–First Printed in Thin Air Magazine, Vol 23, April, 2017–
My obsession with ultra-distance cycling has long defied my capacity to satisfactorily explain it. When asked, I’ve often said, “Because I can.” Besides the arrogance, this is way too agnostic a statement for the way I actually feel. I’ll admit there must be deep psychological reasons—cycling, after all, isn’t my only obsession—but these are deeply ingrained and likely immutable. For who I am, cycling is an awesome match. On the bike I am always becoming. Resilience and persistence and generosity engage dynamically with effort and exhaustion and pain, constantly negotiating my place on an emotional continuum stretching from glory to failure. And the bike is there, always: faithful, obedient, objective, constant collaborator and implacable opponent, indifferent to my ferment, complicit in my suffering: the same at the beginning and end of each ride.
* * *
October 2005. Charleston, South Carolina. Anny Beck and I leaned her beautiful carbon-fiber tandem into the final corner of the Central Transcontinental Pac Tour, twenty-six days and 3,123 miles from the start in San Diego, California. There were no arches to ride through, no cheering crowds, parades, or fireworks, no officials on hand to celebrate our accomplishment, only a beat-up asphalt parking lot lined in faded paint and marred by potholes. Beyond a bent, rusted steel rail, the gray-green waves of the Atlantic roiled under the gray and angry sky of Tropical Storm Tammy. I squeezed the brake and we came silently to a stop; silence is abundant on the bike. I leaned the bike against the railing. We abandoned our rigid-soled cycling shoes and socks and ran down to the beach, wet sand squeaking against pale feet sharply demarcated from the leg by the coal-dark tan above the sock line. I held her hand; the tide washed our feet. We raised our arms high into the air, then joyously hugged. Done! We didn’t have to get on the bike tomorrow!
I would have, though. Instead I had to spend the next day on a plane. But I rode the next day. And the day after that. That year I rode 11,500 miles—765 hours in the saddle. On fifty-two days I rode one hundred miles or more. I was fifty-four years old.
In his book The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, the psychiatrist Daniel Stern wrote, “Because the present moment is mentally grasped as it is still unfolding, knowing about it cannot be verbal, symbolic and explicit. These attributes are only attached after the moment has passed.” As a young man the present moment consumed me; what I felt and saw simply was true, and any contraindication was false. Some of these truths were illusory; others survived the test of time. But youth brought me a handful of devastatingly fulfilling peak experiences, immanent moments when I found myself balanced at the fulcrum of the world. These moments of transcendence are imprinted deep in my body; my breath and muscle and heart remain urgent to again experience such unity. Sometimes cycling feels like a consequence of these moments. The ride simply is my turn to drive the cosmic flywheel; presence and cadence and effort followed forward, into gravity, down the road.
Each ride is a quilting of many stories, the dynamic interplay of road and machine and body and brain set in the space of the world, moment to moment from the beginning of the ride to its end. In each moment the rider hears all these stories at once. He collates, edits, chooses. The rider holds on to the past moment at his peril. The next moment is the challenge; the last a forgotten victory, left behind on the road with discarded calories and sweat. On the bike, only the rider is accountable. The only deliverable is the ride.
* * *
The nineteenth day of the tour wound through the northern Ozarks, from Vienna (that’s VY-anna to the locals), IL, to Madisonville, KY. The day included a ferry crossing of the Ohio River. It was an easier day for this tour, 105 miles and five thousand feet of climbing, six or seven hours on the bike. It was a day of tiny backroads with names like Cotton Patch Ridge and Roe Walford; towns like Elizabethtown and Mattoon and Shady Grove emerged from the forest every so often, where storefronts like Pilot House Gas and the Dutch Way Store abutted small, simple, wood-frame houses, beat-up cars, and abandoned fields and orchards. Poverty oozed from the road, so far from the interstate, town after town the same; two bars, five churches, and a Head Start center surrounded by the boarded-up and falling-down remnants of the rural life once held together by family and farming. The children have gone to the city, but their absence looms over the towns, shadows visible only in a moment slow enough to reveal them.
I was just punching the clock that day, legs tired and heavy. As I was slowly grinding up another of the innumerable small hills, I locked eyes with a young man standing in his driveway.
“How do you do this?” he asked me.
My cadence slowed. I’d never been asked how. I remembered the Passover story of four children, each of differing character. This young man was the kind, lovely one who doesn’t understand the meaning of the ritual surrounding him. Between heavy breaths I said, “Well, you get a bike, and you practice riding it, and if you like it you ride really a lot, and then you become able to do this.”
“Oh,” he said. “Thanks.”
He vanished behind me as I ground up the road. He meant it. It was an authentic conversation, but my face flushed redder than the uphill effort, ashamed at my coastal smugness. “How,” I thought, is the way people survive here in the abandoned Northern Ozarks, doing for themselves, relying on their neighbors, a pool of precious knowledge freely shared.
He wouldn’t have asked me “How” if I was driving a car.
I wouldn’t have even seen him.
* * *
“There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself—ardent, alert, and mindful—putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves…the mind in and of itself…mental qualities in and of themselves. This is called right mindfulness.” —Jayaram V quoting the Digha Nikaya (22) on hinduwebsite.com
Cycling is a practice. As carpenters say: Measure twice, cut once. The self-actualized rider is ardent, alert, and mindful. The bicycle is clean, appropriately equipped, and well maintained. Correct clothing is on hand, as there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. The body is fed, rested, and trained through a disciplined, cyclic program. Yet this is only the preparation. One becomes a rider through the accrual of tens of thousands of miles in heat and cold and rain and day and night, feeling good and feeling terrible and feeling powerful and feeling exhausted, the body teaching its possibilities and its limits. The ultra-distance rider attends to a constant set of ever-changing demands in a world in which his cognitive capacity shrinks steadily as the hours mount. Against the impedance of time, gravity, and wind resistance, the rider balances, breathes, and pedals; eats and drinks; manages weather and road conditions; navigates with route sheet and cycle computer, and assesses and responds to the sounds and sights of wind, traffic, pavement, and bike. Some response is intentional. Some is autonomic. Some is trained. Some of these things happen to the rider. Some of them are the rider.
