First, I will apologize for the lack of scientific-y looking diagrams and inspirational-y photos. I hope to add them one day when I figure out how. I’m not good at computers like I was in elementary school (with DOS and computers that needed floppies to boot up). Second, I want to talk about cornering on a road bike. I think this is equally valid advice for cornering on a mountain bike, but the visual cues are going to be different. Specifically, I want to talk about what advice is out there and what is not. I have something new to add. So, first of all, if you do a Web search for advice on how to get better at cornering, you will find two types of results.
Tips on what to actually, physically, do during the cornering process to maximize your exit speed and safety. (For example this great article by Coach Carl)
Tips on how to overcome your fear of the sensations of cornering and to learn the edge of your ability to lean and grip. (This article is one of the more complete of this second type)
The first type of advice is really great for people who need to understand the mechanics, or who like thinking about strategy. Coach Carl has a very old school attitude, but I like how he talks about the unexpected in turns. Sand in your line? Straighten the bike, roll through it, brake and reset for a slower, tighter exit. Fail to do this things and you will crash. It makes it very easy for those of us who are constantly second guessing ourselves to understand what to do. The second type of advice is also really good stuff. It assumes that your mental difficulties with turning are your fear of leaning the bike hard. There are practice exercises that are probably really great, though they have always been too much work for me to find a place to do them to actually try them. Rather than focus on riding particular lines, this type of advice focuses on pushing your boundaries in a safe environment where messing up doesn’t mean riding into cars or off the side of steep mountain descents. I am a big fan of this type of advice. What you won’t find is advice on what to do if that advice doesn’t work. Typical advice never works for me, so I always have to blaze my own path taking bits and pieces of what other people say. My experience with cornering when I started this particular path was
I would look at the exit of the turn, “or as far into the turn as I could see,” as the advice articles said to do, but would still end up heading straight for the outside edge of the corner on all but the slowest or the widest of turns.
I would lean the bike as much as I could, but it still would not turn as tightly as the people in front of me whose lines I was trying to mimic
I would relax my grip by opening my fingers around the brakes and bending my elbows, but my body would simply tense up in this new position instead of become loose like the advice said it should.
Partway through a turn, particularly a blind mountain descent where the exit of the corner is not visible until halfway through, I would panic, straighten the bike, slam the brakes, then readjust for another turn, effectively making every turn into two separate turns and killing my speed.
I still have no idea how much gravel/sand/roughage in a corner constitutes a hazard, so I brake for everything I see that isn’t pure smooth asphalt.
In the past weeks I have been focusing on slow speed cornering in the hopes that I could diagnose my difficulties and understand why the standard advice wasn’t working for me. First and foremost, my goal was smooth cornering instead of fast cornering. So the first thing I focused on was point #4 — making sure that each corner I took involved exactly one cornering maneuver, followed by a smooth lean, and widely arced follow through. I found that hairpins are the hardest to ride smoothly. This is probably because there is the greatest difference between entry and exit speed and the fact that you would have to spin your head around like an owl to see the exit before you start turning. So the line on a hairpin is extremely hard to pick. That said, it’s a great diagnostic tool. This is what I discovered.
Many people will advise an “outside-inside-outside” approach to cornering. What this means is that, suppose you are making a right turn, first you position yourself to the far left edge of the road. Doing this effectively broadens the turn for you. Then you aim for the “apex” of the turn, which will be on your right. The apex means the innermost point of the turn. By aiming for the apex, you maximize your turning angle. At this point you are almost done. You widened the physical area to turn and you narrowed the space you need to turn, so you should be able to follow through with maximal speed. The final step is to “eye the exit” and hold your line until you complete the turn and straighten your bike. This will bring you to the outside (left side in this example) of the corner again as you widen your turning area in the second half of the corner. Sounds easy, right? Here’s what most people miss, and I think they miss it because they are not mountain bikers. When a two wheeled vehicle turns it must, even imperceptibly, first swing outside (left) before entering the lean for the actual turn (right).
