Photo by Jason DeVarennes



Friday, January 17, 2014

Wind in My Face

Wind in my face never felt so sweet!

I've spent a lot of time walking outside recently. I've longed for the feeling of warm sunshine on my back and the sound of a gentle breeze rustling leaves. Since September, I've looked at my world in a different more deliberate way - a way I now experience through the slower pace of walking. While it has been a nice change of pace, I would not recommend the road I took to get here. Regular readers know that I've been documenting my discovery of the beauty I've found in simple things like backlit trees completely stripped of leaves, and wooden boardwalks and my walking stick with a Boston skyline backdrop as seen from lots of different locations.

Finally, after being freed from the restriction of my back brace just before Christmas, I started to take baby steps in Physical Therapy to regain some strength in my core. It's going to be a long road. I've lost a lot. I still can't sit upright in a chair for more than 10 minutes without needing to lean on something for support. But it will come. Patience.... grasshopper.

Despite all my recent walking, I've also lost a lot of my leg strength, although my time on the indoor trainer over the holiday does have me feeling confident that it will return in time.

After all one never forgets how to ride a bike!

Cycling is a fundamental part of me. The past few months have shown me that. I can function without a bike, but I am not whole without my bike. There is just something missing in my day.

My physical therapist has a plan and we are working hard these days so I can regain that leg and core strength, so I can get back to riding.

However the bigger hurdle, if you will, is to get past that mental block.

Remember the old adage about getting back on the horse. The longer you take, the harder it will be. It has now been over 4 months since that fateful day. The doctor told me I could bend and twist a few weeks ago. I immediately set up my indoor trainer so I could remind my legs how to go around in circles. It has been brutally cold and snowy here since then, and the severe weather came earlier than usual this winter. Despite my avowed hatred of exercising indoors, I wasn't enthusiastic about heading outside for a ride - for many reasons, not just the weather.

Then the January thaw came and melted all our snow and ice and warmed the air. There should be nothing to stop me from riding now!

But still, I didn't pump up the tires. Still, I didn't pull on tights and search for my gloves and hat and cleated shoes and GPS. Still, I ignored the emails from friends about group rides.

Then the Mt. Washington email arrived, the one that goes out to folks who have raced up the mountain more than 5 times, giving us early access to sign up before registration opens to the general public. Having done the Mt. Washington race 7 times before (not counting my four races at Newton's Revenge races), I am on this list.

General registration for the August event opens up the first of February, and typically fills instantly. For many years, we have signed up at the first opportunity and then sentenced ourselves to 8 months of stress to be fit enough to do well when racing in August. Vacations are planned around this event. It's all so complicated. We can't go on holiday in August. We consider whether a mountainous tour in early July will leave us fit but not worn out. Or maybe, we should just use our hill climb fitness to have an enjoyable and relaxed tour in September or October. For months before the race, we need to head out early on Wednesday mornings and again after work the same day, for the group hill-climb clinics held on the climbs to the Arlington water tower. We also plan trips to nearby mountains for hill repeats, but then complain they aren't long enough or steep enough. So we plan weekends out to the Berkshires and up to the Green and White Mountains.  We take part in various other hill-climb races to really remind our bodies of race-effort. The calendar fills quickly with these events, and we hit a continuous cycle of a hard weekend, a day to unpack and do laundry, a hard midweek ride, a few other LSD rides during the week, then pack and head off again. Always with the Mt. W giant looming in the background. I must keep climbing. I must keep training, if I want to get a medal at Mt. W.

I always tell folks to enjoy each ride for itself, that I don't train, that I don't focus on one event, and while I'd really like for that to be true, Mt W looms...

Things conspired against me this past year leaving me in less than prime condition for the mountain when the time came, but I climbed it anyway. The siren of Mt. W just sings out to me. I cannot seem to silence her.

Well that siren's call came again yesterday in the form of the email with early registration information, and boy do I have a whopper of an excuse to ignore her, but still she haunted my dreams last night.

