Sweetness and Light: Bike Build

I let myself forget that being away from the discipline of consistent riding would mean having to start over again. But did I say that it only really feels bad starting over for the first ten miles and then I remember that within all that effort is a reliable strength in my body that hasn’t been tested too badly over the winter? I remember that winter is an easy thing from which one recovers. And on those winter days when I wasn’t riding…sure, I missed my bike, but I have no complaints about the time spent with my dog on the couch.

This being out of shape is old news though.  There is an off season to dancing and, just like cyclists, there is a fair amount of stealth training going on then.  Injuries sometimes have to get healed, surgeries happen. The body of a dancer is constantly being built up, refined, and re-tooled, off season or not.  A class heavy on turns prepares a dancer for one ballet, a class heavy on big jumps for another.  It really is an incredible machine, the dancer’s body; not just sleek-looking in terms of athleticism, but created and truly tuned for the purpose of movement of any and every kind.  Then further refined for each particular show.

If the bike is an extension of body, a way to get that much more strength and speed out of it through the benefits of real mechanics, then there is familiarity to be found in building and tuning it.  There is familiarity to be found in putting one together, at least once.  It is possible that it is not so much speed or racing that I am in love with on the bike but the mechanics that I know nothing or very little about, just as when I was dancing I could not tell you one tendon in my hip from the next.  I knew broken, sore, and strained.  I knew flexible, strong, and loose.  But intuitively, or more precisely intuitiveness achieved through years of ballet training, I knew how to build my body and had people around me, coaches and teachers, always helping me refine it and I liked that the machine worked smoothly and predictably, almost one hundred percent of the time.  I enjoy the larger mechanics of my bike with a much greater vagueness.

So the newness of putting a two wheeled machine together, knowing the kind of rides that I am putting that bike together for and how it will be built with specific purposes, lines, and details in mind hits an irresistible intersection.   Repetitive as seasons can seem, my spring has this much anticipated first in it, the first bike I will somewhat put together, somewhat in that there will be a great deal of help of course, and I think mainly I will have the bike components in my hands for a moment or two, then someone else will do the cabling and bolting together. The various parts are arriving in boxes.  The frame, a really wonderful one, will arrive around my birthday in May, just in time for summer. And there is an old tandem bike that has come to me and I am thinking about refurbishing that, as well. Those are my new hill climbs. Unfamiliar, yet exceptionally inviting.

There will be an added kinship with the new bike; not quite handmade by me, not quite the shaping of the body that is dancing, but a building and putting together by hand that is mechanical and function-driven on the surface of it, but at heart, complete sweetness and light.  Emily Gresh

Love Belated: What Is It About Cycling?

IMG_2085Did you know that ballet technique is one of constant tension?  It is a vocabulary of seeming effortlessness born of pushing into the floor while pulling up out of one’s entire body.  Is this one side against the other or an ideal and sustainable harmony?  Both, either, many formulations of each possibility at different times.  We have all read the “this is war” accounts of bike races. Similar can be written about ballet and here is likely where, for me, my love of cycling began; this line where struggle and perfection meet.

In a recent photo essay on New York City Ballet, there was a reference to covering the backstage life of ballet as being similar to covering war (http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/12/30/arts/dance/20121230_NYCB.html?ref=dance).  How this is so is confounding at first but makes sense as more a reference to how similarly the scenes unfold in the covering of them than actual war–the comaraderie, the daily travails and the constant vigilant focus.

I wonder what it is that makes us watch these battles?  Cycling shows us crashes and injuries.  It shows us the dilemmas of training and competing at all costs.  Ballet shows us athletic prowess but only under the face of gracefulness, a less visible battle.  For me, dancing is far less interesting on stage than backstage.  In the backstage version, the “I am covering war now” we do see all sides of the battle.  The best side being laughter among a very close knit and unusually focused group of people.  The worst, wrecked up bodies waiting to heal and emotional fraying over endlessly high standards of performance.  There are no damaged bikes along side dancers though to give us a true visual of the toughness of ballet and the extremes of what is accomplished there.

