The Unbearable Lightness of Biking

Winter Training

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And I’m pushing my feet and I’m going nowhere.  I am literally going nowhere: hundreds of miles into nowhere.  And this nowhere is some kind of home to me. This is what it means to train in a room with one other woman and we’re both sweating and we’re both hurting and we’re checking the numbers on the screen and we’re checking our legs and it feels like connection.  From myself to my self.

Yesterday, I went to hear some classical music at Kleinhans.  It’s this quartet and they are playing this music, but they aren’t just playing the music.  They are becoming the music.  Their bodies are moving; their faces are pain and anguish and delight and joy.  To see a concert violinist play her instrument is to see something profound.  It’s such a true experience.  So, this quartet is pulling the music out from themselves and offering it into our ears and it’s just so beautiful I could cry.  And that’s how I feel on my bike, when I’m really in love with my bike; I’m just on this thing that I’m propelling.  I’m making this experience worthwhile because of something deep within me.

Today on my bike, I’m seeing my numbers and I’m maintaining and I’m churning.  Churning. Churning.  When I train with my team, they say “Race face, Lex” because I have this habit of dropping my head down from how much it hurts, but today I keep my head up and I’m thinking about how light I feel at this moment and I’m also questioning some things.

Why do I ride my bike inside in the winter?  Why do I ride on this machine that takes me nowhere?  Why do I come here three or four times a week when I could be doing something else?  Why do I put myself in this state of being?

And the answer comes like tulips in spring.

It’s the beauty of the moment.  That feeling of power, of force.  It’s because I am going somewhere.  I am going somewhere inside myself.  I am finding a way into my truest self.  I am biking because I believe that I can do this.  I am training because I want to get better.  I am on here through the snow and the slush and the cold and the ice because I know that when I race, it will be these moments that I go to.  When I race this summer, it will be these moments behind me.

I don’t really like racing.  That’s the weird part.  I don’t like doing something I’m not amazing at.  This has been the hardest challenge.  I like winning.  I like being the best.   I like compliments.  I like people admiring me.  This is what I like.

I don’t like being last.

So, I get on this bike now and I say in my mind, “I refuse.”

I refuse to accept my current state.  I refuse to feel bad.  I refuse to be the worst.  I refuse this.

This isn’t to say I’m not to come in last.  It is very likely that I will come in last, but if I keep telling myself this then one day, one race, one moment, I will feel victorious.  This is the drive.  This is the condition.  This is the state of being.

The unbearable lightness of biking is that it feels like nothingness sometimes.  It feels existential.  It feels like it makes no sense; there are no definite reasons for doing this.  It feels pointless and without hope.  There have been races when I have been so alone out there.  There have been races when I am racing around in circles.

This is why some people say they don’t race crits.  This is the argument I was using before.  I didn’t race crits at first because I thought it’s pointless to race around in circles being last, bad, the worst.

However, this argument is flawed and invalid.  Life is circles.  Is it pointless to drive to work, do the work, drive home, get up the next day and drive to work, do the work, drive home?  No.  It is not pointless.  It is not pointless when it is meaning and it is meaningful because these experiences aren’t linear lines: they are moments, bloated, messy, pushing together, moments.  Endings are a man made concept.  It is all a blur.  We never turn distinctly from child to adult, from adult to elderly.  We are all the same.  It is all the same.  It is moments.  We are always all these things.  I am always still a child and an adult.  I am the moments before me and the moments I will have to come.

Training  is appreciating these moments.  Training is taking these moments by your hand and saying, “I want to experience these moments in this way.  I want to sweat during these moments.  I want to push my body in these moments.  I want to feel pain and suffering and then I want to feel reward in these moments.”

I find training to be an intensely meaningful experience because it tells me who I am.  It shows me how much I can do.  It makes me work and focus and feel joy.  It questions me each and every time, “Can you hold up?”
And I answer, I can.

