juxtaposition: the person on the L has very different ideas about bags and bikes than the person on the R.

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  3. The woman on the left is Pamela Blalock (also blog here). She is riding a custom ti Seven with couplers, 26mm tires, Crud mudguards, dynamo lighting and small click-on Ortlieb handlebar and saddlebag.

    The woman on the right is Patria Lanfranchi, manager of the Ride Studio Cafe, organiser of the women's rides, and road/cyclocross racer. She is riding a lugged steel Serotta with carbon fork.

    Pamela's bike is really set up for much longer rides, as she rides 200+ mile brevets regularly and simply does not bother removing it for shorter rides. Notice also her shoes - those were the ones we were discussing earlier.

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  4. You should try touring (and not with 100 pounds like you did on vacation). You notice the birds, trees, and yes, what is over the next hill? It's doubly exciting because it's a one-way ride.

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  5. Oh Pamela, mixing black and brown...
    Joke.
    Patria's bike handles quick, I'm sure.

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  6. Riding a bike isn't just practical -- it's spiritual. We're all sining the same song.

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  7. Lovely post. Thanks.

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  8. yeah, going on rides with Pamela and Jon can be like that :)

    I remember, about four years ago, heading out with them to do a short forty mile ride to Marlborough, and the route that we took from Watertown to Weston was this weird, secret magical backway that got us to Rt. 128 with just one traffic light to stop us. I felt like I was just teleported out of the city.

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  9. 'It's about fulfillment through a visceral connection with one's surroundings.'

    I agree. What a great article.

    I cycle the same north Cheshire lanes hundreds of times a year.

    Every day is different.

    However, cycling takes many forms.

    For younger people road racing is fantastic, and the landscape and any visceral connection with it doesn't mean as much as winning.

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  10. Cris - I haven't met John yet, but the pictures of him winning various races are inspiring. Ditto re the feeling of being teleported!

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  11. An inspiring post that speaks to the beauty and aspiration we seek in biking. Thank you.

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  12. Simply lovely - great writing/riding.

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  13. Annie - My preferred type of touring would be on a fast randonneur-type bicycle with just a handlebar bag, maybe saddlebag and a credit card for motels. I am fairly convinced at this point that I will not enjoy cycling long distances with serious luggage. That said, I can fit an awful lotta stuff into my handlebar & saddle bags!.

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  14. Wow, what a lovely description. You put into words exactly why I participate in epic sufferfests, but never seem to remember them as such!

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  15. Tiger says:

    Hi Velouria. I just wondered how all this cycling affects your fitness and health? Specifically you have previously mentioned that you suffer from a long term illness that you have (though understandably youre unspecific).

    My wife suffers from ME/Fibromyalgia and as a result has a more sedentary lifestyle than is healthy. I would like to get her doing gentle exercise on bikes to get her fitter - thus my question.

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  16. Wonderful writing and vocabulary. The formation of words into a feeling is an art. You've done it beautifully. These days, I approach most of my recreation with an eye towards cardio and spiritual rewards.

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  17. is that an iphone pic??

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  18. Anon @ 7:12pm: Haha, right? I hear it's a crop of an iPhone pic. The 4s camera is something.

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  19. Tiger - It's worth noting that I was not sedentary before cycling; I used to walk quite a lot (like 2 hours a day), had been doing it for most of my life. When I did start cycling, for the first 2 years it was not strenuous enough to make a difference. But in the 3rd year, I have to say the fast roadcycling stuff seems to be making me feel better than I've felt for the past 10 years. My sense of balance off the bike seems to have improved. My immune system (which used to be very poor) has improved. I seem to have more feeling in my hands than before, possibly from an increase in strength from constantly squeezing the levers. You are right that I'd rather not discuss at length the specifics of my health issues (I don't have fibromyalgia), but it has been known that exercise that builds strength and coordination can help individuals who for whatever reason have trouble with these. It's very complicated though and very hard to say whether it will help in your wife's situation. I also know that women whose husbands try to encourage them to cycle are less likely to want to do it than if it is their own idea, for whatever that's worth : )

    Anon 7:12 -Yes it is!

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  20. The iphone pic is a 60% or so crop of the original file size, and I don't think this is the full resolution version of the image.

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  21. Awesome read,V,good show,it put a smimle across my face :)

    Disabled Cyclist

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  22. Velouria said: It's about fulfillment through a visceral connection with one's surroundings.

    I agree. That's the reason why I came to prefer doing all-day or two-day (with one night in a bed and breakfast) circuits alone. I tried cycling with various neighbours or friends or so-called "Club" cyclists… who either are too much performance oriented (and I can't keep up with them) or like to stop every so often to look at any sights (and I find this stop-and-go very tiring) or are of the talkative variety (and I don't like cycling two or three abreast even on country roads). The worst case: once I had to put up with a friend who liked to listen to his radio while cycling…

    Happy New Year everyone !

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  23. "emotional landscapes" that's from a Bjork song, no?

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  24. Totally off topic, but yeah...I can't read the words "emotional landscapes" without thinking of the Bjork song Joga (sorry for my lack of accent marks). I even looked up the video 'cause I hadn't seen it in a while:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BSMcVRgloY

    My only tattoo so far, is of the words "All is full of love" on my arm. :^) Yeah, I'm a fan.

    That being said, this post is gorgeous, and I know what you mean...

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  25. April - Not sure how normal this is, but I tend to have an imaginary soundtrack going in my head when I cycle, and this song was "playing" during my last ride : )

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  26. I think it's a normal thing. Matter of fact, one of the absolute best questions I got about my tour was from a cycling friend in Iowa, who asked me "So, what songs got stuck in your head while riding?"

