Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Crisis of Faith Part II

As most things in life, good things come to me through my connections with others. My friend Jan was riding alongside me today in our usual Thursday morning club ride and told me how she related to my last post, that in her experience, it's the people around her that make or break her riding. Of course, she said a lot of other things, but this is the piece that relates to my next part of the story. And while I can't say that I am completely cured, I can report that, like Jan, I've been reminded and newly confident of the power of people and community in cycling.  Here's (partly) what has inspired this positive and welcome change in my spirit.

Last week, I was in NYC for work, and as luck would have it, my schedule overlapped with my dear friend's plans to be in the city too (that would be Mike, I've mentioned him before.).  So, we made a plan to meet up for a short tour of the city before I had to fly home. He was in town to take part in the inaugural Hope on 2 Wheels Ride, which was the brainchild of Scott Kasper and Mike Chadwick (of the Mid- Jersey chapter of JDRF), to raise awareness of Type 1 Diabetes. This ride was an epic tag-team ride effort from New York City to Washington DC, some 252 miles, done all in one day. Twenty four intrepid riders, two cargo vans, two 15-passenger vans, and three other support vehicles and a bunch of dedicated crew and a cameraman convened on Manhattan's Financial District at the site of the World Trade Center last Friday afternoon. Their mission?  To ride from the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) Headquarters to the National Institute of Health Headquarters in Bethesda, MD, all in one day to raise awareness about Type 1 Diabetes (or T1D, as the community calls it). 

But that's just the beginning....

Once Scott found out I was in town, and since I've done some volunteering for JDRF events, I was invited to join the group for dinner that evening at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the World Trade Center memorial.  Just before I was to get in a car bound for LaGuardia, I got a message that my flight had been cancelled.  In seconds, I had three or four friends offering me places to stay and a plan to fly home when I needed to.  But it didn't take long for someone to broach the idea that I should just stay and help with the ride. Because Mike was driving back to my neck of the woods on Monday, I could hitch a ride with him, thus avoiding the whole airport shuffle and allowing me to witness (and help with) one of the most inspiring cycling events I've ever seen. The plan was set... I was totally and completely in... (and didn't care one bit that I had used up all of my clean clothing earlier in the week). I was going to help deliver Hope on 2 Wheels!

At 4:45 the next morning, the cyclists were clad in the blue and white HopeOn2Wheels kit and on the road for a 5 am start from the JDRF Headquarters. The morning was warm and damp (a storm had blown in the night before - hence, my cancelled flight), and uncharacteristically quiet.... no one was out on the streets, save a few folks crawling home from the bar. Perhaps somewhat defiantly, we filled the streets with the sounds of whirring tires on wet blacktop, the click of shifting gears, and the ever-recognizable sound of pride, of bikeface.  (Yes, when it's right on, I swear you can hear it.) Only the quiet friendly chatter in the group could be heard above the bikes' rhythmic clickings, happily the loudest noises in that part of town that morning. 

Meanwhile, I rolled along in one of the passenger vans, with a plan to help support the team with whatever they needed at each transition area.  I had my coffee in one hand, and my phone on camera mode, and I was poised and ready. 

I can't possibly tell the story of the entire day here, but let me get to a few highlights. 

The first highlight happened immediately, at the starting area.  It turns out that the ride had gotten so much press that a young boy (8 or 9 years old?), Diabetes Dude as he is known, came down from Boston to greet the team and deliver his own personal message of hope and thanks.  He and his family were there at 5 am ready to talk to the riders about how important this ride was to him and to many other children and adults with T1D. After a few congratulatory hugs and good luck wishes between Diabetes Dude and the team, they were off.  Once the clicks and whirrs and lights and cheers rounded the corner, I jumped in the van, anxious, yet eager to find out how this long day ahead was going to unfold.

 (This is a video of the start.)

