2.  Threshold Guardians

2. Threshold Guardians

A Chapter by Paul Minor

2.     Threshold Guardians

… the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance… Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

" Sir Edmund Hillary, who at age 33 with Tensig Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest.


I created lists:  packing lists, to-do lists, reading lists, lists of website resources. I read Shirley MacLaine’s book about her Camino adventure. Inside me, a battle played out between the opposing forces of self-expansion on one side, and self-contraction on the other; between excitement and overwhelm; inspiration and fear; movement and stagnation.

One night, I found myself in conversation with a woman I met at a party. We were at 811 Congress Avenue; a residence that is a historic building.  The pink granite of the Texas capitol was visible from the balcony. On the street below, the Republic of Texas Biker Rally had just concluded its annual motorcycle parade. The rumbling mass of 40,000 motorcycles had passed in front of our second floor viewing area. We bonded in the shared experience of the show, pointing out visuals to each other:  a pair of bikers wearing long-horned helmets; a group of bare-chested women sporting pasties.  

“And what are you up to?” she asked after the noise had subsided. She set her cocktail down on a table to light a cigarette.

            “Oh, just planning to ride 500 miles across northern Spain” I said. For dramatic effect, I threw in the fact that it was going to be on a mountain bike, mostly off-road, and that I would be going solo.

            “Wow, how much riding do you do?” she asked. To which I had to respond, with dawning embarrassment, that I still needed to get a bike.  

            She laughed, blowing out a mouthful of her rum cocktail. “I love it!” she said, “Why bother with all the in-between stuff?  Just jump straight to the 500-miles across Spain!”

            I laughed at myself.  And changed the topic; pointing to a shirtless man walking down Congress Avenue.  A tattoo of a dragon covered his back; the dragon’s wings wrapped around the man’s torso.

The next day I set out to acquire a bicycle.

            After lots of online research, I settled on a Montague folding bike. The website described the project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that resulted in the innovative design of a folding mountain-bike that was available to civilians.

            The website had a video of paratroopers landing into a field with their bikes folded. Within seconds of arriving on the ground the bikes were deployed to scout the terrain. The bikes looked sturdy and all components were standard. The folding frame design allowed the bike to be packed and unpacked quickly and easily " a feature I anticipated finding useful on my trip to Spain. I ordered the Paratrooper model, a 24-speed with disc front brakes and caliper brakes in the rear.  It was a hard-tail (no suspension on the rear wheel).

            When the bike arrived in a box, I took it to a local bike shop to put it together. The mechanic who tuned the bike gave me a quick lesson in how to change a flat.  

            In order to ride that many miles, it would have to be fun. I live a few blocks from Walnut Creek Park in my north-Austin neighborhood and learned that the park contains miles of mountain-bike trails. On my first scouting foray into the park on foot, I stumbled through one of the park entrances " a path through the brush near Swearingen Road. I felt like I had emerged from a wardrobe into the central Texas version of Narnia. The first ride on my new bike was in this landscape of shallow creeks, ravines, rocky trails and wildflower meadows. Twisty single-track cut through dark cedar groves. Occasionally, overhead power lines stood against a blue sky to remind me that I was in the urban capital of Texas.  My butt might get sore, but covering ground on a mountain bike would be fun.

            It was easier to tell strangers about my planned adventure. I wanted to limit the need for explanations (and embarrassment) if I decided to back out of the plan for whatever reason. As I grew more confident about being able to pull off the quest, I shared it with more people. And I noticed an increase in coincidences nudging me forward.  Like when one of my colleagues at work, who I found out was an avid mountain biker, urged I try using clipless pedals. 

            Clipless pedals lock onto cycling shoes via cleats on the soles of the shoes.  The pedals unlock when the foot is twisted outward. 

I understood the clipless philosophy:  I would have more control off-road, not having to worry about a foot being bumped off.  And I understood that it was an advantage to be able to pull a pedal up with one leg while pushing the other pedal down with the other.  Still, I was paranoid about having my feet bolted to the bike.  Wouldn’t that be more dangerous?  Wouldn’t it be harder to ditch the bike in an emergency dismount?  I decided to try the clipless idea anyway.

