Sunday, May 15, 2022

The weather was all somewhere else

With summer-like weather predicted, this was a good week to live without the car while it got some long-overdue service. As of last Tuesday, the days looked increasingly warm, and free of rain, through Saturday.

Naturally this didn't hold up.

I never know for sure how long it will take my mechanic to finish servicing the car. Sometimes he turns it right around within a day or two. Other times I have to get along for close to a week, depending on how busy he is with other jobs, and what complications he finds with mine. I am unusually well situated to live without a motor vehicle in the milder seasons with longer daylight, because I have been stubbornly focused on it at the expense of some other things. Most people order their lives differently.

On Tuesday I made the long ride home from Gilford after dropping the car at his shop. The least worst bike route goes through Wolfeboro, so I often split the trip around a work day on one end or the other. This works best for the pickup after it's fixed, although it means the longer segment with almost 1,000 feet of climbing after a full day at work. There are also unavoidable narrow sections of road. These include the two worst climbs. The 1,000 feet is distributed over quite a few hills, but the one out of South Wolfeboro is the longest and steepest, with basically no shoulder. On the other side of the lake, in the section I call "White-knuckle Shores," Route 11 runs right along the edge of the lake. After Ames Farm, the road climbs one last grunter.

Wednesday was warm and dry. I felt pretty good after the 43 miles on Tuesday. I carried everything I might need in case I got the call to head over to Gilford after work, but the call never came. Same for Thursday, only even warmer and nicer. By Friday, the commutes were starting to wear me down a bit on their own, without the extra distance and hills. Later on Friday evening he called. So Saturday was the day.

Saturday shop hours start an hour earlier, but end a half-hour earlier right now. So add short sleep to the challenges facing an aging idiot flogging himself across miles of New Hampshire hills. And the forecast had gotten interesting: 20-30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. Thunderstorms could produce gusty winds and small hail. The high temperature had been at or near 90 F by mid afternoon, and hadn't dropped much by the time I set out with complex cloud formations arranging themselves around the sky.

The route out of town starts with a long grind up South Main Street, on a narrow, busy road. Traffic speeds aren't too bad, since the road goes right past the police station, but drivers are getting impatient because they've already had to endure the congestion of the town center, no matter where they entered it. By the time they're heading out South Main Street they've had all they can take.

From the crest of South Main Street by the high school, you lose almost all of what you laboriously gained, on a slightly shorter, slightly steeper descent to the corner of Middleton Road, and the fun 90-degree bend into more descending to the bottom of the wall I call Alpe de Suez, for the restaurant East of Suez near the top of it.

The route goes southeast, then southwest, then south, before heading generally northwest along the lake for about 15 miles. As my direction changed, the aspect of the sky also changed. Hills and tree cover also limit the sky view. One window might show a dark mass of slaty gray, followed minutes later by a light overcast. Once over the Alpe de Suez, the road widens to a 55-mph highway with full-width shoulders. While the elbow room is nice, it can be more of a grind to do your best next to motor vehicles effortlessly ripping by at 60. It's a relief to exit onto Chestnut Cove Road for a few minutes respite from the stress of passing motorists.

The weather radar had showed blobs of convective action blossoming all around the area, rather than a well-defined front. I hadn't had time to study it for long enough to discern an overall direction to the storm cells. I had no choice in any case. I'd brought an extra vest in case the rain found me. I hoped not to need it.

Once the route turns the bottom of Alton Bay and heads up along the southern shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, long views are more frequent. And at that point the wind was mostly in my favor. But would it push the storms out of my way? At each overlook I could see the deep blue-gray clouds trailing curtains of rain, occasionally lit by pink-white flashes of lightning. Beneath them, the mountains showed as dark silhouettes, Thunder followed across miles of open space. Was it from the distant storms, or from one closer, and threatening, obscured by the overhanging trees and rising hills on my left? The air was still comfortably warm, and the sky above me only cloudy. All the drama and discomfort was far away, happening to someone else, like a war in another country, or oppression of a minority that you're not part of. Those storms seem to be someone else's problem, too, until you realize that the winds can change and put you in the path of trouble.

My mileage for the week is laughable: 174 miles over five days. The longest was 43 miles, followed by three days of 30-mile commuting days, ending with 41 miles to fetch the car. Setting aside that I'm 65 years old, with multiple stressors in my life, I wonder if the rides would take less out of me if the routes themselves were more serene. They're not as bad as in really built-up urban and suburban hells, but traffic is traffic. It always carries emotional weight. However, bike-only routes are almost never designed to support the full speed potential of habitual cyclists trying to cover distance on a schedule. If the choice is a 12 mph plod on a path versus a higher average on a shared route with motor vehicles, I still tend to take the road that allows me to push it where I can. Coming down the Alpe de Suez northbound into Wolfeboro, I routinely hit 40-45 mph on the descent. I exceed 35 mph on the descents on every commute.

Full-size streets let me come off of a motor vehicle draft at 25 mph and lay into a corner to carry momentum into a side street that climbs slightly. Toddling into an intersection like that at 12 mph would give me nothing going into the grade. But would I miss it if I wasn't also having to manage motorists? Every ride is a race in places where a rider needs a bit of snap to hold a place where oblivious or malevolent drivers might clot things up by pushing past when they should wait.

I have no idea why I can still chase cars as strongly as I do. It's certainly not as strongly as I used to. But in my weakened state it's even more important to be able to take advantage of every benefit that gravity and wind will bestow. These are benefits that every rider should have access to. A path built for the maximum possible number of riders will be the size of a real road, to accommodate the potential numbers of riders and their full range of potential speeds. Or we figure out how to accommodate pedalers on the transportation routes we already have in place, while minimizing the conflicts with motorized users to increase cyclist safety.

Almost no one passed me in a very unsafe or threatening manner on my ride. Incidents have become quite rare in what most people think of as bike season. The problem for sensitive riders is that a bad crash can come at any moment when motor vehicles are around. Decades of trouble-free riding count for nothing at the moment of impact. This knowledge rides along with everyone who still pedals on the road we all own. It adds at least an extra gear's worth of fatigue in upper body tension, and heightened vigilance.