Friday, April 11, 2014

Toward a Topographical Fatalism

Seacoast Road Cyclist
Without a doubt living in Northern Ireland has changed me as a cyclist. I have noticed. My friends have noticed. But the exact nature of this change is tricky to articulate. It isn't merely a matter of having gotten "better," as defined by improvement in speed and technique. Sure there is that too. After all, how can one not improve with pavement the texture of hard-packed gravel? With a mountain straight out the front door? With winds attacking from every direction? With former racers for cycling buddies? 

But the more fundamental change is in a shift in perspective. I have given in to the landscape. I have stopped approaching difficult topography as a problem - or even thinking of it in terms of difficulty in the first place. The landscape is there, its qualities outside my control. I cannot change it. I can only experience it, appreciate it, remember it. And that is best done if I do not struggle against it, but instead take it as it comes. Rather than suffering through a climb and wishing for it to end, I try to harmonise with it and - believe it or not - enjoy the moment  …or minute, or hour, as the case may be. When approached this way, the reward becomes not the view on top, and not even the sense of accomplishment upon reaching it, but the climb in itself.

Of course it's easy for me to adapt that attitude now that I have a featherweight bike with ultra-low gearing. But it isn't just that either. One day last Autumn I was out with local cyclist and coach Colin Loughery. We were talking about gearing, pedaling technique and strength training. "You want to try something?" he asked. I replied that I did, whereupon he instructed me to accelerate and get into my tallest gear as we rolled down a long flat stretch giving way to a slight incline. "When this flat bit ends," he said, "there will be a drag [hill]. See if you can stay in your tallest gear all the way to the top."

My mood instantly darkened. I didn't look forward to embarrassing myself in front of Colin. But I knew the incline we were about to go up, and there was just no way I could do it in 50/11. Feeling the momentum begin to wear off as I started the climb, my mind raced, grasping for strategies that would at least save me from toppling over. Maybe if I stood right away and pushed with all my might...

But before my butt had a chance to leave the saddle, came Colin's friendly command. "Don't stand! Stay seated and don't change gears. Just pedal." The words coming out of his mouth were so fantastical, that upon hearing them something in me snapped and allowed me to suspend disbelief. Okay, I would pedal. And in this insane gear, while remaining seated, I would crest this hill without breaking my knees or toppling over. 

And then I did exactly that. The strength for it came from somewhere deep within my abdomen rather than from my legs or lungs. It was as if some extra cluster of muscles appeared to accommodate this impossible thing I was trying to do. I could feel it for days afterward. 

"Good. But you stopped pedaling in circles." Colin had said to me at the top. As if, such a normal and casual thing it was to cycle up a hill in 50/11, that we could talk pedaling technique. Circles were the last thing on my mind then ...a pity, as later I discovered that making sure to continue pedaling circles and resisting the urge to stomp makes even grinding feel nicer, more meditative. 

The seeds had already been sewn. But it was on this ride that a philosophy of topographical fatalism took root. Just go with it. Suspend disbelief. The road awaits, and with it the wonderful unknown. 

41 comments:

  1. Hi,

    I really mostly commute. I have a collection of cool (I think) bikes. I wimped out and did not really ride due to snow and ice over the last 3 months. I tried to have dietary discipline which did help.
    The last few weekends I have ridden in Prospect Park. The last time with a friend Mike from the Brooklyn Velodrome Vintage Wheelmen.
    He's fast and I was joking that he was having a hard time going so slow to keep down with me!
    Anyway, we did a few laps, we were chatting (at least I was able to chuff out a few words on the flats and downhill).

    My commute I have developed a "tolerance" to. Between the timing of the lights and flat nature with only the Manhattan or Williburg bridge for hills, it is not much of a "challenge". Not much chance to maintain a pace. The park is different.

    After the ride, the next commutes on Weds and Thursd felt really great. I had some endurance and stamina I didn't think I'd really see until May/June.

    With a few good runs and decent diet this week I feel much better. I am trying to not shy away from climbs too. I usually have a bunch of stuff in a messenger bag which gets out of balance if I get out of the saddle. I am thinking to myself as a result I stay in the saddle and try to develop a good circle / pedal stroke.

    I've read you maintain a high cadence. I am used to a low cadence. I try to make myself play out the lower gears more. Maybe easier on the joints and better all around. Fixed gear in the park is also good for that.

    I have a neat Trek 5200 carbon that I'd like to put a triple on (just in case). I'm building up a Ciocc Moscow Olympic frame with Mavic Heliums and a triple. I might have cornered the mkt on granny gears!

