Essay: On Getting Caught Out
Up ahead looked so ominous I took a mid-ride photo just to record it. If I thought that was going to be the darkest part of my thirty-mile ride, all I would have to do is wait another five minutes. Between those two moments was a KOM that lured me to the north side of Lake Nockamixon, not far from the creakybottombracket.com office. After all, the weather station said to expect nothing in the way of storms for the next three hours. Perhaps it was a dark cloud.
In survival situations people often miss the signs thrown down by the universe. I contemplated riding Zwift instead of an outdoor ride. For a brief moment I dismissed the idea of placing my phone in a Ziploc bag. I had a fleeting thought of whether a cyclist could be struck by lightning well before I entered the dark hole of State Road 563. At a separate time I wished I brought along cash in case I needed to stop to avoid the elements. I checked southbound cars for raindrops and windshield wipers. And finally there was the denial that the awful black cloud in front of me was hardly menacing because I put that much faith into a weather forecast.
My ride started innocently enough. The damp roads would be the least of my concerns, I thought. I rolled onto dry roads and thought I had played my chances wisely. Each road, I hoped, would be absent of moisture. The clouds were light and airy, though not a glimpse of blue poked down from above. The wind was hardly notable as the route wound around farm fields, through woodlands and boulder fields. Here was my first sign of concern: I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke in a remote area of road where no cars were visible and no houses existed.
A couple of turns later and I rode up the northern shore of Lake Nockamixon, a time trialist’s dream, a stretch that has ample shoulder space for cyclists. It is a challenging ribbon of freshly resurfaced roadway perfect for full gas attempts. I was enjoying the opening descent when my thoughts turned to the darkening horizon. It was farther off, and I convinced myself any action would stay to the north. Across the bridge and up the grind of a climb the trees parted ways to offer a glimpse at what lay ahead. The segment is a two-mile stretch that is one of the most enjoyable portions of cycling anywhere in Bucks County. Except now I had new motivation to ride quickly.
In front the blacktop seemed to go into the distance and spill into the sky. In the middle ground a gray cloud limped across the horizon as if confused to its purpose. It was not clear whether to function as a low cloud, fog, or early precipitation. In any case, I knew I was in for it. Cars coming the other way were covered with huge droplets. They all had their headlights on. It started to drizzle.
Along the flat fast portion of 563 I rode hard. It was the early portions of the KOM but now there was a new focus: get through this storm to any of the stores ahead to wait out the onslaught. That old sensation of rain cracking my teeth occurred as each pedal stroke added more water to the shoes. It was at this moment I wondered just how attractive to lightning I was. The road can make one feel rather exposed despite trees lining both sides and the highest point in Bucks County – Haycock Mountain – just off to the left at 1,000 feet in elevation. Surely lightning would be more attracted to something else… then the double crack of two extremely close lightning strikes refocused my thoughts. This is insanity I thought. There was a boat launch nearby that was selected for its only fact that it was not exposed. I pulled it into the grove of pine trees very much aware that it was hardly safer than where I came from, but I did not have much choice. Considering I pulled it in near a man who was fishing from under an umbrella, it may have been the best spot.
I was so close to businesses it was frustrating. About half a mile from where I stood was OWowCow ice cream shop. About two miles away was Kimberton Whole Foods, complete with a coffee stand. All this mattered little since I did not have money in exchange for goods and services. And then the rain came down. I hunkered amongst a towering pine grove on account of it being driest. The exposed parking lot displayed just how much rain was coming down. Wing nuts of water droplets gridded the asphalt as the patter rose to that of cellophane. I was concerned about my phone getting wet and slipped it down the front of my jersey while the rain rolled down my back. When that proved pointless I quickly emptied my Rapha wallet of its contents. In doing so a once-crisp ten-dollar bill glowed from the bottom of the wallet. Luckily the phone fit and I positioned it back to the front of my jersey, zipper side down.
I have always wondered how many times a person thinks, ‘The rain is letting up,’ when getting dumped on. For twenty-five minutes the rain saturated everything. Three times the Garmin turned itself off, wanting nothing to do with the situation that had presented a warning hours ago. The drainage ditches on both sides turned chocolate milk in color and white water in intensity. There was not one location where it was getting less rain. A pickup truck idled in the parking lot with its headlights on and windshield wipers squeaking away. The man lakeside continued to fish from under his umbrella, placid in his posture to the incredibly close lightning strikes. If I trackstand, would the rubber of the tires be enough to deflect a bolt of lightning?
Either the rain let up or I grew apathetic to being wet. I turned the bike and myself back toward 563 and found it suddenly lighter in sky and precipitation. Standing up hopefully led to some small drying out. Sitting down caused the cushion of air in the bibs to deflate and provide an odd sensation. I passed OwowCow. Ice cream was not ideal at this time. I rode across the front lawn of Kimberton Whole Foods, parked, and squished my way toward their coffee area. The woman working the counter said either the store was directly struck by lightning or a nearby building. Perhaps I made the right call after all.
From here the team car was put on alert. Given the unpredictability of the weather there was doubt whether the remaining ten miles would be accomplished without another round of thunderstorms. It started to rain again. It took several minutes to get the waterlogged phone to work. A man walking by commented to me about the storm and politely offered a ride home, which was declined. I got myself into this, I was going to get out of it. Never had a cup of coffee tasted so delicious as this one on freshly discovered cash.
The return route was not without peril. On a southbound state road the spray from two successive dump trucks made riding concerning. Multiple areas of road were washed out with detritus. More puddles spanned the road than ever experienced. With three miles to go the team car pulled up next to me. It was a reassuring feeling that the experience was now shared. The Garmin no longer gave off sound, waterlogged for sure.
Euphoria is the feeling that washes over when arriving indoors from a ride like that. The bike can be wiped down, the sucking clothes peeled off, warm food prepared, and the knowledge that the outing has come to an end. I did not see another cyclist that day, convinced people doubted the forecast. As I sat on the couch at the end of the day scrolling through Strava, multiple rides were titled “Caught out,” or “Couldn’t outrun the rain.” I wonder how many other cyclists were seeking shelter off the road. Furthermore, how many of them shared a grove of trees with a man who fished when lightning was within a mile? He probably said the same thing about me.