It was a dark and stormy Monday morning, and I was not at all inclined to get out of bed.
But I knew what was waiting for me at Ride78 was far more inspiring than my soft pillow. Harder than rolling over to my other side. More interesting than my recurring dreams of James Franco. Well, more productive.
Christine Fletcher knows how to inspire a spin class, and can transport the most dedicated armchair athletes into Ironmen. So I made my way to La Bicicletta, her new home for sweating out toxins, and breathing in life.
I’m not going to lie: you’re not listening to the most dedicated spinner. I won’t be the last girl who fakes it when I’m told to add a few gears (hint: you can touch the lever but not move it, so to speak). But Chrissy’s calm demeanour packs just the right amount of Kool-Aid for me to pedal harder.
She eases into warm up and I’m convinced momentarily that hey, I’m in pretty good shape. I got this. Then the sweat that initially dotted the floor under my bike like a light drizzle turns into a dangerous and slippery river, and I’m not so sure anymore. At this point Chrissy notes most people are still in bed, which fills me with such smug self-righteousness that when she next tells me to add three gears, I actually do.
Spin class is a lot like life, easy to begin with, but then you’re pedalling for your life and crying for a merciful fifteen second rest. And in those fifteen seconds, there is an appreciation for the work. It’s a continual ebb and flow, where desire and dedication reap rewards. In the end, the ultimate achievement is in the doing.
Yeah, I did that. Probably before your alarm went off.
The hills were high, the flats were fast, and as for the time, it flew.
There is a class where cycling and souls collide. Since I mentioned class, I can hardly believe it; classes, especially of the fitness variety, not being my thing. But this was a class unlike any other. It inspired a wardrobe – I’ll get to that.
Close your eyes and imagine a hip hop concert, a yoga class, and a bicycle ride all mixed together in a sweaty stew. The bubbly mixture is simmering on the best burner on your stove, a pinch of salt away from Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. If you smash your plate after you lick it clean, shards will hit the Pacific Ocean.
Like everything else in LA, this stew is gluten-free, and it fortifies your resolve while you sweat out negativity. Natch.
One-two-one-two-unh, says David, the leader of this SoulCycle class and guru. He has four candles burning around the pedestal that holds his bike. He is part dancer part drummer part cyclist on his chariot. His feet spin so fast he looks like the Roadrunner.
I didn’t know spinning required coordination. With David’s class, it does. One-two-one-two-unh.
David asks us to turn our knobs to the right, but he doesn’t like to call this turning up the resistance. He prefers turning up the courage. David challenges us to go deeper. I’m hyperventilating, but I’m under his spell. If this is a religion, sign me up. I’m a disciple of David. Oh, hang on…
No seriously, my arms are buckling under my one pound weights (don’t laugh), but I will. Not. Stop. Because David is two feet in front of me, off his bike and watching his perfect self in the mirror.
The playlist meanders from smooth hip hop remakes to Billy Jean and baby, we are sweating in the dark, the wine I drank the night before is seeping from my pores in pool of regret underneath my bike. Unbelievably, an acoustic version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams is followed by Philadelphia, and David tells us that when he heard this song this morning, as he held his baby, he burst into tears, because so many people don’t see the beauty in this world that is right in front of them.
Under normal circumstances, you might think, like I might, flakey. But in the mecca of SoulCycle it was touching.
And so I was moved to buy a t-shirt on the way out. Like when you’re leaving a concert, and you feel the need to commemorate the moment. Bottle the vibes and keep them for future whiffs.
Yeah, I got soul, and the t-shirt to prove it.
You are either a lover or a fighter. A leader or a follower. A liberal or a conservative. A runner or a swimmer. Put your hands down, triathletes. I know what you’re thinking, you can be a little bit of both. And yes you can, but you will have a bias. One that comes more naturally. Preferably one that doesn’t make you feel like you are drowning.
I’m a runner; not so much a swimmer. On land, I strike out comfortably, breathing in every four steps, and out every four steps, and reduce this to three or perhaps two breaths on hills. In, out, in, out, shoulders down, arms loose, feet quick. It’s a beautiful feeling, any day I run in is better than one I don’t, it’s cheaper than therapy, and it allows me to eat copious amounts of fries and chocolate. I’m a runner, born and bred. When I go out for a walk I am tired and whiny after five minutes, but I can run for miles, some days hours, without a problem. I may be a runner but I am definitely not a walker. Go figure.
But things are breaking down and my quadriceps and IT Bands aren’t what they used to be, so sometimes, in the summer months, I’m a biker. Biking has its own share of challenges, for instance the likelihood of dying on the fender of cement truck. I choose my biking days and routes carefully, and with the inclement weather we have in the Pacific Northwest these can be few and far between.
