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.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Day the Drought Broke

Day Three: Columbus to New Glarus (84 miles)

(View the route)

Morning came, and once again I marveled at my body’s ability not only to rise before the sun but just to rise at all, considering the trials I’d been putting it through. My sit bones, as nether regions are so quaintly referred to in biking lingo, were pretty sore, my joints a bit stiff, but overall I was still amazingly able to move. In fact, I was beginning to notice that my body actually felt better when riding the bike. A sort of land sickness was starting to set in when I wasn’t pedaling, a strange almost dizziness that compelled me to cut pit stops short and keep going. I’m told this isn’t unusual, and some of my riding companions reported the same strange sensation.

So it was back on the ol’ Surly, ready for another day. We’d be heading south toward Waterloo and Stoughton, then west into the beery goodness of New Glarus (if you’re not catching the reference, consider yourself deprived and check out their brewery).

I’d almost forgotten that it’s Saturday, the weekend, and more people will be out and about. As we rolled into our first pit stop of the morning in the tiny town of London, my eyes get a welcome site: my boyfriend, Nick, is sitting against a chain link fence, reading a magazine and waiting. I smothered him with a smelly biking hug and then introduced him to my riding buddies. In addition to making the trek out to meet me, he was also kind enough to readjust my saddle, which was in a rather uncomfortable upward tilt that was having a really unpleasant effect on my…err…unmentionables.

Too soon it’s time to get going again, though, so we say our goodbyes and he joined the group of merrily growling pirates (the pit crew) as they wished us well on our way. It was cloudy and cool that morning, a nice respite from the buckets of sun we’d been getting, and so far there was no sign of rain and so we were upbeat as we headed off.

The next pit stop was in a familiar place: Fireman’s Park in Waterloo, where I realized I’d been, years before, to see the fireworks with a friend of mine who was originally from the town. We were given delicious grapes and other goodies by the crew and I looked around at all the different outfits people had on. It was Disney Day, so there were Mickey’s and Minnie’s, a Princess Jasmine, pirates and other assorted interpretations on the theme.

The clouds were gathering as we pulled into the lunch pit in Stoughton. My back was acting up again, but instead of going straight to the (wonderful, amazing) massage therapists, I decided to gird my loins, as it were, and call upon the services of the chiropractor. I’d never been to one before and didn’t really know what to expect, other than lots of popping and cracking. Frankly, the idea of having my bones pushed around seemed a little intimidating. But I was in dire enough straights to try it out, and I’m glad I did.

The fellow doing the work was friendly, efficient and, from what I could tell, very skilled. He pushed, pulled, yanked and popped—including my neck, which was always something that frightened the hell out of me but which, in this case, felt amazing. It was a good decision, and helped me get through the rest of the day without major complaint from my back.

As I lay there on the table, though, I began to feel the light pitter patter of raindrops on my skin. Nothing terrible, I thought, we could totally keep riding without problems. And so we went, onwards as always, feeling relatively limber and upbeat about the rest of the day.

The drizzle slowly turned into a not unpleasant rain shower, but we kept going. The rain wasn’t cold or driving and our bikes didn’t seem to be having too many issues with the slightly slick roads. Still, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic when we rounded one country road corner only to be greeted by an ear-piercing blast from an unseen air horn. Some very clever person indeed had hidden themselves in a stand of pine trees off to the side of the road, and was tooting said horn with wild abandon as each rider passed. Which, considering the slippery conditions, seemed like (sarcasm alert) a really great idea!

After awhile, I stopped noticing how wet my butt was. But when I came up behind one lady whose back end was completely free of water and debris, I was a little jealous. She laughed and said, “Makes me glad I have the saddle bag! It blocks all the spray.” I looked forlornly at my own bag, perched on my handlebars, useless in the fight against bum soakings.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, still about eight miles out from the next pit stop, my bladder started to take issue with all of the water I’d been exposed to. It started to nag. I ignored it. Seven miles to go. It nagged harder. I tried to think happy thoughts of dry desert dunes. Six miles to go. Oh God, those bushes sure do look inviting, maybe I’ll just pull over if it gets bad and…no, the area is crawling with wild parsnip. Damn. OK, keep pedaling. You can make five miles without resorting to using your chamois pad (which, hey, is already wet, so who’d notice, right?) as an emergency…no! Too much dignity for that. Four more miles. Each pedal stroke is jarring my bladder, making it angrier and angrier. Rain water is splashing all around me. Oh God oh God oh God. I’m praying now: just a few more miles, make it crawl back up, just for another minute!

