Friday, January 31, 2014

Speaking of the Weather

In the past, I did not see much point in obsessing about the weather. When I lived in England in my 20s, it mystified and amused me that in-depth discussions of this topic appeared to be a national pastime. After all, the statistically probable answer to the question "Will it rain today?" was always "Yes." So any form of speculation on the issue seemed purely recreational, a way to let loose shared fantasies of green fields bathed in sunshine rather than address reality. And the reality was that, at some point of any given day it would probably, almost certainly, rain. At least a little. But possibly a lot. Dress accordingly!

If there is one thing for which I am thankful to England, aside from the friends I made in pursuit of my now-useless university degrees, it's teaching me how to dress for the ever-looming possibility of rain and sudden-onset cold spells. Layers. Waterproof footwear. Waterproof outerwear. Always a hat or umbrella in my bag. And that's it. Really. Rain was no reason to cancel a weekend hiking trip. And it did not mean that you couldn't walk to your friend's house two villages away. You could do anything you liked in the rain if you dressed appropriately. This mindset carried over into my life as a cyclist. for 5 years I've been going out on my bike and never worrying about normal fluctuations in weather conditions.

So why now do I pore over weather charts the night before a ride? Why do I know or care what an occluded front is? And why on god's green earth do I listen with intense and impassioned interest to my aviator friends discussing pressure systems?

image via
Well this little chart might offer a clue! Prior to moving to Northern ireland, I had no experience of ordinary weather conditions (that is, not snow, ice, or hurricane related), physically preventing me from riding my bike. I did not imagine that plain, ordinary, everyday winds could be strong enough to casually move me sideways, keep me from pedaling at anything over 4mph, or downright knock me off. Well, now I know. And for as long as winter is here, I have learned not to set off without checking the weather - in particular, the wind data.

It took some time before the numbers began to mean anything. With temperature readings, I intuitively know what 10°C or 20°C or 40°F or 80°F feels like, and what to wear for each of those conditions. With wind readings, I lacked a point of reference and had to form the associations from scratch. What number does a strong wind correspond to, versus a moderate wind, versus a breeze? At what point do the gusts transition from annoying to dangerous? After each winter ride - whether successful, scary, or outright aborted (yes, I've walked home pushing my bike down the lane a couple of times!), I would check the wind readings to get a sense for what the numbers feel like. Eventually I determined that if the wind speed is forecasted to be over 20mph, or if the gusts are predicted to be stronger than that, I should not go out on my roadbike - especially not up the mountain. Below those figures is doable, though of course the lower the numbers the better.

So after years of not caring, here I am, a bona fide weather discussion enthusiast. Interestingly, while the rain forecast is wrong just as often as it is correct, the wind forecast tends to be more accurate - so at least it's gratifying. No roadcycling today. But I'll ride my upright bike to the shop, ready to hop off should the gusts try to hurl me into the hedges.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Search and a Triumph

image via
It feels silly to be so excited about this. She is an abstraction for now, as I have yet to see her. And when we do meet, she will be enormous and heavy. There will be huge bother retrieving her from the neighbouring county. But I’ve been trying to get my hands on a vintage lady's roadster since moving here, and finally one appeared. A virtual handshake and now she sits there, waiting for me. A 1950s Triumph step-through. Black. Rod brakes, chaincase, even a dynohub.

My delight over this find is disproportional to its collector's value. This bicycle isn’t rare or historically remarkable. It is not in immaculate condition. I do not expect it to ride better than my modern bike. I most certainly do not need it. And yet I do. How strange and unnatural it’s been, without a bunch of old crusty bikes around.

Is it the vintage-ness itself that I miss? Is it the elegant proportions, the matte black paint, the faded golden lettering and the smell of old steel? And is it also the caked dirt, the hard to budge bolts, the parched leather, the stiff springs? Is it, finally, the creaking?

Liking is such an important feeling, because it trumps everything. And with liking comes the impulse to explain. “I like it because…” – and we go on to list the thing’s merits, to present it as a rational decision. Vintage bikes are beautiful. Vintage bikes have a fine ride quality. Vintage bikes have historical value and so we can learn from them.

Liking things does have its root causes. They just aren't always what we think. And their logic may not be obvious or linear. It can come to us in waves - of imagery, or sound, or emotion. Why force it into an explanation, if in so doing we might lose its true substance?

