I blame my childhood epilepsy for a lot of things: the parental prohibition on engaging in sports, the inability to climb trees and my subsequent complete lack of interest in traveling at any rate faster than a brisk walk. All of which could be explained by simple laziness, but the epileptic seizures and symptoms that quietly vanished along with most of the awkwardness acquired during puberty seemed like a good enough scapegoat. Epilepsy was to blame.
It did, however, teach me how to HTFU. The fact that I had to take medicine to control my seizures meant that I got my arm stabbed with needles every few months for blood tests. I detested them. The needle always seemed larger, wider, and more deadly than it actually was. The heavyset nurse - the nurse was always heavyset, usually with glasses and pale curly hair - would approach to poke a hole in my arm with that silver needle, a rubber tourniquet making my vein swell and pulse. I imagined the tip of the hollow needle as a gaping, sharp metallic tube that was at least 2mm wide. Enough that it couldn’t not hurt, no matter how brave I was. And as the nurse approached, dabbing the pit of my elbow with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, I drew in a deep breath...and usually screamed.
At eight years old, I would consistently bawl in sheer terror. Given that blood tests happened too frequently to count, my mother probably found it both tiresome and secretly hilarious. By my teenage years, I had learned to contain the tears, holding my breath and looking away, squeezing my eyes shut because if I couldn’t see it, it might not feel so bad. That’s never true, but it helped keep the freaking out in check. Towards the end, I actually looked, and found the way blood gushed into test tubes fascinating. I still couldn’t look, though, when they slid in the needle or when they pulled it out.
It’s been over a decade since I’ve gone in for one of those tests, but the needle and the looking away, the way I could hear my heart beating in my head, and the slow exhalation when the deed was done has been coming back to me these past few days when I’ve managed to drag my butt over the river and to New Jersey. Actually there was more involved, like my loud ragged breathing and frantic spinning while trying not to pass out, and the other day, clinging onto a wheel knowing that that would be the only way I could possibly make it home in one piece.
Caught in the Rapha Wednesday ride a few days ago with Cassidy and Wei “Top Ten” Chen, I had no hope that I could keep up, much less make it to the end of River Road. I had tried the first climb [about a quarter-mile long] a few days before; and actually considered sitting down and nursing my legs at the top. But my solo ride yesterday turned into a group when I caught up with Cassidy and company on the West Side Highway. We were joined later by Matt - who raced with Lang back in Seattle - and Chris 2 from Velo. Our motley crew slid across the bridge and bombed down the sidewalk that leads to River Road, me mostly terrified and trying not to ride my brake but failing miserably. We would group together, then spread out, the faster guys flying down the descents and up the climbs. Hitting the first climb, Matt peeled off to start the climb from the docks on his single-speed. I made it halfway up in the big ring and then spun feebly the rest of the way, getting out of the saddle but staying in the drops the last 10 feet.
We dived down more descents, dodging some nasty potholes, while Chris and Cassidy laughed at how I rode like I was still on a track bike. The final climb appeared almost suddenly. Matt peeled off again to add another quarter mile or so to his climb. I looked up, and I ditched any thoughts of doing any part of it in the big ring.
“Just spin,” Cassidy and Chris advised, making it sound easy although my legs were incapable of moving at such a rapid pace, “and put your hands on the top of the bars.”
I tried, I did. But my body would curl forward like it didn’t want to sit up and the sensation of trying to “spin” in my granny gear but finding that some sort of mashing was also involved to get up a mile long climb was weird, for lack of a better word. The only thing I could hear was my labored breathing and since the jokes had died down, it sounded embarrassingly loud. Cassidy spun beside me, telling me that I was doing great and that I was almost there and I wanted to tell him that he should look into becoming a life coach but nothing would come out. I mostly sputtered, while flip-flopping between the top of the bars and the drops. I think I managed to spit out a rhetorical “seriously?” and even laughed when Wei - who had yet to break a sweat - and Cassidy pushed me up about 10 feet, their hands on either side of my back.
It got harder after that, though. The road curves deceptively, making the disappointment that the climb wasn’t over that much deeper every time I turned a bend. I gave up. Like the time BRC-IF guy paced the hell out of me, I stopped looking. I kept my head low, peeking at the 3 feet in front of my wheel and nothing else. I suppressed hopes that it would end, and just focused on getting up the stupid thing. Not that it made it any easier, but like those all-too-frequent blood tests taught me, in a pinch, not looking/voluntary denial isn’t such a bad strategy.
At the top, I nearly fell over. We stopped for a few minutes for a bathroom break and my feet were doing that thing where they quiver in my shoes. Cassidy suggested we all go up to the Palisades Marketplace, which was only a few miles away. To be honest, if I had been alone, I would have just headed home, but I’m a sucker for peer pressure so we went, Cassidy, Wei, Chris and Matt dragging my wheelsucking ass up there and then back to the city. In hindsight, my choice not to peel off was probably a good thing, as I probably would have died a long, slow death on the side of 9W had I tried to get home by myself [or been victim to the more embarrassing alternative: bonking and cabbing it back to the city].
Back at the Rapha Cycle Club drenched in sweat and crusty, Mike asked me if I would ever do it again, but I couldn’t really think. I just sat and looked at my legs and feet and told him I didn’t know. He asked me how the shorts were, and I remembered I had a new pair of Rapha men’s bib shorts on and thought about how I hadn’t noticed anything on my ride and even how my butt never got sore even though my thighs might be a bit wide for the extra-small. But hey, if I keep riding, they’ll slim down, right?
Well, probably not with the sheer amount of food I ate afterwards. But like I told Mike a later that night, that ride was the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike. That’s sort of embarrassing to admit, but the complete ass-kicking I got on Wednesday was also incredibly fun. It made me want a road bike even more [is that even possible?] so I that I could conquer that ride...or at least do it with a little more grace and maybe a tad less sweat.
Eager to fill that void in my life due to a lack of gears, I helped out for a few hours that same night at the shop. I had to cut my visit a day short and hustle back to Boston the following day, sore legs and all, but when I fell asleep Wednesday night, I was hoping I could do that ride again, one more time, before I became gearless again.