            I installed the pedals on the bike and got cycling shoes to go with them " mountain bike shoes that would serve for walking as well.   My first training ride with the bike upgrade took me down Shoal Creek Road.  I came to a stop at a stoplight, failed to get my foot unclipped in time and tipped over onto the pavement. I quickly got up and looked around, worried about being embarrassed.  Luckily, there were no witnesses.

I kept using the pedals but took to unclipping my feet in case I needed to do an emergency dismount " especially on technical parts of a trail. “Technical” is mountain bike lingo for trail sections with obstacles -- steep hills, big drops, rocks, roots, water, logs, gravel.  These are the trail sections that require balance and agility to throw one’s center of gravity around; to time the shifting of gears; to not lose momentum; to avoid falling.  I felt no pressure to push my mountain biking skill level.  If something looked too “technical” to me, I would just dismount and walk or climb the section on foot.  My focus was on endurance; on not having a sore butt after hours on the saddle.

Over many miles, I grew accustomed to having my feet firmly attached to the pedals.  More than accustomed, it felt secure to have the bike be an extension of me. My feet would unclip automatically when needed, with no thinking required.

            Another friend referred me to a multi-sport coach for endurance training. My first meeting with Coach Susan was over breakfast at Einstein Bagels.

            “What are your goals for this event?” asked Susan.

            “I want this to be the start of a fitness lifestyle for myself.  And I want my ride across Spain to be with a minimum of suffering.  I want to be in shape and physically ready for it.”  I thought my answer sounded perfectly logical.

            “What else?” asked Susan.

            “I want to learn and grow.  I want to learn about proper endurance nutrition and hydration, for example.”

            “What else?”

            I took some time to search for any other goals inside me.  “I want to create a peak life experience for myself.  Not one of those happenstance occurrences, but an experience of accomplishment " something I create for its own sake and no other reason.” 

“What is the most important piece of all of this for you?”

“Having fun.” There was no hesitation in my answer. 

A veteran of triathlon and Ironman competitions, Susan took a stand that I was going to make my dream happen.  We formalized our coaching agreement and Susan became my “Coach Susan.”

“I want to know everything about this trail you are going on.  What is the terrain?  How much is pavement versus gravel versus hard-pack?  Weather conditions?  Mud?  We want to make sure that you train in conditions as close to what they will be in Spain as possible.”

“I think there will be a little bit of everything.  Everything is on the menu,” I said.

“Ok then.  We start tomorrow!”

I organized life around the workout goals, training plan and schedule I received via weekly emails from Coach Susan.  The tentative start date of my ride across Spain was late May, 2009. I had five months to get ready.

            New concerns emerged like guardians blocking the path forward.  These parts of my psyche invested in maintaining the status quo and intended to thwart me from the point of no return. 

            One of these guardians made me think of Agent Smith from the Matrix franchise:  “You are in the middle of leading a large IT services procurement.  How, exactly, did you plan to take three weeks off work in May?”

            I knew that there could always be good reasons for not taking time off, whether I considered the time off to be frivolous or not.  A few days later, the path forward emerged when my project schedule shifted due to external factors.  I would no longer be able to blame work for keeping me from leaving for three weeks in Spain.

            Another guardian, the “Doomsday Prepper” part of me, made his presence known:  “Haven’t you been watching the nightly news?  The global financial system lays exposed as the mass hallucination of billions of minds conceiving ever crazier and abstract instruments of wealth.  Can’t you feel the fear?  Millions of Americans are losing their jobs every month!  Financial institutions, people and entire industries are going bankrupt!  Stocks are in free-fall!  Nobody is buying homes!  There are no loans for anyone!  You better check the news in Spain, there could be food riots there for all you know!  Wouldn’t you be better off saving your money and waiting to do this some other time in the future?”   

The Hero part of my psyche responded:  “I guess that means I better hurry up and take this trip before civilization breaks down and my only cycling adventures are commutes to fetch Barton Springs water downtown.  I don’t think that learning how to ride with a bucket of water balanced on my head would be much fun.”

