Friday, May 13, 2016

Staying Upright


We are having a hot spell here. A peculiar hot spell that's accompanied by 15-18mph winds, but a hot spell nonetheless. The sun is blazing tirelessly and the 20C temperature feels more like 40. The wind does not mitigate the heat. It's a hot wind. Hot and dry, like a blast from a hairdryer. I am running about with bare legs, bare arms, bare feet, slathering sun screen, drinking pints of water.

Outside the freshly plowed fields turn dusty. The sea grass begins to look bleached. The whin and apple blossoms release their scents in frantic bursts. It is March and April and May all at once, in the course of a week.

In the slanting afternoon light, the farm yard is littered with snoozing barn cats, their furry bodies slack and trembling with pleasure on the hot concrete. I understand them completely. The sun makes me overly relaxed, sleepy. And the countryside scents are mind-altering. It is difficult to work. The cats have the right idea.

On my own this early evening, I had meant to join the local cycling club for a fast and grueling road ride. I intend to go. I am fit for it. But as I start to gather the things I need - the lycra shorts, the water bottles, the shoes, the socks, the helmet, the glasses - I suddenly have a flash of sensation of what it will be like to be encased in that, in the heat, in a group of other riders, and feel terribly claustrophobic, stifled. Before I even have a chance to think things through, I throw on a linen dress instead, sandals. Then I hop on my upright bike and pedal away.

Along the undulating road, the breeze pushes at me from new and surprising directions after every bend. My dress flutters wildly and the sun scorches my skin. I brace against the push of the wind, tensing this muscle and that, to keep my line of travel. But I do this without noticing, distracted by the views in from of me. When did the fields grow so lush? The forests so thick? The blossoms so pink and yellow? The baby lambs so varied in their colourings and so expressive in facial features?

It has been months, I realise now, since I have ridden an upright bicycle for anything close to this distance. This winter had been plagued by winds so strong and so regular, that I had set up one of my roadbikes as a commuter to help me cope, its drop bars and forward lean making it possible at least,  if still not exactly pleasant, to ride for transportation in 20mph+ headwinds. And I am grateful for this bike, for the benefits of the aerodynamic position it offered. And yet, it is only now I realise how much I miss each time I ride with my back curled over the bike and my head bent low. The vantage point really is so very, radically different.

After 6 or so miles the road straightens and I enjoy a tailwind. It is almost too easy now, and I fly in my top - third - gear, up a hill, effortless, inhaling wild garlic and something else - an unknown plant that is almost shockingly minty - taking in mountain views, eyes widened. All this makes me so high, I have an inkling it should be illegal.

Having cycled this far, I pedal a tad further and visit a friend, who is home and gives me tea in her garden. Then I stop by the river, take photos. Then I stop at the supermarket and buy too much stuff, forgetting I only have the one pannier today.

The bicycle overloaded, I finally cycle the 10 miles back - much of it in a headwind that is now so brutal I manage to hurt my lower back pushing against it. Thankfully, I only notice the pain once I am home, collapsed on the grass with my laptop, shooing away the farm dog (who is attracted like a magnet to any kind of equipment or gadgetry), too lazy to rise and go back inside for some Ibuprofen.

Ironically, I would not, even today, had been able to ride my upright bike in this crazy wind along these exposed roads, had the roadcycling not whipped me into a shape that's made this possible to accomplish without suffering. So I try to be grateful rather than resentful.

Still I laugh at the sense of betrayal I now feel at having missed so much. What did I miss exactly? It is hard to put into words. Certainly there's the openness of vantage point you get when cycling in an upright position. But it's also that casual, easy feeling, that is there even when it's not in fact easy.

There is something about roadcycling that makes it feel, to me, like a trip from which I inevitably return, an activity with a finite beginning and end. Whereas hopping on an upright bike is seamless, integrated. It is not so much cycling as living. On a bike.

Oh I don't know. Or rather, who cares? My head must be baked to be even thinking this.

I had been out for hours. I reek of maritime pines and rape fields and salty-wet linen, out of which I have no intention of changing. It is this sort of thing, these sorts of sensations and memories, that I'm talking about really. It is this sort of thing that keeps me upright.



43 comments:

  1. A great read on everyday cycling & everyday life. Thank you for time & effort you put into your blog so regularly.

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  2. Beautiful writing. Well done.

