I look down at my cassette. Five from the top. 19 teeth on that cog. That should equate to about 16 mph. Tired cyclists are always looking down at their cassette, as if that will give them an excuse, or justify how they are feeling. You see it at all levels. But I'm not tired. I feel like I'm barely working here. I look down at my cassette again. A habit formed from being tired on the bike a lot. I wonder what I am trying to find down there? Is there, down at my cassette, some way to mute that nagging, tapping, quiet voice that is telling me I'm doing this all wrong, that I'm wasting my time on the bike?
My mind wanders back to the Marine Corps. It's 1985 again, and it's my first time being selected for patrol instead of a post. B Company is guarding the Naval Magazine in Subic Bay, and instead of standing at a post for four hours every eight hours for seven straight days, this time I get to wander around the jungle with three other squad members looking for intruders and I am excited. All my gear is ready. Live ammo. Weapon spotless. And, it's raining hard and humid. We are dropped off in the dark, and drop into the jungle, our mission tonight: go to the coastline, recon north for seven miles until we can just spot Papa 32 and sit the evening out watching the coast for banca boats trying to infiltrate the Naval Magazine. Unfortunately, I'm the newb so I get to carry the radio. It is Christmas Eve.
I look down at my cassette again. I'm trying to do this recovery ride right and now I'm on the 22 tooth cog trying to make this ride feel way too easy. 16 mph on a flat, smooth road and a cadence of 90. That little quiet voice keeps tapping on my helmet and makes me look down at my cassette again. Very very easy and nothing has changed. And still I feel this overwhelming sense of urgency to not waste my time on the bike so I check the bend in my arms and correct that to the proper angle. I check my pedal stroke and smooth that out to gentle circles. Pedal in circles, not squares. To not waste my time on the bike, I decide to work on my pedal stroke and arm angles for the whole ride. It will require constant focus and I look down at my cassette again.
As soon as we dropped down into the triple canopy jungle the rain stopped even as it was still coming down. I'm not sure how you can increase something that is already at 100%, but it got twice as humid and twice as wet and twice as dark as when we could feel the rain and the ground was a damp, weird kind of muddy that was hard and slow to walk in. Right away there were these little piles everywhere like stalagmites in a cave, not more than a foot or so tall. Water buffalo droppings? Droppings from a wild boar? We steered around them as we alternated walking over bare, muddy ground and chopping our way through all manner of plants, vines and bamboo. We had three miles to the shore line, and it was slow going.
Heading north into a headwind, I check the bend in my elbows and correct them again, trying to find a position for my hands on the hoods that makes everything feel just right. I make sure I have a quiet upper body. No motion at all. I make sure I'm pedalling in circles. I look down at my cassette again wanting to mute that tapping nagging that I am wasting my time on the bike. There is a headwind and 25 teeth on the cog and 12 mph. I'm thinking about last year when I went out to Miller Motorsports Park to watch the professionals riding in the Tour of Utah compete in the race of truth. One of the last guys out of the box was Levi Leipheimer and my respect for him grew immensely over the span of about five minutes as I watched him wait for his turn to start.
In comparison to the other riders that I had just spent the last two hours watching as they started, Levi was a study in focus. He sat quietly like a coiled spring, looking down most of the time, and it was obvious he was regulating his breathing. He was still and quiet, and it was obvious he was intensely thinking about what was coming up on the bike. He was focused like a laser beam.
As he got closer to his time up, it seemed to me that he got more and more nervous. But it was nervous in a good way - bridled and under control - like a spring getting wound tighter and tighter. There was no jovial chit chat, no laughing and goofing around, nothing extraneous about him at all. Just a laser beam focus and more intense effort to regulate his breathing. That impressed me. He was taking this serious and was obviously going to give this his absolute best effort. I was amazed.After that I started watching him race when I could find it on television. I started paying attention to his riding. What I noticed was a perfect angle on the elbows. A perfect angle that never wavered. Never changed. I noticed a smoothness to his efforts on the bike. I noticed his absolutely quiet upper body, no matter the circumstance or level of effort.
