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second gear

Monday,  11/21/05  07:55 PM


Second Gear

I reach the base at about 10:00, lean my bike against a rock, and stop to drink some water.  Looking up I examine my nemesis before joining battle.  How will I feel today?  Will I struggle early, and wonder if all the junk food, lack of sleep, and bypassed workouts have caught up with me?  Or will I charge ahead, feeling the thrill of strong muscle and efficient lung joined as a team?  There is no way to know - I feel good, but I always feel good at the base.

It is already a warm day; the puffy clouds sliding over the steel blue sky do little to shield the sun.  Will the heat be a factor?  Nah, it really isn't that hot.  I can smell Eucalyptus trees along the road.  Will I smell them further up?  Of course not - there aren't any trees.  Besides, I'll be much too intent by then to notice.  There is a house all by itself at the start of the grade - an old farm house by the look of it, the fields overgrown, the fences fallen into disrepair.  Who lives there?  Don't worry about that - it doesn't matter.  OK, enough thinking, do it!

I begin as I always do, slowly, trying not to extend myself on the lower grades.  My strategy down here is to use the highest gear I can get away with.  I shift only grudgingly, each gear left behind a tacit admission that the grade is getting steeper, a reminder that my foe will be stronger at the top, while I will be weaker.  I breathe easily, smoothly.  I look around and take in the simple beauty of the mountains: grey rocks amongst brown bushes, green trees sprinkled with white blossoms.  Maybe I'll be OK.  Maybe all the many battles have toughened me, and finally this will be easy.  I round the first bend and the real hill begins.  I have to shift.  Maybe this will be harder than ever, as usual.

The Santa Susanna Pass is an old mountain road, steep, windy, and lightly travelled; a relic from an earlier day when highways bowed to nature instead of vice-versa.  As such it has found new life as a test track for bicycle riders.  On most weekends the rusted cars and discarded washing machines watch silently as a steady trickle of brightly clad riders glide by.  No more than five miles to the summit as the crow flies, it is nonetheless a tough stretch of real estate for earthbound creatures to navigate.

Lately it has become my routine to ride up to the summit each Saturday morning.  It is a tough challenge for me.  The mental battle is worse than the physical.  I know my body can do it - but can my mind?  There is always the fear of failure - stopping to rest, or [worse!] giving up before reaching the summit.  The road is ideally suited for the test - it gets steeper and more menacing as you approach the zenith.  But reaching the top gives me a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.  Coasting back down I feel a gentle sense of self-worth which completely compensates for the pain.  The minor accomplishment of reaching the summit inspires me to hunt more significant goals.

The road straightens and I ride on, legs pumping slowly.  My breath comes faster now.  I keep my head down, watching the patched cracks and broken bottles slide by.  Every so often I look up to review my progress.  I try desperately to remember landmarks which designate shift points.  Did I reach that bend before shifting from fourth last time?  I can never remember.  I'm sure I was past that bend though - I must have been.

The overall goal is constantly divided into little sub-goals, each delimited by the road visible at some instant.  “If I can just reach that next curve, the grade eases slightly.”  Then I reach the curve.  “Now if I can just make it to that old bed.”  The rusted bed comes and goes, a silent witness to my struggle.  My legs are beating a steady time, punctuated by my breath. I count.  One, two, three, four...  Another pile of junk is past.  I am now on a particularly bad section of road, the surface patched many times, and finally left broken.  I must look carefully to avoid the potholes.  Ninety-one, ninety-two, ninety-three, ninety-four...  Someday I’ll count the exact number of strokes it takes to reach the top.  Yeah, sure.

The road is constantly getting steeper.  (Or am I constantly becoming more tired?)  I recognize the halfway point - a section where the road has been cut into a hillside, exposing a rocky face on which a few plants struggle to survive.  I’ve made it half-way!  This isn’t so bad.  I’m going to make it.  Exiting from the cutting, I round a bend and the grade becomes steeper yet.  This is a shift point I recognize all too well.  This is it, the critical transition.  I reach down slowly and caress the lever.  I don’t want to do it, but my legs tell me I must.  One more stroke, one more, yet another one more.  NOW, I must do it.  Quickly, I yank back the lever.  I am now in second gear, and I have only one gear left.

The gears of a bike are like tools; each has its appropriate purpose.  Like the clubs in a golf bag, there are powerful gears and subtle ones, those which require power and those which need finesse.  Typically a rider uses roughly the same “pace” regardless of gear.  As the terrain becomes more difficult (or the rider less powerful), lower gears are used.  I mount a ten-speed touring bike, fifteen years old, a veteran horse which has seen many battles.

