Gettin’ Squirrelly

Tonight, I met up with members of one of my cycling clubs for a great ride. I’ve been riding out of the same location on Thursday nights since last summer, and I’ve really been enjoying it — the only difference this week is that I was riding out with a slightly-faster group than usual. It was suggested to me recently that I bump up to the next-faster pace group, rather than continuing to ride off the front of the group I’ve been with since last summer.

(I try to moderate my pace and stick with/behind the ride leader; sometimes I’m better at it than other times. And it makes sense for me to move up, both to challenge myself personally, and to stop creating headaches for the ride leader of my regular group. Sometimes, when one rider goes off the front, they pull other riders with them, and it’s easy for the leader to lose track of who is where. And if you’re riding off the front, it’s easy to miss turns because you can’t hear the leader. We are often riding without cue sheets — ie, printed directions — on Thursday nights, and the ride leaders know the area like the back of their hands.)

So tonight I rolled out with the faster group, and we had a great time. Was it easy? Nope. Was I off the back? A little bit, especially by the end. But I don’t consider myself “dropped” unless I lose sight of the group, and I was never that drastically far back.

What we had was a great ride on an August evening of incredibly un-August-like weather. I think our high temperature for the day was somewhere in the high 70’s; I was home most of the day today, and had the doors and windows open for the fresh air. It was wonderful. We had a low chance of rain (the weather app for my town said 8% chance of precipitation; for the area of the bike ride, it bumped up to 10%), so I didn’t worry too much about that.

About 8 minutes into our ride, that little chance of rain became 100% cold downpour. It was blinding and made the fun, winding, rolling hills that we start out on a little less fun. Descending on tight curves on wet roads is a little nerve-wracking when you aren’t used to those conditions!

Our ride leader announced we were hitting a local hill known as “Squirrel Hill”, and we all groaned. Seriously?! In this weather? (This is where I admit that I had never climbed Squirrel Hill before, but I’d always heard about it from other riders, and it sounded like it was a hard climb). All I knew is that I’d been counseled by others to get into my granny gear before I even turn onto the road — and man, am I glad I listened. It’s a sharp, almost blind right turn, and you really can’t build up any kind of speed before turning. The beginning of the hill is the steepest portion, and it’s definitely a challenge. But it gradually gets less steep — and overall, the climb wasn’t nearly as long as I’d been led to expect. I think I did pretty well on it, and I felt good afterward. Even better, we’d left the rain behind — the roads were still wet, but at least we didn’t have cold, driving rain in our faces as we climbed.We continued to zig and zag our way through the countryside; sometimes briefly dashing through more gentle rain showers. At one point, we made our way along the edge of the some of the camping grounds for the Philadelphia Folk Fest (which is, of course, not all that close to Philadelphia — unless you’re from Pittsburgh, in which case, I guess it’s pretty darn close to Philadelphia, comparatively). One of the things I love about cycling: seeing completely different roads in areas I’m already familiar with. Growing up and learning to drive in the area, I just knew which roads to avoid so I could stay away from the Folk Fest traffic — but I have never been to the Folk Fest itself. Now I kind of wish I was going this year!

The sun came out, making the roads steam. For a brief moment, the sun was out and it was still raining, and the meadows on either side of the road had mist and sun drifting across them, and it was magical. We came down a hill and across a bridge over a branch of the Perkiomen Creek, and the sun reflecting off the water on the road dazzled my eyes with gold. It was enough to make me forget that my toes were cold and my wet chamois felt uncomfortably bulky and diaper-like.

I think my most memorable rides all have some combination of exhilaration and discomfort — whether it’s my muscles trying to convince me they can’t climb anymore, or the heat and humidity of a more typical Pennsylvania summer laying on my back like a blanket as I chug along, or the new and odd sensation of a completely-soaked cycling kit feeling like it’s crawling up my body — these are always offset by things like the joy of the ride itself, or the fun of riding with friends, or the adrenaline rush of screaming descents, the pride of reaching new heights (literally and figuratively) or topping prior efforts. Or even just the simple experience of seeing the countryside from a different point of a view, and at a different pace — a pace that, even when I’m pushing myself, still lets me marvel at the beauty around me.