Even if your training isn’t regulated with Swiss train precision, chances are you ride some base miles in the early season, do something approximating intervals in the spring and whenever the mood strikes you, really, really hard efforts once you start to feel fit, and recovery rides any time you can talk yourself (and your friends) into it. It’s a form of discipline that balances the enjoyment of riding against the desire to get fit without making it, well, work.
Any sort of periodized training plan, aside from being PRO, suggests an understanding of junk miles. Junk miles are the purgatory of the cycling world: Neither hard enough to be true training that will result in the coveted faster you … and not slow enough to allow you to gain any recovery at all. For most of us, the concept of junk miles was a little difficult to grasp at first. Worse yet, even when we thought we understood it, our bodies were usually slow to follow. I was lucky to have a friend who was a Cat. II to my Cat. Nothing.
“When I say easy, I mean easy,” he would say to me. My body understood “easy” the way a cat understands “heel.”
Ultimately, what we learn is that riding is a binary system. When you go hard, you go really hard, whether a three-minute interval, a full-on sprint or the half-hour climb. And when you go easy, it’s really easy. Frankly, it reminds me of a dog I had. When he was on he had the energy of a top-fuel dragster on Red Bull and anger. And when he was resting he slept the sleep of a bank vault, only with his tongue hanging out.
But there comes a point in the season when you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. Wins, upgrade points, epic rides, by late summer only the most dedicated riders still have unfinished business. The resulting mix is a once-a-year bouillabaisse of sustained fitness, great weather and waning motivation. So what is there to do?
Junk miles. Let’s hear it for going out and riding 80 percent with friends. Putting in an attack hard enough to send a message, but not so hard to leave you (or them) crippled for the rest of the afternoon. Let’s hear it for turning off the wattage meter, leaving the heart rate monitor at home and riding your priciest wheels after work. Going someplace pretty just for a change of scene.
Sometimes, pretty hard is just right.
We roadies are bonded. To be roadies, to emulate the PROs, to have a day where PRO Is Program Go! has come following education, supplication, surrender, even the odd humiliation. When on a ride, it’s easy to tell friend from Fred. There’s a difference, and it matters.
But unlike other bands of brothers, it’s difficult to pinpoint the rite of passage. Was it the first time we pulled on lycra? As if. Was it our first century? Probably not. Was it our first bonk? Not even close. What about the first time we slathered our legs with a smelly Belgian Knee Warmer? Maybe. What about when we started to look forward to the smell? Getting close.
Unlike Roman Catholicism’s confirmation, Judaism’s Bar Mitzvah or losing one’s virginity, there is no obvious rite of passage, no clear graduation into the ranks of riders accepted in the peloton. Yet we all had that epiphany. At some point we had been out enough that we were accepted. One day we were no longer alien and we no longer set off the xenophobe’s alarms. We had friends. The nervousness of having riders to left and right had passed and we could relax enough to have a conversation. Life inside the bubble ceased to be stressful and became a special treat, kinda like a secret stash of chocolate.
The trust we must earn from fellow members of the peloton is a special distinction. Fraternities wish they knew this brotherhood. At 35 mph every turn the group makes has the potential to go wrong the way freeway crashes do. The endgame can be fatal. I’ve spent years being an apologist for the standoffish ways of the pack, but the fact is, none of us wants to be on the wheel of a guy astride a Schwinn Varsity with tube socks pulled up to his knees. That’s not snobbery, that’s self-preservation.
Each act of the dedicated roadie is part of the system of PRO. We’ve done so many of these for so long, we’ve ceased to think about the rationale for each act. From the fact that sweat evaporates more quickly off shaved legs—keeping the cyclist cooler—to the knowledge that to be considerate of the rider behind, you pedal as you sit down, each act is part of the elaborate logic of the PROs. The guy who shows up in sneakers is telling you his education is incomplete. And the rider with a current helmet (cares about his brain), the armwarmers (the day may change), the shoe covers (an unhappy foot is a weak foot), the bare and glistening legs (no muscle fires like a warm muscle) is a wheel you can trust. He’s studied the magazines, has a series recording set for the Cyclysm, can tell you who won the Tour in ’88 and knows the Lance Feeling. He talks not of how fast he went, but of how he suffered.
We’re not cool. None of us are hip. We are, however, a brethren with a respect for each other paid each time we follow a wheel, each time we tell the story of another rider’s attack that sent us into debt. Suffering, in the end, is the thing that unites us, the grand equals sign that differentiates the accepted from the stranger. Suffering and surviving is our rite of passage.
One day over coffee a friend commented, “Bike friends aren’t real friends.” I disagreed, but kept my tongue at bay. The fact is I couldn’t disagree more strenuously; he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our bike friends know the sacrifices we’ve made just to keep up. They know the money we spend on equipment. They know the calories we must refuse, the skipped desserts, the recorked wines, the early mornings, the aching legs, the skinny jokes, the close calls with cars, and the unparalleled exhilaration of following a group of trusted friends down a twisty descent. Bike friends? They are the truest friends we have.
Suppose you owned and ran a massively successful and beloved sports-nutrition company. You live in Napa Valley where you can run and ride horses and bicycles through heaven itself in your free time. What else could you want?
That’s the funny thing about entrepreneurial sorts. For most of us, we know Clif Bar’s Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford as the people responsible for creating an energy bar that tastes like real food and for growing the company so that we can find their products as readily as Moon Pies when we’re in a 7-Eleven.
To be sure it took them both—Gary the visionary/mad scientist of the kitchen and Kit whose natural sales ability could disarm and cheer Dick Cheney. The potent combination they present is a recipe for success in any endeavor.