I haven't been on a bike outside in over 4 months. I wondered if I could even remember how to steer or shift or brake. Oh wait, one never forgets how to ride a bike. Yep, I'm certain I can do those things. But can I beat back the demon in my head that is screaming at me that I could have been paralyzed or I could have lost a leg or I could have died?

I know how important it is to get back on the horse as soon as possible, as it were. But so much time has passed now - making it much harder.

It's been a few weeks since I got clearance from the doctor to ride. The snow we got after Christmas is gone. And it's almost warm out - well not warm, but not polar-vortex-cold. In reality, it's just a bit above freezing. But it's all relative, right? It feels mild in comparison to last week!

So I thought I'd start with baby steps.

I'd go ride on the bike path in Lexington. It's clear of snow and ice, but still cold enough not to be crowded with walkers or roller-bladers. And most importantly there are no cars! My bike with the truly cushy tires is at Ride Studio Cafe. It's been on display for a few months. I could just drive over there and then take it out for a spin on the bike path.

I start to gather clothes. It's been months since I've ridden outside. And even longer since I went riding in these temperatures. What should I even wear? Do I remember? I eventually find my tights and jacket and gloves and winter boots. Where's my GPS? And my toolkit? My routine has not been my routine for many months.

I load up the car and head to Lexington. I park and walk into Ride Studio Cafe wearing bike clothes for the first time since August. I get a look from Patria. Did you ride? Are you going to ride? Outside?

I ask if we can take the Christmas lights off my Honey All Roads, which is still decorated in the front of the shop, looking sharp but still sad, because it really longs to be ridden again.

Roger puts pedals back on my sweet Honey and pumps up the 650bX42 tires to 40 pounds, ensuring a cushy ride. Mike runs through the gears and checks the brakes.

Ariela asks if I want coffee. I say that I will wait until I return - as a reward, incentive, to celebrate. Roger gives me a hand with the door as I head out across the street to access the bike path.

I turn on my GPS, and the location comes up in Durham... the last place I rode. In fact the location staring back at me is exactly where I was hit by that truck. I look away, hoping the unit will acquire satellites quickly and show me a map of here, not there! I hadn't thought I would be affected so much seeing that map!

I've been back to NC to see my dad a few times since being hit. I stay with my cousin. He tells me the broken bike is still safely stored away in the basement. I do not go down to look at it. I do not drive out to the scene. I'm just not ready. And now here is that spot marked on my GPS.

Finally, I get reception and a map of Lexington appears.

I relax.

I hit start.

Mike has left the bike in an easy gear. I hop on and spin along. I am balancing on my own bike! I am riding... on the bike path! No cars to worry about! I try to relax. After a mile, I finally reach down to shift gears.

Yes, the fixie pixie is riding with gears. I click through a few and find a comfortable one. I reach a road crossing. I stop. I put both feet down and stand over the bike. There are no cars. I eventually cross. I ride along in solitude. I am thinking about how to ride a bike, how to balance, how to shift, how to stop, and how to turn. I could not do this first ride with company, because I need to think about how to ride a bike.

But then magically, I notice the wind in my face, and the trees devoid of leaves along the side of the path. I feel the sun on my back. I think about coffee. I think about some bill I forgot to pay. I shift. I turn. Now I am not having to think about the mechanics of riding a bike. It is natural again.

You never forget how to ride a bike!

I reach the end of the path in Bedford. I think for a second about taking the road, but I am not ready. I turn around. I am riding at 12 mph and there is wind in my face. Now 12 mph may be slow by cycling standards, but it is four times faster than walking for me, and the wind in my face is coming 4 times faster than when I walk. And it is glorious. Oh my, I am actually thrilled to feel a headwind! Imagine that?

I reach Lexington and decide to continue on the path toward Arlington. My lower back starts to make itself known. That's not normal. Wow, I've only gone 6 miles.

Well... baby steps!

I feel every frost heave on the path, despite those big cushy tires. I stop and let some air out of the tires to make for an even plusher ride. I started with 40 psi. Now I'm down to about 30.

