Finally, it is Hell Week. All year long I hunger for this week, but the longing grows particularly intense in the winter when I begin to yearn for color and warmth to dance in into the world once again, for my eyes and ears to be held hostage by the colors and the sounds of life. Winter seems even more cold and forbidding after Christmas is over. Unlike most years, I see only a few people I know at registration, but then we are earlier than normal despite a stop in Austin to lust at a couple of bike stores. I am already settled into my hotel room and have had a quick ride in shorts and short sleeved jersey to the local bike store. Bike stores always make me feel like a kid in a candy store window with my nose pressed against the glass but empty pockets. Three is one day is really pushing it. The new Hell Week jersey is the best looking jersey there has been for a few years now, particularly as it does not have the nasty shade of green that has tragically beset the jersey the past few years, but there is nothing about it that screams Texas so I keep my money in my pocket. I think how I wish Nick would go back to the previous designer.
Following dinner, we make plans to meet in the morning for one of my favorite Texas rides: Windows on Doss. Surprisingly, I sleep well even in the strange bed, maybe because I have brought my own pillow from home. The morning dawns, cloudy and overcast, but warm enough to anticipate shorts and short sleeved jerseys later in the day. My only extra is a wind vest that will be easy enough to take off and carry when the sun burns off the clouds. Bill, Steve, Mike, Dave, and I head off into the morning air. It seems that everyone has a grin on their face and my heart erupts with glee that ends in a giggle that is related to nothing except the exhilaration of being here yet one more time: Fredericksburg, Texas. "Hello, Fred," I shout, and nobody in the group looks at me strangely, one of the nice things about being with friends. Work and home seem like another world, and as always I am glad that I married someone who allows me to pursue those things that make me happy when his health will not allow him to participate except vicariously.
I think about the meaning that Fred has had in my life. Fred was the name of my brother's dog that I loved so. For a moment in my mind his tongue is once again softly licking the tears off my cheek, tears from some teenage angst that seemed important then but now is as distant and painless as another life. For a moment I can feel that black silk of his ears and the curve of his jaw. Fred next became a pet name for my husband after he came home from work one evening yelling, "Wilma, I'm home." And Fred has become the place of bicycles and vacation and a freedom from responsibility that sloughs cares and worries from me until I feel as unburdened as a child, the pack mule put out to pasture at the end of the work week. I want to kick up my heels. I want to gallop and prance on my bicycle pretending I am young and wrinkles have not yet begun to etch my experiences on my face.
For quite some time, it seems as if we are the only riders on the road, as if we are the only people in the world surrounded by the gnarled Live Oaks with their short, stubby branches and hint of green that never seems to actually mature and free ranging cattle placidly lining the road. It is nice when the first people we see are people that I know: Steve Royse, Gay, Johnny B., and Steve Wyatt are ahead. We chat for a brief bit. When Steve W. asks how I am doing, I grin and tell him," I am in love", and indeed I am. I am in love with these Texas roads and the hope of warmth and sunshine. I am in love with vacation and the freedom it brings. I am in love with my friends and the world. I am in love with my bicycle. I grow motherly towards this unmothered world.
Not too long after we run into that group, we begin to see other riders: some from the shorter routes and some not. Before long the pace is soaring. For the first time in years I don't want to go for some reason, but Dave and Steve are off and the rest of us follow. I grin to myself thinking of a few years ago when Bill told us, "You don't have to do this." I find my breath coming in hard rasps that hurt my chest, but when the pace slows I find that despite my reluctance I feel good. I know I don't do enough of these hard efforts, the price of riding alone so often. We slow down and stay together until the store stop where I have the same thing I had the year before: chicken salad.
By the time we leave, the sun has broken through the clouds and the sky is blue. I have needed sun and I turn my face skyward absorbing it as if it were a life-giving potion. We will have all too little of it this Texas trip. Dave and Steve dash ahead and I follow, but I am not able to keep up. Bill and Mike are with me and when we finally regroup, Mike tugs at my heart strings when he says that he can't ride with us, that he is not in our class. I try to explain that the first day is often like this, that I could not keep up this year either and the boys are playing, but I can tell from his voice that he does not believe me and we have lost his company. Indeed, he does not join us again, and I miss his gentle spirit.
