Ode to Bicycles

I was walking
a sizzling road:
the sun popped like
a field of blazing maize,
was hot,
an infinite circle
with an empty
blue sky overhead.

A few bicycles
me by,
the only
that dry
moment of summer,
barely stirred
the air.

Workers and girls
were riding to their
their eyes
to summer,
their heads to the sky,
sitting on the
beetle backs
of the whirling
that whirred
as they rode by
bridges, rosebushes, brambles
and midday.

I thought about evening when
the boys
wash up,
sing, eat, raise
a cup
of wine
in honor
of love
and life,
and waiting
at the door,
the bicycle,
only moving
does it have a soul,
and fallen there
it isn’t
a translucent insect
through summer
a cold
that will return to
when it’s needed,
when it’s light,
that is,
of each day.

-Pablo Neruda

Photo by Sugarlilly

I rode my bike last week for the first time since my ill-fated century ride last summer. Flying down a Vermont hillside, tears of joy washed over my cheeks as the wind cooled my face. I was at peace.

Last summer was my third 100-mile Prouty. The Prouty, the première event of its kind in northern New England, involves thousands of participants, hundreds of volunteers and has raised over $14 million dollars to support the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, one of only 40 comprehensive cancer centers in the country. In addition to riding your choice of 25, 35, 50, or 100 miles and even a two-day 200 mile option (The Ultimate- bless you Charlie Boswell!) one can also walk or row for the cause. The Prouty was not my first large ride. Two summers ago I had completed the 112-mile Harpoon/Vermont Foodbank ride and a few length-of-of the state centuries with the now legendary Joe Cook, a good-natured attorney/bike enthusiast-addict from Brattleboro who has quite a following. In a strange twist of fate, I was so enamored with the Prouty I joined the Board of the FNCCC, albeit for a brief term, as my work made it difficult to attend the meetings. Years later I am now indebted to all things Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. A heartfelt thank you, Jean, Susan, Rebecca, Catherine and the entire staff.

Learning how to ride in a pack, also known in bicycle jargon as a peloton, was a new experience. Prior to jumping into these long rides I was usually a solo rider, save for an occasional trek with a friend or two and a few regional group rides. The politics of the peloton are as important to understand as the physics: you must stay in formation, front wheel within inches of the person in front of you. You must not be “squirrely” lest you invite a disaster of especially painful, expensive proportions. You have a duty to warn those behind you of oncoming hazards (potholes, excessive gravel, roadkill, babies crawling across the road) with proper hand signals. Most of all, you are to assume the lead at some point or be left aside, the stigma of a “wheel-sucker” permanently attached to your once good name.

The purpose of the peloton is not social although certainly the camaraderie is a useful incentive to pedal. It is simple science: someone who rides in the middle of a line can conserve up to 40% of their energy as they settle into the slipstream. The rider in the front of the pack is working the hardest, not only breaking wind, as it were, but pulling those behind. Riding with thousands of other riders, it is usually OK to jump into a line if you feel you can keep the pace but again, at some point you must be prepared to assume the position…of being the lead. As a 6’1″, 200 lb rider, I am usually a welcome presence to buffet the wind.

But last July something was very wrong. I was terribly “off.” Hiding my fatigue, I “Proutied on,” meeting up with friends to ride into the wind. I quickly lagged behind and lost everyone altogether. I chided myself for not training hard enough. Unlike past years, I did not stay up late, have a drink or two, or have a late night snack. Like many of my friends, I can usually rally and push through the fatigue and pain. But this day was different and I did not understand.

I am not one to give up easily. I am not one to admit defeat until every option has been exhausted. And then there is my Leo pride. But I simply could not power on. At around mile 65 I pulled into a SAG stop, a supported area with a repair station, power bars, Gatorade and first aid. SAG stands for support and gear. By then, I was told I wold have to get a shuttle back or take a shortcut back as it was getting late and I was beyond the cutoff point to complete the ride lest darkness ensue. There were very few riders, another indiction that I was indeed lagging. There were two other riders, sitting on the gravel, who carried the look of defeat on their faces. One, a lanky teenage boy who found out the hard way that pedaling 100 miles on a fat-tire 29″ wheeled mountain bike was more work than anticipated. The other, a rugby-esque twenty-something who clearly had been drinking heavily the night before and was complaining about his buddies dragging him into this mess, was also waiting for the rescue shuttle.

We loaded our bikes into the back of the four-door pickup and climbed in, none of us making eye contact at first, as our pride masked our defeat. It was as if we were in a cab with thick walls of scratched plexiglas between us all. The driver, a kind volunteer who took his job seriously, drove on, calling in on the walkie-talkie that he was transporting three bicyclists back to the staging area and finish line.

Finally, we broke the silence and all shared our stories of why were such a bunch of lame-asses. “I should have listened to my friends” said the mountain bike kid. “I should have used my road bike!” he shared dejectedly. “I’m still hung over,” exclaimed the rugby guy. “What an idiot I am.” “I didn’t train enough” I told them. “I should have ridden more.”

