All Good Things

blown-away-in-patagoniaIt happens every year. The leaves fall off the trees, and the autumn winds begin to blow in earnest. This year we had two reprieves of 60 degree temps and sunshine…for which I’m grateful…seeing as it is October 25th, and all. Most years the weather gets putrid by October 10th. Such are the charms of northern Minnesota.

We are governed 8 months of the year by Canadian air. Even when the jet stream is running pretty far to the north, we’re far enough north to remain in its frigid grasp. While the rest of the lower 48 is basking in above average warmth, we are decidedly below average. This week all the leaves dropped as if a switch and been thrown, leaving considerably less protection from the wind. And now, the expected gusts blowing across the Manitoba prairies have reached us.

Not that I’m complaining, [Okay, a little bit!], but today I was beat up pretty good by the wind. We’re talking about a wind that makes the grass in the fields lay down flat. From the side, these winds blew me out into the traffic lane several times. Head on, they reduced me to 11 mph of forward momentum. After 53 miles of this, I decided it’s time to bring the bike indoors and commence off season training at the local YMCA.

Tomorrow I’ll go for one last ride to end on a more positive and less windy note.


The Flip Side – a kinder, gentler inner beast you find me beastly?!

So…do you find me beastly?!

There’s always a flip side. A headwind becomes a tailwind; a climb gives way to a descent. This contrast of opposites is part of the allure of  cycling.

All through May and June I could feel my form building with perceptible gains every week. I was on form for 5 glorious weeks in July and August: grinding up alpine climbs and time-trialing at 22 mph across the flats. Fellow riders would ask politely if I could slow down the pace a bit. Some others started referring to me as a BEAST. I don’t think I’ve been called that before, but I’m pretty sure it was meant as a compliment.

But then came the flip side. Our bodies cannot stay at peak performance indefinitely. Life happens: you miss a few rides, other responsibilities call out, you eat garbage for a few days because you think you can get away with it…and the like. I heard my body telling me it was in no mood to go as fast, as hard or as long. My inner Godzilla wanted nap-time in his schedule, and a kinder, gentler routine.

The fitness physiology gurus say that energy production on the cellular level simply needs to take a break. ATP [Adenosine triphosphate] is a major vehicle for transporting food energy in the form of glycogen to fuel the cells in our body. No one knows for sure when this energy system needs to rest from the constant high demand of competition – only that eventually an athlete will see the signs and symptoms. We need to rest and rebuild…hit the reset button, so to speak.

resetbuttonAnd so, as I work toward the end of the cycling season, I’ve reduced mileage and intensity. It sounds backwards, but even after 5300 miles of riding, I needed to press that RESET button. After a couple of weeks of rest, I’ve been building back to the point where I can ride a few more centuries while the uncharacteristically nice October weather lasts in Northern Minnesota. 

Endurance athletes tend to love reaching peaks of performance – we are driven to press further and dig deeper. But we need our flip sides, too. We build, we peak, we rest, and then we reset and rebuild. Cycling has taught me that rest is a valid and important component of strength. It’s a necessary counterpoint in the rhythm of training, and a reminder that we do this because it’s ridiculously fun.

That is why we do this…right?


It pays to listen to your inner Godzilla.

Small Men with White Goatees

gnomebikeEarlier this season I took part in a century ride on the south shore of Lake Superior, in Wisconsin. The ride was quite enjoyable, and the weather fine, but I drove home with one nagging question:

Who were all the small men with white goatees?

Diminutive men with white whiskers smiled and waved at me all day. To see 2 or 3 of them is a curiosity. 5 to 7 is a wonder. 10 or more? Well, that’s a mystery of unparalleled SMALL proportion. They were everywhere. On racing bikes, on tandems, even on mountain bikes.

What’s the chance of seeing more than a dozen S.M.W.G. over the course of 100 miles? It is common knowledge that Wisconsin is over-run by trolls, gnomes and other mythical bearded creatures that don’t seem to dwell anywhere else. This seems to be the only plausible explanation, except maybe food poisoning. I have it on good authority from a friend, who was poisoned at a questionable [and only] Chinese restaurant in Rumford, ME, that bad pork fried rice can make a person hallucinate.

I assure you there was no pork fried rice for me on that day. And in case you wondered, no sampling of local wild mushrooms, either. I suppose it will remain a mystery wrapped in the folklore of the Land of Cheese.

P.S. I’ve returned to Wisconsin twice more since that day in June, but have not seen hide, nor hair of the S.M.W.G.

I was that Fat Guy on a Bike

bikebuttGlance into the rear view mirror of life, and you’ll see that the scenery has changed. Whether the scenery is familiar or foreign, change is part of the journey. This year the change has been for the better when it comes to girth and gravity. I’m not that fat guy on a bike anymore. Yes, the scenery has changed: I weigh what I did 25 years ago.

