The First Bike Ride of the Season
This year it was surprisingly late in the spring when I finally took my bicycle for a ride, and as I do every year, I remembered that first rides of the biking season are like no other rides the rest of the year.
I got a thrill out of just getting on my good ol’ touring bike. With my toes I twirled the pedal and slipped my left shoe into the toe clip, and then, in one continuous motion, casually, easily I just leaned forward over the handlebars and straightened my left leg . . . and I was rolling, gliding . . . and then casually, easily, I scissored my straight right leg backwards over the rear wheel and found the saddle. I swing my straight leg forward past the right pedal, bringing my foot backwards to roll its toe clip into position. The trick to a good mount is to make the transition from standing to riding absolutely casual, effortless, and seamless.
Once again, I was weightless. A curve to the right, a quick turn to the left, a tight circle, a spurt of speed and then a wide circle: in the parking lot I played. Reacquainting myself with my eight year-old bike, I squirted this way and banked that way, feeling almost as mobile as a barn swallow swooping low over a field.
Halfway through a circle I accelerated, and as I straightened my path I dropped my hand between my pumping legs to flick into a higher gear, easing up on the pedals to help the chain hop. Out of the parking lot and on to the street, there was a breeze in my face and I felt light and nimble and fast, no longer bound to the earth like a human. I love first rides.
I cruised through the neighborhood, medium speed, no strain, enjoying movement with hardly any effort. The neighborhood glided past me; people carrying in groceries, talking with their neighbors, chasing their kids in the grass, walking their dogs . . . scene after scene passed by me, like a movie. There was the smell of the year’s first mown lawn, and a barbecue, and I heard a hidden radio and voices coming through a kitchen window. The sights and smells and sounds and riding my bike – actually doing something familiar and physical – awoke memories of summers past, memories that blend all of my summers into one continuous stream.
Out of my neighborhood and on a country road, it was time to “huff and haul,” as we used to say. The key to riding well is rhythm – rhythmic pedaling, rhythmic breathing, and rhythmic body energy. Like with any aerobic sport, with experience a person tunes in to his personal energy rhythms. So there I was, making some miles, from my gut remembering old rhythms, calling them back, and falling into my familiar biking cadences. I noticed myself breathing in, in, out, out, in synch with pedal strokes, the result of a habit learned long ago.
Like the rhythms, the skills came back to me also. Using my ankles and calves to get more leverage on the pedals, spinning the cranks at steady quick rate to keep away the strain, holding a perfectly straight line between turns . . . I didn’t intentionally call on these skills: I found myself using them again. I was a little rusty and the skills were not to be taken for granted, but just like when I get out of be in the morning and walk out the stiffness, as I rode those first few miles I felt my technique returning.
What makes bicycling as exercise so attractive, so addictive, is the challenge of meshing the rhythms and the skills, trying to perfect each stroke of the pedals and feeling that ever smoother transfer of energy fro the lungs and body to the cranks to those thin, rolling wheels. The body rhythms, the circular ankle and leg motions, the balance, the graceful arcs of flying through a fast curve, the hot summer air flowing all over the biker’s body: bicycling is very fluid.
This year’s first ride was a five mile lop through a few quiet neighborhoods and some open countryside on the edge of town. It was a relatively short ride, but it was long enough to show me that I wasn’t in shape at all. The circuit closes with a very long, straight grade, and to make it over the crest I had to play the old game of “50 feet more” (to that tuft of grass, then 50 feet more, to that rock, then . . . ) I could have stopped to rest, but the aches in my gut and lungs felt strangely, perversely, good, and I was enjoying my momentum itself. I wasn’t just riding to the hill’s crest; I was in pursuit of it, and like an industrial flywheel I was strong and steady and relentless.
As I coasted into my own neighborhood, darkness was rolling onto the streets with me. Coming home at nightfall reminded me of all the sweaty adventures on hot summer evenings I’d enjoyed as a boy. I put my ol’ bike away, took a shower, and, wearing only loose shorts and feeling especially clean, with a glass of iced tea I walked just a bit stiffly through the hot house, remembering not so much the stories of past summers but a nostalgic collage of good times with my friends. Shouts and jokes while racing downhill, sun-tanned faces, naps taken in shaded park grass, country roads explored at sunrise, even the sound of my bicycle tire pinching and spitting a piece of gravel into the thick and dusty roadside weeds in the stillness of the morning . . .
Well, another year has come. Returning to a familiar activity stirs up a lot of memories, and I keep adding more. On this year’s first ride, on the top of a hill on the other side of a farmer’s huge, empty field, in silhouette in front of a horizontal band of light purple in the evening sky, was a long row of very old and big fir trees, the kind of evergreen that weeping willows would be if they were proper trees and not just massively overgrown bushes. Their trunks rose straight and tall and proud and carried long branches that reached out like loose-sleeved, open arms. They looked a line of elegant women, their branches holding hands . . . maybe they were tree goddesses . . . I’ll remember those trees in the lavender light, and I’ll remember enjoying writing about them and having people read this.
Because during the winters I’m away from bicycling, the first ride of the season are full of reminders of how much I’ve enjoyed it for so many years. It’s good that there can be only one first ride every year: it gives it a distinctive taste, like Christmas cake. And every year, the flavor is more and more rich.