Lewis, my almost four-year-old grandson, slowly pulled his shiny green STRIDER beginner bicycle to the side of the paved path, wiped sweat from his eyes with his left hand, raised his other hand to block the afternoon sun from his gaze and asked, “Grandpa, can we do this again tomorrow?”
I turned my handlebars and slowly circled back, handed him the bottle of water I’d brought with me on this unseasonably warm late spring Indiana day and replied, “Absolutely, Lew, we can do this every day.”
It was the answer he hoped he’d receive and the question I’ll always remember getting from this little boy who had been melting my heart from the first time I saw him.
As we pulled back on the path to continue our ride, he said, “I know where there’s an ice cream store up ahead. My dad, me and Evelyn ride our bikes there sometimes.”
“Oh, do you?” I laughed.
“We can go there if you want,” he said, not wanting to let go of topic.
A few minutes later, we were sitting at a small metal table on the patio in front of the ice cream shop, he on his knees so he could look over the edge of the table and me across from him taking small bites from the side of my double-dip chocolate cone.
As Lew’s melting rainbow sherbet streamed down his chin, he asked, “When do you have to go back to ‘Zona (Arizona)?”
“Three more days,” I answered. “I wish you didn’t have to go,” he responded. “We could ride bikes all the time if you lived here.”
“I’ll be back to see you and your sisters again. I promise,” I replied, able to answer only after overcoming the lump that had formed in my throat.
In the eight years I’ve been riding on a consistent basis, this dialog I had with Lewis in 2018 is the one I’ll recall when the joy of riding a bicycle topic comes up with family and friends.
A Big Challenge
Biking began innocently enough for me all those years ago, but it almost didn’t happen at all. Here’s how it started.
The black carbon fiber road bike had been hanging from the rafters of our garage for more than 16 weeks in early 2013 and was now covered in dust and dressed in cobwebs. If an inanimate object could feel loneliness and despair, it would have been this SPECIALIZED Roubaix bike my wife had purchased for me as a gift the previous Christmas. But since then, it had been relegated to this dark corner of my life, left on its own until the time was right.
On this sunny spring Arizona day, after completing the task of walking our Black Labrador Retriever around our suburban Tucson neighborhood, I opened our garage door and equal amounts of curiosity and guilt flowed over me. I pulled the bike down from its perch, wiped off the saddle and cautiously climbed aboard. I pedaled down our street, feeling more like a wobbly newborn colt just learning to walk than the relatively athletic 58-year-old I viewed myself to be.
The saddle was uncomfortable, the drop handlebars were foreign and the gear shifting mechanism a complete mystery, but I loved the smoothness of the ride and the breeze on my face. I immediately knew our time had come.
The Places and the People
That was the beginning of what has become a wonderful personal journey, one filled with beautiful mountains, flowing streams, sandy beaches and giant redwoods that seemed to climb to God, himself.
As of this month, I’ve biked 50,000 miles in parts of twenty states and southern Europe since that inaugural biking day eight years ago. I’ve ridden down the California coastline and across Iowa, explored the Gulf Coast of Florida and the French Riviera, had to deal with hypothermia while riding my first century (100-mile) event in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and raced with thousands of cyclists for 200 miles from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. The sights I’ve been able to capture and save in my brain will always be there, banked like images saved on a camera’s memory card. But, I’ve come to realize it’s the people, always the people, I’ve met along the way or been with that has taken my passion to a profoundly special level.
Riding Across Iowa
I first became aware of RAGBRAI, an acronym for the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Ride Across Iowa, on my return flight from San Francisco to Chicago in 1993. Bored and tired after a long conference, I thumbed through an American Airlines flight magazine, came across an article detailing how thousands of bike riders from across the U.S. and other countries come together each summer in a different town along the banks of the Missouri River in western Iowa and ride en masse across the state to the eastern border where they revel in accomplishing their collective goal of reaching the shores of the Mississippi River.
I was a distance runner back then, an average one, but in good enough shape at 38 to think I could make the approximately 500 miles it would take to complete the week-long ride. Back home again, I promised myself I’d make that happen, perhaps as soon as the following year. However, life got in the way, challenges at work became more commonplace and raising three young children took priority. Plus, I tore up my knee skiing the following winter, and that was the final straw. I put RAGBRAI on hold, and more than 20 years passed before the event appeared on my radar again.
During the summer of 2016, I contacted John, an old friend from college, told him all I knew about RAGBRAI, shared with him what had always been my goal of completing the event and explained what it would take to be able to tackle it. A year later, almost to the day, he and I joined thousands of other cyclists of all shapes and sizes in Orange City, Iowa near the banks of the Missouri River and began pedaling our way east on the 62-mile first leg of what would be a 420-mile week.
All I had read on that flight a quarter century earlier appeared as it had been written and photographed, a reality seemingly frozen in time. Children lined the sidewalks of the small towns we rode through with their brightly colored hand-made signs hanging from the card tables they assembled for their big day of selling lemonade for a quarter a cup to hot, thirsty cyclists.
