A Lighter World: Racing Cyclocross for Fun

Cyclocross

(video by Matt Dunning at Campus Wheelworks)

Hey.

It’s been a while.

But, I’m back again.

Why am I back on this site about biking when I don’t bike nearly as much as I used to?  Why am I continuing this?  Why haven’t I just moved on and done something that doesn’t make me feel scared and tired and hungry?

Because one part of one’s life feeds another.  That’s why.

Ready for some bragging?

Here we go:

My other blog, Le Poisson Nage (about French), recently got chosen by this lovely WordPress Editor and now I have 281 followers.  A day ago, I had about 30 followers.  This is amazing.  I get updates of who is reading this blog and my favorite part is seeing that it’s in all these countries: from France to Ireland to New Zealand to Brazil.   I also noticed that some of these people who found my French blog, now have found my bike blog (hi there!).  Anyway, I started to feel like, you know what, maybe people are actually reading this?  Maybe I should actually keep writing.

And, so here I am, writing.  But the thing about writing is you have to live your life or else you have nothing to write about.

So, I’ve also been biking casually.  I have this women’s cycling club in Buffalo called Athena Cycle and while I was riding and talking to someone who I think is an extremely can-do type of person (she fixes bikes; she races bikes; she tries new things all the time–for example, she is starting flying lessons soon), I said, “I don’t know about biking.  I just think there is this moment when you have to realize what you are actually good at.”

And she said something to the effect of, “Racing for a year and not doing as well as you’d like doesn’t actually mean you are not good at that.”

She essentially said, “Why are you forming this judgment of yourself now?”

And, I thought about that.  I thought about that a lot.  And, ultimately I thought: I like biking.  I like going to races because I like the element of “this isn’t really work; this is us playing around.”  I like this about bikes.  When people get on bikes, they tend to joke around.  The world lightens when I am on a bike.

IMG_0206So, I have registered for a race on Sunday.  The first cyclocross race of the year.  For me, this race is not, as always, about winning.  It is about trying.  This has been a constant theme for me.  It’s also about finding my relationship with this sport.  I like it but I find it hard.  I love that feeling when I am impressing myself, when I feel like–wow, a few years ago I didn’t even own a road bike.  Damn, man.

This relationship is about finding calmness.  It’s about breathing in a relaxed way.  It’s also about pushing my body on a Sunday morning just as the summer is going to sleep and fall is awakening.

Ultimately, this Sunday’s race is about me playing.  I’ve been working really hard.  I’m in an MFA program and it’s demanding.  I’m reading and writing and analyzing all the time, but I realized, I’m not playing.  And. I. Want. To. Play.  Cut loose.  Get on a bike and see how fast I can go without falling over.  This is essentially the main point.

So, Sunday morning, I’m driving out to a beautiful part of New York and I’m going to watch the men’s races and the Cat 1-3 women’s race.  I’m going to take photos because that’s fun too and I am going to race.  I want to exist in a world that feels just a little bit lighter, with people who support and challenge me–who when I fall over, when I am the last one, will give me a high five because I’m there.  I’ve showed up.

Finally, I’ve included at the top of this blog, a video from the talented (filmmaker, cyclist and I’ve heard musician) Matt Dunning who works for Campus Wheelworks (the shop that got me into this crazy sport).  I like this video because it’s like bike ballet.  It shows a bunch of adults playing.  And, sometimes, that’s what it’s all about.

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The Race Isn’t the Race (or racing after I said I wasn’t racing)

Crits

Use your eyes to read or use your ears to hear, here!

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In the womb, in our tiny selves, at 22 days, a single cell starts to beat and all the other cells around it start to beat in rhythm too.  Soon, this divides and become our heart.  31 years later, I can feel this organ in my body: beating. One, two, one, two.

 

A heart that is lined with stories–a room wallpapered in joy and grief and fear and jealousy and desire.  Desire.

 

I have this jersey folded up in my dresser.  It’s white and blue.  It’s got “Nickel City Cycles” written across it.  I haven’t worn it in a while–a couple months.  I quit the team a month or so ago.  Then, my life was spilling over like a kid pouring milk and I just needed to stop.