As I get close to Arlington, I think about that Mt. W letter again. Just beyond the path sits my frenemy, the Arlington Water Tower. In the spring and summer, I come here often to climb to the tower, going up and down from all directions on as many different roads as I can. I make a game of it.

Not today.
And not for a long time.

But I can at least hear the siren of the water tower calling me again. And I can hear the siren of Mt. W.

I stop to stretch my lower back. It's pretty sore now. 10 miles. I think about last years fleche at 275 miles and how nothing hurt during that ride. And I remember the joy I felt at the top of Mt. W last year, when I got a medal. I wonder, will I ever get back to that level?

Baby steps!

Fear Rothar met me at the studio after the ride. We had a celebratory coffee. He then loaded my sweet Honey bike into the car for the drive home. It's time to take her home. It's time to ride!

I came home and looked at that Mt. Washington email. I then printed it out to put in the file I keep on my injury. Mt. W will go on without me this year. Our summer will be very different.

But I'm not giving up... 

The wind in my face is too sweet of a feeling! The siren's song is strong!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

I Went Walking with the Lovely Bike Blogger

When John and I moved overseas in 2002, we told our family and friends not to think of it as us leaving them, but as an opportunity for them to visit a new and faraway place. Well my words are coming back to haunt me, as friend after friend has moved away this past year. Velouria took off last summer for an extended visit to Northern Ireland. Then in less than 6 months my entire fleche team from 2011 scattered across the USA. I know that it would be boring if things never change, but it's just been a hard year to have so many good friends move so far away.

So in trying to live by my own words, I have vowed to visit my friends in their new homes. Since we were already in Ireland last month, the journey to  Northern Ireland to visit Velouria was made that bit easier. We just had to take a train into Dublin, then a train to Belfast and finally a train to Bellarena. Simple...

As the train slows for the Bellarena station, we can see a very excited woman on the platform wearing a hand-knitted striped cap and a long blue coat cinched at the waist by a wide belt. As this woman jumps up and down barely able to contain her excitement, her long auburn locks pulled back into a braid bounce off her shoulders. As we get off the train, Velouria greets us with a big bear hug and ear to ear grin. Imagine, if you will, a scale for measuring joy. At the top of the scale is a puppy greeting her master with unequivocal excitement as if she's been gone forever, even though it really was just a quick trip out to the mailbox. At the bottom of the scale is the snubbing one gets from the cat after a weekend away. There is simply no mistaking that Velouria is happy to have us come for a visit, as her enthusiasm registers high on the joy scale. (Not that I'm comparing my friend to a puppy, since I want to be greeted as warmly on our next visit)

We walk from the train station back to her new home, chatting and laughing the whole way, as we start to get caught up on each others recent activities. Along the way, she shows us her mountain, the mountain where she learned to stand on the pedals while climbing, the mountain she rode so regularly this summer that she no longer fears climbs or descents, the mountain that seems to serve as her muse. We then turn away from the mountain, down a tiny lane toward the shore. We pass the gate into the farm she now calls home. We walk through the barn and she points out the big tank filled with milk, which has been magically converted from grass by those large black and white creatures that shelter in the barn each night. Each day a truck comes to collect the contents of the tank and carry away the raw milk, but the residents of the farm use a small tap to fill pitchers with this fresh, rich and creamy white liquid to use in coffee or tea or porridge or cereal.

We head into the kitchen to sample some of this pure fresh milk in a hot mug of coffee, as we continue to exchange stories of our adventures since we last talked. It's not our usual conversation though, since there hasn't been much cycling for either me or Velouria in the last month. She's been busy moving and I've been busy walking. 

We move into the sitting room where Velouria builds a fire. The room warms quickly, partly thanks to the fire, but also a result of the new friends who join us throughout the evening. Velouria has easily made new friends here and several stop by. I am absolutely charmed by Dave and Clive and Gary. I am coming to realize why she has found this place so inviting.

