Headwind

A big difference between birds and people is that birds enjoy facing into the wind. “Enjoy” is probably not the right word, but facing into the wind certainly comes naturally to them. It ruffles their feathers the least and protects them from hypothermia. I was reminded of this on the three days that I toured by bike, covering parts of the San Francisco Bay Trail. Almost from beginning to end, I was beset by a constant headwind. It didn’t matter whether I was going north, south, east or west; the wind altered course to oppose my direction.

I have wondered about a meteorological explanation, but winds are not easy to explain, and even less easy to predict. They are, however, very amenable to tired metaphors, in which I am told, I am quite the expert. There were long stretches on those three days, however, when no metaphors presented themselves. I felt a welcome blankness that permits only an awareness of the inputs of the senses, an occasional stray thought, but little judgement or feeling. It was a strange sort of meditation.

There was neither frustration, nor fear, nor happiness, as I lumbered heavily across empty stretches of Pinole, San Pablo, Richmond and Selby, passing broken warehouse after broken garage after smashed window, often without sighting another human being for miles on end. Thoughts came and went with the sight of an abandoned post-industrial landscape, the taste of the California dust, the hot whiteness of the afternoon sky, and always, the persistent, low groaning of the wind. There were parked cars from the eighties, and corrugated iron sheets covered by a thick layer of rust. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be so different from a wild west movie if someone stepped out from behind a warehouse and fancied a pistol shot at a slow-moving bicycle tourist. It was a narcissistic,  morbid and wholly unnecessary thought, and it didn’t stick. I didn’t wonder too long about what it would be like to die on a bicycle.

Long-distance cycling, whether slow or fast, competitive or solitary, provides you with something to work with, to keep going in spite of the wind and heat and dust. When you’ve gone through it long enough, you stop cursing the conditions, or wondering when they will improve, or when you’ll have a cold relaxing bath. Little by little, the vanity seems to wear away; the thought that you are soldiering through adversity begins to appear more and more ridiculous. You’re merely doing what needs to be done, and not doing much else. I feel strangely attracted to that state of mind. You are like one of the hunter-gatherer clans that roamed the earth thirty or forty thousand years ago before civilization arose – moving from one grassland to the next, one storm to the next, one flooded river crossing to the next, one wild hunt to the next, doing what needed to be done.

I have not had many long conversations with people who have toured long distances, traversed the length and breadth of the country, for example. These people are rare, and generally not the demonstrative type. People tour, so that they can experience the country from outside the cabin of a car, so that they can discover new friends and new experiences, so that they can find themselves; the motivations vary. Even with all the risks and hardship, there appear to be many advantages to touring on a bicycle. You are not constantly beholden to other people’s schedules, their rituals, their orders, and their personalities. It is just you and the bike, and either out of some sort of empathy for the weather-beaten traveler or because of the relative novelty of a long-distance bicycle traveler, the people you do meet from time to time, tend to behave rather nicely with you. But, if there is one thing that really makes me crave for long bike journeys, it is the mysterious meditative state that I thought I reached in that seemingly endless headwind.

Peloton

The women’s CAT 3 amateur races are on today at Boston’s City Hall. Within the first few laps, valiant stragglers are left behind and then disqualified; the cutoff times are too brutal for a lay rider to contemplate. Soon a peloton forms; a single tight accretion circling fast around City Hall. As the laps count down, I begin to see the effort in the sculpted thighs and tightening jaws.

Three laps to go: There are signs of a strategic sprint. A rider breaks away as the rest of the peloton tries to compensate, their eyes show murderous intention, some bare their teeth. The effort, as it turns out, is too much too soon; she cannot keep up the sprint, and slowly but surely, the peloton bears down on her like a wolf pack, swallows her into its uncompromising depths. This is Call of the Wild on a human scale.

And like the primordial opportunists that survived and propagated their seed through the ages, someone else has been biding her time. At 1 lap to go, she summons a reserve of energy from who knows where, and launches into an incredible sprint that will seal the race; this stunning apparition of mind, flesh, bone and carbon blitzes the finish line, her back wheel about 3 feet ahead of the peloton.

I feel my hair standing on end. These are supposed to be amateur riders, but their speed boggles the mind. Tomorrow, I will face my own challenge, which appears so much smaller than the ridiculous physical feats that I have just seen. I have to ride 50 miles inside 5 hours, probably in the rain. With a little bit of shame, but a lot of inspiration, I pick up my registration package with the race still buzzing in my head.

The bib number I receive is 4057. In my head, I compulsively divide it by 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, … it is a disease. The number turns out to be a prime, quite in line with the sense of desperate, angry isolation that has crept upon me and grown during the past year. I wonder if this bodes well for the ride tomorrow.

Our fair (biking) city

Cambridge was awarded Gold-Level Bicycle Friendly Community status by the League of American Bicyclists on Saturday, May 18. Just before the Cambridge Sweet Ride began in front of the Public Library, the Mayor was presented with the plaque, and we came to know that Cambridge is

  • the 260th community in the country to receive Bike Friendly status
  • the first city on the East Coast to receive Gold status.
  • the second city east of the Mississippi (after Wisconsin).

The ride itself consisted of two parts, thoughtfully organized on either side of a bathroom break at the Public Library. The first part, called the “Sweet” Route took us to places in Central and Kendall Squares and thence to East Cambridge. The second part, called the “Savory” Route went to Harvard and Porter Squares, returning to the library via Julia Child’s house on Irving Street.

