This subject I have dwelled on for some time and words, it romances us in various ways. The Spring Classics are now all but over, and with them goes the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the slip of water and minerals that polishes and wears us down, the swelling chest, the swaddling tights and jackets; and for all that, it’s still the best time of year for some cyclists I know. To ride a bicycle is always, in the end, a solitary and personal act. Ours are interior moments, peculiar to each. No one turns the cranks for me, and no one shares the feeling that my quadriceps are being pumped open with concrete at each revolution; no one is ashamed of me when I sit up and soft pedal awhile. And yet, therein is the sentiment and origin of this romance: I cannot escape the image of Narcissus or Eve, reflections, a fascination with one’s self. And we have much, much more to which we can look forward. We watch, imagine and enact what we see. I am talking about the Giro first, then that other race, the French one, and finally, the Iberian jaunt for which I usually can’t be bothered, so hot and sweaty is the East Coast late-summer.
But I am already out ahead of myself. As I get on with life (I am now thirty), I feel the animal in me wishing for spring in a way I never did as a younger man. I like the idea that I can once more do some spring cleaning. Has my fitness abandoned me from disuse? I can wrestle it back. Is that a painful exercise? Yes, and there are moments in which winter’s straw beard scours my cheeks and snow is on the tulip flutes, but each time I put on my heavy gloves I think, this is the last time for the year. March is the month for character building. April, in New York, is the month for further character building.
I can look back at the soggy-socked days, the numb-fingered days and the mucus-crusted days; I can wash the salt and sand off my bikes; I can replace what has been reduced and leveled; and what have I gained for my expense? The object demands much material and never repays in kind. We need analogy, we need metaphysics, unless we are to say that our muscles have grown and that is all. And all roads lead to New York City, which is to say, to the same subject, as my Original once wrote. It is repressive for me to calculate, even perfunctorily, what I have spent in keeping my steel, plastic and rubber fresh and intact only to do so again, and once again. I have taken to photographing some of my rides, especially those on the mountain bike—here perhaps, is some proof that I have ridden. The body can’t be relied on, for it has eleven speeds yesterday, ten this morning. We allow the will, the trope I have at hand with which to describe my impulse to ride, and we allow it much: it seeks that romance with the world, the feats the body is capable of performing, despite cost. I love to ride, but what do I love having ridden? I suppose it could be said we’re only as good as our next ride, a confusing and metaphysically difficult idea. That would be to say that life is all metaphysics: “life, as it is, in the intricate evasions of as.” We turn to sterner friends who say, “life only avails, not the having lived.” But in what measure?
Just before I turned twenty I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. Those who wish to drink from the fount of Jefferson, I say the well has been corrupted; I once got thrown off the premises of Monticello because I had dared to ride in on the service road aboard my bicycle. I took my own tour, pretending not to notice the security guards who shepherded me out with their electric carts. I have no particular love for Jefferson’s politics, but it’s a shame to see the man’s ghost trotted out wherever and whenever the parlor trick’s convenient. In any case, Jefferson’s Virginia is the slipper fit to the Appalachian foothills, a region called the Piedmont. There is, however, no neighbor Val d’Aosta, no tartuffi bianchi, no Barolo—I have heard cabernet franc is passable there and one can strain a living out as a cheese maker with a few grass-fed heifers. There are the poor in large numbers, but they crust the edges of town or blight the city discretely here and there.
Do I digress too liberally? On a ride through Prospect Park a couple days ago, I had the good fortune to talk with an Italian who had lived and raced in Milan as a junior, and he related his experience climbing the Passo di Mortirolo, the Passo di Gavia, and another I can’t recall, all of them in a single stage. The conversation had started on the fear some cyclists have (and the fear the rest will surely one day acquire) of descending. The Gavia, this Italian said, was terrifying because of the breadth of the road and the absolute speed—over ninety kilometers-per-hour—one can reach, but it’s the single lane, tortured and twisted through fir forests, of the Mortirolo that makes me tense with adrenaline even as I type in my dressing robe. Speed is a relative quantity, and once I’ve been rolling at fifty miles-per-hour for a period, especially on a generous road, I’m at home as it were. I like a choice of lines, to change from one to another whether deliberately or obliquely. The narrows, the rock and hard place, the blind bend with oncoming traffic, the patch of mold and slime beneath the boughs that overhang the road just at the corner’s apex—they will devil you. It was only after I considered these two descents and chose the Gavia that the Italian mentioned an acquaintance of his who had rear-ended an ambulance on the alp and was killed instantly. It’s a crude irony, but the anecdote is against complacency, even when the road is wide, the vistas great.
We’re not quite ready for the Passo This-or-That, not quite. Back, then, to Charlottesville. Drive East on route 64, clear Afton Mountain and the southern terminus of Skyline Drive, turn off the highway and head south, and from there, Sherando Lake is not far, perhaps twenty miles. It is a system of trails I have known for ten years now, one that I return to as often as I can. On most occasions my wife and I would go together, make a day of it and do some casual exploring, for I have only once attempted a tour of all the park’s arteries, a circuit I will discuss later. In most cases we would arrive late in the morning, the summer in full heat and bloom, and pick a route up the ridge and a trail back down, about fifteen or twenty miles in total. My wife likes to hit her cadence, whatever it is, and keep it up, while I prefer to find scenic and technical stretches of trail at which to stop for a photo. In the past, my wife has suffered from a condition that makes exercise painful for the first hour or so, and when riding together we often bickered as the grade increased. All the same I wanted to encourage and guide her since she kept the pain to herself and cranked the harder for it. We twice happened on timber rattlesnakes baking on the shale and loam trail surface, scaring us out of our concentration. My wife is not afraid of poisonous snakes. In truth I should not have condescended to hershe likes a rock garden as much as I do. I would be lying if I said that while I asked her if she were all right to keep riding I wasn’t simultaneously preparing to dismount the bike. “I’m fine, ride,” she’d say, and I’d have to keep on.
So often I’m alone. One Thanksgiving weekend I posted an open invitation on a local mountain biking forum to join me at Sherando for a holiday ride. No one showed, and, exasperated, I rode by myself. Remembering that afternoon, warm for late November, the sun brilliant and low, the leaves roaring under me as I descended—how foolish I now feel since I had not told anyone where I was going and for how long. And how absolutely stunning that on more than one occasion I have decided in what manner I would spend the night in the pines on one of Sherando’s frozen ridges. I’m ashamed to say that foresight does not have a vote in my senate when I’m dressed in my gear and I have but to get on the machine and start the effort. I may give second thought to riding alone because I prefer company, even bad company, to none at all if it’s mountain biking, though I’ve had companions so miserable or self-conscious that I try and keep them in earshot only and rarely stop.
I like a breakfast of words before I start writing, to have some mental company; this is not, from what I have gathered being among my contemporary writers, common. Montaigne said of Plutarch, “It vexes me that I am so greatly exposed to pillage by those who frequent him. I cannot be with him even a little without taking out a drumstick or a wing.” Here’s the greatness of the man and the reason I can’t be without him. And yet I feel no particular vexation; besides reading him in translation, his essays are so complete and human, so full of contradiction and halitosis, he is copious enough for all my misuse. He prefers the harmonic to the melodic, and I share that with him: “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in some corner, which will not fail to be sufficient, though it takes little room.” What is greater than “variation, and more so the more casual and accidental they seem”? Perhaps I emulate Plutarch twice removed, but I can feel myself applying Montaigne’s personal yoke of studying the Romans. I don’t want to study them. Besides I’ve just finished Chapman’s Homer, a monster child of the premodern and ancient. The monsieur from Aquitaine and black coffee for now, thanks.