I wake early after little sleep, attend the tire changing clinic, eat a quick breakfast amongst chattering fellow bikers, and lug my heavy bag across the field to the truck that will carry it to our next tent site. Why didn’t invest in a wheeled bag? I return to my tent and gather my gear for the first day of riding–map, water, helmet, rain gear, repair kit, determination… I have never ridden in a large group. Ho w do I keep from running into someone else or keep someone else from running into me? What if I fall and break something? What if I fall and embarrass myself? What if I can’t make it to the next stop? The sag wagon is there to help us out, but what if I am the only loser that needs it? I search for the internal pull that has transported me to this starting line and find a slim thread remaining to tug me there.
There is a formal start off ceremony on this first day, but I decide to leave early to avoid riding in the sizeable crowd and give myself extra time to make the day’s miles. I am not a ‘group’ person, and I am not here to celebrate and have fun. My tent mate starts with me and I am grateful to have company as we learn to discern the hot pink trail markers, painted on the road, that will direct us for the next seven days. We find our way through five miles of city streets to the off-road trail. My tent mate stays with me and I feel certain I am hindering her speedier cleat clad feet from moving ahead. My eyes relentlessly scan the trail for hidden roots and rocks waiting to steal my stability. Fear of the gravity devil’s fingers threatening to topple me, turn me into a timid rider, erupting into a terrified one on downhill slopes or uneven terrain. An erratic cadence and clumsy shifting broadcast my rookie status as a distance rider. My pale knuckles seize the handlebars, relaxing only when the pedals came to a halt and my feet touch solid ground.
We reach the first rest stop 17 miles from the start. Water, snacks and rest rooms await our arrival. Only a few of us are here, but the number increases rapidly as those from the initial pack arrive. I fall back on my practiced non-committal smiling as a primary way to interact. There are some friendly brief exchanges with other riders, but most seem to be traveling in familiar groups. I overhear stories of past trips similar to this one. Apparently this type of thing is a vacation destination. There is an older couple on a tandem bike, others on reclining bikes, a bike with a third wheel and extra seat for a young child, families with children on their own bikes and large adult tricycles. I had not imagined so many possibilities for participation.
So far-even with 500 riders-there has not been a crowd on the trail. This will be true throughout most of the trip, as I often find myself beyond eyesight of any other biker. I relax a bit in the ease of these periods of isolation, beyond judging eyes, alone but not lonely. I enjoy alone time, time to think without the need to carefully put words together to meet other’s expectations and needs. My ride share guy comes over to join my tent mate and I as he arrives close behind us. The two of them seem to have a lot in common and converse easily. I excuse myself and get back on the trail, knowing I will need all the time I can grab to get to today’s goal. They will either easily catch up or meet me there.
The trail is peaceful as it passes by fields and farmland. Overhanging limbs provide a shield from the hot sun. Parts are paved and parts are covered with crushed limestone that seems to want to direct my tires without my consent. Some of the trail follows the towpath used to drive mules as they pulled barges filled with people and/or goods along the original Erie Canal – started in 1817 and completed in 1825. Piles of large jagged rocks, called rip-rap, line sections of the shore to preserve it from erosion. At times the path runs so close to the sharp drop off I feel as if the rocks are magnetically pulling me towards them. One startle -an animal running in front of me or a speed biker racing by unexpectedly could lead to an abrupt swing of the handlebars, and I picture myself broken and bleeding on the rocks. Not a pretty thought. I move closer to the middle of the path. Others will just have to go around me if I’m going too slow!