20 Years in a Quagmire
by Genny G.


Once upon a time the Department of Highways ran a freeway through my friend's house. They blitzed her neighbourhood, bulldozed the gardens, ploughed under the homes and in their place left a vast wasteland of twisted metal, broken concrete, acres of mud, rubble piled into infinity, soaking into a quagmire in the winter rains. This sprawling monument to annihilation gained the name The Destruction Zone, and the only way around it was through it.

Saturday track team fixed gear ride, a grey, rainy winter's morning: ahead of me the paceline moves smoothly as we cross the low barrier of broken concrete that ends what was once a street and begins what is now a bog. Each rider in turn lofts his front wheel, their pedals hop as they post, arc over center, the back wheel drops into the mud with a soft slap, then the next rider lofts, skips, posts, slaps, then the next - a giant caterpillar rippling foward. Now it's my turn over the barrier. I'm a newbie fixed gear rider and anxious to improve my skills, and there's an unnervingly handsome Cat II Wonder rides behind me in the line.

I squint down at my front wheel, my very skinny front wheel, at its little wake as it ploughs a fine groove through the greasy wash. There's the jagged lip of concrete before me. I swallow hard, bounce on the pedals and lift the handlebars, gallop over the barrier and feel the rear wheel smack satisfyingly onto the dirt. Slap-slap, the rider behind me matter of factly follows me across. The clown who showed up with a stick covered with duct tape for a mudguard has been banished to the back of the line, but he has already fouled several of us, and with the constant drizzle I can barely see through my fogged up, dirt smeared goggles. The line snakes sinuously over sunken rocks and broken brick, then contracts tightly as it threads though pairs of makeshift bollards that to my rain-bleared eyes ripple like they're underwater. Suddenly two of them seem to become one - I nervously rear, my wheel slides sideways and behind me I hear a dismayed grunt. I babble distracted apologies to the wonder-man (Oh gawd, I am the merest insect...) flop onto the saddle and bang on the pedals with my heels trying to get going again. Too freaked out to get my shoes into the clips, I flat foot it gracelessly back into the paceline, my cachet, if I ever had any, irretrievably ruined.

There's an eerie majesty to the gigantic pylons which we're now approaching. The highway they will support is still unbuilt, and they soar upward gathering every particle of watery sunlight until they seem to glow even in the drizzle, the only brightness against a brown landscape and a heavy sky. With the passage into their massive shadow comes a deeper thicker mud that suckles our wheels. The road, deduced rather than seen, narrows to a path winding between silent earthmoving equipment, piles of concrete barriers, rolls of cyclone fence. The pack chatter falls silent, we tiptoe like children creeping into an alien world with only the sibilent lushing of tires through soft dirt. I'm becoming hypnotized - the endless mud, the feeling of floating irresistably through the debris, the fixed gear like a gyroscope.

The violent farting hiss that rips through stillness followed by a loud oath makes me jump - Roberto has somehow shredded his rear clincher on a shard of metal lurking in the bog - his wheel bleeds mud as he holds it up - I look down at his feet and see they've sunk to their insteps, but Berto doesn't care - he's dead in the water, 20 miles from home. Ten thoughtful minutes later we ride on, Berto with a teammate's spare tubular stretched onto his rim. The burly sprinter who has pumped it up to absurd hardness with a handpump is certain that it'll just say on by sheer pressure and leftover glue. Everyone else nods sagely. Berto is sure he's going to roll the tyre, the mud-trolls will seize his wheel, he'll run over another shard and the absurd air pressure will explode, blowing him into one of the tumbled concrete barriers that litter the side of the track. He hates the mud. I can't shake the hypnotic, otherworldly feeling, even our voices dim and small in this vastness. In the distance, against the leaden sky, great cranes, like the machines of invasion, sit idle.

One day, at the beginning of my riding career, Captain Rolf Nesland rammed a barge into a homely little bridge over a waterway that separated a large neighbourhood called "West Seattle" from the rest of the city, busting the old bridge and forcing everyone to find some other way to try to get into town while there slowly rose in its place a futuristic behemoth of a high rise span. A miscellany of streets, abandoned buildings and empty lots is razed to the dirt, and by the time first pier that the bridge will rest on rises upward, the area for blocks around is a chaos of mud, rubble, machinery, ramparts and redoubts, all transected with dirt paths which hump over the disturbed earth and wander off through and around small lakes of muddy water. This is a project with no fences, a giant's playground. There is still a way to cross the waterway on the old bridge by bicycle, and the shortcut is through the staging site - the great dirty backwash among the old bridge stanchions filled with equipment and access fire lanes whilst the work hurries forward around the piers by the water. Few people are back here, there are no "forbidden" signs, no signs at all save for a few tacked up on an odd telephone pole or taped to a traffic cone: "Bike Path to Bridge". They lead across a rumbling mixture of rocks and mud that wanders aimlessly through the old stanchions before you finally gain the stairway up onto the old bridge deck itself, your bike on your shoulder. The Seattle commuter is a hardy beast who barely turns a hair at slopping through these paths getting to and from work, and the dirt is heavily carved with tire tracks.

