Back on the Saddle

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

At first I thought it was old-fashioned joking around: I agreed that next July, I would ride a bicycle across the state of Iowa — which is, mind you, no Rhode Island. In fact, Iowa is 330 miles across at its widest, which is approximately six Rhode Islands.

I know what you’re thinking: Iowa is flat. How hard can it be to bike across it? Well, sure, it’s relatively flat, but it is bordered and bisected by rivers — which means big rolling hills that feel even bigger from a bicycle seat.

Not to pick on Rhode Island, but while we’re cycling across it six times, let’s note that its elevation ranges from 812 feet at the highest point to sea level at the point where it meets the Atlantic. Iowa, meanwhile, ranges from 480 feet to 1,670. Hardly mountainous, but not exactly flat, either.

I have pedaled across the state before, three times. Full disclosure: On two of those occasions, I did not pedal every mile. I missed a day here or there, and walked some mammoth hills. But the first time, I rode all day, every day, and didn’t walk my bike up a single hill. The ride lasts a week in the middle of Iowa’s hot, humid summer. It spans an average of 475 miles, and the days vary in mileage from 50 miles to 80 or more. That first year, I even took the optional 20-mile ”century loop” on Wednesday, giving me a 100-mile day.

That year, I was 16 years old and freshly out of high school. I was in the habit of biking all over my hilly town on the Mississippi River, and somewhere I got the bug to go on the statewide ride that turned 15 years old that year, 1987. I mentioned the idea to a good friend, and we decided we were going to do it. Soon enough her entire family was on board and we were making plans.

The ride is called RAGBRAI, which stands for something that most people don’t really care about knowing. I’ve always felt a special bond with RAGBRAI because it is, each year, the last full week in July. And that is the same week, each year, that I celebrate a birthday. So on my first RAGBRAI, I turned 17 on the last day of the ride. Finishing a 450-mile bicycle trip was a fine way to enter a new biological year.

Next year — for those who are slow at math — will be 20 years since my first RAGBRAI. The other two were in 1988 and 1990, and in 1992 I drove the route in a car and slept in hotels while I reported about the ride for The Des Moines Register. Shortly after that 1992 assignment, I moved to Maryland and watched my bike collect cobwebs and rust for the next 14 years.

I also watched my muscles weaken and my weight rise and fall and rise again. I took a few well-intentioned bicycle rides, but never made it a priority and always had excuses for not going out. Eventually I stopped thinking about it. When we moved to our current house in December 1998, my bike went in the basement, where it’s been sitting ever since.

So when I became friends this spring with an athletic, adventure-seeking woman and she heard of my teenage athleticism, she suggested that we go on the ride next summer. I said yeah, yeah, sure, we’ll do that. I was half serious, but also more than half convinced that she’d forget all about the notion by the next time we spoke.

I was wrong; she kept bringing it up, and when I started hedging, she pushed me to commit. So I did, still slightly in disbelief. But I felt a commitment and a goal would be good for me. In the meantime, other friends and my brother also started talking about doing the ride next summer, independently of my plans, and were pushing me to commit with them as well. I figured it was meant to be.

I could have hauled my old bike — purchased in 1990 — up from the basement and taken it for a tune-up, but I knew that wasn’t the way to self-motivate. I needed a shiny new bicycle, so I pondered things for a few weeks and then forced myself to go to a bike shop one Sunday afternoon in August, where I purchased a new road bike, learning how much cycling technology has changed in the last 16 years and how much more it costs these days to buy a decent bike.

I was a little nervous that I was wasting my money. I imagined riding a few times, finding it physically demanding, and then setting the bike aside with the best intentions, only to end up watching it grow cobwebs and rust.

So far, I have not wasted my money. I’ve been out for rides of various lengths on a regular basis and was so excited to be back on a bicycle, feeling the wind and enjoying the proximity to nature — I stick to the trails and parkways, not the main roads — and remembering the physical sensations of being a cyclist. It’s exhilarating, and once I got past the back-to-biking ass ache, I knew I’d made a good decision and a fantastic purchase.

It’s an investment that goes far beyond the value of the bicycle itself. It’s good to feel physically inspired again. The thought of turning 37 on a weeklong bike across my home state next year feels partially insane to someone who’s been a dedicated couch potato for most of the last 20 years. It also feels like the most amazing thing I could do for myself. It’s an investment that’s sure to pay off in ways I can’t yet imagine.

Kristina Campbell can be spotted pedaling around trails near Takoma Park, Md., and beyond. She intends to blog about her training at backonthesaddle.blogspot.com and she can be reached at kcampbell@metroweekly.com.

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