The Fit Life

As some anonymous wit once drily noted, “after forty, it’s patch, patch patch.” And when you pass that milestone, sooner or later you find out the hard way that it is very much true. So to keep the parts in good working order, the wise person fashions some kind of fitness regimen.

It can take a while to find just the right one. There are lots of different activities to choose from–walking, running, treadmills, bikes both stationary and actual, rowing machines, swimming, to name a few. But every one of these has some kind of drawback: Walking isn’t challenging enough. Running is hot, unpleasant, hard on the joints, and boring. Rowing machines and stationary bikes are all sweaty exertion plus tedium.

In theory, swimming is optimal because you get a good workout, yet stay cool and clean. But at most Austin pools swimming has become a contact sport. Unless you get there very early or very late you will most likely have to share a small lane with a large number of swimmers, some of whom are aggressive, impatient types who will all but run you over should you get in their way. For my money the best fitness fitness routine is a to be found on a bike, a real one. Done right, biking combines serious exertion with continuously changing scenery, with the added bonus of a steady cooling breeze.

When you get into a fitness routine you tend to want things just so. So whether you run, bike, or walk you find a route, pick a day and a time, and stick with it. There are solid strategic reasons for taking this approach. Having a routine reduces the need to make decisions: Tuesday and Friday, 7 PM; time to hit it. Eventually your routine becomes known to everyone who matters in your life, so they know not to trouble you at those times. And if you should ever falter in your commitment, your true friends will wave away your excuses and give you a helpful nudge.

Finding a good route is essential. It takes time to find just the right one. The first decision is: streets or trails. There are many suitable trails in Austin, but many, many bikers and runners. Pick the wrong trail at the wrong time and you may find yourself in playing dodge ’em with all manner of humanity going every which way. On the other hand, to ride on Austin streets these days is to tempt fate. But if you know where to look, there are still a few good rides to be had, mostly on quiet neighborhood lanes well off the beaten path.

After much experimentation I settled on a route centered around my old shop on Thornton Road. It was a really good, challenging course, consisting almost entirely of side streets, with a number of steep hills, a couple of long straightaways, and only two potential points of interruption where it crossed the railroad tracks. An hour on this route and you had yourself a workout. I happily, regularly rode it for a couple of years, even after relocating. But relentless, nonstop development was generating so much new traffic it had started to get really dicey on my once-quiet route, and after one close call too many it was time to consider an alternative.

I was discussing this problem with my friend Paul one day, and he immediately suggested I try the Veloway. “Sunset is the best time,” he added. I knew Paul to be a man of good judgement, so on the strength of his firm recommendation I decided to give it a try. I knew roughly where the Veloway was, but not much beyond that. I retrieved the exact coordinates from Google Maps, tossed the bike in the van and headed over. Only twelve minutes, door-to-door. Gotta like that.

It was once known as the Lance Armstrong Veloway, in honor of the Austin resident who astonished the world by winning the Tour de France, toughest athletic contest on Earth, after narrowly cheating death by cancer. Not just once, of course, but a record seven times was Armstrong awarded the fabled Yellow Jersey, a feat that will probably never again be equaled. But to save his own skin a guilty rival dropped a dime, and suddenly we were all shocked, absolutely shocked, to find doping going on in the ultra high-stakes world of professional cycling. So the greatest performer in the history of the sport became an asterisk and then an unperson, and the monument to his epic achievement became, simply, The Veloway.

The Veloway turned out to be a closed loop of pavement, smooth as a sheet of plywood, twenty two feet wide and about three and a quarter miles in circumference, running through the woods of far southwest Austin. Bikes and skates only, one-way traffic. Plenty of parking. If you got there early or late, you could have the place to yourself, or nearly so. During the hottest part of the summer, I took to riding well after dark, by the light of an impressively bright, head-mounted lamp purchased specifically for such pursuits.

The Veloway is a marvel of clever design. The first quarter-mile or so lures you in, being mostly flat to let you build up speed, with a few minor curves thrown in to accentuate the sense of motion. Then come a short but steep climb and a right hand turn that put you onto a large parklike meadow. Across it, a couple of hundred yards away, you can see other bikers on the back half, heading the opposite direction. Then a sharp left-hand curve and a gradual but lengthy uphill that forces you to gear down down down. Right-left, right-left, and then another level green space, where it’s back to the higher gears until the halfway point, a tight, climbing curve. The back half is a parade of twists and turns, a couple of hairpin curves, uphills and more uphills, concluding with a couple of big swooping curves you can really lean into.

The course twists and turns so much, and the trees so closely envelop it that points of navigational reference are few, and even those with a keen sense of direction may find themselves temporarily disoriented. It is an unfamiliar but not entirely unpleasant sensation to be lost in the woods a stone’s throw from the city. Oddly, through some quirk of physics, there are no downhills whatsoever on the Veloway, just a few flat spots. Just as oddly, if you break the rules and ride the other way, it is much the same. Einstein could probably explain it.

