Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Tao of Cycling


I’ve been reading a bit about Taoism lately because December 27 is Ta Chiu, the Taoist festival of peace.  While I’m certainly no expert--my understanding of Taoism is more The Tao of Pooh than Tao Te Ching--I do know a thing or two.  Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy, or religion depending on who you ask, that embraces harmonious living with the natural world.  In a nutshell, it’s the concept that things in their original simplicity, such as an uncarved block of stone, contain their own natural power.  But the power is lost when that simplicity is changed, like when a chisel is taken to the uncarved block. As people, our simplicity is lost when we add arrogance, pride, selfishness and busyness to our lives.

This has got me thinking about cycling (what doesn’t?).  Cycling itself is a very simple, harmonious pastime.  It’s fun, it’s practical, people of all ages can and do enjoy doing it.  But we have complicated the uncarved block that is riding a bicycle by racing them, by making them into beasts of burden, by making them immobile.   

So what is the Taoist approach to riding a bike?  What form of riding is in greatest harmony with nature?  I’m not exactly sure, but there are a few cycling disciplines I know are not Taoist. 

Racing is absolutely not a Taoist thing to do.  If you ever see me, or any other racer, fuss about in preparation for a race you’ll quickly see there is no natural harmony involved.  Nutrition, hydration, lubrication, tire pressure, sunscreen, eyeglass lens color, I could go on and on.  It all has to be just so, calculated and exact.  Otherwise there’s no point in racing.  Somewhere amidst all that chaos the simple act of riding a bicycle is lost.  No, racing is more of a Confucian activity.  Confucius tells a story of a master who would not sit on his mat unless it was straight.  Imagine trying to be that master’s bike mechanic!

Bicycle commuting is not a Taoist thing either.  I know, just last week I said that riding to work is the highest use of a bicycle, and I still believe that; but by assigning the purpose of getting to work to a bicycle ride the bicycle commuter is taking a chisel to the uncarved block.  She’s carving her ride into something utilitarian instead of simply riding for the pleasure of riding.  As a bicycle commuter I also know that there is nothing simple about riding a bicycle in rush hour traffic, or about seeking out streets with the least traffic and the widest shoulders.  A commuter busies himself choosing between the safety of the side roads and the directness of the main thoroughfares.  The only harmony for the bicycle commuter occurs in his mind; the harmony that comes from making one’s way through the melee of a typical morning commute that he did not create and that he has consciously chosen not to participate in.  No, commuting is more of a Zen activity, where the world is a revolving wheel of pain with bitter and oppressive winds and where man’s purpose is to transcend it.  The bitter winds of traffic lights and myopic drivers stand in stark contrast to the windless state that Zen Buddhists call Nirvana and that this bicycle commuter calls the highlight of his day.   

What then is the Taoist form of cycling?  Like I said, I don’t exactly know, and I believe it is different for everybody, but I believe the life of a bicycle tourist is the closest fit to the natural harmony and simplicity that Lao Tzu described. 

The Tao is about allowing nature to fill in the void spaces that are not already filled in.  This is a perfect description of a bicycle tourist’s day.  She doesn’t always know exactly where her ride that day will take her and she doesn’t know what will happen to her on the way.  All she can do is turn the pedals and take things as they come.  Bicycle touring also reinforces the Taoist concept of simplicity.  Tourists don’t encumber themselves with needless or frivolous items that slow them down.  Frugality comes natural to the touring cyclist because if she can’t eat it or use it immediately, she doesn’t buy it. 

On a bicycle tour, nothing is something, and some things are really nothing at all.  In that way, touring is the most childlike form of cycling.  On a tour a cyclist can go wherever he pleases.  He has no deadlines, agendas, or meetings to parcel his day.  When something comes along the road that interests him he can stop and investigate it for as long as he likes.  Or he doesn’t have to stop at all.  And most childlike of all, a bicycle tourist burns enough Calories that he can eat as much of anything he wants.

What do you think?  What form of riding is in greatest harmony with nature?  Tell me what your uncarved block that is a bicycle ride looks like. 

Friday, December 21, 2007

Department store bikes

Some time ago, due to a forgotten piece of equipment, I made a trip to a local bike shop I normally don’t visit.  I don’t go to many bike shops because I’m partial to Racer’s Cycle Service, where I’ve been a regular since the Clinton Administration. 

I like Racer’s shop because it feels right.  When I walk in the front door I’m greeted with the smell of grease, degreaser, Stan’s NoTubes and sometimes smelly dogs.  I like to think that smell is shop’s soul.

There is a shop down the street from my house that has an entirely different smell.  When I open the door there I’m confronted with the smell of new tires, new clothes, and (I suspect) commission-driven sales staff.  I don’t smell any soul at all. 

