“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember my high school English teacher stopping and asking my class about our thoughts on the meaning of that statement when we first read the book in class. As others in the class threw out naïve and inexperienced thoughts on the question, I simply remember hoping that I wouldn’t be called on to answer. A concise and insightful answer had not taken form in my head. It wasn’t until years later that the perfect understanding and example came to me.
When others learn that long-distance bicycle rides are something that I do with my university students, they often smile with only a remote understanding of what I actually mean. Some will relay an experience that they or someone they know accomplished on bikes. Others, for conversation sake, will equate running a marathon or half-marathon to their conceptualization of long-distance cycling. Others will remain silent and I can see that they don’t understand the magnitude of what we do or how they should respond. Only when I mention that we’ve organized an executed four rides across Texas, ranging from 720 to 925 miles, and two rides from Mexico to Canada (1,600 and 1,830 miles), do they begin to fully grasp what long-distance means to us.
Our rides have provided personal experience and insight into “the best of times and the worst of times.” A “wonderful miserable” is another way that I like to think about the rides.
Sunburn, achy muscles (from feet to neck), sore bottoms (have you seen the size or our bicycle seats?), muscle cramps, and pulled muscles and tendons are regular occurrences on our rides. Jumping up each morning and riding day after day, adds to the physical demands of our rides.
Even more frustrating than physical pain and exhaustion is the aggravation that comes from the environment and riding conditions. Strong headwinds, rough shoulders on the roadways, and excessive heat and humidity or cold can make for miserable hours on the bicycle. Pedaling 10 mph on a bicycle into a headwind one day after riding an effortless 20 mph on a prior day with a strong tailwind seems to add insult to the whole situation. And when you ride in easier gears to accommodate the difficult conditions, you end up spinning your legs through MANY more revolutions of the pedals than when you ride in the hardest gears with easy riding conditions. Riding into the wind is slower AND requires more work. It’s miserable. The absolute worst day of cycling into winds was the day riding from York, Nebraska to Yankton, South Dakota. We rode 155 miles into a 30 mph headwind. It was atrocious!
The award for the absolute worst highway shoulders were those heading north from Enid, Oklahoma. They were bumpy, rough, torn up, and dangerous. Riding them was horrible and followed on the heels of a crash after one of our cyclists rolled into a seam in the concrete on the road and caught a front tire–throwing her into the busy road in Enid. Many of the highway shoulders in Texas are wonderfully wide for cyclists, but are sometimes a rough and bumpy chip-seal that shakes and rattles your bones. Rough shoulders really test your patience and endurance. When they are really bad, we frequently slide out into the road and hug the white line in the lane–being super vigilant of hearing traffic coming from behind and pulling back onto the shoulder when signaled by our support car driver.
The roads coming out of Angelton, Texas on BRAT3 toward La Grange were really hot. The on-road temperature recorded by one of our cyclists was 114 degrees with a ridiculously high humidity level. I remember getting to a point where I had to stop riding and get in the air-conditioned car to cool down. Similarly, the road from LaPryor, Texas to Leakey on BRATS5 was also insanely hot and humid. While riding that section of road, in the sun and humidity, I remember repeatedly squirting water from my water bottle onto my head to cool down–the only time in my cycling life I had done that. A painful cramp in my calf muscle forced me to stop that section of the ride. Also, as we approached Bismarck, North Dakota on BRATS5, a team of cyclists were closing in on completing a century ride (100 miles) as the temperatures hit 101 degrees–a record for Bismarck on that day. Hot!
As we began cycling on the first three days of BRAT6, the temperatures each morning were a chilly 22 degrees. Despite being that cold, you CAN dress properly for those temperatures as you do with skiing or being outside in the cold. With cycling tights, wind resistant jackets, gloves, toe protection, and ear and face coverings, we were able to handle the cold temperatures. The worst part of cycling in the cold is the excessive liquid and mucus that flows from your nose. Purging your nostrils while cycling becomes necessary to keep breathing easy and comfortable.
In addition to the unpleasant experiences caused by physical pains, poor roads, and wind and temperatures comes the aggravation of terrain and hills. Long and steep uphills, like the one heading north out of Leakey, Texas on Route 83 and the hill out of Junction, Texas heading to Mason are ones that help destroy human will. The joy of rolling into canyons or on long downhills to prairie river crossings almost always have an uphill price to pay on the way out. Roads that look flat, but are actually gradual uphills, are also demoralizing. Route 83 from Menard to Tuscola and the roads going north or west out of the Texas Panhandle are also like that. The most frustrating part of roads like those is the inability to ever coast or relax–they require constant pedaling.
Misery can also come from psychological battles. The miles between 60 and 80 on a century ride can seem eternal. Some road segments go by quickly and without much thought, but others can seem eternal. Having a Garmin mileage tracker can be a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it seems like it is intentionally delaying its advance through the miles just to torture you. The infamous day of wind riding through Nebraska on BRATS4 was one where five miles seemed like 50 miles. My riding sections on those days seemed like they also had all of the long uphills. Clicking for a lower gear and finding that you’re already in the lowest is one of the most disheartening feelings there is while riding. The ability to control you brain and thoughts is a necessary strategy for dealing with the miles and hours on the road.
A description of the miserable would not be complete without a mention of flat tires, equipment failures (popped spokes, failed derailleurs, lost seat-post screws, bike rack problems, etc.), vehicle problems (dead battery, failed alternator, flat tires, etc.), and unforeseen family emergencies and crises that pop up while on the road. Yep, those are also the worst.
Despite all of the pain and misery that comes about from sitting on and pedaling a bike for hundreds and thousands of miles, the experiences are also some of the most intense, wonderful, and rewarding that you will find. Conquering the elements and successfully making the mileage and distance goal for each day is exhilarating. The difficulty is what makes the ride a challenge. While it is nice to occasionally have helpful winds, smooth roads, downhills, and pleasant temperatures, the true sense of accomplishment comes from succeeding through the tribulations. It’s the best! And the worst!
If the chance to use a time machine to go back to high school to rectify a missed opportunity ever presents itself, I am going to travel back to Ms. Powers’ 11th grade English class and tell about some of the adventures from long-distance bicycle rides.