Of Wool Jerseys and Iron Crotches

There is no sweeter feeling than the fatigue you feel the morning after a big ride. Yesterday was the annual Iron Crotch Ride in Western Wisconsin, hosted by County Cycles of Roseville. A 60 mile loop from Houlton to Osceola and back, it’s been held the first weekend in May for 25 years. As anyone who lives here knows, the first weekend in May can be snowing, or 80 degrees. This year we lucked into a mild 58 degrees, and light winds. The nicest weather I’ve ever had in my 3 times of doing this ride. Last year it was 33 degrees, and windy.

I slept for krep the night before the ride, as big thunderstorms blew through town, and the dogs were restless. I kept looking at the clock, wondering if it would be worth driving the half hour just to be rained out. A little rain doesn’t bother me, but the lightning, and torrential downpours that we had would make it a no go. Finally at 5:30am, I got up and checked the weather radar. As if on cue, the big green and red blobs of rain were sliding out of the area, promising a nice 6 hour window of dry weather.

We set off on wet roads at 8:30 am, and two punctures later, rolled into Osceola for a cup of coffee at the Coffee Connection. That’s the downside to riding on wet roads. By the time we turned south again the roads had dried, and the winds had shifted, denying us the pleasure of the usual headwind for the last 30 miles. Surely the cycling gods were smiling on us. Several cookies, and water bottles later, we were packing up our worm encrusted bikes into the back of our cars, and crossing the St. Croix back in Stillwater, MN for a celebratory beer at Brines. (The unofficial beer of the 2012 Ironcrotch was Farm Girl Saison. Highly recommended.)

Little House in the Big Woods

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had a weakness for falling in love with places. Perhaps it was the excessive amount of time I spent being carted around in the front seat of a Chrysler to sibling’s parades, and sporting events. Or maybe it was the interminable summer vacations to Florida in un-air conditioned automobiles with AM radio. Whatever the reason, I have always had a weakness for day dreaming about life in places seen out the window of a car. Each town we passed, each farm, each house on a hillside, I would lose myself in daydreams of what it would be like to live there. This affliction continued when I left Western New York behind and took to the road. Criss-crossing the country I would search for that one perfect place that would demand I stop and call it home. Of course, no place was ever alluring enough to overcome my desire to see what was over the next hill, or around the next bend. Life is like that.

Thankfully, in Mrs. 20 Prospect I found a reason to stop circling the country and plant roots. If not for her I’d still be wandering. And yet, even though I have lived in one place for 17 years now, I still can’t help but daydream when I’m traveling. As much as Minnesota is my home, there’s nothing about our little inner ring suburb, or 50’s Rambler that convinces me that this is the place where I want to grow old and die. If only I had a million lives to try out a million different places. I like to imagine that when you are dead your soul gets to go around and hang out in all the places you never got to when you were alive.

Last weekend we visited my In Laws in Eau Claire, a small city in a big landscape. One of those places that I can’t help but be drawn to. I brought along Isabella Cuevas, as I like to do when the weather is nice, and slipped out of town for a 3 hour ride through the hills and valleys of Eau Claire, and Trempeleau counties. Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite places in all the earth to ride a bicycle. Perhaps it reminds me of Western New York, or maybe East Flanders. The rolling hills, and farmlands, interspersed with remnants of the real “Big Woods” of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame, are covered with small two lane farm roads, and dairy farms. Each ridge promises a view, each valley a twisting descent. The farm roads don’t adhere to any modern road building standard, and the grades can be short, steep, and leg snapping. Perfect for cycling.

I rode for 3 hours, and had I not been exhausted, I could have rode for another 3. Each crossroad called for exploration, and it hurt to have to adhere to a schedule, and route. Every time I spend a weekend doing this, I end up going online and looking at homes and property in the area, which only serves to torture me more. Some people dream of retiring to malarial swamps in Florida, or sun blasted desert in Arizona. I dream of retiring to a little house on a ridge-top looking out over a big river., with enough land around me to make neighbors a theoretical concept. It’s the hermit in me that dreams of a life of walking the dogs in the woods, riding my bike in the hills, and watching the sunset from my porch.

I don’t know why I do this to myself. I have no intention of moving until the kids are out of high school, and I am less dependent on the financial benevolence of my dark corporate overlords. Yet I find myself continually searching jobs listings and property listings in the hope that I find that one perfect place that was made for me, where I can eek out a living teaching at a small college, and spend my days reading and writing. Whenever I get caught in that funk, the only thing I can do is tell myself, “10 more years. Keep cashing those checks and squirreling money away.” And keep on riding. Always keep on riding.

April Showers

When you live in a place where its not uncommon to have snow in April, you develop a real appreciation for Spring. And when Spring comes as early, and as gently as it has this year, you don’t even mind a little rain.