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Midnight in my Heart

Winter Training

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It is midnight in my heart.  The streets are dark and the shops have all closed long ago.  I am alone and I can taste salt in my mouth. Salt from my own sweat.  The taste of copper pennies are on my tongue.  I am on the corner of two streets: Vomit or Pass Out.  Neither one is an option that suits me.  I am in the middle of a functional threshold test.

I want to be still.  I want to stop.  I see my number and it is dropping.  The point is to increase the number.  The point is to get a high number, but my legs are heavy.  It is the sixteenth minute.  The sixteenth minute is the hanging hour.  It is the time when hope dies.  When hope is taken out back and shot in the head.  This is brutal writing, but it’s how I felt.

The functional threshold test is a twenty minute test on the trainer to see how much energy, or watts you can put out.  Twenty minutes seems like nothing, but in the test, time is greedy and bloats.  It seems to consume more seconds than sixty.  It is the dinner guest who stays too long–the one who eats the last piece of warm bread, who stays well past dessert, requesting a glass of wine and then belches, eyes drooping.  Time in the functional threshold is a slow form of torture.

So, I do the test.  I get my score.  It is a low score.  You are not surprised.  I am not surprised, but for a glittering moment, I thought that I wouldn’t have to work for it.  That I just might be naturally good.  In this sport, I am never naturally good, but that’s why I’m in a love affair with hard work.  So, I think, “I’m going to improve that score.”  I text some of my Nickel City teammates.  They text back encouragement.  One of them says, “Don’t put a frowning face!” (referring to me texting my score with a 😦 face) They reference that I am doing better than anyone on the couch.  They say I’m trying.  They say I had way too high of expectations for my initial number.  They are right.

Take a speeding train to later in the week when I am at Campus Wheelworks’ back room and I am sweating on my bike with my teammates and some others next to me.  I am more than glowing with sweat: I am melting butter.  I am doing fast feet and one leg spins and I am watching my teammates legs next to me.  She’s flying.  She’s all energy and she’s talking some of the time.  Talking.  It’s insane.  She’s joking with me.  I am having fun.  Fun.  Training and having fun.   We are laughing and we are training and I feel strong.  I can feel it in my muscles that I am improving.  I can feel it in the molecules of my body that I am getting better.  I am pushing harder than I’ve ever pushed: reaching deep inside to the beautiful dark abysss of Emily Dickinson hope and Mia Hamm inspiration.  It is an abyss that I draw from every day of my life because to live without hope is not a meaningful existence for me.
And this is what it means.  This darkness and this lightness is what it means to do a sport.  It means tear and repair.  It means suffering and reward.  It means good days and bad days.  It means looking over and seeing that you are surrounded by a room full of women–on my team or on their own teams and we are all working toward something.  We come here on a cold and snowy night to train in this back garage.  We do this because this is what it means to be a woman cyclist.  It means to care about your body in a way where you must push it harder.  It means coming to something and sweating.  We are not on bloody stair masters.  We are not jazzercising.  We are cyclists who are training to compete with each other.  At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: we want that smooth, sweet, brie and wine, cocoa and raspberries taste of victory.  We come here because we are training for something bigger than ourselves.  We come here for collective and individual victory.  We are united in our adoration for this race of legs, heart, gut, mind, wheels.  We are riding so hard we’re nearly flying.

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Belong.

Winter Training

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I belong to a nation of roads to be ridden.

I belong to a tribe of wild-hearted women.

I belong to the motion of legs moving.

I belong to the sound of my breath in the morning, panting in the gym.

I belong to the deep pull, the cycle through, the calm rotation through ten and up past six.

I belong to around and around and around.

I belong to my heart beating.

I belong to the sweat dripping.

I belong to the seven a.m. alarm and up and out, bike in hand.

I belong to peanut butter and bananas.

I belong to quenching not only thirst, but a desire to satiate dreams.

I belong to equality.

I belong to openness of ideas.

I belong to improvement.

I belong to failure as a way to victory.

