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Beeping Hell

Words/images: Heidi Swift

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The road climbs for a good while, long enough to get a solid effort in. It’s the local hill, the first one I hit when I head out from the house for a ride. Not a climb of any consequence or length or particular meaning, but I claim it the way I do: IT’S MY NEIGHBORHOOD. MY HILL. MY CLIMB. I’m officially trying to beat 11 minutes, but secretly I’m hoping to go under 10.

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Half a minute into the acceleration the computer starts beeping: heart-rate-upper-limit alert. I don’t need a computer to tell me that I’m about to vomit, but that didn’t stop me from setting the alert a few days earlier. I’d wanted to explore all the functionalities, naturally. Heart-rate alert had seemed cool then. It doesn’t now.

The beeping will continue for at least 10 minutes unless I stop to switch it off, which obviously isn’t an option. I’ve dealt with worse, I suppose. Three years ago I rode 270 miles across France with a clicking bottom bracket before I could find someone to fix it. That kind of distance takes a person as slow as me quite a long time—roughly 16 hours if we’re counting—and that’s a lot of click-click-clicking of the bottom bracket. The metronome of my discontent.

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I settle into the beeping and shift my focus to my face, which is starting to do a weird tingling thing. I haven’t gone this hard in a long time, maybe two years. The discomfort is at once foreign and familiar. Later, I will be able to quantify the discomfort with a wattage number. It is guaranteed that I will not be happy with the number.

Power meters are for reminding you of your eternal unremarkableness. I call mine the Mediocrity Confirmation Machine. It’s an expensive way to ensure ongoing humility. Trying to go uphill as fast as possible is another good way to do this. It’s also much cheaper than a power meter, but provides no objective numerical evidence. In this scientific day and age, it’s nice to know for sure.

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Before I had a power meter, I had a coach who explained “perceived effort” to me in terms of my ability to hold a conversation while pedaling. Zone 1 is leisurely, you can give an entire speech as if you were sitting in a chair at a coffee shop somewhere; zone 2, you can hold a lengthy back-and-forth conversation with ease; zone 3, you can only get a few sentences out at a time…and so on. You see these designations in a lot of “how to” articles and books.

Since I never had a companion while doing zone 4 or 5 intervals, I had to figure out another way to recognize the manifestation of these mysterious zones. I quickly realized that zone 4 is when I begin to produce too much saliva and feel the need to spit. Zone 5 is when I cease with spitting and just let the long tendrils stretch from my mouth to the top of the bars, slender billowing banners of suffering.

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“Technology doesn’t have to eclipse the experience, and savoring the experience doesn’t prevent you from also recording its numerical values.”

Now I have my saliva, my power meter and my beeping computer to tell me that I’ve reached the correct hurting zone and also that I am still infinitely ordinary. When I ride with faster friends or groups, I have the added confirmation of seeing them become smaller up the road in front of me. When I get home, I will push the save button on the computer and it will magically send my data straight to Garmin Connect, Strava and Training Peaks all at once. Then I can pull out my smart phone and look at my data on the screen, just to confirm everything all over again.

Similarly, every morning when I step on the bathroom scale it sends my weight and body-fat percentage directly to my phone, where it is ostensibly recorded for all of eternity. There’s no more jumping on and jumping off, pretending that chocolate-cream-pie breakdown never happened. It’s in the books. It’s documented.

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All the endless measuring and cataloguing borders on the obsessive, but I’m reassured to know that I am in the good company of countless Type-A cyclists across the world. We’re everywhere. We are consumed by math and averages and formulae and graphs. We are mocked by our purer, less-technologically reliant counterparts. And we don’t care.

The real trick is to walk between the worlds, to understand that they aren’t mutually exclusive. Technology doesn’t have to eclipse the experience, and savoring the experience doesn’t prevent you from also recording its numerical values.

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At the top of the hill—my hill—I look down at the computer to see that I have beaten my goal. Both of them, actually, the official goal and the secret goal: 9:39. I am registering this small accomplishment when Mister Johnson comes out of his house to say hello.

I’d met Mister Johnson a few months back when I climbed this hill with a friend. She was having a bad day, so we pulled over to rest at the top. While she leaned over her bike with her head down, an older man appeared and asked me what we were up to. Where were we riding? Were we having fun?

I’d gestured to my heaving friend: “Doesn’t it look like we’re having fun?”

Mister Johnson, whose name I remember primarily because he pointed out that he received a lot of teasing in grade school for it, was a car man. So we talked about cars…and his job…how he used to be an “alchy”…how his best friend saved him from all that…and how he lives alone now. He talks about his Porsche 911. His Mustang.

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Mister Johnson is in his late-60s maybe, white hair poking out from under an old baseball cap with the name of an auto-body shop on the front. His house is up a driveway, behind a thick bunch of trees, hidden from the road where we’d been riding. I wondered how he saw us there, whether he was looking outside for a long period, waiting for someone to pause.

If I was dubious about his intentions when we started chatting, I wasn’t by the time we’d finished. My friend recovered and we bid him farewell. I’d promised to come by again sometime with my husband, who is a much better car conversationalist than I am. I hadn’t done that yet, but now here he is again at the top of the hill. This time I’m the one bent over my bike, mouth agape in search of oxygen, single tendril of saliva connecting my lips to the bars.

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He doesn’t seem to notice my state of unraveling and peppers me with conversation. I struggle to get a few sentences out at a time, punctuating each with a micro-gasp. Zone 3. My computer is still beeping.

“What’s that sound?” he asks.

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“This thing.” I gesture to the shiny, angry rectangle of technology. “It hates me.”

I inserted the strategic, open-ended words for Mister Johnson, to get him talking. I learned this tactic early in my cycling career. Soon we’re bantering on amicably, evenly. Zone 2. I tell a long-ish story about my husband’s little Bertone X19. Zone 1. Coffee-shop pace. The beeping has ended.