Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Blue Skies from Pain

What is it like to ride here? I never quite know what to say. Because, you see, it is so distinct, and at the same time it is more about a feeling than about the landscape or the weather or the road conditions. If I close my eyes and try to evoke the experience of it, the thing that comes to mind is tunnels. The winding narrow farm roads with their tall hedges form a maze at the edge of the Sperrin mountains, and navigating through it - always climbing or descending, always either going around a bend or just about to - is a unique form of meditation. There is a pressure and an intense concentration to it, and at the same time a release and a complete lack of focus. 

The back roads here have some peculiarities, and one of them is the reverse dip. The road is convex, with the center forming a ridge and the sides sloping down toward the gutters. I have heard several explanations for why this is so. One is that the roads were made this way to begin with, to facilitate drainage. Another is that heavy farm machinery has deformed the surface over the years. Whatever the reason, one soon learns to keep off that central ridge - in particular while descending. The ridge is wide enough for a tire, but there is something wrong there - a slickness, or maybe some Twilight Zone force - that makes the bike behave unpredictably should you allow it to drift to the center of the road while cornering sloppily. This adds an extra layer of excitement to the already wild descents. 

One of the things I love about Northern Ireland is the weather. People laugh when I tell them this, but I am not joking. Both physically and mentally I thrive in these damp, chilly, overcast conditions, under these temperamental skies. When I cycle over the mountain with the dark clouds so low I can almost touch them, and the mist so palpable the moisture gathers on my face, I can feel my mind emptied and my emotional palate cleansed and my limbs gone weightless and free. The road and I dip and rise and twist together, maybe even breathe together. Everything is at peace with everything else as I float, painlessly, through and over and under it all. None of this happens in the sunshine. It just doesn't. And so on warm sunny days I will, more likely than not, have a rest from the bike. 

Yesterday was such a day, and in the morning I was walking home along a footpath through a wheat field at the back of the village. In the distance a tractor circled. Moving slowly and with an air of purpose, it gobbled up loose piles of hay, spitting out perfect round bales. The farmer was literally making hay while the sun shone, and maybe it was the scorching 20°C heat gone to my head after a week of bleak winter weather, but this realisation hit me so profoundly that I had to sit down to really take it in. I leaned my back against one of the hay bales, which was heavy and enormous and rough-textured. Then I went on a mountain bike ride through the forest, seeking shade and that soothing feeling I get from a place where everything is covered in moss. 

On an overcast day, sometimes the sky will be dark down low, with patches of bright blue peeking out up higher. One afternoon I was pedaling up a tedious climb through a tunnel-like road and, about 6 miles in, just when I thought it was over I went around yet another bend only to find that the pitch grew steeper still. As I felt the intense pain in my legs, I looked up over the wall-like hedge and was blinded by a bright cerulean opening in the cloud cover. A light at the end of the tunnel. 

35 comments:

  1. I think you meant to say convex. Dirt, gravel, and chip roads require a higher crown than concrete or asphalt roads. Roads going up or down slopes require a higher crown. Getting serious about crowning the roads will reduce maintenance costs to the highway department rather a lot. Even if it does create riding/driving experiences that would be considered unacceptable in the US.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "The road is concave, with the center forming a ridge and the sides sloping down toward the gutters."

    This is a convex surface. If the road was concave it would hold rain water like a bowl.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Your relationship with Irish weather is one I can relate to as back in the day my love affair with the Pacific Northwest involved similar feelings and sensory delights in mist, brooding low clouds, walking the hills and pasture with my sheep, biking the coast range of Oregon in a calming fog of silence. Vivid, sustaining memories still. Thanks! Jim Duncan

    ReplyDelete
  4. Cool story-ette.
    You make it sound like being outside, taking it in, is what biking is about........waitaminute, yes - i see that!
    Glad to hear you're mountain biking without much anxiety now and enjoying the cool, damp weather.
    Funny thing how those old sayings take on relevance after being cliche for so long - keep looking!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lots of places to ride a mountain bike near my new place, which has made me suddenly "need" it. It's not scary or technical, just muddy and occasionally rocky; really nice little forests.

      Delete
  5. Stolen from the Wiki book of Lies; "In civil engineering, cant is often referred to as cross slope or camber. It helps rainwater drain from the road surface. Along straight or gently curved sections, the middle of the road is normally higher than the edges. This is called "normal crown" and helps shed rainwater off the sides of the road. During road works that involve lengths of temporary carriageway, the slope may be the opposite to normal – i.e. with the outer edge higher – which causes vehicles to lean towards oncoming traffic: in the UK this is indicated on warning signs as 'adverse camber'." Thanks for the ear worm! Good job Wish you Were Here is my favourite LP ever

    ReplyDelete
  6. I like this post.

    Are you serious - you've never noticed how rain rolls off a crowned road?

    Mountain biking...

    I'm confused - I thought you didn't feel pain. Seems to vacillate.

