In Praise of the Solo Ride
By Robert Annis
It’s a chilly spring day as I clip into my Speedplays and head out east toward the still-rising sun and a light wind.
They say no problem is so great it can’t be made better, if for only a little while, by a bike ride. Group rides have their time and place, but sometimes you need solitude, to replace the small talk about that morning’s Tour stage with an internal monologue, the buzzing of dozens of carbon hubs replaced by the lone squeak of your bottom bracket. The solo ride is whatever you need at the time; some problems you can solve, others you just try to ride away from for a bit.
Within minutes, cornfields, farmhouses and gravel-strewn roads replace dollar stores, strip malls and bustling city streets. Nearing the dilapidated ranch house on County Road North 700 West, I instinctively shift gears, knowing the black lab will be waiting to race me a couple hundred yards to the end of his fence. The scene plays out as it always has in the past, with him trotting back to the sanctuary of his front porch and me enjoying the tiny victory against a worthy opponent. His muzzle’s grown a bit whiter over the years we’ve done this race, but so has mine. We’re both slowing; time is outracing us both.
My mother died in January. It was a long time coming, but the end is always unexpected. We spent days in the hospital by her bedside and the sterile waiting room, hoping for signs of a recovery that would never come. It was an unseasonably warm North Carolina winter, and as we spent the next few days planning her funeral, surrounded by family members I’d never met or didn’t remember well, all I wanted was my bike and a chance to escape, even for just a short while.
The roads out my front door are old friends I’ve gotten to know all too well over the years. The pothole-strewn pavement on 600 North is full of jagged cracks that are nearly as bad as the hill on Florida Road before it was repaved earlier this summer.
On Fall Creek Road heading into Pendleton, I pass the prairie-style house I’m semi-obsessed with and imagine the life my wife and I would have there, assuming we could afford the mortgage.
The daydream keeps my mind occupied as I pedal over the bumpy chip-and-seal road past the state prison farm. It’s July, but the cornstalks are already chin high. As I ride by, I keep my eyes peeled for shadowy figures in orange jumpsuits lurking between the rows, but the only movement in the corn is from the wind, which is picking up steam.
Twenty miles into the ride, I spy a tattered American flag atop a pole rapidly flap in the growling wind and adjust my route, purposely turning into the massive headwind that nearly stops me dead in my tracks. I shift into my easiest gear, but pushing the pedals down remains a massive effort. Enough thinking. It’s time just to survive.
Miles seemingly stretch on for hours, as I battle the wind. Any chaotic thoughts or grief I feel is pushed to the back of my mind, replaced by survival mantras. Push down, pull up. Keep spinning. My body screams at me to stop the torture, but I continue. This will make me strong.
After 40 minutes of exquisite torture, it’s finally time to head back. My thoughts shift again as my chain slips onto the big ring, my cyclocomputer registering nearly 30 mph, but the darkness stays away – there’s only the joy of going really fast on a bicycle. My legs are a flesh-and-blood metronome, ticking away at more than 100 revolutions a minute. When the pistons are firing in perfect sync, your mind has no choice but to follow.
Too soon, I’m pedaling up my driveway, slightly out of breath from the effort. My breathing might be labored, but my mind no longer is.