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Essay: On Thought-Stopping

As a non-professional ice hockey goalie (I covered the ‘non’ part with my thumb and it gave me a sense of accomplishment for a moment), I feel my success was hindered by my own mind. For a brief moment I was able to overcome it, but I think I learned how to recognize it in others.

 

In anything I’ve ever done I try to take in as much information as possible. What was born from being a hockey goalie ultimately led to my downfall. Allow me to explain: I had to become extremely perceptive as to who was on the ice, when, and in what portion of the ice to actively predict what could happen next. Many times it was all about playing the percentages.

 

But with the skill of being perceptive came negative thoughts. What if this situation didn’t pan out the way I predicted? That was where I unraveled. I lacked the ability – or perhaps time – to learn how to shut those thoughts out, and my career advanced no further than a blistering one college hockey game. I had been filtered out of the ice hockey pool of players.

 

Trading a team sport for an individualistic team sport (and gaining a few years of learning) I managed to squash negative thoughts in crit races to win points sprints. I relished the opportunity to shut the voice up inside that screamed for me to stop henceforth. It was beautiful and fulfilling to finally reach a point where I could command my thoughts in sport.

 

As the years go on, I seem to struggle to enter into those dark places again. At times I can be observed freewheeling across the finish line of a race moments after the group passed through. I had already given in to “Why continue to agonize when the race is over?” The negative thoughts had returned to their stubborn ways.

 

So when people like Danny MacAskill put out videos, I can only sit back and watch with awe as they consider lines that do not allow for negative thoughts. Where he sees hundreds of tricks in this video, many of us see hundreds of ways to get injured. I don’t believe there’s even room for one negative thought. It could upset his balance.

Few times I’ve observed people in their element that have made my palms sweat. Alex Honnold of The North Face, a man who climbs without any form of rope or harness, is certainly one. Danny MacAskill is another. It’s watching videos of these two in their elements that make me wonder what I could be capable of if I managed to shut my negative thoughts out. I’m not saying I’ll pull a manual down the corner of a building and throw in a back flip over a housing gap for ‘just a little flare.’ But perhaps I could revisit those hard areas again next season.

Essay: On Staying Hungry

Here we are weeks away from the holiday season. It’s not exactly the righteous time to think about what sort of big races will grace the 2016 race calendar. But that’s where the issue arises.

 

Watching this BBC interview with Bradley Wiggins, I found myself questioning the hardest part about being a champion: Is it harder to become a champion? Or is it harder to repeat because of the motivation factor? How does one prepare himself for his whole life of competition, to win said competition, and then come back with the same flare or more? I thought Wiggins provided an insightful answer to a great question. Let’s face it, the man has stuck his name on numerous cycling disciplines over the past decade.

 

With the off-season, according to Wiggins, we should explore other avenues to better ourselves in preparation for a new season. Instead of road bike speed workouts, borrow a friend’s cyclocross bike and jump in the mess. Roll into the woods on a mountain bike without a computer. Purchase cross-country skis if it snows in your area and flatten the snow for the fat bikes to come through. Then pull the fat bike off the roof of the car and silently plow through your cross-country ski tracks. If there’s an indoor velodrome nearby, utilize it. Recreating summer’s intensity in the winter will lead to burnout at some point.

 

I know Christian Vande Velde was in a commercial stating next season starts in a barn in October. Well, I’m without Grand Tour aspirations. The closest I’ll get is the cookbook by Hannah Grant. Being an amateur is precisely why this part of the season is for kicking back and trying new things. Next season needs to feel fresh, new.

 

So I will take Sir Bradley Wiggins’ advice. Sure I’ll still sprint for the town signs. I’ll still erroneously find myself on the front of the Trexlertown Derby. But I may also find myself meandering through The Nox trails just to get away from the road bike and every other stress in the world. Perhaps then, next season will feel like that first year all over again.

