Sunday, August 7, 2011

I Rode Alone

The Tour de France is finished for another year, and I confess I kept track of it again.  Why, I hear you ask, would anyone care about a bunch of skinny guys with big calves pedaling up the side of a mountain?  (This characterization is a gross over-simplification.  It is also accurate.)

Well, first of all, I have to admire the sheer physical effort involved.  The Tour, they say, is the equivalent of running a marathon.  Every day.  For 3 weeks.  It's mind-bogglingly demanding, and somewhat staggering that the human body is capable of it at all.  (OK, that does partially explain the sport's unfortunate, reprehensible and at times disgusting bouts of 'doping' - I mean, really, who takes blood out of their body to re-inject it at a later date?  I don't care what 'performance enhancement' it's supposed to provide, that's just creepy.  Probably leads to zombie-ism.)

And no, I'm not going to compare writing a blog to riding the Tour, as I can easily do this with a beer in my hand if I feel like it, whereas scaling Alpe d'Huez so encumbered is probably impossible, and certainly frowned on.

No, my connection with the Tour is much more personal: in the summer of 1991 I cycled over 2500 miles (roughly 4000km) in the Highlands of Scotland.

Now, I'm not comparing my achievement to theirs, by any means.  I could start and stop as I liked: to take a picture, eat a Mars bar, adjust a recalcitrant gear, or simply whimper at the rising road ahead.  I did not average nearly 40 kph (that's about 25 mph for imperialists) - on flat roads I ran between 15-17 mph, and a good average speed for me over a day was about 12.  True, I was riding a bicycle somewhat different from the microlight, carbon-fibred, skinny-tired, professionally tuned extravagances that a Tour rider sits astride - mine was a mountain bike, with big knobby tires, and it weighed about half what I do.  (Those who know me may say, "Well, that's not much", but that's not the point: consider the ratio of cyclist to bike.)  Additionally, I had my life's belongings strapped on the top - clothes, maps, food, and a full SLR camera with 2 lenses.  (Digression: I don't recommend long-distance cycling with an SLR camera: part-way through the journey, I found that all the little screws inside the lenses had vibrated free of their moorings, rendering them, and therefore the camera, useless.  Lesson learned.)  I was not followed by a team car ready to offer me water, food, medical attention, and, in a pinch, a replacement bicycle.  But then again, neither did I have to cycle over several 8000 ft. mountain passes.  (For the record, my greatest elevation was Scotland's highest road pass - just over 2000 feet on the Bealach na Ba.  If you ever try it, ride up the west side, and down the east.  Trust me.)

It was an extraordinary few months, and the challenge was not what I could accomplish compared to, say, a professional cyclist, but simply learning what I was capable of.  I rode over 70 miles in one day, with all my gear.  I hit 43 mph on a steep downhill (the Bealach na Ba, again), and one time entered a village exceeding the posted speed limit of 40 mph (I was not apprehended).  I survived a flat tire, a couple of stretched chains, and stereotypical Scottish weather that left me wet, literally from head to toe.  I avoided dogs, rabbits, sheep and Volvo drivers (notorious on Scottish roads for their seeming inability to perceive the presence of cyclists).

I learned that Scottish hills have innumerable 'false tops' (where it looks like you've reached a summit, only to discover that you really haven't); that on a rainy day, you can only get so wet - and once you are that wet, it can't get any worse; and that for some reason motorcycle riders think they and cyclists are part of the same clan.  (Because we both have just two wheels and are out in the elements?  Funny, but as they zip up the road past you, all you can think is that they'll be in the pub before you've finished the day's first climb.)

And I met some wonderful people (a couple of whom I have rediscovered, to my delight, on Facebook), including a few that I rode with for brief stretches, but never for more than a single day.  Overall, it was me, and the bike, and the road:  no one to rely on to get me where I was going other than myself, and no one to tell me where that somewhere was.  I stopped, quite literally, when I just didn't feel like riding anymore.

At the end of it all, there was no podium ceremony, no French models with bouquets of flowers, not even a yellow jersey.  I was left with a box full of photos, and a very different appreciation of what I can do when I'm really determined.  Which is why, every July, I'm always curious to see what the professionals can do when they are.

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