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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2007

On Turning 60

We have a nice springtime ride on our club calendar every year. It's called the Apple Cider Century because it passes through a fair number of apple orchards in the west county hills around my hometown of Sebastopol. We have had the ride on the schedule near the Vernal Equinox for 14 years now. It's not a pay-to-ride century, and it's not widely promoted. Nor is it supported. You don't get a patch or a lunch or a tee-shirt. It's just a ride of about 100 miles through the hills and valleys between Sebastopol and the ocean. All you get is a map and a lot of good company.

It's a beautiful course, with a substantial amount of challenge--some big climbs--and a great deal of entertainment value: loads of wiggly descents and endless vistas of eye-goggling scenery. And if the weather is nice, so much the better.

With the weather being as nice as it could be this year, the turnout was good. No one counted exactly, but I would guess we had over 100 riders at the start. That's a pretty big crowd rolling out of Ragle Ranch Park in the morning. I like to think at least a few of those people showed up not only because it's a good ride, but also to pat me on the back. Why? Because it's my birthday ride. When I dreamed up the route and first put it on the club ride list 14 years ago, I don't think I intended it to become my birthday ride. But it always falls near the Equinox, and so does my birthday, so over the years the two melded together.

This year was a little special. It was my 60th birthday. (I can hardly believe it when I see that number scrolling out on my monitor. As the Talking Heads said: "How did I get here?") We attach some heightened significance to the dates that benchmark our decades. For better or worse, these incremental milestones encourage all sorts of deep reflection and wild surmise. I'm no different from the next guy in this respect, and in fact I probably indulge in more of this narcissistic navel gazing than most, if for no other reason than that I have this little journalistic outlet for waxing philosophical...for inflicting my particular brand of introspection on you, my long-suffering readers.

But this is supposed to be a column about cycling, right? Yes it is, although happily for me and my meandering mind, I am allowed in this space to use the bicycle as a vehicle for visiting all sorts of out-of-the-way places that might not seem immediately germane to spokes and gears and crank arms. Cycling as metaphor, as it were. But honestly, if you are a regular and enthusiastic cyclist, can you think of a better metaphor upon which to hang one's philosophical ponderings than the act of cycling and of living with cycling on a daily basis?

In this particular context, on the occasion of my turning 60, the philosophizing has to do with aging and cycling...with growing older gracefully while still keeping the wheels rolling. If you have read my columns off and on over the years, you will have encountered many references to aging and biking. I have become something of a self-appointed poster boy for all the grey-haired boomers still chugging along out there; still defiantly thumbing their noses at the passing years; doing their best to pretend they're still kids. A peloton of Peter Pans.

It was 40 years ago last September that I got my first road bike. (Not counting of course the single-speed cruisers of childhood.) I bought it at the beginning of Fall term in 1966 for student commuting at college. It was probably in the rain-washed, freshly minted springtime of 1967 that I began to appreciate--perhaps with the help of a puff of kief in the morning--that my bike was more than just a vehicle for commuting: that it could not only transport me to classes but could carry me out into the wild countryside and, more importantly, into the vast, unlimited, unimagined landscape within. After those first teasing tastes of what a bike could do for me, I was hooked. And I have stayed hooked for all of the years since.

For 40 years I have been pedaling around on a series of bikes. Some years I logged close to 10,000 miles; in others, less than 3000. At an average of somewhere over 5000 miles a year, the total must be on the high side of 200,000 miles by now. What's that: more than eight times around the world? I certainly feel as if I've ridden around the world eight times, at least. No, I don't mean I feel exhausted. I mean I feel exalted. It has been the most fortunate, fortuitous miracle of fate that cycling found its way into my life. I have been and continue to be immensely enriched by it.

I've never been a racer. Somehow I missed all that. During the years when I might have been a racer--the Eddy Merckx era of the early '70's--I was toodling around the back roads of Northern California, riding alone, almost entirely unaware that the sport and culture of bike racing even existed. The result of this blissful ignorance was that I missed the opportunity to be really fast when I might have had the youth and fitness to make it happen. It wasn't until I was approaching that first big milestone birthday--40--that I woke up to the notion that going fast was fun: that doing that race-pace dance with other riders could be as engaging as it is. This late-blooming boomer didn't get bit by the bug until the '84 Olympics; until Lemond and Phinney and Hampsten; Hinault and Roche and Kelly.

Even after getting bit by the go-fast bug, I still didn't race, although I was aware of the Masters scene. Even though I have been a die-hard racing fan for years now, I never wanted to do it myself. Instead, like hundreds of thousands of other recreational riders, I settled for the club-ride equivalent of racing: defining myself as a hammerhead. Not a racer wannabe. Just someone who reveled in going fast, in working within a snappy paceline, in playing around with hill primes and city limit signs; in simply delighting in the game of it...the happy, spirited play of it.

I've never been all that fast. But in the small pond of club rides, I was, for a few years at least, able to hang with the bigger fish. If I was not often off the front, I was at least near the front, in the mix. That was then. This is now. You know the saying: "The older you get, the faster you were." Like all good quips, it is painfully true, and in this case, it's true on two levels. It is first of all true on the statistically quantifiable level. I stopped keeping track of my average speed over a decade ago, partly because I decided that number was utterly irrelevant to why I ride a bike, and partly because it was depressing to watch the entries in my log book going down, down, down, year after year. But even though I don't log that stat anymore, I can still track my steady decline in speed. I know I used to do centuries in under six hours and even a few times as low as five flat. But now? Seven hours would be good. Eight is all too common.

