Route 56, A Mid-Life Cycle

on 09/15/2015 - 05:52 pm

Shivering in the fetal position and bundled like some Michelin monster in all my biking gear, I'm desperate for sleep.  Montana in June is just too damn cold!  Alone, in my tent, in the black of night, I struggle to keep warm. But time drags and I'm stuck in the void, the dark empty void.  Then suddenly, as if coming from nowhere, I'm diverted by a distant train. The insistent bleating of its whistle greets me like an old friend, and then the long, low, rhythmic rumble, as the cars roll by, seems soothing and romantic. Snuggling deeper into my sleeping bag I'm comforted, for, after all, I love the train.  It brought me and my bike all the way west to Seattle, the start of the cross-country ride, and now, twelve days later, our group is following the tracks back east as we pedal the 3,500 miles to Boston.  Seventy of us are camped helter-skelter outside of a high school in Havre, wherever that is. I've never heard of the town and barely know the riders.  

Montana is a monster: killer mountains followed by 700 miles of grassy hell.  After pedaling an unbelievable 106.9 miles from Shelby to Havre today, I desperately need sleep.  It took me forever and, as usual, . . .I was last.  Who do I think I am anyway: some supersonic, spandex-clad, Valkyrie Biking Goddess, soaring cross-country on her trusty Trek?  Or, maybe, more likely, I’m just a 56 year old, middle-aged, middle-class, mid-life crisis, empty-nested Mom, lost on her hybrid bike!  Musing like this in the middle of the night scares me.  Doubt creeps in and wrestles with my "little engine that could" mentality.  But I still think I can. The worst is probably behind: the long, wet, climb over the Cascades, the endless switchbacks ascending the Rockies through Glacier, and the relentless rain.  RAIN!  Sometimes it seems as if we’re biking underwater!  Am I not now waterproof with rechargeable batteries?  Giddy from exhaustion it all seems so silly: the rain by the train falls mainly on the plain.  The whistle sounds again and again, more distant now, more lulling, and I drift off to sleep.        

It's still dark when the sound of zippers and rustling nylon wake me, as if some weird, nocturnal insect were hovering by my tent flexing its wings.  A look at my watch confirms my fears: 5:21 a.m. and crazy, earlybird bikers breaking camp in time for 6 o'clock breakfast and an early start. It doesn't make sense to me. It makes me angry!  Aren't they tired?  Can't they at least sleep till dawn?  Why do they go to bed in the light and get up in the dark? These "digit brain" bikers are nuts. They see the whole trip in numbers, like a giant time-rate-and-distance problem. They liken the ride to boot camp, adhering to a strict schedule. They're macho, bikers-are-tough, bikers. Well not me. I'm not tough.  I'm weak and worn out and so disoriented from relocating each day that time and place no longer matter.  Nothing matters. Brainwashed, I just bike.

After dressing by miner's lamp in my dark tent, I pack up my campsite, throw my bags in the truck, and head for chow. Starving and sleepy, I look forward to pigging my way through the breakfast buffet: huckleberry flapjacks, syrup, cinnamon-pecan sticky buns, oatmeal, cheese burritos, huevos rancheros, "roadkill" hashbrowns, and tons of fruit. I take it all!  Embarrassed by my overloaded plate I plop myself down beside others who, like me, have a slightly glazed look as they wake up quietly hiding behind a mountain of food. We joke about burritos for breakfast, but they're good.  After seconds on berries and a quick trip to the loo, I fill my water bottles, steal a banana and bagel for snacks, and head for my bike.  With my tires checked and the day's route rap in my holder, I hit the road. It's 7:30 a.m.

Today, our thirteenth day on the road, there is cause for celebration. During our 89.3 mile ride east to Malta, we will cross the 1,000 mile mark of our trip. Inspired, I leave on a high note but am soon concerned with the road surface. Laid out like giant Chiclets with thick tar bump seams, frost heaves must have buckled the concrete a thousand times. Gaping cracks and raised joints promise more world-class saddle sores.  Days in the saddle have chaffed my bottom raw, and just when I was considering being the first person to ride cross-country standing, I discovered Bag Balm. Made in Vermont for cow's udders, and generally known as "udder butter," it comes in a tiny, old-fashioned, green and red tin. Women use it down under to protect themselves, and so do men, but they call it "nutter butter," which makes me laugh. But no matter the nomenclature, with my tin on board I feel prepared.

Heading out of Havre it's gray and windy. The town slips away fast and soon I'm on my own.  The road stretches straight east. The big Montana sky looms overhead and the plains roll on forever toward the flat horizon. There is a certain bleak beauty as the wind gusts silver-green waves across the prairie grass but there is little else. Only occasionally is the monotony broken by a crossroad, an abandoned truck, or a scraggly tree.  Fence posts mark the miles but distances are long and tedious.  I push on and on but something is wrong and I can't figure it out. I'm pedaling too hard. The hills are not that steep and yet I am standing to get over them. In fact, I'm even standing, pedaling hard, to go downhill!  I've never experienced this before.  With all my might I'm biking east while the wind blows me west.