The physics behind a two wheeled turn go like this. When you are riding in a straight line, your weight is balanced evenly on both sides of your tire. If you want to turn right, you have to shift your weight onto the right side of center, which means you have to create contact between the rubber on the right of the centerline of your tires and the road. With your forward momentum, if you were to turn the handle bars to the right with all your strength, what would happen? You would go flying towards the pavement on your left side. A left turn is simply a controlled version of this action. Turning the handle bars to the right actually tips the bike onto its left side where the combination of friction and asymmetric road contact carry you through the turn. This was discovered several decades ago by scientists experimenting with a motorcycle that had handle bars that could not turn. They tried to turn the bike with weight shifting alone and it was not possible. The bars must turn, and they must turn to the outside of your desired direction in order to corner the bike.
You can see, even in Coach Carl’s very scientific explanation of the turning physics of a bicycle, the typical omission of the moment of initiating the turn. What many roadies think of a right turn is actually a controled leap from your left side to your right side! I say roadies think this because they are not accustomed to separating their center of gravity from the bicycle in the way that mountain bikers are. A mountain biker understands that in order to use a bank to maximize their cornering speed they must swing the bike into the turn, then up the bank, then back down the bank along the line of their chosen exit. A mountain biker making a banked corner is actually turning three times, not one. Furthermore, thanks to the banked surface, a mountain biker can literally throw the bike around harder than a roadie because the bank enables more traction at higher speeds. So, the first thing that I learned about cornering that none of the road biking advice could tell me is that there is always a moment at the point of entry to the turn where you are literally weightless on your bike as you throw yourself into the turn. Immediately after you cut the bars outside and shift your weight inside, you will actually have to land this minute leap.
The spooky part of cornering at high speeds is that the faster the speed, the shorter the amount of time you have to make this incredibly precise adjustment, and consequently the harder your landing from this leap is going to be. Moreover, the tighter the turn, the more you have to lean. So in a very tight high speed corner, you are not gradually leaning the bike into the turn, continuously able to adjust your weight to maintain traction, you are leaping sideways on your bike and landing with your wheels aslant of the road surface at great force. Do it wrong and you land with your shoulders instead of your rubber.
Let’s take a moment now and appreciate this discovery. Cornering on a road bike is fucking spooky.
With this understanding in hand, I was able to unravel some of my difficulties in turning smoothly. First, let’s go back to the standard advice: Brake before you enter the turn to shave off enough speed that you can control your line and exit quickly. When you brake, your body shifts forward on the bike. That’s because you stop the bike, but you don’t stop your body. You end up with a lot of weight on the handle bars and a very heavy feeling in your arms. A leap is a very light feeling. The heaviness of the braking must end before entering the turn. There is a non negligible interval of time and space necessary between the end of your braking activity and the beginning of your turning activity in order to maintain maximimum control and friction. In this interval you have to shift your weight back, taking it off your handlebars and your front wheel, so that you can regain the looseness necessary in your arms to read the road conditions and steer the bike, as well as redistribute your body weight evenly on your tires maintaining maximal friction. If you don’t do this, then your front wheel will bear too much weight and slight imperfections in the road surface will have a magnified effect on your trajectory and you could lose control.
Cornering tip #1: If you can’t figure out why your cornering still sucks so much, try separating the corner into the act of braking, followed by a quick inhale, followed by the act of entering the turn. Exhale as you start to lean into the turn to help you relax and take the edge off the spook.
I find that the image of leaping into a turn is also very helpful for me in maintaining traction and a sense of control over the bike. If you have ever tried to catch air on your bike, you can definitely feel the difference between a smooth landing and a piece of crap landing. When you don’t land properly, the entire bike rattles and your own skeleton gets jarred in the process. I usually feel a bad landing in my wrists and my neck. But a smooth landing feels like the ground is coming up slowly to meet you rather than you coming crashing back down onto it. The leaping sensation of a good turn is similar. There is the moment of weightlessness, followed by a smooth reconnection between yourself and the road surface. If you listen to your bike you can actually hear your tires spin momentarily faster as you head into the turn. This is the same sound they make when you come down off a jump on a dirt or a downhill course. Looking back at the suggested lines for a 90º turn, you can see that they are a smooth transition from straight into turned. There is no suggestion of the moment of initiating the turn. I think the reason why I was unable to follow others despite attempting to place my bike in their exact line was that without being aware of the moment of initiation, I was trying to directly lean the bike into the turn along a line with only one curve in it, like above. This was putting an upper bound on my ability to lean because I was not giving my body the time to shift its weight inside, and my wheels the time to tilt over onto their inner rubber edge.
