Other Ways


On a good day, you will find no reason to ride up Stella Road. It bends serpentine up and away from Pleasant Street, the top invisible from the bottom. It is steep enough as it twists up toward the tree line, that you need to go straight for your small ring rather than trying to work back up your cassette, short and sharp, like a punch in the nose.

At the top, you take a hard right onto Ernest Road, which is deeply rutted and potholed and only partially paved. Ernest also rises sharply before tipping over into a wide muddy free-for-all of a descent that requires staying back off the saddle, lest you find yourself burying a front wheel in a deep mud puddle and testing the more extreme effects of gravity on your fragile physiognomy.

Most days I choose Stella and Ernest as part of my way home.

In winter, our New England roadways get constricted by snow. Even with lights visible from outer space, I feel vulnerable in the heavy darkness. The headlights shear the night in two with a Dopplering whisper from behind. Safe cycling, or at least safe-feeling cycling, requires finding other ways home. Stella and Ernest are the other way, a crooked, rutted path that takes me out of harms way, if I can manage the climb and plunge with my meager handling skills.

I didn’t always do this, choose other ways. I used to just bull through by the most direct route. I was proud of my ability to take just enough lane to let cars know when not to pass me. I was pushy and fast, slaloming traffic when there wasn’t enough room on the right, pushing at the pedals to keep pace with traffic, taking chances when the reward didn’t justify the risk. Naturally, this led to some confrontation, some frank exchanges of views, some frantic hand gesturing, and in the end,  a lot of anxiety I didn’t need.

I needed to find other ways of getting where I wanted to be.

It should not be a revelation to anyone that the bike is an ideal tool for exploring alternate routes. Stella and Ernest are but one way to traverse the relatively short distance between my home and office. There is another route that goes by an Audubon sanctuary. There is one that takes in two brief sections of rail trail. There is one that doubles my vertical gain.

Other ways are increasingly important to me. Between my way and the highway, there are a lot of other choices.

I seem to be out of that pig-headed young man part of my life, children and responsibilities and simple experience burring off my edges. I can accept a lot more bullshit than I used to. I can even, in the right light, appreciate some bullshit. This last represents, I think, some not insignificant personal growth.

Stella Road is bullshit, but suggests to me that there are many parts of my life in which finding other ways might make sense, other paths that, while initially steeper and more challenging, do a better job of getting me where I want to be.


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  1. gmknobl

    How to take BS and know it for the, usually, minor thing it is, is definitely a thing of maturity; “don’t sweat the small stuff” is the saying but the trick is recognizing what IS the small stuff. Of course, not risking your hide from some pickup driving yahoo while also keeping your blood pressure down are bonuses too. So, balance that with the sweat you get from riding to work (where there’s not place to wash) and the leg aches.

    Good read.

  2. Peter Kelley

    I like this post. Cycling reflects life in many ways. Even the way you traverse Stella and Earnest will evolve with the passage of time.

  3. christopheru

    Looking at and reading about those roads, I would go out of my way to ride them. I love the road least travelled, and seek it out when I can. Mind you, my road bike is a cyclocross bike, and has been since before they were cool. And that says something about how I approach this sport I suppose.

    I agree with you about how age and experience tend to file off the rough edges. That is how I feel these days, rounder, better able to roll with it rather than stick. I would much rather take the path of least resistance when I am out on my two wheeled machines. The flow there is better, both physically and mentally.

    I come away smiling and happy, rather than angry and stressed. And that is, for me, what makes it worth taking the bikes out.

  4. Steve

    I really enjoyed this, for many reasons. One being that the experience of riding a road like Stella, embraces a different kind of risk. I’m betting that an altercation with a car on Srellai s not likely, though stuffing a wheel and launching a$$ over teakettle is quite real. Riding on poor surfaces is an acquired taste and makes fresh, silky tarmac (a seemingly rare occurrence in these times) all the more fun. There is also an element of skill in negotiating these hazards without damaging both living and non-living components.

    When I first cracked a rim on a pothole – I was pissed off at the city for not taking care of this major thoroughfare. Though, when a friend asked me how often I’d ridden that route, and if I’d seen the hole before, I sheepishly replied, “yeah.” “Every time you take to the road, you are responsible for what happens. There is an art to navigating through this mess and you’re a savvy enough rider to do it with intention – but you need to pay attention – all the time. Those pot holes can be seen in a playful light – if you so choose.” It had a very Buddhist tone to it at the time which is one of the reasons it stuck with me.

    It has taken a while (years) for me to embrace the playful nature of riding that this wise friend spoke of, but I now look for what I call the “rough ways” when I can. Sometimes taking the gravel with my old steel single-speed LeMond is a simple pleasure I give myself when feeling a little off. That is the same bike I rode when I ruined the rim on that pothole. I now have 32-spoke rims that are beefier, and I now have the skills to re-lace a new wheel if I should push it too hard (rims are relatively inexpensive). Though, I don’t feel like I’m as likely to ruin a rim any more (I may regret saying that) as I’ve gotten better at that art, thanks to more practice and embracing a more playful attitude. Yeah, for me taking Stella is just a more playful choice.

  5. Author

    @ Bryan – Is this what you were trying to teach me all those years we spent holed up in the office together?

  6. brucew

    It took me a few years of commuting to shed the direct route mindset. I likened it to playing in traffic.

    Over the past several years, I’ve found myself taking alternate routes more frequently. So much so that by last year, the direct route had become my alternate route.

    My favorite route doubles my distance to work, but leads me through a city park, Cobbs Hill, then climbs and descends through a quiet leafy neighborhood along the north face of Pinnacle Hill. I climb through a county park, Highland, then descend to the cemetery.

    Going to work, I usually use a 100-yard 12% cobbled climb, channeling my inner hardman. I climb past Susan B. Anthony, then follow a twisty descent to a section that’s being allowed to deteriorate. The asphalt crumbles to a gravel and dirt pathway on a side hill past city founder Col. Nathaniel Rochester.

    A mile later I find the gate and sneak in the back way through the University of Rochester’s River Campus where I ride along the river and use their ped bridge to cross and rejoin the city streets.

    Coming home through the cemetery I climb past Frederick Douglass, followed by a potholed, serpentine, rim burning descent to the gate. By the time I’m at the gate, the workday’s stresses are all burned off and forgotten. Ahead, the morning’s climbs are the evening’s descents, the morning descents the evening climbs. Not the same ride at all.

    It’s become not so much a commute, but a daily visit with old friends.

  7. Drago

    Ah, yes: growing up and actually enjoying the ride to wherever you might be going. The place a few too many bicyclists (guys on bikes) never reach.

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