If I had been listening to my body, I wouldn’t have peeled right onto Latigo Canyon Road. I’d felt flat on the bike all afternoon, and I could sense the constriction of a chest cold that had been loitering for weeks. But I had rolled out of the driveway intent to do this loop and convinced myself that something was at stake in the act of following through. Perhaps it was true.
For a devoted but untalented rider like me, the full length of Latigo asks for an hour of your life. Unlike some climbs in the Malibu hills, it has no pitches that force you out of the saddle or make you fantasize for a compact crank — Latigo merely demands that you find a gear that you can turn for 60 minutes and settle into it. You spin, you breathe, and eventually the ocean shrinks beneath you.
From the moment I made that right, I knew that I wouldn’t get home before dark and I didn’t care. I had a couple of lights and nothing to do when I got home. I had heavy legs and a lot on my mind and more than 5,000 feet of climbing ahead of me. I exhaled heavily—a deep sigh with a quiet rasp as an endnote.
Latigo has a strange profusion of mileage markers—sometimes three or four in a tenth of a mile—and I passed some of the time on the lower slopes running complex calculations of my progress up the hill. The road has long stretches without a house in sight, and even on a decent Saturday afternoon cars are infrequent. I heard the wind moaning through the canyon and the whine of a motorcycle a mile before it came into view and the steady metronome of my exhalation.
This ride got a late start because I had been going back and forth with my father on email. My dad just turned 80 and he’s sick. I’d forwarded him a piece from The New York Times by Oliver Sacks, and a sort of dialogue had emerged from that. My father is smart and articulate but hard to draw into deeply personal conversations. We’re both like that, I suppose.
The middle of Latigo is just miles of browns and tans and neutral greens. I peered far uphill at an exposed ridge with a house and a power line and tried to remember if that was the top of the main grade. The sweat on my chest was staring to feel cold. I took note of strange bits of trash on the shoulder; the faded beauty of a crumbled Tecate can, the air freshener shaped like a Christmas tree. The rhythm of my breathing was steady. My existence was distilled down to pedaling up this hill—one of those moments where cycling offers a release from all the pressures and grinding realities of the rest of my life.
My father has a condition that doctors call Pulmonary Fibrosis. This is considerably easier to express than to say that my father is dying. His lung tissue is scarred and stiff and thick, and it’s increasingly hard for him to breathe. I can remember waking up and coming down into the living room as a child and seeing my dad sitting there in his underwear, a pack of Wintons in his hand. He quit 20 years ago but it seems like the damage was done. He can’t walk across the room without bottled oxygen now, and his pulmonologist doesn’t think he’ll make it to 81.
I started ruminating about all this as I climbed Latigo and was no longer relaxed. So I popped out of the saddle and dropped a couple gears and tried to grind my way through it. I succeeded and failed with 0.37 miles of effort. My forearms were tingling and my lungs felt hot and I needed to sit down and pull the plug, but that tension was washed out. I probably would need to take medicine or do something self-destructive if I didn’t have the bike. I settled back in and reminded myself to keep a loose grip on the handlebar. I couldn’t see the top of this grade but I could feel it in the cool breeze. The end was near.
In one of the emails my dad had sent me earlier that day, he’d surprised me with his clarity. “I have no fear of dying but I resent being limited with what I can and can’t do,” he wrote. “I must be content to sit, not being able to do the little things that make me happy. I am inert.” These three sentences filled me with admiration and sorrow. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about him dying, but up there on Latigo I was feeling it, digesting it. Cycling can do that, too—it often helps me cut through the churn and absorb things in a meaningful way. I thought of a few things that I would email my father when I got home to keep the conversation going—he needs to speak his mind right now, and I need to listen.
In the meantime, I was near the top of Latigo enveloped by little things that make me happy—the ache of hard work in my quads, late-day shadows, the perfectly nubbed pavement curling through the hills. Also: I was tired and a bit underdressed and 50 miles from home with maybe two hours until sunset, and I was grateful for all that, too. The top of the grade is flat for maybe 100 meters, so I stood up and pressed my right thigh against the top tube and took a long drag of warm, delicious water. I looked back at the ocean; it looked distant and flat and vast and gray. I was all alone up there but I felt a kind of peace—empty and full at the same time. As Latigo began twisting down into the next valley, I moved the chain into the big ring, took a deep breath and put my hands in the drops. What happened next is a blur.
Peter Flax was Editor-in-Chief at Bicycling and has been writing and editing for more than 25 years. He has ridden with and been dropped by numerous Tour de France winners.