Title: Lifecycle. Read at the Tuesday Night Club Oct. 10, 2017
From all appearances, cycling has exploded in popularity. On a nice day, they are everywhere and those are only the ones you can see because the hills and trails are also alive with cyclists. In fact, most cyclists would be hard pressed to recite how many types of cycling there are. Today’s biking universe would blow the mind of Orville and Wilbur Wright who flew planes, but made their living from their Dayton, Ohio bike shop.
The one I know best is the road bike, which is the most visible. But there’s mountain bikes, gravel bikes, Cyclo Cross bikes, recumbents, hybrids, BMX, cruisers, folding bikes, commuting bikes, track cycling bikes, unicycles, touring bikes and yes, the place where all cyclists started, the tricycle. Now exploding onto the scene are electric assist bikes.
Despite what you see on the area’s roads, cycling’s growth in popularity is less clear. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, there were an estimated 36.2 million riders in 2016 and on some days, it seems that every last one them was riding in West Newbury, a mecca for road bikers seeking lightly-traveled smooth pavement, a rural setting and a few heart thumping hills. But the peak, says the NSGA, was 1989 when 56.9 million riders were two wheeling it. What explains the decline? Kids play video games and don’t ride bikes, adults are too busy and the 55 and older crowd is too infirmed.
Something is amiss with this analysis. The over 55 crowd (I am 68) seems to be riding more than ever (if I’m riding, everyone else must be too). One forecast has the bicycle industry growing at 3 percent a year to around $60 billion in sales worldwide by 2021. Another pegs the U.S. market as fairly stable, hovering around $6 billion for past 15 years with 17.4 million bikes sold in North America in 2015. Suffice it to say, the bike business is sighclical (Cyclical, get it?)
For several years, I have done in excess of 100 rides annually, which speaks to my obsession with the sport. You get aerobic exercise in abundance, the joy of being in the open and moving along under your own power at speeds averaging 14-22 mph. You challenge yourself on hills, socialize with fellow riders, keep scads of useless statistics and generously support the bike and bike accessories industries.
There’s a certain freedom to rolling along with not much more than two narrow wheels spinning beneath you. The power is physically and mentally generated. No external sources except what you eat and drink. It’s like running except cycling doesn’t jar my arthritic joints. It’s work, but orthopedically painless.
When I’ve had injuries, cycling come to my rescue. On one 50-mile organized ride a few years ago, my back hurt so much, I mounted the bike by laying it on the ground, stepping over it and pulling it up between my legs instead of the traditional way of swinging a leg over the crossbar. Once on the bike, all systems go.
My rides range in length from 13 to 100 miles and I ride mostly around here and in the Bath, Maine where we have a second home. I look for good pavement and roads with shoulders although that’s not always possible especially in Maine where road maintenance takes a back seat to other municipal and state priorities. I love riding on the bucolic back roads of Maine which provide spectacular views of fields, farms, forests and coastline. I am also a member of the Brunswick riding club called the Merrymeeting Wheelers, which is part riding and part social. And I ride regularly with a couple you here tonight.
I am maniacal about getting in 2,500 miles a year always felt that if I was a salesman, I would have crushed my quota. It looks promising that I will exceed 2,500 miles despite my first major crash in a dozen years of serious riding. I knew I was due given that many of my fellow riders have crashed. To think it is not a dangerous sport ignores the reality.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 840 bike fatalities in 2016, the highest number since 1991. That’s because more cyclists are on the road especially in cities where cycling is very efficient way to get around, but dangerous. While that may sound like a lot, it pales in comparison to pedestrian deaths over the same period – 5,987.
The 860 is more meaningful when people close to you are included in such a grim statistic. Cycling has claimed two close friends of mine.
