By Jane Huang, Dilettante Cyclist
I knew nothing about cycling. I decided to ride my bike across America anyway. I had signed up with a tour company that promised to have mapped out a route where I wouldn't end up as roadkill and made motel reservations. I 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 information packet and learned that novices like me were supposed to train a year beforehand! And here I only had trained 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 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 I learned that maintaining proper form required far more concentration than I ever would have believed.
And I learned some things about America, too. I learned that the Amish make wonderful pumpkin bars and sell four for just a dollar and a quarter, that South Dakota is overridden with gigantic grasshoppers in July, 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 would be.)
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 mention, 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 their 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 mile-long 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 was now capable of sprinting 20 miles per hour on flat ground, but on that hill, I was staying barely upright 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, my back--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, the 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 hill.
The most important thing I learned was not about bikes. The most important thing I learned was what it was like to do something difficult with only love pulling me from the front, and not the fear of failure punishing me from behind.
I had 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.
More questions on cycling: