The day went grayer and lost track of our heading, which was only hinted once in awhile through tree breaks anyway. My recollection of the route suggests that we’ve only very recently turned back toward the cars. November four o’clocks in upstate New York, we don’t have much time before darkness, of the starting twenty us nine who didn’t peel off. Shudder shivering and with my fingers balled into fists inside the gloves, Ray is flipping his wheel around to get a less spinny cog in anticipation of the road riding ahead. Others are on mountain bikes with suspension, Serge is—against all advice, which I admire—on his road bike with 25’s, but the median rig is a perfect plain old ‘cross bike.
“Okay, so, who has lights?” I’m raising my hand alone. Andrew doesn’t show disappointment, he just shrugs and says something about well no one said this was going to be an easy ride. My feet are still wet, toes numb cold from the knee high stream wade. We’re all starting to think about the cold and soon we’ll mutter about it, but it’s mostly fine. We’re on NYC Velo’s second ride of their Fall Adventure Series. Funny, that “A” word. Intended as ambivalent between enticement and warning, but it also has a go play in the back yard naive quality to it, dares us to not be cynical in spite of the obvious hyperbolic absurdity. The first one was a long, rolling, scenic loop a couple of hours north of The City—equal parts dirt and tar—dubbed the Taconic 150. Not to be alarmed, that’s k, it’s late in the season. I showed up not knowing anyone; eight or nine hours on a group ride is a good remedy for that and it was an uncommonly good time.
#2 is a substantial subset of the initial crew—now my pals—plus some newcomers. But the ride itself has a noticeably different grit. Aforementioned Andrew gives an amusing speech before the start, trying to set the tone of self reliance. Easy enough to interpolate what he was saying, have a good attitude, laugh it off when things go sideways, expect them to. And that turns out to be right, averaging six miles per hour on a power line trail, single track braiding around mud holes of obscure depth, interminable bike portage, torn sidewalls, fierce hunger knock, bemused hunters, bushwacking through tall dry autumn reeds. I had worried that New Yorkers didn’t do rides this sublimely fucked, I was greatly relieved.
Back to the dark, it’s not like the dark of a place with ambient light. It’s inky void and balancing and minding the sudden cracks and keeping track of everyone in the ethereal cone off my lamp is more fatiguing than the pedaling. Harder, too, to see time with none of our own movement against the landscape. The end comes and we hardly believe it.
The third ride in its details seems like it’ll be the easiest. On the day of it, the winter sky cracks and it’s first a cold drizzle then a slashing rain. Two of twelve have fenders. I’m back to the Barlow Pass 38’s—had been on Michelin Mud 4’s for ride number two—maybe I’ll be the only rider to do all four on the same rig.
Under the awning of a visitor center hut at the edge of a public woods the jokes are about everything though not whether we should go on, since that’s the thing that’s most on our minds. Matt’s flat is fixed, Ian and Andrew mount up and we’re off again. I have no clothing in reserve anymore, the worry that the equilibrium will be upended, but in the end the misery and discomfort achieves a steady state constancy and disappears.
Ray’s fender rattles loose and puts a rent in his tire. That isn’t the happiest moment, standing around all of us head down, the lower the gaze the marginally warmer it is. Daniel helpfully intervenes with comedy, and Anastasia’s fun deadpan commentary puts our sulky moods in a conceptual box that we can then shrug and close. A general store is an apparition out of denial, we gladly accept that we’re ghosts, too, then, and enter for espressos and cake. Yes, we’ll be riding for hours in darkness again, climbing in the sort of exhaustion where we stay close together, shoulder contrapuntal swaying all get off the saddle on a pitch, the kind where no one has said anything for ten minutes.
The last ride in the series is the day before the Winter Solstice. Peekskill’s persistent ups and downs, we ride at an upped pace to collide good and purposefully with the second shortest day’s end. Roads are more introverted here, trees, flecked siding houses, stone fencing closer to the verge. There are sections where the track glints a surprising fluorescence, icy dirt where we offer as little steering as possible even though there are few straight lines. Us veterans of all four ride together, maybe pretending that it’s been one continuous pedal, which it feels like in the emotions of it, and that’s as good as any topological truth. We linger a bit over hot chocolates at the end, wishing each other good holidays. On the way home Mat and I grin.