Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Back spasm, or: How to Age 30 Years in a Fraction of a Second

Bicycling is not complete exercise. It will tire you out. It will help you maintain healthy body weight and a good cardiovascular system, but it does not help build bone density the way weight-bearing exercise does, and it does not build core strength. It benefits from core strength, but does not build core muscles.

A rational bike commuter, riding fairly short distances, gains from the exercise and still has time left over to build the neglected areas. The higher the cycling mileage, the less time is left for other things. These things include supportive conditioning and earning a living.

During my peak riding years, I lived as a form of professional athlete. Working in a shop that sold bike and cross-country ski gear, held weekly rides and gave ski lessons, I was a better asset to the business if I was good at what we did. The pay was meager, but the lifestyle was generally physically beneficial.

Various things intrude on a stable distribution of time. Suffice to say that I eliminated one thing and another, leaving only bike commuting and some extra riding on either end of the height of commuting season. I try to remember to throw in enough stretching and core work to hold things together, but days may pass. At worst they turn into weeks, usually when I'm not getting out to do much of anything.

For the bike portion of my commutes right now, the old mountain bike with studded tires handles the icy areas well, but it feels like I'm in a hamster wheel half submerged in wet cement. I grind away dutifully on every possible day. Mornings I'm rushed. Evenings I'm tired. I feel okay. I don't stretch...

Sunday was a nice day, and the shop was closed. A wintry mix was supposed to move in for the next couple of days, so I zipped out for a tool on the fixed gear, around one of my favorite short rides, Huntress Bridge Road.
The low-angled sun creates a distinctive mood this time of year. It also provides interesting visual effects.
Back at home, I went right into items on the to do list with only a passing swipe at stretching, and no other support strength activities.

Monday dawned gray and raw, as advertised. Having set my mind to indoor pursuits, I sat down to write, moved to a different room, sat down to check emails. The cat got on my lap. I sat a while longer. My weekend is Monday and Tuesday, so it was nothing unusual. I poked around in the kitchen, did some laundry. Sat some more. Got under the cat again. Then I tried to get up.

My lower back seized up. I couldn't stand up straight. I could barely walk. I tried to shape myself into the stretches I knew I needed to do, but it was too late for instant relief. It was too late for any relief. I could only walk in a weird, bent-kneed crouch.

Suspecting the old psoas muscle, I focused on efforts to relax it. They showed some effect, but the knot was the most severe I'd had since I was introduced to the problem several years ago after an outburst of pain that literally dropped me to my knees. About 41 hours later, I'm still not fully functional. Just something simple like splitting a couple of logs for the wood stove becomes a strategic operation.

Back pain can be associated with all sorts of expensive and fatal conditions, as well. Even getting those assessed can be pricey, let alone getting anything treated. I'll take encouragement from the fact that mine is responding at all to my home care. These assurances may be false, but low income people in America have to choose between betting all their financial resources on the health care wheel of fortune or concluding their affairs and leaving whatever nugget they can for any family members they might have. Even concluding your affairs costs money.

Suddenly living in a world tightly confined by pain, you wonder if you'll ever be fully functional again. This is especially true when you become "a senior citizen." When I was in my 20s, I read something that seemed to indicate that we start to die as soon as physical growth stops. Age 30 was held up as the beginning of decrepitude. An active person over 40 was a great inspiration. Then you reach those ages and realize life goes on. Life does go on, as long as you are there to live it. But at a certain point the pains take longer to subside. You have to wear glasses. You have to watch what you eat. People around you start to drop off more frequently. You hear about other people's medical catastrophes, and maybe have some of your own.

Life is a negotiation. You review the terms constantly. What are you willing to accept? What can you enforce?

Work is going to be a challenge today. I can't lift much, and a careless step brings a slap of pain across the lower back. But work is where the money comes from. Things are improving, but I assume nothing. The instantaneous assault of the initial back spasm is just one of many examples of how you can go from high to low in one breath. Then you just have to keep breathing while you figure out what to do next. But that's really just life itself: keep breathing while you figure out what to do next.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Repair season closing?

The two big projects of the late season rolled out this week. First to go was the 1970s Raleigh Competition that got a complete overhaul.

When the owner picked it up I said, "You basically just bought the bike all over again, but in 1970-whatever dollars this would only be about $175." He's one of those people who don't show much emotion, so I don't know if he thought I was overpriced. I took time to go through every little touch, including having to fabricate small parts that are no longer available, and really truly overhauling every assembly, including pedal bearings. Complete means complete.

With the Raleigh out of the way, the stand was clear to move forward on the Long Haul Trucker build for a touring rider whose old Trek presented too many challenges for the newer components we wanted to put on it.

While I was buried in these bikes, skis have started piling up for services which require the bench to be degreased. Right now, half of the bench is degreased, which is awkward no matter which side you're on.

The quick and easy brake bleed on a customer's fat bike turned into the first move in warranty replacement of the brake levers of his SRAM Level TL brakes. They have the stuck pistons characteristic of a whole generation of SRAM brakes. To SRAM's credit, they do not hesitate to send out replacement parts.

The serial number of the brake is on the bottom of the caliper. You know, just about the least accessible place, exposed to the most obscuring crud.

I have no idea what prompted me to try sticking handlebar plugs behind my glasses, but I like the effect.

And now back to work!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A daily adventure

Nine degrees F this morning. The forecast high is 26. The ground is covered with a frozen white layer of the perfect thickness for the studded tires. I just have to make sure I dress properly for the chill now and the deeper freeze coming after sunset this afternoon.