    Happy Friday!

    vsk

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  2. Grok in ever present circles !

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  3. Nice words.

    But I did say:

    1) coaching
    2) quit thinking
    3) you can spend your life spinning low gear in mediocrity or
    4) go in there and find something

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  4. Good post.

    I see so many cyclists stand to climb hills. Sure, if it is the Tour de France and someone attacks on a mountain stage, the racers will stand. But not for long. Racers know it is not the right thing to do most of the time. "Sit and Spin" is what the early mountain bikers called it. Kind of like going to the laundromat.

    It requires exactly the same amount of energy to climb a hill when you stand in a high gear vs. spin seated in a low gear. But seated, you are putting out less force with less strain for a longer time period - it's not as taxing.

    I live in a city with lots of hills. Ten percent grades that go on for a mile. Twelve to twenty percent grades some places. Low gearing and the ability to pedal while seated is a necessary skill. Much easier on the body too. Important if you want to make cycling a life long endeavor.

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    1. But standing to climb can be a nice change of pace and change of position on the bike, on a long ride. As long as you keep things loose and keep a nice efficient rhythm, and don't clench the upper body; I welcome it.

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    2. re: racers. They know to build strength through big gear work, sitting and standing, and pedal work. There're concepts of anaerobic and aerobic you do not understand, little and big gears play off each other in training and during a ride.

      Sit if you must, spin if you want, but don't tell someone they have to ride a bike a certain way if that rider's goals stretch beyond what you conceive as proper.


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    3. Standing vs sitting is another one of those oddly controversial topics. But to put this in context, my friend was not telling me to sit on a climb because he thinks it's better to sit on climbs. He was demonstrating a very specific strength training technique.

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    4. For the last year or so I've been concentrating on spinning more and faster, which has been really beneficial, but there are times I miss pushing bigger gears or just want to make a point to myself and get in the big ring and try to make the sky darken and the trumpets blare.

      You can make a career out of base hits but if you don't at least try to put one over the fence once or twice a season than you never really played ball.

      Spindizzy

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    5. Part of being a coach is pulling stuff out of your hat that makes some impression on the student. The coach here succeeded. Convinced the student things were possible not previously thought to be possible. But it wasn't training, it was a stunt. Anybody who attempts to emulate V's workout is not getting the same result.

      Power is directly proportional to speed. Elementary physics. Whatever gets you up the hill fastest is the toughest workout and the most generally effective workout. Adopting massive gears develops torque rather than power. Any human healthy enough to ride a bike has more torque than a Harley-Davidson. You don't need more. Stunt riders and trials riders might want more torque, doing the tricks they do anyway takes care of it. Kilo specialists want torque for kilo starts, they are all in the gym working on it. No one else needs to care about low end torque. All of us would like a little more horsepower and you get it by going fast.

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    6. I do agree there are times to stand. Such as, when burst of acceleration is needed - or you are confronted by a short, very steep hill. I also agree that standing can increase your strength, and thus make you more powerful. If your goal is power, if you want to be a sprinter and not a long distance runner, than stand. Don't expect your body to "stand" up to it for as many years, however.

      From the standpoint of physics, it does not burn significantly more calories - so your workout from standpoint of the amount of energy expended is equivalent standing or sitting. Sure there could be a miniscule difference in wind resistance if going slightly faster uphill when standing, and thus more energy is required. But the difference is so small if would get lost in the noise.

      I ride for exercise these days. I find it is possible to pull relatively larger gears while seated. I believe in finding your cadence. The pedaling speed your body is most comfortable and efficient at and then find a gear that achieves the level of heart rate, or energy output that taxes the body without causing injury. I'm 57, and no longer believe I am invincible. Life caught up with me and has proven me wrong in that area. I've learned that wisdom comes from listening. For example, listening to what your body tells you. If your knees become sore, or you feet get hotspots, or you hands go numb - then learn from that.

      I realize there is a very strong machismo in American cycling not found to the same extent in other cultures where cycling is a lifestyle. Hence, there can be a strong reaction to suggestion contrary to conventional America cycling wisdom. I've been part of the American cycling scene for over 45 years, and spent most of those years as a believer.

      As far as Velouria's coach's intention, I interpreted pedaling in circles as even pedal strokes - as opposed to pedal mashes when standing. I stand corrected.

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  5. Nice story. I cant do that, not ready mentally. A friend of mine do this often in spring and even watching him frustrate me, because he is able to follow any of my tempo without any problems this way...