On Sunday the site is silent, and now it's possible to venture off the route to explore the little paths that wind around the stanchions, ride over the undulating ridges carved up by wheels the height of a man, crash through huge puddles of water up even to the building piers, massive square structures surrounded by piles of barricades, ladders, masses of wood covered with bright blue tarpaulins. The pier is approached by grunting up and down broad, undulating trenches littered with old lifesavers and and miscellaneous junk dredged up from the waterway. The urban trialsin riders dance across the tumbled concrete and perform magic on temporary structures piled up out of old wood palates and abandoned cable spools. They wave as I ride by, the thumbs go up when they see the fixed gear. It's worth it just to ride down here early on a Sunday, play in the dirt and then watch these guys work on their increasingly elaborate structures. It's a temporary world, this big playground, shifting and changing as the piers are built, then the high span is reared over them, but like all of these sites it's ephemeral - it will soon be gone, to be replaced by another world - the one beneath the massive shadow of a bridge, earth and stone abandoned to itself, and another adventure.

In 1988, tunnel boring machines ate their way through downtown Seattle - 1.3 miles of sheer destruction as the city regurgitated its guts to lie in massive ramparts of pulverized stone and concrete, digging deep to build the transit tunnel. A brown pall of dust swags in clouds, the sidewalks are no more than a web of vertiginous catwalks over massive gaping pits; the sound of brawling earthmovers, juddering drills and the deep roar of heavy machinery is deafening. Downtown Seattle is built on another Seattle, one that burnt 100 years ago and which still exists somewhere below. That which is not honeycombed with buried foundations, subterranean streets, abandoned storefronts still somehow existing in the darkness, is built on the sawdust landfill. The city is prone to earthquakes. Work goes on slowly.

Long since my fixed gear has been shod in wide, heavy tri-cross tires, pressure no more than 80 PSI, and I cough and snort in the gritty air as I grind through my rounds, wheels grumbling nervously over sheets of plywood, slithering over enormous metal plates that will turn into death traps at the first touch of rain. I squeeze my way through rows and rows of traffic cones - narrow little pathways of silt and gravel. The streets, once broken, quickly disintegrate. Great chunks of buckled asphalt shift like ice floes, lane-sized potholes where my wheels hit the 19th century red brick unearthed from 70 years of acretted asphalt and rock, where they scramble over piles of tar and gravel. I arrive home every day covered with black dust.

Work halts at dusk, and at night, the hurrying crowds gone, the machinery silent, the area assumes a post-apocalyptic feel of the world after the final battle - catwalks built by the few survivors that flit through the darkened streets. Now I can hear the rackling noise of my tires rolling through the grit, riding along the catwalks, creeping through the safety cones. In the glow of a streetlight I watch a small group of cyclists cross my field of vision, hop onto another catwalk and disappear behind the mighty bulk of a tunneling machine. >From the dimness a police officer appears. "Good evening!" I speak first. He nods, squints at me, notes the old beat up fixed gear, realizes that I'm female (supposedly harmless?) and civil. He smiles. "Nice night. Watch out for those pits, though - we've had to pull a couple of people out already that got under the barricades." He fades back into the dark hulk of a half-demolished building. In five hours this strange blighted place will wake up and fill with noise and people again. In six hours I will be one of them, squeezing through the hopelessly snarled traffic, over piles of crumbling asphalt, potholes, running along catwalks too crowded to ride. I regretfully leave the nightworld and head homeward.

I have a choice of routes on my way home from work. I can either tamely ride along the city streets, or I can cut through The Park. This is no ordinary park but a world class zoo made up of a collection of habitats, a genius concept that somehow has made a wildlife sanctuary in the heart of an old neighbourhood, spreading out into a parkland criss-crossed with a series of trails. Behind the zoo, along its the perimeter, is a narrow, rocky and in places crumbling footpath, worn in by locals taking a shortcut away from the grind of the traffic.

I hop off the street over the old, broken kerb that borders the park and start down the rutted path toward the zoo, posting over the roots, weaving through the trees, heading toward the zoo perimeter trail, the very narrow trail between the zoo's cyclone fence and a steep drop-off down to a ravine. It is a deceptive trail, harder than it looks, and I trot daintly along, sometimes with no more clearance than my left elbow brushing against the cyclone fence on one side, sheer air and a ravine on the other. "Hoooo Hooooooooo Hoooo!" The peacocks' cry echoes through the woods, "Ooooo? Oooooo?" below me there's the constant swush-swush of traffic on the highway at the bottom of the ravine. As I pass the pungent elephant house, one of the massive animals is strolling quietly up the hill, shaking its ears.