* * *
The morning had been a hammer-fest, but in the middle of this 125-mile day, we came upon a section of the road under construction. For well over a mile, the comfortable, wide-shouldered highway vanished, leaving a single lane graded down to a rocky, washboard surface. This surface was covered with fine-grained, slippery sand, the kind of sand that when wet makes mud so sticky it can pull your shoes off. This day, though, it was dry as Texas pavement on a summer afternoon. Passage through the construction zone was controlled by signals, and vehicles collected in a long line on the pavement at either end, waiting their turn. There was no alternate route. At the green light I started off, accelerating as the endless row of cars and semi-trucks going in my direction roared past, throwing plumes of dust into the air that settled on glasses and clothes, the backwash of the big rigs swirling riders and sand together. After the last car a silence descended, ethereal in contrast to the clamor just passed. I hammered along. The bike was jumping around, bounding off the uneven surface, sliding on the dust, fishtailing in the softer spots, tires squealing as sand slipped away under rubber, balance and speed battling for priority in the microeconomy of my attention. I kept looking ahead for what I knew was coming, and then it was there; the plume of dust from the oncoming traffic. I made myself big and small as they sped past in the opposite direction, my life held by this group of strangers until a fortunate wide spot allowed escape from the dust of their passage. The tension melted from my shoulders. They passed; once again it was quiet, and the road was mine alone.
Prepare the body, prepare the bike, prepare the mind, have a plan. Trust the preparation, trust the plan, and the ride completes itself.
* * *
California Highway 70 through the Feather River Canyon is two lanes, narrow and shoulderless, a brief imposition by man into a landscape otherwise moving in geological rhythms. At the canyon’s mouth by Oroville are tall moraines of mine tailings, detritus of the rapacious hydraulic mining of centuries past. Second-growth Northern Sierra forests sweep down steep mountainsides until they can’t find purchase on the vertical granite walls deep in the canyon. The highway is a monument to early twentieth-century engineering. The road moves back and forth across the river, more or less trading sides with the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad; at Tobin road and rail cross each other on intersecting bridges over a loud set of rapids, the rail’s trusses flying high over the road’s. The canyon leads to the lowest pass crossing the Sierra Nevada and train traffic is constant, but as a single-track line, there are long, train-less breaks. Once each day in each direction, the California Zephyr Express makes its way through the canyon, a last remnant of our most civilized mode of communal travel. There is a string of small hydropower plants about every ten miles all the way up, turning the river’s motion into electricity. Flat space is at such a premium that several of the plants bridge the road and traffic moves underneath, the road’s edge right up against the rushing spillway.
Daytime this California Scenic Highway is populated by cars and RVs, big rigs and logging trucks operated by drivers who, perhaps unintentionally, can drive terror into the little dots of Spandex coming up in their windshields. Earlier in the day each of the one hundred riders on this 600-kilometer event had labored up the gentle but relentlessly rising road in ninety-degree heat. I rode from one tree to the next, where a paltry pool of shade allowed two seconds of sun-free coasting. There was no respite, however, from this eternity in the small chain ring, and I was cooked when the canyon finally topped out in the Genesee Valley. I pedaled slowly to Greenville, the turnaround point, where volunteers at the check-in station welcomed riders with chili, home-baked cookies, freezing cold sodas and ice. Blessed ice!
Nighttime in the canyon is a different story. Traffic is minimal, and it’s often silent but for the rushing of the river and the surprisingly natural squealing and clacking of the long trains as they move slowly up and down the tracks. By the time I recovered, ate, prepared myself for nighttime riding and left Greenville, dusk had set in. I was decked out in reflective gear, my taillights shining brightly, the hub generator putting out a steady three watts to the headlight whose beam brightened as twilight turned to night. I spun downhill gently with the river, sixty miles past Tobin to the foot of the Jarbo Gap, the last climb before the final drop into Oroville and the flat Central Valley run back to Davis. After the difficult labor of the day, spinning the pedals down this gentle but consistent grade was effortless. There even was a tailwind. Deep in the canyon the railroad continues through the narrow section as the road leaves the river to climb the gap. I expected the climb to hurt but was amazed when the painlessness continued. My legs flew around at a high cadence. I felt the ball of my hip joint rolling smoothly in its socket, pelvis stable, my body’s weight settled calmly on the saddle. I was in an altered state, humbled by the ease of my passage, graced by the perfection of my effort. The hills turned to meadows as I climbed toward the summit. The moon appeared, round and full. On an impulse I turned off my headlight; the bright moonlight suffused the night. A rabbit ran across the road and the moon guided my wheel away from it. The tall grasses glowed silver, waving in the gentle breeze. Moonlight sparkled on the upturned leaves of the California oaks. Were they following the moon’s light? A coyote barked and the world dropped away; I rode into the heavens, lit from the outside by the moon and from the inside by a numinous explosion of gratitude.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.”
When I rolled over the top, around 2 a.m., the moon was approaching the horizon. Shadows were lengthening. I turned my headlight back on, shifted to my biggest gear, and attacked the smooth, wide, high-speed descent of the Jarbo Gap.