27 August, 2009

A bit of (my) cycling history

I grew up pining for the Mustang-style bicycle that was all the rage at the time, with its banana seat and monkey handlebars. Having a Mustang bike would allow me to ride heroically - like Danny O'Brien wheelieing all the way to school without touching his front wheel down once, even at stop signs. (It was the stuff of legend, really. I was there, I saw it happen). Tragically, my parents decided the penny-farthing sex appeal of a CCM Imperial would keep me out of "trouble with girls", a strategy they bolstered by purchasing the largest size possible, so that I might "grow into it". I was about ten years old at the time.

no point trying to chop it up - it'll just dull the blade

This entailed years of mounting the bike by standing on a tall curb beside it. My friends showed great restraint, never laughing to my face, although, in hindsight, I am suspicious they were secretly afraid I'd fall over on them from my towering heights. They rode off into the distance, neighbourhood girls wedged triumphantly on the clavicles of the monkey bars.

I still managed to win our school-wide bicycle rodeo astride the CCM, no doubt thanks, in part, to the hours of isolated practice.

It was a triumphant highlight to my childhood, and while I inadvertently vindicated my parents' poor choice in rides, in spite of my heroics giggling girls failed to materialize on my handlebars. As if to underline the fleeting nature of true glory, my handling skills were not enough to spare me from what happened next. It was a clear and crisp early October morning, I was on my usual route to school, timed to avoid taunts. A school bus came up to the same side street it often did and as I sailed into the intersection I realized to my horror the driver was only planning a rolling stop. I must have ridden under the driver's radar and expectations. The menacing black grill came perilously close to t-boning me; I remember feeling like I'd imagine someone would visiting a zoo if the bears got loose. With barely enough swerve to break free from the bus's trajectory, I aimed myself to the grass boulevard just as the bumper made contact with my rear wheel, sculpting it like it was rubber band performance art. The rest is a blur, but it seems I managed to land on the grass, largely uninjured - I like to think it was a spectacular somersault that did it - and the bus continued on. Unfortunately the bike was fine too, a ridiculous testament to its tank-like qualities, its only damage being the wheel itself. Not even the Imperial's dropouts were bent. I don't know to this day what I was more incredulous over: this stupid bicycle's faithfulness or being hit by a bus.

Several years later, around when the bike and I had finally evolved into a grudging relationship some might call "fit", the CCM was stolen. It felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders - about 32 lbs. to be exact - and people surely noticed a spring in my step as I walked around my city, happily consigned to the role of pedestrian. If I was more mobile, ironically, I would have frequently made the pilgrimage outside of the town limits to George Vettor's Cycle Shop. George was a former racer, and his reputation for stocking high quality bikes was only topped by his feats of mythic proportions on the race courses of Europe, as retold by neighbourhood kids. When I did make it there, it was my cathedral, to be walked thru slowly and quietly, head tilted up high to admire the Bianchis hanging from the ceiling like they were Michelangelo's frescoes. Somehow I knew the quality of those bikes, and the thrills that they promised, were worth their steep prices. I deserved them, but could surely never afford them.

I'll never forget the rude shock and cool dismay I felt when the local constabulary proudly fished the bike from our city's river, coated in sludge and festooned with seaweed as if returning from some macabre parade down Main Street Atlantis. Like a lime-green Loch Ness monster it rose from the depths to taunt me once again. No matter, I had decided that I was now beyond the pain and heartache, took control of my life to the extent that an adolescent can and swore off riding indefinitely.

Decades passed.

My wife and young son and I moved from central Canada to Novato, in Marin County, CA, so I could further pursue my career in feature animation. The Bay Area is a hotbed for this, and as many of you know it's also the veritable home of mountain biking. Following several months of hiking the fire roads ringing our neighbourhood I couldn't help but notice how fired up and happy - albeit dusty - all of the ubiquitous mountain bikers were. It looked like something to be experienced, and before I knew it I once again found myself inside bike stores, craning my head upward reverently. This time around, I also went for test rides and made a purchase! It was a Rocky Mountain Elevation, a hardtail, with enough sprockets to make my head spin faster than a granny gear. Who could possibly need 21 speeds?! The last time I shifted on a bike the cable disappeared into the mysterious Sturmey Archer 3-speed hub.

