I’m riding to make history.
The backstory is that my boyfriend-now-husband was a member of DePauw University’s Lambda Chi Little 500 cycling team back in the day. He and his fraternity brothers have continued to ride together for the past three decades. Pretty much anytime any one of them belches out the word Colorado, off they go. A few of us girlfriends-now-wives also ride bicycles, but racing is not our game. However, one or two of the Lambda Chis reportedly have produced offspring with pro-circuit potential…so they claim…
Alas, my husband and I have failed to produce such offspring. To salvage the family name, my husband begged me to join the race. But since there was no prize money involved, and fame only lasts about fifteen minutes, I didn’t think it was worth the risk.
Then his fraternity brothers—a.k.a. the ‘Roid Boyz (a nickname that was funny before the Armstrong cartel cracked)—tried to persuade me to enter the race. I resisted still. Their continued efforts were about as annoying as a squeak in the saddle. But then Team Captain Billingsley (in his brilliant application of Psychology 101) said, “This is your ticket into the history books. If you race, you two will be the first and only alumni couple to race. Here’s your chance to make cycling history.”
The invitation was too hard to resist. I was being offered a spot in the Eternal Collegiate Cosmic Peloton, regardless of the outcome. Although it’s doubtful we would stand proudly on the winner’s podium, we were reasonably sure we would become an obscure piece of DePauw trivia.
All we had to do was show up.
We showed, we rode, we survived. The laurels, the fame, the photo spreads never came. Even so, we rest comfortably upon the page of obscurity in a dusty college archive.
But the epic version of our cycling history is far from obscure.
Note this: I arrived on campus with my Fuji bicycle in the fall of 1976. I’m still not sure if a certain young man fell in love with the bike or with me, but I do know the bike spent more time at the Lambda Chi house than I did. I had to marry the bike back, which we did on May 24, 1980. We have two lovely daughters, a houseful of bicycles (including the original Fuji), and matching DePauw University team kits. We will always Live2Ride and Love2Ride.
That’s our story.
The Tour de France (TDF) broadcast whirs in the background as I write this post. 2013 marks the 100th edition of this three week epic road race from Corsica to Paris, from emerald seas and white-capped alps and finishes with a final curl around the Arc de Triomphe. Victory is sealed with a kiss; then the peloton goes home to crash in bed.
During the TDF most of you manage to live productive lives. But every July I blow my time wallet on the TDF race broadcasts. You know those numberless blank squares on the kitchen calendar? That’s my July. I’ve gone off-page, so to speak, sinking softly into the couch cracks, pointing the remote like a periscope at the cable box to avoid commercial breaks. I watch the morning stage each morning, the rerun at night, all the while munching on large buckets of popcorn drizzled with bike trivia. Munch and mute. Munch and mute.
If you’re familiar with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, I am Lucy stepping into the wardrobe or Lewis Carroll’s Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. You get the idea. I’m drawn into this solitary adventure by curiosity and mid-summer boredom, and suddenly find myself in a magical drama driven by lycra-clad superheroes able to pop back up like Wylie Coyote after a body flat. A rabble of fans line the course, occasionally inserting R-rated antics that remind the world: the TDF is both a Mardi Gras 3,404 kilometers long and Rocky Horror Picture Show that takes three weeks to watch.
It’s unreal and surreal.
But once upon a time in the real, rational world, I had an irrational moment. I decided to enter a bike race. It was to be a criterium race in Greencastle, Indiana—home to my alma mater, DePauw University. After I signed up, I wondered why I would do such a thing. Apparently, the media wondered too. Check out the email I received from the press:
My name is Leann Burke and I am writing a story for The DePauw on the Little 500 Alumni race. If you would please tell me why you chose to come back and ride in the race, and a favorite Little 500 memory of yours that I can put in the article, I would greatly appreciate it.
Wow. I haven’t even raced and already requests for interviews were coming in. Miss Burke is looking for The Big Scoop and her nose for news led her right to me (okay, I admit “the press” here is the dinky campus newspaper, The DePauw).
Dear Miss Burke, please call my agent to arrange.