    Anyway good post, much better sense of NI place than that insipid Gillian Anderson crime thing. Bleh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The show was okay I thought, but not much of a NI-specific feel to it. Also, Gillian Anderson pursed her lips in a weird way the entire time.

      Delete
  7. Love the story and the Pink Floyd reference.

    I have tried to be less of a fair weather cyclist this year and stories like this have helped.

    Your appreciation for all conditions has been an inspiration. Especially when it is expressed so well.

    Matt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. First thing that popped to mind was, "can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail"...


      Delete
  8. I know what you mean about the clouds. I live in Lancashire and we had that lovely stretch of blue skies for weeks over summer. I remember cycling home from my friend's one evening and it was the first clouds I'd seen in ages, it made me smile, an old friend returning. I love the drama of them. I also think its amazing that a 'lovely bright day' here can look pretty dull when you look at the photos you've taken from a day out on the bike. Weird, but delightful.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Well, sounds like you'd like the pacific northwest, except it has way more forest and bigger mountains. Riding is very much as you describe, although personally I am mourning the end of summer weather. The gloamy murky gloom is definitely dramatic and I love it as it reminds me of the UK and some past visceral memories, but I love sun and warmth more. sigh. I live up high so am often in cloud, the september fogs were impressive this year. My mom came to visit and was surprised by it so drastically changed everything(the weather had been gorgeous, warm autumn air, sun, and the brilliant combination of emerald green forest mountains and blue sky. The fog rolled in and she kept saying it was like Scotland.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The musical equivalent of this essay might be Luka Bloom's "The Acoustic Motorbike."

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iI5OG-QVGKk

    ReplyDelete
  11. To evoke tunnels takes my to a different kind of place. Cycling through them has been scary and dangerous, though the sense of sound is heightened as to is the awareness of wheels on pavement! But I, too, am glad to see the light at the end and the eventual sky, again, above :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. I love gloom! Especially before a storm, the darker and spookier the better. Maybe I just don't like sun glare and headwinds. Of course in 15 minutes it rains like anything and the sun comes back in a while with a North wind, and I have to go north!

    vsk

    ReplyDelete
  13. This is a nice sort of reprise of "Emotional Landscapes". The part of NI you are in sounds like a really interesting place.

    I think you would find large swathes of coastal northwestern California to be very much to your liking.



    ReplyDelete
  14. Loved this post. Cerulean! I think you are the only bike blogger that has ever made me look up a definition I couldn't find in Sheldon Brown's Bicycle Glossary.

    ReplyDelete
  15. A month or so ago I was riding to work wondering if I was going to beat the rain that was threatening, the clouds were piling up, the wind seemed to double every 1/2 mile or so and the light was dimming down to "Brooding". Climbing the big hill you have to get over on any of the 3 routes to town, my eye was drawn to a bright orangey-red patch glowing in the middle of the lane half-way up. A dead Fox.

    I find that I cant easily ride past a dead animal anymore, it's as if my regret that our worlds sometimes intersect so abruptly and violently kinda compels me to try to give back what dignity and rest remains. So I end up picking up the Songbirds, the Possums and the Rabbits that haven't already been broken up by traffic, and moving them to the long grass of the fence-line or a row or two inside the field where the corn or soybeans can shade the next step of the process. I don't know if I'm giving something back or just giving the Crows and Buzzards a little peace to get on with their part of the undertaking. Whatever, it seems like the respectful thing to do for my neighbors. It's not a big deal, I don't bury them or erect crosses or anything, I just get them out of the road.

    Then there are the Foxes. Foxes are different. I see them around and hear them yip in the middle night, see the piles of feathers they leave in the field behind my house and imagine their delight when I shoot a groundhog out of the garden and put the remains on the big flat rock for them to find. I watch them in the winter from the window of my cupola, usually early in the morning or right at dusk, trotting around in the snow shopping for something tasty. I really appreciate sharing my space with Foxes.

    So if I find one on the road it seems like a small tragedy, and affects me more than the other animals that come to grief out there. So this beautiful Red-Phase Grey laying on the hill, lighting up the gloom with it's unbelievably intense color, lean wild body barely finished dying and seemingly unharmed, seemed like all the heartbreaks and disappointments there ever were. Before I had him lifted up and laid under the nearest tree I was crying enough that I just rode back home and calmed myself down a bit before driving back in. I know I'd have been sad no matter what day it could have happened on, but on a bright sunny day, or just a breezy overcast afternoon, I would have simply said "Sorry Buddy, let me get you out of the sun" and gone on with things. You get over it ya' know. But that day, with the light coming down that way, the wind murmuring and remembering things out loud and all of the natural world seemingly in a serious mood, I cried my ass off.

    I'm going to remember that moment for a long time but if it weren't for your post today I'm not sure I would have been able to think it through this way.

    Thanks.

    Spindizzy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good on you! - as you say, it's a minor outreach but something you have to do.
      This time of year the tarantulas are on the move here, but moving slowly. I always stop to expedite their road crossing. They seem grateful.

