I climb and descend and do it all again for a while, eating my breakfast as I ride, once on a hill holding an apple in my mouth for a few seconds as I rise out of the saddle and with both hands on the hoods rock the bike from side to side. In the morning air, the juice runs chill down my chin and sparks a tactile memory of feeling the same thing on this same hill on a spring dawning.
In such mood, when I ride onto the gravel of Mill Hill, I think of the hot summer afternoon I was showing off some of my roads to my nephew and his friend and flatted here. When we stopped and looked at the wheel we saw that besides puncturing the inner tube, a rock had torn open the sidewall of the tire. In the little leather pouch I carry that holds a spare and a cartridge and often some emergency cash, I found a five-euro note. I had gone over this year and ridden all the cobbles of Flanders and Roubaix without flatting once. I said that I guessed this was my penance. I set the tube in with the euro between it and the tire, and inflated the tire just enough to hold tight the note, then I went around the rim slipping the tire bead back under the rim hook by hand. When I aired up, the tire bulged where it had been gashed, but the euro note was holding the tube in. We started riding. In a few miles, the tube blew a hole through the paper currency and popped with a bang. The sidewall was tattered but probably bootable. I borrowed a tube and a dollar bill from my nephew’s friend, the guy whom I was showing what this cycling thing was all about, the real cycling thing, the knowledge and the ways and not just jumping on a bike and pedaling like they did where he lived. I figured if you ever thought you were serving your penance you better wait because the real thing was coming. I made it home.
I get past the gravel on this day without a flat, and I end up riding to one of the slow approaches to another, smaller of our mountains, a road I haven’t been on since the coming of autumn, after Ed got home from the hospital and he could move around a little and talk some. We made sport of the crash, because you do. We were sitting on his sunporch out back, letting a couple coffees go cold. I told him, “Van Gilder was right behind you. She said when you hit the road you screamed in a way she’d never heard.”
She actually had said that. I told him, “She said you screamed like a little schoolgirl.” She hadn’t said that, and he knew it. But instead of mocking me for all the times he’d dropped me or seen me quit a chase, the way he was supposed to, Ed just kind of not really smiled, and labored at his breathing. I watched him work hard at the most ordinary thing. I took a drink of the cold coffee and said, “You’re one of the toughest riders out there.” He knew this, too, that I thought that, and maybe even that he was that. He kept working away at his breaths. I said, “I’ve been telling everyone that if you screamed it was in rage.” His not-really smile migrated a little sideways across his face and curled up at the far end. It was something else he was working at. We began to talk about our divorcing friend, and good and bad dogs, and our daughters, and after a while Janine came home and offered me a beer and I had that, and it was later, a long time later, that Ed said he knew what his scream was. He said I should tell people it was anguish. It broke something in me, because I knew it was true.
I ride toward home, to the finish of just one more ride of a year of them, every one of which hosted or caused some event, some that never mattered in any sense, and some that seemed to but we never knew for sure, and some that broke us, and some that fixed what had broken, just like any year on a bike, just like every year on a bike, when each ride we take can be the start or the end of who we are.