Mid-day; high sun; temperature nudging 90. I fill two water bottles and fit them into the bottle holders on the bicycle. Condensation beads the sides, mimics the sweat on my forehead. I snug helmet down, adjust it to fit, rap it once on top just because. I slide the sunglasses into place, squint my eyes to adjust to them.
Then I lean the bike toward me, lift one leg over the top bar, clip my right foot into the pedal. Take a deep breath. Then kick off as if I was swimming into deep water, clip the left foot in, push down and around on the pedals. And I ride.
I ride into the harsh sun, into the high summer heat, out of town, pushing against a surprisingly stiff breeze. Where was that breeze in my backyard? Too sheltered; the wind does not reach there. I ride as I have ridden for ages, for most of my life, along the back roads of the area, in the days of summer heat.
I could have ridden in the morning; it was cooler then. Cooler, yes; but not cool. It was near 70 at 6:30; not cool, but cooler than it would be later. I did other things and in the afternoon, in the heat of summer, I rode.
There were times when I would not have ridden in the heat, but that was a long time ago. I don’t know when it changed. It may have been on a ride years ago: California, going east from the coast. I rode long pulls along the Columbia River on days when it topped 100 degrees and the road seemed to go on forever and the heat mirages shimmered like ghosts ahead of me.
There was no shade; there was no mercy. It is high desert country and it was very hot and very lonely. I pedaled all day on those days, pushed 100 miles a day, all in the heat. Maybe that’s when I learned to live with it.
I rode long days on that trip, fueled by a mix of granola and M&Ms and raisins and whatever else I could mix together and put in a plastic bag that I carried in a handlebar pack in front of me. I’d eat that mix as I pedaled, a handful at a time and when I came to a town at midday I’d hit whatever fast food joint I could find, eat hearty and ride on.
I rode a lot of miles on that trip and most of it was in the heat of early summer. Maybe that’s when I got over it, got over the fear of riding on a hot day.
That was a long time ago. We did not have helmets then; we did not have cycle computers that measured distance to the tenth of a mile; we did not have special foods or drinks. Now I track time and distance on a small computer that fits on my handlebars and costs all of $40. Now I carry special foods, designed in a lab, to maximize energy. Now I stop and swig sport drinks that replenish what I have lost.
Back then, it was granola and water and no helmet and no micro computer to tell me how far I’d gone. I’d fold up a gas station map, slide it in the top pocket of the handlebar bag and figure it out as I went along.
All that comes back to me that afternoon in the heat. All of what I use has changed. The bike shifts better with new gear; the helmet is light, cool, effective; my shoes clip to the pedals; the clothing is new synthetic blends to move sweat and help cool. Back in the old days, shorts were knit of wool and we wore little caps, white to better deal with the heat. I would pour water over my head from an extra bottle.
On the ride this week I have two bottles, one to drink from, one to pour over my head and back. That hasn’t changed; that’s one thing. And I ride now as I did then, because I love to ride. That hasn’t changed either and sometimes I wonder at that, wonder how what was important to me then is still important to me. I take satisfaction in that; that I found out early what I loved to do and never left it and it still brings me happiness.
It all comes back to me on the ride this week; the long rides from decades past; the rides in the heat; the gear, the changes. Funny how that works, funny how the mind can wander on a ride on a hot summer day.
I ride into the wind and it’s work; riding into the wind is like riding up a hill that never ends. It is simply work; no two ways around it. But if you ride a long loop, eventually you turn and the headwind becomes a tailwind and you ride fast and easy with a goofy smile on your face. If anyone sees you and sees that loopy smile, they’d wonder about your state of mind.
Or they might wonder, those who may pass you by on a 90 degree day as you pedal along, they might wonder about your basic sanity. They might wonder, and who am I to disagree? To ride hard in the heat when smart money would put you at the beach in cool water, to ride like that does seem foolhardy.
Might you think that? Perhaps. And perhaps you have a point. Because hard effort on a hot day is no easy task. Doesn’t matter if you work in the heat or play in the heat; it’s tough. And it’s one thing when you have to, when the paycheck is there only if the work gets done. It’s another thing, quite another, to do it on a day off, to do it of your own free will.
I think of that on the bike, pedals moving, breeze in my face, but so what: It’s still 90 stinkin’ degrees! I think of that and wonder why I passed on the morning ride, chose to ride late in the heat of the day. And I come, in my thoughts, full circle, to winter, to January, to the season of the cold.
On days when it drops way down, below zero, below minus 5 or minus 10 or minus 15, on those days I make time to ski. And people think I’m insane for doing so.
Because skiing in the bitter cold is tough in the same way that riding in the high heat is tough.
And in that circle, the cold of winter and the heat of summer, in that I find connection. I know that the extremes push us, challenge us, make us reach inside of our guts and see who we are. I know when I go there, into the cold of January or into the heat of July, I know that in those times I take on something difficult and when I do, I find something about who I am. And I know with the certainty of a sunrise or a sunset, know with the conviction of heat and cold, I know that when I push myself, I feel better about myself. I think we all do that: find a challenge, try it, test ourselves, decide who we are.
I’ll ride in the heat this summer. It’s a little thing in the grand scheme of things. But I’ll take it.
I empty both my water bottles on the ride: drink one down all the way; dump the other over my back and head. The water is warm on this day, but it feels good.
On a hot day you take comfort in small things; a bike ride, a breeze in your face; a drink of water; the accomplishment of a ride done well in the high heat of summer.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.