Give me a mountain. Give me 30 miles of steady grade. Give me 80 pounds of bicycle and gear moved pedal stroke by pedal stroke up thousands of feet of elevation. Give me the Cascades, the Rockies, the Ozarks, the Appalachians. The steep ascents and the switchbacks. Life on a bicycle is not without climbing, and if it is, that is barely living.
Don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of mountains. Or more accurately, I am no fan of climbing. I have love for mountains, both for the aesthetics of their often rugged wilderness as well as their usefulness as a metaphor. We all have mountains to climb, whether that is by bicycle or some other means, perhaps emotional. Different struggles but struggles nonetheless. Not a struggle: transversing those mountains by car. Even the logging truck burdened by its heavy load makes easy work of it. But where is the fun in that?
Somewhere along the road to Lolo Pass is a stop off marked only by simple signage. A climb up a narrow cliffside path, hauling the loaded 80-pound bicycle by your side, leads to a truly remarkable work of nature: a natural hotspring perched above the cool river running below. I bring this up only to say you might miss this stop at anything other than the speed of a cyclist saddled in for the climb. Here, too, there is a metaphor–somewhere–though don’t ask me what it is.
Then there is that unexpected joy of reaching a summit to find a snowy winter’s scene in the middle of June. The joy of sinking that beer you hauled up the side of this mountain into that snow to cool. The joy in every last drop as standing here between seasons, not accustomed to such heights or their effect on climate. You breath in deeply the thin, cool air. Your lungs burn. The physical sensation of the climb gives way to the euphoric rush of endorphins. In that moment you are the conqueror, the invincible.
After peak is crested the descent begins. Then the adrenaline rush that comes from moving at what feels like 100 miles-per-hour. You put all your faith on a tiny metal frame and hope the brakes don’t give out. Any miscalculation, any freak accident, means certain catastrophe. It is, in one word, exhilarating. And then the road levels off. You ride the high for a few more moments, but far too soon the grind begins again.
It would seem there are only two modes in cycle touring: climbing or not climbing. This may be why my mind is affixed on this idea, fascinated by the dichotomy. There is a life lesson there, perhaps so obvious as to seem cliche. There is a balance in all three phases of the mountain: the climb, the summit, the descent. Each without the others lacks a certain perspective, so we embrace them all. We hopefully remain ready for the next.