Bicycling in the Secret City

To the question of to what degree safety improvements can trigger a rise in bicycling, I would like to add these thoughts based on my experience at the Secret City.

I spent nearly a year among 15,000 other people, mostly servicemembers, in a desert location. I went out every other afternoon to bicycle around the back of the airfield, fighting the north wind constantly. I would race the jets taking off on the runway just a couple hundred meters off to my left. Parking was a dream, with wooden racks placed in front of every destination. I even used a cable lock!

Bicycles were plentiful, mostly department-store mountain-bike models. Private motor vehicles were forbidden. All drivers needed additional layers of certification beyond a traditional US drivers’ license before they could get out on the road. Crashes were investigated thoroughly and those at fault were held accountable. It sounds like an idyllic paradise for bicycling, and in many respects, it was, except for mode share: there were never more than 5% of the people bicycling.

I think this can be largely explained by noncommissioned officers’ reluctance to let servicemembers move around without accountability, and part in the servicemembers’ reluctance to move around without being correctly accounted for. There was no command emphasis on bicycling as an alternative to being driven around in motor vehicles. But in the real world, outside the Secret City, where do the authorities actually promote bicycling instead of other means of transportation?

‘The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes’- Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Norcombe Hill—not far from lonely Toller Down—was one of the spots which suggest to a passer-by that he is in the presence of a shape approaching the indestructible as nearly as any to be found on earth. It was a featureless convexity of chalk and soil—an ordinary specimen of those smoothly outlined protuberances of the globe which may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion, when far grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down.


The hill was covered on its northern side by an ancient and decaying plantation of beeches, whose upper verge formed a line over the crest, fringing its arched curve against the sky, like a mane. To-night these trees sheltered the southern slope from the keenest blasts, which smote the wood and floundered through it with a sound as of grumbling, or gushed over its crowning boughs in a weakened moan. The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes, a tongue of air occasionally ferreting out a few, and sending them spinning across the grass. A group or two of the latest in date amongst the dead multitude had remained till this very mid-winter time on the twigs which bore them and in falling rattled against the trunks with smart taps.

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter II

Hardy is a wonderful nature writer. It might sound like
damning-with-faint-praise to dismiss a novelist with the sobriquet of
“nature writer,” especially for a novel that is as full of social
dynamism and new ideas as Far from the Madding Crowd. Its
heroine, the wonderfully named Bathsheba Everdene, inherits a farm and
chooses to defy convention by managing it herself. But his able
descriptions of the world around his characters don’t insulate them
from the social pressures of the 19th century; rather, they energize
them by linking his characters’ contemporary dreams and aspirations
with the enduring land.

Certainly, as someone who has put his own two cents into describing the Boreal breeze, I can’t help but
admire how Hardy’s description comes out of direct observation. By
comparing a ditch full of dry leaves to the immanence of a cookpot he
illustrates the power of the north wind through difference: we know
the static nature of a pile of leaves in a ditch, and we know what a
stew looks like cooking away on the stove. The north wind, Hardy says,
is the difference between those two: a figurative comparison that
exercises the humanity of our observation and our essential unity with
the world around us, just as Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak are
one with their Wessex habitat.

Mini Maelstrom

This gallery contains 6 photos.

It’s not a doozy of a dust storm today, just a little one, the kind of atmospheric event that makes folks wearing facemasks look kind of foolish. The wind was coming from the south in the morning but over lunch switched to the north. Boreas, my an… Continue reading

Back at the Secret City

I got in this morning. My flight took off at 3:52 am and landed at
5:11 am, which entailed showing up at the airport at midnight and
hustling around after that to get my bags on the baggage pallets. The
good news is that I only had to wait about a hundred hours (105
actually) for a benighted seat.

 Flying at such an hour takes all the things you love about aviation,
like the endless waits, the sorry excuses for nourishment, and the
camaraderie of the airport lounge, and just sets the floodlight on
them. Even better, the girl I was sitting next to had only been on a
plane once before, two weeks prior, and was scared of getting sick.
Thankfully, this remained a mere bugaboo.

 But the absolute best part was the 1000-meter walk across the tarmac
from the aircraft to the terminal. I think the last time I flew in
here it was daytime and we took a shuttle bus back from the plane.
Does the bus not operate at night? I would have been more excited
about the stroll, actually, with the blue taxiway lights and the
bright stars overhead, if I hadn’t been dead tired and carrying my
heavy bags.

