The news out of Wuhan had been a distant whisper for weeks, but the deadly virus emerging from this Chinese city was now closing in and roaring through the streets of our cities and towns and down the dusty roads of rural America. It was bringing sickness and death nearly everywhere it appeared and leaving people, livelihoods and businesses destroyed it its wake.
This was our new reality, and would be for at least the near future.
By the end of 2020, the virus had claimed 1.8 million lives globally and sickened another 87 million. The United States, even with its vast resources and medical prowess, led the world in deaths (350,000) and illness (20 million). As we entered the fourth quarter, it became commonplace for daily death rates in the U.S. to equal or exceed the number of those lost in the 9/11 attacks almost two decades earlier.
How it all began
Brussels sprouts are my least favorite vegetable. So, as I pulled my chair closer to our dining room table on the evening of February 29, I noticed this dreaded side dish on the dinner menu. Trying to distract my wife with small talk, I picked up my fork and slowly separated the sprouts from one another so it wouldn’t be obvious that I wasn’t about to give them a chance.
From the TV across the room, a news anchor’s Breaking News segment caught my attention.
“Concerns about the coronavirus intensified across the Pacific Northwest Saturday after a person from the Seattle area died and as two new cases emerged inside a nursing care center in Kirkland, Washington where dozens of other people were reported to be feeling sick,” she said, before moving on to the next story of the day.
I paused for a moment, checked to see if my wife had heard what I just had, and spontaneously blurted out my reaction.
“This could be bad, really bad, especially for me (asthma and age) and others who have compromised health issues. And who knows how long it might take before we have meds to treat this or vaccines to stop its spread? We have to do something, and soon,” I emphasized.
I had read reports about the virus for more than a month, and I expected it was just a matter of time before it arrived on our doorstep. And here it was, ready to take our country — and the world — by storm.
I was coming off two serious cycling accidents, the first from the previous summer that left me with a fractured pelvis, and a second during October causing internal injuries. My doctor told me to wait until March 2020 to get back on my bike, but I felt good enough to begin riding short routes of slow miles January 1. By that late February day when we learned the virus had come ashore, I completed my first slow and easy 40-mile ride in months.
After listening to the dire news of what the COVID-19 symptoms would be, I was ready to take charge, to implement my plan to get as strong and healthy as possible so my body could fight off the disease if I contracted it. I was on a mission with targets and timetables. I set a goal of riding at least 1,000 miles/1,609km monthly and losing 20 pounds by January 1. I started adding miles the next Monday, and by April I was consistently banking 300-mile/483km weeks.
Although I almost always ride solo, it would be a challenge to avoid infection as a result of being around other groups of cyclists and the general public, so I began taking a mask or neck gaiter with me on all my rides.
My biggest positive adjustment, however, came by changing my daily routes to avoid as much human contact as possible. Mostly people-less desert roads on the outskirts of suburban Tucson became my norm.
In addition, obtaining drinking water without stopping at crowded public water fountains along the routes would no doubt be more of an issue as summer arrived in southern Arizona. To solve the problem, I added two additional cages to my seat post that allowed me to carry extra water bottles, giving me the luxury of taking almost 100 ounces (3 liters) of water with me on long rides. Hydration problem solved.
Fire, Smoke, Heat and Drought
There were more challenges during the summer. A large forest fire, one of the worst in southern Arizona’s history, blazed out of control for weeks after lighning ignited dried tinder on the mountain across the valley from our house. It burned for weeks, scorching 120,000 acres and polluting the air, making it unhealthy to breathe on the most extreme days.
If the virus and expanding forest fires weren’t enough, 2020 was the driest year on record. And with no daily monsoons to cool the summer days, the intense heat became an obstacle to log miles. By the middle of fall, heat records were set with tallies of 108 days above 100°F/38°C and another 57 days above 105°F/41°C. To cope, I began riding at dawn or after sundown.
I scrapped my cycling event schedule for 2020 early in the year when it was clear there wasn’t going to be a miracle cure or reasonable abatement for the disease. The tours and rides I was especially sad to see go included a 6-day, 320-mile (515km) tour of southern Arizona with one of my sons; a week-long ride through The Netherlands; a 100-mile (161km) event in Boulder, Colorado and a 15-day, 800-mile (1,287km) ride exploring the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. from the Canadien Border down the coast of Washington and Oregon.
The people most likely to save us were the health care providers who risked their lives almost daily so those diagnosed with COVID-19 would have a fighting chance. Infection rates soared by the middle of spring and, as predicted by experts, during the 4th quarter.
In the long run, research scientists were the ones who held the key to solving the pandemic puzzle. With a relentlessness and resolve never before seen, Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna each announced vaccines that had a success rate of 95%. First vaccinations began by late December, but it became clear that it would take months until there would be enough herd immunity so humanity could get back to any semblance of normalcy.
As 2020 came to a close, all my cycling and personal goals had been achieved. I had completed 321 rides and banked more than 12,000 miles (19,312km). I had lost 25 pounds and improved my physical condition. Most importantly, neither me nor my wife had acquired the virus.
Something profound occurred during all the months we were voluntarily quarantined. Riding my bike became my salvation, more than at any time since I became a serious cyclist in 2013. It gave me something I could control in an otherwise out-of-control world. And, as always, it gave me a reason to smile.
Brighter Days Ahead
As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, there was reason for optimism with more vaccines on the verge of being cleared and a new administration in the White House that would no doubt develop a national vaccination distribution plan that had been so sorely missing since COVID-19 became part of our national lexicon.
Unfortunately, it will be months before we have the opportunity to see our five adult children and nine grandchildren who live in multiple time zones across the country. There will be a time, though, when we’re all able to be together again.
From a cycling standpoint, I set a new goal, an epic one, to ride my bike across the southern tier of the U.S. from San Diego to Florida’s Atlantic Coast during the 4th quarter of the new year. It will be yet another challenge to tackle (two months and 3,000 miles/4,828km), but nothing as daunting as what 2020 brought our way.