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Working at CSU

The joy and pain of saddling up

May 7, 2009

What it's like to pedal to work 250 days per year - or more - though rain, snow, and wind, accompanied by turkey buzzards, red fox, coyotes, meteoric flashes in the sky, and thoughts of family and home.

by James Pritchett

A confession: I’m a grinder, not a greyhound. The greyhound bikers, muscles taut and sinewy beneath wicking fibers, are mounted on full-carbon frames that make their bikes float. They slip by me with flippant gait. Me, I crank down Rist Canyon road, roll south from the Grange, amble over Bingham Hill, north to the river, downstream to Lee Martinez and south to Colorado State. A blunt-force object.

I bike to work 250 days a year, and I’m not the only one. You can recognize us by our attire, layered against the elements, mended holes at the knees and elbows, smears of grease at the calves. Most grinders are well accessorized – headlamps illuminate the path ahead, blinking lights make us more visible, a milk crate balances on the rear rack to carry parcels. I’ve got a buddy who rides with a grass-skirted hula girl on his handlebars.

Slog through the bluster

All-weather cycling means slogging through rain, snow, heat, and wind – especially wind. Grinders greet each other on windy days, a grin on the face of the rider whose back is to the bluster, and muttered curses on the lips of the other heading down the storm.

We’ve all got our reasons. Getting in the saddle is one part joy and many parts addiction, so much so that, after forming the habit, riding becomes a need. There’s a twinkle in my heart as I head for the bike first thing in the morning and an easy sigh when saddling up in late afternoon. I get a little twitchy if I’m late getting to my bike. Miss a ride, and I’m a grouch.

I suppose I also like riding for clean skies. Riding my bike isn’t environmental activism, but there is satisfaction in knowing one less vehicle is on the road. I guesstimate saving 2/3 of a gallon of gas each day, and the accumulation is around 167 gallons a year – a bit more than 3,100 pounds of CO2 that doesn’t make it into the atmosphere – small relative to the total greenhouse gasses from commuting, but something I can do. And if a few more of us chose to ride rather than drive, well, then we’d all be less self conscious about wearing stretchy shorts. Or sporting scabs on the elbows. Snotcicles dangling from the nose.

Snotcicle theory

My two kids, Jake and Ellie, christened the frozen runoff that sometimes appears at the end of my nose. Snotcicles, they say, words tumbling and giggling from their primary school tongues. The kids and I decided that the length of a snotcicle is indirectly proportional to outside temperatures: The cooler it is, the longer they seem to grow.

Cold weather isn’t an enemy, but it does provide a certain amount of clarity. The air is crisp and clean, and the snow squeaks under the rubber treads of my tires. The derailleur balks when it’s frigid and black ice really is black; fortunately, road rash is muted by multiple layers. Real cold constricts. Frigid temperatures nip at ankles and clamp like a vice on toes. This year, a circle of frostbite, about the size of a silver dollar, erupted on my Adam’s apple, the result of a zipper pressed against skin. And cold weather really seems to kick in my metabolism, so much so that a furious hunger churns until I can eat like a wolf when I get home.

Inhale

Biking can be as much about my emotional metabolism as it is about physical need. My mom has Stage IV lung and bone cancer, a disease that has been with her for a long time but only diagnosed during the last year. Mom’s a fair bit tougher than I am, cheerfully taking chemo every three weeks and losing her hair but not her independence. I’ve needed to ride a lot during the past year, remembering the trips I’ve taken with her to chemo and biopsies and radiation and back to chemo. I ride to metabolize heavy emotions on the blacktop – these are emotions I can’t leave anywhere else.

The cancer made it to her brain just a few weeks ago. I need to metabolize now, to grind away at the rawness. I leave the office standing on the pedals, building momentum, cranking emotional turmoil into smaller chunks and grinding the smaller chunks into a fine dust cascading around my burning thighs and knotting calves and muscles twisting into a tight mass. Alone on the trail, I let go, so that I’m more honest with myself. The emotions well up and then spill over so that they flow down my cheeks and off the end of my nose and then it’s spent and I’m whole again.

Exhale

I ride for individual moments of being. I’m not sure that it’s true each and every time, but the very best rides have a signature – an elusive moment that resonates across time and distance. In the spring, I’ve watched turkey buzzards dry the morning dew from their feathers, perched on fenceposts, twisting in the dawn above irises blooming behind barbed wire. Once, I discovered a red fox baring her teeth around the neck of a twittering chicken. She measured my progress between her river’s den and the ditch, then she turned and trotted away with effortless strides, tail straightened, neck elongated. Another time, three coyotes, staggered one after the other, glided across frozen ponds, a peach sunset reflecting warm eddies on their fading prints.

And then a memory of the new moon, surrounded by the darkest pitch, and I’m meandering to the top of Bingham Hill after a long ride, a late night, only a last few miles. I’m stretching for the crest when a meteoric green flash tips the sky, filling it for an eye blink, and then descending to the foothills with an evaporating tail. Pleasant Valley unfolds beneath me as the bike rolls along the paved ribbon of road, caressing the surface, and I’m wrapped in infinity all the way home.


When Associate Professor James Pritchett is off his saddle, he teaches agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State. His current research focus is on water resources related to rural economies and households. 

This essay originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Colorado State Magazine.