It wasn’t until I was showered and dressed and in the car, on my way to pickup burritos, that the feeling hit me. Turning the key fired the stereo, and the first thundering chords of my current favorite album came leaping out at me like a large dog, eager to greet its owner. I smiled then, and it dawned on me how happy I felt, a good ride in my legs, the promise of dinner, and the knowledge that I had nothing else to do for the day.
I had waited through the morning heat, the humidity embryonic and cloying, wondering if I’d get a ride in, if the worst of it would burn off or give way to one of those summer rains that leaves everything steaming and bright and clean. I did that annoying thing where you check the weather app on your phone every ten minutes, willing it to tell you a lie. With my most cherished (and hardest) ride of the year coming up, I didn’t think I could skip a Saturday’s suffering.
So at 4:14 I rolled out. It was 92F and still forbiddingly muggy, not the time to take on a set of hill repeats, but having squandered the morning, and with a bellyful of fear for being tragically under-trained coming into the high season, I didn’t feel I had any other choice.
Fortunately, I live at the top of a tall rise, a frequent training ground for the city’s more pain-inclined cyclists, and the best route to repeat is a mere 150 meters south of my driveway. For the first lap, I cut into the hill halfway up giving my legs a chance to understand what they were in for, before diving down clear to the bottom to begin the real suffering.
Now, I love climbing. If I was made to do anything on a bike (and that’s a highly debatable proposition), it’s climbing. I love the struggle and the rhythm of it and the way it washes your brain clear of everything but the effort. I don’t often do hill repeats, because I don’t often take on structured training, but if I do train it’s on the side of a steep hill. It’s a hard way to clear your head, but I am willing.
This particular hill also affords a sweeping view of the Boston skyline from Dorchester clear north to Somerville. There is a sprawling park very near the top, and thousands gather there on the 4th of July to watch the Boston fireworks. When flaying yourself with the lash of hill repeats, that view serves as a nice reward for every crest reached.
I worked at it for about an hour, up-and-down, up-and-down, with cars swishing lazily past me, the zipper of my jersey creeping closer and closer to my navel, everything succumbing to the torpid heat, my pace devolving from the first eager climbs to the final, staggering haul. Once I’d satisfied myself that I’d hurt enough, I went and spun my legs out on a slightly flatter route, everything feeling heavy, my head steaming.
And then the shower and the dinner plan, the kids splayed in front of the TV watching a movie and me in the car. The air-conditioning did its hot/warm/cold thing, and the music washed through me like a party drug. Endorphins and seratonin swirled, and the world outside ceased spinning, stopped rushing forward frantically, frenetically, for just a minute.
This is what I want, what I always wanted, the same stillness I get as I’m rocking gently in the saddle, pressed against that hill. I want to bring it with me, off the hill and into the house, to share it with my wife and kids and have it suffuse everything I do with clarity.
It’s not like that though. Its impermanence magnifies its brilliance. Scarcity raises demand. The high fades, even as legs buzz from the effort still, emptiness echoing in my gut. Hill repeats in high-summer heat? Yes. And another ride the next day, chasing, always chasing, just that minute of peace.
Image: source needed TDF 1961
They never even looked back. Two fellow travelers, grinding and swinging up the hill in front of me. As I turned the corner into the climb’s lower ramp I glanced up and saw them there. I thought, “can I catch them?” and put my head back down.
My wife had been emailing with some friends about summer plans. Summer. As if that’s a thing now. And their calendars were filling up, and there I was in my tired desk chair shaking my head and wondering at people who were thinking about more than what was in front of them at the moment.
I have not been too hard at the pedals for these last few moons, succumbing to winter like dry leaves to a campfire. Still, those two riders on the hill weren’t drilling it. They were trading off the front like they were serious, but I was making up ground. “Oh, I’ll just go hard in this first section and see how much gap I close,” I told myself. Them swiveling their way into the middle, flatter part of the climb.
