The hill wasn’t very long but it was steep. The grade may in reality have just been moderate, but it felt like a freaking Pyrenees mountain to me. My cycling this spring has been on mostly flat routes and unfortunately most of my time on the bike has been set up with my trainer in the basement. So this was a challenging moment for me as I shifted my gears into easier and easier chain rings.
“Everyone has their serious faces on,” a guy said as Staci and I slowly cranked our way up the hill.
“That’s because I’m trying to breathe,” Staci said. “I always look serious when I’m trying to breathe.”
“Polka dot points!” I said. “Staci we have to get our polka dot points for the King of the Mountains jersey!”
For the record only a few times did our serious faces come out Sunday morning as I joined my friends Staci and Tracy for the Tour de Cure in Rochester, N.Y. The day of cycling to raise money for the American Diabetes Association was a chance for us to get in some good training on a fully supported ride while helping raise money for a good cause. Plus, it was a chance to go ride bikes with my friends. At the heart of the day was play. Lest I forgot that the reason was about fun, friends and cycling, a random woman in the parking lot reminded. Her group was preparing for the 100-mile ride and mildly complaining about some of the logistics. She, somewhat forcefully, called them out. “This is not a race!” she said with some force. “If we pass a bar and want a drink, we’ll stop and have a drink.” I smiled. Perhaps, I thought to myself, we’d pass a pancake breakfast. I hide a 20-dollar bill in my backpack just in case.
Tracy and Staci are training for their first Ironman, a race in Cleveland in September. They were using the 62.5 mile ride (also know as the “metric century”) as an opportunity to practice their nutrition plan on the bike. They were loaded up with their fueling options and a plan on when to refuel. This was an incredibly smart thing to do. I should have thought of that to prepare for my next triathlon, Musselman, in July. But I didn’t. I threw a few Honey Stinger waffles into my camelback pack along with some TRY Chips and had the equivalent of two bottles on my bike. There were five aid stations on our route and I planned to live off the land. Not a race day strategy. But this was not a race.
The three of us rode together, each of us taking a lead at various points. Tracy spent most of the time up front as she wanted to work her cadence and speed on the hills. I just wanted to survive the hills and quickly made friends with my granny gear. Ego gets in the way of imagination. Ego gets in the way of play. Ego gets in the way of fun. Thank goodness I was riding with two amazing women. Because ego was never a part of our day. That meant I never felt “bad” about using my granny gear or being a bit slow or stopping at every aid station.
It was a beautiful day — hot and sunny. The route was pretty — country roads which wound through farms and occasionally brought us to main sections of small towns. (Much to Staci’s dismay we only passed one field of cows.) The aid stations were about nine miles apart and that made the distance go by quickly. Each stop featured mini-Clif Bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, pretzels, Gatorade and water. While the Iron girls took their predetermined nutrition, I drank two cups of Gatorade at each stop (did I mention how hot it was?) and made sure to eat something — an energy bar, small sandwich or piece of fruit. (For the record, I enjoyed the aid stations which had pre made the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as opposed to the ones where you had to make your own. Yep. I can be that lazy.)
The final 18 miles of our course had no rest stop. We decided we’d make our rest stop at 56 miles, amazed that they didn’t have a stop for that distance. It’s the final miles when people usually get into the most trouble, and we saw plenty of novices who didn’t seem to have enough water on their bikes and were ignorant of some basically cycling etiquette, which, in my experience, can lead to some nasty (and avoidable) crashes. Also, note to organizers: The last 18 miles were not marked for the metric century course. We were guessing that our “blue” route at this point also coincided with every other color route that was marked back to the finish. This is my only complaint about the entire event.
Back at the campus of RIT, Staci and Tracy went for a one-mile run. God bless them. I passed on that option. My core was sore in part from the ride, which was my longest and hilliest of the year. But it also was sore from laughing so much. It wasn’t so much the content of the stories we shared on the ride or the observations we made, but the turn of a phrase or an intonation which made me roar with laughter, even as I pushed through a headwind.
What made this ride so enjoyable was that play was at the heart of it all — playing on my bike, on a warm, sunny day, with some ultra cool women who have become pretty darn good friends. The was no end result, no expectation, other than getting back to RIT for some food, dry clothes and to wipe the dead bugs off our skin. (Not necessarily in that order.) There was nothing particularly profound about Sunday’s bike ride, but there was something profoundly joyful in doing what I love with people I love all the while forgoing pretense and just being myself. It is in these moments that I find not just happiness, but my definition of carpe diem.