The road out of Ithaca, heading west, goes steeply uphill for two miles, and I had just climbed it on my saddlebag-laden bicycle. I was on the final day of a cycle tour of the Finger Lakes region and was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Here I was, just a couple months shy of my 60th birthday, and in my judgment at least, I was riding as well as I ever had.
Or nearly so, anyway. The long pull out of Ithaca had given me reason to reconsider the state of my cycling fitness. I’d come to the hill late in the afternoon after already riding 60 miles that day. The 50-plus pounds of camping gear on the bike hadn’t bothered me much for most of the tour, but on that long ascent, I had more than noticed it. In fact, I hadn’t been able to actually pedal the entire upward way. The first half mile or so consisted of a heavily traveled narrow city street with no shoulder. With the abruptness of the incline and no room for vehicles to pass me as I labored uphill at what I knew would be a crawl, I’d decided to walk the bike on the sidewalk until the street widened. So my assault on the slope started as a trudge.
Once the sidewalk ran out and the street became a road with a hint of a shoulder, I mounted the bike and began puffing upward. Even after that, however, there were occasional sections that bounded so sharply upward that I was force to dismount and push the bike through them. Nonetheless, by the time I finally reached the top, I had pedaled the bike more than I had pushed it, and I was feeling pretty good about myself.
I was also feeling pretty tired, though, and after pumping through a few more miles of what was now smartly rolling terrain, I stopped at a crossroad corner to mix up a sports drink and replenish myself.
While I stood there gulping Gatorade, I noticed a bicyclist approaching rapidly on the intersecting road. The rider noticed me as well and wheeled to a halt, speaking a cheery hello. Seeing that she was an attractive and obviously fit young woman, I straightened up and wiped the weariness from my face. I’m a married man and all that, and I was way above the woman’s age bracket, but no male rider wants to look like a winded fool in the presence of a shapely, lycra-clad female who wasn’t even breathing hard from her efforts.
She began asking about my tour and explained that although she raced in competitive cycling, she also planned to ride a tour, having finally talked her husband, who didn’t normally cycle at all, into touring with her. I answered her questions about my route and gave her some equipment recommendations.
Eventually, I mentioned the hill I’d ridden and asked if she’d come up the same route. I was prepared to brag a little about my accomplishment, but her response quickly scotched that. What she said was, “No. I rode up another way that is actually steeper and longer.”
“And you didn’t have to walk any of it?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I ride it quite often.” Then, letting me down easy, she added, “Of course, I’m not hauling saddlebags.”
Finally, she wished me well on my journey and said, “Well, I guess I better get moving before I cool down too much.” She flashed me a bright smile and with a couple of strong strokes on her pedals, shot off down the road.
It was probably a good thing she left when she did. I couldn’t have kept my stomach sucked in much longer.
by Stan Purdum
Stan Purdum is a pastor and freelance writer living in North Canton, Ohio. He is the author of two books about his long-distance cycling journeys, Roll Around Heaven All Day and Playing in Traffic, as well as the short-story collection New Mercies I See, and a book about the ministry of Jesus, He Walked in Galilee.