The local shop where I went to replace my forgotten equipment smelled like degreaser.  The man who helped me was wearing a shop apron, with actual bicycle grease on it.  The repair stands were in plain view, not hidden in the back like at my soulless neighborhood shop.  I could tell I had found a shop with soul. 

Until I walked out the door and saw this sign in the front window. 


I have worked at a bike shop.  I know how much of a hassle working on department store bikes can be.  I mean, they’re not meant to be repaired, their makers’ business models rely upon you buying one of their bikes, putting it in the garage and throwing it out when the tires go flat.  Often it’s cheaper to replace the whole bike than to pay for parts and labor on a repair—especially since they can be so difficult to repair.  So I understand why this shop might feel that working on department store bikes is not worth their time. 

It’s not just this shop either.  Check out this tirade about department store bikes.  He says a cheap bike has recently appeared at his office bike rack. I don’t care where a person buys their bike if they actually ride it to work. 

Same goes for the local bike shop that won’t work on department store bikes.  If the bike needs repair, it means that it’s probably getting ridden—and any bike that actually gets ridden deserves the all the care and service necessary to keep it safe, serviceable and fun.

In 2005 Bicycling Magazine published an article about one group of people that rides department store bikes.  It calls them the invisible riders because they “don’t ride for fun, fitness or camaraderie.  They ride to stay alive, earn money, and support their families.”  It is the best article Bicycling Magazine has ever published.  You can read it here

There are invisible riders everywhere.  The easiest way to spot them, aside from their department store bike, is that they’re likely riding on the wrong side of the road.  They’re riding to some of the most physically demanding, lowest paying, and spiritually demeaning jobs our society has created.  Ask any one of them and I’m sure he’ll tell you that he’d rather be driving a car, but he’ll also tell you that his bike is his ticket to freedom.  He rides to survive, to support himself and his family, and hopefully one day to bring financial security. 

It is the highest use of the bicycle.  And that bicycle deserves to be repaired. 

Monday, December 17, 2007

Maybe you don't care...but you should

Hey Gang, I'm in Rico, Colorado and I just had my third consecutive weekend of riding over snowy trails.  But I'm no dummy.  This time I'm doing it on my cross country skis.  Let me tell you, turning  a corner at 20 mph is much easier (and more fun) on skinny skis than skinny tires.   While I enjoy this winter wonderland, Ryan has still been riding and thinking about stuff.  And you're fortunate that he's willing to share it with all of you loyal Hooptedoodle readers. 

For those of you who don’t pay attention to any of the sports outside cycling the “George Mitchell Report” was released last Thursday.  Contained in the Mitchell Report were the findings of an investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball.  The report concluded, among other things, that the “steroid area” began in about 1988 and went until…well…..I’d say last Thursday. Eighty-nine players were named in the report.  Names such as Roger Clemens (of course.), Lenny Dykstra, (really?), and Mo Vaughn (MVP eh?) were on the list along with many others you have heard of and others you haven’t. 

I know, I know.  Many of you think, “Who cares?”   Well, I do.  Looking back many of the players listed do not surprise me at all.  I always doubted that Roger Clemens could be that dominant in his 40’s.  I always thought it was more than   coincidence that Barry Bond’s hat size grew as fast as his single season home run totals.  I am not disappointed that these “larger than life” heroes are tarnished, what bugs me is that no one seems to care.

At first I didn’t either.  That was until a few Sundays ago.   On a warm November day I set up a ‘cross course in my backyard for my three year old son, Matt.  After watching me race all season he wanted to participate himself.  So he and I set up a course complete with barriers (overturned wagon), a run up (over the deck) along with concrete and grass. 


I explained to Matt the rules, or at least the ones he would care about, and off we went.  To my surprise Matt was really into this race.  He would dismount his big wheel to get over the barrier and the run-up and rode his bike with a reckless abandon that I had not seen before.  It was great and we’ve had a few other races since then. 


So why should you care?

As a baseball fan, competitor, and a person who strives to have integrity it makes me furious that everyone wants baseball to “move on”.  I typically don’t pay much attention to sportswriters or care that much about their opinions, but it seems that everyone wants to treat this as some sort of “growing pain” in baseball.  Not me, not anymore.  Baseball owes it to the sport, their fans and the athletes (good and bad) to set an example that this is NOT what they wanted and treat it as such.  They should start by investigating every lead they have.  If they find that a player was using performance enhancing drugs, erase their stats for that period of time, take the championships that their teams have won out of the record books, and if they are still playing give them the proper suspensions.  Last but not least, start a real testing program.  Take a class from professional cycling, at times they make it look like a witch hunt, but at least they are trying.