Finally, just as I was about to run naked into the nearest open field, I saw the pit stop pavilion on the horizon, a beacon of bathroom bliss. I pedaled like I’d never pedaled before. As I sped down the final stretch of road, jumped off my bike and made a mad dash for the ladies room, I heard someone proclaim that “that was the fastest dismount I’ve ever seen!”

Desperate times, desperate measures.

I emerged a much happier and more relaxed woman, finally able to pay attention to the fact that the crew manning this particular pit had decorated and kitted the place out as an impromptu rejuvenation spa, complete with facials and hand massages. Plus, there was the most adorable tiny dog to play with. I plopped down in a chair and gratefully let one of the crew ladies give me a hand massage. It was wonderful. It was (duh duh DUUUH) the calm before the storm.

As Team Takin’ It Easy was getting ready to head out for the final stretch of the night, the rain started to come down in earnest and the air cooled considerably. A very kind crew member offered to let me wear one of her extra bike jackets, and as I’d foolishly left mine in my luggage that day, I gladly accepted. It was this bright yellow jacket that earned me the nickname “Torch” from Bri, but I was happy to have it.

We were pedaling into a driving rain now and were relieved when our route had to take a detour on the Badger State Trail. While packed limestone is not ideal for road bikes, the thick covering of trees overhead kept us relatively shielded from the wind and wet for the duration. The flat trail gave us a chance to rest our legs a bit and to do some talking, too. It was a good respite, because once we came out on the other side, it was back into the thick of it for us.

The rain was coming down in sheets. After a little while, my jacket was keeping me warm but not dry. My brain started to switch into battle mode. Me against the elements! Bri and I started dogging each other up and down the hills (well, to be honest, she was much better at them than I was), cheering each other on and swearing up a storm of curse words that rivaled the pitch and fury overhead. She was cold, I was tired, we just wanted to get into New Glarus and get dry. But there were still hills to be conquered, so I yelled “Let’s just get this motherfucker done!” and a bizarre sort of adrenaline took over.

The rain came down and we kept pedaling, slowly up, faster than was probably safe down, forward toward our destination. This was the test. Not the century, with the beautiful weather and lack of hills. That took determination and an ability to overcome the mental fatigue that can come from such long distances, yes, but now the conditions were terrible, the hills beastly, the miles long (84 is nothing to sniff at), the roads dangerous. I don’t mean to sound dramatic or like this was something worse than it was, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t one hell of a challenge to keep going and not flag down the sag bus.

As our drenched, bedraggled team finally rode down the hill that led into New Glarus, my glasses so wet I could hardly see, the sense of accomplishment was palpable. We’d beaten the weather, the miles, and the sag bus. We didn’t get swept (which can happen if you take too long and/or the conditions are deemed bad enough, which they were certainly bordering on). We’d made it the whole way!

A crowd was gathered, as usual, outside of the high school where we’d be camping for the night. They lined up underneath a protective awning and broke into cheers as we came up the driveway. The wonderful medical crew had us bundled up in tinfoil looking space blankets before we could shiver twice and our bikes taken care of. Someone showed cold-hating Bri to the showers right away. I fetched my gear from under the tarps and went about setting up for the night, still feeling a little dazed.

By the time the caboose riders came in (and they, too, made it without being swept), the rain had eased up and Rider Zero was rolled up the driveway, dry.

The terrible, needle-like showers that night felt improbably amazing. Afterwards, dried off and dressed, I felt exhausted but exhilarated. I ate, got a massage, listened to announcements and tried to find a place to dry out my shoes. We all stood, fighting off tears, as the mother of Mike McKinney (long-time news anchor, activist and gung-go ACT rider who died last year) got up and gave a speech about what the experience of the ride had meant to her. Suddenly it sunk it: tomorrow was the last day. After all the miles, the hills when I thought for sure my legs were going to stage a mutiny and fall off, the new friends, the endless rows of corn…it was almost over. And the idea of doing it all again next year seemed less absurd, less impossible. The ride had meant more to me than I had expected.

But it wasn’t over just yet. There were still 45 miles left to ride out of New Glarus and toward Madison. And they weren’t going to be easy.

Next up: My Brain and My Bike Break Down

Friday, August 17, 2007

Day Two: The Century

Day Two: Baraboo to Columbus (107 miles)

(View the route)

With the horrors of Popsicle Hill and a day of breaking my body into the routine of biking for hours on end behind me, I felt somewhat less trepidation about the hundred miles that lay ahead of me. Bright and early Friday morning (well, not so bright, because we rose before the sun), riders emerged from dew soaked tents out on the grounds and from sleeping bags on the gym floor of Baraboo Middle School.

