The scenery is magnificent as I pedal up the road leading through the mountains. Soft-eyed brown cows pause in their grazing to watch me ride by. The afternoon sun bathes the snow-capped summits ahead while a stream tumbles down its stony bed off to my left. Much as I am loving the ride, most of it has been uphill with only a brief, hair-raising descent around some hairpin turns, and my legs are getting tired. I check my watch. Seven minutes, thirteen seconds. Which means I have a little under twenty-six minutes to go, although I’m not counting or anything. I’m not going to make it, I think, sucking in the thin, cold air. At just that moment, a cat delicately hops up and tries to settle herself on my lap. She looks up at me, tail twitching. The motion of my feet on the pedals of my new recumbent exercise bike is interfering with Gracie’s plans for a nap. “You know that if we were actually cycling through the Alps, I’d feed you to that cow back there, right?” I pant. Miffed, she goes to lie in the nearby rocker and give me the stink-eye for all of three minutes until she falls asleep. Twenty-two minutes to go, and there damned well better be a Saint Bernard with a keg of brandy at the end of this cycling video.
There was no helpful canine when I climbed stiffly off the machine after that first experiment, so I compensated by rousting the cat out of the rocker and sat down with wine and blue corn tortilla chips. Which is when I noticed that I’d had the resistance on the bike’s flywheel cranked up to six on an eight-point dial, roughly the equivalent (I told myself as I munched) of actually riding up a mountain road. Perhaps. At any rate, the fiction and the wine soothed my ego.
Last week, as I do about this time every year, I resolved to get more exercise this winter. I do try to keep up my walking routine for as long as weather permits, but when the wind howls up Penobscot Bay and is cold enough “to turn your head around” in the words of the song and the snowbanks narrow the road so that walking isn’t safe, I tend to curl up in a little ball. Other than snow-blowing, shoveling, and a little snowshoeing, I seem incapable of keeping any good intentions about moving my…well, you know what needs moving. Hence, the new exercise bike.
I have looked at exercise bikes before, and even bought one at a yard sale many years ago, but the standard ‘upright’ bikes–the ones on which the seat is positioned over the pedals and the rider leans forward to grasp the handlebar–presented problems for me. No matter how carefully I adjusted the seat, the motion of pedaling angered the sciatica and bursitis in my hip. Similarly, leaning forward with my weight on my hands put pressure on my shoulders and neck and inevitably resulted in a whacking headache. I’m all for exercise, but I’m no great fan of martyrdom, so when a friend mentioned that her husband’s doctor had suggested a recumbent exercise bike as good therapy for knee and hip pain, I scurried home to consult the Google oracle.
Recumbent exercise bikes sit lower to the floor, and the seat positions the user in a slightly leaning back position with the pedals out in front, where the front wheel would be on a road bike. As a result, hips and lower back are supported, so this style of bike is generally more comfortable for those with joint pain. Additionally, there are no handlebars, only an armrest like an office chair might have, so there’s no pressure on wrists, shoulders, or neck. I’ve only had my bike for a few days, but I’ve experienced absolutely no pain either while riding or afterward.
The Scottish countryside looks remarkably like Maine farm country, I am thinking as I pedal along a mercifully flat lane. Only with more sheep. Lots of sheep. Lots. The fields are open and windswept–I can hear the wind and the birds–with some trees and shrubbery. Ahead in the distance is a lavender mountain. It isn’t getting any closer. A red car passes me, going gingerly. Who is this madwoman to be cycling on this heavily manured wee road? A minute or two later, I slow down to navigate through an open gate across the roadway, then pick up speed again. When a ewe crosses the lane in front of me, I stop and wait for her lamb to follow, except that the little one is curious, staring at me from the embankment on my right. “Go ahead, I won’t run you over,” I tell it. At which point I realize a) I’ve passed my thirty-minute goal for the day, and b) I’m talking to the television. Time to get off the bike.
The other thing that sold me on the idea of trying to commit to an exercise plan was when I discovered I could get videos to motivate my riding. These aren’t the ‘rah, rah!’ type, with pulsating music and some fitness guru in spandex up there on the screen, exhorting me to ride like I’m in a time trial for the Tour de France. I imagine that kind of video is great for those who are training for races, but all I want is some scenery to look at to distract me from watching the clock. Happily, there must be a lot of other folks out there with similar aims, because I found several companies offering virtual rides to all sorts of interesting places, from the Pacific Coast and the rim of the Grand Canyon, to the Loire valley and the Cotswolds. As a writer, I’m a big fan of alternate realities, so when I put my exercise bicycle right in front of the television and pop in a DVD, I can happily suspend disbelief and put myself into the picture.
The autumn foliage of the maple trees over my head is absolutely glorious. Pumpkins are lined atop a rock wall to my right. The sky is brilliantly blue as I pedal down this New England road. When I pass a man raking leaves in his front yard, he pauses to wave and I nod back, smiling. A little later I cross over a covered bridge, and then I am beneath the branches of an enormous oak, the road littered with fallen acorns. Just as I am thinking the squirrels hereabouts must be some happy with their treasure trove, a small gray blur darts nearly under my wheels and I swerve to avoid the squirrel and…
Geez, I hate when they do that.