For its 50th anniversary issue, November 2011, Bicycling put together a package called “The Ride of My Life.” I was invited to contribute to it, along with Mark Levine, Bruce Barcott, Tracy Ross, and Mike Magnuson. Always freaks me out a little to be in company like that. Also, I knew right away the moment I wanted to write about, but I was worried it wasn’t hardcore, wasn’t dramatic enough, didn’t invoke the metaphysical and existential and physical grandeur of ruination and suffering and all that stuff I knew the editors had figured on getting when they asked me to be part of the thing. I’m real good writing about snot and sweat. But whoom it was—though I’d hoped to title the thing Whooooooom. You can read the rest of the essays here, and listen to a show I did with NPR about the whole idea.
We rode together more than we ever had or ever have since, that spring, summer and fall when Natalie was nine then 10. We flew a mile down the hill for fruit ices and wallowed back up, and chased each other around the church parking lot in circles subject to no accounting such as mileage, and sometimes we piloted our old blue tandem all over town. We talked almost the entire time we rode, about life and death and god and infinity and whether we ought to stop at the park with what seemed to be the world’s last remaining merry-go-round.
Speechless stretches of almost any length bored Natalie. She did not hear, as I did, the beat of her own heart in the snick of the chain along the gears and in the tires singing against pavement.
Riding is not a hobby to me, not my sport, not my religion, nothing so easily explained. When I was a kid, the bike showed me a world outside my white-trash existence. In college, I sold my first great road bike to pay for my last quarter of schooling. Later, cycling saved my marriage (and my life’s ambitions, if not my life) by teaching me about humility and sacrifice and trust and everything else that can be found in any bike race anywhere. Natalie rides, but only for fun and only when bored with soccer and swimming and lying at odd angles across the furniture to announce she is bored. I’d always assumed she would love cycling; when she didn’t, I realized that what mattered more was that she loved me—that she would indulge her dad often enough that we would have a few episodes of riding among all the other memories of things we did together. But, still, when we rode, a granitic pebble of regret lodged somwhere between my throat and chest: She might understand that I loved cycling, it was true, but as true was that she might never really understand what it was I loved.
One day as we rode and talked, I thought we might be ready to take the tandem out of town, maybe to the first few bumps of Mountain Road. I turned and told Natalie. She was wearing sneakers tucked into straps I’d installed on flat pedals, and jeans and a hoodie. Some strands of hair had come undone from her pigtails and, windblown, flashed in the sun. Her helmet was crooked across her forehead. She interrupted her thesis about the merits of mud as a clubhouse-floor mortar to say yes.
We rode onto our town’s busiest street. To get to Mountain Road, we’d have to enter the stream of cars then turn left across the other lane’s oncoming traffic, diving into a blind, downhill screamer that bottomed in a shallow curve which feinted right before snapping left into a gentle, curved rise. It was an entry that scared first-timers, that some of us had wrecked on, that when wet could cause even the brave among us to commit the heresy of braking on a downhill. I signaled left and leaned the bike over and we dropped in.
I’d never done it on a tandem. On a regular bike, even just coasting, you can blur from 5 mph at the lip to 30 mph in the plunge to the corner. On the tandem, with its greater acceleration—the same frontal area as a solo cyclist but the weight of two—our descent had the uncontrollable sensation of a fall, as if we’d lost our footing on a carpeted staircase. By the time I could think to brake we were at the turn, where even a touch on the levers would send us sliding sideways. Desperate, I put all my weight on the outside pedal and felt Natalie doing the same, and we canted into the turn. But the bike wasn’t heeling over, was too heavy and going too fast to stay in the line I was trying to carve. I could sense the tires beginning to slip out from under us.
I stood on that outside pedal and drove it down through the centrifugal force pushing out against us and at the same time weighted the inside of the handlebar as if I were trying to snap it off. I was dragging the bike through the turn like a bad dog on a leash. Just then we hit the absolute bottom, and a blast of upward compression flexed the bike front to back, arcing it, and the same force traveled from my feet up my legs and through my stomach and arms and neck and out of the top of my head like a wave of sound. And we were through the turn.
I was breathing hard, and sweating, and I could hear nothing but my heartbeat, then after awhile I could also hear the chain on the gears, then the tires on the tarmac. By that time we were pretty far up the rise.
“Dad!” Natalie was hitting me on the back with her hand, and I realized she’d been doing that for some time. She said, “Dad! Did you?”
“Did you hear it or not?”
“That whoom. Back there. In the corner. Did you hear that? Whooooooom.”
I have climbed and descended the Tourmalet in fog and freezing rain, switchbacked up Alpe d’Huez, climbed Luz Ardiden as the Pyreneean sun melted the tar. I have been blown sideways on the exposed stretch of Ventoux where Tom Simpson died. I have ridden cobbles with Johan Museeuw, and bumped shoulders with Eddy Merckx as we spun along European lanes. By bicycle, I’ve delivered medicine to the sick and dying with doctors in Mozambique, where no truck or car could go. I have experienced so many life-changing moments on so many great rides that I cannot assemble a list of them with any sort of sensible ranking.
But the greatest moment of my cycling life happened in what was probably a single second, just a few miles from home, on a road I ride nearly every day, in an instant my daughter, now 13, says she no longer remembers but that comes to me at unexpected times as a sound that repeats itself until it becomes a hymn, a hosanna, a tactile sensation that suffuses all that I am.