Zen and the art of Cycling in the Snow (and mud)

View from my cyclocross ride in Ridgway, CO View from my cyclocross ride in Ridgway, COMy cyclocross bike on its first snow ride in Ridgway, COMy Hincapie Sports puffy jacket after a day of cyclocross in Ridgway, CO

As a Colorado native, I hear a lot about concepts such as zen, and chakras, and energy vortexes. For a town of 1,000 people we have 4 yoga studios. I have never been that person. I have eschewed the concept of “living in the moment” and am constantly in forward motion, thinking solely of long term, rarely enjoying the time that I am in presently. Until I started biking. Over the years, I have participated in many sports that allowed me to be somewhat in the moment, but also still allowed my mind to wander off to the inevitable what ifs and future worries that plague me. Snowboarding, while challenging and exhilarating, had too much time spent on lifts or waiting in line, and that time was spent thinking of all the smarter things I could have spent my money on. Climbing brought me close to that perfect moment of blank mind, where all you can think of is your next move, the weight and balance of your body, the structure of this piece of earth you are attempting to conquer, but ultimately I fell short as I let my own fears keep me from reaching that point. Then I bought a road bike.

There is no major feat of strength or training you need to go on a road bike ride. It takes a little balance, and a lot of motivation. And the first time I ascended the 2 mile hill outside of town, Log Hill, which provides the terrain for the annual Lung Buster ride, I began to understand the idea of “no-mind”. I was in the zone, hypoxic, thinking of nothing beyond each pedal stroke, willing myself to not look farther than 5-10 feet ahead of me, so as no to be daunted by the continuous climb ahead of me. When I reached the top, I could scarcely remember having come up it. I had thought nothing of future worries or past regrets, my mind had not wandered, I had simply been there in that moment, one with my body, allowing it to work at an almost primal level. And that was when I fell in love. From then on, I craved my time on my bike in an almost unhealthy way. The idea of a ride being over raised a lump in my throat.

So I pushed myself. I set goals, signed up for the piccolo Fondo route at George Hincapie’s Fondo event in Greenville, SC. Although the distance was the same or even less than what I rode most days, the Camp Old Indian climb seven miles into the ride was going to be a tough one. Locals and past year riders had warned me not to think I was ready just because I ride in Colorado. The climbs outside Greenville were the real deal. Then the day came. I rode it, and I rode it pretty well. In hind sight, I think I could have done better, pushed myself harder, but I finished 5th overall, and was the second female finisher. Which I tell myself isn’t bad for a girl who hopped on a road bike less than three months prior. But then I found myself lost again, with no goals to achieve, no way to push myself back to that place where I was one.

Enter cyclocross. For those not familiar, it is generally subtitled “40 Minutes of Hell”. I had been in Vegas for the Interbike Expo, and was lucky enough to have Pat from Primal Wear take myself and a friend to the Cross Vegas races. We arrived just in time to see the elite women’s race, and watch Meredith Miller of the Noosa team take the win over the favored Katie Compton. I was instantly intrigued. The way cross mixes the technical skills of mountain biking with the physical skills of road biking, plus the always unknown of the course, the weather, the way everything can change with a pile up, and how everyone can use their own skills to win, it was perfect! I had no clue where to start, but knew I wanted to try it.

Whether it was random coincidence or a twist of fate, the following week I was picking up my daughter from school when a friend of mine approached me to say she heard I had been at Cross Vegas, and she herself was going to start racing cross locally and wanted someone to join her. It took over a month before our schedules could align, kids keep us both busy and at the time I was still focused on readying myself for the Hincapie ride. The week prior to the first race, she and I went out, with me using her husband’s cross bike, and did a 9 mile loop on gravel roads followed by 3 loops around a homemade course she and her husband designed outside town. We practiced a few dismounts and ran some obstacles, then she declared me ready to race. In 3 days time.

The day approached, and I felt my hesitation grow. I began to share with friends that I would be racing, knowing myself well enough to know I wouldn’t back out if people would ask me about it later. The day of the ride, I loaded up myself and my daughter into my new car for a road trip over the pass to Dolores, CO for the first of the Four Corners Cross Races. My friend and I rode the route with her husband, they both pointed out areas I would need to watch for and where I could run versus ride to make better time. And then it was time to race.

40 minutes later, lungs burning, legs shaking, I passed the finish line to hear the sweet words “You’re done”. I unclipped and shakily walked to the car, coughing every bit of damage I ever done to my lungs out in rasping, painful, hacking breaths. I had finished last. By a lot. But I wasn’t deterred. I had finished. I had made it over the obstacles, down the sketchy rocky area, through the spiral of death. And I had done it 5 times. And during those 5 laps in 40 minutes, all I had thought of was what was in front of my tire. I went to a place where everything became instinct. The weight shifts as you steeply descend, the switch in balance as you maneuver tight turns, the muscle work with each pedal turn, it all became an act without thought. And when I regained my voice 3 days later, I told my friend I was ready to race again.

This past Saturday, I raced in a different series, and as the only Division B female rider, took first by default. It would have been a hollow win, if I hadn’t ridden as well as I felt I did. While I still came up last, I held the other riders wheels longer than I had in the past, and conquered some skill sets I hadn’t been able to before, like the running mount after an obstacle, the ability to maneuver obstacles in ways I hadn’t felt comfortable with before. At some of the hardest areas, the Division A riders cheered us on, offering tips and advice on the course they had just raced on. Others just shouted words of  encouragement as we passed. The sense of camaraderie at these races is amazing and truly helps as you feel yourself spending every bit of energy you have pushing forward. By the days end, I was beyond in love.

Then came the snow. Beautiful flakes shimmering in the moonlight as my daughter and I wearily attended a local fundraiser. Inch upon inch piling up as the night progressed, and we woke up to a winter wonderland. And a text from my friend asking if 10 was a good time for a ride. I layered up with all the thermal and fleece I could find, topped with my new Hincapie puffy coat, and headed out in the blinding white of the day and prepared to ride. Riding in snow and ice and mud is all part of cross, but a part I hadn’t yet experienced. It took enormous concentration to keep balanced and steady as the slush pulled us all over the gravel roads. In the areas free of snow, the mud covered us head to toe. About 3 miles in, my friends derailleur snapped. Luckily, she has a good husband, and he loaded up the kids and his bike and came out for an impromptu pit bike swap. We continued on for 4 or so more miles, till we reached the highway and then turned around. The warm Colorado sun beat down on our backs while we rode back. Our ride was punctuated by shrieks as we would get caught in slush and snow that attempted to pull us either off our bikes or into the ditch, or most likely both. We played chicken with the snowplow twice, had a few considerate riders who slowed as not to splash us as well as many who didn’t seem to have the same friendly mentality. Less than a mile from home, my pedals just stopped. I dismounted and watched my chain try to land on a gear as it slid over the layers of ice packed around the teeth. Easy fix, as long as I relegated myself to only one gear for the remainder of the ride. By the time we reached home, we were soaked, shivering, numb, covered in mud, with the biggest smiles on our faces. And the whole day had been spent thinking of nothing more than what I was experiencing in that exact moment. The balance of my bike, the motion of my pedals, the crisp air around me, the warmth of the sun on my face and the beauty of the area that surrounded me. I am pretty sure I have found my soulmate in cycling.

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