One of the things I've learned is that if I pamper myself, I end up being sicker, longer. So, I've gotten into the habit of plotting, at the first sign of sickness, when to get back on the bike.
I can't always do it right away. On Wednesday night I got on the trainer, turned the pedals once, and got off. Nope, not happening. I was weak as a kitten.
Thursday was the day, though. I went to Kempton Baker's spinning class, equipped with Snausages, and a resolve to take it easy, be reasonable, just spin lightly, you're sick, don't kill yourself.
Fifteen minutes into the class, I was bereft of both Snausages (good job, Jack!) and resolve. I think I put in about a 75% effort. And on this day, Kempton was on some sort of hallucinate-or-die vision quest or something. It was definitely a high resistance, high cadence, endurance day. A consolidation day. For my classmates who were able to do the full 100%, I salute you. I had on my Sean Kelly face. And, yes, I was drooling.
That effort, after being off the bike (and weak) for nearly a week, triggered the mother of all endorphin surges. That afternoon, I sat at my desk, intensely happy, with my mind skipping from memory to memory, a twining of music and cycling.
I have a bit of a crush on Kate Pierson of the B-52's. It's been said that Bessie Smith's voice could make a man get up from the audience, and walk onto the stage, without realizing what he was doing. Well, Kate Pierson's voice can make me get on a bike and ride and ride and ride til I've rid myself silly.
I remember first hearing the song Shiny Happy People, pairing R.E.M. with Kate. It was in Philadelphia. I was having my hair cut by Kevin Gallagher, father of my son's best friend, Ian, and husband of one of Nick's Montessori pre-school teachers. Kevin was an artist-turned-hairdresser; later he would take up bike racing. He and his wife Lisa ultimately bought a mansion on The Wall in Manayunk. Anyway, when I heard Kate's voice, I melted, absolutely melted.
Of course, R.E.M. has always had a very special place in my heart when it comes to cycling. R.E.M. was in my ears in the summer of 1985, the summer I spent in Chicago. It was a weird time. My then-wife was working at a summer internship at a law firm, and I was rail-commuting from Chicago to Ann Arbor for my job. For me, that meant working at home several days a week, so I was the primary caregiver for Nick, who was only nine months old at the time.
We were living in a basement apartment in a little neighborhood just north of Lincoln Park, a nice enough place. The owner had left his record collection, which enabled me to find Roxy Music's album Avalon, on which I wore out More Than This. But since I was taking care of Nick, I had to do some pretty crazy things to get my riding in. For instance, I used to get up at 4:30 A.M. so I could be on the road by 5:00, riding up toward Kenilworth. On the ride back down, I'd hit rush hour traffic. I fancied myself a sprinter in those days, so I'd motor-pace behind cars at 35 m.p.h., with no helmet (this was the age of leather hairnets), on Ashland Ave. I was in a rush to get back home by 8:30, so Nick's mom could head off for work.
The other thing I'd do was train at Northbrook velodrome. My genius plan was to set up Nick in a playpen in the infield, and then ride around. My plan had two flaws. First, I didn't want to make two trips from the car to the track (which was a bit of a walk away from the parking), because I didn't want to leave Nick alone in the car, or at the track. So, I'd carry Nick and the playpen and the bike and the floor pump, all at once. Second, Nick didn't want to be left alone in the middle of this huge field, seeing his Dad whiz by every 30 seconds. Poor kid. I think I scarred him for life. But I did learn to sprint at a top speed of 42 m.p.h. The national Veterans' Pursuit Champion was also training there, and he did a bit of mentoring with me. He got me doing 1K time trials, using sophisticated instrumentation to gauge my effort: "If you don't feel like throwing up, you're not going hard enough; if you throw up, you're going too hard."
(Ed. note, post-fugue: What I called "sprinting at 42 mph" in this paragraph was actually just riding a track bike at a velodrome at that speed, taking advantage of the banking. It wasn't sprinting. Sprinting is quite something else, an art, involving at least two riders, calling on both strength and tactical skill. In this sense, I never sprinted on a track.)
Another thing I'd do to squeeze in some training was to ride the rollers during Nick's nap-times. My brother-in-law had given me a pirated copy of R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction, and Maps and Legends was the perfect song for the rollers.
