In the languid summer, in the rise of the hill, as we work our way up and up and up, time suddenly slows and spreads, like a rain drop on the afternoon paper. The prickly tingle of sweat slants across my forehead and threatens to run saltily, stingingly, into my eye.
I wonder at the sand, hard-packed in places, that shushes beneath our tires. It has been rideable up to this point, but why should it stay that way? Why won’t we round some bend and come into a dry patch, unprotected by the swaying pines, that bears the sun’s full heat, so that each grain slips easily against the others, the cumulative friction of thousands and hundreds of thousands of very small rocks grinding against composite rubber and bringing us down, clattering into the dead dry grass of the verge.
How much sand must be here? I contemplate the impossibility of large numbers, fantasize about spending a life counting each granule, the road staked out like an archaeologist’s dig, the whole thing pointless but purposeful.
As my left knee crests its circular path, I become aware of the building acid in my legs, the dull ache forcing its way into the froth of thought. My heart pumps furiously to wash the muscles clean. How many beats per pedal stroke? I don’t know. And what volume of oxygen, distilled from the dusty air, commixes somewhere in my chest, air and fuel combusting in a chamber, firing a piston at some measurable output. All the math goes hypoxic though.
You don’t run these calculations when you’re fresh. It’s only in the desperate dwindling of resources that you begin to worry whether you’ve got what it takes to make the top, to relieve the burden of gravity, becoming a stone, plummeting, great gusts of heat bursting off your back, cooling the admixture of effort that earned you the descent.
My companion sits quietly just ahead and to the left, half a bike’s length on, but the hardness of the work separates us. He might as well be on another planet. I suspect in this moment that he is stronger than I am, that I am somehow holding him back, but this is only self-doubt creeping in, less a product of his superiority than of my own insecurity. We are not tethered together, he and I, but there is some not visible connection, a tension, like water bulging over the rim of a glass. His speed adds to mine. We react to each other’s whimsical surges, unconsciously. Much of the time I am only trying to hold him there, slightly forward and to the left.
I don’t know anyone who lives on this stretch. The houses are all struck back from the road, tucked in their own little glades. Trucks rumble and lurch from the ends of driveways, and I imagine their drivers shaking their heads and smiling bemusedly, wondering at these fools in lycra.
I think to drop my heel as I was taught to do, to scrape the sole of my shoe. In my water bottle, the electrolyte suspension, neon translucent, sloshes rhythmically, left to right, forward and back. It churns in liquid mimicry of my legs. I will wait until the road slackens to reach down, to pull the bottle from its cage and jam it into my gasping mouth. There is the urge to hold the liquid there, like the beach clutching at the tide line, but the need to breathe forces the drink down quickly. I can almost taste it. Almost.
This is a ride with nothing in it. We are not measuring ourselves with magnets or satellites. The route is a vague idea, not a careful plan, and we have only set out to test our legs and build some form. Of course, the test is always more stern than the idea of the test. In the flickering fantasy of riding, in the planning, we are always stronger than we are in the actual pedal stroke, this pedal stroke, with its heavy thud against the ego. Later, when we’ve had the chance to put these moments into the larger context, we will each pretend that we were not so far out into the hinterlands of our capacity, that it was more or less what we expected. This is the tacit agreement of riding friends, the first rule of Fight Club.
I am back to counting. My pedals have not yet completed one rotation, but I am trying to extrapolate the seconds per stroke, the strokes-per-meter or meters-per-stroke, the distance from the jagged stone we have just passed, jutting crudely into the side of the road, to the stump ahead, there at the limit of my vision when I think to tilt my head back, to lift my eyes from my top tube, from the slowly rolling bead of my tire. It could be a quarter mile or it could be a light year.
You can never get your glasses just right on a day like today. At the bottom of the climb the trees cluster tightly and the low angle of the sun leaves it dark. By the middle, the bright light is darting crossways, strobing past the corner of your lens, almost blindingly. And here, now, in the heart of the matter, far enough along to feel the full brunt of the topography but not yet in range of the relieving promise of the top, where the branches fall back and reach upward, everything is cracker-baked, only the dew of the morning and the rising water table, yesterday’s rain, keep the surface tacky and rideable. It all goes three shades whiter, washed out and harsh.
My family is waiting for me, back home. I can imagine my wife reading a book on the back porch, a glass of tea, unsweetened, in front of her. The kids swirl and caper in the road, our dead end drawing scab-kneed boys from all over for roiling games of hide and seek. Excited shouts go up from beyond the widow’s house at the corner, and then all falls tensely silent, kids stuck in the gaps behind garbage cans or perched anxiously at the corner of the garage. I wonder at what point my absence will become problematic.
There is a relief to completing one pedal stroke. Each revolution is a challenge, a microcosm of the whole ride, with struggle at top and bottom, strength somewhere in the middle, the search for rhythm. You have to believe you can keep going, round and round, up and up and up. You have to know you can finish.
Often enough, the joy for me is in letting the hardness of turning the pedals over draw me into the moment. I don’t live there as a rule, too bound up in doing the next thing, planning for future exigencies, sifting through the inadequacies of the past. The present is the only place I can do anything, but it is also the hardest place to be. Sometimes, in the heat of the afternoon, out with a friend, I can drive myself there, an ox plowing a furrow, an idiot riding a bike.