I started bicycle commuting twenty miles a day to control my weight. God forbid I should eat less. After a couple of years on an old three speed, I justified an expensive Univega Alpine Ultima mountain bike. I bought all the gear, too. Not spandex. Spandex is illegal for anyone more than ten percent over their ideal weight.
I blush to tell you that I weighed two hundred and fifty pounds several years ago. Many years earlier, on my wedding day, I was a malnourished one hundred and sixty pounds parceled over a six-foot frame. As Jerry Seinfeld said of 1,200 pound Bob Hughes, “Ladies and gentlemen, the man has let himself go!”
In spite of non-moderate pursuit of eating and drinking, I had managed to lose thirty pounds in three years of commuting by bike. Bicycling was an agreeable physical activity that was neither boring nor abusive to my aging frame. I thought more miles would help me lose more weight. Since I now breezed though my commute each day, I assumed I was ready for a hundred mile ride. A trek from Falmouth to Boston should take me several hours at an average speed of thirteen miles per hour. I thought this was not only achievable; it was exceedable. The key was to know your pace. I knew my pace for commuting. I did not know my pace over long distances and unfamiliar terrain. I did not know that I did not know this.
I am up early and busy myself with preparation: water, food, helmet, safety vest, and map. My new bike is in perfect tune. My biking outfit is a blue and red polyester jogging outfit: long pants with a twin red stripe up the legs and a matching jacket. I don’t like to wear shorts because I have ugly legs. This ensemble is topped off with a black Bell helmet, an orange safety vest, and high top New Balance sneakers. The perfect bike geek.
At 6:30 AM it is 65 degrees with no wind. Humidity is high and temperatures threaten to hit the 90’s. My fellow vacationers offer a last chance to back out and smile indulgently as I laugh off their concerns. Mr. Excess rides again, over dressed, under trained, and blissfully clueless.
Off into the crisp, sun-dappled morning. Tires crunch along a dirt road; I soon spin onto the blacktop and breathe in the pine-perfumed air. I am careful not to slip into the loose sand on the shoulder as I ride close to the edge. Narrow country roads on Cape Cod leave little room for car and bike, but we co-exist peaceably for the most part: I ride straight they pull wide around me. Much of this coddling by drivers I attribute to my orange safety vest. It communicates: Please watch out for me. I am trying to watch out for you. Why else would I be wearing this geeky orange vest? I used to ride without vest and I had daily altercations with vehicles. They would skim by me, cut me off, back into me, and, worst of all, door me. I have flown through the air several times after plowing into a car door whipped open in front of me. City commuting requires full time attention. These incidents nearly disappeared when I began wearing my ‘vest of invulnerability.’
One hour gone on Route 28, ten miles covered. I do not need my cycle computer to see this is below my planned pace. I take my first pull on the water bottle. It is now about 8:00 AM and 75 degrees–no wind, high humidity. I take off my jacket and stow it in my rack duffel.
The last mile to the Bourne Bridge is a gentle climb that now feels less gentle. I labor to keep my pace up and to drink at the same time, remembering the “drink before you are thirsty” rule. As I approach the hillcrest, another biker pulls along side. He is skin-tight lean; his bike looks like it is made of spider webs.
“Hi,” he said, pulling by me. “Where you headed?”
I lean on the pedals to match his pace. We pull abreast again.
“I’m going to Boston,” I said, proud of potential accomplishment. “How about you?” I asked.
“Well,” he said. “I came from Provincetown this morning…”
(Yikes! Sixty miles before 8:30 AM.)
“…I want to make Providence by noon.”
(EEEK! Another sixty miles.)
He continues, “I biked out from Montana over the last few weeks,”
“Wow!” I wheeze, happy to let him talk. His pace is brutal.
We crest the hill. The Bourne Bridge appears ahead. He heads over the Bourne to Providence; I continue along the Cape Cod Canal to the Sagamore Bridge.
