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Thanks to some sort of large-scale meteorological confusion -- El Nino? La Nina? Global warming? -- December has switched places with October this year, temperatures hovering near sixty degrees for a solid two weeks after Thanksgiving. Daylight or not, I cannot resist the lure of a shirtsleeves ride in the twelfth month, borrowing a high-powered halogen lighting system from work and unbolting the Paramount from its prematurely-imposed sentence. At 8:00 on a Monday night, in the blue glow of an almost-new moon, I set out for home, completing just one more commute.
No delusions of grandeur tonight. While it was easy to play Greg Lemond on the glacier-graded plains of Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio, western Pennsylvania offers one punishing climb after another. What local riders call “flat” (like my commute) matches the geography of a “hilly” ride back home, with multiple climbs that match or exceed Moonlight Bay. The wide yellow beam of my headlight rocks as I shift down, stand, and struggle. I learn quickly that a night ride offers no perspective, no view of the world beyond my headlight; I toil like Sisyphus in a small yellow oval, trying to reach a point somewhere out there in the dark.
The bike shifts under my body, rolling over the unseen crest, picking up speed as I drop back into the saddle. My hands on the brake levers fill the periphery of the headlight, fingers casting terrifying shadows on the edges of the road, poking into my line of sight with each shift. Speed increases. I hurry through the gears, snapping the shifters to keep up with the terrain. My oval of light proves worthless at this speed; obstacles pass through it before I can respond. I know, having taken this route daily through the fall, that the road breaks sharply to my left at the bottom of the hill, but I can only guess where that bottom may be.
A white mailbox zips past, flashing briefly along the edge of the road. My body remembers it as the breaking point of the curve, although my mind has never consciously mapped this landmark. Too late for brakes, I press the bike down, leaning, hoping the tires will stick. Physical memories play: the slide of a rear wheel, the splintering crack of helmet on pavement, the metallic warmth of blood in my mouth. My mind illuminates the blackness along the outside edge of the curve, the deep ditch which would catch the bike, the dense weave of trees my body would come to rest against. On this isolated road, I could lay bloody, broken, and unconscious for hours. For an instant, I see myself. I am not Greg Lemond. I am not an exuberant child, leaping into my grandfather’s garden. I am not sixteen, laughing at a broken helmet. I am here, terrified, feeling nothing but the blood rushing through my fragile body.