In the early afternoon, the rains came and left the roads slick and covered with leaf debris. I rolled across shattered pavement, over potholes filled with water, past tumbledown stone walls, farm fields and through thick groves of trees. The tires of my bicycle kicked the grit of the road up onto my legs and the brown leafy bits stuck to them.
I was on familiar terrain — roads I had ridden for the years of my youth but had not ridden in the last twenty, not since I was a full-time racer, not since I was fitter and faster. Roads that had etched into my memory long summer days of riding, of steep climbs and even steeper descents, of freshly tarred road surfaces and small chunks of gravel that kicked up and clinked against the downtube and chain stays of the bicycle. Days of freedom and exploring, the feeling of being the first person on a bicycle ever to ride these roads, of rising to the challenge of improbable climbs, of promises to never dismount and walk. Days that became years, of fitness found and then strength and power…
I had studied the maps in advance. The years had blurred the routes I once knew. But the maps provided only a murky backstory of names and wiry lines. Summerhill. County. Little City. Wiese Albert. Foothills. Candlewood Hill. Skunk Misery. And so they remained tangled capillaries in my head, disconnected from the pedals beneath my feet and the feel of tires on the road, a palimpsest of pitches climbed and descended, routes reversed and repeated, roads ridden alone or with teammates, across the seasons, in rain and snow and blistering heat.
Not until I started to climb Country Road and the sun started to burn through the leftover clouds, drying the road in places, and making the day warm and humid, did my body remember the terrain and reconnect to the rider I was years before.
I rode low gears up staircase climbs of Little City where I had once mashed the big ring on a Richard Sachs bike ten pounds heavier than what I was now riding.
I was surprised by the sudden left-hand dogleg on the way down from the decrepit set of shacks at the crossroads where a sign once read “thanks for killing my chickens” but which now looked quaint and rehabilitated.
There were side streets and neighborhoods replacing the old farms that lined rural country roads. Streets I did not recall or that had not existed years ago. Then there was the sudden drop to Candlewood, still wet and slick, that terrified me with its off-camber roll. My rims were wet and my brakes did little to slow me down. I imagined the front wheel slipping out from beneath me and me tumbling in a heap. It had been a long time since I was that scared on a bike and even longer since I braked so hard on a descent. In younger days and on drier roads, I flew down these hills without fear, spun out in the big ring.
I climbed Wiese Albert, slowly at first, fearing what I knew about the hill and what I had forgotten about its snaky turns and pitches. The giant carved bear was still there at the steepest point, the bear that had startled me years before when I had first discovered the hill, back when I rode without the glasses I needed to see because Factory Pilots were the style and the world was a vaguely Impressionist painting.
On that very first ascent, I was climbing head down and when I finally looked up, myopic and wheezing, I had thought the bear was real. Try as I might, I couldn’t outrun him.
In subsequent years, I had tackled this hill on training rides, over and over again, seeking better fitness and stronger performances, often to the point of vomiting and struggling, rubber legged and vision blurred, to the top.
My leg muscles were starting to remember. I found a rhythm and the bear no longer scared me. Then I was past the worst of the climb and wishing I had ridden harder.
I turned onto Foothills, already nervous about the descent.
Twenty-odd years of crashes, collisions with cars, injuries and consequences had conquered the naïve, invulnerable mastery I had once had for this road with its blind, off-camber turns and sudden rollercoaster drop where your stomach ended up in the back of your throat. Back in the day, I flew down it without touching the brakes until the last possible minute, then squeezing hard on the levers as the road dumped you into a four-way intersection. In more daring times, I would shoot straight past the stop sign and through the crossroads, carrying all my momentum onto the next hill.
But today, I managed my speed until I had a clear line of sight, then let open the brakes and felt gravity’s pull and heard the white noise of the wind rush past my ears, purified by the speed of it all.
I was back in my twenties, rolling big gears along Candlewood. Each little twist of the road brought me further back. I climbed with ease back up Little City, where Curt Davis and I had attacked each other on training rides until I had finally cracked him.
I recovered over the top, still on the lookout for cute girls that promised to be around each corner, ready with cold lemonade or something sweeter, but who never quite materialized. I rolled along Skunk Misery road, the dirt now paved over, and laughed again at the name, grateful for the lack of skunks.
I screamed down the other side of Little City, past the firehouse, remembering how the last time I had ridden it was through a late-summer thunderstorm and lightning had struck a tree nearby and how I had kept on pedaling, believing I would be safe as long as I didn’t ever stop.
I rode on, all the way down Summerhill, freshly paved and smooth, no longer the cracked, chip-sealed surface that threatened to eject rider from bike, through the corkscrew turns and past the fly fishermen in the Hammonasset, all the way to Chestnut Hill.
I had ridden these roads thousands of times, from when I started seriously riding and racing at age 13. I used to dread the uphill ride back home, sometimes cracking on the final hills and having to walk my bike or stop at one the houses along the road and ask to use the phone to call for a ride, until I finally convinced myself that I would finish on the bike or stop altogether.
These hills had been limiters at first, mountains to my skinny legs and heavy bike. I got fitter. I went away and raced real mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire and came back stronger. I rode intervals up Chestnut Hill, devouring the steep grades and hungry for more, running out hill before I ran out of power. By then, I was racing full-time, throughout New England, in Europe, and out west in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. I was away for months at a time, and finally, gone for good from these roads, until today.
Once, I could do incredible things on a bike, things that I only could have imagined when I was 13, but which now feel unreal, like a dream. But a dream that I had lived and was grateful for having done so.