Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gravity

My first real bike ride was to Pescadero. From home, around 72 miles and 5800 feet of climbing. Could not believe how hard that was. Hill after hill.

When people start riding a bike and getting an idea of what's possible, they get stars in their eyes and head for the hills. Usually it's springtime. The weather is a perfect mid-60's, trees and flowers are blooming, puffy white clouds against a blue sky. Everything supports taking a risk.

Invariably the risk-taking optimists come back beaten, disappointed. This was the case with someone on my team, a guy who'd been riding the flats to work for 3 years. One day he came to me and said "Sunday I tried climbing a hill on my bike. It was really hard."

It's the hardest thing there is. Why? You lift the weight of the bicycle (as well as your own weight) against gravity. It works special muscles in the legs that you don't have yet. There's an optimum speed; maybe those are the right gears on the bike, maybe not. Finally, the lungs, they insist on following a certain rhythm. They insist on oxygen. All of this has to come together.

Even when it does, it's hard. You'll feel the heart bursting against its own limitations and the ribs. This intensity propels you into a dream world, a parallel reality. You're being strangled, suffocated, drowned. The only relief comes from pushing on through. It gets better fast, by climbing more hills.

Roadside attraction
There are mind tricks that help. Like counting the steep pitches on Redwood Gulch (there are 3) to get through. As in here's the second switchback of the second pitch, just hang in...

Saturday for some reason no need of counting. My legs click right in and do their thing and voila! the little bump a few yards from the top. That's what we're after. That means fitness. 

At the top after turning a tight corner onto Highway 9, all that sprightliness and power goes away. 3 miles in the little ring. Lots of traffic in both directions. Please let me make it to Saratoga Gap before I expire.
Looking toward home

Plodding along, there's ample time to compare this sequence with the struggle with insurance companies and employers. The first hill is the one you think might kill you, the quiet steep hill of your disability. The second one, trafficky and longer, is the one you don't consider or budget for until you're there. It hits you on an empty stomach, 4 hours since breakfast.

Humans in office buildings design virtual landscapes and invisible forces for the rest of us to struggle against. It's not a clean feeling. A person climbing the Redwood Gulch of brain injury inspires them to put another climb at the top, one that will take 18 months. Run through your stores of food and glycogen and mental focus. 

I'm trapped, choking. Trying to cough up a small bitter pellet lodged just above my lungs. The betrayal of human contracts, burning its way out.

In a nutshell that's what makes all the suffering on the bike totally, laughingly great. No matter how many hills or how steep or how bad the day, it just is. No human designs the hills. No theater or politics needed. No meeting or lobbying or email thread deciding how high or steep they should be.

It's all about something invisible and unchanging and organic. That thing is your equal partner. Over time it will make you strong.

I'll take gravity, any day of the week.

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