 

Then, I found myself in my local bike shop telling my old coach that I’d come watch the race this week.
“Watch?  If you’re gonna watch, why not race?” he said.

 

Why.  Not.  Race.

 

My heart began to beat again.  One, two, one, two.

 

The thing is that so many things in this world and so many stories we tell ourselves try to simplify this existence.  We try to say, “We go from point A to point B and then to point C and then it’s over.”

 

But, I don’t agree.

 

I don’t think that’s how it works at all.  I think we mix A and B and C together and we chop some stuff off and we tie the line together and we snip away a little here and then we tie in a flower and that old handkerchief from our grandmother when she went to England, and the whole thing accidentally falls in the sink with the coffee grinds from this morning and that’s the narrative of life.  It’s messy and complicated and I find myself reading my journal and I see that I’ve written, “I am a thousand things.  I am a thousand things.”  Even when I try to eliminate parts of my life, to make myself simpler, they call back to me; I am a thousand things.

 

And, then I am clicking yes to the bike race sign up and then my credit card is charged $30 and I’m racing in three hours and I’m getting ready to get that blue and white jersey out of the drawer and put it on.

 

We tell ourselves so many stories.  We create so many narratives to get us through our lives.  And, I don’t know.  My story isn’t so simple.  It’s not woman meets bike, woman works hard, woman wins race.  It’s different.  It’s up and down.  It’s more than a story and I realize the best stories are myths and what’s the difference between myth and story.  Well, myth is divine and it’s got a lesson.

 

And this story of me and my bike.  Well, this here, this is a myth.

It’s a myth because it’s a bit divine.  There was some kind of universal intervention.  There was some alignment of molecules of space, of planets, of moons, of galaxies and then I was on this journey and I feel closer to the divinity within myself.  I feel closer to the divine parts of my being.  How can I tell that it’s divine?  I just feel it: in my heart.

 

And it’s got a lesson.  The lesson is yours for the taking.  I’m not telling you what to learn from this, but the lesson for me right now is that I thought I could stop.  I thought I could just end this journey.  I thought I could just quit because I had a lot going on and I thought that the end is the end, and I thought there were rules.  And, there are rules.
And the rule is that once you quit, you quit.

And the other rule is that you can do anything you want.

 

So, here is me writing again.

 

And, I’m not sure where this road goes, but I know that my life has changed in a lot of ways due to some intense winter training, due to me falling in love with someone really important to me and getting engaged which I never really thought would happen and the interior of me has changed and that wallpaper of my heart, that’s changed too.    It’s full of acceptance and transcendence and still this desire.  This desire to keep tying this narrative together.  One, two, one, two.  My heart keeps on beating.

 

I know that I’m not nearly as afraid anymore.  I’ve taken that wall down.  And, I’ve transcended place and podium.  I’ve transcended even waiting to write about the race until after the race.  The race is not the race.  The race is the signing up.  The race is the going to the race.  The race is the sweat on your brow.  That’s the race.

 

Since I quit cycling, I’ve been running a lot.  I ran in a charity 4 mile run and I came across that finish line feeling like a middle school sprinter version of myself and I realize that I like running races because there is more people and maybe with cycling, I’m just looking for my competition.  I’m just looking for those people who are as good as me and simultaneously as novice as I am.  I’m looking for people to race against and this year, there are so many more people to race against.  I looked at the list and I was bloody shocked.

 

What I do know is that I missed this team.  I missed these tour de forces of women who I ride with.  These women are role models.  They’re my friends, but they’re my role models.

 

And so for me today, this race is a kind of new beginning.   I hesitated to put this under Red Lantern, but this is Red Lantern.  This is me glowing in the dark.  This is a narrative that doesn’t quite make sense and that’s okay.

 

This is my heart beating.  This is what my heart beats for.

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The End is the Beginning

Buffalo

(final post for Red Lantern Cyclist)

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I want to tell you this ends with me having some sort of enormous victory.  I want to tell you this ends with a race and a podium and a lifelong commitment to racing.  I want to assure you that the world always makes sense, that B always follow A, that triumph follows defeat, that things that are messy get cleaned up: fresh, new.

