Monday, January 23, 2017

Frustrations, Transformations, and Biological Limitations: On Watching My Husband Become a Cyclist Again



I did know the entire time that it was only temporary. Like one of those stories, where a girl finds a weakened wolf cub, takes it in and nurses it to health as if it were a puppy, only to realise - once it gets better and starts doing scary wolf things - that it really is a wolf after all. I knew that it was only a matter of time until the tables would turn and I - with all my advice, encouragement, and energy - would be left in the dust, smarting with disappointment.

"But then so what?" I thought, and feigned a cool anticipation of this inevitable outcome.

Not long after I met Gary, I learned that he had been a cyclist some years earlier. He rode with a local club, whose members still remember him with uneasy admiration: quick, hard, relentless, in a rabid sort of way. I delighted in hearing the stories and seeing him through their eyes.

He did not experience cycling the way I did. He did not 'enjoy it' as such. He didn’t care for the views or the fresh air or the wind against his skin. He only felt compelled to pedal, and in so doing to push himself to the point of pain and beyond. Grace through suffering and all that. Did I understand?

I'd shrug, with a neutral expression. "You did it your way, I do it mine."

"But hey," he said. "That was then. I am older now. I look at things differently. I see you cycling with your camera and it makes me want to get on the bike again."

And eventually he did, for the first time in a decade. Predictably, it was a bit of a disaster. His idea of a casual friendly ride was, apparently, interval training. Too stunned to object, I went along with it... and after 10 miles nearly had to carry him home. We did not speak of this incident for months.

Other attempts to cycle together followed, with similar results, leaving him increasingly discouraged. Clearly, he’d expected to get on the bike and pick up roughly where he left off 10 years earlier. But at the age of 47 his body - despite being in otherwise good shape from running and weight training - was not cooperating. He couldn't do distances. He couldn’t do hills. He couldn’t do anywhere near the speeds he remembered doing. Oh, and everything about the bike felt uncomfortable; every body part hurt.

Finally I had the presence of mind to take control of the situation. Did he want to get back into cycling? I could help. But there would be an enforced speed limit. We would increase the distance gradually. And he'd listen to my advice on gearing, nutrition, and bike fit.

Somewhat to my surprise, he agreed readily, and put himself entirely in my hands. From then on, I was 'in charge' of cycling. I determined the routes, the distances. I suggested what to eat and when, how to dress for the weather. I advised on what adjustments to make to his bike setup based on the pains he was describing. I convinced him to try lower gearing and a different saddle.

After about a year of this, we were able to do 20-30 mile rides together at touring speed, without bonking or significant discomfort on his end. The progress was slow and frustrating. At times I could tell it was difficult for him to stick with it, such a blow it must have been to his image of himself as a cyclist. What kept him going was a difference in attitude: A new appreciation for the local landscape, as well as for the social aspects of cycling. We would pedal side by side and chat and enjoy the views of the beautiful countryside. It wasn't cycling as he remembered it. But it became a new pastime. There were highs and lows, and creative pain management, and a learning curve as far as food intake. But he stuck with it.

By the following year, it was clear that he had turned a corner. While still not back to his 'old self,' it was as if there was now a new solid base to his cycling. He continued to tweak his bicycle setup, no longer needing my advice at this point. With a tolerance for milage now built up, he also began to work on his speed ...and, in turn, on mine! Our relationship on the bike now became more reciprocal - with my helping him increase distances, and his helping me increase speed. By the end of our second full summer cycling together, we were able to cover 50 miles at a decent clip - both of us transformed with each other’s help. We went on lots of scenic and memorable rides that year and even successfully (well, sort of!) tried our first overnight mini-tour. It was the ideal balance, I thought at the time.

But of course, nothing stays the same. And this past summer was when things transformed dramatically. We had planned out a 5 day tour through County Kerry. It seems funny in retrospect, but at this stage Gary was still nervous about his ability to handle distances, especially on consecutive days. So we kept the daily distances at sub-50 miles, and designed the tour as a loop with several potential shortcuts back to the starting point, in case we had to cut it short. As the tour progressed, however, an interesting thing happened. With each day on the road, instead of growing tired Gary seemed to be gaining in strength, energy and confidence. By the final day of the tour I was, frankly, ready to wrap it up, while he could have easily kept going!

