Sunday, December 30, 2012

Spin Class

Less than five minutes in, we were red faced, dripping sweat and in pain. The room was dim, crowded and the music was pumping. My friend and I exchanged looks that said ‘How are we already in over our heads? We’re supposed to be bike racers!’ This was our first spin class experience.

The first part of my holidays was spent in Chicago with the family. As it typically is in December in Chicago, it was freezing cold and snowy for much of the time. Who wants to ride outside in that? So, instead of riding rollers alone in the kitchen, I decided to take up a former teammate’s offer and attend his spin class. Why not? There would be other people there, it was a workspace to go to to work out and it was something new and exciting to try.

I dragged a friend along to the morning class not knowing what to expect but figuring we’d fare well enough. After all, riding bikes is what we do. We found the spin room, took the two open bikes in the center of the room and class began. Within minutes our towels were soaked, we’d both taken off our base layers to try to cool off, and our legs were burning. Only fifty minutes to go! It felt like I was racing a pro crit, not at a gym with people riding in yoga pants.

We both survived the class, although it seemed like by the skin of our teeth, and lived to tell the tale. One thing that I took away from the class was the reminder of how great cycling is. It’s a lifetime sport and is all-inclusive. Nobody is turned away at the door. This class had people of all walks of life- high school aged to grandmothers; muscle bound men wearing lycra and sleeveless jerseys to people who looked like yoga instructors who danced on the pedals; parents with their kids.  Cycling is a sport for everyone. It’s a sport that you can approach as seriously or as relaxed as you like- what you put in is equal to what you get out of it. You see it on the roads on the weekends- the race paced group rides and the weekend warriors. They are two very different groups of people with different attitudes towards and about the same thing, yet both groups love it equally. My friend and I fall into the group who approach it as a competitive venture- it’s a competition to be the best in the world, and the best that we can personally be. For others it’s more social, or maybe a way to see their neighborhood differently, or a way to live a healthier lifestyle.

Looking around the room when class was over, seeing the grandmother, the guy in the pro team’s jersey, the teenagers, and the businessmen, they all came from different places, looked different and returned to different lives. Despite these differences, they all had one thing in common- they all left with a smile on their face and a love of a wonderful sport. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Best Gift

For some people, an ideal holiday might resemble a Thomas Kinkade painting and whatever the people who lived in said painting would do over the holidays. The holidays are a time for family to get together, to share memories and create new ones, get dressed up and eat a fancy dinner, and give thanks for the wonderful people and things in your life. Maybe you even a few needed items or fun gifts. A holiday that includes all of these things is usually marked as a pretty good one. When you’re a kid, Christmas is obviously about presents.

When I was seven I got the best Christmas gift I could’ve asked for- besides a dog. It came a few days early and it included a free pass to wear the clothes, eat the food, and play the games I wanted. It meant I could skip church and didn’t have to sit and visit politely with family. I got to stay home and play by myself. What was this gift, you’re asking? Chicken pox. Yes, the year I had chicken pox over Christmas turned out to be one of my favorites.

Like many American mothers, mine wanted that idyllic holiday look for the family. Ruffled dresses, tights, hair barrettes and cutesy patent leather shoes with little buckles were all part of my typical holiday attire. It was miserable and awful and I would’ve rather eaten slugs. So, when the great chicken pock-alypse of 1995 struck, it was, well, better than Christmas. I seized the opportunity and expressed my list of demands- I would soak in the bathtub for as long as I pleased, there would be no ruffles or tights, they would be substituted for the cowboy boots and Barney sweat suit I loved so dearly, rather than visit with family I would sit quietly by myself in my room and play with the toy pirate ship we had- withOUT supervision. No family member was to pinch my face or tousle my hair and I could eat kid food that I wanted instead of the gross (in actuality, fancy and delicious) grown-up food my mother slaved over the stove for days to make. (Yes, I was kind of an a-hole kid.) The holiday came and went just like the chicken pox and I returned to school with stories of conquering the first grade plague and receiving the best gift of all.

Not everybody’s holiday will be like a Kinkade painting and some could be genuinely crummy but what’s important is to make the best of what you have and live in the moment! Who knows, it could end up being your favorite memory.

What are some of your favorite holiday memories? What was your best gift? How about worst gift? Disaster stories? Success stories? Share them!

