On the roads of North Carolina, when the heat hasn’t yet gotten to you and there’s still no traffic on old Route 10, it all comes together. You switch to a higher gear going downhill, put your head down and peddle till your legs burn, then look up and for half-a-mile, beneath the old train bridge but before the United Methodist Church, you are invincible. Surfacing from this paved valley means riding the slow incline back to Durham, past the few remaining farms and the Maple View Dairy, where you can park your bike and get a 30-miles-but-worth-it hot fudge sundae.
By the time you ride home, the viscous humidity is unrelenting, and the sweat collects on the back of your neck, running in gullies down your back before disappearing. Increased speed generates no greater breeze. Now it’s just grunt work, no soft peddling or artsy feeling of flying; peddle-sweat and gritted teeth for the remaining miles home.
At last count, I’ve cycled in 5 countries and 8 states, enough to label me an enthusiast but far from an expert on the subject of cycling. And this story isn’t about cycling. No gear ratios will be discussed and ideal tire pressures are disqualified. No allen wrenches will be mentioned or were hurt in this writing. Instead it’s about how cycling parallels the arcs of the disturbed and unsettled life. And exploration of whether the simple act of peddling can heal the healers and if you’re stuck in a life malaise if a steady 10 speed and old Route 10 might shake you loose.
On the streets of New York City, one wrong move and the only thing shaking loose is your teeth. The cycling here is offensive, dodging cars, stalled traffic, pedestrians, mass exodus dog-walkers , horses, buses and whatever else Manhattan throws at you. Popping on and off the curve saves you from the most-feared obstacle of the cycling urban landscape – the surprise open door. Not other wild animal of city borough, not goliath bus, transit cop or Bloomberg-neglected cavernous pothole has caused more ollies over handlebars and helmet scars. Survive the M66 Crosstown bus for seven avenues and your in Central Park and suddenly as you veer right and circle the 6 plus mile Large Loop, the heavy traffic in your life and mind submerges beneath the surface of smooth pavement, roller bladders and hoards of runners circling the loop in a lemming condition.
The ride begins with a series of paved foothills, past the 4,00 year old obelisk near the Metropolitan Museum of Art and descends into a deep series of curved hills that allow you to obtain ludicrous speed — and where the Central Park First Aid Station is conveniently located. Ascending the Great Hill to the gradual slopes can be no less dangerous. Once on a hot sunny day of notorious heat index, I chanced upon an ungodly beautiful body of a woman pulling her lycra top off to douse herself with water, and as a naïve 21-year old who knew this is how all pornographic movies begin, I stared and gawked until my bicycle hit a 12-inch curb. Falling off my seat and right on the crossbar, my genitals seemed thrust right through my chest up to my eyeballs, and the pain cannot be described with mental flashbacks and unseasonable discomfort.
But 8 years later you’re still on the same track and it’s autumn. Central Park hosting the only reservoir of orange and yellow foliage in the city. It’s on this same road you realize you’re a failure and of all the crazy dreams you had as a boy you’ve fulfilled only two. The Girl, who goes only by that name since you first fell in love with her in 6th grade is married to a better guy. You summon the courage to love again and she cheats. And this time it almost kills you, causing a deep-seeded chest pain so burning you consult an exorcist and sell out the TUMS at the local Duane Reade. You take comfort in the long busy work of your job, which is important work, but unfulfilling. Over time and by degrees, you become what Jim Harrison described as a “working stiff who drinks too much on late Friday afternoons. You begin to cherish the memories of earlier trips. You settle for bar pool and spectator sports.” Your desperation is palpable and it fuels a passion you misdirect on women who want your money and sleep around. You gain weight from self-loathing and at the end of your rope you realize the only cure for your ailment isn’t love. It’s inspiration and you hop on the ol’ forgiving Trek Multi-Sport 850 and with a buffalo stampede, take on the open road.
