Sunday, November 18, 2012

In praise of faraway places ...

There is something about the unknown that draws us. And I mean "us" in the most general sense. Frank Borman, commander for the Apollo 8 mission that first flew around the moon, once said "Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit." The word "progress" comes from the combination of two Latin terms, "pro" and "grad", which together mean "to walk forward". And in a very basic sense, it seems that human history is pretty much a story about exploration. For as long as people have been around, we've been looking to stretch the ends of our discovery, squinting into the dark beyond what's familiar in an effort to answer basic questions of "why" or "how" or, on perhaps a more individual level, "what next".

Today, it's become much easier to dismiss this part of ourselves. There are fewer edges of the map not filled in, few places human beings haven't been. And the very idea of what it means to be conventionally "successful" in our society speaks to the notion of rooting oneself to a specific place - a house with some land, a steady job where progression becomes more of a well-worn path to a specific and illuminated goal than a journey of discovery, and the accumulation of possessions more than experiences. And that's all good - having roots is as much a part of us as seeking out new adventures. Perhaps even more so for most of us.

But none of those things diminish the fact that curiosity for the unknown is an important part of what makes us thrive. But today, aside from as-yet unreachable ocean depths, and the possibly infinite frontiers of science we've yet to illuminate, the larger part of discovery resides in the realm of personal experience. That is to say, while few of us are lucky enough to spend our lives pushing the limits of humanity as a whole, we can all pursue novelty for ourselves. A place doesn't have to be altogether "new" to be a new discovery for an individual.


I've been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately with respect to riding. One of the things I've always loved most about riding bikes is the near universality of it. You can ride a bike almost anywhere. And, I suppose the way I look at it ... why wouldn't you? After deciding at the end of this season that next year I wouldn't spend so much time running around the mid-atlantic region to every race out there, I was left with that question I mentioned earlier -- what next? And I think more and more, I'm coming to the realization that the answer to that is "exploration". In the past, I've been lucky enough to ride my bike in places both near and far. I've ridden Sedona more than once, the Sangre de Christo mountains in Santa Fe, Nine Mile Forest in Wisconsin, Pisgah, Tsali and DuPont Forest in Asheville, NC and this year I was lucky enough to experience Stowe, VT and the Kingdom Trails in East Burke. I've ticked off a few of the bucket list trails, but that only left me with the sense that there are so many more I haven't seen. Some of these - the MacKenzie Trail in OR, the Mah Daah Hey Trail in ND, Moab in UT -- are on the short list of life experiences, while others, unknown and unplanned, may make for the happiest memories when I'm too frail and old to throw a leg over a top tube. But they all await.

This past Friday, I made a trip out to Rattling Creek right here in PA. It's only a few hours away, but it's a world of difference from my everyday rides - rockier with longer, sustained climbs, and yet as much flow as you can ask from for PA. The views are like nothing I get to see here in Philly. I've only been there once before -- to race the 2009 version of the Rattling Creek 50 Miler. This time, I focused on experiencing the trail instead of surviving it - I highly recommend the former! And then just today, I took a ride along the Perkiomen Trail with my wife. Joanna hadn't ridden her mountain bike in maybe eight years before today and she did great - 25 miles including a climb over the Spring Mountain Ski Area. And that's what I want now. New experiences. Fill in a few more dark edges of my own map and maybe share those experiences with my friends and family. Like I said before, there will always be races to line up for and number plates to hang in my basement bike shop, but I think what's pulling me forward most of all now is the new experiences and discoveries, the rides in areas I've never been, or rides with friends and family, or even rides with new friends who share this same passion for two wheels on dirt or who think they may want to give it a go.

The ride up to the Hang Glider Launch - 800 feet in 2 miles!

Rattling Creek has itself some rocks ...

... and occasionally likes ot remind you of this fact in no uncertain terms!

Choices ... what do you want to discover today?

Dropping in to the Rattling Creek Trail

Bridging the creek

40 miles, 2 tired legs, 1 happy 1Speed ...

Sometimes it's almost too much to imagine all the places you can go, and the simple joys you can experience getting lost in the woods. At one point this past Friday, I was rolling along a trail and had no idea where I was, or even whether or not the trail I was riding was listed on the three year old map I was using. But it didn't matter. I was perfectly happy because the moment itself was exactly what I wanted -- a perfect confluence of experience and imagination. I just took what was in front of me and went with it. And even though I was essentially lost in (a huge) forest, I was perfectly content. For me, that was one of those rare moments that will stay with me forever, an experience I couldn't forget if I wanted to.

So anyway, that's where my head is now ... lately one of my favorites daily reads, over at Team Dicky was talking about how the cycling bog is dead, and I get his point. Race reports are great, and very entertaining, but with social media, you can be so much more immediate about experiences. What I see as lacking is this: there doesn't seem to be all that many out there who focus on what most of us really do on a day-to-day basis - simply play on our bikes in the woods, chasing experiences wherever they may lead. Over the next year, I'm hoping to add some great new experiences. Some trips may be planned, others will happen organically. But wherever I go, I'm going to be open to whatever comes along and just enjoy the ride. And if you want to suggest any adventures or join me on any rides, please give me a shout! If I've learned nothing else in the past couple of years, it's that this sport is much better when shared!

Either way, get out there and explore! Those lucky few of us who take part in this riding thing have a wide world of experiences waiting that others may never be aware of. Take that trip you've always wanted to. Ride the trail you've been putting off for so long. Get together a group ride with some folks you've never ridden with before. Color in the edges of your personal map. Explore the faraway places, even if they're just outside your door!

