Journal

  • Not so Local Riders - Bill Strickland

    Bill Strickland is a writer and since discovering him, I've found his perspective on all things bike related to be both refreshing and inspiring. When Bill agreed to take on the Mamnick 'Quiz', I jumped at the chance to send over the questions.


    Which are your favourite stretches of road to ride on locally and what is it that you like about them?

    Favored roads flower for me new every year, fade away, return, pass, return again in new combinations with others, and sometimes a battered road gets fresh black pavement and I — we, really — ride and ride and ride it so often we notice the day the finish becomes porous and starts absorbing water again and we know, then, because we have been given to know by so many seasons of riding these roads, that in a year the crumbling will begin. Sometimes I ride a street backward to custom, and damn if there is not almost always the revelation of a house I have never seen or forgot ever seeing, or a dog cocks its head at me as if I were a distant relative rather than the cyclist he chased the length of his lawn just yesterday, or I see the creek appear from under the road rather than vanish into it, and all of this seems important to who I am and why I ride. I could not ever say why, but there it is. But I have a favorite, a route we call Powder Valley because in its central section it dips down into and through a rift in the land that gives it its name, on a winding and dark cool road with a sprint sign at its exit and, beyond that, in the sun, a choice of gravel roads and dirt climbs, and a great old cemetery, and the farm on the corner of the next part where years ago we came upon a fat strong old farmer in overalls weeping because his sheep had been killed in the night, then a rolling rolling road that sits full in the sun steaming where it straightens out and heads straight up in an awful grind that has cracked every one of us who has ever ridden it, then a descent as gradual and long and, if you stay on the pedals, as fast as the climb is awful, right past a baseball stadium with a wooden fence and a 485-foot centerfield and a beagle buried under third base, and just past that the worst and most fun climb of the whole route. There is nothing much to the ride, really. There is for me mostly the intimacy I have with it, the feelings it has given me, the states of being it has put me into and pulled me from. I have tried to write about it a few times. One day I’ll get there.

     The same question for roads anywhere in the world?

    I guess I tell people the Tourmalet is my favorite climb, but that is only because I got frites once at the top in one of those moments when whatever food you ate would be the best food you had ever had, and because once I actually put a folded gazzetta down the front of my jersey, and because once I climbed it in fog, and because once I descended in what I still think might have been my most frigid day on a bicycle, and because I rode it bad and good but never in between. But I had more fun on Hautacam. But when I climbed the Kapelmuur in the shadow of the cross of the church at the top, to keep traction we bowed our heads over the steepness of cobbled hill like penitents. But, I mean: the Arenberg. But there are others, many others, and for reasons I reckon I will never know there is no favorite in the sense that there is no road I would trade Powder Valley for. I hope for other riders the same someday.

     What is your most memorable moment on the bike or involved with cycling?

    I am going to cheat here, because I did a lot of hard work once trying to explain something so inexplicable. I said:

    I have climbed and descended the Tourmalet in fog and freezing rain, switchbacked up Alpe d’Huez, climbed Luz Ardiden as the Pyreneean sun melted the tar. I have been blown sideways on the exposed stretch of Ventoux where Tom Simpson died. I have ridden cobbles with Johan Museeuw, and bumped shoulders with Eddy Merckx as we spun along European lanes. By bicycle, I’ve delivered medicine to the sick and dying with doctors in Mozambique, where no truck or car could go. I have experienced so many life-changing moments on so many great rides that I cannot assemble a list of them with any sort of sensible ranking.

    But the greatest moment of my cycling life happened in what was probably a single second, just a few miles from home, on a road I ride nearly every day, in an instant my daughter, now 13, says she no longer remembers but that comes to me at unexpected times as a sound that repeats itself until it becomes a hymn, a hosanna, a tactile sensation that suffuses all that I am.

    It is from a story I wanted to call “Whooooooom” but which ended up just being titled “Whoom” (and which you can read here: http://billstrickland.wordpress.com/short-nonfiction/whoom/).

    Do you agree with Mickey Goldmill's advice to Rocky that 'women weaken legs'?

    It’s only in rest that we really become stronger — all else is about tearing ourselves apart enough to make the recovery worth a damn.

