Firsts (I)

A weekend trip to the mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee resulted in a break in the mostly regular blog entries here. Alas no biking, but it was a gorgeous weekend to drive and hike in the Appalachains as the trees are just starting to turn color, the apple orchards are full of fruit, and the cool weather energized my sled-dog of a dog who’s not built for the usual warmth of the Piedmont. We also got to see interesting sights like this:

The Dollar General Lee.

The Dollar General Lee.

I’ve seen plenty of the stars and bars flying around the south – even in a few yards near my cottage in Alamance County – but this is the first time of I’ve seen a proud citizen towing it around in a pickup truck. This person realizes for a me a certain caricature some of us have built up about southerns (full disclosure, I’m from Maine).

There are plenty of other firsts that I’m more interested in experiencing than startling new expressions of inveterate racism. In terms of this blog, I’m excited about a number of firsts that will come with more tandem riding with my honey. In a way, it’s like I get a whole new set of bicycle firsts that I may have already surpassed as a single bicyclist over the years, plus ones I still haven’t foreseen as single- or tandem-rider.

One of my great loves is long-distance, self-supported bicycle touring. That’s a pretty nerdy, earnest title of a vocation. If I were the BikesnobNYC, I’d dub it LDSSBT, and my touring bicycle shown below would be the perfect antithesis of his Ironic Orange Julius city bike – a completely earnest Orange Barrel Monster.

Completely earnest cycle tourist + Orange Barrel Monster bicycle

Completely earnest cycle tourist + Orange Barrel Monster bicycle

We are starting to plan our “honeymoon,” and this hopefully includes tandem touring in exotic lands. Though we both want the same thing – the experience of exploring a fascinating place by bicycle and eating the hell out of incredible food – we still need to do a first tour together to try it out as a tandem couple. My partner has yet to experience this aspect of bicycling, that is touring. And though I think of myself as already having a lot of experience in the pursuit (that is me after all at the top of Independence Pass after 5 weeks of touring, though what you don’t see is that I was wearing every stitch of extra clothing I was carrying since, in all my “wisdom” I’d shipped home all my warmer clothes earlier in the trip when I was hot and too fatigued to lug the extra weight up the steep hills back east when I first started out) I don’t have any experience in bicycle touring as part of a tandem couple, which is surely to throw in new challenges, decisions, and compromises.

Driving around in the mountains this weekend brought back a lot of my favorite memories of past bikes tours. I love riding the mountains. I feel that the burn of long slow miles up grueling grades (especially in Appalachia) is more than rewarded by long views, big sky, sharp air, and electrifying descents. Whereas tandeming perfectly expresses how I feel about bikes socially, riding in the mountains is the full realization of the physical elements of cycling (not to mention it’s the full realization of all 30 gears of my drivetrain).

As I waxed enthusiastic about mountain riding and repeatedly expressed my desire to experience it by tandem, I realized my partner was not whole-heartedly with me. She has not been touring, nor has she been riding in the serious mountains before on a bicycle, much less on a tandem. (Indeed, mountains are “serious”, much like my touring bike is “earnest”). What occurred to me as we were discussing touring and dreaming out loud about future trips and our “honeymoon”, was that what seemed to me like a natural destination for a bicycle trip – the “serious” mountains – was not so welcoming to my honey. In fact, it was a little stressful, and thus not really how one wants to spend a “honeymoon.” I guess if you haven’t ridden through the mountains, they can be intimidating, even forbidding. Furthermore, no matter what kind of assurance I can provide, nor description of the elation and grandeur I feel riding there, can mollify the concerns of someone who hasn’t done it before.

"Serious" mountains.

This brings up a few important points for me. One is that, even if I have ridden through certain places and feel comfortable doing so, I haven’t done so on a tandem. I can tell you that one essential tactic for remaining comfortable on long climbs – standing up on the pedals, i.e. “honking” – will need to be mastered to a much higher degree than we currently have, not to mention other challenges to handling.

Second, I have to force myself to remember that when I first set out to go over my first few mountain passes, I was kept awake the nights before with frets and anxious dreams – heck, that photo of me atop Independence Pass came after years of experience, and that day was my third in a row crossing the Continental Divide, and I still couldn’t sleep the night before. And nothing was more frightening or awkward than attempting to handle descents from tree-line, knitting steep ridges with hairpin switchbacks. (At least with the tandem, I’ll be thankful for the drum brake).

Finally, bicycling, as it is commonly experienced – indeed what seems to make the very basis of how most of us come to know biking – is intimately individual. As with me trying and failing above to convince my partner that riding in the mountains will be “just the most fun ever”, “no problem”, “exhilarating”, and “not any harder going up, just a lot slower”, we as riders will only believe what we’ve experienced and then taken from that experience as individuals. Even, I suspect, if that experience occurs while riding on tandem. True, there may be some skills and techniques unique to tandem riding, but the essential substance of cycling – the plodding, the spinning, the burn in the thigh, the sore from the saddle, the mind-games employed to keep it all going – is personal.

A lot of us ride in groups, maybe train as teams, even the rare few of us ride tandems, but I’m willing to bet that the default condition of cycling is riding alone: just you and the bicycle, there when you want to ride, it’s there as it always has been since you were doing huffy stops in your driveway as a kid, no need for complicated plans with a group. Plus, if most of your riding is done commuting, you’re probably going to your workplace alone, as all those Single-Occupancy-Vehicles cluttering our nation’s roads attest. Even when riding in groups, you alone deal with your personal pain, and push yourself to accomplish individual goals.

Perhaps this perception of individuality is actually magnified by the tandem, and is potentially what gives it the rep as the “divorce machine.” As a partner on a tandem, I have to remind myself that the person I am linked to, and whose experience I am affecting with every exertion and adjustment I make, is personally coming to terms with the conditions of the bike ride in a completely unique way from me – and is acting on my experience, too – even though we are on the very same bike ride.

As we’re stretched across that hard saddle, hunched over the bars, squinting into the wind, we cyclists make realizations about riding, and tend to extrapolate metaphors for life from the exertions we endure. That we as cyclists by and large strike upon the same realizations – the subject of a future blog post – only proves my point that cycling is intensely personal, because we have to find out for ourselves what those realizations are. No one can tell us first.


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