They would catch my eye and a more basal part of perception before I became inured to them, start of surprise and piqued alarm, bicycles moving along at a speed not impossible or strictly unusual, but in absence of travail and conviction, none of the tension and purpose of a rider’s bowed coiling body leveraging into the big ring small cog that would be required for that clip. Impassive undistressed overwarmly dressed rider, maybe a pedal stroke here there but then coasting that defies folk physics appearances like not quite right movie CGI.
This part of lower Manhattan, greatest concentrations of electric bikes in The City, and therefore I’d guess in the USA.
Margaret: “So, how do you know Gary?”
Me: “Um, we’ve exchanged a couple of emails and I’ve, uh, looked at pictures he’s taken on flickr.”
Baffled silence. Then, “I literally cannot image going on a vacation with someone I haven’t met. How do you know you’ll get along?”
“Oh, it’s obvious.”
“How do you know he’s not an axe murderer?”*
“He’s not an axe murderer.” I pretend this is an answer to the question. “He’s a friend of Cass.”
She gets that look that indicates she’s winning a debate. “How do you know Cass?”
“We’ve been writing back and forth for years. He scouted the racecourse that I did in India back when. And he was with us when I went riding with Lael and Nick. You know those guys.”
She shakes her head.
* * *
We’re sitting at camp. Cass says, “Nancy was making fun of me for internet bike dating.”
“Yeah, that’s what she calls it when you know someone only on the internet and then you plan a biking trip with them and go on it.”
“Coady was teasing me for that, too. She wondered if Gary was an axe murder.”
Gary laughs. We all shake our heads.
*Of course she didn’t actually say this cliché. It’s a metaphorical placeholder.
Alongside the bike, pushing it. A continuous pour of water off my cap brim, chin angled down from effort and for warmth pressed hard against the zipper pull. There’s the danger that the lowered gaze and dragging gait is what sets the mood, that’s the real incline. Hours of this, stopped to kick off mud in disembodied quiet, resting standing because sitting is shivering, claw curl fingers into the body of the glove, make a fist to bring back feeling knowing that nothing will bring toes around. Only palm heels are against the grips, there might be bruises tomorrow from irregularly shaped shifter and brake clamps digging in. Every then and awhile notice a neck and between shoulder blade ache one octave below the one behind my right eyeball.
Or when I consumed all that I had left more than a day ago because I don’t save any for feared futures of want, hunger easily confused for nausea and desperation and admonition though it isn’t. Pedaling now at that naturally governed evaporated pace, none of the flight and freedom of cycling but instead a terrestrial open eyed sleep. Dizzy tunneling vision, ears ringing. A reckoning with the ending daylight, that there’s nothing to cook is a liberation from having to set up camp early enough to see, time gifted by cracked lips heart trill gnawing.
Or there was no flat just those damned tussocks on hilled ground, bulging uneven tent floor and I keep waking up from the wall leaning against my breath like I might suffocate, sliding on nylon, every dry piece of clothing on me and even the rain soaked gore tex jacket draped on the footbox of the bag because the seam above it leaks. Haven’t seen anyone for days. Or whorl kicked sand into my red rimmed eyes, or soul drained because a stranger let me down, stole something, was small or cruel or a liar and somehow I carried it in my bags and in the center of my chest. Or thirst that burns warning flares across the back of my throat, insult and insistence.
But misery at some point implodes from its own earnest gravity and the front wheel accelerates past the event horizon of “I don’t want to be here,” “why aren’t I just home,” “this is stupid and I hate it,” and I’m into the black hole glancing side to side at smeared streaks of light to realize that they are the joys that I went in after.
I never get tired of watching the crux stages of the 1989 Tour. The L’Alpe d’Huez climb where LeMond falters while wearing Yellow, the final day in the Alps when Fignon extends his lead. And then the time trial final stage. LeMond in his goofy to our eyes Oakley sunglasses and swaying on Scott aero bars, Fignon low in the drops orienting beams of intensity through prism spectacles. Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysées bricks, roaring crowds. Edge of my seat, lean forward, stand while LeMond himself crumples to the ground in elation. Yes! He makes up nearly a minute over 25k, beats Fignon and wins the Tour by eight seconds.
