You get used to the big cars and big portions. You get used to the indiscriminate kindness of strangers. You get used to the loud talkers and bellowing laughter. You get used to the long gaits, the relaxed jawlines and baggy denim. But the roads, even in their deep familiarity, hand out unrelenting surprise day after day.
Riding in America is completely unlike riding in the UK or continental Europe, the only two other places I’ve ever cycled. Mobility is in the DNA of Americans. To say “he’s really going places” is as much about social mobility as it is about movement. In America, to so many people, particularly those of us who grew up there, the bicycle was our first taste of freedom. Our first step up the ladder of independence. We’d been told the stories, we’d heard the myths: if you can move, you can go anywhere you want to go, be anyone you want to be. You are your own master.
While the Italians and French might claim similar importance of the bicycle with freedom and independence, no-where but in America are the solo adventures, the unknown destinations, or the unrepentant wilderness so important to the making of the rider. This is what stands American cycling apart: The myth of the lone rider. And yeah, we’re all a bit like cowboys out there.
I went into the holidays with about as much fitness as your average post-party season would allow. That being close to none. Too many late nights and a vodka luge one too many worked their way through my self-confidence and straight to my heart rate. But I was going home for the holidays, back to America, back to the roads of my childhood. These were the roads I could navigate blindfolded. I knew the winds from beside the fireplace. I could intuit the camber from my bedside table. I’d ride them until I could tell myself the myths again.
If I could ride long enough. If it rained enough. If my feet froze enough. If the roads pounded my bones hard enough… perhaps the American would soak back into my soul.
Like so many of us heading home for the holidays, my kilometers would be largely ridden alone. Lone-ranger-style. Solo on the road, perhaps a bit of a Steinbeck, instead of a grey poodle for company I had the reassuring sounds of my hubs, chattering along beneath me. Too many miles for silence, I had my music; John Lee Hooker, Joanie Sommers and a little bit of Burl Ives strummed along in the background.
Occasionally I’d pass a local riding along. I let myself stay anonymous, try to avoid the inevitable questions that crop up when one exposes oneself as another local. Local by name rather than by address. Why did I leave? How do I like London? Do I ever think I’ll return? My answers are well-rehearsed lines, but out on these roads there’s too much room for contemplation. I ride that line between local and foreigner. Different and yet strangely familiar. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable.
So we talk about the weather. And joke about families. Nervous laughter shared between family holiday escapees. And then we break apart again; lone riders facing into the rain and wind with only our own company to keep.
Long drawn out beaches turn to farmland with the blink of an eye. Rolling, jagged coastlines jut upward in violent spires, 26% inclines, nearly too steep for my 25 to keep rolling. There would be no relenting. Up, down, again. Looking at my nightly Strava I’d see an evil jawline of teeth staring back at me. And every day trying to reinvent my ride for variation. There are only so many miles one can explore on a 50 mile island without turning around and doing them again in reverse. With each hill, I’m surprise how easy they’ve become, and reminded of familiar aches from the years before.
On two occasions I had the company of my father and his trusty Boulder Bicycle randoneering bike. Loaded up with tools, food and spare clothes, he rides that heavy, slow and methodical pace of a man with too many miles in his legs to rush any more. We’d ride in silence, then break into chatter with every descent. In these hours together we got to share the convictions of any father and daughter, from politics to tyre quality, the importance of coffee flavours and the anxieties of family ties.
What is home? I call London home, but I call America my home too. These American roads are my borderlands, my frontier, where I am both home and abroad, local and foreign, familiar and yet always different. I revisit these roads to see not where I’ve gone, but to see how far I’ve adventured.
San Juan Island, Washington, Dec 2012
How do you like them apples? Godmother of women’s MTB - Jacquie Phelan. She’s got apples.
And this is the WICKED email she sent me last week:
»> Your dad’s friend Karen Haire sez howdy
I got a call from her yesterday…she invited me out on a (GROOLING) ride with her friend Lori.We did about the tuffest ride in the Bay Area, took an extra hour to hang out and eat, blab etc., and
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
’ Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And - which is more - you’ll be a Man, my son!