As we barreled down the highway back to Hanover, passing the ones still on the road, we tried to hide our embarrassment. I overheard the driver speaking with some of the other volunteers on the radio. There had been a pileup ahead about ten miles from the finish. “It doesn’t look good” someone shared over the static. I didn’t think about it much except to feel sadness that there had been such an accident. But as we approached the emergency vehicles blocking the road I had a wave of fear wash over me. “STOP” I shouted. “Those are my friends!”

I immediately recognized several of my colleagues and the truck pulled over. I told the driver that I was going to see if I could help and that I would bike back on my own, at which point the other two in the truck also got out, taking their bikes.

On the pavement were two of my friends and another rider. One was being slid onto a backboard and the other was about to be placed on a stretcher. Other friends looked on, fear and concern hung in the air. They had somehow gotten their handlebars entangled with another rider and happened to be brother and sister, both excellent athletes and remarkable people. Their children, also exceptional athletes, were riding with them. The brother wound up bruised and battered but OK after flying over the handlebars. His sister, a cancer survivor, did not fare as well and I believe she broke her hip. Several months later she succumbed to the cancer, leaving a beautiful legacy of kindness, friendship, and athleticism.

After the ambulances drove away, we all got back onto our bikes. No one had noticed amidst the frenzy that I had been dropped off. They just figured I had caught up. I said nothing as I was so stunned by the events which had unfolded. As we pedaled the last ten miles back to the staging area and finish, knowing a festive scene replete with delicious food, music and free massages awaited, I contemplated the road ahead and the one left behind.

As I crossed the finish line, with the multitudes welcoming every rider with cheers of congratulations and celebration, I felt an enormous lump of guilt lodge in my throat and all I could think of was the scam of marathoner Rosie Ruiz. Walking around the celebratory scene, I now felt doubly awful, physically and emotionally. I had cheated myself and deceived my friends. Near the pizza stand I caught the eye of the hung over rugby guy hanging with his other presumably less hung over friends. He smiled, raised his finger to his mouth and whispered “shhhhhh.”

It would only be a few weeks later that I would come to understand just how different that day was. We now know that my brain was beginning to bleed and swell from the tumor and was ever so slowly herniating into my brain stem, it is indeed a miracle that things did not come to a complete end that very day. By the time I reached the hospital two weeks later, I was told that I was within 24 hours of dying instantly.

Bicycling is my first athletic love, shared perhaps with any winter sport, particularly cross-country and telemark skiing. Growing up, bicycling for me was less about exercise than it was about freedom. During my middle and high school days, I would often bike the 4.36 miles from my home in Melrose Park, PA to Jenkintown, PA where I went to school. My other option was less attractive: riding with mother who happened to teach at my school. Commuting with Mom, when I, a somewhat typical, slightly incorrigible adolescent, usually meant arguing with her until we crossed the first speed-bump onto campus when she would then turn to me and say “I am no longer your mother, I am Mrs. Green. See you at the end of the day” at which time we would pick up our argument where we left off that morning. So riding my bike was a thrill, a joy and a necessity.

My first major purchase as a teenager, after my first hi-fi stereo, complete with integrated tape deck, record player and am/fm tuner, was a bicycle. If memory serves, it was in 1983, a sophomore in high school and I had spent much of my time at the local bike shop which was run by a crew of very crusty, thickly bearded, wire-rimmed-spectacled revolutionaries. I had set my sights on a Specialized Expedition Touring bicycle replete with multiple braze-ons for three water bottle cages. Outfitted with the proper rear and front racks and panniers, mirrors, frame-fitting pump and handlebar bag, it would be all I needed to begin my two-wheeled journey to who knows where.

Prior to the Specialized touring bike, which would carry me from Milford, Pennsylvania to Boston, Philadelphia to New Orleans and many other destinations near and far, I had my share of banana-seated, high-handlebar cruisers, heavy, steel ten-speeds and at one point a pseudo-aerodynamic steel 12-speed which had cast aluminum covers on the brakes and a flattened handlebar to allegedly “slice” through the wind. Mind you, these were the days of protecting your head with one of three choices: nothing, a hat, or an oversized white Bell helmet with red reflective tape, giving the rider the appearance of being an escapee from a mental hospital.

In college, my first year, with no car to speak of, I again invested in a new bike. 1985 saw the rising tide of the mountain bike coming into its own. 1981 saw the first mass-produced mountain bike, the Specialized Stumpjumper, but initially most bike companies were wary or not interested. I had to get in. In fact, I was one of two students on campus at the time who owned these relatively new commercial inventions. With roots in California, specifically the hills of Marin county and Mount Tamalpais, where counter-culture types would retrofit Schwinns with fat balloon tires and motorcycle parts and fly down the mountains with reckless abandon, mountain biking was still nascent. Mountain biking has origins tied to cycle-cross in Europe where bikes were made more rugged to offer an exercise alternative in winter. Names like Joe Breeze, Ned Overend, Charlie Kelly, Tom Ritchey, and Gary Fisher became part of my knowledge base and I would devour whatever I could about mountain bikes. I even sought out Ned when I lived in Durango, Colorado, where he worked as a bike mechanic.

