The Mother Of All Tailwinds
By Joe Kurmaskie
Riding one hundred miles in under three hours on a bicycle is akin to breaking the three-minute mile on foot.
Maybe the pros do it all the time, but I’m not one of them so I wouldn’t know. If you don’t have a resting heart rate below 50 and a fat to body mass index of five percent, charging past the century mark in three hours is a pipe dream...
Monks could use the climb out of Yosemite as a form of self-flagellation. Once on top though, few places outside Vegas pay off as big. I pointed my wheels toward Pinedale and never looked back. Feathering the brakes as little as possible on a steep descent is a dodgy proposition. Pressing hard on luck, relying on muscle memory and the lines I was choosing down that mountain road resembled extreme downhill skiing.
I have no idea what it looked like from the cheap seats — a fully loaded touring bicycle and its rider blitzing off a mountain, leaning into the curves, defying gravity and common sense, yelping a primal howl into the morning light, but with 1,500 miles of West Coast up-and-down riding behind me, I was capable of doing things on a bicycle which would have me in traction if I tried them today.
One of the feel-good philosophers said that life’s a sliver of light between two infinities of darkness, and I say that within that, it’s a few precious moments of grace and daring that let us see it through and offer something beautiful to talk about in the closing scenes.
The downhill run off Yosemite makes my best-of list, hands down. Something unexpected happened at the bottom of that mountain. I didn’t encounter a series of rollers to break my spirit or throw off my rhythm, I didn’t change directions and head into the wind, I didn’t experience a slight tilting of the earth in favor of the away team. Instead, I kept going at a breakneck pace, aided by a slight downhill, something almost undetectable by the naked eye, and a tailwind that grew stronger as the miles dropped away.
When a gift as big as this comes your way you jump to it no matter what your body did the day before. Mine had climbed Half Dome and should have been putting up siren wails of protest, but my systems seemed to be on the same page as my desire. I ran through all the reasons to slow down, but came up wanting.
A spot of yellow in the distance kept growing until it became a school bus. I closed in on its back end the way a torpedo does in war movies. I assumed it was because the bus was making stops, but when I got close enough to see the faces of middle school kids in the very back seats I was doing 38 mph and the bus was rolling steady. That’s when they put up the sign. No, not the one that would have, by law, forced me to come to a complete stop — something I don’t think I could have done, either physically or emotionally. This was a handmade sign written in magic markers:
No More Teachers, No More Books!
Another popped up:
See You Next Year, Suckers!
And one more:
School’s Out Forever!
And then the one you couldn’t get away with these days, even in middle school;
School’s Been Blown 2 Pieces!
I did the math as I hummed Alice Cooper’s anthem to summertime anarchy, sung from coast to coast this time of year. It was indeed the last day of servitude and those signs were the smallest act of rebellion, maybe their first, hiding out in the back of a bus, showing off over the release from indenture just a few hours before it really happened.
Hell, what can they do to us now?
I gave them a nod and a smile as I got within spitting distance — it was like looking through a funhouse mirror back at my middle school self. I’d have bet the farm that half the bus was carrying silly string or cans of shaving cream, and that seeing a bike going 40 miles per hour in the sunshine of a June morning was a glimpse at what could be ... possibilities. Hang on kids, the world is waiting for you on the other side of the glass.
At first they were making faces and trying to be fierce, but once the sign holders saw that I was keeping up with their bus, their expressions changed.
Remarkable as it sounds, I began to overtake the rig, drafting it at first, ala that scene from “Breaking Away.” The sign makers were fist pumping me on to victory. Maybe it was when the rest of the busload of kids urged me forward with high pitched cheers and the lowering of those undersized windows, but I found myself halfway to the front mirrors, then even with the passenger door. Cheers grew as I gained ground on the front of the vehicle. In my mirror I saw children’s hands and heads wedging out the side window. The driver looked stunned. We made eye contact through the glass of the passenger door. I gave a little shrug and kept going. At least he had an answer to why his cargo had suddenly morphed into “Lord of the Flies.”
At some point the bus turned off highway 41, but not before I had a quarter of a mile on it. That should have been enough. I’d outpaced a bus for God’s sake, but it only fueled my need for speed. We’re not even talking about speed here, but a desire to break from everything that binds us to ourselves. I wanted to time travel, to find a place inside the ride that doesn’t exist anywhere else. World class surfers, when asked if anything compares to catching the perfect wave, have said they’ve felt the edges of it on long bike rides.
I put my head down and went all the way inside.
When I came out, my Cateye computer had clocked 102 miles. It was 10:20 a.m. I’d been at it for 2 hours and 57 minutes. My legs and lungs were brand new.
The silence by the side of the road felt complete. I looked back for the first time. A breeze blew hot on my face. The three-hour century was part of my personal history now. Done. The only part of it that would matter would be the memory of how it made me feel. I owned the stopwatch now.
There was a turnoff for a recreation area 200 yards back. I pedaled slowly at first, then something took over, I fought into the wind, stood and hammered to get my pace up before realization washed over me. I geared down and dug for it, struggling by the campground at under 10 mph.
Call me the king of pain, I’d decided to double down. A place 25 miles back had caught my eye in the split second it took to rocket by the first time — a place where you could pan for gold and sleep in a replica of a prairie schooner.
Speed is tricky. We try to harness it to serve us, to save us, but when we realize it has taken over the show, it’s often too late.
Those 25 miles ate up another three hours, but I’d be damned if I was going to put up a tent and call it a day at ten in the morning, not with wagons and the lure of gold waiting back up the road. Not with blacktop and daylight in front of me.
Besides, since conquering time and space, I set the pace from here on out, and do things that matter to me with the time that remains.
A Guide To Falling Down In Public: Stories of Finding Balance On A Bicycle, by Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie, will be available this summer (2012). Until then, you can see him at a King County Library show this spring and pedaling the roads between Seattle and Portland, covering a lot less than 100 miles in three hours.