It was around 11° this morning when I woke up. The sky was gray and the clouds heavy. It was going to be a wet day.

Today, however, was also going to be a good day. It was my first “solo” ride with a guy I nicknamed “Thunder Thighs” because his thighs are as thick as tree stumps and the first time I ever saw him on a bicycle, he came up behind me so fast I was sure he was on a motorcycle. I even jumped at the sound of his tires spinning down the pavement. Hence, the thunder. It was during a group practice to E no Shima, an island in Yokohama that’s a little over 50K from the shop. Waiting for a stoplight near the turn around point, he leans on his bike and says to me, smiling, “If I had my way, I’d spend all my free time on a bike!” It was at that moment that I knew I had just found another with the Sickness.

A few weeks passed with practice being continually canceled due to weather. We are all training to ride the border of Sado island, a 210K loop, in mid May. I have never ridden further than 113K before, so I am more than a little nervous. Every time I would see him at the shop, though, we would end up talking about riding this or that and how there’s always more we want to ride. Practice was canceled again this week, so we made a date to ride duo.

We started out late as he got a flat and had forgotten his tire pump. Luckily he was close enough to my place that I rode out to meet him and we were on our way soon enough. We took a turn down a road that I’ve ridden past, but never had the nerve to follow. It ended up going to the top of a mountain with sections that were over 10% grade. By the time we reached the top I was breathing hard, my legs were wobbling and burning and I was going so slowly that I was afraid I would topple over. We soared down the other side of the mountain, a slightly harrowing but still beautiful ride, only to take a detour on the edge of town to ride up another mountain, you know, because. This second climb was true torture, except that I loved every second. We would turn a corner and my eyes would bulge with the realization of how much more we still had to climb, and how steep it was, and how, never ending, the road just went on and on into the mist ahead. This time, I started letting out a stream of f-bombs, wailing and begging for it to end while at the same time loving every painful, thigh-burning second. Twice I had to stop to catch my breath and let my legs recover. The second time I was so wobbly that I was worried I couldn’t unclip my pedals without tipping over. I just flopped limp over the handle bars.

We ended the ride at his place on the other side of town just as the rain was picking up. He drove me and my baby Pikuro back to my house and then we went for a soak in the local hot spring. The “onsen,” as it’s called in Japanese, is a natural thermal spring with water that feels thick and slippery against your skin. Outside the rain continued to fall, and between the sound of the river rushing below and the warm soothing water sending swirls of steam up over my shoulders, I nearly fell asleep right there in the bath.

I’m not a strong rider by any means. For all the hours I’ve spent on my bike, my body just doesn’t get faster. However, I’m hungry. I want to ride, I want to ride fast and strong. I want to feel the bike moving underneath me and if I see a hill, I want to climb it. If I see a tree root, I want to jump it. I love riding with my entire being. I said to Thunder, “My body is weak and always has been. When I started training in endurance sports as a college student, I couldn’t run a quarter kilometer without getting winded. My heart, however, is strong, and there’s no amount of abuse that I can’t take on a bike.” Later as we descended the second climb of the day, he aceded to me, “Yup. That’s 100% accurate. I’ve never met a girl who could take punishment like you do!” As he was dropping me off at my house at the end of the day, he had already started planning the next ride we’re going to do when “I get properly strong at hills.”

As if the day by itself, with the riding so intense and satisfying that we totally forgot that we were dripping wet, shivering and covered in mud, wasn’t fabulous enough, as if a long soak in a natural hot spring after a day on the bike wasn’t perfect enough, he had to go and acknowledge me as a rider, too. By the numbers, I’m nothing. I’m not fast. I’m not strong. I don’t ride long distances or place in races. But those who have the Sickness can recognize a kindred soul when they meet one. Thunder most undeniably has the Sickness and he acknowledges it in me, too.

Today was gray and wet. It was also magical. Today was a day spent in heaven.

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