In Olden Times

I wrote this one about ten years ago, but I’ve had this ride (and this piece) on my mind lately, because it represents one of the high points of my riding life, the perfect intersection of friends, a new idea, good fitness, and the distinct feeling of freedom riding bikes can give you.

On Wednesday night I have a standing hall pass from my usual parental responsibilities to ride with the guys from work. This little bit of freedom, over and above commuting and ’round town errands, is what keeps me sane and motivated and moving forward with good orderly direction.

Spot-on 6 o’clock, we roll out of the parking lot and head across town for the Minuteman Bikeway. The Minuteman is what every bike path should be, smooth, straight and just about clogged with walkers, joggers, roller-bladers, families, triathletes, roadies and commuters. It’s a ‘multi-use’ path that gets multi-used all day and much of the night, year-round.

With so many folks packed onto one narrow ribbon of pavement, this is the slow roll part of our ride, the long hallway that leads to the real fun.

This post is brought to you by the Shimano RC-3 road shoe. It’s a lotta shoe for $125

You didn’t hear it from me, but if you exit the end of the Minuteman in Bedford, by the old rail depot, and do a quick left then a quick right into the woods along the narrow brook that runs under South Street, you gain access to a dirt path smooth enough to ride on a road bike, even though most of the guys choose a cross machine. That path links up with adjacent stretches that take us from Bedford clear out to Concord.

These are the New England woods in their back-to-nature form, former farmland let go to seed and thick with maple and pine. At dusk and at speed, this stretch is just about as good as bike riding gets. Head down to dodge the few roots and rocks that pop up, you can feel the coolness of the dirt rising to meet you. It’s a corridor through a forest. I imagine the Arenberg Forest spread with fresh loam over the cobbles and tamped to pitch perfect firmness so you can do it at 22mph AND keep your dental work intact.

Protected from the wind, we fly, slowing only to cross the occasional road without being crushed. If you are not going fast enough to feel slightly frightened, you are doing it wrong. Mostly we are all over each other like a pack of hounds on a fox hunt. Usually there is someone off the back who has lost the nerve necessary to hold the wheel in front of them or hit a patch of sand/mud/loose gravel.

There is a moment to rest in Concord. Once there, we regroup and roll the road down into the historic town center, not just the site of a famous battle, but also the cradle of 19th century American intellectualism, the home of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau and the Alcotts.

We blow straight through and head south for the Battle Road.

The Battle Road is part of a larger national park just west of Boston that enshrines and encapsulates the significant sites of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, fought in 1775, the opening salvo of the war that produced this country, such as it is. Along the “road” are pre-revolutionary homes surrounded by farms and wetlands. These are the places where American colonists ambushed the British army as it retreated from Concord. This is where Paul Revere was captured during his famous ride.

Some heavy shit happened here.

In reality, the Battle Road isn’t a road, but a swooping, swerving gravel path hemmed and shepherded by stone walls older than the country they divide. That gravel couldn’t be more perfect for a pack of howling idiots chasing each other across the countryside, unreproached by traffic or clots of pedestrian obstacle. In the dwindling light we push ourselves back out to our limits, dumping every last bit of workday stress like a spent teammate on a time trial to the moon.

We finish in full darkness, headlights illuminating four or five square feet of the path in front of us, and then we’re out onto the road again, cars pushing us to the verge. Up and over one last hill, and we’re back into Lexington where pizza and beer is available.

It is not lost on me that we are laughing and joking and riding our asses off over the same ground our forebears worked with oxen and plow, where they tore rocks from the ice-aged soil to make enough room to plant crops, where they fired muskets and spilled their own blood to drive out an occupying force, where generations of immigrants washed through and fired the industrial revolution, and the rivers all drove looms, and the factories spilled out the first goods of what would become the consumer age.

On Saturday mornings, when I’m rolling through many of these same towns I think about the weight of all that history. I wonder if we’ve lived up to the hard work of those who came before us, and I am grateful for the charmed life I lead in the afterglow of their suffering.

But on Wednesday nights I shrug all that bullshit off, and I stand out of the pedals and grind up a white gravel path, past an ancient farmhouse, and I laugh, because short of a musket and a worthy target, this is the only way I know how to feel my freedom.

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