The storm came down at three o’clock in the morning. It rained hard and the wind blew stiff and cold. There were two of us in the tent and it felt as if we were inside a drum set.
Sally asked what time it was and I told her. We didn’t say much else. There is not a lot to discuss at three in the morning in a tent during a downpour. You hope for the best and at that point the best is a dry tent. The bikes were outside but bikes can get wet. A down-filled sleeping bag is another story.
The storm blew itself out in a short time. We lay, awake, waiting for the next round. It never came. We slept again.
Dawn brought gloom under heavy skies. We were camped in a large field and there were dozens of tents scattered about in the gray of dawn. Fog along the edges of the field blurred sight lines. It was quiet. Everything was very wet.
The camp came to life. People moved slowly; car doors opened, shut; there was a smell of woodsmoke. All the tents had bicycles, one or two or more, nearby, some lying flat on the ground, some on racks or propped up against round hay bales scattered in the field.
It was billed as a Ride Camp, sponsored by a bicycle brand, Salsa and whoever was there had come to ride.
We walked across the field to a large, white tent where breakfast was served. There were chairs and tables enough to accommodate the 200 attendees. We ate breakfast, drank hot coffee, looked out at the day, speculated if the clouds would break.
The evening prior we had heard speakers; a pair who’d raced bicycles 4,200 miles from coast to coast. Not just ridden; raced. Another couple who used bicycles to access areas to fish, streams and rivers off the beaten, paved path.
The pair who rode the race spoke of the intensity and perseverance it takes. The one told of his neck muscles failing from fatigue and being unable to hold his head up. He rode through the heat and wind of the Great Plains with eyes focused on the rear wheel ahead. He could not lift his head.
So, you put yourself there, riding in the heat of summer without being able to raise your head due to muscle failure and you say to yourself, what would I do? Most people would hang it up. He used duct tape and bungee cords fastened to his helmet to pull his head upright enough to ride. For several days. Then he quit.
It takes a special kind.
On this gray morning the camp offered up rides and workshops. Sally opted for the bike fishing session. Wading shoes in a pack, fly rod and gear strapped to the bicycle, she and a dozen others pedaled to the nearby Namekagon River, and fished under the tutelage of the couple who had given the presentation the night before.
I joined a group of other riders for a jaunt on the gravel fire lanes that twist and turn and wind their way across the Wisconsin landscape. I ride alone for the most part. I ride in groups only occasionally. But on this day it was what I did and we left the camp grounds in a loose group of 15 or so riders under gray skies and an autumn breeze.
We rode into the woods on the dirt and gravel lanes. It was an easy pace, comfortable and conversational. I visited with riders from California and New York and the Midwest. In time the clouds broke and blue sky showed.
There is perhaps no better time to ride than autumn. The weather is good, crowds are low, the woods are full and there is change in the air that suggests one had best ride for this will not last forever. On this September day we rode, a mix of ages and home towns and united by what brought us here which is the love of the bicycle and the ride and on this day that was enough and all the cares we had faded into dust.
We rode 25 miles or so that morning, came back to lunch and afternoon rides. I was tired from the storm and did not ride. Instead I stretched out on the sleeping matt and napped in the rising warmth under the September sun.
That evening the temperature dropped and I slept badly in the chill and on Sunday crawled from the tent with a back ache. I stumbled to my feet in the wet grass like an 80-year-old man, my back so tight I could barely stand upright. I gimped my way to breakfast, hunched over my coffee; I had the mobility and grace of a tree stump.
I limped back to the tent in grass wet with dew. My bike was lying on the ground. The sunlight at a low angle lit up the droplets of dew on the bike and they glittered like sparks. I sat there for a while, bundled up in a down sweater. Then I got to my feet and lifted the bike and put a leg over the bar. I sat on the saddle and pedaled for a short loop around the tent. My back ached but did not give out.
I got off the bike and put on riding gear and tried to ignore the back spasms. Then I got back on the bike. There was a ride scheduled in half an hour and when you are at the Salsa Ride Camp and you have listened to a guy who rode hundreds of miles with his head held up with duct tape you feel like the biggest baby in the world if you let a sore back stop you.
I pedaled slowly to the group that was waiting to leave. It was a sunny fall day in Wisconsin and there was no better place to be than on a bicycle.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.