Essay: On Getting Out There

Without a particular event on the horizon, without adequate daylight to do something randonnuer- related, and without a stable holiday schedule, getting any ride in can be difficult. Today was one of those days. Still having to report to the office I felt a ride would slip by frustratingly. It was unseasonably warm. It was also the day before Thanksgiving in America.

 

I must confess riding this time of year worries me. Its reason is something I experience on each drive home now that Daylight Saving Time has been implemented. I worry about the glare of a setting sun and its reflection off the road. I had gotten home with enough time to beat it around the old route, but would the glare be an issue?

 

I logged onto my creakybottombracket Instagram account and flicked my thumb upwardly at all the pages. Here and there were postings about how people walk out of work prior to a four-day weekend. Some other accounts post about how exciting Thanksgiving is (a holiday where you’re encouraged to eat). But the posts I liked were the ones involving the thankfulness of those who managed to get out and ride today. Well, except for me.

 

There had to be a wonderful excuse to prevent me from getting around the area. I hadn’t had coffee since this morning. The glare. This is a notorious time for people to booze up with old friends so who knows what condition the drivers would approach from all directions. But they were all beat back by pages excited to ride today.

 

So I did it. I got out there. It was glorious. It was liberating.

 

I had managed the workday. I had managed the shopping center crowds (two in fact). I had managed the home needs. And here I was pedaling with gusto down familiar roads. I had learned a couple weeks ago my rotation direction around the loop matters: I decided to ride into the sunset to get it out of the way. I would come back heading to the west without an extra worry of sun blindness from drivers behind me.

 

There are many things to be thankful for, big and small. This was a small one. With a four-day weekend commencing for us in America, I hope you get a chance to enjoy an unexpected ride. Knowing the cycling community, that would create an experience of thankfulness.

Essay: On What is American Cycling?

I think it’s safe to say that September’s Richmond World Championship was a success. It had the makings of gripping plotlines. It had a course that was agreeable to the Europeans. It had American flair to it. And the people saw a performance that only Peter Sagan could pull off after not having his name mentioned the entire day. But it got me thinking. What is American cycling?

I was reading the other day about Cross Vegas and its braggart fact of flying in Belgian sand for their sand pit. The World Championships were focusing on the ‘Euro’ cobbles on Libby Hill and 23rd Street. It seems regularly that American cycling is the kindergartner trying to impress the parents before sitting down to dinner. (“See? I drew something! Do you like it?”)

Belgium is hard to compete with. It has the bergs that carefully cradle the historic climbs of the Paterberg, the Oude Kwaremont, the Muur van Geraardsbergen, and the iconic church atop the Muur-Kapelmuur. I don’t think we need to dwell on the residents of Belgium such as Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen, Johan Museeuw, and Philippe Gilbert. The people of Belgium embrace the sport. It’s in their culture. They make a day of going to the bike races. Hell, they even make bike races weeklong affairs like the old Ghent Six-Day. And don’t forget those raucous parties of cyclocross.

The next-door neighbor has even more iconic names in the Paris-Roubaix, Tour de France, and Paris-Brest-Paris. Both the Paris-Roubaix and the Tour recently celebrated the centenary of their events. Paris-Brest-Paris had to offset its race to every four years due to high demand. These events have been around a long time, something American events have not. The people of France use their cycling events as motion picture travel brochures. Cycling is their revenue. They have the Trench of Arenberg, Alpe d’Huez, and the Col du Tourmalet. They also cheer on Michael Bourgain in the velodrome against the likes of Max Levy and Kazunari Watanabi of Japan. These names are etched into each rider’s mind be they a professional or club cyclist.

In the same area is the Netherlands, which isn’t a very large country, but per capita has a remarkable cycling culture. The Eneco Tour attracts a large amount of professional names. Theo Bos was a Chris Hoy thorn-in-the-side. Crowds line the Superprestige Zonhoven’s famously steep sand ascents and descents. Their residents are famous for biking in all kinds of weather for work or errands. The Netherlands has a pretty remarkable line-up of pro cyclists every year in the pro peloton. They can boast about their beautifully-run 2015 Tour de France prologue and first stage.