It’s all rather startling because the image I had of myself riding my bike didn’t used to match up to the photos – but now it does. Well, mostly. I could still lose another 5 pounds, but I’m pretty ecstatic that my knees don’t bump my stomach when I ride with my hands in the drops.

tdm00There is a down side to all this reduction of mass. To begin with, I have a closet full of clothes that are too big. I know it’s a good problem to have, but replacing work clothes diverts funds away from the bicycle. Having to choose between new spandex bibs and dress pants is both sick and wrong.

You may recall the adage that the gut is the first place where fat goes, and the last place to leave? It’s true. Once every other part of my body is lean there’s a 5 pound paunch more prominent than ever. Can you picture an island in the middle of a lake that’s drying up? As the levels drop, the island becomes magically larger.

I might also add that I think I’ve lost some speed while descending, but gained some speed going up the hills.

Still, there’s a lot to be grateful for. I don’t risk structural failure of wheels and bicycle frame when I roll out of the garage. Fatty and sugar-laden foods have mostly lost their appeal. I DO love an ice cream now and again, but a small cone satisfies me.

Strange as it may seem, I’m not that fat guy on the bike anymore.


The Grace in Not Giving Up

24 hours before the start of the Wright Stuff century ride I came down with a cold. Frustration and disappointment ran high, because this was  my training focus for the month of August, and was the reason I’d been riding in Wisconsin these past several days. It seemed beyond my grasp that it was now all about Kleenex, alka Seltzer cold remedy, and zinc lozenges. I took the day off from riding and submitted to the above mentioned treatment of my unwelcome common cold: not knowing that a faith lesson was was coming together behind the scenes.

As I lay on the couch feeling sorry for myself, I picked up my friend Marty Kaarre’s devotional book  Breathing Holes. What I read was curious: ships are safe in a harbor, but that’s not what ships are made for. Then I read the next devotion about doing things with all our heart. DIVINE CONSPIRACY? I’m certain of it – because, after reading from three books, it was all about adventure, strength and not giving up. To be more specific, God the strength giver who shows up in my weakness.

Does God care about bike rides? I don’t really know…maybe. Does God care about what I do on a bicycle [or any other endeavor] that might impact the growth of my faith or character? Yes, I believe he does. And so, I got up this morning and went for a 101 mile bike ride that climbed the better part of 7000 feet, betting everything on this. After all, faith is the assurance of things not seen.

My cold symptoms disappeared.

I felt strong.

My form was spot on.

I did the fastest hilly ride of my life, and my nose didn’t run. Some may chalk this up to endorphins and the power of positive thinking, but when I’m sick the only thing I’m positive about is lying in bed.  Others might point to having 4600 miles in my legs this season, but I know first hand how fickle my performance can be. It was about something vastly more satisfying.

I trust in a God who’s so concerned about my Greg-ness that he sends me messages of hope and courage. More than that, he’s the Lord of head colds and the fixer of bad days. I started my day, and now end it with this conviction:

If God is for us, who can be against us?


Mike the Bike Bard and yours truly

Three Days to Live [and die] For

foodMike and I are back in Wisconsin for more fun on the bike. The fact that we’ve knocked out 15,000 feet of climbing and 176 miles in two and a half days is a clue to how much fun we’re having. We’re working hard enough for food fantasies to crop up by mid ride:

I’m gonna make the mother of all salads tonight.

Turkey burgers with bacon and tomato.

The continuously rolling terrain peppered by numerous 15-20% climbs are a grimpeur’s delight. The climbs aren’t long by Colorado standards – gaining between 300 and 900 feet at a time. Its all about the grade. Whereas many western climbs unfold in the 5-7% range over several miles, Wisconsin climbs put all your suffering into a 1-3 mile package. The good news is, as we toil up these grades which are steeper than a cow’s face, you can see the top. Sometimes, as I’m grinding up a particularly steep section, I start giggling.

Our first day we followed our intuition – making up our route as we rolled along. Whatcha think about this? Sure, why not. Whether drawn by aforementioned intuition or by some darker force, we found ourselves at the turn off for Mounds Trail: the CAT 3, 900 foot climb up the north side of Blue Mounds State Park.

Sure why not.

As is the case when I suffer, I tell myself that I’m most likely not going to seek out any additional climbing in the near future. However, when I rolled up to the turnoff for the summit I found myself continuing to ascend. This was a noteworthy moment. It’s not just that I continued to climb, but that I did so knowing full well that ice cream was available in the opposite direction: down the hill.

