You’d think by now I’d know better, but it turns out when it comes to bikes and climbing, you never learn. You might get faster, but you never get smarter.
And so when John and I decided to take a day away from our keyboards and internet tethers, I naturally decided we should go ride the Figueroa Mountain Loop, one of the local climbing rides. I’d done it before, but John never had. I’ll admit it right now: It was all my idea.
I wanted to ride to where the world couldn’t reach me. That part was easy. It was getting home that was the hard part.
We packed the bikes in a rented Honda Accord. My secret superpower: packing bikes into rental cars. There was a parking spot in the shade, a sure sign of a lucky day. We changed in the parking lot. The tourists looked confused.
We rolled out at noon, pushed along by a screaming tailwind. We knew eventually we’d pay for that, but for now, we felt giddy like kids let out of school for the day. We were out for a bike ride. We were going to climb some hills. What could possibly go wrong with this?
There’s a deep, blue pool and a rope swing hangs over it. You can picture it in your mind. You can almost feel the cool relief of the clear water, as you and your best friend follow the overgrown trail, the tall grasses dry and bleached in the beating sun.
You’re hot. Uncomfortably, disgustingly hot. Sweat drips down the back of your shorts. Your drenched t-shirt clings. Your toes squelch in your shoes.
It’s an essential ritual of summer, this hike to the water. Maybe it’s a rock quarry or a high-altitude lake or a pond you pass by every day. Summer transforms them into magical escapes.
You head out to the trail with the annoying climb because there’s a perfect swimming spot on the way home. You travel three miles out of your way because there’s a hidden pond laying in wait in the trees. It becomes an all-consuming quest — always to be swimming, that’s all you want.
Your shoes send up dragon puffs of dust as you walk. You’re tired of the sun and the heat and the walking, but you’re tantalizingly close now. You glimpse the glimmering blue through the trees and imagine the fresh caress of the water on your skin.
A few years ago now, my friend Joe Parkin guest-edited Dirt Rag magazine, and he asked me to write a story for it. With Dirt Rag sadly gone and the story likely to disappear into my magazine pile forever before long, I decided to put it here for safekeeping.
This is a story about bikes and friends and recalcitrant trails, and the ways that our worlds collide in ways we never quite expect.
I have included Joe P’s original introduction, because it made me laugh at the time, and it still does. I reproduced this thing from my original file, so any errors belong to me. Don’t blame Joe. He’s totally innocent. The Oxford commas, for example, all mine.
My friend Jen See has a big brain—as in Ph.D. big. Despite that, she writes a lot of stuff about bikes. When she’s not writing about bike-related things, she surfs. A couple of years ago, she gave me a copy of Chas Smith’s Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell, which is a totally awesome read, by the way. [Jen: Heh, that’s where my copy went!] Recently, she went on a media trip that included a trail that I don’t like at all. She didn’t either. Mostly. Though she ended up finding something positive. I asked her to write a piece that felt like Chas Smith [Like I could really ever ghostwrite Chas!] but was still completely Jen See [That part, I can do, for better or worse]. I think she did it. —Joe Parkin
We’d driven out to the desert with mountain bikes and beers, the necessary ingredients for a weekend of trouble making. Up a muddy road, the campsite sat high on a mesa overlooking the torrid landscape of southern Utah. We pitched tents and pulled cactus thorns from our fingers. Clouds billowed overhead, promising a future storm. I didn’t like the look of that, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Sometimes I regret my life choices.
A deep cut for my cycling friends, this essay reviews Italian playwright Dino Buzzati’s account of the 1949 Giro d’Italia. It originally appeared as a front of the book piece in Paved Magazine, and it fit the offbeat vibe of the place. If you can by chance find a copy of Buzzati’s book, I highly recommend it. A lengthy review essay like this one is so thoroughly a print artefact, it feels out of place here on the internet. But why the hell not? Words, we can put them anywhere we want, really. Also, history is fun. Let’s make more of it.
In 1949, Corriere della Sera sent Dino Buzzati to write about the Giro d’Italia. His daily reports are collected and translated in The Giro D’Italia: Coppi versus Bartali at the 1919 Tour of Italy. A novelist and playwright, Buzzati had never before followed the race. The editors plainly gave him a free hand, because Buzzati did not cover cycling in any normal sense of the word. Read Buzzati’s dispatches in vain for talk of time gaps and race leaders. The stage winner is rarely the lede: This is no straight-up story about a bike race.
Instead, Buzzati’s daily reports read as a series of dreamy, stream of consciousness essays. He is the master of overwriting with a style so wrong, it’s eventually beautifully right. And through the surface chaos, a consistent set of themes become clear over the course of his twenty dispatches from the Giro. Buzzati meditates on what it means to be Italian at that particular moment in history. He dreams in classical mythology and finds ghosts among the ruins. A bike race runs through it all.
Buzzati’s cycling vacation came at the height of one of the sport’s great rivalries. In 1949 Fausto Coppi had twice won the Giro d’Italia while Gino Bartali had three victories in Italy’s grand tour. Legend has portrayed the two riders as stark opposites, a perspective reinforced by the dramatic race reports of the time. Like a photographer peering through a pinhole, cycling’s writers of the 1940s could see only pieces of the whole, so they filled in the gaps with their own inventions.
This story originally ran at The Toast about four years ago. A slightly different version ran in Adventure Journal Quarterly. What I love about it now, actually, is that some of the commentary about culture and gender seem almost out of date. Like ideas about women and sports and what we can and can’t do, that terrain is shifting fast. So I guess what I’m saying is maybe there’s a glimmer of hope in these things. Either way, I still like this story. It has a lot of bikes in it. And bikes are good.
I’m working in my kit again. I thought I could escape, but then the phone started nagging. So I sat down to answer it and to answer that other thing, and to edit that one thing and to make that other thing. Sitting still is hard. I just want to go ride. The internet is such a dick sometimes.
So here I sit, my padded shorts feeling like diapers in my cushioned office chair. On the bike, I don’t notice the padding. Off the bike, it shifts and bunches like an over-sized maxi-pad. Finally, I pull up the straps on my bibshorts and zip my jersey.
If you’ve never seen bibshorts, they look like shorts with suspenders attached. Before the time of lycra, cyclists wore wool shorts with actual suspenders. These days bibshorts are a weird, one-piece contraption, the parts sewn together painstakingly by women in a factory somewhere in Romania. The sewing process is not easy. The lycra is pieced together and the seams placed just so. No one wants a seam in the vagina.
I’m a Title IX girl. I swam in college, my team funded because the law required it. Eventually I got bored of chasing the pool’s black line and turned mountain bike racer. My friends and I used to say that women’s participation in sports was one of the last battlegrounds of feminism. We were more optimistic about feminism then, and in truth, about life.
The wheels thunk as I ride down the stairs to the sidewalk and shoot through the grass to the street. The bike doesn’t really stop. Somewhere between the emails and interview transcripts and editing corrections and can you just do this one thing, I need to adjust the brakes, but I haven’t gotten around to it. It adds excitement to the whole thing to ride a bike that doesn’t really stop. You just go faster.