By guest KIT blogger, Nat Miller
All I could hear was my raspy, labored breathing and the thudding of my heartbeat deep in my eardrums. I had long ago punched into my lowest gear and continued to grind up the 45 minute gravel climb, hoping to view the top of the ridge every time I rounded a corner, yet continuing to be disappointed as the serpent-like turns climbed ever-skyward. “Battles in cycling are nothing short of epic.”
I was on a typical early season training ride in the Pisgah Mountains, trying out the new mountain bike I had purchased the day before and realizing how mushy my pasty white legs had gotten over the winter. I continued to suffer for the remainder of the weekend, putting in 8 total hours of ride time in the 36 hours we spent in North Carolina. Despite our agony, it was a ton of fun.
It was during one of the particularly painful climbs of the weekend that I was struck by how all cyclists could be considered masochists. There really is no other explanation for our actions.
Riding at threshold power typically feels like your lungs are coming through your nose. Hitting the deck at speed is similar to jumping from a moving car naked. Bonking may be the most horrible experience on earth, made worse by the fact that you know at least 5 minutes before it’s going to happen with no way to stop it. Often we put in so many miles that various body parts go numb, muscle cramps cause excruciating pain as our bodies yearn for depleted nutrients, and we return with clothes caked with crusty salt deposits, mud, and road grit.
Yet, for our craziness, cyclists remain enamored with the sport.
I rolled through a tight uphill turn, grinning to myself as I dropped a few rings and felt that familiar burn in my upper quads, standing to deliver more power to the pedals. I rocked back and forth, settling into a rhythm and becoming comfortable with my increased level of effort. The road continued to stretch upward in front of me, now beginning to reach into the mist of the mountaintop ahead.
Battles in cycling are nothing short of epic. They are fought over the course of hours, if not days and weeks. The true greats of the sport use strategy to time their attacks, metering their strength before unleashing animalistic bursts of power at the most opportune moment. During these attacks, an athlete’s true mettle is tested, every muscle fiber firing in a bid for the win. Whether it is a mountaintop finish or a drag race for the line, cyclists are known for “leaving it all out on the course.” Rarely do you see a cyclist entrenched in a true battle finishing a race as if it did not matter. The norm is that with every ounce of energy gone, completely wasted, head hanging between sagging shoulders, the loser slowly rolls across the line. Yet even beaten, this athlete knows he can stand proud having given it his all when it mattered most.
As I continued to climb, I forgot the pain in my legs and lungs. I looked at the Rhododendron around me, hearing nothing but the crunch of gravel and the metal-on-metal whir of chain on sprocket. The pile of work waiting at home on my desk? Forgotten. Bills to be paid? Didn’t enter my mind. As I slope around an off-camber bend in the road, daylight begins to poke around the trees at the top of the next, and final, rise.
The truth is, as cyclists we are not masochists. We are not chasing or “embracing” the pain in as much as we are escaping into a simpler, rawer world. Being on a bike and pushing your limits takes you to a place few people today experience. Risking sounding too much like a “Fight Club” reference gone wrong, being on a bike makes you feel alive. You push your body to the point that every neuron is firing in succession…and then you go beyond. You make the town sign, crest the climb, or win the Wednesday night crit and, with arms spread wide in the universal sign of victory, have the realization that you never want to lose that feeling again. Most people will never understand this sensation, but every cyclist knows it intimately.
In essence, this is what “Keeping it Tight” is to me. Balancing a “real life” with chasing the euphoria of my sports. So as I wave to the commuter on the opposite side of the road or slide into my position at the front of a charging paceline, I nod knowingly at the pain my fellow cyclists have experienced simply to achieve that which we call bliss.
Finally, I sit a little straighter and ease the pressure on my pedals. I have crested the climb and now await the remainder of the group making their way to the top. As each member arrives, we soft pedal, sip water, swap “war stories”, and then point our knobby tires down the mountain to reap the rewards of our efforts. An hour later, another lengthy climb awaits our tired legs, but for now, we are simply enjoying the ride. KIT.
*Nathaniel Miller is a full-time technical writer with a passion for the open road, but enjoys a healthy dose of trails on occasion. He prefers gut-wrenching climbs to walks on the beach, 55mph descents to bike lanes, and assumes everyone knows what “riding on the rivet” means. His goals in 2012 include catching a handful more races than last year and riding the same distance the pros do during each stage of this year’s Tour de France.