Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Body Remembers

I never thought that I would become one of those cyclists with permanent tan lines. But many months since my last ride in shorts the persistent duotone of my legs says otherwise. It is strange to see myself discoloured in this way, to be sporting this roadie badge of honour that I never strove for and do not especially "deserve." Are these legs even really mine?

In fairness, the bulk of the damage was done in the course of a single ride, early last summer: that 300K brevet, when, uncharacteristically, I rode all day in 90°F+ heat and humidity without issue only to, equally uncharacteristically, give up just 30 miles from the finish after night had fallen. This failure hit me with unexpected intensity. After some time I wanted badly to put it behind me, to stop dwelling on the hows and the whys and the what-ifs. But how could I forget an event that left me physically branded? The marks were so prominent, the contrast between the pale and the darkened flesh so dramatic. To make matters worse, everyone around me noticed. "So many miles so early in the summer!" But of course they did not know the real story the tan lines told. All those hours in that insane sun… and all for nothing.

When they don't make me think of the failed brevet, my etched legs make me think of photography. There is considerable overlap between cyclists and photographers, and among these are many film enthusiasts. When you ask those who prefer film over digital to explain why, many will tell you film has a special look that digital simply can't replicate, that film stirs emotions in a way that digital cannot. I do not believe this to be so, and the more I use both mediums the more certain I am there is no such thing as "the look of film" per se. Once you fully and properly control for format, type of lens used, type of film used, aperture and exposure settings, and the myriad of other factors involved, I believe that you can create a digital and a digitised (i.e. viewable on your computer) film image so that the two are indistinguishable to the human eye and emotional palette.

This is not a popular opinion and many film lovers will disagree. But that is beside the point. Because my point is that despite holding this view, I nonetheless prefer film photography over digital. When I want to capture something truly special or meaningful - be it a place, person or event - I shoot it on film. For me it is not about the look, or the quality, or the negative vs megapixel size. It is about capturing a moment and fixing it in physicality; it is about transforming fleeting light into a solid tangible object. The sensual palpability of the silver gelatin process is especially appealing. The baths, the resins, the salts and metals, the "cooking." The photographic process is essentially a printmaking process, and it is the alchemy of it that attracts me. Is this any more valid than the "special look of film" narrative? Maybe not. It's only my way of conceptualising it.

When seen from this perspective, my legs, in a sense, have become photographic objects. Exposure to light produced an etched, physical record of an otherwise fleeting event. Large format. Pigment on flesh. If analogue photography is what I'm after, this is it, in its most basic form.

After a long winter, I am slowly getting back into the swing of roadcycling. The tan lines are covered by long fleecy tights and, considering where I live now, might be for some time. But as I ride, I notice something else that has imprinted on my body. While my fitness level has degraded and my muscle tone's diminished, the technique I have internalised over last summer and all the summers before that have not. On climbs I rise out of the saddle so effortlessly, and on corners I lean so intuitively, that I can hardly believe it was ever otherwise. And then there is that feeling of oneness with the bike that carries with it an animalistically alert-yet-calm sort of confidence that I can hardly put into words. These states of being are etched so deeply, they are of archival quality. The body is analogue and it remembers.

30 comments:

  1. You're still young and relatively new at this athletic stuff (or so I presume) but I think eventually the body forgets, sadly. Muscles need maintenance. My mind believes it can still do the things I used to do effortlessly, but my body is a complete stranger to both the sensations and actions. Relearning to walk seems more common as one ages....

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    1. My experience is that over time you generally keep the muscle memory of "how" to do tasks. But what you do lose rapidly is the strength and responsiveness to do those tasks at the speed and level that you remember. It's kind of dangerous to go back and do things that you used to be good at but put away for a number of years. The danger isn't that your body doesn't remember how to do them, it is that the body remembers doing them with the strength and conditioning you had when you last left off.

      Always wise to "ease back into things". But it's actually quite amazing the degree to which you retain the skills even after many years of disuse.

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  2. In Geezer News Ned Overend wins Fat Bike Birkie. Becomes inaugural Fat Bike National Champion. Ned is 58 years old. Ned is not stronger than the 300 contestants he beat in that race. He won with a margin of more than two minutes. As you would put it, Ned is one with the bike. And he's kind of an animal. Except there were a lot of animals in that race. Ned was the animal who knew how to ride.

