Alameda, etc., September 29


Bike rides are piling up faster than I can write about them.

I remember this dilemma from writing: every experience has so many facets. How do you choose the most salient ones, and lavish your energy on them and not the others?

What were those thoughts you were having on your bike?, you ask yourself. They were so vivid, so urgent, so pure.

Yesterday we took a 70-mile ride with the GPC. The first 50 miles were a group ride in Alameda, and the last 20 were the two of us returning home via Redwood, north and west over the hill and back to Berkeley. The ostensible purpose of this adventure, and of last weekend’s long ride, was to see whether I’m ready to really consider something tempting but crazy—to ride in the San Francisco Randonneurs’ Winters 200k next weekend. The distance is almost certainly too long for me. I haven’t ridden 100 miles yet, 70 is a challenge, and 126 would probably be just foolhardy. Yet I am infected with Randonneur-itis, an infection all the more powerful because I don’t fully understand the reasons for it yet. This brevet would be the last of their events I would be able to do until the season starts up again next year. I’m told the course is pretty flat.

Today, my legs are sore. Yesterday, I felt exhausted by the end of the ride. Too exhausted to go home by the steeper, longer route of Pinehurst. I bonked a little in the last segment, and while I want to blame it on Sports Drink Fail (we mixed too much sports drink powder into our water in Castro Valley, resulting in something that tasted like bilge and felt more dehydrating than the opposite), I think a good part of the truth is that I was simply exhausted.

Maybe 70-ish miles is just my upper reach right now. Or maybe, with smarter nutrition and hydration, on an easier course, I’d be amazed what kind of mileage I can make happen. I’m going to think about it for a day or two.

The ride yesterday took us through the Southern Alameda hills, from the Fremont BART station, up a famously aggravating hill called Calaveras, through about 15 miles of beautiful rolling hills to the west of the Calaveras Reservoir, through the tiny town of Sunol, and up a long (but, for whatever reason, satisfying to me that day*) hill called Palomares.

Then our little group—two men and six women, a highly unusual ratio for a group ride in my experience, and very welcome for a change—discovered that the pizza joint where we’d been planning to eat lunch after our 50-mile excursion had closed for good. We found a Mexican restaurant instead, a cavernous place where they let us sit on their patio and keep an eye on our herd of bikes through the wrought-iron fence.

One thing I’m secretly fond of about these rides is the strip malls in which they often start and end up. They remind me of the place where I grew up. To my surprise (in my family, “strip mall” was an epithet, a symbol for everything we were against and did not value), the echo that they offer of home and of childhood is comforting. The Ross Dress For Lesses and the Trader Joes, the chain coffee stores and the occasional ethnic restaurant or cafe trying its best to create something unique in these aseptic spaces. I spent years trotting after my mom in shopping centers like these, dawdling, daydreaming, fondling products, checking myself out in striated plate glass windows. Maybe they make me feel protected and prepared. I know how to interact with a strip mall.

Yet I never have interacted with a strip mall quite like this. The closest thing I have in memory is a time in late middle school or early high school when I did a lot of walking around my county. I could not drive yet, and it began to please me to walk where other people didn’t. To walk distances more typically driven and to places usually only accessed by car. I liked going to thrift stores back then and, for some reason, health food stores, the kind of weird, carob-scented, family-run, eerily quiet health food stores that have now mostly been subsumed (I think) by Whole Foods and by Big Organic in general. I remember the strange joy of, after miles on foot, walking over the grassy berm of some shopping center, and across its parking lot, on my way to poke at soy ice cream sandwiches and sniff Rachel Perry lip gloss, reveling in this feeling of being at once very present to myself and also nearly invisible by the lights of the world. A pedestrian, absurdly young, by myself, pale and quiet, I didn’t count.

Riding into the shopping center on bicycles, tired and sweaty, like the cavalry, is a similar feeling rendered into a major key. It places us in a type of ideal relation to the mall, one where we get to participate earnestly the comforts of the place, but feel removed from and superior to it at the same time. We are together, a band of Indians on appaloosas, a band of cowboys shading our eyes for a view to the valley below. We take the speed bumps more smoothly than the cars do, pull up in front of our destination the picture of unencumberedness: no locks, no handbags, nothing but smelly polyester pockets full of nuts and raisins and soggy but still legal tender. We enter the coffee shop, our cleats click-clicking on the tile like spurs, the air conditioning congealing salt slicks on our skin, inappropriately dressed but demanding service anyway.

We throw into contrast everything that’s around us. Or at least that is the fantasy that presents itself to the chemical-flushed brain. We are a rolling advertisement, for something—for rethinking the givens of everyday suburban weekend life, for fitness, for an end to the car culture, for hijacking the asphalt landscape to new purposes, for tribalism, for ourselves. Stopping for refreshments in the mall, we feel the pleasure that anyone does who uses a mass-produced object in a manner inconsistent with its labeling. It’s the small, gonzo, taking-something-back rush of jailbreaking the phone, of hacking the software. It is a minor and, in the scheme of things, totally insignificant transgression—if indeed it is a transgression at all. People stream around us on their way to Petco and The Vitamin Closet. They do not care. But sipping our coffee from paper cups, squinting across the parking lot and thinking about the miles behind and the miles ahead, with the animal warmth of our group around us, we feel, for a moment, creative and powerful, as if another world is possible, as if we’ve touched the skein of a different way of life, invisible and overlaid on top of this one. As if we could pierce our way through to it.

– – – – –

*Actually, I have a pretty good theory as to why the climb up Palomares, and indeed the whole first 50 miles of the ride, was so satisfying. Riding with more women means not riding dead last or next to last. While I’m not as interested, or so I tell myself, in riding fast as I am in riding a long way, I have to say that my limited experiences of coming in among the first half of the pack or even close to the front are very, very good for morale. I breezed (ha! It was not a breeze) up Calaveras third of our eight, behind Jesse and a woman who is an elite marathoner. On Palomares, I was fourth (Jesse, elite runner, and the woman who led the ride). I beat the other man on the ride, by a little bit. “I beat.” It feels strange and a little bit filthy to be using these words, but here I am. I beat that guy, and I loved it.

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