A year ago I rode my bike in mid-March, when the winter cracked under weight of unseasonable heat as if the season had grown frail and could not bear the burden of spring. I rode on warm afternoons when the heat of sun brought to mind June or July, even as remnant snow filled ditches and low spots as if hiding from summer come early.
When you ride on a warm day, you build heat; sweat breaks across the forehead, runs like tears down your face. Then you ride down a steep hill into lowland and the chill still lingers there and when you ride through the low places, the cold air reaches out for you and covers you as fog. Then the road lifts and you ride into sun and warmth again.
That is the way it was last year and I rode hard, filled with the craziness that comes on spring days when the air seems to fill you with spirit and life. I rode strong and pushed higher gears, even though I knew it was a foolish thing to do. One must build into it; must ease toward the higher gears in small steps as we do with all of our tasks.
But sometimes the sheer intoxication of early spring fogs our minds and makes us forget the wisdom we have learned, and from that fogginess mistakes rise from the mud and muck of spring as if a rare flower. I rode too hard and I knew I was riding too hard, too early; I thought that the rules did not apply. Some rules always apply; they are like gravity, always there even if you do not notice it. After a few weeks, my knee ached too bad to ride and I was off the bike to let it heal.
Dumb. That’s what it was: dumb. I knew better. The exuberance and exhilaration was no excuse. It was a dumb thing to do.
I rested the knee, got back on the bike after a while. Rode smart then, turned small, easy gears and did easy miles and all was well. I had a good season on the bike and the best of it was that this year, I remembered. Memory is a wonderful thing when it comes to avoiding dumb mistakes.
This spring seemed never to come and in fact, there is some talk that it never really has come, that we went from late winter to summer in the span of a few days last week. Who knows? It’s what we had; it’s what we had to deal with.
On a warm afternoon this week, I lugged a bicycle up from the basement, dusted it off, pumped the tires full and called it good. Then I dug deep into the detritus of my closet and found bike shorts, jersey and some socks. In the basement I found a box with bike shoes and gloves and my helmet.
I used to ride miles without a helmet; miles and years without one, and if I added them all up, I’m not sure that in my life I’ve ridden more miles without a helmet than with one. Now I won’t ride around the block unless I’ve got it on. I did the same with seat belts; years without; now, never without.
I ride a road bike most of the time; narrow tires, bent over handle bars and all. I’ve ridden road bikes for decades. They feel good to me; they feel like what I think a bike should feel like. I can ride them, when I build up to it, for miles, for hours, for, now, most of my life. I like the feel on a bike – the wind in my face and the sweet breath of spring in the air and the rhythm of the pedaling. I like to ride the back roads that wind their way through woods and fields, past lakes and streams, up hills and down. I like all that; it feels natural to me, like breathing, like walking, like life itself.
I got on the bike this week on a day that felt like a day to ride. There have not been a lot of days that felt like days to ride this spring. There were days that I could have ridden, but what was the point? Those days were too cold or too damp or just did not feel like a day to ride. It may sound like whining but no, just fact. I ride because I want to and because it feels right. I don’t ride because it’s good for me or because I “should.” That makes it sound like taking medicine.
I’d like to say that once you get on the bike for the first ride of spring, it’s like you never have been off it for all those months. That’s not true. The bike seat, narrow and designed for a mix of comfort and efficiency, that bike seat feels like a brick; hard, harsh and unforgiving. It feels that way at the start of every year. I know that it was fine a year ago, know that it was comfortable enough then, but it always feels like I’m sitting on a rock the first ride of the season.
My shoulders ache; my hands feel every bump it the road; my legs feel unused and burdened. I fumble for the gear levers, shift up when I want to shift down, expect an easy gear and find a steep one. I ride on into the spring day, regardless.
I ride roads that are familiar to me and I remember that I usually ride them faster than I am riding now. I use lower gears; I resist the urge to push things. The lesson learned a year ago remains. I’ll rest my knees. I’ll use common sense.
But in the end, I ride. I ride on a day made for being outside. I ride the roads I know, along river, over hills; straining up, coasting down (the downhills feel so free and so much fun!). I ride on a warm day under a high sun. Skies are blue overhead. It is spring and I am on a bicycle and all is well.
I ride for an hour. I feel OK. I don’t push it too hard; my knee feels fine. I ride back into town, cut through Pioneer Park to avoid traffic, pedal past kids on the swings, ride under the big pines then into the neighborhood, down the street and turn into my driveway. The dogs see me from the window and run to the door.
I brake the bike, put my foot down. For the first time in an hour, I get off the bike and stand up. My back is achy and I feel gimpy. I stretch, slowly, then stand and lean on the bike. It’ll get better. This much I know.
Then I let the dogs out and they run crazy wild across the yard, barking at birds and not caring a bit about the bike and the ride, caring only that it’s spring and that the air is full of life and it’s a good day to be outside. Same, when you think about it, as me.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNOW.com.