Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bicycle Riding, Past And Present

Last Saturday was a brilliant summer day, sunny but not too hot, with low humidity. I got my road bike out for a ride at 1:30 in the afternoon. My wife and daughter were out, so I had the afternoon to myself. When I turned out of the driveway I had to make a decision: which loop would I follow? I've been taking a familiar loop around a lake in the next town. It takes a little more than an hour, and there's a long, steep climb in the middle, but an hour in the saddle is not too difficult. I've gone out a few times this year, the first rides I've taken in two years after hurting my neck. But I haven't tested myself with a longer ride.

When I was younger I fell in with a bunch of bicycle riding enthusiasts at work. I rode my bike to and from work several times a week for as long as light and weather would permit. I'd put between 500 and 1000 miles on my legs in a good year. The season would end with a 100 mile ride to raise money for the Hemlocks Educational Center in Hebron. I trained all summer with the goal of finishing that ride. The first 25-mile loop took us south to Colchester and back to the center of Hebron. It was challenging, with a lot of climbing. I decided to attempt it, so I turned my bike to the left when I rolled out of my driveway.

I wasn’t sure that I was up for it when I left the house, but I wanted to try. I was worried about my neck, but it turned out to be just fine. I suffered on a lot of the climbing, but I surprised myself by doing pretty well. It took me 2:13 to cover 28.5 miles. That included a stop at the convenience store next to Butterball’s to get a cold Gatorade. I wanted to sit down and drink it, but there was a couple smoking outside the bar when I rolled up. The woman looked hard and worn. What the hell were they doing at a bar in the middle of a brilliant summer afternoon? How could beer taste better than Gatorade at that moment?

There’s one stretch in particular that I’ve always loved. A long downhill into Colchester has to be paid back, so there’s a fair bit of climbing after crossing the center of town. But once things level out you find yourself on a quiet, lightly traveled, two-lane paved road with a canopy of trees overhead to provide shade. You can get up on the biggest gear you have and fly along at an easy 20-25 mph. It’s a wonderful spot, one that makes me glad to ride a bicycle.

I started thinking back to twenty years ago during my ride. In 1988 I finished the 100 mile Hemlocks ride for the first time after several attempts that ended in pain and disappointment and after the metric century (63 miles). Michael Fraley, a young co-op who was working in the finite element group at the time was my companion.

I experienced “second wind” for the first time. I was spent and hurting at the second checkpoint. Every other year I decided that I couldn’t press on and turned for home, but this time I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bananas until it was time to go. I was in agony when I left the checkpoint. I could barely push the pedals down. I thought I would need a broom wagon to come and get me.

And then – like magic – the pain lifted. I felt a rush of energy through my body. The next loop was a hilly one, but I had no trouble getting up and down. I remember finishing the day in triumph, steaming up the road to the Hemlocks Educational Center feeling stronger than I had all day. It was wonderful!

I was the proud father of a two-year-old daughter. I was taking classes towards a doctoral degree that I never expected to finish. My father and brother were both still with me and in good health.

It was a good memory to carry with me on the ride. I wondered if extreme old age will be a blending of time? I felt like I was in the present and past all at once.

I was glad to be a middle aged man, still able to enjoy a long bike ride on a beautiful summer day.

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