Tuesday's ride was the type the Grimpeurs were founded upon. The mountain top was dressed in her finest white linen, shaming the dreary wet countenance of her lowland sister. This was a day when a man who numbers among the least in pure, clean cycling prowess can vault to the top out of sheer stubbornness and stupidity. It was a day for Masochism; it was a day for mirth. Let me take you along for the ride.
It 's cold and rainy at the mountain's foot. The rounded peaks are obscured with grey and white. Twinges of excitement surge through my gut- or is it foreboding. That things were happening up there is not in doubt. That this would be a solo ride was also assured. They are few, the ones who relish such things as this.
Sounds and sensations, dormant through the summer tableau of clean pavement and clear skies, leap up from the road. The crackle of turning rubber on fresh, black ash; the cries of fingers, not yet warmed by the stoking of the core; the crisp smell of the air, rushing through mouth and nose; the wistful sound of the winter wind, tumbling about bare limbs and exposed hollows. These gifts are not given over with disregard like the lazy summer breeze.
Halfway up and the snowline is breached. There's always a special feeling in the transition, like stepping off the last rung with Neal, or Lance, for that matter, moving from one world to the next, leaving mere mortals below. A thin trail stretches out behind, a loose tether to the safety below. Looking back, the wavy lines of an imperfect technique bring to mind the tracings of an EEG. The diagnosis is clear, dementia.
Up in the clouds, near the top, a calm beauty lulls the wary upward and onto the thin stripe of asphalt along the mountain's backbone. She has been saddled, yes, but broken?
No longer under the protection of furrowed shoulders and slowing grades, the old girl turns and bears her teeth to her rider. They are blinding white, row after row of razor sharp needles. They ride the gale, tearing at any breech in Gortex armor. The faster one runs, the harder she bites. In the midst of the battle, a point of science comes to light. Though the skin of the face may eventually grow numb in the cold and throw off the pain, the sclera of the eye- it never dulls to the icy onslaught.
So, head down, switching from one half open eye to the other, I plow forward, blind and oblivious to the labile surface below. Ernestina is newly shod, clawing for purchase. She has my full faith and trust like few others. The heavier the weather, the more determined I am to make my destination before heading back to the calm and safety of four wheels and sealed cabin.
As I slowly loose the battle between heat generating climbs and energy sapping falls, I am the brief annoyance and bewilderment of dozens of pickups and SUV's, laden with hunters and the occasional carcass. I laugh to think of myself, fodder for many a fireside tale. Between the yarn of the impossible shot and the great buck that got away, they'll speak of that idiot on a blue bicycle, riding the crest of a snowstorm.
One last obstacle throws itself up. For the first time in a long time I stop on the slopes of Mud Pike, not because of want, but because I have to. Who would have thought it to happen on the descent, rather than the climb? The great white way is covered in scalloped lines of fresh ash, unsullied by the spinning behemoths from Detroit and Japan. I race down through the flakes, more than half blind, trusting memory, my tires and the road crew's work. At that moment, I want nothing more in this life to put that last four miles behind me as quick as I can. Halfway down, the chilling scream of the mountain, her needling teeth and the unrelenting squeezing of brake pads on frozen rims take their toll. Hands and arms become rigid in the cold flight. I stop and dance along the roadside, ginning up enough heat to facilitate the muscles to work again and the skin to feel.
Finally, the bottom. The road is wet and dirty as is the air. Not at all the welcoming I had envisioned. One more bout of dancing in the parking lot and thawed limbs gain me access to my little, white, Swedish cocoon. Immediately, I can't wait to fight the battle all over again.