“Those who understand…know that we don’t speak of what scares us in the fear that it may happen. By avoiding the subject, by not listening to our fears, we somehow think we are protected. If we did calculate the risks and odds, we wouldn’t race.”—Michael Barry: Le Metier
I went out to see the Man with the Hammer the other day.
I’ve been meaning to see him for awhile.
Tom told me of the trip to Duluth awhile back. An adventure, and when so few are to be found these days, you must take advantage of those still out there.
We prepared in our own ways, and by Saturday morning were all together enjoying buckwheat pancakes and Tom’s own strong Costa Rican brew. All four of us, you see, had found ourselves at a crossroads, and so we set out together to find what we could on the trip up. Soon enough, we found ourselves a little lost, but still in good spirits. A quick course correction and some espresso and we were once again on our way. Ride’s oftentimes have their own little bubble of conversation - that which is off limits in polite conversation is now fully open for discussion and questioning.
Three or so flats later (and one soft tire), we ended up at Tobie’s. If you’re not from Minnesota, that name probably means nothing to you. To Minnesotans, it represents the epitome of the half-way point. A restaurant that, if not for it’s lore, would probably receive no business.
Then we all began to hit our various walls. First stomach cramps for one of us. Shortly thereafter, I hit my own. The Man with the Hammer struck hard and fast and when the pain stopped, I knew I was in real trouble.
The wall was there, and it may have been real as much as imagined. My body had promptly said no and was fighting to get it’s way. This was the longest ride I had done; a year ago I would’ve said you were nuts to do something similar.
I had quit a couple of races towards the end of this season, a combination of life changes and trying to keep fitness at a high level for too long. This time I would not let my body get the better of me. This time my head had to win, because this was the big one. I could not stop.
So I did not.
Until we hit the forest. It had gotten late (nine or so) and we were riding almost blind through a state park. A narrowly avoided altercation with a porcupine and a blocked trail and soon Tom and I were at the Buffalo House about seven miles from the Superior Street and the lights we had looked forward to since six in the morning.
I called my father for the proverbial bail out; he obliged. And so we were left waiting. Tom was busy doing what he always does - making friends and spreading the bike gospel. I found myself in a doorway sitting on a bench completely wiped. My legs had cramped, my left achilles was inflamed and my stomach begging for some food. I waited.
I tried to figure out the lesson. What I had learned by doing this crazy thing and what was gained by damaging my body in such a way. Sure, a couple of days and I’d be fine, but it wasn’t really going to improve my fitness. Nothing that a quarter of time in the saddle wouldn’t of done.
I’m not sure if I found it. I do know, now, that it was probably just worth it to have done it. To have done something that I did not think was possible, and accomplish that with good friends.
The Man with the Hammer is just a man after all. Sometimes he fails.
It’s a tradition in our little community. A test for those who might want to join us, and a test for those already among us. I remember my first racing experience being the clinic that is put on by the Loons a week or two before the actual series starts. Calm, efficient and over before I realized I was there; exactly the opposite of the actual event.
We ride out in pairs, or other small numbers. Some drive. The staging area is, surprise, a parking lot. The tables are set up on a road divider, separating the course from the exit of the business loop. Get there early and it’s a relatively easy process, get there late and a line which rivals the DMV awaits you.
Last stretches, conversations, peeing. Futile attempts to explain to loved ones what you’re doing on this freezing April evening.
"It’s an open course."
The mustachioed man takes his place, and explains the rules. The Cat 4’s around me chuckle; some others too serious for jokes stand silent. Legs on top tubes, other straddling, all waiting. One last thought about how you should’ve gone one more time, and maybe three minutes is enough to get to the port-a-potty…