things learned from biking across America
I knew nothing about cycling. I decided to ride my bike across America
anyway. I had signed up with a tour company for the trip and bought my
road bike only a couple months before the ride was to start in June.
Imagine the shock I got when I received the company’s informational
brochure and learned that novices like me were supposed to train a
year beforehand! And here, I only had two months! That was the first
thing I learned–how bloody stupid I was.
Oh yes, I learned a lot about cycling, and I had to learn it on the
ride. I learned about the differences between carbon fiber and
aluminum, and the virtues of titanium. I learned about dropping my
gears and spinning the pedals quickly for long hills, and yanking it
up into a big gear and standing up to charge up short ones. I learned
that, paradoxically, a hard seat is more comfortable than a soft seat
and prevents saddle sores. I learned how to sit, how to hold my arms,
and learned that maintaining proper form required far more
concentration than I would have ever believed.
And I learned some things about America, too. I learned that the Amish
make wonderful pumpkin bars and sell four for $1.25, that South Dakota
is ridden with gigantic grasshoppers this time of year, and that
surprisingly, not all of Middle America is corn fields–it’s also half
soybeans. (But as one might expect, I did not learn that Middle
America is more exciting from the seat of a bike than I thought it
People ask me about my trip, how it was, and I say it was great, and
that the scenery was pretty awesome up until after the Black Hills.
Then the questions don’t come anymore, because I suspect that most
people realize, but are too polite to voice, that cycling day in and
day out must be really boring.
I wish people would ask more questions. I wish they would, because
then I could tell them about all the real things that happened,
outside of the day to day monotony of cycling. I wish I could tell
them how proud I felt to see myself improving as a rider, bolstered by
encouragement and tips from nearly everyone else on the ride. I wish I
could tell them how comforting this ride was, since the majority of
the riders were retirees in the sixties–how comforting it was to see
that when I’m sixty, I don’t have to be tired and want to stay home
all day, that I can still have dreams and live them out. But that is
all boring stuff, on par with the details of maintaining relaxed
elbows and the best stretches for keeping your neck fresh for eighty
miles a day.
What I most wish I could tell is one of the cheesiest and most boring
stories ever. Near the very end of the ride is a hill called Sullivan.
It has a twenty percent grade. How can I tell a non-cyclist how
difficult that hill was? It was the hardest twenty minutes of a three
thousand, six hundred and twenty nine mile long ride. I, who was now
capable of pushing 20 miles per hour on flat ground, was barely going
at 4, practically walking speed. The oxygen I was sucking in was
rasping in my lungs like a handful of broken dry hay. My legs–I can’t
describe the pain, only the images that came to mind of little fibers
snapping, releasing bloody fire. I thought of tissue paper falling
into water, disintegrating. I could hear my heart hammering in my
eardrums, and I could feel it in the marrow of every tooth, a gigantic
chorus of drummers each going their own way.
I thought of giving up. There was no way that I could stop riding
without simply falling over to the side on such a steep hill, because
I was going so slowly I wouldn’t have been able to swing my leg off in
time. More than the pain, thoughts of giving up preoccupied me. I
don’t remember what anything on the side of the road looked like. I
recall no trees, no houses. Just the ghost image of myself lying on
the ground, finally able to breathe again.
Perhaps halfway up, just when I was thinking there was no shame in
walking, I heard Jeff say, “Come on. You’re my champ.”
That did it. I thought only of the next pedal stroke, and the next breath.
Somehow, I made it to the top.
And that’s the story I wish I could tell people, but I know would be
received with utter indifference of what it meant to me. How Jeff
Lazer, one of my great mentors and closest friends, pulled me up that
The most important thing I learned was not about bikes. I learned what
it is to do something difficult with only love pulling me from the
front, and not the fear of failure punishing me from behind.
I have never tasted that before, but I have now, and it’s a memory
I’ll keep with me all my life.
Thank you, Jeff.
And reader, if you haven’t learned the taste of that kind of love yet,
I hope you do.