The Coldest Descent

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I walk up and down Ulica Jane Sandanski in Ohrid, Macedonia. I look for number 84, a bike rental shop. All I see are brick residential houses with chain link fences and an accounting office. I stop between 82 and 86 and dial the contact number.

“Yes, yes, “ the voice on the other end says, “You’re in the right place. I will call someone to meet you.”

I stand on the sidewalk, my hands shoved into the pockets of my grey sweatshirt. It’s a chilly, cloudy morning. Someone emerges from the back of the house. He waves to me and I walk down the driveway to the garage at the end. A young man wearing black sweatpants, a bright blue long sleeved polo shirt, and sneakers greets me. He has olive skin and the blackest of hair. When he smiles, everything around him catches its breath.

“I’m Jovan,” he says, “but everyone calls me JJ. You want to rent a bike? What kind?”

“A road bike,” I say, “Do you have one that will fit me? I want to climb Mount Galicica.”

He raises his eyebrows at me. “That is hard. Are you sure? And it’s cold.”

“I’m sure,” I say.

He looks at my feet. “Do you need shoes too?”

“No, I have shoes. SPD clips. I’m not entirely sure what route to take though.”

“I will give you a map. But you need to leave soon. Its almost 10 and you have to be back by 4:30. It gets dark so early. I can give you some lights but it’s not so safe in the dark.”

“ I’ll be fine. I can do it in six hours. I race a little at home. And I ride in New York City traffic all the time. I’m good.”

“Ah, ok,” JJ says, “I have the perfect bike for you then. My little brother raced it yesterday in Skopje. And won.”

JJ disappears into the garage. He wheels out a bright yellow, red, and black bike that says ‘DRAG’ on it. I instantly love it. The two of us quickly ready it for my ride. I pump the tires and JJ attaches some lights to it. After a few seat adjustments, I am ready.

“Here’s the map,” JJ says. He opens it up on the table and shows me where we are and what road to take out to Galicica National Park.

“It gets really steep here and here,” he says, circling a few stretches of road. “But not for very long. This is the top. Here with a stone church. You should turn around there. You won’t have time to go much further.”

I nod and make sure I understand the map.

“Got it.” I say. JJ hands me a helmet. I secure it to my head and am off. JJ waves to me from the driveway. “Be careful! See you at 4:30!”

The bike is a good one. I run through the gears as I pedal down Jane Sandanski. They are smooth and responsive. My shoes easily snap in and out of the pedals. There is little traffic as I make way out of Ohrid onto the wide shoulder of a highway. I settle into the wind with my hands in the drops. My legs find a smooth steady rhythm and I sink into myself and the bike as we meld into one.

Cycling has always been somewhat of a Zen experience for me, especially when I am out by myself. My mind wanders but I usually don’t really follow it and just let it be. The road slips by underneath me. The occasional vehicle passes but the only things that are truly real are my breath and the muscles in my legs as they push against the wind and rising grade of the road. JJ was right, there are some steep sections. The effort feels good. I breath into it as the words “the ground is flat the ground is flat the ground is flat” dance through my head. I don’t believe them but they always help. The ground evens out. I shift up a couple gears. I see a large wooden sign for the entrance to Galicica National Park up ahead. I turn left into the park.

The road is wide with forest on one side and lake on the other. The grade remains steady at about six percent. I am, again, able to settle into the ride. I like extended, consistent climbs. Whatever pain I feel from the exertion of going uphill fades blithely into the background if there are no spikes in elevation. It’s just a thing that is there, becoming no more and no less, something easy enough to live with. The road is quiet. A lone red pickup truck rumbles up next to me. The driver smiles and nods, his hand extended from the open window in an encouraging thumbs up. I smile back and return the gesture as he speeds out of view.

The sun is completely obscured by clouds and the temperature is dropping. I stop to eat some peanuts and dried pineapple. I drink some water even though I’m not thirsty. I check the time and think I am still ok. I consider briefly turning around but dismiss the thought quickly. I want to be able to go back and tell JJ I made it to the top. I want to share war stories with him about the climb. All climbs have a bit of a war story about them. For me, the battles are with my own demons. I’ve fought them many times and almost always win, even when I’m sure I can’t possibly again.

The road turns into a series of beautiful, repetitive switchbacks. I count them silently in my head as I climb. Lake Ohrid is below me on my left. I can see across to Albania from up here. I stop again to don another (my last) layer. The air has a bite to it now and I can see snow up ahead. I check the map that JJ gave me and the map of Google. I figure I have another 4 kilometers to go. ‘Not so very far,’ I think. ‘I’m more than half way.’

