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.
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.