Searching For Solitude
New Englander Chris Milliman on the upside of solo rides
There are advantages and disadvantages to living in a small rural town. When not being around other people becomes a matter of health policy, we small towners already have that covered. Social distancing in practically built into every part of our daily lives. Bike riding is no different.
The New Hampshire/Vermont border area, known as the Upper Valley, is ideal for riding a bike. Quiet rolling roads parallel both shores of the Connecticut River and riding into the hills to the east or west dishes out all the steep, short climbs northern New England is famous for. And the rabbit warren of backroads, most of them unpaved, seem purpose-built for long days of riding solo and forgetting about the outside world.
There are some caveats to my region’s extraordinary solo riding opportunities. One, winter lasts forever. Riding outside is a bitterly cold and icy proposition from November through March. Two, if something goes wrong on a solo ride there’s often no cell coverage once you’re up in the hills—and any house or store or help of any kind can be miles away. And with the current stay-at-home orders in both New Hampshire and Vermont, car traffic is even less frequent.
There is no "normal" schedule at the moment, and I have recently found myself riding past roads I’ve never explored and wondering where does that road end up? Since I have the time, I may as well see. Solo exploration has become the goal of my riding, not the byproduct.
With the sun getting higher in the sky, the days a bit longer, and the dirt roads shedding their last bit of seasonal mud, an irony is emerging: long, not-freezing solo rides are the ideal tonic to the stresses of an uncertain future and an outside world that has been turned upside down. Your mind wanders farther and deeper when the only sound you can hear is the wind in the trees and your tires crunching down the road.
Stringing together ridiculous backroad rides is generally more fun when you can share the adventure with someone else. Religiously following friends’ Strava posts has proven the best substitute we’ve had over the last couple months. Comments are swapped back and forth: Is Shoestrap Road rideable yet? How deep is the mud on Mine Road? Does the Road Closed sign really mean the road is closed? We’re all solo together, right now.
Will I return to riding with my friends when it’s a safe and prudent thing to do? Yes, no question. But I will also take from this extraordinary time a new appreciation of what solitude on the bike can accomplish, where it can take me, and that it may be my "new normal."