Some of my preferred attire- cowboy boots, vest.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fear is Imaginary

A recently watched movie preview had dialogue that stuck with me. The main character was telling his son to not be afraid because fear isn’t real. Fear is concocted in our heads from our own ideas- like an imaginary friend. Danger and risk are certainly real but fear is not. It is an idea that stuck with me through the entirety of The Hobbit. It’s an idea that can be applied to bike races in addition to real life.

Do you get nervous or scared while riding or racing? I do. I am aware of the inherent danger in what I’m doing. You’d be insane to never get even a little nervous doing this. Descending quickly on wet roads, railing an off camber corner in a crit on a solo break, and riding in traffic are dangerous things. I do them anyway and I know you do too. Why? Because there is some level of faith or belief in our abilities. Shoot, walking out the front door can be a dangerous thing but we get up every day, go to work or school and carry on with our lives. We don’t always think about the risks- there’s no time!

Danger is a very real thing and we do need to weigh the options- look at risk versus reward. What happens if I fail? Sometimes it means not making it to the break and finishing in the pack, sometimes it means dying, other times it means needing to move back in with Mom after quitting your job to try being a musician. A lot of the time, pushing the limits is fun and it’s part of why I enjoy racing. Often times it means walking a very thin line between getting that adrenaline rush and crashing into a ravine. Is it worth it? To me, usually, yes. Pushing the limits is how you find out where they are. You learn how hard you can corner on your race wheels versus your training wheels or at a given tire pressure and you very quickly learn how hard you can’t. After that you can consider your fear conquered because you know where the limit is.

Now, by no means am I endorsing reckless or stupid behavior. What I’m trying to say is that it may be time to think about what’s important and calculating your options. What scares you on the bike? How about in every day life? Riding in a group or in traffic? The dark? What about spiders? Tin foil? Why do these things scare you? What’s the worst that could happen? Like learning to corner or descend, start out slow and then do it faster and faster until you reach your limit and conquer your ‘fear’. After all, they’re not really there.

Do you have any topic suggestions? Post them below, on twitter (@gretaneimanas) or on Facebook (/Neimanation). Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Four Days in a Car

Last week, I moved from southern California to Asheville, NC. And yes I drove all 2500 miles- four days- by myself- well, with the company of a poinsettia plant- pulling a trailer. I confidently call myself a seasoned road tripper and driver but that’s a long f’ing way to drive alone and there’s no other way to put it.

The first day’s drive was actually pretty easy- San Diego to Tucson- a drive I’ve done many times before. Like any good solo road tripper, my iPod is loaded with music and good sing-a-longs*. By the time I arrived in Tucson I was hoarse and sounded more gravelly than usual- a good start to any road trip.
Dateland, AZ

Day two started with a big goal- Tucson to San Antonio in one day. After a quick dinner and a coke I caught my second wind at 7pm and drove till midnight. I made it just about to Houston for 990 miles and 17+ hours on the day. This is one of the dumber things I’ve decided to do. It was miserable between hours 8 and 11. After that though it’s like breaking through a wall; you’re so cracked that most anything sounds like a good idea since your thoughts and actions are fueled by caffeine and adrenaline. When checking into a hotel after 18 hours in car, hotel staff looks at you with expressions saying She looks like she just came off a three day bender in Vegas or Lost another one to meth. That makes you ugly.
New Mexico and west Texas look very similar.

Day three was highlighted by lunch with a friend in New Orleans and day four was highlighted by finally arriving in Asheville. Despite sitting for four days, I was exhausted. I wanted to do nothing but shower, stretch and lay down.

If you think you have some serious, weird or funky conversations while riding a bike, try sitting in a car for 7-17 hours a day and see what you get. Here are some of my thoughts, observations and experiences from the drive:

-Arizona is where people west of the Mississippi go to die. Based off their driving patterns, they often die while driving. Pretty sunsets and sunrises though.

-At 7:30am on day two, an appropriate time to have a coke, I chipped the enamel off my tooth. What was I doing? Holding the can in my teeth while adjusting the coozie it was in. I was that kid that had braces in middle school and elementary school and junior high. After that, I’ve grown attached to my teeth. Immediately, I imagined the coke leeching its way into my tooth and leaving me with a brown tooth of shame. This led to emergency stop to brush teeth. So far, no brown tooth of shame.

-Texas is ridiculously big. It took over 560 miles of driving through the state to see a giant Texas flag.

