Sunday, March 4, 2012

First Ride Of The Season (April 2011)

When the calendar reaches March 21st, I become anxious.  I’m not talking “little kid on Christmas Eve” anxious.  It’s more the stereotypical “junkie on a crime drama” anxious.  I’m wearing a rut in the carpet pacing back and forth in front of the window, peering through the blinds for Mother Nature to deliver my fix.  “Bitch better get here soon or I’m about to go all kinds of crazy!”

If I haven’t been out on my first bike ride by the time the calendar officially announces the arrival of spring, my mood darkens and my nerves become frayed.  Irritability sets in.  I’m a powder keg in the middle of a place where there’s lots of dry stuff that burns easily.  Some brave soul needs to scoop me up and carry me outside before it’s too late.

Each and every day that passes without a ride is a day lost to eternity.  My already short season is being pilfered right under my nose and there’s not a damn thing I can do to stop it.  Sure, I can bundle up, toughen up, and take whatever the weather gods can throw at me.  Plenty of better men (and women) than I do it every day in urban centers like Minneapolis and Chicago.  Riding in suburbia, I just don’t want to create a distraction for unsuspecting motorists who are concentrating intently on applying make-up, shaving, eating breakfast, and reading texts while they happen to be behind the wheel of a two-ton assault weapon.

Twelve days had passed without a reprieve from thirty degree weather.  Each new morning brought the dreaded realization that it would be another day of working out at the gym.  At some point, you begin to feel like an understudy for a Broadway production.  You prepare.  You rehearse.  You improve.  You perfect.  And then you wait for your time in the limelight.  But that time never seems to come because Donny Osmond likes doing three shows a day, seven days a week, and he never gets sick or takes a vacation.

Don’t get me wrong, training is important.  It strengthens the heart.  It improves breathing.  It conditions the legs.  It keeps you in shape.  Properly motivated, you can progress past that insurmountable plateau.  You can simulate just about everything riding indoors with the notable exception of the wind.  Unfortunately, riding without the wind is like stepping out on a stage without an audience.  You remain completely detached and disconnected until you feel the energy in the air.

It’s the energy in the air that makes cycling sensational.  The moment you throw a leg over your bike, you feel the air on your skin.  As you roll forward you feel the breeze on your face, even if there isn’t any wind.  You create your own wind as you slice through the air with each pedal stroke.  Each of your senses comes to life as you propel yourself onward to your destination, even if you’re going nowhere in particular.

There is no sensation on a stationary bike at the gym.  Your eyes aren’t scanning the horizon, glimpsing the periphery, or surveying the path unfolding in front of your front wheel.  Your ears aren’t serenaded by the sounds of nature while simultaneously in tune with the hum of an approaching car.  You aren’t exchanging crisp, clean, outdoor air with the carbon dioxide you expel from your lungs.  You aren’t smelling the wildflowers and trees coming into bloom.  You aren’t tasting spring.

At the gym, your bike doesn’t sway back and forth beneath you as you adjust your cadence to the slightest change in the terrain.  The gym bike remains perfectly stationary.  It is stiff, still, and devoid of any feedback as you pedal endlessly without moving an inch.  Even if your stationary bike is your favorite road bike mounted on a trainer in your basement, it still remains relatively lifeless.  There is a familiarity about it, but it’s like date night at home; you’re spending time together watching a movie you’ve seen one hundred times before when you both would rather be out dancing.

By the first weekend in April, I was more than ready to take my best girl out on the town.  With a high hovering around fifty degrees and a strong wind out of the northwest, my riding buddies politely declined my invitation to double date.  I can’t say that I blame them.  It was far from the shirts-off, sunny days of summer.  The sun was hiding behind some heavy gray clouds, leaves had yet to even form buds, and no one had bothered to check the condition of the bike path, let alone prepare it.  Undaunted, I decided to venture out on my own.