    Anyone so fair-skinned as our hostess here who spends a lot of time in the sun should have a relationship with a dermatologist. I have no idea whether or not your permanent tan is clinical. Get it looked at anyway. I am a very fair-skinned Swede with skin cancer riding a bike forever and I've always reverted to uniform pallor over winter.

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    1. I made the suggestion of arm/leg sleeves, wasn't heeded. Will this be a topic for a future blog post tagged #revelation...

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    2. http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2013/06/arm-coolers-for-summer-cycling-look-at.html

      There is something about a dark tan that comes from a small number of strong exposures that seems to last longer than the light tan you get from many, brief exposures. Of course, everyone's skin reacts differently regardless.

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    3. Yeah. Unfortunately I only got the leg coolers post-brevet.

      Tan is not "clinical," a doctor did have a look.

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    4. Burned skin must be repaired. The riders' body necessarily diverts energy and resources to care for the skin. That energy is not available to the pedals. Getting burnt slows you down. If the burn is bad enough energy and resources will continue to be diverted for days. Energy that should be used for muscle recovery. Getting burnt slows you down.

      The original post uses the words 'damage', 'discoloured',and 'branded'. I take those at face value and think they are correct. There is no badge of honour here. There is physical evidence of a mistake that was made. You don't learn from mistakes when you claim them as a badge of honour.

      My mother is presently dying of skin cancer. She has had a long life and a good life.

      Skin cancer is not a good way to go. People think of dermatology and think of cosmetics. Most visits to the derms are for very minor examinations and simple procedures. It should be that way. Metastasis is unlikely to occur unless mistakes have been made. Unfortunately those mistakes cumulate and compound over a lifetime. Nobody is perfect. Mistakes will be made. Better to do what can be done to limit those mistakes. Constructing a romantic narrative from damage, discolouration and branding is not how to learn from mistakes.

      Images indeed. Metastasis from skin cancer proceeds not only to bone cancer and lung cancer but to tumors in the eyes.

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  3. Great topic! Maybe the affinity for film and bicycles is related to an affinity for romanticizing classic design. Though I use digital mediums myself (for sake of ease), I can see how someone drawn to the reliable, old-fashioned 35mm would also appreciate a reliable, old-fashioned lugged bicycle. It represents something. Also....retrogrouches.

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  4. this roadie badge of honour that I... do not especially "deserve." is not true. the mere fact that you have them means that you've earned them.

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  5. I agree with you about film vs digital--and I was a high-leverl expert in B&W chemical processing, taught a couple of now well-know artists, and had several gallery exhibitions myself.

    Still, once I became familiar with digital, I strove to develop the same level of expertise in that realm as well. I think they are very very close. Once, at a party, I challenged several of my photographer friends--anti-digital darkroom snobs at the time--to identify the paper I had used for a certain print on the wall. They practically left noseprints on the glass, and guessed either Ilford Galerie or Oriental Seagull, selenium toned. Whereupon I revealed to them that it was a digital print, mastered in PhotoShop and run off on a hundred dollar desk printer.

    I loved my darkroom and the prints I made there. But I did not love the chemical waste involved, so when the possibilities of digital became evident, I went for it.

    By the way, I love your characterisation of the suntan as a form of photography! You ought to expand on that somewhere….

    Speaking of which, why not a book based on your blog?

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  6. Silver gel print = archival quality = a toxic stew. Hope those using it "dispose" of the stuff properly.

    Instagram filters anyone? Can't mimic sil gel with that.

    You would have been better off had you trodden down the brain-wiring cycling path long ago.

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  7. it's an interesting phenomenon, I admit... I was a but taken aback the first year I gazed at my legs after a shower sometime in mid-January only to realize that those untouched by the sun for months legs still had their tan-line. Welcome, you've always been here.

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  8. Another cycling/film lover here.

    I think the film/digital arguments are largely over, and digital is (at least to me) clearly better in every regard except it's ability to please me.

    I like having a physical record of a slice of time; my negatives have a thickness showing what was in front of the lens on that day. And if I underexpose badly, a thinness.

    It's not all that difficult to produce digital images or prints that simulate authentic darkroom techniques. I just prefer images and prints that are the genuine article as opposed to the simulations. Film based imagery doesn't look 'filmy', it just IS. I know that doesn't matter to most people, but so be it.

