I decided to take a week off my bike to unwind from a great season, and that turned into eight or nine. In this long period when I wasn’t riding, I must have ridden to the bike shop 15 to 20 times, mostly to drink an espresso, sometimes just to talk about bikes or to see who was going out for or coming back from a ride. Nearly every time I rode there, I told people I wasn’t riding.
I rode to the public library one time during my break from riding. I left without spending much time among the shelves because there was an unsettling, stale odor. When I got back outside and was riding my bike up the hill past the cemetery, I kept thinking about how the air blown over the graveyard felt fresher than that in the library, and how, even though the breeze had to be made up of all kinds of different particles from all sorts of sources, the wind had a consistent, crisp smell. The next day, I went back and rode through the cemetery. In all, I rode through three cemeteries during the time I wasn’t riding. In the last one, I went slow enough to make out some etchings on the most eroded markers, names that were barely there that day and might be gone before I came back because, I told myself, soon I was going to get back to riding again.
When I wasn’t riding, I rode to two convenience stores, multiple times, for eggs, doughnuts, butter, energy drinks, salted cashews, gummies, cold medicine, batteries, gum, to stand by the window and read the front page of the local newspapers, and once completely on a reasonless impulse, which resulted in a new experience for me, that of browsing the toy section of 7-Eleven.
I rode to the pizza joint at the bottom of the hill at least five times. I came to prefer slices carpeted with oily, thick-cut sausage, which surprised me. I rode to the post office three times, carrying packages and envelopes in my messenger bag, to drop off and pick up, and in every instance at some point I pretended I was a Western Union kid, except for one of those trips when, in separate interludes just blocks apart, I twice entertained the fantasy. I crashed my bike while I was not riding. I’d been puttering along one morning, and as I looked around I’d noticed a handwritten note fluttering in the wet grass. I’d stopped and gotten off my bike and laid it down and walked over to see what intrigue I might discover. I’d found out that Marcy was bored and hated algebra and was mad at Tim and would never forgive him. Just after I got back on the road, the dew-slick sole of my Converse sneaker came off the platform of my Keo pedal and I fell onto the top tube, lost my grip on the right hood, and went down. I was pretty mad at Marcy. But as I lay there I realized that I must have tucked into myself before the impact then rolled over once or twice just like you’re supposed to, because although my shoulder hurt, it wasn’t hurt. I forgave Marcy.
One day when I wasn’t riding, I realized I finally had the free time to ride over the hill and see what was engraved on the sign by the big rock out on Kings Highway. None of the groups I ever rode with had stopped at the sign, because at that point of the road you were either near the end of your climbing or the beginning of your descending and, with a pack, the flow was just too good to interrupt. It’s right there in the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament: “We will travel along the king’s highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” I thought about the quality of such determination, as exhibited by real cyclists, when I was riding out to read the sign I could never read while I was riding. The sign marks the property of Theobald and Anna Elizabeth Mechling, homesteaded in 1734, and granted to them by the sons of William Penn. The original log cabin is the middle room of the house that now stands there. On the ride back, full of fresh wonder for the familiar roads of the valley that’s become my home, I thought about how happy I was that I wasn’t riding.
After weeks and weeks of all this not riding, I started to feel like I’d made a big mistake, that I’d let too much of my hard-won fitness slip away, that when I finally came back I would be less of a cyclist than I’d been right there at the end of the season. I knew I had to start riding if I wanted to have any chance this year at even getting close to being a real cyclist again. On one of the last days when I wasn’t riding, a winter day so windless and sunny I wanted to stay out in the bitter cold a little longer than the trip from my home to my office demanded, I turned off the most direct route and shotgunned through the little alley that traverses just about the whole length of town. I sprinted in senseless spurts and coasted in curb-to-curb curves, like a kid, like I was on a bike with a banana seat and a sissy bar, and there was not a thought in my head about mortality or determination, not one fantasy or pretension that I was a messenger or anything or anyone other than what I was. All I was, was riding.
I was more of a cyclist than I had been the whole year.
VII What It’s Like IX In the Fog
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, March 2012