Friday, August 24, 2007

Day Four: My Brain and My Bike Break Down

New Glarus to Madison (45 miles)

(View the Route)

As we slept, thunderstorms swept through the area. By morning the rain had ended and left the world soggy but much greener than it had been for weeks. It was our final day of riding and I was glad that the low, gray clouds were holding in their cargo. We all wanted closing ceremonies to at least be dry, even if it wouldn’t be sunny. No matter the weather, though, we were in high spirits for the last leg of our journey.

Of course, it wasn’t over just yet. The town of New Glarus is located in the midst of hills and valleys. We’d come down a long slope to get into town the night before, so it stood to reason that we’d have to ride up a few serious hills to get back out as we headed north toward Madison.

Team Takin’ In Easy saddled up and headed out, down a road that was paralleled by what had probably been a small stream but was now a sizeable little river. The water was well up over the banks and in some places pouring over the road and into the fields. Horses grazed in flooded pastures. Everywhere the grass and leaves was straining with moisture, slowly changing from dull brown to vivid green. The morning air was cool and refreshing and everyone was glad, despite having ridden through it, for the break in the drought.

And then the hills came again. Though they’d miraculously held up through all three previous days of ups and downs, my knees were starting to feel the strain. I tried to keep my thoughts positive: you’ve come this far, you never thought you would, there’s no reason to think you can’t make these final miles.

I was feeling a little glum as we came into the tiny village of Mt. Vernon—a scenic crossroads with a couple of bars, an outdoor outfitters, a scattering of homes and a church. Alison, one of our motley crew, had told us that her father was the pastor of the church in Mt. Vernon. He’d been showing up periodically to say hi at various pit stops along the way and was generally very supportive of his daughter. Apparently, he was even so taken by the ride that he was considering doing it next year. In the meantime, though, on that Sunday morning as we wended our way through town--a long red ribbon of bicyclists (it was “wear red” day and riders were much less spread out than usual)--our route took us right in front of his church. Along with several parishioners, he was out on the front steps waving as we went by. To add to the gesture, someone was ringing the church’s bell every time riders went by.

As we made our way up out of the valley of Mt. Vernon, the echoes of the church bell followed us, telling us that our line of riders was all around us. It was a far more pleasant and reassuring sound than the air horn from the previous day.

Our next pit stop was at someone’s home at the bottom of a long hill and in the middle of the countryside. Whoever they were, they’d graciously opened use of their front lawn and set up port-o-potties up by the barns in the backyard for our use. There were three goats keeping us company while we waited in line to pee. They stood stoically, simultaneously seeming to guard over and warily eye our boisterous group.

We had to pedal back up the hill to get out of the pit and double back a little ways before picking up the new part of the route. I was feeling tired again and the cloudy skies weren’t helping to enliven my mood. But I had good people all around me and thoughts of my own warm bed that night to drive me on.

After a little ways, we biked across an overpass that crossed a major highway and led us into the town of Mt. Horeb. It was a little strange to be passing through civilization this early in the day, but the ride here was blessedly flat and the town had good bike lanes set up on the roads. We made a brief pit stop to do the usual things—eat a little food, reapply a little chamois butter, refill our water bottles—and then moved on.

The route went north for a short while before turning east toward Madison on County Road J. It was here that the hills started back up again in earnest. One after another they came, and I made frequent use of the granniest of my gears. Some of the more experienced and fit riders made it a point to do hilltopping along the way (going back and forth, up and down the hills to ride alongside and give support to us struggling riders) and one fellow in particular was my almost constant companion. I wish I remembered his name, but I do remember that he had a pretty lime green bike. As I gritted my teeth and spun my way up each hill, he kept repeating, “just one pedal at a time, take it one at a time.” It was the only way I was going to make it. Rather than looking ahead at all of the hill that lay before me, I concentrated on each pedal stroke, each turn of the wheel. Every time I was able to push down on the pedal was a little victory. I was getting my ass kicked, but I was making it.

Somehow, mustering up a level of endurance I didn’t know I had, I was moving forward over each new hill, flying happily (if exhausted) down the other side, ever closer to the finish. And then, cruising down a long hill just miles from our final lunch pit stop at Elver Park, I heard what I at first mistook for the sound of something getting caught in my back tire. It stopped and for a moment I thought the object had dislodged itself. But then the smooth feel of the road beneath me changed and my bike grew suddenly sluggish. Bloody hell. My back tire was flat.

I pulled off onto the gravel shoulder of the road and took stock. I couldn’t see anything obvious sticking out of the tire, but it was definitely flat. One of the crew cars came driving by then and I waved them down to let them know what had happened. After my puny hand pump failed to work, we flagged down another crew car for help and thankfully, they had a good floor pump and someone who was good at fixing flats on board. I can fix flats fairly well, but it’s difficult to tackle the problem alone, especially when it’s the back tire. I was grateful for the help, and after some wrangling we got a new tube in and replaced the wheel.

They asked if I wanted a ride into the pit, but I politely declined. I’d come this far without getting off the bike, I wasn’t going to stop now.

I pedaled on, now alone, up another couple of steep hills into the outskirts of Madison. I was really starting to feel it. My knees were beginning to lodge serious complaints and my lower back was up to its old tricks. It was starting to feel like everything was dragging, like with each hill my wheels were turning more slowly and with more force required to make them go. I was passed by an older gentleman on a fancy racing bike and wearing the full kit. It didn’t make me feel any better.

