Nervous brake down

When you smell the rubber of your bike's brake pads burning as you descend a twisting ribbon of a mountain road at 40 miles per hour, you think, in order: 1. hey, I am a genuine badass; 2. hmm, there are no guardrails on that hairpin turn ahead; and, 3. I wonder if Barb will remarry.

 Ten minutes to start: Should I really do this, or should I just play in the bounce house all day?

Ten minutes to start: Should I really do this, or should I just play in the bounce house all day?

That was me as I bounced, swerved and skidded like a runaway coal car down Skyuka Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains this past weekend. I was a "participant" in cycling star George Hincapie's Gran Fondo, an 80-mile race that included 8,000 feet of climbing and several scary descents. I survived the ride but it took several hours to pry my hands from the handlebar so I could write this ode to an exhilarating, exhausting and intriguing event that drew 2,300 cyclists to ironically named Travelers Rest, South Carolina.

I have taken to cycling recently because my body is worn out from years of daily running. Plus, I admit I was intoxicated by Lance Armstrong and his inspiring comeback from cancer. Because of him, the Tour de France has become my favorite sporting event, despite the lingering stink of Armstrong's deceptions.

Road cycling is hard and it hasn't come easily to me. It takes courage, concentration and, as real riders say, "a lot of time in the saddle" (or your butt will bark). Having my feet clipped to the pedals was a difficult change from my childhood bikes. I have scars on my knees and hands from when I forgot to unclip at red lights and fell slowly to the pavement. Enduring the searing pain of climbing a steep hill at 6 miles per hour came naturally to a marathoner like me but descending the other side at 40 mph on two narrow tires horrified me (hence the burning brakes). 

Cyclists are serious about their sport, which has many unwritten rules. They will bellow at you like a drill sergeant, "Hold your line!" if you get a little wobbly near them. They spend thousands on their machines and they know that a mistake by a newbie like me can bend their frames and break their bones. At the same time, they are friendly and generous and will stop on the side of the road to ask if you are okay or to help fix a flat tire.

 One of the many switchbacks on Skyuka Mountain.

One of the many switchbacks on Skyuka Mountain.

Cycling was difficult for me even when I was young. I just couldn't graduate from training wheels to the red bike with the banana seat and motorcycle handles my parents bought for me at Barker's department store (my brother Ken got one, too). I remounted repeatedly and tried to ride it but had to keep diving off on to the grass or end up with more dirt and gravel embedded in the palms of my hands after another fall.

As my First Holy Communion approached when I was eight, I was certain that would be the day I would succeed. I guess I just thought God would give me that one little victory. After Mass, I hopped on the bike, wobbled a bit at first, but then cruised down our street without a problem. I victoriously dropped my bike in our driveway (you never used the kickstand - that was uncool) and ran inside to tell my parents about my premonition and the miracle that had just occurred. The house was full of friends and relatives for a post-Communion celebration so all my mother had time to say was, "That's great, now wash your hands for lunch."

 Me after a training ride. No one told me to smile or suck in my gut.

Me after a training ride. No one told me to smile or suck in my gut.

Nonetheless, I had my freedom. For the next five or six years, our bikes were our ticket to fun and trouble -- Oakdale playground, Polar Bar, the corner store and the entire city of Hudson, NY (we once rode our bikes through the inside of the volunteer firefighting museum for which we got banned for life). In summer, we'd get on our bikes after breakfast and return only for lunch or dinner.

It is the same today. I have seen amazing things from my bike on the backroads of Columbia County NY -- wildlife, wild flowers, the satisfying symmetry of a recently mowed hay field, the beautiful contrast of a blue summer sky with the rolling green lines of the Berkshire and Catskill mountains. Some of my rides last six hours or more and have introduced me to clerks and customers at nearly every convenience and general store in the county -- Stewart's, XtraMart, Cobble Pond Farms, The Farmer's Wife -- where I stop for food and drinks.

In two trips to the Carolinas, my wife and I have met a neurosurgeon and his wife from Tennessee, a veterinarian and his son from Florida, a real estate lawyer from Philly, professional racers, and others who share a passion for cycling. This past weekend as we waited in the early morning cold for the start of the Gran Fondo, I chatted about the race with a father and son from Barcelona, Spain. They had ridden the race previously and they could sense I was nervous about it.

"It's not too bad," the father said reassuringly. The son smiled, thought a bit, and then warned, "Just watch the descent down Skyuka. It's very steep and technical. Don't be distracted by the beautiful view." 

Gulp.