My favorite ride of the year.

I barely squeaked in my January road ride, finishing just hours before the end of my monthly window. In contrast, my February ride was safely tucked under my belt mid-way through the first eligible Saturday. And as luck would have it, it turned out to be my favorite ride of the year. I know, as only my second ride of the year, saying it’s my favorite seems extravagant and superfluous. But of the two, it really is my favorite, and by a mile. It could still hold the illustrious place after I finish my third road ride. Maybe it won’t even budge until summer.

The night before my favorite ride of the year the weather reports were calling for 12-degree Celsius temperatures. Not that uncommon in Calgary in February, considering our Chinooks, but the fanciful weather people also had the audacity to claim that these lovely temperatures would come without the expected and due winds. Skeptical though I was, I set my alarm clock for 7:00 and laid out all my gear.

My alarm sounded the next morning, my iPod playing “Sleeping In” by the Postal Service on cue (ironically, it’s my favorite song to wake to), and I rolled out of bed bushy-tailed, but not at all bright-eyed. It was still dark. I probably could have predicted that would be the case, but somehow I had missed it in my excited ride preparations.

Given the lack of light, and my lack of desire to ride in the lack of light, I took my time getting ready. As the sun finally started to rise around 8:00, I looked outside at the sky and trees to find the weather conditions seemingly as predicted: clear and still. Of course, it was early, and no amount of anticipation about the day’s high temperature would change that it was still below freezing for the moment, so I dressed in as many layers as I thought appropriate. Then, with due credence to past lessons learned, I added one more, a safety layer.

A ride leaving my house can start with a small gentle downhill, or a small but unsympathetic uphill. The uphill probably wouldn’t be that bad if I was ever warmed up, but tired and stiff with cold, it is unkind indeed; a characteristic apparently further amplified when it is my second outdoor ride of the year.

Within two minutes of mounting my bike my heart rate was at 180 bpm. Had I pedaled any slower up that hill my bike would have fallen over, so there was nothing I could do about it. I’m pretty sure that kind of warm-up is not encouraged by any medical professional anywhere.

It was early enough that the remainder of my ride out-of-town was pleasant and quiet, the lone exception being the gauntlet of Tim Horton’s drive thru-ers weaving through a very generously sized parking lot and still seeing the need to extend out onto the road. But after that it was smooth pedaling out into the country.

The sun was bright, and I followed my shadow, extended long before me. I find the rhythm of pedalling legs cast in shadows absolutely hypnotic, and I can get lost in it for kilometres.

Through the Bearspaw Golf Course, I popped out onto Highway 1 and headed towards Cochrane. I was grateful for the surprising lack of gravel on the shoulders, but the wind that was not supposed to be only the night before, was clearly coming to be. My heart rate stepped up as my speed dropped off.

I will take a hill over a heavy headwind any day. I started to get grumpy.

I’m not a competitive rider, but I still always want the year of riding ahead to be the best possible. And from what I’ve heard, it is wise to start the year with lots of low intensity riding to build a solid foundation for harder rides to come. Unfortunately, there was one very breezy problem with that plan. It was blowing so hard that I was struggling to maintain 18 kph, but my heart rate was still hovering around 180, only a few beats away from my maximum. I stopped to catch my breath and was reminded of the nice February weather, the quiet road and the scenery around me, thoughts of which had been buffeted from my mind.

A long morning shadow on a quiet road

Beautiful scenery when you remember to stop and appreciate it

The divided highway soon ended, and I was spit out onto the old two-laner, where traffic is a little more nervousing. The road shifted because of the construction of the two new lanes to the south, and the shoulder I was riding in became a shoulderless turning lane, necessitating a series of quick shoulder checks.

I looked longingly over at the new lanes only a few metres away. They were completely devoid of any traffic with construction apparently shut down for the winter. I was so busy wishing I could ride on that new blacktop, that it took me another couple of kilometres to clue in to the fact that I could. Forest for the trees.

At the next opportunity I crossed the lanes of traffic, road through the barriers onto the new unopened road, and entered my own little cycling paradise. Brand new, unpainted, car-less, smooth, virgin, blacktop. All to myself. I took a picture and then rode right down the middle of the road with a little smile. What wind?

Two lanes all to myself. Beautiful.

Despite the headwind and my tiring legs, I enjoyed the rest of the ride to Cochrane immensely. I felt like a rebellious kid playing hookie from school; running wild and free through a giant playground while all the other kids were trapped in Social Studies and Math.

Reaching Cochrane, and the end of the construction, I got back on the open road and coasted down through GlenEagles. Turning around to climb back up I could not believe the effect the wind had on me. Although not terribly steep, that hill is still a grunt for me under normal circumstances, but that day I felt like I was on a T-bar at the ski hill, being pulled along with only minimal effort to keep myself upright and pointed in the right direction.

At the top of the climb I turned back onto the closed section of highway, pedaled lightly a few times, and then coasted for a full 600 metres on nearly flat ground, barely losing any speed along the way. I would have told you it was 2 kilometres, but I consulted my Garmin. Those are the facts, Jack!

When I did decide to pedal I was easily carrying speeds over 40 kph on the downward sloping false flat, topping out at over 60 kph. It was easy and smooth, fast and exhilarating. And not having cars whooshing by two feet away from me, I could really punch in. What a rush.

With the wind now at my back, the abandoned blacktop paradise became a veritable February cycling nirvana.

Naturally, I was sad when that section of the road came to an end, but the rest of the ride on the open roads was still pretty fast, at almost twice the speed as when I travelled in the opposite direction, and a whole lot more fun. Looking back, I’m glad I had my shadow to chase on the way out, because I certainly didn’t need it on the trip home.

Now, reflecting back on that ride, I realise that it was not just the glee of riding with the wind at my back that makes this my favorite ride of the year, but also the hard work it took to earn it. One rarely comes without the other, but it’s certainly best when they come in that order!

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