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Apr 09 2012

The Tragedy of the Black Diamond Bakery Ride

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A beautiful day, and a beautiful ride.

As a rider, this means a bright sun that sharply pierces the solid, blue sky, and gently radiates warm rays onto my face, while miles clock by, past rushing river, past tree-covered embankment, over smooth dry asphalt, and into a bakery. No flats, no cramps, no injuries. Enjoying the beautiful day that God provided on this Easter weekend, with a flawless group ride.

As a writer, this means I have nothing to write about. I mean, I could continue on about the budding trees, songbirds tweeting springtime calls, and the smiling faces standing behind the case of baked goods, and about how on a sunny spring day, pushing the big crank feels easier, but that isn’t what cycling is about. At least not for me. Perhaps I should explain.

Yes, there are those glorious, magic days when one wheels along on a clear, warm, and slightly breezy day. I had many of those as a kid, on my yellow & black Schwinn Stingray knock-off from Sears, riding through the neighborhood with the other kids, chasing each other around, and racing around the pond along the dirt and gravel trail. My own kids have those days now, squealing in delight while pushing their pink and purple bikes along the sidewalk, handlebar tassels snapping in the breeze, and training wheels “crrrupp”-ing when they contact the cement. These are the types of scenes depicted in movies or TV commercials, conveying simple joys that make the human spirit grow. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t love this feeling. Seeing my children laughing and scooting along makes my heart soar.

But that is not cycling. Yes, the scene I described does involve bicycles, but that is circumstantial. The same feelings are also had on the last day of school, swimming at the beach, or at a birthday party with cupcakes and a “My Little Pony” piñata.

For me, cycling involves suffering, in various forms, and not necessarily sourced from muscular or cardiovascular distress.  “Enjoyment” is about how you process your suffering, and whether you’re able convert it into something better, whether that’s the ability to accelerate faster up a hill, or a gaining a broader perspective on life.  Without suffering, I can’t really say that I had a meaningful ride, and therefore can’t really say I have anything meaningful to write about.

Fortunately there were a few instances where I almost suffered.  There was the very beginning, in the morning when it was 34 degrees. This could have been good—dense passages detailing in minute detail the incremental progression of cold numbness creeping down my fingers and toes, as the capillaries in the epidural layers of my skin contract, pulling the circulating blood back into my veins, and leaving an interstitial void that contracts until I can no longer feel my hands, which thus are incapable of pulling on brakes, all the while observing how Jason, despite the cold, still chooses to ride with sleeveless jersey, with fingerless gloves, and with the perma-grin on his face. But no, the day warmed up, I ended up shedding my jacket, and also this storyline.

I almost suffered during the bit when soon after we exited the 10 mph zone on the Cedar River Trail.  Mikkel, Craig, Jason, Hiep, and William decided to air it out at 22+ mph. Immediately I could hear Heather shout “No! No! Why is this turning into a testosterone ride?!”

The high-intensity sprint might be the form of suffering most easily understood by, or at least described to, the non-biker.  The point is to turn the cranks as hard as you can, as fast as you can, for as long as you can, to hurtle yourself through the air at an exhilarating pace.

However, nature conspires against you.  As you collide with the air ahead of you it literally becomes denser.  The molecules compress as they hit your body, then each other, until a literal wall of air forms ahead of you.  This means you have to generate more power to turn your cranks just to go as fast as you would’ve gone without the dense air.  This is when your thighs, calves, buttocks, sartorials, back, shoulder, and neck muscles all begin to fatigue.  Water is combining with long-form sugar chains to break them down into shorter chains.  Mitochondria convert Adenosine Di-Phosphate into Adenosine Tri-Phosphate.  Sodium ion pumps transmit signals from nerve axon to axon.  Calcium pours in and out of muscle cells causing them to contract and relax as they break down ATP.  Myosin rips and tears.  Metabolic by-products such as lactic acid begins to pool in the interstitial space, accelerating the decline in chemical efficiency of metabolic functions, and making you to work harder to generate power.

None of this happens without oxygen, which you’re consuming at a faster and faster rate.  Your lungs take in something like half a liter of air at a time, approximately 20% of which is oxygen.  Work harder and you’ll need to either breathe faster, or deeper to meet your body’s demand.  And that’s just the intake.  Your heart needs to circulate your blood faster and further through your arteries to transport oxygen from your lungs all the way down to your legs, and return that blood back through your veins, carrying all the CO2 and other waste you need to expel.  The heart does this by pumping faster.  And since it is a muscle, the metabolic chaos partying away in your legs is also raging on in your heart, meaning that it too has to work harder, so that your legs can work harder, so that you can turn your cranks harder, so you can push your bike faster.  And as anyone who has gone through this can attest, sustaining a sprint hurts.  Literal, physical, burning, searing pain in your legs, and in your lungs.