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  3. Five years ago I switched my Surly commuter to North Roads and have not looked back. Your post explains why very well.

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  4. A few years ago I switched from drop bars to upright bars on all my bikes. I no longer care about wind drag or an aerodynamic position. I was never fast to begin with. And now, I've even taken the plunge and ordered a step-through bike that I plan to use for touring. I just want to smell the flowers...and keep cycling forever.

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    1. Sometimes it's not a matter of speed, but of being able to move at all. In a 27-30mph headwind, I found myself physically unable to propel a bike in an upright position, no matter how much I would have liked to. In a "milder" 15-20mph headwind, it was possible - but pedaling at barely above walking speed while having to put in grueling effort made commuting this way for long distances highly impractical. My first two winters here, such wind conditions happened for only occasional stretches, but this past winter they became the daily norm. Setting up a commuter with drop bars kept me cycling when otherwise I would have been walking or taking motorised transport.

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    2. That's what I love about cycling. There are bike setups for all kinds of weather-related and physical conditions to suit everyone. :)

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    3. The problem with drop bars is not so much tje drop per se, but the roadie position they're put in, 6,7, sometimes 10 cm drop. Set up at a cyclotouring height, more or less level with the saddle or just below, they actually give great riding positions on the tops and in the drops. The best of both worlds.

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  5. I think road cycling of the type you describe – out with a club, a chain gang maybe, fast and hard – is an activity with a start and finish. But it's the activity that makes it like that not the type of bike IMO. You can jump on a road bike and ride just for a ride, to get somewhere you have to go or just because you want. You can ride an upright bike hard, though it might not necessarily be fast. The type of bike inclines you one way or another but is not IMO the defining feature.

    But oh the smell of the fields...

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  6. A pretty mix of the sensations of spring/summer cycling with its stimulus and excitement overwhelming the senses and self until one dissolves into repose. And a sweet hymn to pull some of us roadies back into balance who may have forgotten the charms of just "living" on a bike. Thank you! (BTW, was going to toggle you to include a recent IG portrait of you as ideal for this post but then on second look saw that you were indeed dressed for an upright bike but riding your fast road:)!) How hot is it there in U.S. terms? Jim Duncan

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    1. Let's see, 20 degrees Celsius converts to a brutal, "Africa Hot" 68 degrees Amurican.


      Hmmm...

      Though after a forever of damp gray days and wet socks, 68 really can feel dog-breath hot so I'm not calling you out.

      Nice post.

      Spindizzy

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    2. 3 years in Ireland and I still do not understand why both the summer and winter temps feel more extreme here than they are "on paper." But they certainly do.

      Today my bicycle registered a high of 23C (73.4F), but in direct sun it felt equivalent to what 85-90F feels like in New England. The clothes I wear here in such temps, and how quickly I get sunburnt and dehydrated, corroborates that. My local friends' explanation is that the sun is "extra strong" here, making perceived temperature much higher than actual temperature on sunny days. I am sure there is a meteorologically scientific version of this explanation that is fascinating and makes sense of all this, but I do not know it.

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    3. You know, I wonder if it isn't(maybe)cultural as well.

      Not sure I've ever mentioned that I grew up in Texas(?)it seems like I might have... But there, where everyone is as acclimated to 100degrees(F) and 85% humidity as it's possible to be, we all whine and complain about the miserable climate amongst ourselves, but because we're TEXANS and tough as nails,close ranks and pretend to feel sorry for anyone who visits that doesn't appreciate the heat/hail/tornado's and the rest of all our awful weather . We get all misty-eyed and philosophical about the the comforting oven-like conditions when Foreigners are around but climb inside our air-conditioned boxes to escape the "Life Giving Sun" as soon as they wander off. One of the early Governors of Texas is famous for saying "If I owned Hell and Texas, I'd live in Hell and rent out Texas", but he'd have waved a pistol at anyone from Arkansas that said the same thing. We can be sort of A-holes that way.

      Anyway, from reading your blog, and like, you know, books,it seems the Irish are just more comfortable and honest about being a bit bewildered by the weather. It's refreshing...

      Spindizzy

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    4. Wait, you're from Texas?

      My impression is that the Irish (all of them! as a homogenous stereotyped group!) simply appreciate the drama of it. Don't forget that until the television and smartphone bans were lifted by the Church in 2011, weather was one of the few available forms of entertainment.

