The Health of How We Roll

Apparently, our author is currently being held under by the weather, so us readers also have to suffer, too. (And mere days before the Paris-Roubaix!) But I can’t be too inconsiderate of his incontinence, so I figured I’d share a few thoughts on what injury means to cyclists while he rests up.

At a certain point, the boundary between man and machine erases for the committed cyclist. In magazines and elsewhere, we  wax poetic about how ‘zen’ the experience becomes when we’re riding, when our skills are on point and endorphins erupt in euphoria. Rarely, do we ever truly express our disdain for the machine that goes limp on us, forcing the long, contemplative walks home.

Mechanical failures curse us all. They’re hexes, really. Voodoo (yep, just like the old mountain bike brand). Broken derailleurs quickly become a literal pain in the neck; stiff cycling shoes offset the spine while walking miles from home on asphalt. When the steel and wheels orbit perfectly around their bearings, the universe is working as it should. Yet, when a meteorite punctures the sensitive atmosphere surrounding the rims, I still gasp in horror.

I don’t know why, but these things seem to happen to me more than others. I’ve always been bigger than my pint-sized Marco Pantani cycling compatriots. Maybe that explains their astonishment at broken crankarms, cracked rims or loose bottom brackets on my beleaguered bikes. For any number of reasons this also happens more to mountain bikers than roadies.

One off-road race when I was in high school, was particularly traumatic. I trained like mad, drove three hours to get to the venue, spent $40 on entry and then watched both my shifter and rear derailleur explode on impact during imperfect descent. With hulking adolescent rage and humility, I threw my bike.

Nobody saw it. Well, maybe a deer might have – that would have been enough embarrassment. Yet, it wasn’t until another rider slowed his race pace to ask if I was okay, that I fully identified with my idiocy. Carrying my bike out of the brush, back up to the trail, I said, “Yeah, just a mechanical, thanks.” He nodded, sped off and disappeared into a neon blur between birch trees. The only thing to lift my spirits that day was watching my 120-pound teammate inhale a five-for-five-dollar roast beef sandwich combo at Arby’s after the race. It was like sharing a table with David Copperfield.

It’s no fantasy that in my riding history, I can point to parts of my life that have directly correlated to bicycle health. I remember using a ball-pin hammer to “fix” three-piece Profile cranks right around the same time I was splitting up with a girl I was dating. Another time, a bent chainring on a brakeless fixie dropped the chain while I was rolling down hill. That same week I lost my flash drive with semester term papers on it. But still, health has many faces after all.

It’s almost too simple to point back to those illnesses or injuries as specific events in our lives, because the healthy days often pass without notice. It’s just like the news of a plane crash that reporters record, yet overlook the number that have landed safely. Blaming the bike is easy to do. Yet it’s not so easy when it becomes part of ourselves. There’s a psychology to it, like that feeling we get when wearing new clothes.

Riding on new equipment has that confidence of nice sharp shirt and eating a delicious, nutritious meal. You feel good inside and out. A new suspension fork instantly expands our conception of what is possible to ride over. A fresh road bike immediately deducts time from personal bests. You’re a new person – superhuman, compared to your previous form.

As a parting gift, my friends kitted out my singlespeed mountain bike with a new drivetrain when I moved away from home.  My new XTR could have been EPO or HGH, I could ride like never before. In retrospect, the gears and gesture were just as life-changing as moving across the country. It was something I couldn’t afford, and suddenly I was clicking and spinning it.

Lately, I’ve had grips on my commuter bike that keep sliding towards the stem. It’s a problem easy to ignore, but also increasingly irritating as I go to reach them every morning. In an effort to avoid shelling out $30 for the lock-on grips, that I’ve come to love, I went with the cheaper, $8 option. I’m also late on a couple bills and bought groceries last week with a credit card. Times are hard, and the bike is a reminder of these imperfections that are part of me. But then just yesterday I snagged a weekend gig to improve the everyday martyrdom of living with modest income. So I think I’ll get those lock-on’s after all. Man, they’re gonna feel real good.

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