Oops, I forgot. I don’t have an agent…yet. It’s more likely I’ll need a trauma surgeon before I need an agent. But she wanted a story and I had one to give her:
Why am I returning to ride in the race? I wonder that myself, especially since I am the founding member (and only member) of the Collarbone Preservation Society. I’ll double check the bylaws (after I write some) but I think “racing” is listed under “taboo”. In general, I avoid curling corners at twenty-plus miles per hour with a pack of cycling sardines, mainly because I don’t know what I’m doing. So, why race?
Tune in next week…in the meantime, maybe you can guess why…
While all eyes are on the Tour de France, there’s a ripple in the ranks of American cyclists. NBC Sports Network won’t cover this story, but it is big news here. A couple of road buddies will soon take the final steps to becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.
On a road ride recently, I asked one of them, Why do you want to become an American?
For freedom. For a better life.
My friend’s answer still haunts me. Until now freedom was simply the original reason people sailed to America long ago. But her answer reminds me people still come to America for freedom and a better life.
Her response rang in my head while riding this week. Homesteads tucked in the hollows were decorated in red, white and blue for the Fourth of July. We Americans love to spruce up the place, pop the watermelon in the icebox, drag out the ice cream maker and invite the neighbors. We string up the badminton net, rake the horse shoe pit and visit the fireworks stand. Americans do a bang up job celebrating our freedom.
But the love of cycling united us with our international neighbors.
I’ll not forget the day we met. The moving truck was gone and signs of settling in surrounded their house. My husband and I went for a walk and saw the new family enjoying their evening on their front porch—dad, mom, daughters and dog. As we approached, we had a direct visual into their garage. If you want to find out what kind of people people are, peer into their garage. You will find out what they do for fun and probably see something you’ll need to borrow one day.
My eyes locked onto something that forced a quick-decision hairpin turn up their driveway. I kid you not, they had not lived in that house more than a couple days and the bicycles were already mounted on the wall (above the boat…next to the sports car…oh, honey, look! Fun people with disposable income!).
The first thing out of my mouth was, Hi-how-are-ya-I-see-what-ya-got-there-hangin’-on-that-wall-so-who-rides-a-bike-ya-wanna-go-out-and-ride-with-us-tomorrow?
I am such a selfish bike crazy scum. Most people say Can I bring some food? Need some help with those boxes? Nope, not me. I happen to know the only relief from relocation stress is a good long spin. Hey, readers, raise your glove if you’d rather climb hills than stairs. See? Point made.
Well, we found out dad and daughters ride; mom did not. I pulled her aside and delivered my favorite opening line: I can make your life better.
Really, eh? she said in her South African lilt, eyes narrowed to suspicious slits.
The rest is history. Her husband prepped a spare bike and now we ride regularly. I can’t take credit for making her life better. But she definitely makes mine better. Her perspective and stories are a refreshing tailwind for tired patriots.
Once she got the hang of cycling, my friend hung the spare bike in the garage and bought a new bike of her own. Are you wondering what happened to the spare she started on?
She lent it to the Polish woman down the street—who must have spotted it in the garage. Our ride group has gone global.
I dedicate this post to new Americans who share the road. Your friendship—both on and off the bike—definitely makes life better.
A road buddy claims I can get my Jesus any day of the week on a bike.
A seasoned roadie warns hills are the devil rolled in asphalt—conquer them and they will carry you home.
Does any of that resonate with you?
One summer day, I pedaled past cornstalks draped in morning glories. The sun dispensed vitamin D and heat coaxed beads of sweat from my skin. Around the bend, a stand of trees ushered me through a leafy corridor leading down to a creek bed. I welcomed the cool, drafty descent.
I surrendered to gravity for momentum and thrill when I noticed a sharp bend in the road at the bottom—the kind of place where gravel gathers to snag skinny tires for sport. Road hazards like this that can quickly convert your bike route to a flight plan. Your soul pedals onto that Great Big Glory Hallelujah Ride in the sky, while your mortal bones rest in a kudzu patch.
My thrill twisted into fear as these words echoed in my mind: you can get your Jesus any day of the week on a bike. And oddly, as I sailed around the bend, I began to sing the first thing that popped into my panic, all to Jesus, I surrender, all to Him I freely give…
I looked up and there He was, the Blessed Savior—I kid you not.
