Getting going is always a pain. You stumble out with your bike through the narrow train door, hurry back in for your bags, get out, close the door and before you turn around, the train is already on its way. The air outside is different and your dreamy, hazy mind can’t tell if it’s chilly because you’re sleepy or because it really is cold, what it’s going to be like riding, what kind of terrain awaits you, so you guesstimate how to dress. You hang your bags on the bike, set up the lights, camera and cycling computer, turn left and right for the 3rd time checking where the exit from the station is and push off…for about 20 metres or so, until you realise you haven’t put your hose clamp on. Then again after 50 metres, stopping to eat a few bites of the first of the sandwiches, to have something to go on for the next hour. And so you start again, only to realise shortly that your gloves are too thin, so you stop again to dig out warmer ones, to check once more the order of villages you plan to pass through, count the number of times the road will cross the train tracks before you take the shortcut you had in mind…it occurs to you it’d be a good idea to stop at a petrol station somewhere to check your tire pressure, but it’s no good: it’s pitch black, not even 5 AM, nothing will open for hours, the tyres’ll have to wait. Probably for the best, too: one less stop.
Nothing is quite right for the first hour or two. The seat’s a bit off to the right, the rear shock absorber squeaks every now and then, the rear dérailleur has things to say about shifting to the 3rd or 4th cog. The town, the street lights and civilisation altogether end and pitch black floods in way too quickly, making your heart skip a beat. Autumn is well on its way, the air is a generous, but still refrigerator-like 7-8°C, your body has yet to get up to working temperature, climbs and descents unpredictably warm and cool…getting into the rhythm takes a bit of patience. The Beach soundtrack and your front light define your whole world, while shadows of nearby bushes dance lively, either due to the steering wheel wiggling on the climb, or due to the speed of the descent. “The car coming towards me is flashing his lights to warn me that mine is blinding him or…? I’ll lower it a bit…” Fingers tingle from the chilly air by the end of the descent, the mind is focused on the road, direction and speed, it’s looking out for nasty cracks in the surface, puddles or fine gravel…
The sky is perfectly clear, but the Moon is not up so the night is as dark as they come. You’ve no clue how this country breathes at night. The bike is fairly silent so local wildlife might not hear it right away, it’s rather slow, so fleeing wouldn’t work and, of course, it provides no protection worth mentioning. You know that wolves and wild boars live in this part of the country, but you don’t know anything about how likely you are to run into one, especially at night, how much your lamp might help to chase them away or what else you might run into on the road. Since you can’t see more than 20 metres ahead, if you see something, it surely sees you. “Ah well”, you bite the bullet and push on: “lots of people ride all over the world at all times of day and night and you don’t hear them worrying about wildlife!” You focus on the music, speculate on how far away those lights on the horizon are, whether the road even leads there, which village it is… You glance at the rear view mirror occasionally, not to get too comfy on the road. Cars pass by at 60, 70 kph. You expected the road to belong to you, but apparently people are going somewhere at 5-6 AM, and since it was Friday night last night, you never know what state the driver might be in.
The whole thing is a little disconcerting and unpleasant, like climbing down a cliff for the first time, but inevitably you adjust and settle into things. You’re zipping up and unzipping your jacket to avoid overheating or freezing, guessing how long the climbs and descends are going to be, keeping an attentive eye on the road and the forest…you know from experience that the continuous tension will wear out and that you’ll relax, that you’ll enjoy the music without the wind howling around your headphones on the slow climbs, reward yourself with a glance at the perfect, starry sky and feel the satisfaction of entering the welcoming light of street lamps of the next sleepy village.
So, the first couple of hours everything bugs you, but after that, it’s zen all the way. Minutes and kilometres which previously took their sweet time become mere moments, hours and long stretches of the road taking their place. And when all the planets align and you have all the time in the world, all thought of worry dissolves and the scenery turns into a never ending gallery of nature and man. Views have time to sink in: hills rolling towards the horizon, crisply coloured by autumn and the early morning sun, a lone tree next to a ruin of a house, the expressions of cows looking towards you as they graze close to the road… Occasionally you turn the music off and let yourself fully experience the place you’re in: no glasses, no headphones, nothing remaining between you and the world, with the wind in your chest blocking you at 50-60 kph before it’s time to climb again. Level ground is a foreign concept in these parts.
It has now been several hours since you went on your way and your thighs are burning on the steepest stages of the climb, but if it’s any more difficult than the ones you climbed before, it’s so subtle you can’t tell, so you calmly push on. As the unknown cyclist once said, “for every 100 metres of elevation, count on 10 minutes longer”. Next to a sail boat, a bike is probably the best means to learn how humblingly powerful nature is, what a tiny spot on the side of a hill you are, but that – if you go to the pain of exploring what your heart, mind and limbs can do – you can still conquer mountains, be inland in the morning and on the Adriatic coast in the afternoon…you learn that you can go far away from the place you started in, much further than you thought possible, worlds beyond what others think possible or would consider doing.
And so the road winds around the side of a hill and your destination appears below, like it’s in the palm of your hand. And you know you’ve thought “woohoo, I’m here!” many times before, but that the bike is much slower than your glance so you relax again and think “patience, you’ll get there soon enough”. You’re still strong, so you play as you approach your destination, weave your way forward without checking the map, because it no longer matters if you take a wrong turn somewhere.
Finally, you arrive, dismount and your perspective changes immediately: the experience has come to its inevitable end, and that other, “plain” life that you left behind when you got on your way now comes gushing back in. The only subtle difference, invisible to everyone else, is that this new experience of yours is now carved deeply into your memory, the feeling of being alive.