It is dark, quiet, and still. The bicycle leans against the back of the couch, and wheels leave dusty marks on the floor. The dogs lay sleeping, curled up like donuts in their crates. They stir, but only slightly, as a switch is touched and light fills the kitchen. They dream of the chase, and I wonder if I’ll be at the hilltop by sunrise. Homemade scones, jam, and fresh, steaming coffee are stowed in a spacious canvas saddlebag. A tiny cloud of dust puffs off the rear flap when I slam it shut and cinch it up. I add one more layer of wool, and think that I should wash that dirty bike. But as the freehub tic-tic-tics down the hallway, and my headlight flickers, I think to myself, “Not today”. The waking of day, with several miles of gravel, has called me away.
It was a chilly start. Knowing that it would warm up, I had dressed in my usual summer attire. In contrast to our hotter-than-normal summer, the October morning air was more invigorating than unpleasant. I actually enjoyed the slight nip on my ears during descents into the valley where the cooler air had settled.
Gravel plunking was on the agenda. The pace of the work week is like sprinting up the muddy incline in a cyclocross race. It is both difficult and urgent. Since I’ve been asked to fix some things on a project that haven’t gone well so far, with no ability to relax the schedule, it is also like trying to fix a flat tire while riding down the road. So on Saturday morning, I sought the opposite of all that, and gravel plunking seemed to be just the thing.
Gravel plunking is my term for a relaxed tourist pace on unpaved roads. One of my favorite routes for this activity is what I call the Slidell Loop (or Strada Biancha), and some of my friends (Rat Trap Press and Doohickie) have joined me for this route in the past. I deliberately dawdled, paused for photos, and stopped just to listen to the quiet. Because I could.
The route begins with a drop into the Clear Creek valley. My house sits somewhat on a ridgeline on the east edge of the valley. When heading west towards Slidell, one must first descend. Then there are several small rollers dividing smaller tributaries to the main channel, and alternating zones of trees and open pasture. Somewhere around 7 miles later, there is the climb out of the valley to the ridge on the western side. The view is pleasant.
I stop for water and admire the view. Then I point the front tire across the prairie, aim for the horizon, and plunk along. And when I reach the horizon, I turn right.
My A. Homer Hilsen is bred for gravel plunking. The enticement for speed from my Trek 660 project bike has been fun lately, but today was about enjoying the spectacular October weather in a more lingering sort of way. The slack head and seat tube angles, the wide tires, and the narrow, flexing fork ends all provide a comfortable ride on rugged roads.
After close to an hour in wide open spaces, rolling into the north side of Slidell is a sharp contrast. Houses appear, then cluster closer together. The road changes from gravel to chip seal. Barns, tractors, and other farm implements spot the landscape of this sleepy community.
It only takes a few minutes to cross the populated area. I notice the warmer air, the stronger wind, and the occasional resident tending their chores. They’ve done the little things to make one small place on this earth uniquely theirs. Rural charm.
While trying to shift through the gears, test the brakes, and carefully spin it up to speed, he surged forward with each revolution. He taunted me. “Come on girly-man,” he sneered, “Is that all you’ve got?” He pressed further, “How about some real speed?” Then demanded, “Let’s go!” And I just hung on for the ride.
I suspected that things were not going well on one of our projects in Austin. I think that is why I was asked to travel down to assist. When I arrived in the project office and found this, I knew it was going to be a tough day. There is more work to do than time to do it, but a man needs to work at some kind of sustainable pace.
The project bike has been plagued with a few nagging obstacles. Work overload has been by far the biggest obstacle, but bike deficiencies coupled with my own sense of how things must be are also limiting progress.