Even the Darkness Has Arms

One thing I don’t like about winter is how early night falls. Another thing I don’t like is the cold. It makes sense, then, that riding at night in the winter time is not really my thing. As the days shortened over the past few months, more and more weekday rides happened on the trainer instead of the roads, and for the last two weeks exclusively so.

But I’m lucky to live in a city with a 20-mile greenbelt that is mostly car-free and smoothly paved, which makes nighttime riding a safe and accessible alternative to the trainer. Tonight I did a loop with Tyler and learned that the winter nights aren’t as intimidating as they seem from the comfort of a heated house. With the right clothes and plenty of light, nighttime riding is actually…fun. Who knew? I was warm and the path was pretty much empty and after the blood-orange sunset our lights gave us plenty of visibility. It ended up feeling pretty much like a normal ride, just a little quieter and a bit more mysterious. I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed myself.

I’m not sure what exactly makes the dark so intimidating, so frightening. The lack of light? The possibility of unseen things lurking? The sense of loneliness? But once you’re out in it, prepared for it, accepting of it, it offers its own simple pleasures. The thrill exploration, the feeling of invincibility when you realize the dark and cold can’t get at you, that you are safe and even comfortable.

I think we’ll try to do this ride once a week or so. Yes, it’ll give us the chance to breathe some fresh air and get away from the mind-numbing monotony of biking in place. But, as I realized tonight, it might do more than that.

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Seeing Things

Last time I rode up along the Susquehanna to Millersburg it was August. The ridges were green then, impossibly dense with foliage, and the valleys were thick with cornfields swaying in the breeze, heavy with cobs waiting for harvest. In August I was there to watch a race. The downtown was full of lean people with shaved legs walking in cleats like high heels. There were sidewalks lined with lawn chairs, stop signs protected by hay bales, side streets cordoned off. There were carbon bikes, each worth more than 10% of what the average townie earns in a year, pretty much everywhere. I wore my most breathable jersey, zipped down, and drank cold seltzer to stave off the heat.

Yesterday Millersburg was quiet. Everyone was at home or in church and the streets were empty and the stores were closed and nobody was thinking about biking. Not in December. When we crisscrossed up and over Peters Mountain the forest was gaunt in the first stages of winter, all browns and grays, thin enough to look through to see the land spread out down below. When we bombed across the valley the corn was either down or brittle like old paper left unprotected. I wore gloves and oversocks and there was no sweat, only condensation in my glasses when we stopped.

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One of the beautiful things about cycling is that it returns you to the same places, season after season, year after year. In our cities and suburbs we don’t notice changes as easily; we are absorbed in private dramas for which the landscape is a backdrop, a movie set we are too busy to look at closely except when it invades our stories in some striking way.

But when you are out riding there is nothing to do but look. Around at the roadside world, down at the pavement below your top tube, above at the sky and anything it might be holding. You are out in it, really out in it, with no distractions, no other occupations. You notice the way time warps everything, the difference a year or a hard frost or a fire makes. On bikes, you do is move through the world with your eyes open. That is all you do.

The landscape is the foreground, the middle ground, the background. It is the backdrop, the stage floor, the house lights, the seats, the theater itself. The ridgelines layer into the distance, going on forever.

Heart Trouble

Two weeks ago I went to the blood bank to donate. I followed the typical routine: waited in the empty lobby for an inexplicably long time before a nurse emerges, confirmed on the checklist that I was not in Eastern Europe between 1992 and 1997, avoided eye contact while answering sexual history questions that the nurse felt even more awkward asking, have my blood drawn and my pulse taken.

It was all smooth sailing until the last part.

Long story short, the nurse noticed an irregular heartbeat and, after consulting the thicker-than-a-Bible (and less organized) manual, disqualified me from donating. A couple days later an EKG revealed that I have PVCs (premature ventricular contractions) and RBBB (something like right bundle blockage). Yesterday I was in the waiting room of the cardiology department. And today I’m wearing a bundle of wires strapped to my chest like I’m going undercover to help nab a mafia boss.

It’s been a weird few days. I still don’t have any answers; hopefully those will come after the battery of tests I’m doing over the next couple weeks, including the Holter monitor, a stress test, and an echocardiogram. All signs point to a harmless “athlete’s heart”-like condition, where the muscle is just too damn strong and is sending electrical impulses to beat when it shouldn’t. I haven’t had pain or other symptoms. But then again, PVCs can be the result of more serious structural issues, and there’s a history of heart issues in my family (thanks a lot, grandma).

When you’re young, you don’t think about your heart. You don’t worry about your body failing you. I know I never thought about it. I exercise and eat healthy. Why would I need to worry?

But, at least for the time being, I am worried. It is scary to feel your pulse jump and wonder if that beating thing inside your chest is suddenly going to give way. It is scary to ponder a future without your favorite activities, the things that comprise part of your identity. It is scary to listen to your heart thundering in your ears against the pillow at night, wondering if your fears are making it worse. It is scary to sit in a waiting room surrounded by people decades older than you and notice something like curious pity in their eyes. You shouldn’t be here, they seem to say. I know why I’m here. But you?

I wasn’t really considering returning to racing and interval training, but now those are out of the question. Strava KOM hunting may be as well. After this scare, I’ll be happy to just be able to stay on the bike, to keep things moderate. My hammering days are likely over, whether or not my condition turns out to be serious or not. The risk/reward calculation just doesn’t work out. There’s no point–I don’t love hammering enough to threaten my life.

I’ll be taking it easy until the tests all come back, probably just going for long walks and spinning on the trainer. Not a fun way to close out 2017, but I think it’s the smart thing to do.

The Rider in Winter

It’s that time of year. The mornings are cold enough to make me shiver in my denim jacket. As I walk home from work the light is already fading fast, and by the time I eat dinner it is all blackness outside. The commuters driving home on Front Street splash their headlights across my windows. A couple days ago, big wet snowflakes spiraled out of the sky as I walked to the church on Verbeke Street to vote.

What’s that have to do with cycling? Perhaps, nothing.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about cycling in winter. How it feels, what it means. I haven’t reached any conclusions. But I know a few things. I know that the mood, the way you experience the season on a bike, the world around you, is totally unique. You are bundled up against the air; rather than welcoming its cooling touch on descents, you try to keep it from your skin. Breath rises in front of your face like steam. Water bottles and fingers and toes freeze. The forests are stripped bare and seemingly shrunk in their nakedness, and you can see right through them. After harvest the fields are brown or snow-covered, picked at by crows that descend in noisy murders.

riding in winter

When you ride in the winter, you go slower–it’s the off-season, after all. You put miles in the legs. You skip interval sessions, or ditch them altogether. You get in long rides when the weather allows. You appreciate little things: roads cleared of snow, a few hours of sunlight, a fifty-degree day, warm feet, a cup of coffee as morning dawns frigid, a bowl of soup after you come in from the gloaming.

I don’t think that riding in the winter is more fun, or even more rewarding, than riding in the other seasons. But there is a special, hardy kind of romance to it. A joy in going outside, in continuing on, damn the elements. A satisfaction borne less of conquering things inside you and more of conquering things without.