I stumbled outside and found my now dry bike shorts and sports bra hanging on the cluttered clothesline, then shimmied into my spandex-ridden outfit for the day. I checked in with my knees—amazingly, the braces (which have earned me the nickname of Bionic Woman, I should add) seemed to have done their job. Very few complaints were being issued; just the usual creaking sounds. I took that as a good sign.

After a small breakfast, my riding buddy Katy and I rolled out for the day, trying not to think about just how far we had to go. We passed one woman on our way out of town who was watching over a garage sale. She waved and asked us how far we were going. I shouted “300 miles overall!” and this elicited a great whoop and clap of the hands. “That’s great! Good luck!” she yelled back as we pedaled away grinning.

Katy and I know each other from before the ride and had been keeping each other company on the first day. Along the way, we’d begun to meet a few people with similar paces and senses of humor, and the second day would see the solidification of what would come to be known as Team Takin’ It Easy. We weren’t the fastest riders, nor were we the slowest, but by the end of our just-over-100-mile day, we decided that getting things done and having a good time was more important than speed. Plus, I’d been told by a very wise person indeed that riding with a group was far more fun than riding alone. Truer words were never spoken.

First there was Bri: I noticed her on the first day at one of the pit stops when she took off her bike helmet and revealed an awesome mohawk. I was jealous. I complimented the excellent ‘do and she mentioned wishing she could have brought a razor along on the ride to offer the same hairstyle to her fellow riders. I admit, had she brought one, I probably would have done it.

Next we had Alison, the youngest of our crew, who I’d met a few weeks prior on the Devil’s Lake training ride. It turned out that we had a few friends and a minister for a father in common, too.

Michelle, another member of our team, suffered some sort of trauma to her lower body late in the ride but somehow managed not to complain and not to drop out. She rode through the whole thing with us, telling interesting stories and disowning the rebellious body part that was giving her guff.

A ride leader from many of my earlier training jaunts around Madison, Jamie proved to be a steadfast rider and member of the team. She’d actually done the ACT Ride before, so proved to be a good resource as well.

And then there was Dave. A member of the ACT Ride steering committee and Katy’s proud father, Dave could have easily outpaced all of our green-in-the-saddle butts. Instead, he opted to ride along with his daughter and her erstwhile gang of biking misfits (that’d be us), following behind us up the long, hard hills and setting a solid pace on the flat stretches. I can’t say enough how thankful I was to have him as part of our group.

That wise person I mentioned before? My boyfriend, who insisted that, regardless of your biking acumen, it was better for your morale and overall mental health to ride with a group. There were more than a few hills, long stretches of monotonous cornfields, pouring rain and sore body parts that might have been too much for me had I been going it alone. But Team Takin’ It Easy kept me sane and motivated.

I would be a horrible jerk if I didn’t mention the crew, as well. Crew, bless ‘em, were responsible for keeping us well-fed and thoroughly hydrated all along the route. They drove up and down the roads we used, sweeping debris away, offering rides or water or snacks to those in need, and blasting loud disco music and cheering wildly for us every time they passed. I can’t stress enough how important the crew was to our success and good spirits.

But back to that 100 miles. The Route Queen (I’m terrible and have forgotten her name), the woman in charge of planning out our journey each day, had chosen mercy for our century. The stage was flat, thank heavens, with few real hills to break our spirits. Instead, we were gifted with one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever been on. The weather cooperated, too, with bright blue sunny skies, temperatures in the mid-70’s and a light breeze.

We spent a long time riding down a road that ran parallel to a levee. There was almost no traffic to contend with there, only the occasional patch of roughed up road. We chatted and took in the scenery—some sort of nature preserve—as we headed toward the towns of Portage, Pardeeville (surely a happenin’ place), Beaver Dam, Horicon and others.

The lunch stop was in a shady park and we arrived around one in the afternoon, feeling a little crestfallen that, after all the effort, we were only just over halfway through with the route. I found myself the nearest massage therapist and plunked down onto the table. I’d been expecting my knees to be my biggest problem on the ride, but it was my lower back that proved to be my enemy. I’d been having a hard, constant pain there all day, and it had gotten so bad that it was starting to feel cold or numb. I had the masseuse work on it for a bit and then went to wolf down some food.

Let me note that I am normally a fairly healthy eater. I’ve been a vegetarian for years and have made a point to learn good nutrition so that “vegetarian” didn’t turn into “only eats junk food.” I gave up soda years ago, don’t eat things like Doritos, try to go organic and local as much as possible—all the good, responsible things a person ought to do for their body.

