By Christopher Cudworth
In bright white britches they stand by the road, quivering in a wind that will no relent. Fortunately it is at my back approaching a section of 9% grade that tests the legs to no end. In May the encouragement of Dutchman’s Britches helps you get up the hill.
Beside them is a small cluster of bloodroot waving as I roll past. The white petals have already fallen, a bloom that lasts but a couple days. Like all fitness, it is not destined to last. It plays its roll in the days that matter, and relents.
A stand of dark red trillium hunkers beside a tall oak tree. These hold fast to their positions even in the wind. They barely tremor, so strong are their stems. Their red adornment appears to be part leaf, part flower. Its deep red color reminds you of the blood coursing through your own veins.
Then the hillside erupts with a sea of showy white anemone, a flower both profuse and fleeting. Blue flags rise amongst them. Could they be cheering their own preservation, a plant’s form of nationalism?
Their smalls faces whisk by like fans along the Alpe du Huez in bright colors of July. They help you along. The hills are no longer bare, or icy or too cold to ride.
Then a solo white trillium appears. Its head is nodding just like a cyclist tired from climbing. The white bloom is tilted down, toward the earth, as if its very existence is too much to show the world.
It is spring. Time for the Tour de Plantes.
For so many years this has been a ritual. I have run this loop hundreds of times. Now I ride it too. 95 feet of vertical ascent, Strava tells me. All comprised of glacial gravel, dumped here by an ice wall thousands of years ago. Now soil and flowers and trees cover the small rise in the landscape known as Johnson’s Mound. It sits 8 miles west of the Tri-cities where I
This is a gut-wrencher of a hill for Illinois. Local runners and cyclists use Johnson’s Mound and its one-lane road as a training site. The record pace up the North slope is 17.9 mph. I averaged 8 the day I last rode up the segment.
That’s why I need a cheering section. There is nothing more cheering that spring wildflowers. They come up in mid-April and bloom all the way into summer when the taller plants and even invasive species like mustard garlic take over.
Your spirits rise in such company during the annual Tour de Plantes. The first time I ran the loop it was 1971, freshman year in cross country. Later in my running career Johnson’s Mound was the perfect place for truly hard training. I knew I was racing fit when I could run from the entry point of the road into the woods all the way to the top of the hill in under 3:00. That meant I was in 31:00 10k shape.
So I ride, and take small measures of encouragement from the flowers that cheer me on. Perhaps I am the only one who pictures them as a crowd in the Tour de France. But they are my fans, and do not complain that I claim them for the moment. Up and up we go together. For summer approaches, and still more hills. It is memories of these climbs that carry me forward.