Friday, July 31, 2009

53 Miles... Uphill.

On the 28th of June in the year of America 2009, myself and a rambunctious team of rowdy rapscallions embarked on one of the single most strenuous days of biking in my ongoing career of hobbyist cycling. It was the 2009 Long Island Harbors Ride, hosted by some ambiguous cycling group known only as "Bike New York". There were 4 ride options, ranging from 27 to 105 miles, each blazing their own trail through the hills and harbors of Long Island's northern shore. My friends (the eponymous Greg and Bill) and I decided to do the 53 mile course, a challenging but ultimately doable ride.

I was up by 6 that morning, sequestering an egg sandwich (no bacon) before traveling to the starting line with my fellow riders. Our crew arrived under cool grey clouds, thankfully spared the rains that had hitherto been plaguing the northeast. We were all pseudo-ready for the trip, each having done some amount of riding to prepare for the day's riding. But despite numerous training miles logged, we were each dealt a debilitating blow by the sheer scale of the journey ahead.

Since it was a ride and not a race, we departed at our leisure from the starting point at Brentwood, Long Island. From what is basically the middle of the island (north-south-wise), we headed north on a highway service road, bound for the coast. Long, broad roads gave way to forested side streets, and we made our way deep into the hills and valleys that comprise the great north shore.

We were warned of hills well before we set out that morning. The frequent elevation change was a challenge to even the most seasoned of riders, and just a glance at our group proved we were not the most seasoned of riders. Nevertheless, we pushed up those inclines, shifting gears and flexing calves like it was going out of style. Within a few big crests and troughs we found ourselves in familiar territory, for after all our ride was known as "The Huntington Loop" (and duhh that's where i'm from). We faced some local terrain with which we were grudgingly familiar, including the dreaded Snake Hill, a winding ascent that more than lives up to its name. We swilled water from insulated bottles and wiped sweat from our brows, cutting a path from familiar isles into eastern mysteries.

The sun roared out of the clouds just as the true nature of our ride revealed itself: this was not so much a harbor ride as much as a steady uphill climb through monotonous residential lanes. At some point the elevation gain began to lose sync with reality, and the amount of uphill in no way matched the meager downhills that dotted our course. The promise of scenic harbor views was ill kept, replaced instead by tree-enclosed stretches into infinity. A quarter mile uphill ended in a sharp curve only to reveal another mile and a half uphill. A gentle downward slope was but a prelude to a vicious ascending angle. Entire neighborhoods unfurled against brutal hillsides, baking in the hot noon sun like a heathen feast. As our water supply dwindled, our might as cyclists was put to the test.

Long gone were the peaceful inclines of highway service roads. Now was the meat, the true mettle of our journey. We each faltered at times, stopping increasingly frequently for whatever solace we could render on a humid sidewalk. Numerous sojourns found us splayed out wildly as corpses on the roadside, so that yellow-vested ride officials were forced to inquire after our well being. A kind of anguished frustration set in; the sense that this path was deliberately chosen for its maddening uphill stretches. We began cursing our route in between catching breaths. Often I stumbled upon Bill at the side of the road, his head against his handlebars in defeated repose. Even one of the official rest stops was perched far back on a hillock, one that had to be traversed entirely upwards and off course to reach (a sort of deranged cherry to this unhappy sundae was the fact that this was the worst of the rest stops that day, featuring little in the way of nourishment and plenty of Bob Marley's "Legend" on repeat)

As the afternoon sun lilted in the sky, talk of the finish line grew among our fellow riders. "8 miles left." "6 miles to go, you can do it." "You're almost there, why is your face so red?" We had come so far, yet one final stretch lay before us. As if to fully discredit the designation of "harbor ride", the final leg of our journey entered into a vast wash of industrial zoning. Endless fields of fresh cut grass outlined boxy business complexes, places of boring work where real life was muted in the interest of profit and faxes. It was here that we faced our final uphill attack, a shallow yet prolonged ascent past repeating examples of mankind's basest architectural creations. A security company gave way to a storage company, which preceded a corrugated metal tubing company, their monotony matched only by the steady pounding heat of the sun. But we were not there to report to some mind-numbing version of employment. No. On shimmering steel frames we glided through the Long Island afternoon, intent on the accomplishment we knew lay just ahead. It was then that we knew no amount of uphill could conquer us. We were The Riders. We were there to progress onward despite the most trying of conditions. And with that final determination, we coasted back onto the familiar streets of Brentwood, NY. The sound of Rush on echoey speakers was our fanfare; we had arrived. In that handful of hours we had put 53 miles of asphalt behind us, having done so solely with the manpower exerted upon our vehicles. To the more skilled rider this is all in a day's work. To us it was an achievement of strength and willpower. We had faced a great many uphills and taken each of them on with force and precision, never once dismounting to walk our bicycles to the top. It was a full day's ride, and as far as we were concerned it was a masterful accomplishment on par with summiting a mountain or strangling a freshwater catfish. A peaceful exhaustion setting in, we loaded up our bikes and headed for Carvel. Whatever the question was, a root beer float would be the answer.

P.S. I don't know any of the people in that photograph.