What Dad Said
It’s twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit and sunny when I saddle the racing bike at 3:30. Moments earlier I spoke to a competitive cyclist, now in off-season, who’d spent the last hour and a half on an indoor trainer and was surprised I was heading out.
It’s January. I’ve ridden in cold weather. This is western Massachusetts. Today’s sky is clear and inviting. I dress in a favorite Swedish bike shirt and the warmest base layer, a pair of winter tights, and the best bike shoe cover booties I own to help keep the feet toasty. I consider socks under the booties and over the blue bike shoes but decide, no, I’ll be fine.And yet, I haven’t been on the bike in days because of the flu and a cold. A stuffy nose and sluggishness cling to me like two spellbound lovers. I’m sixty years old.
The test meter reads 251, two hours after lunch, my blood sugar high from pasta and chicken and a slice of whole-grain bread. The high number is a lingering effect of the cold and flu which can raise blood sugars. I was diagnosed with Type I, “juvenile” diabetes as a spindly fifteen-year-old. While a normal blood sugar hovers at 90, mine will drop 100 points in a tough hour on the bike. I’ll likely be out longer. Doctors counsel exercise to housebreak my nasty disease. The elevated sugar may be a gift. I can execute the Connecticut River flats faster and with less bother if I don’t have to pause to eat or drink.
I’m wrong in this case, though it will be more than an hour before this discovery
There’s ice and snow on the edges of the street, and black ice as I cross a patch where water runs off from the park. I slow, spooked by a trailing car, worried I’ll take a dive under its wheels. And there’s wind, but from what direction I can’t tell. The massive hemlock trees shift its path.
I feel the body strain despite an easy gear, good legs and lungs only a memory from last summer. I’m another aging athlete unwilling to surrender the pleasures of the body, a gift from a dad who supposed strenuous physicality grounded the soul and announced who you were. Crippled as a young boy by polio and burdened with a shriveled leg to the end, Dad would say with regularity, “Life is hard. Don’t let it beat you.” When I was diagnosed, a study said a diabetic would live on average for twenty-five years after diagnosis.
Sudden holes appear in the road, another car threatens from behind, more ice, and no safe place to go. Then tarred patches, a road crew’s fixes against the battering of the cold. I’ll crash. Drivers will say, “That bicycle guy gambles. Fool should stay home!” Snow creeps in from the edge and claims more and more of the path. I venture into the car lane and no one honks. Yet what can I hear through this skull cap and helmet?
I ride with a heartrate in the 140’s as the heart pushes for oxygen. I hurt. After minutes I’m in the 150’s, a tad below the threshold where legs burn for real. I turn into the north at eighteen or nineteen miles per hour and the wind whips my face. I should have worn the wool balaclava instead of the cap. I thought I needed less coverage. My head gets hot even in frigid weather.
At eleven miles, I pass a closed school and the richest of farm fields asleep under snow. No need to reverse for home now. I’ll do the full twenty-seven-mile loop without stops, despite the warmth and chocolate-covered raisins at the farm market that cry for me as I whoosh by and aim south, wind at my tail.
I hit twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two mph as the pedals spin in harder gears. I overtake defunct tobacco barns and shy homes, flashes of brown and pastel and cream, splashed against the green/yellow/black of occasional conifers. Minutes flood by, how many I don’t know, bike wheels whirring a rallying hum. I can’t sustain this speed for long and finally ease back. Mustn’t wither before the end; finishing’s the goal, not sprinting. Get to the finish.
The wind. I don’t check flags. I don’t need to get a fix on how strong or exactly from where it blows. I like what it’s doing: pushing me faster than I’ve gone in months. I slip out to the car lane, the edge snow taking up room again. No cars or trucks, luckily, none in this direction, a few in the opposite. I worry what the bike does on these narrow tires if I have to pull suddenly off to let a vehicle pass. Once again, no good place to land.
The road clears⸺no snow and ice⸻and once more I hit twenty-two mph. This is decent for an untuned body. Heartrate monitor reads 153, which will be the highest reading for the day. Whole trip will average 141. Same trip in summer, heartrate hung in the low 130’s. Today, there’s more pain with the breathing.
The temperature falls and late afternoon descends into darkness. Keep going, no stops for food or drink. Keep spinning these pedal circles, though I sense I’m losing easy range of motion. The legs tighten and burn because they’re not used to this, a loop we did ferociously last summer. How long before I cramp? Serious biking means grinding. I have to keep turning the wheels.
Don’t let it beat you. Never let up.
I near the single hill on the route and remember a book’s advice to stay on the seat in early season; it builds leg strength. I shift to an easier gear. Can’t be sure which one. First signs of brain fog, the blood sugar dropping. I reach for the juice water bottle and try to open the top with my teeth. It resists. I work it and ease on the pedals, maybe down to sixteen mph. Did this at twenty to twenty-two in summer. Can’t budge the top, hadn’t expected the apple juice to freeze. Haven’t ridden this far at this temperature in a while. Too much spinning indoors.
A Power Bar in that zippered rear pocket, impossible to grab. Headlights, commuter traffic, it’s the hour, cars pouring from the University of Massachusetts. Keep going. Don’t stop. It’s the cold. I’ll tighten up if I stop.
Dad: You live like you do because you know you’re going to die.
