The Machine of a New Soul

When I’ve been off my bike for two weeks there’s a readjustment that has to happen.  The bike doesn’t feel just right, as if muscle memory–as well as brain memory–has to redevelop.  I’m conscious of the bike as alien object, a piece of equipment whose functions I must re-master, and whose quirks I must not forget in the flow of riding.  This learning curve is shallow, to be sure, but there’s more to think about than there would be if I had just one bike.  I have five, and ride two of them regularly and another semi-regularly, depending on the weather, the terrain, and my whim.  All the same, the Trek 2.1 is the principal bike in the garage.

As I relearn the bike over the span of 30 or 40 miles of riding, there’s a feel of objective detachment; I am the manipulator of the machine.  The objectification I mention above leaves my mind freer in a sense to assess what I am doing and how I am doing it, because there’s a gap between me and the bike, sort of akin to the Greek dualism of mind and body, I suppose.  In this case I am the animating force, and the bike the mindless drone doing my bidding.  That’s the rationalist view in any case, and a good state of mind for the cyclist to have at many points.  I am fond of saying that my road bikes are “faster than I am,” a version of what I am trying to get at here.  What they are at any moment is defined by how I am operating them, whatever absolute specs they might have.  In this state my mind is free to be conscious of my surroundings, take in the landscape, assess the behavior of others on the road and how their actions will affect me over the next several seconds, and the like.  It’s the touring cyclist mentality, basically.

Once I’m used to riding again, however, my mind readily slips into another mode, in which I and the bike are one, and my steed is fundamentally an extension of my own gesture and will.  I don’t control the bike, and the bike doesn’t control me.  We are one organic entity.  Together we set the tempo.  I instinctively sense the need to increase my cadence to take on a short, abrupt rise, and my muscles and the bike’s gears do whatever is necessary to achieve the desired result without my really “thinking” about it.  Far from rational, this is a romantic, imaginative, instinct-based approach.  Focus narrows; I get so into riding that the passing landscape means very little; all walkers, rollerbladers, joggers, mothers with baby carriages, are so many obstacles whose rate of speed and directional trajectory are all that matter.  One wishes for the traffic-free, unimpeded pavement of a pro road race.

As an absolute state, this second way of riding cannot be indulged in for very long, because too many stubborn and risky realities intrude.  But it’s present to a great degree whenever I’m really into a ride.  It’s also an important part of what motivates me to ride.  Because although the bicycle is a remarkably efficient machine,  I like the experience of being transformed into a new, powerful organism much more than I do that of being a machine operator.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Summer’s Nature

The next seven or eight weeks are the apogee of summer, if we measure that in day length.  In fact, “apogee” refers to the top of the sine curve of day length plotted against time.  For the few weeks before and after June 21, length of day changes only a little bit daily, as opposed to the rapid lengthening and shortening around the equinoxes.  Today in Washington, DC, the day is 14 hours and 34 minutes long.  Early enough to risk getting awakened by sunlight before you’d want to, and late enough to linger after dinner on the screen porch and converse into the long summer twilight.  Ever notice that in the summer the twilight seems to go on forever, while in winter when the sun goes down it’s like somebody flipped off the light switch in a windowless room?

Cycling on the trail on these long, light-filled days, nature seems vibrant even when the sky is loaded with nimbostratus clouds, as has been the case here for the last couple of days.  On today’s ride alone I saw:

1)  A vole, who scurried across the path and into the grass as I approached.

2)  A woodchuck, on the shoulder of the trail, typically arrogant and nonchalant, nibbling in earnest on some greenery.  As any gardener will tell you, this was not a good woodchuck; he was alive.

3)  A deer, grazing in a grove by the side of the trail.  We got to within about five feet before becoming mutually aware of the other’s presence; she bolted instantly.  None of that Bush-caught-in-the-headlights indecision for her.

4)  A rabbit, who scurried ahead of me by the edge of the trail until he abruptly hung a sharp right.

5)  A Black Snake, who was entering the tall underbrush as I approached.  I therefore only saw the last 2 1/2 feet of him or so, but he looked to be good size.  Probably actively seeking to keep down that vole population.

Squirrels, chipmunks, butterflies, and common songbirds are too frequent to document.

So the fauna are making the most of summer.  Perhaps they know what Shakespeare knew when he wrote in a sonnet that “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”  I’ll be back on the trail tomorrow.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Trip Report

For most of the past two weeks we’ve been away.  We left on May 10 for an 11-day trip to Normandy.  Norman cyclists, it turns out, take to the open road a lot.  Parts of Normandy are almost as flat as Kansas, with vibrant yellow fields of rape seed interspersed with more sedate green crops, and occasionally the light violet of flax.  Other areas are rolling hills, some forested and others with apple orchards, from whence comes the ambrosial cidre of the region; these trees came into blossom during our visit.

French roads, on the other hand, are less vivid or ambrosial.  They are graded from the “A” autoroutes, to the “N” nationally-maintained roads, to the “D” roads maintained by the area’s départment, roughly equivalent of “county.”  Quality level varies greatly on the N and D roads; in fact it is really impossible to distinguish between them based on any material criteria.  Any level of road is likely to have stretches of quite rough surface, though probably not any serious potholes.  Shoulders are often a bit iffy, especially on two-lane roads, of which there are many.  Posted speeds are slightly higher than on comparable US roads, though the frequent small villages in the countryside require frequent and severe slowdowns to 35 or even 20 mph (50 to 30 kmh).

