Saturday, November 26, 2011

Such a Simple Thing

It is Thanksgiving weekend.  Time when most of us take time to reflect and give thanks. And though it seems a little cliche at the moment to write about what I'm thankful for, I can't resist.  I am grateful for so many things: dear friends, a wonderful family, a loving partner, endlessly supportive colleagues, enough income to pay the bills in full each month, a career I love... so many things. I am also grateful for my bike, for bikeface. My theory is that the bike, that simple little machine, is what has helped me to maintain all of this. It helps keep the balance. I know so many people share this feeling. I know that what I'm saying is nothing new. But allow me to continue anyway.

"Such a simple thing, and yet so complicated," a friend often says about biking. And I have learned, in the past few months especially, this sentiment is very true. As I continue to struggle with the demands of graduate school and an uncertain career future, where I will be next year at this time, etc., I have found that turning to my bike (with the friends who come along) has been my mainstay. But there's more to it than simply its ability to keep me (all of us) sane.

The truth is that lately I've had a hard time finding bikeface. As the winds get stronger, the weather more crappy, and fewer folks showing up for rides, I'm finding it's much more hard to hang with my usual group of friends, who are all more strong than I am. I am discovering that I am more impatient with myself than I thought. I am also finding that my friends cut me much more slack than I do myself, that the community in general is far more forgiving than most. I think this is because we all know what it's like to suffer, to have a bad day, to need others. I just seem to have more than my fair share out there these days. But I am not disappointed. I know this will change. I know something about bikeface now that I didn't know before....

Along with this life of learning and growing into all of what bikeface means, I am finding grace around every corner. I've had friends stay back to pull me back to the group; friends who've let me turn around early during a ride, without judgement, when I knew I couldn't hang; friends who have challenged me to enter and complete several different races this year; friends who are always there when I want to ride, and forgive me when I don't. The bike life has afforded me all sorts of room to grow and stretch and get mad and sad and angry at life. And it is still there when I finally pick myself up again, when I'm feeling on top of the world.

In short, bikeface, as it turns out, is dependable, but not indiscriminate. It does not stick around for just any occasion. It does not squander its opportunities. This is why we must be thankful when we experience it.  For when we do, we know that all is well on the bike, we know that life is easy, good, simple.

But, perhaps even more poignantly, bikeface is not just about when it's going well out there, it's is more complicated and mysterious than we may think.

In an earlier post, I wrote about bikeface as the look on a person's face when things are going well, when we experience joy in cycling. But even on all of the less-joyful days, as I have come to discover, bikeface shows up anyway -- sometimes as a delayed reaction, well after a ride. Sometimes it shows up hours or even a day or more later, when I reflect on what happened, when I retell the story, when I think about what I was feeling or what I learned. Sometimes it shows up when I remember what I would have been doing if I hadn't chosen to ride (which is never more fulfilling, as it turns out). In all of these moments, bikeface never disappoints.

But... as trustworthy and seemingly fleeting as it is, we must be patient with bikeface. It must not be taken for granted. It's not automatic, nor fickle. Simply put, it is a great teacher. And, for that I am thankful.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tasting the Landscape

A poet friend of mine writes that "places speak their own languages.... you can come to identify with the language, the fragrance, the textures of a place so strongly that they become a part of you.  The French call it gout de terroir, the tastes of the landscape...."

I start here, with the notion of place, because this is an important week for me to consider it.  My bike has taken me many places: from Vancouver Island; Killington, VT; Moab, UT; to Death Valley, CA; and of course through nearly all of the regions of my home state of Michigan.  But this week is special.  I began this week (yesterday to be exact), with a warm fall and rare sunny ride through some of the most colorful landscapes that West Michigan has to offer.  I ended yesterday with a moonlit road ride with friends near the Lake Michigan lake shore.  Today, I have come to understand yesterday's rides as helping me--a girl who suffers from a rather extreme case of wanderlust--to once again connect to the place I call home, to connect to its sweet-smelling grasses and multi-colored leaves; to smooth rural roads that have been silenced by Sunday homebodies; a moon that peeks through the bare tops of trees just to let you know it's there, watching; and a clean, crisp Midwestern autumn air that will forever be a part of my lungs, my skin.

But, there is one other place I must write about today because it is so foreign and strange to me, and yet, I speak its language, when this time of year comes around.  Tomorrow, and for the rest of the week, several dear friends and teammates will travel to Death Valley, CA for the second-to-last JDRF Ride To Cure (Type 1 Diabetes) of the year.  And in JDRF lore, it is the oldest and perhaps most mysterious and beloved of the JDRF rides.  Death Valley is about a 3.5-hour drive West of Las Vegas.  And it is, as many have heard told, a world unto its own.

