Notes from the scrum: Up, up, up
Some of us pedal because we’re angry.
Some of us pedal because we’re happy, or at least we hope to be.
Some of us pedal because we don’t know what else to do.
And some still because it’s the cleanest way we can work through the things that happen in this life. Cycling is a way of muting the white noise that surrounds us.
When things stall for me, I go up, up, and up. I’ve yet to encounter something so brutal, something more complete, than tearing myself to bits on long climbs. They have a way of boiling us from the inside out so that all we’re left with is a pure expression: a pedal stroke, however strong, however faint. It’s there, a metronome our hearts and legs beat out upon the hills, both literal and internal.
I’m sorry to say it, but sometimes cycling isn’t the happiest sport for me. It can’t be. I need it to put the screws to myself, to make right what’s wrong. Those screws, in Boulder at least, are called Flagstaff, Magnolia and Sunshine. If you’ve made it this far, you have your own screws to turn, I’m sure.
Of Boulder’s legendary climbs, Magnolia is its most ferocious, without question. The steepest paved road in Boulder County never allows a rider to find a balance between pain and recovery; it’s either steep or face-touching steep. Magnolia’s lower three switchbacks may as well climb to the moon in 500 feet, with grades on the white line of 40 percent. It’s 4.4 miles long with an average grade of nine percent, though its first half-mile rises at 13.8 percent. Eventually, the pavement ends at 8,250 feet. No one rides Magnolia, really. It’s more of a novelty than anything else. Except me. I’ve been riding it once a week for month because, for some reason, it makes sense to me. And that is enough.
Some days, I combine it with two other monsters (Flagstaff and Sugarloaf, if you’re curious) to ensure all that’s left is dust and a kit holding it together. Perhaps it’s the unspooling angst of a summer spent watching bike racing. Perhaps it’s the best way to work through life’s ebbs and flows. Perhaps it’s because cycling, like anything worth doing, consumes us whole and rewards every bit… if not today, then some other fine day.
A few weeks back, I rode 60 miles and climbed 9,500 feet because it’s the only thing I could conceive of doing on a fall Saturday. I’m not even sure I had a choice. There’s a point in days like that when the world loses its color, and the sky and road are of the same tone and grain, a watercolor. Sometimes, that’s all I’m after. There is a moment in each pedal stroke, one of equilibrium and emptiness. I’m always looking for it, the fragmented second one eases forward with no pain, no resistance. It’s as frictionless as our universe gets.
A few weeks ago in a bar, a former pro cyclist told me I should give up cycling, that we should all find something different to do and to write about because it was all stupid, fake bullshit. Sure, he was mad about a few things. But it came from somewhere real.
My friend, who was sitting next to me, told him he couldn’t accept that. That he didn’t care what any pro did on his bike because riding, to him, was about the things he felt while he was in the wind, on the dirt, on the road. It wasn’t about anyone else, and it definitely wasn’t about someone who gets paid to ride.
My friend was right. Cycling is personal. It’s not about anyone but you, no matter what the numbers and races make us think, there is but one thing you can control on a ride or in a race, and it’s your intention every time you turn a pedal over.
Mostly, we turn them in joy. Sometimes, in rage. Sometimes, in sadness. Most of the time, I turn mine in a mixture of the three on the same ride; I’ve always marveled at the way a sport, and cycling in particular, can allow for a torrent of feeling in the very same effort. This sport, it’s given me, and countless others, a way to dig. I imagine it always hurts us all the same if we’re doing it right, no matter how fast we go. We can climb through the mists of life, can feel our faces sweat out the old things, turning the shards of glass we all carry around inside to sand.
I’ll never be anything special on a bicycle. But the beauty is that gravity hates us all, and it punishes us according to our sins and genetics. We can strive to be faster, can strive for the grace that eludes us, both on our bikes and in our lives. We can compete not against but with our friends to propel one another up hills, through hard times.
Maybe we won’t ever be faster than some of them, but some days we can get them at the 40 mph sign outside of town, if we hang on long enough. Some days, we’re bent over the bars and tasting iron atop a climb, because we care about those 23 seconds. Some days, it’s easier than caring about other things.
In those moments, we are free. In those moments, we’re all the same rider.
In those moments, we are all great.