Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lessons from the Saddle: Part III Scene II

Plan for Possibility

In the last Lessons from the Saddle post, I contrasted two approaches to cycling, one ends-oriented and another means-oriented. When one has a particular end in mind, lets say an outcome, the bicycle factors as a tool to enable pursuit of that end. A cross race bike is a good example. Outcome: podium at the local cross race on Sunday. Most efficient and effective tool for the job: lightweight dedicated cross frame (no bottle cage bosses) and fork shod with high end components, tubulars, razor thin saddle, as little bar tape as possible, one chainring. Great tool.

Contrast against the means-oriented approach to cycling, where the bicycle is the catalyst of possibility. The practice is open ended, no outcome is prescribed, though intentions certainly factor: ride for the day, a few hours, an hour, whatever; pursue whatever seems interesting; ride as hard as it feels good to ride; stop when you feel like stopping; look around; be in the world. When we consider the good of cycling to lie in something else, something derived from the practice, we miss the value of cycling in-itself, its intrinsic value, the certain something most cannot articulate in words, the rightness felt while experiencing the world on wheels.

It took at least four years of hammering as a teenager to acknowledge the centring rightness of my cycling practice. I was on a local trail, pounding away as a always did, having ridden 30k from home already. Approaching a familiar lookout I never stopped at, I had a novel thought: why not stop and take it in, pause, think, breath, just enjoy where you are for a few minutes. I stopped, sat down on the bench, and looked around. I took it all it. I think this was a turning point, a moment where I finally came to really appreciate nature for what it is, wonderful and awe-inspiring. My ride that had been unfolding according to a clear plan had been cracked, and possibility bled in. I didn't have to form a plan and stick to it to the letter. I could adapt on the fly, make up my mind as I went, stop when I felt like it. I didn't have to go, go, go.

Fast forward about 15 years. This past season I did a bit more road riding alone than previous years, often nipping out for rides up around Wakefield solo. My Steelwool is designed with possibility in mind: big tires, low gearing, fender mounts, bottle cages (naturally). I've ridden this bike on trails I'd have never considered on previous road bikes with skinny tires. Sure, I've been known to dent a rim or two here and there, but the joy or riding a road bike just about wherever I want minimizes the pain associated with rebuilding wheels prematurely. But its not coincidence that I have a bike suited to all-road riding; this is according to plan.

The conditions of possibility for possibility rides fall into two categories: the machine, and the body, in no particular order. If I were to rank these, I'd place the body first, naturally, as no bicycle, no matter the delicate curves of its lugs, gorgeous chrome, impeccable cable routing or supple tires, will compensate for a body unfit for the challenges of the road. Fitness supports adventure. Better to let daylight and family obligations dictate one's timeline, rather than one's ailing body. If you fancy adventure by bike, treat yourself right and make time to ride.

The machine. It must be specced for possibility, but within what range? This is a matter of preference. One man's adventure bike might be an mtb, another a randonnee bike. This often comes down to locality. For example, in and around Deerfield, Massachussetts, home of D2R2, some of the locals I've ridden with tell me dirt road riding is the absolute best kind of riding the area has to offer, eclipsing mtb or straight road. Their bikes are build accordingly. In Pemberton, BC, mtb riding beats all, and a great bike is one that travels up and down with equal poise, handling plenty of rocks and a mix of soil types.

Practical, real world bikes, don't constrain possibility, the open the world to it. Good bikes encourage their owners to ride all the time, not just on perfect summer days. They call to us, they say, 'Hey, I'm ready, lets get out there!' This isn't to say that we all need the same kind of bike, and its an all-road. I am saying that road bikes marketed to beginner level riders that mimic PRO bikes are a step in the wrong direction for most. When a bike tells you, 'Hey, I'm a road bike, don't take me off smooth roads because I'm not designed for that,' it implicitly tells you what road riding is not: namely riding off the beaten track. But it is. It is riding on the beaten track, off the beaten track, and off off the beaten track. It is, and can be, whatever we want it to be. If I had a dime for every time someone told me how much the wished they had a bike to ride around the roads surrounding their cottage...if only their road bike's tires weren't so skinny.