Disclaimer: bike commuting is not for everyone. Some occupations require equipment too cumbersome for even a smokeless moped to haul around. Some people have to go too far in a day to make pedaling practical. That still leaves a lot of people who could do it but don't. It's okay. You don't have to. Life is hard enough in other ways. Don't believe me when I tell you that simply doing this one thing that seems hard can make other things feel less challenging.

Bike commuting over short distances can be much more efficient than using a motor vehicle. Even in some degree of adverse weather, the bike can make better time, and the rider can wear normal enough clothing to go right to the business of the day with little time in the transition area. As distances get longer, you will want to dress in clothing designed to make it less uncomfortable: cycling shorts, technical fabrics, closer-fitting tops, and riding shoes. You may work harder and sweat more over longer distances with headwinds or hills. It takes more commitment. You could also be called stubborn, obsessed, or thick-headed. You can hardly claim that it's more efficient and faster than driving when it gets longer than ten miles each way, unless you live in traffic hell.

I have pondered the lengthy preparations I go through at either end of a work day when the weather isn't mild enough to pull on shorts and a jersey and head right out. Even in shorts-and-a-jersey season, I change into work clothes at work and back into riding clothes to go home. It adds at most a couple of minutes, added to a few minutes more to load the bike. In cold weather, changing clothes adds a solid 15 minutes because of all the layers. This all has to be hung to dry on arrival and pulled back onto me to get ready to depart. On the days when I drive, I might put on some outerwear, and maybe change footwear, but all that goes over whatever I wore all day. On a fairly mild day, it's just a quick zip out to the waiting vehicle. If I got one of those remote start thingies, the car could already be idling. I wouldn't do that. But I could.

On the bike side, after all the dressing, departure is about as simple as throwing a leg over the bike and pushing off. So there's that.

Darkness comes early now. When I'm getting ready to head out into the frigid solitude of the bike path, I think about Jack London's protagonist in To Build a Fire. I'm just as happy not to see anyone else when I'm out there alone in the dark, but it does emphasize what an idiot I am to be out there at all. However, maybe I'm just intrepid. It isn't 75 degrees below zero. It's a temperature that Alaskans and northern Canadians would consider mild, even when it's in the single digits and glittering with frost.

Sometimes the adventure is wet. Hypothermia beckons in those conditions too. It's an extra level of bullshit that a motorist doesn't deal with. It all depends on how much you want to ride as opposed to taking the easy way out.

Obligate bike commuters, who do not have a car whether they want one or not, will have to ride in whatever conditions they get. Either that or walk, take public transportation, or hitch. I keep my own privilege in mind. But I'm also down there on the pay scale compared to the median average. I hate the median average, because it's a bullshit statistic, but it does indicate that a lot of people are managing to make too little money on a lot bigger income than mine. I don't just piss away the money I save by reducing automobile use. I do spend it on a decent diet -- which some consider a luxury -- and hope that a healthy lifestyle will help me avoid medical issues that I can't afford. We're all living on an edge we can't see. Money will only cover you so far. But the truly impoverished are really depending on the economic efficiency of human-powered transportation.

The more accustomed you are to getting yourself around and getting things done without help, the less it seems like a hardship. If you do it optionally, you'll be able to weather it a little better should it for some reason become a necessity. That was part of my rationale in bike commuting from the start. If civilization was going to fold, I would do well to be in shape before it happened rather than try to get in shape after it happened. And a modest, self-propelled lifestyle seemed like something closer to a sustainable global average than an energy-gobbling, resource-intensive one. If the debts of industrial society were suddenly going to be called in, I didn't want to be too heavily invested. That's even more true now.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Death Wish

A recent death has a lot of people around here thinking about how they want their own passing marked. Some have suggested that they'd like the survivors just to have a big party. Piece of cake! Just be a complete bastard. People will be dancing in the streets.

You get to a certain age and you start to consider mortality. That age will vary depending on your life experiences and many other factors, but sooner or later you think about it in more than merely theoretical terms. Or at least the theoretical scenarios are more fleshed out than just a sideways squint at the concept and a hasty look away.

I'm no fan of death, but we're stuck with it. A lot of our lives are spent trying to evade the risks associated with activities we enjoy, and retaining whatever degree of youth we can. It isn't just to be young as such. It's a practical matter. It's also a matter of pride to be able to do things and not make dumb mistakes that get you eliminated. On the other side of the equation, you might not want to hang around too long past your freshness date and end up some wizened husk, technically alive but incapable of living. On the third hand, maybe it's a weird, cool trip, being nothing but a wicked old brain on top of a body that no one expects anything from. It's a lot of work for other people, though, and I hate inconveniencing anyone unduly.

I hate funerals. I'm not even planning to be at my own. I'm hoping for the "missing, presumed dead" option. But maybe I'm secretly hoping that if I vanish from other people's perceptions so that they're not totally sure I'm irretrievably gone I will also sneak away from myself and just sort of vaporize, like dry ice. Hey, it's worth a try. As for the funeral itself, I'd prefer to save people the inconvenience. If anyone is around and wants to do something, it's on them. I can just imagine it.

"Join with us now as we try to make sense of the life of this aggravating schmuck."

Given the rise in pedestrian and cyclist deaths on the road, I have to wonder if my own healthy habits are going to kill me. I don't need statistics to make me think about the hazards of traveling without a shell among the armored vehicles. The statistics just underscore how little we matter.