However, this is not the case.  I have decided to stop racing.

After taking my final Functional Threshold Power test and improving five percent (miraculous for me!), I have realized that I love training, but do not love racing.  I started to feel a sense of dread in thinking about all the races I would have to do this season.  I know this disappoints my team because it was lovely to be united.  I know it disappoints my coach because he has specifically made a sweet bike for me that I could have used for racing, but will now use for simply riding.  I know that with this decision comes a sense of “quitting.”

However,  I have realized that I am not good at racing.  I have been writing this project for over a year and a half now and it has always been important to me to encourage readers to do what they are not naturally good at.  I do believe this.  I believe this to be true, but I also believe something else.

I read my class a poem by Edward Dougherty.  It is about how a young persona quits football and expects his father to be mad; however, the father says, you have many gifts to offer this world and football may not be one of them.  This is how I feel about bike racing.  I do believe I have many gifts to offer this world.  I’d like to take the time to concentrate on some other writing projects I am doing for my MFA program.  For this, I have signed up for a printmaking class.  If I raced this summer, I would not be able to take the class.  When I read this poem to my class, one student responded that she didn’t believe in “quitting” but rather “rearranging.”  I completely agree.  I have rearranged my life to concentrate on the true gifts I have to offer the world.
Racing has absolutely given me gifts however.  I write this from Intelligensia Coffee in Chicago.  I have a new ring on my finger and I sit next to Vincent, who has a new ring on his finger too.  I asked him to marry me on the plane ride here, the rings, with the longitude and latitude of where we were born, stowed in my pocket.  I may not be a courageous racer, but I feel I am a courageous human being.  When I asked him to spend his life with me, my heart raced.  I started to cry, but I managed.

Cycling has empowered me in so many ways.  Two years ago I stood in the pub talking to Ethan, the owner of Campus Wheelworks.  I started to cry while speaking to him.  I said, “I’m not married and I haven’t published a book.”   He assured me that it didn’t really matter.  He conveyed that I was doing a good job, just as we all are.

He and the entire Buffalo bike community proceeded to envelope me into their arms and make me feel that this truly is my home.

After that conversation, and much reflection, I realize, we are all simply doing the best that we can and no one basically knows exactly what they are doing.  We are all lost salmon in the river, finding our way back home.  We are all always changing, always becoming new, always searching for our truer selves.

I have found my way back home in this cycling community in Buffalo, but I have also found something else.  I have found a strength inside myself.  I may have given up races.  I may have lost so many times in those races, but life itself is essentially not a race.  It is a messy, lovely, drunken, misstepped dance.  It is not a competition of who is better than who, but rather a celebration of you for you and me for me.

I may have given up racing, but through Red Lantern, through cycling, through racing, I have found something quite significant: I have found my voice.  I have used this voice in many ways, but the most recently being to ask someone to believe in me enough to spend his life with me.

I will continue to use my voice and the courage I have gained from simply riding a bike down paths, up hills, around and around and through.  I will continue to ride, to discover, to test my ability and my strength and to claim this courage that I have fought so hard for.  There has been much beauty in being the Red Lantern Cyclist and I have appreciated every moment of it.

Thank you for your readership and your continual encouragement in this entire project.

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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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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.

Mud and Blood: The Courage of Cross

Cyclocross

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(before I got hurt)

Right now, I’m drinking Typhoo tea, eating rice pudding, watching a TED talk about vulnerability in relationships and all I can think about is my relationship with cyclocross.

The presenter, Brené Brown, is talking about courage. She is saying that it is different from bravery in that it is about telling the whole story of who you are with your heart. It is about telling your imperfections; these imperfections are part of who you are.

Now, two days later and I’m riding on grass. I’m “one, two, three” jumping onto my bike. Do it. Jump. Lift off.

But, I can’t. I’m stunted motion. Before cyclocross practice, I’m talking with a friend and we are listing our goals of the season. Mine: to mount my bike in the proper cross fashion. It is a kind of delicate hop. When done properly, it is beauty on a bike. It is smooth, fluid motion. It is that delicious crème of espresso. It shows you know what the hell you’re doing out there on the course.