One, also a college classmate, died in 2014 from a massive heart attack on his bike less than three months after he and I rode in the Ride of Silence in Boston commemorating those struck down on bikes. His name was Eric Lundquist. The other was killed in October, 2013 when he was knocked off his bike by a hit and run driver, then pinned under a second vehicle. He died four hours after the accident from massive internal injuries. His name was Tom Steirnert-Threlkeld.
In a sense, cycling is playing the odds. Tom rode about 6,000 miles a year when he lived in Connecticut. He rode 50 out 52 weekends and up to 200 miles per weekend. He lived on his bike and blogged about many of his rides. When he resided in Texas, he rode as much as 9,000 miles and doing the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred ride was an annual ride of passage – that’s 100 miles in 100 degree heat. That much cycling greatly increases one’s chances of dying or getting seriously hurt. He even did the Ride of Silence by himself when the weather so foul that no one else would join him. When he traveled on business, he often brought his fold up bike him so he could get in a few miles. My first ride with him was through Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas 20 years ago when I was a cycling neophyte. I struggled for the 13 miles up into the canyon when he informed me my seat on my rented bike was about eight inches too low. Peddling was instantly easier once the adjustment was made.
Speaking at his memorial service, his widow rationalized he died doing what he loved. Methinks Nelson Rockefeller had a better idea.
I am a slacker by comparison. I stay local and do day rides, but am not beyond being impressed. My friend Pat in the past year did two extreme rides. One was Banff to Denver. He was supposed to touch the Mexican border, but decided to drop in on his neglected 96-year-old mother in Denver. So he stopped there. He made up for it by cycling 1,500 miles on the Baja Peninsula.
It wasn’t that long ago I entertained riding across the country, but have concluded that ship might have sailed. One person who rode west described crossing the flat lands as feeling continuously uphill with the prevailing headwinds out of the west. He did it twice in the 1990s and has seldom gotten on a bike again.
I had two noteworthy events riding this year. One was a three-notch ride in New Hampshire with my comrades from the Merrymeeting Wheelers. All were faster riders and younger by five to 28 years. The organizer must have liked me because I warned him I’d slow down the group. The three notches were Crawford, Jefferson and Pinkham and featured two continuous climbs with Crawford the longest at 21.1 miles. After climbing most of it, one is confronted with two gut wrenching grades just before hitting the top of the notch before Route 302 straightens and reaches the AMC’s Highland Center. When I bragged about my achievement on Facebook, Cyd Rascke’s comment about the Crawford Notch climb stood out. “What?!?! That’s hard to do in a car.” I have never gotten off my bike and walked up a hill, but came close as I stood up and pumped as hard as I could up those two hills.
Jefferson Notch had a couple of killer hills too. Pinkham from the Gorham side is a 16.5 mile uphill slog, but more forgiving than Crawford with the exception of one long 6-7% grade just before the Wildcat ski area. The last dozen or so miles back to Bartlett were, thankfully, continuously downhill. What goes up must come down. At least, I wasn’t poor guy who snapped his derailleur cable and could ride in only two gears, but he was around 40 when you can do just about anything.
I had been apprehensive about this given there was 4,400 feet of climbing in a relatively compressed distance of 78 miles. If I was going to have a cardiac event, it would be on this ride, but nothing of the sort occurred (one non cyclist has repeatedly urged me the check out my date of birth on my driver’s license).
My wife Ann asked if I would do that ride again. “I’d have to think about it.” Five minutes later, I looked up and said, “I’d do it again.”
The other defining event this summer was my first crash, which occurred at mile 76 of the Seacoast Century 17 days ago, my only 100-mile ride in 2017. This ride was in the news in 2013 when an erratic 20-year-old motorist under the influence of Fentanyl among other things, plowed into 52-year-old Elise Bouchard of Danvers and 60-year Pamela Wells of South Hamilton, killing them both. Two other riders were seriously injured. This tragedy occurred on the narrow Hampton Seabrook bridge just south of the Hampton Beach State Park where the Seacoast Century begins.