Spain and Italy have their iconic races with the Vuelta and the Giro, respectively. The Vuelta is the younger of the two yet still referred mentioned in the same breath as the Giro and the Tour. Throw in the Tour of the Basque Country and the Giro di Lombardia and the aggregate years among the four are astounding. Even young races such as Strade Bianche, started in 2007, feels as if it has been around for decades.

England, a country not typically known for its heavy cycling presence until recently can even claim remarkable status with their velodrome racing. Chris Hoy dominated the Keirin (and several track disciplines) for several years before Hoy retired. Tom Simpson won the world championship in 1965 with a drag race in San Sebastian, Spain. Let’s not forget Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins, the current time trial world champion, is also the current owner of the Hour Record, stolen from another Brit, Alex Dowsett. And like Richmond, England is coming off a successful road display at the Olympics as well as a Tour prologue stage.

After mentioning a quick six European countries, we return to the United States. It is certainly a great time for United States cycling to develop its own identity. Perhaps the US can pull back on the odes to European racing. Perhaps an American institution of brewing can replace the flowing Belgian beer at American events. Instead of recreating French cobbles, Americans can push quintessential parcours that is unique to the States. While many races in Europe are century-old in their existence, America can take note that the Strade Bianche, a race now part of the Spring Classic season, is only celebrating its eighth year. It’s time to develop the American character of pro cycling and slake the new generation of the pro peloton.

Essay: On Curtains for 2015

When I was much younger, fall was a heavily anticipated season in intramural soccer. The sole reason was preposterous, but then again it was through the eyes of a child. Compared to the spring season when one was basically given a colored t-shirt with a number on the back, fall was the season players got two heavy jersies, one pair of shorts (particularly cool if it had the number on one leg, extra cool if it were sewn on), and two pairs of matching socks. One could feel right professional with this kind of kit. Quietly though, fall also meant one other thing: after playing spring soccer, after sweating through summer soccer camps, and after playing on frozen mud late in the fall season, soccer would soon take a break.

This idea would develop itself further during my tenure as a hockey player. At the highest level we were on the ice daily from Thanksgiving to February. It felt incredibly relaxing to end classes in March and remind myself that I did not have hockey practice that day. The end of seasons is just as enjoyable as a season in full swing.

Now many sports stress year-round participation. Kids who play soccer bounce from spring to summer to fall to winter indoor and repeat. There’s some belief if a kid is not in sport, the competition is getting that much better. If a kid is not in sport, he is becoming that much worse.

Cycling is creeping into the year-round pool as the Tour Down Under becomes a bigger each year. With the meteoric rise in cyclocross popularity, a cyclist could bounce from season to season, too. It’s probably based on the old adage, “The best way to get in shape is to never get out of shape.”

For me I require a season off. In seasons past I’ve ridden such a rigid schedule that it felt forced to throw a leg over the bike. I can recall immense enjoyment on the first unstructured rides of the off-season. There are no intervals to think about, there are no hill repeats to scout, and there are no motor-pacers to track down for lead-outs. Off-season rides are a go-wherever-come-back-whenever approach. It’s the season of looking around instead of staring at the front wheel.

October is routinely the month when the damper doors get closed on the furnace. It’s the season of dodging fallen walnuts in the road. It’s the time of stopping at farm markets for whatever they offer regardless of its agreement to the stomach. It’s the time of stopping for photographs for ridiculous reasons. It’s even the time to put on a little weight, to have a second scoop of pureed celeriac, and to have one more beer.

As two rides approach – one of which I am able to attend – there are multiple reasons to roll the bike out of the garage, gauge the appropriateness of attire, and point the bike in whichever direction feels right. There could be moments of sprinting, but they won’t be planned well in advanced and sustained for a planned amount of time. And with that in mind, the coffee stops will follow the same approach, too.