Those familiar with Clif’s long list of products are probably also aware of the number of organic and natural ingredients used in those products. Gary and Kit are clearly pleased to think that every time someone eats a Clif product it is a victory for sustainable farming practices and natural foods.
At their farm in Napa they raise horses, goats, turkeys and chickens in addition to a garden and grape vines they planted. To say Gary and Kit live close to the land is something of an understatement; they embody the Slow Food Movement in a way that most of us can only dream about.
To hear them tell the story, it sounds like a love for organic food and new business ventures are occupational hazards for the pair. Living in Napa has resulted in many friendships with people in the wine business. And because the wine business attracts successful entrepreneurs the way starlets attract paparazzi, the pair wondered what they might be able to bring to the table. For them, the real attraction was in the intersection point between good wine and sustainable farming. The challenge was on.
An introduction to winemaker Sarah Gott was the final ingredient needed for the new venture—Clif Bar Family Winery. Gott is known for her work with Joseph Phelps and the winery she started with her husband, Joel Gott Wines. For some years she has pursued making wines from grapes from organic or at least sustainably farmed vineyards.
Before meeting Gary and Kit for lunch, I’ll admit I struggled to get my head around the idea that the people responsible for go fast foods could also be the force behind a new winery. But they are charming, dedicated and passionate; even a short conversation reveals that. Listening to Kit talk about preparing dinner from ingredients in her garden made me feel I was missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.
She believes their drive to deal with farms that engage in sustainable techniques even if they aren’t certified organic can help those farms bridge that gap by encouraging them to complete the transition. Kit says that certified organic is less important than employing sustainable practices.
Gary spoke of how his love of wine grew as a result of cycling tours he did in Europe. After finishing a long day’s ride he would enjoy a leisurely dinner with a bottle of wine.
Clif Bar Family Winery has released four wines. As we tasted them over lunch Kit and Gary stressed that they weren’t interested in releasing another $100 bottle of Cab, but rather wines that represented a good value to be enjoyed by people who appreciate the experience of a good meal.
There are two wines titled The Climber, a red and a white. The white is a blend, mostly Sauvingnon Blanc with some Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Muscat that retails for $12.50. Its citrus and grapefruit flavors and crisp finish make it the perfect antidote to a hot afternoon. Think of it as lemonade for grownups. The Climber red is a wild blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Merlot. At $15 you’ll swear someone is getting gipped. It’s got the spice and bright fruit to stand up to any rich meal.
In lesser production are Gary’s Improv and kit’s killer cab. Gary’s Improv is mostly Zin with just a dash of Petite Sirah; it would be fun with hard cheeses, pizza or spicy sausage, but it’s best application may be at a dinner party when you want to make your guests say, “Wow!” And for those who want a great Cabernet to go with a NY Strip but don’t want the wine to cost 10 times what the meal cost, kit’s killer cab has the luxurious fruit and structure of a great Cab without having so much tannin that it will need to be laid down until electric cars are in common use. Gary’s Improv is $32 while kit’s killer cab goes for $35. It would be easy to pay twice as much for a lesser wine.
Kit and Gary have stories as rich and varied as Paul Newman’s and their drive to do good with their company while enriching the lives of their customers and living an enjoyable life is tragically rare. Given they run an impressive business, live a great life and seem to be having a positive impact on the planet, I wonder what sort of dreams you have when you can sleep that well.
Clif Bar Family Winery
Through cycling, I have come to know more of the world than I encountered through any other endeavor of my life. Cycling has given me an appreciation of both foreign cultures and languages. I’ve gained a greater appreciation of world history, of manufacturing processes, heck, even economics. It’s not an overstatement to say that cycling has given me the world.
One of the more unexpected pleasures cycling presented me is an appreciation of wine. I don’t claim that cycling made me appreciate wine; that would make for a rather idiotic suggestion. Rather, it was in my travels as a cyclist that I had my personal wine epiphany.
I’d had a Margaux and Napa Cabs but it wasn’t until I’d had the tiniest taste of the Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape during a trip to Provence that my brain said, “Hold the phones: We want more of that!”
Through wine I’ve gained a greater appreciation of land, climate and a fresh perspective on the change of seasons. It’s also a new take on real estate, to say nothing of the patience required to wait for the product to mature. Only a Richard Sachs customer has this kind of patience.
What I’ve noticed is that most of the places I like to ride, with the exception of the most mountainous terrain, also happen to be great for growing wine. Riding by the ordered rows of vineyards is peaceful and relaxing.
The intersection point between wine and cycling is, naturally, problematic. The monastic life of the competitive cyclist doesn’t mesh well with alcohol and wine drinking doesn’t tend to lead to spontaneous episodes of exercise. Balancing the two means I must watch how much I drink so that I can continue to ride well while wine reminds me I need to live a little.
It occurred to me one evening after a particularly difficult ride as I was enjoying a glass of a big fruit bomb that my taste in riding terrain and in wine bears something in common. I like roads and wines that are unpredictable, straightforward in their appeal, off the beaten path, on the flashy side and rather thrilling as they go down. In cycling, that means mountain roads with dramatic vistas and thrilling descents, and in wine I define it as big, fruit-driven wines, particularly Zinfandels.
I’m slower for drinking wine, there’s no doubt. I’m also poorer for it. Nonetheless, my life has been enriched by it as much as it has been enriched by cycling. It has taught me to take my time with meals, the value of slow food, and in a world being inexorably homogenized by big box retailers, bringing home a bottle of wine from my travels can be a way to bring home a real reminder of a place, an actual taste of the place itself. Long after my memory of the roads begin to fade, I can open that bottle to bring out the sun of a perfect day.