Summer does not feel complete unless a cyclist ends at least one ride with the sun setting with light fading and the mystery of dusk settling all around.
Which is why last night’s right with Sue was special. She traveled all day for business and was fortunate to get home just after 5:30 p.m. So we hustled to meet up and set off for a ride before the daylight ran out. It happens so fast once the end of August rolls around. And it seems to come around so fast. As the Counting Crows well noted…
Come and waste another year
All the anger and the eloquence are bleeding into fear
Moonlight creeping around the corners of our lawn
When we see the early signs that daylight’s fading
We leave just before it’s gone
With daylight fading, navigating traffic late in the day can be tricky for cyclists. Commuters don’t much like to give way when they’re almost home or just starting in some other direction. That means cyclists must be extra careful when approaching four-way stop signs or crossing roads. With the light at an angle, cyclists sometimes aren’t even visible to motorists shielding their eyes from the sun. Add in a cell phone for distraction and your life can be at risk.
So we balked and stalked on our bikes through town until we reached a rolling stretch of somewhat country road where housing developments have cropped up the last 15 years on what was formerly farmland. The road still has a mildly country feel, and riding that type of asphalt always makes me think of those lyrics from the Elton John song Honky Cat:
When I look back, boy, I must have been green
Bopping in the country, fishing in a stream
Looking for an answer, trying to find a sign
Until I saw your city lights, honey, I was blind
They said, get back, honky cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And, oh, the change is gonna do me good.
That sort of inner debate still goes on inside my brain. A part of me loves all the smooth joys of civilization that road cycling represents. Yet I also still love a tour by bike on the occasional country road. Recently I took a shortcut on my road bike down an unpaved country road west of town. The surface was rife with washboard indentations. And yes, you risk a flat on that type of surface. But goddamn, the ride it is worth it.
Because, you see, I grew up a country boy. Bopping in the country. Fishing in a stream. Birding the woods. Stomping through puddles. Catching frogs with my hands. Catching butterflies under swim towels that we used to dive on top of them. Then we carefully rolled back the until we could hold and release any of a number of bright butterflies from swallowtails to prized fritillaries that would cross the grassy expanse to the woods at the edge of the golf course near the pool. It was heavenly.
I’m glad for those country roots. And while a bit of citified sophistication is good for the soul in many ways, it is those country roots and the soft smell of summer beyond the grip of homes and businesses that makes me feel truly at home.
As Sue and I cut East on our bikes through a carefully coiffed industrial park, there was a northeast wind coming off Lake Michigan that pressed flush in our faces. Yet the riding still felt effortless. Both of us are fairly fit from a summer’s training. Sue’s riding has been excellent this summer, and it all added up to a good effort at USAT Nationals in Omaha in early August. My riding sans bike computer has been both liberating and productive all year. I ride the pace of the day and only check the metrics in hindsight using Strava. This was my summer of liberality, you might say. And yet my racing has been better too. Faster on the ride segments in all my triathlons.
These racing plans formed a sort of structure for Sue and I in a transitional year. Now we’re making plans to consolidate our lives and move in together as we prepare for marriage. So it was a bit of convergence that we felt riding together side by side as the road allowed.
We entered the far south side of the Fermilab property where these days a gate blocks cars from heading north from Eola Road, a major arterial route for the western suburbs. A few years back the DuPage County chairman tried to push a four-lane extension through Fermi but the effort was blocked by scientific concerns about the impact of major amounts of traffic delicate experiments within the confines of the lab. So the grounds are highly monitored for traffic in general, and even cyclists must stop at any entrance to acknowledge their respect for stop signs and rules of the road. Fermi is thus a cycling enclave of sorts, protected from the vagaries or hustling commuter traffic because cut-through traffic is discouraged.
I recall the time thirty years ago when these entrances were still enabled for public use. That all changed with time and growth in the region. But what really set the clock back was 9/11 and stricter protections of government property following that event.
The 15-year anniversary of 9/11 is coming up this year. And if you stop and think about it, that event proves the whole Honky Cat mentality quite wrong. For all the supposed sophistication of “city life,” it took just an hour or two to expose the vulnerability of modern life in general. Turn technology against itself and the artifice of modern life surely crumbles. Like the resounding roar from the proverbial walls of Jericho tumbling down, fear spread around the world that September day. If America was subject to such an attack, who indeed could be safe?
Cynics maintain the source and causes of 9/11 are highly suspect. But this much in memory remains: for the first few weeks after 9/11 the skies were silent, as if even God wasn’t speaking. There was stunned wonderment that the gears of modern society could so easily grind to a halt. I remember standing in a large open field the week after 9/11 watching a pair of rare buff-breasted sandpipers feeding on a turf grass farm. The species numbers only 30,000 across the entire globe. All of life is so fragile, I thought.
And tragedy can bring that out. As it turns out, with any tragedy in life, it is a combination of human connections and nature’s solace that ultimately carry us through.
Which is why it felt so marvelous to pedal up the road north through Fermi, past a tall row of secretive pines and broad fields opposite the woods where people exercise their dogs and coyotes also frolic and lay down their scent to vex the domesticated hounds. Such is the balance between city and country life. The lines of domestication often get blurred.
We crossed our bikes through the main intersection of the Fermi property and Sue picked up the pace a bit. She rode down in aero and I got into the drops on my road bike beside her. Wind was whistling in my helmet like some weird bird. We cared not about the actual speed so much as the sensation of riding smoothly around a big arc of road that took us west toward the setting sun.
There was one more section of delightful road to enjoy around the next turn. We curved into the mile-long arc with no sounds from our bikes but the whirr of tires and the clean hum of the chain over cassettes. On a slight downhill in the shade of a dark woods, we flew along at between 25-30 miles an hour and didn’t have to say a word.
At the next intersection we slowed to turn and she said, “That was nice.” Indeed it was. Now the sun was truly at horizon’s edge. It was time to head home. We took the Pine Street exit road that winds in slow S curves through an amber prairie planted 40 years ago that now stands in tall, wondrous pride for people to explore. Crickets sang and swallows headed for their perches. The sun peeked one last time through the trees and I sank back to take a picture with my phone because the moment was right. Then we pedaled on home.
The world is a marvelous and complex place. Yet it is the simplest of experiences, like riding into a sunset, that makes it all feel right. And I for one am grateful for that.