“Good luck,” he called, zooming off. I coast for a while, recovering; not in the least motivated to zoom anywhere.
Driving along the Cape Cod Canal I have always enjoyed the view of the waterway and the sea beyond. On a bike, it is different. I crawl to the top of the first serious hill. It is a lung searing, thigh burning, mind numbing experience. I refuse to walk. With my head down, for I cannot bear to see how far to the top it is, I crank away slowly until I feel the effort ease. I look up. It’s only a brief flat spot. A second climb looms. It’s a long, slow slog up another tree-lined torture test as the sun beats down, the temperature goes up, and my water bottle runs dry.
The top at last. A scenic vista spreads below and I recover quickly. Three years of daily biking pay some dividends, however meager. After admiring the view I look around for a water source. Seeing none, I plan on the first gas station I see. Now it’s time for a steep descent. I have a solid bike, a desire to see how fast I can go, and a cycle computer to document the occasion.
This is fun! And I plan to use my momentum to whisk me up the next hill. A plan at last! Half-way down, nearly in free-fall, I approach fifty miles per hour, passing a few cars. My new bike is handling this speed well. It seems to become more stable the faster I go. Nothing like a good bike. I lean forward to cut wind resistance and try some furious pedaling. Forget that. Speed creeps up to fifty-two mph. It is exhilarating: The rushing wind, whir of wheels, the occasional car on my left, trees a blur on my right. My average speed will get a nice boost out of this.
Down becomes up. Time to engage my plan. I pedal like a dervish. With the pain of the last uphill fresh in my memory, I want to avoid a repeat. Although I climb rapidly, my deceleration is equally rapid. My thighs burn at the slightest effort. To avoid the burn I gear down. With eight gears in the back and three in the front I theoretically have twenty-four gears to ease my way up the hill. I calculate: if the hill is about a half mile, and I divide the gears accordingly, I must stay in the current gear for about fifteen seconds. Deceleration alert! I gear down sooner than fifteen seconds. Recalculating. Now it is twenty seconds per gear, then thirty, forty… I hit the granny gear half-way up the hill. The pain of oxygen debt blossoms in my legs as I crawl up the last thousand feet.
Again, the hill top and more beautiful scenery, which I ignore as I peel a startlingly dry tongue from the roof of my mouth. Water has become a priority. I wish I had two bottles. I wish had been drinking earlier and oftener. I wish I had not worked so hard on these hills. I am immersed in my studies at the School of Bitter Experience.
At last, the Sagamore Bridge: twenty-five miles in two and a half hours. I am grateful to find a local variety store where I get water and bananas. Then it’s over the bridge. A few hundred feet up the steep ramp there is a sign: No Riding of Bikes on Bridge. I law-abidingly get off and walk up. Here is another sign: Desperate? Call The Samaritans. In the 1930’s, these half mile long suspension bridges were built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Chest high rails originally separated pedestrians from the void, making for easy jumping off points, and suicidal leaps were numerous. To discourage the already discouraged, twelve-foot high anti-climb steel fences were retrofitted. The Samaritans provide a phone number, but no phone. A serious omission, I think. However, I am not desperate. Yet.
After a pleasant walk, I stop at the top. It is a beautiful scene: Deep blue water, pale blue sky, tiny boats with white wakes, all framed by green forest and twin black threads of bike paths bordering each side of the canal. It occurs to me that there is an inverse correlation between suffering and a desire to gaze at scenery. The canal is about one hundred and fifty feet down. Sailboats, motor boats, and tankers criss cross below me. I can see all the way to Cape Cod Bay. It is breezy up here and the sun is hot. With no gendarmes in sight I become a scofflaw and hop on my bike to enjoy a guilt-free downhill ride to the Massachusetts mainland.