I get asked a lot - and I mean A LOT - by women what to wear on a bike in the rain. I’m probably not much better at it than anyone else, and there is probably no single answer to that question. Living in London and having somewhat limited time to get out on the bike (often relegated to the turbo for mid-week sessions after dark) means that in what time I do have, I want to make sure I can actually get out on the road with no excuses of not having the right stuff to wear.
It rains a lot here (no shit!) and the first thing I had to get over was that yes, if I ride in the pouring rain, I’m going to get wet. But hot summer water explosions often mean just a few minutes of wet, followed by several hours in which to dry off. But for this, I’m talking about how to dress to leave the house when it’s grey and miserable and looks like it’s going to tip down at any minute (and usually does). Temperatures anywhere between about 10C-17C. Not warm by any stretch. If you were going out in civvies you might make a mental note to wear close-toed boots, jeans, and some form of raincoat but you won’t be wearing a woolie cap. Possibly a light jumper under your jacket. And obviously an umbrella. So with this as our starting point, here’s what I wear to ride in the “Summer/Autumn” (British Summer) rain:
1. Start with a good merino wool base layer. Basically this is just a t-shirt made of super soft, lightweight merino wool. Good quality base layers (I like the ones from Howies), won’t itch and sitting right on your skin, will help regulate your body temperature, no matter how wet the other layers are. Whatever you do, don’t wear a cotton t-shirt as a base layer. You will regret it. Once I did this on a 127 mile sportive in the rain and the t-shirt got stripped off and left at mile 75. I was actually better off without it.
2. Good quality padded shorts. Might seem obvious, but still, comfort is king on a long wet ride and having slightly uncomfortable shorts can be a massive deal breaker. I have been wearing Rapha’s ladies shorts for about a year now and have difficulty wearing anything else. They have a nice high waist and designed so they don’t pinch around the stomach area (feel more like bib shorts than most standard shorts). They are longer on the leg than most women’s shorts on the market, but with a tiny bit of pulling and adjusting, sit almost perfectly at that sweet spot on my legs where I want to start actually showing skin (no one needs an eye-full of cellulite on a morning ride).
3. Smart-wool socks. Pretty much any make will do as long as they’re not too thick. Really heavy socks are sometimes good in the depths of winter, but if they’re too thick they’ll pinch your toes and cause that unforgiving dead-toe feeling after a couple of hours in the saddle. Smart wool (not cotton) because your feet WILL get wet. So it’s really just a matter of staying warm and comfortable.
4. Over-tights. A lot of men wear “knee” or “leg” warmers but I always find they pinch my legs in unfortunate places giving me a kind of sausage leg look; so I prefer to wear a lightweight pair of tights over my shorts. If it’s really getting cold (south of 10C) I’ll usually forego the shorts and just wear 3/4 length or full-length padded winter tights. But for summer rain, I often wear tights with just enough warmth and protection to keep my knees from too much exposure to the cold. Cold knees = painful knees on a long ride, so keeping them covered up is really important. I have a pair of Sugoi running tights which are pretty comfortable, although the jury is still out as their massive elastic band tends to be a little constricting around the waist.
5. Arm warmers. A good pair of arm warmers mean you can make your jerseys work double-duty, effective during hot summer months and cooler ones as well. All Rapha’s women’s jerseys come with a pair of arm warmers so I seem to have acquired dozens, but as I have freakishly long arms for a little person, I’m still trying to find the perfect set.
6. A good merino jersey. I am a dedicated Rapha girl when it comes to jerseys. (Yes, I have been given a few, and cards on the table, I’m a little biased.) The classic women’s jersey is cut to be fitted in a way that is quite slimming, avoiding that annoying buckling in the tummy area when you’re on a bike. They aren’t *tight*, but just cut a bit like a really good blazer, they go in at the right places. Most importantly, they have plenty of pocket space, which on a long wet ride means plenty of room to shove a rain jacket, energy bars, air pump, wallet, phone, keys, extra gloves and cap.