The riders' first mission was to get onto the ferry to Staten Island, where they were to ride across the island, greet a police escort to take them across the bridge on the other side back in to New Jersey. I couldn't go along on this part of the ride because vehicles aren't allowed on the ferries to the island. So, Dave Chadwick (my driver friend, and brother of Hope Ride co-founder Mike and rider Andrew) and I drove to the first check point to greet the team. 

This rest stop was significant not only in that it was the first on the ride, and the first time we would have seen the team since they left Manhattan about two hours earlier, but it was also placed at mile 23. For those outside of the JDRF Ride program, mile 23 is a special mile marker, a mile of silence, (now marked on every JDRF national ride) to honor the lives we've lost to T1D. Michelle, whose son Jesse passed away from T1D on Februrary 3, which inspired JDRF to create Mile 23, was a rider that day. (I can't even imagine the significance for her, and was amazed at her strength and resolve all day.) To add to the honor of Mile 23, the riders were greeted with a bagpipe and drum duo who played as the riders arrived at the checkpoint.  

Here, Scott lead a perfect ceremonial moment to honor Jesse and the others who we were riding in honor of that day. Afterward, we got to business splitting up the team into three smaller groups, filling up water bottles, and getting organized in vans to shuttle riders to their next transition. The plan was to get all 24 riders in shifts of about 15-25 miles apiece along the route to the last transition area where they would meet up at the end of the day to ride the lat 20 miles together ending at the NIH office building in Maryland, just outside of DC. 

From here, the day becomes mostly of a swirl of details, of which I will spare you. Let's just say that the riders rode in near-90 degree heat, in short, but sometimes difficult shifts, non-stop, for nearly 20 hours. I was thrilled to be there at each transition area to help the team load bikes onto the transport vans, hand water and food, take photos, and cheer on each team as they took their turn at spinning the thread of awareness across three state lines.  

 (Scott Kasper, Ride Co-Founder)

 (Motorcycles lead the way.)

 (The team arrives at checkpoint 6, mile 90.)

Toward the end of the night, when darkness fell hard on the team, and on Maryland... but not on their spirits I must add... after 18 hours of non-stop riding, the team decided to make a major decision. Since several members of the team lost power to their lights, and were at this point not well-equipped enough to ride in the extreme darkness, even with support vehicles leading, it would be dangerous to continue with the original plan of all 24 riders finishing the last 20 miles together. Bonded tightly by now after more than a day's work, a lot of sweat and fortitude and mutual respect, the team unanimously decided to skip 18 of the last 20 miles to ride together for the last two across the finish line. (The last two would be under the city street lights, and much more safe in general.) They decided that it was far better for them to cross the finish line as a team "safe, sound, and smiling" than to have a few people try to ride the entire distance in the darkness while the others opted out. It just didn't seem right that not everyone would finish together. So we drove the team to the new transition area where we unloaded all the bikes from the vans one last time. As if to bookend the start of the day, there they were, in total darkness (save a few neighborhood house lights), lining up on a street completely unfamiliar to them, to ride again as a solid team of 24. Once again, I stood in the street while the line of blinking red lights, whirring tires, clicking pedals, and the pride of bikeface rounded the corner and out of view. Once again, I jumped in the van to escort them the rest of the way. 

What a spectacle it was! Two motorcycles lead the caravan of bikes and vehicles, with all 24 riders in a line, like a string of blinking holiday lights, moving up a winding hill, past the NIH headquarters building, and into the hotel parking lot at 11:59. 20 hours after the start. 3 flat tires and two minor medical situations after the start. 252 miles after the start. 16 rest stops after the start. Gallons of water, ounces of chamois cream, orange slices and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after the start. Hours of team-bonding after the start. After countless handshakes and hugs and cheers from the start, all 24 riders escorted slowly through the streets of Bethesda provided the town a late-night light show of red blinkers, gleaming bikeface, and full hearts. (And that includes those of us in the vans, who never rode an inch that day on a bike... we too had bikeface.) 