In my never ending quest to get back into shape I have vowed to ride as often as possible. While fitness in its own right is a worthy pursuit, I confess my real reason is vanity. I’m tired of looking at my jowly middle aged face in the mirror. I can blame it on my Germanic ancestors. Once the men in our family hit forty, their chin starts to swell until they look like Sargent Schultz. And while a jowly face may look respectable if you are serving in the army of Kaiser Wilhelm, it isn’t exactly the face I want staring back at me when I shave.

So yesterday morning, I got my butt out of bed at 7 am, poured myself several cups of coffee, and struggled for motivation. The sky was the color and consistency of steel wool, and the weathermen were calling for storms in the afternoon, so I decided that it was best to get out early before the weather turned. So I pulled on my warmest wooly, and leg warmers, and made a date with my dark eyed Catalan mistress, Isabella Cuevas.

No sooner had I gone a block from home than the grey skies started pissing rain. It wasn’t a real rain, just a misty English rain, and since 90% of the effort of exercise is finding the desire to do it, I decided to push on. Normally, I don’t ride in the rain. Not because I don’t like getting wet, but because I don’t like getting my bike wet. Isabella complains that it messes up her hair. (Yes, she may be beautiful, but she’s also a little high maintenance)

Sunday mornings are my favorite time to ride. The streets are nearly empty, and the city is so quiet. Rolling through North East Minneapolis, the only sounds were the birds chirping, and the hiss of my tires on the pavement. The crab apples, and cherry trees were in full bloom, and the lilacs were just beginning to pop. The scent of the lilacs was intoxicating as I pedaled through the grey mist. It may not have been Kyoto, but it was as close to Hanami as we get here in Minnesota.

I was lost in day dreams as I rolled over the hills of NorthEast, imagining myself at the 89′ Worlds in the break with Sean Kelly, Fignon, and Lemond. There’s something about lousy weather that makes cycling seem epic. Nothing between you and the elements for mile after mile. You can suffer like a dog, but at the end of the ride, no shower will ever feel better.

The mist continued until the water dripped from my helmet, and plastered my rain jacket to my arms like paper mache. I was plenty warm in my wool jersey though. There’s nothing as good as wool for keeping you warm and comfy in the rain. Those British sheep are onto something. It wasn’t until I was 45 minutes into the ride that I noticed my rear tire going soft. Then I remembered why I don’t ride in the rain.

There’s nothing romantic about changing a flat in the rain. Its times like those that I could really use a team car, or neutral support vehicle, to quick hand me a new wheel so I could catch back onto the peleton. Sadly, there was neither a support car, nor a peleton. 10 minutes later I was back on the bike finishing out the ride, while obsessively checking to see if the tire was holding air.

The hot shower, lived up to my expectations and I could have spent an hour in there. Afterwards it was time for Isabella to get cleaned up. She’s not the kind of bike you ride hard, and put away wet. By the time I hung her back up in the garage she was sparkling like new.

It was at that point that the rain stopped, and the sun started peeking out. Freakin’ weathermen.

The Time Machine

Sunday evening, and I sit in my comfy chair by the window listening to the song of the catbird in the velvety darkness. My legs propped on the ottoman, I can feel the sweet ache in their muscles from the miles I spent on my bike this weekend. A guy from the north could get real spoiled with an Appalachian Spring like this. Pedaling through the bright sunlight, drinking in the sight of a world gone green, I have to keep reminding myself that it is March, and not late April or May.

I close my eyes, and inhale the sweet night air. If the color green had a smell, this would be it. As a child I would lay on my back in the soft tufts of grass in our backyard, listening to the cooing of the mourning doves, feeling the cool evening air as the sky darkened above me, and the world came alive. Reaching out with my hands I would run my fingers through the grass, and feel the cold, soft earth beneath it. I felt as if I could plant them like roots in the loamy soil, and drink in the life like a maple. A modern day Rip Van Winkle.

Life seemed to stretch like an endless road in front of me. Each evening when I had finished dinner, I would throw a leg over my ten speed, and pedal out into the countryside. Across the furrowed fields, and through the greening woods, I would lose myself in grand day dreams. Nothing in the world is more heroic than the fantasies of a 13 year old boy. That ten speed was my freedom and escape from the anxieties of youth. Out on those empty farm roads there were no bullies to embarrass me and no girls to make me tongue tied. Out on that bike I could be anything I wanted.

I thought of that today as I crested a climb, my lungs burning, and my legs aching, and realized that for the last 4 miles I had been absorbed in day dreams so deep, I could recall nothing of the world around me. For those four miles I may as well have been a 13 year old boy, instead of a 43 year old man. The road raced under my wheels, and the sunlight glittered on the lake, and I could have been anywhere I wanted to be at that very moment. Yet nowhere could have been as satisfying as being astride that saddle, and that steel frame. A shadow passed over the road, and looking up I saw the silhouette of a Hawk against the blue sky. Thirty years disappeared in an instant, and for that one brief moment I too was soaring.

