We roll out in dense mist and raindrops, gloved, shelled against the morning with hopes of a clearing day. Up the west side, over the George Washington Bridge between soaring suspension cables and us single file on the slick decking of the bike path. Views up and down the Hudson where north the trees are dappled blaze and streaks against the cliffs. We curl around to River Road below and the group takes the exhale of the open lane riding as we will all day in true Audax style, together at a steady pace. Most everyone in the group knows everyone else, riders that we’ve ridden hard with or raced with, some of us veterans of weekly club runs together, all want the same thing from riding, the movement, the seeing, being with friends, happy however sideways or not it goes.
There is the steep rocky Ruckman climb, body english for traction, point the bike between the ruts and round the slick fallen leaves. Everyone is leaping now, rhythm. Familiar wide dirt tracks, we stop for cakes and coffee and then off again northward to a long lovely stretch by the water through stands of blazing yellow. We accelerate then navigate the sandy bits under Bear Mt itself, we’ll cross the bridge, ragged already drop into the midpoint town for a proper lunch, paninis, hot chocolate. Circumnavigate the reservoir on steep rollers to more sun speckled blue sky dirt before the Old Croton Aqueduct trail, a curious dirt ribbon that passes inside out through the communities on the east side of the Hudson.
Last year, at the inaugural edition, five of us made it nearly all the way ‘round. Darkness, cold, too long and cozy a break at the pub conspired to push us off the trail and on to asphalt where we rode in a straight shot back to Manhattan’s city lights. Mat and I had conceived of a route that would leave the City and go up and down the river with a turnaround at the Bear Mountain Bridge, riding as much dirt as could keep us making forward progress. Once we mapped it, it was just over 200 kilometers and fully half of it off road, a traditional Audax distance hearkening back to the 1897 ride from Rome to Naples, audace! heroic! Right at the spot where we bailed out, I tell the gang that it was right here and that we were going to keep going, we were going to pedal the whole circuit. Some whoops and hollers.
For all the times on the Aqueduct trail, I still marvel. Sometimes narrow single track, sometimes a broken concrete walk behind houses, through schoolyards, up and over what you know to be suburban hillocks but the tunnel itself is green and nine hundred miles away from a city or people. That was the longest secteur, we did it mostly in the dark, all in a string of beads crackling south. Onto boulevards under Yonkers street lights, guys hanging out in front of barber shops and convenience stores call out to us with our blinking taillights and shining front beams. Encouragement, maybe a little puzzlement, nodding heads. We’re through a back alley and a vacant lot, thick smell of pot smoke, I smile, “Hey, how you doing, fellas?” They greet us in turn as we file by, cassettes clicking off the fences and weeds.
A rail trail with a slight downhill grade and we have a tailwind. What had been such animated conversation before, now silent, just our lit string as we accelerate toward home. Big ring and we’re moving. Sure it’s been a long day, but we find those hidden stores of enthusiasm and push. everyone grinning . There’s the dirt section through Van Cortland Park, we know it’s our last of the day so we ride it joyously, intentionally.
In fifteen minutes we’ll cross the Broadway Bridge and be in Manhattan again, people will start dispersing toward where ever they live in this great city but not before we all shake hands, nodding. For me, there’s nearly another hour before I’m over the Brooklyn Bridge, lights and stars and an audacious moon.