Back when going for a long weekend ride meant nothing more than that I was going for one more long ride—when it wasn’t a special occasion to be anticipated then savored for weeks on either end, or a parole served between catching up on some work at home and installing porch lights—I started just about every outing by rolling down my hill to the bike shop for a coffee.
Someone would always be sitting around down there, about to go out on a ride or just back from one, and in either case you could pick up a pedaling partner or two or three, which meant more shelter from the wind and better chatter. You could get the latest reports about which roads had just been chip-and-sealed or flooded. You could find out where the guys who bored you were riding that day, so you could avoid that route. None of this seemed worth treasuring to me at the time; it was just my life, that’s all.
When Beth and I found ourselves free for most of a Saturday, courtesy of a rare off-day in the 12-year-old girls’ sports multiverse coinciding with a playdate for our daughter, we knew we’d take the opportunity to ride together. But it wasn’t until we were clicked in and easing along our driveway that I even thought to suggest stopping by the shop.
Because at the end of my driveway I either have to climb the rest of Fifth Street or drop into town I usually begin most rides from home with the descent. So dropping into town was no novelty, but the idea that I was going to turn right at the bottom and pedal through the Emmaus triangle to the bike shop infused that familiar half-mile with a strange mix of nostalgia and euphoria. I realized at once what I’d lost and what I’m gradually regaining.
The wind from that descent, it can put water in your eyes any day.
Andy was at the shop, kitted out, finishing a coffee, having ridden there for the same reason we had. He’d been one of my best riding friends, and still was one of my best friends. He saluted us with a toast of his cup when he saw us and said, “Going out or coming in?”
“Out,” I said. “We were thinking Powderbourne, but anything’s good.” After a bit the three of us rode out of town, away from Powderbourne, and after a few turns acknowledged that none of us knew what route we’d set ourselves out on. Andy suggested going to the velodrome, about 7 miles away, to watch some of our friends doing the masters’ races. I said, “Sure,” and we headed that way. We were averaging about 13 mph, I’d bet, rolling beside each other and bumping shoulders, Beth tucked in behind us as we talked about how to build a chicken coop, if we were doing the next day’s Derby—our local big nonrace training race—and other matters of such equal consequence that I can no longer remember any more of them.
At the velodrome, we rode right up to the wall and sat on our bikes and watched the amateurs circle around. It seemed fast but looked slow, in the way a middling-level race appears to you if you have the perspective that comes from ever having been in one. After probably a few laps too many I said, “Now where?”
“I have a loop from here,” Andy said, “with maybe some roads you don’t know.”
We rode north and west and I knew the roads but it didn’t matter because deer kept crossing just ahead of us, and we were on narrow lanes shaded by trees some of which must have been older than the three of us combined, and we were all talking in a manner as rambling as our ride. Then Andy said, “You’ll like this one,” and we went left up what looked like a driveway that pretty soon began to look like a path, and it was a road new to me. We rose out of the valley away from the damp air of the creeks and streams, and out of the cooling shadows of the longstanding trees, and out in the open at the top there was a farm, like there always is on this type of hill in Pennsylvania though each time it is a surprise that up here there can be such sun-drenched rolling acres of crops casting so strong the aroma of fresh-turned earth.
“This descent here…” Andy said, and he tucked into it and was gone. The crackled pavement dived sharp and deep into the valley then rose as if we’d ridden in and out of a capital letter U, and we coasted nearly to the top of the next roller where Andy said, “Once I came hot into that and a tractor was crossing at the bottom.” We all talked about near-misses and non-misses for miles after that, as cyclists will do, speaking especially respectfully of friends who had crashed and never come back to the sport, as if with such tribute we might charm our own selves out of that fate. We came to the day’s busiest road and crossed it to face the day’s worst climb, and just before we set our wheels onto the slope we agreed to turn around and ride to an ice-cream shop a quarter-mile away.
I had the chocolate-peanut-butter in a handmade waffle cone. I’d brought an energy gel with me, which now seemed preposterous. When we finished, we found a road that connected us to the roads home without climbing, and we had a tailwind now though none of us could remember having a headwind. We were full and sleepy but still going the pace at which we’d begun so we didn’t feel slow, which is maybe one benefit of starting at such a dawdle. Eventually Andy turned left to go home and Beth and I rode on. We’d been out for hours, though I had no exact idea how long, no guess at how many miles. I thought I could find that crazy road again but I wasn’t sure.
There are many ways I’d lost my identity on a bike these past few years. But this kind of hazy existence as a cyclist, the ordinary but boundless experience of just riding somewhere and nowhere with others—it was one thing I hadn’t even realized was missing. Being a cyclist the way I want to be once again, living the kind of life that effortlessly but fully includes bikes and rides, is not all or perhaps even primarily about going fast and suffering nobly. Being a cyclist, I remembered, comes as much from the being as from the cycling.
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, September 2011