Going Downhill, But There’s Hope
As the wise old Jedi once intoned, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” And so I’ve fallen into the abyss of lift-served downhill mountain biking. I admit it. It’s why you haven’t heard from me in so long. You could cut the shame with a knife. Since last we met, I’ve been to Killington four times and Mount Snow once. I’ve sawed off the bottom of my seatpost so it’ll go all the way into the frame. I wear Kevlar body armor from my ankles to the top of my head. My skills outgrew my stock tires and I’ve moved on to Maxxis High Rollers. I jabber about berms, booters and drops as if anyone knows what I’m talking about. And I’ve found a gland in my head that dribbles happy juice every time I peg top end on an open stretch of access road. I’ve even bottomed out both of my 6-inch shocks so hard they went “bang” when I compressed into a gully. And though I haven’t had a 50 mph ragdoll event, I’ve fallen off my bike more times in those five days of gravity-assisted thrill seeking than I have in the last ten years of trail riding. I think I’ve found a challenge.
Yeah, I know. People look at me and think, “Well, he’s gotten so fat. No wonder he doesn’t want to ride up the hill anymore.” Fact is (to steal an overused device from a colleague), there are no more fat people on downhill bikes than there are on cross-country rigs. It’s, as usual, pretty much just me and Dr. Dizzle representing for the plus-sized off-roaders. I find a four- or five-run day of downhilling is as exhausting as a four-hour trail ride. And I’m sore for many more days after downhilling. It’s not the crashing. It’s all the standing on the pedals. Well, standing while the earth gets shoved up at you many times per minute. That’s what if feels like, at least. It’s beyond isometrics and full on into plyometrics. Sorry. I jargoned. Exercises such as leaping off of picnic tables onto the ground qualify as plyometrics. The flexed muscle is forced through a range of motion while the muscle serves to decelerate the force. Translation: If I ride on Sunday, I can’t walk downstairs with both legs until Wednesday. And I’m still prone to making espresso machine noises as I descend.
So I’m looking at eight- and nine-inch travel bikes with lust, but probably won’t go that far. I’ll probably top out, equipment-wise, at three-inch tires, a full-face helmet and maybe a spine protector. My tailbone-padded shorts have paid for themselves as have my knee/shin and elbow/forearm guards. Either I’m going faster each time, or somebody’s moving the trees closer together. It’s amazing how fast 20 mph seems on singletrack in the woods. That’s where most of the body bashing occurs, although Daq, Brad and I had our inside feet down in a graveled flat-track right-hander last Monday (we closed out the Killington season that day) that had me wondering for a few moments whether we’d all make contact. I wasn’t worried. One of the advantages of greater mass in those situations is that I’m not the one who bounces off when we collide. That’d be you, Stringbean.
I’d also hoped to have some happy news for you about an amazing comeback I’m hoping is going to happen. After a lot of soul searching last summer (those damned Ancient History photos), I came to the conclusion that my friends are right and that I probably suffer from sleep apnea. Sure enough, I took and overnight test and learned that I wake up about 40 times per hour from my throat muscles relaxing enough to close my airway. I don’t wake up enough to notice–just enough to prevent me from getting to the deeper sleep stages. What’s that got to do with a comeback? Everything, my dear Watson and Crick. I’ve been putting on about three pounds a year for the last 15 years, which is almost exactly how long ago I quit drinking and a few other bad habits. It’s also about when we started having kids and I reached (if 70 is the top end) the beginning of middle age. I believe it’s when the apnea started to really kick in, judging from how I got booted out of the bunkhouse during the 24 Hours of Canaan by my teammates and I was the team mechanic—the guy washing and adjusting bikes at 3 in the morning.
Apnea starts as snoring. Gets louder, louder, LOUDER, then stops. I’ve heard reports that I can go nearly two minutes without breathing. Then there’s some gasping and the snoring recurs and the cycle repeats. The net result is I wake up tired every day. But I’m such a horse, that it’s taken me 15 years to get tired enough to realize that something’s wrong. I’m nodding off at my desk in the afternoon, want a nap after breakfast, snore myself awake at the movies, etc. Kinda funny, but not–especially when I nod out at the wheel now and again.