In cycling, I fell in love when I heard a phrase on a Rapha video that is similar to the one in the recent photo essay on City Ballet, “It’s war all day long.”  The Rapha video is black and white, a mini-homage to the Paris-Roubais (http://www.rapha.cc/roubaix-recce-into-the-fight).  And in it, there is the idea of struggle made very visible, struggle that is less about winning an actual race and more about simply going for it.  It ends, like the ballet photo essay, with a close knit group of determined and focused people laughing.  I could watch it all day long, this pushing and pulling of technique that is cycling, that is making oneself press onwards, for the love of it. It’s possible, that the three minutes or so of that video made me fall in love with cycling.  Everything there is to love about the battles in cycling–the peace of winning one’s own private races, of finishing a ride, of mind over body, of body over mind–is all well captured there.  It is a backstage view, more interior, and maybe more telling then the wreckage of bikes and crashes.  Emily Gresh

The Essentials

Post-ride espresso
Post-ride espresso

There are always two directions when thinking about  making time for cycling in the winter–why I am too busy to do it and why I cannot afford to miss my one bike ride of the week at the moment.  In the past, for me there was the discipline of daily ballet class.  Every day.  Maybe not seven days a week, but often six days a week, and definitely no less than five days a week of daily class.  And not your daughter’s ballet class, one of cute tikes in pink leotards.  Think ferocious athletes, about 45 of them all in one mirrored room, all going for it in combinations of steps that are as familiar to them as breathing and sleeping.  And always playing with that fire of how much to push beyond reasonable limits and how much to hold back to avoid injury and or exhaustion.  Sure, some days I would really hold back for whatever reasons, to conserve energy or repair my body.  But even holding back then was hardly a holding back of much.

So one bike ride a week during the deep winter is not asking much of myself.  But like everyone in New England during this time of year, some weeks it is a pinch just getting in the one ride.  I did say winter riding would be beautiful, didn’t I?  That was back in the fall or early winter before the snow and real cold hit, wasn’t it?  Yes, the romanticized side of winter riding.  Warmth.  Chatter.  Two sentence conversations that provide a week’s aftermath of laughter.  Post-ride espresso.  The smooth gearing of my bike.  The fantastic mechanics of the body and many bodies working together getting through a ride.  Beautiful riding gear.  Sweet winter.  As good as ballet class.  But ballet class was always hard and demanding.  Winter riding requires greater discipline, too.  You have to demand more than just a little from yourself.  Not a simple hop on the bike.

Salty roads, mud being kicked up by the tires in front of me, cold, dampness.  Dark. It is a chase through all that lately.  There is a just getting through it, but the riding is still essential.  The weekly ritual as necessary as the daily class.  There are all the essential reasons for daily class within the reasons now for the weekly ride.  Like breathing and sleeping.  Familiar and necessary.  Just not as easy.  Emily Gresh