What before I found boring, I now found fascinating. What a stoic rider. What a study in discipline and control. What a study of how to ride smoothly. I look down at my cassette. 19 teeth and 16 mph. That quiet nagging voice is still there tapping my helmet. Again, I check the bend in my elbows and make a correction, calm my upper body and smooth my pedal stroke into circles. I wonder how long I had been pedaling in squares - how much of this ride have I wasted with the wrong elbow bend.
As we move closer to the coast line the stalagmite piles on the ground are getting taller. Soon it's obvious that no animal in the jungle could drop these, but insects could build them. The ground is wetter with every step and the mud makes it's way into the boots which doesn't really matter because everything is so wet. It doesn't take long for blisters to form on my thumb and knuckles. Hacking bamboo with a bolo knife is hard work and my shoulders are burning. When we finally find the coastline, we find the rain again and feel a hot clinging breeze that climbs it's way into our nostrils with it's salty wet garbage smell.
Seven miles along the coastline feels like seven hundred. There is no place to walk. We end up in the ocean, trying hard not to break our ankles on the rocks that are everywhere you want to take a step. I have never been so wet or fallen over so many times. I am amazed that the radio still works and wonder if our weapons would should the need arise. Over and over falling down, hitting shins, forearms and elbows on rocks and boulders of every size, and finally there is Papa 32, one hundred feet up in the air and about a mile away. This is where we will spend the night.
It doesn't take long to realize that we are not going to see any intruders out here on the rocks tonight. Everything we have is wet, so we find the most comfortable boulders we can and kick back to watch the water. The radio still works and now it's off my back and out of my pack. There's a burning pinch at the base of my neck between my shoulder blades from carrying the pack, gear and radio through the jungle and down the coastline. There is also beef stew or chicken-ala-king or something, crackers and jelly and an orange nut cake from an MRE for dinner on Christmas Eve. The pouch of fruit cocktail is ripped open and propped on a rock so the rain can quickly rehydrate the freeze dried contents right before it tips over and the contents dribble down a boulder and into the ocean.
When I turn west, I'm on that little 2 to 3% incline that almost always means I'm heading home. It doesn't feel too easy now and the nagging voice has stopped whispering. I can feel a little tiny twinge of lactic acid in the tops of my quads and I look down at my cassette. 25 teeth and 13 mph. For the first time on this recovery ride, I notice my breathing. I'm watching that arrow. It is pointing down. That little down arrow is egging me on. Down down down. That little tapping voice is back, louder now saying down down down. Mentally I fight back remembering that this is a recovery ride and it's suppose to feel way too easy. I check the elbows and smooth the circles and quiet my upper body. I slow my cadence to 80 and look at my cassette. 25 teeth and 12 mph. The arrow is pointing down.
It's almost three in the morning (or oh-three-hundred) and we sing some Christmas carols in the rain while we sit on the boulders on the shoreline. It seems we all know a lot of first verses to a lot of different songs and soon find ourselves struggling to come up with any we haven't already sung. On a radio check, we are asked if we have seen Santa and his sleigh and we acknowledge "affirmative" we believe we may have but it was hard to tell in the rain. We take turns sleeping. When it's my turn to watch, it becomes obvious that if you stare in one place long enough, and it doesn't take very long, you start to see things that aren't really there, just like they taught us. So I spend my awake time in the rain practicing watching in a figure eight pattern amazed at how good my night vision is. In the morning there is nothing to pack up because nothing was unpacked so we put the packs on and head over to Papa 32, tripping and toppling on the boulders and rocks on the shoreline, our ankles, shins and elbows sore from the night before.
When I turn south again it's mostly that very slight downhill with a tailwind and I look at my cassette. 15 teeth and 24 mph, but pretty soon I'm spinning that out and that little arrow is pointing up. Up up up. I think about 18 mph. Is that average too fast for a recovery ride? I look at the arrow. I look at my cassette. 13 teeth and 27 mph. My elbows are good. My upper body is still. I am pedaling circles. I get in the drops. The little arrow is pointing up. My quads have that little twinge of lactic acid even while going slightly downhill. I look at my cassette. 12 teeth and 29 mph. I flick my right hand. 11 teeth and 31 mph. The road is level, but there's a tailwind. I want to see how long I can hold this around 30 mph on this way too easy recovery ride. There is enough ride left to average 18 mph. I fix the bend in my elbows and concentrate on smooth circles at a cadence of 86. The little arrow is pointing up.