The Rocky & I had some great times together; some of my best were our Sunday morning explores, where I'd climb up to a crest and know that, whether I turned left or right, I would have a great ride along the fire roads. In time my speed and confidence built, and my climbing strength and technique were improving. There was a terrifically steep hill at the end of our lane-way, definitely hors cat├ęgorie in roadie terms; I'd dubbed it a "threshold" slope: so steep that it could easily stall a rider with an unintended wheelie or else make the rear wheel spin uselessly in the silty loose surface. I sensed there must have been a knack to somehow finesse it - gingerly attack it - and although it took over two years of attempts, I was able to eventually summit without touching down on numerous occasions. This was such a great challenge to me that I will always appreciate the triumphant feeling I had in conquering it.
photo Ken Papai

My bike-handling confidence grew by leaps and bounds, and with it, my pleasure - and speed - increased; I was positively flying along some of the downhill segments of my routes, arriving home elated and practically breathless. My care-free enjoyment of attacking the hills around our home came to an abrupt halt the morning after a powerful wind storm swept through the region. We lived in an old-growth oak forest, and the smaller, more feeble branches easily broke off into short bits about the size of toilet paper cores. These in turn were buried under the silt kicked up by the winds. I remember remarking to myself that the ride that day seemed very lumpy and "interesting". Nevertheless I barrelled down my favourite stretches, including the final high-speed descent to our neighbourhood. I don't quite recall what happened next, but have to assume that one of the stealth toilet paper cores lay obliquely to my front wheel as I crossed over it, which set up a harmonic wobble in the front end. In no time this degenerated into a veritable tank slapper and in the time it takes for a smile to invert I was slammed to the side of the trail, the wind knocked out of me and my left side hurting up and down. Before the dust settled I made a pact with myself that I would always carry a cell phone with me on these solo blasts. Then I wondered how many silent resolutions have gone unfulfilled through human history when the person expires before standing again. It took me several minutes before I could move, during which time I half-heartedly hoped someone else might pass by.

Seeing Marin's ubiquitous turkey vultures gathering in circles overhead, I gathered myself up slowly and staggered over to my bicycle. It was on the downhill side of the trail, practically hidden a bush. In hindsight I probably shouldn't have taken the time and pains to extract it but I wasn't going to leave my beloved comrade by a roadside, no matter how close I was now to home, so I wheeled it beside me as I skidded my way down the threshold hill, bent over and moaning like I was auditioning for a George Romero movie. The foolishness didn't stop there; when I arrived home I downplayed what had happened since my wife was baby-sitting our sons' playmates and I didn't want to create a logistical nightmare, so told her I would drive myself to get "checked out" at the local hospital. Doing up the seatbelt nearly killed me, though I thought it would be absurd to die in a car accident after surviving this mother of bike crashes! It turns out I had broken not only my left clavicle but also the three uppermost ribs, and the doctor was incredulous that my lung wasn't punctured by one of the fractures given the angle it was protruding at.

Lesson learned. Reckless abandon is now off my list of approaches to exciting rides.

When we returned to Canada in 2003, swapping the idyllic oak forests of Marin for the urban jungles of downtown Toronto, the Rocky transformed to road-warrior hybrid mode and together we shredded my commute. It was then promptly stolen - Toronto is the bike theft capital of North America - and I was relegated back to pedestrian non velo status. Another lesson learned, and for the next few years I cynically kept an arm's length from cycling, riding an old beater that cost less than the lock; pragmatism had won out. Nevertheless I couldn't resist the siren calls from the area LBSs and found myself yet again wistfully sighing as I strolled the aisles, ogling everything newfangled from hydraulic disc brakes to Camelbacks. After all these years, the elegance of form and function still held sway on my soul.

In time we bought a home outside the metro area, near the Niagara Escarpment, and I found myself, depending on both the day of the week and the direction I faced, either in the outskirts of paradise or the ninth circle of commuter hell. A few weekend hikes confirmed the local trails were, in the parlance of those wearing body armour, wicked, and I was compelled to get back on the horse. Said horse turned out to be an Oryx Hurricane 250 full-suspension mountain bike.

I attended some terrific off-road clinics as a prudent re-introduction back to the sport, and tentatively set out pedalling the region's trails that laced up and down the ancient rock. Before long a small voice inside me suggested that the rough-hewn, boulder-strewn routes may hold the upper hand in my battle of nerves. Nothing dramatic like panic-stricken paralysis that drops me off foot-wide bridges. No, the epiphany came during an autumn race along Hilton Falls' Bent Rim Trail, when I got the sense, while following a silver-haired gentleman as he fell, nearly unclipped, into a bush beside a rock garden, that somehow this isn't how I want to be. The Oryx promptly found a new home with an owner half my age as I reverted back to hiker and restless suburban commuter astride my converted Mongoose road warrior.better than taking the car, or walking (just)

Outside of my modest commute, life became dangerously sedentary, to the point where 14 months ago I was a basket case, seemingly losing a depressing struggle with sciatica. Standing, sitting, and walking were excruciating, yet I couldn't even lay still in bed for relief. After an MRI ruled out anything more malignant than a pinched nerve, prescription anti-inflammatories and a giant yoga ball for my desk job began to turn things around.