That road takes you to Gabaronne, Botswana (hell, if you’re going to run away – run away far) to gravel-ly and tectonically-plated highway A1 which winds it’s way around the southern perimeter of the country like the belt of a pot-bellied man. Dirt roads course like spider veins from A1, littered with dust, rocks, broken cartons of Chibuku (the national drink) and the occasional tire. The towns have names like Serowe, Foley Siding, and camping roadside you first see the Southern Cross Constellation and understand success is dying someday in a tent under these stars. The stars hang like pendants on a black velvet dress and with a wide-mouthed moon you can see for miles. Security and comfort displace what ails you, and you hope the miles could be somehow extended, or Botswana’s borders increased so the ride never ends.
You fall in love again, with the opium of gliding past the world on your own power, your arms growing sore from absorbing the shock across the handlebars, addicted to the click-clack two-beat rhythm of your pedals. You taste appreciation in the shouts of “Pula! Pula!” from Setswane locals who line the road to glimpse you in what seems an alien form of colored spandex, sunglasses and helmet. Slowly you love your life again.
Desperation ebbs and the emptiness that once consumed you wanes, filled with a life-affirming satisfaction that makes you feel that if you downshift and peddle hard enough, you’ll climb Olympus and drink Gatorade with Zeus and his pals. You still don’t get the girl, this time she says you’re charming and swell but you’re too young and she loves you like a brother. But you don’t care. Your flight home from Bulaweyo, Zimbabwe literally takes off into the sunset – and the dirt and soreness and fatigue of 1,000 sunburned miles takes its toll. You sleep with a deep snore and land to a new day at the end of August.
Six months later you dressed in fleece in a drafty library basement, burned out from memorizing every thread of nerve or blood vessel the body has to offer. You are studying medicine and things started out OK, but with only 9 hours of daylight (most spent in a lecture hall learning the perverse things human cells to do each other) and the New York City winter to blame, you haven’t ridden in three months. You try the stationary bikes at the med school gym with names like Cyclotron and Cybex1000, but the fan-sound of the wheels, the absent breeze from your face and the motionless walls make you consider basketball as your winter sport. You conclude two things that afternoon: 1) Women on exercise bikes aren’t much for talking and 2) It isn’t bicycling if you can do it and read Cosmo at the same time.
You get restless in body and mind. Protected in the cocoon of the library basement and feeling the weather for only as long as it takes you to cross the street, you become agitated, grumpy and feel more and more manufactured each day than a creature of the earth. In the words of the South, you become “ornery” and people start pissing you off for no reason and are pissed off by you. Relief does not come with spring, but makes it worse, as you sit by the window on the first floor, the pretty girls in their skimpy outfits awakening hibernated sexual urgings, imprisoned by a textbook that’s confusing to read. You are back on the bike now, but Central Park no longer seems foreign, and you’ve only hit one pedestrian all summer. The rhythm of your life descends into monotony. Even the greatest city in the world weighs you down. You move through life as though swimming in molasses. Which is exactly what you are doing until 4 years have passed and the roads of another country beckon again and you realize for all you’ve learned that which need most resuscitation is your spirit – which is by now so beaten down heroic measure and sleazy women make not be enough.
You bend the law and make your way to Castro’s Cuba and at first it seems the medication works. Rum 7-years aged cures all when served between the breasts of a skin-tight salsa latina who’s only ingles is “Touch Me!” There are two sets of roads in Cuba. Lovely smooth paved roads which stretch for miles across the baked country, packed with luxury buses that run on time and flocks of Danish cyclists sick of riding in Southern Italy are the ones you’ll see if you don’t spend six weeks in the campo of Pinar del Rio. Then there exist the road blocked, bumpy, gravel deposits, littered with glass, overgrowth and a suggestion of a median that belongs to the Cubans themselves, a cemetery of potholes and poor navigation unfit for the eyes of the wallet-thick tourists but good enough only for the people whose spirit define this island nation. To cycle here is to bicycle as rock star. The embargo has made only Russian surplus bicycles available here, and most succumb to the road quickly. More than one Cuban cycle chain is held to the frame with a combination of string, rubber band, bungee cord and duct tape. Introduce a Wisconsin-made Trek Multi-Sport 850 into this cyclo-ecosystem and suddenly you’re the most popular kid in school, surrounded by people of all ages who want to know 2 things 1) how fast it goes and 2) what would I be willing to accept in exchange for it. No matter what speed you quote, they insist they can peddle faster. Amid the purple, pink and pale colonnades of Pinar del Rio, the bicycle over time will define you. As a medical school student, I would make house calls with Dr. Clara, a wonderfully social open woman who adopted her entire consultorio. Each afternoon, we would stalk the number of city blocks they government had assigned to be her patient base. Satisfying one of Cuba’s four great obsessions, their blood pressure.