Suddenly the support van is cruising at my elbow.  It startles me. Usually it doesn't stop unless you signal and, with the howling winds, I didn't hear it.  As the driver slows and leans towards me through the open passenger seat window, I hear the daily hog and corn prices blaring from the radio. "How's it going?" he shouts with dutiful nonchalance, his eyes on the road. Frustrated and practically bug-eyed from pedaling, I shout back.  "What the hell is this?" I scream, gesticulating madly forward with my hand off the handlebars.  "Headwinds", he yells. "A good twenty-five to thirty miles per hour.  It will be like pedaling uphill all day.  Tuck low and push on."  Then, as he drives away, I notice bikes  piled up on his roof. Alarmed, I realize people are already quitting.  My heart sinks as I realize my predicament.  Headwinds!  I've heard stories about them.

"Go away!" I want to scream, as he disappears down the road.  I hate the damn van!  For some it’s a savior, they take it whenever they want, but I see it as a scavenger looking for prey, to be avoided at all costs. Besides, taking it would be cheating. My goal is to bike cross-country and so far I'm a van virgin.  I would bike under any conditions rather than succombe, at least that's what I hope. I hope to make it on my own. If they come for me, I will scratch their eyes out defending myself like a wild beast being separated from its young.  They cannot take my dream away. I struggle on but I'm worried. I have a long, long way to go. 

At 22 miles I skip the tiny, dilapidated service station, the first outpost I’ve seen this morning.  Bikes outside indicate riders inside resting with coffee. I yearn to stop but the wind is relentless and beats me down. I’m slow and time is valuable. I push on.  In a little while women I recognize from breakfast whiz by riding in formation to block the wind. Hunched down in the pace-line, one yells, "Join us!”as they pass.  Suddenly, with enormous effort to catch up, I pedal into last position and then, tucked low and rolling along like an express on track, I feel great.  I can't believe it.  I'm riding in a pace-line like all the fast bikers!  I've never done it before and I love it. I’m whizzing along. But, after a few miles, I tire and then, scrambling to keep up, fall silently off the end. Painfully I watch them disappear. They don't look back.

Alone again on the prairie, my heart sinks.  I feel like a little nothing on my tricycle. I hate pace-lines. No one waits for you and besides they are a mystery to me.  I don't understand how they form.  Are there secret meetings, are you born into them, or is it early admissions?  And do you have to have matching shirts?  I just don't get it. No one ever talks about them. They just suddenly show up, blast by, and leave you in the dust.  Besides, pace-lines are notorious for colossal pile-ups and cause lots of injuries.  I don't need this. As a happy wanderer, I'm here for the scenery and people. My bike, red with straight bars and grip gears, is not for speed.  It’s for fun.  But today is not fun.

Defeated, I push on into the dreary expanse, the wind wrestling with my soul. Why the hell am I here in the middle of nowhere pedaling my guts out?  I need reassurance. I remind myself that I’m biking cross-country to raise money for breast cancer.  I remember how badly my Mother and friends have suffered and recall how much sense the ride had made sitting at my desk sending out fundraising letters and watching the donations pour in: over $16,000 in a few weeks. I was stunned. People believed in me and my quest. I could do it.

Then suddenly, just before I left, fear overwhelmed me.  I felt trapped, stuck somewhere between my commitment and my ability. How could I bike cross-country in seven weeks, averaging 80 miles a day, when I secretly knew I had biked over 80 miles only twice in my life?  And, for God’s sake, I was no spring chicken. I was way too old for this. It was embarrassing. Doubt took over.  I didn’t know if I could do it, but  I had to try.

Now, struggling solo across the plain, I see myself as an eccentric, self-aggrandizing whacko. The cancer cause is compelling but the biking is impossible. Deeply ashamed of my bravado and incompetence, I pedal on. But I hate this damned headwind. It’s my nemesis.  Savage, relentless, painful, I can’t outsmart it.  It’s blowing my dream away.  Either I have to fight harder than I ever have or watch my dream disappear. I press on in agony, tears blowing off my cheeks.

Then at 27 miles I see them pulled over, huddled against the wind: the really cool riders.  I didn't expect to see them.  They are the "hammerers", the fast guys who travel in packs, like wolves roaming the plains.  I hardly know them because they're always ahead.  They ride fast and can dawdle for hours at espresso bars, long lunches, or bike shops.  They don't have bikes, they have frames and components made of steel, titanium, or carbon fiber.  For all I know my bike is made of recycled beer cans!  They know catalogues by heart.  They have aerobars, Spinergy wheels, derailleurs, Shimano gears, Presta valves, digital computers, and colorful Italian racing shirts.  They are in another league.  They both inspire and intimidate me. Embarrassed to be standing as I pedal by, I hunch way forward hoping they won't notice how ridiculous I look.  "Hey Yo!" one yells at me.  Tired, I pull over, so winded I can hardly speak.  "You'll never make it alone," he cautions.  "You should be in a pace-line".  "I know",  I whisper breathlessly looking down, "I was. . .but now I'm here and . . . they're out of sight".

