The holidays have passed, and took along with them my physical fitness. Ugh. I have gained weight, and it drags on me, lead like, anchoring me firmly to earth. My steps sound and feel heavier throughout the day. Effort robs me of breath more easily and gives me a new appreciation of breathing and of the exquisite value of air. I find myself eating despite the fact that I have no true hunger: eating because it tastes good, eating because it pacifies me, eating because of stress at work, eating because it is there. The sad part is that I am eating without the appreciation of food that a good ride can bring and without the appetite that a good ride can bring. One of the marvelous gifts that riding gives us is the genuine appetite that is an exquisite garnish to the food we eat, making the need to replenish our body with fuel a delight. Food just tastes better when you have earned the right to it and when your body truly needs it to meet the tasks that are being asked of it.
When I finally get together with others for the "Orleans: The Back Way century," I find that I have company in my food musings. Lynn Roberts talks of finding himself with a handful of almonds he doesn't really want. Mark Rougeux talks of the holiday weight gain. While everyone looks thinner than me, I suppose they too struggle. So perhaps it is not all will power and perhaps it is not just me and a character weakness, perhaps it is just one of those annoying things that is part of being human. Even so, hills that normally come easily seem more like mountains than hills when you are dragging five to ten extra pounds up them and the legs have weakened from the lack of training miles. In winter when it is cold and windy it is just too easy to say no to a ride. Inertia and indolence tease me as a well fed cat taunts a mouse, paralyzing it into inaction. I grow weak, and I know I must fight this. "How soon 'not now' becomes 'never." (Martin Luther)
It is a genial group of eight riders that gather to ride to Orleans, all on singles except for Jody Patterson and Steve Maurer who are on their tandem. I feel for them as I struggle up the early climb on the not so aptly named Flatewood Road. I have never ridden a tandem and I suspect I would find it very disconcerting to ride one, trusting and giving up control, but I have been told that hills are even more of a challenge on a tandem than on a single bike and I have no reason to disbelieve this assertion. And this hill is a challenge, however doable, on this particular day at this particular time. Later I will tell others that this ride was "fun," but in the midst of a hill I wonder why.
Sometimes I believe there is something a tad off about cyclists and their obsession with hills. Is it not odd to seek out such pain and to even take perverse pleasure in it? But, oh, what satisfaction when you reach the summit or when you climb the same hill at another time and realize that it took little effort, that all your hard work, sweat, and pain paid off and what was a mountain is now a mere molehill. There have been times when I find myself thinking that there is a bad hill on a road only to realize I have already climbed it and not noticed. And I have found the scenery on hilly routes eclipses that of flat land beauty. This is certainly true on Flateland Road with the occasional vista where you can see the land sprawled out below you for miles now that the sentinel trees have discarded their leafy covering leaving bare the landscape.
I think momentarily of hilly triumphs such as the first time I made it up Fire Tower Hill, and of how I felt like Lance must have felt winning the tour, jubilant and proud and invincible. I got to repeat this victory twice: once on my triple and once on my double. I think of my failure at Cobb Hill, walking to the top, defeated, only to find Tim Carroll there (who made it up the darn hill with his double while I failed with my triple) waiting at the top with a fistful of wildflowers and a welcoming smile on his face. I could not ruin his victory with my disgust with myself, and soon I was laughing and joking. Perhaps I will make it up Cobb Hill on another day when it isn't 95 degrees out and I don't have 100 or more hilly miles on my legs. For those of you who don't know Cobb Hill but do know the Fire Tower Hill, Fire Tower Hill is a mere bump in the road compared to Cobb Hill. I think of hills I have cursed and hills I have serenaded, each special in its own way. I think of how I like the challenge of a good hill, and how cycling brings out the best in us as we throw ourselves against the wall until we succeed. How very many victories I avoided in my fear of failure before I understood that our failures also give our lives color and flavor. And by the time those thoughts have passed, we are on the flat farmlands surrounding Orleans.
Orleans is a small town, one I had not heard of prior to my cycling days. It is probably not the best choice for someone who has Christmas pounds to lose because it has one of the most inimitable small restaurants. Though I don't believe I have ever had the same dish there twice, each has been remarkable. Today I pick the pulled pork barbecue, and I am not disappointed. My taste buds yell "hoorah" and I appreciate the need for food for the first time in awhile. I am grateful not having to worry about every little calorie and how I am going over the daily limit calorie limit I have set for myself in my attempt to regain a waistline. Of course, it does not help when Dave King asked Jody and me how many calories are in a bag of chips. Jody asks if he knows that most of the small bags are really considered to be two servings. Dave tells us he means one of the big bags. Jody and I share a grimace of disgust. How can such a skinny person eat an entire bag of chips?
I am glad for the leisurely pace back to the ride start. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the wind is at our backs, and the company is congenial, a mix of personalities that somehow meshes and provides camaraderie. It just doesn't get much better than this, particularly in January. A mistake in the cue sheet takes everyone by surprise, but it is easily remedied and all is forgiven as it might not be if the weather were not so kind this day. And there is payback for the hills. At one point I hit a bump that leaves me soaring through the air, defying gravity, no wheels on the ground, and for one glorious moment I am gloriously flying. The same bump leaves Jody glad for being clipped in as she left her seat, hovering in the air. Not so long after that there is the two mile downhill near the end of the ride that winds through a forest and where one day on a solo ride I spotted two small Amish boys braving the descent on roller blades. It is a good day on the bike, and I am thankful. Winter days often are not so kind, particularly on those who have become slackers. And perhaps I lost a little bit of my Christmas Girdle;-)