Shaving my legs? Didn't the whole metrosexual thing become passé when "Queer Eye" got pulled off the air?
Yet here I am, 38 years old, a married father of two nervously gripping my razor blade in the shower considering shaving my legs. This would be the proverbial point of no return; the transformation to cyclist would be complete. But before I go there, let me take you back to what brought me to this crossroads in my life.
I've got a confession to make. I've never been a big fan of cyclists. I always thought that they looked lame in their logoed-up spandex and goofy helmets. I also found many of them to preach about the rules of the road while simultaneously breaking those rules. I remember pointing at some guys who weren't exactly sporting a spandex-worthy body and joking to my wife, "Lance has really let himself go."
I never imagined that I would eventually be pulling on bib shorts, slapping on chamois crème and obsessing every single day about my weight and how I can get my bike's weight down to 15 pounds or less. Still, it makes perfect sense to anyone who knows me well. When I get into something, I never do it half way. That can be both a blessing and curse, especially when it means that I'll be wearing clothing that will showcase my male parts in public.
So how did I go from someone who mocked cyclists to a guy dying to get out on the bike for my next ride? I can pinpoint my transformation to cyclist to a specific day in April 2009. I asked my friends to join my family on a ride on a lazy Sunday. We'd go for a quick ride on a trail near our house and then have breakfast at a local bistro. I was towing my 50-pound daughter behind me and I was a lot faster than anyone else. I started to feel a thrill of competition that I hadn't felt in a long time. Granted that competition happened to be my wife and another married couple who didn't realize they were in a competition, but the awakening had begun. I realized I loved the freedom and speed of riding a bicycle. It was low impact, good exercise and you can go a lot farther on two wheels than on two feet.
I've always been someone who thrives on competition. I grew up playing soccer, basketball, baseball, football and hockey. Even if I wasn't in organized leagues in a sport, I was still playing at the local basketball court with my father, skating on ponds during the winter or playing mudball (football) in our backyard during rainy New England days in the fall. Even in my professional career, SB Nation has always been about competing with much larger media entities and trying to do things better. I've always thrived on actually doing sports as opposed to merely watching and competition always encourages me to push myself harder.
But when I tore the ACL in my left knee back in 1995, contact sports and merely running in general became a lot more unrealistic. I eventually got married, gave up a lot of the competitive weekend warrior stuff and settled into domestic life free of the potential for more injuries. But that Sunday as I pulled my ridiculously heavy bike with my 50-pound daughter latched behind up a 5 percent grade and dropped the group I was with, I felt reborn. Finally, I found something I could do again that wouldn't be as mundane as a trip to the gym and would keep me in great shape as I got older. I figured I could do this until I was 80 years old if I wanted.
As I've grown closer and closer to the magic age of 40, that's become important to me since my father died of a massive heart attack when he was only 47. I've felt like I needed something to grab onto that could help me stay healthy, have fun and also challenge my competitive side. Cycling was a natural choice in spite of the silly attire and yes, the apparent aversion to body hair.
Like I said earlier, once I decide to do something, I don't do it halfway. I immediately looked to my buddy Markos, who co-founded SB Nation with me, and he became my cycling Sherpa. I knew he had a deep love for cycling and I needed assistance on where to start. For so long I had poked fun at the guys with the lycra and spandex, but after going out in a tee shirt and shorts, I realized what cyclists were talking about when they complained about the wind drag that a loose tee shirt creates. Clearly I was doing something wrong as the lycra-clad gents would pass me on every ride. I began to look at bikes and found that this was quite an expensive and a bit intimidating new hobby I was taking up. Not only that but it seemed very insular. I used to say hi to everyone who passed by. I'd say 80 percent of the time I was completely ignored, usually by the guys in the spandex. I thought, wow, everything I thought about cyclists being a little dickish is true. Then I thought, maybe it's because I'm riding around on a cheap bike and have a tee shirt and shorts on, so maybe they just don't accept me as a part of their club. I wondered if a new bike would do the trick.
I saw bikes that cost between $10,000 and $12,000. What was in these bikes? Did they give you a massage while you rode? What could make a bicycle cost the same amount as a small car? I mean, it's a bike, that thing we all rode around on as kids that was our only mode of transportation and freedom. Turns out that thing called carbon is apparently a precious commodity because cyclists want the lightest ride possible. It helps them go faster. A lot faster.
Eventually I settled on something right around a third of the cost of those and I became really serious about getting out to ride. I realized just how tough climbing up a 12 percent grade is and instantly took to the joys of waking up early on a Saturday to climb up a hill going 5-to-6 mph only to go tearing down the other side at 45 mph. I remember buying my first bike jersey too that had "Specialized" emblazoned across the front. I felt like a NASCAR guy. I also felt like a huge poseur. I figured everyone out on the road would know it simply by looking at me and the laughing would commence. I also quickly found out that the really hard efforts on road bikes leave you out of breath and really unable to say "hello" to passing cyclists, so those dudes in lycra weren't really the dicks I thought they were. Either that, or I'd just become one of them.
