I rode my third century ride yesterday. A century ride, for those who are not familiar, is a hundred mile bicycling ride. In this case, it was a local, sponsored event that also included other shorter length rides of 25, 55 and 75 miles. The longest distance was slightly over the century mark: it was 104 miles. Yesterday’s ride was trying for me, more mentally than physically. I have to hand it to the area cyclists for continually confronting the highly underrated but menacing New England hills and the even more frightening Connecticut drivers. They pass you at such a high rate of speed, and seem infuriated by any cyclist’s mere existence. You sense their total disregard for human life as you clutch your bike in fear. The Connecticut roads are rough and torn up all over from several seasons of snowplow damage. Unfortunately, my experience yesterday contained all of these experiences. I kept cycling though, with a constant awareness that I was uncertain why exactly I was riding these miles. From moment to moment I would glimpse at the makings of a pleasant ride, and would try to tap into a more relaxed attitude. Then it would get difficult again, and I would try to tap into some deeply recessed New England toughness. I thought back to my history with riding bicycles. I tried to get a better understanding of why I had such conflicted feelings. My first memory of riding, or rather of someone else riding was when I was just under nine years old. I lived in a lake community. There were six of us. I remember running after my brother Rob while he rode fearlessly around the neighborhood, the way boys do, dashing over speed bumps and around corners. He went around a corner too quickly and hit a patch of sand. He fell off his bike and cut his entire chin open. Of course, this was another era where you could just go to a neighbor’s house and she would sew up your chin right at the kitchen table (she was a nurse). That is exactly what my brother and I did. His accident shook me though. Every time I rode by that corner, I would most likely cringe. I am sure if I did it today I would have the same reaction. I remember walking past the corner on my way back from the bus stop, observing the blood spots from my brother’s chin fade into the pavement.
We lived in a perfect neighborhood to ride bikes. Unfortunately, I was always the little one in my family, and among the kids in the neighborhood. The bigger kids were always reluctant to let me tag along, doubting that I would be able to keep up. I recreated this scenario today on the ride. I sensed that I was pushing too hard, frantically, not riding, just trying to keep up. The Century ride was frustrating me; it felt like I was furiously going nowhere.
We eventually moved out of the Lakeside neighborhood and closer to town. Inevitably, I started riding farther and on busier roads. Although that particular sleepy lake community had a few busy months, the rest of the year the town shut down after 5pm and was asleep all Sunday. When I was about 12 years old, I acquired a pink Huffy bike. I rode it in parades. I was never entirely comfortable with a pink bike. It was very girly and I felt that it somehow hindered my riding or at least my young credibility. When I say pink I mean that everything was pink: the rubber handle bars grips, the wide hot pink seat, and the tires and body of the bike were different shades of pink, each brighter than the one before. Each handlebar grip had pink glittery tassels that came out the ends. My grandfather found employment for my siblings and me delivering newspapers, and each of us would take off in a different direction early every morning, before school and early Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well. It became a dreaded thing to do, and none of it was worth the few dollars a week we each obtained. My newspaper route took me up a road called Colonial Drive. I lived on a dirt road that was across the way from a large hidden pond hidden behind overgrowth. There were dirt trails carved thru the landscape. Local teenagers would ride their dirt bikes through these trails. There would be remnants of teenage partying at every corner. Early in the morning I would set out carrying a few dozen newspapers in my backpack. A few pesky flies would buzz around my ear. Colonial drive was a modern suburban street. It was over a mile long, and was a straight-up hill. I remember those mornings where you could see the air. You could feel and hear that sound of the dull, persistent heavy air and the beginnings of an excruciatingly hot day. Around half way up the hill I would get off my bike and start to push it, adding to the misery of this already challenging task. As I would crest the top of the hill tossing out my last paper, I knew that I would be rewarded with the opportunity to ride back down that steep and fast hill, back into the swampy pond area and eventually into my driveway. I would cruise down the hill with my empty newspaper bag fluttering in the wind only to be reminded of that vision of my brother’s bloody chin as I greeted the pesky flies crossing over the dirt trails. I would never fully be able to let go and enjoy that downhill ride. Even today, I feel some anxiety cycling down some long and winding hill. Soon after these paper route tribulations, I took a long hiatus from the world of riding bikes. My family moved from the area, and we left behind the quiet winter streets where perhaps one or two cars would pass you by in an hour on your bicycle. I stopped trying to keep up with my brother and sisters in more ways than one, and then I took a path that took me far away from any bicycle ride.
