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There and Back Again: A Cyclist's Odyssey


It happened while I wasn't looking -- bicycling became a sport.

When I was a boy, bicycling was just something a kid did. We just biked around for the fun of it. Sometimes we also ran errands on the bike or delivered newspapers on it after school.

I still ride a bike -- to some degree for fitness, but still mostly for fun. Usually I ride around the neighborhood. Five, six, seven miles -- even 10 on a good day. Some weekends, I mount the bike on a rack and drive out to the old North Central trail in Baltimore county where I pedal for an hour or so in the shade of the trees along the Gunpowder.

I had never participated in a group ride until recently, when I saw a flyer for a 31-mile tour sponsored by the Baltimore Bicycling Club, from Chesapeake City, in Cecil county, to Odessa, Delaware.

That's long for a just-once-in-a-while bicyclist. But, I told myself, it's flat country so it'll be easy pedaling. And if I get tired i can just turn around and pedal back.

That's when I discovered that bicycling, while I wasn't looking, became a sport. On first driving into the parking lot, I was so intimidated I nearly turned around and drove out again without stopping. Not just by the couple hundred bicyclists, all in one place. It was the ambiance. High energy. Eagerness. Determination. Youth. Well, there were a few gray heads, but the spirit even among them is pure kid.

Bikers doing calisthenics, using gauges to check tire pressures, meticulously adjusting seat heights.

Bikers in costume: shiny thigh-hugging pants, bicycling T-shirts, bicycling shoes, toe clamps on pedals, bicycling gloves.

High-tech bikes: 15-speed, 18-speed, 21-speed. Fat tires, medium tires, tires as thin as my pinkie. Cruise control -- little thumb-switches on the handlebars. "Recumbent bikes" for riders who won't or can't sit up straight. Tandem bikes built for two; even a tandem T-shirt with the acronym CRABS, for "couples riding a bike simultaneously."

Can I ride with these aficionados? I'm in a pair of loose shorts over jockey underwear and a yellow T-shirt that flutters at the waist. Floppy canvas shoes. My bike has only 10 speeds, which until now I've found adequate. As a boy I clunked around with just a single one.

Everybody was friendly enough, so I overrode my angst, paid the nominal fee, received a route map and a couple of free bananas. A man and two pre-teen boys came pedaling by, and I joined up with them. The man and I got into a conversation.

Michael is a bike-tour veteran. He's indulging in this easy 31-miler because it's the first of the season, for him as well as for his sons, Tim and Billy, ages 8 and 9. By the end of the season they'll be doing at least "a century" -- 100 miles. In other years he's done 450-milers -- a trip across Iowa, and one along the C&O; Canal in Maryland -- back to back. His idea of a vacation.

I tell him my usual run is 10 or 12 miles. He says, well, on this flat terrain, 31 is a pretty good number -- to start on.

He explains some technicalities. The stretch-tight pants not only hold your leg muscles firm, they're also padded inside with chamois so that nothing chafes, and on a long ride chafing is one of the main sources of discomfort. The stiff sole of the bicycling shoes reduces fatigue. Noticing my upright handlebars, he points out that turned-down steering gear streamlines your body, reducing air resistance.

Meanwhile Tim and Billy are literally riding circles around us, checking first on who's ahead, then buzzing back to see who's behind, then up front again. Ah youth!

At about 10 miles we stop for lunch in the shade of an enormous oak tree. My legs are beginning to complain, and there's an ache in my groin. Our lunch includes the bananas, which, Michael tells me, will replace the potassium we may have sweated out. We chat a while, then it's time to go on. I'm remembering that I promised myself I could turn around and head back, but by now I feel like a member of the team. I can hardly chicken out in front of two children.

After a few minutes I'm no longer riding beside Michael and the boys; they've pulled way up ahead of me. I can turn tail now and ride back; they'd never know. But -- it's only five and a half miles to Odessa. Only! On my neighborhood rides, five and a half miles is a respectable distance. I wrap fingers more firmly around upright handlebars and press canvas-shod feet more staunchly on pedals.

Odessa is charming. Wide streets -- 18th-century clapboard houses -- a museum. On the main street a post office. I'd like to mail a postcard, to see more of the town, to learn where it got its name. But not on this trip.

We rest a minute or two, and it's time to turn back. Again, Michael and the boys have soon left me behind. But no point now in jumping ship; we're on the return trip anyway.

At another rest stop Michael comments that my bicycle is an antique. No wonder I can't keep up. My 10-speed's a classic. I'm driving a car with fins, from the Fifties. He bets that I'm tired. I sigh. Well, he says brightly, it's only seven or eight more miles.

We ride through race-horse country, then at last the curve of the bridge at Chesapeake City comes rising up out of the horizon up ahead. Under the bridge and around, is journey's end.

Back at the parking lot, the club has provided chunks of ice-cold watermelon as refreshment. I drop down heavily beside Michael while the boys buzz around the lot hailing friends.

It's done -- 31 miles, farther than I've ever pedaled before, even as a boy. When we biked just for fun. Before bicycling had become a sport.

Isaac Rehert is a retired Baltimore Sun feature writer.

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