My Flight is on Two Wheels
It is difficult to dress for a ride when it’s autumn in Southern California. As I wake up early in the morning I head straight to my computer. I check the weather again, even though I just checked it a few hours ago before going to sleep. Typically, the weather is fairly mild here: lows in the 50s-60s, highs in the 70s-80s. “47 degrees!” I interject, even though I was not saying anything, “It’s freezing out there.” Although it is in the mid 40s now, it will probably heat up quickly into the mid 70s or low 80s. I grab my arm and leg warmers out of my dresser, I pull out a long sleeve jersey and a short sleeve one.
I love having this problem: “What shall I wear?”
It reminds me of the simplicity that cycling brings to my life. Despite all the complicated ideas about carbs and protein, gear-ratios and derailleurs, out there in the open, life is simple. I look at the clock and realize that Sal will be texting me in a few minutes with his usual “I’m out front” message. I decide I will wear arm and leg warmers because I can peel those off when it warms up. The sun is coming out already, bright and orange and perfect. Looking up at the sky is like looking at crystal, the only thing on other side must be the baby blue tint in heaven. I put on my shoes that were made for small European feet; though they are long enough, European cyclists must have arrows for feet because my feet are much too wide for these shoes. As I begin to check the pressure of my tires my phone beeps at me in a very demanding tone. I kiss my wife and daughter who are sleeping so peacefully that were it not for their chests bobbing up and down like an undisturbed buoy on an early morning lake, I would wonder whether they were even alive. Carefully I navigate my way down the staircase with my bike on my shoulder, praying at every step that the cleats from my shoes do not slip on the slick painted staircase.
One of our favorite places to ride is along the banks of the San Gabriel River, which intersects the city where I live, because it is full of birds, squirrels, flying fish, trees, horses and horse droppings, grass and dirt, and because it takes us north to the Azusa Mountains and the through the endless Angeles National Forest, or south to Pacific Coast Highway and what seems to be a California coastline that will take you around the world.
We enter the river through a city park, only minutes after the sun breaks above the horizon. The sun is bright orange and just above eye level, blindingly bright. There is not a cloud in the sky, and the air is cold; the kind of cold we are not used to in this part of the world, it penetrates the many thin layers of Lycra causing the tiny hair follicles along my arms and legs to stand at attention as though they are frozen stiff, then pierces my skin and like a needle looking for a sample of marrow, it breaks my bones in half and enters them; it is too cold for an autumn southern California morning. The grass in the park is soaked, and the dirt path that segmented the grass is a thick black clay. It smells of the spring season, and looks like spring: the grass is still as green as it has been all year and the trees still yearn to create a canopy above the grass, but they are planted too far apart to caress each other’s leaves. The water run-off from the excess use of the residents gushes into the river like a horizontal waterfall down a concrete mountain that was turned on its side. Above the river, seagulls who have strayed too far inland follow it hoping to catch what they could not find downstream. Sal and I head north to Whittier because we can find lots of hills there. It is still very cold, ice has formed on the bushes on the sides of the streets, unlike anything I have ever seen. They are an amazing site, still dark green and ostensibly brimming with life, but they look like they were taken out of the cave of the Abominable Snowman. During my rides I see more nature than I have ever seen in the United States, and in ways that I only see when I am on my bike: that is why I ride.
The only nature I ever thought as a child that the US had to offer was city parks and beaches. It was different in Mexico; there was dirt everywhere, animals, open hills and open fields. In the United States, there is concrete and asphalt with a large piece of grass the size of two city blocks somewhere in or around the center of the city. The only undomesticated animals I used to see here as a child were the crows and sparrows that sat on the web of wires that connect the telephone poles. When I was sixteen years old, two friends invited me to go on a bicycle ride to the beach along the Los Angeles River. I went and I have never stopped going. That day, when I was sixteen years old, although I did not know it at the time, I became one of those birds that sit on the power lines and telephone cables that connect us; but my flight is on two wheels, two wheels that stay on the ground – most of the time.
