A Non-Cyclist’s First Century Ride
It wasn’t until I arrived at the starting line that I realized I was wearing my wife’s spandex.
Already it had been a rough morning. I woke up to find my bicycle’s back tire was flat, so I hastily patched it with duct tape. Then I spent 30 minutes trying to cram my bike into the car. I didn’t have time to eat breakfast, and in the pre-dawn darkness, I grabbed the first black, stretchy garment I found in the laundry pile. It turned out to be my slender wife’s exercise shorts, which barely made it past my crotch. I ripped a gaping hole along the butt crack as soon as I stepped into them.
“You’re really getting mileage out of those shorts, partner,” laughed a pair of cyclists gearing up beside me.
I slinked bashfully to the back of the starting area where 350 other century cyclists had gathered. Most of them were wearing brightly colored team jerseys and fancy clip-in bike shoes. Their meaty quads and calves made my legs look like toothpicks. And my clunky, bottom-of-the-line bike seemed out of place beside their slim, streamlined cycles, fully equipped with aerobars, disc wheels and ultra-lightweight titanium frames.
But I wasn’t out to beat them. I was trying to join them as a full-fledged member of the century club. Biking 100 miles was on my list of things to do before I die. That list was growing longer—and my life shorter—with each passing day.
So I decided to sign up for my first century ride. It was a mountainous course—one of the toughest rides in the South, and also one of the most beautiful. I was looking forward to cruising wide-open country roads without the cars and congestion of city cycling. On the long ride, I hoped to get out of my cerebrum for a few hours and clear away some mental pollution.
It was a symphony of sound at the starting line: first the blast of the start horn, then the percussion of thumb-clicking gears and shoes clipping into pedals, followed by the wind instruments spinning down the street.
For the first few miles, I chatted with tandem cyclists and tried to keep pace with a pack of blue-jerseyed bikers drafting off each other. Then we hit the long, leg-burning lunge up a mountain, and the blue jerseys disappeared from view. I stood in my stirrups and cranked to the summit, then coasted down the back side of the mountain.
Only 88 miles to go. To pass the time, I counted churches (11), tractors (16), and Confederate flags (5). When that got boring, I tried to remember all the girls I’d dated since high school (less than the number of Dixie flags). I sang Christmas carols. Then I thought about this handicapped guy named Brian I’d met the previous day, and how lucky I was to have legs and arms and good health. My mind wandered the apple orchards and lost itself in the green landscape.
I felt good until I stopped at mile 40 to refill my water bottle. That’s when I noticed that I’d forgotten to zip up my seat pack. Somewhere in the first 40 miles, all of my food and tire levers had fallen out. I was in trouble. I’d have to rely on two aid stations – and a sliver of duct tape – to make it the rest of the way.
Things only got worse as the day heated up. I guzzled down my water only a few minutes after refilling it, and the next water station was still 20 miles away. Waves of hills rolled relentlessly against me, and two hooligans in a red Volkswagen nearly ran me off the road.
Then, at mile 65, I began the grueling, granny-gear climb up a three-mile ascent. It was slow going. I stopped halfway up to slurp the last water droplets from the bottom of my bottle. When I reached the top of the mountain five miles later, I was knackered.
For the first time all day, I thought about calling it quits. My chafed crotch ached in the stiff saddle, charley horses galloped through my calves, and my hands were bruised and blistered from clasping the grips too tightly. I was completely parched. I hated cycling and vowed never to ride again. But I knew my wife’s I’m-proud-of-you-anyway smile would hurt worse than cramped legs and crotch rot, so I kept on pedaling.
I made it to the next aid station at the bottom of the mountain, still feeling a bit nauseous and dehydrated. With 30 miles to go, I’d run out of things to think about, and I sure as hell didn’t feel like singing anymore.
The duct tape patch was starting to peel away from my tire as I began the steep, winding climb up Highway 9. My tongue was dragging in my spokes, my heart was about to jump out of my chest, and I was sucking wind like a vacuum cleaner—when suddenly I heard another cyclist clicking into gear behind me.
“Mind if I ride with you for awhile?” he asked.
We rolled side by side up the sun-scorched highway. Pretty soon, I forgot about how much pain I was in. My new biking buddy—a bronzed thirtysomething with neon shades—distracted me with stories from his first century ride a few years ago. Without noticing it, we were picking up speed and starting to pass people.
“You know you got a big hole in the back of those skimpy shorts,” he said.
“Yeah. I grabbed the wrong pair this morning.”
He smiled. “Press on, regardless.”
Those three words got me up the mountain. They got me to the last aid station. When I was alone again on the roads and could think of nothing else to occupy my mind, I repeated that mantra, over and over, mile after mile. Before I knew it, I was spinning toward the finish line parking lot.
There was no applause or awards ceremony at the finish—just a bunch of sweaty cyclists huddled around a table of sodas and sandwiches. Saddle-sore and stiff-legged, I hobbled across the parking lot and found a shady oak to lean against. I loved cycling again. I unwrapped a melted peanut-butter sandwich and thought about nothing.
Nothing at all.