Call it an optimistic hunch or sheer foolhardiness: I took the additional step of then purchasing, on Visa, a Cervelo P2 SL time trial bike - the least expensive they made at the time - in the hopes that the leaned-over positioning would stretch my spine and relieve the pressure as if one were leaning over a desk top, reaching for something beyond grasp. To fully appreciate the extent of this costly gamble, know that until now we had yet to purchase a living room sofa for guests to sit on. Like a cat proudly dropping a mouse at the back door, I triumphantly brought home my purchase, and the smile on her face told me my wife of nearly 25 years is a saint and loves me deeply. Either that, or she's planning to leave me... a thought I quickly dispelled as silly when she handed me a brush and roller, declaring it time to start priming the upstairs hallway. Regardless, the gamble worked wonderfully and I immediately felt better on the bike than practically anywhere else. My local Cervelo dealer wasn't very helpful (the salesman denied the P2 SL existed; he dismissed the model designation as a mistake of mine... and would I be interested in one of the Trek TTXs they had in stock?) so I purchased this from a Toronto shop. The staff there were very professional in the way they fitted this silver-haired newbie without looking askance at his mountain bike pedals and shoes - my one concession to shaving costs at purchase time. I noticed a steady progression in my fitness, helped along in no small way by my 140 kms/week (a tad under 90 miles) of year round commuting (I stubbornly surrender only on days of heavy snow, freezing rain, or cable-freezing slow-jaw cold, which are seemingly more frequent as I age).

It was a short step to channel my competitive drive into time trials. My unremarkable race results belied my sheer joy at simply riding as quickly as I could on a bike that was better than I was and fit me well. While I no longer felt the embarrassing disconnect of riding an Imperial in a sea of Mustangs, a familiar pang of longing resurfaced when I saw the riders finishing ahead of me astride fully-dressed rocket ships. In no time at all the notorious n+1 variant strain - the one applying to parts & accessories - infected me and I took to researching race wheels and absurdly-shaped helmets, determined now to ensure I had few excuses for my performance beyond the quality of the engine itself. Race of Truth, indeed. As I gained speed through my first year, so did my competition; I may have felt like a cheetah, especially when I had a tailwind, but all of the gazelles remained tantalizingly out of reach. No matter, it was still great to be in the chase, with the added benefit that I didn't have to go home hungry.

There was no single moment where the idea of triathlons struck me as desirable, let alone feasible; it gradually dawned on me that there was nothing stopping me from combining my abilites to not sink immediately in large bodies of water, and jogging to and from the bus stop, with my love of cycling. This being the year I turned 50, I chose fitness over the de rigueur Harley as my commemorative gift to myself and signed up with the local tri club, reckoning that I could always bail out if the training became onerous, or my knees began barking, or drowning was imminent, or heart palpitations didn't subside. It has been a blast, and I was able to successfully complete my first triathlon in July, just days before my 50th. It wasn't a particularly long distance - I finished it in under two hours - but I can say that the butterflies just before the start were real. Another one, Olympic length (1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10 km run), is slated for the middle of September. This first season has been one of learning: the Old Dog + New Tricks Tour I call it. Since April of this year, I have discovered how to squeeze into a wetsuit without tearing it or myself; how to look just above people's eyes so I avoid their stares at me in my wetsuit; how to rack my bike in the transition zone with all of my paraphernalia in a space the size of a dining table placemat, how to emerge from a swim and run while stripping off a wetsuit while not falling down; how to partially dry off my feet in a hurry and still pull bike socks onto the soggy skin without falling down; how to run in bike cleats without falling down; how to pace myself on the bike leg so that when I dismount for the run I don't fall down; even how to grab a drink on the run from volunteers and get some in my mouth without quite falling down.

While these are all skills that may not translate into anything particularly useful in the "real world", as I age I am more inclined to not care about justifying that. My own Real World invariably slots a bike under me, and that suits me just fine.


  1. Interesting... nice writing indeed. Used my photo too. ;-)
    Anyway -- happy trails, Ken Papai

  2. I forgot to add -- LOVED your TANK SLAPPER description (and link to that moto video). Wow! Been there done that (non moto though, MTB and Roads). Good writing (riding) Stephen.

  3. Hey Ken,

    Do you have a site with more photos? Not looking to "appropriate" any more of them - esp. w/o your permission (ahem!) - just wondering if you're a pro &/or have more shots of that region; it's very photogenic.