Monday, November 24, 2014

Too Much Fun

The sun would not rise for two hours, but it was time to go. The old Suby growled along the quiet streets of Tucson with bikes on the back. I had already picked up Elena, another bike nut, and we were about to park on one of the dark streets of downtown Tucson.

After slipping into bike shoes and clipping on lights, we rode the bikes down to the start of the 32nd El Tour de Tucson. The streets were dry at least as we flew through the cold morning air, underneath the tracks over Sixth Avenue.

The bikes felt crazy fast because under the influence of night and adrenaline.

At the start we joined other insane types, like John the retired philosophy professor from Madison, Wisconsin, and Giulianna, the organizer of Velo Vets, an organization to get injured veterans on bikes.

The early hour did little to dampen spirits, and, like I said, at least it was dry. The year before had been cold and rainy.

As we settled in for the wait, I remembered other starts.

Three years ago, I waited with friends in an intersection blocked off from cars but still active with traffic lights. Beneath red, yellow, and green signals I sat and talked with Will Streeter, a friend from Indiana who would die within the year from melanoma. At the time I did not know that he had the cancer, that he would lose an eye a week after the ride.

There were other times too. Standing with Steve Baker, who had just begun his fight against MS. We rode a tandem that year, stopping for breaks and massages as the day and the route wore on. We would both weep on the final hills before the finish, both from fatigue and the awareness that this would his last ride.

Another year I would ride with my father, the hard-assed colonel of my childhood. He told me at the start that he was afraid. It was then my turn to lead and comfort him. We rode into such deep exhaustion that we collapsed at the finish. That ride built bridges over years of estrangement, healed a rift that wounded us both.

The course has evolved and the crowds have grown over the years.

In the old days, we had to cross a running stream of effluent from the sewage treatment plant. Sometimes the water was knee-deep and always cold. Temperatures have been in the 20s a few times, bone chilling at 25 miles an hour.

The longest El Tours have been about 116 miles, the shortest about 104. All of them have stories, set backs, magic moments. 

Then there have been the cramps, the wind, the wrecks, the flats, the mechanicals. One year I was flying along with a big pack when my tire blew out. I watched from the shoulder as riders blew by and I tried to fix the tire. My pump exploded. Yes it exploded into shards of plastic. I was stranded. But I limped along with the help of the El Tour Bike Patrol and finished after repairing my tube four times.

I only didn't finish once, and that was last year, when a lock ring stripped and left my cassette a collection of tiny, disconnected cogs -- both useless and unfixable.

There is the human side, the physical side, the emotional side, the spiritual and philosophical sides -- all of them add up to something ongoing, ineffable, as enduring as the desire to roll, to feel the wind, and to meet what the miles have to teach.*

Pretty soon I won't be able to continue. That's OK. I am grateful for having followed the sometimes insane impulse to line up early, wait for the gun, and join the river of bikes winding around the perimeter of Tucson. That impulse used to be a mystery. Now it's a tradition, a tradition that I hold alone if no one joins me, but alone in the company of my memories, my love, my tribe.

* Thanks to Damion Alexander for the second pic. 

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