Upon our return home, he was a changed creature. He had no discomfort on the bike to speak of. No distance seemed too far. And his average speed, when he’d go out on his own, was back to what it was in 'the old days.' It had taken him 3 years to get back to his prior cycling shape. But get back to it he did, and then some.

It was actually quite amazing to fully grasp just how much stronger he now was on the bike than me. He could climb any incline in seemingly any gear combination. He could accelerate with such violently quick bursts, that just watching him gave me vertigo. Rides which I found so challenging as to leave me drained for days, were for him now effortless. Finally, our biology had caught up with us.

I was proud, to have helped him get there, in whatever small way. And I was also disappointed, for I fully expected at this point, for our cycling paths to diverge: For him to re-connect with the local fast crowd, and for me to do my own thing as I'd done before. I was sad about it. But I also encouraged it. I was no match for him. And I knew he liked fast, competitive roadcycling. I didn’t want to hold him back.

So he reconnected with the local men again and went out on a few rides. But it didn’t last: He no longer felt the competitive drive that had dominated his former cycling life. And he missed cycling with me.

So he stuck with me despite his transformation ...which, to be honest, is a circumstance I am not always sure I am happy about, since I now get the full 'benefit' of his energy and attention! There are times he tries to make me his project and pushes me beyond my comfort zone, and then beyond that still. It frustrates me - because it’s difficult. And even more so, because I know that no matter how hard I work I can never match his physiology; I will never become his equal on the bike.

But then there are times, when I climb a hill, almost effortlessly, or do a treacherous descent without fear, and I know that I would never have gotten to this point if left to my own devices. And this makes me happy, because it is not really about the hill, or the descent, or the speed, but about the freedom and independence that having this new strength grants me.

It's a reciprocal situation. And through it we've developed a way of cycling together that is like neither of our former styles, but a new one entirely. There are times we play games with speeds and distances and elevation gains and route shapes, and this is something that I genuinely have fun with even though I never would have liked it in the past. There are times we seek out mountain passes, explore new territories. And there are times we simply ride to the nearest cafe.

All in all, this is not an especially exciting story. But it's one I wanted to share, because I know that a good portion of my readers are older men - many of whom got back into cycling after a pretty long break. Some are now well into their 'comeback,' others are only now getting back on the bike. It can be difficult to readjust expectations, to readjust our image of ourselves. But the thing to remember is... whether we take breaks or not, we are anyhow always changing.

Whatever our former history, our memories of prowess or lack thereof, there is always room to experience cycling in a new way, to integrate it into relationships, and to find in it new aspects of ourselves.

And with that said, Happy Trails!




46 comments:

  1. Just a few year older then your Hubby and I can say that he timed his return perfectly, because it certainly seems to me that after 50 "coming back" is even slower! So nice that he can hit 50 in good shape and he only needs to "maintain"
    For myself, I never full left riding, but after having kids and carting them around my bike time was cut back to next to nothing and I started noticing when I did ride my strength and stamina were disappointing. I've been slowly ramping up my riding and occasionally I get those days when I feel really good on the bike and more like my old self. Still, a large percentage of the time my body reminds me that I am not as young as I used to be AND I am to the point where I have to accept that I will never again be as strong or as fast or as confident as I was, but it's OK! It's so nice to be back in the saddle again. - masmojo

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    1. He turned 50 last year (this story spans 3.5 years!), but yes I imagine age makes a difference. In my 30s I am stronger than I was in my 20s, but I know that will not continue being the pattern in future decades.

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    2. At 61, I believe I am a stronger rider than I was in my 20s. While I cannot get away with some of the dumb things I did when I was young, like riding 100 miles to see friends on a whim and then turning around and riding back the same day, I use preparation and experience to complete equally tough rides. Better gear allows me to ride in conditions far colder and nastier than I would have attempted when I was young.

      I suggest you give a tandem an honest try. You might even consider putting yourself in the captain position, as it sounds as if your husband is stronger, but you are more experienced. A tandem is a wonderful way to even out the strength of a team, and they can be very fast. You can also carry on a conversation under most conditions. There are 30 lb tandems, these days, and with only one pair of wheels, you can really fly.