For me, cyclocross is transitions. It is literally being on the bike and then hopping off of it. It is transition from summer to fall. It is road to indoor training. I know others who cyclocross is the whole burrito. It’s the reason they bike, but for me, it’s more like a little dessert at the end of a hard, trying, but ultimately satisfying road season.

Cross is also about vulnerability. It is five o’clock on a Thursday coming to a tree filled field by a lake. It is about going there without much ego. It is putting myself out there. It is getting on the bike and just trying. It also falling, getting hurt; it is often, mud and blood.

At this Thursday’s practice, there is this moment when I am in the peanut (a small course set up to practice turns) and I am pure reaction. I am finding the apex, finding the right line. I am trying to go fast and turning and not being scared. I have transcended the fear of last year’s season. After this much riding in the summer, I am more comfortable on my bike and with these new wheels and tires, I have so much control and my fitness level has improved. I can turn and be alright. I realize I am just one big smile across my face because I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job.

Then, the group of us, maybe fifty people, line up in a mass start. It’s the mock race around the park. I am one of these fifty: one tiny star in a galaxy. I don’t mind. I come here to learn. I don’t come here to win. Not yet anyway. We are off and it is tight at first. We are nearly knocking into one another’s wheels.

I am trying to pass my teammate. It’s funny to ride like this. Usually I’m trying to be on her wheel, not overtake her. I want to beat her though. I really want to beat her. That’s what I like about this teammate, we can compete with or against each other and at the end of the day, we’re still going to have that beer together. I’m behind her and I pass her and I see my other friend speed up on the inside and I’m trying to create some room. I feel good on the rollers. I’m moving along. Then, I get to the stairs and I know she’s going to beat me here. I’m fine with the dismount and the run up the six steps, but then getting back on, I’m molasses and she beats me here. Then I’m on and hop over the brick, and I think I can beat her on the descent. I nearly crash on her back wheel, but I don’t and I’m okay and then I pass her on the turn and we joke because on the straight away she flies by me. Then we get to the barriers and this thing happens. I get scared. I’m coming in fast and I’ve unclipped one leg but then I feel my center break and I’m falling onto my bike. I’m descending down, smashing into. I’m gears into leg, chain ripping through skin.

I get up and hear my breathing as I pick up my bike. It’s asthmatic. It’s choppy. I wonder if I’m okay. I look down and I see blood and grease and the outline off a chain in my thigh. I am not okay and then it’s blood and tears on my gloves and the consoling words of my fellow cyclists.

And now, it’s the next morning and I’m at work wearing a skirt with this massive bruise and a two inch line of scabbing blood showing. I still have grease stains on my legs. I couldn’t wipe them off this morning, so I go into the college looking like a hooligan. I wonder if people think street fighting is my outside of academics hobby. It’s not a bad look, but not the most professional.

Cyclocross is hard. It’s brutal at times, at least for me. However, to crash sometimes is to show your vulnerability. I am human and I fall. To be courageous is to dare to try to be the person you admire, your best self. Cyclocross is scary and rough, but I am learning. This fall I want to ride cross and to live my life, quite proudly, with the notion that I must try and not give up. This is and has always been the story of my heart.

 

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A-okay.

Uncategorized

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I’m taking a writing challenge this week. It’s to write a list, so I thought I’d make a bike list.

