I do something most riders find dangerous. I think it’s a holdover from when I used to ride rail trails on my hybrid bike, safe from any traffic. I tend to listen to music when I ride. I keep one earbud in on my right ear playing softly. I know it’s not the best idea, but I keep the volume low enough to hear traffic coming up behind me and I can always hear phones ringing or people talking as I ride by. Most of the time I can’t hear the whole song, but the music in the background helps distract my mind when I hit a particularly rough hill or if I am getting tired. It’s not loud enough to hear all the time, but it floats along just beneath my conscious level of hearing. It’s probably more of a mental crutch as I have forgotten to start the music but have put in the earbud and not noticed for miles at a time.
A disclaimer is in order, if you do not ride with earbuds or earphones do not start. If you do, stop now. The music can mask the noise of oncoming traffic and you might think that it’s safe to move towards the center of the road for a turn when it isn’t. You might also miss the sound of an engine whose driver hasn’t seen you yet. It’s not safe. Don’t do it. Do as I say, not as I do or at least don’t do as I do and claim that I didn’t tell you not to do it.
Friday’s ride was going to be good no matter what actually happened on the ride. I had a long couple of weeks with a coworker on vacation and still trying to learn my new job. There were lots of people with questions and I hoped that I answered most of them correctly. It’s like that at any new job, and when your primary source of information is away you tend to stress out a little more. I was riding to a campground not that far from work to meet up with family for a relaxing weekend. I had a couple of different routes planed based on the time they thought they would arrive. I didn’t want to get there too early so I had a few roads I could explore to lengthen the ride.
After my wife texted me to let me know that they were running late and I headed out from my office towards the local rail trail. The first thing that I ran into was a sign telling me that it was closed. The state is repaving it and had pulled up a good amount of blacktop. I found a road that ran parallel and took off through a farmer’s field. The road bisected the field and I could see cows on each side of me. I was barely off the main road but it felt like I was riding through the deep country, or so I thought. After exploring awhile, I turned back and jumped on the open section of the trail, thankfully it was open all the way to the end in the direction of the camp site.
The trail is beautiful. If you are ever in Western Massachusetts you really should ride some of the rail trails. They cut through the little town centers and the cycling culture is strong enough there that local businesses open next to the trail for the increased traffic. Ice cream shops, bars, and coffee shops front the 11 miles of trail that I rode. It also passed through the center of Northampton, a nice little college town full of eccentric shops that encouraged bicyclist to browse with convenient bike racks outside of the shops. Where the trails cross streets, and in truth all of the roads I rode, motorists seem to be well aware that they are likely to encounter cyclists and actively look out for them. It’s a nice change from riding around my house.
Eventually I entered the Berkshires and the trail ended leaving me 14 miles of roads to explore on my way to the campsite. My wife had sent me a text letting me know that the family was making good time so I chose the most direct route. I had asked friends at work what they best way to ride to the site would be and they all seemed to agree that staying on the back roads would make for the easiest ride. I never thought about the fact that they never ride, just that they knew the area so much better than I did. Everyone told me to stay off route 66 as it would make for a tougher ride. I took off down the prescribed route and immediately hit a hill. A large hill. A very large hill. A hill that made me wish I hadn’t spent so much energy exploring farm roads and trails.
The roads headed deep into the forests of western Massachusetts. Bright sun faded to dark shadows. I had broken a decent sweat on the trails and the tree cover was so thick that I actually felt a little chilled when I wasn’t climbing steep ascents. Despite the pain of the climbs and the temptation to walk I was actually pretty happy. I was stuck in the same type of terrain that caused me to turn back on my previous ride in Tolland. I was managing these hills no matter how slow I was going. I was content in the pain of the climb because I was climbing. Slow, very slow, but climbing none the less.
The navigation (thanks Google Maps and iPhone) had me take a left turn and the road continued to climb. Big surprise. Gradually I noticed I had picked up speed. The climb was leveling off. I could finally breathe again. I looked down at my cycle computer and smiled. I only had six miles left to go. I noticed that I had accidently paused my iPod, hitting the button with my arm as I went to shift my hydration pack. I decided to leave it off for awhile. The road leveled off and the forest gave way to cleared farmland. I passed a horse grazing in a field. There were more houses as I rode along. I could hear the chain clicking through the chainring and cassette every time I freewheeled. It dawned on me that I don’t think I had ever ridden through an area so quiet. My normal routes are through urban and suburban areas where there is always some type of noise in the background. Riding through the country I could hear the chain sing. I could hear the crunch of the wheels as they flowed over the rough old pavement. More than that, I realized I could discern more with my other senses as well. There is normally a “city stench” that causes you to not be able to smell much, even in the suburbs. You smell the engines, the stores, the people. There is so much going on that all of the individual smells merge into one stench that we hardly notice anymore. Where I was riding in the country there was none of that. I could smell exactly what was happening around me. As I rode past a white farm house I could smell what the family was cooking for dinner. They were barbequing chicken. It made my mouth water.
Cycling through an area will always teach you more about the land than driving through it will. I know each hill and valley on my training rides even though you might barely notice them in a car. I know which are easily ascended and which will cause me to suffer. I know which descents are joyous with speed and which are terrifying due to bad pavement. This ride took the idea to new heights. I could smell what was going on around me. I could taste what was on the wind. The silence became a story as birds grew quiet as I rode by. I could hear them from further away but not right near me. They would start again after I rode by, calling ahead to warn others of my approach. There was serenity in the ride that I had never anticipated. I can tell why I see so many cyclists in the area as I travel for work. There is something about riding in Western Massachusetts that is unlike anything else.
I headed out on this ride looking for some stress relief. I wanted to lose myself in the effort of the ride. I didn’t plan on finding inspiration or serenity, but some of the best things in life are like that. They are the unexpected pleasures and little lessons that you learn while you think you are on your way to something else. What have you found like that?