Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Variations: Oranmore Plus

Last night, I played cards with a few friends, two of whom are former competitive cyclists. I had intended -- but forgot -- to ask whether it ever got easier. What I would have meant by the question was not whether I ever improved. There's no doubt that I have; my aerobic resilience, right now, is probably as good as it's been since the last time I took up regular running, six or so years ago. But no different than when I started, it often seems, by the time I'm a few blocks from home, or, later in a ride, a hundred feet up a steep hill, my legs and lungs are burning, I struggle to maintain some semblance of control over my breathing, and I just labor to get through it.

In rock climbing, I found with time came strength, and strength was most palpable by reference to how much climbing I could do without working. Climbs that had once left my arms trembling and my mid-section aching became warm-ups, limbering exercises, nothing to think about; I could climb them all night if I chose, with only very slow incremental reductions in strength. The analogy to what I find with cycling would be if easy climbs made everything burn and my muscles screamed at me to stop, but I persevered, but that's not how it worked in that sport. In running as well, the first mile or so hurt less and less with time.

But with cycling I don't know that my subjective sensory experience of my body is all that different now than it was a year ago, when I began riding in earnest -- this notwithstanding the fact that my commute now is all but daily (eight out of the last nine days, with tomorrow clinching my first five-day week in memory), a guaranteed eight-mile round-trip that at least gets my heart rate up for twenty minutes each way.

But I was wrong.

With this question lurking in the back of my mind, I embarked on the first Variation this week's schedule afforded, this being the first day this week I left the office anywhere near five o'clock. And with the question in mind, I realized that while I still felt like I was working too hard on the first long flat leg of the jail trail, my initial challenges did not waste me as they used to. I climbed up through the hollow without leaving the saddle, at speed. Up on Boundary, I turned left onto Fillmore instead of continuing straight up to Fifth or turning left onto Winthrop. Fillmore is steep and nasty, but short, and though it was hard to work up it I did so at a standard pace, out of the saddle, and by the time I locked up outside Khiva Han, a block from the hill, I had all of my wind.

A few stops later -- Moon was out flyering for an upcoming alleycat (definition here, but n.b., I'm perilously close to qualifying as an airhead, the next term defined), which, if you ride a bike, and you don't suck, you should come out and play with us -- Moon stopped in at Crazy Mocha Bloomfield and ended up in a long conversation with the proprietor of Dreaming Ant, the ubercool videostore in the back.

On the heels of that chat, my flyering done, I finally set out for home by the crescent moon. I decided that Stanton was too far, and heading down the hill to Butler directly too easy, and that this left me with only one option: Oranmore, again.

Which returns me to my subject. Mossfield, the rollercoaster run along the perimeter of the cemetery, as always presented a challenge. On each short downhill, I'd run up to something close to maximum spin, and then try to carry as much of that momentum as possible up the following hill. That spin takes a while to deteriorate to a point where my rpm approach a comfortable standing level, and fighting the spin prolongs the amount of time until I can get out of the saddle productively. It's a lose-lose -- either I stay in the saddle and fight my diminishing speed, or I succumb to it and let it take me down to a level at which I can comfortably stand, which on a moderate hill is infinitely more comfortable, albeit slower, than the ensaddled alternative. But I'm stubborn, and this is training, so I fought with everything I had until the last uphill preceding my turn into Stanton Heights. On the last climb, I bled speed and stood, conserving my energy for Oranmore. And more.

Oranmore was brutal, as always, but I maintained a steadier pace, a more even line, and found myself at the top of the hill long before my legs began to mumble about giving it up. More palpable progress. Moreover, at the top of Oranmore, experimenting with something I picked up looking at the map of a prior Variation, I turned left into Stanton Heights's side streets atop the hill rather than drop down to Stanton for the familiar descent into Lawrenceville.

Turning left onto Coleridge, I saw another climb a half-block distant, just a blip on the map. I shuddered a bit, my breath still ragged and my throat burning, but it was short and over before it began. Plus, as I climbed I had the tantalizing view of an aqua post-sunset sky framed by the trees on either side of the street, that view that undeniably says you're approaching the top of something. And so I was; as best I can tell, that is the functional highpoint of Stanton Heights, and I climbed it from the Oranmore basin.

From there, as the map reveals, I wandred sort of aimlessly through the neighborhood, figuring that sooner or later, if I kept Stanton to my right, the streets would spit me back out onto it, and they did, but only after treating me to a couple of brutal descents.

About two thirds of the way down the last one, Stanton in sight and legs tensing into oak to resist gravity's siren song, a group of children awaited me near the bottom of the slope. They called out a jumbled, polyphonic greeting from their post under a streetlight, and then a young, impossibly skinny girl moved assertively toward my path down the hill, hand outstretched. "Hi-i," she sang out again as I approached, importuning something I couldn't quite interpret. Uncertain, and still wrestling with the handlebars and gravity, I started to wonder whether she wanted me to slap her five as I rolled by, but I realized that if I did so I might not be able to control the bike's speed, and with the T-intersection at busy Stanton looming, I couldn't risk it. Instead, I just slid by, with little room to spare, grunting and fitting a feeble belabored smile. As I passed, she shouted something that sounded like, "Hi -- you dick."

Kids these days.

Spring has sprung in earnest, folks, and the night was absolutely beautiful. I climbed Oranmore and could have ridden more and more, another sign that I am growing stronger.


Blogger brian said...

It will never get any easier--you will only get faster.

9:15 AM  
Blogger David said...


your percieved effort never gets less. you just find that you climb in a harder gear (or a higher rpm, in your case). 100% effort is 100% effort, and riding at 90% just doesn't feel right.

when i rode alot (and when i say alot, i mean racing 75+ days a year, and 10,000 miles), your body changes, significanty. you never feel rested, always on the verge of getting a cold. it gets really hard to eat, which is paramount to performance when you're riding that much. ironic, really.

from a performace standpoint, though, and an ability standpoint, you tend to notice things are easier off the bike more so than on. flights of stairs don't wind you, nor does playing frisbee golf.

oh, and yes, spending that much time in the saddle will probably effect "little moon" at some point, but, not to worry, nothing a week off won't cure.

4:02 PM  
Blogger brian said...

yeah, i only ride to work everyday so i'm a better frisbee golf player.

apparently all the time i've spent in the saddle over the last three years has done little to affect my ability to create other humans.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous May said...

10'000 miles a year is almost ten times more than what I do.

PS-I didn't know that you (Moon)were ttc...

1:29 PM  

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