Cornering tip #2: If you find that you repeatedly go wide in a turn, despite leaning the bike as much as you can, try exaggerating the entry maneuver so that your line looks more line a ç than a smooth arc. The more you swing out on the entry of the turn, the more time you create between the leap and the landing to shift your weight and lean the bike. Do this at slow speeds first in order to become aware of each of the different motions that go into turning
As a final comment on cornering, I want to iterate my discovery in a previous post on where to look during a turn. The “apex” of a turn is the innermost point, as if the road was bending on a hinge and that hinge is the apex. The problem with all the advice I heard that says to look at the apex is, which side of the road is it on? I found it is more helpful for me to look at the inside edge of my lane than it is to look at this imaginary apex point. Similarly, advice to “eye the exit” has proved unhelpful to me. Both focal points, the exit and the apex, encouraged me to look too close to where my bike actually was, and not close enough to where I wanted it to go. For example, when I tried to look at the exit, I would look at the point where the road is officially not in a corner anymore and is objectively going straight again in the new direction. As my friend Gary explained to me, when you fix your eyes on that point, it looks like it’s coming at you really really fast. On the other hand, if you look up the road, even into the straight bit, your perception of your speed diminishes.
For a spooky rider like myself who tenses up very easily, I found the following imagery to be much more helpful than “apex” and “exit” in choosing where to look and how to judge if my chosen line was going to successfully bring me through a curve. First, when braking, I look straight ahead at the point that I want to initiate my turn. This is past the point where I will release my brakes. In the moment between my brake and my turn, I switch instantly into “look at the corner” mode. I sweep the corner to get a general idea of where I’m going to aim for. Then I turn the bike and lean, fixing my whole body into the position I plan to hold for the duration of the curve. When I am leaning the bike, to the best of my ability, I look in the direction of the point where I plan my turn to complete, but I don’t look at anything in particular. Instead, I allow my focus to widen and blur a little bit, leaving the corner of my vision to trace the inner edge of my turn, while the rest scans the road and the outer edge of the turn to make sure I’m not heading into disaster. What I never do (on a good day) is look directly at the outside edge of my turn or anything I am trying not to ride into. I find that with practice I am able to sense these things without having to directly look at them. I also don’t pay any attention to the exit of my turn. I’m all about the entrance, the hold, and then the burst out the other side. I consider my turn exited when I feel ready to start pedaling again, or to set up for a second curve if there’s one of those.
Cornering tip #3: Pick your line and then trust it. Avoid the temptation to verify that you are not heading for the outside edge of your turning space, or into some road hazard, by looking at those things. Instead, relax your vision and keep your eyes pointed in the direction you ultimately want to go while spreading out your awareness to take in other important information as your ability to concentrate allows. Note that your bike and your eyes will not be pointed in the same direction until you finish turning.
These were my most recent discoveries about how my body and mind work during a corner. I’m still not very good at cornering, but I love the thrill of knowing I’m at my edge every time. I love feeling myself improve. And most importantly, even when I don’t improve, my inner monologue is always saying, “oh DARNIT! Just gonna have to ride more miles now!”
Happy cycling, happy cornering, and Happy Sickness.
There is a beast inside me. It is a wild, hungry, raging creature born and moulded from the raw energy that composes and binds the universe. Its breath is fire and it howls in the night, stomping, pacing, smoldering within its bounds. It is freedom that it craves and the cage that has contained it these last twenty years is beginning to rust.