Partaking of a popular sport is an excellent way to see how you compare with others. If you come to the Veloway during the busy middle part of the day you will have lots of company for reference. The ample parking lot will brim with their expensive, late-model cars, trucks, and SUVs. Twenty-year old vans with many miles will be notably lacking. Sure, you will pass a few riders. But mostly you will be passed, by serious sorts wearing the full, approved uniform, astride bikes that cost more than your last three automobiles combined. Nearly always they say nothing as they rush by, and the only way you know they even see you is that they cut back over at the earliest possible moment, almost, but not quite so close as to crowd you.

Even when they aren’t blowing by, you can tell the more committed riders by their legs alone, usually shaved, which have calf muscles so tightly contracted that they stand out in sharp relief, as if sculpted from stone. To the casual observer it looks unnatural, even painful, like a really bad cramp. Even after a couple of years and some of regular, fairly serious riding, you note that your own calves are nowhere nearly so well defined.

It’s not really a competition, yet it is. There is little camaraderie between riders out on the course, and cheery greetings are about as rare as Trump stickers hereabouts. Some riders seem to want to keep score, and take obvious pleasure in lapping you. Sometimes they will noticeably speed up as they pass to drive home the point. On the rare occasions that you actually pass them for whatever reason, they often become visibly annoyed. The temptation to play games with such people is irresistible. So when you detect an especially aggressive rider preparing to overtake, sometimes you double back when he isn’t looking and then fall in behind to deny him the satisfaction. A few riders appear to be so fixated on maintaining pace at all costs that you wonder, quite seriously, whether they would even bother to stop if you happened to have a bad wreck or a heart attack right in front of them.

If it isn’t too crowded you are almost certain to see wildlife. There’s the pair of cottontails that hang near the entrance, the young buck and his harem who favor the northeast corner, a trio of roadrunners that sometimes trot along beside you on the back quarter. Squirrels and raccoons appear frequently here and there, intently foraging. Coyotes and foxes stalk the brush. A magnificent king snake can sometimes be spotted crossing the road near the dry wash. Seemingly out of place, a dozen-plus robins habitually peck about on the large lawn that forms the heart of the course.

So there I was, riding along one day, roughly two-thirds of the way through lap number three, somewhere between the second hairpin turn and the brief but torturously steep uphill grandly called Mount Everest. It was on a short flat stretch between climbs, and I was busy working up some momentum. Suddenly, my reverie was broken by a small brown blur flashing by off to the right. The little rabbit was in such a hurry that it nearly blundered under my rear wheel. Two thoughts occurred in rapid succession: (1) What was that all about? and (2) You nearly ruined both our days.

A moment later, as I continued to ponder this little kerfuffle, the proximate cause of it came into view. There, in a small clearing off to the right maybe thirty feet away, stood a wildcat, poised as though about to give chase. At my sudden appearance it straightened up and turned to look first directly at me, and then in the direction of the fled rabbit. A moment after that something else caught its attention, and it turned toward some other thing farther afield that its alert senses had detected.

You have to say something in such circumstances, so I blurted out “Hey there, kittycat,” my tone of voice friendly but laced with surprise. This greeting was purposely nonspecific because of incipient confusion as to what, exactly, I was seeing. My first thought had been bobcat! But within seconds the exclamation point had turned into a question mark as it occurred to me that this thing, whatever it was, did not match the mental model I had for that particular creature.

To begin with, it seemed far too large. Bobcats, I was certain, were little bitty things, basically overgrown housecats. But this specimen was pushing forty pounds, if not pulling it. Second, his coloring was off. Way off. In my mind bobcats were a dullish generic beige with a smattering of darker spots. But this fellow was a handsome deep reddish-brown, his many spots nearly invisible against this dark background. Third, he had some seriously tufted ears, like a lynx. Which is what I finally settled on, forgetting for the moment that lynx were creatures of the North Woods, found in Canada and the northernmost US.

Whatever it was, it was a rare sight indeed, and to have beheld it was a privilege. In nearly sixty years of living, with many thousands of hours logged in the outdoors, I had never seen such an animal in the flesh. Chances are I will go the remainder of my life without seeing another.

We stared at each other for a few seconds as I coasted past, my mission of fitness momentarily forgotten. The cat seemed more annoyed at the interruption than fearful, and I briefly considered stopping to take a photo. But ultimately I decided that even if he cooperated, taking the wild thing’s picture would be an act of triteness and an untoward intrusion. No photograph would be required to remember this.

Right about this time the other thing that the wildcat had sensed revealed itself, as another biker came up rapidly from behind. A hair over thirty, wearing a Fitbit on one wrist and a Tag Heuer on the other, clad in seven or eight hundred dollars worth of Serious Cyclist regalia, riding a machine that probably cost twelve times that, the biker blew past without even a hint of acknowledgement, his face a mask of pure concentration as he chased yet another Personal Best. It seemed impossible that he could have missed the little spectacle.

Yet somehow, he did. Full of the fire of youth, flush with early success, the young Alpha in a hurry couldn’t bring himself to pause for even a second. And so in his headlong rush forward, always forward, he completely missed an unexpected, serendipitous rarity, small yet worthy, which he might have fondly remembered forever. Funny thing is, even had he known, he might not have cared.

 

 

 

 

P.S. The Latin name for bobcat is Lynx Rufus, or reddish lynx. Courtesy Carolyn Collins

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