Joy on Skinny Tires
(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)It was August 1980, Oxford, Mississippi. My college roommate Scott was packing the pannier bags that attached to his bicycle to carry camping gear, preparing to leave the next day for a multiday ride down the Natchez Trace.There’s something about that time, when you’re planning, preparing, about to leave on a fun journey, that’s magical, full of excitement and potential. I was sucked in to the romance, the cool factor. I asked whether I could go with him if I could borrow a friend’s bike. Scott said sure.Scott, an experienced rider, had recently toured via bike to Florida. I, on the other hand, like most Americans, hadn’t rolled on two wheels since acquiring my driver’s license.Several memories stand out from that trip. Some are general, such as the heat: we drank a liter-plus of water with Gatorade every hour. Others are more specific, like the large pizza apiece that we scarfed at a Pizza Hut near the Trace for lunch one day. Or the eighteen-wheeler that ran us into a ditch near Jackson. Or my severe leg cramps after the first day. It was the first outdoor adventure of my life, and I reveled in it.Of all the fun things I am lucky enough to do outside, riding a bike on the road is the one I’ve done for the longest time. Unlike more hardcore cyclists, I’ve never continued to road-ride through the winter, opting instead for trail running or mountain biking. So when the weather warms, I have the gift of rediscovering just how much fun it is to hit the pavement with a lightweight, skinny-tired machine.When I ease out of my driveway and turn left to roll down the big hill toward downtown, the overwhelming feeling is of lightness. With no effort, the bike beneath me zips to 20 mph, then slows as I brake to cross the highway to the Mountain Goat Trail. The asphalt path is empty in front of me, so I can speed up, standing on the pedals and accelerating with a rush that is physical, aural, and mental.Rolling almost frictionless on the smooth pavement is freeing, exhilarating. I continue past the end of the trail and through the business area, and turn down Highway 41 at the Depot, heading down the mountain towards Pelham. A panoramic view of the valley below reveals itself as I follow a sweeping right turn. I lean into the curves, yielding to gravity and learning all over again to distinguish the roar of the wind through my helmet from the sound of cars coming from behind.The mountain delivers me down the final slope onto the straight, cruising on momentum to the first crossroad. Turning around, eyeing the dogs across the street who either don’t see me or don’t care, I pedal back the way I came, toward the base of the mountain.Shifting to an easier gear, I settle into a rhythm and slowly head up. When cars meet me heading down, I make sure to have a pleasant look on my face — no grimacing. Landmarks appear: the hairpin turn, the painted sign advertising handmade carvings. Eventually the VFW looms, and I push the pace toward the highway signs that mark the top of the climb in Monteagle.Cruising easily on the Mountain Goat toward home, I am thankful to Scott for that youthful cycling adventure, and all the joy on skinny tires that I’ve had since.