Tough Love Experiences

Words/images: Heidi Swift

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It was an innocent suggestion. Cañada was where I’d first really learned to ride a road bike and it was one of the few roads I knew very well. I was comfortable there. Running from north to south, parallel to the Crystal Springs Reservoir near San Mateo, California, it was a forgiving and relatively flat piece of terrain.

Every Sunday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. the San Mateo County Parks Department closes a portion of the road to motor traffic, creating a haven for cyclists, walkers and the occasional rollerblader. When we lived in San Francisco, we would drive to the north entrance, park the car and spin out an easy 30-ish miles before heading somewhere for a beer. We’d been going to Cañada for Bicycle Sunday for almost a year and I was finally getting the hang of the whole cycling thing: the unnerving clipping-in and -out, the mysterious and initially terrifying concept of drafting, the endless pile of required gear.

I was a runner, so cycling seemed needlessly complicated. But fate had stuck me with one of these spandex-kitted, bicycle-riding fanatics, so I was putting in an effort. I’d selected my first road bike after a meticulous research phase during which Sal would email me a photo of a bike and I would accept or reject it based on either aesthetics or the way the name of the brand sounded in my mouth. Klein seemed such an ugly word, short and clumsy—vetoed! “LOOK”? You want me to ride a bike called, “LOOK”? Next!

Then one day he sent me a photo of an orange-and-blue frame. It was an unexpected color combination, kind of flashy. It seemed like a lot more fun than the plain blue or black bikes he’d been showing me so far. I zoomed in on the picture to see if the name would cut mustard: “Pinarello.” Pinarello! Yes, of course that would work. Who knows what a Pinarello is or how it might actually perform, but doesn’t it sound lovely? I emailed him back with a single word: SOLD!

His response was immediate: “You can’t have that one!”

Baffled, I picked up my office phone to call and find out why he’d sent me a picture of a bike I “couldn’t have.” In the conversation that followed it emerged that he wanted the bike for himself. Or, more precisely, he didn’t want me to get a Pinarello before he did. “I’m Italian!” he argued. “I don’t even have a Pinarello! I didn’t think you’d actually choose it!”

The argument was lost on me. I lacked the cultural context to fully comprehend his position. Besides, by telling me I couldn’t have it, he’d made me want it more. It was too late. The frame was deeply discounted new old stock—a 1999 model being sold by an outfit from Chicago in 2001—which put it within the budget I’d laid out. We ordered it later that night and it arrived at my office a week later.

We built it in what would have been the dining room of our one-bedroom apartment in Ocean Beach. Since we didn’t really have any furniture anyway, it was a perfectly good place to set up a workstand. While Sal worked, I made sure there was an endless stream of Totino’s pizza rolls and beer. In those days, you could get them delivered straight to your door within an hour by an ill-fated little startup called Kozmo. In truth, the junk food deliveries were what had prompted the whole biking renaissance in the first place—for a little more than four months our bodies had been expanding in all directions. Several evenings’ worth of pizza rolls later, my Pina’ was functional and I began to explore the very strange world of road cycling.

Sal was convinced I would be a natural on the bike and I rewarded his optimism by being exactly the opposite. In fact, I took to the bike like a cat to water—reluctantly and with great drama. I’d not yet learned the beauty of a professional bike fit, so my hands were constantly sore, neck aching, toes numb…. Lucky for Sal, I have a raging masochistic streak, and I’d accepted the discomfort as part of the deal. It was like a 4:30 a.m. cross-country workout (horrible but necessary), something that would somehow make me stronger as long as it didn’t kill me. And occasionally, when it was over, it even made me feel good.


I stuck with it and over the following year I worked up to my longest ride ever: 40 miles. This seemed like a perfectly acceptable place to stop, but Sal had other ideas. To him, it was just the beginning. His imagination was reeling with all the possibilities, all of the future adventures, including century rides and big mountains. After years of dating people who competed for time he would have preferred to spend on his bike, he’d finally created a cyclist girlfriend. It was the best of both worlds, and he was determined to see it through.

It was around this time that he suggested we ride our bikes all the way out to Cañada Road instead of taking the car. We were living in San Jose at this point and the drive to where we normally parked took at least 25 minutes. I grabbed a computer and mapped it.

“That’s going to be an 80-mile ride.” I said, “Are you fucking crazy?”

“You’re strong,” he replied, “And besides, you’ve ridden 40 miles, right? It’s just like riding 40 miles once, taking a short break, and then doing it again.”

