It’s not blossom, but the small withered crab apples adorning the trees through the village look like red flowers (without my glasses on), as if the trees have bloomed all winter. It’s a fine, still day and we head up the valley. Neither Bartali nor I have newspapers up our shirts. That’s how we know things are changing around here. And the snow level is edging up Mt Ida; more brown flanks now than cap of white.
Crab apples held on all through winter
The biggest change is the green. A paddock stretches away to the west, a fur of bright green. Baby lucerne. Around here, a crop of lucerne lasts 30 cuts, or 12-15 years, Barry Becker told me. A long term crop that does well in this dry valley.
We turn left towards Mt St Bathans, still shining with snow at the head of the valley. I struggle to keep up with Bartali. Days away have taken the edge off that frisson of fitness I’d gained. Travelling to Dunedin for National Poetry Day then Queenstown for glorious days of grandchildren. But at least I’m out on the bike, and I’m grateful to Bartali, who, nine times out of ten will be the one to say “You keen for a ride?” and who makes me work, challenges me. No slacking going uphill into a head wind with him.
“When there’s a yellow line, listen out for cars coming up behind you,” Bartali says.
There’s a plume of dust on a side road ahead of us as a fertilizer truck accelerates uphill. Dust! The first we’ve seen all winter.
“It must be spring,” says Bartali.
Sheep lift their heads as we pedal past, and some call out baaa-ing, and we baaa right back at them. They’re closely shorn, and big bellied.
“They’ll be lambing soon,” I call out.
“I thought they were wethers.”
“They don’t have dorks under their stomachs,” I call back. Though I don’t have glasses on and nor can I see udders. With the discipline of the yellow line, Bartali’s back wheel and the rough edge of the road, it’s not the time to crane my neck to study the sheep.
We climb up St Bathans hill (“Good riding,” says Bartali) and over. He tells me to take the front. And here’s the best part of riding for me. Out in the front, speeding down hill, the rush of the wind, a big curve ahead and no other traffic on the road.
On the sprint home, Bartali hits 38km into the village. I laugh again, standing on my pedals and trying to keep up with him. I make it to 33. But it was a good ride. The longest I’ve ridden since starting training again. We bike home towards the mountains, the Hawkduns and Mt Ida shining white and the road leading straight ahead, through the fields of lucerne.