A Triumph. I have not owned, or even ridden one of those before. Founded in Coventry, England in 1884, Triumph later split into separate motorcycle and bicycle manufacturers. The Triumph Cycle company produced a range of tourist and sport roadster models. It was bombed to destruction during World War II, then, after a brief recovery, purchased by BSA in 1951, which was in turn purchased by Raleigh in 1956. It was from this latter period that most of the imported Triumph 3-speeds in the USA came from, and so today they are largely remembered as a Raleigh sub-brand. In view of this history, the Triumph name is charmingly ironic.

The pre-acquisition Triumphs are of course more sought after than the later models. Until I see my bike in person I won't know its age for sure, but I suspect it to be post-Raleigh. Which is all right. A lovely, run of the mill bicycle. What it is about these old roadsters that makes me unable to leave them be, I cannot tell you. But I can already hear the swoosh of the worn tires and the noise of the hub, and it fills me with anticipation.

Is it the tick-tick-tick, like an amplified pulse of a living thing?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tilting at Windmills

When I first began to venture into the Sperrin mountains, I was stunned by the sight of the wind farms. For over a decade now, I have seen them crop up in various places I've lived. Just not this many and not embedded in such dramatic landscapes. Political arguments about wind power aside, I was never one to find wind turbines an eyesore. In fact, I think they are elegant. The clusters of white slender stems and petal-like blades bring to mind some ethereal flora plucked from the depths of the forest and magically resized to tower above it. Seeing them in the distance on a descent, I would feel compelled to stop my bike and pull over to the side of the road just to stand there and stare in fascination. Whether bathed in sunlight or engulfed in milky fog, what a sight they were to behold. 

Over time, I grew used to the turbines and no longer had to stop every time I spotted them in the distance, contenting myself with admiring glances in their direction without breaking my stride. Their white ghostly forms became a familiar part of the landscape, just like the windswept yellow-green grass and the mauve clusters of heather and the jagged pine treelines that defined the mountainside. Normal. 

And then one day, close to home, some new wind mills went up. Right at the base of Binevenagh Mountain, on the aptly named Windyhill Road. Through a friend, I vaguely know the man whom the clump of land belongs to, and I knew the turbines were due to go up in that spot. I just didn't know when exactly, until suddenly there they were, directly in front of me. And they looked absolutely enormous. The angle at which I approached them - descending from a winding, perpendicular road - created a vantage point that, to the naked eye, exaggerated their size to monstrous proportions. Towering over the forest tree tops, the blades alone looked larger than the entire mountain. Their slow, steady spin, accompanied by a dull hum, seemed fitting to their size - like the deep, tone-deaf voice of a fairy-tale giant.

Leaning my bike as I went around the bend, my head swam at the sight of the giants looming over the sloping horizon. It was then I remembered that phrase from Don Quixote: "tilting at windmills,"  and nearly laughed out loud. The debate over wind power here is an impassioned one, especially now that there's been a proposal to put up a farm on the scenic ridge of Binevenagh mountain itself. In the meantime, here I am careening toward these controversial giants and experiencing the "tilting" in a most literal sense, although altogether different from the way in which Cervantes meant it. Just how much these humming, arm-swinging entities will come to dominate the landscape remains to be seen. Of the new ones on Windyhill Road I will say one thing: They make what is already a remarkable descent all the more dramatic - towering over the landscape fantastically, and at the same time, distinctly a part of it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Changing Notions of the Winter Road Bike

Last week I posted a photo showing a cycling club out for a Sunday morning spin in Northern Ireland. The photo soon received a comment noting the lack of fenders on what looked to be a sloppy winter day. Others have asked about this as well when I've put up similar pictures, expressing surprise that there does not seem to be a switch from summer to winter equipment among cyclists around these parts.

It's funny, because I think there is this idea in the US that roadies in the Green and Pleasant Land and the Emerald Isle possess not only a certain grit and toughness when it comes to riding in bad weather, not only an innate elegance of handling skill, but also an old-school wisdom with regard to equipment. A wisdom that, among other things, manifests itself in the ritualistic and compulsory donning of mudguards once winter sets in. So what's with all these fenderless roadies?