For some reason that I will never understand, his logic actually made a lot of sense to me. I went into our room and dressed myself in his college kit, the hand-me-downs that served as my cycling clothing. On the front porch I mentioned that it felt a little cooler than usual. “You’ll warm up when you start riding,” he assured me.

I did. And the ride north started out fine. We wound through neighborhoods and along the wide shoulders of five-lane suburban expressways. As we got closer to Cañada, we began to see more and more cyclists. We said hello. I noticed they were wearing jackets and warmers and wondered if they knew something that I didn’t. Five minutes later the sky darkened and the temperature dropped. No problem, I thought, I’m from the Northwest, I was bred for this stuff.

It never rained, but the chill remained. After two hours I asked Sal if he had any food, having neglected to plan for the fact that I might actually get hungry. We split the single nutrition bar that he had in his pocket and kept pedaling. I wondered if maybe we should have more to eat, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t like to complain. Besides, Sal knew what he was doing. He’d been doing this forever, right?


At the turnaround point, we stood at the edge of Crystal Springs Reservoir and took in the view—rolling green hills and silvery light like only California can produce. This was the place we normally parked the car and I secretly hoped that it would be there so we could load up the bikes, turn on the heat and go somewhere to get a hot chocolate. It wasn’t, of course, so instead I made a very purposeful mental note of my “break” between two 40-mile rides, reset my psychological odometer and set out as if I had just begun.

Unfortunately, although my mind was on board, my body had other ideas.

It all came apart for me around mile 67. My pace had already slowed considerably, but at mile 67 I came to a complete stop, put my foot down and crossed my arms. Sal was good at checking back to make sure I was still on his wheel, so he noticed my disappearance right away and circled back.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m done.”

“What do you mean, you’re done? We are 13 miles away from home and there is no other way to get back. You have to pedal.”

“I can’t,” I said. I hated those words. They had been forbidden in my house as a child and I was not accustomed to hearing them come out of my own mouth. But on this day, in this moment, they felt great. “I’m gray.”

“What do you mean, you’re gray? You look normal colored to me.”

I was bonking, though I didn’t yet know that the sensation had a name, that it was universal, and that millions of people before me had also felt this gutted, hollow void—this debilitating emptiness.

“I’m going to die. I’m going to pass out.” I was down the rabbit hole of melodrama now, so I decided that I might as well follow it all the way. I felt my eyes get hot behind the lids. I was desperate. I hated crying. Crying was desperate. I let it rip.

Then, for the first time in our three-year relationship, Sal lost his patience with me: “Start pedaling right now. It’s all in your head! Your mind is stronger than your body—make yourself do it. There’s no other way home.” Then he rode away.

I realized that I had become the recipient of Tough Love, a concept and form of motivation that I not only embraced, but also often distributed. Suddenly, I wanted to punch the Tough Love Me right in the face. And then I wanted to punch the Tough Love Sal in the gut. But first I had to get home.


So I started pedaling again in the fitful rhythm of the Cycling Dead. (Months later Paul Sherwen would give me the term “pedaling in squares” to wield while relating this story to friends.) I’d pedal for five minutes and then stop, each time Sal demanding I start again. “You have to pedal! Let’s go!! STOP–PUTTING–YOUR–FOOT–DOWN!”

It took an hour-and-a-half to cover the 13 miles to home and by the time we got there neither one of us was speaking to the other. I retreated immediately to the bathroom with a banana and a candy bar and submerged myself up to my ears in a hot tub of water. Outside the door I could hear Sal’s mom, Fina, scolding him for being gone so long. Soon they were discussing food. I heard the flatware clatter as Sal’s sister set the table. It wasn’t until Fina yelled, “A tavola!” that I pried my body from the warm water and stumbled to the dinner table. All sulking aside, no one messes with that woman’s dinner table.

Sal and I ignored each other for the duration of dinner, but as my blood sugar began to stabilize I gained strength to plot my revenge. Over a plate of linguini I lobbed passive-aggressive missiles in his direction in the form of bringing up topics that would get his mother riled up. By the time he realized what was happening, I had her off and running on enough subject matter to keep him in trouble for a month.

Thirteen years later, the “80-Mile Ride” incident is still the biggest fight we’ve ever had when measured by the length of time not speaking to one another (56 hours). Neither one of us has ever explicitly apologized for our part in the events that transpired that Sunday. And while we have since enjoyed hundreds of rides harder than the Infamous Eighty, we have never retraced that particular path. But Sal’s mamma still occasionally gets angry with him for things I brought up at the dinner table that night.

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