Wednesday morning's frosty ride, crisp snow-covered gravel on the edge of town, had relit the pilot light. I'd finally felt the quick smooth circularity of pedal rhythm I'd missed since July. Really, now I can admit it, since before Colorado I'd not felt quite right on the bike. As we rounded back around toward the shop at the end of the ride I breathed a sigh. It has returned.
Today I went farther. The road bike again: in the cold but avoiding the muddy slush of the woods. More than practical considerations, I was yearning for that meditative state of just turning the pedals and gazing at the river as it rolled along beside me. But heading into town I felt the strong wind blowing down the French Broad River, a wind that would rob what warmth I had while pushing me far from town. I've done that sort of ride enough to make a last minute decision to head for high ground instead.
Heading up towards the Blue Ridge Parkway I stopped at a light. Next to me a Buick with windows rolled down, enjoying the 40 degrees. The car pulled forward, and the woman called to me out the window.
"I wish I was doing what you're doing."
"You can," I answered, "anyone can! You should be out here!"
She shook her head. "Oh no, I wish!"
"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" I said.
"It sure is," she said. "You enjoy it."
As the light turned I noticed the handicap-parking hangtag on her mirror, and the crutch laid on the passenger seat. A reminder of just how lucky I am to be able to do this. Because it's just not true to say that anyone can go for a ride. To ride up to the Parkway on a Friday afternoon is a gift, a privilege, an honest piece of good fortune coupled with hard work.
Winter is the most beautiful season here. The Appalachians are lovely shorn of their leaves. The folds and ripples of the hillsides unobscured by their usual thick green cover, the sun pale but insistent through the branches. An extra gift, too, the temporary closure of several sections of Parkway. Without being incessantly buzzed by view-gaping tourists, the mind calms. The mileposts ticked by, while the sun dropped lower and veiled itself with clouds.
Haw Creek Valley overlook. So empty you could lay your bike right down on the double yellow.
I turned around, now facing mostly descent on my ride back to Asheville. As I came down off the highpoint I got colder and colder, my hands frozen and my mood dropping fast. At the exit off the Parkway I was met with the full force of rush hour traffic. Less than a hundred yards on, a Starbucks beckoned. I clumsily chucked my bike along the plate glass window and staggered inside. Large green tea and a scone.
I sat in the faux-leather easy chair on the inside of the window where my bike leaned. My hands ached terribly as they regained feeling. I wolfed down the scone and then set to guzzling the green tea. Across from me a woman sat, and soon she bluntly asked my BMI. Abashed, I stammered it out, and she followed up by explaining that as a geriatric nurse it was good to see someone so healthy. "I mean, look at you," she said, "you're all muscle!"
I couldn't help but be flattered to appear such a paragon of health while at home I beat myself up over the lingering remnants of the pneumonia-- the six extra pounds, the slow-to-recover heart rate after intervals, the weakness on climbs. Racers nitpick, and I've been doing it more than usual as I close back in on what I think of as fitness. She and I talked about the twin forces of motivation and health, how you need both to be truly fit. We talked about how long life is, and all the peaks and valleys we all experience in our fitness over the many years we have. But the sun was dipping low and I knew I had to leave if I wanted to get home before it got completely dark.
It's not just luck, it's hard work coupled with passion. I miss being on form, miss it enough to do the work to get back there. That moment: in the big ring, accelerating, pushing and pulling against the bike with every muscle in the body, don't look over the shoulder til you crest the hill. It's coming back, I can feel it.