The Rural Rider

Contemplations on cycling

“Praise then the light…

…and creation unfinished.”

I’m riding south on county road 95. It’s one of my very favorites although it’s only a mile or so. The sun is rising, light streaming over the Sierra, below a very high strata of cloud. I struggle with the quote. I know where it comes from: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. I know the ending: “creation unfinished”. And it begins with praise. I know the context – the powerful last portion of the novel where Genly Ai and Estraven pull a sledge in desperate flight across the ice.

The wind is blowing from the west-south-west so leaving Davis I had been riding nearly into a headwind. Now, turned due south, it’s almost a cross wind: gusty. The ride up road 31 had been harder than I had expected. The start had been stranger than expected. Now the sunrise is glorious and it lifts my spirits, returning me to the context of the novel, the hard work of the ice crossing, of creation unfinished, as I am unfinished, a work in progress, a journey, and then there was Genly’s reaction to the journey that even as I ride fills me with a fierce burning spirit that lasts the whole ride and afterwards.

We get up just a bit before six AM. Jan scurries downstairs, starts the coffee, takes the pancake batter out of the fridge, sets the cast-iron grill heating on the stove while I dress: bike shorts, leg warmers, my Davis Bike Club jersey, arm warmers, heart rate monitor, wool socks. We have a house guest who joined us the night before for Jan’s retirement party from being California Native Grassland Association’s administrative director. I didn’t wish to awaken her so no lights. The cats flow down the stairs like shadows; look back at me from the base of the stairs.

Pancakes and eggs for breakfast! Special and delicious, Jan’s custom, made-from-scratch with the finest buttermilk pancakes. And hot coffee. Nothing fat and greasy: just some good carbs and a bit of protein to hold me through the first part of the ride. Then Jan takes her camera and walks down toward Veterans Memorial Center, only two blocks away, while I put on my virulent yellow jacket, load up my water bottles, and wheel my bike out of the garage. GPS fastens onto the handlebar stem, sun glasses on because it’s finally bright enough although the sun hasn’t yet risen, slip on my shoes, walkers in my pocket, keys . . . I’m ready: lights on, tail light flashing, I ride north on B Street.

The start feels funny. I hadn’t imagined it would begin with simply walking in, getting my white wrist strap, and then I could just ride off! I thought there would be a start, a mass of cyclists pedaling off into the dawn. Jan gives me a kiss, a hug, snaps some photos, and I’m riding west, then north past two kids ringing cowbells (shades of Tour of California) and cheering. Then west on Covell and it’s a few stoplights and I’m clear of Davis and out into the country.

Riding, I stay hard to focus on the experience that is mine. Always there’s this part of me that sees me from outside and asks “Am I riding fast enough?” and makes observations “Look at that tubby guy poking down the road.” I have to work to push those aside. They do not belong to me, not to the me that chooses to greet the sunrise at 16 MPH, cadence in the 90s, watching the world revealed in the long, slanted light of the day’s new sun. Mine. This is mine to do, to enjoy, to experience. And so I flow along the country-side all motion, rejoicing in creation unfinished.

The first rest stop is at Elmira School. A bit of “westing” as Jack Aubrey would say but mostly the path is south. It feels like a detour to me, not a route I would plan to take because after the rest stop the path is back north again for five miles or so before I turn westward again, into the wind, and ride Midway Road. Here the first pelaton passes me, maybe 40 riders who breeze by in the low 20s, and for a moment I’m sucked along with them, my own speed picking up, but they are fast and soon they recede into the distance. A sullen high overcast has covered the sun but not the entire sky, only a vast boulevard of cloud crossing the sky from north-east to south-west. It saps away the heat, makes the wind more difficult. Finally I ride under I-505 and I’m back on a portion of road I’ve ridden before. This is one path to Cantalow Hill. I am glad I will not climb it today. Instead a few miles before that path the Foxy turns south onto Gordon Valley road and does it’s own local bit of climbing. Up to this point I’ve been riding on the valley floor, call it 70 feet plus or minus a few. But here on the northern side of Vacaville I climb up to 450 feet in the space of maybe two miles. This is a climb I notice, and so do others. No one is passing me along this stretch, well except for a few impatient cars who just want to pass these slow bicycles NOW and it’s just so RUDE of them to be holding up an Escalade and a great vasty pickup truck that when they pass they give a gun to the throttle and then swerve quickly over in front of me as they pass. Worth a roll of the eye if I weren’t pedaling pretty hard at this point.

A really nice down-hill leg follows which is a fine reward for the climbing. Where the climb had been at eight the descent lets me hit 30 and average a nifty 25 MPH: heady stuff for this cyclist! It’s the other side of climbing, the descent, and has its own challenges: staying in control, remembering to check for overtaking traffic, looking for road hazards that can flicking in and out of the murky shadows to catch a wheel unawares. But Gordon Valley Road is smoothly paved and wonderful for these swifty descents. Sign me up for the Tour!

A jog and a few miles and it’s time to join Pleasants Valley Road. I’ve ridden this northward but not to the south and I’m definitely headed south. The intersection provides a moment of interest when a gray Acura driven by two girls, probably following the guys with the cute behinds and the tight lycra pants, decide that making a U-turn in front of me would be a splendid idea if only to confuse the old guy with the beard who’s bearing down on them. There’s a bit of confusion but then I’m headed south on Pleasants Valley Road, one of the prettiest rides around. And I’m really looking forward to the water stop because, ahem, there’s this need that involves a porta-potty and the local trees and shrubbery are just a tad too public. I have images from the Tour de France where on every ride segment one of the French cameramen riding on a motorcycles has to linger on a rider taking a leak alongside the road. It seems like a requirement for every segment: find a rider taking a leak or tomorrow you’ll be selling t-shirts at some crossroads somewhere. Banned to retail — a fate worse than death!

