Seasons

By: Nathaniel Ward May 25

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Life has its seasons.

I say that a lot; people who are close to me can attest to this. Usually it’s a reassurance, sometimes to myself, sometimes to someone else, like my wife—“hey, don’t worry, life has its seasons”; there will be more of/less of/enough of that, by and by. What can I say? My namesakes, Puritans and Calvinists all, true Americans, have invested me with an abiding belief in redemption. While I don’t commit (often) the sin of presumption, I do believe in grace, and I keep a weather eye out for it in life.


Yes, life has its seasons.

This is what some people think of as the “off” season, and cyclists with aspirations of racing well in the coming road season will think of it as the pre-season—big miles season. For me, this is the season of having a new young family, and a teenage daughter presently living far enough away that it hurts; it’s a season of discovering things, like how to preserve memories and milestones as screen captures on Skype, and the fact that riding with my son in the trailer behind me, apart from being a perfect metaphor for parenthood in so many ways, is actually a really good way to do a low-cadence, big gear power workout. Mind your knees, please.


During this season of life, an hour spent riding the trainer is an hour of peace, focus and meditation. This is my hour to sweat, to think, to avoid thinking; the only hour I might have (at least until everyone is asleep and the house is dark for the night) to watch something self-indulgent and/or inspirational on Netflix. I find a lot in these hours—in my heart, but in my legs, too. The notion of being motivated, as an athlete, looks different with one eye on the baby monitor, on 4 hours of sleep. Untouchables say things like, “every second counts”; the everyman knows that every pedal stroke counts, but it also hurts.

A buddy of mine who has won more races than I’ve entered (really) just got home from a short vacation with his family.

“Funny thing, the riding was exactly the same there as here”, he said.

“Oh yeah? Too much traffic and no shoulder on the road?” Says I.

“Nah,” he laughed.

“On the trainer. Just brought it with me.”

Made perfect sense.

In this season—the season of new fatherhood, boundless joy, a beautiful, walking baby boy, relentless fatigue, my wife’s tenure clock, and my daughter’s tenuous dance through adolescence—I need to remember where I put things. Keys, wallet, sunglasses. All that, yes. Anyone who has ever road-tripped with me, though, will attest to the fact that I am, when excited and about to race or train, notoriously scatterbrained. Gloves, shoe covers, helmet, bottles, spare tubes…self esteem, whatever. I might forget where I put any of these things and work myself into a bit of a state; so it’s good, these days, to develop a routine, an order of operations. That way I know where to look for stuff, and I’m rarely surprised: the keys will be on the desk in the hall; one bike pump lives in the garage and one lives in the trunk of my car; and my image of self as a competitive athlete? He lives on the trainer.

I like to write about spaces of possibility, and if you read my column regularly, this will be a familiar theme. Ballparks, concert halls, cyclocross courses—I absolutely love the potential energy pent up in these spaces. It’s life-giving.

I usually leave a bike set up on the trainer out in the garage, so ol’ Image-Of-Self-as-Athlete guy has somewhere to sit. Sometimes when I’m holding my son, rocking him to sleep, (which is often, by the way) I crack the garage door and peek out there. What I see, when I see the bike—headphones dangling from my all-the-way-slammed stem and the empty stool set up facing the handlebars, ready to serve as a table for a laptop, Gatorade bottle, and baby monitor—is one of those spaces of possibility. And damned if that spectral presence of an athlete dude doesn’t wink at me, 9 times out of 10.

It’s still winter, but it sure hasn’t felt that way. I saw some early buds on a tree in my front yard yesterday, and it occurred to me that I tend to appreciate seasons most when they’re nearly passed. November seems interminable, and Christmas is generally both harried and languorous; but come January 1st and there’s just enough sun back in the northern hemisphere to remind me to hurry up: spring is coming. Predictably, this is usually about the time I start feeling nostalgic for the holidays, ice skating, fireplaces; all things nearing their annual obsolescence by the time I notice them.

My son, at 13 months, suffers no such ennui.

Last week we went for a ride together on an improbably warm day, even for the southeast, him lounging happily in his chariot with a blanket and a stack of toys, and me riding in shorts, feeling like I’m getting away with murder. A workout in the middle of the day? In shorts? The baby’s happy? I won that day.

Anyway, somewhere along there I hit a long straightaway on the greenway, with no traffic to speak of, and I opened it up a little, picked up some speed. The reaction from behind me was immediate, and while I knew what it was, I had to turn around just to see it: hands clapping, dimples ready to pop off of his ecstatic rosy cheeks like tiddly-winks.

For my son, in that moment, there was no other season, no past, and no future; his whole world for just a minute was the sensation of speed, and wind in his little face, and this strange apparatus, and me.