It has been barely a week since I rode the Sado Long. Cautious at first, concerned primarily with successfully completing the task of riding 210 kilometers, I eventually found myself alone, just me, the road, and the Beast. I remember the very moment that we locked eyes. I was on a medium length ascent, probably around 6-8% grade and all the men around me were aching and dragging their way up what was in all honesty a moderate climb at best. The part of me that makes most of my life decisions, the cool, rational, respectable side of me, was exhausted. I had nothing left — no reason to believe that I could do any more than crawl my way up the slope with the rest of the men on the road. It was then that the beast spoke to me. I am you. I am in you and I rage. I am not dead yet. You are not done yet. Together, we will fly. I spoke its words aloud, “I am not done yet!” and even as I uttered them I felt the fire fill my body as the beast took over my consciousness.
It has been barely a week since I released the Beast. I can feel it in my muscles, under my skin, seething, flowing, burning. On my bike, on that road, surrounded by humans but completely alone, when it was just me and the beast, I was seduced. I did not think about the consequences of my actions. I was vaguely aware that the speed with which it drove me might not be sustainable over the distance. I was somewhat concerned that the raw energy, the ikioi of the Beast, was more than my weak body was able to manage and that I would find myself broken and lifeless, perhaps in a hunger lock as the Japanese say, somewhere on the side of the road a few kilometers up. I did not consider the possibility that the Beast might not quietly return to its cage when my body was physically exhausted. Indeed this was the far greater risk in releasing it than any damage I could have done to my physical self that day.
It has been barely a week since the Beast and I have begun to cohabit this same body together. Already I can feel it cracking my boundaries and bleeding out into the outside world. Yesterday I woke up and saw my image flash in the mirror as I sat up out of bed. My hair is ringed in flaming pink like a crown of other worldly fire on my head. Of course I’m the one who put it there, but I didn’t consider the consequence of my actions as I bleached out my normal color and painted in the shining, flourescent dye. I had to go to work that day and meet with my students. No time to cover it up or tame it down. No time to pretend that I was not a professor of economics at a prestigious university who was sporting flaming hot pink hair. Fear took over me then. What would my colleagues think? Would I be criticized? Would they tell me to put it away? To lock it up again? Would this one small act of coloring my hair spell the end of my contract, the end of my precious work visa and my access to Paradise? I had no time to think on these matters, only prepare myself to accept the consequences in whatever form they appeared.
I have been chasing a Dream for something around three years now. Every time I check in, the dream has shifted form. Where once the dream was to run away from the world and live in the mountains, it was then to bring the world with me into the mountains to share with them the paradise I learned how to access. Today, my dream has shifted yet again. I want freedom. I want to live in harmony with the Beast. I know now that the Beast is my life force. These years, decades almost, that I have been living in pain, feeling chained by the weight of responsibility and rejected by society, I thought they were spent in mental sickness. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with chronic depression. I was not depressed. I was starving. I was suffocating. The Beast in me had taken with it all my will to live and I had locked it up in an iron cage and naively hoped that with time it would become tame. The Adults around me told me that taming the beast was my God given responsibility as a human being on this earth. They told me that to successfully tame the beast would be to achieve everlasting life. They lied. To tame the Beast is to have everlasting death; to die, every day, over and over, slowly and painfully. To lock up the Beast is to stand on the edge of a mountain, looking over the valley and hearing the rushing stream of snowmelt below, feeling the warm sun on your skin and the gentle breeze that washes the clouds across the sky, and to be unmoved by it.
It has been barely a week since I released the Beast and I am scared. The power of this creature is overwhelming, but it is also uncontainable. I cannot control the beast any more than a sea wall can hope to control the weight of the ocean. To lock it up again would surely kill me. I have been in the black chasm that is the Beast’s prison and I will never go back there. However to allow it to rage free across the canvas of my life is to reign chaos down on everything that I know. I could lose my job, lose my home, become separated from the people I love, and the only family I know. I like to believe that I am strong. I like to believe that I am intelligent and that no matter what happens that I will find a way to survive. But I don’t just want to survive. I want to Live. I want freedom.
Last week I reserved an Avail Advanced 3 carbon frame road bike by Liv. It’s one of their newly redesigned 2015 models engineered with a combination of Giant’s frame building technology and a detailed understanding of the unique biomechanics of the female body. Unlike a men’s frame, the Liv is built to be more stable with less upper body input. The geometry is also supposed to incorporate the shorter top tubes required by a leggier build along with the required clearance of tire and pedal that can be complicated by a naive application of male geometry to female frames.