When I finally crested that particular hill, he was stopped by the side of the road to readjust something. He grinned up at me as I came wobbling by, wheezing and feeling awful. “You made it! Way to go!” he shouted. I smiled feebly and nodded. “Almost, almost,” I said and he waved. I was about two miles out from the lunch pit, nearly there, almost time for food and the final, flat stage into downtown.

And there was one more gnarly hill in front of me. When I saw it, I almost cried. It’s a little embarrassing now to admit it, but I was about ready to give up. Every joint, every muscle in my body wanted to give in. As I cranked slowly, arduously up that hill, I started to make these strange, animalistic noises of frustration. I felt awful. I probably looked awful, too. Then, amazingly, before the top of the hill, there was a little yellow sign that said “Lunch Pit Stop” with an arrow that pointed left: downhill.

Happy fucking day! Gratefully, somewhat chagrinned by my antics just moments ago, I rolled down the bike path that led into Elver Park. And like clockwork (welcome, wonderful clockwork), everyone who’d already reached the pit stop broke into applause as I made my way in.

Once I limped in and slid off the bike, I looked down and noticed that the breaks on the back tire had been seriously dragging. In fact, it looked as though the entire wheel had been misaligned when we put it back in after fixing the flat. I almost laughed out loud. All of the pain and near mental breakdown of those last few miles—all of that because the damn wheel was completely out of whack?! I consoled myself with the knowledge that my problems had been more mechanical than physical—even if not completely true, it made me feel better.

I took my bike over to the trusty Willy Bikes mechanic to have him fix it up so I could make the last leg of the journey into Madison. Then I sought out lunch and sat, not speaking, staring at nothing but the food in front of me, and ate hungrily.

Someone had brought helium tanks and a whole mess of red balloons for riders to make use of. We attached them to our bikes, helmets, handlebars, backpacks and whatever else people could think of. My anemic little balloon hung from the back of my helmet, bopping through the air as I rode. We went through a neighborhood where a group of kids stood by the side of the road and cheered as we made our way by. Then it was up and over the Beltline and onto the Capitol City bike path.

It’s a long, slow downhill coming from that direction on the path and I savored every moment of it. Cruising along under the trees and past backyards and gardens, alongside people out for jogs or walks, I remembered riding this same path just earlier in the year and thinking man, it’s so long. This time, however, it felt like the easiest thing in the world. I passed a jogger along the way who waved and said “Congratulations!” as we went by, our red balloons bobbing along behind us. After the food, the rest stop and the bike overhaul, I was feeling a lot better. Now, as we grew closer and closer to the end, I was starting to feel exhilarated and a little wistful.

I’d just spent four days in the great outdoors, using my own body to propel me, making new friends and getting to know old ones better. I wasn’t sitting at my desk at work, staring at a computer. I was out doing something worthwhile. I didn’t particularly want to stop.

But still there came the parking lot where we were to stop and stay until everyone was together and we could ride, en masse, up to the closing ceremonies on the capitol square. I laid my bike down in the long row of bikes already there, got my “victory t-shirt” and sat down, feeling a little dazed.

The rest of Team Takin’ It Easy—Katy, Bri, Michelle, Alison, Jamie—all pulled in shortly thereafter. We were supposed to get a police escort up to the square, but as we waited and waited and grew anxious and someone sat on hold with the MPD for fifteen minutes, the decision was made to go without them, traffic lights be damned.

And so our whole crew—125 riders—rolled out onto West Washington Ave. and up toward the capitol. It was a slow, jubilant procession, with cars honking their horns (in support!) and everyone calling out the now usual “Slowing!” and “Rolling!” directions. As we turned the corner to come down the street where the ceremonies were being held, a huge crowd of supporters gave a great cheer to welcome us home. It was a little overwhelming and extremely gratifying.

We formed two lines on either side of the road and did our victory lifts—raising our bikes over our heads, which I was glad to discover I could still do at this stage. The crew members were then introduced and ran down the middle of our phalanx, at which point a massive water fight broke out between the two sides: we with our water bottles, they with Super Soakers.

Katy Sai, formerly a local TV news anchor and now an independent documentary news reporter and supporter of the ride, took the stage to emcee the final ceremonies. The ACT Ride steering committee (of which Team Takin’ It Easy member Dave is a part) was asked up on stage for the presentation of the final check to AIDS Network. It was announced that, as of that moment, we had raised a record $287,000, with more likely on the way in the month to come.

Rider Zero was rolled, one final time, into our midst to the tune of bagpipes (which always make me cry). There were songs, the announcement of top fundraisers and their awards, speeches from Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk (who’d done the first ACT Ride) and one of the HIV positive riders (which made me cry again).

And then it was over. People went to greet friends and family, to say their so-longs to fellow riders and then to collect their baggage and go. I found my boyfriend in the crowd, a camera around his neck (which proved to have a whole pile of photos from the ceremony on it) and a smile on his face. I was so glad to see him. We made the rounds to the members of Team Takin’ It Easy, already making plans to bike together again in the future, giving copious hugs and feeling nostalgic for a ride that had only just ended.

At one point, Bri turned and asked me, “So, are you going to do it again next year?” I didn’t even have to think about it and said, “Yes, if I can.” And I found that I meant it. I hadn’t been planning on doing it again when things started four days prior. But now I find myself wanting to go again (and if I’m in town this time next year, I will).

Goodbyes and so-longs done with, we gathered up my luggage and made our way to the car. On the way home, it felt extremely weird to be sitting in a motorized vehicle. I didn’t like it. I wanted to get back on my bike.


Special thanks and many hugs to: Team Takin’ It Easy (Katy, Dave, Bri, Michelle, Alison and Jamie), Nick, the crew, everyone who donated, the Family Mills, and every rider everywhere.

1 comment:

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