I first went to Death Valley in 2007 as a first-time rider for the JDRF Ride to Cure.  However, my introduction to the landscape may have been a little stranger than most.  Because I had missed my connection in Chicago, I flew in late to Vegas (via San Francisco), and carpooled, at nearly Midnight, into the Furnace Creek Ranch, where more than 300 people from all reaches of the US were staying for the ride.  My car-mates and I drove through pitch darkness to get there.  Road-weary and cross-eyed, I had no idea in which direction we were going.  The black night was more vast than I would ever know in Michigan.  There was no moon showing the way, nothing reflecting off of trees along the side of the road; only headlights and the constant undulating ribbon of two-lane road in front of us, seemingly coming out of nowhere, unending; the small cacti and sagebrush that moved past us in a staccato rhythm in the headlights.... flip, flip, flip, flip, flip.  The monotonous pattern repeated for miles and miles.  Without the variability I was used to in the Michigan landscape, my mind wandered to scenes of abandoned cars along the highway, with no trace of where the people went, no footprints left behind in the dirt, blown clean by the night wind.  Needless to say, my first moment in Death Valley was... a little spooky.

The road on the ride during the day.  Imagine this at night.  

But I arrived to the ranch in one piece, and luckily, to friends who were still up waiting for me, ready to greet my arrival with open arms, and to help me settle in for the night.  The next morning brought a brilliant orange sunrise, a variegated brown and purple, mountain-ridged landscape across the skyline, a crisp, dry, desert air, and the hopes of a much kinder introduction to the place.

The ridge line at 8 am just to the West of the road leading out of the ranch.

I could go on and on about the ride and the trip and the spirit that is the JDRF Death Valley Ride to Cure (and because I have only been there once, I feel, among my many friends who have been there numerous times, rather inadequate to write about that).  But here, I reminisce about the ride in terms of the landscape: the moonlit pre-ride dinner under the trees out in the grove, the stars that filled the sky and seemed "close enough to touch"*, the 35-MPH sandstorm that blew in during our last 10 miles of the ride in the 105-degree heat....  I did, indeed, "taste the landscape." (In all seriousness, no pun intended there.)

My purpose for this post is to linger a moment in what place means, as well as to send along a wish for my teammates and the other JDRF riders this week.  Mike Clark, a dear friend, and a Co-Head National Coach for the JDRF Ride to Cure uses the expression, "-ness" to explain a place and its... well... "-ness": its sweet-ness, its wonderful-ness, its strange-ness.  That's.... -ness.  Suffice it to say, Death Valley has grand-ness.  It has mysterious-ness.  It is surely a landscape that one must taste for oneself.  We craft our own -ness in our own tastebuds, our own senses of a place.

(And let me just add that I do no justice to the description of DV.  Mike, of all people, should be the one writing this post.  He, with his seven years of experience there, offers the most apt description of this place, the experience, and the JDRF weekend there.  It's hard to capture, and he does it beautifully.  If you haven't had the pleasure already, you should talk to him about it.  Maybe I'll invite  him to be a guest author here... hmmm....  Mike, warm up that computer of yours....)

Suffice it to say, every time we talk about it, his message is this:  the Death Valley ride is like no other, largely because this place is like no other.  With teams arriving from every region of the US, descending on this ranch, in the middle of the desert, with nowhere to go but somewhere else on the ranch, or out on the roads with friends on a bike, the experience makes folks taste the landscape and speak the language, to immerse themselves in this place.

Indeed, my friends re-create the place with their language, and maybe, themselves, if only for a few days.  Before too long, riders talk about "the ranch" as if it were their home.  They use words like, "below sea level", and "Badwater", "dry heat", and "hydration."  They'll say, "Jubilee" as if it's a grand celebration... and it kind of is, once they get beyond the 40-some miles of road, and the 6 mile climb to get there.  They'll talk of goals and reaching them, of pushing beyond and testing and realizing limits.  They'll become versed--if they aren't already--in road riding terms like "car back", and "on your left"and "single file" and "SAG."  Most poignantly, they'll be familiar with the language of Type 1 Diabetes: of lows and highs, and CGMs, of pumps, and insulin and all manner of terminology I have embarrassingly not yet learned.

Atop Jubilee Pass, just before descending.  (2007)

Mostly, my friends (and those who I have not yet met) will have a weekend they will carry with them for a long time to come.  Friends who have traveled there for numerous years will, I imagine, taste the landscape in both familiar and new ways.  Though they are a tad more versed, they will have another moment in this place that is uniquely created by the landscape and by the people there. Those who are new to the place will need a few days afterward, I imagine, to really understand it, as they reflect on the landscape, when they contrast it to wherever they call home.

I imagine, and hope, that someday I will get back there too.  But for this year, I will remain in my own place in Michigan.  I will feel the tentative fall Midwestern sun on my skin, as I taste the overly-confident desert sun in my imagination.  In this moment, I send along my wishes to my team, in hopes that they learn to taste the landscape in new ways this year, and to come back with stories of triumph and, of course, bike face.  And most importantly, I hope that they continue to do what they do best:  to ride to cure Type 1 Diabetes.  I will surely be in that landscape in spirit.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wow, time flies.  And luckily, so do the miles.

