It’s like this: a trusted reader went over that bike piece and pointed out a few things about it. I was reluctant to acknowledge the reader’s points, but eventually saw their merit. The new version of the piece has a lot in common with the first, but has jettisoned a lot of what I’ll call random rhapsodizing. I liked the rhapsodizing. I just found it didn’t work the way I thought it did. The rewrite: It’s after the jump.
Trial and Error
One year, growing up in the recently paved over prairies and peat bogs near Chicago, I got a birthday bicycle. I was seven, and someone may have thought I was too old for training wheels; maybe I was that someone. I learned to ride that bike, a red J.C. Higgins with fenders and big tires, through pure dumb gravity-assisted trial and error. After a couple of weeks of coaching and cajoling from my dad, mom and other adults on the block, I had wobbled around and toppled over so many times that both sides of the leather-like seat had been worn down to metal.
Then late one afternoon, everything came together. Dad had retreated to his living-room chair, a perch from which he could see the street. I climbed on the bike on the gradual slope just up the way from our house and started to roll. I avoided the lawn on my left and the ditch on my right. I started pedaling. In a second, I was really moving. That’s what Dad saw when he glanced out the window: me, not just riding, but streaking down the sidewalk toward mishaps unknown. He was alarmed enough that he got in the car and followed me. He pulled up alongside just as I managed to dodge a light pole. I think he asked if I was OK. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember the sharp zap of amazement: I could ride.
Riding started out as the way to get to the park to play ball–instead of running to meet my friends, who had ridden on ahead–or to the store to pick up a half-gallon of milk, or over to a vacant lot where we would re-enact, Germans versus GIs, the current week’s installment of “Combat!” That circle of exploration slowly expanded during grade school: across town to our big-deal shopping center (plenty of bike racks, no locks required) or to the bowling alley that I was never supposed to visit alone.
Then came junior high. We lived about 12 or 15 miles from the Indiana border, and just the idea of riding across the state line made the journey seem like an epic. One of my brothers and I came back from that one, and Mom asked us where we had been. “Indiana,” I said, in a tone that sounded like I had just returned from Mount Everest or the Amazon or the Kalahari Desert. The summer I was 15, I started to see places on maps that I might get to on a bike. I set out on 90-degree days with no water or sunscreen, innocent of any notion of proper bike attire, and rode 50, then 75, then 100 miles. I’d stop at farmhouses and ask for water; I’d hit gas-station vending machines for orange soda and candy bars. Eventually, I’d get where I was headed–a state park on the Kankakee River one time, the Indiana Dunes another–and sometimes I wouldn’t. I’d come home sunstruck and beat and ready to try it again.
But bikes got ridden and taken apart and junked and forgotten. I went away to college in one of the flattest counties in the Midwest and hardly ever got on a bicycle. I came to Berkeley in the mid-’70s to continue school. My first ride up Grizzly Peak, on a borrowed Schwinn on a warm day, a woman watering her garden asked, “Want a spritz?” and then gave me a good soaking as I labored up the street. But I was most at home riding in the thick sea air and shallow gradients of the flatlands and stayed down there.
It dawned on me after I’d been looking up at the hills for about a decade that if I ever wanted to get out of town on a bike, I had to ride up there. A friend who had cycled down to Los Angeles on the Coast Highway a couple of times invited me on what sounded like an exhausting adventure, up to Inspiration Point and out on the Nimitz Trail. My chain broke near the top of Spruce Street, and I coasted back to downtown and got it replaced. Then we set out again. Making it up Spruce twice then all the way out Nimitz and back felt like a triumph. From up there, I could see lots of territory: lots of hills, lots of roads, lots of places I might take a bike.
Someone I knew mentioned the possibility of riding 100 miles in a day. I had done that without thinking as a teenager, but in my mid-30s the idea seemed wild. Then I found out that there were organized rides called centuries where lots of people did this sort of thing. So I signed up to try one in the foothills east of Sacramento. I got rained on and broke another chain, but I finished and had fun. I rode more centuries, then heard people talking about something called “The Davis Double.” The name alone made me want to do it, and I didn’t change my mind after I found out if was a 200-mile ride in a day. I trained and learned to ride rollers that I set up in my driveway. When the day came, I started out before dawn and immediately attached myself to a very fast group. In the foggy dawn, I hung on as we went right, left, left, right along the valley farm roads. Eventually we came to a rest stop. I was so used up that I was shaking when I got off my bike and could barely eat or drink. Best of all, I only had 165 miles to go. But I made it. About 35 miles from the end, flapping along by myself as it got dark, about eight people went by in a paceline. I picked it up and stayed on. I revived, and I rode into Davis with the group.
After Davis, I heard someone mention something called “PBP,” which I found out very quickly stood for “Paris-Brest-Paris,” a 750-mile ride in France, and one that comes with a whole series of twists. The ride is more than a century old and is held just every four years. Riders can’t just pay their money and ride. They need qualify by doing a series of long rides called brevets. Each ride includes a time limit; the longest you get to finish PBP itself, which runs from the French capital out to the coast of Brittany and back, is 90 hours. In other words, finishing is about like doing four double centuries in four days. To finish in the time limit, you need to be willing to ride all day and all night, in any weather, and regardless of whatever rebellion your body stages.
PBP 1991 went by, and so did the one in 1995. In ’99, I volunteered to support a long brevet and met some riders who were actually doing this thing that I had been thinking about for so long. In 2002, I decided I’d take a shot at the ’03 PBP. I won’t drag you every step of the way, but I made it. Suffice it to say that the experience was much better and much more difficult than I could have imagined. Last year, I discovered what it’s like not to succeed there: I dropped out after an Achilles tendon injury acted up.
Somewhere back there, with that first bike and that first ride down the street, I started exploring: imagining where I could go, figuring out how to get there and make it back in one piece, cycling mile by mile into uncharted territory, learning largely through that same dumb trial and error how far and how fast I can go. (Very far; not very fast, except in spin class.) When things haven’t gone right, well, that has been part of the exploration, too. And so every ride, every journey, begins another.