The Last Hour

The graying darkness slowly descends around me and I’m reminded that this won’t last much longer.  September is here.  And on last night’s ride, toggling the screen on the bike computer while I gasped for breath there at the end, the time was one minute past sundown.

No, I won’t be able to do this much longer.  Soon only the weekends will be left.

But I push that thought away.  The more important thing is that now, a half-dozen miles into tonight’s ride, that ache from the early miles that I always hate is gone.  Replaced by the deeper and more intense – but somehow less bothersome – burn of muscles that are warmed to their task.

Mom’s surgery is tomorrow, a worrisome nettle.  Ginny and I will be heading down to Charlottesville early in the morning to be there for that.  I hate hospitals, the place where people go when things have gone awry.  The locus of too much pain and suffering.

But they are also where people go to get fixed and get better.  And since I’m optimistic by nature, that’s what I hold to.

Miles on, and Lancaster looms.  The upper part that’s hard.  I usually run it in both directions.  First coming off of Northampton, the pull up the long gradient followed by the sharp, fast downhill.  Then, a few miles later, going the opposite way, heading up that once-was-a-downhill, now a painful incline.

I freewheel as much as I can as I approach it, resting my legs.  Then I’m around the corner and there, clicking quickly into my lowest gear in the rear, middle chain ring up front.  Within a handful of yards my cadence drops under 70, and that’s where I lift from the saddle.  Up over the front wheel, hands on the hoods, pushing the pedals in measured, powerful strokes.  Striving towards the top, trying not to drop into the small chain ring, the granny gear.

I measure it by the manhole covers.  The first one halfway up, the one rising six inches above the tortured, misshapen pavement – where if you’re not watching you’ll run smack into it with a bone-jarring crunch.

The second one just a handful of strokes shy of the crest. You always figure if you can get to that one you’ll be able to make it all the way.  But by the time I reach it I’m nearly spent, my heart hammering and my breath coming in ragged gasps, my lactate threshold long since having been left behind.  The pain in my legs has morphed into a faltering numbness.

It’s times like this that you wonder why in the world you do this.

But then you’re over the top and there comes the long, glorious downhill.  The speed builds in a rapid crescendo and the cooling breeze washes over you like the sponge of an angel.  And in half a minute your legs have recovered.

There are few things as wondrous as a long, freewheeling downhill.

One more quick loop around, an easy, lazy mile, and then I’m done.  Out back to the road, glancing quickly left to see if there are any cars coming, then accelerating hard into the downhill shrouded in the darkness.  And then out of the trees, up the hill, and back into the last light of the day.

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