Sunday, September 9, 2007

Call It A Loan

After four months at Cornell, living among the peaceful surroundings of the New York Finger lakes, I am long overdue for a blog or two about my experiences here. I haven't blogged in two months. I am unable to point to a simple reason for my recently weak blog activity, but whatever the reason, it is undoubtedly related to the minimal amount of cycling that I have been doing. I have not been very successful at making the time to cycle, and it seems that as my cycling suffers, so does my focus on writing and photography.

But if cycling provides such a strong motivation for writing, why not, in its absence, leverage a little cycling nostalgia for similar motivation? It may not be a sustainable source of motivation, but it might just be the sort of stimulus needed to get things back on track. If a person cannot find the motivation to make the proverbial trip to the well for an honest drink, can they not borrow a drink so that they may become refreshed enough to resume the trip?

Surely, there is little moral hazard in momentarily setting aside real living for an occasional trip down memory lane, no? Besides, it is not as if I am advocating setting aside responsible and sustainable socio-economic policies in favor of re-slashing interest rates and printing money. If I did that, you might think that I was an out-of-control crack whore. I am merely looking to dip into my savings account of personal experiences to buy a little motivation. I promise to pay it back.

Today, 6000 cyclists are riding the annual Transportation Alternatives 100 mile ride through New York City. In past years, I would be on that ride, experiencing more of New York City on a single Sunday than I normally care to in an entire year. I should be on that ride today, but I stayed put in Ithaca to collect some research data from a vineyard experiment. Now, I find myself rained out of the vineyard and left sitting in the apartment with little to do but study and blog.

I realize that some of you may be doubting the quality of a 100 mile ride through a single city. You may be picturing a chaotic cumulus of cyclists, repeatedly careening and colliding around a ten mile circuit of coned-off streets. But, apart from some inevitable colliding, the actual experience is quite different. New York City is much larger than most people think. The 100 mile route, which circumnavigates Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, does not include any repeated sections, and probably covers less than 1% of what is worth seeing there.

You might also think that traffic would ruin the ride, but the NYPD does an admirable job of keeping intersections open in the more congested areas of the city. In fact, the police do such a good job that it can sometimes be a little unnerving, in an amusing sort of way. It is not unusual for a patrol car to squawk a siren, or for a beat cop to blow a whistle at a cyclist -- while simultaneously signaling for the cyclist to run the red light and keeping some annoyed motorists at bay. I never really get used to that. For some reason, my instinctive reaction to the siren and whistle is to sprint toward the nearest alleyway in an attempt to evade arrest.

During this ride, cyclists are more of a danger than cars. So, to avoid the chaos among the gaggle of once-a-year long distance cyclists, I make a point to try and leave with the first group of fast riders at 6 am. The decision to leave with the fast group definitely reduces the risk of tangling with the spastic riders, but it is still a calculated risk that has a downside. The downside of leaving early is that I inevitably get dropped about 30 miles into the ride when the terrain opens up and becomes well suited for fast group riding. Until that point, my speed off-the-line keeps me in the pack as we stop and start our way out of Manhattan toward the bay. But after the route opens up, I struggle for what feels like an eternity among the leaders at 28 mph. Then I get dropped.

I always meet David in the city for this ride, and we start out together. At the point where I get dropped, it's a coin toss as to whether he stays with the lead group or drops off with me. I have a strong suspicion, however, that the alleged coin is actually a subway token. So at this point in the ride, I am well ahead of the 5900-strong pack of disease riders, but hopelessly dropped from the lead group. I am essentially left to tour Queens and the Bronx, on or off the official route, on my own.

This is not such a tragedy. I'm used to improvising my way through just about anything, sometimes even successfully. Besides, being isolated in the remote areas of the city adds to the authenticity of the New York experience. In fact, two of my most lucid memories of the annual TA century ride involve being threatened by locals. The first was a group of high school kids in Jamaica, Queens. Apparently the long morning of heavy drinking from paper bags left them with the impression that my name was Puto and that I had something that belonged to them -- although exactly what that something was, I couldn't be sure. It's times like that when I wish that I was more diligent about my Spanish studies.

