On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 2/1/2017
A couple of summers ago on a club tour, a younger rider decided that I must be one of the wise old greybeards in the club…a font of cycling lore. While we were riding along together on a shady road in central Oregon, he very respectfully asked me if I had any advice for someone new to cycling.
I replied, first of all, with a disclaimer: that my bona fides as a cycling guru were pretty thin. But having said that, I gave him my answer: “Pay Attention!”
I expect he was hoping for something more original or perhaps more nuanced. I hope I didn’t disappoint him. I probably went on at some length to explain what I meant by that and I will do so here as well.
It’s very easy in this life to drift off into a hazy daze…a mental torpor where three-quarters of our IQ is taking a nap on the sofa. In fact, there are times when that’s just the perfect place to be…for instance when your body is stretched out on the sofa at the same time. And then again, it’s all too easy to get churned up by the hundred monkeys in our brain, nattering and chattering on and on about every little pissant detail and distraction that comes tumbling down our pipeline…noise for the sake of noise, mostly signifying not much. I can’t think of any time where that’s a beneficial, productive state of mind. But we do it. I do it anyway, and I expect you do too.
Neither of these forms of consciousness—the foggy flatline of daydreams or the busy bustle of disquiet—is really all that helpful on a bike ride. Cycling is about as simple as walking, some of the time. But other times—many other times—it’s more like walking on a tightrope without a net. To put it bluntly: shit happens. The front wheel blow-out in a downhill corner. Clueless or malicious drivers. Debris on the road. Aggressive dogs. A sudden mechanical…
Somewhere out there, some manifestation of Murphy’s Law is waiting for you. When you run into that bad moment, will you be focused enough, in-the-moment enough, to deal with it? Most of the time, yeah, you will probably make a good save…pull your fat out of the fire. But I can think of more than a few cases of my own where a little more focus could have saved me a world of trouble and pain. And I can also remember cases where I did have that focus…where I was paying attention…and it did save me a world of trouble and pain.
I had it in mind to relate an anecdote about one of those times when paying attention saved my bacon, but the actual tale is not that important. It’s just a case of seeing a driver up ahead and noticing that his behavior was not quite right for the situation…so I went on amber alert. Sure enough, seconds later, he did the wrong, dumb thing. But because I saw it coming from a long way off, I was prepared for it and was ready to deal with it. A little bit of drama and adrenaline, but that was all. No trip to the ER and no busted up bike.
But paying attention isn’t just about dealing with sudden crises. It’s about preparedness too. Pay attention—before your ride—to the state of your bike: the wear on your tires and chain and cables. Is your flat-fixing glue still good? Pay attention to where you plan to ride. If it’s a club ride with a listed route, do your homework: study up on the route the night before so you know where the turns are…especially if it’s on roads unfamiliar to you. As your teacher used to say: you’ll be tested on this later. Bring the right food for the given ride or figure out—ahead of time—where you’re going to buy food along the way. Check the weather and dress accordingly.
These may seem like no-brainers to some of you, but we’ve all seen people on rides who somehow never hit those check-boxes ahead of the ride and then ended up in some spot of bother out there in the middle of nowhere.
I don’t mean to set up shop here as a self-righteous scold who always does the right thing. I have done the clueless, wrong thing on way too many occasions. Call this Idiots Anonymous: Hello. I’m Bill and I’ve been an idiot more times than I can remember. We’re all in this together. We could all do better.
I’m writing this in February of 2017 for a couple of reasons. It seems like a good reminder as we launch off into a new year of cycling adventures. Spring is just around the corner and we’re all ramping up, in our various ways, for another busy year of making the wheels go around. Let’s do it with our minds as engaged in the process as our legs are.
But it seems especially to-the-point right now because of the winter we’re experiencing (at least here in Northern California). Rain, rain, rain, and then more rain after that, with a large helping of wind on the side. And occasional freezes. We have already exceeded our average annual rainfall and it’s only the end of January. (It’s sunny as I write this on the last weekend in January, but more rain is forecast beginning on Wednesday and continuing through the week.) We have had flooding. We have had mudslides. We have had black ice. We have had windfall branches and trees down across roads by the hundreds. Formerly modest potholes have been scoured out to twice their previous size…wider and deeper. Shoals of gravel have been washed across the roads. And of course, it’s just plain wet. Even when it’s not actively pissing down rain, the soil is saturated and still weeping slicks of water across our roads, here, there and everywhere.
Bike traps galore! When we go out for a ride, we know it’s not some Disney ride that might seem exciting but we know is actually totally safe. It’s not always safe out there. But we can tilt the odds in our favor a bit by staying awake and not taking silly risks. Pushing the envelope may be fun on a clean, dry road in June. But now? Leave a little margin for error…for the envelope pushing back.
(I wrote that on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, I ran into one of those storm-ravaged road hazards. Descending at about 40 mph, I came upon a spot where the pavement had literally been chewed up and tossed around by a raging flood surge…all the way across the road. Running into it at speed would have meant a certain crash. But I was looking ahead, saw it, and got it slowed down to 10 mph by the time I was on top of it.)
Finally, after all the damage control and preventive maintenance and prudent planning, there is this: pay attention to the big picture. While some portion of your attention is devoted to staying safe and out of trouble, delegate at least a little bit of your bandwidth to seeing the wider, wilder world around you. Green roblars dotted with old oaks. A doe and her fawns in a redwood glade. Those only-in-the-winter waterfalls. The huge storm surf out on the coast. A red tail on a wire. Soak it all up and rejoice in it. You may never come this way again.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org