Well, here is one narrative, as related to me by numerous locals: The road cycling culture in Northern Ireland is in a state of flux, with a mushrooming in the numbers of new riders entering the scene over the past several years. Unlike previous generations, these new riders are not initiated into the sport by local mentors in a way that preserves the continuity of local history and traditions. Rather, they enter into it with attitudes that come from magazines, forums, blogs, and the like, which often comes to override long-held local practices. And because the newcomers' numbers are high, an interesting thing happens when they mix with the old guard: They end up influencing them more so than the other way around - until, one by one, even experienced cyclists are starting to drop the old-school trappings.

Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the demise of what was once known as the winter road bike. In the old days (which I understand to be some time prior to 2005), one did not ride their good road bike year-round. Some time in the end of September, that bike would be put away and out would come the winter bike. Now, while there is no single definition of what that bike should be like, the general idea was two-fold: First, the winter bike should be both crappier and more robust than one's good road bike, due to the greater risk of damage by the elements as well as aggressive road saltings in winter. And second, it should be optimised for poor weather conditions. As far as frame material, this usually meant either heavy steel tubing or aluminum. And as far as components, this translated to either building the bike up as a fixed gear, or using an older, retired component group. Heavier, cheaper wheels with wider tires went on the bike in leu of summer's good wheels with skinny tires. And fenders (aka mudguards) were a must. In fact, up to a few years ago, I am told, a cyclist would be turned away from a club ride were they to show up without them.

Today I still see traditional winter road bikes ridden by friends with old-school habits, and occasionally I will spot an unknown one out and about. But they are more or less extinct from local club rides, as far as I can tell: Most local roadies will now ride the same bike year-round. And my feeling is, this is based on more than a willful ignorance of tradition or a carelessness toward nice equipment. One could argue that typical modern road racing bikes - high in carbon and aluminum content - are inherently more winter-friendly than their predecessors, eliminating the need for a dedicated winter bike. Speaking from limited personal experience, this is now my third winter riding a titanium bike with racing wheels, skinny tires, and lightweight aluminum and carbon components. In the beginning I kept my old roadbike - a 1970s steel frame with older components and wheels - as a bad weather substitute. But I eventually passed it on to another cyclist, as it became clear that in practice I preferred to ride my nice new bike in all weather conditions. Despite the all-season usage, I see very little wear on my road bike today, and none that I can specifically attribute to winter conditions.

But what of the issue of fenders? There are fenders on the market now that can be fitted even on the raciest of bikes with the tightest of clearances, and then removed and fitted again at will, with fairly little commitment. So why do riders shun them, even on group rides - despite mud in their faces and wet behinds? Well, I don't know the answer to that. But I suspect it's largely a matter of disliking unnecessary complexity (the definition of unnecessary being rider-specific, of course). And I suspect there is also a huge stylistic element to it. As fenders go in and out of fashion, this changes individual and group perceptions of how necessary they are. In the US, the fashion for fenders is now on an upswing, and I am sure it will come back around here as well. Me, I'll fit my road bike with fenders sometimes, but prefer not to - and mostly don't when I ride alone - for the simple reason that I am not sufficiently bothered by the consequences of being without them.

And so, befitting of my newcomer status, overall my winter road bike looks exactly the same as my summer road bike - save for an extra caking of crud, which, on occasion, I will wash off with a hose. The idea of a dedicated winter bike does have a romantic appeal to it - if for no other reason than as a ritualistic marking of the changing seasons. But in practice I don't feel the need for it. If my "good" bike is durable enough to ride year-round and if I enjoy it, then why not do exactly that …assuming, of course, that the roads are not covered in snow.

Do you have a dedicated winter road bike? How does it differ from the one you ride in warmer months?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Mountain Bike for Commuting

Although most cyclists around these parts are roadies, I do occasionally see people cycling for transportation. More often than not they are riding mountain bikes. For some time now, mountain bikes have functioned as de facto commuter bikes in places without a culture of dedicated utility bicycles. And while they lack the trimmings of transportation-specific machines, mountain bikes do have some features that can work pretty well for commuting. I've been thinking about this since last Autumn, when, for a period of about a month I rode a friend's mountain bike in this capacity. Even now that I have my own Brompton here with me, I still use a mountain bike on occasion to get to specific destinations - appreciating its benefits as well as noticing its shortcomings for getting around. Here are some thoughts on both.

