March 22, 2004

Each Unforgiving Minute

By Richard Bulkeley © 2004

The relationship between speed and freedom is never more obvious than when going downhill on a mountain bike. Even the ride to work was enjoyable for a few moments. Trouble can’t travel much faster than the speed-limit, so I was pedalling hard on the flat before the hill. As the road began to drop away, I stood up and shifted my weight backwards. Squatting over the back wheel with my arms extended, I was keeping my weight back and my posture loose like a cat.

This hill was my favourite part of the ride to work. The road got progressively steeper as it swept to the left then switched into a short right hand curve and flattened out. Then it whipped back into a sharp left-hander. Everything after that was gravy – a gentle downhill straight, and then a nice medium right before the next uphill.

I was grinning as I gently leant to the left. Even though it was a still day, the air was beating against my face, the sun was shining, and the gentle vibration of the bike forced me into a good mood.

I might be suffering through summer in a minimum wage dishwashing job with an asshole boss and idiot co-workers while my friends were off climbing. I might have just had a big screaming match with a girlfriend I didn’t love any more. I might have decided that another year at university really wasn’t anything to look forward to. But I was going at 50 kilometres an hour so for the next minute so I didn’t have to think about it.

I’m not much good at normal meditation, but I’ve found that by cheating I can attain fleeting moments of calm. Riding a bike, or climbing, requires total concentration. Unfortunately, it’s only with the assistance of adrenaline that I am able to focus myself away from my problems. I’m definitely no Zen master. The problem with using risk to relax is that with every visit, the edge of the envelope gets further away.

The bike was like an extension of myself as I leant gently to the left. I was near the middle of the lane and already thinking through the line I needed to take for the hard left. It would be the same line I’d taken dozens of times before. But just like on a climb, I needed to be in the right place to make the crux move.

A familiar feeling built in me as I straightened up. The brief right hand curve could almost be ignored. My world was the few meters of asphalt in front of me. I moved forward, getting back on the seat by feel and memory. It’s amazing how little thinking you can do when you’re busy not thinking.

I claim I’m not a risk junkie, but at moments like these, if I could think, I’d probably disagree. Whenever my fingers stretched out towards the brake handles, I knew I didn’t need them to keep control, but it was habit. Some idiot in a car (and when you’re on a bike, all car drivers are idiots until proven otherwise) might decide to pull out of the side street.

I fixed my eyes on the point in the road I’d decided was the start of my line. As it rushed towards me, I leaned over, holding the bike as upright as I could. Then it was time, and I let bike follow me into the turn. I felt the G force pulling me as I swung round into the turn. If riding a bike was like sex, although I’m really not sure how it could be except for getting all sweaty, then the apex was the moment of orgasm. Some of my blood drained from my head, my muscles tensed, and I had a stupid smile on my face. Sure, the reasons were different, but my metaphor wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

I was just beginning to come out of the turn when I hit the cats-eye. The small reflective road-marking gave me a noticeable bump. The bike wobbled violently, and I had to straighten up. Momentum carried me outwards, into the other lane. I looked up, and confirmed my worst fear. A car was coming towards me. A rational thought flashed through my mind, absurd because of its relevance.

“Our combined velocity is approximately 100 kilometres an hour.”

Out of reflex, I squeezed the brakes and my wheels locked up. I fought the wild instability of the skid for as long as I could. I looked up and saw the oncoming car. I hoped it was braking, but even so, I was running out of road. I let go of the brakes for a moment, enough to regain a semblance of control.

Everyone has heard stories about how in moments of crisis the brain starts operating at warp speed. Supposedly, in moments of danger, your life flashes before your eyes. Well, I’m quite thankful that my life didn’t flash before my eyes, I had better things to do than relive past stupidity. My present stupidity was quite enough to absorb my attention.

I squeezed the brakes again and committed to the pavement. On some level, I knew I was going to lose it. There just wasn’t anywhere for me to go. I skidded over a driveway and aimed at a patch of grass.

This was going to hurt.

I turned as much as I could, hoping to skirt the grass for a moment or two and burn off some more speed. Nope. My front wheel ran straight onto the grass and suffered a sudden loss of front wheel speed resulting in a catastrophic alteration in vertical alignment. In other words, I went over the handlebars.

This was really going to hurt.

I landed hard on my shoulders and bounced once before coming to a stop. A sudden burst of white light blinded me. Whenever you take a heavy blow to the head, pain interferes with the optic nerves. Or something. A moment later, the ache hit me, right in the middle of my forehead.

I opened my eyes and the sky was blue and a long way away. Wispy white clouds danced in the sunshine. I was lying on grass that prickled gently against the back of my neck. I got up, checked the bike, shook my head and rode off.

It wasn’t a life-changing moment. It wasn’t even a minor epiphany. I didn’t think of any new clichés to describe why I did it. It wasn’t even a particularly serious accident (I would have a bike accident a few months later that would result in memory loss and hospitalisation). It was just the price of peace.

An hour later, I had a nagging headache, a dent in my helmet, and a secret glow in my eyes. I had looked in to the eyes of eternity (admittedly from a long way back) and for a precious moment I managed not to blink.

Richard Bulkeley is gentleman scholar from Auckland, New Zealand.

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