Cycling And The Siren Song of Spring

I’ll never learn. I live north of the 45th parallel, but I also live where the sun shines 300 days of the year. The latter fact often tricks me into disregarding the former. In other words, when spring rolls around, I think it’s warmer outside than it is.

The fact is that it doesn’t get reliably warm in my neck of the woods til mid-May. That’s our average "last frost" date, a fact I pay attention to when planting my garden. But when it comes to outdoor recreation, my emotions override the calendar.

Sally O’Neal

March: In Like A Lion…
It never fails: I take my first bike ride in March and I freeze my tush off. I KNOW it’s March, I KNOW March is windy, I KNOW March is cold. But March is also sunny, and if the forsythia blooms don’t convince me, the delicate white blossoms on my apricot tree do. "It’s spring!" they wheedle. "It’s WARM out!" they cajole. So, zombie-like, I remove my bike from its winter storage shed, I knock off the cobwebs, lube the chain, inflate the tires and … where’d that wind come from?

Sure enough, before I’ve clipped my second shoe into my second pedal and left the driveway, the "gentle breeze" that barely stirred the forsythia 20 minutes ago has grown into a full-fledged gale. What about those apricot blossoms? As I pedal doggedly past the apricot tree on my way to the corner, I note the delicate petals are now all over the ground, the tree stripped bare by the March wind.

In For A Penny, In For A Pound
But do I turn back, do I cut my ride short? No way! It’s SUNNY out! It’s SPRING!

Forsythia is a siren song of spring.

I distract myself by clicking through the gears, remembering their sequence. I unclip my shoes from their pedals one at a time, circling my ankles to thwart numbness. I adjust the zipper at the neck of my jacket — oh, it’s already as high as it will go, damn it — and wish I’d worn the heavier, more windproof one.

As I settle into a cadence, I observe the trees lining the street in front of me. Where are all the buds and blossoms I was admiring yesterday? They all look rather bare from this perspective — skeletal, in fact — more autumnal than vernal. Hmm. But I’m NOT turning around and going home. It’s SPRING, after all!

And besides, if I turned around and went home, what would I do? All my neighbors are tricked into thinking it’s spring, too. They’re out in their yards thatching and edging and applying weed and feed in their down parkas. Why trade a cold, miserable bike ride for a cold, miserable day of yard work?

And so I soldier on.

Subtle Shifts
In truth, I have learned a few things over my many years of too-cold, too-windy, too-early spring bike rides. Without consciously thinking about it, I have headed into the wind on this sunny, chilly March morning. It makes the pedaling harder, but in the long run, it’s the secret for turning a miserable ride into the halcyon experience I sought. After a mile or two, my efforts have warmed me up. My teeth no longer chatter, my ankles feel loose and move fluidly. My shoulders relax.

After a few more miles, my gloved hand reaches for my neck zipper and actually lowers it. I am pleasantly warm, and the crisp air now feels refreshing on my neck and chest. I’m shifting effortlessly into slightly higher gears and picking up the pace.

Apricot blossoms.

But the best part of all about heading into the wind is that when I reach the halfway point and turn around, it’s all smooth sailing on the way home. There’s never a sensation of being pushed from behind by the wind, but rather a subtle sensation of equilibrium, of smooth sailing. After four months of not riding, my muscles remember the free and easy quality of a late-summer or early-autumn ride, when the crankshafts spun naturally and the bike felt like an extension of my body. We’re not there yet — that will take a few more weeks and a lot more miles — but we are starting to remember.

And that, in the end, is why I let myself forget that it’s cold and windy, and I end up on my bike one sunny day each March.

Sally O’Neal cycles, hikes, camps, and writes near her home in southeastern Washington State. Her "Trailside with Sally O’Neal" has appeared weekly in since spring of 2000.

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