Today was the first nice day in a long time. It didn’t rain during the day, and the sun came out off and on, and the temperature hit 70F, after a couple weeks in the 50s. I didn’t mind the cold and rain so much while working on migrating a web applications server from Solaris 10 to Linux (CentOS5.5) late last week through yesterday. After replacing the SPARC binaries with Intel binaries for Linux, updating Ruby from 1.8.5 to 1.8.6 so I could load rubygems and the database gems, and adding the Perl modules needed for the spreadsheet generators, I tweaked the scripts and Apache configuration for the new disk layout and lit off the new system. It works! So, I decided to take advantage of the nice day and take an afternoon bike ride.
Working from home on hourly contract does have its advantages, one of which is being able to mow the lawn or go for a bike ride in the middle of the day. I’ve been having bike withdrawal lately. It’s June, after all: prime bike season in the Pacific Northwest, but colder and rainier than usual. Going to the gym and pounding on the stationary bike just doesn’t seem right in June, so the weight goes up and the leg muscles go slack. Time to ride.
Lately, I’ve been riding one-way, with the destination being somewhere my tandem stoker has gone with the car for some other activity, but the out-and-back in Montana a couple weeks ago whet my appetite for a round trip. Besides, the car went off too far today: she’s off to the islands for an overnight, so I’m on my own. There’s not a lot of short loops in our hilly town on the bay. I’ve been meaning to check out a relatively flat route between the Sound and the Hood Canal, so plotted a course for Mason Lake, a large fresh-water lake northeast of town, 17.2 miles one way to the county park at the east end of the lake.
I’m on my old commuter bike, “Rocky,” a bare-bones Specialized Hard Rock I picked up in ’97 to commute to my job in the Seattle industrial district and rode for ten years in Montana. It isn’t fast, but it handles hills and rough roads fairly well. A fast downhill into town, then a long climb traversing the north hill, and soon out in the country, on two-lane roads with fairly heavy traffic and no shoulder. I hug the fog line and roll with the hills. Past the congested Lake Limerick area, the traffic thins out and the road travels through the farmlands of Mason County, where the crop is Douglas Fir, and the growing season is 70 years. Between the mature stands and the clearcuts are the 25-year-old, recently cultivated fields of thickly-set poles.
It’s good to be back in the Pacific Northwest, where I put the bulk of my bike mileage behind me in the 1980s and 1990s. The summers are mild, if you don’t mind a little rain; the rich smell of the deep forest greets you in the shady stands, and sometimes the clearcuts offer views of distant mountain ranges. I haven’t ridden enough this spring, and the legs and seat start complaining about the 15-mile mark.
But, it is always so. Today’s ride, almost 35 miles, is the longest of this season, but I’ve found if you can ride 35 miles, the pain settles into a constant and your body adjusts to the energy output, provided you eat and drink moderately and often to match. I think about another day near the summer solstice, 27 years ago, when “Big Red,” my 1979 Fuji Grand Tourer, and I hung together as a transportation machine for nearly 15 hours, riding from the Seattle City Hall to the Portland City Hall, a bit over 200 miles on the back roads of Washington and east on US30 through Oregon from Rainier to Portland. Back then, I was a year older than Lance Armstrong is this year, but never a racer. I started commuting by bike half a lifetime ago, at age 33, and became an accidental bike tourist while training for the Seattle-to-Portland ride. After 33 years, bicycling has become part of who I am, and riding to the horizon and beyond is like walking out to the mailbox. You just have to keep doing it in order to be able to keep doing it.
Just about 90 minutes after leaving home, I arrive at the county park at the east end, after riding what seems endless road through the forest after coming to the west end of the lake. It is warm and sunny, and I take a few minutes to eat and drink, watching a couple of guys wrestle a power boat up the boat ramp. I’ve made it this far, now all I have to do is reverse course and ride home.
The fun part of out-and-back rides is you get to spend time admiring the scenery you missed on fast downhills and skip the scenery you spent too much time passing uphill on the way out. Somehow, the first half seems shorter, but then stretches out. In my one-way rides, I’ve taken the north route out of town several times, but this is the first time I’ve returned this way. On the dive down into town, I’m on par with the cars, and even have to slow down as I spot a police car ahead. The road is rough and grooved from the wet spring, so a fast downhill is a bit dicey; I catch the right turn on the yellow at the bottom of the hill.
Unfortunately, we picked a decidedly bike-unfriendly town in which to spend our golden years. Angry shouts from a couple of cars back greet me as I wait in the through-lane at the cross-town traffic light, “Get off the road!” It takes him almost two blocks to pass me. In Missoula, Montana, I used to be able to cross the city from east to west faster than the car traffic, by using bike paths and secondary streets. Still, automobile drivers are too often unwilling to share the road.
Across the Simpson mill railroad tracks, I shift all the way down and hit the hill head-on, but quickly grind to a halt on the double-digit grade. I alternately push and ride up the steeper fork of the Y, as the shorter route has no shoulder, fast, aggressive traffic, and blind curves, no place for a bicyclist to assert road rights. At the top, it’s a shallow downhill back three blocks to home and a quick left turn in front of the blind curve and the stop sign that no one actually stops at: most just slow down for a quick glance left, ignoring the driveways on the right.
One of these days, I may make it to our hilltop home on my wheels, but not today. But, at 66, with over 45,000 miles of road behind me since, I’m still stronger than I was that summer day in 1976 when I saddled up for that first 4-mile commute to work, after which I fell down when I got off the bike because my legs were run out. But, I got back on, and rode farther, until that day seven years later when 200 miles passed under the wheels before I was done for the day. Biking keeps you young. Today was a training ride, so this fall, I can hope to ride my birthday miles, as I have for the past five years–a one-day ride as many miles as you are years old. I haven’t ridden a full century ride since 1987 (We switched to fat tires in 1986, so a 60-mile day loaded for touring is like 100 on a racer, and we’ve done lots of 100KM days), but I’m working toward my next one, in 34 years. Maybe on a lighter, faster bike.