Love and bicycles, or,
Tell me about YOUR morning.
The cool morning on my face always seems to figure out just the right moment to awaken me. Since I started sleeping with my windows open, I hardly need my alarm clock. Fresh air has amazing benefits. I lean over and pull the digital thing from underneath my bed, thumbing off the alarm as I strain my eyes, telling my pupils that it's time to cooperate. They agree, if grudgingly.
Leaning my head out the open window, I take several quick, deep breaths, drinking in the chill, the oxygen, the dew. The car's haven't had a chance to pollute it yet. The alarm clock smirks at me as it tells me why: six twelve. My feet hit the hardwood floor, and I bounce to my toes a couple of times, rolling my muscles, awakening them. I can't help but laugh at my joints in the mornings. My fingers pop like a breakfast cereal commercial, my back sounds like splitting wood.
A slight grimace crosses my face as I stretch sideways, palms flat on the ground. Lightly, I run my fingers down the sides of my ribcage, feeling along the muscles until I find the offender. I nod in satisfaction, with a bit of confusion. Tendons, when you strain them, hurt in a dragging, annoying sort of way, but sore muscles are pleasing. It reminds me that I've used them, and it's more entertaining when the sore muscles are ones I don't quite know the use of. Experimentally, I keep my right hand on the offending muscle, just above the base of my rib cage, and make a fist with my left. As I pull the fist, with its extended arm in tow, straight back towards the wall, I feel the tension in my side and the slight bite of soreness. It's from pulling back on the handlebars, hard, to get up a big hill. Nodding, I breathe in deeply and wrap my arms around myself, fingertips and palms massaging out the tension from my sides.
I stumble slightly as I raise myself onto my toes, stretching my legs out. My extremities don't get woken up quite THAT quickly.
I've showered, such as it is, and performed all of the requisite morning maintenance. There's no shower head in the tub from 1928, so it's a steel pitcher, but I like it: the cool air is refreshing, and hot showers in steamy shielded tubs relax me so much I'd rather go back to bed. As I walk out of the bathroom, I imagine the persona inside the sleek red bicycle that waits in the hallway. 'Let's go.' She's always ready. You might find it a bit odd that I compare riding a bicycle to a love life, but trust me, the parallels are there. At first, something inside me protests: It's too soon since the last ride, I think, and do I really have the time to commit to this? It elicits a chuckle, and a grin.
Just as you may spend too long preparing yourself for a date, it seems there are a million things to get ready for a ride. I pull on cycle shorts; tight, form-fitting lycra may look silly to some, but trust me, my anatomy would be very upset with you the next day if I did not. Ankle-long thermal tights over that, to keep my knees warm on the cool January morning. Socks, hard-soled cycling shoes, lycra undershirt, jersey, cap, helmet, gloves, goggles. It takes a few minutes, and it's the ride's most vulnerable time. Inevitably, something inside me thinks 'this is too much effort, my man. You ought to go back to bed.' Ha.
Twenty pounds of red-painted steel, hand-tooled in Italy, goes over my right shoulder as I descend the ten half-flights of stairs to the ground floor. I love this building, though my carbon-soled shoes, metal clips and all, do threaten to send me on a rather dangerous tumble down the stairs. I make it, down the stairs, across the brick courtyard, and into the city. It's just past seven in the morning, and the city is just beginning to awaken. As I softly pedal down the road, if I focus my ears I can hear an alarm or two blaring in every apartment building. A few cars, here and there, on the downtown city streets, but nothing insurmountable. Last week, it froze over, and there's still a bunch of gravel all about the roads.
The river is beautiful in the dawn, a low fog still hanging over the opaque waters, bridges casting looming shadows in the mist. This is the magical, exciting first stage of the relationship; everything is is new and brilliant, and it all seems so very right. We ride along the river for a couple of miles, passing different crowds of birds: The pigeons, pecking at the grain on the walkway that someone has thrown down; the gulls, circling and searching without their usual racket, landing on the posts of the dock; the sleepy, grumpy geese, honking out protests at the intrusion as they approach me in search of food. The others seem to understand that I am definitely not edible, and moving at twenty miles and hour besides, but the geese either don't realize or don't care. Arrogant little bastards. I'm always afraid I'm going to plow straight into one.
Crossing to the east side of the river, my pedal strokes smooth out along the causeway beneath the bridge. A gothic looking contraption of pulleys and black steel, the bridge's superstructure rains a few heavy drops of condensation on me as I pass. At the park on the other side, the homeless campers are starting to rouse themselves from sleeping bags now soaked with dew. I don't envy their destitution, but waking up outdoors, in front of a river, at dawn doesn't sound so bad sometimes.
Once I've passed the massive sports arena dominating the east bank, past the industrial area, the terrain begins to slope upwards before me. The first hill's not so bad, low and gently sloping, but soon it begins. This is the part where the metaphorical relationship gets difficult. The hills become steeper, and there's nothing downhill in sight. I start to have doubts, second thoughts, about this whole endeavor. Maybe we're just not right for each other, I think to the bicycle; perhaps I should've chosen a more complacent partner. The fiery red machine has only one gear, fixed without a freewheel to the cranks and pedals. She doesn't give me any slack, and she certainly doesn't take any shit. An easier partner I could have manipulated, downshifting to lightly spin through the tough parts. Not this one.
My lungs and my legs alternate burning as I push east, attacking hills, and the dawn. I'm riding up the slope, and it's progressively harder and harder to keep myself up to speed. I stand on the pedals, leaning my legs harder as I pull back on the bars to get to the top. That's where the soreness came from. Looking ahead, I can see the top of the slope, but it's only a short, flat part before the next hill. The next hill is steeper than the first, and if I look at it too far I can get discouraged. At this point, I'm really not very sure about this whole affair, but the lesson applies to the ride as well as to people: you can't look too far ahead. There will always, always be another hill. I just have to focus on the part that I'm doing, right now, keep pushing, not give up. It's worth it.
My body acclimates to the climb, and it at last becomes manageable. Time's grip on my life loosens for a time, and I'm simply riding, higher, gulping at the cool air, feeling my heartbeat's roar in my ears. As the road flattens, I tuck my hands into the curved underside of the handlebars, lowering my torso across the bicycle to make the wind slide across my back. The hardest part is over, we've come to grips with our differences, and the miles begin to roll by. I watch the block numbers on the streets, counting my progress; 50th avenue, 100th, 200th, 300th. By the time I get to the end of the run, I don't want to go home, but it's time.
It's ten o'clock, and I'm back at my apartment, the bicycle leaning against the wall. As I wipe down the frame, I'd like to imagine it being as exhausted as I am. I click the tiny screen between the bars, checking the distance I've gone today: fifty kilometers. Just as I find myself using the feminine pronoun to refer to her, I'm terribly prone to personification. But exhausted it's not. She could go another hundred, two hundred today if I were up for it. I smirk, thinking that this, then, is where the metaphor breaks down. Another shower, the wonderful feeling of water smoothing the sweat and dirt from my skin.
Are you really awake?