            A different guardian, this one is a lazy part of me that detests effort … whose idea of camping is renting a beach house:  “Do you know how much work it is going to be to figure out where you are going to sleep?  And to make reservations?  Over fourteen of them?  And are you really going to carry EVERYTHING with you on the bike for the trip?  You are going to have to be ruthless with your packing!  This is supposed to be a fun vacation, isn’t it?  You realize there are two mountain ranges you will be crossing, right?  How about relaxing on the beach somewhere instead?  Key West?  Or Sapibenega, that Kuna lodge on the San Blas islands in Panama?” 

I ended up outsourcing much of the logistics.  I found Randonnée Tours while search for help with reservations online.  This Canadian tour company had expertise in self-guided tours of the Camino trail.  They worked with me to create a customized self-guided tour for my journey. The package included paid accommodations for each night along the Camino trail in historic hotels and hostels with arrangements for transportation of my luggage. Each morning I would be able to leave my luggage in the lobby, eat breakfast, grab my bike and gear and ride all day. Upon arriving at my destination for the evening, I would find the luggage there waiting. The detailed maps that came with the self-guided tour package included information on trail conditions, suggestions for alternate routes around potential pitfalls, and sights along the way.

I studied the details of my journey.  The most mileage I would need to cover in a single day appeared to be about 50 miles. I brought all my journey materials with me to my next meeting with Coach Susan " breakfast at Einstein Bagels on Braker Street.

“Guess what?” I said.  “It looks like the biggest mileage in one day will be 50-55 miles.  There are two of these days in a row.  I planned a rest day in between.  It would be the geographic mid-point of the whole ride.”  I spread a map on the table and Susan studied it.

“Do you have elevation profiles?” she asked. 

I pulled a booklet out of my folder and put it on the table.  Susan flipped through the pages.  The pages displayed an elevation profile graph for each segment of the ride.  Elevations expressed in meters on the vertical axis with distance expressed in kilometers along the bottom horizontal axis. 

“These will tell you how much work you have to do each day,” she said.  “The mileage might be shorter but if the grade is a steep climb all day…”

“Then I could be toast if the next day is one of the big-mileage days,” I finished her sentence. 

We flipped through the pages.  For several days, there would be steady climbing the whole way.  Some sharp elevations followed by descents.  There were a series of brutal looking climbs from 500 meters up to 1300 " 1500 meters on the last few days of the journey.  It looked like the very last day of riding would be all descending.  The back-to-back 50-55 mile days did not contain big elevation changes and were the mid-point of the trip. 

“Ok, we will have no problem getting you up to handle 50 mile days,” Susan said.  I want you to find a couple cycling events in Austin that have a 50-mile option and register for them.  I have a list of options for you to consider.  Let me know which ones you are going for and we’ll adjust your training plans accordingly.  Even if you are the only one, you need to take your mountain bike on these cycling events -- 50 miles on a mountain bike could be equivalent to 150 miles on a road bike.  That’s the difference in efficiency between the two.”

 Since I had paid for the self-guided tour and airfare, I knew that my backdoor “escape hatch” was shut. The countdown had begun. I was going on this trip, no matter what.   Now I told everyone I knew about my upcoming adventure.

I practiced Coach Susan’s guidelines about endurance hydration by swallowing some water every few minutes on long rides -- even if I had to set a timer on my watch to beep every few minutes to remind me. I took swallows of water by sucking on a flexible tube connected to a backpack-mounted 1.5-liter water bladder " a CamelBak. I also learned that the nutrition strategy that worked best for me on long rides was to eat a 240-calorie snack bar each hour I rode.  On long training rides, the snack bars were not enough.  I can tell when my blood sugar is getting too low " my mood suffers and I feel fatigued.  I experimented with adding a carbohydrate and protein powder mix to my water and this seemed to help on long rides.  Oh, and I learned to avoid sugar at all costs while riding.  Sugar saps my energy.

            At home, I converted a room into a quest command center.  The bicycle balanced on a stand on one side of the room with assorted items dangling from its handlebars -- gloves, helmet, and CamelBak.  Nearby was a counter-high table with a growing collection of gear:  a box of snack-bars, carb and protein powder for mixing with water, a bottle of bicycle lubricant, sunblock, spare tubes, and bike tools.   Cold-weather outerwear hung on a stool.  I recorded training rides and mileage in a calendar that migrated around the room " sometimes it was on the table; sometimes it was on a bench shared with my cycling shoes.  A suitcase in a corner of the room served as the staging area for items I would need in Spain -- a binder with trail maps, elevation profiles, and clear plastic sleeves to protect maps from the elements. 

