Saturday, July 23, 2016

Not-so-triumphant return

On Monday morning, I pumped up two completely flat tires, added lube to the dusty chain, tightened the stem, installed pedals, and sat on a bike saddle for the first time in four months. Although tentative as I rolled out from my driveway, a smile spread across my face as I coasted down the first hill. I was riding my bicycle. It's a simple but fathomless joy that I think only cyclists and 6-year-olds understand.

The smile admittedly faded some as I ground the pedals up a three-mile climb, with dust swirling in the hot wind and my underdeveloped quads straining under the workload. My right hand only recently became useful again, so my whole arm all the way to the shoulder is significantly weaker than the other. I've improved my grip with hand exercises, but that doesn't do much for biceps and triceps, which were burning by the time I reached the next descent.

My hand surgeon said I should be able to start riding again six weeks after surgery, and so July 18 was the date I'd been looking forward to since June. She told me to stick to flat pavement at first, but there's only a few miles of pavement close to home, and absolutely nothing is flat. Still, the gravel road climb went okay, and my grin returned on the second descent.

"I can probably ride a few miles out the trail."

The Homestead Trail is actually just an old doubletrack with a few eroded ruts, but for the most part it's smooth, evenly graded, and as non-technical as a "trail" can possibly be. I took that "yay bikes" selfie on the climb, and started downhill feeling rather pleased with the comeback ride. My wrist didn't hurt at all, there was no numbness, and I'd received the best confirmation that surgery worked. I was healed!

Old habits returned and I accelerated quickly on the descent, eyes wide and grin spreading when suddenly the bike flipped end-over-end. I still don't know why I crashed. There was nothing on the trail to hit. My best guess is that my brain hasn't adjusted to my arm strength imbalance, and I made some tweaky move with the steering that launched me over the handlebars. Or I'm just woefully out of practice. Whatever the reason, I was crumpled beneath my bicycle and struggling with my stupid bad arm to lift the damn thing off myself. Just like that, all of my joy flipped a complete 180 to crushing bewilderment.

This was one of those stories I wasn't going to tell anyone, because it was such a devastating emotional blow at the time. I had to tell Beat because my arm was torn up with new trail rash and there were several new bruises to add to the patchwork across my legs. But I didn't want to admit this to anyone else. I've had an inordinate number of running crashes in the past few months, and then there was the return of breathing difficulties, and now that I can finally ride a bike again, well, I can't even do that right. I pretty much suck at everything. Why do I suck at everything? I sat on the dirt for several minutes, crying and berating myself. I knew this was childish and unreasonable, but sometimes it's better to just let it all out, especially when there's no one else around to witness embarrassing meltdowns. Physical pain does help release the emotional stuff.

Now that it's five days later, I do feel better about it. I haven't gained much confidence, but I realize it's not going to come back instantaneously. Four months is a long time, especially since my last cycling experiences were in Alaska, and now that I think about it, my last dirt ride also ended in a crash (when the front rack came down on top of the wheel one week before the Iditarod.) I took the mountain bike out again on Wednesday and stuck more closely to pavement — specifically, the climb up Flagstaff Road. With 2,000 feet of climbing in 4.5 miles, Flagstaff closely resembles the profile of another road I used to ride regularly in California, Montebello. Flagstaff does differ in that it's more gradual at the bottom and becomes unconscionably steep for the most of the last 1.5 miles, but I figured it was a good place to compare performances. Well ... I don't really want to talk about that either. It was a little pathetic. There were some low-oxygen dizzy moments. Temperatures were in the low 90s and my face was oozing because I'm off antihistamines ahead of another skin allergy test next week. But I did it, and I didn't put a foot down. It's got to get better, right?

After Wednesday I needed a break from the ego bruising (plus my shoulder and arm are quite sore), so I've been running since then. I will get back on a bike soon enough. The universe approves, as evidenced by this double rainbow over our backyard.

South Boulder Peak, perfectly framed by the rainbows. I love afternoon thunderstorms — as long as I'm somewhere safe while they're happening — so I'm enjoying the arrival of monsoon season.

On Friday I traveled down to Colorado Springs to give a short talk about winter bikepacking during a "Bikepacking 101" event at Cafe Velo. My friend Dave Nice planned the event, and there was a great turnout. It was fun to chat with folks about cycling in Alaska, a subject of which I never tire. Several folks came up afterward and said they enjoyed hearing me talk about it so exuberantly, even though to them it sounded grueling and horrible. People have said this to me in the past. I once gave a video interview for an exercise science course at Stanford, and still hear from the instructor about how much her students love the segment. Joy is infectious. It's what sustains me when I'm down on myself for clumsiness and wheezing, counting the days until winter.

