19 August 2009

The ride

Rolling through the Bois at 7 on Karen's wheel, it's chillier than I expected. Glad I wore the arm-warmers. Hard to figure it'll really be mid-90s this afternoon. It was dark this morning when we got up, a big change even since we left for Japan. That means our longer-than-Philly days are going to pretty quickly become shorter-than-Philly days. It also means that the distance riding season is about to close, and I've missed it. So much for the plans of seeing France on epic rides from the apartment. Usually the shortening days mean the hot humid days are numbered, and that cyclocross is just around the corner, the best part of the year on both counts. But not this year. There'll be no cyclocross this year.

As soon as I get up on the bridge, the cool microclimate of the Bois dissolves. Maybe it will hit 90 today. The gentle grade of the bridge is the first work of the morning, soon to give way to the wall on the other side. Now I'm working, out of the saddle, steadily pushing up the gnarled street, avoiding the cars backing out of their parking spots on the way to work. Not many of them today, this week, this month. It'll be different in September, when everybody's back, and when I'll have to wait longer for light. The pumping in my chest feels good, it's still early, but the building pain in my knees is a reminder that in most years I could do this for 20-30 minutes, instead of just 3 or 4, so I'm happy to be over the top, where I pass a guy in his 20s on a heavy commuter, coming from further up the ridge, handlebar in one hand, cigarette in the other. We pass a delivery van on either side before going our separate ways.

The GPS beeps out its prompts on this new route I'm trying through Versailles, trying to send me twice around a traffic circle before exiting, and I wonder again why its pro bike team-sponsoring manufacturer seems so intent on adding training management capabilities while ignoring the woefully inadequate route-mapping and bike-relevant plotting. Sometimes I hate this thing. The new route won't be so good in September; maybe I should have ridden through the palace grounds, since it's been so dry. Last time I did that a big group of mountain bikers laughed at me as I rolled through on my road bike over the mud-covered country pave and through the big holes, the grit stuck between my tire and my chainstays wailing insistently. I smiled sheepishly in response, later learning they were laughing because one of their crew had fallen just before I showed up, and they were discussing the details of tread pattern and tire volume as I slid upright through the same muddy corner on my 23 mm slicks.

Just this one last stretch of crap, along D307, and I'm free. If I can just get through here without flatting... The GPS beeps out a turn around a 1-way street I usually ride illegally; OK, I'll bite. Little climb and a fun pinball road among old stone houses back down to the main route. OK, so the GPS can stay.

1:03, and the real riding finally starts. Wending down from the ridge into the valley, it doesn't take a lot to make the bike really move, now. It's fast, and I always feel strong here, like the first few minutes of a time trial, when I'm hopped up on adrenaline and feel like I can crank out the power forever, before my body catches up and fills with pain. I miss that pain, sometimes. The new pain sucks; there's no warped pleasure in there.

Surprising amount of traffic on this little country road at this time of day, but all of it going the other direction. That makes the decision to ride the loop this way doubly good. I'm feeling pretty smug about my luck, having chosen the direction of the loop for visibility, to have the low morning sun at my back so drivers can see me, rather than traffic flow. Not as lucky on the bigger highway that follows, but it won't matter by the next turn.

Totally worth it. The rolling road pulls me forward, coaxes and then rewards the effort to push up each rise. There's no sound aside from my breathing, the whoosh of my tires on the pavement, the faintest clicking of the chain in the drivetrain, and the wind. I pulse through shady old forests and fields of recently harvested wheat, the short stubs left by the combine have a pronounced nap in the still-low morning sun, bright blonde as I approach with the sun behind us both but deep gold as I turn around, to clear my nose. It's team colors out here, gold and green. I can't imagine not doing this, not hammering over the tiny farm roads and careening through sleeping stone villages with their medieval churches. At this moment the fact that my knees both hurt, that I can't really train, let alone race, that I'm feeling guilty about some lingering work obligations, that I'm surprisingly disappointed to not be going home in a month to see friends and do one of my favorites weekends of 'cross, doesn't matter. Riding is all that matters. And though I've been here, and I suppose many more-beautiful places in the world, on the bike before, today it's experiential overload. It's overwhelming.

I've got more company as I close the loop, but it's August, and it's not yet 10.30, so still little enough that I can take the long screaming descent in the highway itself, rather than on the path. I have just enough left at the bottom to stomp my way up to St Germain en Laye, where the road I need is closed for work. I know that the detour passes the spectacular chateau on the edge of the hilltop, though, so I'm not complaining. I consider stopping for a coffee on the square across from the chateau, wanting the ride to last a little longer, hoping that sitting out under the umbrellas in the building heat will add just that extra cherry on top of this magical ride. But it's done, and I know the bad coffee will only break what's left of the spell.


  1. At age 73, far too old to experience a poetic bike ride like this, I thrill instead to the poetry of this account; it brings me as close to the magic of a French country morning (on a bike) as I shall ever know. Love, Vati

  2. An especially beautifully written blog. Wish I was there.