List of reasons why I am good at this sport

  1. Even saying this feels wrong because I am not good at this sport.
  2. I am trying to be good at this sport.  That counts for something, yes? Yes.
  3. I went to two races.
  4. My coach one time said I had good bike skills.
  5. Man, I wish bike skills counted for more.
  6. I am good at this sport in my heart because I am passionate about it. I may not be so good in the legs, but I’m good in the heart.
  7. I can keep up really easily on the B sweaty Tuesday Night Rides. After I do those twenty miles, I feel like I could easily do ten more.
  8. People sometimes say, “You’re doing great.”
  9. I have drive.
  10. I am motivated.
  11. I’m not going to fucking quit.
  12. I smile when I ride.
  13. I have my bike clothes on right now for a ride that will happen at 4 and it’s only 2:18. I’m that excited to go today.
  14. I am good at working hard in my writing, at my job, why can I not work a little harder while on the bike? I never feel like I work hard enough.      
  15. I put so much pressure on myself sometimes I feel like I’m going to implode.
  16. Do not implode. I finished both races.
  17. I did cyclocross even though I really was terrible, terrible and I thought that was fun and hard.
  18. There are some things people do that they are good at and naturals at and some things people do that require a lot of work. My friend told me I’m really good at reading (Thanks BP).
  19. I have increased how fast I can go.
  20. I have increased how far I can go.
  21. I am good at this. I am just not really good at this. I am beginner good.
  22. I am athletic, maybe not an elite athlete, but I’m doing alright.
  23. An earlier self wouldn’t even try this because it’s intimidating. I am trying it.
  24. I am doing okay.
  25. I feel a lot better.
  26. Thank you list.

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http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/list-lesson/

DFL

Uncategorized

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Dead fucking last never felt so nice.

I can feel bad that I was so far behind. I can feel bad that each time I went up the hill, I slowed to 10 mph. I can feel embarrassed. I can feel self-pity. I can feel like I’m not actually cut out for this. I’m not actually a bike racer, not an elite or endurance or super competitive athlete. I’m not an extreme cyclist. I’m not this. Not them. Not me. I can feel all those things, but I choose not to.

I choose something different.

I choose the perfume of the budding trees coming up the hill. I choose the little boy who yelled, “Hi” to me. I choose the man who came up to me after the race, a smile as wide as a four-lane highway and said, “You did it!” I choose those guys from The Bike Shop who let me hang on their wheel for a bit. I choose the smile I felt from biking in the Niagara wine trail. I choose sunlight. Freedom. Good, strong breath. Joy. This is what I choose.

Today I raced 30.75 miles at Freedom Run Winery. I pulled my car up to a bunch of men and a few women and the guys from The Buffalo Bicycle Club waved at me in some sort of gentle welcoming—a slight movement that said, “Yes. Come. You are welcome here.”

I got on my bike and it was so loud. It clicked and clicked and I took a lot of grief from my fellow cyclists, and the clicking kind of drove me insane, but in another way, it was kind of okay because it was sort of funny.

I went for a short warm up ride with my teammate. Two women. Two bikes. Nickel City Cycles kits. I said, “My goal is to stay on the pack as long as I can, and then once I’m dropped, just ride it out and keep up my cadence.” My teammate said her goal was to work on her mental game. Then we talked about our lives and whispered secrets that only women know and we laughed and we turned around and stood in the line of category five racers.

“Alright. You do one lap together and then you get to that cone and then you launch.”

I looked over at my other teammate, “Launch!”

“Launch!” She said back to me through a laugh and a friendly smile and a great attitude and I didn’t know it then and neither did she (except in some hidden room of her self perhaps), but she would actually win the race.

Then, we were off and I fell back and the practice lap was hard and I took a Campus guy’s wheel because Campus men are nice and cool and are pretty much always going to help you. He got us back to the pack and I was fine after that.

When we got to the cone, everyone did “launch” but I just kind of “kept going the same.” I got dropped at the hill and I was a bit disappointed I didn’t stay on longer, but I didn’t and then it was about finishing the race.

And, I did. I bloody well did. And now I choose to be quite proud of that fact.

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Sense Appeal

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IMG_1279The streets are flooded with a thousand moments of cold.  It bites my cheeks, my thighs, my toes; it curls onto my neck and like a snake it stings my throat.  Toronto. Two weekends ago.  Fourteen Degrees.

And then, and then, and then, there it is: a café in the middle of the street—hidden in a disguise.  It pretends to be an ordinary shop, next to a Dollar Store, near a Tim Horton’s, but it is no such thing.  Stepping inside, we are in black and white Helvetica font.  We are in a café that nods to Italy with its big espresso maker and its roasting coffee smell and the man behind the counter with rings on his pinkie fingers.  It is called “Sense Appeal.”

Inside, a man sits with a coffee and a Canadian accent and a cycling hat, brim folded upward.  I overhear the conversation between he and the barista.