Despite this being in a tiny little country village, her friends come from all over. We have a room full of distinct and varied accents with one each from England, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. These, along with Velouria's, which has influences from all over Europe, are exotic compared to my simple American accent with its distinctive southern twang. As I try to keep up with the conversation, I am having to constantly recalibrate my ear to understand Gary's strong Northern Irish accent. At some point I mishear our Kiwi friend tell us that he had worked as a cow-banger. After a bit too much wine, my imagination goes wild with the possibilities, but he clarifies that he actually said he was a cow-banker. Accents can be tricky.

We had started wondering about the difference between dairy cattle and beef cattle. We learned Dairy cows have the primary job of producing large quantities of milk. In order to provide this vital function, they must be bred to produce calves, who are quickly separated from mom. Some of these calves are non-milk makers (boys). A lucky boy could become the new breeding bull, but most are sold for veal. Dairy cows don't tend to have a long career though and once milk production goes down, they are destined to become processed beef. As a banker who worked primarily with cows - well not specifically the cows, but the farmers who have cattle, Clive had an encyclopedic knowledge of cattle!

Our group had a common connection, Lovely Bicycle. Yet most of our conversation that night was about everything but bikes, proving we aren't such a boring one dimensional lot!

After staying up quite late and draining several bottles of wine, we retire for a few hours of quality sleep. The next morning, beams of light pour through our window and dance on our covers until we open our eyes. We sleep in a room with a view of V's mountain. Just outside our door, is a desk and chair in front of another window with the same view, where I imagine V, spending hours converting inspiration from this view into words for her blog.

John and I wake, and each are mesmerized by the orange and purple in the sky behind the mountain. Long sunrises and sunsets at this time of year provide a dramatic backdrop to any view, but seeing this one, I truly get why V has fallen in love with this place.

After breakfast, we pack up and walk to the nearby airfield, where we can get out to the shore without having to cross the field where the bull lives. Then the time for our return train comes entirely too quickly. With just two weeks in Ireland and so many friends and family to see, we just had a day here. Like so many other places, I've described in recent posts, I will return here too, next time with a bike!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I Went Walking - Hill of Tara

My sister-in-law, Suzanne, had been talking of treating her mom to a day out with chocolate cake at the tea shop at the Hill of Tara. John suggested that he could ride his bike there and meet the three of us for lunch. So a plan was hatched.

Note the helicopter in the background, getting the nice aerial view!

When Suzanne first told me about the Hill of Tara, I was so focused on walking that I thought she said it was the center of hiking in Ireland! I expected to find a shop selling maps and boots! Actually, what she said, is that the Hill of Tara was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. So while I didn't find new walking shoes, I did get some great photos.

John headed out early to meet up with friends, Colm and Declan, for a fun social spin with one hill. Suzanne, Muriel and I left a couple of hours later to drive up. Just like when we met up on Mt Leinster, we timed it perfectly, arriving just as the lads were parking their bikes.

We all had a lovely lunch and dessert, while I got the chance to catch up with Colm and Declan off the bike.

Colm, Declan and John
After lunch I managed to catch some of that brilliant light and those lovely long shadows so common at this time of year in Ireland. According to Colm, there are even better views from the air, but I will have to wait for a future trip for the chance to take in those views.

I didn't notice my loooong shadow on the church until I looked at the photo later. Cool, eh?


After a quick walk around the grounds, Suzanne drove us to Trim Castle, where we got out for another short walk, as the sun was starting to set.

One could spend a few weeks just exploring the area around Trim Castle and the Hill of Tara. Having a brief taste of it that afternoon whetted my appetite for a return visit on our next trip - hopefully on my bicycle.

John is still working on his posts covering his rides... Soon...

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

I Went Walking - County Carlow

After spending a few days visiting with family in Dublin, the always affable David drove John and me down to Tullow in County Carlow to visit more family. Carlow is off the beaten tourist track, as it were, and isn't as well known as other parts of the country, like the Ring of Kerry or the Cliffs of Moher.  I'm happy to have the quiet lanes remain quiet, but in my not so humble opinion, the area certainly deserves to be on the list of must-cycle places, thanks to the wide open views of rolling green countryside and windswept mountains, including John's favorite Mt Leinster in Blackstair Mountains between Counties Carlow and Wexford. A couple of years ago, John and I pedaled down from Dublin, and then joined David for a couple of fabulous rides in the area. It was heartbreaking for me to miss out riding here this time, but Daphne humored me by taking me out for a few walks, while John and David went out for rides.