7. Cap and (not too dark) glasses. NEVER underestimate the importance of these two features on a rainy ride. The cap will shield your glasses from most of the water and road-grime (especially if you’re going to be riding in a group), and the glasses keep everything else out of your eyes. These two things are SOOOO important for rain riding; even if there is just a hint of rain on the horizon I’ll make sure I’ve got a cap shoved into my back pocket before setting out.
8. Warm hat. This is to keep your ears warm on a slightly cooler day. I use an old Helly Hansen lightweight poly-something hat that I can put on OVER my cycling cap, under my helmet. If it gets too hot, I can take it off but still have my cap on for rain protection.
9. Over-shoes. These are a must, especially if it gets down around 10-15C or lower. Your feet will get wet no matter what you wear, but they will stay warm if you’ve got a good pair of over-shoes. I have a cheap pair of Endura neoprene overshoes, much loved and battered from the occasional spill or scuff. The challenge with overshoes is finding a pair that don’t restrict your legs. If you’re like me and have relatively substantial leg muscles, having a band restricting your lower legs does no favours in either the comfort or aesthetic territories. But there are hundreds of options out there and they’re never very pricey.
10. The rain/wind jacket. I am dedicated to my Rapha women’s wind jacket. I actually have two now, following the last sample sale. One in red and one in white. You need a jacket that is lightweight enough to not over-cook you going up hills and allow you to breathe, but has enough water repellency to wick the water off. The great thing about Rapha’s jacket is it also balls up nice and small for shoving in the back pocket of your jersey if the weather breaks and the sun comes out. There are two key features of the Rapha jacket which have ultimately been deal-breakers elsewhere. First, the wristbands are made of an elastic cloth instead of velcro. This means they fit really smoothly on your wrist, won’t cut in and won’t catch on any other clothing. Second, they are fitted appropriately for a woman’s body. Like their jerseys, they go in where they should go in so you’re not left with a bunched up mid-section. They fit around the arms perfectly with just enough room to move and not restrict you sitting in a forward position. They do all the other stuff you’d assume a rain/wind jacket should do too. My only suggestion is not washing them very often. Just gently rinse the mud off under a tap. Once you put it in the washing machine you’ll have to get a waterproofing sealer wash to re-seal the jacket again….
11. Light-weight full-finger gloves. Preferably not leather. I use a cheap pair of Specialized gloves that have just enough warmth to keep my fingers from going numb, but not too warm that they make my palms sweat. Again, you’re gonna get wet, so it’s a matter of comfort whist being wet. I will often shove a spare pair of gloves in a ziplock baggie (keeps ‘em dry) in my pocket to switch up half-way if I need a warm-up.
OK! That should just about do it. I also tend to ride with lights when I ride in the rain, but this is more of a personal safety thing than anything else and when riding on the windy narrow English country roads, can be an emotional placebo if nothing else. Better safe than sorry. And mud-guards. TOTALLY important. I have a cheap set of lightweight removeable mudguards I can take on or off super easily.
Now go get rained on!!
Every so often a list of “rules” surfaces about how to ride a bicycle. Which height of socks to wear. What length of shorts. What colour isotonic beverage. What exact shape of mud-guard. What kind of coffee to drink and almost certainly what to name your first-born son (higher points awarded for more obscure racing-legend dedications).
65 miles into 130, our motley crew of mix-matched kit, ankle socks, mud, bug and gel-smeared faces as the dewey sun beat down through rainbow shadowed trees, there were very few rules any of us cared about.
I remember my first jersey: a neon yellow so-called ‘gift’ from my father. I would wear it with baggy spandex shorts (no padding), complete with pink and black leopard print. All knees and elbows, they fit me about as well as I fit my old blue Raleigh racer with its seat post rammed down to its lowest millimeter. The obligatory peanut butter and jelly sandwich stuffed into my back pocket swung around to my side, which I systematically heaved back into position every 18 pedal strokes. Too small for proper cleats, my running shoes back then were purchased on their ability to become compact, laces tucked in, easily slotted into pedal cages.
