Friday, August 21, 2009

three point zero two times ten to the exponent eight meters per second.

physics was one of my favorite subjects in high school. the two teachers who brought the subject to the masses were very different, and each uniquely gifted at making the stuff utterly fascinating. there's also something beautiful about sub-micro and super-macro analysis and quantification and theorization about things that are otherwise unconsidered. (ever thought about the mathematical conundrum that distance is never closed to actual zero (you never actually get anywhere), or that most of everything we are and touch is made of empty space? mindblowing, really.) one thing that confounded and fascinated me was quantum physics, and one of the things i (think) i remember from it was that at the speed of light, time stops. 

there is an event where i grew up called The Hilly Hundred, and it's a century ride that tours the back roads of rough pavement and merciless climbs. the climbs really are 'just hills', but they lend themselves to suffering, and the views are spectacular. this, coupled with the propensity to cover gravel and bad pavement amidst unpredictable fall weather, would be a heyday for rapha.

i love riding these roads, and i took the opportunity the other day to preview some of the route. i nearly puked. one recommendation i can offer: do not fuel your body pre-ride with pancake and maple syrup rolled into one sticky wrap of gut-wrenching pain. no good. also: drink more than coffee. i was lucky, as neither the pancake nor the coffee were revisited during my ascent of the first climb, but the day was sticky hot and the road wound up, and i had only been riding for four and a half minutes.

hills defy physics. climbing, regardless of how fast or how fit or how good or bad i feel, always reduces the pace of seconds and minutes. pedal strokes, however numerous, are not mirrored by whirling clock hands. effort seems to be suspended, pain held in perpetuity, as time oozes and my body labors on. it seems, at the speed of old-man-going-up-hill-on-fancy-bike, time stops. upon finally reaching the crest of the first climb, i looked at my computer with marked disappointment to see that i had been riding for a mere fourteen minutes. i won't even mention the miniscule distance i had covered in that time. time stopped. the hill stood silently. and i emerged at the summit, questioning my resolve. of course, there's nothing like a long, windy, sun-dappled descent to recover one's resolve. 

that descent gave way to another climb, though nothing epic or rapha-esque, and i powered up past bulldozers and pick-up trucks, on to another green-leafed and pine-scented descent. this continued for miles, until time had caught up to itself and it was time to turn around. a couple of miles of gravel, a detour, and some harrowing passes by loaded dump trucks, and i found myself retracing the route, getting ever closer to the first climb, where physics would again reign supreme.

the fastest i've ever gone on a bicycle is 56 miles per hour, down the famed letterkenny road 'killer hill', on a mountain bike with knobby tires, one damp april in high school. the first climb of my tuesday ride, where the hill defied physics and time stopped because i was going so agonizingly slowly, was featured in last year's Hilly Hundred when a group of cyclists misread the first turn, and careened into a ditch and a field at high speed, requiring air evacuation and various emergency medical measures. they are not 'from around here'. i took that first turn at 25 miles per hour, and sprinted out of it to maintain speed across the hill, then pound through the rough pavement that would bring me to the top of the steepest section. in the big ring, i rode close to the fading center line, avoiding potholes and flying past the speed limit sign that distinctly read: "50 km/h Max". 

as i passed the speed limit sign, i stood up one last time and hammered down on my pedals, before sitting down into a tuck with my hands in the drops and my chin hovering above my stem. 

and then, time stopped.

the wind in my ears. the lack of tearing in my eyes. the unrecognizable blurs of my surroundings. all culminated to a deafening white noise, and then i found silence. i glanced at my computer as i approached the bottom of the hill. 54.6 miles per hour. i tried to hoot and holler, but i had no voice. the wind rushed in and took my breath. i waited, then laughed as the hill twisted around and leveled off. time started again. i started pedaling again, and everything seemed slow.

it's dangerous to go fast on open roads and thin tires and light bikes in the middle of nowhere. one could fall, one could crash into a pick-up truck or a deer. but every now and again, it's important to get outside of the everyday, gain a little perspective, and then go back refreshed. it's probably more dangerous to go slow on safe courses with nothing to give us goosebumps or perspective. 

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