What makes the mountain bike immediately appealing to me as a hop on and go bicycle, is the combination of positioning and stepover height. The straight handlebars allow for a sportily upright posture. And most MTB frames today have sloping top tubes, some so dramatic as to out-slope a typical mixte frame. These features make the bike easy to ride casually in my street clothes - including skirts, dresses and long coats.

Then there is the usefulness and stability of the wide knobby tires, making poor road conditions a non-issue. They are great for cycling over potholes, mud, debris, sand, even winter slush and snow and occasional ice. The tires can also open up commuting options, making it possible to cut through forest trails and across fields. Finally, fat tires mean that regardless of frame material and other factors, the bike is unlikely to have a harsh ride quality (a suspension fork, if present, will further contribute to this).

The super-low gearing that comes standard on typical mountain bikes is a godsent for traveling through hilly areas. Even the steepest mountain roads can be tackled in comfort with a sub 1:1 gear.

The 26" wheels address my dislike of toe overlap, even with wide tires.

The disk brakes commonly found on most modern mountain bikes offer excellent braking power in all weather conditions.

Finally, mountain bike frames today are typically made of aluminum, which makes them resistant to rust in wet climates and salty road conditions.

All of these features may not make for the prettiest of bikes, but from the standpoint of sheer practicality they are attractive. And in addition, I find the sporty handling and playful feel of a decent mountain bike quite fun.

As far as drawbacks, the obvious ones are the missing fenders and racks. Cycling in the rain or after the rain quickly turns street clothes into a mess. And there is no convenient way to carry things on the bike. Of course both fenders and racks can usually be retrofitted. But this introduces extra costs, complexity, and compatibility issues. And on a borrowed bike doing so if not really feasible. All of this also applies to lighting, for those who prefer the convenience and security of dynamo lights.

Gripping the straight handlebars can also feel uncomfortable over longer distances, and while handlebars can be changed this again introduces extra work, cost, etc.

Otherwise, the one thing I am not crazy about is the high bottom bracket typical of mountain bike frames, preferring a low bottom bracket instead. This, however, is not a dealbreaker, just a personal preference.

All in all, I feel that a decent quality mountain bike, if properly accessorised, can make for a comfortable, practical, versatile and fun transportation/ utility bicycle. And while there do exist readily available bikes on the market (under the "hybrid" category) that appear to already accomplish this, in the past I've disliked the ones I've tried - consistently finding them uncomfortable and inefficient. Recently I tried a few once again, in an attempt to understand what it was about them I disliked. And the thing is, while some of these commuter-ready bikes may superficially resemble mountain bikes, with their fat knobby tires, suspension forks, and general aesthetic, the geometry and handling feel off. I am guessing the manufacturers alter traditional MTB designs to accomplish a more upright position and cruiser-like handling, in the process ending up with a bike that's really neither here nor there.

Despite the recent increase in dedicated transportation bicycles of all stripes, I think the mountain bike, with some modifications, remains a good off-the-shelf option, especially for those with hilly commutes and mixed terrain possibilities, who nonetheless want to dress in street clothes and sit upright. And why not? The more options the merrier.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cycling and Headaches

Being prone to migraines and tension headaches, I make sure to carry pain meds as part of the standard dayride kit in my cycling bag. But I've never actually had to use them to treat a headache. In fact, I cannot remember ever having a headache on the bike. This realisation came to me a couple of nights ago, when a quiet evening of movie-watching at a friend's house ended in a brain-piercing, want-to-bang-head-against-wall type of headache the likes of which I haven't experienced in some time. It felt mild enough to ignore at first, and after a trip to the kitchen for a glass of water I settled back on the sofa amidst the other lounging bodies in the darkened living room. But when the film was over and the lights came on, the real pain began. Behind the left eye. Throbbing. Spreading with a slow horrible pressure toward the back of my head. I was getting a lift home in a friend's car, a 25 minute drive. In the course of those minutes things went from bad to worse, and I'm pretty sure that my face came to resemble Munch's The Scream in its grotesque contortions. Even after I got home and took a hefty dose of headache medication, it took an hour of lying perfectly still in a dark room for the storm in my head to calm. But it was while writhing in the passenger's seat with the window rolled down that it hit me: I have countless memories of being stuck in a car with debilitating headaches - but none of having a headache on a bike.

