Chautauqua, issue 11 (2014)
A Ring of Bells
The Gettysburg Review, Summer 2014
American Athenaeum, Summer 2013
Wisconsin Public Radio, July 26, 2013
Driving to Door County
Wisconsin Public Radio, May 22, 2013
Apeiron Review, May 2013
The Commons, May 1 2013
Wisconsin Public Radio, April 10, 2013
Wisconsin Trails, May/June 2012
Wisconsin Pubic Radio March 14, 2012
Wisconsin Public Radio, October 21, 2011
Wisconsin Public Radio, June 1, 2011
Wisconsin Public Radio, May 4, 2011
Ninth Letter, Fall/Winter 2005
Learning to Ski Skate
Silent Sports, December 1998
A lyrical essay about what cycling has meant to me over my lifetime.
Published in the online literary journal Apeiron Review, issue 3, May 2013, pp. 68-71. Click here to see the issue of Apeiron Review.
I did not learn to ride a bike until I was sixteen, in Shropshire. My father, who cycled to work, taught me. I did not see my mother on a bike—she did not own one—until many years later. My father was an impatient teacher, and I was doubtless a terrible learner, being at once a perfectionist and a coward. Great unpleasantness ensued as I attempted to trust myself to this contraption and take both feet off the ground at once, wobbling around the flat country lane. Dad’s method of instruction was generally to express amazement that I had reached my current age without knowing how to (skate, wire a plug, play tennis or ride a bike) and annoyance at discovering that it was up to him to rectify the situation, which he did peremptorily, as if on a military expedition. Even after I had, miraculously, got the hang of propelling myself forward while seated, I continued to be extremely cautious and distinctly remember a nasty encounter with a six-foot holly hedge on a hill near our house.
I was born in a place and time when few women saw themselves as athletes. I reached adolescence in rural England in 1972, a world in which, as a teenager, I felt immured. Nowadays we are so accustomed to the sight of female cyclists and joggers that we barely notice them, but they did not exist where I grew up. For a girl, engaging in anything more than walking the dog or the Sunday afternoon family hike was viewed as odd. My mother worried that sport made you too muscular—like the East German women who swept up most of the gold medals in swimming in the 1976 Olympics. She thought them ugly and unfeminine.
For seven years, I attended an all-girls’ secondary school just across the border in north Wales. We were not allowed to wear trousers. The uniform included P.E. outfits of bloomers and mini-dresses made of thick polyester in the four house colors. Mine were a sickly ocher shade that was billed as “gold.” The two sports we were taught were field hockey (in my memory it was invariably chilly and raining, but we were never allowed to don sweaters over our sleeveless mini-dresses) and netball, a women’s sport similar to basketball except it was played outdoors and you weren’t allowed to dribble the ball while running. Despite being tall, which should have been an advantage, I wasn’t at all athletic. I was bookish and self-conscious, timid, near-sighted and uncoordinated. I dreaded P.E. with its organized sadism, its cold, humiliation, pain and shouting; the danger of getting thwacked on the shins by a hockey stick, covered in gluey mud, or hit by the ball; the agony of taking off one’s clothes in front of others in the locker room with its sharp and intimate smells of stale sweat, sanitary towels and Dettol disinfectant; the alternately numbing or scalding showers.
Cycling didn’t become essential to my life until I was nineteen. I left home to study languages at Cambridge University and needed a bike to get around. My college was three miles outside the town center, and the students (who were not permitted to bring cars) used bicycles to go to lectures and socialize. I arrived with a black three-speed, 1930s “sit-up-and-beg” bicycle inherited from Mrs. Brasher, an elderly widowed neighbor. I christened this weighty vehicle “Hercules.” It had a wicker basket on the handlebars and my matriculation year and college painted in neat white letters on the rear fender by the gruff but kindly college groundsman, Mr. Whitehead, whose shed smelled of linseed oil. By the end of my first term I had mostly lost my fear of cycling and could negotiate the busy, cobbled streets of Cambridge as well as anyone else.
After finals in my last year, I was given a summer grant to spend six weeks cycling around Brittany visiting prehistoric standing stones and burial sites. With some of the money, I purchased a Peugeot ten-speed bike that I whimsically named “Cassandra,” crossed the Channel by ferry and set off for a blissful summer with my boyfriend, biking around looking for menhirs, making love in our tent, and subsisting on baguettes and cheap Camembert. Spending a whole summer outdoors, where I found myself happiest, and using my body to travel and explore, were key experiences. I learned that I had strength and endurance, and I gained a measure of confidence and self-reliance. I learned how to repair flats, navigate, put up a tent and survive in a foreign country.
