I woke up to my private alarm at 4:59, snuck out of my possibly contraband room and got my bag out to the trailer first, in part because of the minute’s head start and in part because I had no sleeping bag to put away. Over a breakfast of individually sized boxes of cereal (overheard in the kitchen: “every time I eat one of these I get depressed that this is the actual serving size for a bowl of cereal.” “Wait, what?! This??”) and blueberry muffins, I overheard rumors of a hilly day. A 93 mile hilly day. I walked over to a hidden part of the yard and cried for a few moments over this news. Then I went to go find Jack to ask him to ride with me because on a day like that, I wanted someone who was getting paid and had a contract to hang in there with me and be supportive– none of this relying on the goodness of others crap. He was already riding with Kevin, so that was to be my fate as well.
There are a few things that I never thought about before Bike & Build that now can make or break my day. One is the presence or absence of padded conference room chairs in churches. Another is the direction and strength of the wind. A third is the last few degrees between 85 and 90– I can tell the difference once the thermometer’s mecury hits a new ten’s place, as can my body.
But what has surprised me the most as far as going from never giving it a moment’s notice to slowly realizing it would be the defining factor of my life every day is road material and quality. I don’t drive, so I don’t come into contact with roads even with the buffering of a heavy car and its tires. I have, oddly and wonkily enough, thought about pavement extensively– mostly how there should be less of it covering up the earth’s surface, for drainage and less habitat destruction and fewer heat islands and just making the world a less weird, ugly, fake place. But being on a thin road bike for the majority of the day on major roads means I feel the road all day everyday, more than I feel anything else. I feel weird wishing desperately for brand new asphalt on each road I bike down after my last few years pointing out permeable pavers and looking to groups like Portland’s Depave as an inspiration. But I figure that the carbon non-emissions from biking makes laying down fresh pavement for a bike lane more than worth the trade off of smothering the earth in tar, especially if cars were given a lane of permeable pavers and bikes were given just the thin ribbon of asphalt we need.
On this day, I started out believing that the road was simply uncomfortable. Just over the line of the shoulder, the real road looked okay, but it might as well have been in another dimension for how far it was from us. “Jack, I can see it, look how smooth the road is just over the line. Please, Jack, can we go?” (We could not.) But soon it became apparent that something more sinister than the usual bad roads (see: all roads in Louisiana) was going on. We were getting shaken as heavily as if we were biking on pure gravel (Whenever I do this, I like to shout to myself, ‘mountain biking!’ I would also recommend the experience of biking on cobblestones, if only for comparison purposes forever after). Going up hills was harder than usual since the ground was creating so much drag, pulling me back and creating a technically longer ride, the way the coastline of Maine is the longest of any state because of all its crags. My forearm bones began to throb as they absorbed the shock of constant jostling. Kevin pointed out that the bumpiness meant you could watch Jack’s butt jiggle if you rode behind him, so I tried distracting myself with that for a while. It worked okay I guess.
The hills kept coming, Kevin and Jack would wait for me, and I would catch up and rejoin them (I will point out that this means that they were taking breaks, while I was not). Sometimes we stuck together, and we talked about Jack’s first kiss, how we deal with stress, and Kevin and Jack continued their habit of mostly communicating with competitive barbs about points they’ve scored on each other in basketball games long ago, calves, and Cavs (Kevin’s and Cleveland’s, respectively). I rode along, stuck in the middle as their trash talk flew around me. I felt good until mile 50ish, at which point I found myself running on steam and mental perserverance rather than calories or muscle power.
Lunch was at an alum’s parents’ house. I enjoyed the rice, beans, and fresh squash immensely, but my body felt like a Big Agnes inflatable sleeping pad after the end of a night with a slow leak. Jack asked me if I wanted go soon, then promptly passed out for a while, so my rest lasted a bit longer.
But something else came from lunch: we found out that that thing on the roads had a name: chiptop. Alias: chip seal. Essentially, the WORST TSA ever pours on a layer of adhesive, then dumps a bunch of rocks on it. Then they wait for cars and trucks to run over it enough times to wear it away to something manageable and sort of resembling a real road. While this happens, it’s loud and bumpy, even in a car. But no one rides on the shoulder, so that part just remains Rock City by Tyga.
We had to go at some point, and some point came. But I had left it all on the court and had nothing left for the afternoon court. I was beat and there was no way I was biking another 40-something miles; each tiny hill felt impossible, as did any distance I couldn’t coast for. Feeling defeated, I called the van, then my mom. She said I shouldn’t compare myself to the other people on the trip (I countered that I was comparing myself to our schedule, and yes, everyone else could do it) because what I had done in signing up for this trip was akin to if I had never skied, then saw that the Olympic ski team was leaving on a ski trip soon, thought, “hey, that fits in my schedule, why don’t I join?” and gone off to ski with them. She told me everyone here is an experienced bicyclist, I countered that she didn’t know anyone here; she said she knew everyone (she doesn’t). But either way, I peed in someone’s side yard three times, uncovered YounBul’s handwritten list of questions to make anyone fall in love with you on the backside of his cue sheet and thus accidentally sabotaged his interview of Rob, and got in the van where Sarah and Roy were playing A Tribe Called Red. Then I ate a not very good fudge pop tart and felt bad about not being able to push out the second half of the day despite really wanting it.
Our host was nominally a church in Athens, TX but after eating about four cups of hydrogenated oil each (takeout from Chicken Express, which was eerie because I had just asked Jack that morning where fried chicken was a thing because we hadn’t been served it yet and weren’t we in the south?), we were splitting up and going to host families. This was an old, familiar feeling for me from study abroad, back again five years later. Maddy and I went home with a young couple and their seven months old baby, and enjoyed a real shower, the most comfortable bed in the world, and a breakfast casserole of eggs, cheese, sausage, and tater tots, as well as berries and mango on the side.