The bustle and noise of the bridge rotary traffic soon fades. The road is narrow with cracked tar and a crumbling shoulder. Scrubby brush lines the road edge, with thick woods a few feet in. My tires hum in harmony with the metallic whir of a well-maintained drive chain. The high-pitched whine of heat bugs is the dominant nature sound. Sweating heavily, I take long pulls from my water bottle. I am in the wilderness. There are no parks, houses, gas stations, streams, ponds, or puddles. It is just the bike and me, the hot sun, the cracked road, and the heat bugs.
Hills are short but frequent. I use my momentum to get me up and over, but still struggle at each one. I try to maintain my pace and … YAHHHH! A shriek comes from behind and a pick-up truck nicks by me at high speed. Local boys in T-shirts crowd the cab, one leaning out the window waving a beer bottle. Serenity is not my long suit when I get an adrenaline hit, so I reflexively give the finger and shout a favorite epithet. As the truck disappears around a curve, I hear tires squeal and the unmistakable sound of rapidly applied brakes. Oh! This is just great: my private Deliverance. I leap off the bike, imagining a confrontation with drunken thugs. I inspect the ground for rocks, sticks, logs, my bike, anything that looks weaponly. I am frightened and pissed-off. These two emotions combine to make me ghoulishly anticipate the return of my tormentors. I think OK, I will appear outwardly calm and friendly until I get close enough to clock at least one of them. I stand in the bushes, the bike between road and me, should they appear from around that curve: heart racing, ears ringing, wondering whether I should disappear into the woods leaving the bike for them to fight over. Ahh, adventure.
They do not appear. Metabolic functions return to normal. Post-adrenaline wastedness sets in. I am limp and thirsty. On the look out for red pick-up trucks and water, I ride on. After a few miles, I am ready to knock at one of the few houses for water, when I see a woman sprinkling her front lawn. Oh, bless us! I turn into the driveway and coast right up to her. Not her, so much as the water spraying lusciously forth. She ignores my approach until I park my front wheel an inch from her knee. I want to snatch the hose from her and spray it down my throat. Instead, I move slowly so as not to frighten her, and pull out my water bottle. She stares at me wide-eyed.
“Could I get a fill up, please?” I said.
Laughing hilariously, she pokes her hose into my bottle.
“I had no idea what you were doing!” she said.
“Sorry,” I said. “I got a little single minded about water over the last few miles.”
“You sure you don’t want a beer instead?”
A shirtless man appeared from within and spoke, grinning, from the steps. I considered it.
“No,” I said. “Thanks anyway. I’ve got a long way to go.”
“You’re nuts to be riding on a day like this. It’s gonna be close to a hundred this afternoon. Ya’ sure? We got some cold ones inside.”
I drained the water bottle. It was incredibly good.
“No, really,” I said, getting a refill. “This is cold enough.”
I chatted with them, enjoying the easy way they befriended me. I wanted to stay. To collapse on their shady lawn, let them feed me, give me beers, and listen to my stories. The lady, all smiles and crinkly eyes, tops off my water again. I push off as they wish me well.
Later I pull into downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts. My odometer reads forty-five miles. It is twelve noon. Plymouth church bells chime as I compute my pace: nine miles per hour. At this rate, I will be home at 4:00 PM. My optimism is tempered by the immediate problem of which way to go. My map (clearly inadequate) shows major routes but not local roads. The street is teeming with tourists in blousy summer attire.
“Excuse me,” I ask a fresh looking young couple. “Which road to Boston?”
“Oh!” They exchange looks. “Where are you coming from?” (Ah! pleasantries first)
“I rode up from Falmouth this morning,” I off-handedly explain, aware of my feeble performance.
“In one day?” They seem awestruck. “You came all that way just today?”
“Well, yes,” I said, pleased they are impressed.
I humbly add, “That’s nothing! I met a guy who came from Montana on his bike.” Admiration by association. We talk about the bike, the heat, the journey. It has just occurred to me that their astonishment might have something to do with a middle-aged man on a long distance bike ride on the hottest day of the year. I set off again, north on Route 53.