Volunteers from local churches, all with a smile and a warm midwestern greeting, showcased their homemade fruit pie selections, the always sought after desserts of RAGBRAI. Food trucks were everywhere, waiting for a chance to sell what they had prepared for the day. And vendors showcased t-shirts and other memorabilia from their trailers or booths, hopeful riders would want to take an item or two home so they could remember the occasion.
And Then I Met Charlie
The single moment I’ll remember most of RAGBRAI was meeting Charlie, a life-long resident of the state, who was as much a part of Iowa as corn and soybeans.
I met him on day five of RAGBRAI week, halfway through the middle of a 60-mile ride between Cresco and Waukon, where farmland reached to the horizon in every direction. Towns were few and far between, so food vendors were limited to making do with the few location options they had.
At noon, I saw hundreds of cyclists in the distance, an indication there was food and drink being supplied by vendors. Finally getting there, I slowed to a stop and immediately noticed the large farmhouse and barn with food trucks parked in the yard, The vendors were grilling pork chops, hamburgers and hot dogs with huge slices of watermelon offered for dessert. I noticed bikes comfortably resting against trees. laying on the ground or angled along the side of a faded red barn. People gathered in groups and ate standing or sat on the lush, green grass under the shade trees to eat.
On the other side of the property, perhaps 300 feet from the barn, was the once-stately white farmhouse, now desperately in need of paint. The edges of the roof shingles were curled, signaling a need for a new roof job, and some sections of gutters had pulled away from the fascia board.
Off to the side of all this humanity, all this activity, all this excitement sat an old man on the porch of the farmhouse. His body language was one of exhaustion, most likely caused by years of working in the fields from dawn to dusk and then spending evening hours repairing or servicing equipment so he could do it all over again as the sun came up the next day. He sported both a belt holding in his ample waistline, no doubt expanded by his wife’s good cooking through the years, and suspenders strapped across his broad shoulders.
I slowly headed his direction. As I drew closer, I noticed the long and deep wrinkles extending from his eyes and from the corners of his mouth, giving him what appeared to be a permanent frown on his darkened too-much-sun leathered face.
“Hi,” I said, “Mind if I sit on your porch steps to eat?”
“Go ahead,” he mumbled, without shedding even a short glance my way.
“My name’s Joe,” I said, trying to break the ice. “Charlie,” he responded. “I’ve never seen a farm this big,” I continued. “Are you still working all this?”
“No, not no more,” he said, for the first time making eye contact with me. “It’s been in my family since before my time. My dad worked it with my grandpap, and my brother and me worked it after him” he continued. “But my wife died two years ago and my brother died from cancer, probably from those chemicals they used to kill the jungles in Viet Nam, last year. So, it’s just come down to me”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, not really knowing how to respond to a complete stranger’s angst. “I never had no kids, and my nephew doesn’t want it and decided to leave here so he could work in the city. I’ve already sold off most of the land to one of them big companies, but they don’t do nearly the job we did raising corn,” he said, throwing another glance my way, with a hint of pride in his voice.
Now finished with lunch, I stood, took a cautious step to the loose board on the lower level of the old stairway, and said good-bye.
“Thanks for having us all over for lunch,” I grinned, emphasizing the word, all. “I hope things work out for you figuring out what to do with your beautiful farm.”
I turned back just enough to look to see if he reacted to what I had just said, and all I saw was a slight nod of approval.
I made my way to my bike, climbed back in the saddle and got on my way so I could complete the final half of the day’s ride. As I rode east on the state highway past the fields Charlie and his family had farmed for decades, I reflected on what had just occurred. I hated that Charlie was being ignored by all those people who had taken over his home for the day without acknowledging his presence. I realized he may have thought me to be nothing more than a nuisance, but I had to take the chance to say hello and to express my gratitude for allowing us to eat lunch on his home turf.
It was the best day of the week for me, and a moment in time spent with one of the most memorable characters I met during this incredible ride.
More Memories Made
Here’s a brief summary of some of the other special memories I’ve taken away from the almost 1,800 rides I’ve done since 2013.
Tour de Scottsdale
Why it was special:
My first competitive cycling ride came in October 2013, only six months after I began riding. It was also my wife’s initial try at an event of this type, which made it even more exciting. The Tour de Scottsdale attracts a couple thousand riders with distance options of 30 or 70 miles. We both rode the 30-miler that day. First times for anything are inherently memorable, and this one was exactly that. The pre-ride, with its grand anticipation and nervous butterflies, reminded me of when I used to run distance races in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Once the horn sounded, a flood of adrenaline lifted me and carried my bicycle and me through the first few miles and gave me the momentum to have a finish much faster than I thought possible. The critical takeaway was it built my confidence so I could tackle the big prize of riding the El Tour de Tucson 100-mile event with its huge number of cylists the following month.
