I love biking in the shoulder season. No crowds or traffic. This isn’t the time of year you see portrayed in catalogs, not the luxurious summer evenings or the glittering winter afternoons. The trees are bare, the ground is hard, and the light is low and glaring. This is when it counts. When you get stronger. Mentally. Spiritually. When it takes effort and intention to get out. And stay out for that last few miles when your hands are numb and shivers ripple through your stiff body. When you’re the only one out there. When no one else wants to go. This is when you know you’re a cyclist.
This is the time of year when there is a subtle beauty, of low sun gleaming through barren branches, of browns and coppers and shadows and last hints of greens and last leaves still holding on. A time when the air tastes cold and damp and the wind has more tooth in it. When climbs are a relief to warm your body and downhills are a banging, stiff rollercoaster over hard rutted ground where you try to warm your hands that haven’t adjusted to the cold yet. Where the difference between sun and shadow can be thirty degrees. When your lungs burn with the cold.
This season is about layers and gloves and having hot tea and a puffy ready when you’re done. It’s often about timing your ride with the early afternoon warmth and light because you suddenly look at your watch and realize the sun is near the horizon at 3PM. There’s a reason why no one else is out. But that also means you happen across animals who are as surprised as you because all the other humans are raking leaves or inside watching football or cooking, and animals don’t expect any humans, let alone a lone cyclist draped in layers of wool flying through the empty woods on a two-wheeled machine. It would be like you seeing a beaver on a hang-glider in your neighborhood. Ridiculous.
And what a gift to have this entire landscape to yourself, when you can count the days until the light starts getting longer. When you feel as clear and calm as the bears settling into their dens. This is a time of reflection, when the world draws in closer and quieter, and you do, too. And in its own reserved way, the earth welcomes you.
For me, cycling, at its best, is a raw experience where life is boiled down to the most basic elements. To fly through the woods on two wheels is to know what a deer or owl feels like, to really feel the full spectrum of cold and heat and deep lung breathing and stillness and pain and joy in a modern world where most of us have a limited spectrum of comfort and feeling. You don’t enjoy July’s long evening group rides as much if you haven’t logged the solitary miles stumping over frozen ruts, blowing on frozen fingers, adjusting gears that are creaky with cold. And, in the end, isn’t that why we do this? To push through those challenges and attain those brief moments of grace and joy and beauty. To encounter the wild earth on its own terms, in all seasons. To be part of something larger than ourselves.
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