I push off, determined not to stop again until I’ve gone at least 2 more kilometers. I ignore everything; the cold, the wind, the snow, the aches in my muscles. I breathe deeply. I don’t think of anything except pushing and pulling with my feet. I sit back a little further in the saddle. ‘Updown updown updownupdownupdownthegroundisflatthegroundisflatupdownupdown…’

This is one of the best parts of cycling: the part where there is nothing but you and the climb. It feels as I have always been pedaling up this mountain and as if I always will be. There is no escape. All I can do is keep going. One kilometer disappears under me, then another, then three. I estimate that I am close to the top. Someone has written elevation numbers on the road with yellow paint. I watch as they flow beneath me, 300m, 400m 500m, up and up.

Winter is in full force the higher I get. I am, despite continuing to climb, cold. ‘I’m going to make it,’ I think, ‘I’m going to make it. I can’t feel my hands but, I’m going to make it.’ I turn a bend and another and another. Finally, in the distance I see a structure. I hope fiercely that it is the stone church JJ told me about. As I roll up in front of it, the word ‘FINIS’ appears on the ground and I know this is it. I brake and come to a standstill. It has a small courtyard and a bell tower. A wood bench is out front. It looks abandoned though, boarded up against the frigid cold. I start to take a glove off to snap a photo but stop as pain shoots up my fingers almost instantly as they meet the air. I hastily shove my phone back in my pocket, pull the glove on, and turn around. Its 2:30. I need to get off this mountain.

The ride down is scary, steep, and very cold. I fear my hands are going to freeze and I’ll be unable to brake anymore. The road has enough turns that I have to squeeze the brakes almost continuously lest I end up in a heap. I hang on for dear life, at times screaming out loud into the wind. The bike skids a bit on some gravel. I move to the center and pray that a car isn’t going to come suddenly racing around a bend. My hands hurt from the constant pressure of applying brakes and from the cold wind that whistles past me. I come to an ungraceful, skittering halt to rest for a minute. I blow air into my hands, trying to warm them just a bit. I pray a little. I shiver. I talk myself into getting back on the bike and continuing.

Finally, somehow, I reach the wooden sign and park exit. The eternity of descending in the cold is a different kind of eternity than one spent climbing. It is a much more frightening one as it always seems to threaten bodily harm. I am a shivering, clammy mess. But I am intact and basically whole.

It 3:05 now and I don’t dally. I continue as fast as I can for Ohrid. Its about 25 kilometers. The road is hillier than I remember though, or I am more tired and I find myself struggling. I focus on moving forward. That’s all I can do.

From behind, I suddenly hear the sounds of another cyclist.

‘Hallo!’ someone calls out.

“Hello.” I say.

A man wearing all black, riding a black bike pulls up beside me.

“Where did you ride?” he asks me.

“Up the mountain,” I say.

“Ah! That is hard. To the church?”

“Yes. I saw the church. It was freezing!” I answer, “I’m so tired. I need to make it back to Ohrid before dark.”

He looks over at me with a thoughtful expression.

“Ohrid. I’m not going that far but I’ll take you. Hang onto my wheel. I’ll get you there.”

I nod. He pulls in front of me. “Let me know how the pace is!” he calls back.

I position my front wheel directly behind his back wheel. His body and bike block the wind and create a vacuum for me to ride in. Riding this close to someone is a learned skill and I usually don’t do it with someone I don’t know. If the person in front is jittery or does something unexpected, you can both go down quickly and hard. His wheel is one of the steadiest I’ve seen and my mind quiets until all that I am thinking about is that wheel and following it. He maintains a good 30-kilometer per hour pace and the kilometers tick by. After about 22 of them, I see his hand motioning to slow down. We pull to a stop on the side of the road.

“You’re almost there.” he says, “Just another 2K into town. You did amazing! Stayed on my wheel the whole time. I’ve got to go.”

“Thank you!” I yell as he starts off the way we came, “Thank you! What was your name?” He’s already gone though, waving at me as he disappears from view.

I manage to roll into JJ’s driveway at exactly 4:42. He is waiting for me and his face shows great relief as he sees me.

“Did you make it?” he asks.

“I did.” I say proudly.

JJ drags a heater from inside the garage and sets it up next to the table that is in the driveway. He pulls out three plastic chairs and 3 beers and motions for me to take one of each. I do. He yells toward the house for someone to come down and join us.

“My little brother wants to hear about racing bikes in America.”

I nod and open the beer. Its warm next to the heater and JJ’s smile.

He leans forward. “So tell me,” he says, “Tell me about climbing the mountain…”

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