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  2. At sixty five it seems I've lived a lot of lives on a bike and probably forgotten more than I can remember. It's always been a lifestyle choice for me ever since falling in love with them in my early twenties. Like many the demands of raising children made a big dent in consistency and lasted maybe a dozen years but I was never a racer so had no expectations about speed and it was quite easy to just get back to it. Riding position did change however, all thanks to a fitter getting me into an efficient and comfortable place on the bike, so now I can go further with more comfort than I did in my prime, which is sweet.

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  3. The phrase 'become a cyclist again' is an interesting way of putting it and makes me wonder just what is 'being a cyclist?'

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    1. I suppose everyone has their own definition. Mine is fairly broad and simple: one who rides a bicycle regularly.

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  4. The best way I know for two people of different speeds to ride together is on a tandem, but one of you does have to be happy to give up control and just pedal.

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    1. I recently found this blog, first reply. My wife has not really shared my interest in bikes, so my riding has lapsed in recent years. On her recommendation, though, we found a Craigslist tandem and are now riding together regularly. It's been a big surprise to me how well we can do this together, usually we are each trying to be in charge of any project but the teamwork on the tandem works! We are late 50s, both getting faster and riding farther. With some influence from Grant Peterson the bike is set up with upright bars and sneaker pedals, it still seems faster than a single. Not sure this is "lovely", but it is surely fun: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricks_boats/31180388653/in/dateposted-public/

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    2. My wife and I easily took to tandem riding also, in conversation with other tandem pairs we've learned this is not always the case. They ask how "we" do it and honestly I do not know, we just ride!

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    3. That's a nice looking tandem, Rick.

      I do enjoy cycling tandem (see my reply to a comment below, with links) and I'd love to try it with my husband if I get the opportunity. But, as a regular thing, I don't think it would work with our dynamic. We like being on separate bikes and design all sorts of games around it from chasing each other to mock races and challenges. That sort of makes it sound like we're 8 years old, and mentally maybe that is not so far from the truth! But I do enjoy this aspect of cycling together, and it wouldn't really work on a tandem.

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  5. At 55 I find that I'm faster than I was in my twenties. What changes is the ability to get up the next day and do it all again. Recovery ability wanes with age. It's sort of like the old codger summing up his romantic life by saying "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was".

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    1. Yup -- I'm 47 and stronger than ever but need more time to recover from long, hard rides, which is annoying. I'm also more conservative (i.e.; slower) on twisty descents but I think this happens to us all.

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  6. I remember your old post with you on a tandem, you looked like you really enjoyed riding one. Have the two of you considered trying one? A friend that I rode singles with (riding slowly for me) became my tandem partner and that worked well. We could both now work as hard as we wanted and be together and talk. On the other side, she is now married and rides singles with her husband. I offered her my tandem, but she did want her husband to be their tandem captain. You might borrow a tandem give it try.

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  7. Thanks for the story. Ride like Peter Pan my friend. Never grow old.

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  8. Not sure why but I got a sorta cringe reaction to that photo. He just looks so scrunched up and working so hard!

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    1. It's not a great position, but this was what felt comfortable at the time that picture was taken.

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    2. It's always about finding that sweet spot, right? Without it frustration surfaces but when found, oh the imagination soars when the body is functioning according to design.

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  9. Having nor ridden a bicycle since childhood, becoming a cyclist at fifty was interesting. Still becoming tougher year after year, on long distances will outlast young men. Day-to-day recovery is where age shows.

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  10. Great story. There's a bit of envy in having a cycling partner like that. One that motivates you out of your comfort zone. I feel I've been making my "comeback" for the last 10 years. lol that said, I do have some friends moving to the area that I used to ride more with, and having them come to the area is a big motivator for me. And this story.

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    1. I don't know why one needs outside motivation to get out of one's comfort zone, unless maybe they're competing and wanting to move up to different levels. Really it seems that if one isn't getting some internal joy or satisfaction from being on a bicycle they should just park it and find another thing to enjoy and challenge. A partner in crime certainly is a gift, though.

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    2. Sometimes it helps to have a bit of accountability. If I know I've agreed to meet up for a ride, i'll show up. Sometimes when left up to just me, I can find a million, often more lazily excuses, not to do it. Especially if the weather isn't "perfect". There is also the motivation to not get dropped by said friends, or feel like I'm holding them back if they have to stick to my pace. Some of us need the occasional nudge against the forces of entropy.

