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Last year was my first ride with my friend Peter, a three hour session in the North Boulder rolling hills. A little bit of dirt, a lot of quick pavement, a little chit, a little chat, a good way to get to know someone. On our way back into town, we were riding side by side on a wide shoulder, probably discussing some inane topic when a white Chevy blew past us laying on their horn and a clear stretch of road for the next half mile. Now, I used to be a middle finger in the air kinda guy. Fight fire with fire. But, over the past few years I’ve found that I don’t ride with as much stress after a confrontation if I blow kisses.

Thanks for recognizing me, my adoring fan. Lovely to see you, too. Say hi to your mother.

I enjoy thinking about what goes through their heads as some psycho matched their hatred with kisses. This particular flagrant dismissal of the Chevy’s importance got under the driver’s skin and he stopped at the following intersection, waiting for the two of us. I know better because my mother taught me better: avoid conflicts with people who are crazier than the crazies. I stopped anyway. Some days I’ve just had enough and that Saturday was one of those days.

I’m acutely aware of the dangers of these situations. A couple of years ago a long estranged family friend got into a heated road rage incident. Both drivers decided to pull into a parking lot to settle the score. They were both carrying hand guns, killed each other, both leaving behind spouses and offspring. The Wild West still exists, now in the corner of Checker’s Food parking lots instead of the dusty Main Street in front of the saloon.

“YOU GUYS ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO RIDE SIDE BY SIDE” I can’t even with this guy. It’s July, hotter than a McDonald’s coffee, and he just popped up out of plush leather seats and air conditioning, mad that Peter and I didn’t want to shout a conversation to each other in tandem. Even in the Boulder Bubble you’re bound to piss off a rancher–only they also have a Tesla in their garage.

I asked him what the actual difference was to him at that moment. He didn’t even care to use the oncoming lane to pass—and the time difference between us side by side and tandem is negligible. There was no harm, no foul, we were both still on the shoulder of the road. I won’t use my direct quotes because it’s inappropriate and sometimes my mom reads these things. Luckily, the confrontation just ended in shouting and didn’t scare off my friend Peter who still rides with me. I try to keep in mind that we were probably not his problem that day, but perhaps he was going through a divorce, just lost his brother, or cattle futures were looking grim.

Cycling as an identity in America is two polar opposites from the outside vs the inside. To the outside, we are pests, annoying and seasonal like mosquitos. When immersed in it, you see the traditions, the lore, and the rituals and it’s a complete world. After I started regularly attending the Thursday group ride from the skanky bar a couple of blocks from my house in Kansas City, I started to pick up on the little things. I read magazines and books. I watched and rewatched the two most iconic Hollywood cycling movies, American Flyers and Breaking Away. It’s not hard to get wrapped up in the Tour or geek out on new tech when you’re new to everything. I slapped a Selle Italia SLR saddle on my 20lb 1987 Schwinn Circuit. At 135 grams, it was barely there in more ways than one. In college, I started shaving my legs for cross country and track, so I easily gravitate back to that convention. My girlfriend at the time grew up in a ultra religious household and had an existential crisis about me shaving my own legs. What would people say? Would people assume that I was <gasp> gay? Someone’s assumption of my sexual orientation is probably at the bottom of my Shit to Give a Shit About list.

I used to think that I was pro pancake.
Until I got my own waffle iron. Then I realized all breakfast carbs are good carbs, but waffles over pancakes.

I gravitated to one particular bike shop in Kansas City. It used to be called Volker Bicycles. Inside was jam packed with wheels, bikes, frames, and parts out the wazoo. Many folks did not like Volker because the owner was crotchety and uninterested in running a normal bike shop. I was particularly drawn there because he kept great staff and always had a keen pulse on building great bikes. When I first started going there, I was also frustrated at the lack of service attention, but I grew to understand why. All day people would pop in to waste his time, 10% might actually be serious about purchasing something.

“Do you guys buy bikes?” “No.”

“Do you guys sell used bikes?” “No.”

“How much is this?” “Look at the sticker.”