Nineteen years ago this month I took off on my bike to ride the 11 miles into town by myself to celebrate my 10th birthday. I had to take a little break at the five-mile mark to eat my sandwich, stretch my legs and check my bike over. No punctures! There was no cell-phone … I was free! I was celebrating a double-digit birthday! I was almost a teenager! When I finally arrived in town, I learned the first rule of cycling.
While the days of pink leopard print are far behind me, the only rules that matter haven’t changed much:
1: Tell your mother where you’re going and what time you’ll be home. This applies until your 18th birthday and over every family holiday for the rest of your life.
2: Pack a sandwich. Nutella is an option resulting in extra points.
3: Bring a friend. They will inevitably eat half your sandwich, which should be cut down the middle for ease of sharing.
All other rules are variable.
The first thing I learned working at a fashion magazine was that an abundance of rules are for those lacking in confidence. White after labour day? Totally an option. Spots and stripes?… clashing can be a good thing. Pink and orange… have you seen any Jil Sander lately? The most influential people live above the rules. They know their bodies and they challenge the norm. They know what’s appropriate but refuse to be slaves to the dress code. Looking good doesn’t require rules… it requires confidence.
5,000 miles into my year and the only rule I have now about what I wear when I cycle is that if I have to think about what I’m wearing, I’ve failed. If the shorts cut into my legs, I’ve failed. If I’m too cold or too hot or too wet, I’ve failed. If I can’t get anything into my back pockets, I’ve failed. But everything else is just me.
A few months back I got an awesome email from the guys at Rapha asking me to be one of their “brand ambassadors”… blogging, helping make their women’s products better, helping them understand and boost the culture of women’s cycling a bit. It was one of those flattering (beyond belief) emails that made me wonder ‘Why me?’ I’m not a particularly good cyclist. Mediocre at best. But it’s exciting! I’m so excited to be working with a brand like Rapha, who really want to make the world of women’s cycling a better place.
Like most women cyclists, few and far between, it’s often hard to find riding partners, other girls who understand that falling over drunk has a time and a place (usually in December), and that the sisterhood you find on the road is one of the very best kinds.
So, let’s go ride! Don’t worry about not being a member of a club… Thursday nights there is usually a small-ish group of girls who do laps of Regents Park, meeting at 6pm at the South East gates by the Royal Physicians College. If you’re a Dynamo, there’s also a lot of us who ride in Richmond Park on Saturday mornings, leaving at 8:30 from the middle of the park Penn’s Pond parking lot. On Sundays, I often go out to Surrey Hills or up into Epping, Cambridgeshire, or somewhere else out of North London… so gimme a shout on twitter @collynahart if you fancy a riding partner or three. We usually ride fairly slow on Sundays… and every ride usually involves tea.
This weekend is, @islandbicycles’, (my dad) 65th birthday. I used to tell him he wasn’t old until he hit 60, but despite the years, I still think he looks 50… tops. I’d like to attribute his daily cycling to this, and hope a bit of it is genetic.
Last night I got thinking about fathers and daughters, and despite the scientific evidence suggesting they perhaps should feel otherwise, how men so often say they prefer to have sons. And why? Apparently so they can do sports and take them cycling and go hunting and do “boy things”.
My dad didn’t have the choice. He got me. So he gave me a boy’s name and took me cycling. I have a lot to thank him for. Never once have I thought I couldn’t do something because it was something “girls didn’t do”… and the world is a far more interesting place for it. I went through a princess phase just like every other little girl (hell, I might still be going through it), but at the end of the day, I was perfectly happy to go fishing (notoriously in a miniskirt) and cycling and get inappropriately bad tan lines from it all.
So I beg of you new fathers, take your daughters cycling. Let them get muddy. Teach them how to ride through a deep puddle. Show them how to gut a fish and hook a worm. Take them camping and teach them to build a campfire. They want to know! Let them go hunting (if that’s your thing), or make sure they know how to kick a ball. These things will only do them good, and if you’re lucky, you’ll still have someone to ride with even when you hit your 60s.
Dad and (fat) me after last summer’s Seattle to Portland ride.