Ray wonders if we need “special clothes.”
“I don’t see why,” I respond. “We’re just riding our bikes.”
On a bright May morning in Fairhope, Ray and I, both Oakleigh Garden District neighbors, retired academics and Medicare enrollees, stand outside Page & Palette, a local bookstore, amazed at the throng of cyclists filling block-long De La Mare Avenue. I ask Ray, “Are you sure we should be here?” This is our first ride together, The Good Life Ride, a 37-mile, one-way trek from Fairhope to Gulf Shores ending at LuLu’s, a fun bar-restaurant that promises a free beer to each participant.
“We’ll be fine,” Ray answers.
But as we scan the mostly younger, mostly spandex-clad crowd of 200-plus cyclists and their fancy road bikes with drop handlebars and lollipop pedals requiring special shoes that make clip-clop sounds when they walk, we realize we do not fit in. Seeing their slim torsos, their skinny saddles on bikes with even skinnier tires, I know I am out of my league with my shorts, T-shirt, tennis shoes and 40-pound cruiser with its comfy saddle, wide tires and grip shifters. At least I have a helmet and the heart rate monitor that I wear to the gym.
Ray’s mountain bike has more gears than my Townie’s seven. His shifters are paddles. Plus, Ray has strong legs from riding the hills of Montrose between Daphne and Fairhope. My experience consists of leisurely Sunday afternoon group rides, “strolls-on-wheels” we call them, in downtown Mobile, offering no hills and demanding little effort, but providing lots of conversation. I can ride a bike, but I’m not a “cyclist.”
Nearing the start time, the organizer, Charlene, a petite, energetic woman, makes announcements about rules of the road and safety, then signals the National Anthem to be played.
At 7 a.m., the cyclists roll out.
I am terrified. I have no experience with a mass start.
“Let’s move to the back,” Ray urges.
I nod. At least some riders there have bikes and clothes like ours.
“Ray, I’m nervous. We’re too close together.”
Ray doesn’t see the problem.
In a few moments, the lead riders are gone. As the street clears, our group begins to move but so slowly I have to keep one foot on the ground to propel myself until I can build enough speed to keep my balance, hop onto my saddle and start to pedal. Half a block in, and barely settled, I make a wobbly, 90-degree left turn onto Section Street. In another block comes the sharp right turn onto Fairhope Avenue. My heart pounds from the stress of the cramped crowd and the tight turns. I like straight roads, easy turns and plenty of room.
Ray pulls well ahead of me, but several riders trail me. Out of town, where Fairhope Avenue becomes County Road 48, I gain a little speed and pedal hard to catch up. My heavy bike isn’t helping, and the straight road that borders flat fields of crops breaking through damp soil offers no protection from the unexpected, gusting crosswinds that make controlling my bike difficult. I hear the click of a shift and the clunk of a chain dropping onto a different cog as younger, spandexed riders call out, “On the left,” and a line of four cyclists blows past me, bent over, their hands in the drops for an aerodynamic profile against the wind.
I spot Ray up ahead, waiting at the side of the road for me to catch up and catch my breath.
“Thanks … for waiting … Ray,” I gasp.
Ray smiles but never utters an annoyed comment about my lack of speed. This becomes the motif of the ride. Every few miles, Ray builds a lead and then waits patiently. I pedal hard, with my hands sweating so much I can barely shift. My legs tire as my heart rate rises to a steady, dangerous 175. Ray waits once more at the crest of a low, easy bridge. I struggle to move my monster up the slight grade.
“Thanks, Ray,” I cough. “I … don’t … think … I … can … make … it.”
“We’ll get to the rest stop in a couple of miles,” Ray responds.
We stay on the bridge several minutes for me to partially recover.
This time, Ray rides with me, and about 9:15 a.m., we arrive at Jesse’s Restaurant, the halfway point, in Magnolia Springs. After only 18 miles, I am exhausted, gasping for air, my legs now useless, as I lean heavily on my bike.
“Ray, I … can’t … ”
I know Ray wants to finish the ride, but not alone. Ray knows I am done for the day.
My wife, Linda, is bringing Ray’s wife to meet us at LuLu’s for the after-party. I call her, barely able to speak.
“We’re … at … Jesse’s … I‘m … gonna … die … Come … get … us,” I wheeze.
In the 15 minutes we wait for Linda and Stella to arrive, several stragglers roll in, refresh themselves and pedal on to LuLu’s. My heart rate and breathing slow to near-normal. When Linda and Stella arrive, Ray and I hoist our bikes onto the rack at the back of Linda’s CRV, and we climb in beside our wives. We should return to Fairhope to Ray’s vehicle. Instead, we head to LuLu’s for the best free beer I ever had.
On Tuesday, I buy a new, lighter hybrid bike. In August, I buy a real road bike.
Jeff Grill is a retired professor of special education, an avid cyclist, bread baker and writer based in Mobile.