Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Instagram Gratification: Cycling in the Social Media Age

Last Saturday I went on my longest training ride of the year, 132 miles solo, about 1/3 of it on dirt roads. Since I've been training for the Dirty Kanza the past few years this sort of ride is familiar. I knew the effort I had put in, it was a good day on the bike.

Yet when I plugged in my Garmin to the computer the device would not read. I tried my son's Chrome Book, no connection from there either. I went from satisfied with my ride to frustrated & dejected in minutes. It was as if my success had been wiped away, I needed social media validation for my ride to be meaningful.

Garmin Envy (get it)
And that is just poor. As I complained on Twitter about my inability to analyze my day's training, my friend Matt Kraus admonished me that I had still done the ride with or without internet feedback. That should be accomplishment enough. I am old enough to remember a time when it was. Before the internet & social media the only people who knew how far or hard your training rides went were the others on the ride. Often that was only you. Even that was sometimes an estimate since until recently bike computers could only save a small amount of data.

the sad truth for some cyclists
But we live in a Brave New World now. Strava has changed the face of competitive cycling. Some folks take achieving KOM's as (or more) seriously than entering actual races. And woe be to the serious cyclist who fails to record a significant ride on Strava so that appropriate Kudo's can be conferred.
But not only on Strava, we cyclists seek affirmation through all sorts of social media: Face Book, blog posts, user groups, Instagram, Ride with GPS, Garmin Connect, & Twitter to name a few. I joke with my wife that 90% of my Twitter activity is bike chat, but the percentage is probably not far off.

That is not all bad. Cycling can be a very lonely business, especially in America where bike racing is & has always been a niche sport. Most of us cyclists spend hours upon hours alone, or with very few others, achieving accomplishments seen by no one else. The recognition by our tribe on line gives a welcome ego boost. I can now quantify & analyze my training in ways unimaginable when I was new to the sport. In this connected age it is much easier than in the past to find information on routes, weather, races, parts, & all the minutia that is "important" to cycling. My life as a cyclist is better for Sheldon Brown's on-line encyclopedia of bike technology alone. (may he rest in peace)
Sheldon Brown, cyclist extraordinaire
But documenting one's life as a cyclist on the internet can become obsessive too. The data is useful, but the data is not the ride. Still, some cyclists have become so fixated on the feedback of their power meter that they watch their computer more than the road ahead. Let's just say that Chris Froome is not the only cyclist who regularly stares at his stem. When I am more concerned with uploading a ride than recovering from a hard training ride, I know we have a problem. Roadies are not alone in this sort of fixation, not when you consider the flood of photos from gravel grinders or the number of Go-Pro edits from the baggy shorts mtb set. We all have different favorite ways to quantify & publicize our rides.
Froome staring at his SRM again
There is one group of cyclists who do not care about putting their rides on the internet, kids. Every child I know under age 12 who loves to ride bikes just loves to ride bikes. None of them have any way to document their time in the saddle, except when Mom or Dad (usually Dad) does it for them. All they want to do is have fun on two wheels. I am an advocate for riding like a kid again, for riding digitally naked once in a while, no devices, no planned agenda, just ride. If that is a bridge too far, put the computer in your jersey pocket and/or wait to up load the ride for a day or three. I do not ride that way often enough. I still like to measure my annual total mileage, but the recording of it can wait until the happiness from my last good ride fades away.
Not a ride on Strava
Until then, look up from your stem, turn off the camera, and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Endless Cycles: a new bike season begins

This year bike season in northern New England is starting late. When winter decides to go long ,as it sometimes can in these parts, there is no thwarting it. We had a few exceptionally warm weeks in February that allowed the intrepid cyclist a ride or two outside. But March was a return to full on winter with several 12"+ snow storms. Even the first Saturday in April had sideways blowing snow. While I've enjoyed the longest ski season in my time living in New Hampshire, it's well past time to ride.

family ski vacation
But this week Spring has at last sprung. I've been able to ride outside every day, in shorts a few time no less. Our club's Tuesday night time trial series began. A new course and the first threshold effort of the year made for a beautifully painful ride.

Our local Wednesday group ride also began in earnest. We've enjoyed a couple of "pre-season" rides already, when the weather was fair. But this week is when all the usual folks showed up and the ancient schedule resumed. Unlike some other places, our Wednesday night ride does not follow the same course every week. In fact we only repeat a handful of routes during the year, and those only twice each. In our little corner of New England enough quiet back roads exist to make for a few dozen good bike routes to choose amongst. We are blessed. So the Wednesday Rhino Ride (which was the Greasy Gonzo Ride before) follows a schedule of routes that goes back 30 years or more, from shorter to longer and back by the time the leaves change colors.

the regular bunch last summer
I've been attempting this ride for 16+ years now. I say attempting because for the first 2-3 years I was horribly out of shape and some tremendously fast Cat 1 road racers would set the tempo every week. Over the past few years the pace has mellowed as the bulk of the bunch has gotten older. The youngsters still come out to make the ride "spirited", especially on the long hills. It's not a gentlemen's spin, but it isn't always a hammer fest anymore either.
same as it ever was
Still, I wouldn't it miss it. This is the ride that brought me back to cycling. Trying to hold on years ago inspired me to race again. More than that, there is a irreplaceable community in a regular group ride. Some faces come & go, but many are familiar week after week, year after year. The comfort of a good group ride is shared progress & effort on the bike. We contribute to each other's success & strength just we compete for town lines & hill tops. Too much of cycling, too much current American society, is a lonely endeavor. The good group ride is an antidote for that ill.

