As cyclists, we talk an awful lot about our bikes, and every component on the bike, as if these are the key to the cycling experience. I am as guilty of this as anyone, and would be a wealthy man if I could have charged a client my normal hourly rate for the hours I have spent pouring over magazines and websites devoted to bike gear. We also talk about our bodies, nutrition, and weight, and spend further hours planning routes to maximize or minimize climbing or scenery. Again, I am as guilty, and likely more guilty than most, of obsessing over routes.
But once the buying and wrenching is done, once the gym work has been completed, and after the route is planned and loaded in the GPS, you hit the road. And the irony is, the road itself is last thing you think about and the thing you think the least about, but it IS where the rubber meets the road and where the experience of cycling takes place. And it is the experience of riding the road that motivates us to do all that other stuff and what draws us back day after day, week after week. So I want to spend a few paragraphs talking about the road itself and how the road adds meaning to the experience of riding.
So, to start with the mundane, the experience of the road cannot be divorced from the road surface itself. Whether paved or unpaved, the road surface itself makes a difference. Most pavement, and unpavement too for that matter, is pretty neutral and hardly merits notice. Some surfaces, like chip seal, slow you down and jar you with vibrations. Worse are badly pot-holed streets, or loose gravel roads that require great concentration to ride (and stay upright) and are mentally tiring and physically jarring. In contrast, smooth roads make you feel like a champion, gliding along. One of my favorite stretches of pavement is Park Central in the Catoctins, which goes by Camp David. The pavement is meticulously maintained and always glassy-smooth. Even going up the steep pitches, the pavement is a joy to ride.
But the road surface is, naturally, a superficial and two-dimensional quality. The first layer of depth is simply that the world itself is in three-dimensions and you experience the road not just as a surface, but as a tunnel or bubble defined by your range of sight. The road is not 100 miles long, it is maybe ¼ mile long and wide, or less with curves and hills, reduced in scope by your line of sight. When the road is broken into these smaller chunks, I find myself forgetting where I am because one ¼ mile chunk looks very much like a ¼ chunk on other roads. I have lost count of the number of times I have climbed a moderately steep hill that bends to the left in front of a white house with a flowering tree next to the road. That is just one example; there are so many chunks of road that look, feel, and ride like other chunks of road it can be kind of déjà vu experience as I momentarily forget if I am riding near, say Laytonsville or Culpepper. And the beauty of it is that you get lost in those chunks, losing connection with time and place as you pedal along, lost in the immediate experience of riding that particular stretch of road.
Of course at other times your field of vision opens up dramatically to reveal mountains and valleys, rivers and streams, farms and forests, and all manner of scenery. Those experiences, as magnificent as they are, pull you away from the road and outside of yourself providing a wonderful contrast to the inner focus of so much cycling. Indeed, that inner pull is so strong that I often have to force myself to look up and soak in the views, and even stop to take it all in.
The three-dimensional aspect of the road is also seen in the difference between riding the same road in different directions. Obviously if the road goes up a mountain, the experience of going up v. down is dramatically different. But even on more ordinary terrain a road can have a very different feel depending on the direction of travel. It is not just the terrain and views, but the relationship between one stretch of road and the other connecting roads on a given route that combine to make the same road feel like two completely separate roads depending on the direction of travel.
And there is a fourth dimension to cycling because the road becomes a kind of magnetic tape for cycling memories. We so often ride on the same roads, even following the same routes on a regular basis, that the road evokes memories of past rides on the same road. This is where Jeff flatted, I cramped badly right here, last time we rode this way Lane was flying. Mostly the memories are funny, even silly; little things that make you smile in the recollection of past rides. Often though the memories take on additional depth. As you ride the same roads with the same friends over the years, you remember past conversations and how your lives have changed over time. Three years ago you discussed a teenager’s problems and now you discuss how that child is doing in college. Last year’s conversation about a bad boss is this year’s conversation about an exciting new job, or retirement. Same road, same bike, same friend, but a very different ride. And of course friends move, or stop cycling so much, but there is always some stretch of road where you ride with their memory for company. That temporal aspect of the road gives emotional depth to the visual and physical experience of each stretch of road.