Us fans of pro bike racing—I’ve been and am—we celebrate the history, the landscapes, the spectacle, the drama of the competitions, strategy, and micro tactics within the race. We celebrate the teams of a team sport. We celebrate the riders. I’d be deflated to learn that LeMond cheated to achieve his ’89 victory. The disappointment would be over the fact that it was something other than what I thought it was, so what I think it is must be meaningful and important. The truth of it is essential to its power to inspire and elevate, and for the simple pleasure it gives to spectate. We look for sport to be true. Or, more accurately, we look for sport truly to match what we believe about it such that, under that description that we hold inside, we feel the surge of celebration, identification, admiration, and motivation.
Touring, none of them are, even if fondness for rewoven recompositions makes for wishing it to be so, even if the delight and embrace makes it okay afterward to say. And, really, merely familiar terrain isn’t either sufficient, since accustomed scenery or unremarkable town names can sometimes still be conceptualized descriptive abstracta, where riding there all the time only means that one could readily recite impressively accurate directions. Home roads are instead ones where hills stop looking like photographs and have been transformed into volumes of gulped breath, coiled effortful measure, where unthought primed expectation leaps up out of the saddle just before body does, where the arcs of a descent and then sand patch sizzle and then frostheave crack to smooth occur in a sequence that isn’t accepted but just is, nor could or would anything be said specifically about it. Home roads are more mood than map, less direction than innate want for motion. They are when that ride has been done so many times for so many reasons, therapy in the repetition, that reasons aren’t the right way to understand the why anymore. And home roads aren’t in a place, any more than serene quiet in oneself is somehow localized somewhere.
Just like some mantras, some poems, some things said to people cared about, just as they sing you when you sing them, home roads pedal themselves.
Even if it’s inevitable, you think about it, unless you’re from that kind of place and even possibly then, you think about it again, check the forecast for no reason since it’s only those first minutes that make real difference. Desaturated to grey and a tapping hiss, finally resolved more as an absence of the usual sounds than a sound itself, lonelier made worse by your drawn hood or pulled cap if you have one, maybe it’s that you keep your chin down a radian more than usual or that your shoulders shawl around you, maybe it’s that you ride far behind her to stay out of the rooster tail spray that already painted a greybrown streak vertical on your chest, blink bouldery grit and gutter efflux. The droplets are remarkable at first, you can count the early few dozen, your skin finds ways not to move so much against the clingy clammy fabrics. Coasting down a grade, you alternate feet forward, that one in a stream, can feel the ankle chill. Summertime hardly cold, but hardly exactly warm either in spite of your temptation to describe the rainfall that way.
The density of the mythology of it, the cumulonimbus stay inside alarm, persuasion’s pressure that the squeak of the chain in the deluge is catastrophe, shiver skid numb. Dread sufficiently inchoate that it ought but doesn’t make you suspicious of it. Always always after the initial shock reluctance resentment, while it’s happening and soon after you’re done that that’s not nearly as bad as you thought it might be. But you forget.
[This is a letter from Nathan Dahlberg
, former professional road racer with 7-11, Motorola, and Spago, among others, and veteran of two Tours de France. Nathan still races bicycles, but is also a keen adventure cyclist. We’ve traveled together in Pakistan
, and in his native New Zealand
. Posted with permission.]
Yes, had a great time in Belgium and Holland over a period of 3 1/2 weeks, the highlights being, of course, meeting my old friends and also a certain amount of nostalgia over being back in familiar places (even watching a Pro Kermess in Sinaii bought back some good memories). Training from Mens house in Munster Geleen deep into the Ardennes alone and with Chris Macic reminded me of what a great (and very underrated) area that is to ride a bike, particularly around Stavelot, always hard even to return for home after training down there. I also got the great chance to race 11 more times in just under 3 weeks, and though cycling has slipped into being a relatively minor sport in the last 28 years since I first went to Europe (although the TDF thrives as always) there are still enough races and enough good riders to make it a 3 week period well worth the effort.
Racing hasn’t changed, it’s still very individualist and pure as sport goes although the roads are far different. Long gone are the cobbled lanes and even rough roads, now it’s all fast asphalt and racing is more a high speed dash like track racing than some of the grinds of years gone. The basics are the same (including the prize money or lack)…Continue Reading