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  7. "I reek of maritime pines and rape fields and salty-wet linen, out of which I have no intention of changing."

    Just lovely.

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  8. I laughed out loud -- "20C": that's not even 70* American! And when it's 70* American indoors, I put on a wool vest (waistcoat).

    Here in ABQ, NM were are having wonderful spring weather: lows in the low 50s, highs starting in the upper 70s and working their way up to the first sorta, somewhat, warmish weather, with 89F/31.7C forecast for this afternoon. Winds are mild, not breaking 10 mph -- this after last week which saw gusts to 50; Feb through May is our windy season; the rest of the year, winds don't get much above 20 mph.

    Seriously, I sympathize with the heat and the wind: heat because I've lived where humidity is often well over 90% -- our heat is oven dry and humid is anything over about 15%). In full summer, we get literally sub-Saharan levels: I've seen 3 and 4%. And wind: riding fixed as I usually do, I long ago reconciled myself to a) a low bar position and b) going slowly when necessary. It's a mind adjustment as much as a physical effort.

    I discovered last summer that, as long as humidity levels are under 20%, light wool actually feels good on the bike up to about 95F/35C. Hotter, or more humid: synthetics (stink after 30 minutes) or rayon Hawaiian shirts (comfortable but flappy). Fortunately, over 95 here is rare.

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    1. Ah yes. I'd rather have anything but humidity. And I was actually surprised to feel how pleasant and refreshing a 95F morning felt in the desert outside Las Vegas, when a friend took me there during my last visit to Interbike.

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  9. Holy Moly! I'm thinking that your body must have undergone some sort of strange Irish transformation, because I can think of no circumstances under which 68 degrees F could be considered "hot" - no matter how warm and dry the wind. It's currently 74F here with a warm chinook wind gusting up to 30mph, and I'm trying to decide if I need extra layers for my ride or not! In my world, "hot" doesn't begin until you reach at least the mid 90s (34C or there abouts.) :-)

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    1. I know, it sounds bizarre. But see my explanation above.

      And in case you think I'm nuts...
      http://www.boards.ie/b/thread/2056736845

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  10. Just put some $10 steel retro upright bars on my road bike. Looks sorta funky but much more comfortable and takes me to a better mental place. LOL. Love your blog.

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    1. I have seen quite a few modified road bikes around here, I like how they look - I bought my road bike with an over-size flat bar and bar ends - looks good and feels great.

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    2. I am always interested in what those who convert their roadbikes to upright bikes think of the fit afterward. Because if a roadbike fits the rider well in a modern road-race position to start with, chances are it will feel uncomfortably cramped when fitted with swept-back bars - the top tube is too short.

      The roadbikes that tend to make for the happiest upright conversions seem to be ones that use the older fit philosophy (longer top tube, higher bars), or, in modern fit terms - are too big for the rider to start with. Not sure whether I'm making sense here, but perhaps a topic for a future post.

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    3. Yes - I don't know myself how conversion influences fit - though I assume if people change the handlebars it is with the aim of a more comfortable fit. The road bike I bought was created with a flat bar with integrated bar ends as I didn't want drop bars to begin with - beautiful little bike that fits like a glove.

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    4. I found the fit much better when removing my drop bars and installing a different stem and bars. Some might call it upright but actually it remains an aggressive riding position (upright bars don't have to be swept back) and much more comfortable than the same bike with drops. I must have a short torso so this was the solution. I've now got a nimble riding bike which fits like a glove and brings new enjoyment to riding.

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    5. Yes, I find my road bike with a flat bar provides a more 'aggressive' riding position than my mountain bike, yet not to the extent of drop bars of course. The more upright position achieved by using other bar styles transforms these road bikes into great commuters and adventure bikes - I wanted a road bike already equipped with a flat bar for this reason - I actually like to see my surroundings while I ride.

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  11. I've been to Ireland in July/August and it never got hot once. Here in Ontario we've been struggling every day in May to get above 15C. Clearly we've exchanged weathers.

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    1. It can get hot like this at random times from April through September. And it's usually short-lived (a week or 2 max at a time). The rest of the time it can be cool, even frigid, throughout the summer. I have certainly worn my winter cycling jacket in July-August here plenty of times!

