The squeak of the suspension, a slight rattle of my handlebar bag. Soft wind, sky dissolving from bright blue to faintly grey. Slight bruising in my sitting bones after two and a half days on the bike, slightly sore right foot. Left foot not clipped in because I lost a screw from the spd yesterday and it seized when I tried to make do with one screw. Fields of golden wheat on one side, green green on the other, purple lupins and an occasional daisy. Silent road, except for the occasional, always faintly ominous, farm dog. About 35 km into my ride.
I breathe deep and am suffused with a moment of ease, pure gratitude. How is it I ended up on this lonely Estonian country road? How is it I have a life that means I’m physically strong enough, supported enough, flush enough, lucky enough, to do this kind of trip? Rolling steadily, elemental cellular level gratitude.
Minutes later, the headwind starts. I make an oof noise as I push myself harder, fight myself and the loaded bike into the wind. I try to sing for distraction, but am working too hard to get more than a few words out. I wonder again who else I know who would actually enjoy doing this kind of thing, ponder for the nth time in my life the difference between pain, over-exertion and simple discomfort. So far, all just discomfort. The kind that feels so good when it’s done.
The first part of my morning was absolutely idyllic — a coastal road winding past cottages, the sea always just over my shoulder. Sunny but just the right kind of cool for riding, trees on both sides of the road most of the time, sheltering me from wind. No seam between Latvia and Estonia — the same quality of road, same type of signage, same houses, same bus stops every 500 m or so, same blonde families on the road, weathered men driving small vans. Sensible European road signs that rely on visuals, not language.
The first 25 km, I rolled along on the coastal road and found everything delightful. I crossed the Estonian border without fanfare. Passed fairy tale cottages just set back from the road, my longed-for roadside bun and coffee, the sea flickering, teenage girls lying in the chill sun outside their little holiday cabins, a holiday camp, farms set right by the sea, a quirky bus shelter shaped like a Viking ship, a fishing enterprise with silver fish, heads removed, hanging high near the road to dry.
When I shifted into the more remote route that was the second part of my ride, it was an alternative to 26 km on the autostrada. It promised 7 km of “good gravel” roads, and I wasn’t disappointed. Very rare cars passed me, and until the headwind began, it was utterly remote and the perfect ride.
As I fought the wind in the last bit of that road, I thought again about how conditions that are good for cycling are so basic. Wind, relatively predictable terrain so you don’t have to stare down, reasonably polite traffic, chill or rain but preferably not both at the same time. Some people don’t like heat, but I can soldier through it.
The wind is my nemesis, though. It’s easy to complain about but almost impossible to describe. How it whips up so much louder on a bike than any other conveyance, jumbling your inner ease. How it’s unpredictable, suddenly slamming you sideways, actively toying with you in a mocking way. I always feel like I can actually see it, but then struggle to find it in a way I can photograph what it means. . The wheat bending slightly, the flag flapping around — they don’t capture what it takes to PUSH your body and about 40 kilos forward into the gusts, stay upright, what it means to barely eke out a speed of 13 km hour on a flat road.
It’s a lot of work for me. I find myself grunting and creaking like swaying wooden mast on a ship, muttering Shakespearean curses. My nose and eyes stream. There are a few spits of rain, wet and hard like someone is actually hurling them at me angrily, one at a time. I start making promises about when I’ll allow myself to stop and eat today’s stolen cheese sandwich. “The first bus shelter that has a place to sit after 45 km…”
I find a very civilized bus shelter in the first village I’ve come to since I got on this road, drink water, eat my sandwich, a few dried apricots. Very grateful for the apricots, which were left as a gift for me the night before I left.
An old man stops his car and limps up to the mailbox next to my little shelter, not responding to my greeting or head nod. “How old is an old man?” I find myself wondering, in the nonsensical, wind-blown head way of hours alone on the bike.
After the sandwich and the shelter, the road ends and I face the inevitable 8 km on the autostrada. The shoulder is less than a metre. The anxiety of close traffic and fatigue sets in, the consequences of losing my thin line of safety so high. I unclip my one functional pedal, not trusting it for a fast exit, and focus on steady forward, resolutely ignoring the trucks that pass me less than a metre away at 100 km/hr. My time in Vietnam was good training for this. The wind is still fighting me, with the odd sideways gust that makes me even more focused. 6 km, 4, 2, 500 m — I scamper awkwardly across the busy highway to the relief of the outskirts of Parnu, Estonia’s most celebrated beach town.
It’s chilly, and a little gloomy, but so calm after the autostrada. I roll past uninspiring apartment blocks, ponder how no one would rent a sixth floor walk up in Canada. I spot a bike shop on my way into town and manage to navigate the purchase of a new set of spds for my left shoe. I feel tipped back upright.
My hotel is on the edge of an elderly green park, and I’m given a room with one single bed, in that way of European hotels. I shower, find lunch in the old town that is determined to be celebratory, music and jugglers and sidewalk cafes. I eat under an awning until the rain forces me inside. Marinated salmon, potatoes, tomatoes, bread and a simply enormous amount of vanilla and rhubarb ice cream with berries and chia seeds. I tell the server I’m hungry because I rode from Ainazi and she rushes my food, gives me extra ice cream.
Later, I walk to the beach and watch the indefatigable Estonians cherish the sun 630 pm sun. A couple sit on the wall and play cards. Children push scooters and drive little go carts. People smoke, despite the wind. It could be any decade.