But the adage is true at the anecdotal level as well. Looking at our personal cycling histories through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia, we tend to recall most vividly and most fondly those glorious days when we got it all right: when we slept well, woke up feisty, rode strong and smart, and kicked some serious ass, all day long. We tend to forget all those other, much more common days when our performance was merely mediocre; when we got beat like rented mules and rode home sore and sorry. So yes: we were faster back then in fact, and also in the fiction that passes for memory.

If you've reached a certain age--and most of us on the boomer bandwagon are there now or getting close--you have slowed down. No matter how fast you were or how fast you think you were, back in your salad days, you're slower now. I know I am. But more than just a change of pace is at work here. More significant is a change of mindset. Back when I saw myself as a prime time player, I fought hard to stay at the top of my chosen little hill. If I found myself in danger of going out the back of the group, I scrapped and clawed until red spots were dancing in front of my eyes in order to hang in there. Now, I still show up for the same club rides: still the biggest, baddest rides on the calendar, still with the same demographic of borderline hardcore riders. But my own place in the pack has shifted. I no longer scrap and claw to hold that wheel in front of me. If it's easy enough, I hang in there. If it gets the least bit difficult, I just sit up and watch them ride away, and I don't torment myself with some ration of grief about being a wuss. It doesn't matter anymore.

There have always been older, slower folks on our big, bad rides. We might not see them in the parking lot at the start. That's because they left a half an hour early. Somewhere out on the road, way out on the far side of the loop, we'd run into them, and as we zipped by, dancing on the pedals like little pixies, we'd wave and they'd say hi, and that might be the last we'd see of them, unless we'd meet again at a rest stop. We'd be sitting out in front of the coffee shop or bakery, feeling smug about what frisky hard-asses we were, and these pluggers would tool on past the stop, giving a cheerful wave as they kept right on truckin' up the road. Or maybe just a quick splash-n-go water bottle top-up, and then back on the bike and gone. When you can't be fast, you have to be efficient. Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare as applied to club rides.

Now, without noticing quite how or when it happened, I find I have become one of those older, slower guys. Last weekend I did a club ride that was a very tough century: 106 miles and 9300' of wickedly steep climbing. All the usual hotshots were there. I started early and was about eight miles into the ride when the pack set off. They didn't catch me until around mile 40. Then I nipped out of the next rest stop early--in the company of half a dozen other &"slower&" riders--and it took the fast kids another 20 miles to reel us in again. Same thing at the next rest stop. As one of the faster riders said afterward, I was probably home twisting the top off a beer before he was. I think he's right. I never once tried to chase those guys. Never once red-lined myself to try and be a big dawg. I managed my ride differently, and I got to the finish at about the same time, feeling relatively fresh while doing it.

Most importantly, I had fun while doing it, all day long. Yeah, I suffered on the steepest climbs. Those are hard for everyone. But I didn't inflict any gratuitous suffering on myself by trying to be someone I'm not. I soaked up the gorgeous spring scenery, had a gas flying down all the wild descents on the backsides of all those steep climbs, and just generally enjoyed myself...grateful as can be that at the age of 60, when most of my generation are doddering around in their Sans-a-belt death slacks, I'm still out there, larking around on my bike, same as I was at 10 and 20 and 40. If the Blue Meanies knew how much fun I was having out there, they would surely figure out a way to make it illegal.

Back on my Apple Cider Birthday Century, a lot of riders did roll up and pat me on the back. Almost all of the younger ones offered some variation of the line, &"I hope I'm riding as strong as you are when I get to be your age.&" There's something a little patronizing in that comment that the younger guys don't intend, but that's okay. I made the same comment to other older guys when I was younger. I hope for their sakes they will be riding well when they're my age. But the fact is, a lot of them won't be. Time and circumstance will cull the herd. I look around at my peer group of boomer bikers, and I don't see some of the old, familiar faces anymore. Bad knees, slipped discs, sciatic nerves, hamstrings, hearts...the list of infirmities is as long as the total inventory of body parts. And then there are those who have suffered the ultimate medical set-back: they're dead.

There are all sorts of painful and frustrating and ignominious ways in which our chosen avocation of cycling can be stolen away from us. But I will say this for cycling: it is, on average, easier to do at an advanced age than most active sports. My brother, for instance, chose rugby as his personal passion. He's exactly ten years younger than I am, but he stopped playing anything resembling serious rugby years ago. I may have slowed down, but I'm still cycling in a way that at least superficially resembles what the fast kids are doing.

So far--knock wood--I have eluded those myriad medical meltdowns that have taken out some of my old cronies. The knees still work the way they're supposed to. The back ache is only a two-Advil issue. The ticker is still ticking, and most of the other machinery seems to be turning over smoothly, if perhaps at a somewhat lower rpm than in years past. I can't take much credit for any of this. It's just the hand I've been dealt. I'm thankful to have been this fortunate...to still be riding while so many others have had to hang it up.

I'll make no predictions about how many more of my Birthday Centuries I'll be able to knock off with dignity intact. A few, I hope. Meanwhile, in the months between the birthdays, I'll keep throwing a leg over the top tube and rolling down the driveway, looking for the next adventure. See you on the road...

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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