Saturday, April 16, 2016

They Know What You Did Last Summer


In perhaps a premature burst of optimism, I ventured this morning into my long neglected drawer of lightweight cycling clothes. Stuffed with the likes of un-fleecelined shorts, gauzy-fabricked jerseys and teensy-weensy ankle socks, it was a drawer that had sat undisturbed since last September. And, opening it now, I was taken aback by the stale, concentrated smell of... I don't even know what, as it wasn't just one thing I could immediately identify. It was the smell of cycling-last-summerness.

Certain that I'd laundered it all before putting it away, I inspected each garment now, sniffing it critically. Clearly all the clothes had been washed. They were free of body smells and exuded that sheen of cleanliness which disappears as soon as an item is worn. But the fabrics must have retained some trace of specific scents - scents now amplified, having lain together in a small enclosed space for months, undisturbed.

The clothes now in a pile in front of me, I sat on the floor in a semi-meditative state, transported by their collective aura to the long, warm summer days on the bike. Leaning in with my eyes half closed, like a connoisseur at an expensive perfume counter I tried to discern the individual scents. There were notes of Boudreaux's Butt Paste and hints of dried sea grass. Organic midge repellent and rotten banana peel. The sickly sweetness of Shot Bloks, sun-melted into their wrappers. Sun-baked peat moss. And then, a subtle yet lingering undercurrent - metallic, almost like blood or sweat yet somehow devoid of the biological... It took me a moment to figure it out: Coins! The jerseys all reeked of the pocket change they had stored on every ride, warmed by sun and body heat to release their coiny essence deep into the fabric's fibres.

Before the fragments could take the form of memories, I had the overwhelming sensation of re-experiencing, in a bodily, visceral way, all that I had done on the bike the summer prior, and all at once. Impossible to process into a comprehensive sequence, the jumble of sensory information spilled out in front of me, like the pile of clothes itself. Sweaty face, hot sea breeze, sticky tarmac, stretches of bog, emerald water views dotted with islands, endless conversations in the endless gloaming, endless pedaling.

Preparing to throw it in the wash on a refresher cycle, I carried the armfull of clothes downstairs, then double-checked the pockets. Sure enough: washed out receipts I'd forgotten to remove, a packing list of some kind, a scrap of paper with written directions, a faded ice cream wrapper, a 50 euro-cent coin, a 20 pence coin, a hair elastic, salty sand granules flecked with bits of seaweed, a tiny key. Out of a shapeless memory-mass, details began to emerge: dates, faces, place names, plans, spoken phrases.

Coming back to any object after a long absence can feel a bit like re-entering a once-familiar house that had not been lived in for some time. There is an excitement to it. But also a carefulness. Because we are aware, on some level, that the ghosts of past experiences reside there. With bicycle-related objects, I have noticed their power to evoke these ghosts - good and bad - seems to be particularly strong. And perhaps it is the physicality of all things cycling that is the cause of this. If the cycling experience enhances our senses, can it also enhance our memories?

Suspecting the answer is yes, I am almost reluctant to ruin the spooky magic of it by rinsing my warm-weather clothes. On the other hand, the sun is shining. I want to believe it will soon be time for shorts. And time for new summer experiences.

25 comments:

  1. Had to chuckle at that long sleeve jersey among your "lightweight cycling clothes". Does it ever get above room temperature in Ireland?

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    1. I was thinking likewise - here we are in Autumn and I am just just beginning to wear such clothing when heading out early in the morning.

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    2. Ha. But in fairness there is a category of SUMMER jerseys that is long sleeve, usually made of a perforated "cooling" fabric. Even in hotter climates, those who cycle a lot in the woods often prefer them as they keep their arms from being scratched by branches and thorns. Usually the summer LS jerseys are marketed as mountain biking jerseys, but some non-MTB brands sell them as well - for example, Road Holland (US) and Shutt Velo Rapide (UK) at some point made them.

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    3. Yes, actually I ride all through summer here with long sleeves - not just for protection from branches but more importantly from the sun's rays. The clothing I wear is super thin - not cycling specific however, just purchased from a local clothing store, I wear these with extra fine stretch jeans, yoga or slim-fit track pants.