Certainly all the ingredients have been there. Long, windblown hours under direct sun. Physical exhaustion and dehydration. Hasty departures without morning coffee. Tightly adjusted helmets. Tail lights of cyclists in front of me shining directly into my eye on group rides. And yet it has never happened. I've had headaches after bike rides and before bike rides, just never during. And I've had headaches during other forms of exercise - namely running (well, attempting to run). Could there be something special about cycling that prevents them?

According to a neurologist friend, that is not impossible. The research on headaches and exercise is mixed. In some instances exercise can actually induce headaches ("exertional headaches"), and there appears to be a higher risk of this with high-impact exercise and weight lifting. In other instances, exercise can be used therapeutically to treat headaches, including migraines. These would be exercises that are low impact and promote relaxation and tension-reducing posture alignment. Yoga is probably the most typical. But it is plausible that cycling could play that role as well - depending on how it makes us feel and how our body is positioned on the bike. And I suppose all that fresh air couldn't hurt either.

Whatever the reason for it, I am thankful to be headache-free when I pedal. I will continue to carry pain meds on rides, just in case. And I hope to continue not needing them.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Watching the Day Grow

Two minutes per day. That is how much daylight we gain once past the winter solstice. The change is so gradual, so subtle, that tracking it seems as futile as trying to watch our hair or nails grow. We do not notice the incremental changes, until one day, all at once, the lengthening becomes apparent and the change impresses us as if a monumental shift has taken place overnight. All the sudden it no longer gets dark at 4 in the afternoon, as it did during those shortest, most oppressive weeks. And that extra fraction of an hour we gain - or, perhaps it's an entire hour by the time we take notice - seem to come out of nowhere, like a bright, crisply packaged gift. 

That is how it has been for me, for as long as I can remember. Except this year - now, that is. This time around, it is the strangest thing, because I have seen the days grow. For a week straight in the middle of January, I rode my bike at the same time every day - setting off in the early afternoon and trying to make it back before dark. This self-imposed deadline was based not on the fact of the fading light it itself, but on the temperature drop and heightened risk of icy roads that come with it this time of year. On the first day it was already dark by the time I rolled down the lane that leads through the fields to my house. The street lights were on in the farm yard next door. I looked at the time and saw it was 4:40 in the afternoon. On the second day, I had aimed for the same time and noticed that the dusk - while still having arrived, was more transparent. On the third day, this transparency intensified and now the outside lights next door were not yet turned on. The days were growing in front of my very eyes.

The following day, I aimed to be back by 5pm. And as I pedaled home, racing against the setting sun, I noticed another thing. It weren't only the days getting longer, but the sunsets. The sun was not dropping like a stone once its descent began, as it had taken to doing since mid-November. On this afternoon it proceeded more hesitantly, making its way toward the horizon as if wandering down a not too steep hill absentmindedly.

The setting sun's glow was a warm one, bathing the roads, the fields and the mountains in a golden light reminiscent of a long summer's evening. This sunset was not anywhere close to a true summer sunset, with its hours of luxuriant lingering. But it showed hints of eventually becoming one. It was a categorical change from the curt winter sunset, with its stingy flash of white-blue light just before fading to black. At what point, I wondered, had the one switched to the other? Even as I managed to observe the minutes of daylight lengthening, I had still missed the delicate changes in the quality of sunsets that must have taken place just as incrementally. And while at first I lamented my oversight, as I got closer to home I was comforted by the thought that perhaps nature does not want to be thus monitored, enjoying the "hey, when did that happen?" reaction instead. And so it sneaks in these suddenly lingering sunsets and longer days, and we are blown away by them once we notice - appreciating them all the more when lucky enough to greet them on the bike. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cycling in Wellies

Cycling Wellies
Sure I harbored memories of their stiffness and lack of breathability from having donned them in the countryside years ago. But my resistance to Wellies went beyond that, most likely a result of their absurd, meteoritic rise to popularity in recent years. Step out into the urban streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts on a mildly drizzly day, and you'll encounter a rubber boot infestation out of all proportion to the amount of rain or the surface conditions at hand. Like flocks of exotically brightly-footed birds, crowds of young women in colourful Hunters and copies thereof stylishly stomp their way across shallow sidewalk puddles and the damp grasses of Harvard Yard. What's turned this awkward, uncomfortable form of footwear into a fashion accessory was beyond me. But for whatever reason Wellies seemed to have replaced UGGs and Crocks as the new Ugly It-Shoe, and I wasn't about to buy into the trend. Even when I found myself in circumstances where I actually needed the vile rubbery things for the original purpose they were designed for, I resisted - donning my normal, perfectly good waterproof boots instead.

