I find myself less and less interested in professional road cycling as the years go by, with the seemingly endless episodes of drug cheating, but the drama of it can still be compelling if I watch some footage. Thinking back to the first times I saw professionals riding in the flesh, some twenty five years ago, I still remember how unbelievable their speed seemed to be, especially on hills that I had struggled up myself, like Ditchling Beacon outside Brighton where the Tour de France passed through one sunny day in 1994. Apart from the ability to be so close to the action, I think the appeal of watching races is from knowing yourself how much effort it takes, how a particular section of road feels.
More than running or walking, I find body memory an intrinsic part of riding a bike. I can distinctly remember sitting in sesshin at Tassajara and allowing my mind to relive the contours of roads outside London, up in the north downs, the narrow lanes of Kent and Sussex, or the wild roads that lie between Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor when I was visiting my father in Cornwall. I only rode seriously for six years before I moved to California, but I can still recapture the feelings of certain stretches of road fifteen years on.
Now that I am starting to string a few rides together without interruption, I am back on territory I know well from my ten years of riding in San Francisco; there are not so many route choices in Marin, but many of them are marvelous. This past weekend I tried my hand at climbing again, up from Mill Valley to the Panoramic Highway, along the shoulder of Mount Tam, and then back along Highway One.
The day was relatively clear and mild, but the upper stretches of the Panoramic can be at cloud level; with the climate we have here, though, sometimes you are riding up into the clouds, and sometimes you are climbing above the marine fog layer into unexpected warm blue sky. At the western end is the 1500 foot drop from the Pantoll to Stinson Beach, one of my least favourite climbs in the area if I am coming the other way. My body memory is of being cold on the lengthy descent, no matter the season, and of misjudging at least one of the tighter right-hand bends, though I never remember which one in advance. On this occasion, I was also anticipating debris on the road from rock slides, and potentially some standing water from all the rain.
The views were so very familiar to me, even if I have only been there a couple of times in the last nine months or so. Less familiar were the sounds, of abundant water running down the hillside – just as at Tassajara after a storm, when the gullies and canyons revealed themselves to be also streams and cascades. As I approached sea level, I could hear the king tide breaking along the length of the beach, much louder than usual (when I was coming back across the bridge, Baker Beach seemed to be completely subsumed by surf).
Once I had climbed higher, above Steep Ravine, in the lee of the mountain, suddenly it was intensely quiet. The sea was ice green as the sun weakly glimmered through the clouds, and I had leisure enough to take in the turkey vultures bucking and gliding on the breeze over the cliffs, before needing to turn my attention to what I knew would be two draining climbs – the short wall up to the Muir Beach overlook from Slide Ranch, and the longer drag up past Green Gulch, cheerfully accepting that just about everyone else out on a bike that morning was faster than me.
Highway 1 climbing past Green Gulch, with Mount Tam as a backdrop