    Often it's just random stuff. Like getting the Beastie Boy's "Intergalactic" stuck in my head for most of the days we were on the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies. It's thankfully an upbeat song...but I only really know the chorus and a few lines here and there, so it was driving me NUTS. Or the days I had just the chorus of the Pixies' song "Here Comes Your Man" going through my head, which was even worse, because I know even less of that song.

    If I notice that whatever is stuck in my head is unpleasant, I'll intentionally try to get something else in there, especially if I need an upbeat song for pedaling. Daft Punk is excellent 'cause it has very few words anyway!

    When I first started commuting to work regularly, I constantly got "Bicycle Race" by Queen playing in my head. Especially the part that goes, "I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike. I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like!" It became a favorite of mine to sing at karaoke, and if I'm in a goofy mood I'll wear my helmet while I sing it. On at least one occasion I've also put my taillight on the back pocket of my pants and turned it on.

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  27. Riding a bike is the only way i know that taps into timelessness...

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  28. "on the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies..."

    the words "icefields" and "bikes" in the same context... does not compute

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  29. omg Icefields Pkwy. Go west, young lady.

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  30. Velouria, do a google images search for "Icefields Parkway." Yeah.

    It was the best part of the whole four months (with Glacier National Park a close second). You don't bike on the Icefield itself, but you get to see it from the road.

    It's a highway going through the Canadian Rockies, covering most of the road between Banff and Jasper. It's some of the most gorgeous scenery I've ever seen (and I've seen some awesome stuff). The road is banned to trucks and has a nice wide shoulder. Glaciers! Glacial lakes and creeks and waterfalls! Mountains! Animals! (We saw deer, bears from a safe-ish distance, elk, bighorn sheep...) Flowers!

    There are hostels spaced an easy day's riding apart. They're mostly wilderness hostels--which means you have a warm indoor place to eat and sleep (bunk style, but the beds are comfy enough), and access to drinking water and a refrigerator and stove...but the toilets are pit toilets, there's not always electricity other than for lights, there's no showers. Two of them had wood-fired saunas next to glacially-fed creeks, which worked as well as a shower and felt fantastic. (The hostels at each end of the parkway--Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper--are more like regular hostels...the Banff one even has a pub in the basement.)

    It's really popular among bicycle tourists for a reason (we ran into the same group of folks for several nights in a row), and I noted with glee that a recent issue of Bicycling put it on their list of the best rides in the world.

    I can't wait to do it again. I seriously think everyone should do it. Just amazing, gorgeous riding. Most of it isn't too difficult, although there are a couple of mountain passes. And Shawn and I were in really good shape by the time we got there, so it seemed easier.

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  31. (Oh, and there are some grand old gorgeous hotels in Banff, Lake Louise, and near the actual Icefields...but they are Expensive with a capital E. In any case, you could easily tour Banff to Jasper without any bedding or a tent, just have room for food (not a lot of places to buy it, but you wouldn't need to bring cooking supplies like a stove or dishes as long as your lunch was sandwiches) and clothes. It would be a happy medium between fully-loaded touring and credit card touring.)

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  32. Tiger says:

    Thanks Velouria I appreciate your reply and the comments you have made have been very helpful. I take on board your point about self motivation rather than hubby imposed!

    Your comments about building up your immune system seems to correlate with published research and with my own experience of cycling. For instance, my family often goes down with heavy colds and I seem to be almost immune. (I both mountain and 'normal' road bike - though neither keeps me in the saddle as much as you by the sound of it!).

    I wish you well with your health and glad to hear that cycling has greatly improved your feeling of well being. I've experienced similar positive bio feedback (for want of a better phrase).

    On the side, I love your blog - it was your Pashley discussions that drew me to your site (Im thinking Guv'nor....)

    Keep going!

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  33. Loved this post. Reminds me to get out on the bike and enjoy.
    Thanks!

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  34. April - It's a beautiful road, and I loved reading about it on your blog! Some day I may make it out there, who knows. I would certainly like to.

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  35. It's great to get connected to other blogs through this one....Yesterday, before reading your 'emotional landscapes' post, I wash looking through this epic ride through Canada to Alaska....It's a landscape I'm unfamiliar with. I loved that, unlike many posts on crazyguyonabike this one only had this great set of photos.....Words were not needed.
    http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=1&page_id=126700&v=8B

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  36. I've just finished another (resist the temptation to say epic sufferfest) ride filled with amazing views and fabulous company, and I'm feeling a bit peckish. I pull out my phone to check emails and blog updates and what do I see, but the most delicious looking hamburger ever. Thankfully you didn't include a description of it as compelling as yesterday's. But did you tell us where we can get one like it. C'mon that's just cruel.

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  37. Pixie - Ha! The cheeseburger in that picture is at Algiers in Harvard Sq. I also like Sullivan's on Beacon St in Cambridge/Somerville and the Boston Burger Company in Davis Sq.

    Anon - I love Crazy Guy on a Bike!

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  38. I love the way you capture the pure beauty of the bicycle! During my cross continental tour in May I hope to just scrape the surface of the art hidden in the mechanics of these seemingly magical machines! Visit my blog and help me go viral!
    http://www.johnsamericabiketour.blogspot.com

    Thanks and Happy New Year!

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  39. so Joga just came on (via my iTunes) as i was re-reading this post. surely it is a sign...that i should go for a bike ride later ;)

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  40. I find that cycling with others, fast or slow, in the city or through lovely countryside, to be wonderful in general. It fosters an atmosphere of camaraderie that makes the potential suffering more than tolerable. And it's the perfect thing to do with friends on a summer day. Ride your bikes and talk. Leisure and exercise at the same time :0)

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