A Change of Pace: 2017 Bike the Drive

For those of us who had a bike as kids, there was something liberating about the machine. It let us travel farther, faster, and with a sort of reckless abandon that often begged for a lesson learned the hard way. And yet, as kids, it almost felt like a toy. We’d drop it in the grass at our friends’ houses, wouldn’t clean or take care of it, and we’d watch with dead eyes as it became a relic in our garage, its chain quickly becoming a rusted tangle of brown teeth.

In Costa Rica, I learned to love mountain biking mostly because flat stretches of road are rare. As a senior in high school, I would wake up at sunrise to join my uncle for an hour-long ride around our neighborhood, which usually involved many climbs around coffee plantations. At no point during these rides do I remember treating them as exercise. I hadn’t developed the attitude towards health and fitness that I have today, and I was a skinny kid with no imperative reason to lose weight. I was just out there because it was fun.

It wasn’t always that way.

Biking el Rincón de la Vieja volcano in 2000. That’s me on the far right.

The sport was one of my extended family’s favorite pastimes. My uncles often organized trips to nearby volcanoes, where half of the family would stay at a hotel while the rest would hop on mountain bikes and grind up and down the surrounding peaks for hours. The rides weren’t easy. More than one uphill slope stopped us in our tracks, some slick trails were too much for my treads, and rain was always a looming threat. These challenges always made reaching our destination far more worthwhile than merely sitting on an air-conditioned bus.

I remember specifically joining a gym and participating in my first ever Spinning class to prepare for what I anticipated would be a serious throttling of my legs and lungs. It was the first time in my life that I actively trained for something, hoping to get more out of my body, to go farther, faster, and not get left behind.

Bike the Drive’s southern tip, the Museum of Science and Industry

Since high school, I’ve gotten on a bike exactly once. I never owned one in college and in every apartment I’ve lived in since graduating, it never felt like I had enough space to have one. I always lived near a train and multiple bus routes and could freely move around the city, and my fitness was no longer an issue once I discovered running. Consumed by a new sport and diving headfirst into it, I stopped looking for places in my apartment to stash a bike.

A phantom itch lingered, though. I’d feel it every time I’d witness a triathlon or as I’d watch the Tour de France. There was something far more liberating about riding a bike that running couldn’t match. Though I had reached a level where I could run up to twenty miles, I would usually be incredibly tired, sweaty, and starving by the end. Running from Chicago to Evanston, for example, always felt like an incredible feat, but once there, I’d usually be completely spent and in dire need of a change of clothes.

I kept telling my friends that I would get a bike once I soured on running, that I’d eventually want to attempt a triathlon. The desire to ride was always tied to running, which wasn’t losing its luster as I continued to find new goals and events to test my dedication. I was even still somehow getting faster by finding new ways to push my limits. It was going to take something monumental to get me on the saddle. Nothing short of a great disruption would force me to change gears, pun intended, during a prolonged, injury-free stretch of successful locomotion.

Chicago as seen from the south

So the Great Disruptor himself answered the provocation.

My father-in-law, almost completely responsible for turning me into a runner, signed up the entire family for a crazy event he has completed several times already, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). As the name plainly states, it’s a seven-day, self-propelled westward bike ride across our neighboring state. Each day averages about sixty miles and riders are expected to encounter winds, rain, and hills, despite everyone’s idea that Iowa is nothing but flat corn fields.

After finding a bike, which wasn’t easy as my legs amount to roughly 80% of my height, it was time to start riding.

I took to my usual running path on two wheels and remembered with instant clarity how easy it is to go long distances on a bike. I reached Promontory Point, an outcropping of lake path that becomes a social hub in summer, without breaking a sweat. I was pretty far from home, but the effort to return would still be a fraction of what it would be on my own two feet. I spent that entire ride smiling, enjoying something I had missed for far too long, expanding my radius of freedom with every pedal rotation.

In the heart of Grant Park, no cars allowed. Such a heavenly liberal bubble.

