The ride started like so many rides before it. The weather was pleasant, traffic was light, and I felt in good mind and spirit. My legs felt strong and the recent weather induced downtime did not seem to have hurt me. I started out on the pleasant rural road at an easy cadence as I warmed up my muscles.
As I was cruising along, I noticed that the spring jonquils and other early bloomers were beginning to make themselves known. The pretty yellow colors and those of the paper white Narcissus were bunched together in small groupings against the downed logs and in little clusters against the few remaining snow banks. I can’t recall when the air smelled fresher.
I was called back from my reveries by the pleasant sound of a bell tinkling and realized that I had been joined on my ride by a young lady whom I had never met. She was riding effortlessly beside me on what I took to be a step-through hybrid of some sort. Her bike appeared to be nicely setup for commuting. She was riding in an upright position and had some fatter road tires mounted. I thought I detected 3 rings upfront and what looked to be a 9 or 10 speed cassette on the back. She had a pretty basket attached to her handlebars, which appeared to be full of some sort of goodies. My mouth began to water with thoughts of home baked cookies.
The absence of traffic made it quite safe for us to continue riding side-by-side so we could talk. It turns out she was a local girl, whose passion for cycling led her to be a full time rider. Rather than being dressed in the spandex and brightly colored apparel of the day, she had on a fresh looking set of cotton shorts, T-shirt, and tennis shoes which she kept on her platform pedals almost effortlessly. I swear she was maintaining an even push/pull on her pedal stroke the entire time.
Given the pleasantness of the day, I had failed to keep up with our route of travel and I noticed that I was in somewhat unfamiliar territory. I didn’t recognize the area but wasn’t unduly alarmed. My co-rider certainly seemed to know where she was going so I took solace in that and just enjoyed the friendly company. I did note that we seemed to have ridden into a glen where the spring weather was somewhat further along than the area in which I had started the ride. The greens were certainly greener, flowers more fully opened, and the blue skies had a deeper color that I sensed I could almost literally taste.
In short time, I could see an approaching fork in the road. The left fork was river grade and appeared to continue on between the pristine mountain creek on the left and the rhododendron filled banks of the mountain on the right. The right fork began a gentle climb up the mountain. I could see that a more challenging climb would become part of any decision to take the right fork. Decision time was approaching as to whether to climb or continue this pleasant interlude along the creek.
Even though I had been riding a couple of hours at this point, it still only felt like minutes due to the ride being so effortless. I asked my impromptu companion which route she would be taking and was not surprised to hear that she was heading down the left fork. I determined I had the energy and desire to climb. I thanked her for the good company and conversation and realized I had not been made aware of her name. To my inquiry, she emitted the most pleasant sounding chuckle and said, “Well, my biking friends like to call me Slipstream Sallie so I guess that will be good enough for you to.”
When we reached the fork in the road, I bid her a fond adieu and began my trek up the road hardly travelled. As I predicted, what had been a gentle incline at the fork became a steadier incline within a mile. The two lane road showed signs of damage from the winter storms with potholes appearing on a regular basis. The weather had also begun to change as I climbed with the signs of spring at the lower elevations becoming less and less noticeable as I gained altitude.
Somewhere into the second or third mile of the climb, I noted a cold chill had begun to wrap around me. The previous feelings of warmth and bliss were rapidly being sucked out of me as I continued the climb. The trees were still very much barren at this point and the cold gray granite rock only added to the austere feeling of this mountain road. Grit and gravel were now constants and I had to be careful to maintain my forward motion in a steady seated cadence because I would lose rear wheel traction when I stood to mash the pedals through the increasing incline.
The tree line was approaching now and, on the road just ahead, was a solitary rider. The black and white paint scheme of his bike along with the yellow accents let me know that he was riding a Scott Addict RC. Somehow the colors of his high end bike matched the spring thunderstorms I could see off in the valley. He was dressed all in black in what appeared to be the standard bibbed pants and winter jersey of a roadie. His helmet was black and he had made no effort to wear any hi-viz colors. He was, in fact, quite difficult to see as we moved into a fog bank that had encompassed the road.
His pace was such that I was coming alongside him and could take note of his full beard. His facial expression was one of someone who has suffered on many a long climb. I did my best to greet him pleasantly as I approached. I did not want to make the same mistake that I had made with Sallie so I got down to names quickly. I introduced myself as Zeke to which he bared gritted teeth and said simply “Harry – Headwind Harry.”
Realizing that Harry wasn’t up for company, I tried to pull ahead but could not do so. The incline had become too great and my heart beats per minute had way exceeded my training zone. Breath was short and I was struggling to simply keep the bike vertical. I had only moved a wheel’s length in front of Harry as he maintained his same pace.
It was then that I noticed that his clothing wasn’t spandex and lycra at all. It was an interwoven grouping of bubbles that at once formed a seamless exterior covering and, at the same time, seemed to encompass some sort of scenery. As best my condition would allow, I was drawn to the bubbles and in them I saw scenes of loss and agony. I saw the death of my father and the loss of my beloved dog. In another, I saw the universally recognized look of grief as a young mother mourned the loss of her child. Other bubbles depicted earthquakes and famine.
I was appalled and scared beyond belief and had an overwhelming urgency to get away from Harry, who merely let up slightly on his pace and dropped onto my back wheel. I could sense the sneer coming off of him as he closely tracked my wheel on the climb to the gap. I must have been 200 yards from the gap at this point and was struggling mightily to get away from Harry. To add insult to injury, a strong headwind, almost visible to the naked eye, roared through the gap toward us and sapped my remaining strength. I was running purely on fear now motivated only by the sounds of Headwind Harry laughing behind me.
Finally, I pushed through the wind and crossed the gap into the sunshine and began the descent down this most treacherous mountain. It was a couple of miles before I realized that Harry was no longer on my wheel. In fact, looking back, I’m not sure he came through the gap at all.
Several more miles down the mountain, I came across a small mountainside cafe where the road intersected with one coming from the east. I was worn out and in bad need of sustenance after my harrowing journey. I was on the verge of bonking and recognized the need for fuel for my body. I pulled in beside 4 other bikes that were lined up in a rack at the door of the cafe.
I recognized one of them as belonging to Sallie. I was mighty pleased to realize a friendly face was just through the door. Upon entering into the dimly lit room, the smell of fresh coffee and freshly baked pastries overcame me and I almost wept with joy. To my surprise, Sallie was at a table with Lance, Levi, and Alberto, who it seems had escaped the media frenzy for the day and were out on a friendly ride together. It quickly became evident that they were the best of friends despite the “show” that they put on in the public face. It was also quite evident that they were finding the same comfort and blissfulness in the company of Sallie that I had so recently enjoyed.
I quickly came to learn that their perceived animosity was nothing more than a manipulation of the media to draw ratings for their races. As with professional wrestling, they recognized that fake threats and over-the-top antics were actually good for their business. Here, alone and out of the limelight, they were enjoying the camaraderie of good friends devoted to their sport. I was quickly drawn into their conversation and soon found my fears of Headwind Harry receding into the shadows of my mind. Sometime in the afternoon, I moved to the porch and drifted off into sleep as I soaked up the power of the sun.
I sensed a hand on my shoulder shaking me and a voice saying “Zeke, Zeke! Are you alright? What are you doing down here?” As I slowly opened my eyes and became aware of my surroundings, I found my “best half” standing over me. I discovered I had quietly left our bed during the night as my fever reached its peak. I’m ready for this head cold and fever to go away…