The dusty black rear tire of Foster’s mountain bike slips out of line with my own front tire. It’s like trying to force the positive ends of two magnets to touch. I get close but slide and wobble off. We’re chugging through another 15k in humidity that you can rub between your fingers in high gear and trying to draft behind one another to break the ever-present headwind. This is not an exaggeration – the winds of central Thailand cycle through the cardinal directions in a pattern exactly opposed to our commutes.
These rides are the quotidian sweet spots of training in Thailand; we don’t want pity or praise for the minor labor. They’re lovably unclaimed, unalloyed moments that we might control, a rarity during these three months. In shifting gears, flat tires, stupid little handlebar bells, half-second “hellos” and attempted bunny hops, there is a literary vault of metaphors and analogies to which I won’t subject anyone but myself and my biking brain.
It’s noon and we’re diving through a sweaty push to lunch. A stretch of hot pepper bushes flashes passed – leaves bundled around red strips – followed by a thick banana tree orchard. The flowers are dense, fat pink almond-shapes that pull the whole tree towards the earth. We whip past into a long exhale of rice patty – deep green, covered with long-legged birds. The tall white Pelican-esque ones pick at soft-shell patty crabs; the rice farmers pluck the crabs out of the patties too, bagging them up for markets or smashing them into their papaya salad. The farmers slog in knee-high leather boots and wrap scarves and hats to cover everything but their eyes. The birds poke their long orange beaks and wade on wavering legs. A homogenous solution of sunscreen and sweat slides in behind my sunglasses.
Our bike gang of volunteers swings around another curve in the highway and loses our drafting line a little in front of a strip of food carts. In the mornings, we’re both bowing to and dodging monks in their muted-orange robes as they make their way along the dusty side of the highway collecting food. Now, we weave around barbecue cart after barbecue cart, ducking the sweet clouds of smoke. A man and woman with graying hair lounge cross-legged on a table behind their spread of pickled vegetables – sour yellows, stained browns and once-whites. They give up a grin most days and I like to think of the day I’ll stop and buy soft garlic or finally talk to them after all our waves.
The local Singburians have stopped investing in any and all temperature-measuring devices: if the volunteers are sweaty, it’s a standard day. If the volunteers are less sweaty, wear every piece of warm clothing you own. At this point, it’s all normal and I take every “are you hot?” as a relative inquiry.
We’re not the only cyclists out telling ourselves we’re fighting the good fight between the motorcycles driving on the wrong side of the road and the clouds of ash from sugarcane fires. Teams of geared-up, spandex-embracing Thais are our most enthused teammates out there. But between face masks and sunglasses, its near impossible to recognize any of them.
I throw myself one gear higher than I should and catch up to their line. An informal survey suggests that a solid number of them are teachers – some of them given a nice bike or money for a bike by their school. I’m not the only one in the U.S. who believes the teaching profession deserves far more respect and much higher social status than we tend to grant it. Thailand places teachers on the same level as one’s parents, near monks and just below royalty. This morning, I pulled up by two retired school teachers still spending their days pedaling through neighboring provinces.
I’m slagging back and fall out of the wind-breaking line as we near our daily lunch turn-off but Foster holds pace. One more psychedelic-painted truck stacked with sugar cane swings through. We cross the highway to park in the shade that’s all the same to me at this point. Each ride is a hydration test and a check to see how much I wish I had the energy of a Tigger.