He hovered in the air above the road with His arms open wide in the come-to-me position. A glow crowned His head as He fluttered about in the breeze, rigged up to a PVC pole mounted on a beat-up mailbox. The Virgin Mary gazed lovingly from the front porch of the house as mothers tend to do. She was radiant with inner light—powered by an extension cord poking through a torn window screen.
I stopped singing and breathed a grateful Glory Hallelujah as I rolled past a ditch full of kudzu. I couldn’t wait to tell Road Buddy that I too had found Jesus on a bike ride. Somehow it didn’t matter Jesus was polyester and Mary was plastic.
The hill was behind me and I was on my way home.
Gloves. Once upon a time white gloves adorned the hands of royalty and beauty queens, and little girls at Easter services. But white gloves and bike chains are not at all compatible, so pamper your paws with a pair of fingerless gel padded cycling gloves. Gel absorbs road rumble and cushions nerves in the wrists and hands. Add a pair of full fingered thermal wind stoppers and your digits will stay cozy and nimble even during cold rides. Some gloves feature a stretchy terry triangle on the back for a quick nose wipe…but, um, MY mama didn’t raise me that way and that’s all I have to say about that.
Ahem. Gentlemen, please excuse me while I step out with the ladies for this next item. We’ll rejoin you shortly. Here’s the remote control.
The Sport Bra. We all know ladies have been discreetly tucking items into this personal space for centuries. So take this tip to the road and you will have small essentials like handkerchiefs and cell phones easily accessible.
Sunglasses. Give yourself the gift of glamour: invest in a pair of peeper keepers. Sport styles shield your eyes from bugs, rain, dust, grit, splashes, sprays, and ultraviolet rays. Like American Express, don’t leave home without them. Upgrades like interchangeable lenses or prescription lenses are nice, but not essential. If necessary, tuck a super small pair of reading glasses in your pocket. Alternatively, supersize the font on your route sheet and print it on poster board. Awkward maybe, but useful in a tailwind. Bike surfing, anyone?
Speaking of wind…
Wind Vest and its cousin, the Convertible Vest/Jacket, win the Versatility Award. Constructed of wind blocking material, it protects your core in wind and downhill drafts. Some styles feature additional pockets. Worn with arm warmers or a thermal layer, it’s almost like wearing a jacket. Convertible vest/jackets separate at the sleeves and are two garments in one. Although a convertible is pricier, it may be less expensive than buying a jacket and vest separately. It is perfect for those cold-now-hot-later days when dressing for comfort is tricky.
Speaking of dressing for comfort…
Arm and leg warmers are the fairy godmother of cycling apparel. These money-saving extenders morph the clothes you already own into something more. An ordinary pair of cycling shorts become full leg cycling tights, and your short sleeve jersey suddenly sprouts long sleeves. Push ‘em down. Pull ‘em up. On or off, Mother Nature cannot outsmart you now. Tip: Off season I wear arm warmers with my favorite short sleeve shirts for a layered look. I travel with my warmers because you never know when you’ll feel a chill. Can you say bibbity-bobbity-boo?
Let’s wrap up this discussion…hey, wrap up any of these items for a great gift. Birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, Anniversary, surely you can dream up ten holidays and “top-ten” your dream closet. For the frugal and the savvy, think off-season. Stalk the things you’d love to have, hunker down in the racks and snatch it up before the ink dries on the mark-downs. Visit your local bike shop regularly and often. Reward them with your business and eventually you’ll spy a good deal.
What’s next for your bike closet? Do you have a different “top ten”?
The Helmet is number one. Your acquaintances may have already established you are nuts for riding your bike on the road. Maybe your friends and family have known it all along. So protect your nutcase with a helmet specifically designed for cycling. If you purchase nothing else, get this. Adequate protection doesn’t have to cost a lot. Somewhere along the price-point line, you are simply paying for style and comfort features like extra vents.
Bike Shorts are definitely number two. There’s nothing worse than a pair of screamin’ sit bones. So look around, ask around—especially people who have a similar body type and bike life. There are short-shorts, skort-shorts, all sorts of bike shorts (hey…this is starting to sound like a Dr. Seuss book). Now don’t skimp here. One quality pair, hand washed and hung dry, is far better than a closet full of poor quality.
