Getting Over the Hills Takes More Than Muscle
Early November, California, on Route 1 between Fort Ross and Jenner. I’m sitting in the passenger seat beside my sister, watching the road continue to rise through the dreary overcast, the ocean growing ever more distant below. I feel a sick sensation spreading through me, that familiar dark, defeatist feeling poisoning my resolve as it has so many times before. What was I thinking? I can’t do this.
I’m losing my grip on the dream I’ve embraced these last couple of years, the dream of bicycling alone down the Pacific coast through Oregon and California, my first big tour. I’m not sure why, in my early fifties, this bicycle touring thing has taken such a hold on me. What am I trying to prove? I’ve mused over maps all year, but maps are a gross oversimplification of reality. This is reality. A raw, rainy day; a steep, shoulderless road that keeps climbing; cliffs that drop a thousand or more feet down to a frothy gray sea.
As we near the summit, I see through the swipe of the wiper blades a lone bicyclist in yellow rain gear on a fully loaded bicycle. As we pass, I see it’s a woman, slowly, determinedly pedaling toward the top.
Could that be me?
* * *
September 2, Washington, D.C. After checking my duffle bag at the Alaska Air counter, the stress and fear I’ve been suppressing for weeks finally surface. I am facing the longest, most challenging trip of any kind I have ever undertaken, have committed my incurably introverted self to spending a month with a group of strangers I have never met, and I feel physically shaky. A phantom knee problem flared up two weeks ago. Although I’ve rested the knee, it still feels jittery. I am so far beyond my comfort zone, I feel like I’ve stepped off a cliff.
I’ve modified the dream a bit. I decided to join Adventure Cycling’s Northwest Coast expedition tour, trading the idea of biking all the way to the southern end of California for the companionship and support of a group. The tour begins near Bellingham, Washington, and ends in San Francisco. Then I will ride on for one more day to my sister’s house in Half Moon Bay—if I don’t have to bail out of the tour along the way.
After a teary farewell, I walk through security toward my departure gate and cross some sort of psychological threshold. The trip has begun. The panic begins to ease. I have a job to do now, and I will take it one step at a time. First the flight to Seattle. Then the flight to Bellingham. Then find my way to the motel. Then to the bike shop to pick up my bike. Then test out the bike and the knee. One step at a time.
* * *
Mid-September, along the Oregon coast. One day at a time, one hill at a time—that has become my mantra. And on the longest and highest hills, one bend at a time. I’m not used to doing hills. I bike over 3,000 miles a year, but mostly commuting on bike paths with railroad grades. To prepare for this trip, I repeatedly biked up the highest local hills I could find. Yet these coastal hills have still proven to be an unexpected test of endurance. At the end of our very first touring day, I had to dismount and walk up a steep one. It wouldn’t be the last.
Since then I’ve tackled hill after hill with uncharacteristic patience, calm, and lack of complaint—short, steep ones that leave me gasping; long, high ones I ascend for miles. I’ve learned to focus on the next approaching turn or on the next good spot to take a break and catch my breath. I concentrate on breathing evenly and pedaling steadily, and I try not to anticipate the top. I take two Aleves each morning and maintain a high cadence to avoid knee strain. I have crested hills longer, higher, and steeper than I ever have before. The knee has held.
Traveling with our group has been a pleasure. Although I’ve felt a desire to bike alone at times since reaching the Pacific—to experience the coast as I originally dreamed of doing—I enjoy their companionship and can no longer imagine having done this trip without them. During one of our traditional morning coffee and pastry stops, one of them tells me, “You know, David, you’re looking younger every day. Fewer wrinkles. You smile more. You look less intense.”
My growing confidence and resolve faltered only once. It happened on a day that began with a fatal accident, a lone local bicyclist killed early on a Sunday morning on an almost empty stretch of US 101 by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel. That afternoon, one of our own was hit by a car, sideswiped by an inattentive driver. Then coming into camp, two other riders hauling trailers somehow collided and went down. The three cyclists from our group suffered only minor injuries, but the string of accidents cast a pall over the evening. Then the rain began, riveting down relentlessly all night, flooding my tent.
Knowing we faced a challenging stretch in the morning—a winding, hilly, shoulderless road along the ocean bluffs—I lay awake and began questioning whether I wanted to go on and continue to face the dangers of the road ahead. I began thinking about what I would do if the torrential rain continued. I began to consider my options.
The downpour finally ended at dawn. By the time I straggled out of camp after loading up my soggy gear, the clouds began to lift and break up. We went on to have one of our most spectacular riding days, through the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area along the Oregon coast.
* * *
September 30, California, on Route 1 between Fort Ross and Jenner. The overcast of the past few days has finally dissolved into glorious blue. I’m standing atop the cliff near where I saw that lone woman bicyclist so many months ago, several hundred feet—not a thousand or more, as it turns out—above the aqua and azure ocean. The climb has been exhilarating. I almost wish the road would keep going up. I can see Bodega Head in the distance to the south. Somewhere just beyond is Point Reyes, and beyond that the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. I let out a whoop. Half Moon Bay is only three days away.
* * *
For every person touring across the country or mountain biking through some exotic locale, there is someone just starting out, testing themselves on a first big trip, cycling beyond their comfort zone. They are learning that they have more endurance and fortitude than they ever knew, that they can overcome daunting mental and physical challenges with determination and grace, that they can face down their fears instead of succumbing to them. For everyone setting out for the first time on a cycling adventure, there is someone rediscovering their own capacity for courage.
David Romanowski, 2007