You see, some day my son will take interest in something other than his parents, and when he does he will look for certain role models in his particular field.  It might be baseball, cycling, science, writing or whatever.  I want him to believe that the accomplishments that the people he chooses to look up to came by hard work and desire, not cheating.  I don’t want him to have to “decide” that if he wants to take (insert profession here) seriously how he should go about “getting ahead”.   And don’t give me that crap about parents should strive to be role models for their kids, and that athletes, aren’t role models, blah, blah, blah...  It’s been a while, but I still remember what it was like to be a teenager; I still looked up to my parents, but I also started to notice everyone else.

So Major League Baseball, there's two out in the bottom of the ninth.  It's time to step up to the plate and make some tough choices. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More race photos

As promised, I’ve got a few more photos from the race on Saturday.  But first I must say that I think everybody should have one bike with baskets.  We find uses for it all the time, like going to the local tubing hill…


Here’s my brother, Darren, learning how a race this short can hurt so much.


A couple of me before my handlebars broke...



and one of me on Racer's bike after my handlebars broke...


One more post-race shot...


Finally, Racer made a video of Me, him and Dan.  It's kind of long, but there are some good shots of us.  I was surprised to see how slow we we're going.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ft. Buenaventura race report


One detail I left out of my race report last week was that I slightly bent my handlebars on one of my four crashes (two warming up, two during the race).  The bend wasn’t too bad; hardly noticeable in fact.  The drops were just slightly bent inward on the right side.  There was only one more race in the cyclocross season so I decided I would replace them after that. 

My handlebars had a different plan.  Saturday’s race course was the sloppiest mud bog I’ve ever willfully ridden my bike through.  Repeatedly.  Someone said it was like riding through creamy peanut butter for 60 minutes.  The mud made it slow and sucked power from my legs. 

There was a log, maybe 10 inches in diameter, across the trail at the south end of the course.  My brother, who did his first ever cyclocross race that morning—and did remarkably  well considering his full suspension 29er mountain bike was undoubtedly the heaviest bike on the course—told me that most racers were dismounting and running over the log but that it was rideable. 

When my group came to the log in the first lap somebody in front dismounted and ran over the log.  That caused a bottleneck so all of us behind had to get off and do the same thing.  The next time around the group had spread out enough that I decided to ride it.  I picked my front wheel up and put it on top of the log.  My momentum carried me forward and, at the exact instant my back wheel hit the log, my front wheel hit the ground.  Also in that exact instant, my handlebars decided that seven and a half years of abuse is all they would take.  They snapped at the right side, right at the stem.  Next thing I knew I was picking myself up out of the mud.


I stood there perplexed for a minute.  I think I was slightly relieved that I wouldn’t have to keep racing in those conditions.  Finally I got back on and rode (yes, I could still ride with my left hand on the bars and my right hand on the stem.  The only tricky part was getting through the mud.) backwards along the course back to the pit area. 

I would have been content to drop out and go home, but Dan, one of my teammates, offered his bike to me.  It was too small but we raised the seat as much as possible and I set out for a lap.   Meanwhile, Dan tracked down Racer’s single speed, which is my size, and had it waiting for me the next time I came through the pit. 

It turns out the single speed was the ideal bike for racing in those conditions—you were right Jon—because there are no derailleurs to get gunked up in the mud.   I rode hard, crashed only once more, never had my chain fall off, and even passed a couple competitors to finish 10th out of 13. 

It’s been a costly season.  I hope I learned a few things, like maybe that when it snows like is has the past two Saturdays to leave the bike at home and bring out the skis.

I should have more photos of the race soon.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Small stuff


Some of you may remember Richard Carlson’s feel-good bestseller from 1997.  Come on, you can admit it if your read it.  I read it.   

I don’t mean to knock Carlson’s premise, but there are times when you really should sweat the small stuff.  I found out Saturday that a cyclocross race is one of those times.

Usually, for example, pulling your front brake is a sweatless way to stop your bike, but when the trails look like this, pulling your front brake is an invitation to get up close and personal with the snow. 


Most of us don’t sweat about treating our bikes as beasts of burden.  But when those roles are reversed, even guys like Ryan work up a sweat.


Keeping my chain on a chain ring is another thing I don’t sweat over—except in cyclocross.  This happened to me three times on Saturday... 


Finally, small things like tripping over your front wheel can really slow you down.  With just three laps to go I worked really hard to reel in two competitors.  I finally caught them at the base of the uphill run.  I moved around both of them on the hill, thanks to my long, gangly legs, but somewhere near the top I lost my focus for long enough to actually step on my front wheel.  I didn’t fall completely over, but I did lose a lot of time untangling my foot from my spokes.  This actually happened twice, and in a race that only lasts an hour, there isn’t time to not sweat over small stuff like that. 


Richard Carlson obviously doesn’t race ‘cross.

P.S.  Here's a little video of one of the races.  There's some good shots of Ryan.