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    4. How hot does it actually get there in the summer? I prefer short sleeve jerseys with sun sleeves personally.

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    5. Mid to high 20s. If we're lucky!

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  2. You think about things a lot. Were you this way before cycling? Recently saw my summer clothes parked in the closet and simply thought it'd be nice to wear light clothes on the bike again, period. Scratching my head and wondering if my brain is simply decayed or absent altogether when it comes to memories evoked and enhanced because of cycling.

    '..the jumble of sensory information spilled out in front of me, like the pile of clothes itself. Sweaty face, hot sea breeze, sticky tarmac, stretches of bog, emerald water views dotted with islands, endless conversations in the endless gloaming, endless pedaling.' … I did try…I looked, smelled, pondered the pile of clothes and the only thing popping into my head was wondering if they'd last another season. That said, when giving away my children's clothes I was flooded with fond memories of a time gone by. With bicycling it's different. Every day, every ride, is different and new sensations and thoughts occupy my tiny brain. I like that. It means I'm present, if not as intellectual as you. I hope that's okay, too.

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    1. Oh I was always like this. If anything, worse. One reason I enjoy cycling is that it quiets my mind. Sometimes I can pedal and think of nothing at all, which feels wonderful.

      People are different in the shape their thoughts, memories, even experiences take. And that in itself is pretty wonderful.

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  3. For a gent, on the other hand, last season's cycling clothes can be separated into piles of too-smelly-to-wear versus not-smelly-enough-to-wash, with little regard as to the source (we don't wanna know) of the constituent volatile compounds of each. I guess we just intuitively know what's in our drawers and how it smells.

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  4. The smell of coins has to do with the reaction of the metal with body oils. The metals act as catalysts to rapidly oxidize the oils, turning them rancid almost immediately upon contact. I notice the smell on my hands after holding them more than on the coins themselves.

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  5. When I think of "last summers cycling" I always think I should have done more of it.
    This time of year in ireland is a time of hope, we still haven't had any really warm spring weather, room temperature or anywhere near it, but the hope of long summer days is with us as the evenings lengthen.This year I am definitely going to cycle more. make use of the daylight and whatever sunshine we are granted.Its always an act of faith here when I wheel my bike out and head off. 4 seasons in one day are always possible and one needs to be prepared. Tis no wonder I have such a collection of cycling tops , rain jackets and fleece lined everything. Still until September or October when the forlorn hope of this years summer fades I promise myself "this year I will get out more, see more places and do many miles on two wheels". Such is the prayer and mantra of all Irish Bicycle People. This year will be that year, then I remember , I said that last year and look what happened.

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    1. The 4 seasons in a day weather was in full force here last week; from warm resort-like sunshine to snow within a 2 hour window! Dressing for weather like that can be tricky. But it's never boring.

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  6. Just imagine where your thoughts would go if you had found a stale but still fragrant madeleine in one of your pockets...

    I enjoyed this. Smell is such a memory inducing sensation for me, too.


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    1. Depends on how hungry I'd be at the time : )

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    2. À la recherche de bonbons perdu (avec des miettes)

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  7. Once, many years ago, I opened a box of summer stuff, which included bike clothes. What did I smell?
    Coconut, cocao, rolled oats--and banana!

    I couldn't find any peels or wrappers. I'm guessing that, perhaps, little granules of my cycling snacks--including, perhaps, a little piece of that "string" that you sometimes find when you peel a banana--embedded themselves into the pockets of one of my jerseys--which, at the time, would have been wool.

    Oh, yes, there was always that musty wool smell whenever I took out cycling clothes from one season or another.

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    1. All in all it's actually not a bad smell (in my case, perhaps with the exception of the Boudreaux's Butt Paste). Only a matter of time before a chamois creme comes out in that scent, I suspect.

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  8. I get a similar rush of memories when I unzip any of my bags after being closed up for a few months. On one of our campouts last fall the last few squares of a Hershey bar and a big handful of Mint leaves melted together in my saddlebag and rode there for 2 days and another week before I cleaned it all out. It still smells pretty delicious now 6 or 7 months later. I hope it never goes away.

