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.