Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bad days on a bike

Date: Aug. 1
Mileage: 23.2
July mileage: 23.2
Temperature upon departure: 54
Inches of rain today: 0.01"

I have a getaway weekend coming up. I’m planning on recreational mountain biking, camping, and visiting friends in the city. I could really use a getaway about now. I feel like I’ve been wallowing in the trenches for entirely too long.

The corporate bosses are in town this week, and we’ve been informed to keep those trenches pristine. As everyone knows, all that extra effort is usually a magnet for mud. When life starts to get tough at work, I feel lucky that I have my cycling experiences to help me keep things in perspective. Because the worst days at work are in no way as bad as the worst days on a bike.

Wait ... that’s not how it’s supposed to happen, is it? Aren’t the best days at work - thus, by default, all days at work - supposed to be worse than the worst days on a bike? I don't know who started that rumor, but I have to respectfully but full-heartedly disagree. I’ve had a few days on the bike that have brought me to my knees, hollowed out my soul and left the shell of my body crumpled and useless. I take comfort in the idea that my employers - even the corporate guys - would have to reach way beyond inherent evil to achieve that level of demoralization.

So what’s my worst day ever on a bike? It would be hard for me to draw that line, since it’s been a long time since I’ve had a really bad one. But the bad days have always the ones I would have least expected. In that regard, I would probably have to label Day 6 of my 2003 cross-country bicycle tour the worst ever.

Geoff and I were 300 miles into our trip and pedaling through northwestern Colorado. After six days of a crash course in getting back into shape, we were finally settling into our groove and thinking nothing of pounding out a 60-mile day along a remote and treeless stretch of U.S. Highway 20. That was also the day I realized that I am, in fact, intensely allergic to the sun. The 95-degree, searing blue-sky day did nothing to mitigate the sun rash that was spreading across my skin despite multiple layers of SPF 45. When I ran out of water mid-afternoon, the only place we found any at all was from a rusty pump at an abandoned rest stop near the top of the pass. That water was at least 16 percent gasoline.

It was at that rest stop that I adamantly advocated giving up for the day. Geoff talked me out of it by insisting that it was “only about 10 more miles” (it was 24) and “late enough that the headwind will die down soon” (it picked up intensely) and “downhill the whole way.”

That was the biggest lie of all. Beyond the pass, the road crawled over a series of steep sand hills that rippled across the landscape at a rate of about one per mile. We would climb about 300 feet in a half mile, then drop as much, and then do it all over again. I was close to tears by the second hill, completely ignorant to the fact that I had more than a dozen more to go. After that, everything was whimpers and dust. Several times I stopped at the crest of a hill, looked at the new wall of pavement in front of me, and contemplated setting up my tent for the night right there in the highway right-of-way. But the relentless sun and lack of drinkable water urged me to seek shade. I had but one option. Had I a gun, the second option would have seemed preferable.

The heat, the headwinds and the hills make it easy to quantify why I was hating my life so much at that moment. What’s harder to describe is exactly how hard I really fell. It was full-on despair, justified or not, combined with a fair amount of rage. A construction crew was working on the road up one hill. I hated them - really hated them - as though, in my irrational mind, my depression was their fault for putting that hill there.

When we arrived in Maybell that night, I was nearly broken. Luckily, I was also still prone to emotional eating, and I let a giant plate of fried chicken and refill after refill of Pepsi perk me right up. Then I got right back on the bike the next day, no worse for the wear. Still, not enough has happened in the four years since to dull the acute pain of that ride. It haunts me.

When bicycling hurts, it can hurt bad. But the beautiful side to that truth is that the pendulum swings both ways. For every shot of pain and despair there are equal parts awe and exaltation. The emotions make even the most breakneck aspects of office employment seem flatlined in comparison. It’s an extreme perspective, and one I hope to keep.