I realize it's about time for the official 2012 JDRF  rides to begin.  Next week, JDRF begins its annual ride series in Burlington, VT.  And while the rides start next week, people all across the country have been working hard all year raising funds for research, spending hours on their bikes in training, and spreading the word that to find a cure is our one mission.  To celebrate and to honor those touched by Type 1 Diabetes, riders, coaches and program leaders will gather next week in Vermont.  And, that's just the beginning.  From now until mid-November they will gather in LaCrosse, WI; Lake Tahoe, UT; Death Valley, CA; and Tucson, AZ to find a cure. No effort is too big; no step toward a cure too small.

So today, I write to give a shout out to my friends, my teammates, (and JDRF friends across the country I haven't yet met) who are preparing to get their bike face on and ride to the cure.  Unfortunately, I will not be riding this year.  But, I'll have "bike face by proxy"... by watching, training with, and cheering on everyone else who can ride for a cure.

And so, this post is dedicated to a very particular brand of bike face, JDRF bike face.

Carmen, West Michigan Team, Death Valley, 2007

It's a face that says, "No amount of heat or wind will make me turn my back on a cure." 
Me and Kristina, West Michigan Team training ride for Killington, VT, 2009

A face that says, "We love this; we hate diabetes."

Derek, Kirsten, and Dane Dykstra, West Michigan Team, Training for Death Valley, 2011

Faces that say, "Type 1 Diabetes can eat our dust!"

Cathy "Kaat" Tahy, tune up ride to Zabriske Point, Death Valley, 2010

A face that says, "I am proud to know the JDRF families. Y'all continue to impress me every day with your bravery, your heart, your strength.  I ride stronger every day because of you."

Linda Thompson-Poeder, West Michigan Team, training in any way she can, 
mountain biking in Michigan (date unknown)

A face that says, "I would brave the mud and cold and wind and rain and snow and dust storms and heat and rain and snow and dust and heat and ice and sun and cold and.....  anything for a cure!"

Mike Clark, National JDRF Head Coach and Coach of the West Michigan Team, 
Death Valley, CA, 2007

A face that says, "I'm not stopping until we find a cure. And maybe not even then. 'Nuff said."  

Ride on, Team. Wear your JDRF bike face with pride.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

starting small for big reasons

Welcome to the first edition of a chronicle of my and others' lives on two wheels.  This blog is about all things bike.  Specifically, as its title suggests, this blog is about bike face.

So, what is bike face? The concept was originally coined by two very dear friends, Lisa and Greg. I'm not exactly sure how long ago they had begun to use the term, but I learned firsthand about bike face during one of our very first trail rides together. (I think it was 2006.)

After sharing a few stories of our riding experiences, we decided to meet at the local MTB trail we each loved, but had never ridden together. The single track trail meant that we had to ride in single file. So Greg took the lead position, I followed, Lisa rode last. About half way along the trail, we rode a section that runs gradually downhill, then dips steeply into a ravine and then up and out again onto a glacial moraine. The trail is a mix of sand and rock and is not too technical; however, it often develops sections especially after rainstorms that can become challenging, and riders have to stay alert. I tackled this section of the trail feeling as if I had just ridden a roller coaster. Picking up speed, I caught air over bumps that had developed in the trail. Hardly pedaling, I flew up and over the next few rollers. My ride felt effortless, thrilling, and I could tell I was smiling. I may have even been giggling.

Ahead, through an opening in the dense section of woods, I saw Greg, waiting at the next intersection. I knew Lisa would not be too far behind, so as soon as I stopped, standing next to Greg, I looked back to watch for her. Within a few moments, she appeared out of the thick section of woods, flying up the last hill, stopping quickly in front of us. Lisa's face described her ride. It was a look of thrill and happiness, of pure bliss. This was the first time I saw bike face. And I felt it too. For several moments, we stood in the middle of the woods, panting, sweating, laughing, (ignoring the mosquitoes) recalling each of our respective rides down what Greg and Lisa had named Bike Face Hill. I learned then that bike face was a thing worth noting.

Since that first ride together, each of our riding lives have expanded: mine to our local JDRF team, and Greg and Lisa's to local MTB endurance races. In all of our experiences, we have found that bike face appears nearly everywhere. And we talk about all of those moments, often.

And so, we named the phenomenon "bike face" to describe any bike-induced look of joy or peace or pleasure or thrill. Or simply, happiness.  I have come to understand it as the perfect manifestation of grace (more on that in another post).

But this blog is not only about where and when bike face happens. It is about why it happens.  It is how cycling, and the incredible community that accompanies it, creates bike face. It is how my life is better on all fronts because of that little yellow Schwinn single-speed my father gave me when I was 8 years old, and the grown up red bike (a Cannondale) I ride today. It is about how my life is more fulfilling when I am on the bike. It is about how (and who) I want to be when I'm 70, 80, and 90 years old.

Needless to say, bike face is a state of mind, a way of life. This is how I choose to live. More importantly, I hope to help others find their own bike face moments. And in that spirit, I hope that readers will share their own stories of bike face with me, that together we can build an archive that can inspire others.