In the winter I try to remember what I like about riding bikes. The cold mornings with the air still night-cold can be intimidating, but at least the sun promises better to come if only I will clip in and roll out. The ride home, straight into the darkness and the grind of traffic, can be more forbidding still. Stirring the near-dead ashes of motivation for the surviving coals beneath becomes a bigger job.
Today, I arrived at work the same time as Neil on his fixed commuter. He took the driveway in front of me, and as we came to the dip just before the parking lot, he did that little rear wheel hop you do when you ride fixed, a way to dump some speed quickly. I haven’t ridden fixed for a few years, since we moved to a house on a high hill, but I remember that hop and how it feels. It feels like mastery, and it feels like control. And I miss it, a little.
There is a moment, too, when you are riding along on a brisk winter day, and the cold recedes and heat rises in your core and flows out into your limbs, and suddenly you are less tense. Your movement becomes languid and comfortable, mist rising from the back of your neck, and you feel as though you could ride all day.
Quiet, slow times when you’re alone and you think to slalom gently against the gyroscopic action of your wheels. Sometimes the sun catches the rims and projects a small mobius strip of light on the ground next to you, tracing in and out, suggesting something much more than simply rolling along, some sort of connection to the infinite. Whatever that is.
If I squint I can recall that first burst off the front on the Wednesday night ride in summer, not a race but a competitive ramble with some friends. If it were more competitive I’d never get off on my own, but sometimes they let me go, and I can feel the flush in my legs and breath rise in my chest, and all and everything comes into focus, not just trying to maintain that crazy cadence, but to hold the best line, to find a resting a place in the effort and to enjoy the moment.
Or, when twenty miles disappears in the craic of the group ride, swapping seamlessly off the front and slotting into new conversations. Zingers flying between partners, side-by-side, eyes rolling, directions shouted over shoulders. Distance dissolving in the raw good nature of the whole thing.
Even just bringing myself, as I did today, to ride when the thermometer lies about the day’s true intentions, when the wind has teeth. Water flows off the front lawns of my neighbors and freezes glassily across the road. We slip and slide, the kids and I, on the short walk to school, and I begin to convince myself that the car makes more sense than the bike.
But I know better. I know what the bike will give me that the car never can, despite the heater’s comforting blare and the soft sounds of the radio. The siren song of what is easier in the moment gives way to what is better in the long run. I pull on my winter tights, gather my things.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Fear is a hairy beast with razor claws and dripping fangs. It is there in the dark, and it is there in the light, and it is there in the rain, sun, sleet and snow. Fear spills off station wagons swerving wildly with cell phone gesticulations, and it drops heavily off of box trucks, threatening to swallow the lane. It lurks quietly in potholes, and swings freely on the hinges of driver’s side doors. Fear will eat you if you let it. It never stops being hungry.
Two weeks ago I got bumped by a Ford Explorer pulling up to a stop sign. Its driver thought that he and his vehicle could get around me before reaching the end of the street. He yanked his wheel to the left, veered into the other lane and gunned his engine, swerving back into my lane at the last possible moment. At best he’d have cut me off. At worst, he’d have run me over. I was lucky simply to have been bumped.
I stayed upright. And angry.
Having been in this situation before, which is to say, uncomfortably close to another human being playing fast and loose with my safety, I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to get over it. The driver, in fact drivers generally, are not bothered when they do things like this. They simply drive away, maybe shaking their heads in disbelief at the folly of those of us who would dare to ride bikes on public roads. Occasionally I come in contact with a driver who is willing to take responsibility when he or she makes a mistake, but for the most part, those who drive badly do so because they are unwilling to be responsible for their actions.
If bad drivers don’t care about their close calls, why should I? Should they be able to driveway carelessly, while I am left behind to simmer and stew, to spew profanity and froth in impotent self-righteousness? No. The thing to do is accept what’s happened, swallow it whole for what it was, and then move on. A wise person told me that nursing resentments of this sort is like allowing morons to live, rent-free, in your head.
So when I am well-adjusted and fully in control of my faculties (very seldom) I can balance the need to beware of large moving objects with the need to continue riding, for transportation, physical health and sanity. The trick, and oh, what a trick it is, is to remain consciously blind to the danger that surrounds you, and simultaneously hyper-aware of every hard bit of pavement or sharp bit of metal that enters your air space. This is the Zen koan of riding your bicycle on the road.
As is typical, I have had difficulty letting go of these near death encounters. It is a thing much easier said than done. Since the encounter with my not-friend in the Explorer, I have been on edge whenever I have been on my bike. I have been quick to anger, even when I’ve been consciously resisting the impulse. This, it would seem, is the order of events. I simply have to wait until the feeling subsides, until I feel relatively safe again.
Last night, it was pouring rain. The light has recently fled our evening commute, so we’ve added darkness to the joy of being soaking wet. Stubborn git that I am, I pulled on my rain gear and disembarked from the office. Within a few moments I was enduring the gritty spray off Volvos and Subarus. With the verge entirely swamped, I tried to take a little of the lane to prevent myself from having to ride through 4 inches of standing water. My road companions in their cars mostly failed to yield any space. I was buzzed by a Chevy Suburban and then by a minivan. I began to seethe, and then to feel sad. To feel such little disregard for your bodily safety can be massively discouraging.
When I arrived home, my wife knew exactly what I was thinking and feeling. What a relief to be able to come home to someone who understands. Is this what inspired Dylan to write Shelter From the Storm?
I have to let these things go. I have to take responsibility for my own part. I choose to put myself in harm’s way. Traffic is traffic. You can complain about it. You can wish for people to change, for things to get better, but mostly those things are achieved at a glacial pace, and I intend to keep riding. Come hell AND high water, I intend to keep riding.
So I hug my wife, and I sit down to dinner with my kids, who talk too much and play with their food rather than eating it, and all is right and well with the world. And I return to the Zen koan of riding with both a keen attention to life-threatening danger and a blissful disregard for the monsters that lurk round every corner.
* Taken from Kipling’s Fear.
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