Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Riding the white line

This winter has been a non-event this year in the Old Dominion. 

I hesitate to write that because I feel like when it’s published, Mother Nature will come at me with a vengeance and we’ll all suffer for it.  I’ll chance it, I guess.

What’s been great for all of us is the experience of extended autumness.  Sure, it’s cold first thing in the morning but by afternoon the temperature sneaks up to something that feels like fall or maybe early spring.  As a result, golf courses have been crowded with golfers trying out their Christmas presents, runners are pounding out the miles, and cyclists are spinning along the roads and trails.

Quite a few of these people are out there as a result of New Year’s Resolutions, having sworn to lose weight or get back in shape this year.  I hope the weather stays nice if for no other reason than I’d hate to see them fall back off the wagon.  It’s difficult enough to build habits and maintain discipline without the weather foiling your plans.

As a fairly new member of the cycling family, I’ve been taking advantage of the weather whenever I can.  I’m not a fan of riding when it drops below about 40 degrees because I just end up being miserable.  I guess that makes me a bit of a wuss.  At that temperature, my fingers and toes are really hurting by the time I wheel back into the driveway and I just can’t make myself go buy more accessories for the brief cold snaps that are typical of winter in Virginia.  I’ll just go to the gym, thanks.  I do, however, find myself missing a ride.

This past Saturday, I was really jazzed to jump on my bike for a couple of hours.  The temperature was in the mid-50s, there was a little wind but it wasn’t steady, and the sky was that perfect, stark blue that you only see in January.  Part of the excitement was due to a post I read on another blog about the hypnotic effect of the white line.  The blog is fatcyclist.com if you want to go explore the adventures of Fatty; he is a little different than most of us based on what he’s gone through.  He entertains me, though, and that’s why I read him.

So, Fatty recently blogged about how he is one of those road cyclists who stare at the white line while riding and, as a result, misses a lot of really cool things that happen while he’s out there.  He asked his readers to weigh in and we are not alone, evidently.

It’s easy to do!  Road bikes tend to put you in a position where looking down is just easier to do.  Holding your head in an upright position can be painful on your neck and upper back muscles.  (I’m thinking it’s because of my riding position, the fact that my bike hasn’t been professionally fitted to me, and the weight of my knowledge is just difficult to bear....okay, it’s because I haven’t built up the muscles yet.  I get it.)

When you’re trying to take up as little space as possible because you’re sharing the road with two ton vehicles, you tend to think of that white line as part of your defense.  As long as you’re on it, or very close to it, you have much less chance of having your speed suddenly increased by a wayward fender or rear view mirror.  So, you keep it in your view and under your wheels.

Moving on.

As a result of Fatty’s post, I decided to be intentional about my viewing habits during Saturday’s ride.  I was going to spend two hours or so in the saddle.  Instead of going mind numb through white line hypnosis, I would look around and see what there was to see.  Yogi Berra’s old line, “You can observe a lot just by watching!” was resonating with me.

The first few miles were uneventful.  So much so that I had to make myself stop staring down at the white line.  I kept reminding myself to look up and around at the world. 

At first, there wasn’t much to see that I hadn’t already seen from behind the steering wheel of my car.  A couple of “For Sale” signs that I hadn’t noticed yet.  There was a really nice addition underway on a very small house.  I became much more aware of the condition of the pavement, more broken here, nice and smooth there.  There’s a really bad patch job over there and that edge is broken off on the other side of the road.  Freshly painted white line on this stretch…oh shoot, I’m doing it again.  Gotta look up!

It finally began to pay off as I rounded a bend in the road and came out from behind a stand of evergreen trees.  A gust of wind hit me in the face.  I mumbled my usual wind epithet and pushed to keep my revolutions up.  As I passed into the shade again, the wind subsided.  I realized that I could gauge when I was going to be protected from the wind by the trees and suddenly, I was looking for, and at, trees! 

Once in a while, no breeze would hit me as I rode into the open.  When that happened, I would silently rejoice.  A couple of times the wind hit me when I was in a grove of hardwoods and I realized it was probably because they had no leaves to block the wind.  I was suddenly wishing for spring’s arrival to test my new theory.
Around another bend, I looked up and caught a glimpse of the road ahead as it winds back and forth twice and then disappears up the hill and around the next bend.  I realized that this section of the road, with a little country church and cemetery on the left, a farmer’s field with cows on the right was really pretty.  It looked like a picture from a cycling magazine of “pastoral rides in the Piedmont” or something.  I found myself wishing I had a camera but then realized I’d probably fall off the bike trying to take the shot.  That would ruin the day! 

I committed it to memory with a promise to myself to watch and contrast how the image changes during the seasons.

About three more miles down the road, I saw something really amazing.  I caught a glimpse of a large bird out of the corner of my eye.  Turned out to be a hawk.  It was about twenty feet off the ground and just starting to pull out of a dive with its talons out.  As I watched, it continued to the ground where it snatched a small animal out of the grass – in midflight! – and continued to fly on, straining to carry it away.  The hawk flew at right angles across my path and was at an altitude of about thirty feet, about thirty meters in front of me when it dropped its prey.  The field mouse (that’s what it looked like) landed on the edge of the pavement and bounced into the grass.  I wasn’t able to watch the hawk’s next move so I don’t know if it went back to harvest the kill or if the mouse survived the fall and scurried off, or if everything returned to the way it had been a moment before.

But it wasn’t the way it had been a moment before. 

My brain was flooded with thoughts about everything from the brutality of nature to the amazing flight characteristics of large raptors to wondering if that mouse had survived the capture and subsequent fall.  Had it squirmed out of the hawk’s grasp or had he dropped it because he was struggling to maintain flight?

And I realized, I was changed.


  1. Hey Brian! Thanks for dropping by the Park! Always glad to make a new cycling/blogging friend!

    I once spent six months working at Kingsmill Estates in Williamsburg. That is a beautiful place and I would love to someday return and ride my bike around the area.

    The rare and exciting things we see while riding is one of the secret rewards, wouldn't you say? As for myself, I find that after the first hour of pedaling I am in an almost hypnotized state, or dreamlike...but then I seem to be in that condition a lot of the time anyway. But I know what you mean. I also wonder about that mouse. If he made it, he sure had a story to tell the grandmice-kids, or whatever the technical term is.

    I'll be back!


    1. Love your blog, TJ. You're right about the hypnotized state...I'm trying to move beyond that, at least when I'm in the saddle!

      Would love to come ride in FL...thinking about doing the Keys trail when they get it finished. Have you ever done that one?