The moment I rolled down the driveway I felt instantly alive.  My mind was focused.  My senses were alert.  My feet began dancing on the pedals.  I felt the crisp, cold air against my cheeks while the tailwind propelled me rapidly down my street to the menacing two-lane road that stands between me and cycling nirvana.  When the traffic in each direction cleared, I took a deep breath and pedaled furiously along the heavily traveled state highway someone conveniently forgot to add a paved shoulder to.  An easy right turn at the stoplight and I was safely on my way down a tree-lined, rolling, lightly traveled secondary road with a 2-foot shoulder.  Four miles, a stop sign, and two traffic lights later, I was at the forest preserve trail.

I love paved bike paths that loop around a forest preserve.  No matter which direction you choose to ride,  you will always encounter an equal amount of wind resistance.  Not really giving it much thought, I chose to ride counter-clockwise.  The first two miles were directly into the wind as I traveled straight west through the open prairie.  It was cold and it was certainly more strenuous than the ride down, but it was bearable.  As soon as I hit the curve that carried me south, the resistance was gone and I was ready to fly.

The wind can be your invisible friend or your elusive enemy.  When it’s got your back, you’re invincible!  Everything comes effortlessly.  You race through the flats.  You zoom down hills.  You even power up short climbs.  You forget that your invisible friend is even there and you begin to suffer delusions of grandeur.  As you pedal more furiously, dopamine surges and you literally begin to feel intoxicated.  The passing trees don’t become animated like the ones in H R Puffinstuff, but they do seem less ominous, even without any leaves.  It’s still very early spring and everything remains dull and gray.  For a moment, though, I can actually envision some color, although nothing remotely psychedelic.

The endorphin high I was experiencing quickly evaporated when I hit the next curve and headed back north.  My invisible friend was no longer pushing me along.  He suddenly became the middle school bully.  He shoved his palm into my forehead and held me at arm’s length as I attempted to evade his stronghold.  The more I pushed against him, the more he pushed back.  I flailed away spastically only to realize that I would tire out long before he would.  As I dipped my head lower I could feel his control weaken, but he was definitely still in charge.  I geared down, picked up my cadence, and moved slowly homeward.

The last half of my ride was unpleasant.  I was cold.  I was expending a great deal of energy.  I was going nowhere, very slowly.  It was ten times more difficult than any hill simulation on the stationary bike.  It wasn’t solely about pushing hard and feeling the burn.  It wasn’t about enduring pain while strengthening targeted muscles.  It was more about enduring sensory overload.

Everything I had felt while zipping down to the bike trail – the breeze on my face, the clean air in my lungs, the taste of spring – was still there.  Instead of being inviting and invigorating, it became frustrating.  I still desired it.  I still could feel it.  I just needed to work physically harder to appreciate it.  My body was being asked to multitask, to dig deep into its physical reserves while still enjoying the multisensory experience that I had been longing for all winter.  I was experiencing pleasure and pain simultaneously.

When I arrived home, nose running, ears red, and a chill setting in from the sweat trapped between my wool jersey and rapidly cooling body, I took a deep breath.  As my heart rate returned to normal, I felt a wave of calm envelop me.  I felt a surge of energy return as I adjusted to the inside temperature of my house.  I felt alive for the first time in many months.  My spring had finally arrived.

As I write this, spring has taken yet another shot at depressing me.  I have only been out eight times in twenty six days.  There have been entire week long stretches where only the most diehard among us would dare venture out.  There is but one day in the next week’s forecast that doesn’t show rain and a temperature approaching sixty degrees.  It’s aggravating.  It’s annoying.  It’s frustrating.  But I refuse to be depressed.

I can endure another week or two of indoor cycling.  My turn on stage is coming.  I will be dancing with my bike again very soon.  I just need to make sure that my imagination doesn’t get the best of me while I’m on the stationary bike.  People will think I’m strange if I take a deep breath and savor the rank air of the cardio studio.

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