Connecting the roads at their interstices are roundabouts, which we have decided are vastly superior to crossroads with traffic lights or stop signs.  Traffic always flows, full stops are minimal, and best of all for the tourist you can circle around two, three, or four times until you’ve sorted out your direction.  Most roads are well-signed, more consistently so in small towns and countryside, slightly less reliably in town, depending on the city.

On any road other than the Autoroutes you’ll encounter cyclists, at any time of day, tricked out in colorful racing kit and blasting along on nice bikes with brands names we’ve never heard of.  Most of the riders seem the big, muscular sort of roleur; none of the skinny little climbers produced by Spain and Italy.  Even in May it seems generally necessary to wear long sleeves to ward off the coll, breezy air, but there’s a lot of cycling going on in the beautiful Norman countryside.  They deal with the iffy shoulders, the bumpy road surfaces, the speeding cars, and the roundabouts with great aplomb.  Whether muscular young adults or grizzled velo veterans, the Normans love to cycle.

As for me, I looked on the riders we passed with some envy, giving a few stalwart climbers the thumbs-up as we rolled by.  My training regimen, already compromised by schedule and weather this year, was getting another hiatus.  But the good news is that I lost several pounds on the trip.  You know you’re overweight when that happens after 10 days of croissants for breakfast and both cheese and dessert courses on several evenings.  Either that, or you’ve been setting a challenging holiday pace and burning tons of calories, which I confess we tend to do.

So now it’s back to toast and no desserts.  And I’m back cycling on my own turf.  Allons-y!  Vitesse!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Don’t Stop, but Smell the Roses

These last few days epitomize the height of the sensory season on the Bike Trail.  Both the wild roses and the wild blackberries are in bloom.  The blackberry blossoms have only a faint fragrance; their glory is in the pure white petals against the slightly dark, very

Wild Roses on the W&OD Trail

Wild Roses on the W&OD Trail

slightly bluish leaves.  One notices them also to remember where to go looking in eight or nine weeks, when the first berries begin to ripen.  The roses are all about now.  Their fragrance is luxurious, and their appearance generous and fulsome.  Once the petals fall, all they offer is conventional green foliage, and many scratches for those who get too close while hunting for berries among even bramblier blackberry canes.

As always, these two plants grow in the same places, bloom at the same time, and look much alike.  This year the early May weather has been gorgeous: bright sun, low humidity, a little breeze, comfortable temperatures (just like Northern California is all summer, as I like to say).  So every bike ride is olfactory heaven.  Last year I wrote about the problem of recognizing the differences between the two plants, though the weather was much different:

Last week, before the most recent round of rain, both blackberries and wild roses were in bloom on the bike trail.  They look a lot alike, and can easily be confused by

Wild Blackberry Blossoms

Blackberry Blossoms on the W&OD Trail

the casual observer.  Both grow on brambles, and their leaves are very similar in size and shape.  Both have clusters of five-petaled flowers.  But the blackberries come out a few days earlier, and they grow in looser clusters.  Their leaves are a darker green, edging a bit toward the bluish side of the spectrum.  Their petals are longer and narrower, and are “pure” white.  The roses have lighter green leaves, tending slightly to the yellow side of the spectrum.  Their petals are ever so slightly pinkish-white, and their petals are lobed. . . .  And just one more thing, in case you’re still in doubt:  the roses smell like, um, roses.

I even took some photos, two of which I include here.  There’s nothing like the smell of roses, but I dream of the deep flavors of July’s Blackberry Cobbler.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

“That which does not kill us . . .

. . . only makes us stronger.”  This widely known quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche is borne out in many areas of life, including the aftermath to my long ride a few days back chronicled in “Oxygen Deprivation.”  The day after that ride I did not exercise, figuring that my body had some recovering to do.  The next day I rode inside, because it was just too hot to exercise outdoors by the time I was free in the afternoon.  I felt strong and focused, and recorded my best metrics in over a year for the exercise format I used: high stamina, low heart rate, high number of calories burned.(1)

For the last three days I have been cycling in near-perfect weather conditions.  The first day out I did one of my basic routes, to Shirlington, and felt so strong and in command of my energy.  Yesterday I turned in one of my best speeds of the year on the Trek, 16.2 mph average to Herndon via Hunter Station Rd.(2)   Today I rode to a different part of Herndon, to visit my granddaughter, and back along a longer route.  This ride was principally for the miles and the visit, as well as reacquainting myself with Reston Parkway.  In each case the Ashburn ride experience has conditioned me to push to higher states of intensity, to build and sustain more pressure against my cardiovascular and muscle capacities, and to believe I can do so successfully.  Turns out that ride was a real breakthrough.

I am still alive; still getting stronger.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

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(1)  Going downstairs into the basement to exercise on a hot day is like jumping into a tank of cold water.  So refreshing!  Analogously, the wine cellar down there needs no a/c unit.

(2)  My fastest speeds are consistently on the Binachi Squadra, but that’s somewhat mitigated by the fact that I cannot ride it on steep grades, so I never have long stretches of slow going on that bike.  Still, even on comparable routes, it’s quicker.