The Avail does not disappoint! This bike was smooth and clean to ride, and she practically turns herself. In fact, on slower tighter corners I had to be careful not to actively turn the handle bars or else she would almost flip inside herself. It was as if the bike knew where I wanted to go and just went there without any input from me. In reality, I think my experience was the intended change in handling where the bike is designed to be driven more with the hips. It worked out really well and I love her handling.
The tiagra components were surprisingly smooth, to. I had tiagra on my 2012 TCX 2 and they drove me nuts. They never wanted to shift into the outer ring and often would jump the chain. I upgraded to ultegra crank, shifters and derailleurs as soon as I had the chance. With the Avail and the road crankset I had no complaints. The shifting was heavier than my cyclocross ultegra, but still crisp and clean.
My only complaint with the Avail is that the disk brakes are awful! I am primarily a mountain rider and am quite accustomed to disks, but these simply refused to stop the bike. On a decently windy descent my hands were actually screaming from the effort of clamping down on the brake levers to try and slow myself enough to enter each turn properly. At first I was able to release the brakes between curves, but by the last third of the descent I was riding the brakes almost continuously because I simply did not trust them to take off enough speed for a sharp turn. Even of flat ground, fully slamming the brakes shut will not stop the wheels (no jacknifes on this bike), but only grind them to a very mushy halt.
The Avail was the first carbon road bike I’ve ever ridden. I took her with me to the Sado 210km long ride and despite her not being remarkably lighter than my baby Pikuro (aluminum all the way), the stiffness and the dampening of the carbon on the road made for a very comfortable ride. Even on my shorter commute to work I can feel the difference in my body and the extra energy it saves from not having to absorb the road vibrations myself.
Over all I highly recommend this bike. For the price (something around $1500?) it is an absolute steal. For a woman, it is unprecedented technology. Even the crappy brakes can probably get upgraded to something more snippy. All that said, though, it’s not the bike for me. Next I plan to test ride the Envy, baby sister to the sexy Propel aero road frame. Can’t wait!
As a side note I also tried a new saddle with the Avail. It’s Giant’s contact saddle with some technology I know nothing about. After 210 km on my Mantra, I just couldn’t sit the same seat anymore and I discovered something. My butt likes padding on a saddle! The Mantra is shaped really well to care for my clit, but not so well for my backside. I will be revisiting the Fisik chameleon and possibly looking into some other squooshier saddles in the near future. Wish me luck.
Just two days ago I completed a full circuit of Sado island in the Sea of Japan. Never having ridden a century, I went out for a 140 mile (210 kilometer) long ride with a bunch of people I barely know on an island I’ve never been to on a course I knew nothing about, and I destroyed it!
When our alarms went off at three o’clock in the morning I laid in bed for a moment waiting for the swirl in my brain to coalesce into conscious thought that could be turned into the willpower necessary to haul my exhausted body out of bed. Just as I was considering going back under for another doze, it dawned on me: Today is the day we ride 200 kilometers!
I jumped out of bed, giddy and a little bit mad with excitement and drummed on the pillows of the other girls. “Get up! Get up! We get to ride 200 kilometers today!” I was dressed in fifteen minutes, had my gear ready by thirty, and was downstairs a full twenty minutes ahead of schedule. The girls did not appreciate my enthusiasm.
We started riding at six am. At first I was hesistant to really push the pace. I didn’t know if I could finish the distance and I have little experience riding with others. I wasn’t sure how to navigate the packs of riders or how much effort was sustainable over the course. In fact, I was even a little scared because the girly-girls from the shop seemed to be in better condition than I was for the first 20-40 kilometers.
Little did I know, but my legs were only just getting started. After the second aid station came the Z-climb, a seven kilometer climb with grades of up to 10% that switched back and forth up the seaside mountain. Every one was talking it up like it was going to be this beast of a climb. So I started up in the middle of the pack, pedaling light in a low gear and focusing on conserving my strength. At one point I noticed one of the girls from the shop coming up behind me. She always says she’s bad at climbing and here she was gaining on my tail. Hell no, I said. I’m not going to get overtaken by some girly-girl who can’t own her own skills on a bike after all the work and sweat and tears I’ve been through. I got up out of the saddle and took off. That was the last I saw her all day.
