Spinning the Cranks

Cycling through the natural world

A short, smooth stretch of what is otherwise a poorly paved road allowed me a break from watching for ruts and potholes. I biked under a clear, deep blue sky, and the trees wore the rich, darkening green of summer. Frantic cawing drew my eyes up to my right, and I saw three shining crows wheeling wildly through the air above a tree. Then I saw the raptor. It beat and spread its powerful wings, accelerating and slowing, rising and falling, squared off in a duel against the crows. I could not tell as I passed whether the crows were trying to force the raptor into the huge evergreen or working to chase the bigger bird away from it. I also couldn’t tell what sort of raptor it was, thanks to its frenetic dance with the crows and the glare of sunlight against its feathers as I rode by. Elijah would know, I mused, thinking about my nine-year-old son, who loves birds of prey above most things.

As I rode on, I thought about the fact that had I been in a car, I would have missed seeing the arial duel. I had heard that these things happened from time to time but had never seen for myself. And though I would not have known that I had missed anything if I had zipped by in a car — radio on, windows up and shutting out the world or down so that the roar of the wind drowned all other sound — I felt a pang of regret for all that I must miss as I drive.

Pausing on a dirt road ride / Joshua Kay

Pausing on a dirt road ride / Joshua Kay

Once, on a night ride with friends along the wonderful network of dirt roads just outside of town, we were spread side by side and chatting amiably under the moonlight when our voices were drowned out by spring peepers trilling in a wetland, unseen in the dark. We fell quiet, overwhelmed and mesmerized by the mighty sound of the tiny frogs. As we passed, I thought to myself, “This is why we ride our bikes out here at night.” A few minutes later, my friends took off on one of their traditional sprints to the next “stop ahead” sign. I didn’t join this one; I’m no sprinter, and I knew I would catch up to them anyway as they slowed and panted and laughed. Then we’d ride on together again under the moon and stars. I have driven that stretch of road in that season at night. From a car, I have never heard the singing of the frogs.

On Huron River Drive, which undulates and twists alongside its namesake northwest of town and provides our best road cycling, I can smell the river and wet stones, a mineral, almost metallic, smell. The tires are quiet on the pavement. If I’m going hard, then my mind is focused only on maintaining the effort and keeping my form. Pull up on the pedals, kick over the top, power through the downstroke, “scrape” the sole of your shoe through the bottom before pulling up again. Minimize upper body movement. Stay loose. When I’m spinning easy, my mind is calm with the rhythm of the pedaling: tick tick tick tick. Either way, I feel untroubled. In the breeze, hearing the sounds around me, breathing the air, inhaling the moist, earthy smells, and seeing the shining, wide river, I feel close to nature.

Riding along one stretch of the river road on a particularly mild, early spring day, I saw a broad cluster of purple crocuses tucked in the new, bright green grass in the roadside ditch. The violet beauties threw open their petals to the sun, their bright orange stamens glowing in the light. Had I not been on my bike, they would have remained hidden to me, a swath of beauty unseen in a ditch. I slowed to admire them. It was as if they were standing in formation and saluting all who would notice. Cars raced past.

Bikes are quiet. Riding the road, I sometimes inadvertently glide up to deer, and though they do depart when they finally notice me, it is with a nonchalance that suggests that they feel unthreatened. I have seen a cluster of wild turkeys skulking in the tall grass, lanky and lean and saurian, their sharp eyes glinting and scaly heads bobbing and twitching as I passed. There are wildflowers and weeping willows, small creeks flowing fast into the river, long-dead trees lying jagged and half-submerged, and just a small ribbon of road winding alongside. Riding on it, all of the sights and sounds and smells are accessible to me.

River roads are often beautiful. There is so much life along a reasonably well-preserved river, and the natural curves of the waterway and the roll of its surrounding land make for good riding. They make for good driving, too. There is a sign along our river road to notify drivers that it is a scenic route. Scenic though it is from a car, many of those drivers have no idea.