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October 30th 2003
Published: October 30th 2003
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Every once in a while you meet someone who inspires you through their simple act of living. Today I had the blessing to meet two such persons- Mary and Dick Leuba, my hosts in Raleigh, North Carolina.

My ride through downtown Raleigh was predictably frustrating and circuitous as I tried to navigate through an unknown city center at rush hour. After two fire trucks and an ambulance had passed me on narrow one-way streets, a tour of the inner-city expressway and a desperate search for the next exit, I finally found myself riding up to a bungalow replete with solar panels and twelve inch tall yellow, hand-painted street numbers on the front door. I had just finished up a glorious 72 mile ride up from Fayeteville, North Carolina, powered by my girlfriend Jennifer’s delicious homemade powerbars. And while my spirit was ebullient, my body was less than energetic. As I rang the door bell wearing my black bike tight and a neon jersey, unzipped to the navel I couldn’t help but notice through the window the oversized canvas beach umbrella opened up over one corner of the living room.

A short but spry lady in her early seventies came to the door and announced something I rarely hear, “You’re right on time!” which was quickly followed up by the exclamation, “Oh my! Is that your bike?” Her voice betrayed that Mary, my host, was a fellow bicyclist.

A ramp had been built up one side of the steps to the front porch, and so I wheeled my bike up it while describing the single wheel trailer slung behind my bike and the “low rider” racks on the front of it. Soon Mary was regaling me with her own tales of cycling the length of Britain and through Africa. We discussed the hazards of acacia thorns and the character-building British rain. Mary told me that her husband Dick would soon be back on his bike from his daily swim at the YMCA. Although Dick had been riding his bike every day for over thirty hear, “he’s never really gotten into bicycling,” Mary confided.

Mary and Dick’s home was decorated in an eclectic mixture of recycled furniture and worldwide mementos that reflected a frugalness that funded their wanderlust. Opera played on the radio while Mary told me of staying at hostels during their annual trip to the New York Metropolitan Opera. The kitchen walls were decorated with stacks of empty Quaker Oats and Campbell’s Black Bean Soup cans, the byproduct of Dick’s consistent diet. “He never has to worry about what he’s going to eat,” Mary told me. Opposite the outstretched beach umbrella in the living room hung a roll-down map from a geography classroom illustrating Australia and southeast Asia. All around the house were pictures of Mary and Dick from their travels: atop a Swiss glacier, white water rafting in the Smokeys, at the Bay of Fundy in Canada. Framed certificates hung on the wall, testifying that just a few years ago Mary and Dick had hiked to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, and the dining room table was strewn with paperwork for their upcoming cruise through the Panama Canal. Dick was particularly excited to see toucans in the wild.

Dick had taught mechanical engineering at the university, and thirty years ago he had installed the first solar panels in Raleigh atop their house. The panels did not provide electricity, but rather supplied hot water. As Mary showed me my recently refinished room in the basement, she also pointed out my shower, where a conspicuous third water faucet bore the legend, “Turn On The Sun!”

Having spent many a day pedaling a bicycle, Mary could appreciate the ebullient endorphin peak that accompanies the exhaustion at the end of a day spent riding in beautiful weather through rolling hills in the first days of autumn.

I had left Fayetteville earlier in the day fifteen pounds lighter than I had arrived, having mailed ahead my camping gear to Atlanta. While the weight difference was not all that significant, I had lost perhaps 5% of the total weight of my bike, gear and person, my tent, sleeping bag and air mattrees had taken up 50% of my trailer. With such a dramatic loss of wind resistance, I found myself powering up the hills in the double digits instead of the single digits, and my descents were even faster as well. Several times I found myself exceeding my trailer’s maximum advised speed of 25 miles per hour by a good 40%. But with my gear distributed almost equally between my rear trailer and my low-slung front racks, my bike was extremely stable, even at 40 mph.

I grew up riding over the Green Mountains of Vermont, andso I have always found the hills to be far more pleasurable than the plains. The ride south across the Carolina sand “hills” to Wilmington covered some of the most scenically boring and monotonously flat terrain that I have ever encountered. One cotton patch looks like the next. One chicken farm smells like the next. One paper company pine forest looks like the next. One flattened possum smells like the next.

As I rode along Highway 24 through Fort Bragg (“Home of the Airborne and Special Forces!”) north of Fayetteville I was filled with relief not because I was safe and secure in the home of the brave, but because I had finally returned to the hills.

As a teenager growing up in Vermont I found a special thrill in descending the mountain roads in excess of the posted speed limits. While I never got ticketed for speeding, I most likely would have framed the citation and hung it on my wall: “Speed Limit: 35 MPH. Speed Observed: 47 MPH.”

