I am rolling down a fast, long stretch of wooded downhill on Smith Grade. Flying. Air, chilled by the shade and eager to flash by my ears, whistles through spokes and dries a salty sweat crust on my face.
Empire Grade put that crust there, with its long slog of sun-baked grade and its home-court advantage. The ‘not-knowing-what-to-expect’ rube-ness of the first-time rider who was testing her legs on an unexplored road. A rider who did not know how far the climb stretched on for, and whose only option was to keep her head down and focused, just kept slogging. Just kept slogging.
Ice Cream Grade had been the relief. The turn. With its instant cool and comforting redwoods. Quiet and fun. And now, Smith Grade continued the downhill trend, with a freewheeling momentum run that would eventually re-connect to Empire Grade. A loop-de-loop.
I smile. Once I get to that, I’ll be on a downhill that will effortlessly—for the most part—take me all the way to Santa Cruz.
But for now, Smith is rolling, fast and furious. There is no traffic sound. Just the woodsy orchestra of snapping twigs, unidentified creatures in the undergrowth, bird sounds and the whir of thin rubber on asphalt. My hub clicks away, loudly and with glee.
I am going fast. It feels steep. I smile.
“Man,” I think. “It must really suck doing this in the other direction. ”
Gently squeezing brake levers, I take an unfamiliar corner on this acne-faced road. Bumps and shimmers. On and on and down and down and now there’s the trickle of water and the sound of a car crawling up.
We bottom out, my bike and I, and I climb a little rise that stretches up slow and easy. To my right, I see the tops of giant trees as I look out across a view that I should probably stop to photograph, since it gives contexts to climb. But I’m feeling selfish. I want to keep this for myself. In my head. This time, that image is mine.
Round a curve and a slight downhill and it hits me again. How much it must suck to do Smith Grade from the Empire Grade end. Horrible. What a grind.
Some farms wave from in amongst the trees and it opens up a bit. I roll down again, then up and into thicker trees again. A foam mattress by the side of the road. A couch, with a pattern straight out of the 70s sits perched off the dirt shoulder and half stuck in a tree fork. Coach surfing in the forest?
I’m definitely climbing now, and it’s reminding my quads about Empire Grade earlier. Of how I’d kept on churning. I’d passed a guy wearing Vans on a flat-pedaled single speed and wondered how he kept his mojo going on that climb. Thought about saying, “This is hard enough with gears” as I passed, but kept that to myself. Remembered what it’s like when someone says something dumb like that and you’re just in your own little cave of hurt and that hot rush of a thought that makes you want to punch that person right in their comment-giving face. So, I’d passed him without saying a word.
Stay in your own pain cave. Focus on yourself. Just breathe and keep going.
But I’m not really in a pain cave now. I’m just climbing my way up to the Empire Grade intersection and I feel vaguely strange. Not in a bad way. Dissatisfied? Is that it?
I am actually in my granny gear, so I guess I am working reasonably hard now. This is not so easy. Not so easy. Getting close to the end of Smith though, so downhill coming up. So, there’s that.
Flash thought: It must really suck doing this the other way, with that climb at the end. That climb that was such a great downhill run. That must really be horrible to climb.
And now I’m grinding up a long stretch. There’s a pre-sign, sign indicating a STOP sign ahead. The Empire approacheth.
It must really be a torturous thing, doing Smith Grade in the other direction. I puff and squint and think about how hungry I am, and the trail mix bar in my pocket. I think about how warm it is and how happy I am to have put sunscreen on.
Smith Grade in the other direction: that must blow chunks of hate vomit out of the exhaust pipe of the ‘this was a dumb idea’ wagon.
Here comes the Empire Grade turn off. Here it comes.
I do the only logical thing a person can do when they approach the end of a climb and just need to turn right to find some lovely down hill that leads straight to Santa Cruz. I do the only sane thing. The only honorable and true thing.
I turn around. I do Smith Grade in the other direction.
Suffering is a dish best served.
Take it. Don’t forget to say thank you.