There's a lot to see out there ... 


  1. Great post from Rattling Creek! I had the opportunity to visit there in Sept for the first time on a friend's birthday ride. The elevation changes there are crazy, even the fire roads are steep. Can't believe you ride that place on a rigid SS. Kudos! LOL.

  2. Hey man,
    Really appreciate your blog, both from the training side and the day-to-day adventure-seeking side. I agree that the cycling blog is dead, but wish more folks were tapping into the childlike joy that we all get on two wheels in their writing.

    Anyway, two thoughts:
    First, you should head out to State College and do the trails at Rothrock if you want an adventure nearby (well, 3 hrs from Philly). I got hooked on MTBing there and it's an amazing network of trails to just explore on. The Purple Lizard maps will keep you from going too far off the grid, and the guys at Freeze Thaw Cycles can hook you up with whatever other info or gear you might need. There's a really great community of riders out there.

    Second, you mentioned a few posts back that you'd welcome questions about training and fitness. I'm in my fourth year of riding singlespeed, and just within the last year I converted to a 29er (an old Bianchi Rita, with front squish). I did my first few xc races this summer and placed mid-pack in the beginner class at MASS races. My question is this: how did you get over the beginner's plateau? I think I've had the same fitness and skill level for at least a year. I read tons of blogs and am up on mtbr, read Friel's stuff, etc., but it's beyond me how anyone gets from my level to yours (where a 40 mile ride is an "adventure" rather than "torture").

    Sorry for the long comment! Looking forward to your thoughts.

  3. Cameron - Thanks for the head's up about State College! I've ridden the Tussey Ridge Trail before, but only in a race. It'd be cool to just do a ride out there.

    As for your training question, I think there are a lot of ways to get yourself to over the hump. One thing I will mention is that placing mid-pack in MASS races on a SS is fine -- there is no SS class in beginner, so you're racing against a bunch of geared guys on gear-friendly courses.

    That said, there are a few general things that might help:
    (1) When you do training rides, do some focused efforts: hill repeats, intervals, tempo rides (where you keep your pace at a certain level for a long period -- say, just below race pace for an hour or so and build on that.) It's really easy to get on your bike for a mid-week ride and just go out and ride your regular loop, but if you want to race, training means using those rides for training purposes. Not always as fun as a regular ride, but it does pay off on race day.
    (2) Very SS specific: train in a higher gear than you would race on. Not drastically so (for example, if I am going to do a race on a 32:19, I'll ride the 17t in the weeks prior.) The extra power will make you work harder in the training rides, and that will transfer to a smoother stroke on race day.
    (3) If you can, ride with guys who are stronger than you. This one helped me a lot when I started racing -- I had a buddy I used to ride with who could put a hurt on me every time. Eventually, it would hurt a little less and a little less. Riding with a group of riders is great, too, because the best can offer real-time advice to the others.
    (4) For longer distance rides: start out with a trail you are familiar with and ride an extra loop or two. Take breaks on these rides, too. These aren't race-pace at first -- they should feel too easy early on. All you are trying to do with these is build endurance. When I trained for hundreds or 24 hours, I would go out to Blue Marsh Lake near Reading and ride a bunch of laps. It might take me all day to do 80 miles but it was the kind of base mileage I needed. Fall and winter are great times to do these kind of rides because they are exactly the kid of base-building periods when they work best. If weather cooperates, it's a great way to spend a day. (Oh, and on the SS, run a pretty easy gear for long rides. It may feel like you're spinning out on the flats, but you'll feel much better at 40 miles if you aren't working too hard early.)
    (5) Off the bike: I like gym workouts in the winter, but some other folks prefer XC skiing or other outdoor workouts. The point is to mix it up with non-bike workouts - but keep the intensity up. Base miles on the bike, train hard off in the winter. One of the best ways to go faster is to carry less, so keeping weight down is a big plus for racing, too.
    (6) Finally -- eat and drink! This has always been the hardest one for me to dial in. Nutrition is HUGE in races. Experiment with what works while training. I like Hammer stuff, but thee are plenty of different options out there. Find the drink/food combos that give you the best balance between nutrition needs and "eatability" -- I don't care how good it is for you, there are some gels and drink mixes I just don't like, and if I don't like them, I won't ingest them, so they do me no good! Your nutrition needs are much higher on longer rides. Keep that in mind and feed yourself a steady amount of calories throughout the day.

    Ultimately, the key is to ride smart and pay attention to how your body is reacting to the effort. You always get feedback before you get problems. Learn to recognize how your body starts warning you and you'll be able to head off the big problems (cramps, headaches, etc.) Racing will always hurt, but if you're used to the distances, that pain equity can be used for going faster instead of just lasting. Good luck!

  4. Wow, thanks for all of the feedback! Really helpful stuff. I haven't found much at all about SS-specific training, so this is great. I'm definitely into the idea of training on a harder gear than racing, and then getting spinny on the long-distance base rides. My goal is to move into SS sport by the end of next summer, so I know I have to work on endurance this winter. And I just dusted off my free weights a week ago. I'm also still struggling to find a nutrition routine that works for my sensitive gut (sigh).

    Definitely take a long weekend in SC when you have a chance. It's legit dreamy out there. Check out the pics from the trans-sylvania epic:
    It's the only thing I miss about being a grad student at Penn State :)

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