During graduate school, I won a research fellowship to the University of Wisconsin, and arrived in Madison in August 1986 for what was supposed to be a one-year visit. I naïvely expected it to be like the places I had seen on the TV series “Dallas”—gleaming sky-scrapers and fast cars—but to my surprise and relief, it was green and laid-back, not citified. I moved in to a house next to a small lake that I swam across every morning. Wisconsin in the summer seemed like paradise—the space and warm weather created an intoxicating range of opportunities to swim and bike and sail and canoe and play tennis. The parks were full of people playing Frisbee and softball in the evenings. In the second week I took the bus out to the mall and bought a red Schwinn ten-speed bicycle at Sears.
It was a matter of chance and luck that Madison turned out to be one of the best places in the U.S. to ride a bike, both because of the existence of bike lanes within the city and because of Wisconsin’s history as a dairy state. There is a dense network of winding country roads that are not laid out on grids (as they are in neighboring Illinois and elsewhere) and that have to be well maintained for milk to get to market. The terrain nearby comprises rolling hillsides and small farms, wooded areas, and many one- and two-lane roads with low traffic, ideal for cycling.
During that year I met my future husband, a keen cyclist. My cycling up until that point had been primarily a means of locomotion and exploration, with no thought of speed or technique. Thanks to Ned, I learned about some of the technical aspects of road biking, like cadence and drafting. I acquired first a helmet (after an accident early on), then padded gloves (as my hands started to get numb from vibrations through the handlebars), then padded bike shorts (to avoid saddle sores) and, eventually, Lycra cycling tops with pockets in the back. By the end of my first summer, we were riding 30 miles every evening after work. Wisconsin roads were a delight after the crowded, dangerous, narrow roads of England. Instead of an engagement ring, Ned got me my first 21-speed bike, a Trek 1100, which I am still riding over 20 years later.
“Where do you ride—the bike trails?” People always ask me that. They can’t imagine the country roads. It’s a whole hidden world, the world of cyclists; the places they go, the things they do. The very same countryside that can seem so sterile viewed from within a car on a highway—occupied only by Culvers and Stop’n’Gos and Kwik Trips—is spacious and gorgeous on the rolling back roads.
If you’re a cyclist, you avoid any road with a number in its name (highway 69, say) and spend little time on those with letter names, like A or KP. Roads with nouns for names are your best bet, especially if they offer promises like “Enchanted Valley Road” or “Storytown Road.” Cyclists and drivers don’t travel the same roads, or, if we do, we don’t experience them in the same way. I sometimes think of driving as watching a place on TV instead of being in it. You see what it’s like but you don’t experience it with your other senses, and you don’t earn it physically. The cows’ sweet stink. Starlings like a shower. Inland prairie seas of grasses, and then hay-making. You can’t smell the silage or the pine trees or the dead animal on the side of the road or the rain coming, or the fall. You don’t hear the redwings’ chee, chee or get dive-bombed by them or see herons flying with clumsy, languid grace overhead or feel every jolt in the road. You can’t be felled by a hole or a stone the size of a silver dollar. You don’t swoop out of the heat into the delicious cool of the valleys on summer evenings.
Once spring returns to Wisconsin and the temperatures reach the low fifties, a ribbon of sound begins to unroll as you ride through the countryside, with chorus frogs shrilling in all the wetlands, and later in the season crickets jingling their tiny, shrill tambourines in the dry grasses. The air is full of birdsong too, from wrens, song sparrows, towhees, swallows, woodpeckers, goldfinches, killdeer, and yellowthroats going about their business in the trees and fields. All of this is what I live for, after the long silence of winter.
Biking gives me a feeling of joy and freedom, of spaciousness. Moving through so much air—on a good year I ride some four thousand miles between April and October—my sense of smell becomes more acute. When I pass a bar I am almost overwhelmed by the hot, greasy smell of it. Clover smells so sweet when I pass clumps of it in the verge that I instinctively sense why foraging animals prefer it. The wood on a new bridge smells both sweet and acrid, like tobacco smoke. I pass an orchard on my route out of town, and in May I am regaled with the scent of apple-blossom and then, in August and September, the perfume of apples. At another point I get whiffs of a sewage treatment plant, like the marshes I remember hiking in Suffolk. Once I was puzzled by a strong odor of cut grass, but when a lawn-care company truck passed me shortly afterwards, I felt gleeful as a dog who has tracked something.