So the elephant in my room for the last few years, if not lifetime, has been swimming. Ugh, the chlorine, the cold water, the flattering skull cap look, not to mention the monotony, the boredom, the breathlessness, the other swimmers at your heels. Jesus. I’d rather walk.
But I remember the swimmers of my youth – Jacqui, Jenny, and Jamie, I’m looking at you. Damn they were fit. They kicked my cross-country ass to the curbside race after race, although I think the only time they ran was in the actual race; their training was in the pool.
So when a friend cajoled me into joining a masters swimming group (she said something like, I’ll bet you a bottle of wine you can’t do this, and I was like, oh no you didn’t), I was hesitant, but only momentarily. The writing was on the wall, and the white wine is now in my fridge. I got in the pool and kicked and splashed my way to the end. And back again. Repeat, times like a thousand.
It wasn’t pretty, I could see by the look on the coach’s face, a mix between Sweet Jesus where did this one come from and why is this woman drowning in my pool? But I got through the warmup, and though I was ready to call it a day by then, I managed to do some, if not all, of the workout that followed. Oh, the accomplishment; it was equivalent to achieving a PB in a half-marathon. I high-fived my lane mates while they looked at me quizzically, and my arm muscles wept with the joy of being called upon.
Now, twice a week, for an hour and a half, I stare at the line on the bottom of the pool and think about rolling and reaching. The water is cold for only a fraction of a second before the work required to stay afloat warms me. The coach writes cryptic notes on the whiteboard, like 8 x 50 f/c @ 60/65/70, and the only message I can decipher is that f/c is front crawl. When my fellow swimmers ask me what I want to do the 50’s in, I explain I just want to finish them without drowning, time is irrelevant. I have three speeds; slow, slower, and sinking. We swim about 3 kilometers each workout, which I figure is the equivalent to swimming the English Channel.
But I’m doing it, and I’ve never felt better. In the end I crawl onto the deck and thank God and Buddha and Shakespeare that although I came close to hyperventilating and drowning in my own snot, I made it to the edge just in time. I marvel mostly because not only did I do the workout, but that I even got in the pool to begin with. My back feels stretched, my IT bands are smiling, quadriceps spent, and the rest of the day, I feel my blood coursing smoothly through my body. When I listen closely, I can hear it say: thank you thank you thank you.
This notoriously cheap and tasty dish, loved by undergraduates and toddlers everywhere besides Berkeley, has re-branded itself, smacking the word SMART across its boxes, in addition to a promise to provide a helping of either vegetables, fiber or omega 3. I’m naturally drawn to all things cheap, easy, and tasty, but then add words SMART and well, you had me at cheap.
Kraft Dinner is a formidable favorite of mine left over from my student days, when hitting two food groups in one meal for 99 cents was only trumped by the cheap beer at J.J. Rossi’s every Tuesday night. And to this day, KD (as it is affectionately known to all who consume it) is a runaway favorite when nursing a hangover. Try it, and thank me later.
But MOST importantly, it is liked by all three of my children, and that has only ever happened with chocolate and root beer, naturally making me suspicious of its nutritional content. Since it takes about 3 minutes to whip up a lunch of KD, from a time management aspect alone I want to love the stuff. I could really use a break from my children complaining about the healthy food I give them – There are too many seeds in this bread! Why doesn’t this peanut butter taste like peanut butter? Can’t you put sugar instead of a banana in my smoothie?
I get a fair bit of flack every day for toiling over their meals. It is crazy to want to provide your kids with a healthy diet, after all. Drives. Me. Insane.
So sue me – I got a bit excited by the SMART marketing. I purposely avoided reading the labels – I suspected the fine print would only reveal a dish that was still, for the most part, unhealthy. I even got creative and bought all three different boxes and combined them into one dish, so my kids would get a serving of vegetables, fiber, and omega 3 in one, painfully orange, highly processed blob.
No surprise, they loved it. Licked their bowls clean. Why don’t you make this for us all the time?
Unable to stand the suspense any longer, I grabbed the box and read the fine print. The vegetable serving they promise amounts to half a serving of vegetables (my ten-year old is supposed to have 6 servings a day), and it comes by way of a cauliflower powder. It’s hard to imagine, all chemistry aside, how many nutrients can be left of the cauliflower once it has been processed into a fine blend of dust and mixed with processed cheese.
As I peeled carrots, I told them sadly, KD would remain in the “seldom consumed” category. Damn you, Kraft Dinner, I really wanted to invite you into my life again. Parting is such sweet sorrow – so, until the next hangover.