Louisiana is very wet.
-Louisiana is very wet. I drove over water for hours.
My trusty travel companion

-While watering my companion plant, I poured water all over floor- while driving, of course- thank the universe for utility interiors!

-Sections of Texas have stretches of 100+ miles with absolutely nothing. No rest stops, no gas stations, and as far as I could tell no people or towns. Only nothing, more nothing and then after that, a little bit more nothing.

-Texas is ridiculously big.

I’m getting settled in Asheville now and am looking forward to this new adventure and the next chapter in my life.

*A good sing-a-long is not necessarily a good song. Rather, it’s one to belt out the lyrics- or what you thing are or should be the lyrics since you’re the one singing it.

The Equipment Question

Cycling is an equipment intensive sport. It’s fun to have all the geeky bells and whistles and show them off to your friends on the group rides. If you’ve been good, maybe the new wheels you’ve been wanting will appear under the Festivus pole. If not, go support your local bike shop. Everyone tweaks their equipment somehow to make it fit their needs whether it’s the position of their hoods on the drops or running brakes loose. Just like you, my bike is set up for my needs. Sure there’s that whole one-handed thing so maybe my bikes are more customized than other people’s. More than any other question, people ask me “How do you shift and brake?” Here’s some of the technical stuff to answer that question.

“Do you shift? You must only use one brake, then.” Sometimes, I want to answer “No, I ride a single speed and power slide every turn” to see the look on people’s faces. Yes, I shift, and no, I use two brakes. (For the purpose of this column, I’ll focus only on my adaptations not any other type of para-cycling equipment.) I have all of the shifting and braking set up on the right side of my bars. This type of modification is the most common adaptation in para-cycling. The front derailer is operated by a TT shifter plugged into the drop on standard road bars. I do, in fact, operate both brakes and it’s not on a hope and a prayer. A BMX part called a cable splitter allows me to run two brake cables to a single lever.  That’s it. A lot of the time people don’t notice that my bike is any different. (The only modification to my TT bike is the brake splitter. The shifters on aerobars are close enough to use them normally.)

My riding hand (the fake one) was designed on a napkin and made by a friend, in his workshop, out of some pieces of scrap metal. It’s simple, reliable and lightweight. All I have to do is unscrew the hook on my everyday arm and screw in the riding hand. Boom, ready to rock. The C shaped design of the hand allows me to move quickly from the hoods to the drops or the tops of the bar; it doesn’t lock in or attach to the bars in any way. Prosthetics are custom designed for each individual and are often made of carbon fiber. They’re lightweight and pretty durable although there is lasting evidence of crashes on the elbows of some of my old arms.

This is the only way I’ve ever ridden a bike so it’s difficult to say how different it is from a run of the mill setup. I speculate that riding with a prosthetic would be similar to holding a stick in your hand and controlling your bike with that- you can feel what’s going on but it’s obviously not a real hand. Bike handling skills and drills are things that I try to work on regularly and I encourage everyone to do the same.

So, there you have it. Hopefully this answers the equipment question for you. Don’t be shy, ask any question you may have be it about equipment, training, racing, traveling or real life- nothing is off limits! Thanks for reading.

Bar end shifter

Brake splitter

A view from the cockpit.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Favorite Sports Moment

In the spirit of the holiday, and the obligatory “What are you most thankful for?” questions, someone recently asked me what sports moment I was most grateful for this year. This moment was not only the highlight of my season but athletic career; it wasn’t during competition or even on the bike. London was my second Paralympic Games and second march into the stadium. Despite having been to “The Show” before, I was not prepared in the slightest for what happened in the London stadium.

The parade of nations is one of the most breathtaking events an athlete can be part of. Not only are there 80,000 people in a stadium watching you, there are fireworks going off, laser light shows, music blasting, dancers, and hundreds of cameras and broadcast lights all over. There is so much sensory stimulation you don’t know what to do. While all of this is going on, it hits you- you’re at the Games! Everything you’ve done in the past four, six, even ten years has led to that moment, to stepping through the palpable wave of emotion and noise into the stadium.

The moment when you walk into the stadium with your best friends- your teammates who are more family than anything- the people you’ve cried tears of pain, sadness and joy with, that you’ve shared successes and failures with, that you’ve experienced some of the best moments of your life with, is when you realize that it’s all real. All of it is real, you’re not dreaming and you’ve made it. You’ve all been through the wringer to make the team and you’re finally there. It’s a whirlwind of emotions to start with and then, and then add on what’s about to happen next.