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  6. So how would you now characterize yourself as a cyclist? I'm assuming you're not a racer....or a touring cyclist...they both seem to have very different perspectives about experiencing a ride. You seem closer to a touring cyclist, but then again I thought you were always about embracing the landscape.

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    1. Well, I've never toured and I've never raced. I've done a handful of short brevets, but would not call myself a randonneur either. I guess I just like riding my bike? The landscape is a big part of it, as is photography.

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    2. Ah, then perhaps a tour or more trail rides will find their way into your expanding perspective.

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  7. Christopher FotosApril 11, 2014 at 1:58 PM

    Ah, cycling in circles, what is take on this? As you must know, Grant Petersen writes, in his usual subtle way, that cycling in circles "is a nonsense fantasy" that our bodies aren't designed for. (Though he adds a little bailout in saying "I'm not talking about the odd, short grunt up a vertical hill" but rather normal cycling cadences, not that Colin's challenge was normal.

    I gotta get a gearing setup like that.

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    1. It may or may not be a fantasy, I don't really mind what people think of it. All I know is it works for me and feels nice.

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    2. Its an imagery to help application of force through the whole pedal stroke, not just 12 to 6.


      I know with the content again, can't help it. Anyone else got some?

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    3. Tony Gwynn, Ichiro. Slap slap, punch punch. Turn on that inside pitch BAM. Keeps the opposition honest.

      Little races play out on a ride, first to the top, town line sprint. You assume the nervous girl is going to just pootle her little gear, sit back. No! She may decide one day to put it in a higher gear and do a smooth roll-on, catch a wheel of another standing, and BE THERE at the top, hitherto an unknown placing. Huh there may be something to this pedaling from the core stuff.

      Mark my words, Revelation #68323 presaged right here.

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  8. Tell a neophyte to do something anything that includes the magical mystical top gear and they are as eager as kittens. Tell them anything else and they just can't hear you. Your giant gear uphill might have had some positive effect as a one time only shock to the system. Maybe. At least someone was watching over your pedals.

    Once upon a time I had thighs that measured 26" around. Big Legs. It was like having a Badge of Omniscience. Everyone wanted my opinion. Riders listened to whatever I said. Part of those big legs was big gear workouts. Most of it was defects in my pedal stroke. The pedal stroke got fixed, my legs got smaller, I got faster, I went back to being just another rider.

    Big gear workouts used to mean 52- or 53x15 at 105-110rpm. Into the wind only because anyone can do it in a tailwind. Riders who used 53x14 for anything but downhill or well over 50kph were pariahs. Notable characteristic of the big gear Freds is they never change, never listen, never improve. There's something about a big gear that talks to your body. It talks loud. Listen to that big gear too much, you can't hear anything else.

    We've had all of one whole week of nice weather here in Chicago. I've already personally witnessed one gruesome crash. The reports I hear are just carnage. Back when we couldn't go beyond a 13 cog even if we were stupid a large race club would typically have zero or one major injury in the course of a season. Most riders rode and raced a lifetime with nothing but some road rash and a couple collarbones. Crashes with worse injuries than that always included a car or a truck. But we're one week into high season and it's already gone past a year's worth of injury. Gear down saddle down and you get to keep the rubber side down.

    Cruising around on a dutchbike or a Rivendell 80 or 90rpm is quite commendable. If I'm out for an all day ride I'm not any quicker. Once you begin to go fast it will not work to pedal that slow. At 40kph ninety rpm is lugging. At 50 kph ninety rpm is plain dangerous if you are riding in company. At speed the bike is simply not in control at low pedal revs. Ever find yourself in a group trundling along at 80rpm all in 50x11 get the heck out of there. For their next trick they will hit the pavement.

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  9. Your courage gives me courage.

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  10. My aging knees probably wouldn't tolerate much seated climbing in a 50/11, but I can confirm both the added strength that comes from climbing in a higher gear, and, perhaps more important, the accepting mindset that takes terrain and conditions as they come and adapts to them and in doing so makes them part of an enjoyable ride rather than a chore to get over with.

    For me, riding mostly fixed gears in rolling to hilly terrain, with strong variable winds, and often with large grocery loads, I long ago learned that the secret to hill and wind happiness is to adapt to the conditions rather than to try to force the conditions to adapt to you via lower gears. Even more than the strength and the knack of standing for long periods is the mental adjustment; the physical adjustment comes with the mental one.

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  11. I'm not sure whether to cue the soundtrack from "Rocky" or from "Chariots of Fire."

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    1. Maybe "Search for the Holy Grail"?

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  12. I stomp. I've tried pedaling "circles" and it doesn't feel right. But then I don't race or train.