Essay: On River Road

According to psychologytoday.com, Multiple Personality Disorder can be defined as one who has two (or more) distinct identities present in an individual. Even so, it’s a negative connotation that insinuates an entity’s ability to shift amongst multiple modalities. It mostly means that one can switch amongst multiple styles of personality. If one had a multiple personality in road sense, River Road in Pennsylvania would exemplify that definition. Paralleling the Delaware River, River Road takes on many different personalities much like the riders who ply their trade down western portion of the River.

My nine-to-five sees me driving down River Road south of New Hope. What’s interesting about the Pennsylvania side of mirroring ribbon of asphalt is that it’s without a shoulder. While New Jersey acknowledges riders in some of its miles, Pennsylvania does not care about the two-wheeled crowd. This creates two interesting groups of commuters on River Road in the morning and afternoon commutes. Maybe it’s a little bit of envy and wonderment that leads me to contemplating those who brave the shoulder-less pathway of River Road.

I’ve explored much of River Road’s vast personalities: in the northeast portion of Pennsylvania, by the Delaware Water Gap, it’s a peaceful openness of road that allows a rider to soak in the surroundings. The park proper’s speed limit relegates a motorist to 35 miles-per-hour at best (44 miles-per-hour to be honest) leaving the two-wheeled crowd to move along with minimal care.

Moving a bit south and one can find River Road taking on a rolling personality. It’s so rolling that a sign warns about the road’s availability: it’s only open three seasons out of the year. Between the road and the river is acreage that possesses path and planter. Farm fields and hiking trails abound amongst the campsites and cabins. It is beautifully unpredictable.

Farther south finds one on the combination River Road/ State Route 611, which originates in Philadelphia. It’s the old coach road that connects Philly to Easton. It is also a rolling road that offers non-Pennsylvania views including a nuclear power plant and numerous farmhouses. It feels like another country when considering the populated southern portion of the road.

Continuing south of Easton one finds a claustrophobic road with no shoulder, masonic walls, and motorists without patience. Cyclists must wake up quite early to ply these miles to improve the possibility of safe passage. For many days of the year this portion of the road is in the shade of the palisades: rock formations that cut the direct sunlight off at midday in the most beneficial scenarios.

And even more southern is a road that is pockmarked and hazardous. Despite the right side of the road being recently repaved River Road is still a navigational nightmare. Throw in following motorists and one-lane bridges, and one can risk overstimulation. South still, and the population increase is felt. Anxiety sets in as the cyclist pushes the pedals to clear off the road as quickly as possible.

Which brings me to the population I witness on a regular basis. There, south of New Hope, is a breed of River Road cyclists whom I admire. These are the brigades of riders that shirk at school buses, trash trucks, landscaping truck with their trailers, impatient motorists, and New Jersey drivers in general. Yet each day they can be observed coming back for another serving to commute to work. I am envious of their stubbornness.

There’s the male rider who every morning I see riding northbound with dayglo orange laces in his Giro shoes. The past few days have been below fifty degrees, but he has gone without knee warmers still. There’s the southbound rider with her flashing rear light. She can be witnessed charging toward Yardley in the morning with a fearlessness and conviction to own a small portion of the road.

During the commute home, I’ve seen multiple southbound riders, sometimes more than three soloists, hammering down River Road in an effort, not to beat the rush hour, but to be a part of it. These are the rush hour heroes.

Since River Road possesses multiple personalities, the riders themselves adapt to their surroundings. While many riders have cautioned riding in what has been deemed stressful scenarios, they pale in comparison to those who reside within a meter of the white line whilst riding Pennsylvania’s River Road.

Which leads me to the second person that commutes on River Road. Yes I’ve seen a few close calls with riders, but for the most part, Pennsylvanians give these cyclists fair passage. They may display frustration by heavy acceleration, but they do so with respectable space for comfort. These commuters have been at it so long, that many of the motorists recognize their presence.

