Monday, September 22, 2014

The recumbent grin and how I feel about century rides these days

The "Recumbent Grin."
A few months back, I jumped ship from world of the traditional bicycle into the weird and arcane world of recumbent bicycles. That grin you see on my face is what is known to aficionados of these wacky bikes as the "Recumbent Grin." It's a reaction that occurs when one realizes this weird "un-bike" they have just learned to ride instills the most joyous reaction one has probably had on two wheels since first learning to ride. Even though I've been riding my 'bent (recumbent owner slang), now for the last four and a half months, and over 2000 miles, I still get this little grin on my face every now and then.

The photo above was taken by my friend Bryan during our annual trek on the Evanston Cycling Club's North Shore Century. The ride goes from Dawes Park in Evanston, Illinois, a literal stones throw away from the shore of Lake Michigan, and winds north to Kenosha, Wisconsin and back. As Bryan snapped this photo we were cruising along the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan heading south. The wind was finally at our backs and we were reveling in the warm sunshine and cool weather, the first hints of autumn in the air. Our conversation was animated as we talked about enjoying just rolling on bikes through great scenery, and more mundane topics like cooking for our spouses.

Bryan mugs a selfie. Lake Michigan peeps through the grass in the background.

That was a Recumbent Grin born not only from the joy of a riding a bike that didn't cause me any aches or pains as previous traditional bikes had, but also a grin from the sheer joy of rolling through the country on two wheels with a good friend. I elected to ride the North Shore Century, even though I'd continued to experience some discomfort in my left hip, one of the reasons I'd been driven to try a recumbent. The story of my aches and pains and how I defected to the world of 'bents is for another time. I went into the ride not knowing whether I'd be able to complete the full 100 miles. I think I was mentally prepared for the possibility of a necessary abandonment part way through if I began to experience discomfort. Amazingly, I felt good. In fact I felt great. I battled the wind for 50 miles on the way to Kenosha along with Bryan. The lower profile of the 'bent must have conveyed at least a 15-20% aerodynamic advantage. I think I did well to maintain a 15 mile per hour average while riding a roughly 47 pound bike and at the same time keeping up with someone more than 15 years my junior riding a sub-20-pound cyclocross bike. 

In the past, on a traditional bike I'd have pedaled with my head down, cursing the wind and staring at the surface of the road in front of me, or even at my front wheel. Instead, I was sitting on this "contraption" of a bike able to look around me as comfortably as if I was behind the wheel of a car. In fact much better than being behind the wheel of a car because I could enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of being out in the country versus seeing it all whizzing by at 60 miles per hour. I was seeing some sights on this ride that I'd never really noticed before. I certainly wasn't riding any slower than I'd ridden the North Shore Century in the past. Averaging 15 miles per hour for the entire 107 miles of the ride was on par or better than my averages from years past riding traditional bikes. Our overall average was probably tempered by headwinds during the first 50 miles that we characterized at times as being hors catégorie.

I hoped riding the century would resolve a few things for me. My longest ride of the year before this had only been 46 miles. I was hoped that completing the full 100 miles would show me I was putting the aches and pains of the early part of the year behind me. I also hoped the ride would finally clarify some things I'd been thinking about regarding long distance riding. In my amateur cycling career, 2013 will probably forever be known as The Year of the Centuries. I rode three centuries in 2013, more long distance riding than I'd ever done before. I completed my second century of the year and proudly proclaimed here that along with the North Shore Century completed the year before, I had come to love riding centuries. A little over a month later, I was riding my third century of the year, and by its finish, I was no longer so certain that I was so enamored of riding 100 miles in a day.

My one and only century this year was to be a deciding factor in whether I'd make long distance riding a regular pursuit in the future. As the day wound down, the final 20 miles or so were passing beneath my wheels and I had time to reflect. Bryan had ridden off ahead to get in his obligatory "balls-out sprint" as he put it. I found myself in a rhythm of pedal, coast, pedal, coast, pedal, coast. I was still taking in the scenery, but I was checking the odometer of my cycle computer a lot more. I'd press a button and see, "85 miles". A little while later, "88 miles," and I'd think, "Alright, 90 miles is just around the corner! Probably only another 40 minutes or so of riding." The final miles and minutes of the ride became the cycling equivalent of watching the clock at work count down towards quitting time.

I had finally realized upon the cusp of completing my fifth century ride, that 100 miles in a day was just a bit beyond what I wanted to do. There seems to be a rush to finish the ride within a certain time. Everything feels scheduled and regimented. There's little time to stop and take pictures, step into a little bar and grill and get some food, or stop and read historical markers. It seems like going beyond a certain distance becomes a pursuit more of the mileage and not so much the experience. The drive to get the miles subjugates the ability to stop and actually experience the landscape you're rolling through. I came to realize in those last few miles that for me, 80 miles is probably my limit for a day's riding. Just enough miles to feel as if you've accomplished something, but not so much that you don't have time to stop and savor the experience. From here on out. My longer rides will be only so long and they'll include a Recumbent Grin.

Hang loose, and enjoy yourselves!


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  2. Great read. I've been riding 'bent only a week, and the grin may be permanently engraved on my face. Here's a bit of fun for you I hope: