After a frustrating summer of awkward kayak rolling lessons in a pool, I found myself in my truck driving back to Atlanta from the north Georgia mountains. I endured and suffered through a humbling day of achieving basically no balance in my kayak.
“How do you feel about your control of the kayak so far?” I asked my Swedish friend, who was riding with me back to the city and looked very comfortable and in control when she rolled in the rapids.
“I feel like I am starting to get it down,” she said.
She was indeed, but I most definitely was not. I had neither confidence nor was I enjoying my whitewater kayaking experience. My friend asked me how I felt, and that’s when I vocalized my moment of truth.
“I feel out of control and like I probably need to find another hobby,” I told her. We both laughed as we stopped for a burger at Hardee’s. My uncomfortable laugh really meant I wasn’t kidding.
Two weeks later I made a decision that would change the direction of my life. After watching another year of the Tour de France and the Belgian classics and meticulously reading about road bikes for a week, I found myself walking into a bike retailer in Atlanta. About 30 minutes later I walked out with a new pair of wheels, cycling shoes and a helmet.
That love affair with the bike began innocently. We should just leave out the part about the silly crashes while I was learning how to use clip pedals. I could not tell you the slightest explanation about echelons, chamois butter, optimal watts, compact gearing, musettes, gruppo compatto and the other mysterious lingo of cycling. All I could tell you is I knew I found my sport and had a lot to learn.
The love affair expanded to triathlon as I entered races in Chicago, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and other competitions across America. Once I figured out my open water swimming skills were painfully slow, I eventually came back to the simplicity of road cycling.
This weekend during a warm evening on a rural bike path in west Georgia — a humid kind of night in the Deep South during which you can ring the sweat out of your clothes — I reached a major milestone after 20 years of pedaling. Three bikes later and after riding all over the world, I passed 50,000 miles. It’s only a bit ironic because I have never put 50,000 on a single vehicle. I was trying to wrap my head around this distance, and it’s basically driving 19 times from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, or 26 times between London and Istanbul.
Since I began cycling, I have kept meticulous records of my rides each year. I have looked after my bicycles like some jockeys care for their stable of horses. I knew I would hit the milestone sometime during my ride on the Silver Comet Trail this weekend, and I didn’t expect it to be something memorable on a path I know so well. But after the ride, I was reflecting on why I ride, what I have learned and why it means so much to me.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
It’s one of the best quotes I have ever read about cycling. Whether I have been on a short or long ride, I feel refreshed, my mind clears and I feel rejuvenated.
Cycling is not an always easy sport. I have sweat, bled and suffered on rides, but I have also felt the exhilaration of cresting a summit, the competition of a Tuesday night ride, the camaraderie of a century or the connection to nature on a rural spin through the country.
Somewhere along the way, I have cycled in destinations I never dreamt I would pedal.
There was the afternoon ride with my brother cruising down the southern tail of Africa watching southern right whales jump out of the deep blue water as they rounded the Cape of Good Hope.
There was a record hot summer day on my first Cannondale rolling down Lakeshore Drive along Lake Michigan drinking in the world famous Windy City skyline during the Chicago Triathlon.
There was a chilly October morning crossing the Ambassador Bridge on the U.S.-Canada border into Windsor during the Bike the Bridge annual ride in Detroit, wishing that I had an extra cup of Tim Horton’s before the ride.
There was the time my brother, Dad and I pedaled down the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in Alaska, and I almost hit a moose around a blind bend on Knik Arm near Earthquake Park.
There was the beautiful countryside tour in the Czech Republic along the spectacular Vltava River near the historical Bohemian town of Český Krumlov.
There was that early morning where I descended 10,000 feet above the clouds from the top of Haleakalā volcano after a jaw-dropping sunrise above Maui. It’s the only time my brakes began smoking and I had to make a few stops to ensure I made it to the bottom in one piece.
There was a mesmerizing night ride through Kowloon peering at the skyscrapers towering above Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.
And there has been one of my favorite places to ride in the United States. Hardly no day can beat cycling above the clouds and the Golden Gate Bridge to the Presidio, before heading down through charming Sausalito along the bay to Tiburon on a perfect California day to catching a ferry back to San Francisco.
Add to this countless other pedals around Maine, Arizona, San Diego, New York City, Toronto, Victoria, B.C., München, Amsterdam and more. Through all these adventures, I gained a new appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us. More importantly, I gained an appreciation for living in the moment and being grateful for a wonderful day alive with good health to enjoy another ride.
Perhaps I learned the contours of the land better than I ever would have in a vehicle. I breathed in the crisp or humid air. I smelled my surroundings, from the coastal breeze of Coronado Island in San Diego to the chicken houses on Sand Mountain near Albertville, Alabama. I felt my blood pump through my body.
For all those moments, I was truly alive. The experiences were cleansing. I felt like my life was pure. I felt the equilibrium of my body, machine and nature.
And somewhere during this past weekend’s ride back in Georgia, it’s like everything came full circle.
As I crested a climb on the trail of a former railroad line as the sun set, my heart rate hit 160 beats per minute. I flew through an almost mystical swarm of fireflies like they were lighting the way back to my truck.
And as my GPS showed I reached the final mile, glowing eyes stared at me from the side of the road ahead. A solitary owl locked eyes with me and seemed to nod at me to keep going. He let out a hoot as I cycled by, almost like he was saying I made a wise choice to walk into that bike shop more than 20 years ago.
Some 20 years and 50,000 miles later, my body just wants to keep on going.