The more I showed up to the shop, the more he saw I was serious and treated me seriously. Lingering around the shop, I soaked up mechanical knowledge (rear derailleurs took me forever to understand), local racing drama (did you hear this week’s losing excuse?), riding tips (”don’t ride the trainer it makes you slow” may have been tongue in cheek), and IPAs. I made great friends through that shop. Friends that I still keep up with to this day. Every so often, I run into the owner at events and always get such a kick catching up.

Volker moved out of their expensive little shop to a bigger, cheaper shop down the road changing their name along the way—One Star Bicycles, a wink and a nod to the cursory experience of a doorway shopper. What I saw in that place was the tight nit community of loyalists that form around bike shops and now it’s a feeling that is always on my radar when I enter a new shop.

Whatever it is we were all waiting for, it’s almost here!
Just a former farm kid who loves going fast on dirt roads.
My favorite identity mixup is being called a ‘biker.’ It always conjures an image of a sweaty bike ride in full leathers, a spiky half helmet, and maybe a rad MC patch on the back of the jacket.

I’ve found the serious pursuit of sport as an adult can be tricky. Especially if you’ve the slightest genetic gift. Too much effort and you’re a try hard, with little room for enjoyment with friends. Too little effort and the sport is painfully punishing — emotionally and physically. I have a hard time holding back. I’ve tried riding a bike just for funsies and I always fall back into the same dreadful habits that almost killed me. I want to drown myself in alcohol, drugs, depression, distraction, or bikes, pick one. Aimless self destruction is the best description, but I’m genetically predisposed to slow suicide by abusing my liver. Most interesting to me is that these microscopic DNA strands hold both my cycling aerobic gift and also my addictive downfall.

I fell down a rabbit hole on with some encouragement from my dad’s sister this summer. She had mapped twenty branches back to an English lord. Seems to me that there may be tens of thousands of people who can also trace that same lineage. I never knew much about my birth mother’s genealogy except for folklore, so that’s what really piqued my attention. Turns out that side of my family had been Southeast Kansas natives way back through the late 1800s, making their way to the fertile lands at the promise of plentiful coal mining jobs. My great-grandmother was a Belgian immigrant, which means I’m practically 16th cousins with Wout Van Aert. Seems like cycling has always been in my DNA.

This revelation led me to ponder the concept of identity within the cycling world, particularly in the realm of gravel cycling where personalities loom large. The Mt Rushmore of gravel cycling is populated by people with Very Important Personas. Their identities act like superhero’s powers. You’ve got “Racer(s) from the World Tour. Racer with TBI. Racer with Long Dog; Racer that Likes Metal Music; Racer that Likes Beer; Racer with Kids.” Without these definitions, would they even exist? It’s not enough to be an excellent bike racer—they also need a Supplemental Identity Certificate with their sponsors to square away their spot in the peloton. Who am I, you ask? I am—Man Who Found Bike Way Too Late But Still Fantasizes About Younger Opportunities! Never went to the sea, so how can I be washed up? All sports seems to be susceptible to the quicksand of What Ifs, but cycling especially so. My proximity may inform my bias, but our sport is littered with excuses and daydreams. It’s a trapping that I am constantly caught in, especially at this stage of my “Hey it’s healthy!” mid life crisis. I’ve come to understand that my story is just as valid as any other. While I may not boast the pedigree or the eccentricities of the cycling elite, my passion for the sport is no less genuine.

In gravel cycling, it’s not cool to take the sport seriously. Sarah Sturm’s pleading campaign last year was, ”It’s Supposed to be Fun.” But, even Ted King has relented and finally started doing intervals. I have always been an unapologetic Numbers Nerd. I put so much weight into the metrics, neurotically overanalyzing every race or poor workout.

I guess I like to collect notes to remind me how fun this whole experience can be. The top is a drawing of a tarantula after I told an 8th grade class about my favorite thing I’ve seen out on a ride. The bottom note was written by my girlfriend before Unbound XL to help me focus on the fun. Photo by Alex Rozko
Rodeo saw these artifacts and knew they were a part of my identity, putting them as a permanent relief on my stem.