Grand Teton National Park
Why it was special:
On this day, my wife and I rode for a couple hours in the shadows of the spectacular Grand Teton mountain range, where there were postcard-ready images to be made from almost every photo I took. My prime takeaway from this morning ride was how much my wife, Diane, enjoyed her time in the saddle. Not just because of our stunning surroundings, but because she was in a zone for the entire ride. She was relentlessly superior and faster than me that day, and I could not have been more proud of her performance in those high altitudes.
Seattle To Portland Cycling Challenge
Why it was special:
The 200-mile STP is an annual event that draws thousands of cyclists from far and wide. Those who participate want to be challenged by either its one- or two-day trek from suburban Seattle, south through the farmlands and forests of Washington and Oregon and eventually ending in beautiful Portland.
My primary takeaway came on the morning of the second day. Brad, my oldest son and I had biked 105 miles the previous day and I was somewhat apprehensive about riding another 100 mies on day two. After waking early, we quickly dressed, put air in our bike tires, filled our bottles with water mixed with electrolytes, ate breakfast and rode out of our motel parking lot in Centralia, a small border town not far from the Oregon state line. The fog was beginning to lift and it was eerily quiet for the first ten minutes as we made our way to the main route we had left the previous evening.
We crossed railroad tracks, joined other cyclists who were also trying to find the state highway south and casually formed a group of more than a dozen. I felt sluggish as I tried to determine what I had left in my legs from the tough day before. And then, without any warning or discussion, we were off, just 12 of us in a peloton. Peloton (from the French, meaning platoon) allows cyclists to save energy and improve performance by riding close together so each rider can draft off the person in front or adjacent to him. So here we were, a spontaneous peloton of complete strangers, ready for the day to begin. Brad and I strategically found ourselves near the back of the pack, him off someone’s back wheel and me the same distance off his. Our group picked up speed, holding a consistent pace of more than 24 mph as we snaked along the two-lane winding highway through the farmlands south of Centralia. We took turns moving up and falling back to improve performance.
The ride seemed incredibly smooth and the pace effortless, and was without question the best feeling I ever had, and probably will ever have, riding. After approximately 40 minutes, our peloton fell apart just as quickly and spontaneously as it had formed. Three of the strongest cyclists surged ahead, several fell back, and Brad and I found a comfortable pace somewhere in the middle that would carry us to the Portland area five hours later. Undoubtably the most memorable 100 miles I’ve ever done, made more special because I got to do it with my son.
Redwood National Park
Why it was special:
My wife and I were on a two week drive exploring the western U.S in the summer of 2017. One of our planned destinations was Redwood National Park in northern California. After arriving, we took the bikes off the rack of our Subaru Outback and began our ride down the 31-mile Avenue of the Giants highway in Humboldt Redwood State Park. The redwoods were even more majestic than I had anticipated, some of which reached more than 350 feet and so wide at the base that you could drive a car through. There was hardly any traffic on that day and the campsites were mostly hidden by trees, so the feeling we got was one of quiet solitude. As we got on our way, I made a special mental note to remember how there were puddles of light that seemed to dance on the pavement as the sun’s rays found a way to get through the trees high above. Absolutely spectacular!
Zion National Park
Why it was special:
As we rode our bikes through the park gate, my wife and I were giddy with anticipation. Within the first few minutes, we found ourselves on the main park highway surrounded by the most incredibly beautiful and unique rock formations we’d ever seen. It almost seemed as if we had been transported to a different planet. Time slows when you’re on a bike, and because life rolls along at a different pace, you notice the details of your surroundings that would have been missed in a car. One of the most unforgettable rides I’ve ever done. My takeaway: Zion was created to be observed from a bicycle.
How do you ride 50,000 miles?
You don’t. You can’t. Not yet, anyway.
What you do is, go inside your garage, pull that dusty old bike out from behind those boxes you’ve been meaning to take to your local donation center for the past two years, put air in the tires and a few drops of lube on the chain. Then climb on and pedal around your neighborhood for 30 minutes of happiness, just like you did when you were a kid.
You work your way up to riding ten miles later that week and then find your rhythm by adding more miles on consecutive days moving forward. Before you know it, perhaps in a month, maybe less, you’ve logged your first 100-mile week. Consistency is the key. It’s much better riding multiple 10-mile days than skipping days during the week and slogging through a single 30-mile day. In short, your body reacts more positively if you do five or six short rides a week instead of one or two medium distance rides.
You can learn more by going to my Resources & Tips section on my RidesLikeThese.com menu bar.
My Philosophy About It All
Most people have problems stepping outside their comfort zone because they think they look different or they don’t know the rules of the game, and that makes them feel vulnerable and insecure. But in reality, that’s how you grow. I had those reactions when I first began cycling, but they’ve long since fallen by the wayside. Now, all these years and miles later, I feel something is missing if I don’t get on my bike on a daily basis.
Here’s the bonus for me. I hope to leave a legacy for my children, grandchildren and all those who follow that they should find something they’re passionate about and push it to the very edge. Live your life to its fullest, I’d say, and make memories that will last forever.
Words to live by:
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Jr.