In fact, I am often reminded, on my road bike, of the vision of a dog riding in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck, with its head out the window, panting and grinning, a sight that never fails to make me smile. There’s something infectious about that deep content and excitement, that intense presence, that primal well-being at just going somewhere. Other people must see something like that in me because they often smile or wave spontaneously when I ride by.
Ironically, though, loose dogs were what most frightened me when I began cycling by myself, and the reason I had to overcome a fear of training alone. In our early rides, Ned and I had several terrifying experiences of passing isolated farms and being chased by dogs, sometimes several at a time. Our tactic was for Ned to stay on my back wheel, bellowing ferociously, as we pedaled for dear life. If a dog chases me when I’m alone, I’ve learned to dismount, keeping the bike between us, and flag down the next car that passes. Then I ask the driver to keep the car between me and the dog until I’m out of its range. Over the last twenty-five years, what were once isolated areas with little traffic have become more populous, and people generally keep their dogs indoors or chained, so riding alone has fewer canine hazards. There has also been a noticeable decline in harassment and wolf whistles from male motorists in that time—due, I assume, to my aging, a welcome upside.
I do not underestimate the danger cycling represents to life and limb. On almost every ride, although I pick my routes to avoid traffic, some cars pass too close or cut me off, either intentionally—because they don’t think cyclists should be on the roads at all—or from inattentiveness or poor driving. Although an agnostic, I begin every ride with a prayer to St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, to bring me home safe and whole.
One of the dangers cyclists face is dehydration. One time, determined to stay hydrated on an extremely long, hot ride, I drank too much water from my newly-purchased CamelBak and developed hyponatremia, an unpleasant condition in which one’s blood sodium level drops too low because excessive water intake is diluting the blood at the same time as intense sweating is leaching the body of salt. I became disoriented and nauseated, lost my way, hit a pothole and almost came off my bike in the path of an oncoming car. Somehow I made it home and spent the rest of the day resting and recuperating. Lying there in my woozy state, I could hear a continuous low rumble. Convinced there was a machine on somewhere in the house, I went around vainly trying to track down the source of the noise, only to realize it was tinnitus—my addled brain was replicating the way the wind roars in your ears on a bike, at even relatively low speeds.
Another hazard that can’t be avoided is insects flying into your face and body—sometimes they collide quite hard. You have to develop a closed-mouth, Mona Lisa pant because they can fly in and sting you. Last fall I got hit by a hornet in the face. It got trapped in the hair at the side of my face and kept stinging me. I pulled over in a panic and ripped my helmet off so it could escape, then downed a dose of the Benadryl I now carry on the bike.
Pea gravel is perilous, too. A state joke has it that there are two seasons in Wisconsin: winter and road-construction. For a cyclist with skinny road tires, encountering a stretch of freshly graveled road can be a disaster—especially if it goes on for miles and you encounter it three quarters of the way through a long, hot ride, at a point where you can’t turn back or go another way. Highly skilled cyclists stay on, but my fear of falling is such that I can only ride on gravel for short periods of white-knuckling, interspersed with bouts of walking to steady my nerves and shaking knees.
As I was drawn into the world of cycling, it was inevitable that I would attempt a “century.” A century is the cyclist’s equivalent of a marathon—usually (although not always) a “supported” ride with designated rest stops providing food, drink and bathrooms along the way. As a teenager, around the time I learned to ride, I once asked an elderly man on the street, “Have you got the time?” And he, startlingly, replied “No, but I have the record of its passing.” That, to me, is the point of a century: not the time in which it’s completed, but the record, in memory, of its passing. It takes months to train for one, months which tend to fade in the mind, but the day of the event and the accomplishment itself stay with you.
However, the event itself can never outshine the process of preparing for it, for the simplest reason: the end is not really the point. The century is just the excuse, the motivation, the incentive for putting in all those glorious miles of training, which are reward in and of themselves. The century just provides a destination, a reason for undertaking the journey itself. The English word “journey,” from the French journée, originally meant the distance that could be covered by a traveler on land during a single day. It is that kind of conscious perception of time, of living, that is felt during a cyclist’s “century.” A hundred miles instead of a hundred years, but all in a day’s work, a day’s travel.
