He wasn’t going to make it. Only fifteen minutes on the road, and the wind had gone from a gentle side breeze to a stiff headwind. Up ahead, dark clouds were gathering quickly. He could feel the pressure drop as the wind rose. He was tempted to turn around and let the storm blow him back to the auberge, but he had never back-tracked before, and would not now. Riding south on the empty coast road, he could see the thunderstorm still a mile or so out to sea. It had a thin, white line around its dark grey base. He knew that up close, it was a ring of wild, frothy water running outward from the center of the storm. He looked for a place to pull over. This highway was too exposed; he could be a rolling lightning rod if he stayed on it.
The road dipped toward the beach. A narrow strip of white sand was being darkened as the rain began to fall on it. He hoped that there were sheds or buildings on the left side of the road as he pushed into the wind down to the beach.
Half-way down, the rain began pelting him: big, fat drops, each heavy with the energy that was coming behind them. Before he reached the beach, the storm opened on him in full fury. He could not see more than three meters, as both the sea and the land to the left of the highway vanished behind a wall of rain. Only the fact that the wind was directly head-on kept him from being blown over and crashing. As it was, he found himself in his lowest gear struggling to push into the wind. Then he couldn’t. He stopped, put his head down over the handlebars to lower his cross-section to the wind, and hung on, with his feet planted astride his bike.
He could not move. Even with heavy panniers, if he raised his head, the wind would blow the bicycle up and push it backwards over him. He could not raise a leg or do anything else to try to dismount, because the wind would catch him and throw him like a tumbleweed. He was neither angry with himself nor annoyed at being wet. Instead, he was scared, very scared. How long could he stand like that? What would happen when the wind changed direction as the storm passed?
Time became irrelevant as he clung to his handlebars, unable to look about. Then he noticed that the rain was harder. Not more of it, but harder. At first, he heard an occasional click on his helmet as the rain began to bite. Hail! he thought, and wished that he had his strong rain jacket on. It was safely stored in his panniers, where it did him no good. As the hail pounded his back, he thought gratefully of the protection his helmet afforded him, so that his face and ears were not being bruised. It’s an exotic massage, he told himself, it should loosen all the tension in your back. He almost laughed, but caught himself as the bike tried to lift up in his face.
The hail tapered off as suddenly as it started, but the wind and the rain continued. His arms were aching, and he had a sore stripe across the front of his chest, where he was leaning his full weight on the handlebars.
How long, O Lord, wilt thou be angry? He wondered if that was from the 79th Psalm and whether he could remember any more of it. He began to pray. Not for any special consideration, or even to be dry, but just a little less wind, so he could get off the bike, and hunker down in a safer position.
He knew that storms did not last forever, but that was small comfort if he collapsed before this one did. Now his arms were screaming almost as loudly as the wind, and he thought that he was bruising ribs by leaning on the handlebars, unable to move.
As if a door slammed shut, suddenly the wind died off. He dared to look right and left, then stood up. He could see the trees inland still leaning in the storm, but the sun was shining, and the air had an eerie, purple-green cast to it. He was in the eye of the storm, and had only minutes to find cover before the full force of the wind came at him from the opposite direction.
He almost fell down trying to get stiffly off his bike. Then he ran, or shuffled, to the inland side of the highway. He saw a shallow hollowing out on the downhill side of a large granite outcropping and pushed his bike toward it. Looking to sea, trying to judge how far the inner wall of the eye might be, he opened his pannier, and pulled out his rain jacket. He put the bicycle flat down on the ground hard up against the rocky outcropping and locked it to a small tree. He almost did not get down next to the bike soon enough before the rain and wind came back up, just as strong as before. But now he was partially sheltered by the cliff, which broke up the impact.
With the wind from the north, the temperature dropped, not much, but there was more hail in this half of the storm. He shuffled his body around, crouched beneath the cliff, so the hail would alternately pound his back and his sides. He smiled, hearing his bicycle bell ringing when the hailstones hit it.
The storm moved on quickly after the hail stopped, passing through the stages of cats-and-dogs to drizzle, then stopping completely. He got up, and stretched for a minute or two to make sure no muscles had been pulled. Then he unlocked his bike and checked for damage. Nothing. Once again, the investment in a rugged bicycle with truly waterproof panniers had paid off.
He looked around. There were no buildings on this stretch of highway. The cliff was so close to the sea that there was neither room for development, nor enough beach for vacationers. The storm had lasted an hour, but there was still time for breakfast in the next town, 20 km away. He took off the rain jacket and stowed it again. The gentle north breeze gave him a tailwind as he mounted his bike and resumed pedalling.
As he rode, he mused about meteorologists and other fantastical creatures. Rain had not been in the forecast. How could a tropical storm have popped up so suddenly? He had seen them in the afternoon, after a hot day of intense sunshine, but never so early in the morning. He especially had never seen something this sudden so close to land, though he had seen small, violent squalls in the distance at sea, with glorious sunshine all around them.
Lost in his thoughts, he was surprised when the village appeared around a bend, and the smell of freshly baked croissants reached his nostrils. Trip update: No trip to report this time, but an update is in order. I will be in Charlottesville at least through most of 2018, as this becomes the year of the hip replacements. What happens after that will depend on the surgeries and my ability to recover from them. Stay tuned.
In this new, story-telling phase of the blog, I remind you that fiction (vignettes, short stories, and pieces like this one) will always be in the third person. I will narrate non-fiction (travelogues, sea stories, etc.) in the first person. Illustrations may relate to the narrative, or they may just set a tone. Enjoy!
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,