So 24 riders -- almost all nearly strangers to one another at the beginning of the day -- came together to create a community moment for themselves, and no doubt for others who were watching and cheering, even online, renewed my faith in the power of the bike to heal. It should be noted that the range of cycling experience and fitness was about the same as many area club rides I've participated in. These were not all huge and accomplished riders. Some of them had never ridden more than 60 miles in one day. Only two were professional riders for Team Type 1, who took on some leadership roles on their individual teams. Most were not the hard core riders we would imagine would be required for this ride. They were all just folks, incidentally many of them with T1D as well, who were out to do something important. And their goals were unwavering. But most of all, their teamwork and camaraderie is what inspired me. Again, there are stories of how they strategized together to make the next leg of their ride even better than the last, even as the day heated up, and fatigue set in. There are stories about how they now will find each other at the next JDRF ride and know that their community has just expanded, even if only by one person. Participating in this event -- even if only by sheer luck, by being in the right place at the right time -- has shifted how I see my own opportunities as a cyclist. I now feel more compelled to help the cycling community continue to grow. I now feel more confident that that is an important role for me no matter how well I ride. I now know that that piece of what I do out there on my bike is more important than whether I finish in the top pack. Of course, I will still push myself to challenge myself on the bike, to do things I don't think I can do, but I won't be placing as much importance on them as I once did. Because I was blessed with this opportunity, my spirit has shifted somewhat, and I am now thinking of myself a little differently as a cyclist. I feel better. Thank you Hope On 2 Wheels Team. Thank you mother nature. Thank you cycling...

(See Mike Clark's take on this story here.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Small and Not Unsurmountable Crisis of Faith (part I)

I'm starting over.  And I mean that in so many senses of the word.  Today I'm starting over with writing this blog, long neglected this year.  And I'm starting over with my sense of bikeface. 

I have to admit that one of the reasons I haven't written in several months is because I've found it difficult to write about bikeface.  And that's because I have found it difficult to find bikeface.  And until this past weekend, which I'll get to in part two of this post - and which prompts me to write now - until this past weekend, I hadn't even used the word "bikeface" very often.  I've had a crisis of faith lately, to be quite honest.  And if I paid close attention to some of my earlier blog posts, I would have seen this coming down the pike.  But you know what they say about hindsight....

It seems that I've discovered a great and somewhat troubling irony about getting stronger as a cyclist: getting stronger doesn't necessarily help you to feel better about your riding. 

That probably doesn't surprise any of you readers.  Even if you aren't a cyclist, you probably will be able to tell your own version of this story.  But here's mine.  For better or worse.

Since early fall (2011) my miles have increased exponentially compared to the year before. I've taken on far more challenges. And as I have written before, I have done more races, and have been more serious about how I did than I can ever remember. 

Thing is, when you get better, your expectations change.  You start trying to hang with people who are stronger than you -- which is how you get better in the first place -- but you also start caring more about how those people talk about your riding.  You start to wonder (and care) what your general repuation is with the group. 

Okay, yes.  That sounds so egocentric... to care about what others think.  But really, folks.  Let's not kid ourselves here.  Cyclists talk. They talk about who's likely to push the pace, whose wheel to trust in a paceline (and whose not to follow), who typically falls off the back, who's making great progress, who's the surprise rider who comes out of nowhere, etc., etc., etc.  Everyone is watching.  It's like being in school again.  And whether they know what they are watching for, or have misconceptions of what is happening out there, riders, as a community, and who generally care about who's riding with them, talk.  They do.  We're human.  We like to talk about other humans.... and like it or not, we all care about what other humans think.  (Some more than others, I realize.)

But, this post is not about whether I care tremendously about this unfortunate byproduct of being in a community, it's about how that community has gotten to my head and has affected my riding, and to some extent, my heart; and, I suppose, I'm attempting to get a grip on my own role in it. 

