Meet the Heat

I entered this post in the My Ride Writing Contest at Austin on Two Wheels, and was named the winning entry for Week 9.

When I discuss my commute, the first two questions are invariably “How far do you ride?” to which I respond “One-point-six miles each way, if Google is to be believed,”  and “Do you ride during the summer, too?” Last year, my answer was “As long as I can bear it.” As it turned out, I managed to pedal my heat-averse, AC-lovin’ self home from work all through last summer. This year the answer is “Yep, and it’s not so bad as you’d think!”

Sunk into the earth about as deep as my chest, a small parking garage is where my ride home from work begins. The access ramp at its rear provides a fun end to my morning ride as well as a sprightly start to the homeward trek. When I’m reasonably certain that nobody’s about to pull out anywhere between the bike rack and the exit, I sprint from the front of the garage to the ramp, suddenly popping up onto the quiet lane like a penguin onto an ice floe. The hot August air instantly envelops me, an electric blanket left on too long, which I immediately fling off with a few standing strokes, catching the green light up and out of the depression in which my office sits, and across the four lanes of Burnet Rd. The line of cars on the far side of the intersection yields several drivers who take note of the large white and yellow clad rider who they blame for costing them a few climate-controlled and musically-enhanced seconds while the left-turning commuters at the head of the line politely awaited my crossing.

Coasting to a stop, then hanging a left, I hear something wholly unexpected. In the summer, in a car, in Texas, the windows stay up. Precious coolness must be preserved to keep the wicked sun at bay, and the steel and glass form a bulwark against such loss. They also block out the street scene, which can be a good thing when avoiding the panhandler at the stoplight , but also prevents entertaining chance encounters. The fellow on the bus stop bench is calling to me,”Hey, do you know what time it is?” I let up on my pedals, taken back a bit, unused to be being conversed with from the sidewalk while using the road. “A quarter of six,” I call back as I ride away.

A bicycle operator is more tightly integrated with the sneaker operators than an automobile operator is. Pedestrians rarely address drivers or passengers, as that is an invasion of their enclosed space, rudely interrupting the activities in those small (and not so small) homes on wheels. A conversation between sidewalk and motorcar must be brief, as the car must be on its way, lest it block traffic with its size, and requires the rider or driver (who is on the side farthest from the sidewalk, and therefore even harder to address) to make the affirmative act of opening a window to speak and hear clearly. The bicycle is, of course, slower, so it need not come to a halt to exchange words; and if it did, it’s small enough for others  to navigate around, or even to be taken off the road entirely for a moment. The cyclist’s ears are not impeded by glass or great distance from a pedestrian’s voice, making casual speech much easier, and so more likely to occur.

Soon, the first great challenge of my homeward commute rose before me. I gathered speed and rushed down into the creekbottom, pausing once to absorb the shock of the cement seam on the small bridge, then pedaling furiously before pausing a second time to absorb the shock of scarred and broken pavement before the train tracks, followed swiftly by the tracks themselves, and then the rough patch beyond them. I had bled a good deal of speed at that point, but presently faced an incline up a hill that feels steep even in a car. I don’t get far in third, falling back to second gear while I glance in my rear-view mirror to see one car, then another slow for the tracks, then begin to climb up behind me. One by one, they pass me; some calmly, some with a roar of acceleration meant to make up for time lost looking at my butt and blinking red taillight. I reach the top of Mt Crumpit (not its real name) moving at a crawl. I have several dozen yards to recover before the next hill.

I’ve lived in this area on and off for the better part of the last decade. When I moved into my first post-college apartment on Stonehollow Dr, there was an old sign near the intersection of Gracy Farms Ln and the MoPac frontage road for a development that never got off the ground called Hobby Horse Estates. I ride on the very brief Hobby Horse Ct twice a day; since Mangia and Tacodeli now occupy the site of the old sign, this street is now the only remnant of that ‘80s real estate plan gone bust.

About halfway between the crest of Mt Crumpit and Stonehollow Dr is another old sign, this one affixed to a stout but stunted oak. NO DUMPING reads the rusting plank of steel, which goes on to threaten a fine. The funny thing is that it sits in the fenced-in corner of a regularly mowed lawn of a corporate campus, which seems an unlikely place for someone to decide to discard a broken washing machine. It’s a trace of the past, generally invisible to motorized commuters, from when the Gracys’ farm was not so distant a memory and Gracy Farms Ln was host to far fewer sari-clad Indian ladies taking evening strolls.

Each day coming home, I make a choice, and almost every time, I choose the same. Rather than power up a second steep incline to Metric Blvd, I take a somewhat longer, but more gently sloped route along Stonehollow’s southern half, enjoying the near-total solitude that comes from slowly pedaling through a quiet business park. By far the most difficult part of my daily ride, even in 95-degree heat my gradual ascent still provides enough breeze to keep me cool and focused on the road and the slowly building burn in my calves and thighs. At the top of that long hill, I speed up a bit, but soon come to rest at my favorite stop sign while traffic roars by.

After what seems like forever, I find a gap in traffic, and after a pause in the median pass-through, I cruise up the Metric Blvd bike lane and into my neighborhood. I dismount in my driveway and unbuckle my helmet. It’s only now, without my self-generated near-constant dry breeze, that I feel a trickle of sweat in the fading heat of the scorching day. There’s just enough time for a refreshing shower before dinner.

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