“Yeah.  Think I’ll get a Cannondale.”

I want to join in.  I want to say, “Perhaps consider a Felt,” even though I know nothing of bikes in any real way.  I only know that I am happy with my Felt.  I love riding it.  I love how light it is.  I love the deep royal blue that lines its white frame.  It is my bicycle and I adore it.

I point out this café, this conversation, to highlight the community that is out there that I am only now just stepping into.  Before, I saw my brother-in-law’s love of cycling, but I never was in the biking movement.  I was in my little black car, stick shifting away down the streets—missing out on the joy of not only riding, but that connection you feel with another human being when you like the same thing.  It is the same threads of joy that connect sailors or hikers or photographers: the lines of passion that stream between them, gently lacing strangers together.

This conversation occurs in another country, albeit, not one far from here, and there is something lovely about that.  There is something absolutely lovely about stepping into a café and feeling a connection with this man because he likes to ride his bike and so do I.

On the way out, I smile at him and in this way, it is a cross-cultural communication facilitated by the spirit of bikes.

I recently applied to the MA program at the University at Buffalo for Innovative Writing and for some reason, in the personal statement I mentioned I was on a bike team and attempting to be a cyclist.  I said, “I don’t know why I am telling you this but I think for some reason this connection between biking and writing will be important in my life.”  I never would have thought that a year ago, but now I do.  I ride to write.  I write to ride.  I am not the fastest on my team.  I am pretty much the worst, but in this way I am a close observer: I ride with my eyes, my mind, my heart open.  I am riding to get better.  I am writing to get better.  Both activities make me a part of this community that I never knew existed.

I want to see where this takes me.  If accepted into the program at UB, I declared that I would like to study French Feminism, but I am wondering now if I’d like to study cycling and Feminism.  Is this even possible?  If two men were having a conversation about bikes in Canada—what else is out there?  How is the bicycle used in India for women?  How is it used in Afghanistan as a symbol of freedom?  What else could the bicycle represent?

Questioning is the first step.  The answers, hidden now like tulip bulbs underground, will come.

I ride and I fall.

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I ride and I fall.  I fall and I get up.  There’s mud and it’s gross.

It’s Thursday night and the rain is wafting down gently onto all of these cyclists who are here with their long pants and their long sleeves and their hats and their lights, flickering: small lanterns lighting up a path before them.

I am riding around the course and I am going really slow because I’m scared.  The course is strange tonight.  It smells like grass and mud: thick with dead insects or rotten roots or little bones of little animals.  There is the smell of sewage and it’s harsh and putrid in my nose.  We are at Squaw Island, which reminds me of the sound crows make as they cluster in the sky.  There is something strange about this place.  I much prefer Delaware Park, but we cannot rip up the grass there.

In the practice race, I am far behind everyone else and there is no way I am going to catch up, but I’m not concerned.  Tonight is not about going fast.  Tonight is about feeling the balance of my bike in this slop.

I found the preview lap scary and I can’t believe someone actually thinks it’s a good idea to spend the next hour doing this, but oddly, it is a bit thrilling.  It reminds me of rugby: moments when your mind is not thinking anything other than “don’t get hurt.”

There is this death part of the course, which is this thin part where there are high reeds that hurt when you fall into them.  The mud is thick.  It’s clawing at my bike and it’s making me go off balance and turn this way and that and I slam into the ground, but I get up and get back on.  There is this little incline at the end of the thin trail and it’s hard to go up it and the first attempt I almost crash so the next two I walk my bike, but on the third attempt, I say, “You’ve got to do this,” so I do and I manage to ride up it and ride down and not crash and it’s this intricate balance and I hear a guy on my team who is sort of like a biking mentor say to me, “Good job” and he explains what I did right and I feel proud.

Then I do another lap, where I ride and I fall.  I fall and I get up. I fall and I fall and I fall.  This is practice.

There’s mud and it’s gross, but it’s also dangerously beautiful to be in such a place like this at such a moment, when the wind picks up and the breeze blows everyone’s hair and laughter billows up into the sky and we are all trying, trying, trying together.