There is a place that we will know only once we have arrived there. It defies definition by latitude and longitude, lies at an indistinct distance from the starting point, and access may be denied if we are alone, or sometimes if we are not alone.
We know we’re there when the pedaling seems effortless or the weather seems perfect, even possibly when it’s snowing, or when we realize that a broad, stupid grin has appeared below our noses while we rolled along, wholly unaware.
Some days I can arrive there simply by rolling up the garage door, my left hand on my top tube, my right adjusting the cant of my helmet. Other times, I can ride and ride and ride, sweat pouring through my brows, stinging my eyes, straining at the pedals to achieve the correct velocity or find the right rhythm, only to find that place unreachable in the time I have allotted, or more accurately, in the time life has allotted me.
At some point, a prison break feels a drop in the pit of his stomach, a visceral sense that the chasing guards and their dogs have stopped chasing. We disappear into the pages of a novel. Jules Verne has taken us 20,000 leagues deep. H.G. Wells has us off in his time machine. For a few minutes, maybe more, it all goes non-linear.
I leave my house and ride an ugly, meandering loop, a child’s scrawl on a map, and I return home, and I haven’t been anywhere near this place, never arrived there but simply rode around in the ultimately nonsensical way of the cyclist, leaving home, traveling for hours, only to arrive where I started. Solipsistic. Self-referential.
With friends, I can ride along with my hands on top of the bars, my head swiveled to one side, riffing on the same joke we’ve been telling since the 20th century put us on a two-wheeled machine in the first place, or else digging deep in the mine of shared human experience, exhuming what diamonds we might, and again time disappears and miles burn like so many calories flying invisibly off our back tires like road spray.
When I dream of this holy place, when I see it in my mind, I am climbing up a narrow, heavily wooded road by myself. My heart is in my throat. I can almost hear it pulsing in one of my ears. I am close to my limit, but at that pace, that rhythm that suggests I can hold and hover there until the crest passes, my head sawing back and forth over the top tube like a metronome. Click. Click. Click.
And there’s nothing else, just me and the work, time slowed down and dripping like molasses, every other thought crowded out like children in a game of musical chairs.
Every time I set out, every time I agree to meet someone for a ride, I am hoping to get to that place, if only I knew just where it was.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
The blinds made their metallic flutter in a breeze that hadn’t breached the window’s sill since some time last September. Dust whorled in the bright sun. The dog raised his head and looked askance before settling back into his mid-afternoon siesta. Were it only, as they say, a dog’s life.
The weather in New England is finally begging us to ride our bikes. Oh, it had allowed us to ride previously. It had granted permission, but it is now fully knees-to-ground begging.
So we rode our bikes. Not the tepid, slow roll of the early season where you’re just gathering at the meet-up to bolster one another’s resolve, but the lung bursting, leg hollowing runs of which mid-summer form is made. I had not ridden as hard as I did last night since before winter’s first snow flakes fluttered to the ground last year.
I could feel the tension rising as we threaded our way out of the city, a prison break that might actually succeed. Once we’d scented that freedom, we lost our heads a little. The Wednesday night ride is the one with tacit, albeit silent, agreement that we will try to break each other. It’s a full gas ride. It is not a race. We always come back together before the end and roll into town as a group, but the middle is a frantic, tongue-lolling scramble over pavement and packed gravel, really the only opportunity I take to ride this way.
At the halfway point, I had swallowed enough dust that the hunger pang bouncing around my hollow gut over the opening 20 miles finally settled. What is the caloric value of New England farmland dust? Or does it just convert readily to adrenaline when mixed with the sight of your buddy going over the rise in front of you, in the drops.
That my lungs burned would be easily enough attributed to the same swirling grit, but I imagine they would have been burning similarly had I been wearing a surgical mask, such was my desperation to take in more air. I was flying along, my good speed only occasionally sapped by loose patches of sand. It felt awful/fantastic.
I had the distinct sense that I was burning off a winter’s worth of lethargy, that I was airing my lungs in much the same way my wife throws open the living room window to let the couch breathe, the dog smelling, child-battered couch, transformed by a bit of sunlight and oxygen.
This ride was more than the first hard ride in the spring shine though. It was a celebration and a protest, an airing of grievances against nature and against ourselves for having let it all go so long without riding this route in this way. Winter has been over for some weeks now, but we needed to get it off of our chests.
Image: Matt O’Keefe