      Delete
    2. Tarantulas!

      They always came out in the hundreds whenever it would rain a lot, somewhere I have a picture of me that was supposed to be a nice shot of a Tarantula sitting peacefully on my gloved hand but it turned into a blurry image of me desperately trying to flick it off my neck after it ran up my arm when the camera got too near. My face is actually inside out in that picture. Good times.

      Spindizzy

      Delete
    3. A bit off-topic (sorry!) but can I just say that your Sept 24 comment is absolutely beautiful and also absolutely heartbreaking.

      Delete
    4. Great comment, Spindizzy. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who occasionally moves a fresh animal kill off the road. Living in a rural area, there are plenty. My most memorable was a doe that had recntly lost in an encounter with a car. Not wanting to have to see (and smell) her for the next several weeks along one of my usual routes, I paused to drag her off into the weedy ditch at the side of the road. Like you say, a final dignity to their lives.
      Great story too, Velouria.
      -Anne K.

      Delete
  16. I love your sensory description of the weather. It sounds like a combination of marine and mountain conditions, with the dampness of the seashore, the low clouds of the mountains and the tempramental conditions of both.

    When you mentioned the low clouds, I thought of the times I actually pedaled through clouds in mountain areas, and the skies that seem to come in waves like those of the sea.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Being friendly with some glider and small airplane pilots now, I hear fascinating and detailed explanations of the weather patterns here. And yes, it's something like that - a unique microclimate in this part of NI due to position of mountains and several bodies of water.

      Sky in waves, yes that is a wonderful description.

      Delete
  17. Farmers need dry weather to put up hay. If it's wet when they bale, it generates mildew. And if they store it in a barn when damp, the decomposition generates heat, and the rest is history. There's your farming factoid of the day!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Damp, chilly, overcast conditions are my preference as well. I hate wearing sun screen. One can always bundle up a bit for the cold but there is a limit to how naked in the hot.

    A welcome (from a cycling point of view anyhow) climate change trend in upper Midwest has been drier and relatively more mild autumns. Last couple of years I've enjoyed wonderful mid-December rides with temps in the 40s, dry roads, and the sun too low in the sky to cause skin damage.

    Midwestern back roads that get their share of heavy farm equipment crown in the center as well. Seems reasonable that might be what is happening in NI.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Beautiful writing.

    That twilight zone slickness in the middle is from the gradual oil/grease buildup from vehicle engines that are being driven down the middle of the road when there isn't competing head-on traffic. Look at any flat U.S. highway or street and you'll see the same thing, within lanes. It's why motorcyclists typically drive to the left or right of their lanes--which really annoyed me until I realized why they were doing it.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Nice post. As the hours pass by we do spend some time pondering the pavement features passing below us... eh?

    Big dramatic sky panoramas I've seen while riding - North Dakota and Iowa in fall and Morocco in spring.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hey, I know how you feel about Flickr, but if you don't post your photos via Flickr, how's a guy to ascertain the camera utilized for that great photo?! (Metadata appears stripped out in that photo.) Maybe some of the beauty came in post, but in any event, real nice job!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Have you moved to Ireland? I just got back from 2 weeks in the south. Can't wait to get back!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Damp, chilly, overcast... and raining! Sounds like you'd like Seattle. I like it for all the same reasons you do... but I have to admit I also like sunshine. We had a glorious summer here - with the most sun in 20 years. But I notice that my brain works much better once the cold and rain returns. But still I don't like biking in the rain.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Very atmospheric post! Perfect to go with my pre-ride coffee. Good to read you are getting used to the mountain bike also. If you are ever across the water in Scotland, please look up the Glasgow mountain bike meetup pages! Very friendly bunch of guys and girls that love nothing more biking through dark, mossy, gnarly trails. Bring room for cake also! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  25. Have enjoyed your blog for quite a while now as an occasional visitor/reader. Consequently somewhat startled recently to see that you're in "Norn Iron". I was born in the North, but moved to Canada as a child. Most of my extended family still there, though, so am a frequent visitor.

    This is a great post; you brought me right back to that feeling of being "in" the weather and landscape that I always sense.

    Your other recent posts, often detailing a rich collection of characters, have also been very enjoyable. Is everyone a real character there, or just almost everyone?!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Sorry for being so down to earth after such a beautiful, poetic post, but watch these tractors! When the farmers finish cutting the fields they’ll start cutting the hedges, and you’ll get hawthorn cuttings strewn all over these winding narrow country roads. You’ll get wise to noticing whether the hedges have been cut, and if they have, ride down the centre of the road (especially if the verges are narrow, in which case the cuttings end up in the road as well as on the verge). Or better still, stop, turn around and take a detour! Only good thing about the storms and heavy rain you experienced a couple of weekends ago is that the wind blows the cuttings away and the rain helps them to rot sooner.

    ReplyDelete