The night slips in quietly, coldly, gray to black. Streetlights flicker and ignite, and headlights maraud across town swooping and swerving while we, in our fluorescent offices, stare out into the darkness and think about riding home.
Like most little kids, I was afraid of the dark. My six-year-old reminds me of this. He clings close if we have cause to walk through the nighttime neighborhood, not sure what he’s afraid of but sure it’s out there. And I can relate as I sift through my layers, base, middle and top, thinking about the ride home.
It is scary, especially in this early part of winter when the clocks fall back, and the drivers are still getting accustomed to driving by halogen. The darkness magnifies sound, cars sloughing through the thin air, tires jabbering against the sandy roadways. You feel isolated, strapped to the wing of the plane, while everyone else sits in coach, munching peanuts and watching the free movie.
Preparation is central to success. Cables connect lights to USB ports, and laundry needs attention to make sure all the necessary layers can be ready. Warmers and booties and gloves and hats. Jackets and vests and clear-lensed glasses. Lumens spill onto the pavement, limning the potholes and patches of ice. Tires get wider.
The transition we were talking about only very recently is here. The need to keep pedaling has grown acute. This is not the hardest part, but the hardest part is coming. We will need some momentum, now that it is dark.
We can talk about the cold with its tingling extremities and its runny nose, but the cold is always manageable. Mostly, riding generates the warmth you need to go on riding. But the darkness oppresses. The darkness discourages. The darkness is the real challenge. Just ride to the solstice and hang on as we roll out again into the light of spring.
I have a very real sense of commitment being tested. It is not how many days I can set out from home, but how many nights I can throw my leg back over the top tube and return. And all those adventure days, when snow swirls across the road and the street lights make bright puddles to leap through, they are all made of a commitment to setting out in the dark now, as the sun falls in the middle of the afternoon.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I was JRA (just riding along), my legs rising with the pedals and then falling again, letting the circles be circles without adding or subtracting anything. Sometimes it blows my mind that I can do this, just let the bike roll beneath me.
Momentum is mass in motion, a rider on a bike, just rolling along. It is a function of mass and velocity, but metaphorically also a measure of what we are moving toward or away from in our larger lives. In some ways, ‘Can I pedal harder up this hill?’ is a similar question to ‘Can I sneak in one more day on the bike this week?’ which is only a tactical permutation of ‘Am I getting better at what I’m doing?’ or ‘Am I moving forward in my life?’
I find that when I am moving well in the literal way, I am probably moving well in the other way as well.
I also think of momentum as what is happening in the moment. What forces are at play? Am I moving with them or against them? Sometimes just being present in the moment is a challenge, external forces rag-dolling me through like a kid caught in a too tall wave. We wait around for something magic to happen, maybe we put ourselves in magic’s way, ride a tall mountain, shoot a twisting descent, ramble over miles of dirt and gravel. We are only trying to force ourselves into the moment, gathering the circumstances that will focus our attention, if only briefly.
It is tempting to bring inertia into the discussion, but there we are talking about bodies at rest. Inertia is a measure of a body’s resistance to momentum. Even in a track stand the bike yearns to move. Sometimes it yearns hard enough to deposit you on the asphalt. That we control that movement is only our temporary mastery of momentum, the asphalt a measure of our hubris.
My form on the bike is more than just fitness. It is also my ability to work with whatever momentum I’ve got. Can I keep my fingers off the brake as I lean against a turn, dropping my knee as counterweight, edging the volume of my tire against the broad surface of the road? Can I find the will to drop down the cassette at the crest of a steep rise, to pound into those tall gears that will spit me out the bottom at something approaching terminal velocity? Can I wed concentration to that force, dance with it, bend it to my will, and accept its own thoughts on the subject? This is souplesse.
Off the bike, wiser heads ask me whether I want to be right or happy, and I smile and think this is really a decision about whether I want to squander the momentum I have to prove a point, to stop in the road to admire my own paint job. Do I want to swap momentum for inertia? Mostly not. Life is hard enough without riding the brakes all the time. I’d rather go smooth than fast.
I don’t know about you, but I capture very little of the momentum I receive. Mostly my ego revolts, pulls back hard on the brake levers, and I shake my head, over and over, at my own stupidity, the past welling up to overwhelm the present. Or else I am afraid. What will come around the next corner? What horrors await in the wreckage of the future?
The bike is like this, both teacher and blackboard, serving up lessons and giving us a place to practice. As ever, I struggle to pay attention in class, but I believe the answers are there, on the bike, in the moment, somewhere just beyond my front wheel.
Image: Matt O’Keefe