Gasping for breath after pedaling up and down rolling hills for six hours on a beautiful sunny afternoon, my friend Ann Guevara and I mustered enough energy to cheer as we made it to the end of a grueling metric century Cycle-to-Farm bike ride, sponsored by Velo Girls of Black Mountain, N.C.
The ride was billed as “flat and fast,” so we thought we could conquer the 62-mile distance, even though we had hardly been in the saddle since last fall and had minimal training.
But considering the tour was around places with the “h-word” like Chapel “Hill” and “Hills”borough, we had our doubts about “flat and fast.” Plus, the elevation chart showed an ascent approaching 2,700 feet, including a short steep hill with an 11 percent grade. In short, the whole thing looked mighty hilly on paper.
We sighed, and reckoned that since the ride organizers were based in the North Carolina mountains, these rolling hills were indeed “flat” by comparison.
And as the lily-livered, wimpy flatlanders we are, we knew we would just have to suck it up and ride it out.
Ann and I had set out the night before the ride to see just how hilly the route was. We scouted shortcuts, and we got lost along those country roads and gravel pathways.
We found compass apps and downloaded them into our phones, just in case.
Turns out, we didn’t need a shortcut or even a compass after all, but at the end of the day, I don’t know if I could have forced my pedals into one more rotation, and the only point to point map I cared about anymore was from the finish line to the finish line party.
I have often wondered how slow you can go up a hill without falling over. Struggling for balance on that ride, my abs were fully engaged, and it felt like I was pedaling through mud as I wobbled over the crest of the steepest grade at a stunning speed of 3.7 mph. Of course, what goes up must come down, and I was rewarded for that pitiful uphill effort with a glorious downhill screamfest like a roller coaster running at 30 miles an hour.
Spending six hours on a bike gives you plenty of time to think, and as we worked our way across the countryside, I thought about growing up, and I thought about bikes.
When you are a kid, you don’t cycle. You go bike-riding.
I grew up in neighborhoods full of kids.
My hometown is Winston-Salem, a hilly, medium-sized city in North Carolina’s Piedmont area. During the summertime, we kids lived on our bikes. They were our wheels, our transportation, and our freedom.
We rode without gears, without helmets and without shoes.
Back in those days, we didn’t select our bikes based on sleek styles or weight; expensive titanium or carbon frames; aero bars or seat structure. We didn’t worry about a drive train or components. We didn’t wear bike shorts or gaudy aerodynamic bike clothing. Or even special shoes with cleats for hooking into clipless pedals.
The most important thing we considered before we selected our favorite two-wheeled wonder was how the pedals would feel under our bare feet.
As kids in the south, we couldn’t wait for summer and for shedding our shoes. My brother and I would have contests to see who could acquire the toughest feet, and we would go out and walk on rocks and hot gravel like fire-walking believers to toughen them up. When we could step on a bee and hardly feel it, we knew our feet were ready for summer.
In Raleigh, as in other cities, I imagine, there is a class of young urban cyclists. They drag out their street cycles and converge on downtown in swarms, wearing street clothes with not a helmet on a single head.
A couple of years ago I wrote about an alley cat bike race sponsored by North Carolina State University. Kids, young and old, turned out on bikes of all shapes and sizes, from beach cruisers, to retro 3-speeds, to mountain bikes, to banana seat bikes with high-rise handlebars.
They had dragged their bikes out of crawlspaces under their parents’ houses, found them covered in cobwebs after years of storage in barns and sheds and under porches. They bought them off Craig’s list or at yard sales.
Some were rusty. Some were shiny. Some had bells, and others still had colorful streamers hanging from the ends of their handlebars, a nod to the glory days of youth and what kids think is cool.
There was not a single racing bike in sight.
As a kid, my brother had a banana-seat bike and loved to compete in heated contests with the neighborhood boys to see who could pop a wheelie and hold it the longest. Some of those boys could ride a wheelie the entire length of our neighborhood street.
We loved riding our bikes hands free.
On the 4th of July we’d go speeding down the street, arms out and holding sparklers in each hand. We used clothespins to attach playing cards to our wheel spokes, making a silly flapping noise, which we thought was cool. We rang the bells on our handlebars at random, and stayed outside until the lightning bugs came out and signaled it was time to go home for supper.
Back in those days, you could ride forever, and never get tired.
Feeling the wind in our hair and the asphalt under our wheels, we were free and wild, and we believed we could go anywhere we wanted – at least as far as our two wheels could take us.
It’s different now.
We worry more about cars and distracted drivers.
We have too much stuff to carry.
We have to observe traffic laws and ride in bike lanes.
We have to protect ourselves against road rage, as it is now legal for drivers to carry guns and even conceal them in their cars or in their pick-up trucks.
On the Farm to Cycle ride, we passed by a lovely farm with horses grazing in a pasture. On the pasture fence hung a sign that read “Warning: Due to price increase on ammo, do not expect a warning shot.”
When I ride on my own, I stick to the parks and greenways on my mountain bike, only venturing out onto the roadways in a group setting.
But despite the dangers, we still manage to have fun.
Today, I can look out my window and watch the neighborhood kids ride their bikes on the street in front of my house, jumping over speed bumps like they are in the motocross. And on the Farm-to-Cycle tour, I watched the adults ride their bikes, and I realized the kids and adults are really not that far apart in our attitudes and thirst for freedom.
As adults, we may have fancier equipment. We wear aerodynamic clothes with padded britches. We clip our feet into pedals and don’t even think about riding barefoot. We are old enough to know when we are tired, and our only feeling of wild childlike abandon is when we blaze downhill as fast as our wheels will turn. It’s the up hills that get to us now.
And I think deep down inside, even the most sophisticated cyclist is always going to be a little barefoot kid at heart.