Muddy Yard
But I did not resist for long. I live next to a farm now, and spend quite a bit of time there. The yard looks like this …on a dry-ish day.

Then there are the vast fields I cross to take photos along the water's edge. And while that green stuff may look like grass, the soil it grows on is soft and soggy. Seeing farm animals grazing with the fur on their legs wet and matted from sinking into the grass, it was clear that my normal, perfectly good waterproof boots would get destroyed after a couple of such forays. Not to speak of my interest in photographing abandoned peat bogs.

Anyway, Wellington boots. Nowadays you can buy all sorts of fancy versions, including those with a warm lining already built in. But considering the purposes I needed them for, I decided to go for the plain unlined type, meant to be worn with several pairs of socks. The rationale here is that should you step into deep water that goes over the edge of the boot, you just change your socks and can keep wearing the boots after wiping down the interior. With lined boots you would have to wait for the lining to dry if the interior gets wet.

Armed with the knowledge that I wanted plain rubber farmer's boots, I went to the local shops that sell such things. Sadly, it turned out my size 4UK feet are freakishly small by local farming standards. And so I walked out with a pair of teenage girls' boots in bright sky blue with green and lilac striped trim. So much for plain, but my other choices involved butterflies or pandas.

But of course looks aren't everything. So let's talk about what's important for us cyclists: power transfer. How are Wellies to cycle in? Well, kind of bad. The soles are quite flexible - somewhat more so than running shoes, but less so than foam flip-flops. Nothing about these boots said "I want to ride a bike in these!" the first time I wore them. But despite this, they are strangely addictive. The comfort of even the cheap ones I bought are a huge improvement upon the painfully uncomfortable, clammy Wellies I recall from childhood. The uppers are flexible and don't dig into my calves, the toes don't pinch even after an hour's hike through the peat bogs, and somehow my feet do not overheat despite their lack of breathability. In fact, worn over two or three pairs of wool socks, nothing keeps out the winter damp better. 

Little by little I started to wear the Wellies not just on the farm or when walking across soggy fields, but out and about - including around town and on the bike. The flexible soles felt strange when pedaling at first, but I got used to it and have cycled in them for up to 14 miles so far with no adverse effects. An additional advantage, is that the Wellies' wide adjustable uppers fit easily over even the baggiest of trousers, keeping them safely tucked away from the bicycle's drivetrain. Of course they can be easily worn with a skirt as well. And when I come home covered knee-deep in mud - which seems to be the norm these days - I simply rinse the boots off and in seconds they are ready to wear again - the ultimate in low maintenance. 

And so, my winter footwear wardrobe these days consists more or less of these. I've held myself back from going dancing in either of them so far, but I wouldn't rule it out. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Easing Into It or Full Speed Ahead?

There comes a stretch in the winter - usually lasting a couple of months - when I take a break from roadcycling. And while I still cycle almost every day for transportation, my milage becomes a fraction of what it is during the roadcycling-intensive months, and the amount of physical effort I put into riding an upright bike in my street clothes is not nearly the same. Not surprisingly, when I do get back in the saddle (the narrower road saddle, that is) I feel distinctly out of shape. Some work is required to get myself back to a fitness level where I feel like "myself" on the bike again.

Taking a break in the colder months is fairly common among cyclists, and I have found it interesting to learn that different regions have different traditions of when this is done. In New England, cyclists tend to keep riding through most of December, then take a break in January and February before re-emerging in March. Here in Northern Ireland, cyclists tend to take November and December off instead, then get back on the bike in January for "winter training" (base miles) before switching to a more intense and focused cycling regimen when spring arrives.

Purely by chance, it so happened that I followed the local schedule this year. November and December were hectic for me, and thanks to that in combination with the weather taking some getting used to, I more or less wrote them off. Then January arrived and somehow everything fell into place enabling me to ride nearly every day since the start of the year.

