In this disoriented state, I decide to join my cycling club's Tuesday morning 100K ride. I need to feel more solid, planted, integrated into reality - and I realise this is the best way I know how. The thought irritates me. Since when did cycling turn into this? This... defining thing, this part of my chemical composition?
In the morning, logistics are irrelevant. I pull together a mismatched outfit from the hamper. I don't have my roadbike, so I grab the cyclocross bike that still lives at my house. And then I push off - on the right ("wrong!" my brain screams) side of the road, in morning commuter traffic. On autopilot, I weave my way to the Ride Studio Cafe and the miles between us disappear.
No one knows I am coming, not even Pamela. Reluctant to admit to myself that I miss her, I nonetheless watch the door in anticipation, until there she is - platinum braids thick as ropes, tanned slender limbs, Southern accent and all. She is duly surprised by my presence and we talk in bursts, in the way of friends who have not talked in some time. "You think I'll be okay on this bike?" I point to the fat all-terrain tires. Pamela waves it away nonchalantly, as if to say "Bikes! What do they matter. Let's go."
Of course everyone but me is on skinny tire racing bikes. The thought that this might be brutal drifts through my mind. The Tuesday rides are described as "social pace," but of course for me that means "best effort pace." My eyes are swollen from lack of sleep and my legs ache from the sum of all earlier rides. I realise that brutal might actually feel good right about now. Again, I am irritated at the thought. Now why would brutal feel good, what on earth is wrong with me?
It is obscenely hot and the turnout is low today. The 5 of us set off in a single file and stay that way for most of the ride. Remarkably, I am in the middle of the group, rather than struggling behind it. My legs turn the pedals as I play a little game I learned in Ireland, called "same cadence, bigger gear." It is a fun, but painful game. I have played it for 10, 20 miles at a time before. Today I would play it for 60.
We arrive in Harvard, MA, eat lunch, then climb to the Fruitlands. On top, we stop at the side of the road to take in the view of surrounding mountains. After Northern Ireland, this strikes me as funny, that there is a specific destination with "the view." Over there, the landscape is so open that the view is everywhere. As you're riding, you can see for miles and miles - undulating glens, the sea, the entire Sperrins mountain range, even the hills of Donegal across the water. By contrast New England is so woodsy that you seldom see beyond your immediate surroundings; it is as if you are riding through a tunnel the entire time. Psychologically this feels very different. Riding through forests turns me inward; riding through glens opens me up.
The descents here feel tame compared to what I've been doing in previous weeks. On the other hand, the condition of the roads is even worse than I remembered - enormous cracks, ridges, gaping ditch-sized holes in the crumpling pavement - stunning when you're not used to it. But the texture of the pavement itself is smoother. In Ireland, the tarmac is a sort of chipseal, its surface nearly as rough as gravel at times.
By the afternoon, the heat has reached its apex and we all feel it. We start to take breaks now. We groan, we pour water over our jerseys. I am drained, but also lulled into a pleasurable trance by the intense scent of pine trees in the heat - this is something I've missed. My legs are leaden and I am caked in salt, but I give it one last push, inspired by Scott's relentless pace. Scott is a strong rider, whose compact, muscular body looks like a purpose-built machine when he pedals. I focus on staying on his wheel. Even though I know he is controlling his speed for my sake, just being able to follow him like this feels unreasonably good. Then I push further still and lead for the last couple of miles.
Back at the club house I hear "Hey, you're back!" The familiar voices are as welcome as the blast of air conditioning that greets us. Suddenly shy from the attention and the disconcerting sense of ...what's the word I'm looking for, belonging? I mumble "Yes... Well no, I'm only here for a couple of days." But with my legs weighing me down, Pamela sipping iced coffee at the bar, and the jungle of bikes suspended from the ceiling, I do start to feel more grounded, and Boston starts to feel realer.