Most weeks, I train three times a week and next week, I’ll start at four.  I get up.  I make a coffee, yogurt, granola.  I put on my bike clothes and I drive to the training facility.  I sit on a bike and for an hour or an hour and a half, I spin my legs, over and over and over again.  Why do I do this?  Why do I insist on this monotony of motion?

Because I belong in this sport.

The other night, I sat at a table with my team.  Glasses of wine, pens and paper, and calendars were out in front of us.  We were having our first team meeting of the 2015 season.  As I was sitting there, I realized how much I belong here.  The funny thing is it is not because of talent.  It is not because of innate skill.  It is because of my own belief in myself and my desire to work hard.  Each of these women is a powerhouse of force.  We laugh.  We joke.  We talk some rot about beating other teams (with the affection that comes with competition of course).  We want to do well.  We want to compete.

This past season I did not do well in terms of skill and ability.  I lost most races.  There was a moment in the fall when I thought that I would stop all this.  Why do this?  I’m a writer, not a racer.  However, after talking with a teammate and having some internal reflection on a train to Montreal, I realized how much I need this sport in my life.  I thought about how much I wanted to work in this training facility this winter.  How much I want to race at Larkin Crits in the summer.  How much I wanted to do the Buffalo Omnium again.  It is not because of glory.  I won’t come in first for a long time, if ever, but maybe I’m already winning something else.  Maybe I’ve won the spot to belong.

So, I go to the training facility and I work my heart out.  I sweat and I feel tired and I push and push and go deep inside and pull out strength and effort.  I pull out fast feet and strong legs and cruel minutes ticking by.  I train.  This is my victory.   I have already improved my watts and my miles per hour.  This is my victory.  I have already improved my endurance.  I was training next to my teammate and she looked at me and said, “You’re going to be strong this season.”  I won’t keep up with the top pack, I know, but I’m trying for the middle this season.  I’m trying to be a competitor.  I want to do well in the second race that will happen in some of these races (the race will sort out–the top cyclists will take off in their own race and then the other cyclists will fight for the “second” race).

I can feel it in my bones.  I can feel it on the soles of my feet, in my legs, my calves, the irises of my eyes: I am getting stronger.

I belong to the self that sees possibility in all things.  I belong to the notion that if one wants to try and work hard, she can do well.  I belong to hope.  I belong to effort.  I belong.

Enter a New State of Mind

Winter Training

“When you go through the door of pain, you enter another state of mind.”–Marina Abramovic (from the film, “The Artist is Present”)IMG_0410

I have gone through the doors of pain.  I have pushed through a season of sadness, of hurt, of being dropped, of disappointment, of defeat after defeat after defeat and I have arrived to another state of mind.  I have entered into the room of hope, of power, of muscles moving, of legs remembering, of me this moment now, transcending all of the before.

This is what winter training is for me.  I am a new person.  This often happens in my life, where I arrive again, but I feel it here with bicycling.

I have found a winter training facility that I love and I go there and I practice.  I don’t just practice cadence and going at least 90; I practice my breath; I practice calmness; I practice strength.  My muscles are beginning to remember what it means to go fast, to dig deep into the well that is inside me and to pull from it the essence of myself: optimism.

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I know I can do this.  I can train hard.  When I am on that bike at the training facility, I am not only in that room, I am in those moments.  I am kinetic energy.  I am there happening.  My mind is clear and focused.  I see the television and I see the bike riders in France and I am there occupying my body.  I have trained three times this week and I hope to continue at least this much throughout these cold winter months.

This morning I trained at my teammate’s house and I got to be around my team; I felt energized and inspired.  I felt ready.  We are all in this together at all levels.  I didn’t know if I would be invited back on the team again this year, but I was, amazingly.

IMG_0412I realize on the bike that I am creating my story and I am the narrator of my story.  This is a story of getting up at 7 am on a Sunday to go ride on a trainer in a basement and sweat through my hat and my shirt and my pants and to feel the muscles in my body burn.  This is the story of connection: of mind to muscle.  This is me on a bike.  This is me redefining thirty.  This is me one pedal stroke at a time.  This is me training for something bigger than myself.  This is a story of triumph.