Rob Spillman on Riding, Reading, and Road Rash [from BA 43-500]

Broken Bones Boneshaker.jpg

"I’ve done the Leadville 100. I’ve broken both collarbones, and have colorful road rash scars. The most surprising thing is what the body is capable of."

an interview with Rob Spillman, by Alex Behr

I look like a dipshit: Gap shirt, horn-rimmed glasses, dumpy sweats rubber-banded at the ankle. I ride to the top of Mount Tabor in southeast Portland, Oregon. A woman biker with shoulder tattoos smiles at me, a mountain biker dude gives me an almost imperceptible nod coming down, and the Portland Velo cyclists in white Lycra tops and shorts like cutoff tights, butt muscles pressed and fitted, fly by and completely ignore me. The old guy in a fishing hat who usually sees me jogging says, “There’s no leveler going up.” My lungs feel good, like I can reach down into them, and this particular combination of metal and plastic and rubber and air feels solid. I’m not hating life and not sweating too much with evergreens shading the path.

I turn around and head down. Mount Tabor isn’t not steep, so I’m going fast enough so that if I fall I might break my shoulder bone, might bruise a rib, might get gravel embedded in my legs, arms, face. I might dent my helmet. I think, “This would fuck me up.” And I’m happy.

I took this ride after sending Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine, some questions about cycling. I first learned he rode (seriously) through a New York Times “Modern Love” column his wife, Elissa Schappell, wrote called “A Glass All Empty.”

Alex Behr: I feel arrogant when I’m riding my bike in a way that I don’t feel when I’m jogging (I feel less than arrogant, more like a slug) or driving (I feel guilty). Yet I don’t ride as much as I’d like in Portland, city of bikers. I worry if I take a long ride I wouldn’t be able to fix a flat, or if I do errands, my bike will get stolen. It’s too much self-identification with pieces of metal. Do you have a Buddhist attitude toward theft in New York City?

Rob Spillman: I have a few bikes—a racing bike that I use to train and road race, a mountain bike, a cyclocross bike (which I race in the fall) and a commuter bike (an old cross bike that is pretty beat up and that I lock up places and don’t worry too much about).

AB: Related to bikes as status symbols (fear of theft of private property) versus practicality (I don’t need to own one to ride one): I was imagining a large U.S. city that had free bikes for people to ride (as in Copenhagen, or as some corporations provide for employees or even preschools provide for kids). That way bikes are seen as a benefit for communities and would easily pay for themselves. Have you been to Copenhagen and ridden there, or have you tried out the rentals in NYC? Are you involved in the controversy at all: writing about it, bitching about it, etc.?

RS: I think the bike share in NYC is great. I know a lot of people who use them. The more the merrier. More bikes and more bike lanes means more awareness and more safety for all of us. It also takes cars off the streets. The backlash has been laughable.

AB: What is your favorite city to ride in? You’ve ridden in other countries—did you rent there or bring your bike? Did you interact with people differently than if you’d been walking, taking the bus, etc.?

RS: I’m writing this on an airplane from Rome to NYC. I just spent six days in Florence, riding up in the hills north of the city. Bright red poppies line the roads through lemon and olive farms. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world to ride. Italians are aggressive pain-in-the-ass drivers, except around bikes—it is built into the culture and I’ve never had a problem while riding. As for city riding, I love exploring cities by bike. Some places, like St. Petersberg, Russia, I’ve been able to get to places I would never venture on foot (at least not without armed guards). I rode through the dock areas and out to the “satellite cities” which Stalin built, giant projects that are now crumbling and overpopulated, stuck in fields far from the city. Other cities I’ve loved via bike are Melbourne and Sydney because I was able to cover a lot more ground in a short period of time. Interaction is difficult on bikes, but I’ve had interesting conversations with other riders out on the road. It is like pickup basketball—no one cares who you are as long as you can play. I would never have met the other people on my racing team otherwise—two cops, a DA, investment types, a casting agent.

AB: After eighth grade, I took a two-week bike trip through parts of Connecticut, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and up the Cape to Provincetown. We were fourteen-year-old kids looking to drink and smoke pot, and we were barely supervised. But I gained a lot of confidence. I knew how to fix a flat and knew I could ride 40 miles in a day. Have you taken long solo trips to places you’ve never biked before? What’s the worst thing that’s happened or the most surprising?

RS: I’ve done a bunch of crazy off-road rides, including the Leadville 100, a hundred-mile race starting at 10,000 feet going up to 12,500 feet, with over 14,000 thousand feet of total climbing. I’ve gotten plenty lost, have broken both collarbones, and have some colorful road rash scars. The most surprising thing is what the body is capable of—100 miles at altitude, riding hard for ten straight hours.

AB: Subcultures of biking: I fit into the slob biker category. I wear a helmet, and I don’t own biking clothes per se. Now that I run a lot, however, I don’t think neon shoes seem all that hideous. I don’t own a neon pair, but I wear mainstream brand running shoes more often, almost like—hey, I’m ready to throw down a 5K, no problem. When did you “cross over” to the bike fashion side, so that wearing clothes that immediately label you as a serious, don’t-fuck-with-me biker seemed not only necessary, but comforting? When you ride with friends, do you like feeling as if you’re in a pack?

RS: When I was in college I worked in a running store where us “serious” runners mocked the duffers. In cycling they’re called “Freds,” riders who wear Tour de France jerseys and have mirrors on their helmets. I get clothes from my team, so I am a riding billboard. When you ride as much as I do, it is all about function. However, when I’m commuting, I don’t wear cycling shorts or jerseys, just shoes some of the time.

AB: What would be your ultimate bike to own? I used to covet cargo bikes as sold by Xtracycle, so I could ride around with my son, but now I just want a lighter bike. I’ve had the same Trek hybrid since about 1990.

RS: The technology is always changing. The first time I rode in Italy I had a classic Italian steel frame, a Mondonico (I visited Signor Mondonico in Milan to pay my respects). I thought I was going to be cool, but the Italians I rode with all thought I was being silly—they were riding the latest carbon-fiber Cannondales and Treks.

AB: Do you get irritated when you read fiction with cyclists and it doesn’t feel right? What would get on your nerves about it? For example, I usually don’t like fiction with rock bands because it’s hard to trust the author if you’ve been in bands—if they screw up once, it’s over.

RS: Sure. All endurance sports are difficult to capture in fiction. When you are doing it well, you are mindless, not thinking, just reacting. This is a very hard state to capture with an overly analytical medium. The best novel I’ve read about cycling is The Rider by the Dutch author Tim Krabbé (who used to race, and was a chess grand master).

Evan P. Schneider