As we head for our pick up at Papa 32 our squad leader smashes the business end of a bolo knife down on the base of his thumb while chopping on some bamboo. The bleeding and the pouring rain and the mud and the screaming conspire to make quite a mess and we quickly realize this is going to be an emergency and radio for help. The squad leader is in shock as he is crawling around looking for his thumb and we sit him down and take his pack. We start looking for his thumb too and then realize it is down his sleeve and still attached by the thinnest piece of gristle so we wrap his hand and take turns carrying him, his pack and weapon to Papa 32.
The blood and the mud and the rain make a messy hard time even harder. This is one of those times where hurrying is really slowing us down and he is losing a lot of blood and quickly getting to the point of needing a lot of help. I'm thinking I've never carried something so heavy so far as I'm carrying my squad leader this morning. The burning pinch at the base of my neck between my shoulder blades becomes a roaring fire and I think my head is going to pop off. It feels like I have a pitch fork stuck in my back at the base of my neck and my legs are screaming with pain.
I look down at my cassette, this time because I am getting tired. 12 teeth 26 mph and I flick my right hand again. 13 teeth 26, 25 then 24 mph. My legs are burning with a good burn of working one hard, not too hard, but I know the speed is winding down and when I turn west again I will lose the tailwind as I find the 2 to 3% incline for the next two miles. I check my elbows, smooth my circles and get up on the hoods. I look at the little arrow. My recovery ride has morphed into something else. Something with a goal. 18 mph. I hear that nagging, soft, tapping voice again, clearer this time though. I turn west and shift up the cassette. 19 teeth and 16 mph. 22 teeth and 15 mph. I watch that arrow pointing down and forget to bend my elbows. My upper body starts to move a little bit, rocking a little bit in time to my pedal stroke. My circles get a little more square and my quads start to burn a little bit more. That quiet, nagging voice isn't as quiet. The tap tap tapping becomes a little more insistent. I look down at my cassette, not wanting to waste my ride. My quads are burning. I look down at my cassette because I'm tired.
I'm watching that little arrow. It keeps pointing down. I look at my cassette and I am breathing harder now. I check my elbows, try to calm my upper body. 19 teeth on the cog and 16 mph. The little arrow is pointing down. The tap tap tapping on my helmet is back, that quiet nagging voice is quietly nagging me. Don't waste your time on the bike. I glance at the little arrow and it is pointing down. I find myself riding south again - tailwind and flat as I look at my cassette. 19 teeth and 17 mph and I decide to push it a little more. 17 teeth and 19 mph. I glance at the little arrow and it is pointing up. My legs are burning in circles and my elbows forget to bend correctly as my upper body rocks slightly in time with my squared off circles of pedal strokes. I flick my right hand. 15 teeth and 20 mph. 21 mph. 22 mph. I look at the little arrow and it is pointing up. The tailwind is gone as I out run it. My quads are burning now and I am breathing hard. I look down at my cassette because I am tired. 15 teeth and 21 mph. 22 mph. 23 mph. The little arrow is pointing up and I look down at my cassette.
When I get home I hold off braking till the last possible second, trying not to scrub off my average speed. Once stopped, I reflect on this easy "recovery" ride after scrolling through my computer while the smouldering embers of lactic acid in my quads dies down. Average cadence 86. 16.81 miles. 54 minutes and some change. Top speed 31.29 mph. Average speed 18.46 mph. That quiet, nagging voice is right there tapping and now I can hear it clearly over the pulse thumping in my ears. I look down at my cassette as beads of sweat drip from my nose to splatter and stain my top tube and I can hear exactly what that quiet voice is saying: "A day without pushing yourself is a wasted day." I scroll back to the average speed. 18.46 mph. Again, I hear that quiet voice: "A day without pushing yourself is a wasted day," and I realize it's Gunnie Bartlett, tap tap tapping on my helmet and telling me the exact same thing that he told me when he tapped on my helmet that muddy, wet and bloody Christmas morning in the Marine Corps back in 1985 when he picked us up at Papa 32.