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    2. That's very much like the weather we have in Montara, CA approx. 16 miles south of S.F. on the cost. I lived in New Orleans for 65 years and never got use to the months long heat and humidity. On the northern Calif. coast I wear a cycling jacket all year long. But getting back to the upright position, I have a six-speed Brompton that I seldom use due to the headwinds and those 16 inch wheels. I feel as though I'm peddling for nothing. . . wind to the back is great. I need an attitude correction.

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    3. I regret not having visited that part of the US when I had opportunities; sounds lovely (except for the not being able to ride the Brompton part!).

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  12. I must say I see your work, especially this piece, as Found Poetry. Delicious.

    Louis

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  13. Riding mountain bikes provides an upright position, which I love for the reasons you have described; quite apart from the fact that these bikes are just such fun and offer so much variety during a ride. For myself, riding should always be about the scenery - that's why I head out, to enjoy the great outdoors.
    As for the 'heat' you are experiencing - goodness me - at 20c I am wearing a hoodie and long pants - but of course you are right, the same temperature may be experienced differently. I have lived in a town in a dry, semi-desert area of Western Australia where the temperature hovered on 50C during the long, hot summer, but found this more bearable than the cloying humidity of far North Queensland at 30C.

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  14. This is a really good observation. My commute is in two halves (well, in thirds if you count the train journey in the middle). The first part is 6 miles on the road, head down-ish and going fairly fast. The last bit is 1.25 miles in town on the upright town mixte. The road miles, I am focused on the workings of my body, on muscle engagement, pedalling technique and cadence. The town bit, I am taking stock (morning and night) of my particular part of London, noticing things constantly, hardly aware of 'me'. It's a good mix, quite healthy I feel. Oh and of course road/traffic awareness at all times but the situations in the country and in the city are very different and so are the roadcraft skills required for each.

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  15. I would go along with the contrast-based explanation. That is, the air is cooler and so the sun feels hotter by comparison when it appears. Our skin doesn't sense temperature absolutely but only relatively so that fits too. And, by way of balance, I'd strongly argue that the 6pm sun shining directly on you in say, South of France, is way hotter than anything any time of year in Ireland. Lovely piece, by the way.

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    1. This makes sense but does not account for one other thing I forgot to mention: Things (as in objects) get sun-damaged here at a much quicker rate than I've seen elsewhere. Paint fades on houses and street signs rapidly. Flags and wind socks grow desaturated of colour and disintegrate with alarming regularity. Stuff like that. Using UV-resitatnt stuff makes not a dot of a difference. Everybody notices this, including construction companies from continental Europe. But no one seems to have an explanation.

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    2. That is really strange - surely there must be an explanation?

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    3. Hmmm. Don't forget your sunscreen.

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    4. If UV resistant materials don't work there, maybe sunscreen doesn't either.

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  16. Always the contrarian…Today was 65F and I found myself putting on the wool, including hat, because it was simply too chilly out with the wind blowing. I parked in my usual place to do some drawings and watch cyclists and notice two who were cycling against the wind. One with drop bars and the other with uprights. Funny thing is the one with uprights was in a more aerodynamic position. There are always variable at play which is the beauty of life and, I goes, bikes.

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  17. I suspect the answer to the sunburn and sun damage is the hole in the ozone layer.
    While the big one is in the southern hemisphere I think there is a smaller one in the north and they are at the poles not the equator.
    As an Australian I have also noticed that the sun in the mediterranean is much milder than here.

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  18. Thirty mph winds are near the limit for smaller riders. In city traffic it would be foolhardy to even try.

    The baggage shown in the top photo is pretty much a sail. Or an air brake. Carrying the load the old British way, behind the saddle, makes much more sense in heavy weather. Some opinion would say a saddlebag can even perform like the old Oscar Egg tail fairing.

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  19. Exactly. I could not have said it better myself. I recently moved to an area were anyone who is on a bike (there are many) is riding for the activity. As you said, there is a beginning and an end. As much as I enjoy this type of cycling, I far more enjoy the kind that is simply a part of life. Why ride for an activity when you can ride simply to be engulfed in the world around you? Thank you for this post. I am so glad that I am not the only one who feels this way.

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  20. What about recumbent bikes? They should be good in beating head winds. But I have never tried one. As I live in continental country (Slovakia) where wind is not such an issue.

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  21. Got it in one, it seems to me that Cats always have the right idea.

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  22. Lovely post. I love my upright bike and hte outdoors. The sights, sounds, and smells can be overwhelming. Thanks for sharing.

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