The trail ends in a T, I can either grunt up a steep, crumbling and very narrow pitch and stay along the edge of the zoo, or I can go the other way, where the trail skitters down onto the street and through an underpass toward the park. I elect to take this route, jumping off the curb and a moment later ride into the park itself, with its steep, swooping trails that undulate through the trees and dive down into ravines and back up again. It's cross season and today the trails are abloom with men and women training - figures shouldering bikes galloping in lines, disappearing into the woods and then reappearing at a sprint. These trails are not for the those prone to vertigo: once having shouldered the bike up one steep hill, so steep that you think you'll rip your cleats out struggling up, you may find that it's only a few pedal strokes before you feel like you've fallen off the edge of the earth - lock up your rear wheel and you go sideways...shift wrong on your saddle and you topple base over apex down a very long and steep drop.

"FOOLS! Do you want to live forever?" Someone bellows encouragingly from the trees and I see three riders burst forth and topple over the washed out hillside, committed to the end. Someone is screaming. I can barely look... but, miraculously, there are three bright jerseys below, upright, still riding, and disappearing into the woods.

The oldest bike trail in Seattle was built in the last century - a wide, gracious way through the trees, once a road surface, now long since deteriorated, slowly, inexorably being overcome by nature, turning into a rumpled mixture of concrete bits and swathes of dirt, pebbles and branches. A hundred years ago it was a bustling promonade where one went to be seen awheel. Old photographs show swarms of penny-farthings, safety bikes, men and women dressed in the finest of the day riding through a quiet Sunday's afternoon. In that time before the automobile overran everything, the great attraction of this place was its treesy, quiet setting rather than the absence of cars - a setting eminently suitable for riding two by two and chatting, tipping one's hat at the ladies, smiling at the gallant fellow on the high wheel... Now it's a half-forgotten interlude in a crowded neighbourhood, a shortcut between lung busting hills and one of most pleasant fixed gear dallies in the city. I reach it on my daily commute after coming up a series of hills and then sprinting along a busy street, still going uphill. I am no great climber and by the time I pull off the street and head toward this magic little place, my heart is ready to explode.

A smooth winding climb, then suddenly it appears - off to the right, an archway of trees and a large, wonderful sign forbidding motorized traffic. I ride through the bollards and feel my wheels grumbling onto the dirt - the pitch is slightly upward the way I go, perfect for my 64" gear, and the way winds broadly through a bank of trees - on one side is the shoulder of the hill the path winds round, on the other a view through the trees over the neighbourhood below.

Very little happens here - the leaves that heap up in the fall and wash into sludge in the winter rains, the spring trees quietly budding, are the only indications that time passes at all. A little mob of kids on bikes and running dogs passes me going the other way, far in their wake two adults puffing determinedly along. On a long section of the path the tree roots have risen though the dirt, and it's fun to ride over the puckered earth and concrete in a strange sitting run, my bum hovering over the saddle, levering the bike while my legs turn. Once in a while we have an autumn where the rains hold off long enough so the leaves aren't beaten off the trees, and they are brilliant here. No matter how tired I am, I am refreshed by riding through this way. Those old bikes once upon a time in this path's glory days were fixed gears, too, and I feel like this old, half-abandoned, half- forgotten path might be glad to see me.

Early on a grey, mizzling morning a half dozen bike riders gather on a little, flat beach on an island in the middle of enormous Lake Washington. They ride a miscellaneous collection of machines: trials bikes, mountainbikes, a fixed gear with fat cross tires on it. This is one particular place - one specific, particular place where the lake bottom is good and firm and free of the tendril- like and entangling milfoil. The group saddles up and starts off...into the brown, dark water. They descend hub deep, following the ride leader, further until the water laps over the tops of their tires.... The fixed gear rider struggles - too high a gear, tires too skinny, sinking into the mud, but pushes downward past full hub submergence, yet deeper, a few more inches, legs rising and descending with gulping splashes, until the wheel finally sinks into the murky water. The bike ploughs forward - it's arduous work, pushing through the mighty pressure of tons of water, like battling through a vat of molasses. The ride leader's trials bike is completely submerged...nothing but handlebars, his legs churning invisibly below, torso gliding along the water, followed like a mama duck by the rest of the riders in a small cluster. We move slowly along, following the twisting beach. Rounding one tiny point we come upon a couple of guys pushing their fishing boat into the water.

"Good morning!" we call, all of us cheerful, some breathless.

They look up and nod. "Morning!" If they're startled at seeing six bike riders trolling past in the water, by damn they are not going to show it, and we pass quietly on. I hear the boat shussing into the water behind me. Maybe they're underwater riders, too.

