The road stretched out before me like a winding ribbon of freshly spun taffy at the state fair. I had stopped on the roadside to adjust the blonde braid that hung off to one side of my head. As I stood looking across the horizon, leaning on my bicycle, it was only the gentle curve of the earth that limited the distance that the eye could see. From where I stood, I could see the truck stop ten miles farther up the frontage road. Its sign still bright in the early morning hour before the sun blessed the earth again with its warmth and light.
I could see the local farmer’s co-op off to the West where in the Fall, you could hear the giant dryers from miles away. Riding by, your tire would make thin lines in the bean dust which wafted in gentle clouds down from above every hour or so.
But it wasn’t the places in the distance that I watched this morning, it was the bending of the roadside grasses. Which direction was the wind coming from and more importantly, how far were they bending? Gentle breezes in the Springtime in the Midwest were rare indeed and one always wanted to try and have a bit of strategy before heading down the road.
This was a lesson I had learned the hard way. It had been a fine morning, and with the wind blowing perfectly at my back, I had made my way out some thirty miles. I had only turned around then, because I knew that I needed to get back home before the kids returned from school. I was feeling just fine and full of pride at my new distance record. But, coming back wasn’t like the smooth trip that had just taken me the farthest I had ever been on a bike and it was many hours later, after battling an increasingly angry head wind, that I had finally returned home feeling beaten.
Now, I looked carefully at the grasses. I wasn’t taking any chances. But it seemed that luck was on my side this morning, I would have the wind at my back coming home. Perfect. And that is how all of my Spring rides look. The terrain is barren on either side of the road as the crops have yet to be planted or maybe they are in the earliest stages of new growth allowing the wind to scream across the flat earth, brutal and unrelenting. Yet, even on the dimmest of days, the view of the road ahead always seems to stretch out endlessly.
It is, life in the Midwest, the place I have spent every day since the day I arrived in this physical body. This physical body. That has become the other factor that must be taken into account when riding.
The Summer of ’16 was the year that my eighteen year old son announced that he would like to accompany me on my migration across Iowa. Me and twenty thousand of my closest friends, on an amazing ride known and loved as RAGBRAI. I was thrilled! I couldn’t wait to take him under my wing, show him how to ride now! I promised him I wouldn’t go to fast!!
As the day grew close to leaving, I worried and fretted about him attempting so many miles without much training and virtually no saddle time. Would he be able to keep up?
Then we were there and he was off and riding on a borrowed bike he may have ridden twice before! If I hadn’t known better, I might have believed that perhaps he had twin turbo engines tucked somewhere in the spandex that he had so thriftily purchased off EBay. It was all that I could do to keep up his pace. The first two days of steep hills were the most physically demanding and I think we kept up an almost 19mph pace that left his Mom always somewhere behind him. Sometimes far behind, pushing and puffing and attempting to keep up and gratefully finding that his draft was large enough for not just me, but usually one or two others that he was oblivious to in his forward motion.
Exhausted on day four, he announced over morning coffee, that he was tired and that he just didn’t think he could go so fast. I looked skyward and said a heartfelt “thanks!” It was going to be a relaxing day. I was smiling as I folded up my tent. And then he took off, leaving me watching his bright jersey disappearing up ahead. When dinner came, I crawled out from my tent on legs that resembled over-cooked spaghetti and I looked at him,
“I thought you were tired today?” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied, “I just wanted to get done so I could take a nap.”
That was when I realized with no uncertainty, that youth trumped experience when it came to bike riding.
So, I train and I train and I train. I squat. I squat. I squat. Deadlift. Deadlift. Deadlift.
I teach spin and my people take imaginary treks up the mountains that have no downhill side and they look at me in wonder and disbelief, wiping sweaty faces and breathing like dragons and they ask when will it ever be over, this hour of torture that they have designated as their fitness time.
When I am not spinning or attempting to double the size of my Gluteus Maximus, I am climbing an evil machine that I love and hate called Jacob’s Ladder. I am sure that it is an instrument carved from the mind of a deranged physicist. It is, a moving machine that relies on body weight to move the rungs. Endlessly. (Gerbils have it so easy on their happy little running wheels.)
Thinking it might be wise to train for elevation, I added an oxygen deprivation training mask that I picked up at our local sports shop. The picture on the box was of a nice looking young man pushing a weighted sled uphill and looking like it was no big deal that he couldn’t breathe. My own image in the mirror was not similar in any way after my first training session. Besides feeling that I just might die, the mask also had the additional benefit of creating the striking outline of a diamond cut across my face from the chin to the bridge of the nose. When I finally finish and throw the mask to the floor, whatever makeup I had on has pooled in the furrows of the deep crevices created by the mask.
These deep lines created by the mask last for many hours after training. I know now that I have the power to scare young children in the grocery store with a simple glance in their direction and that I must not schedule a date on days that I train with the mask. Unless of course, we are going to the zoo to see the apes, whom I most resemble.
Adding a weighted vest on the ladder with little to no oxygen was a great recipe to appreciate the fact that I live at sea level. Having often thought I would like to move from Illinois, I have now decided that maybe it’s not so bad here after all. So, I put on the mask and as my breath whistles through the tiny vents on either side of the mask, I think, “suck it up buttercup,” and that is what I do, I suck as much air as the vents will allow and I come to understand why Darth Vader is so angry and evil.
And so I ride, and squat and lift and climb and deprive myself of the vital element so abundant in Illinois- oxygen, in hopes of rocking my ride through the Rockies!
Andrea “Midwestern Bike Babe”