Sweat, cows, and barking dogs.

Steam rose from the pavement, the short summer shower doing nothing to quell the intense heat in the air. I rode out of town, each pedal stroke pushing out bits of frustration and doubt that had been plaguing me for days. Every part of me was grateful to be on a bike—my legs felt strong, my head began to clear, and even the sweat that had begun to pour off of me as soon as I stepped outside was welcomed with open arms. Passing through a residential neighborhood, I exchanged smiles and a few words about the weather with an old man collecting his mail.

Then turning onto a familiar rural road, up and down the gently-rolling hills, passing places I’ve ridden through time and time again, watching them change with the maturing season. The trees were fully leafed-out now, a deep shade of summer green. The forested section of road ended, the game lands and wooded lots giving way to open farmland. I had picked out this route on the map, incorporating some of my favorite local roads with a lot of ground I hadn’t yet covered on two wheels. I planned a slightly-longer loop than my usual 20ish-mile/1.5-2-hour road rides, but there were plenty of opportunities for shortcuts, both a blessing and a curse.

As I powered my way up one hill after another, the sun beat down on me, cows lazily turned to stare, and dogs excitedly barked, some of them a little too aggressively for comfort. It was in my frantic pedaling away from one such canine who decided to run out into the road and chase me for a distance that I must have missed the turn I had decided I was going to take to start heading back to town. It was hot, and my stomach had been growling for nearly an hour. But somehow, I found myself at an intersection I had only planned to encounter if I took my original route. And so it was decided, I would be doing the longer ride after all.

More farms, more cows, more dogs. A few people sitting on their porches or working in their yards looked at me curiously as I passed. I turned onto a gravel road, and a school bus and several trucks passed by, throwing dust on me as I stopped to consult my map. The gravel continued for what, at times, seemed longer than it should, and I had a couple moments of, where the hell am I? But soon I was back on the pavement, and I recognized the road names as those that I was supposed to be on.

Up a long hill, and then I was flying back down the ridge, settling into the drop bars, winding past rock towers, the wind wicking the layer of sweat off my skin and cooling my body to a comfortable temperature. I crossed Rt. 26 into once-again-familiar territory, leaving the farmland and welcoming the return of shade. The stream crossing that a few days ago was less-than-inviting on a rather chilly evening ride was today something to be grateful for, a brief interlude in the intense heat. I stopped briefly to dunk my helmet and splash the cold water on my face.

When I got back on the bike, my entire body rebelled. We aren’t done yet? No, we aren’t done yet. The legs wanted to give up just in time for a long ascent, the longest of the ride. I pedaled and pedaled, legs burning, beginning to feel weak in the heat and with hunger. Every bend in the road seemed to promise the top of the hill, relief from the exertion, only to disappoint when I’d discover that I had to keep climbing.

Finally, somehow, I reached the top, and was rewarded for my effort with a long, winding downhill. Leaning my bike into every turn, feeling the wind in my face, all the pain and sweat and burning legs totally worth it. The ride ended sweetly, on one of my favorite roads, along the ridgetop, looking down into the valley below, seeing tiny cars moving along like ants, past farms and trees and miniature houses. One more descent from the ridge into town and I was back where I had begun 4 hours before, sweat dripping from every inch of my body, satisfied knowing that no matter what the rest of the day brings, I had done something worthwhile, as riding a bike always is.

Picture 3
32.65 miles of northern Huntingdon County back roads.

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