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  11. "Our Lady of Perpetual Suffering"...can be a Harsh Mistress.

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  12. Good on you re your marriage, quite apart from cycling. Not every couple can tell stories like this.

    Walter

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  13. If you can't match his physiology then you will just have to outsmart him.

    The both of you still have everything to learn. And possibly ideal circumstances in which to learn. The story is only beginning.

    But why would you even concede on physiology? Unless and until he loses masses of weight room bulk you have a big advantage up hills. You are no where near your limits. Just keep riding and watch things even up.

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    1. He is about 50% heavier than me (roughly 60 vs 90kg). But as far as I understand this stuff, it isn't just weight but the power to weight ratio - and the difference in power (in his favour) exceeds the difference in weight (in my favour). Or something!

      In any case, when I am in my best shape and he is a bit tired, and it's a long hill, it's true that I can climb faster. But if we've had an equal amount of rest/training, he still beats me.

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    2. Remedial Coaching 100 for Absolute Beginners

      Your husband is much bigger than you. He is a big windscreen for you. Take shelter from the wind behind him. When he tries to take shelter behind you he won't get much. Effectively he has to ride the front all the time. So you can rest and he can't. If you did this chronically in competition eventually someone would ride you into the ditch. Your husband will just be happy you are along. Start paying attention to wind direction and stay downwind. If you already know this I could exhaust bandwidth with more.

      Remedial Physiology 100

      Cycling is fundamentally an endurance sport. Small people have better endurance. Women arguably have better endurance. Large persons do not dissipate heat as well as small persons. In Ireland the heat dissipation factor will often be meaningless. Uphill it will matter a lot if the temp is even near 20. Many consequences of these simple facts.

      In recent years the strongest most physically gifted rider we have seen was Floyd Landis. He was also a sweet gentle modest man. You would enjoy riding with him. Sadly he was not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. Manipulated horribly by coaches who were no brighter than him. Left to his own devices he would have won a lot of races and made a lot of friends. The Cult of Horsepower coaches are still with us, they dominate the horizon. Power to weight ratio? That is not cycling, that is a belief system. The game is called chess on wheels for a reason. Yes you can outsmart bigger stronger riders and you can even do it while playing nice.

      Without thinking about it, without any ill intent, your riding partner is doing things just because he is big. He's intimidating you and you write as if you fell for that. Just stop, the intimidation ends the moment you quit believing in it. If he wants to do little 50 meter and 200 meter accelerations all day long let him. That is his nature, not yours. You can't match him at that. Encourage him to do it, it will make him tired. The best way to catch a jackrabbit is to do nothing at all. They come back to you. If you play the jackrabbit game when you are not, it will chew you to pieces.

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  14. Great read, thanks for sharing.

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  15. ". . .it is not really about the hill, or the descent, or the speed, but about the freedom and independence that having this new strength grants me."
    Thank you so much for answering an internal question I have had for years now. At 45yrs old I fit squarely in "the good portion of your readers" and I often wondered why I push myself so much, so often. I don't race and don't plan on it (not that I have anything against it). But I do greatly enjoy the exploration/ adventure aspect of cycling even if it is in my own backyard. The wonderful thing is, as I get fitter by backyard gets bigger and adventures grander. I really enjoy your writing and love your positiveness and inclusiveness. Thank you!

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  16. Regarding the limits of your 'comfort zone' and the cycling challenges that now seem beyond reach: I remember that riding 'clipped-in" was a huge barrier for you long and long ago…

    If you ignore worries about how things will develop in the future, and just work on riding in the present, you may find that the height of the barriers will continue to diminish without your management. And in the mean time you'll be enjoying today's ride.

    Cathryn and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with the acquisition of our first tandem bicycle — best addition to our partnership in years! But that's us, of course, and if your mileage varies ……… hurrah for variety!

    Blessings on both you youngsters.
    ~ Gramps (David Miller)

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    1. Congratulations on 40 years, and on the new tandem acquisition!

      Gary says that when he's 90 we can get a tandem, and I will captain.

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  17. Steve from WestchesterJanuary 24, 2017 at 3:52 PM

    Have you thought of a small handicap to even things out a bit? If you're on an extended ride, you need to pack a certain amount of gear; spare tube, tools, rain gear, lunch, plenty of water. Make your husband carry all of it.