Its vital to note that racing bikes don't need to be so unlike all-rounders as one might think. Sure, carbon wonder bikes are aero, light, stiff, and all that. Some are really good. I have one, its a Specialized Roubaix, and its terrific. But I just had my best cycling season of my life on nothing but steel bikes: 3rd place in the OBC Almonte Roubaix on my Steelwool Secteur 18 with 30c Grand Bois. 2nd place at the Mont Tremblant Canada Cup XC on my Niner 853 steel hardtail. 2nd overall in the Eastern Ontario Cyclocross series on my Steelwool Truffle Pig (and most of the series was raced on my Secteur with caliper brakes!). Of all these bikes, only one was raced differently than I'd ride it, the Truffle Pig, with its tubulars. My Secteur was raced in the same trim as I use to thrash trails, ride backroads, and the Parkway. The same.  My mtb was set up the same as I ride all the time in the Park and anywhere else. 120mm travel up front, a low knob tire in the back, and a good aggressive tire up front. I wouldn't change anything for a full-day choose-your-own-adventure ride. So great bikes, bikes that can do it all really can do it all. With judicious specification of their design and components, they can both serve as catalysts of possibility, and companions in the heat of battle. 

What's left beyond an able body and bike? What other planning is required to support a possibility ride? Just the basic stuff, knowing how to conduct typical repairs in the field, carrying spares like a master link, patches, tire boots, a bit of tape, a tube, tools and pump. Depends on how far out there you want to get. For a 200k day pretty out there, I carry all I need in a medium sized seat bag. Except food, that's jammed into my pockets. Pack lots, and don't forget your money and bank card. Maps don't hurt, and a cell phone is always wise. We've come to know the depanneurs in our area pretty well, valuable intelligence.

So that sums it up; plan for possibility by covering your bases and let your path unfold in front of you. You won't regret it.


Pascii said...

Good post Matt. This is the gospel we have been preaching. (or is it the conclusion we have come to?) Possibilities/versatility don't need to cost more or add more (much) weight. They just need to be thought out, in our case through years of experimentation and general geeking out.
I'd way rather be a generalist than a specialist.

Rodd Heino said...

As I always say, a road racing bike is a scalpel, a specific tool for the job, but really what you want is a swiss army knife. You can do all the things a scalpel can do, and more!

Anonymous said...


"I had a novel thought: why not stop and take it in, pause, think, breath, just enjoy where you are for a few minutes."

fully agree!
the forest can be a saviour to it all. During teenage years, I got caught up in sht then took up cross country running. Nothing beats running through a bush. Then, fallen to bad prey again only to find the forest saving my ass again, I'd mtb a good 6-8 hours on the weekends. Then, I took up racing for a bit. That's a different breed of substance... I just like dancing with the forest without the worries. Nothing beats sitting back on a bike taking it all in and thinking... I think best on a bike. Everything comes together so smoothly on a bike. One can probably solve the world's problems on a bike. Heck, didn't einstein do some of his best thinking on a bike!

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving”

I much prefer a CX bike. If you want to do trails then do trails (15,5,1,40,36,50,52,53 etc..). If you want to road, then do road. The options are there.

Life is good when there are options!
Life is stuck when there aren't many.

Me, I don't like carbon though. I've busted about 6 frames during my 19+ years of riding. 1 steel, many aluminum and most recently a carbon frame. It all comes down to fatigue limits. Steel has a huge fatigue limit...

Andy said...

Thanks for this, Matt. Being (mostly) cooped up indoors on the trainer and watching videos of past races has got me lusting a bit over carbon wunder-bikes. Training in such an isolated, artificial fashion seems to lead to a kind of cognitive dissonance.

Imagining myself riding against the pros, battling it out with Nino and Julien for a world cup XC title, it becomes easy to believe all that separates *us* from *them* is their level of coaching, training, and equipment. Of course they have all those advantages, but by far the largest is genetics -- they are truly gifted freaks of nature.

Cycling is different than most sports in that the amateurs can acutually come fairly close to imitating the pros -- we can ride the same bikes, wear the same clothes, and use the same training tools. However, all these technological toys are really just obfuscating the truth; that, as you say, no bicycle will compensate for an unfit body.

Finally, having never actually ridden a carbon bike makes it that much easier to buy into the marketing hype... that such a machine would actually make a huge difference, allowing me to effortlessly float up the climbs and slice through the wind. The fact is, losing 20 lbs off my body would do more to speed me up than any bike ever could. Would a super high-end bike make me faster? Yes, by a small amount, but no more than a high-end kitchen would make one a better chef. Like that nice kitchen, though... I will one day spoil myself. At least when I do I'll be able to comfort myself with the fact that a $10k full carbon Di2 equipped bike is a far more affordable midlife crisis vehicle than an exotic sports car!