Random scenes from the centuries I’ve ridden remain in my head—a rest stop at Hyde’s Mill full of watermelon and peaches and wasps buzzing over the mounds of fruit. Pulling into Barneveld—a high plateau chastised by tornados—with bluegrass music issuing from the park and people and dogs lying in the grass, bikes everywhere. The stench of the Portapotties. The feel of Chammy Butt’r, a cyclist’s cream to prevent saddle sores, squelching in my shorts. The first century I ever did, we stopped for lunch near the Wisconsin River, and I slogged the last twenty miles into the wind at a snail’s pace, feeling as though I were wearing cement boots. The third—and I thought the last—century I rode was while I was pregnant in 2001. In the early years of parenting, I stopped riding altogether except for commuting; long-distance training was just too time-consuming and exhausting to be contemplated.
I took it up again in my late forties, hungry to get back in the saddle. Middle age has presented me with some new health issues to contend with—among them, debilitating migraines that meant I had to change my riding habits. Heat, exercise and bright light are all triggers for me. So I started to ride in the early morning, in the cool of the day. There is a kind of magic to the dawn light, a mist and stillness and shimmer that ordinary daylight lacks. The very landscape changes. I’ve done the same ride at 5 a.m. on a very hot day and then again at 9 a.m. on a temperate day, and the second one lacked all the visual thrill.
The experience of training for a century after my return to cycling was deeply spiritual, almost existential, full of unknowns. I was coming back with an older body, and I had to train without Ned since we now exercised separately, splitting childcare responsibilities. I started 15-mile rides in May after the ice melted and the roads were finally cleared of salt and grit, with no particular goal in mind. By late June I was able to ride 40 miles. My joints seemed to be holding out. Oddly, fitness isn’t something you ever possess as a tangible presence. Instead it is an absence, the absence of effort. And there’s something magical about it; for weeks, months, I seemed to be struggling to go between 20 and 30 miles on rides and then I crossed the 40-mile threshold, then 50, and then, gradually a century came to seem possible. There was one advertised for Labor Day weekend, and I rather apprehensively signed up in July, thinking I could always drop out. By late August I had completed a couple of hilly 80-mile rides, so I knew I was capable of it. This time my goal was to complete a century but to enjoy the event as much as I enjoyed the process of training for it: to ride mindfully and joyfully.
Cycling teaches steadiness; even though your feet on the pedals are describing endless circles, you learn to make those circles as even as possible, pulling up with your hamstrings as well as pushing down with your quadriceps. When you do this, the stroke seems effortless and your power increases. Your weight has to be poised over your center of gravity.
After several weeks of training, you start to really feel the bike. You get used to reaching down for your bottle while pedaling at full speed, drinking and replacing it without lowering your cadence. Changing gears becomes second nature, something you sense in the strain or slack on your legs, in response to subtle changes in the terrain and the wind-speed. You become intensely conscious of the sources of friction—the ones beneath you and the one around you—and of road surfaces, how smooth or rough they are, the kind of noise they make, whether they make your work easier or harder. Equally, if not more, you become conscious of the air. You become attuned to the wind, its veering, the constant force or absence of it. The air is your element; riding feels like sailing on air, especially on warm days when your arms and legs and face are bare. Cyclists are like sailors in their relationship to the wind, but one’s own body is the boat.
Maybe because of the hazards and the solitary nature of long-distance cycling, riders have a series of ritualized gestures of acknowledgement and support, like motor coach drivers flashing their lights or giving that regal hand-wave. For cyclists it’s a nod, or, if you’re going very fast, the fingers of one hand just raised off the handlebars. Pointing down at the road with one hand signals to the rider behind you that there is glass or another obstacle on the road. If riding together, the first rider is a scout who shouts things like “Car up!”, “Car back!” and “Car door!”
Cyclists will almost always ask if you need help if you have stopped by the side of the road. I have taken a bike mechanics course given for and by women, so I’m now truly able to fix a flat by myself, given enough time. Still, I always appreciate having someone stop to give me moral support or lend a hand.
The few people I see on long rides tend to stick in my mind. One time, near the run-down duplexes at the outskirts of town, I came across an emaciated blond man riding slowly along the bike path on an old upright, gesticulating and obviously delusional, wearing a torn T-shirt and black jeans. I was a little nervous to pass him. Forty miles later, on my way back, I encountered him again, still riding steadily westwards and unresponsive to my wave. It was hot and I had gone through several bottles of water in the interim, but he was carrying no water. Did he just keep cycling until he collapsed? Or was he going to a place he knew? And there is another thin, clean but unkempt-looking man I see regularly, walking or sometimes running, but not in running gear. Once, when I waved, he said “hullo” in a startled, rusty sort of voice, with the flat “o” of the northerners. Another time I passed him at 1:30 p.m. instead of my usual time in the early morning, and he pointed at his watch in pantomime.