I failed miserably at my first threshold test a couple of months ago and it really stung. Since we moved to Colorado three years, I had not tested. My previous coach believed them to be over pressured (true), ego-boosting (true), and an ineffective measurement (perhaps). The test was on a 65 degree Thursday afternoon in January, also known as a Perfect Day for Riding a Bike Really Hard. Typically preceding the actual 20 minute test is a 5 minute all out effort. I set my pace in a general direction of my maximum and parceled up the 5 minutes into two 2 minute segments and one minute of survival. With 90 seconds to go, I started to struggle and pushed my legs harder and harder to maintain the rate. In the last 15 seconds, I could feel my whole upper body spiraling and contorting upward and to the right, overloaded with lactic acid. My face was panicked and desperate, distorted by the physical strain. When I stopped pedaling, I instantly recognized the taste of pennies, signaling the breakdown of red blood cells in a really hard effort. The result was 458 watts, an all time 2nd best and definitely my strongest effort at altitude.

Roughly a year before, I had set a 20 minute personal best in a race at sea level, thrashing an early climb at 426 watts. The way I figured it, sure I was at altitude and sure I had just almost made myself vomit on the 5 minute effort, but I was ready. A few days before I got some dry needling done by my friend Doug Hanna. My sleep hygiene over the last month has never been better. During workouts my heart rate was lower than the wattage zone I was pushing. I thought if I could sit around 409, I would be extremely pleased and ready to set new zones and goals.

The first five minutes were excited but on target and I kept having to remind myself to relax and settle down the nervousness. Everything began to fall apart in the next five minutes. I found myself making compromises and hopeless promises. I would settle into a new 10 watt power range and just be cracked after a minute. Gasping for oxygen, I would soft pedal for 5 seconds and then try to rev back to where I had just come from. I honestly just felt silly, pitiful, and wishful for a redo. As the 20 minute effort came to a close, I was frustrated that 362 watts hadn’t even come close to my goal. Technically, it meant I needed to walk even the “conservative” threshold that I had set in my offseason down a few watts. It was a shame that felt personal, because in my own fantasies I had imagined a triumphant return to regular threshold testing and proof that my self coaching was doing something right. My training this year is wildly different from the past three years, focusing on volume and sweet spot training. Training philosophy is all just different ways to skin a cat, I just enjoy skinning it this way.

A few weeks later I tested much better at 406w with all training indications to back up the improvement. Putting so much weight into performance as a part of my identity can lead to some mentally frustrating moments when things don’t work out (over pressured). And then here I am writing a blog, flexing numbers. But, I needed testing to give me honest feedback if what I was doing was right. Self coaching can feel so vulnerable, but my identity shouldn’t be tied to a number that is one factor in 100 for a bike race.

In my newest identity crisis, I’ve become an Arkansawyer again. I’m not joking. That’s what many call themselves. My girlfriend and I moved back for a variety of reasons, but namely to save money. There will be a lot that I will miss about living in Colorado like a complete voting information packet that gets mailed to you along with your ballot, a simple gesture that speaks volumes. Or the smooth, but potholed-to-hell dirt roads of North Boulder County. Paved roads with a shoulder wider than 6 inches. Quirky mountain towns with a lonely general store and the owner wears a leather duster jacket and a leather cowboy hat and believes some broken Nikolai Tesla looking electrical machine could cure his customer’s cancer. And of course, the long climbs and long descents.

But, I’ve missed the community I experienced in Arkansas. Like Colorado, the people in Northwest Arkansas are largely transplants, drawn here by employment or opportunity. The rural riding here is fantastic. Twisty roads snake through quiet hollows, with some technical riding on sharp rock that always keeps you on your toes. We’ve been back for about a month, getting settled in and I’m already highlighting my new favorite roads on Ride with GPS.

Long live old Ozark cabins that look like they are barely hanging in there.
Probably the most beautiful barn I’ve ever seen.
Growing up on a farm, I’ve now developed an appreciation for cattle. My favorite cows are of the Zebuine variety — floppy ears, blueish tint.

No identity is permanent. As Baba Ram Dass used to say “In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.” Every so often, I need to take a step back to examine the identities that I’ve constructed for myself within cycling. At the end of the day, it’s still pedaling circles to push bigger circles in our uniquely human way. This mutual connection forms deep bonds with stories of epic rides that dig deep into what we think is possible. Endurance sports are uniquely lifelong, in contrast to the American popular ball sports. Growth occurs every age and stage of life in cycling.

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