Like Robin Hood and his rowdy band, these men are chivalrous and recognize Maid Marion in headwind distress.  They invite me to join them.  I hesitate. I know I can't keep up. They explain they will surround me and escort me through the wind, much as the "domestiques" in the Tour de France escort their leader in a "peloton".  Perplexed but grateful, and feeling somewhat like a Queen Bee, I set off with renewed determination.  I know it is my only chance.  Bent low and protected in their midst, I push on and on against the relentless, pounding wind.  For painful hours I draft behind the man in front, my eyes riveted on his rear wheel, terrified to hit it and terrified to fall behind.  With all my strength and concentration I realize now that this day will make or break my ride. Rigidly I persist.  My back aches, my legs burn, my seat kills, my hands are numb,. . . but we're moving ahead . . . slowly.

Steeled with determination we plod on, the leaders rotating every mile or so. I never lead.  I can barely follow.  It's the toughest biking any of us has ever experienced.  The howling wind drives us nearly mad. We can't hear.  We can't talk. Bent low, we see only the wheel before us. It's rigid and boring and endless. Exhausted, after 47 miles of desolation, we finally stop for lunch in a solitary Indian roadhouse, a cinderblock rectangle in the middle of nowhere.  Hamburgers, chicken burgers, french fries, grease!  We stuff ourselves.  Crazed for energy we load up on junk food: M&Ms, Reeses Pieces, Milky Ways. Anything to procrastinate and ease the pain. 

Riders are calling it quits and loading into the van. I pretend not to notice.  I keep a close eye on our "peloton".  I am terrified they will leave without me. They must feel I'm a nuisance, but I know I can't do it alone.  We regroup and push on in silence. With more than forty miles to go I'm worried.  For the next twenty we pedal like robots but everything gets worse: dust swirls, the wind beats us backwards and the sky darkens.  Nasty thunderheads gather and lightning threatens. I fight until empty.  I have nothing left.  I struggle and struggle to keep up.  In a last desperate effort I pedal standing to keep from falling off the end, but watch in despair as the pack pulls away.  Again I can't do it. Defeated, I collapse. Tears blow off my face and I feel like falling into the ditch and howling at the top of my lungs.

Unexpectedly one man drops back.  I’m shocked.  He is the best rider on the trip.  "Follow me," he says calmly, "I will stay with you." Dismayed, I wipe my face with the back of my gloved hand.  "Are you sure?" I ask. "Sure 'nuff", he smiles.  Robin Hood has a southern accent.  I suspect his personality is as colorful as his bike and that perhaps his charm has something to do with being a southern gentleman. Is this Gone With The Wind and he's trying to save me?  Beat, we continue in silence, picking up a few stragglers en route: two pushing their bikes, two fixing a flat, and one just standing dazed waiting for the van. Bent forward we struggle desperately as the hateful wind slaps the first rain drops against our faces.  It's almost dark when approaching headlights blind us. It’s the van. The driver hesitates, yells at us to get to safety, and then continues on to rescue others further out. The skies are about to explode. This is the end. Bewildered, we stop for a moment. "Listen y'all," Robin Hood yells, "Put on your raincoats, and pedal like hell!"       

Lightning, thunder, wind, and torrential rain all crash together now. An inferno breaks loose in the dusk. Flashes and booms split the air. The temperature drops dramatically and smells of earth and ozone fill our lungs. Tumbleweed skitters across the road.  A dead snake lies on the shoulder.  I  scream as my tires thump over it. Blinded by fear and deluged by rain, we furiously pedal the last miles into town. Rounding a giant curve, as we descend the butte into Malta, the wind is suddenly at our backs. Unexpectedly released from our ordeal against the headwind, we are now suddenly catapulted forward at terrifying speed. We are riding the tailwind express!

Drenched, I blow into town at an unbelievable 24 miles per hour.  Terrified by the speed and blinded by the rain, I lose control. My bike flies off the road.  To save myself I leap off onto the muddy shoulder and let it crash.  It’s over. I've had it.  Then through the rain, I hear cheers, stomping, and clapping. Searching through the near darkness I see the others, protected on the porch of a truck-stop diner, yelling at us to come in.  I can't believe it. I've made it!  I'm here!!!  Stunned, I look at my watch.  It's 8:30, and I'm hungry as hell.

-Katherine Converse, PA


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