This is my first time with the underwater ride crew, a group of regulars who ride different lakes and ponds in the area, and I'm getting the hang of it - like riding over slippery gravel, riding a lake bed requires constant and steady speed - if you break your rhythm, slow in any way, hesitate, the water takes over and you lose control. Stay in control, and there's the reward of a strange, oozing forward progress that's impossible to duplicate on land. But the hard pressure of the water feels like I'm riding up an endless, very steep grade, and it becomes harder and harder to keep my line as the ride lengthens.

As I've grown more tired, I've unconsciously drifted up toward the beach, up to hub deep , and seeing my friends still deeply submerged, I feel stupid and weak. The lake bed remains firm, but the mud sucks and grabs at my wheels - twice my left foot slips off my BMX pedal and I catch myself in the gloopy slime. I nearly give up and ride out of the water onto the little dirt path bordering the lake, but then I see that my mates further down in the water are also ploughing, straining forward, the speed is picking up and I see the lead rider wave. I realize we're nearing journey's end, another tiny spit where several more friends, dryshod, wait on their bikes, cheering us in. I descend further - I don't want to spoil our grand entrance, the sight of the six of us arriving in a triumphant pack... but it's too much. At the point to where the water finally laps over my wheel, I slow fatally - the water stops me - both feet slide off my pedals and in slow motion I feel the bike slip out from under me, in those long seconds, minutes, hours between the stirrup and the ground I turn my head to be confronted by the brownish green water, turgid and muddy, and I close my eyes.

Another Saturday morning fixed gear ride - pouring rain, a hard wind. We stand in a thoughtful group. We have been on our usual route, clipping along, and have come up against a unexpected obstacle - a cyclone fence right across the path along a river slough. The water cascades off our helmets as we look up at this tall fence and try to figure out a way around. Finally Al, agile as a monkey, clambers up clang... clang... clang... delicately vaults over the spikey top, rattles down the other side and jogs off.

"There's a huge hole over here!" We hear his voice. "But it's rideable." He comes jogging back, his cleats making snocking noises. "We can get the bikes over the fence and if you can't ride, just run through..."

We pass the bikes over the fence to Al and one of the other guys who's also gone across, then the rest of us climb over. "Sixty-five years old and I can't believe I'm still doing stuff like this..." The elder member of the team mutters as he hauls himself over the fence with commendable ease and down to the other side. With old fashioned courtesy he waits at the fence to assist the only two women on the ride to climb over - even though I'm perfectly agile, I still take pleasure in laying my hand in his and allowing him to hand me down the last step from the fence. It's obvious it gives him pleasure, too, and we smile at one another as we climb onto our bikes and start off toward the Hole. And then stop short. In the endless rains of a very wet winter the road surface has collapsed into a big, rocky pit filled with slabs of asphalt. But one of the guys is a master trials rider - he points his fixed gear toward the smoothest side of the crater, jumps onto his pedals, hovers and dives forward - his weight far back as the tires plough into the wet dirt downward into the pit, then he stops, hovers again, hops once to sort his pedals, and with a massive, heavy grunt, head and shoulders nearly meeting the handlebars, he throws his weight onto the pedals - jerk... jerk... jerk... the bike moves grudgingly forward. We watch breathlessly. He stalls just before the lip of the asphalt at the edge of the pit. "Give it load, Johnny!" I shout frantically, and he suddenly vaults onto the surface again. Cheering, we dive in - a few running, shouldering their bikes, one pushes. I climb aboard mine, but make it no more than halfway before my less than masterly skills causes me to slide sideways, still upright until I end up in a small heap at the bottom of the pit. Frowning and covered with dirt and gribble, I climb to my feet and follow my friends up over the top.

The next week we're back at that pit, the trials rider and I. We note with satisfaction that the hole has accreted around itself a very nice site filled with rocks and more busted asphalt, not to mention traffic cones, to remain meticulously untouched, but ridden around in a twisty, turny little course. The place is deserted, it's the day off for the road crew, and most people would turn around and go another way rather than climb that fence. We work around the traffic cones for a while, jump though the piles of rubble, then approach the edge of the pit. I have to learn to "clean" this today, learn that set of reflexes, make that series of split-second decisions, that will conquer this, because next week, in the ephemeral nature of construction sites, it will be gone.

I just moved out of Seattle, out of the city limits, for the first time in 32 years. A little freaky, being out here, with a long, if convenient, bike commute into town. But there's a huge overgrown park nearby with a lot of trails. And down the hill they're rebuilding the road - another construction site with no fences. Time to go riding.


Genny G. is a Seattle urban fixed gear rider who believes the future is uncertain and the end is always near.

v1.0 written August 2005

More on one woman's Seattle? Genny wrote for us about the demise of The Bikesmith.

Construction sites can be dangerous and you ride at your own risk. They are also a working man and woman's daily bread. Ride with respect, don't go where you're not supposed to, and stick to night time riding and "days off."

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