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The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living for a Human Being

Carl Allan Salonen | Published on 2/8/2015

2014: A Personal Biking Review

The cool inky darkness of a late September morning slipped past me like motor oil as I plunged my pedals earthward, propelling myself up the moderate incline of the bridge to another borough. 2%, my Garmin tells me. Feels more like whole milk, not 2%.

I hate riding this bridge, yet it is a lifeline to most of the cycling events in New York City. This bridge causes dual anxieties: at once, it is both a lonely ride this early in the morning, yet a ride to be terrified to share the roadway on. The bike and pedestrian path is very narrow and at its pinnacle, there's a very short fence: the rats hold high hurdle events on it. It would not take much to fall hundreds of feet into the icy maelstrom below.

This bridge, it creeps me out every time I cross it. Cross it, I must. It seems pointless to ride a subway for an hour to get to a starting line when a ten minute bike ride through Harlem serves the same purpose.

I'm lit up like a Christmas tree when I ride this time of the morning, in an hour that I can count on the fingers of one hand. It's quiet. It's peaceful. I ride slowly, deliberately feeling each millisecond of each pedal stroke, assessing how my legs feel. Sometimes, the bridge wins and I end up walking my bike part way across, a function of too much too soon before I've warmed up. Most times, my bike wins.

The noise and vibrations of the roadway transcend to the bike path, as the bridge is a major trucking thoroughfare. Sometimes, the chain link fences along the roadway will rattle as if a gangbanger dragged a 2x4 along the metal wires, a function of heavy wheels and metal bridge joints in the road bed.

And did I mention the stairs? There are stairs to climb or descend, depending on your point of view.

This year, I've had three bikes.

I've had my warhorse, my black Trek Sapphira, since 2008 when I decided that my mid-40 paunch had to go. It's stuck around longer than I thought but then so has Sapphira. Sapphira is heavy for a road bike, about 25 pounds, but I don't really mind, because this is New York and there are no hills. 

Just bridges.

There was Shadowfax, a gorgeous white Cannondale that was scary fast, and felt like the outline of a bike under me. When I climbed the few hills I've climbed on him, all I could feel were his handlebars. Even the pedals seemed to melt under my feet. He was a joy to ride until that one fateful morning on the LIE service road when he was hit by a FDNY utility truck. I had to put him down, but 'Fax probably saved my life. All I came away with was a bruise, not even road rash. I was lucky, and I know it, and I also know that it took me a month to feel anywhere near comfortable in traffic again. 

The blue girl, Tiamat, has not been on a real ride yet. I only just purchased her to replace Shadowfax and I've been busy with other things. I've got a feel for her pedals and gearing, tho. I'm ready once the ice melts and the streets dry up. 

I made a choice in 2014 to do the "touristycle" thing: all the NYC rides that attract people from all around the world: the Gran Fondo's 50 miles to Bear Mountain and Five Boro Bike TourEscape New York and yes, the City Century.

In their own ways, each of these beat me, or more to the point, I let them beat me. The accident didn't help, to be sure. It's a little disconcerting when I realize how close I came to being dead, and never even saw it coming until it happened. I heard a screech, felt something smack me on the ass, and next thing I know, I've got a new bike. A split second, maybe a hundredth of a second, was all that stood between me and a grave. That threw me off any momentum I had built training to that point. That was what? The end of June? 

But more than that, I learned last year that I didn't even know what I don't know. 

Its funny. I pride myself on my "nosce te ipsum", knowing myself. And I suppose I should have known that, once in these events, I would go flat out. That's who I am: I have two speeds -- full out, and fuller outer. I'm too old for the fullest outest speed.

So I burned out. I cracked hard on some hills. I finished them all but I forgot the first rule of riding which is to ride within yourself. 

For instance, on the Fondo I found myself racing the sweep wagon, the vehicle that organizers will send out along the route at a pace that should coincide with the slowest possible speed a rider can finish in the allotted time. That was a little embarrassing, particularly as it caught me just ahead of the finish line, but I guess they figured by the time they stopped me and loaded my bike, I could have been across the line on my own steam. My legs were jelly when it passed me, but when it passed me, I found the few strands of muscle fiber left and cranked my way over the finish. Despite cracking on the mountain and spending a lot more time walking than I would care to admit, I climbed back on was determined to at least grab a morsel of dignity from the day.

But there was a lot more to the season than just these rides. I made several training rides that I'm very proud of, including the ride that saw my bike destroyed (if I had finished that ride cleanly, it would have topped out somewhere north of 85 miles and would have positioned me perfectly for a century). I did some other tours and rides that I completed, not just finished, in style. Beer at the finish is a powerful incentive. 

I saw some beautiful sunrises, and took some awesome photos. I met and chatted with hundreds of people, many of whom I've seen from time to time out on their bikes, too. I had a lot going on in my life, and though cycling has always been a way to put those aside, this year it almost became an encumbrance: gearing up, watching weather reports, maintaining my bikes, figuring out routes (that one, especially after the accident, was troubling). 

By October, the oily darkness smeared across the sky earlier and lingered. I rode into December, but once, maybe twice a week. I reveled in the freedom even if it now meant keeping one eye and one ear cocked to the rear. I resisted unhitching after that final ride, December 26, as what stood before me was a long winter sat on a stationary bike to work on my climbing legs. Stationary bikes bore me. I might as well be a hamster in a cage. I miss the trees rushing past and the occasional flirting glance from another cyclist, the nod and smile to the pedestrian who I stopped for, the wave to the driver who was kind enough to make sure he stopped for me at the intersection. 

And the quiet. I miss the quiet. It's funny how on a bike even the noisiest city on the planet can wrap you in a little cocoon of silence and introspection. I focus on my breathing, and in a moment, it's me, my bike, and the ride. In a city like New York, you have to carve those moments out for yourself, as tethered as we are to our smartphones and e-mail. 

It's 2015. Let's get to it already!