I joined a few friends for a century (100-mile bike ride) this past Saturday. The following account of our adventure is exactly what happened… more or less.
5:40 AM. Saturday.
No sign of sunrise yet. The entire population of Atlanta is sleeping off a pile of bad Friday night choices. I turn left out of the neighborhood and head toward the freeway. I drive slowly, gingerly. I am ten minutes ahead of schedule, and without traffic, I find nothing to fight. The overnight snoozer is still spinning classical on NPR, so I opt for the company of a spoken-word podcast.
5:50 AM. Quiktrip convenience store.
Skipping a frosted doughnut cloister and opting for a banana. And some juice. And a prepackaged breakfast sandwich. I tell myself I made a healthy choice. I feel pretty good about that.
The podcast concludes. I have promised myself on many occasions that I would not fidget with my iPhone while driving. I tell Siri (the phone’s built-in software assistant) to play the next episode.
I conclude that Siri puts the ‘artificial’ in ‘artificial intelligence’.
6:30 AM. Silver Comet Depot Mile Marker 4; Silver Comet Trail.
Abdel waves to me as I pull my black Honda Element into a space. The sun is not up yet, and he is already his cheerful self. The day feels a little too long. I press my thumb into a pinched nerve where my neck and shoulder meet.
Abdel is making fun of my touring bike. “Oh man,” he sings in his diabolical Nicaraguan-American baritone, “You need to get yourself a REAL bike instead of that anvil.” Yes, my bike is a mammoth — a lovable, retro-pretty, comfortable mammoth with leather-wrapped bars, a contoured Brooks saddle and ride-all-day geometry. It’s basically a living room on two wheels. For the record, it is a Raleigh Sojourn — cream with brown accents — and we have been together for thousands of miles.
Ai-Ping arrives. Collected and calm as always. I ask him how he feels about the ride. He nods and half-smiles. “Looking forward to it.” He would.
7:00 AM. Mile marker 4.
Our prompt departure time comes and goes. Kyung’s bicycle has a flat. Technical issues happen. We shrug it away and swap out the damaged tube. She is jittery about riding 100 miles in one day. I give her the ‘it’s-all-cool-I-have-done-this-a-million-times-and-you-are-going-to-be-fine-it’s-all-a-mental-game-you-won’t-believe-how-fast-it-goes-by’ speech. I have ridden a century precisely once. Two years ago. I still vividly recall the blistering agony of that day.
7:40 AM. Mile marker 4.
Eight cleats clip into eight pedals. Four cranks make their first revolution of the day. Mile marker 54 feels vague and distant.
7:41 AM. Mile marker 4.02.
Kyung sends a distress call. Another flat. I run a fingertip over her wheel, which I notice is bent and has a jagged edge. With no possibility of making the repair, we leave a disheartened Kyung in the parking lot.
7:42 AM. Mile marker 4.2.
Ai-Ping asks about our plans for an average speed. We assure him we will choose a moderate pace; likely 14 or 15 miles per hour.
Mile marker 4.3. Abdel is in front. He is going 19 miles per hour.
7:53 AM. Mile marker 6.
We form a pace line and agree to take turns ‘pulling’ (pedaling in the front position, where there is the most wind resistance) for two miles at a time.
7:56 AM. Mile marker 7.
Abdel is in front. He is going 21 miles an hour.
7:59 AM. Mile marker 8.
My bike feels heavy. I begin to despise it.
8:35 AM. Mile marker 18-ish.
I remind myself to enjoy the pretty woods. “Nice tree” I say. “Nice pinecone.” “Nice stick over there.” “I like that tree too.” “Ooh, that tree is also a good one.”
8:48 AM. Mile marker 22.
Abdel is in front. He is going 23 miles an hour. I fantasize about a swimming pool filled with liquid Advil.
8:51 AM. Mile marker 23.
We ride onto a storied bridge called the Pumpkinville Trestle. The Silver Comet trail is a ribbon of asphalt that wends through rural Northwest GA, following a retired railroad for which it is named. The bridge at Pumpkinville is an original railroad facility that has been converted for bike use. And the view from this teetering treetop trestle tremors down my — hmm… looking for a body part that starts with ‘t’ to continue the alliteration.
8:54 AM. Mile marker 24.
Still trying to think of a body part that starts with ‘t’ for my alliteration. Toe? That doesn’t seem right. Tibia? Too scientific. Tonsils? …
8:57 AM. Mile marker 25.
I give up on the whole ‘t’ alliteration situation, and busy my mind trying to avoid the pine needles on the trail.
9:16 AM. Mile marker 30.8.
Still maintaining a blistering pace, we blast through a dank, echoey, eerie-in-a-cool-sort-of-way hole bored through the hillside under Brushy Mountain Road. This century-old railroad facility offers a tremendous and timely break from the wooded landscape and the thick, cool air quickens my senses.
Back in the daylight at the other end, we make our first break. I try to crack a stiff joint in my neck to no avail and have to settle instead for three Advil. And a Clif bar (chocolate peanut butter for those caring to know). And a GU. “What is GU?” you may be asking. Take the gray, pasty ‘perfect food’ that Neo eats in The Matrix, and add a tropical blast of flavor such as kiwi berry, and you have the basic idea.