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  13. Was it just a one-time experiment or will you use the big gear for climbing regularily, in the future?

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    1. It was an illustration of what strength training for time trialists can entail; not a suggestion for how to climb hills on a regular basis.

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  14. I'm not a regular reader and glad I stumbled on this gem!

    I know what you mean about just riding the hill. I've been a plumber for many many years and I love it, just like I did when I started. In the last few years this phenomenon has emerged: I focus on what I'm doing and at some point I look around and realize there is nothing else to do, that I have finished with no awareness that I was getting near the end. My days are so smooth since this has taken root in me. Everything seems to occupy it's right place in space and in time.
    I cycle hills the same way. Each revolution goes by in it's own place and all of a sudden your at the top and then you just go down the other side.

    Thanks

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  15. Tsk, tsk. You sow seeds, and they are sown. You sew with a needle and thread, and things are sewn.

    Taking a single-speed on long rides, and daily commutes as well, will give you plenty of fatal topographicalism, too!

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    1. I don't think you understand. What's great about this blog is that it often combines V's interests--say, cycling and photography. V also has a talent for making clothes.

      I fully expect an upcoming post comparing the advantages of seed garments to those of wool/lycra blends.

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    2. So, you're saying she'd sow, and then sew? Right, so.

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  16. You are fortunate to have friends who are accomplished riders. A lot of little tips can add up to a balanced state, where you can ride all day without feeling exhausted or beat up.

    It is also nice to see that you have settled on one bike for most of your riding. Once you find what works for you, it is best to resist making changes. :-)

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  17. I recently posted to a commuter cycling forum that I was becoming stoic about the wind. A wise contributor to that forum, and a recovering alcoholic, suggested that "stoic" was the wrong word for someone so passionate about riding. He proposed that "acceptance" was closer to the reality of it. I think he's right. I am not indifferent to the wind or to the experience of cycling through it. Instead, I have come to accept the wind as it is and to embrace the experience of cycling in all its variability.

    I wonder if the same concept does not apply here. Are you fatalistic about the landscape or passionately accepting of it?

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  18. Fantastic revelation, so glad to see that you found it.

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  19. Holy Moly! My knees hurt just thinking about it.

    I'm trying... really trying to get into the zen of riding uphill. But I have to admit that there's a big part of me that's always looking to the top thinking "how much longer?" Well, next time I'm struggling up a 15% grade I'm gonna take a minute (more like a micro-second between giant gulps of air) and be thankful that I'm in my lowest gear! Here's to living in the moment!

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  20. You like hard workouts? You want a hard workout? I've got one for you. Everybody does this workout and anyone who has ever done performance riding will recognize this workout immediately.

    Ride with a watch. Pick a landmark at the bottom of the grade and a landmark at the top of the grade. Time the climb. You would not want to try to best your time every single ride. But whenever you feel fresh and good and there is no overriding reason to just roll along, on any good day you have to try to set a new mark.

    Everybody does this. It is a hard workout. If you are at all serious it is a very hard workout. Now we make it special. If you should get near the top and the clock says you are close to a new personal best but the outcome is not certain, then you sprint. Sprint means sprint. It does not mean push a little harder, it does not mean thrash at the pedals for 5 strokes and then give up. It means sprint. Have a friend show you what a mountaintop sprint looks like. It looks utterly impossible. You can do it.

    You may wish to acquire a stopwatch. After sprinting you will not be able to read the second hand. Avoiding the sprint becomes wonderful motivation for setting a new mark by a clear margin. Or you may be one of those who comes to look forward to the sprint. Either way it is hard and you will know results.

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  21. Finding the impossible is possible is a good thing. However, before a bunch of your readers decide to try the same thing, I'd like to point out that climbing seated while mashing against your hardest gears is a great way to ruin your knees! High-gear seated climbing puts maximal compressive stress on the articular cartilage that lines the back of your knee cap, the end of the femur, and the top of the tibia. Unlike many soft tissues in your body, articular cartilage is avascular and does not readily regenerate. I did similar "maximum load" seated leg workouts when I was in high school, and then had to limit my riding for years afterward because of long-term knee damage. I'd suggest readers take inspiration from your rides, writing, and reconciliation with road conditions, but also spin or stand instead of risking their knees by high-gear seated climbing! End of public service announcement and I always look forward to reading your blog.

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  22. Had to laugh when I read this. Fatalism is a[n in]famous Irish trait. I never thought to apply it to cycling the way you have, but why not, it makes sense.

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  23. You must be more evolved than I am. For me the reward for a long climb is bombing down the other side.

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