If you’re really lucky, you can become oxygen-deprived, to the point your vision begins to blur, and tunnel in from the sides, your head becomes dizzy, and ringing fills your ears.  Keep going, and eventually you will black out.  If you are lucky, your bike, which is essentially 2 really big gyroscopes held together with a tubular frame, will stay upright long enough for you to recover your wits and maintain control.  Or if you like some riders I know, like them you will lose control of your bike when your body slumps over, shifting the center of gravity over far enough to overcome the gyroscopic momentum that your wheels have generated, sending your body skidding and bouncing across the chip-seal asphalt which rips away the millimeter of nylon called your jersey and shorts, and grinds away your body’s surface until your  lower dermal layers and thousands of nerve-endings are fully exposed to the air, and rubbed with a dry mixture of dirt, sand, rocks, broken glass, plant debris, and anything else that might be sitting on a road surface (you can read the blog post about rising around Lake Sammamish in the rain to get a perspective on this).

Since it was relatively early on in the ride I hadn’t really warmed up, but I attempted to turn up the pace anyway.  Alas all was in vain, as after about half a mile I conceded that my legs were like a couple of heavy logs, and I simply couldn’t stoke the fire.  So I eased back and sat on a leisurely 18mph, as I watched the group disappear ahead in the distance, along with my story.

The next moment of near suffering was in the Black Diamond bakery itself. By the way, for those of you who‘ve never visited the bakery, you should do it. There are mounds and mounds of baked goods, covered with sugary frosting, and filled with delicious, sweet goodness. I recommend the almond danish.

Back to the near-suffering. To set the scene, I must point out that the discussion topic at the table was colonoscopies. I’ll spare the dignity of the discussion participants by withholding their identities, but let’s say that I now know more about some of my fellow riders than I really cared to know.  And you may be thinking to yourself that listening to a colonoscopy discussion is the suffering. But it was not, at least not for me.  In fact, the near-suffering I encountered was a very sad moment, especially since it was entirely avoidable. It occurred during an awkward moment, when attempting to sit down, I bumped into Doug. Neither of us saw one another until that moment. But as we collided my poor danish, it flipped into the air, in slow motion, just like in the movies, and landed on the floor.  When things like this happen to my 7-year-old, she starts crying. I know how she feels, as if my soul were ripped out of my throat by hand, and dumped on a pile of offal.  With sadness, I picked up my danish, and looked at it as a child looks at her empty chocolate bar wrapper that someone else ate without her permission or knowledge.  As I sat silently, contemplating the meaning of all this, Dan shouted out words of wisdom: “For goodness’ sake, just eat it.  It’s not like you’re riding in the rain, with all the road spray flying into your mouth!” He was right.  These were words to live by. And the danish still tasted good after all. Yum!  And as quickly as I devoured my baked treat, so too did my story disappear.

Soon it was time to head back. Mikkel headed back in the car with Karen, who joined us at the Bakery with their beautiful, new baby (by the way, Mikkel, if your experience is like mine, the riding time will take a nose dive over the next couple of years, which, by the way, is another form of suffering). The ride back seemed to go by faster than the ride in as if somehow the floor  almond danish had lit up something inside me. We hit the smooth, straight section along the Maple Valley Highway, and I felt energy surging from within me. My legs no longer felt like heavy logs, but like a nuclear reactor, pushing my cranks over and over again. The feeling was exhilarating, streaking along the asphalt, holding steady at 22 – 23 mph. And thinking that Craig was ahead of me, I decided to push it a bit to see if I could catch up to him. I kept pushing, straining my eyes for a glimpse so I know whether I’m actually reeling him in.

In my head, I knew that something was wrong. Just that morning, my legs would not move. I spent the winter sitting on the sofa and drinking milkshakes. This was my 4th ride of the season. There is no way I should feel so good with my riding. Was I returning to form? Not last year’s form, but my form from years ago, mountain biking, weight training, and in great shape!  This couldn’t be happening, yet the miles were clocking by and I was maintaining the pace. Perhaps my home cardio workouts on the elliptical machine work after all?  Eventually I hear Kary behind me, “Great pace!” Yes, this is for real! Look out. FAST Eddie is back, and he’s baaaaad! Time to get a new bike, with white bar tape and matching white shoes, ‘cause there’s going to be some real riding coming along.

We eventually regrouped as we re-entered the 10 mph zone. It felt good to hear Kary and William talk about how they struggled to keep up, as I haven’t felt this good in such a long time. The elation continued as we returned to the Renton Community Center, as we posed for a group shot, and as I drove home. The excitement percolated in me as I put my gear away, as I showered and dressed, as I ate lunch, and as I started to download the day’s ride from my Garmin bike computer. I thought about all the riding I had done in the past few years, where I struggled to push my cranks, fell behind the groups, unable to generate wattage. But this felt like a new day, knowing that I was able to turn it on once again.

As the good feelings of a great ride were still buzzing in my head, I started to look at my Garmin’s data. And that’s when my heart hit the bottom, and I felt the greatest moment of suffering for the day. The section where I experienced the riding glory, where I felt unstoppable, where, like Rocky Balboa, I was about to defeat Apollo Creed for the Heavyweight title. That section of the ride, and indeed for the entire return ride, the elevation, it was all downhill. But I suppose that’s how the saying goes.

-Fa(s)t Eddie

 

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2 comments

  1. Hiepster

    Very nice Eddie. Your “riding” is keeping pace nicely with your writing ;)

  2. blueneck

    I heard about the pastry drop – we missed you yesterday. I could have used some help in the headwind!

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