On weekends, everyone would head up to Kenilworth. On both Saturday and Sunday, well over 100 cyclists would converge on Kenilworth Cyclery, and take over the roads north of Chicago for an informal mass-start race. We'd all ride out together, and then when we got to a certain point -- I believe it was just after we crossed a highway overpass -- the race was on. There were some high quality riders there. Once someone pointed out a guy in a 7-Eleven uniform and said it was Alex Stieda. Was it? Who knows? But it was plausible.
It was in these Kenilworth races that I first realized that bike racing would never be my day job. I was in a group of three, trying to bridge from the peleton to the Category I and II riders up head (who for us, were "the break"). I was burying myself to make it work, but after a few minutes, one of the guys sat up and said to the other "well, we've just been blocked." I was humiliated and broken. Think: Charlie Brown, leaving the stage of the school Christmas pageant, after Lucy calls him a blockhead, and all the other kids laugh at him in eerie unison.(Editor's note, post-fugue: What do you think of this as a jersey design?)
But even if that was the beginning of the end of my dreams of bike racing greatness, it was still a shimmering time. In Cuyahoga, Michael Stipe reminisces:
Bank the quarry, river swim.I don't know what this means (any more than I know what any of what Michael Stipe sings means). But, whenever I hear this, I feel the magic of hot rural summers in the Midwest, before suburban sprawl, when kids had time to learn and explore the world around them. The summers of Bloomington, Indiana (where Carol used to teach and ride), of Breaking Away.
We knee-skinned it you and me,
We knee-skinned that river red
I know these summers. I started cycling in Ann Arbor. I remember how wonderfully easy it was to get out to Dexter on Huron River Drive, and from Dexter to Parker Road, flat as a pancake, surrounded by farmers' fields as far as you could see. Where you'd encounter more tractors and horses than cars. If we were ambitious, we'd ride Dexter-Chelsea Rd., hoping for the Amtrak to go by so we could race it into Chelsea. The Cat II's would then ride on to Silver Lake.
The two Cat II's I remember are Angelo Chinni and Wild Bill Corliss. I was saddened to learn that Bill died recently in a bike crash. He went down at the back of a group a cyclists riding in Utah, and then was hit by a truck. But Bill was making a living in cycling, working as Director of Development for Specialty Electronics, for Bell Specialty, and as a mentor for the Park City Bicycling Academy. I can still remember when Bill got his brand new frame from Mark Nobilette . He was like a kid at Christmas! (Trying to remember what Bill rode before that, but I can't. Ed. note, post-fugue: Bill's brother Greg has filled in this gap -- it was an Eisentraut) I'm not sure what happened to Angelo. He was a very nice, and obviously very talented, kid. He was a protegé of Mike DeEstrada, a tough (and quite raunchy) little veteran with a heart of gold who lived out west in Jackson, but who was one of the centers of our racing community.
(Ed. note, post-fugue: It's no surprise that Bill ended up mentoring for PCBA. He was a natural mentor. I remember we were on a training ride he was leading, and he was looking after a couple of new guys. Inevitably, someone picked up the pace on a hill, and we followed. Bill caught up to us and told us that he was hanging back because one of the new guys had lost his lunch. I, being: 1) oxygen-deprived, 2) not familiar with the expression, and 3) just not that bright to begin with, earnestly offered to go back and help Bill look for it.)
If I didn't head northwest on Huron River Drive, I'd head up north on Pontiac Trail, and cut west on Eight Mile Rd to Whitmore Lake. At a certain point on Eight Mile, there was a farm dog who'd come whipping around the corner of the farmhouse, angling toward the road, to intercept me. That was my sprint training. I know this is also a scene in American Flyers, but I swear, I used to do this, this is not a "manufactured memory." And to go Kevin Costner one better: once, just as I thought I'd gotten away, my rear tire punctured. Thank God it didn't roll (we all used sew-ups then), and I was able to keep up enough speed til he lost interest. This happened! (We had all learned the value of riding on a flat when Roy Knickman won the Junior road championships in a sprint after his rear tire rolled on the last corner before the line.)
(Ed. note: The dog: I let him get away.)
These things, and many more, I remembered, sitting at my desk Thursday afternoon, as my memories overcame and overpowered me.
And now, a confession. I was happy to revisit these memories, so happy I was crying. I sat at my desk smiling, with tears streaming down my face. Luckily, I could pass off the sniffling as after-effects of my sickness.
By the end of the day, the surge had passed. Now I am on the mend. But it's been awhile since I've thought about these parts of my life. You know what? I have no regrets.
Except maybe leaving little Nick in that playpen in the infield of Northbrook velodrome.