One after another I gained on the others in the group until I reached the top of the climb. There were people stopped to take pictures of the gorgeouse view over the Japan sea. I thought about it for a moment, but then I realized I had more important matters to attend to: the descent. I looked around for some people to ride with and when I thought I had found a buddy I took off. Five minutes later he was nowhere to be seen. Ten minutes later I couldn’t recognize anybody around me. Twenty minutes later and I came up on the next aid station a full thirty minutes ahead of schedule. I thought there’s no way I’m this far ahead; I must have come upon one of the larger toilet stops instead of a rest area. I push on. I’m all alone and I start looking for packs to tail. We descend back to sea level and the wind is howling in our faces. I focus on staying close on the back of my chosen windbreaker. I’m starting to get hungry when I look up and see the sign for 90km. What?!? Where was the rest station? I passed it an hour ago and never noticed. I’m nearly forty minutes ahead of schedule at this point.
The lunch tent was at the 100 kilometer mark. They had a stretch area and a lot of rice and bananas. I ate. I drank some miso soup. I filled up my water bottle. There was no sign of my group so I decided to stretch out my legs before heading on. This was arguably the furthest I had ever gone and I was nervous. My legs were tight and sore and my left knee kept threatening to cramp. I decided to ride conservatively for the next 40 kilometers by picking packs that I knew I could follow and staying with them even on the descents. These were the most boring kilometers I’ve ever ridden in my life.
Between the 140 and the 160 mark I started getting impatient. I would follow one pack until another came up behind. Unless they were really blowing by I would pick up their tail and drop the pack I was in previously. This way I would bounce my way up the line of riders without ever having to ride in the full force of the wind. I thought this was going to be a great strategy until, after the next aid station, suddenly there were no more packs. I had apparently left them all behind. There were lone riders and pairs here and there, and I would tail them for a while only to be irritated with their sluggish pace. More and more the people ahead of me started squirming in their saddles, rotating their shoulders and thumping out knots in their legs. What, are you done already? What’s with this aching? You don’t get a fucking massage until you cross the finish line, you wankers! I couldn’t handle it. I needed to move. I looked around me and I said, “What, are you all finished? I’m not done yet. I’m not done by a long shot! Watch me burn you, mothafuckas!” And I took off.
My entire body started to smolder inside, and the contrast of the cool air on my skin gave me chills up and down my arms and legs. My eyes became fierce and the pain in my knee, shoulders, and poor, abused taint, disappeared completely from my consciousness. My legs started to churn. My wheels started to spin faster and my tires began making a low hum as they sped hard over the pavement. I started to drop people. One by one I burned them. I didn’t have time to wait for a pack and I headed out onto the flats alone. As the next hill came up I was sure the same people I just dropped were going to come riding up on my tail again. I kept expecting it, even as I got up out of the saddle and churned. Laboring, sweaty men, and the rare female rider disappeared past my peripheral. Plugging away in their lowest gear, they looked miserable. I had rings to spare. Cresting the next hill, I prepared myself for the crash. I’ve felt this surge of energy in a run before, but it never lasted more than a mile (or about ten minutes). The crash never came though. Descending the mountain I got even more enraged at the crowd of slugs around me. Are you seriously riding your brakes in the curves??? You’re going to kill me with your awful line selection and unpredictable speed. Move!
At 170 kilometers I was so cocky I was jumping manholes and storm drains in the road even on the climbs. I was hooting with excitement and openly taunting the riders as I passed them. I didn’t touch my brakes except on the windiest of backroad descents. I got to the Long Climb, another seven kilometer hill that was supposedly going to destroy me because it was at the 191 kilomter mark, and I was still dropping people like flies. Suddenlly, I recognized a jersey from my team! It turns out that the shop owner had broken off from the group hours ago and had been riding by himself. We chatted for a few kilometers before he, without warning, took off like a bat out of hell on a descent so curvy that I almost rode into a truck trying to keep up with him. He was obviously just dicking around and wasn’t even taking the ride seriously and yet it took me ten minutes in my highest gear to catch him. Together we dropped another two dozen riders and I was in utter and complete disbelief that my legs were not only holding out, but they seemed to be getting stronger with every stroke. I screamed with the exertion as I finally caught up to him at the last two kilometers of the ride.