 Later in the morning, I got my bike back from where I’d parked it, and
I went for a ride this afternoon, which was great. It was good
weather, with big thick striated clouds that cast clear shadows all
over the landscape, and the wind from the north, and after my nap I
felt pretty alive. I was however a little distracted and didn’t focus
as I should have and I didn’t break 18 mph. It’s my first ride in
February, and I was hoping for something a little stronger to start
out the month with.


Yes! At the very end of my ride today, I fell in behind a yellow JCB
10K forklift as the road wended northwesterly, into the Boreal teeth.
It was perfect drafting, making up for having to beat the nasty
crosswinds in both east and west directions on my own. Overall, I did
my best but finished both seven-mile laps at a 17.2 mph pace.

 I started late but still finished before sunset, but the brown-tinted
sunglasses I was wearing made it seem on the last westbound lap as if
I was riding into the secret heart of a dust storm. That and the nasty
chill the wind started to collect. I’m glad I’m back in my lodging,
drinking coffee and finally eating M’s chocolate bar from September
’08. Question inutile to bring it home.

V-for-velocity, M-for-metaphor

What can you say about speed? Stereolab songs, racehorses, gazelles and orbital velocity, and pistons, just to name a few off my recent postings. The more I work on the blog here the more I see speed as a kind of metaphor I’m using more frequently for other things in my life, things that I’m still trying to put their own words to.

Every time I come up with a new metaphor for “fast” it is as if I’m asking myself to identify the mystery object in a game of 20 Questions.

Going faster entails the promise of liberation, the hope of improvement, the badge of hard training, and the motivation to keep pushing. You may not be subject to all these varied forces, but I feel them keenly here in the secret city, my little exile’s bubble.

As you can see from the accompanying chart, this has been a pretty good week for biking. The pink line is January’s rides, the fastest seven-mile lap on each day, and the green line is December’s rides, same procedure. (I have no idea what the background is or where it came from, only that it’s a photograph I took.) My personal theory to explain the improvement is that by writing about going faster, it makes it easier to do it. I hope it works for you, too.

Today, matched against a modest Boreal breeze, was a particular red-letter day. Much as I enjoy complaining about it, I slightly prefer riding with the north wind to the south wind because it means I get an extra ten minutes to warm up before I start doing laps. Today I brought my heart rate up to just over 70% as I turned the corner into the headwind and managed to sustain that level for the next 44 minutes as I fit two entire laps into that time period. I haven’t before done two laps at that speed, more than 19 mph.

As I go over the ride in my head, it seems to be composed of the same little episodes that every ride shares, many of which I’ve written about already: e.g., the Funny Hat People doing their little afternoon run; the potential lapse in concentration (avoided!) on the firehouse straightaway; the flip around onto the back stretch and accompanying realization that I’m making good time and can ride fast with the wind for the rest of the way; even the soundtrack for today, Tune-Yards’ “Fiya,” off the same record that “Sunlight” comes from, this one with a monster ukulele riff. Somehow I put everything together like a good little editor and wound up on a pace to be proud of.

Boreas vs. Me

I complain a lot about the wind here on this blog, but today was the north wind’s roughest attempt yet to keep me off the road. Today was a bright, sunny cloudless day. I got out on the bike a little early this afternoon and I could notice the gusts even down here in the canyon. When I got up to the plateau there was one smooth bit where I had the wind at my back, and everything was beautiful and quiet, and I could listen to the wheels rushing against the pavement and the chain spinning around the sprockets.

Then 10 minutes later, after passing the dump, I came around and headed directly into the Boreal fury. I’ve noticed about the flat desert around the airfield that there’s no letup. Nothing stands in the way, apparently, between me and Greenland, or Kamchatka, or whatever they call the House of the North Wind these days. It’s relentless, completely different from the gusty winds that blow, careless about their direction and force, back home.

I’m reminded of one evening back in 1988 when I was walking along 14th Street in the middle of the night (on the way to Nell’s, if I recall correctly) and ol’ Boreas was blowing right off the Hudson and wrapping around my bones, poking and twisting with his cold fingers between my muscles and ligaments, like my grandmother taking apart a chicken.

Pictures are stealth-camera shots, taken with my cell phone, on the same 14th Street.