I had attended a small community ride in Somerville last week – one of the many events commemorating bike week – and expected this to be a similar one, but that wasn’t the case at all. By my conservative estimate there were easily about 400 cyclists, including some people from Somerville and the neighboring cities. While last week’s ride in Somerville required only a small police escort, Saturday needed a massive operation, with several policemen shepherding the traffic. This being Cambridge, the police were on bicycles, complete with blue blinking lights. During the ride, as we went along Beacon Street, someone joked, “On a Cambridge Sweet Ride, you have to be careful, if you take a right turn you’ll find yourself in Somerville.”

It was an easy-paced, orderly, 12-mile affair, and the most interesting part of it, for me, was too look at the sheer variety of cycles. Here, unlike in most other parts of the country, cycling is a recognized as a way of life, rather than the province of awesome lycra-clad physical specimens who push their own bodies to incredible levels of stamina. There were a few of those too, and they gamely adapted to the 7 mph average speed, merging into the throng of bicycles: There were mountain bikes, and hybrids, and beach cruisers, and cross bikes repurposed into single-speeds, and dirty extra-cycles still carrying the mud from past touring expeditions, and children on little bikes enthusiastically climbing up the sloping roads, and children in little carriers behind their parents, and there was even a “bakfiets” which a lady pedaled vigorously from start to finish while her little one looked out at the world.

Everywhere, people would stop and watch – they had no choice but to do so, as the group was so large. On the sweet route, the hip crowd sipping their weekend coffee and pastries on outside-chairs waved as we passed. In East Cambridge, a little brother took his littler sister’s arm and exclaimed, “Look! there are so many of them!!”. My favorite part of the ride was also its most unexpected. We were passing a non-descript parking lot containing USPS vehicles, and some delivery-men-and-women were out and about. They saw us, and began to wave, and clap, and then someone in a van had the bright idea to play rhythmic beats on their truck horns. Before we knew it, the entire USPS lot was a delirious and endearing cacophony of vehicle horns and claps.

Having done a few of these rides, I see some familiar faces now. We don’t know each other by name, but conversation comes easy. There are men and women from the ages of 20 to 75, doing different kinds of jobs, and living very different lives, having in common a simple love for the practical bicycling way of life. If you heard their conversations about fenders and bike art and do-it-yourself mud flaps refashioned from linoleums, you might think that they’re a bit crazy or even  tiresome. But, I like being in their midst; they’re my kind of people.

The Surprise on Pothole Avenue

Pothole Avenue runs straight as an arrow, coinciding with the border between Cambridge and Somerville. In recent months, this street has seen an increasing number of bicycles of all kinds – road bikes, mountain bikes, commuter bikes, recumbent bikes and yes, even cargo bikes. The unsuspecting inhabitants refer to this street by its pseudonym – Beacon Street, its real name manifested only in the bone-jarring, sore-butt sensations that we experience while traveling up and down the gentle slopes bedecked with potholes and uneven tar patches.

I’ve been avoiding Beacon Street lately during my morning commute, trading off the straight pothole-punctuated ride for the more circuitous sedate paths that weave through Harvard, and then onward to Kendall. These last few evenings, my return commute has changed as well; after discovering that long-under-construction-Somerville Avenue is ready at last, smooth like a tennis court with a beautiful bike lane all the way up to Porter Square. Thus, Beacon Street has not been getting much mileage from me, and both bike and butt are grateful for that.

However, it so happened two weeks ago that a group of friends decided to ride from work to Lexington via the Minuteman Trail and as if by force of habit, all the cyclists made a beeline to Porter Square filing northward along Beacon Street. As I jangled miserably down the slope and past the Washington Street intersection, something unexpected came into view.

The Hubway has come to Cambridge and Somerville! People have already started using the bikes as evidenced by some empty stations. I have yet to ride one – even though they’ve been in Boston for the past year – and am eagerly awaiting the day when a similar bike station is set up at Porter Square. The bicycles themselves look sturdily made, painted in a somewhat understated gray color compared to their bright red cousins in Washington DC.

Many bicycling advocates say that the best way to make American cities safer for cycling is to have more cyclists on the road. In the years to come, Boston and its boroughs will get a chance to test that hypothesis. Whether due to the bad economy and gasoline prices, or owing to increased awareness of the benefits of cycling,  the number of people on bicycles has increased perceptibly in the last 5 years, and it is possible that the advent of the Hubway will continue to take more people out of their cars and onto the bikes. Maybe, increased awareness of the Hubway stations will cause car and truck drivers to become more mindful of sharing the road, and less prone to right-hooking or dooring an unfortunate cyclist.

In other bicycling-related happenings, Nicole Freedman recently left Boston to pursue a job with Maine Huts and Trails. As the city’s Bike Czar — appointed by the bicycle-friendly mayor Thomas Menino — Freedman was responsible for laying more than 50 miles of bike lanes in a very short time, and oversaw much of the feasibility studies, planning and deployment of the Hubway – generally transforming Boston from the worst bicycling city in the US to one of its best. Those are big shoes to fill, and one hopes that her replacement will be at least half as dedicated as she.

With the midnight pedalers

Start Time: August 11, 2012, 12:00 am.
Start Place: Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston, MA.
End Time: August 12, 2012, 7:00 am
End Place: Christopher Columbus Park, Boston, MA
Distance traveled on the ride: 36 miles.
Door-to-door distance traveled that night: 49 miles.
#People who started: ~120
#People who finished: ~60
#Perseids meteors seen by most of the group: 1
#Perseid meteors seen by yours truly: 0