In hindsight I can see that my parents were most certainly terrified by my exploits, but I never crashed on a descents, although if I had the results surely would have been catastrophic. At 40 mph lycra shorts and a Styrofoam helmet provide little protection against steel fenders and concrete pavement.

I was a bit of a purist in my youth, and rode my bicycle to the top of every hill before descending. Unlike some of my peers, I refused to toss my bike on the back of a car and get a free ride to the top. Gasping for air to ease the burning in my thighs, the first hundred feet over the top of a mountain pass were always sweeter for having been earned.

I boasted in high school that I knew of four hills within twenty miles of my home where I could hit 50 mph. When riding with my parents I would ascend the hills with them but as soon as we reached the top I would crouch down over my handlebars and barrel down the road as fast as I could, only slowing when I reached the bottom to wait for them. But regardless of how fast I pedaled on my way down or how low I crouched, I could never seem to break the magical barrier of 60 mph. I would watch with dismay as my bike computer would edge up to 55, 56, 58.5 mph, but never over 60. I rode to the top of ever steeper, ever higher mountains in hopes of reaching that special speed. I read of my cycling idols such as Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, who descended the Alps at 60 or even 70 mph.

It was not until after I had joined the Navy and moved to Virginia that I was finally able to catch up with my idols. One weekend I drove across the state to the Shenandoahs, and after riding fifteen miles along Skyline Drive atop the mountain ridges, I found a possible road dropping off the side of the mountain. The top of the road was plastered with warnings: “Danger. 10% Grade. Use Caution. No Trucks. Test Brakes Now.” I had prepared to fulfill my quest by installing an aerodynamic cover over my rear wheel spokes and pointing my set of narrow handlebars straight forward and flat ahead of me. On my descent I slid back and rested my chest on my seat with my hands stretched out in front of me to break the wind, my knees tightly clenched to my bicycle frame for more stability. All of my contortions were made in hopes of minimizing my wind drag as much as possible.

I was cautious on my first descent down the mountain, scouting out the road, looking for potholes, assessing the turns and noting the straight sections. Seven miles and at least a thousand feet lower, I turned around and ascended the mountain, which took me a good hour and a half. When I finally got back to the top and stopped to catch my breath I was dismayed to see a station wagon turn off of Skyline Drive and head down the mountain. The speed limit on some sections of the road dropped to 15 mph, and I didn’t want any obstructions ahead of me for the fast, straight sections. I especially didn’t want to be stuck behind an all-American behemoth of a station wagon like my grandparents had driven at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

I turned my bike downhill and sprinted after the station wagon. Within half a mile I had caught up with it and had caught the attention of the kennel of dogs in the back who bared their teeth through the open windows. But a friendly hand reached out of the driver’s door and flagged me to pass on by. With my wheels firmly set between the double yellow lines I gave the driver an appreciative wave at over 40 mph before swinging in front of him to avoid a pickup truck laboring up the hill. Before diving into a 90 degree turn I hit my brokes, and banked into the curve so tightly that I could have reached out and touched the pavement rushing by beside me. As soon as I was out of the turn I began pedaling for all I was worth as I looked down a straight half mile stretch of road. With my chest on my bike seat, my chin nearly touchin my handlebars and my arms stretched out ahead of me the wind gew to a roar in my ears and behind my sunglasses I though my eyelids would be ripped off. I looked down briefly to see that my bike computer was accelerating past 58 mph, and then I turned my attention back to the approaching hair pin turn. I held out for as long as I could before popping up in my seat to catch as much wind as possible and pumping my brakes before whipping into another curve.

A couple of miles later as I coasted along at a more sedate 25 mph I clicked on my bike computer to see that my maximum speed had been 63.7 mph! The wind dried out my gums as a grin glued itself to my face and I was filled with the rush of reaching a decade-old goal. I pulled to a stop beside a gurgling brook at a rest area and pulled out a camera from my seat pouch, positioned myself over my bike computer and snapped a picture to prove my exploits. As I was getting back into the saddle I looked up to see the station wagon coming down the hill, the dogs hanging out the windows and letting their tongues and ears hang out in the wind, and like them I never tired of feeling the wind in my face.

I’ve never ridden at such extreme speeds again, the single instance being enough to satisfy my longing after an admittedly artificial goal. I was, after all, just chasing after a manmade measure of velocity. And having broken my hip in an urban cycling accident, I know first hand the perils of crahing at even a third of the speed I attained that day.

But I still savor the bragging rights of mentioning in an offhand way, “Yeah, I broke sixty once…”


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