When it comes to getting back on the bike, what I tend to do is start easy and frequent. Short, flat rides, with effortless spinning through pleasant scenery, just to get accustomed to being on the bike again and to get back into the habit of doing it regularly. I know that I have to be careful not to overdo it with a ride that is too long, too hilly or too fast - as that can result in several days off the bike in the aftermath, which - when the weather is crappy and my pride is hurt from being out of shape - has a way of leading to more days off the bike. In this early, delicate stage, frequency and enjoyment are more important than hills and miles. It's about feeling comfortable, getting back into the habit of it, settling in. Once I feel like that is done and begin to crave more, I start riding with other, stronger cyclists again. And then out come the miles, the hills, the speed, the exhaustion - and the rapid growth in strength. It is only then that I truly feel "back." But I couldn't do that cold; I have to work up to it.

By contrast, a local cycling friend was telling me the other day that he needs a hard push - a jolt even - to get going after significant time off the bike. He needs those hard, painful rides straight away in order for the winter lethargy to loosen its grip. He needs competition with riding buddies. And he needs to feel just how out of shape he is in order to motivate himself to get back to his previous level of fitness. And though I can't relate, I understand this. We are attracted to cycling in different ways, and different aspects of it motivate us.

So, what is your approach when you try to get back into a regular roadcycling routine? Do you ease into it gradually, or jump in full speed ahead?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dead Road

When I first heard the phrase, I knew what they meant by it exactly. Still, it surprised me that this existed as a phenomenon acknowledged by other cyclists. I mean, it seemed like the sort of concept that would thrive within my own imagination, only to be met with skeptism by others. But now here they were, throwing the words around on a group ride.

A "dead road." What an evocative term. And while it never occurred to me to describe the sensation with those exact words, now that I heard them I recognised what they referred to instantly.

A dead road is not just a road that involves a long climb at a grade that never quite lets you get into a good rhythm. And it is not just a road where the surface resists the tire's progress with a dull tacky stubbornness. It is more than merely a road unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of the mountain, where the sun hardly shines and where there is always a mild, but annoying headwind in the direction of the ascent. While all of these factors may well be present, a dead road is more than the sum of its parts. It is like a twilight zone, upon entering which the cyclist grows aware of a disconcerting sensation where their bicycle - normally so fast and responsive - feels utterly lifeless. Where their tires feel as if they stick to the road and they just aren't getting out of the bike what they put in.

You might say that a dead road is the geographic equivalent of a bicycle that does not "plane." After all, if a bike can be responsive or non-responsive, why not a road?

Possibly the concept of a dead road is local to the UK and Ireland, as I've never heard cyclists use it in the US. But perhaps I just hadn't ridden with those over there who use it.

I was reminded of all this as I cycled along a dead road on this morning's ride, counting the minutes until it would be over. Turning the corner onto a road that was distinctly alive, I continued to climb yet felt distinctly untethered. It was a wonderful sensation. And it would have been impossible without the sensation that preceded it. So maybe the dead roads are nice after all, as they heighten our enjoyment of live ones.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Way We Do the Things We Do

A recent bout of flu has activated a marathon knitting session, with nearly everyone in my immediate radius now supplied with a hat or two as a result of my drowsy, sofa-ridden industriousness. I've also started a sweater, which, thankfully, is complicated enough to keep me occupied for days. When fellow knitters see the things I make, they usually ask about the pattern. And my reply is that I don't use a pattern. I know the basics of knitting and sort of improvise from there. I visualise designs in my head and implement them without even sketching anything out on paper. I gauge sizing by looking at a person and guesstimating. The whole process is so intuitive and unconscious for me, that it is almost automated: From conception to completion, I don't pay much attention to what my hands are doing, until - voila- the thing is magically finished, and with some luck, looks and fits as intended.

This approach to knitting has its benefits. However, it also means that I am terrible at explaining to another person how I made a particular garment. It seems so obvious to me, that I find myself saying things like, "well, just - you know - knit a beret shape!" (they: "but… ??!!")

In the midst of such conversations, I am fully aware how frustrating it must be - particularly for a novice knitter - to talk to someone like me. Because that's how I feel talking to anyone for whom cycling is so intuitive, such second nature, that any attempt to break down technique into a step-by-step process is beyond them. "What do you mean how do you climb standing?" such a person might say, "you stand up on the pedals and do it!" Right. Just like you'd pick up the needles and knit a beret.

It may seem that cycling and knitting have little in common. But in fact every productive and performative activity involves, on some level, mastering a sequence of distinct steps. The earlier in life we learn this activity, the more naturally we take to it, and the more frequently we practice it, the less aware we are of those steps - the more seamless and unconscious the sequence becomes. We go through it automatically, unthinkingly, and in so doing we might even genuinely believe that the act is, or "should be," that way for everyone. But the thing is, it might not be. It really might not.