Mine was a deep green Cannondale with motorcycle-styled hand grips, enormous aluminum tubing, large caliper brakes and a 24″ rear tire with a 26″ in front. That beloved Cannondale was my best friend and saw me through some terrific ups and a few downs. At one point it was even stolen and later retrieved off the porch of some punks in Utica who had tried to sell it at the same bike shop where it was purchased. It’s ALWAYS GOOD to get in with your local bike shop! Case in point, I could argue I owe a very good chunk of my long-term happiness ( as well as a depleted bank account) to the folks at West Hill Shop: the mechanics and sales people, the former owners the Quinns and the current owners Jim and Diny.

There is something incredibly beautiful and seductive about the art of the bicycle. Poetry in motion. Even the clothing especially that of the old-school, appeals. Vintage bicycle shops which quite literally make me tremble include Old Spokes Home in Burlington, Vermont, Landmark Vintage in NYC and Via Bikes in South Philadelphia. I love to watch the Tour de France and admire friends who are superior athletes on the bike.

I continue to be moved and inspired by one dear friend who, in addition to being a champion skier, having most recently competed in the IPC World Cup Adaptive Races, is also a world-class hand-cyclist. Alicia Brelsford Dana, paralyzed from the waist down since an accident in high school, did not let her physical challenge stop what she loved doing. She has cycled across the United States, championed in dozens of races, often with first-place results including winning the Vermont City Marathon hand-cycle division. She is also an artist, mom, sister and daughter. I know she is an inspiration to all who learn of her fortitude and for those who are lucky enough to know her, she is a beacon in the darkness, even more so for me now that I have my own darkness to face.

Another inspirational friend with a love of cycling, also enduring the challenge of brain cancer, is someone whom I have never met in person as she lives in England. Anne Feeley started Brains on Bikes. I was introduced to her through an amazing organization, Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2) Two years ago she bicycled from San Francisco to Washington, DC, a total of 3,708 miles and helped raise funds and awareness for cancer research. A remarkable individual, she was in training to launch her next project, Brains on Boats and row across the English Channel. Unfortunately, her cancer has returned, delaying this noble effort but I know her mind, body and faith are strong and I think of her often.

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Ah yes the darkness. How am I? How I am? I’m great. I’m not. I’m up. I’m down. Generally I am pretty damned good, buoyed by the love of friends and family but sometimes the cancerous water washes over me in an attempt to drown. I resist. I fight. Treading water physically and metaphorically is no longer possible as both shoulders are in fact severely torn, due in part, we think, from the weakening of the muscles from steroids taken after the two craniotomies. So I must learn a new way to swim. I am still trying to excavate and then excise the words “incurable and recurrent.” The next MRI is in May.

Blinded by headaches akin to having a white-hot steel rod sliding through my skull, I am about to launch myself into a new phase of pain management involving severely restricting my sugar intake and consumption of carbohydrates. Acupuncture, which I have never tried, is on the menu. My man-cave/writer’s cottage/jam room/meditation retreat project is underway. Work lifts me up. My daughters lift me up. Barb lifts me up. My family lifts me up. My friends lift me up. And yet, the demons of depression lurk and, once in a while clock me on the head as if to say “don’t forget about us…we are coming for you…” Dementors all. A large part of the so-called battle against cancer isn’t just trying to eat right, exercise and find new cures, which are all of course critical. No. The biggest battle cancer wages against its victims is that which lunges for the jugular of the spirit and mines the soul as if by some monstrous auger. The same can be said for any terrible, debilitating disease.

Thank heavens for the bike because I cannot wait to ride again. Bicycling is a salve, an intoxicant, an art form. It helps me forget that there is an octopus inside my brain whose tentacles are, at the moment, resting between the coral, waiting…watching while I pedal on.

“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! … And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time… We are gonna have a party!”

Peter Fonda as “Heavenly Blues” in Wild Angels, 1966


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3 Responses to bicycle

  1. Phoebe says:

    Incredible, Mark, as always. Your writing is truly luminous. Thinking of you and wishing you well!
    Also, thinking of bicycles, I just watched the movie Bicycle Thieves for the first time. Heartbreaking, but with some lovely shots of bicycling through Rome.
    Love from me and mom and Jamie

  2. Mike says:

    Perhaps a book is in order Mark, appropriately titled – It IS about the bike.

    I never told you this, but one night, when you were my loudly snoring neighbor and you were away someplace as usual, I actually contemplated going into the cellar and taking your Dartmouth bike with me to do the NYC 5 boro, But, I didn’t. Or did I? The answer depends upon how you reply to this, either with a lol, or not.

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