Some rides and great moments of cycling are best left to an image. Cross riding brought me and friends out along this dock where a combination of weather, natural surroundings, random turns, and great company made for this shot. As you can see, we were not quite daring enough to take our bikes across the water, but I will say that the day felt so good that it almost seemed like we should have given it a try. We headed back to dirt trails just as the photo was being snapped. Emily Gresh
There are new roads and less traveled roads. When you return to your childhood hometown to raise your own child after living in an entirely different state and major city for almost a decade, the idea of new roads and less familiar roads would seem almost impossible. The roads here are not really new for me and yet every one is different now.
Among the friends that enjoy cycling with me, there is a common route that we often ride together. We ride out to the small town of Collinsville where there are empty and picturesque brick factory buildings from an era of axe production. On the way to Collinsville, we pass through Unionville–a trolly used to run out here from Hartford where bicycles were once manufactured and where insurance companies took a solid and lasting hold. To get from Unionville to Collinsville, we take a slight left off of Huckleberry Hill and on to New Road which heads down towards a river, the Farmington River, and then follows along there for awhile.
Just before the turn on to New Road is a large headstone with my family’s last name engraved upon it. This is where my grandparents are buried. My uncle’s ashes were spread near, and into, the river across the road and at the bottom of the hill. He died in his fifties of a brain tumor. The house that my father’s family abandoned because of a great flood many years ago is somewhere through the trees and on the opposite bank of the water’s edge. All of this at that junction of New Road and Huckleberry Hill.
These landmarks pass by in a matter of minutes as I am riding with friends or alone, chatting or just pedaling depending on the day or the hour. New Road was probably new sometime after that flood that destroyed my father’s childhood home over 50 years ago now. Yet I never knew of it and never had quite this clear path through my family’s history or a means of passing through it without feeling weighed down by all of it.
The bicycle offers one a different way of seeing things. Constantly. We all know that every ride is different, no second of pushing oneself forward on the bike can be repeated, just like time passing. Always new. Maybe familiar at times, but always new. The invention of the bicycle keeps a promise of inventiveness for me. Its history of changing life also has a promise of keeping life changing. The grave, the house flooded a long time ago, the old road that is marked as new, these are squarely at that intersection where I ride. But a new ride, and new road, await me everyday.
Yesterday, I rode along gravel and dirt, getting ready for an upcoming ride that will have some off road biking to it–the Deerfield Dirt Road Rondonee, affectionately known as D2R2. I went off of my usual biking paths, not the same trip out to Collinsville and back. These dirt roads were even less familiar than the regular roads I have taken around here, and as beautiful as the familiar ones. Perhaps even more so. Emily Gresh
Here is a story for you: Tom Simpson died at the age of 27 while racing in the Tour de France in 1967. Read just a tiny bit about him and you know that his story is about the body reaching its limits and him refusing to know them. The body does have limits. This is not news. We all know it. In old film footage, it is possible to see Simpson curving from one side of the road to the next, the crowd lining the street standing nearby, friends and medics rushing in. Finally, we see him fall and get a view of him being carried off by helicopter, out of his own internal chaos which was at full throttle with body giving out and mind going on, going on. The footage can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtAyGvZqiwk.
And have you heard of the ballet Giselle? It holds the romantic’s version of this scene: Giselle dies because she can’t keep herself from dancing, or loving, despite a weakened heart. She must dance, in the same way that Simpson was compelled to keep riding his bicycle almost 100 years later. Giselle falls in love, is then betrayed by her lover, making her dance even more. Villagers gather around as her body fails her. Just before her collapse, she wavers dramatically across the stage, no longer dancing but stumbling, believing otherwise–just like Simpson…only with Simpson there is the terror of reality, his falling while famously saying, “go on, go on.” With Giselle, there is a rising from the grave–she succeeds in saving her lover from eternal condemnation by dancing from midnight until dawn for a dark hearted fairy queen. The premise is just short of ridiculous. I say just short because we know that there is the unstoppable in each us.
To watch even a few moments of professional cycling is to know that here is the body pushed to its extreme, here is the body in partnership with a very efficient machine that is the bicycle, here is the body looking to match angles, aerodynamics, grams, rigidness and flexibility of frame. The cycling body is never an illusion. It bears weight and power, kilojoules, and every kind of measurement one can imagine these days. It is never rising out of the mist, never looking to appear as if it is not bearing weight. Unlike ballet, races are won by fractions of seconds, there is a clear winner (although splitting seconds is not always so clear), and there is always the threat of crashing. Results are posted, finishes are exact, great rivalries are not hidden, whether gentlemanly or ferocious. The sport at its most extreme levels is unparalleled, its reality literally speeding by us on display.
There is indisputably some of the same “go on, go on,” within ballet dancers, but a greater game of illusion. There is the same fire-playing with the limits of the body. But we can’t see very much about what it is to be a dancer, about what the dancer’s body lives, feels, breathes, weighs, thinks—there are no kilojoules and weight is a well kept secret despite its prominence as a topic of conversation, always around it but the precise numbers never really revealed. Here we have the body and not the machine–not the bicycle weight for a won-by-the-split-second time trial. Would it be different if dancers disclosed their weight readily before their seasons at respective theaters the way one can weigh a bicycle? Would the mystery of dancers fine tuning dissolve–a 5’6″ dancer would know definitively where she stood compared to her peers at one weight or another? Less easily unveiled is the impossibility of endless hours of class that are kept behind the scenes. Daily class can’t be as easily boiled down to a number or metric. It is simply difficult and challenging, everyday. We know about this ritual of class, but few ever really get a look at it or can actually comprehend that this is everyday life for a dancer. To do it takes a certain unstoppable-ness, the just short of ridiculous kind.
At the end of Giselle, the lover wakes by Giselle’s grave stone and it has been perhaps all a dream to him, except that Giselle is still dead. We wake everyday to our own limits, from the dream that we might be like Giselle or Simpson, unstoppable. Lest we forget, there is the jolting reality of one and the dream-like illusion of another to remind us. Emily Gresh
The Machine: I have watched the machine in so much detail for almost my entire life. All of its workings organized into a dancer’s body. This is years is in the making, as everyone knows. Becoming a ballet dancer is more repetition than is perhaps humanly possible because there is indeed something inhuman about being a ballet dancer or a musician or a true cyclist, especially today. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Faster, stronger, better. This repetition is accompanied by the slight distrust that comes from the fact that all of that repetition is subtly different everyday because the body has its variations from day to day, and one’s head is also not mechanized. We are first and foremost human and alive. Oddly in these endeavors, for those of us who pursue them, we are most alive and least mechanized in our thoughts and sensations when we are in the depths of them. Emily Gresh