“I’m sorry,” I typed back to my wife. “I’m OTB as far as the summer goes.” And she to me, “OTB?” And me back, “Off the back.” And her, “Oh.” And then nothing.
When I reached the flat after the first rise, that blessed point where you can get a real gear back under you, I gauged my progress and saw that I was, in fact, reeling them in. What was 40 meters had shrunk to 20. The swish and roar of traffic made the whole thing something of a pantomime, them fleeing, me pursuing. I clicked twice down the cassette, stood into the work.
I suppose if you know you’re going to be OTB you do something to mitigate the consequences. You seek help. You delegate what tasks you can to willing collaborators. You let folks know you might not be getting back to them with the alacrity they’ve come to expect.
With the gap cut to 15 meters, maybe 12 really, my sonar or dead reckoning or powers of estimation now being swept into the dustpan of oxygen debt, I thought to do the right thing. I eased off. Not to give up. Not to back off. Not to concede defeat. But rather to pace myself. Too anxious am I usually to hurtle across a gap, this the recipe for blowing up, so that just as I make contact, I lose the ability to hold myself steady on the bike. I go all knees and elbows, power draining out the acute angles of my flailing.
Work is busy, and I have placed my attention there, perhaps to a fault. It is not so much that I am behind with my work, but rather that I feel a sudden quickening of results there. The momentum is with me (us) and I am hell bent on holding it and keeping it and stoking it, taking what the road will give me, riding the lightning. You get my point.
And so, with maybe 10 meters to go, 10 striding paces to close the gap and kiss in relief the rear wheel of a rider I’ve never met, I saw that I wouldn’t make it. Nearing the top of the climb, the whole thing only about a mile long, we were flattening out. They were pressing tentatively at their own shifters. Having not gone full gas, they were able to exploit their improved terms with gravity to an extent that I was not.
I never know when I’m going to be OTB. At some point, I lift my head to see what’s coming and realize I’m not close to where I ought to be. I’m out of shape. I haven’t thought of the summer. There are things outside work that need my attention. What have I been doing? Why? Are my priorities all out of whack? Usually, yes.
I had not gone that deep yet this year. Rolling up to the top of the climb, watching my friends, total strangers still, take the corner that leads away from the up. My lungs burned. I was disappointed in myself for not catching them, but also happy that I had convinced myself to try.
When you’re OTB, you find out who your friends are. My wife has planned our summer. She knows I’m not a great planner of leisure time activities. I’m task oriented. I clean the bathroom. I pick up after the dog. Equally, on the bike, the guys I ride with will spin along next to me, chatting, because that’s what I need, that’s what they need, and we all know we’re OTB, but we’re working on it. It’s not so bad.
We’ll catch on. Just give us some time.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
The deleterious effects of Hurricane Sandy notwithstanding, fall is normally my favorite riding season of the year. The cooler temperatures mean I can go farther, faster than I do in the oppressive summer months. I seem to be particularly susceptible to the heat, sweating like a cold coke on a summer dashboard. I dehydrate like astronaut ice cream, like the sand at the edge of the tide line.
Winter is under-rated. The snowy season has given me some of my coolest riding experiences and most challenging circumstances. From the pure joy of a cold, bright morning ride, to testing yourself against driving wind and sleet, I would never call winter my favorite, but, like an old girlfriend, we’ve had some good times together.
Spring, at least where I live, is a pretty blessed time. Exiting the cave of winter, you get that first taste of warmth, the expanding light of lengthening days. Again, you are doing more than the bare minimum. Your cycling pops like a daffodil from the frozen soil.
And let me not completely disparage summer. The salad days run long and give rise to improbable after-work rambles with friends. I struggle with hydration and the challenges of being soaked with sweat for hours on end, but it is all worth it, returning home with road grime pasted to your ankles and your helmet straps white and distended.
This week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: What is your favorite season to ride and why? Our Southern Hemispheric friends are all exiting winter now, not plunging into Autumn. I wonder how they feel about it. I wonder if anyone else suffers the summer quite the way I do.