Markos talked me into getting these devices called clipless pedals as well. These are pedals you essentially "lock" into by pushing down on them with cycling shoes. The advantage of using them is that it makes it possible for you to not only push down on the pedals, but also pull up so there is no wasted motion in your pedal stroke. The problem is that Markos didn't really teach me how to get out of the pedals so we're riding through downtown Berkeley with cars everywhere and we come to a stop light. I naturally tried to get my feet out of the pedals by pulling up and couldn't do so, therefore some lucky drivers got to see the pure comedy of me stopping and then slowly toppling over like a big, goofy spandex-clad redwood. It was my first experience with road rash, which is the reason cyclists shave their legs, not for the aerodynamic advantage which is the common belief. It's just much easier to clean out a wound if you don't have hair all caught up in the dried blood and stuck to the skin. I fell twice that day and another time when I went out on a ride later on my own. All the times were at stoplights with people in cars all around me, laughing it up. Thankfully, knocking on wood, I've yet to experience a full speed crash yet. I'm not really eager to experience that either. But all sports come with some inherent risk of injury built in. This was just another part of my life that was changing. And it wasn't the only thing.
My reading habits changed as well. My mailbox was suddenly full of cycling magazines and I couldn't get enough. A lot of my daydreams revolved around riding around on a $12,000 Pinarello Dogma. Markos had pestered me several years ago to go recruit the Podium Café blog and I thought, I guess cycling is big enough to warrant a blog. I figured why the hell not? Now I was reading PC every single morning as my second stop on the Internet superhighway, right behind Athletics Nation.
I also adjusted my diet and began eating things that I thought cyclists might eat. I ate Clif Bars as my breakfast. I cut out almost all the soda and ate tuna fish directly from the can as a source of protein. For the first time in my life, I began to worry about the strength of my core instead of my chest and arms. I wanted stronger legs but had to work around two knee surgeries (ACL first and then the Chris Webberesque microfracture surgery later).
I also began to realize how incredible Lance Armstrong really is. I mean, I know that there is a huge contingent of people who follow cycling who can't stand the whole Lance phenomenon. I get that it's brought a lot of noobs to the sport who will likely leave it once Lance hangs up his bike cleats again. I knew his whole story pretty well as I worked with some of Lance's people back in 2000 when I worked at Men's Health Magazine and Lance became a spokesperson for National Men's Health Week. I just didn't really get how incredible this guy was until I started riding. I quickly learned that cycling is the most humbling sport I've ever participated in. No matter how good you feel, there will always be something that will bring you back down a notch. You think you're hot stuff, cruising along at 22 mph on a flat surface and some overweight older dude will pass you. Or I'm climbing and hammering at the pedals to get to the top of a three-mile climb and here comes some 25-year-old kid who is thin as a rail and he casually passes me, still comfortably sitting in his saddle while I'm standing and pumping at my physical threshold, completely gassed.
So to see Armstrong not only survive cancer, but to become the winningest Tour de France rider in history is incredible. The TDF riders bike approximately 2,300 miles over 23 days every July. I personally believe it's the toughest professional sport around now that I've participated in cycling and experienced what it's like to simply ride 50 miles on a single trip. To do double and sometimes triple that amount over and over again in such a short time span, Armstrong might not be your favorite person, but he's the greatest athlete this generation will ever know not to mention a hell of a figure fighting for more funding for cancer research. I began wearing the Livestrong wristband perhaps a decade or so after it was en vogue to do so. I just like to be not-so-fashionably late every now and then.
I also began watching cycling events and really worked to understand the nuances of riding in a huge group (the peloton) and what it meant when a rider went for a breakaway. This year's Tour with Lance facing off against last year's winner and teammate Alberto Contador, should be epic. Versus and Universal Sports became my new favorite channels. The subtle nature of winning a bike race is something to behold because it's all about knowing when to push your body and trying to estimate if you'll have enough to make it to that finish line by yourself.
My DVR is now filled with things like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, things I'd never even heard of a year ago. I wear Garmin-Transitions Cycling Team tee shirts and Team Saxo Bank Cycling Team baseball caps. I've come to love Fabian Cancellara, Tyler Farrar and Andy Schleck, athletes I had no idea even existed about 14 months ago.
But see, that's the beauty of sport to me. It's always been about finding something riveting to watch, but also to get out there and do as well. Even if that means shaving your legs to fit in.
So are my legs as hairless as Dr. Evil's cat? Not yet. I haven't made the full commitment just yet. But I can tell you that as the Tour approaches, it's seeming more and more inevitable every day.