There’s a bit of salt water in my left ear, just that little bit you can’t get out and drives you crazy. On occasion I am still discovering some heretofore unidentified patch of sand dried to my skin. My hair has that brittle feel it gets when the sea and sun are allowed to work on it for days on end. I have been, Dear Watson, on vacation.
As some of you have by now surmised Padraig and I are both on summer holidays this week, he on an epic trek across legendary peaks, I at the beach with the family. It remains to be seen which of us has undertaken the more grueling adventure.
Vacations are almost never what you think they’ll be. I had primed myself for hours of peaceful riding with the Atlantic Ocean hard by my side, but then the first day in this sleepy beach haven I seriously compromised the function of my left big toe with an ill-advised game of beach soccer. Unable since to push off on my left foot, my bicycle was given an impromptu break of its own, in our beach cabin’s mildewy garage.
That humble cabin affords no television or internet signal whatsoever, so it is only by dint of a quick trip through town that I was able to learn that Bjarne Riis has managed to land with all four paws on the ground, a clever trick that answers most of the questions I asked in a piece about the aforementioned Dane only a few short months ago. Could his new team win Roubaix, Flanders AND the Tour next season? How do you say, “Hell, yes!” in Danish? Old Bjarne has now, officially, earned a vacation of his own.
After sitting on my ass for several revolutions of the Earth on its axis, I was beyond ready to remount my bike and, whatever the toe might have to say, to don the uniform of the Red Kite People, if only to roll as far as the local barrista. I have an image to maintain after all, and the lotion-slathered hordes of this quaint hamlet had to be made aware of our fair site here. It was my job to make them aware that our target market is slow, hobble-footed cyclists with large, caffeine-addicted simians on their backs. Birds of a feather, and all that.
Three miles into my ride I had already begun to violate my stated goal of simply spinning along the coastline, pushing no mean gear, sweating no unnecessary sweat. I saw a rider on the hill ahead and my inner-idiot stomped on the pedals, and then I was on his wheel. After a quick breather I said, “Good morning,” and moved past to take a pull. He seemed glad for the break. It was hot and humid, and were both already in full lather. We began to ride and to chat. I received the basic information: New Jersey, Environmental Engineer, three rides a week, in groups, loves his Orbea carbon, and his kids.
We worked our way down the beachline until I began to worry that my hall pass was nearing expiration. We exchanged fist bumps and I slowed for an about face when all of a sudden a fellow blew past going the other way, head down, legs churning. I looped fast and sprinted for his wheel. I didn’t catch it nearly as quickly as I’d hoped to, but I never do.
My new friend was wearing headphones, and it was only a good-natured smile and a willingness to shelter in my slipstream that indicated any initial connection at all. We went on like that for a bit, quietly, quickly, when I nearly pole-axed a jogger, straying like a Belgian dog across the path. We both laughed aloud as our non-wheeled friend WHOOPED and skipped out of the way.
Then the headphones came off and a real conversation got under way. My friend (Specialized Roubaix Elite) was a bit older than myself, tall, thin, with the reedy legs of a natural climber. He talked to me about riding the Rockies with his son, about commuting on Long Island and about losing his wife to ovarian cancer just a year ago.
After retiring early (he couldn’t have been 60), the wife took ill for the second time. The first had been breast cancer. Just as they were starting a new life together, she was gone. “It sucked,” was his summation. He went back to work. I asked if retirement hadn’t suited him. “Oh, fuck no!” he laughed. “I loved being retired.” But after losing his best friend, a lucrative job offer gave him some purpose, some way to keep from drifting in self-pity.
“I’d say I could imagine,” I offered, “but that would be a lie.”
I told him some of my story, happily married, two little boys, and he said, “It’s not going to get any better than that. Your next ten years will be the best time of your life. Enjoy it.” We were quiet again for a bit after that. The flat of the rail trail we’d been working had given way to some back road rollers. The ocean blinked in and out of site between the trees.
On the climbs we rode side-by-side.
Next I learned that his father had just died. He was back in this little beach community to spend some time with his mother, to get his head straight, and to process another large helping of grief. “It’s all about the attitude, isn’t it?” he said, and glanced at me sideways.
We were coming back into the town I was staying in. He asked for directions that would double the distance we’d done together, and I gave them. We stopped. We shook hands. Friends. I don’t know his name.
And then I rode up a lane and over a dale and around a bend and into the dirt driveway of our cabin, sweaty, and tired.
Two little boys can make a mockery of a vacation. My gimpy toe had foiled my plans to unwind into headwinds, to sweat out the impurities of the day job and breathe in the salty sea air. I was in a crap mood, hot and tired, when I left, but when I returned I was restored, in part, yes, because I’d ridden my bike, but also too because I’d connected with another person who reminded me what kind of luck you need to have your vacation ruined by two little monsters of your own making and to still have the pretty girl who gave them to you to pat you on the head and send you out on the goddamn bike to begin with.
Photo of Aad van den Hoek by Cor Vos