Raising the Game


Jeff Hughes


The man awoke early on the second day, the tease of anticipation stirring in his stomach.  The motel room was dark, save for the red glow from the LED of the bedside alarm clock.  Twisting, the man glanced over at it.  5:10am.

Padding to the window, he pulled the drapes aside and peered out at his bike, lit by the soft glow of the overhead light under which he had parked it.  In all the years, across all his trips, he had never had a problem with anyone messing with his bike, his gear, or his campsites.  But he still felt a moment of relief every time he confirmed that everything was okay.

Forty minutes later he was showered and dressed and the bike was packed.  Walking the hundred feet to the small motel office, he nodded a smiling “good morning” to the woman behind the desk and walked over to the corner, where he selected a Styrofoam cup from the stack and filled it with coffee.  He loitered for the two minutes it took to consume a lemon Danish, studying the several paintings hung on the wall, then turned and headed back outside. 

“Have a great day,” he offered as he left.

He would have enjoyed a slow, measured getaway, slowly sipping his coffee while the anticipation quietly built.  But the brightening sky was a solid mass of gray and the man knew rain was on the way.  It impelled an urgency in him to get moving.

Suiting up, he injected the subtlest bit of deliberation into the getting-started routine:  climbing aboard the bike, settling into the coolness of the seat, listening with satisfaction as the engine turned over, caught, and then settled into a purring idle.  He allowed the pleasure of all this to wash over him for a moment, the prelude to the day.  Then he eased into gear and turned slowly onto the road that ran in front of the motel.

The early miles were special, as they always were.  The road was smooth and the air held a liquid presence, wafting through the crack in his face shield and curling around his neck.  He knew he would be hot and tired later.  And probably wet, as well.  But for now it was as perfect as anything ever gets.

The road tracked northward into a range of low mountains, the two-lane route breaking into a series of smaller roads which then spread across the broken topography.  The man called them “ridge roads” because of the way they held mostly to the upper elevations of the landscape.  He loved them both because of their picturesque beauty and because they were so technical.

At the tiny village of Harperstown he paused at the stop sign.  It had been a few years and as his eyes swept slowly down the two blocks worth of loosely placed buildings that served as the center of the villa, he searched for any signs of change.   Satisfied, he turned west.

Almost immediately the cobweb of little roads narrowed and began the twisting, broken dance that gave them their character.  Their abrupt, staccato cadence made riding them a study in concentration and quickly executed transitions between throttle and brake.

The man knew instantly it wasn’t working.  The soft overcast made for perfect visibility into the corners.  He was well rested.  His bike had fresh tires and suspension.  And traffic was nonexistent.  But none of that mattered.  The road held a curious aloofness.  Try as he might, the man could not find the thread that would bind it to him.  

He tried different things.  He adjusted his seating position, pushing his ass back another inch and pulling his boots in tight on the pegs.  He clicked down a gear to move higher into the engine’s powerband.  And he studied his corner entrances with an even greater intentness, seeking to discern what they held.

But his riding continued with its touch of raggedness, its hint of unease.

It didn’t bother him overly.  Being out of sync wasn’t unusual.  It happened to everyone on occasion.  But it was mildly frustrating to be in the midst of such great roads and not be able to ride them with the aplomb he normally took for granted.

After awhile the rain began.  As soon as the first drops began spattering against the pavement the man began looking for a safe spot to pull over.  There was no shoulder on this remote little road, and few other instances of civilization.  He ended up pulling off in the dirt in front of a cattle gate.  Moving with practiced ease, he quickly swapped to his rain gloves and put the plastic cover over his tank bag and double-checked that the zippers on his Aerostich were all closed up.

By the time he climbed back aboard the rain was coming down in a light, steady shower.  The road he was on – gnarly and technical in the best of dry conditions, what with its quick, blind curves and sharply radiused corners – was suddenly quite treacherous with the added dimension of the rain. 

Unable to use his brakes to full effect, and because the abruptness of the road did not lend itself to a single, smooth arc across its length, the man had no choice but to slow down.  He dropped 20mph off his pace and strove to strike a balance in his gearing – low enough to give him some engine braking but high enough so as not to over-torque his wet tires.

As if that weren’t enough, within a few miles the wind kicked up as well.  Inconsistent, it swirled around him in quick little bursts, strong enough that he could feel the on-again, off-again, kite-like effect it had on his bike.

Despite the horrid conditions, the man continued to search for what was amiss in his riding.  Every bit of attention that he could spare when not consumed with judging what was left in his tires went to reflecting upon that.

Forty minutes into the rain he came upon an old country store.  Pulling in front of the two gas pumps, he slowly dismounted.  The pumps had no cover overhead and so he left his helmet on while he refueled.  Then he walked his bike over to the bench under the overhang next to the door, where he finally shrugged out of his Aerostich. 

Inside, he took his time, wandering slowly down the several aisles.  When he took his box of Fig Newtons and bottle of water to the register, the older fellow there looked at him with a hint of a grin.  “Nice day for a ride, ain’t it?”

The man smiled back.  “Couldn’t ask for much better.”

Back outside, he sat on the bench and slowly opened the box of cookies.  Gazing at his bike, he studied its lines, its mystery.  Even just sitting there, he could feel its strength.

Out beyond, the rain continued.  The man lifted his eyes towards the horizon obscured by trees.  He knew what was there.

Suiting back up, the man took particular care to make sure everything was buttoned up properly, that the zipper at his throat was cinched up tight, that the collar of his Aerostich was up, that the short gauntlets of his gloves were flat inside his jacket sleeves.  Then he mounted up and pulled back onto the road.

The light dimmed slightly as the road tracked away from the clearing where the store sat and moved back into the trees.  The man made note of the subtlety, but otherwise did not worry about it.  What he did think about were his tires - which were now both cold and wet.  But they’d have a bit of heat in them shortly.

After a couple of miles the man made the slightest change in his corner entrances – adjusting his line the width of a hand and going in just a hair deeper before spooling his engine for the exit.  In a few more miles, in the tiniest hint of aggression, he added back 10 of the 20mph he had earlier dropped off his pace.  And after a bit he added most of the other 10mph as well.

He now rode at the nubbins edge, and he knew it.  The thread was as thin as a razor.  But it was a thread he held in his head with a sudden clarity.

The road was peculiar in that the apices of the turns often lay at the very crest of the hills – and both were often blind.   A road pregnant with threat.  But it didn’t matter.  The music playing in the background no longer had any sour notes.  And the man moved across the landscape with a confident certainty.


© 2010 Jeff Hughes