"If the human race has one common denominator, it is hatred of a headwind."
- John McPhee, Survival of the Bark Canoe
I went to Oregon for a much-needed break from the New England winter, to visit my brother in Eugene, and to ride my Firefly road bike in above-freezing temperatures. Also on the list in Portland was visiting Tony and Ira of Breadwinner Bicycles, stopping by Velo Cult bike shop and getting hazelnut milk lattes at Heart Coffee Roasters. My boyfriend, Dan came with me (with his bike, of course). Dan is much faster than me, but he's always there for a push if he sees me suffering on a climb. After packing, schlepping and surrendering our bike cases to the questionable care of the airline ("Don't worry. They're Titanium," Dan reassured me) waiting, more schlepping, rental car luggage Tetris and bike reassembly in my Uncle's garage outside of Portland, I was SO ready to ride.
Most of the rides in Oregon involved the rain in some respect, which tested the waterproof thresholds of my gear, and me. Vittoria had given me some prototype road tires that were grippy on slick roads without feeling slow on climbs. I was impressed. They turned out to be amazing, especially on the rainy, winding descents I have always associated with the Pacific Northwest.
But, for the one day with temperatures reaching 60F and no rain in the forecast, I wanted to ride somewhere gorgeous – out in the eastern hills along the gorge that separates Oregon from Washington, to Crown Point Vista House, then Multnomah Falls, and possibly up Larch Mountain, whose summit I was told might be closed due to snow. The ride would be around 65-77 miles, depending on Larch Mountain.
We had directions, a cue sheet and a description, but we had no idea that we would face the strongest headwind I had ever encountered. I later found out that the wind was recorded at 60 mph where we rode that day. The wind was insufferable, unbearable and infuriating. It demolished any sense of perceived strength. I will try not to be too hyperbolic but it did feel like riding through a tornado.
I thought about the Japanese Zen Buddhist term Gaman, which means 'to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,' generally translated as perseverance, but which felt so very far away at the moment.
The wind brought an air of gravity to the ride – any lightheartedness or loosening of grip on my bars inspired a fearful vision of getting blown into a ditch, or a nearby car, or being one low guard-rail way from going off a cliff. Even grinding hard on a significant descent was frustrating. It felt like someone was holding my feet to keep them from turning. After working hard (on this descent!) I looked down at my Garmin to see that I was only going around 14 mph. In the moment I wished I could put tape over the speed portion of my Garmin display, like I saw the Pros do sometimes. I thought about the Japanese Zen Buddhist term Gaman, which means 'to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,' generally translated as perseverance, but which felt so very far away at the moment.
What if I missed the turn I was looking for? What if we're going the wrong way? What if I actually cannot finish this ride? Have we seriously gone only 15 miles? The questions were multiplying and every store and café we passed appeared to be another opportunity to stop.
And then, at my moment of greatest doubt, the road turned away from the shopping centers and gas stations on to a shaded, curved descent was shielded from the wind. The left side of the road dropped down to reveal a mossy cliff with a bridge over a vividly blue river. Wow. This must be right.
The trees, my beloved protection from the wind, were clearing ahead as we turned onto Historic Columbia River Highway. I could hear the wind through the trees and braced myself for its impact. Crown Point Vista House seemed to be a good destination for a break – we kept seeing signs for it – 10 miles ahead, 8 miles, 5 miles – and I looked forward to the stunning views and public restrooms as promised by the roadside advertisements.
Finally, after a gorgeous stretch of waterfalls, rolling hills, grazing cows and moss-covered EVERYTHING, we came out of the protection of the mossy trees and into the Vista House parking lot. Immediately, the wind hit me like a wall. I had no choice but to get off of my bike and walk it, pushing it by the bars and trying to understand what was going on. Dan tried to carry his bike up the 5 small steps leading to the Vista House, but a gust of wind picked up and suddenly the bike was horizontal and three feet above and parallel the ground, while Dan held onto the frame with outstretched arms. I thought about all of those conversations we had of saving weight on our bikes and how useless those efforts were now.
Unfortunately, there was a sign in the Vista House door saying that it was closed due to high winds... of course. I looked inside the window and saw an exhibition display of the history of the Vista House as a refuge for weary travelers. Ironic.
After all this work, I still wanted to see the sights and get a few photos, so I ventured into the wind on foot around the Vista House. My cleats skittered across the pavement in the wind. I was clearly not in control here. I quickly snapped a few photos and got back to the bikes. If I didn't have sunglasses on, I was sure that the wind would have sucked the contacts right out off of my eyeballs. Somehow the sunglasses, held onto my helmet straps by magnets, didn't budge the entire time in the wind. I quietly said a thank you to Lazer and the mysterious forces of magnetism.
We were meant to go farther, but since we were chasing daylight, and it had already taken much longer than expected to get this far, we decided to head back. And, just when I thought I was giving up, I received the sweet reward earned by riding into the wind for so long: enjoying the tailwind. Suddenly my legs felt exponentially stronger. I suppose that my actual capability was somewhere between the weakness I felt in the wind's face and the strength I felt with the wind at my back. The annoyance I felt from having to cut the ride short fueled my legs to motor pace through the commercial streets that seem to be passing much faster than on the way out.
I signaled to stop at a Dairy Queen for a dose of sugar, a chocolate-dipped soft serve cone that was half a reward, half a much-needed break from the elements. I snuck our bikes inside the vestibule, worried that we might get in trouble for bringing bikes inside. It's hard to tell if members of the general public feel pity or enmity for cyclists in these situations. I hoped for pity, or at least nonchalance, and collapsed in a nearby booth so I could enjoy my ice cream and keep an eye on the bikes.
By the time we left it was getting colder, but there was a steep climb ahead to take care of that. The climb hurt, but it warmed me up and the wind was a welcome push on my back. We turned off of Stark Street, then Eastman Parkway, then onto the Springwater Corridor Bike Path, which had many miles of flat pavement through forests and fields. I stopped to take some photos with a snowy mountain in the distance, then got back to riding and flashed a smile. With a tailwind and no hills or traffic, I got out of the saddle to sprint and try to drop Dan. He seemed to get the hint pretty quickly, because I heard him get into a bigger gear and come up along my left side, pause for a second, then quickly pass me. The sun was getting low in the sky ahead of us, almost touching the top of the pines. I could only sit up, laugh, and have a sip of water before getting back to the chase.