I finally got back on a bike while living in Eugene, Oregon. I bought a heavy bike for a couple of dollars at a tag sale. Eugene is a prefect place to ride a bike with its countless bike paths and lanes. In Eugene, people used their bikes for more than recreation; it was an alternative mode of transportation. I would often find myself doing errands on my bicycle, as it was much faster than driving. Though it was a short-lived time in my life, I have so many fond memories of cruising along at slow speeds. Many reasons took me away from Oregon and back east.
When I quit smoking I tried to my hand at running. I have told this story before. Yet prior to this, there is another story that I frequently neglect to mention. After quitting smoking and moving back to a less than desirable living situation, I was constantly energized. I had too much pent-up, chaotic energy that desperately needed to be trimmed away. I decided to buy a real road bike. I had forgotten about how this part of the country is not very cyclist friendly. It was certainly no Eugene, Oregon. I feared for my life at each turn on the busy suburban roads. So after a few times in the saddle, I went back to exploring running. Cycling would have to wait for another day. Then I developed an interest in triathlons. I would need to get my bike out to train. I knew I had to get out and ride, at least for a few miles. This became a regular frustration for me. I would load my bike on the car to drive somewhere away from my own neighborhood to ride on safer roads.
Over the last several weeks since I started writing this entry, I have been training hard for my upcoming Half Ironman event this weekend. The race contains a fifty-six mile ride, so I have been on my bicycle quite a bit. I rode several 50 plus mile rides alone on the local rail trail. It provided me with plenty of time to think. I contemplated my relationship with the aluminum frame and race wheels underneath me. I tried different postures, different fuel, and, most importantly, a different mindset. I cursed at chipmunks darting in front of me. Then something happened that I hope will, from this point on, change my riding.
My son, Elijah, has had his eye on my older road bike that I retired when I bought my new Cannondale. Elijah has an entirely different relationship with bikes. He skipped training wheels completely and has been a competent no-hands cyclist since the age of four. He is also now riding a unicycle. Finally, after much persistence from my son, I put air in the tires of my old road bike and took him out in an abandoned parking lot. He excitedly strapped his helmet on, got on the bike and began to pedal. He smiled as he zoomed past me, his hair blowing down his back in the wind. He was not racing, but was simply riding, effortlessly and freely. His young mind filled with euphoria as he spoke to me about how awesome it was, and how fast he could go. As I reached mile forty on my ride last week, I thought of Elijah. I often miss him while I am training. I thought of his soft giggle, his exuberance, and his enthusiasm. I sat up straighter on the bicycle and felt the wind against my face. I felt the glide of the wheels beneath me carrying me past trees and along side birds in the warm June sun. In that moment, I lost my fears of riding and of keeping up with everyone else. I finally enjoyed riding a bike. I was riding to escape, to go fast, and to feel good. I noticed how the wind was so loud that I could not hear my own thoughts. I had glimpses of this on the century ride. I was trying the see the positive in riding. I was putting my fear of the road aside and feeling the things I saw Elijah feel. He rode in the moment; he rode for the sake of riding.
As I set out this morning on my last ride before my big race, I heard one of my favorite sounds of summer. I was riding up a gentle hill in the middle of the day under a hot summer sun. I heard the quiet buzzing from nearby. It was a rhythmic hum from the over grown side of the road that was full of wild flowers and pretty weeds. It pushed me on. I pedaled faster and relaxed my shoulders. I looked ahead and saw nothing but a winding suburban road ahead of me. I thought of my race, of that feeling of being on that pink Huffy when I wanted to jump off my bike and kick it to the side of the road. Then I remembered Elijah, his ease at pedaling the bike. I thought of his contentment, his comfort in the solitude of riding, in the simple act of pushing two wheels around powered only by his legs. I will still cringe at the cars coming up too fast behind me, at the potholes and the piles of soft, slippery sand. I will, however, ride from here on out with the gratitude of a young child. I will try to stop racing all the time, on a bicycle and everywhere else in my life as well, caught up in doing more, having more, being more. It is not always about pushing through the difficult things, the unpredictable things. It is also about surrendering to a life where we do not know what is around the corner; it is about enjoying the ride, while we can.