The other three: Tobacco, Baseball, and Bicycling.
Easily I could meet anyone in Cuba and discussing one of these topics, slip into learning more about the lives and desires of the patients I saw. Bicycling fulfilled the essential need of motion. Even as physician, Clara couldn’t afford a car (Communist country, you know). Even if she could, from what I could see – there wasn’t gas in Pinar to fuel it.
In front of each house sat the bicycles, universally black and withering under the weight of its usual workload, which mean carrying at least 2 people plus a load of books, laundry or whatever. In this scene, my cycle, stuck out like an African American Mormon, all pimped up with incandescent stickers to make me visible to night-time New York City cabbies. It added 5 minutes at least to house calls.
“How fast can it go?”
After the standard blood pressure check and pleasantries, we would return to a flock of 5 to 10 children surrounding the cycle asking for rides. More recognizable than my generic face, over the next weeks, the cycle became the medical student’s calling card. Want to know where Dr. Clara is? Look for the green cycle. Need to replenish your multi-vitamin prescription? Look for el cyclo. In a perverse equation that spring, Trek Multi-Sport 850s equaled healthcare.
Rides to and from the consultorio clinic were soft, easy vacation peddling. The sweet, spicy smell of tobacco flavoring the air as I passed green fields and white-washed tenements on the way to the medical dorm. When the evening cool arrived early, you could sit along side a wall on a soft carpet of grass and read, pro-Castro, pro-Che Guevera, anti-U.S. graffiti as your background. After sunset, you could hear occasional cheers from the baseball stadium as Pinar del Rio played Isla de la Joventud. Living as part of this culture, absorbing it’s music, tastes and vigor, you again slowly come alive. You peddle around in circles around pretty Cuban ladies with “Latin” asses, eliciting smiles for your antics. You tend to the health of children, and befriend you “inner father.” You flirt relentlessly and occasionally successfully, which is all a young man of 25 needs to sustain himself. You bang back shots of Cuban espresso so strong you’re awake for a week while your roommate squires away with the school’s dance teacher. You crack jokes and howl with the campesinos as 20-sometihng universidad students walk by in midriff-baring shirts. You reintroduce yourself to your cajones and infuse energy and vibrance long gone in your short atrophied life. Again you land in New York City, ready to conquer it, ready to show you are worthy of it. Taking all comers in all contests. You have adventures no one else has, and you’re confident the next phase of your measured life will be afire. A time someone will write a book about and someone will film.
Thank God the bike can’t talk.
The Trek Multi-Sport 850 now rests gingerly balanced between a radiator and a bureau on the 30th floor of my apartment building. It’s tires defalted from disuses and the gears in need of repair. I work sunrise to sunset, burdened now with the responsibilities of adults that had been previously postponed but now cannot be ignored. The cycle, 10 years old and showing it, doesn’t get out much. She sleeps all winter and has been out only a few weekends this spring when time permitted me to be 25 again for the full day commitment. Some say at my age (and probably my weight) I shouldn’t wear the lycra shorts anymore, and since I almost broke my wrist q year ago, people worry about y dodging in and out of traffic. But when my legs start to burn and I shift into a still higher gear, intent on defying gravity as I again encounter my nemesis, the Great Hill, I hear no the preoccupied voices concerned with my safety but only the two beat click-clack of the pedals.
The time to ride is, after all, my time.