And don’t get me wrong, the food provided for us on the ride was great—veggie subs and sandwiches, salads, Clif Bars (so, so many Clif Bars), bananas and oranges. But there were also bags of Cheetos, Doritos, pretzels and Laffy Taffy. After so many miles, my body positively cried out for these things. I gave in. Normally I don’t even like the taste of that stuff, but on that day, it was glorious. I licked the processed cheese dust from my fingers with relish. I felt better.

Ten miles at a time. That’s how we’d take the rest of the day (and the ride). If I thought too much about the total mileage that lay ahead, I’d surely psych myself out. So we all concentrated on “just making it to the next pit.” Ten or fifteen miles, we could manage that no problem. We were warriors! By around mile seventy, I suddenly found myself really and truly believing that I could finish a freakin’ century.

We biked down quiet country roads, past golden wheat fields and brown and yellow corn. Vast stretches of bright green soybeans and alfalfa lined the roads, too, right along with more cows than I could count. This is Wisconsin, after all. Somewhere along the way, we went through a Mennonite community. A man was steering two huge, beautiful work horses at the end of a plow and working a field of corn and he waved back to us as we went by. I saw who I presume was his wife in the backyard of their house, putting identical pair of pants after identical pair of pants on a clothesline to dry. Down the road a little further, a group of men were working together to build a dairy barn. I marveled at their ability to wear long pants and shirts while working under the afternoon sun and was thankful for my own super synthetic and breathable outfit (and lack of that level of religious piety).

By the time our little crew rolled into the final pit stop of the night, we were in high spirits. It was later than we’d hoped for, but we were going to make it the whole damn way. As it turned out, we were just minutes ahead of the caboose riders. A decision was made to wait for them so that our whole big group could ride into camp together. And so we headed off toward Columbus en masse, cheerful and exhausted from a very long day of riding.

By the time Team Takin’ It Easy reached downtown Columbus, we’d gotten a little bit ahead of the caboose again. We waited at an intersection for them to catch up and someone had the brilliant idea of lining our bikes up (there were something like ten or twelve of us) against the curb like motorcycles do, front wheel facing out to the street. As the caboose caught up and rounded the corner, we each took turns pushing off, one after the other, in a crazy sort of Esther Williams (on bikes) tribute. It was a pretty awesome thing to behold, I must admit.

From there, it was only a mile to Columbus High School, our camp for the evening. And as our great big caboose came down the driveway, all of the riders (who’d likely been in since much earlier) lined up to form a long gauntlet of clapping and cheering to welcome us in for the night. It was incredibly moving and more than a little gratifying.

Justin, Katy’s husband and a good friend of mine (and guitarist in my band), and her mom had come out to meet us all that night. It was good to see a few friendly faces, especially since they were so tolerant of the great stinking messes we’d all become.

After the tearful and somber arrival of Rider Zero, we all retreated inside for dinner (showers would have to wait, as it was already just after 7:00 and there was only so much dinner time left). Club 5, a local Madison gay nightclub, had provided an extremely satisfying taco bar for our meal and I made short work of it. The most wonderful culinary surprise of the evening, however, came in the form of various freshly baked pies courtesy of Monty’s Blue Plate Diner in Madison. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I stuck around long enough to hear the nightly announcements, working slowly and happily at the eating of my enormous meal and reveling in the fact that holy shit I just biked 107 miles in a day! There was a segment of the announcements called Random ACTs of Kindness where people could relate stories of people who’d done something nice for them that day. One after another after another, riders and crew stood up to talk about another rider, crew member or random citizen who’d gone out of their way to do something good.

My favorite story was of an older fellow who lived behind one of the pit stops we’d made. He came walking over late in the day, towing a wagon full of juice and snacks, and offered to donate it to the ride. When asked who they could say it came from, he just said “From the Zander family.” The people in charge of the pit stop were so touched by the gesture that they did some sleuthing to find out who this kind gentleman was so a thank-you card, at very least, could be sent. In doing so, they also discovered that the same man had made a similar gesture when another charity ride had come through town the previous week. It made me smile.

Once the long good vibes session finally wound down, we dispersed to take showers and bed down for the night. The next day would bring what now seemed like a measly 85 miles of riding, so I went to sleep confident in the knowledge that surely, after a century, I’d have no problem doing that.

And then the rain clouds came.