My first hitch of the day was applying sunscreen to my arms, and then trying to roll up my arm warmers. The forecast for the day was hot: yet leaving my house by the light of the moon and riding to the start of the GranFondo required warmth, thus the sunscreen/arm warmer combination. The two don’t mingle, it turns out, and I think all of my sunscreen was scraped off by the time my arm warmers were in place.
These are the things you just can’t plan for, but they always make race days memorable.
I left my house at 5:45 am to ride the 10 kilometers to the start (in effect making it a 132 km event, since my mind did record every kilometer we passed), when the second hitch struck. There are no streetlights on my road, and I couldn’t see a thing. I gingerly glided down the hill in the dark, hoping I didn’t spill before I even got to the starting line.
Once down on the well-illuminated main road, I was immediately caught up in a cheerfully growing peloton making their way over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, to the start of the race on Georgia Street. Thus began the camaraderie – I knew no one, but felt a common bond. For those who don’t do these races, this a big part of why we do them.
A full hour before the race, thousands of riders were already in place for the start. It was a sea of spandex and rubber, so I had to text to find my friend. Once in place, we watched the circus unfolding around us. Finally at 7:00 am, Barney Bentall and Jim Cuddie sang our national anthem, and then hopped on their bikes for the 122 km ride to Whistler. I know, cool, right?
This beginning section was what I feared most: bikes everywhere in a narrow corrider, unclipping from my pedals hundreds of times until we got some space between us to ride freely. But my fears were unfounded: race organizers did a bang up job and it went off without a hitch. We were on our way.
Riding through West Vancouver was so much fun – it was thrilling to have our own lane on the highway, and spectators huddled on overpasses and along the exits to cheer on riders. I was so relieved to be actually on my bike and upright after the start, I felt rather invincible.
That wouldn’t last long however: shortly after Horseshoe Bay riders were off their bikes and motioning for us to slow down. A rider had crashed and looked badly injured, medics were already on the scene. One look at the accident and I lost my mojo, slowing considerably for a while after. A split second can change everything.
I had lost my friend but found her again as we rode up the Furry Creek hill. We decided to stop at the next rest stop in Britannia Beach and grab some food. The rest stops were somewhat of a party, with hundreds of bikers milling about and always familiar faces. It was nice to get off that seat, if only for a couple of minutes. We refueled and hit the road; it was literally all uphill from here: the biggest increase in elevation occurs between Squamish and Whistler. I had ridden to Squamish and back in training, but didn’t have much knowledge of the road from that point on.
It is drastically different when driving.
As luck would have it it was getting hot as we started the uphill slog after Squamish. I noticed lots of riders beginning to slow down, and could see the distance was taking its toll. My knee was starting to throb, and getting up out of my seat was painful. I kept my head down and hoped the pain would subside eventually, since I otherwise felt fine, if a tad tired.
I pulled into the rest stop at the Salt Shed, with about 30 kilometers to go. Thankfully the medical tent was even closer than the water station. I walked in and asked, “What do you have for pain?” One volunteer sat me down and started rubbing what I hoped was miracle cream on my knee, while another got me Advil and refilled my water bottles. As this was happening two other riders came in asking the million dollar question, “What do you have for pain?”
With 30 kilometers to go, I was fairly certain I could finish, even if I had to pedal with only my left foot. But eventually either the Advil kicked in or the cream started to work, and I felt better. This was fortuitous because this is where the killer hills lurked. The sun was beating down on the asphalt and reeking havoc with tired riders. Many were pulled over during the last fifteen kilometers trying to stretch out muscle cramps, while others were losing their lunch. I focused on the road in front of me and counted down the distance; the kilometers at this point passing almost intolerably slowly.
Finally we were at Function Junction, and the tree cover provided a break from the unrelenting sun. The undulating hills that brought us in to the village were much kinder than the previous steep climbs, and of course there was the knowledge that the finish was near. Things were getting better.
Riding the last couple of turns were actually pleasurable – despite the pain running through my body, from a sore neck to an incredibly sore butt – knowing the race was behind me, the finish line in sight, and a beer would taste incredibly good soon.
Sitting on the grass later that evening, listening to 5440 play an outdoor concert as the sun fell behind Blackcomb mountain, it was hard to argue this was not an amazing event. I had been nervous about making the jump to road riding, but was euphoric I had done it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
If you plan on heading to Whistler this weekend, pump up your tires and join the crowd: you will be served better by two wheels than four. The RBC GranFondo is in town. If your Italian is rusty, GranFondo translated means long race, massive pain. The upside is that cyclists will have their very own precious northbound lane along the Sea to Sky corrider from early morning until late afternoon.
For this special day, cyclists will not have to choke on exhaust. They will not be forced onto the gravel shoulder of a road by cars insistent on hugging the white line. They will be able to enjoy the breathtaking views in their peripheral vision without the distracting roar of engines.
