The hardest part is getting out the door. I clamp my pant leg, strap the helmet under my chin, clamp my rearview mirror on my glasses, heft my backpack up and shrug it into place. At last I kiss my wife and grab the handlebars. She holds the door open for me and I bounce the bicycle down the steps. I'm on my way.
I love this part. I throw my leg over the bike, connect with the toe clip on the right and push off. No traffic at this hour in our neighborhood. No competing sounds to muffle the hiss of the tires on the sand along the edge of the street. Down the incline I lift to ease the shocks of the railroad tracks at the bottom.
No need to shift gears. I stand on the pedals and push up the other side of the incline. The blood is flowing now and it feels good. My body thanks me, I think. Soon I have to unzip my jacket as I generate heat. Wear layers when it's cold the experts advise. That's right.
I turn right and cross several streets before I pass the sleeping apartments and follow a drain to enter one of five city parks I have to cross before my trip is ended at my office building before anyone else arrives.
So quiet. The chain whispers and echoes under bridges. I slow and shout, "bicycle" as gently as I can but it still startles the couple walking their poodles ahead of me. They jump from the path. I add, "Sorry," as I pass truly regretting disturbing their peace.
The bike path has only slight inclines. It curves in places and I accept the challenge of accelerating while negotiating them. Today there is a family of deer on the path and they must think I'm chasing them. At last they turn off the path and into a field. They pause and look back at me. I wave. They stare before mooning me with their white tails and disappearing from sight..
When I get to the point where I have traversed about seven of the ten miles I look for her. Most of the time she isn't there and now that it's cold I don't expect her. At least if she shows up she would be warmly dressed.
But there she is, I see her by the river about a quarter mile away. She pedals so smoothly without effort. She turns and looks my way and although I can't see her facial details, I feel that she smiles toward me before she turns away and disappears into the trees by the river. Despite the cold, she is still dressed in what looks like a white tennis outfit with a white sweater tied around her neck. For the first time I notice that her bicycle is also white. She has light colored hair - brown? She wears no helmet and for about the tenth time, I think I want to catch her and tell her she should wear one.
I gear up and sprint hard toward the trees and almost lose it as I negotiate the curve into the trees. I think I see a flash of white ahead and I keep up the pace. I think I can catch her this time. Now there is a curve to the left and I scare a heron into flight as I hold my pace. Soon I'm at the edge of the trees and can see her ahead. I'm gaining on her but she's making me work for it.
She's so smooth, so graceful. Her cadence is steady and she doesn't waste a bit of body motion, she just sails ahead like a swan on a placid lake. I'm sure she knows I'm behind her but she doesn't break her cycling poise to get away although I sense that she could do so with little effort. I also sense that she knows that I mean her no harm. If she thought I did I'm sure she would leave me panting in the dust.
My breath is hard. I have to open my mouth and grab it. This morning I will catch her. I shift up. Strain. Breathe harder. With each thrust of my legs I feel the pain coming, the familiar pain that will join heaviness in my chest into one all consuming throb. I know it but I have my goal.
In my middle years one of my greatest tricks was what I called, "teen bating." I would sluggishly pass a young guy and, feigning a gasp, say, "Hi, there." Then after I had cleared him I'd watch in my rearview mirror as I saw him stand up on his pedals as he starts to redeem his manhood from the old codger who just wobbled past him. Just as he comes up on my rear wheel I lose my crotchety style and without noticeable effort I creep ahead at a pace he can't maintain.
But I am never able to reach this graceful lady, let alone pass her. Today will be different. I am straining for this personal goal, this unreachable sprite who will be passed today or I will - I was about to say, "die trying," but I don't think it will come to that. No, I have all my work clothes either in my office or in my panniers and I'm not afraid of soaking in sweat, panting at the back door of the office, lying on the cold ground recovering from my race. I will be happy in the pain and smiling in the recovery. This day is the day!
The trail is twisting now. I usually slow into this serpentine part of the trail, but today I risk a fall by pushing hard, being careful not to snag a pedal as I lean into the curves. Left then right, not letting up, I take these curves without slowing. Even if I don't catch her I know I'll feel good after doing better than ever on the trail.
The trail will finally straighten out before it goes under the tenth street overpass, where I lost her before. This time, I should catch her there.
Breathing is hard now. The trail begins to straighten now and quickly I shall be out of the trees and I should be on her back wheel. I hope I have the breath to say, "Hello there," the only inanity I can think of.
"Where is she?" I can see the yards ahead to the viaduct and there isn't a sign of her. I slow and sit up, hands on top of the bar and look around.
"She must have taken the bike ramp to the street" I say to no one. I look left, then right. "Where did she go?"
I get off of my bike and climb on the park bench to get a better view. "Hmm! Well, I'll be damned!"
I warmed the bench and tapped into my water bottle and it’s still cool Gatorade. I can't figure where she went and how I lost her.
"She's sneaky!" I say aloud, scaring a rabbit I hadn't noticed under the table.
My intention to catch up with her didn't change, it intensified. I knew she was fast, I knew she was clever. I also suspected she was challenging me to catch her.
But I never did catch up to her. She would appear on those days when it was dark, always at the same place, always turning to look in my direction, never close enough to see. I went earlier, in hopes of catching her come by. When she didn’t appear, I’d get back on my bike and there she was, the Ghost of the Bike Path.