Mentally I subdivide the trip to the summit into several distinct parts.  First there is the bottom, the “easy part”, in which I can pretty much relax.  In this part I rotate down through the higher gears, ultimately ending up in third.  The first section ends when I am forced into second gear.  Over the course of many battles I have extended this point further and further up the hill.  The timing of this moment has become a tangible measurement of my progress, and it gives me great satisfaction to delay it ever so slightly longer.

Second gear is definitely my favorite.  The transition from third to second is a sudden relief; my legs stop hurting, and my lungs stop gasping. I can lean back and relax a little.  There is far more to this than mere sprocket ratios, though.  Second gear is very symbolic.  I live in second gear.

The key attribute of second gear is this: when you are in second gear, you are flat out, working hard, struggling - but you have one gear left.  No matter how bad things get, you can always reach down and pull that lever.  This is how I like to feel about myself - I live flat out, work hard, struggle - but I have something in reserve.  Of course, this cuts both ways.  It gives me confidence in many situations, because I sense that whatever happens I can always pull the lever.  But sometimes when I’m really tested by a situation, I’ll back off.  I guess I’m afraid that I’ll pull the lever and discover nothing happens.

On and on I ride as the road stretches up forever.  This is the really tough part.  Why do I do this?  The doubts begin to creep into the open from the subconscious crevices of my mind.  How easy it would be to stop, catch my breath, and then go on.  What am I trying to prove?  I’ve done this before, there’s no need to do it again.  I deal with each unwanted suggestion in turn.  “Concentrate on the road, blank your mind, think about something else.”  I can think about each ‘something else’ for about five seconds before the fire in my legs and the sound of my breathing tear me back to reality.  At this point the demons of doubt play a very strong hand.

As I’m thinking about stopping, and not stopping, I’m also thinking about something else - when should I make the final shift?  I know I’ll have to do it; I have to pull that lever and call on my final reserve.  This journey demands it.  If I do it now, riding will suddenly be much easier physically.  My legs and lungs are pleading with my mind to do it.  But the transition from second to first is very different from the transition from third to second.  Once in first gear there is nothing left but failure.

Now my body, my mind, and my soul all have completely separate identities.  My body is pain: legs, chest, neck, arms, hands all complaining; they all crave first gear.  My mind is doubt; it fears first gear and argues the security of second.  My soul is me - the decision maker, the judge and jury in this court.

At about the three-quarter mark, just as my last resolve to remain in second gear has been exhausted, the road itself gives me a break.  There is a small, straight section of lesser grade, a traverse across the top of a grassy knoll.  Fate has placed it here as a minor concession.  The critical decision can be postponed.  The brief respite is wonderful - the pain in the top of my legs goes away, my breathing settles down, the heavens open, and birds start to sing.  There even seems to be less trash piled along the shoulder.  But all too quickly the knoll is left behind, round the bend I go, and the grade is steeper than ever.  The dull pain returns, and with it the debate - isn’t it really time to shift now?

Over time I have concluded that my mind is a worse enemy than my body, and I delay shifting into first gear as long as possible.  There is always a moment when it seems I really cannot go on; the tops of my legs are on fire, my calves are beginning to tighten, I am panting like a dog, and I can feel the blood surging in my temples.  It comes fast.  One minute I am riding along smoothly, the next I must shift.  It really does not call for a decision at all.

This treacherous road is impossibly long - surely I should have reached the summit by now.  As I round each bend, I visualize the final straight section leading to the summit, and look up eagerly to see it.  But at each turn anticipation yields to disappointment, and I look back down at the road, concentrating on my stroke, ignoring the surroundings.  I constantly tell myself I feel good, this is going to work, I’m going to make it.

Round one more turn, and THERE IT IS, the summit.  New life flows into my legs.  I virtually sprint up to the top, all thoughts of stopping beaten back.  I push myself up the final straight section, a rocky slash into the hillside.  I seem to make no progress, but suddenly there I am.  I have made it!

This is a special moment, and it has a definite ritual.  I slowly dismount and lean my bike against the battered green sign which announces “Rocky Peak Road”.  I pull my water bottle out and squirt my head in celebration.  I walk across a dirt clearing to the edge of the crown which defines the summit, and lean against a large rock placed by nature specifically for me to rest on.  From this vantage point I can survey my beaten foe in all its glory, a descending series of hilltops stretching down into the valley below.  Gradually my breathing returns to normal, and the blood stops pounding in my neck.  I stretch luxuriously like a cat.  Once again I have done it, I have defeated my own doubts.  I have successfully shifted beyond second gear.