The second was while I was lost in a forsaken section of the Bronx, and was nearly run down by a deranged mutant driving some kind of pimped-up Rascal electric scooter. I was so distracted trying not to flat on the debris scattered around the burned out cars, that he was almost on me when he sprung his trap -- suddenly announcing his presence by powering on the 1980's boom box that was bungeed to his handlebar shopping basket, and opening the throttle wide while aiming for my back wheel. You just don't get those kinds of experiences when you stay with the group. Did I mention that I'm a pretty good sprinter?

Leaving the group, or otherwise exposing oneself to the randomness of the road is a calculated risk. The greater the potential for a meaningful experience, the more risk is warranted. Back when I used to mountain bike on loosely packed canyon-side single-track trails in the mountains of North Carolina, I developed a pretty good understanding of the economics of personal risk on a bicycle. But I was younger then, and it was not until last year while riding my first transcontinental, that I developed a fuller understanding of the subject.

I was riding a scheduled 100 mile segment of Route 66 that ran through edge of the Ozark mountains. There was a lot of tough climbing -- mostly short rollers, but often at 15+% grade. It was pouring rain when we started that morning, which made me a little nervous about the infection that I had been trying to manage over the past few days. Don't ask. If you have done long haul touring, you might have some idea of what I am talking about. If you have not, then you don't want to know. The rain kept up throughout the day, and a lot of people bailed on the route that day and jumped into one of the support vehicles. I rode with a small group of guys who shared my desire to ride every mile of the tour.

Somewhere in the early afternoon, the weather got crazy. The rain was coming down so hard that we couldn't see more than ten feet in front of us, and the wind picked up to somewhere in the 30-40 mph range. The remnant of some hurricane, whose pansy name I can't immediately recall, was passing through. The road was flooding and cars were starting to stall out. My companions began shouting and pointing to a carport shelter at a nearby car dealership. They wanted to get to it for cover and were trying to get us organized to cross the highway safely.

At this point, I also starting shouting above the storm, trying to get them to reconsider. "Don't you get it?! We have a thirty mile per hour tail wind! We can't stop now!". I lost the argument and we found shelter, but as I realized that the weather was not going to let up, that the sun was getting lower in the sky, and that we were starting to get hypothermic, I left the shelter. No amount of risk on the road that day was going to put and end to the success of my first transcontinental ride, so I popped another Augmentin and went back out into the mountains in the rain. I was followed by two other riders who had also come around to seeing the potential value in the risk. I spent the rest of the ride lamenting the lost opportunity to ride that tailwind into the storm.

In addition to gaining insight about my personal limits for risk on a bicycle, I learned something else that day. I solidified a lingering belief that a life out of balance is just that - a life out of balance. External forces may sometimes conspire to push things off-center, but ultimately the balance of any life is a reflection of the choices made by the owner of that life. My experience that day in the mountains of Missouri was proof that my retirement from corporate America had hardly brought on the day-to-day life-balancing changes that I had thought it would. Instead, I had moved on to another all-encompassing lifestyle, just as I seem to be doing again now.

I have no idea how many people manage to find a day-to-day balance in life, or how many even care to look for it. But, for those of us who continue to look, perhaps we can find some satisfaction in believing that as we move from one manifestation of imbalance to the next, the new extremes are of sufficiently different character to offset those of the past. Perhaps the sum total of each of our lives, when it is all said and done, will be a net balance.

Personally, I know that choosing to find more time to cycle, in between studying and research, would be a meaningful step toward finding that day-to-day balance. So, I'm not giving up so easily today. I am putting down the books and going out for a ride right now. Thunderstorms? Ha. I'm going to make good on that loan.

Photo Journal

Click here for a few random photos from a recent ride lost in the woods, and a not-so-recent day in the vineyards.


At December 31, 2007 6:12 PM , Anonymous Marcia said...

A sublime riff on our chilhood teeter-totters....which now have wheels.
Happy New Year,
from one in flux to another.


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