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Early Riser

Words by @peteskilebowski Illustration by Dusan Maric

The message arrived while I was closing my laptop, just as the shadows were settling in for the night.

“How do you feel about early mornings?”

How did I feel about early mornings? Generally fine, as long as I’m wrapped up in a duvet, slumbering when they happen. But I was curious, nonetheless.

“Why?” I replied.

“Ride tomorrow, 5.30am, Stumptown on Stark - NOT the Ace entrance,” shot back Sepie, a slight, 53kg natural climber with an obsession for 650b wheels and a growing existential angst for his skinny-tyred Cervelo. But I liked him anyway, and mostly because of that. We’d found out the hard way that Americans are a tough study. The Seattle Freeze they call it - we’re in Portland but the same applies. It’s not easy to make new friends in the Pacific Northwest. But how easy is it anywhere past a certain age? Hence, hobbies. Hence, the early morning sound-out.

“Alright, sounds good. See you there,” I replied and immediately regretted it. I considered texting back with an excuse, realised I didn’t have one and anyway, by then things had their own momentum.

The Seattle Freeze they call it - we’re in Portland but the same applies. It’s not easy to make new friends in the Pacific Northwest. But how easy is it anywhere past a certain age?

Only a week before I’d received a new Ritchey Logic Comp, a 105-equipped machine that was going to be my ticket out of a slump. I wasn’t road riding, and I felt like crap. And all because we’ve got life entirely wrong. Which is how I came to say yes to the 5.30am. At some point, need beats no.

Tips for getting up and not waking your partner: put your bike clothes in another room - a good idea for people that plan. Which is why I’m wrestling with my suddenly very delicate bib shorts, fending off the dog who is making a grave mistake if she thinks it’s now time to pee and eating a piece of toast smothered in crunchy peanut butter in the absolute dark of 5 am.

Against all odds, I leave the house.

In silence, save for a rubber hum and the comforting whirr of a pristine chainset, I pass blocks of dimly lit porches, dewy cars and huddled bins holding private conversations. Suddenly the bike bucks and the shock travels all the way to my teeth. Without sight of the way ahead, my arms have stayed unnaturally straight. I force myself to relax and trust the Ritchey to roll, hoping that I don’t encounter anything worse than a sleeping policeman.

No lights, but there’s no one around. Heading west towards the city, I realise that it’s not only the road I can’t read; without reference, speed is obscured. Relatively, I’m not moving. Breathing hard, I soon have to lean on the brakes for a traffic light, inadvertently locking the rear, and for a heart-stopping moment, the front. And it still takes time to stop. Probably the rim brakes, I think. I press on with more caution, cursing myself for almost crashing. Another downside of getting up early - being reminded of your limitations hours earlier than normal.

The coffee shop is a beacon of light. By now, Portland is stirring, and the bike is welcome inside.

“Hey, another Ritchey!”

Sepie makes the introductions. Deven has the same Ritchey, excepting carbon wheels, and otherworldly Cane Creek eeBrakes.

“So much lighter man!” he exclaims, knocking back an espresso with gusto and backslapping shufflers Matt (Cannondale) and Hayato (Stoemper) a hearty hello as they tread carefully across the tiled floor towards the bar. I look down at the double-decker toasted cheese sandwich I just ordered, so heavy it causes my hand to shake without support. Mistakes have been made.

Relatively, I’m not moving. Breathing hard, I soon have to lean on the brakes for a stop light, inadvertently locking the rear, and for a heart-stopping moment, the front. And it still takes time to stop.

Before long we’re out the door, back into the lightening dark and almost immediately going up. And fast. Regret comes like a hammer, but in new company, no-one shows weakness, so I hold the wheel and hold down my sandwich.

There are many great rides in Portland, but almost all of them involve ascending the West Hills to escape the city. We follow a path towards the Japanese gardens, gaining height away from the early morning traffic before cresting a wall of switchback that rides like a rolling advert for the Pacific Northwest. The pace keeps on. Hayato smoothly accelerates from the saddle, disappearing up the road with a sprinter’s guile. Deven takes up the chase. Matt, Sepie and I hang back. Meanwhile, the sandwich threatens a sequel.

“So how’s that Ritchey?” asks Deven, pulling level as we regroup on a gentle incline.

“Brakes feel heavy,” I mutter.

“Course they do - they weigh a tonne!” he replies with a laugh, skipping off to join the others ahead.

But the Ritchey’s alright. I’d forgotten all about it, focusing instead on the process of pedalling and the feeling of being out on a fast bike with only the road ahead to occupy my mind. And suddenly there it is, just as unnoticed - what I’d been missing. Revived, I dig deeper and catch the others at the start of the Fairmount loop - a car-quiet few miles of undulating blacktop bordered by plunging views of Portland to the right, and impenetrable forest to the left.

But now there’s an elastic cord between us. Out of the saddle, the Ritchey surges forward, darting ahead with every easy turn of the cranks. The speed ticks up until we’re barrelling along through off-camber turns that coax muted squeaks from our scrabbling tyres, and big ring, blind bends that come too fast to even think about braking. A warning shout, a little sorting, and a hard left brings us to a short, sharp ascent to Council Crest, lookout point to Mount Hood and the end of our ride.

Standing around with bikes is the same the world over. Musings, form, gear, and edging in as the ride patter fades, work. An older man arrives, he’s pedalled up on a single speed beast fitted out with Compass tyres and 650b wheels. Deven has the good grace to look sheepish. Sepie moves in for a chat.

And suddenly it’s all over. We point the bikes downhill and release the brakes, falling dangerously fast, but everything seems slower after our earlier pace, and there’s little traffic.

It’s still only 7.30 as I walk back in the door. The dog wags her tail. The day has only just begun.