While the length of Pennsylvania’s River Road changes from one mile to the next, giving it too many personalities to recognize, the riders between New Hope and Yardley should be recognized for their stubborn ways. They aren’t intimidated in the slightest by heavy traffic or approximation of motorists. They aren’t hesitant about considering River Road as a cycling artery. Where many riders may shirk at the risk, these few riders attack the miles with respectable effort to substitute motorcars for pedal power.

This is why River Road has many personalities. There are many different acceptances on this stretch of road, but the riders themselves on this stretch dictate the space for those brave enough to merge into the traffic. For those who ride between New Hope and Yardley, they win the bravery award for hammering through the car crowd.

Essay: On Flahute!

The arid countryside of Bucks County has been recently flipped into a lush fall wonderland. Tropical Storm Joaquin has rescued this area from a dull fall. One week ago Bucks dwellers were walking around commenting on the sticky humidity and wondering if fall would arrive. Today the same population is wondering how fall could arrive so hastily.

In one week, this area received two-and-a-half inches of much-needed rain and an arrival of a new season. This is cause for celebration because nothing is more beautiful than hardwood trees firing their last cannon shot of beauty before residing in dormancy. Which provides one with a conundrum: Wait for a sunny day, or ride through the rain.

Becoming a bit stir crazy, I managed to hammer through a couple miles in what is some of the most enjoyable weather: cloudy, cold, misting, and fall. So fall isn’t weather, but it’s a time to rejoice before packing indoors to await the return of daylight. With a mish-mash of gear, I threw together what I would deem comfortable in these conditions. In all honesty I would enjoy the ride even amongst a deluge.

On a belly of Homestead’s Dead Man’s dark roast I hammered with a tail wind. How enjoyable life is with a tail wind. Flags pointed the direction I should follow. Trees leaned toward my path. It was all so beautiful. My Oakley Radar glasses fought off precipitation wonderfully. With the yellow lenses in, I was convinced the ride could go a few minutes longer.

The turn into a crosswind made me wonder if Belgium would find this desirable. It was cold, windy, and raining. All it needed was a path of cobbles, some puddles, and Tom Boonen looking sly and ready to pounce. I felt at peace with the stirrings of the world.

Despite hammering with a tailwind, I decided to enjoy my ride by pushing the pedals into the headwind. I didn’t push the pace. There was no traffic to create anxiety. It was a rider, a bike, and farmland to admire. At moments like this there is no need to rush. With a wildly spinning windmill on the route, along with the snapping flags trying to slap my face, I made the best of the wet headwind and tried to come up with a worse way to spend an hour. There was none.

It was nearly dark when I rolled into the driveway. The bike has a funny way of righting wrongs. Perhaps its gyroscopic therapy provides a centralization of thought. The world pauses around the rider. I’ve wondered if this is why motorists direct anger onto cyclists: it is the epitome of self-discovery or their transference of frustration. Everything had fallen into place despite the belief that a ride in cold rain wouldn’t lead to greatness.

I am convinced each person is assigned a certain number of miles in life; they may go unused but can never be made up. Starting my ride in the rain was of my choosing. I never intended to roll out seeking Flahute status; the possibility fell into my lap while pushing the pedals through suddenly green Bucks farms. Even if the cycling world didn’t give me a hardman medal, I decided that, for just a few moments, I had earned that status. And everything else would right itself accordingly.

Essay: On the Unofficial Notification of Fall

My expectation that fall begins on the first day of September started when I was in grade school. Perhaps waking up at a set time for the first day of school meant that I felt the chilly morning air, thinking the season was turning. It’s still a shock to me today when – as it was the past few days – the high temperature is in the nineties. I thought fall started unofficially on the first of right before Labor Day.

Each year, September is supposed to bring the good parts of the season. School buses mean class is back in session. If it’s fall, doesn’t that mean apples are throwing themselves at us, eager to be picked? Aren’t pumpkin-carving sets ready for use? Pumpkin beers seem to never leave the shelves these days so, moving on. I certainly cannot forget to mention flannel shirts.