    And I have a Gunnar on the way! Learned about here in fact, so thank you. I'll take some pictures . . .

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  9. Like this post.Takes me down alleys I've not been. Thank you!

    Picking up running again, my cyclist legs' tan lines contrast starkly with my bare running legs. Has to look odd!

    Thanks again.

    Jim Duncan

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  10. I too am a film guy altho i do use ilford xp2 and scan the negative. but there is something about the methodical consideration of light, position, time constraint combined with the thrill of knowing you must get it right in fairly short order because you cant shoot a dozen frames and just pick the best (unless youre rich i suppose). It's a pastime, relax and enjoy it.

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  11. as for the rest of your post, pipe cleaner legs like I have means there is no chance in hell I'll ever be caught dead outside my house in shorts!!

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  12. Part of film is the delay in learning what has been captured and, for me at least, manual focus and settings, so when it all works, it feels earned. Or felt, since with kids, I don't have the luxury of time and anyway, I love my Lumix LX3. Similarly, I returned to cycling when, in a dark time, I began tinkering and, as I called it, re-learning the laws of physics. The common thread seems to be that there is no substitute for learning concretely in the world, because the body-mind, in its remarkable sophistication, is a learning cyclone that processes more nuance than we can fathom.

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    1. love the lens, image quality and manual controls on the Lumix

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  13. The way to put a failed brevet behind you is to ride some more brevets. DNFs are just learning experiences after a couple more successful rides.

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  14. Many people could not do a 300K minus 30 miles in ideal conditions. You did it in thick nasty hot air. There was no failure there . . . you are here to tell the tale and it was a great one at that!!

    Legs, photographs? Yes, more please!!

    Riding again !!!!

    vsk

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  15. Hmm....I still think the lenses you view life through are in need of adjustment. The good thing about life is it always happens, eventually.

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  16. What a beautiful post. I miss film photography, but to be completely honest I made the switch for financial reasons. I just couldn't afford to shoot the amount necessary to become a decent photographer on film... but digital gives me the freedom to fiddle and mess and end up with maybe one good shot in a hundred, and to be perfectly OK with that.

    But there's nothing like being in the dark room... the smell of the chemicals (what a horrible thought - but I do miss them) and the magic as the image starts to appear in the developer bath. Brings me right back to college when I would spend hour upon hour hiding from the world in the darkroom.

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  17. Doing what you did in that brevet, was not failed in my opinion. I couldn't do it, especially in 90 degree heat. You are in great shape and having fun on your bikes. That's success.

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  18. Hum, tanned legs, lenses choice, digital versus film … at first time I’ve been taken aback a little bit: our clever poet writer is surprising.
    About body remembers this subject is very interesting : recently I’ve been striving to read some articles from Arthur de Vany.
    He is an advocate of intense intermittent stochastic training. Maybe it’s a way to have body oblivions.
    L.

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  19. For some reason I keep remembering the (paraphrased) saying that after 40, everyone is responsible for the look of their own face. Or, in this case, legs. You are of course, precocious.
    Anyway, your commitment marked you. Bravo.

    Was thinking of you and your NI photographer friends as I started dismantling the darkroom in my basement recently. How is yours coming along?

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  20. Emphasis here on the word "process." ie., #thejourneyisthedestination

    I am a film-to-digital convert, having spent countless hours in the darkroom in the past and though I often look back fondly on that time, I have come to embrace the newer technology.

    One appeal of film remains that untouchable by digital: to view the original, the ONLY thing you need is light.

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  21. I like this post, especially being that my hobbies are photography and bicycles. And I like your comparison of tanned legs to processed film. However, I don't share your love of film. I shot plenty of film back in the day and even had a black-and-white darkroom in my parents' basement when I was in high school. But my love of photography waned until digital reignited my interest about 12 years ago. I still use 120 film in my homemade pinhole camera, but I take it to a lab for processing and digitizing. I no longer even keep the negatives. And I much prefer using digital cameras. Again, nice post.

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  22. Are those Ibex cycling shorts? What do you think of them?

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    1. They are Ibex boxer-briefs. I do own some Ibex cycling shorts, but I switched to lycra a year or so ago - finding the wool a bit too heavy for hot weather and prone to losing shape if worn on a regular basis.

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