Q and A: Cancer Recovery and My Bicycle Design

Q&A with Emily Gresh

Emily Gresh wears many hats—Trinity alumna, Yale graduate school alumna, dancer, writer, mother, fund-raising professional, and most recently, cancer survivor and the creator of the winning design for Giant Bicycles limited edition bicycle, the Liv/giant ‘Avail Inspire.’  Following an eight year career as a professional ballet dancer at Boston Ballet where she rose to the rank of soloist, Gresh came to Trinity as an IDP student where she earned an undergraduate degree in English and a minor in sociology.  From there, she completed a master’s degree in Theater Management at Yale University before entering the workforce in a new field, when she returned to Trinity to serve as the College’s Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations in the Advancement Division.  Most recently, Gresh found the brighter side of a diagnosis of breast cancer, at age 39.  We sat down with Gresh, to hear more about how she designed the bicycle, its inspirational theme, and her experience as a young survivor of cancer.
TC: When you were diagnosed, how did you handle the news, emotionally and physically?
EG: There is truly no way to prepare for the news that you have cancer, especially when you feel you are young and healthy and still outside of the reach of that kind of devastating illness.  When I was sitting in the doctor’s office at Yale-New Haven Hospital where I was diagnosed and treated, my ears literally closed and I stopped hearing.  I did not want to take in that news.  It took time to fully absorb it, many days and weeks, and was unbelievably difficult.  I had just turned 39.  Most women haven’t even had their first mammogram at age 39 and there I was already being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.  Fortunately, I went home and went online and within a few days found the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) website which helped me enormously.
TC: What was the most important way that this group helped you?
EG: When I found the Young Survival Coalition online, I saw photos of young women participating in the Tour de Pink —a three day, two hundred mile bicycle ride that benefits YSC—and it was like looking into the eyes of people like me who had been where I was going.  Breast cancer is not common in women under 40 although obviously it can and does happen, as it did with me.  I had to do some searching in order to find my similar aged peers facing this disease.  The Young Survival Coalition brings women who are diagnosed on the young side, and their friends and family members together, and that was crucial in keeping me from feeling isolated and alone as I came to terms with my diagnosis and treatment. I could see and figure out from the photos of the bicycling going on in the Tour de Pink that both the training beforehand and the rides themselves were avenues to renewed strength on many, many levels.
TC: How often did you train for the Tour de Pink, and what was your bicycling experience before then?  What were some of the struggles and triumphs you faced along the way?
EG: My bicycling experience was limited to that of commuting around Boston by bicycle during my twenties.  I started training for the Tour de Pink by doing loops around a pond near my house on a very heavy bicycle.  My rides gradually lengthened from a few miles to rides of 60 miles, and I began riding a real road bike, too. While I was training, there were rides in the rain and also rides in intense summer heat, but it was never a struggle.  I enjoyed every second of training and a passion for cycling definitely took hold in me.
TC: At the Tour de Pink, you learned about a contest to design a new bicycle for Giant, which would be designed specifically for this event, and for young cancer survivors like yourself.  What inspired you to enter, and what did the contest entail?
EG: When I learned about the contest, I knew it was something I wanted to do.  The creative and inspiring nature of the project seemed like the perfect combination for me.
TC: When Giant notified you that you had won the contest and that your design would be produced, what was your reaction?
EG: Ironically, I had a doctor’s appointment down in New Haven when I received the call from Giant about winning the contest.  As you know, Yale has a beautiful campus like Trinity’s and I just stood there on York Street with all of those beautiful buildings around me thanking Giant over the phone, smiling, and feeling really lucky.  Then I started calling and texting my friends and family with the good news—not only had my design been selected, but it had already been made into a prototype, it was a reality.  I think everyone should have at least one moment in life where they get to pick-up the phone or text someone with the words, “I won!” or, maybe even better, “We won!”
TC: What inspired the name “Inspire” for the bike?
EG: The late Trinity Professor Hugh Ogden is the person who first pointed out the origin of the word inspire to me.  Technically, inspire comes from “to breathe upon” as opposed to “to breathe in.”  The notion of breathing in, getting one’s breath back, and the wonderful breathtaking qualities that are found in everyday living became important as I thought about creating a bike that could embody survivorship as well as the possibilities of life.  This concept is captured by having the word “inspire” on the bicycle and the word is the main design feature.  I will never forget Hugh walking into a poetry class one day and uttering: “People always say they can’t find inspiration.  All you need to do is breathe in.  The word inspire comes from ‘to breathe in.’ Inspiration is all around us.”  For me, it was in that moment that “inspire” took on a more luminous meaning.  It has guided me often.
Watch a video by Giant Bicycle about Gresh and her bicycle design.

TC: You have been chosen as the speaker at this year’s Relay for Life at Trinity.  As a young cancer survivor, what is the best piece of advice you would give someone facing the same diagnosis? 
EG: Inspire, breathe in.  Be patient with yourself and others and know your experience as only you can.

