Saturday, April 10, 2004
Every year, between the months of March and November, I participate in bike rallies. I’ve done as many as thirty-one rallies in a year. For the past few years I’ve averaged about twenty-two. A bike rally is an event for bicyclists. For example, today there was a rally in Lancaster, a town south of Dallas. I’ve done it several times. I got up, drove 34.7 miles to Lancaster, walked to the registration area, picked up my packet, and returned to my car to prepare. By 8:50, ten minutes before the start, hundreds of bicyclists were lined up on a side street waiting to be loosed on the unsuspecting residents of Lancaster and surrounding towns. Rallies are not races, although some of them have a monetary prize for the first person to finish. Most people show up to ride, not race. They ride for health, for enjoyment, for the camaraderie, and because they want to get outside. You see every sort of person at bike rallies: old, middle-aged, and young; male and female; black, white, Asian, and Hispanic; tall and short; heavy and thin. You see tandems, recumbents, and ordinaries. A bike rally is a microcosm of society. I used to hammer at every rally. (I’ve done 326 of them--counting today’s--since 30 September 1989.) To hammer is to ride hard, all the time. Every hill is a personal challenge. You get out of the saddle to climb it, or, if you’re descending, get into your best tuck position to get your speed as high as possible. (I’ve gone as fast as fifty-two miles per hour.) Hammering gets old after a while, although I’ve never tired of riding in packs or pace lines. There came a point when I wanted to have fun rather than torture myself. It helped that I had taken up marathon running (in September 1996, at the age of thirty-nine). This served as an outlet for my competitiveness. Bicycling became a social event--a chance to see and talk to my friends, to enjoy the countryside, and to experience small-town Texas life. (Every rally goes through many small towns, often down their main streets.) Unlike some sports, bicycling takes place in all kinds of weather. I’ve ridden in oppressive heat (one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and more) and in frigid cold. I’ve ridden on calm days and in gale-force winds. I’ve ridden in sunshine and in rain. I’ve even ridden in hail. Only if the roads are ice-covered is the event canceled (for obvious reasons). Actually, no sooner did I type these words than I remembered the Fort Worth bike rally of May 1995. The night before, a devastating hailstorm struck the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Many cars and house roofs were destroyed. When I got to the rally site the next morning in my hail-damaged Grand Am, I learned that the rally had been canceled. Evidently, there was too much debris--including tree limbs--on the roads. I’m still driving the hail-damaged car, by the way. It’ll be fifteen years old in August. Today’s rally began under sunny skies. The forecast since at least Monday was for storms. Even today’s newspaper forecast storms. My friends and I laughed at the incompetence of the weather forecasters. But they were right. An hour or so into the ride, the sky clouded up. Then the wind picked up. It was a northerly wind, too, which meant cold, dry air. I grew increasingly cold as I pedaled. Rain began to fall, but only for a few minutes. I hadn’t expected the change in the weather or I would have worn a long-sleeved shirt under my jersey. The wind was the worst part. It was brutal. My pace slowed to a crawl. People were putting their bikes into “sag wagons,” which is an admission of defeat. I just concentrated on turning the pedals over. I knew from experience that all bad things must come to an end, and this one, mercifully, did. I didn’t bother partaking of the festivities on the town square. I rode straight to my car, packed up, and headed for home. The sky was dark and ominous. We went from spring to winter during the course of a four-hour ride. That’s Texas for you. Ordinarily, it’s so hot at the end of a rally that I turn the car’s air-conditioner on. Today I fired up the heater. It was good to get home and take a hot shower, followed by a long nap. Sad to say, but this may have been my slowest rally ever. It was a difficult sixty-one miles. But I had fun. I’ve already filtered out the pain. I’ll be back in Lancaster a year from now, ready for more of that strange admixture of suffering and joy that every bicyclist loves.