Bill and I ride together and Mike trails behind. Before you know it, we have made a wrong turn, at least Bill and I have. It is a long downhill with a tail wind and I am loving it even as I think that I hope Bill was right about where we are going and that I should have turned my cue sheet over. I am flying down the hill, the wind roaring in my ears rather than gently whispering. Alas, we were not supposed to go down the hill and so we turn and climb. I lag behind Bill on the climb fighting the wind that helped me soar like a bird on the downhill. I tell Bill it is like sled riding: the downhill is worth the climb, and even as I say it I think of being a child and Brian and I wishing there was a sled lift to the top of suicide hill, my childhood sledding hill.
Before long, we again make a wrong turn and decide to head back to the motel. We know that Steve and Dave are not doing the route, skipping Luckenbach, but neither of us know the short cut. I am dismayed that we have lost Mike along the way. When I call the guys to tell them we are back to the motel, Mike has found them and I feel much better. I head off to complete my century since we had not gotten one hundred in due to getting off course. By the time I get to the shower, my face has salt crusted on my cheeks from the unaccustomed heat and I delight in the warm water and soap that dissolves the salt and grease and leaves me clean, ready to fuel up.
The second day is the Camp Verde ride, not one of my favorites because of route 173. The roads are rough and the traffic is heavy, but most of the drivers are patient. There are a couple of delightful climbs on Stoneleigh and Center Point. The air is cooler and except for a few brief moments, the clouds cover the sky. Today it is just Bill, Steve, and I. Dave's knee is bothering him again so he takes the day off. One thing I do like on this ride is the lunch stop: Vicki's Burger Barn, but since it is Sunday it is closed. We eat at the gas station instead.
Monday's ride is Mountain Home and Away. Once again it is just Bill, Steve, and I. The first part of the ride is terrible as it is routed along 290, but after that it is a nice ride. The brevet route also follows this course. We see Johnny and Steve W. and wonder why Steve R. was not with them. We later learn that he had a medical problem the previous evening so wasn't riding.
While we are at the first store stop, Dauhna's, a couple on a tandem riding the brevet come in. The woman is quite small, shorter even than I am, interrupts our conversation to tell us the route sucks and ask if there is a way to get back to the start without going back the way they came. Her partner comes in and asks her if he can get something to eat, and she tells him sure. We are giggling at her abruptness and Bill explains it is a cultural thing and spends part of the ride telling me how different people are in other parts of the country. I giggle at his story as he tells about moving to Louisville and people in the stores actually talking to you. Another brevet rider has used all his tubes. Steve gives him one and tells him just to pass the favor on to someone else and not to worry about replacing it.
Further down the road, we come across a dead boar. I stand and get my photo taken and various quips are made. My personal favorite is, "Melissa 1, Boar 0." Steve tells me that he has heard that rattle snakes in the area are learning not to rattle as the boars eat them and are able to locate them by their rattling. While in Texas this time, I also learn that armadillos carry the leprosy bacteria.
Before long we are the Mountain Home Post Office and I know that if we turn right we get to our favorite taco stand. We bicycle by and I ask Bill if he smells it. "What," he says. "The tacos," I answer. I repeat the same to Steve and we decide to take a loop out of the course and to go to Hunt from Ingram instead and get tacos. This is all planned with a vow of secrecy so that Dave does not find out as we know he will be terribly disappointed at missing it. After all, Dave delights in food in a way that very few skinny people do. It is entertaining to watch him.
When we are back on course and at the store stop, we run into a cyclist that accosted me in a previous year demanding to know what route I was riding and what time I left. He makes me nervous and I am glad we leave before him and get away. But that is another story for another time. Let's just say that Steve and Bill made me feel better and had me laughing for hours afterward.
And that is enough for tonight. Hell Week 2011 part II to come. I will conclude by saying we dined at Hill Top and were joined by Gay and Steve R. and it was delightful.