Snapshots on a Bike: Placing Vignettes in a Photo Album

New York City

There are three instances when New York City is close to silent: the minutes before dusk on a summer morning on Riverside Drive, after the late night crowd has gone to bed and before the street cleaners and garbage trucks begin their daily routine; the park during empty, rainy afternoons in late spring; and the two hours past sunset in December on the west end of the park under the surrounding lights from tall buildings.

The first instance of “almost” silence was early in the morning – when the sun was not quite down but not quite up – on a bike ride across the George Washington Bridge in late May.  The air smelled of wet pollen and asphalt, and it was in those early moments right before sunrise that I could hear birds.  Spending years in suburban Connecticut, I never realized what it would be like to no longer hear wheedelee’s and per-chik-or-ee’s in the morning, afternoons and early evenings.  But at 5:15 am in May, you can hear birds on Riverside Drive.

The second instance happened during the afternoon as I rode to Central Park for training.  The weather reporters had forecasted rain in the evening, but we were pleasantly surprised with a hard shower in the mid-afternoon.  As the park cleared, the rain replaced the sound of honk honk beeping traffic with the soft swoop swoop swishing of my own tires against the asphalt and heavy breathing through hill intervals.

The last instance of silence in New York City occurred as I went for another early evening bike ride in Central Park.  The park is surrounded by an arboretum that encloses the park driveways from the traffic heavy avenues filled with taxi cabs, pedestrians, and New York City life.  During evening when the park is closed to traffic, cyclists, triathletes, and runners emerge to fit in one last workout before a 9pm dinner.  In late winter, the number of athletes diminishes exponentially, and I can find an entire park drive to myself.  Riding in the cold, I look to the lit buildings around me for company.  They tower brightly and gallantly above and around the park, the red “CNN” sign flashing the abysmally low and dropping temperatures.  These giants seem to add a stark contrast to the silence of a park filled with frozen trees, hidden pathways, and reflecting lakes.  Those lit towers never fail to remind me of the excitement in my surroundings, the feeling that there is constantly something beyond me that I can only see from a distance.  In my own thoughts in the park, I am alone and yet reminded of company, a lucid yet far sensation that only further contrasts the beauty of the silence.

* * * * *

London

If someone asked me what my favorite part of London is, I would reply, “the roads”.  But that would be a lie, as it’s not really the roads in London but the roads leading to and from London that I’ve really grown an attachment for.  There is one road that comes to mind immediately – a very straight road leading from Bromley out to windier lanes further south.  It is residential, and in April, the streets are lined with pink and white flowering trees.  On my long rides back with the girls on Fridays and Sundays, I come into town feeling like a champion, rose petals tossed at my feet.

Only by foot or on bike can you really understand a road.  You shift to a harder gear when the road winds downwards; you shift to an easier gear when the road winds upwards.  The shifting, the responses of your own body, those are reactions to the reality beneath you, and for a quick moment, I find myself losing the tight-grip of self-control.  And I let the roads take me forward.

Like a chess player, if you know what the bends will be three steps ahead, you lose some freedom by the constraints of your knowledge.  The roads out in Kent or Surrey constantly remind me of being out in a corn maze.  The hedgerow keeps you from seeing exactly which intersection you’ll come across, or who you’ll meet around the bend (Hi, Mr. Van, Car, Horse, 10 other riders).  I ride these roads filled with gravel now like a pendulum swinging from side to side, my teammates being little blue dots that line up the map of where to go next.

I sometimes wonder when I am out there, what the horses must be thinking of us all as we laugh through the descents and swear through the climbs.

Once in a while, you meet a patch of smooth road out there.  Suddenly, it feels like a frictionless surface – like melt butter running across a table counter – and your legs move like you were meant to be attached to that bike.

I have gotten off the bike to walk up a hill in fear of being hit by the van coming down the hill (and taking over the entire 4-foot-wide lane).  I have hit my brakes so hard on a steep, stony descent I could smell the rubber (and done a near track-stand at 20% grade…downhill).  I have ridden straight into branches on a narrow left-hand turn.  I have waved to baby sheep in April.  I have come back to my apartment with a mouth full of mud.

I suspect in years to come when I am back out on the wide roads of America, it will be for these little lanes that I suddenly feel pangs of nostalgia.

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