Like a true gentleman, he let me cross the finish first. I fucking bunny hopped that shit! I couldn’t believe it was over already. I was so pumped and so thrilled, not just with the quality of the ride, but with the thrill and the rush of letting all my energy loose, throwing caution to the wind, shrieking and screaming both in voice and in body and truly letting the beast inside me rage free across the pavement.
It was an hour before the next people in our group caught up to us. I couldn’t wait for them as the evening sun was already starting to chill my body. I rode the ten kilometers up hill back to the hotel with the baby of their pro cycling team. He had finished in just over six hours while it took me ten and a half. For a girl, though, I gotta say that aint bad. We rode for about half an hour together and shared our stories from the event. When we got back to the hotel we met up with Thighs who had set a course record nearly five hours ago. The Baby beamed at him and told him how much I sounded like a true athlete, gushing over the adrenaline and the thrill of dropping other riders. The three of us rode out to a small wharf and watched the sun set. It was the perfect end to a perfect day — perfect except for the fact that not a single one of us felt like we had ridden enough!
For some reason I’ve been in pain all day. Lately, I’ve been noticing that the pain I experience on a regular basis has various different qualities to it. For example, when I get a massage I feel pain from being stretched, and pain from when my therapist manipulates muscles that haven’t been stimulated properly and have locked into place. I can differentiate these two types of pain from a third type of pain which is simply muscle soreness. When a muscle is sore from exertion and it gets pressed on, it kind of makes a sighing sound in my sensory perception, but when a muscle which is damaged from stress and has locked up, it doesn’t sigh so much as scream with the stimulation. It’s the difference between waking up to heavy rain and waking up to a foghorn.
Today’s pain, however, is unfortunately not of the physical kind. My heart has been in pain today. Like my muscles, my heart experiences different qualities of pain, too. There is the excruciating pain of loss; the soul crushing impotence of knowing that what was there before will never be again. Not so many months ago when I was holding Amber’s limp and feverish body in my arms, when it seemed like the doctor and I simply could not move fast enough to neutralize her rapidly shifting symptoms and I thought I would never see her play again, I experienced this type of pain. Sould crushing. That’s about what it is. You feel as if you will never have the strength to move again, as if the very seems of your body are being ripped apart from the inside.
There is purification in the pain of loss. In the moment, it is so extreme that you cannot comprehend ever passing through it. But, like all things, it does indeed pass and when your eyes clear on the other side of it, you feel purged. It is as if by reaching into the depths of sorrow and experiencing its emptiness, your body then opens up to the fulness of all that is and all that will become.
Unfortunately, today’s pain is not the pain of loss either. Today’s pain is the pain of numbness. I hate the numbness more than I hate loss or injury. There is no pain to me which is more unbearably maddening than the pain of numbness. You see, unlike my other experiences of pain, the numbness has no cause, no source, and no foreseeable end. Moreover, it never really comes to the surface and expresses itself. Rather, it seethes just below my skin. I can feel it in the back of my eyelids and behind my breastbone. It makes me want to pierce myself. Sometimes I think if I could only puncture my flesh that the pain would seep out along with my other fluids. Sometimes I think if I could only puncture my flesh that I could confuse my body into thinking that my pain was local, finite, focused.
Perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with the numbness is that it often takes me by surprise. It is very easy to think that perhaps I am just hungry, or perhaps I am just sleep deprived, or maybe it is the weather. But the numbness won’t go away with a nap or a snack. A beautiful day with crisp air and distant mountains peering out from a curtain of early morning mist will not wash the pain clean. It is only when I have tended to my every physical need, and yet the pain still lingers, that I recognize it for what it is.
Today I am in pain. My heart is being crushed inside my chest with a suffocating, nauseating numbness. I only wish I knew what to do to free myself from it.