    A few years ago, I wondered if I could duplicate the smell of the first real Bike Shop I ever visited(The Pedal, Corpus Christi Texas, circa 1977). I got a big plastic tub, put a tire and tube, a couple of Brooks saddles and an un-rolled package of Benotto bar-tape, a bottle of Phil Wood Tenacious Oil, the remains of a tube of Campy grease and various other things that I thought might have contributed to the unique scent. I snapped the lid on and checked it every once in a while. It never really captured the "Magic" but it sort of got close. I had better luck trying to recreate the smell of the Saddle Shop in my hometown where I got my first really good boots when I was about 16. A bunch of scraps of chrome tanned and vegetable tanned leather, old cans of Lexol Saddle Soap and Kiwi Boot Polish, bees wax and a tin of sewing machine oil in the tub and I was instantly back in High School trying to decide if I wanted really good semi-custom plain Black Bull-Hide or flashy low-end Tony Llama's off the rack for the same money. I still have the Black Bulls but will have to get new heels put on them somewhere else now since the last time I was home the Boot Shop had just turned into a thrift shop. Still smelled a little like it used to under the stinky scented candles but not enough to keep me from feeling like I should have gone back a year earlier.

    Spindizzy

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    1. Try a wooden barrel next time instead of the plastic tub? I find the drawers of the old wooden dresser that came with the house to be more authentic scent-preservers than plastic storage crates, which infuse everything with their own plastickyness.

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  9. The "takes you back" reaction is because scent goes directly to a very primitive part of the brain. Taste is next. If I'm in bed reviewing the meals of years past, I know I'm about to go to sleep.

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  10. One of my rituals (those rituals would make a nice topic!) is emptying my jersey pockets before taking it off in the shower. This was motivated not by any cute 20p piece but rather my Mini key fob. Having originated in the same country as pence and pounds, the fob nevertheless turned out to be much less resistant to a Bostonian washing machine.

    There is also an old-world wisdom that orange peel repels moths, so I put that into my box of other-season kit in an attempt to protect my merino items. Seems to also kill any other smells))

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  11. How much of this smell-retainingness do you attribute to the ubiquitous polyester/ spandex/ lycra/ etc percentage in, well, most everything these days? Would a drawer of wool-only garments, put away clean, still hold these scent echoes?

    My husband says my nose is wonky -- for example, I used to want a "signature" scent, but perfume always smells like rubbing alcohol on me, to me -- and that may explain it, but I stuck my nose in my summer drawer (merino, cotton, linen, silk) and came away w nothing. Might have to pack something interesting in when I put away the winter clothes. Orange peels and ???

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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    1. Orange peels and chocolate?

      In my experience wool holds on to scents also. The difference is that it is easier to air out afterward, and would not require washing.

      {See also: "Dry Cleaning Your Wool with Fresh Air"}

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  12. I like your thinking! Sadly, two wee flaws w the chocolate-in-the-drawer thing. First, since the goal is to use orange peel to keep bugs out, it seems counterintuitive to add chocolate that will surely just lure in more. And second, chocolate is for eating. It would never survive in the drawer long enough to add its scent to anything. (I have sooo little self control. Can you get Lindt's Intense Orange bar where you are? When you mentioned chocolate, I had to have a square – and then a second one – even though it isn't even lunch time yet.)

    Your Dry Cleaning w Sunshine article was a deciding factor in my giving wool another go. I was used to wool being smelly when wet – thinking of the Icelandic sheep's wool sweaters we had in the 80s; so pungent when you had an entire bus full of damp university students – and itchy and hard to care for. You – well, you and 21st century merino – made me a convert. Thanks for that :-)

    Best,
    Lil Bruin

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  13. Anybody who's interested in smells could do worse than to read The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr, which is about Luca Turin, a maverick perfumer who likes to challenge. The retentive properties of wool versus polyester or cotton are well known to perfumers who work for detergent manufacturers.

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