Anyway, since I was driving all the way to Colorado Springs but didn't have much extra time, I figured I should check out the iconic Manitou Incline. The incline is an old cable car track with the rail ties still in place, forming a staircase that gains 1,900 feet in 0.8 miles. I was not all that impressed with the steepness because in Boulder we have rocky trails that are just as steep (Fern Canyon), and most photos I've seen of the Incline were not that interesting. Still, when in Colorado Springs ... it seemed like one of those things I had to try once. I had to sit in Denver I-25 traffic and then pay ten dollars for parking in Manitou Springs, which made me grumpy. But all of that melted away once I started marching up the steps.

View from the top — actually, it was quite scenic and I was surprised. The climb was fun as well. Some of the steps are knee-high, but for the most part the steep ascent is evenly graded, which assists in steady breathing and focused forward motion. I took it fairly easy and stopped to take a couple of photos, but this would be a fun spot to return for PRs. Too bad I live two hours away.

Let's see how I can embarrass myself this week. It can only get better, right?


  1. Ouch! I know that feeling of dismay and betrayal. I'm glad it wasn't more serious.


  2. I go into slumps for whatever reason a couple of times a year...when suddenly I can't do what I was just doing 2 weeks earlier, and it's very frustrating. Then out of the blue after suffering thru said slump I have a 'good day' and the slump is gone. No idea what causes them...but they're quite frustrating (I'm in one now). Glad to hear you are FINALLY back on a BIKE (where you belong) will come back, just keep the rubber side down (grin!), and keep your blood on the INSIDE. I have work in Colo Springs fairly often (I usually ship my MTB out) and have never heard of the Manitou Incline (I have ridden up the Barr trail out of Manitou Springs, got up to about 12,000' heading up Pikes Peak before the trail becomes unridable by mortals). Is the Incline somewhere close to where the cog railway leaves from? (that's also where the Barr trail starts). I have a ton of work coming up there starting in Sept, I'll have to check this out...might be a good thing to do while I'm acclimating to altitude (I live @ I always suffer greatly riding up in Cheyene Cyn for the first week or 2...maybe a nice hike would be a good change).

  3. Oh...and I forgot to say...when reading your post, I was SURE you were going to say you re-injured your hand in your crash...can't tell you what a relief it was NOT to hear you say that! Beat must have skipped a few heart-beats hearing your story!

    1. Thanks! The Incline does start at the Cog Railway station and parallels the Barr Trail — I did the standard loop of hiking up the Incline and down the trail. It's a great spot for a quick workout if you can find a place to park.

      It's actually unlikely I can injure my right wrist in the same way at this point. The carpal tunnel is now open following surgery, and it's been long enough that reforming scar tissue is unlikely. That's comforting, but I still instinctively pull my hand up when I crash, which is why my arm was so torn up. And of course my left hand is still susceptible to CTS.

  4. Yay BIKES! So glad to hear your bike adventures continue. While I wish you were 100% healthy, I am so grateful that you decided to share "the whole story" publicly. I can't tell you how many times I've been emboldened and encouraged by your writing to keep going despite set-backs. I hiked to the top of Pikes Peak yesterday and it was so hard that I decided no more 14'ers this year. Now, reading your post (and with the healing powers of sleep) I've already decided which one I'm doing next weekend. Why stop just because something is hard and a little scary? That may seem obvious to some people, but I battle with doubts frequently, and your writing helps me win those internal dialogues that try to get me to stop doing what I love.

    1. Thanks. I fear I'm too whiney on my blog at times, but it remains a good cathartic outlet and I won't give that up. I'm glad you overcame the difficulties on Pikes. I have yet to climb a 14er this year and will be a little sad of I let summer pass by without tackling at least one. Doubts are insidious; I feel like I have more now than I perhaps ever did. It is gratifying to work toward overcoming them, even if we aren't always successful.

  5. we all have our challenges in life and downturns... mine was on friday when I had to make a sharp 90 degree turn on a downhill. Pavement was wet. Front wheel didn't want to turn, so it slid. Then I projected off the road bike onto the pavement. My skin began to tear. Bloody, I got up... a line up of cars was waiting for my carcus to vacate the roadway. Road rash up the right side of my body now. Ouch... oh well, what ever doesn't kill yah just makes yah stronger I guess, I hope...

  6. +++++ on the Yay Bikes! comment. And wow those rainbow photos are pretty cool! Your comeback continues.

  7. So, you get the OK to ride your bike. Then, on the first day you bomb a downhill and crash. Jill, are you sure - deep down inside - that you're not really a guy?


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