I remember climbing being harder when I was younger. When I was fitter. When I actually rode a bicycle.
This occurred to me the other day on a nasty pitch in the verdant hills above Berkeley. Well, I say nasty, but it was no more than 8 or 9 percent, and not at all long. Yet my thighs burned as I stood on the pedals, I wanted a few more teeth on the big cog, and I really should have eaten something during that coffee stop a few miles back. But I didn’t find it hard. You might even say I enjoyed it.
It stood in stark contrast with the days when I attacked every climb like Alberto Contador. The days when I could ride all day, when I did crazy shit like the Death Ride, when inclines were something to conquer, not enjoy. Maybe it’s the bike. Or my attitude. Certainly not my fitness, which after too many years behind a desk I can most kindly describe as endomorphic.
After more than a decade away from the bike, I’ve decided to do something about that.
This was not entirely my decision. I recently quit my job, leaving myself with a lot of spare time to fill. After a few days of this, my friend Jim, a guy consumed by an obsessive love of cycling, asked, “When do we ride?” I tried to think of an excuse not to, realized I didn’t have one, and said, “Uh, how’s Monday?” hoping he might be busy.
No such luck. “Fine,” he said. “See you then.”
Come Monday, I pulled out my bike, second-hand Specialized SL3, a seven-year-old carbon fiber whip with all the right hardware and a paint job only slightly less garish than a Vegas casino. I’d picked it up for nothing a few months ago, thinking I’d get back into cycling—and then didn’t because life got in the way. I found a water bottle that wasn’t thoroughly disgusting and squeezed into a kit that, surprisingly, still fits. Well, mostly. Jim provided a pump, a bottle cage, and a pair of pedals (he seems to own at least three of everything), and got my seat more or less dialed in. After a few laps around his place to check everything out, we got started.
We took it easy. Twenty-two miles or so, mostly flat. I soon found that I enjoyed being on the bike, getting exercise, getting out. Going to the gym, lifting weights, running—I find them boring. A chore to check off the to-do list. But riding? Riding is fun. It’s social. You go places and see things. We rode through neighborhoods I hadn’t seen in years before following the waterfront to the Port of Oakland, where sheer joy prompted me to take my hands off the bars and stretch out my arms. It felt like flying. It felt like childhood.
I rode four more times that first week, putting in about 120 miles. Yeah, it was all flat, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? I made each ride a bit longer than the last. I started adding hills—nothing crazy, just rollers. I got a professional fit from someone who knows what he’s doing. He flipped the stem, tweaked the bars, adjusted the seat. I decided to tackle a more challenging ride. And so last weekend we attacked the hills above Berkeley.
OK, attacked is a bit strong. But, at age 49, I’ve adopted a Grant Petersen-esque attitude toward bicycling (if not bicycles): It should be fun. You should ride like a kid, for the unfettered joy of it, and get there when you get there. I kept that in mind as the first climb approached.
Jim and his wife motored along with the strength and speed that comes with having started riding when index shifting was the hot new thing. I managed to keep them within view, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t spend more than a few minutes waiting for me at intersections up the way. Further along, where we could descend into Berkeley or keep climbing, I decided to keep going. A few miles later, I came around a bend to see San Francisco Bay and the city beyond. The sky was clear, the sun was bright, and you could see well past the Golden Gate. I paused to enjoy the view. I’d passed this vantage point countless times before, back when I used to ride. But I’d never stopped to appreciate it. Why would I? There was a climb to conquer. Don’t break cadence. Don’t fall behind.
I no longer feel that way. I’m in no hurry to reach the top, or descend the other side. I used to love bombing down mountain passes, and still can’t quite believe I once hit 57 mph coming out of the Rockies in Montana. I can’t imagine ever doing that again. I can’t imagine wanting to.
We arrived home after 30 miles and 2,900 feet of climbing. It was tiring, but not hard. Not yet, anyway. Maybe one day I’ll find climbs hard again, when they’re once again something to be conquered. But for now, I’m having too much fun.
It was a rainy winter. Or maybe it was a regular winter, and the past two winters had been so dry that I wasn’t ready for it. But the upshot was the same: hastened by the permeability of the shed behind my house, my road bike developed a nasty cold.
It’s my fault, really; I didn’t take good enough care of it. I kept it clean, sure, but I took it for granted. And when the tickle in its sinus began, the shifting got little wonky. It’s January, I told myself. The shop’ll take forever. So I wiped the bike down instead, and gave it some new tires. Then it got sluggish, and I dropped the chain going down to the little ring. I’ll bring it to in this week, I told myself. It’s the right thing to do. So I wiped the bike down instead, and made sure the chain was lubed.
But then, toward the end of a Sunday spin last weekend, my rear shifter cable gave up the ghost. Just…snapped. Somewhere up inside the brake hoods where mortals dare not tread. I pulled it out of the derailleur, stuck the housing in my pocket, and rode the last five miles on a singlespeed, 82 gear inches into a bitch of a headwind, cursing my negligence with every mash.
Now, my bike is out of commission until the shop can get to it—which happens to be eight days from now. All of this is to say, don’t be like me. But that’s obvious. So it’s also to say that while you might not even be aware of the rhythms that have developed between you and your steed, they exist, and they are sacred.
It’s plain when you jump on another bike for a ride. Climbs are guessing games, descents a gamble. It’s not like my backup bike is 30 pounds of creak, either. It’s more than sufficient, and it’s taken me through centuries and up mountains. It’s just not my real bike.
To be fair, it’s not like I knew my bike was my real bike when it first came into my life. My line of work allows me to ride a lot of different things, most of which are lighter than a loaf of bread and all of which are thoroughly above my pay grade. That’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also given me an almost monastic aversion to the idea of bike permanence. So the first thing I thought when I saw my bike was “I guess bikes are murdered out now.” Specialized’s Roubaix line of Classics/endurance rides has been around for more than a decade, but 2013 was the first year it was available in stunning black on black.
It was also the first year the company had married the idea of comfort with its SL4 top-tier frame—so while my first impression was visual, my second was “smooooooth.” That wasn’t a thought, it was an actual involuntary utterance when I hit a chattery stretch of road. (And in Oakland, “chattery” is close to the best you can hope for until you get to the blacktop up in the hills.)
Everything about it was perfect, but subtle. Dura-Ace, but not digital. An 11-speed cassette that got me up just about anything, and Zertz dampers that let my legs feel the road without my…other parts feeling the road. Brakes that I trusted, on in-house wheels that were light without leaving me vulnerable to crosswinds. It didn’t jump off the line, but it didn’t need to—it got there fast, and it gave back to the road everything that I put into it. It made me stronger. Faster. And now it’s gone.
Look, yeah, I get it. It’s not gone forever. I’ll be back on it in a week. But mark my words: I’ll never take it for granted again. Q-tip was right: Joni Mitchell never lied.