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    1. Oh he offers. But problem is I like having all my own stuff, 'just in case.' In case of what, I am not sure, but I feel oddly distressed knowing that my pump is on somebody else's bike. What if we get separated for 5 minutes and the wolves eat me?!

      That said, on our tour last summer stuff did begin migrating from my bags to his increasingly as the days went on!

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  18. When someone returns to an activity they have enjoyed in the past, they possibly have a new appreciaton of it. Many of us will have taken breaks from cycling for a variety of reasons; it is great to know we can return and rebuild strength, regain confidence and have perhaps a greater enjoyment than previously. I hope you and your husband continue to enjoy cycling together, perhaps your different styles and attitudes actually makes for greater compatability aa well as a greater sense of fun.

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  19. Can you really become something again? I do like the idea of becoming something, that thought that I'm now something I was not before…It's growing….To become something I once was seems boring, frustrating, unnatural…Happy trails.

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    1. I think this all depends on how the person feels. Is 'cyclist' (or whatever else one might 'become') a description, an experience, a category, an identity, a political label, a metaphysical state of being? It could be any or all of these things.

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    2. I'll go with...

      (F.) metaphysical state of being

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  20. HA Ha ha ha!!!! You have changed sooooo much from you early blogs, Maybe you should go back and read some of the early ones! I remember when you said that you could never ride with drop bars! :-) Now you are much faster, much more of a long distance rider than ever you would have thought! How about the night ride to wherever and the A.M. train ride back to Boston. You'll still get faster, he'll slow down a little, just to be with you, Enjoy the ride! :-)

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    1. I think my favourite is when I first got the Rivendell Sam Hillborne and had to set it up with several yards of stem showing in order to start using the drop bars. It was fabulous!

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  21. Brilliant content here lately. As a 51 year old Comeback Kid myself, I enjoyed your take on this from the spouse's point of view. My wife thinks I am mad, I am just happy she tolerates it.

    If you do not mind sharing, what saddle did Gary have before and what did he switch to?

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    1. I do not remember the make and model of his original saddle, and his old bike has since been sold. But it was something very narrow and at the same time padded, and the whole thing was a bit warped and lumpy and weird anyway. He then switched to a much more upright position, and rode a Selle Anatomica saddle for a while. That worked pretty well until just about a year ago, when he went back to a lower and more aggressive position (at which point the SA became too wide). Since then he's been riding a Brooks C13 and is very happy with it. Hope that helps.

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  22. Older men ? Older men ? I'll have you know I'm only 47 (we'll almost 48) and I won't consider myself older until I'm 60 .. or maybe 65 .. and I fully intend that number to rise as I approach it 😉 . But anyway I love your blog and especially love that it's not all performance orientated as so much modern cycling is about . Have to keep pushing pushing, keep everything as light weight as you can afford, need serious gadgets to monitor performance, always trying to get faster but have no intention of ever racing etc etc . You bust yourself around loops without seeing a thing out there and won't know if you enjoyed it or not until you get home and check your computer. Your blog reminds me it's just good to be on your bike. Just ride and enjoy it your way. Thanks,
    Andy

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  23. Older men interested in slender chainstays of 80's Italian bikes. Where is the close-ups of your Italian bike

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  24. Who,s older !!, and what's wrong with being 63 and having returned to cycling after a 20 year absence, 10 or 12 mile rides a few times each week (when weather allows) aren't overly taxing but the occasional 50 mile rides are quite a different matter, specially after a couple of pints and a pie for my lunchtime stop. I,m now planning a longer trip over a long weekend and am wondering how to alleviate the cramps I get in my legs after the longer rides

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  25. How fortunate that you and your husband have cycling in common, and probably many other activities as well. My wife and I work in the same field, that's how we met. But we have so much more in common. We took ballroom dance lessons for many years, but abandoned that hobby after our wonderful teacher died. We like to paddle kayaks and canoes. I bought her first mountain bike before we were married, and in recent years she has gotten to be a downright salty road cycler as she has taken up triathlons. That's not in the cards for me, however. I'm a lousy swimmer, but I'm her No. cheerleader and pit crew chief.

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