Yesterday we did a 70 mile route north of Mt Horeb [alleged home of Trolls], and then south of town – no trolls, only corn and cows. In the northerly direction its all about sharp climbs and long descents through hardwood forests. The south is a study in red barns with white trim and constantly rolling corn fields. The smell of manure was in the air, and was in my jersey by the time we got back. It was a two turkey burger night, followed by me making a complete mess out of my front derailleur. More about that later.

sharetheroadToday we headed west for a brief sojourn into Iowa County: home of great cycling, and people who hate cyclists. As the story goes, an elected official of some sort tried to bully the county commissioner into forbidding cycling events in the county. From what we’ve heard, the events have continued, but not without considerable rancor on both sides. The photo to the left rather sums up the local attitude. My theory is that it has something to do with a collision between two worlds: one of carharts’s and rusty Ford F 150′s, the other of carbon and spandex.

Maybe I should investigate a flannel jersey with the arms ripped off?

Before we rolled out, Mike went to the pharmacy, said a prayer and happened to find a bike mechanic named Seth standing out on the sidewalk. So, says Mike, can you fix my friend’s bike? 

It happened just like that.

Seth the bike guy, who used to run a small shop, reset my derailleur and refused to take anything for his time. We were back in business.

We encountered a stiff challenge in three consecutive 16-22% walls that I immediately christened the ‘Perfect Pavement Pinnacles’.  The first one was so steep that both of us were climbing out of the saddle after the first 50  feet – and from a dead flat start that gave us no spare forward momentum . This was followed by a steep drop where we shifted into the big ring and pedaled furiously so that our speed would carry us a ways up the next pinnacle – thus saving us a bit of work. Repeat as needed.

As we got into the late afternoon, we began to feel the 88 degree heat and humidity. Stewart Lake appeared  to our left, and with it, a water spigot with really cold water. Mike and I spilled about 10 gallons of water paid for by Wisconsin tax payers, dousing our heads and neck. Maybe we had gotten a bit delirious in the heat. Whatever the case may be, we both found the icy water to be the height of hilarity. And why not? It was another gift of many received in a splendid three days – and we’re not done yet. On Sunday we’ll be riding the Wright Stuff Century, with close to 9K of climbing. The details may be found here.

I leave you with a final image…





Above Category with Stephen

Glacier Park is called the Crown of the Continent.  Some places are higher. Some have more soaring granite spires. But Glacier gathers majestic peaks, plunging valleys and abundant wildlife into a dense slice of wilderness spilling northward into Alberta. Crown indeed, and a fitting capstone to my adventure.

Ride a bike for a few thousand miles and you learn that the road gives us what we need. We may beg to differ, but what lies before us is what we’re getting. Accept it, or argue with it: the road delivers the goods. And it did so once again today.

As I was riding along Going to the Sun road – and just before the climb to Logan Pass started in earnest – Stephen from North London rolled up beside me. In the characteristicly friendly tone of our neighbors across the pond, he inquired whether he might join me. He proceeded to chat me up.


My new friend Stephen

As the road steepened we talked about the recent declining fortunes of British cycling in the Tour de France,  punctuated by exclamations of delight as new vistas opened before us. It’s worth noting that having someone to distract you from your suffering during a long climb is absolutely priceless, and so we took turns following each other’s wheel.

The climb to Logan Pass is rated as HC, or above category – descriptive of a special group of ascents that are too large to fit into the normal rating system. Leave it to the French to invent a rating system and realize after the fact that some climbs don’t fit. I can imagine someone shrugging their shoulders in Mediterranean indifference and sighing,  hors categorie. At any rate, when the clouds are drifting by below you, it’s a pretty good bet that you are indeed above category.


Stephen and I hit the final straightaway before the pass in good form, and I rolled into the parking lot declaring victory in words understood only by cyclists:

Nice go
Got that sorted out
Had good legs today

After getting yelled at by the Rangers for rolling up the handicap ramp (to log 10 more feet of elevation), we grabbed water and descended 900 feet to the east of the pass. Turning around, we climbed back to the summit – the glaciers and snow fields shining like all the diamonds in the world.

The road gave me what I needed today,  and has consistently done so these last nine days. Whether flying along at 30 mph in the lap of a fast tailwind,  or suffering alone through yet another set of steep switchbacks, I got what I was supposed to have. How much time is spent looking past the right now, thinking that there’s something better we’d rather have?

The road is not random. Neither is it an impersonal convergence of capricious circumstances dealt to us by the so-called universe. I can find no courage or hope in this. Rather, the road is built on the kind intention of a God who became human for a season and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth. He brings what we need in the journey, and travels with us to give us someone we can look to when the road rises above category.

And so, this stage comes to an end: 450 miles ridden and 23,265 feet climbed. The road now leads home to the embrace of my girls.Thanks to all of you who took time to read these thoughts.

See you on the road.