So.... this crisis of faith....

Let's start with the irony:  I've had the wonderful fortune of being part of what I consider to be one of the most caring and welcoming biking communities I could ask for.  I think that others who ride with me (us) would agree.  Generally speaking, every ride I do with this community leaves me feeling grateful.  So here's the big crisis:  I have lost my faith in my ability to be a part of it. 

I have lost my bikeface.

Since I have gotten stronger, I meet every ride with the fear that I am the weakest rider out there, that I'll be dropped, or make people feel they have to slow the pace for me, or worse, leave the group to help me bridge back up again.  I've left my house for group rides lately anticipating that I'll have no fun, anticipating the frustration and (sometimes) anger (though self-induced, I realize) at my own failings.  And flailings.   And while I know that helping others in the paceline are normal practices among cyclists -- I would do the very same thing for any one else -- I can't help but to get really really tired of being THE ONE.  I'm tired of being the one whose riding could potentially change everyone else's ride.  (Even if that part is only in my head.)  I'm tired of being the one who people have to look out for.  I'm tired of being the slowest one.  I'm tired of doing every ride knowing that the harder I'm working, the less and less great I'll feel about myself, and about the ride, and the less likely I'll feel bikeface. 

So, I'm shifting gears (pun completely indended).  I'm going to dial it back a bit for a while.  I'm going to ride the rides I know will restore my faith in myself, and in the bike.  I'm going to be the one to hold back for others, the one to pick up others when they've fallen off the back.  Because strangely enough, I'd rather be the one who's helping than be the one who's needing the help.  I'd have more bikeface in my life if that were the case.  I'll ride the faster rides only when I'm feeling particularly strong or needing to leave it all out on the road. 

I have to also say that this all comes with a strange little caveat too.  In the past 6 months, I've also competed in 4 races (2 CX races; Barry Roubaix, and Lumberjack).  In these races, I've found a little competitor inside of me as well.  And I kind of have a love-hate relationship with her too.  I won both 'cross races I was in, and don't want to lose any others this year (although I know I will).  

Bikeface turned Cyclocross Raceface

I had a blast with my captain, Derek, riding his tandem during the Barry Roubaix, and though we did pretty well for our first time racing together, I scolded myself afterward for not pushing harder. 

Crossing the finish line with Did, apparently lacking air....

I did the Lumberjack (a 100 mile single track mountain bike race) this year.  During the first lap (33 miles, which took me more than 4 hrs to complete), which was nothing short of disaster, I almost quit.  But because I wasn't riding for myself, but for a dear friend who couldn't ride (Kaat), I just couldn't let myself NOT go out for another lap.  I knew I wouldn't make the cutoff time to do a third lap or I would have attempted that too, thus completing the 100 miles.  I HAD to do what I could to make Kaat proud of me, even if it only meant doing part of the race.   

Pre-race Lumberjack with Roy and Mike.  Does my smile hide my nerves?

So as it may seem that these races have ignited a spirit in me that I didn't know I had, an embarrassment of riches in some senses.... they also raised my expectations of myself, and sometimes have nearly paralyzed me.  I have recently gotten into the habit of downplaying how important this all is to me when I talk with others just because I don't want my own lack of confidence to be a real thing.  But guess what?  It's there anyway.  Huh....

I guess this is all to say that I have decided to just get over myself.  I've decided that being dropped from a group, while not plesant, is not the end of the world, and it doesn't really matter.  I've decided that on most occasions, I'd rather be on my bike with my friends than pretty much any other place in the world. (Except on this beautiful night, as I write, I'm missing the largest and longest group ride of the week... go figure.) I've decided that pushing myself hard in places like Moab (another blog post coming soon) means more to me than being able to sit in a group on the Tuesday Night Ride and not get dropped.

This brings me to this past weekend. Which I'll write about in part II of this post.  I don't want to keep you from riding any longer.....