Now, hormonally, all kinds of bad juju is happening in my nightly suffocation fest. Cortisol is running rampant. Cortisol is great stuff when it’s released during exercise, but hampers recovery and boosts appetite if it doesn’t get gobbled up during recovery. Ever heard the phrase, “The Tour de France is won in bed?” It’s not about sexual prowess of roadies. It’s about human growth hormone released by the pituitary, but only when the body achieves deep sleep. More deep sleep, more recovery. I believe this is why the period I can train for any one event has shrunk over the years to about eight days. I don’t recover. Training, therefore, does not occur. What is the goal of training? Children? That’s correct: muscular adaptation. What causes adaptation? It’s the response to stimulus. Riding the bike is the stimulus. Training occurs the moment you swing your leg back over the seat and call it a day. I gave it a shot at the end of August and started road riding on a daily basis. I made it about eight days until I was just completely exhausted. I can’t recover from day to day with the way I sleep. And I haven’t even mentioned diabetes, hypertension and a few others that apnea helps foment.
Okay, some part of this is age. I turned 49 a couple of weeks ago. I understand that. But I have plenty of 49-year-old friends with as much zeal for the sport as me who aren’t 45 lbs. overweight and can still ride a good four-days-on/one-day-off schedule. I look at the guys in the 50+ road racing results and it’s the same guys I chased in the 70s and 80s. I can’t imagine they got that way be being hungry for most of their waking hours. My exhausted body is looking for energy anywhere it can get it.
So what’s the holdup? Why am I not on the Yellow Brick Road? I did what’s called a split study. I spent half the night having my apnea episodes monitored. Then Dale the tech woke me up, plugged me into a CPAP (an airhose that blows yer flaps open while allowing you to breath) and spent a couple of hours dialing in my ideal pressure. The next morning I woke up fresher than I can remember ever waking up in my life. It was truly amazing. It had taken two months from my initial exam to get into the sleep clinic. That was two weeks ago. It’ll be another week before the results are back from New Mexico (!) and my ear/nose/throat guy can then write me a prescription for the magic CPAP machine. Can I tell you how much I don’t look forward to going to bed every night right now? I dream about all sorts of struggles, waking up sweaty and out of breath. But I’m oh so veddy close. And I’m so glad they didn’t say, “Don’t hold your breath,” when I asked how long it would be until I could get this situation squared away.
That’s the long and short of it. I’m harboring thoughts of downhill racing next year. Hell, my father-in-law won the 65+ Natz at Mount Snow this year at age 73 on a hardtail bike that belongs in a museum, not on a race course. My racing age next year is 50. It could be a fun way to spend a few weekends next summer. I’m feeling hopeful.
And my son wanted to be famous, so he and his buddies came up with this swashbuckling adventure:
Here’s the URL, in case the embed isn’t working: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nc1I7hHFiOY
And last, but not least, I’ve been over to Keene Motorsports, speaking of midlife crises, to see my old road biking/mountain biking/cyclocrossing buddy Randy Martin about quenching this life-long motorcycle obsession with one of these:
The last time I had money down on a bike at Keene Motorsports was 25 years ago and everybody I told about it looked at me like I was already dead. Okay, I had some issues back then, thrills being among them. So now I’m nearly 50, married, have three kids and a career and I’m looking at a cruiser with no windscreen—not a crotch rocket (which have a government-issue upper limit of 186 mph, but rumor has it there are ways to beat that and get a full 200-just FYI)—upon which I intend to stylishly putt around the back roads to my various meetings and, if Mommy will let me, occasionally pick up my daughter from her New England Youth Theatre sessions so her friends can be impressed. I’ve survived 37 years of two-wheeled travel among the internal combusters. I think I’m ready to have a motor now, too.
Thanks for tuning in.