The Handkerchief may seem quaint or out of place, but it is arguably the most versatile item on this list. I could generate a year’s worth of posts with titles like “Snot-rags: Managing Mucus at Fifteen Miles Per Hour”. Or “The 600 Thread Count Grease Rag”, or “Pocket Hankie: Bloody Good Pressure Dressing”. More compact than a red bandana, a cheap white handkerchief provides a nice canvas for a masterpiece of stains. Behind each stain is a story, none of which can be verified and all of which can be embroidered.
The Jersey: Newbies are typically shy about wearing this swanky pack mule of cycling attire. But it’s simply the plumage of personality and bravado. If your jersey is emblazoned with “Hurl & Curl Mount Madness” (with scary graphics) the local bike bunnies will part like the Red Sea for you. A polar bear logo will signal your cohorts where to find you on New Year’s Day. But the bike jersey is really the three-car garage of cycling apparel. Park your phone, food, money, cue sheet, keys, camera, hankie, cleat covers, reading glasses, limb warmers…you get the idea. Never mind you look like a blowfish on prednisone, shrink-wrapped in lycra. Not to worry. He may move slowly, but nobody bothers a blowfish.
The Base Layer is a key player in any cyclist’s Moisture Management Program. It wicks sweat from the skin and keeps you feeling more comfortable in any season. Summer base layers are almost like a fine-gauge fishnet. There is nothing worse than rivulets of sweat running into your shorts (icky! icky!). Ladies, with a base layer and sport bra, you can unzip your jersey like a pro on stage race for ventilation with modesty. Winter base layers also wick sweat but are made of thermal material of a variety of weights. Confession: I never ride without wearing a base layer, no matter the season. The truth: not considered an essential item by everyone, but you might give it a try—especially for cool weather riding.
Return next week and rummage for the rest of Top Ten Essentials: Part 2. In the meantime, what’s your “gotta have” in your bike closet?
Recently while chatting with Road Buddy in her driveway, a neighbor walked over with a bike sporting dust bunnies and cobwebs. “Got a pump I can borrow?” One look at his bike and I couldn’t help but wonder what drives people to dig around in their garage and pull out a dusty, rusty bike and hop on?
I have a theory. Disclaimer: beware of “theories”
See, I’m thinking people who haven’t been biking but are thinking of biking, are thinking out of some murky memory from childhood. I think everybody has this inner cyclist— about 7-years-old, skinned knees, freckles and a cowlick—clamoring up the hills of their soul, dying to get out and pedal.
Most people remember their first bike and who they rode around with and the places they went. The bike was every kid’s transportation. It wasn’t considered a sport. In Indiana where I grew up, basketball was a sport. You rode your bicycle to get to the game! Riding your bike was part of the fun. The dirt path, the puddle, the downhill—do you remember the sights, sounds and sensations? Do you remember your first bike? Did it have training wheels on it? Mine did.
And I distinctly remember The Day I Found My Balance.
I was riding down Myers Avenue past my grandparent’s house to Sue’s, a playmate down the street. I was pedaling fast, and then stood on the pedals to coast. The pedals were even to the ground–one foot ahead, the other behind and my weight evenly distributed on each pedal. My knees were locked as I stood tall. I distinctly remember the feeling—coasting felt like flying. Suddenly I felt a new sensation. I didn’t feel the training wheels anymore. I didn’t hear them clacking on the road. My body was sailing on pedals…on rubber…on road. Later when I returned home, I asked my dad to remove the training wheels. I think he was proud of me—I have a faint recollection of it. But mostly, I was proud of myself. I had grown up and out of those baby wheels.
Well, it’s a whole new era.
If you’re new to cycling, chances are your road bike didn’t come with a set of carbon fiber training wheels (please report anybody on eBay who tries to sell you some…). But maybe when you ride, you feel like you’re learning to ride all over again. Be patient. Don’t give up. Soon you will have a whole new set of “The Day I…” memories.
If you’re not so new to cycling, recall your most vivid memories on a bike. List all the bikes you have ever owned and what you loved (or hated) about them. Did you have a Sting Ray with a banana seat? I’m jealous. First made in 1963 (what a year!), this year marks the 50th anniversary of Schwinn’s legendary rebel with wheels.
If that Sting Ray is still in your garage, dig it out and check eBay to see what it is worth. But before you sell, ask your inner cyclist if you’re ready to part with it. Bet not. It’s priceless.
What did your first set of wheels look like? Where did it take you?