    We are in the midst of a well publicised boom in cycling in the UK at the moment. Has it affected you? Do you have any thoughts about why it has happened and whether it will continue? Do you see any negatives to the increase in popularity?

    I have survived two cycling booms in America. Neither had much effect on me as a bicycle rider, but as a fan of professional racing the first formed me and the second finished me. I say “finished” not in the sense that I’m done being a fan but I’m fully shaped and sealed and colored. I’m going to wear and stain and chip away here and there, and come out worse for it all in the end but maybe with some kind of dignity granted to me by time. When something goes boom, things break.

    All cyclists, whether they race or not, seem to obsess over the weight of their bikes. Why do you think this is? 

    I think aerodynamicism is the current obsession, or the coming obsession. Seems beside the point to me, anymore, as does bike weight. I think obsession is good, though. Too few people are obsessed anymore. Plenty have become so habitualized as to imagine that they are obsessed, whether it’s with social media or television or pornograpy or whatever, but gluttony or lust or loneliness or a fear of being bored is not obsession. Grams are a good enough thing to count, when you consider how much tallying we do of seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years and how much good that does us finally. Is it better in the end to know that we lived to be 97 years and six months and five days and nineteen hours, or that a Super Record derailleur saved us 17 grams? Neither does us much good.  What I look for in a bike: life. How much life does it have, and what kind of life? By which I mean spirit, I guess. Maybe personality or energy. I know when it’s there, I know when it’s not, I know when I like it and when I won’t, and sometimes I can tell if a bike will like me. Or, anyway, I hope that’s how bikes look at me. If they’re obsessing over my weight, I am in trouble.

    Do you approach riding, or ride your bike, differently now to when you first got into cycling?

    I laugh with my friends on a bike, and I talk about whatever we want to talk about, and I ride out to eat at some restaurant or to drink at a bar, and I race now and then, and I see if I can’t break myself on some cycling adventure or dare, and I play dumb games on bikes (coasting races, or granny-gear sprints, or to see who can catch the most falling leaves), and I take my shot at figuring out existence and how to pray or why, and I meet people I otherwise never would, and I ride off hangovers, and I ride off frustrations, and I ride just to feel the wind some days or the sun or the rain, and I ride to feel like a kid, and I ride because I am aging, and I ride because after all this I have some sort of wisdom about the ride I can share now, and in a life of riding for so many reasons, I can see now that sometimes I ride just to ride. That seems like some big philosophical statement but it is pretty much just putting words to what I did when I was a child and have never stopped doing.

    When I was about ten years old, my younger sister and I pried up an iron sewer lid and tried to lift it away and instead dropped it on her hand. I think we broke her hand. I know it was a mess right away: black and deep blue and a disturbing purple. I asked her not to tell on me. Once when I was about twelve I pushed in the cigarette lighter in a car I’d been left alone in, and when it was all heated up and popped I took it out and stuck my index finger on the coils and burned my skin away in a sickening and stomach-turning smell that was stronger to me than the pain I felt. I didn’t tell what I’d done. When I got a bike and started riding for real, not just around the neighborhood like a kid but to go out on rides for the purpose of riding, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, what it meant, how it felt, who I thought I could be. These days I write about all of it, some of it veiled or stuck inside another story but I tell it all. I guess that’s the only difference.

    Who has been your favourite pro riders over the years and why?

    It always comes back to Fausto for me but I wasn’t there. He’s like a religion, old, sacred, something to which I humble myself. Marco Pantani is the prophet who lived at the same time as me, the one who knew god and the mysteries of such and came back and showed us, or tried to show us, and set himself on fire for us. That’s the reverent answer, and it’s true but there’s another answer. I live around all these guys who were pro racers in the States in another era, in a time when the life of bicycle racer was like that of a barnstormer’s. They lived together, six or seven or eight or fifteen of them, and every weekend they would pool money for gas and get in a car or two and drive to some race and in a combine win enough money to get to the next race and put a little away and win that race and get to another one and put some more away and come home and buy groceries and pay rent and do it all over again. There was no salary for these guys, no guarantee except how much they knew they could count on each other, and they learned some uncountable number of ways to win bike races because they had to win to eat. They cannot tell you all they know about how to win a bike race; it is just who they are, and it comes out unknowing and natural when they ride, and I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to be able to turn a pedal with them. Whatever it is and however much it is I happen to know about bike racing, it comes from them. These racers, American crit racers of the 1970s and 1980s, the ones who just managed to make a living, they are my favorite pro riders of all time.

