Riding a Bicycle
by Waitsel Smith
I have something in my life that helps to keep me together - physically, mentally and spiritually. It's called a bike. Others have gardening, yoga, fishing, horseback riding - I have biking. You gotta have something because life takes its toll if you don't. I don't care how spiritual you are, if you don't have something that gets you out of yourself and into nature, you're dying on the inside, and it shows to your friends and family. (Photo courtesy Bridge Incredible Challenge Bike Ride)
Like most people, I started biking when I was a kid. But when my knees blew out from playing too many contact sports, and all I had left for exercise was biking, rollerblading and swimming, I turned a corner. Suddenly my bike was more than two wheels - it was a life-saver, a friend. (Photo courtesy Bike Boom Refurbished Bikes at bike-boom.blogspot.com
My first bike as an adult was a gold Schwinn with chrome fenders. It was a beaute. I rode that thing up hills and down, which probably wasn't good for my knees. Eventually I bought a black Bianchi road bike made of steel. Biking is actually one of the best things you can do for your knees; but, if you're going to be riding on hills, you need a bike with gears. The thing that caused me to switch from my "cruiser" to a road bike was something called the "Bridge-to-Bridge;" or, as it was affectionately known to aficionados at the time, "100 Miles of Pure Hill."
Today, it's known as the "Bridge Incredible Challenge Bike Ride" and starts in downtown Lenoir, NC. But when it first began, back in 1989, it was called the "Bridge-to-Bridge Incredible Challenge Bike Ride," because it started at the Catawba River Bridge on US 321 and ended at the bridge atop Grandfather Mountain on US 221. (Photo courtesy Aaron West at SteepClimbs.com)
I wish I had a decent photo of the ride starting out on Catawba Bridge, because it was truly a spectacle. The start in downtown Lenoir is also impressive, but there are not nearly as many riders today as there were in those early rides. It was one of the first rides of its kind, and people traveled from all over the US and other countries to be in it. (Photo courtesy Bridge Incredible Challenge Bike Ride)
The ride is a century (100 miles) and increases over 4,000 feet in elevation over the course of the ride. So, it is indeed a challenge. (Chart courtesy Bridge Incredible Challenge Bike Ride)
When I first heard about it, back in 1989, I knew I would have to do it. I was living in Lenoir, doing furniture design, so I was able to train on the course itself. What a joy it was to drive up to Blowing Rock, have breakfast at the Speckled Trout Restaurant, and then hit the Blue Ridge Parkway for a day of riding. That was the life! I also did numerous century rides across the state, as well as many, many shorter rides. After three years of training, I was finally ready for the 4th riding of the Bridge-to-Bridge. (The 25th riding is coming up this year on Sunday, September 15, 2013.)
The ride starts out early and ends late, depending upon how fast you are. In 1992, out of 918 riders, I was number 332 to cross the finish line. I did it in just under 7 hours. The better riders finished in under 5:30, with the winning time being 4:55:15 by George Meyer of Switzerland, who won the ride for the third year in a row. All riders had to finish by dark or they were picked up and brought in by van. (Photo courtesy Aaron West at SteepClimbs.com)
What I felt the whole time I was riding was exhilaration. I had trained hard for this, and now it was happening. Crossing the finish line was wonderful - you can see it on my face in the photo showing my time - but it wasn't just about finishing for me. It was about the whole race. It was about being out there with the other riders, being outside, on the road, on my bike. I have to tell you, nothing comes close to it for me in pure exhilaration.
After the Bridge-to-Bridge, I eventually moved to Charlotte and then Atlanta. What a change! While drivers in North Carolina have a certain respect for bicyclers, in Atlanta they have no respect whatsoever. Every time I climbed on my bike, I was taking my life in my hands. (Photo courtesy Bicycle Dreams Movie)
While living in Charlotte, I took up rollerblading. I was working for Paramount Parks, managing their advertising and season pass program. So, every afternoon in the off season, I would rollerblade around the park at Carowinds. I couldn't have asked for a better place to do it. Then I moved to Atlanta.
The first five years, I lived near Piedmont Park in Midtown, so it made sense to continue rollerblading. I loved skating on the hilly, windy sidewalks of the great park. Some of the downhills were a challenge in courage, until I realized that you can only get up to a certain speed on rollerblades. After that I was okay. I also liked being around all the people in the park, especially the other rollerbladers. Biking is something of a lonely sport. Even so, I missed the exhilaration of being out on the road. (Photo courtesy of Hello Atlanta)
Then I discovered the Silver Comet Trail in Cobb County on the west side of Greater Atlanta. It's a paved-over railroad track, and it's gorgeous - like a mini Blue Ridge Parkway, without the hills. It's the safest way to ride in Atlanta, and it is 50 miles long. It goes all the way from west Atlanta to the border of Alabama. I've never done the whole thing - I usually do a quarter century (25 miles). Discovering that trail changed my life.
I moved to Vinings, not far from the Trail, and started riding three or four times a week. It was wonderful. I continued that for five years, for three seasons of the year, rain or shine. Then I decided I was living too far from my church and friends and moved to Duluth, which is on the north side of Greater Atlanta. Little did I realize how that would change my life.
There was basically nowhere to ride on the north side unless you had a mountain bike or joined a group ride, as riding alone on the roads just wasn't safe. So I bought a Cateye CS-1000 Cyclosimulator, which allows you to use your bike to stationary ride. I did that for several years until I got so bored with it that I just couldn't make myself get on it. Eventually, my bike tires went flat and I lost interest in biking altogether. At that point, my personality began to change. I lost a lot of my joy and began looking for ways to fill the void left by my bicycle, including some unhealthy habits.
Then a friend decided to get my bike refurbished for me. He told me he would pay for it if I would take it in to a bike shop. It took me a year to do it.
Part of my reluctance was that I had lost touch with biking and didn't know who the good manufacturers were anymore. I didn't trust bike shops because I had had a bad experience at my last one. I didn't know if the younger guys would think that my bike was an antique and laugh at it. I just didn't know. But finally I loaded my bike on the back of my car and took it in.
To my surprise, the bike shop owner admired my bike tremendously. He acted like it was a privilege for him to work on it. And the companies that I had always respected were still considered the best. Things weren't grim after all. In fact, when the mechanic finished working on it, my bike was like new, only better, because it had a history! And he seemed to admire it even more! (This is the bike shop on the Silver Comet Trail. The shop that worked on my bike was Cycleworks on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard in Duluth, GA. They did a great job!)
Last weekend, a buddy and I took our bikes out on the Silver Comet Trail, and it was like I had been reborn. I was back outside, back on the road, and back on my beloved Bianchi. Life was good. Life made sense again.
That's what biking is like. To have it is like being alive. To be without it is like being dead, at least in part. I connect with biking, just like other people connect with gardening, horses, or whatever. Everybody needs something they connect with that makes their lives make sense and brings them joy. What's yours?
Waitsel Smith, May 19, 2013
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Text © 2013 Waitsel Smith. Photos © Waitsel Smith Except as Indicated. All Rights Reserved.