My presence tonight confirms my crash was far less serious although for me, it was the most sobering episode in all my days of cycling. I was cruising at 16 mph on the New Castle Rd. causeway just south of Portsmouth. I had caught up and passed my riding buddy John in Portsmouth. When I pulled out for him to pass me on the right, he muttered something “you couldn’t stay in front of me.” I shot back “I just did.”
At the very moment of ball-busting, my front wheel came in contact with the side of his rear wheel. At the point of contact – the front of my front wheel and rear of his rear wheel – they are spinning in opposite directions and repel each other. It was my fault, a split-second lapse in concentration. My front wheel turned sharply left and I went flying ribs first into a guard rail. My first thought as I lay on the pavement was “you screwed the pooch this time.” Riders stopped around me and I recall one asking if I wanted him to call 911. I said “call 922 and see what you get.” With my sense of humor intact, I started to gather myself and asked those coming to me aid to sit me up.
Now I was saying to myself, I’m going to finish this ride. They pulled me onto my feet. One cyclist observed that my shorts were ripped in the rear. I must have been in shock as I labored through the remaining 24 miles. Getting two flats in the last two miles didn’t help. I would have to remove the wheel and tire to put in a new tube and inflate the latter with a CO2 cartridge. Already having had two flats on this ride, I quickly realized the bike technician at the last water stop had given me a replacement tube with the wrong stem, meaning I could not inflate it.
I hailed another cyclist who gave me a tube with a patch on it. Once installed, I inflated it and seemed ok, but it quickly deflated along with my flagging spirits. Patches on tubes never work. Two young guys drinking beer and enjoying the salubrious weather fetched me some ice water and offered to drive me to the finish. “Let me try again to fix the tire. It’s just a flesh wound,” I responded, remembering Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I stopped another rider who gave me yet another tube and CO2 cartridge to inflate the tire. By this time, Ken a third member in our group and organizer of the epic ride showed up his car and asked if I wanted a ride back to the state park. “No. I’m going to finish this.” I loved the response from one doc who would later treat me for my injuries when I told him I rode the last 24 miles. “Of course, you did!” I’m his patient for life.
As it turns out I was under two miles from the end, but as I cruised down toward the state park, I realized I was going to come in at 99 miles. I wanted my 100 and looped back around Hampton Beach. The risk was another flat with no riders passing by to rescue me. I finished the ride, ate my free bowl of bad chili and drove home. I had no plans to go to Anna Jaques Hospital, but didn’t resist when Ann, fellow rider John and his wife urged me to get to the ER. Good thing. X-rays and a subsequent CAT scan confirmed one broken rib and possibly two others and a small tear in my lung. Visible testament to my meeting with sir guardrail were abrasions on my butt, left leg and right side.
Heavy ibuprofen got me through the next few days and I never filled prescription for oxycodone. Five days later I wanted to get back on my bike for a short ride. To placate Ann, who considered hiding my bike, I waited eight days.
My accident has renewed my focus on safety. I never go out without a blinking light. I have radar on by bike that picks up vehicles 150 yards behind me. I am replacing my bike helmets with a more expensive and safer model. I constantly look around when I ride and stay more alert. As an aside, I operate four bike computers on every ride. Yeah, a little OCD there maybe.
I am not sure what the answer is to better harmonize cyclists and motorists. I go out of my way to avoid antagonizing motorists, waving a thanks to them when they let me pass and stop at least some stop signs. Maine has a law prohibiting vehicles from passing cyclists any closer than 3 feet. There’s a few road signs posting the law, but I suspect few Mainers know about it. Enforcing it would be impossible, but it’s just one small step in the educating the traveling masses that cyclists are out there. Some motorists will never like cyclists: we ride around on expensive bikes and wear flashy jerseys and cute spandex shorts.
Well, I am only on ride 77 and at 2,313 miles. But who’s counting? I am with one truism always in my mind. “We make plans. God laughs.”