    What was your favourite era of professional bike racing?

    Right now, today, I can watch more pro racing live or archived than I ever could at any earlier period of my life. I — all of us — can hear directly from just about any racer in the world through social media. We can ride the same damn bikes they do, find and buy with a few clicks the same gear. Check our speeds against theirs on climbs. I enjoy goading myself into a fugue of longing for days when jerseys were simpler, when our dope was la bomba instead of stem cells harvested from babies whose mothers had great mitochondria, but as great as nostalgia is, our reality is amazing.

    Mudguards, mudguards and mudflaps or racing bike with clip on guards through winter?

    I use fenders for town riding and commuting. We all used them for a winter once here, where I ride, then we got over it. I have nothing against fenders on the road bike, and I understand the sense of it. We just grit our teeth and blink hard and spit out of the worst and go on with wet asses through the winter, maybe because we believe we deserve it, or maybe because we know we don’t. 

    Do you enjoy a cafe stop or do you prefer to ride straight round?

    Miller High Lifes in the afternoon sun on the outdoor tables of the Basin Street, Chimay Blues and fries with sauce on the patio of the Spinnerstown Hotel, ristretto at the bike shop in town before and after a ride, the awful time we did jello shots at the Bally Hotel before climbing Kulp’s in the winter (and, carrying them in our pockets, found they’d disintegrated from the sweaty heat of our ascension), stops at Kuklis’s house, where he has a soda machine fixed to dispense beer, the turkey-and-cheese in Topton taken half to go in foil for later and half eaten right there as I stand at the rail and watch a train rumble by — the ride is all that happens on a ride and not just the riding, and the stopping is as important to me as the starting.

    Assos, Rapha or neither?

    When I first came to Bicycling and went to my first trade show I went to the Assos booth and said, “The magazine has ignored Assos and I think that’s wrong and we should review one of your jerseys and put it in our pages,” and Tony Maier said that, thanks anyway, but he knew his stuff was the best and didn’t need us to tell him so. A few years later, he fed me little square Assos chocolates in foil, and gave me little Assos espressos in little Assos cups, and told an afternoon’s worth of great stories about the old days, and I reminded him about when we’d met and he looked concerned then I told him he’d probably been right at the time, and he laughed. I was at a concert in London with Simon Mottram and Slate Olson once, Jack Johnson and someone and maybe someone, and Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhal were there, and we were backstage or in some area for very important people, and someone’s sister wanted to go out and watch the show in the crowd and I’d had enough and went, too, and we stood there and the music was great, and the next day I went off to do the first part of the Rapha Crazy Bet. I have a leather Castelli café-racer jacket. Sometimes I just smell it.

    Do you prefer to get your head down on main roads, keeping a good tempo going on the B roads or get onto the back wacks? What about the rough stuff on your road bike?

    I prefer to not prefer. The editor of Bicycling South Africa, Mike Finch, was in town for a visit, and we went out for a ride at lunch and without considering it much we did a nice gravel climb and he said, “What is it with you Americans and gravel?” I think he had fun anyway. We like to head over and do a loop on the velodrome in the middle of a ride now and then. Our big weekly throwdown ride happens primarily on one of the busiest streets around. We race cyclocross at night in a compost site. I saw a beast in a cornfield bordering a foggy road on which no car ever came past or upon me; though it stood to watch me watch it, I never could guess what the beast was.

    What do you think about Strava?

    It is a crystal ball that can divine why people ride a bicycle.

    What do you think about Sportive rides?

    If I ever had a chance to stand at the home plate of Wrigley Field and try to whack a baseball over the vine-covered brick wall and into the bleachers, I would take it in an instant. If Fitzergerald leaned over and showed me a typewritten page and asked if I wanted to go ahead and finish the last sentence, I’d damn sure give it go. 

    Do you have any cycling pet hates?

    It’s not so much hate I have as beliefs. I just tried to write about this a little:

    I don’t know all of the way, or where it is going or where it began. I know who is off it. I generally know who has a chance to find it, though I have been mistaken plenty about that. I know that you find it by paying attention to the people who have been on it before you. I know that the way I ride is the way I live, or else the way I live is the way I ride—I don’t know anymore except to know that the two are bound. I know the way of the way is real, though I don’t know if it is important, or if it will survive long, or if many people care about it anymore. I know I’m on it. And I’m know I’m thankful to be so.

