100 Miles to Freedom
2003 – Solvang, CA.
My first half-century.
The distance is a stretch for me. I do not consider myself a cyclist – I am a person who rides bikes sometimes on the weekends. I’m a runner and a softball player, but I am not a cyclist.
Never will be.
Rolling through California wineries with the other amblers, I take note. I mark the women who pass me. I am inspired by their casual confidence and strong legs. They’re in Pearl Izumi jackets wearing technical glasses. They look like they do this all the time.
Sal rides with me until the first rest stop and then shoots of ahead to take on the full 100 miles. At the rest stop the strong women are everywhere. Eating bananas, checking equipment, reapplying sunscreen. They ride off with groups of men. They are headed in the direction of the full century – I turn the other way with our friend Jamie.
I feel like I am sitting at the kiddie table on Thanksgiving.
Even as I recognize a desire welling inside me, I write myself off. Watching Sal ride is like watching someone make art. He makes it look so effortless and poetic, I cannot for a second imagine that I will ever be as graceful or strong.
I finish the half-century and sit in Southern California sun at the finish line, waiting for him to arrive. When he comes he looks happy and free, as he always does on the bike. I cannot believe that his body has just propelled him 100 miles across the surface of the planet.
Fast-forward roughly 5 years to the parking lot of Clark College. We pull up in the CRV and pull the bikes off the top. We meet teammates and people we know from the club. A group congregates at the the back of our car and then we’re off.
In my head I know that, while I’ve only ridden 80 miles once (and bonked so hard without adequate food or water at mile 70 that it took me over an hour to ride the final ten miles), I can complete the century. The numbers add up. All signs point to yes. I am light years away from that girl who bonked on the 80 miler back in San Jose. I can hardly recall the person who rode that Solvang Half-Century.
The only thing that remains the same is the bike – my 1999 Pinarello Surprise - and today I intend to make old Nonna proud.
We head off into the world on a mild northwest morning. It’s not raining and just warm enough to ride without a jacket. Javad, Kristin, Sal and I form a pod and watch Springer ride away. Tucked in behind Sal and Javad, my legs start to warm up. Kristin and I sit in and chat. The landscape expands around us.
We are people on bikes moving through a world of green farmland.
My heart is filled with a calm resolve. I feel safe surrounded by the blue of other Portland Velo jerseys. The century, unlike a race, is about the journey – not the result. We ride comfortably and enjoy the quiet, open roads.
We pass other riders. We pass the type of strong looking women that I’d admired five years prior. They still look strong to me now, so the change is not so much a reversal in perception, but an acknowledgement of my own progress. Five years ago they were passing me uncerimoniously and I’d foolishly written that off as my lot in the cycling world.
At mile 37 we come to a fork in the road. Left for the 65 mile route, right for the 100 mile.
"What do you think?" Sal asks me. He wonders how I am feeling.
"I want to do the full route."
I know that I can ride 65 miles. I am not entirely sure that I can ride 100. But I’ve got a hunch that I can and I am dying to find out if I’m right.
We say goodbye to Javad, who is recovering from knee surgery and heads left.
Over the next several miles we ride in a silent single-file line on a small shoulder past a rushing river. We are three now. It’s colder in the shade. It’s been 30 miles since the last rest stop and we’re looking for the next one around every corner. I’m hungry and almost out of water.
Mercifully, it appears at mile 43. If there is one thing that I have learned over the past 4 months of training, it is that hydration is a make-or-break component of my ability to perform. My rule is one bottle of liquid per hour.
We refill bottles and eat the food that has been generously provided. The "trail putty"- a mix of peanut butter, powdered milk, and honey – is a sweet, fatty caloric godsend.
A large group leaves around the same time we do and as they are coming around us, we latch on to the back of the 10-15 man pack. This proves to be our best move of the day as the train pulls us through the next thirty miles at a good clip. Moving in a group this way lets us carry lots of momentum through the endless rollers. We hitch a ride down a long sweeping descent on the back wheel of a tandem and then shoot off past them when the road begins to turn up again.
"Thanks for the ride!" we all say as we go by. Tandems descend like rockets but go straight backward with the slightest uphill grade.