On the Col du Galibier

I’ve always been something of a contrarian. I’ve always shunned the easy comfort and conformity of the group, to try to choose a separate path. This is a common behavior among misfits. In some sense, it is a defensive behavior. By “choosing” to be different, we own our deformities. So when one of the wolves from the pack tries to single us out as being different we will not suffer humiliation.

 

In theory.

 

In reality, we always suffer the humiliation of being singled out as a freak, and our loner behavior becomes as much self loathing as it is hatred of the pack. This is the American paradox. We claim to love and adore the lone cowboy, yet it is the wagon train of pioneers that our country is built upon. Perhaps that’s the self loathing of the faceless pioneers manifesting itself as a love of the loner.

 

The reality is I have always walked with a foot in both worlds. I have chosen which groups to join, and which ones to stand apart from my whole life. We all do.

 

I thought of this again while watching yesterday’s stage of the tour de France. When I was a kid my “sport” was the most frat boy wolf pack sport of them all, football. I played it from 2nd grade until I graduated from High School. I never struggled to fit into any team I played for, regardless of the meat heads and jerks that were on the team with me. Even after 25 years I still feel kinship with that “Band of Brothers” I played with.

 

But in other sports I choose a different path. I sought out the solitude of the bicycle as soon as I was old enough to throw a leg over a ten speed. On July Saturday afternoons I would watch the 1 hour weekly recap of the tour de France on Network TV, then head out on my Huffy or Schwinn, into the countryside of Genesee County dreaming that I was climbing a mountain in the Alps and racing against European guys with cool names. My imagination has always been active, and I have never felt more secure and at peace as I have riding alone across the hills and fields, lost in my day dreams. July has always been the month of cycling.

The Col Du Galibier

When I hit my 20’s and my good friend Scott started racing in Connecticut, it wasn’t long before my day dreams returned. I bought a new bike, and started riding again. As Mrs. 20 Prospect can attest, when I take up an interest I tend to go overboard and immerse myself in it. Riding mountain bikes led to racing mountain bikes, which led to road biking, and subscriptions to CycleSport, and devouring books on the history of cycling. Finally, it led to trips to Europe to see races. It became an addiction.

 

I followed the sport religiously for almost 10 years, reading the online race reports, and watching every scrap of TV coverage I could find. But as the sport stumbled from one doping controversy to the next, I became frustrated with it. When Floyd Landis was caught cheating, after winning the Tour de France with an epic solo attack, it was the final straw. Since that day I have turned away from following the sport, especially the Tour.

 

With the unbearable heat wave this past weekend, I picked up the remote control and flipped on the TV. There on a Saturday morning was the Tour. It’s riders strung out in a long line, ascending a mountain in the Pyrenees. I was sucked in. No sport has better scenery and cinematography than cycling. It can be a breathtaking spectacle.

I filled my coffee cup and settled in to watch the fireworks. A mountain top finish on one of the legendary climbs, I was certain this would be a terrific stage. The leaders would attack each other until finally a champion emerged, and the pretenders cracked. This is cycling at it’s best. Only it never happened.

 

All the way up the slopes of the Plateau be Baille, the race favorites sat and watched each other. Only one of them even attempted an attack, and when he did it was quickly covered by the rest of them. Such negative, calculated racing is painfully boring to watch. This beautiful mountaintop finish couldn’t have been more anticlimatic. Disgusted I switched the TV off, and went out for a ride in the blistering heat. At least in my imagination the campiones could still soar like eagles.

Coppi & Bartali

To the French, winning is almost secondary to the way in which you win. Cold, calculated racing may bring victories, but it doesn’t make a champion. To be a true champion you must with with style. You must win with panache. Better to lose spectacularly, than to win without distinction. This is a very strange concept to the American mind, but in my contrarian world it is one that I have come to embrace. Perhaps it is my own lifetime of scratching on the eightball that makes me identify with it.

 

So yesterday I was thrilled to see that honor, and panache are not yet dead in professional cycling. With over 30 miles, and two tremendous mountains left to climb, Andy Schleck attacked the field, and soloed away. In the style of the greats of cycling, he climbed the Izoard, and the Galibier, and took the stage win as the other supposed leaders watched each other, too afraid of losing to even try to win.

 

This is cycling at it’s best. One man, alone against many, fighting himself and the mountain. When Schleck climbed those switchbacks on the Galibier, he may have looked alone, but he was riding on the wheel of the ghosts of history. Coppi, Bottechia, Bobet, Bartali were surely looking down and smiling. This is how it is done.

There are still 2 days left to race, and he may well falter, and fail to win the yellow jersey, but with this ride Andy Schleck has done more to honor the majesty of the sport than anyone else in this years race.