The grass was heavy with dew in the half-light before dawn. The tent fly sagged, sodden, and the bicycles were dimpled with droplets. We wore high rubber boots as we walked across the field, kicking water off the wet grass. The sky to the east was showing light. There was the feeling of autumn in the air.
It was chilly, mid 30s, and I’d not slept well in the lowering temperatures. Now I walked, bleary-eyed, to the big tent and breakfast and hot coffee. There was a small-town coffee roaster from central Wisconsin there. He’d named his coffee brand after his grandmother, Ruby: Ruby Coffee Roasters. He offered fresh-brewed coffee and we talked of his grandmother who lives in Gleason. His coffee was very good. Fortified more by the coffee than the breakfast we were ready for the day.
“There were no adrenaline-fueled speed junkies driven by fast times. This was laid back, a celebration of riding culture.”
The sun broke the tree line and the world came alive with early morning light; the dew reflected as if sparks of light had fallen to ground. There were dozens of tents and hundreds of bicycles and now people, walking slowly, quietly, in the early morning light.
In my world I see bicycling as a solitary pursuit, done when I want to do it, at a pace I enjoy, on a route that I choose. I rarely ride with others. Yet were I to call up a handful of favorite rides one of them would be a group ride. A dozen years past. We were staying in Bend, Ore. and a cycling shop sponsored a ride for a few dozen employees and friends. I got an invite with a dear friend. We loaded bikes in his pickup and drove to Crater Lake. The group would ride the road that circled the lake.
The few dozen cyclists went their own ways and we soon came down to a few riders, my friend, a couple more. Old guys. Riding steady. We rode into the thin air under blazing July sun past remnant patches of snow. I don’t know how long it was; 25 miles, maybe more. I don’t know how long it took us; time had no importance. I just know it was a ride rare and wonderful.
The next day I watched the Tour de France on Bastille Day and in the afternoon Sally and I got married. Sally, to this day, refers to the ride as my bachelor party.
This day, a group ride. We were at the Salsa Bike Camp, put on by Salsa bicycles, delivering a mix of rides and camaraderie as a few hundred riders descended on a field just outside of Cable. This was no race camp. There were no adrenaline-fueled speed junkies driven by fast times. This was laid back, a celebration of riding culture.
Sally went off on her own for a fly fishing workshop to refine basic casting technique. She loaded fishing tackle, rods and waders into a backpack and bicycled a few miles to ply the area waters. The last I saw her was as she pedaled past where I stood with another group waiting for our ride.
Our ride was 70 miles on mostly gravel roads. There were 14 of us. We loaded bikes in a van, riders in a bus and drove to Cable. There we posed for a photo in the warming sunshine and, at 10 a.m., set out.
It seemed, back in June when we registered, a simple task to prepare. Ride the bike consistently, increase the distance gradually, let things go as they would and, come September, be ready to go 70 miles. Piece of cake.
You know the summer we had. All those days of rain and cool? Those miles I’d planned? Didn’t happen.
I rode, don’t get me wrong. A 35-mile loop; a longer one at 42 miles. I rode those. But not often enough. A week prior to the ride I planned a longer one, a confidence builder. I rode 60 miles.
I’ve never cramped up so bad in my life! My legs locked up in knots and I could not walk for hours after the ride. Confidence builder? Not quite.
So it was with some trepidation that I mounted the bike Saturday, 70 miles ahead of me. We rode 25 miles or so at a steady pace, visiting among ourselves. It was pleasant as group rides can be. We stopped at a diner for snacks and I ordered a sandwich. Then we got back on the bikes.
I do not ride well on a full stomach and now I had a full stomach. My legs were tight and weak; I broke a hard sweat. It is not that I should know better, it is that I do know better. I lagged and I struggled. I cursed myself for my stupidity.
It got better over the miles. I recovered some. I held my own. I rode, chatted with other riders. It was a group ride and it was a good time.
There is a truth to all long distance sports: You reap what you sow. If you do not do the miles in training you will not have the legs when you need them. I’d not done the miles. Now I paid the price.
It was not an easy route. The old fire lanes undulated over the Wisconsin backwoods and my mind went to the Birkebeiner, run nearby. The same rolling countryside, the easy parts and the difficult parts. The hills late in the event that sap what energy you have remaining. This ride, this had all that. It was a good, hard, honest effort.
I was not a picture of grace and strength on the final hills over the last few miles, but I pushed on. And in that, in the not quitting, I took some satisfaction. That, in the end, is what it is all about: Taking satisfaction in what one does. That, in the end, is what unites solo rides and group rides. In that satisfaction lies the common ground.