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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2002

The Price of Admission

I love riding to the world's high places: summits, ridgelines, vista points. Sometimes, when standing by my bike, looking out over a breathtaking panorama, I will say to myself: "Worth the price of admission!"

It's a tired old cliché, I'm sure. So excuse me for lack of originality, but the kernel of truth in the corny old bromide is still valid.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I set out to join some friends for a weekend club ride. It was December 8, and it had been down to freezing overnight. As I zoomed downhill from my house at 9:00 am, it was still pretty nippy. My icy ears and fingertips were yapping at me in outrage. No doubt folks in Missoula or Grand Forks would scoff at the notion of an overnight low of 33° being cold. A daytime high of 33° would be balmy for them probably. But for my California sensibilities, it seemed quite brrrrracing.... especially when factoring in the wind chill on that first downhill.

I'm sure almost any non-cycling acquaintance of mine, experiencing that level of wind-nipped ears and toes, would have said something like, "Are you out of your mind?!" Sure, they would go out in that moderate cold to get the paper or to go to work, but to deliberately subject oneself to numb extremities for fun? As a form of recreation? They'd write you off as nearly as crazy as those guys who cut holes in the ice to jump into frozen lakes.

But we take little discomforts like that right in stride. In fact, we take all sorts of discomforts-little and not so little-in stride when we ride our bikes. Anyone who rides regularly can sing along as we recite the litany of painful stimuli we inflict upon ourselves over the course of our rides: the frozen digits, the burn of lactic acid, the little ice pick between the shoulder blades, the agony of "hot" feet, saddle sores, cramps, dehydration, heat prostration, knee pain, low back pain....

On and on. It's a long and lurid list. There are the pains brought on by the weather (too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry) and the pains brought on by riding too hard (the burn) or too long (the ache). And then there are the pain-filled hills...the long, steep, lung-busting, quad-popping climbs with the panoramic vistas at the top...the ones that are supposedly worth the price of admission. The price of course being all the pain and sweat and trouble we put ourselves through to get up there.

And I haven't even mentioned crashing. No need to itemize those painful traumas. Nor have I looked at hard core ultra-cycling. All of the aches and pains listed above can occur on rides of less than 100 miles. Ride for twice that in a day or for days at a stretch, with little relief, and you're venturing into some extreme realms of suffering and surviving. (I sometimes think the most important skill to master in long-distance cycling is pain management.) Listening to an exchange of war stories between RAAM competitors can be truly bizarre...tales of gristly, gruesome meltdowns of epic proportions, all recounted with a sort of morbid glee, like something from a 12-step program moderated by the Marquis de Sade.

Let's face it: even if we don't do ultra rides, there is still a lot we put up with to pursue our chosen joy. But because we have come to believe the payoff is worth the work, we recite the stoic mantra, No-Pain-No-Gain! and stay the course. We pull up our proverbial socks and get on with it. We're all enrolled in the Friedrich Nietzche School of Self-Improvement: "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger."

Cycling at anything above the most lacadaisical level will certainly, inevitably force you to confront Freddy Nietzche's hard-assed Teutonic mindset...to either embrace it or walk away from it. Somewhere out there on a hard ride, one or another of the bad bogeymen will sink his fangs into your flesh and hang on like a cranky pit bull. You will have to figure out why you are riding, and why indeed it is worth working through the aches and pains to get to the magic on the other side.

No one can make you want to be a good cyclist. Coaches can guide you. Your friends can encourage you. But if you don't want to be out there, in all weather, up hill and down, sweating and freezing, burning and churning, then no amount of pep talking and peer pressure can make it make sense. Unless and until you can see the prize, it will all seem like a pointless waste of effort and a lot of gratuitous suffering. It's worthwhile to remember this if you're trying to convince a spouse or child or co-worker of the joys of cycling. Don't be too disappointed if they just don't get it. Somehow, we all have to arrive--on our own--at that point where the dues we must pay are understood to be a good investment.

Fortunately, in spite of all its many little punishments, cycling does make it quite easy to see and to reach the prize. A beginning rider may struggle home from a first twenty-mile ride, utterly whipped, with flayed quads and scorched lungs, but even then, even as it hurts to stagger around the house that evening, chances are the tired rider will already feel a little glowing core of wellness and energy, flickering feebly somewhere inside...a glow kindled by having pumped all that vigorously oxygenated blood around and around. And in addition to that delicious little glow of health and fitness, there will be the diverting charms of the ride itself to mitigate the pain: the great scenery; the good company; the exhilirating sensations of freedom and movement and play....the joyful dance of life.

It doesn't always happen that way. Some folks, trashed from that first ride, will hang the bike up in the garage and never take it back down. We like to think though that more often, the beginning rider will survive those early burns and bruises and will want to come back for more.

If all goes well, it won't be long before that beginning rider is up to speed and up into the high hills, the heavenly, cloud-mantled mountains. Standing over his bike, marveling at the world laid out below like a vast, rumpled quilt, and basking in the glow of satisfaction of having climbed to the sky under his own power, he too will be thinking, definitely: worth the price of admission!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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