Walking through the stadium, we spotted a giant, American flag hanging over the second balcony. We waved to the people and then looked closer. The people standing behind the flag, waving madly back at us, were wearing very distinctive USA clothes- an 18” stovepipe American flag hat, flag pants, flag shirts. It was one of my best friend’s family. I’m not a statistician by any means and even I know that the odds of finding loved ones in an ocean of people is nearly impossible. Tears welled up, knees felt as structurally sound as jelly and there was a lump in my throat the size of a baseball. I have chills writing about it now. We held up the line of athletes and didn’t care a single lick. Seeing his family flooded me with emotions and reminded me of all the sacrifices they and every athlete’s family made for their athlete to get to the Games. It’s as much hard work and sacrifice on their part as it is ours, often more.

Seeing his family
My family was unable to attend the Beijing games for financial reasons; it was less than a month after the death of my father. Their presence in London meant the world to me. Without seeing them in the stadium, I could feel that they were there with us.

The day after the ceremony, I talked to my family who was in the stadium, only to learn that we looked and waved directly to them too without realizing it. (Between tears, a perma-grin, and the lights we couldn’t make out their faces.) Had I known it was them, I would’ve been a complete mess. It was a group effort getting to the Games and I wouldn’t have been there without them.

Marching through
After that night in the stadium, I knew whatever happened at the Games was what it was and I could go home happy. Sharing such a powerful moment with people who have played enormous roles in our journey to the Games is something I will cherish forever.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Not Such an Airport Ninja After All

One of the many perks of being a cyclist is the travel. Thus far, in 2012 alone, I stayed in 26 separate hotels, raced in five countries (with a sixth trip back to one of them) not to mention driving who knows how many miles in the car. The passport pages are covered in stamps from years of being in the sport and ‘airport navigation’ may very well get added to my resumé under list of skills. With all this travel, you learn a few things along the way. You learn what you do and don’t need, you get really fast at packing and rebuilding bikes, that you can pack for two weeks in a carry-on bag, and typically the exact number of minutes it takes you to get from the curbside drop-off, through security and to your gate at your home airport. Frequent flyer miles tally up, you know where the red carpet clubs are in given airports and you’re always on the upgrade list for being a preferred customer. What all this really means thought is that you spend way too much time on an airplane.

Jeremy Powers once did an interview and talked about the importance of being an airport ninja if you’re a cyclist. Now, what, exactly, is an airport ninja? An airport ninja is what you become when you fly all the time. The airport ninja is able to quietly and swiftly navigate an airport, flash a big smile and use their conversation skills- also known as “schmoozing”- at the check-in counter and fly their bike(s) for free, get through security fluidly, and arrive at the gate at precisely the time of boarding.

The airport ninja slips through unnoticed. They’re travel professionals. What the airport ninja does not do is go to the wrong gate and try to get on a plane to a different destination. I, as I quickly learned, am apparently not an airport ninja.

Earlier this year, when I still considered myself an airport ninja I was flying… somewhere, and certainly not to Omaha. I’d made it through check-in without having to pay a bike fee, strolled through security like I was the mayor of the airport and made it to what I thought was my gate, just in time to walk onto the plane. The line worked its way up to the scanner and I ran my ticket over it. Meeeeep. The agent took it and scanned it again. Same thing, meeeeep. She looked at the ticket then up to me and said “Your gate is over there” and pointed to the correct gate. Flushed and embarrassed, I apologized and turned around for my walk of shame, against the current of the soon-to-be-boarding Nebraskans. I meekly walked over to my correct gate, quadruple checked that it was the right flight number, destination and airline. When I was satisfied that I was, in fact, at the correct gate, I took my place in the boarding queue with the lanyard passport holder, socks and sandals, Hawaiian shirt wearing travel amateurs at the back of the line. I was ready to commit seppuku right then and there. I’d brought dishonor onto myself and other airport ninjas.

Just when I thought I was hot stuff, knowing my way around the airports of the world, feeling like the world was my oyster, it was time for a reality check. A true airport ninja does not get cocky. It was my downfall. I’d built myself up in my head and let my guard down. It opened me up for an attack from within- the most devastating!

With the holiday season rapidly approaching and some of you traveling- maybe even with bikes- try working on some of your airport ninja skills. Be nice at the check-in counter, flash those pearly whites, have all of your liquids in an appropriately sized plastic bag and to maintain your own panache, double check the gate you’re at.