9:35 AM – Mile marker 33.5.
The cocktail of Advil, Clif Bar, and GU proves a potent one and I start feeling sunnier. We pass Coot’s Lake, and I consider forsaking the ride in favor of a swim.
9:52 AM – Mile Marker 37.6.
We roll into the town of Rockmart and pause briefly for water. I point out the two-wheeled oasis known as Frankie’s Italian Restaurant, and I assure Ai-Ping and Abdel that the return-trip lunch stop at this iconic establishment will not disappoint.
10:00 AM – Mile marker 40.
The Silver Comet Trail leaves the railway alignment past the town of Rockmart, as the next segment of tracks is still online. What does this mean for the traveling three? The pavement meanders and curves more, adding much-needed interest to the monotony. But leaving the retired rail line means we face more natural terrain — translation: hills. Our small entourage slows its pace considerably.
10:25 AM – Mile marker 45.8.
We reach famed Grady Hill, the trail’s steepest and longest incline, which happens to climb right over an active landfill. The wind direction is aimed serendipitously from the heap toward our noses, and the vile bouquet encourages a taste of Advil, Clif Bar, GU, and stomach acid to revisit my palate.
Ai-Ping has slowed down considerably. I pretend that my reduced pace is for his sake. Abdel is a red and blue dot nearly a mile down the trail.
11:00 AM – Mile marker 51.4.
Once a passenger station on the Silver Comet line, the Cedartown Depot is now a haven for bicyclists, offering a spotless restroom, chilly water fountains, and a staffed, pamphlet-laden information desk. We three bicyclists decide to press on toward our ride’s halfway mark, make the u-turn, and return to the depot for a longer break.
11:12 AM – Mile marker 54.
We have pedaled halfway to our goal of 100 miles, unceremoniously arriving at a rural street crossing on the outskirts of Cedartown, and incidentally, civilization itself. The only evidence of inhabitation we see is a prefab single-wide proudly flying the Confederate stars and bars above their front step. Our diverse cycling contingent decides to get the heck out of there.
11:24 AM – Mile marker 51.4.
Back at the depot, we remove our gloves and helmets and amble over to a street-side Mexican market in search of a snack with a main ingredient other than ‘technology’. My job is watching the bikes while the other two make their purchases.
Ai-Ping returns empty-handed and looks a sad combination of disheartened and slightly green. Abdel reappears with a styrofoam plate heaped with a substance that looks considerably like many of the various steaming piles peppering the rural portions of the Silver Comet.
“It’s Pork,” an enthused Abdel declares, “Mmm, I LOVE it!” Ai-Ping and I notice not one, but three forks sticking into the rounded meat pieces. I prepare myself for the worst and am delightfully shocked by the perfectly seasoned meat that seems to shred at the slightest touch of a fork prong.
We devour the platter of tender carnage and lick the dregs off our fingers before heading back to the bikes. Abdel, our resident Energizer bunny, downs a Red Bull. I quietly groan as I consider this shot of caffeine coursing through the veins of my unstoppable friend.
11:38 AM – Mile marker 47.
We pass a church that has graciously installed a full court basketball field for its community to enjoy. In its entirety, it is roughly the size of a driveway, and a ball can easily be sunk into either basket from anywhere on the asphalt.
11:48 AM – Mile marker 45.
There is a bull on the side of the trail. It has escaped its fence, and no one (including a pair of police officers) know what to do. Ai-Ping snaps a photo of me in front of the massive animal.
12:20 PM – Mile Marker 37.6.
Back in the town of Rockmart, we wheel over to a bike rack painted in Italian livery. I have been looking forward to lunch at Frankie’s for nearly 70 miles. I remind myself that I have to carry whatever I eat in my gut for another 30. This self-supplied sage wisdom vanishes as the first basket of breadsticks arrives at the table. We stuff our cheeks full of these chubby, chewy, garlicky carb spears and wash them down with gallons of cola and lemonade. I select a baked rigatoni, while each of my friends orders a calzone.
The platters arrive, each one seemingly bigger than the next. The calzones have roughly the mass of a human head, and in addition to a side salad, the rigatoni comes with a free zip code.
We eat it all. Whoopsie.
1:30 PM – Mile Marker 37.
Our pace of 10 miles an hour takes great effort. I ponder how I will word the ‘touring bike for sale’ ad I will soon post on CraigsList. A box turtle headed toward Atlanta passes us on the left.
2:50 PM – Mile marker 20.
We eventually find our legs again and work our way up to a 16 mile-per-hour pace. The scenery is strikingly familiar, even in reverse.
3:00 PM – Mile marker 18.
Ai-Ping recognizes a friend riding in the direction from whence we came. He accepts his friend’s offer to pedal together toward Coot’s Lake, adding considerable miles to his journey. For the first time since meeting Ai-Ping, I question his intelligence.
3:50 PM – Mile Marker 5.
One mile to go. I remind myself that biking is fun. This doesn’t work.
Back at the car, I melt into a pile on the asphalt. I am stretching my legs and rubbing my neck. Abdel grins ear to ear and asks when we are going to ride another century. I think he is doping.