Next up: The Day the Drought Broke

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

ACT Ride Journal: Day One

ACT V Rider Journal by Emily Mills (#72)

Day One: Madison to Baraboo (75 miles)

I was nervous. Everything was packed and ready to go but I was standing on a grassy median in a parking lot at Olin Park in Madison, feeling a little bit ill. The main thought racing through my head: “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

When I initially signed up for the ACT V Wisconsin AIDS Ride back in early spring, those 300-odd miles were still in the far-off, unreal land of the future. August: that would give me plenty of time to train and raise money. In the beginning, I had been more afraid of the fundraising aspect of the event. All riders were required to bring in a minimum of $1,100 in donations (all for a great cause and organization). That’s a bit daunting to the girl who only ever sold six or seven boxes of Girl Scout cookies, and those all to her immediate family. But I was determined, and thanks to the help of my band and a whole slew of good family and friends, I was able to raise well over the minimum--$1,565. Excellent! Now there was just the matter of pedaling those 300 miles. Easy peasy, right?

At the ass-crack of dawn on Thursday, August 2nd, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Surely I hadn’t trained nearly enough, hadn’t strengthened my poor knees enough (patellofemoral syndrome is a real bitch), hadn’t tricked out my custom built bike enough (a Surly Crosscheck, courtesy of the best cheerleader a gal could want: my boyfriend). The sun was getting ready to rise, all around me my fellow riders and crew were assembling, wolfing down bagels, applying sunscreen and sorting through luggage. Open ceremonies began. My stomach turned knots as I listened to the pep talks and speeches. My eyes teared up as they rolled in Rider Zero—the riderless bike meant to represent all those lost to HIV/AIDS—all to the haunting tones of bagpipes.

Then it was time to go. I said my goodbyes, still feeling almost dizzy with dread of the miles and miles of self-powered road running that lay ahead. I clipped in and pushed off. No turning back.

Our bike parade wound its way through the shady streets of Madison and Middleton. We passed people just leaving for their daily commutes to work and I thought, “OK, this is definitely better than going to work.” We saw a few friendly faces out on the sidewalks to cheer us on even at that early hour. When the sun had fully risen, the heat of the day started to settle over us and everyone knew it would be a scorcher. Still, morale was high.

We stopped for our first pit stop at Lakeview Park in Middleton. I was disheartened by the locked bathrooms but forced my bladder to calm itself until the next opportunity to pee came along. I refused to become one of those crazy people who use their chamois pads for urination-on-the-go purposes. Oh no, it would be clean living for me!

The ride away from town was pleasant. Our route took us right past where I work at ETC and out into the countryside. This is where we would meet out doom: Popsicle Hill. If you’ve never been on one of the Wisconsin AIDS Ride, you may be unfamiliar with this term. “Popsicle Hill” refers to the highest elevation point reached during the whole of the ride. Upon reaching the summit, riders are rewarded with a popsicle. It would be the best damn popsicle I’d ever had in my entire life.

In this case, our ascent was actually what felt like a series of three very long, very steep hills on Freedom Road, just outside of North Freedom, Wisconsin. By the end I decided that much as the hawkish Republican goons would have you believe I do in fact hate Freedom. Road. So sue me. It was hot, it was the first day of the ride, and it was steep as hell (just over 444 meters, which in the Midwest is quite a lot). It was one of only two times that I had to get off my bike and walk it up a hill. I am not ashamed. I would probably have ruined my body for the remaining three days if I’d pushed it any further.

See Popsicle Hill on the elevation map of the days’ route: (then click “Show” in the left hand corner of the top menu bar, then click “Elevation”)

Grueling hills and an unfortunate dearth of ice midday aside, it was a good first day of riding and one hell of a way to break me in to what lay ahead. The tallest hill was behind me, the century day next—but I was starting to actually believe that I could make it.

We made camp at Baraboo Middle School that night, sleeping bags and air mattresses sprawled across the gym floor. Tubs and a clothesline for doing laundry in were made available and so I busied myself with the washing of bike shorts and sports bras. Dinner, provided by local caterers Captain Dix (who had a hilarious and wonderful truck parked out back), was good and satisfying. I sat out on the cement wall in front of the school, enjoying the light breeze and chatting with a few other people who decided that being outside was better than in. That night, I went to bed at 8:00. I don’t think I’ve done that in years. But it was a good thing, because come 5:00 the next morning, alarms and coughing woke me up and it was time to get going again.

Next Up: Day Two – The Century

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


I made it. All 309 miles. I'm still a little hard-pressed to wrap my head around it, but damn am I happy. Through blazing heat, past innumerable fields of corn and soybeans, roadkill, Mennonites, too many steep hills, beautiful landscapes, pouring rain, random air horn attacks, the always cheerful crew, one flat tire and an awesome bunch of riders.

I'm going to be typing up an actual ride journal over the next few days that'll describe it all in better detail. I just wanted to check in to say that I'm alive and well and surprisingly not very sore at all. I am so grateful to have been part of this extraordinary event and to have met this fabulous group of people. Maybe I'll do it again next year....
The Lost Albatross