Riding for several hours a day, five or six days a week, grounds me in the body and balances my cerebral, sedentary work as a writer and translator. Cycling is meditative, and I find myself sinking to a deeper level of consciousness. I have fewer thoughts, especially sustained thoughts—just odd flashes of words or images or memories. After long training rides all I want to do is eat, sleep or read. The world is very quiet. I am profoundly, sustainably content—the kind of contentment I felt when nursing my son. Long-distance riding has an undeniably addictive quality: the more I ride, the more I want to ride. My body loves being used, and it happily makes the shift to riding being its work, its occupation.
Every ride brings a gift, if I’m paying attention: a fox, a sandhill crane chick, a couple of deer crossing, orange Turk’s cap lilies on the side of the road, an ancient cemetery, a causeway between lakes, a hillside fragrant with purple clover, a green heron. Riding alone means I’m not focused on keeping up with anyone and can ride at my own pace, stop when I want to. But I also ride with the local touring club some Sundays. Once we rode out to a homestead where a woman had baked 48 pumpkin pies and made 2 vats of chili, and we sat in the sun on the deck in our stockinged feet, eating pie with delectation.
The morning of my first solo century, a Sunday in early September, I woke at 5:20, too keyed up to sleep in until the alarm, and went out into the still and singing darkness to retrieve the newspapers from among the moonshadows. I set off alone an hour later. The drive through the countryside at dawn was heart-stoppingly beautiful and I was impatient to be out in it instead of looking at it through a windshield. There was a great, white moon on my left, south-west, as the orange disk of the sun rose to the northeast. A peach and lavender sky with a flight of small, black birds across a barn. Huge ups and downs through fields dotted with round rolls of fresh hay, like green butter. Halfway there, I ran into mist, swaths of it scarving the landscape, floating in layers like unraveled bandages and smoking in the bowls of the valleys.
Despite my resolve to be mindful, the first three quarters of the century went by in a blur. The last 25 miles were another matter: a double loop on bone-jarring, rough road with a headwind and very long, tough climb at the end. During that climb, it occurred to me that sometimes doing a century is like labor—there’s a point at which you think you are never, ever going to do this again, but you always want to when it’s over. During the last 12 miles I was so dead beat I had to keep talking to myself. Having the mileometer helped, because I kept imagining it as a short ride close to home. When the display showed 100.00 miles I screamed out loud, a little prim scream, even though there was no one in sight. Only 1.3 miles to go. It had taken me 7 hours and 17 minutes of riding—8.5 hours including the breaks at the rest stops to pee, eat and fill up my water bottles.
There are no flags or cheering spectators at the end of a century, no finish line even. Unlike a marathon, it’s not a race; no one is keeping your time except you. You just get off your bike and load it on your car. Ten days later, the lid of the trunk still bore the marks where I leaned on it in exhaustion with my arms, a white inverted V of sunscreen on the green paint. But the standards in parallel universes differ wildly. As I was crawling happily towards the end, I passed people who were starting the second half of a double century, looking as if they’d just been for a spin round the block.
On the way home afterwards, whenever I drove up a hill my car lost speed dramatically. At first I wondered if I had engine problems. Suddenly, I realized that I was gauging the hills by gradient and shifting into a smaller gear, just as if I were on a bike. I had become so in tune with the bicycle after so many hours and hills that I had physically and mentally made the switch to a pre-motorized age. This may be akin to the rolling “sea legs” one feels on land when you’ve spent all day on a boat. I like the idea of “bike hands” or “bike legs”; feeling the ground in your own body, being “grounded.”
My road bike has been the vehicle that has allowed me, over time, to find a way of being at home in my body, in the world, and in a new country. Cycling has allowed me to practice perseverance, endurance, self-reliance and confidence. It’s allowed me to face fear in its manifold forms—fear of falling, dogs, automobile accidents, solitude, sexual harassment or assault—and grow in the process. I have come to know my own strength, to inhabit my body with a respect and pride I never felt in girlhood. The body where, as a girl, I felt least at home has become a place I can claim as my birthright. As an immigrant from a rural background, cycling has also allowed me to explore and come to know with all my senses the land to which I’ve been transplanted. I’ve come to love Wisconsin’s undulating hills, its back roads, its lakes and barns, its woodland and farmland, and in all my cyclo-powered wanderings to feel a sense of belonging, of being at home.