On that last trip, John, David and I rode over the shoulder of Mt Leinster, but did not ride up the brutally steep road to the tower. This time, David and John decided to take in the same route, while Daphne and I planned to drive out and meet them at the gate, where we could park and walk up to the top and back. Poor Daphne had broken her wrist the week before and her arm was in plaster, but she was a real trooper, walking with me all the way up to the mast. The lads decided to pass on riding up, citing a long ride still to go and minimal daylight hours in December. They missed a screaming tailwind for the journey up, and a howling headwind for the trip down!

It was windy and chilly, but sunny when we arrived at the gate, at almost precisely the same time as John and David.

Clouds started to close in as we hiked up the road

Looking out at the sunny landscape below

Arriving at the tower as the clouds settled in

It actually cleared again as we walked back down, but Daphne passed on returning to the summit for a second shot at a sunny picture there. On our way back home, we did stop at a nice café with a roaring fire, where we showed ample appreciation for the warmth it provided.

The next day, we decided on a longer walk along the path by the River Barrow from Milford Park to Leighlinbridge.

The obligatory photo of Irish sheep

More glorious Irish sunshine

We had lunch at the Arboretum lifestyle and Garden Center known for its fancy sinks and urinals. Maybe I'll order one of these for home!

Photo borrowed from website, since I didn't actually barge in to the men's room with my own camera!
For our final day in Carlow, we headed to Rathwood for a couple of laps of the forest walk (carefully avoiding being run over by the very popular at this time of year Santa train).

There's always a black sheep!

We followed this up with a very dangerous side trip to the Chocolate Garden before finishing off the day by checking out the Christmas market at Duckett's Grove

Daphne wasn't really threatening me with her plaster cast!
No trip to Carlow is complete without a visit to Duckett's Grove
There is lots of hill-walking in the nearby mountains, but not so easy out the back door walking as we had in Dublin. Maybe on our next trip, we can combine some cycling and hill-walking and get the best of both worlds!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I Went Walking - Deep Sinking - Royal Canal

Fear Rothar grew up in Castleknock, about 6 miles west of Dublin City Center. His mom's house is ideally situated for walking, as it is just over a mile to walk to the Phoenix Park or a stroll around the corner to get on the Royal Canal Way, a 49 mile long towpath/trail alongside the Royal Canal stretching from Dublin to Cloondara in County Longford.

On our first day in Ireland, we did a short stretch of the canal and I noticed the signs for the Deep Sinking. Curious, I did some research and found that the Deep Sinking is the name of the deep and narrow cutting of the Royal Canal between Castleknock and Clonsilla. When the Royal Canal was designed, the Duke of Leinster demanded the canal be routed by his ancestral home in Maynooth. This added substantial cost and complications to the project, including 11 additional locks and an aqueduct. In the section known as Deep Sinking, the canal runs much lower than the towpath and in places it is quite narrow and dangerous. In one serious accident in 1845, sixteen people drowned when their boat sank after hitting a rock at night. Also with the towpath well above the canal, horses were often pulled into the deep cutting below to a watery grave.

Despite the tragic history, I decided to do a morning walk through the Deep Sinking to Clonsilla and back. Navigation, for me, at least would be quite straight-forward. Get on path - walk a while, make u-turn!

I'll definitely admit that walking along a flat towpath is relatively easy as hikes go, but it definitely was not boring. Also one can certainly make rapid progress along a flat path (faster still- if you leave the camera in your pocket), and build up strength to climb hills later!

I turned back at the end of the Deep Sinking, shortly after passing Clonsilla village, since I had plans to meet Fear Rothar for a late lunch and shopping in the afternoon, but I look forward to a future trip and a much longer walk along the canal.

BTW, for those looking for an easy day walk from Dublin, this site has a good description of the route out to Leixlip starting from Connolly Station. Return walking or by bus.