Head Clearing

I think I swallowed an entire phylum of insects rushing through the dusky, summer woods. Without a light (or a water bottle) I had no reason to be there really, so I accepted the protein-rich snack and the pinging of a million little, flying nothings off my arms and face, and rushed onwards down the path.

It might have been a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fire flies lit the way. Joggers and slower cyclists flitted in and out of the deepening darkness like a cadre of Shakespeare’s fairies. I cast myself as Puck.

The thing is, I hadn’t planned to ride. It was a long, busy day. We’d only just wrestled the kids into bed and cleaned the kitchen. And then that feeling took root somewhere in my guts, that restless sort of feeling that finds you pulling on a pair of bib shorts and cinching the velcro on your road shoes.

My wife looked at me askance as I headed for the garage. “It’s getting dark,” her eyes said. But this happens sometimes, and she’s used to it.

Earlier in the day it had struck me that I haven’t been thinking about bicycles so much lately. I detoured briefly into trail running to tune up for a race I had no real business running, and that took me out of the saddle.  Once out of the saddle, once the pedals stop turning over, my mind stops turning over, or turns to other things anyway. Thus the restlessness.

It is fortunate for me, that any ride departing from my house begins with a blast down the steepest hill in town. It clears all superfluous thought from the docket, gets you focused, gets you ready to go fast. So that’s what I did, I shot down the hill, zigged, then zagged and put myself on the longest bike path in the metro area, headed out of town.

Because I’ve been out of the saddle so much, I have rested legs, which are sometimes good. Right away, I maxed out my big ring and sprinted into the thickening air. A layer of moisture materialized on my forearms, part sweat, part humidity.  Sprinting felt good, so I sprinted some more, up out of the saddle, head down, bike rocking beneath me. Then I was down again, turning over my biggest gear until the cadence started to drop, then up and out, accelerating. Over and over.

Because real darkness was coming and this path has an end, I found myself racing against the clock, down in the drops, my back flat, knees churning. The brief passages where the path left the woods to cross a road told me that there might just be enough light left to make the end and turn around before my decision to leave the light at home turned to cavalier stupidity.

Sometimes my whole life seems like a race against stupidity.

I went back to sprinting. Some would call what I was doing intervals, but intervals sound like something you do intentionally, with a stop watch and a good reason for doing them. So that’s not what I was doing.

Near the turn around I passed a couple of cyclists with good, bright lights going the other way. I resolved to tag the end of the path and then fly back to ride their wheels (and lights) home.

They were too slow. I caught them too quickly. They were just trying to get somewhere, slowly, together, eventually.

So I dove back into the darkness and worked my way through the cassette, and soon I was at top speed again. More fire flies. Occasionally a bat.

The light was ebbing quickly, so I turned out and off the path to join the flow of cars heading back toward the city. Coming from that pure and peaceful place in the woods, the transition was a little nauseating at first. Like stepping out of an alpine tent onto the floor of a Vegas casino.

Soon though, I was sprinting against my own shadow from street light to street light, him darting ahead in each pool of brightness, me pulling clear in the in-betweens. If’ I’d had wings, I’d have been airborne. If there is such a place as nirvana, I think I could see it from my saddle. Only the potholes were jarring me loose from pure happiness.

By the time I reached the foot of my hill, I was sweating hard enough that my hands were having trouble keeping hold of the hoods. Should have worn gloves, I guess.

All full of piss and vinegar like that, I big ringed the hill, standing to sprint at every intersection, gasping for air but strong in my legs still. I sat up and rode no-hands down my street, letting the air play over my sweaty face and forearms. And then the garage door opener growled to life and let me back into the house. I stripped down in the basement, by the washing machine, and let the coolness dry me off.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Doug P

    I rode in the woods above the castle last night…a few yards from the house with the dog on the leash as we pass the “main” road, then he’s freed and we accelerate down the gravel road and we’re in the woods. It was still light, but not for long. Luke ran ahead as he always does up the hill, and I finally cleaned the steep part thanks to finally putting an appropriate cassette on the ‘cross bike. I had been using a 23 I bought at the bike swap for $5 and it had served me well in the pancake flats of Sacramento, but here in the hills of Burgundy I needed more teeth. The LBS had got me a 32 and away I went. We rode our three laps in the woods, as the light faded, and Luke eventually slowed to a walk. I always stay behind him when he tires. He’s as competitive as his master and I’m aware he could literally kill himself to stay ahead. Nights like these I can almost hear the sandals of the Centurions as they marched on the “Voie Romaine” on the crest of this hill thousands of years ago. On the return, Luke got his leash back on, next to the market stalls which still have the columns from the Roman Period, holding up the stone roofs particular to the region. A short ride, but oh so sweet!

  2. Phil

    So things were all well and good until I crashed tonight. It was a perfectly dreary evening – sort of like the Giro di Lombardia 2010. I was sprinting for everything, and making sure the cars weren’t coming near me. While navigating a particularly busy and narrow section of road, I decided to move into the pavement so I could take another road. I slowed, turned a corner and smack. On the ground. Damn those slippery steel plates on the ground. So my head clearing ride became “ah heck when can I get back on the bike”?

    Just my luck. Now I need a head clearing ride for my head clearing ride.

  3. Adam

    I love this feeling. I get it while cycling back from mid week crits, I think of it as the accidental disregard of responsibility. You know you could be run over, but it also tastes a lot like freedom.

  4. sophrosune

    You’re a damn good writer, Robot. I didn’t want to read this. I was too distracted, but you got me. Nice work.

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