Worm-Up Ride

Holy steampuffs—it’s already Iron Horse weekend! I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad I pulled my bicycle out of the rafters early enough to train for this year’s ride. Two weeks is enough time, right?

Iron Horse 2014

Ha, ha! Just joking. I’ve been agonizing over this ride ever since a particularly vivid December dream. I showed up to the starting line not having ridden my bike once all spring. I had to decide whether to admit my negligence and bow out, or to preserve my pride while destroying my noodly legs.

I woke up smeared in sweat before choosing sides. But the nightmare made me realize how easy I had it a year ago. I was a clueless noob to this whole mountain-town bicycling craze. Merely attempting the Iron Horse counted as success. (And writing about it hooked me up with the best paper in town. Happy anniversary, Telly!) This year, I know precisely what I’m getting into. Knowing what I know, no amount of training will ever be enough.

Two hours in the saddle doesn’t touch me. Got to go for four. Forty miles? Better make it sixty. Plenty of concerned Coloradans worry about the addictiveness of cannabis—they should worry more about bicycling instead.

This spring, I exhibited the classic behaviors of addiction. Shoving extra bicycling into the margins of my days. Contemplating the likelihood that friends and neighbors might spot me coming and going at odd hours. Spending my grocery money on sports drinks and energy bars, then turning around and buying even more food to satisfy my constant cravings. Bananas throughout the Four Corners trembled when I approached.

I was out of control. I couldn’t cut back. For all I might gripe about going out for a ride, I love cycling. Problem is, it’s not my only passion, and I’m never willing to sacrifice time from other pursuits. So I crammed in more and more, even as the rides got longer and steeper.

But that iceberg-to-the-gut moment I felt in the nightmare hounded me so hard on every bike ride, I started envying my composting worms.

Lest you think I’m weird for keeping thousands of worms in Rubbermaid bins in the garage, I do so for entirely legitimate purposes besides companionship. These worms turn kitchen scraps into worm-doo, which aside from restoring health to the soil, prevents unwanted relatives from visiting. But that’s not why I envy them.

No, I turn green at the lives these red wrigglers lead. Without oversimplifying their daily agendas, they eat and screw and eat some more. If they could drink beer and ride bicycles, they’d have Plato’s ideal of a perfect existence. An existence I, for one, wouldn’t mind taking on for a while.

Yup, these little wrigglers are indeed the objects of my envy.

Yup, these little wrigglers are indeed the objects of my envy.

At least training for the Iron Horse means I get to enjoy some aspects of the worm lifestyle. Mainly, I get to eat everything I want. (Carb-loading week in particular is like Christmas, only without all the trappings of commercialism and goodwill-toward-man.) As for the other part of the eat-screw-eat formula… I won’t launch into procreative proclivities in a family newspaper. But this ferocious training gobbles up the time I usually dedicate to other such recreational activities.

Yes, I’m aware that envying a bunch of self-sustaining fish bait reflects about as healthy a lifestyle as owning the Los Angeles Clippers. But for a while, I fooled myself. I pretended I could have it all.

Then something snapped.

Two weeks til the Iron Horse, I resolved to tackle my largest climbing day ever. Combined with my longest mileage day ever. Anything less just wouldn’t give me a rush.

About halfway through, I cruised down from Coal Bank Pass. I was just starting to feel the agonizing, tantalizing, delightful ache in my thighs. There’s a slight uphill before returning to DMR, so I downshifted. The gear shifter normally clicks. This time, it snapped like a dog’s jaw clamping shut. The chain rattled onto the highest gear. I may be crazy, but I’m no He-Man. I couldn’t pedal over hills in the toughest setting.

I creaked onto the shoulder and examined the slack cable. It came loose, looking like the business end of a rat-chewed broom. I’m no mechanic; the height of my prowess is distinguishing between a flathead and a Phillips-head screwdriver. Yet even I realized that the frayed cable was what professionals call a “bad sign.”

So I called my beloved and used my suavest pick-up line: “My bike broke I’m stranded come rescue me please before I get hypothermia and run naked down the highway and die!” Works every time.

While I waited, I quickly tired of every passing cyclist asking me if everything was okay. It wasn’t, but at that point none of them could help me. So to escape their questioning, I climbed a short way into the forest and simply stood there.

All of sixty feet away from two-lane civilization, I felt like I’d gone camping. The aspens and the pines muted the traffic and dulled the wind. Remnants of snow speckled the Oriental rug of molding leaves. The broken cable offered me one wish. It granted me a worm’s paradise just this side of Purgatory, with an hour of enforced relaxation.

And you know what? I never finished that ride. The universe sent me a pretty clear message to take it easy. There’s little point to bicycling so hard that a favorite hobby turns into a ravenous obligation. The worms do what they do because it’s all they know. But I have a very un-wormlike freedom to enjoy myself.

So this year’s Iron Horse will be one more non-competitive chance for me to revel in the scenery, the sounds of birds, and the camaraderie of other cyclists. All of which I will fully appreciate, after I finish kicking the train’s ass to Silverton.

This piece originally appeared at the Durango Telegraph.

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