I’ll make Mister Donut. Two, three miles. I’ll get eats.
Aaahh, I forgot money. Gorge on the Power Bar there for the carbohydrate.
Pedal. Mister Donut. Get to Mister Donut.
Except, which road? Do I turn or stay on this? Brain’s shutting down more: blood sugar. Remember that humungous apple fritter last summer? That raised the blood sugar. Get me one of those. What am I thinking? I have no money. Pedal. Just pedal. Body can’t hold up forever like this.
I careen into the Mr. Donut parking lot. Clock says 5:00, still light. December was dark at 4:30. I wobble on the spiked bike shoes, balance bad, and set the Cannondale bike before Donut’s front glass door, then grab the juice bottle and head for the warmth. Open it inside.
There, I lean against a mammoth trash can for support and don’t remove glasses or helmet or gloves. Need the juice. With muscle I manage to twist off the plastic bottle’s top. I find ice.
Except for a tiny hole a gloved finger probes.
Customers stare and munch. To them, I’m a guy in tights, weird goggles, and an alien-looking helmet. Either they’re worried about me in this cold, or I’m a nutjob.
I wonder about me too.
I retreat to the foyer between the two sets of glass doors to the outside. Can’t bear the customers’ looks. No, I’m not buying anything, I almost said, just trying to get my good sense back.
Heat’s on high in here in the foyer. I poke into the bottle again. Ice has to melt. I sip and fumble for the rear pocket; fingers so numb, can’t be sure I’m clutching a zipper. Got something.
Power Bar, vanilla. I tear the wrapper. I’m as feral as a panther. Is that good? Don’t need the whole bar, though how I think this I can’t say. I bite. It’s a rock. I teeth the bar back and forth, hoping for a piece before a tooth breaks. I chomp a chunk.
Got to get home. Side to side I sway. Like a drunk. How long have I been at the Donut? I float. Time vanishes with a blood sugar in the deep. Got to get home. It’s black out now except for lights from cars and the stores⸺Cumberland Farms, Gibbs gas.
I mount the bike and snap into the pedals. Brain hazy still. I have only the slightest sense of where I am, even if I’ve been here hundreds of times. Ice on the road, cars on the left and behind. I can’t think or I’ll be too afraid for this leg. Is it four miles?
Life’s hard. Don’t let it beat you. Stand and be counted.
To avoid traffic, I aim for the bike trail that parallels the road. More ice. And flashing lights where a cop sits at the entrance to a second route around the traffic. He ignores me and I squeeze past. This empty way is lovely for a mile, with no lights and little wind.
I return too soon to the main road to travel over Calvin Coolidge Bridge. Traffic’s still dense. I slip behind a pickup. He stops. No room. I clamp the brakes. Can anyone see me? Pickup surges. I pedal. He stops. Car behind doesn’t honk. Driver may sense me defenseless, the road ragged and potholed, a sharp wind, ice at the bridge’s edge. He passes when I finally find room for the bike on the shoulder.
At the top of the bridge incline, I breeze down.
The town’s close and I’m cold. Sit up, hands on the upper bars, relax, relax and pedal. Be patient. We’ll get there. Move. Barely can turn pedals. Quads, calves, shoulders hurt. Lungs burn.
In the center of town, I want to shortcut through Smith College. I don’t. Can’t think straight even after Power Bar and the pulls on juice. At a stoplight, I don’t wait. I turn right and go left up a hill to another light. I’m on our street. Speedometer says eighteen, all I can work. Home isn’t far.
I leave the bike in the shed and lurch toward the front door. English Setter, Gatsby, jumps and licks me for the sweat. He won’t stop. I slump in a chair at the kitchen table to remove the helmet, no feeling in fingers. I ask Martha, my wife, who’s storming nearby with a vacuum, for help. She hesitates, and spots my condition. She unclasps the helmet.
I lean down to remove the booties. I can’t do this either. She laughs. I’m too numb. I ask her again.
“I’m your maid, curly boy,” she chortles, then peels off the booties slow, with ease, one cold foot at a time.
I laugh. She’s grinning.
“Thank God I’ve found a maid.”
I strip for the shower where an index finger goes wild red while others are stark white. Digits burn, toes and fingers. I moan with the pain.
I remember a ride on a bike years ago during a freeze. Hair wet from an indoor swimming pool and only short miles to reach home. I frostbit my ears on that ride. I rolled in bed and clutched them, tears streaming over my face.
The pain tonight isn’t as bad.
I’m alive with the day’s ride. I grunted, I drooled, I almost cramped. I snuffled and snorted. I wheeled. I flew. At the best moments, I danced on the pedals. All to stand more firmly in an earthy unbowed soul. Is this really true? Dad would approve: Stand tall. Be about something. Let them know you were here.
Temperature tomorrow at noon, weatherperson says, will be ten degrees. Martha and I will take Gatsby for an early walk. Predicted temperature at sunrise: minus two.
Kent Jacobson has been a college teacher, foundation executive, and documentary filmmaker. Bicycling in the Dark, a book-length work in progress, describes racing a bicycle, his adored mother in decline. Shorter nonfiction appears in The Dewdrop, Hobart, Sport Literate, Talking Writing, Bull, and elsewhere. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife, landscape architect Martha Lyon.