There is an unforeseen ritual that happens at the beginning of September in the northeast. Just tonight, two cyclists were waved to multiple times on my regular jaunt. I’m sure they’re doing the same thing I am which is forgetting miles. September is about taking advantage of the waning sunlight after work. Pick a route and hammer it for its duration. While some riders begin to don headlights, those who choose to ride without them are on a schedule to keep- no time for chitchat.

According to the almanac this area is losing two minutes of sunlight per day. That’s astounding. One week could mean the difference in five miles or fifteen minutes. Then the routes get closer to home before ultimately ceasing to exist out-of-doors for the remainder of the year. Soon riders will root around the closet for the old arm and knee warmers to help with the lowering temperatures to help with planning the long weekend rides. Maybe even a new jar of embrocation will be cracked open for the season.

While it’s tough to see the mid-week ride threatened at fall’s arrival, it means the road season is coming to an end. Weekend touring rides begin to take center stage. Riders turn to socializing instead of hammer-fests. It becomes a sightseeing experience to watch fall come in properly with cloudy days and visible breath. Until I come back in the dark I’ll hasten my same old shorter route. Eventually the distance will be too far to hammer for all fourteen miles. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see the same riders just like tonight.

Essay: On the Worst Position in Sport

I’ve told people the worst position in sport is the leader of the Tour de France. No sooner does a rider ascend the podium than the suspicious glares are flung. Perhaps the suspicion has already been in full swing for a portion of that day’s stage. And if the rider is like Chris Froome, who spent fourteen of the twenty-one days in the 2015 edition of the Tour de France in the yellow jersey, it’s an even worse position with even more momentous anger from every angle and every country.

One of the most attractive aspects regarding sport is the fact that friendship between competitors occurs before and after the event. During the event, the friendship is paused and can become the nastiest of enemies. No playing field exemplifies the separation of sport and friendship more than ice hockey. Two grown men can be great friends until they lace up the skates in opposite locker rooms. What ensues can be occasionally a fight or a straight search-and-destroy. Friendships stop when the ring has been entered, the warm-up has concluded, or the green flag has been dropped. But as if in a business-like approach, the friendship is restarted once the match has concluded.

I would be lying if I said I was pulling for Chris Froome through this year’s Tour. I found myself leaning toward the television hoping to see some sort of crack in the French Alps when he chased after Nairo Quintana. I wanted to see a human response from him. He gave none. I wanted something I could identify with about him. He’s a skinny climber on the front of the Tour standings. These are all things I will never be. Climbing well but suddenly lose power? I’ve done that. I could relate to that.

Froome isn’t relatable with his ability to fly up the hardest climbs, chase down sprints, and even time trial well. Actually few stage-race professional cyclists are relatable to the common person. People say it’s not possible to ride like a Grand Tour cyclist. Be sure not to overlook one basic thought: The Tour de France is 198 of the best riders in the world. That 198 men can ride a bike such as they do out of six billion people on Earth need to be taken into serious consideration. That’s one per 30,000,000 people. If a line were drawn over 30,000,000 houses, one remarkable rider could be easily located. Stage racers are freaks of nature; that’s how it’s possible.

Yet after he rode across the line of the 21st stage of the Tour, it had to change. The race was over. He should be congratulated by everyone. He returned to his human status. Yet there will be people who cannot let this go and will make it an effort to link cycling’s past with the current group of riders. Those who hound pros after the finish line has been rolled up or after the lights have been turned out give sport a bad name, too.

Those who spat on Froome as he rode by, those who threw piss in his face, those who hit him as he rode by, take advantage of the unique aspect about pro cycling: accessibility to the professionals. At the end of the day, Chris Froome is a human being. He wasn’t one of the riders I hoped to see in the Yellow Jersey for this year’s Tour, but he earned it certainly. Perhaps being the winner of the Tour de France isn’t the worst position in sport. Perhaps the worst position is sport is the fan that can’t seem to let it go that it was obvious early on he would probably win the Tour. The fan that tries to become one of the competitors by being involved in the race takes the top spot on the podium of worst position in sport.