My main problem now is I cannot get enough water. I am drinking but it does not quench my thirst. In addition, I am sweating intermittently. This means I have stopped sweating a few times. I think this is not good. The next revelation is I am not in touch with the true nature of my leg weariness. At a hill, I shift to the lowest gear, but am barely able to pedal. Maybe I have mistakenly shifted to a higher gear? No such luck.
I stop halfway up the hill. Getting off the bike I let it drop where it will and collapse on the sandy shoulder. I miscalculated just about everything: how to train, eat, drink, dress, pace, and rest. What else can go wrong? I know I burned myself out pacing that biker, however briefly, and then digging in too hard on the hills along the canal. I totally screwed up on the water. I am bone weary with a pounding headache. And there is still a long way… OUCH! What the…? Agghhh… OW! OW! I am slapping my legs and rolling around. Hot needles are stinging my thighs, shins, ankles, the backs of my hands. Damn! What is this? It is a nest of red ants. I have come to rest at the entrance to Hades. My jogging trousers hide the little buggers as they are scurry up my socks and disappear into each pant leg. They signal where they are by BITING! I run into the bushes, drop my pants and slap at my legs, picking them off one by one. They are everywhere. Frogs or locusts would not surprise me at this point. Nearly naked in the bushes, I ignore the partially screened houses and attempt to urinate. This is the first time since I set out from Falmouth. Not good. Evicting the last of the ants, I get on the bike and struggle up the hill. Mercifully, the road flattens into the distance.
Water. In the ninety-degree heat, that is all I think about. I get a fill up at a gas station and try to drink a full bottle before moving on. Stomach cramps prevent me from drinking all I want. Back on the bike, I get the chills and shiver convulsively in spite of the heat. My face and upper body are bone dry. I have the worst headache of my life; my eyes squint with the pain. This is bonking. It feels like imminent death. Sixty miles into my ride I give up.
I find a phone and call back to Falmouth, getting my family just as they are about to drive home. It is the first break of the day. There is a diner nearby and we arrange for a pick-up.
It feels good to stop riding that bike. I park and enter the deserted diner. A young waitress stares at me and asks if I had an accident. I guess I look like I have. I tell her I am O.K. and order a beer. In the men’s room mirror I see why the waitress showed concern. My sunken eyes stare back at me, vacant with exhaustion. My hair is hanging in matted strings. Random dirt streaks my face and hands. My shirt is a mess. Red ants crawl out my… (Just kidding). I clean up in the sink, slick my hair back, and put on a fresh T-shirt, thankful to have one in my duffel.
I take a booth by the window and order a tossed green salad, no dressing, to go with my Beck’s. Funny what you crave after a period of deprivation. My powers of recovery again seem miraculous. My headache subsides, and, as long as I do not move too quickly, I feel fine.
An hour passes. I gaze out the diner window and see my red Cutlass zoom by outside. I am sure my family will find their way back. Right now I am enjoying a bit of zoned out serenity. I am comfortable, cool, resting. I never want to do this again. Did I feel defeated? Did I feel humiliated? Yes, I did.
I learned my limits, and by staying within them, find them not so limiting. I still ride my bike daily, with several trips to Cape Cod and Provincetown. My twenty-one year old daughter, Jill, once joined me for a reverse ride: Quincy to Falmouth. She is not a biker, but demonstrated the power of youth by making it look easy. I have since toured New England, up and down towering hills several hours a day, eating mounds of pasta, pints of Ben & Jerry’s and lowering water tables along the way.
I do not recommend suffering as the way to wisdom, but it does seem the quickest route. I much prefer reading about the character building experiences of others. In this vein, I recommend Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods. For the truly hard core, try these trial-by-fire titles: In the Heart of the Sea by Nat Philbrick, Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, and, my favorite about survival in the face of adversity, Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. May your wisdom be acquired by less arduous means.
Steve Rapson lives in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide to Stage and Podium. A guitarist and recording artist he has seven CD’s in release. His web site is http://sologuitar.com