Combine these attractions with the aging demographic, who find cycling easier on the joints if hard on the pocketbook, and you get 4000 participants in last year’s inaugural event. A huge turnout by any race standard. This year the event has almost doubled in size – it sold out in April to 7000 riders.
And yes, I’m one of them.
I have logged hundreds of miles, much of them uphill, in preparation. I’ve gone from shakily practicing those damn toe clips in my driveway to manouvering skillfully through intersections. I’ve only fallen once this summer (and that was down stairs without my bike). I feel ready for this challenge – but for one caveat.
I’m used to avoiding hulking weapons of steel, otherwise known as cars, on my rides, but what about the 6,999 other cyclists? I’ve ridden with the occasional friend in my training, but it’s hard to practice riding in a pack without, well, a pack.
So I’ve been busily interviewing every cyclist I know and Googling the hell out of “Tips for cycling races.” The best advice I’ve had so far has been from my friend and uber-athlete, Chrissie, who told me NEVER, in any circumstances, take your eyes off the road. This may seem obvious, but I frequently shoulder check while I ride, which entails taking my eyes off the road for a millisecond. This is a no-no. I am to use my peripheral vision to shoulder check.
The other thing she told me was to not watch the wheel of the rider in front of me, but rather look through them at the level of their hips, in order to see the road in front of that rider (as best you can without possessing x-ray vision).
So eyes front and slightly raised.
But what about all of those obstacles that we swerve to avoid, like broken glass and large potholes? Cyclists that I know will point these out with a wave of their hand if they are in front of me. If I’m alone however, I sometimes don’t see them until the last second. The answer, according to bloggers, is to slowly and steadily steer around these obstacles, with the emphasis on slowly and steadily. If you see it too late, and if it’s not big enough to swallow you and your bike whole, then ride through it rather than swerve and risk the rider behind you crashing into you.
Once again, the message here is eyes front. I’m getting it.
So it goes without saying when reaching for water bottles or fuel, do it without taking your eyes off of the road. My friend caught grief from riders in the Napa GranFondo when she inadvertently dropped her water bottle. Of course it was a mistake, but one that could have had consequences. I’m planning on not touching my bottles until well out of the pack.
Eyes front, steady hands.
Of course there are other niggling worries for the 120 km ride: proper nutrition and hydration, fatigue, my incessantly complaining ass. But they all pale in comparison to staying upright through the thickest of things. My biggest challenge will be to remain focused on the road in front of me, even if the rider beside me is naked.
Eyes front, smiling permitted.
Life is like riding a bicycle – in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving. ~Albert Einstein
Nothing says midlife crisis louder than a shiny new set of wheels. But in my case, it was a two-wheeled vehicle for which I pined upon hitting forty.
For the record I don’t think it was a midlife crisis. I just really wanted a new bike. It was time.
I watched with envy as cyclists breezed past me, shiny and sleek in their brightly coloured jerseys. I wanted a piece of that action, but my current mode of bike transport was twenty years old.
Looking at its mangled frame floods me with memories of Melrose Place, Desert Storm, cheap beer, and drama.
It had carried me around my university campus and around the streets of Vancouver before I owned a car. It had been run over by my roommate when I had dropped it on our driveway (sorry roomie; I know I was hard on you for that), was rebuilt and continued to roll.
More recently, the stuffing began falling out of the seat, so every year I added a piece of duck tape. Finally, when it was all duck tape and no seat, my husband said, “Really?” as I dusted it off for our family bike ride. I gave in and bought a new seat, but the bike continued to shine in my eyes, all fifty pounds of it. Rusty, but otherwise bright as the day I bought it. A perfect indigo blue with neon pink accents. A mountain bike built before shocks were invented, it was perfect for commuting, not so much for trails or triathlons. It had its limitations.
I loved my old bike, but even I, faithful as I was, recognized its shortcomings.
As my fortieth birthday loomed, there was one thing and one thing only on my list: a new road bike.
To secure my future purchase, I registered for the Granfondo, a bicycle race that starts in Vancouver and ends in Whistler, a 130 km journey with substantial elevation gain. My bright blue Trek was not going to cut the mustard, new seat notwithstanding.
On one of those spanking new road bikes, how hard can it be? They are so light that the mere thought of pedaling propels its slight form a kilometer or so. It’s not like I’m running 130 kilometers. Surely there will be coasting involved.
And so, for the sake of the race and to celebrate my midlife, I bought a carbon road bike. It is featherlight and built up in all the right places – a high performance model. In the small print I spied the words guaranteed to finish the Granfondo in four hours and it was a done deal.
It should be noted, I’m not the first to trade an old model in for a new one at this point in life.