A few weeks later we signed up for Bike the Drive, an annual event in Chicago where the famous Lake Shore Drive is closed to vehicular traffic, allowing for a 31-mile stretch of nearly flat pavement for 20,000 cyclists to enjoy. It was a still morning, with nary a breeze to be felt, with a comfortable late spring warmth. All five of us were there; my parents-in-law riding together, Steph and her sister Janine opting to keep each other company, leaving me to ride ahead at my own pace.

I flew up Lake Shore Drive, clutching the handlebars as I reached new speeds I could never hit on a mountain bike. I flew past families with kids in tow, large groups with colorful, custom jerseys, and the occasional recumbent bike. I had no intention of stopping at the rest stations and kept covering distance, feeling as my heartbeat slowly rose.

As I rolled over Lake Shore Drive’s gentle hills, I got a much better sense of how my body was responding to this new sport. When I run, regardless of pace, my goal is to stay strong and composed as long as possible. With every step, my heart rate inches ever upward, my legs tire, and I feel as vitality is slowly leeched from every pore. It’s a slow, inexorable path towards fatigue and eventually pain.

Family pit stop at Bryn Mawr, the circuit’s northernmost tip

On the bike, it was a reliable pattern, an ebb and flow of pain and relief. Just as I’d start feeling winded and tired, a sure sign of an impending slowdown, I’d feel great again. The moment my legs would begin to feel acidic was followed by a stretch of easy riding. This reliable pattern stayed with me until the final turn onto Columbus Drive, marking the end of the event’s full circuit.

Though the ride had no significant elevation change, it was the perfect introduction to going long. I felt like I had accomplished something at the end, even if the total distance was about half of what we should expect to ride every day for a week straight in Iowa.

Steph and Janine still having fun 25 miles in

But most importantly, I loved it. It’s very easy to get stuck in one’s ways, especially when the going is good. Having gone completely uninjured since last March and generally faster on average, my running had been seeing one of its most successful and long-lasting stretches. While this is great on its face, it does have the potential to put up blinders to many new adventures. As long as everything is going well, the incentive to try out something new diminishes.

So I’m once again grateful to Steve, whose predilection for family events once again has us all, literally and figuratively, staring at an uphill climb. The first time he did this it was for a flat 8k in the city, one that would eventually transform me into the long-distance fanatic I am today. It’s too early to tell if RAGBRAI will have a similar effect.

But if my unbridled excitement is any indication, I think I know the answer.

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

2 Responses to A Change of Pace: 2017 Bike the Drive

  1. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

  2. Mike says:

    As a kid I cherished the unrivaled freedom that my Mongoose bike offered me, at a time when I couldn’t yet drive and the comic book store was too far to reach on foot. And like you, it’s been years since I rode a bike with any regularity to and from classes. But yes, for many years now my own loyal two-wheeled sidekick has been gathering dust & cobwebs in our garage, its rusty brown teeth grimacing back at me every time I glance in its direction. “I’m watching you Sohaskey, always watching…

    I can’t say I have the same type of itch to get back on the bike, and I’ve yet to be bitten by the triathlon bug, mainly because the thought of having to train in a pool bores me to tears (though I guess no one knows if you cry in the pool). But you’ve now made me wonder if I shouldn’t give cycling another shot, since rarely has it sounded so alluring. Maybe if I could hang with your family…?

    Speaking of which, props to Steve for getting the family to accept the RAGBRAI Challenge… and to the family for accepting it! I can only imagine the blank stares and eye rolls I’d be met with if I tried to pull something like that with my family. Let’s just say, I’d be riding across Iowa alone.

    Ride strong next week, and have a great time across the Hawkeye State! I envy you the freedom and the distances you’ll be able to cover. And I’m looking forward to the post-race wrap up. Though do resist the urge to point out at the scenery and yell, “Da plains! Da plains!”… I’m not sure anyone else will appreciate the dated “Fantasy Island” reference.

    Onward!

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