Contours and Hills

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.    – Ernest Hemingway

During office hours one day,  one of my students dropped by unexpectedly and asked if I would help him with an interview assignment for one of his classes.  It was his environmental science class and the interview questions asked about my job and hobbies and how they contributed to my awareness of environmental issues and appreciation of the physical world around me.

I hadn’t consciously thought about those concepts, but once the discussion began, a flood of realizations and ideas came to mind.  Music, racquetball, karate, and fencing, a few of my long-time hobbies, are indoor activities and didn’t provide much firepower for answering his questions.  Cycling, on the other hand, opened the floodgates of ideas and insights.

Until cycling became a regular part of my life, I had never paid much attention to wind speeds and directions–except when trying to avoid waves and choppy water while kayaking and canoeing on open lakes.  I hadn’t fully realized that winds come from the south in this part of Texas during the summer and bounce back and forth between south and north the rest of the year.  Winds from the east are rather uncommon, but winds from the west, southwest, and northwest are not unusual at different times of the year.

I learned that there is a reason why our part of Texas is one of the largest wind energy producing areas in the country.  Those windmill farms to the west and northeast of Abilene are always producing energy because the wind is always blowing here.  I’ve also learned that cycling early in the morning or before sunset are usually the best times to avoid the strongest winds.  When winds are strong, it is best to ride with the wind and have someone meet you at the end to drive you home.  Beginning and ending a ride from the same spot means that you’re cycling into the wind at some point in the ride.  Similar to canoeing or kayaking on a river, be sure to ride against the “current” at the start so that the trip home is enjoyable (and possible).  My cycling route is often dictated by the direction and strength of the wind–and has on more than one occasion kept me home and inside to wait for a calmer day.

Becoming a cyclist has also made me more aware of the changing of the seasons and when the sun rises and sets.  Sneaking in a morning ride before church or heading to school can only happen in the late Spring through the start of a new school year.  Afternoon rides must start by 4:30 p.m. in the cold months to get 15 miles before it becomes too dark.  Morning rides in the summer should start before 9 a.m. to avoid excessively hot conditions.

I’ve learned the proper clothing to wear while cycling based on the temperatures outside.  Ear protection and full-fingered gloves are needed once the temperatures dip into the mid- and lower-50s.  That is also the threshold for cycling tights and socks (I ride with SPD pedals and Nashbar Ragster II Cycling Sandals).  The balaclava and warmest cycling jacket come out when the temperatures are in the 30s or colder.  My lightweight cycling jacket, combined with 1-2 underlayers are comfortable when the temperatures range between 40 and 60.  A  long sleeve cycling jersey is comfortable, perhaps with an underlayer, with temperatures fall in the 60s and 70s.

Cycling has made me aware of the contours of the land and changes in elevation.  The land around the Texas Gulf Coast is flat as well as much of the farming land in the Panhandle.  West Texas is rugged and beautiful and East Texas is full of trees and lakes.  The Hill Country was properly named and the Llano Estacado is a cool and pretty strange thing–and more fun to come off than ride onto.  Rivers tend to have long downhills and long uphills on both sides of them.  I’ve learned that uphills are never too bad if you choose the right gear and have patience.  There are canyons in the Panhandle and the Great Plains states are rolling and wide open.

We learned to closely watch weather forecasts for rain and severe storms riding in the summer.  The Moore, Oklahoma tornado struck on our penultimate day of BRAT1 when we were cycling in East Texas.  Tornadoes struck towns in Oklahoma that we had just cycled through on the previous day while on BRATS4.  The biggest downpour we encountered on any ride occurred in the final 9.3 miles of BRATS4 in Minnesota.  Once the line of storms blew over us and out into Lake Superior, we were able to finish the final leg of our 1,830-mile ride.  We also learned that high temperatures along the Lake Superior shore in Minnesota might only make it into the 40s on days in June.

We saw many of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, witnessed beach erosion at Surfside before and after hurricane waves battered the shore, cycled through cotton on the side of the roadways in the Texas Panhandle that was so thick that it looked like snow had fallen and was waiting to melt, rode through the Sand Hills of South Dakota, and caused stampedes of yearling cattle herds from Mexico to Canada.

Until those interview questions, I had not thoroughly assessed or appreciated how cycling has put me in touch with the rhythms of nature.  At the conclusion of the interview, I was grateful for having gone through the thought experiment.  I’m not sure if my student was as grateful for choosing me as his interview subject–he filled up his notebook with my answers and at one point, eventually stopped taking notes.



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