Until we ride together again

Cycling means a lot to me. It’s given me meaningful memories, whether being chased on a laden touring bike uphill by a bull in Corsica or discovering a Moroccan farming valley’s hospitality at sunset or the frustration of hitting the deck at 30 mph+ on the road from Durango to Silverton, Colorado at the collegiate national championships. It gives me a break from writing, from routine. It’s given me some of my closest friends, just as rowing has. I want to give back to the community around this sport. Here is a first step … The following is an essay at cycling Web site Red Kite Prayer.

The months of February and March reside well within winter’s confines, but still offer the passionate cyclist a visual bounty.

There is the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where the apotheosis of frame building is on display to the merry pilgrims who can travel to Denver to seek meaning in machines.

In Northern Europe, brute paths and farm roads that for hundreds of years were the weary arterials of Western civilization begin to coat the peloton with the requisite mud and manure that precedes the professional cyclist’s ablution ahead of Holy Week – De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.

Our eyes feast.

Yet, for many of us, our hearts are cold. Inside, winter’s bite stings. It is a deep chill, deeper than has been felt in years. Or ever.

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Eyes in the boat

You pierce the wall of howling and shouting like passing through a waterfall’s icy rush. Then a moment of cave-like calm is punctuated by the brutal slam of oarlocks. The upriver side of Eliot Bridge appears, a vague mix of flesh, brick and bright light. Again the cheering competes with the pounding of the blood in your ears as you push the thought of a last stroke back with each drive of your legs.

Less than 1000 meters to the finish line.

Less than 100 strokes to go.

By the time a rower on the Head of the Charles racecourse reaches Eliot Bridge their boat has made it through five other bridges and the course’s most difficult turns. They may have pushed past at least one rival crew in a burst of burning lungs and fleeting glory. If not, they will have fended off, or tried to thwart, what feels like a personal attack by another boat trying to pass.

A long rowing race has many difficulties and some of the toughest don’t even involve other boats. The hardest battle each rower faces on a course as storied as the Head of the Charles is an internal one: keeping your eyes in the boat. There is so much to see on that one day, so much training to draw upon and so much to distract yourself from the pain at hand that the self-denial and the control is a perfect metaphor for the focus it takes to do well in the sport.

Heaving chest, with a steadying hand on the gunwale and another curled in pain around the oar handle just a few boat lengths past the finish line, you realize that the discipline it takes to keep from looking out of the boat in a big race is also just like the struggle to focus when you sit down to write. Continue reading