TC: Earlier in your life, you were a professional dancer with Boston Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in the world.  Did this play a role in your battle with cancer, emotionally or physically? 
EG: My former life as a dancer constantly plays a role in my life today.  As far as cancer goes, I knew—and my friends reminded me—that I could not be at war with my dancer’s body.  I didn’t think of cancer as a battle.  It was a nightmare but not a battle.  There was nothing to fight, only things to be endured.
TC: You graduated from Trinity’s Individualized Degree Program (IDP), and now work here at Trinity.  How has your experience at Trinity helped or affected your life?
EG: Trinity gave me the ability to look at language and expression from multiple perspectives.  When I had to think about how to make a bicycle express something, I drew upon many of the things I thought about while studying creative writing with the late Fred Pfeil and literature with Chloe Wheatley at Trinity—a text can be read in many ways, so can a dancer’s body, or a patient’s.  Why not a bicycle?
TC: What is the main difference between Emily Gresh pre-diagnosis and Emily Gresh today?
EG: I like to think that cancer did not change me but the truth is that it changed me immeasurably.  Every day always mattered to me.  But now, every day matters even more.  There is only a one percent chance of a recurrence of my breast cancer, but I have known so many people who have had their cancer return.  I live every day to its fullest and let myself trust each great moment as it arrives more than I ever did before.  It’s exquisite.  I am enjoying life very much, I have to say.
Emily Gresh will be sharing her story live at the 2012 Trinity Relay for Life, on Friday, April 27 at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College.  For more on RFL, visit: http://bit.ly/JpLMyn.   Proceeds from the purchase of Avail Inspire bicycles, available through Giant Bicycles, will benefit the Young Survival Coalition.  A list of retailers can be found here: http://bit.ly/J6YruB.

From Mind to Hand

From mind to hand–the essence of handmade–is such a short distance.  It is this: a little breaking sound of dawn, not just light slipping across floorboards and through the edges of window blinds and curtains, but a true arrival.  It is a fiercer light breaking across the morning as if arriving by wagon over stones, the sound of cyclists preparing for an early morning ride, cleats over rocks. This is the noise that would have you looking up from whatever it was you were doing, knowing that something was happening in addition to just the day’s beginning.

From there, you might swing your legs to the edge of your bed and then the floor, or maybe you would be getting up from the kitchen table to open those same blinds or push your front door ajar to see what is that sound; in your bedroom, after your feet hit the coolness of the floor’s surface, your hands probably reach to open the window’s shades or push the curtains aside, the impulse drawing you from sleep towards sound and whatever it is that seems to be out there.  The day is handmade now, pulling back that curtain, rising from your bed.  You begin to shape it right there.

The day is as handmade as the steel bicycle, and the hands are nothing, as Dario Pegoretti, bicycle maker of the handmade type, has said, without the mind.

There is the same sound to dancers’ running, too, especially twenty-four of us all at once in the bigger ballets, the Swan Lakes and Sleeping Beauties, Paquitas and Don Quixotes, there are always those rushes on stage or off.  And all of that running is preceded by hammering and pounding and shaping the hard box of the pointe shoe.  No matter how soft the bottom of the shoe, there is still that noise.  Twenty-four corps de ballet women, twenty-four pairs of carefully prepared shoes, feet upon the floor pounding but as muffled as humanly possible, as technically achievable with those papery, satiny, boxy shoes.

Inside the shoe, whether cyclist or dancer, is the wonder of the human foot, beneath the asphalt where the cyclist is standing is the earth, off the dancer’s stage, the grass.  Earlier, somewhere, the day was beginning for each, the walk across the floor, to the window or down the hall to the kitchen, the coolness beneath their feet.  Earlier, their days began with thinking, each inclined to take that possibility of moving from bed to window to out the door a layer further, and each inclined to make the day, the bicycle, the dancer, the body, as alive as possible as they work the hours of their lives through their hands.

Did the bicycle maker say that steel has its own smell?  Perhaps a quality of sweat to it?  What of dancers as they are held by each other?  The handmade comes to life, the impulse of rising for something gets built out and up to an extreme, one dancer with another, arms, legs, hands, a great deal of sweat, passionate yet pliable.  We are inevitably and uninhibitedly shaped by each other.  We are that close to each other and we are the things created–the lines, the strength, the structures, literally breathing with life.  This is steel sweating, this is bicycle-maker friendly.  Emily Gresh