May-June 1998 Newsletter
Riskby Dave Stewart
It was cold, cold weather in March. There had been a beautiful stretch of warm days in February and now it was nasty again. Nasty in a way that made me wonder if Spring would ever come. But I had resolved that it would in my mind. I was living in the future. So, I was mapping out a Century that I’ll call Henry’s Hundred for a bright sunny May day. As I ran the car over hill after hill, it occurred to me how difficult the ride will be. A number four, at least. That understanding let me forget the drifting breaths of snow across the road and think instead of the sweaty, panting effort to pull each of those hills on a bike. I knew how my legs would burn on some of the climbs. It was easy to remember the gritty, bone-deep weariness those last few miles of a difficult Century on a sunmner day. If my memory were so good, why would I even bother to layout a ride like that? Why would I expect anyone in the Club to tackle it with me? What kind of person uses precious free time to pit their strength and endurance against a series of roads winding through the Kentucky hills when they could enjoy a good book and a frosty mint julep in the shade, sit on the couch and watch someone sweat on TV, sip coffee at a sidewalk cafe or do anything else that would be easier? What kind of person can put the idea of road rage out of their mind to struggle over a tough course with traffic? What kind of person, understanding that the sweet family dog at home is a different animal than that rabid raving wolf in someone’s front yard along the route, rides anyway?
One of my earliest cycling memories comes from when I was five. The scene is a little after daybreak in deepest Africa. On either side of a broad river, scrub trees and tall, brittle grass struggles to swive in an environment that already promises the parched scorching heat of rippling mirages and biting bugs. The river is deep brown and swirling with eddies from currents caught by unseen underwater obstacles. My young mind imagines crocs and hippos. In the still water around the reeds at the bank the mud has settled enough to see the bottom clearly between clumps of river grass. I step to wade out into the promise of cool wetness. An African catches me quickly and pulls me gently back. A man, he tells me, had stepped right there once and had been sucked under by quick sand. I imagine the man buried whole under the clear water among the reeds, drowned and mute in the dark sand.
I turn away from the shallows to where the two tracks of the road lead into the water. Hidden is a stretch of bottom shallow enough to be a ford. My father, in his late twenties then, stands naked on the dirt. He has tied his clothes between the chain stays of a bicycle lying on the ground, with the spokes of the rear wheel keeping the bundle whole. He kisses my mother and me, speaks to the African once more and, the bicycle held over his head, wades out onto the ford gingerly testing the unseen footage as the swirls rise around his calves, then his thighs and finally to his chest. I ask the African if a crocodile will eat him and he tells me they don’t like this stretch of river. That’s why people cross here. Midway, the bottom falls off sharply and my father slips suddenly deeper into the murky water until only the tops of his shoulders show. The bicycle wavers, dips and then is righted as he struggles to find his footing in the current. Gradually, he rises out of the water, gaining stature with each step. On the far side, he emerges dripping, dresses and then pedals off with a wave, disappearing into the bush surrounding the track within a few yards. A month later, he comes back to us with the tale of selling the bike many miles away from the river crossing in a small town, hitching a ride for a price equal to the bicycle in a smuggler’s truck and finally, after a week of straddling the gear shift between the smuggler and his mechanic, getting to Mombassa on the coast. It would have been much easier to hitch a ride closer to home. Or to take the steamer on Lake Victoria to the rail head at Kisumu. But he wanted to across the wilds of Africa on a bicycle. Why did he take that risk? During my childhood, I heard him tell the stoty many times. I recognized the satisfaction that came from each telling. He had stepped beyond the range of the commonplace. Life had issued a challenge and he had conquered it.
One of my early excursions on a bike was in Africa, too. I was twelve. I took my bike and set off to ride fifteen dirt-road miles to Chandgudzo, a sleepy market of still, hot dust, dogs in the shade of broken down trucks and Arab stores full of the aromas of rubber tires, burlap, green coffee, kerosene and sweaty people. On the way, I lost a bolt that held one crank arm to spindle. Only having one pedal working slowed me down. When I finally coasted into town, I shopped a store for a replacement bolt while I sipped a bottle of warm orange drink. Sediment swirled in the bottom like the dust devils in the road. While an Arab haggled over his prices with the press of customers, two dark-eyed, exotic women with heads covered in white linen hung quietly in the shadows behind the counters. The Arab had no bolts my size. Neither did the other stores. I found a stick on the ground, drove it into the bolt hole with a rock and pedaled off toward home. The stick repair would last a mile at the most, depending on how much of the road was downhill. I stopped each time the crank arm loosened up, drove in another stick and went another mile. During some point in my slow going, it occurred to me how long it would take to get home. As the sun fell, I saw there was no moon on the horizon, no firelight from villages. Dark was coming on as I crossed a broad stretch of open bush we called “Lion Valley.” Just as the last ray of sunlight disappeared, I looked up and saw the headlamps of a car bouncing in the distance. My father had figured out I was having trouble and had come to pick me up. I was greatly relieved. On the way home, he complimented me on my resourcefulness and perseverance. I basked in the glow but I knew I had been in trouble. What made me decide to do that trip to begin with? Why did I want to take that risk? Beyond the knowledge of the difficulty inherent in the trip was the knowledge of the satisfaction of meeting the challenge. Of persevering in the face of the unforeseen.
There is, in some unknown portion, a segment of society known as “risk takers.” This is a characteristic that quiet, satisfied citizens use to identify entrepreneurs, downhill racers, parachutists, cops, mountain climbers, fighter pilots and others who routinely step out of the norms of “daily life” as a matter of choice. These are people who not only weigh the risks; they push the envelope to the point where they might “lose” because they gain something crucial from the possibility of success. This is, in my opinion, the crux of the matter. These risk takers don’t focus on the possibility of failure. They’re attracted by the possibility of success. It may be thrill, or money, or fame, or a myriad of other rewards. But they plan to ultimately gain more from their risk taking then they plan to lose.
I think cyclists at all experience levels tend to be risk takers. Whether a rider sets out to do WACKY, Henry’s Hundred or their first Monday night ride, they’ve all weighed the risks of cars. long hills, dogs, summer heat, low water, fatigue, flat tires and crashes. They’ve decided that there’s more to gain from that ride than they will lose. For most of us, it’s simply the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult task wrapped in the companionship of other riders, the right to tell war stories and the pure joy of being on a bicycle. I’ll never earn a living riding a bike. But I’ll continue to feel the allure of cycling. I’ll take all the risks and settle for the rewards of the camaraderie and the stories. Maybe I'Il come back with some road rash and certainly I’ll come back bone tired but I’ll have a deep glow of satisfaction within my soul from staring straight into the face of the odds and the difficulties and coming out whole on the other side of the ride. Sounds like a fine way to spend my free time.
How about a ride?
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Web posted: 27 April 1998
last updated: 27 April 1998
by Duc M. Do