Being out on the open road is very meditative. Out there on the streets or on the banks of the San Gabriel River, you can hear the songs of the birds, the wind blows and muffles everything else, except the chirping of the birds. It is really remarkable the way that happens: there is no wind to speak of when I am not moving, but as I try to move, the wind fights back if I go too fast. It roars like a tiger and I can hear nothing else — except the chirping of the birds that prevails. I once wondered wether it was roaring angrily. For years I thought it was my adversary on the bike because it fought me, and continues to fight me today, at every pedal stroke. On seldom occasion, I come out victorious, and the wind gets behind me, pushing me, resigned. Most of the time, however, I lose. The wind pushes against me with the weight of an elephant, slowing me down, so I used to think it was angry. I thought it hated me. We have to gang up on the wind, at least two of us, preferably four or more. We line up, one behind the other. After a month or so of fighting the wind this way, I saw a family of ducks with whom I could only presume was “mama duck” leading the way, walking across the pavement of the river, “baby ducks” all in one line following their leader, “They look like us!” I thought. Then, not too long ago, I saw seagulls flying toward the ocean, about 5 miles inland, where the wind is most passionate. The seagulls also looked like we did. One behind the other, ganging up on the wind. Taking turns, with one striking it at the front, then the other, like us on the bikes. I wondered if the seagulls felt the same way about the wind. They did not appear to be fighting, they seemed to enjoy it. If seagulls could smile, this little flock of six or seven were all smiling. Perhaps, I thought, it is because the wind helps them stay in the air . . . or because it dries their wings, “It must be something functional like that.” No! The wind made them stronger, better pilots, better navigators: and it made me stronger. The wind was not fighting me, I realized, no more than it was fighting the birds, it was helping me. I realized then that the wind is my friend. It helps me when I need it, and challenges me just the same, with lessons in humility that only the powerful can teach.
The wind appreciates that I ride my bike. We are two puppies gnawing at each other playfully, two brothers competing at everything we do. The wind is the old woman who watches over everything, and I help Her because I ride. Most people cannot believe it when I tell them that I average 40 miles every time I ride. Their reaction always the same: “My butt would hurt too much on that little seat! How can you stand it?” I laugh because I only stand during the really tough climbs, otherwise I sit. I make a joke about it and say, “You have to callous it.” “Those tires are too skinny,” they go on, “Why is it so expensive?” They become obsessed with the bicycle. I do not expect others to understand, although I wish they would. I wonder whether I am being pretentious because it appears to be a wasted effort. I ride because it is healthy for all of us: Nature, you and me. A commute to and from work is forty miles, which equates to approximately two gallons of gas. That is the same as two, sometimes three hours that the She, and I, and you, are not breathing in harmful pollutants from burning fossil fuels. Now She is rewarding me; now I am making friends with creatures I only read about in books or saw on television and in movies. Those people who are fixated with that triangle that is smaller than a football, a hard piece of plastic covered with a thin layer of rubber, those people who are preoccupied with narrow tires and their fat asses, I can’t expect them to understand. So I repeat what Lance Armstrong said, “It’s not about the bike,” and I ride away to the San Gabriel River and head home content because I know that Nature understands.
Nature gives me a prize on every ride, like I earned a place on the podium a the Long Beach Criterium. As I ride I see to my left, on the apex of the banks of the river, a motionless turtle fearlessly yet cautiously watching me roll by; and as the turtle and I stare at each other, I wonder whether it is lost. In fifteen years traveling the thirty five mile-long river, I have never seen a turtle. I slow down a little and study it as closely as it is possible to study something when one is rolling by at 17 miles per hour; it watches me, still fearlessly, and then it wonders whether I am lost.
That autumn morning, as Sal and I were riding through the hills in and around Whittier, we saw a coyote. It was out in the open, at the base of small hill on a field that was smaller than the infield at the baseball park. Our eyes met like two lovers at a party. The wind told that coyote about me. Like the seagulls, the coyote smiled then turned and ran away — as they always do. As we were pedaling up a slow long climb on a two lane road two miles south from where the coyote smiled at me, I saw dark green leaves, full of life, fall from the trees to my left; leaves that had had no reason to fall from the trees nor did they have any desire to be on the ground. Just below the green tarp of leaves that were hanging from the trees, I saw four legs. My heart raced, not because of the climbing, but because of the uncertainty. “Is it a mountain lion?” I thought, but I did not say it. I looked at my friend and asked, “Sal, do you see that?” He answered, “Yeah,” in his usual calm voice, but the stiffness in his body told me he was as afraid as I was. The four legs did not move as we drew closer, they were waiting, and I was sure they were ready to pounce. When we finally reached them, a young fawn looked at us and disappeared before we could pass by. That experience made me realize that I may not be afraid of coyotes because they come out and say hello regularly, but it is altogether possible that I am afraid of deer. Either way, it was another reward from the wind.
Now I am the bird that sits on the wires that connect us. My flight is on two wheels and the winds are the wires; and I continue to get rewarded. I have seen bison in Monterey County, turkeys in San Jose, orioles in Long Beach, snakes and bees in Orange County, a turtle where it did not belong, coyotes everywhere, and one single baby deer, that scared me enough to make me want to stop pedaling.