They wave and we surge forward. The roads narrow and wind through brilliant green foliage. We climb and then climb some more. The group spreads apart a bit on the longer climbs and then comes back together. Sal climbs at the front and I climb toward the back.
I am calm and collected in my rhythm. I am descending and cornering today better than I ever have. Even as the pace of this group feels a tiny bit faster than I’d planned to go, I still feel confident that I can finish the ride strong. I do not want another Timber Park. I don’t want to be the littlest caribou. I don’t want to have to be rescued.
At 65 miles I start looking for the next rest stop. "How you feeling?" Sal asks. He realizes that we are probably riding this portion a little faster than I’d planned.
"I’m ok. I need to eat."
I’d forgotten to open a pack of bloks at the last rest stop and I’m not as adept at eating on the bike as he is. The bloks are sitting back there in my pocket but I cannot stop to open the bag and put them in my mouth because we’ll lose the group.
Sal reaches into his own pocket, grabs a bag, sits up riding with no hands, opens them for me and hands me all six bloks.
Here is the beauty of having a personal domestique.
I grip them with my right hand and eat them slowly, one by one. They’re enough to convince me that I’m going to make it. The rest stop appears at mile 73. Mile 73!
Sal says, "We’re almost done."
"This is the part where heroes are made." I reply.
"Yes – this is the part where it switches from body to mind."
In my head I know that if I make it to mile 80, I will finish the ride. I can ride a measly 20 miles no matter what. I just need to make it to 80 miles. When we leave the rest stop the legs are heavy on my body, I’m cold again, and we’ve lost our group.
Our threesome sets off into a headwind together with Sal and Kristin pulling alternately. I pop off the back a few times. I’m struggling to get back into my rhythm. I’m tired. I’m getting sore.
I need to see 80 on my computer. Now.
When it appears there, it is less encouraging than I thought it would be.
85, I tell myself. I will make it to 85.
The route continues on past farms, up rollers, around sweeping curves. The grass is tall in fields. I am mostly inside my head now, but when I do look around, I am astonished by the beauty. I say a tiny thank you prayer for every mile that comes easily.
There is a point where farm turns into town again and I can feel the end of the ride getting closer. We cross-check all of our computers and we all have different mileage readings. Mine is the lowest and Kristins is the highest. I pray that Kristin’s computer is right.
Coming into the town brings the sensation that perhaps the climbing is over. It’s a terrible lie.
With more than 90 miles and well over 4,000 feet of climbing already in our legs, we come around a left-hand turn to see a leg-ripper rising up in front of us. My pre-hill profanity string, which usually stays inside of me, comes flooding out. I’m not alone and I feel comforted by the fact that Sal is also groaning.
The hill is both long and steep. People halfway up are walking. From this distance we can see them all there – people who are still riding moving barely faster than the walkers.
I find Nonna’s granny gear and turn the pedals over, watching Sal slip slowly away from me. I pass one man and then another.
"Good job." says the second as I go by.
I survive and bridge back to Sally. When we are all together again we carry on. In my head I write that off as the last hill but I am wrong again. One more steep little bastard.
"Noooooooo!" we all say as we see it on the left.
I pass a guy toward the beginning and say, "This is cruel!"
"Oh god," he says, "At this point in the ride? This is the worst."
It hurts and hurts and hurts and hurts. The pain is a promise. The pain is knowledge. The pain is power.
And then – just before the crest – the pain is just pain. Screaming and angry.
It reverberates inside of me as I hook up to Sally once again. But a few miles later, as we pull into the finish, it’s a distant memory.
Kristin’s computer wins, so mine only says 96 when we cross the line. It catches me off-guard. As with most personal milestones, there is no fanfare or fireworks. Just the simple knowledge of another barrier taken down with the methodical turnover of pedals.
One goal at a time. One mile at a time.
There is beauty in progress. There is motivation in hitting milestones.
More than anything, however, there is power in allowing yourself to think big. Five years ago, I knew that I wouldn’t ever be one of those strong women on the bike. Today I know I am.
What you know, and what you think you know, are both subject to what you will allow yourself to believe.
Change your mind. Your body will follow.