    The whole thing is here: http://bicycling.com/blogs/theselection/2013/08/16/the-way-of-the-way/ And that speaks to the next question in the list as well: (Are there any cycling traditions that you think have been, or are being, lost as a result of changing attitudes and behaviour? And are we better off or worse off as a consequence?)

    Cotton cap or helmet?

    I wear a helmet on most rides. Not all. When I don’t, I almost always wear a cap. Back when I started riding, no one wore helmets. I still have my first cap, a SunTour. I rarely wear caps under a helmet. Sometimes I fold my favorite cap in thirds and put it in my left jersey pocket and put it on when we stop at the café, or after the race is over and we’re all hanging out in the parking lot. I don’t know if we cyclists need helmets or not. But I think that cycling needs caps.

    The benefits of spinning a low gear compared to mashing a high gear is often discussed. Putting aside the serious, physiological and mechanical aspects, what cadence you think looks right?

    I always shot for 90 to 100, settled for 80, succumbed to 70, perished at 60 or below, bounced at 120 or above. For pure aesthetics, 90 seems to me as beautiful an abstraction and actual motion as any else we have.

    White, black or coloured socks?

    Commitment to what it is matters more than what it is — and knowledge. Know what they mean, and when you wear them, mean it.

    Frame pump or mini pump?

    My heart is a frame pump; my hands are a CO2 canister. A mini pump is some kind of terrible compromise I often make.

    What do you like to talk about when you are on a ride with friends/team/club mates? Do you prefer to keep the subjects lightweight or get your teeth into something contentious or controversial?

    The sound of a ride is something that is too little talked about or thought about. Forgetting for a bit the working of the bike and wind and the ambient sounds all around us, I like the banter of good riding friends at ease, and the simple natural chatter about nothing at all, and when a ride lapses into a companionable silence. I like the miles-long conversations, too, the rhythm of them and how the terrain is as much a participant in the dialogue as the people. I love the double paceline when you talk to your partner as you work your way up through the line, then, if the line is going, drop to a few words when you’re at the front, then peel off to each side and drift back and, if the line has an even number of riders, you fall in beside each other and continue where the talk left off at the front, or if there’s an odd number you slot in beside someone new and start all over, or else sit at the back alone with your thoughts. I like speaking a few words to people as you drift back. I like bravado, and funnily false bravado, and I like the one-sentence (or less) admissions of suffering or worry or even fear that come unprompted in a tired moment. I love the confessions. I love how we remark about the same features of our rides over and over and over, that we hate this hill, or we like this stretch, or this damned wind never stops right here. I like it when a great rider tells me something important. I like it when a new rider reminds me of something I’d forgotten. I love trying to piece out how the end of a ride should go. I love the little nod of the chin or the slap on the thigh or the barely voiced phrase that lets me know the break is going. I love telling the rider in front of me about a car back, and that rider passing it on up, and on up and on, the alert going in that way back to front, and from the front the riders pointing out holes or gravel or dead animals. I don’t much like fighting, but I’ll go ahead and do it.

    Who would be/is your perfect tandem partner? Would you ride captain or stoker?

    I never like these who-would-you-invite-to-dinner questions. I’d rather be asked who I had dinner with. But I have an answer here, courtesy of my riding friend Jeremy: “I’d ride with myself,” he said once in response to this very question. “I know what I think I’m like as a cyclist, but if I rode with myself I’d find out what I was really like.” That was on a long, long ride.

     

    Bill has written many books, my favorite being the Quoatable Cyclist, but he's also the author of Ten Points: A Memoir, Tour de Lance, Mountain Biking: The Ultimate Guild to the Ultimate Ride and On Being a Writer. He co-wrote We Might As Well Win with Johan Bruyneel and is the editor-at-large for Bicycling magazine. He has also published stories in Rouleur, Embrocation Cycling Journal and Backpacker to name but three. 

     

    The best way to contact Bill is via twitter - @TrueBS and read you can read more of his writing at TrueBS.com and bicycling.com/strickland

     

     

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