There are porta-potties at the water stop! Oh praise the Lord! But there aren’t many places to lean your bike against, just gravel, the porta potties themselves, a couple of garbage cans, and a van marked “Do not lean your bike against this van.” There are tables with water and cytomax, premixed, and “shot blocks” from Clif that come as a part of their sponsorship package. Margarita flavored, I notice. I’ve never tried them so I grab a package, note I’m supposed to drink after I snarf these chewy translucent cubes down. Think margarita flavored gummy bears but in a cube form. I think gummy bear shapes, or make animals, would be more fun – they could be squished like road kill! Clearly my thought processes have slipped into some strange space. Devolving into adolescence? Kindergarten is more like it, I think.

As the ride turned into the wind in Fairfield and began the climb up toward the lunch stop at Wooden Valley School I found myself reflecting again on The Left Hand of Darkness and on creation unfinished. The accurate quote is “Praise the darkness and creation unfinished.” Given the context of the novel, light being the left hand of darkness, my transposition of darkness into sunrise isn’t surprising. And perhaps it’s appropriate. The vividness of this last quarter of the novel is still as strong as it was when I first read it. The long pull across the ice by the escaping Envoy Genly Ai and the traitor Estraven

Most especially, however, is this passage because it’s something that informs my cycling most vividly, especially after a long hard climb and, afterwards, the recovery from a tough workout. I’ll quote the first three paragraphs of Chapter 18 On the Ice

Sometimes as I am falling asleep in a dark, quiet room I have for a moment a great and treasurable illusion of the past. The wall of a tent leans up over my face, not visible but audible, a slanting plane of faint sound: the susurrus of blown snow. Nothing can be seen. The light-emission of the Chabe stove is cut off, and it exxists only as sphere of heat, a heart of warmth. The dampness and confining clinb of my sleeping-bag; the sound of the snow; barely audible, Estraven’s breathing as he sleeps; darkness. Nothing else. We are inside, the two of us, in shelter, at rest, at the center of all things. Outside, as always, lies the great darness, the cold, death’s solitude.

In such fortunate momentas as I fall asleep I know beyond doubt what the real center of my own life is, that time that is past and lost and yet is permanent, the enduring moment, the heart of warmth.

I am not trying to say that I was happy, during those weeks of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter. I was hungry, overstrained, and often anxious, and it all got worse the longer it went on. I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.

When I am riding and the world is as much moving around me as I am moving through the world, I find a center for my being. There is no multi-tasking to this experience; it becomes, instead, a kinetic meditation where time and distance pass, flowing by without leaving a deep imprint in my consciousness, for my mind is blended with distance and time leaving just myself, my soul, in its own passage. This is an experience to treasure and one I have encountered only a few times before. It informs me on some deep and most intimate level about who I am and how I fit within the world.

I know that cycling can be dangerous. As I join Wooden Valley Road again, wonderfully paved with bright white fog lines delineating the outer boundaries, traffic picks up: motorcycles, vehicles pulling boats and trailers on their way to Lake Berryessa. I’m acutely aware that any one of these vehicles can behave badly. That a truck pulling a boat will forget the length and swing into me pushing me off the road and down the rocky verge into the lock-lined dry stream bed I’m passing. Or a drunk simply won’t react to me. It is a risk. I work to deal with those risks but I am aware of them every time I ride.

Climbing is hard work and I feel the need to become stronger every time I ride serious hills. To be left behind by strong riders on the flat is not the same working hard on a climb, feeling my breath coming hard, the muscles of my legs straining to keep up some semblence of cadence. The climb up out from Wooden Valley School is that kind of hard work. This time I expected it. This time it seemed longer, as if my memory had compressed the distance from that first time I rode it a few weeks before. The descent, however, is ecstatic, using as much of the road as I dare, feeling the bike alive as gravity takes it. Ahhhh, it is joyous.

The last twenty miles are a different kind of work. Drudgery. This is territory I ride every week. It is familiar and home is calling. My legs are tired. The wind is crossing to heading, not a help. Finally the outskirts of town, then 113, then the turn onto Sycamore I almost miss. There are more riders around me now. We bunch up at traffic lights and there’s no urge to go fast. Down Sycamore to Villanova, then east, past a nasty accident at Anderson, and finally a few blocks and there’s the high school and Jan standing looking down the street beyond me, not seeing me. A shout, a wave, she snaps a photo after I’m past. And it’s over. She holds my bike while I go in to pick up my t-shirt, get a piece of bread, some canberry-apple crisp and a scoop of ice cream.

What I like best is that I’m not exhausted. I feel less tired than I did on the ride to Chico even though there was a lot more climbing on this ride. Maybe I’m getting in better shape. Praise then the darkness and creation unfinished. I am unfinished. I delight in being in transformation, in motion, seeking the new within myself, searching in the world for the echoes within myself, the light and dark, hidden and revealed, climbing towards the light. Pedaling hard.

Finding joy.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. nancy strand November 7th, 2007 8:27 am

    I’m amazed at the quality of the detail. If I did not know it impossible, I would almost think you were writing in a notebook with one hand as you rode along. And, yes, you clearly convey your joy in the experience.

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