This is the gift of cycling: not him, not me, not our moment together, but presence. Simple presence.



 

July's First Friday: Le Tour

By: Nathaniel Ward Jul 6

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The Tour De France makes me remember that I can change my life. In these nearly endless hours of daylight, at a time of year when things just seem more possible, the most heroic and unlikely of sporting events makes me giddy, year after year. And I’m not speculating either—the Tour actually did motivate a series of large scale life changes for me, the most significant of which involved losing ~70lbs over an 8 month period, once upon a time, and taking up riding and racing bicycles as an avocation; more than a hobby, less than a career; permanent like a bad tattoo (I have one of those, as well).


This time of year it’s hard to believe that there are other times of year when any bike ride begun after 4:45pm needs to happen indoors or involve lights. In June and July, the rides just happen; training plan or not, goals or not, life lives us for awhile, before August shows up to shake a little worry back into our bones. Recently I’ve been finding myself deep in the woods, swooping along singletrack on my ‘cross bike, sharing a laugh with the BMX kids taking a break from building up their jumps. On another evening, packing the blinky light I won’t need in my jersey pocket as some kind of talisman, I wind up doing a 4×3min workout and sussing the local omnium TT course, just because I landed there. I keep trying to get stuck out after dark, but I can’t manage to do it, no matter how lazily I plan my route, or how late I leave.


But back to The Tour: it’s more than the sum of its parts, really. I watch it every day, and I love it. Is there any other way to watch Le Tour these days than live, streaming on the Internet via UK Eurosport? Hey, I’m a stay-at-home dad, so sue me. What? Should I watch Soap Operas instead? VS. is for suckers. The British commentary, the European ads, the Brits taking the piss from the French, and the French letting their hair down; all of this on a backdrop of sunflowers, Frank Black’s Massif Central plays on an endless loop in my mind—it is July, I am in The Tour. This France is a country that believes in down time, reflection, and social movement, which leads to things like camping on mountains and in fields, forming living crop-circle bicycle sculptures involving humans and tractors, and smoking cigarettes like they’re good for you in roadside cafes with the studied indifference only the French can muster. The entire summer off—this is the coeur de Le Tour.


In an era when it has become not only fashionable, but almost an act of social necessity for amateur bike racers to hate on The Lance and The Spectacle—regardless of however little the amateurs in question may in fact understand about either big time bike racing, or the philosophy of Guy Debord —I have nothing but love. Cycling still represents, to me, a beacon in the wilderness of big money, world-class professional sport, and satisfies a very human need to connect with the blood sweat and tears of our fellow man through public contests. Roger Clemmons is scheduled to testify next week, and the anvil dangles menacingly over Lance, as ever; but we continue to believe in staged contests, and we should. They matter.


The arts remind us of our capacity to emote, to create, to imagine; this is where we learn to exceed ourselves in thought, metaphysically. Sport is where we discover the tangible, tactile means we have as humans of overcoming apparent physical impossibility; there are metaphysics at work here, too.

 

Reverse Futurity Part II

By: Nathaniel Ward Apr 30

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Cycling is a paradoxical beast of a sport. Lately it’s been tagged “the new golf”, and sure enough, in any well-to-do, SUV-dominated, gated-community-overrun suburb in the US-of-A, you are likely to see cyclists—mostly male, mostly past 40, mostly riding bikes that cost more than any 1st year professional bike rider’s car.

And yet professional cycling at the world class level is still, in many ways, a blue-collar trade, albeit a relatively glamorous one. Sean Kelly famously chose to be the hardest working rider of his era because, he said, it was preferable to working the family farm, digging potatoes. Many riders have avoided careers as coal miners, sign painters, and day-laborers for the romantic pursuit of sport.

In the present era, though, this everyman quality of cycling is easily eclipsed by the zillions of dollars spent on equipment, team buses, wind tunnel testing, doping, fighting doping, fighting about doping, etc. And to me, there is something a little obscene about seeing top professionals training out on the road for 5 hours with a car following behind, burning at its least efficient rate. Yes indeed, there are more than a few paradoxes to professional cycling.

There are more than a few paradoxes about Graeme Obree, as well, but most of that is a story for another time, better told by someone else. The takeaway I get from watching the remainder of this documentary is a reminder of a different paradox: the spectacle that world cycling—via the edicts of the UCI—has made of itself has created some great races, and some decent entertainment; but top-tier bike racing as it is today is a closed shop—it’s an innovation killer.

So for the DIYers, the malcontents, the aging punks, the aspiring Olympians, the artists, and the humanists; cheers to Graeme Obree, for being exactly what he was, and making the sport come to meet him on his own terms.



 

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