So here's to the new season, dear reader. Go out and ride. Alone if you must, but with a good group when ever & wherever you can.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Hero's: remembering Steve Tilford & the important things

I have not written a blog post in a long time, almost 10 months to be exact. I've had several started, but they all seemed superfluous once I tried to finish them.

Yesterday I got a stunning reminder of how short life is. My first real hero in cycling died in a highway accident. Steve Tilford was killed while driving back from a training camp in California. It doesn't seem possible since Steve survived hundreds of falls & accidents that would have maimed most people. Steve was still recovering from a severe head injury from last November. In fact in this accident it took not one semi-trailer but two to send him to the next world. It is amazing how much he endured in life yet still kept racing. Bill Strickland described that well almost 20 years ago here.

I first met Steve briefly when I was 14 or 15. Then I was aspiring to be a bike racer. I would occasionally try to hang on with the University of Kansas Cycling Team rides. Steve would even less frequently show up to ride along. He would ride his bike from his home in Topeka, 30 miles away, do the 40-50 mile training ride, and ride home. While everyone else had their tongues on the top tube from effort, he would be chatting away not breaking a sweat. The mechanics at my local shop, all amateur racers, pointed out that Steve was a true pro & the only great cyclist among us. They shared countless stories of Steve tearing their legs off in training rides or races. While Greg Lemond was my first bike racing hero, Steve was his team mate, and Steve made the life of a cyclist real to me. By example he taught me what being a "bike racer" meant.

I became reacquainted with Steve after I started racing cyclocross. Once I started racing bikes again in my 30's I had moved to New England. I started racing cyclocross since my road racing team mates did. The 2007 Cyclocross National Championships were in Kansas City, an opportunity for me to both visit my parents & race. Of course Steve was there too, winning his masters age group & placing well in the elite race. I bumped into Steve the night after my race in Lawrence at the Free State Brewery. I went to say hello & tell him how much he inspired me 20+ years before. He greeted me like we were old friends. He shared lots of stories that night with me about those rides & races from years ago.

In the ten years since I've crossed paths with him a few times when I've been back home in Lawrence. Each time he greeted me with his big toothy smile & a new story of some bike adventure or long ago race, I've followed his blog regularly too. That alone is an education in the life of a cyclist much like trying to ride with him was as a teenager.

So what exactly did I learn from Steve? Bike racing is a hard sport, hard physically & hard mentally. You can develop the toughness necessary to be a good bike racer, but only by riding your bike, very far & very very hard, in all types of weather. The training miles of course make for strong legs but they also give you the confidence to ride hard in any conditions. Wind, cold, rain, if you've done intervals in that weather while training then racing in it is no mental challenge. There is no substitute for putting in the miles.

He taught me that the only way have the resources to ride that much & that hard is to be kind. If you waste your energy in bitterness there is not enough left to ride your best. Steve was generous in ways that still astound me. Out of his generosity he built a network of friends that sustained him. From Oregon to Florida, New England to So. California he had multiple friends willing to give him a place to stay. He gave himself away to both friends, competitors, & strangers who could never repay him. My favorite story is when he returned to his house in Topeka from a long trip to find a homeless women had camped in his shed. Rather than kick her out in anger or call the police, he gave her a stack of blankets, bought her food, then helped her get a bed at the local shelter.

He taught me that cycling is a sport of adventure & awareness. He never turned away from an opportunity at a new adventure on the bike. Part of his enthusiasm for cycling was his willingness to try new disciplines & events. If he ever got bored he found a new corner of the sport to dive into for a while. He learned most of what he knew about cycling from simply being completely aware while he was racing. To understand the nuances of cycling one must be both observant & remember the details of a ride. While he was as critical about bike racing as anyone I've ever known, he also understood that one can over think this sport. Knowledge is good, being observant is better, riding every chance you have is best.

In the movie "City Slickers" Jack Palance's character Curly says to Mitch "The secret of life is just one thing", Mitch asks in return "what is that one thing?" and he replies "That's what you have to figure out"
Steve figured out that one thing was cycling for him. His life was built around it. He inspired me to ride more, to race better, to be a more generous person. He was & is my Hero. He was to thousands more. We'll miss him in ten thousand different ways.

P.S. Hundreds of cyclists & friends are sharing their memories of Steve in the last few days. Here a couple of articles that struck a cord with me



Keith Walburg knew Steve as well as anyone. Here is a bio that he shared: https://vimeo.com/212184428