The breakdown ride

I call them ‘breakdown rides’ – rides that take me deep enough into myself that something breaks or heals, or sometimes both. I don’t always know I need them until I do, but they usually begin something like this: Wake up groggy, the legacy of one too many the night before and the night before that. Procrastinate getting breakfast sorted, procrastinate getting dressed, stuff about in the garage for too long deciding what bike I’m going to ride and where I’m going to ride it.

I spent the winter perched on the edge of a metaphorical pier, looking down at the sea gently swaying below. Beneath the surface, the silver flash of a school of fish as they flitted back and forth. Then there’d come a sudden shift, a reorientation, and I couldn’t figure out if the sand was the sky, if down was up. Maybe I’d been submerged the whole time, wrapped in the watery half-light. Maybe I’d never even been on the pier.

By the time the days began getting longer, I was exhausted from flailing my way through cycles of mid-level self-loathing and constant low-level sickness. The combined weight of both sat on my chest like a stone, in my gut like hunger.

Something needed to give. One Sunday, somewhere between Warrandyte and Yarra Glen, it did.

So – breakdown rides. When I run out of excuses, I roll out, and really properly hate riding for a few minutes. Some hazily defined point after that, I start mentally unpacking whatever shit has been weighing me down. Simultaneously, I fall in love with the bike all over again. It’s a strange alchemy of body and mind; between the first taste of blood at the back of my tongue and the blank-eyed escape of riding beyond thought and sadness, something changes.

On this particular Sunday, uncharacteristically late, I roll down the driveway with nowhere to go, into a glorious spring morning. There are no good sensations; then again, lately, there usually aren’t. I set a meandering course for the hills to the north of home, a purgatory of 12% pinches through Melbourne’s leafy suburban fringe. By Craig Road, I’m miserable. By McIntyres Road, I’m starting to enter a meditative world of my own, concentrating on keeping the pedals turning over, kneading my handlebars back and forth out of the saddle. Cresting the climb, I fly past mobs of kangaroos, and mansions, and powerlines stitching the patchwork of valleys out to Kinglake.

For the next few hours, I toe a trance-like tightrope between numb and raw.

There’s a rocky stretch of fireroad along the valley out of Warrandyte, which turns into increasingly rough singletrack before spitting you out at the base of Menzies Road – a 15-percenter that softens into a few kilometres of pinches and false flat as it winds above remote valleys and gullies. Taking a right at the end, I continue east along another ridgeline toward the gravel and Yarra Glen, through Christmas Hills.

Fewer and fewer cars – and soon enough, none. There are wallaby tracks threading off the side of Skyline Road through the foliage, beyond the barbed wire and into the nothingness of nowhere. I wonder about following the trails – how long it would take to get lost, who’d notice first, how long it would take to be found.

It’s almost a shock to see other people out here, but when you do, they always look like they’re up to something. A young guy shuffles nervously next to a ute pulled up next to a water-tank, looking up startled as he hears my approach. I give an ignored wave as I roll by.

Soon after, there’s a rough descent toward the reservoir, where you can either carry on over the dam wall or take a hard right, where the gravel keeps rising and falling through the gnarled bush, the bleached spine of a bark-bound book. I take the turn.

The sun’s higher now, sending splinters of light and shade across the gravel, like thylacine stripes masking the corrugations. I grit my teeth and pull hard on the bars to get up the last steep outbound rise, feel the burn of lactic acid in my legs and a metallic tang in my throat and a curious blank in my mind. And in that moment, the stress and bleakness I’ve borne for weeks begins to fall away.

I take a moment at the crest, looking down at the implausibly green sea of vineyards surrounding Yarra Glen and stretching out to the Great Dividing Range. Silver flashes of cars flow back and forth along Melba Highway. Chewing a muesli bar meditatively, sitting in the dirt off the side of the road, there’s a curious out-of-body moment where I feel as if I’m watching a more tranquil version of myself. I think about my family, my child, my friends, my bike. Tethers, saving me from drifting away.

After a minute or two that stretches out into several eternities, I stand up, wheel my bike back to the roadside and turn home. Along the aqueduct trail, which S-bends up an overgrown hillside where the wind sends surreal ripples through the grass like a Miyazaki animation. Down to Pigeon Bank; along the track, over the bridge, up and out of the valley. Four hours after I set off, I return with a few souvenirs – a fine coating of dust on the fork crown, a squeaky chain and, for now at least, a calm.

Imagine you’re on the ocean floor, looking up at the clouds drifting lazily across the sky and the sunlight refracting as it pierces the gloom. Ask yourself this: would you fight to leave the comfortable familiarity of the waters? Or would you let yourself be wrapped in them, just to know the elation of riding your way out once in a while?

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