One big wall of the command center was covered in Michelin maps of Spain taped together to display the entire route.  The route stood out as a pink highlighted line from one end of northern Spain to the other.   Yellow sticky notes marked the places I would stay overnight; each note had a date on it and the anticipated number of miles between it and the next note.  I could recite the destination for each day from memory:  Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Estella, Logroño, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Burgos, Carrión de los Condes, León, Rabanal del Camino, Villafranca del Bierzo, Sarria, Leboreiro, and Santiago de Compostela.  It was a meditation, a chant.

            The final few weeks prior to departure included frequent visits to my favorite bike shop for gearing-up. I was taking a trunk that could mount on the bike seat stem. This trunk could carry everything needed during the ride:  tools, spare tubes, snack bars, first aid kit, camera, maps, and rain wear. My long training rides were now with a fully loaded bike trunk to condition myself to the extra weight.

            I thought I prepared for everything. Wasn’t I a project manager at work?  But four days before I was to leave for Spain, another Guardian stepped into view.

            Guardian:  “What happens if your bike breaks down?  Yeah, you have had several pinch flats and can change out tubes like a pro.  But what would you do with a broken spoke?  Remember you have had three broken spokes in the last 5 months of training, right?  What about a broken chain?  What about something unexpected?  Do you think there will be a bike shop anywhere near when you are in the boonies and something goes wrong?  Were you thinking that NOTHING would go wrong with the bike?”

I felt panicked.  I had no answer for this.  When I had a broken spoke, I could tell something was horribly wrong.  I would just take the bike to the bike shop for them to fix.  This happened on three occasions. 

On another training ride, I had a flat that resulted from a punctured tire.  I changed the tube just to have the new tube blow up again when it popped out of the puncture and exploded.  I used a folded dollar bill to “boot” the tire " the folded dollar bill blocking the puncture and preventing the next tube from bursting through with 50 pounds of pressure once fully inflated.  I always had two spare tubes with me, a small pump, tire levers, and a multi-tool.  I knew how to adjust the bicycle to ensure the brakes were working properly and not rubbing on the wheels.  I could adjust the spokes to true a wheel " not that I was particularly good at it.  But I did not have the ability to field repair other bicycle break-down scenarios.  I had never messed with the chain.  And I did not have a plan for a broken spoke situation.  And what else was likely to go wrong with the bike over 500 punishing miles?    

            Coach Susan came to my rescue by connecting me with one of her riding buddies, Fred. He spent a couple hours with me in his garage one afternoon.

Fred talked as he walked around the garage grabbing several tools, a spare bike chain, and setting a bike up on a stand.  “I volunteer to help put bikes together for several rides here in Austin.  Out-of-town riders ship their bicycles to Austin for an event.  I help tune and ready the bikes for their use.”

“Sounds like you are the perfect person to tutor me.  I really appreciate this!”

 “Your trip sounds amazing; I can’t wait to hear the details!” 

We walked through several of the most likely bicycle breakdown scenarios.  I practiced using a chain tool to install a replacement link should the chain get damaged or broken.  We talked about a strategy for dealing with a broken spoke scenario:  the plan was to get some spare spokes (two different sizes) and keep these in the seat stem of my bike for emergency use " it would not be pretty but would allow me to get by until I got to a bike shop. 

“Here, I want you to take this book with you,” Fred handed me the Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair by C. Calvin Jones.  “It has detailed pictures.  You can bring it back to me after your trip " I want to hear all about it when you get back.”

            It was now two days prior to my departure. Armed with new knowledge and the Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair, I dodged past the final Threshold Guardian. Something powerful and mysterious awaited me in Spain.  I felt prepared. Little did I know how soon I would need the Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair.

© 2014 Paul Minor

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Added on July 13, 2014
Last Updated on July 13, 2014


Paul Minor
Paul Minor

Austin, TX

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A Chapter by Paul Minor