If I consider the way I do the things I do, I realise that cycling is one of the very few activities I do on a regular basis and enjoy doing, where I give any explicit thought to process. Everything else - be it cooking, photography, painting, knitting or dancing - I do on a more unconscious, automated level. Technique is involved, but I've internalised it to the point where it has become invisible unless I really, really force myself to acknowledge it. Maybe over time, it will be the same with cycling. Or maybe it never will. In the meanwhile, I try to be more mindful of the way I explain my process to others, if they ask me questions about activities that to me seem self-evident.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

How Could They?

A little while ago I got the chance to ride a vintage roadster again. It's been a while, and let me tell you - that magical, floaty feeling was just as wonderful as I remembered.

The owner's great uncle rode the bike as a young man. After that, the machine languished in a shed for decades until the nephew discovered it and gave it a new life. "I gave it lower gears," he said, "to make it easier on the knees." And he pointed to his strong-looking, athletic 40-year-old knees. Having done the same to nearly every vintage bike I've owned, I nodded understandingly. Then I took him up on his offer to try the bike out on a longer loop.

About a mile down the flat main road, I turned, unthinkingly, left, onto a lane that winds around the side of the mountain at a steepening grade before coming back down. I've grown used to making this turn, as it's a loop I often do to get to several of my favourite photo locations. Despite the climbing involved, it is easy enough to manage on my own transportation bike with its low, low gears.

Now I'm riding the roadster up this lane. Almost immediately, I get into 1st gear. And almost immediately after that, the 1st gear is not nearly low enough. I pedal harder. I grind. Then I stand up on the pedals and push with all my might. After it feels as if I've been at this forever, I look back over my shoulder and see that I've made little progress. It is safe to say, the magical floaty feeling of the roadster is gone.

Miserable minutes, that feel like years, go by. I am in decent shape and not averse to hard work on the bike. In fact I've recently been introduced to the concept of "strength training," and will now often climb a hill in a harder gear than comfortable deliberately. But the difficulty of pushing this thing up the hill stuns me - in a way that is perversely motivating to keep pushing past the discomfort, to keep going just to confirm that it is humanly possibly to ride this bike up a hill without breaking my legs! After all, I say to myself… Back in the day people used to do this all the time. And they didn't even lower the gears! Imagining riding the bike up the same hill in its original gearing nearly makes me throw up, and as I finally arrive at the top of the slope, drenched in sweat and wild-eyed with effort, the question rings shrill and loud in my mind: How could they?!

Seriously. If we are to believe that ladies on loop frames carrying their shopping in front baskets, and men on roadsters going to and from work, were once a ubiquitous feature of the Irish rural landscape, then we must also believe they could tackle with ease the very hills that today make their grandchildren weep - or at least demand a 1:1 gear. Were the older generations inherently more fit than us? More stubborn? More willing to put up with physical difficulties?

In Boston, I remember trying one loop frame roadster where the 1st gear was so high I had trouble starting the bike on flat ground. I asked the owner, who happened to be a vintage bike collector, how ordinary women could ride these things 40 years ago. And his reply was, that in fact these bikes were not ridden much, and the high gearing must have been one of the reasons for that. And it's true that most of the vintage 3-speeds found in New England are in remarkably good condition, many of them blatantly unridden and suffering only from damage due to age and neglect.

By contrast, vintage roadsters found in Ireland and the UK tend to show signs of heavy use. In fact my theory as to why it is comparatively difficult to find vintage 3-speeds here is that most of them have been ridden into the ground by the original owners. Considering that the terrain here is hiller than what the Boston area has to offer, the argument that the high gears made the bikes as difficult to ride then and they seem now does not fit.

When I returned the borrowed roadster to its owner, by the colour of my face he could tell I had tried to ride it up a mountain lane. "You know," he said, "my great uncle used to live up a hill just like that and I've often wondered to myself how in the world he rode this bike every day!" He shook his head, and I did too, as if we both shuddered at the thought of it. Then he gave me a wave and pedaled the old roadster down the flat main road, as I got on my easy bike and rode in the opposite direction, feeling like an utter weakling with legs like boiled spaghetti.