By William C. Fischer
Today, on Memorial Day, I bicycled fifty-six miles with my friend. We have been biking and skiing together for over fourteen years. I’m fifty-four, he is fifty-one. We have seen our children grow up, our marriages grow full, and our bellies grow large – that is why we started to bike. We have shared success and failure. We have enjoyed thrills, suffered pain, and experienced terror together. We constantly butt horns with the simple buoyant rivalry of friends. We goad and tease and challenge each other to the limit. We have crashed more than once. We have bounced over, frothed under, cascaded through and survived thirty miles of class five rapids on the Gaulley River. We’ve caught huge salmon together on Lake Ontario. He has watched helplessly as I tumbled out of control down nine hundred vertical feet on a double black ski slope in California. Okay, I admit it, that one scared me a little. He once jumped out of a plane with a parachute. I didn’t. There are limits as to where I will follow him.
When you are biking, you can go a lot farther and a lot faster with a friend than when you go it alone. But that is true of life generally. Last week we biked from Deposit, New York to Walton and back. Twenty-four miles of State Route Ten wind along the shores of the Cannonsville Reservoir, which provides water to New York City. But the City was far away. We saw a Golden Eagle, a Bald Eagle and an Osprey. Like fingers clasped in silent prayer, the fresh green hills fold into themselves and roll along for mile after beautiful mile. By the time we got to the diner in Walton I was so pumped that the men’s room mirror steamed up as I stood before the urinal. I laughed out loud at the thought. It felt great to be alive, and I am privileged to experience these things with my friend.
Today we drive to Candor, New York, park the car and stretch our reluctant muscles. I have just bought a new biking shirt in expectation of the ride. It is black and white and royal blue, with a red collar and piping. There are bold challenging words written across the shirt. They shout macho things like TREK and POWERBAR! It is just eight A.M., and the village begins to stir as we head west on Route 34. The whole weekend threatens rain, but it will hold off today until we return four and one-half hours later.
The road is smooth and flat, with wide shoulders. It winds through quiet woods and farm fields full of late spring blossoms. Ten miles – thirty minutes – we’re at Spencer – good start. We head west again on Route 224. This remote narrow valley curves along the Cayuta creek, the pavement is fresh – very fast – no traffic. We pound out the miles like the hammers of hell. The air is sweet. Breathing is easy now; we’ve only gone seventeen miles. It will change. The tires hum, the spokes whir, the miles peel off beneath our wheels. The green fields float by at the pace of dreams. Every now and then our derailleurs click almost in unison as we change gears for a small hill. I am reminded of how the prairies moved past the chugging train in old cowboy movies we watched as children. That was a long time ago. We don’t talk; we don’t need to. We’re comfortable in each other’s company and silence is comfortable too. We do talk though, about work, life, money, sex, fears, and other secret stuff.
Usually we’re pretty evenly matched, but today he’s falling behind a little. His hamstring is tight. He’s no quitter though; this guy is as tough as a conch. I’ve seen him cry openly; it was a movie about Vietnam. He’d been there and lost some friends. Survivors always feel guilty. We won’t be at the curb to watch the parade today. We’re out here. They would want it this way, and we remember them.
We pass a small country diner on the roadside. Frying bacon smells good, but the thought of grease is repugnant. We’re pushing along at twenty-two miles per hour. It feels great to be alive. Like two ducks flying low, we are in perfect rhythm. Ninety strokes a minute, cadence, mantra, whir, hum, and the miles peel off behind us. At 32 feet per second, the leading edge of my front tire is rolling downward toward the pavement less than six inches behind his upward rolling rear wheel. If our tires touch, each will violently brake against the other and we’ll both go down – hard. We’ve done that.
Tic-Toc, Tic-Toc, my father died at fifty-eight from a heart attack. Thump-bump, thump-bump, so did my grandfather. The miles peel off behind, and the trip gets shorter. I have an optimist’s faith in my cardiologist. It springs from deep in my heart where the burn marks from five electro- cardiac shocks hide. He is good doctor and a very good man. My father would say it is not so important what a man does, but how well he does it. Tic-Toc. Tic-Toc. The crocodile of death lurks in the shallows, but he is asleep today.
Suddenly, in the field on the left there are two beautiful horses, a black gelding and a white mare. Their ears pick up and their heads rear back, with nostrils flared, trying to get our scent. Do their primal instincts say that we are wolves closing quickly for a kill? But we don’t lope like predators, and they relax. I whistle to them and slap my leg, beckoning. Amazingly, they respond. The four of us race along toward the barn at the end of the pasture. It’s a hoot. We pump the pedals furiously trying to outrun the horses, but it is no contest; they canter casually to the barn and stop as we spin past. My friend laughs.
Animals pose a special danger to cyclists. I remember the day, some six years ago, when a collie burst suddenly from the hedgerow on my right, his herding instinct pushing him to intercept my lead bike. Our sons were riding with us that day as we rounded a downhill corner to the right. I locked up the rear brake and laid hard on the front, but I couldn’t stop. The front tire hit the dog squarely in the left flank. I’m going over the handlebars in slow motion, but I can’t get my feet out of the stirrups. The road is coming up fast, and I brace my right forearm across my face to shield my head. The asphalt is hard, and I hear a loud snap, the distal end of my clavicle exploding off the right shoulder. The twisted bike is tumbling into the grass. I’m stunned and in the road. I roll and crawl toward the bike, afraid of following traffic. My son is quickly by my side. He tries to hide the concern in his face. “Don’t move dad, there is a bone sticking out of your back.” “I’m OK” I say, “I’m OK”, more hopeful than sure. I’m in shock and he asks why I don’t’ cry. “Pain doesn’t make you cry,” I tell him, “People make you cry.” My friend calls my wife from the emergency room. He’s laughing into the phone. “He’ll be OK” my buddy assures her, “He only blew the clavicle off his shoulder; but you should have seen the crash, it was spectacular!”
As I rouse from this reverie, we arrive at Alpine Junction and turn north onto Route 13, a state highway that will take us to Ithaca. Sweat pours into my eyes from the bandana beneath my helmet. The growing bald spot on the back of my head prickles as the sweat dries. My nose is running. This is a very fluid sport. There is a convenience store at the junction. We stop and drink Gatorade, eat PowerBars and use the men’s room. I left my wallet in the car. He buys. We don’t keep track. We check the map and the other guy’s bike, and ask each other how we feel. “Great,” we assure each other, but my ass is beginning to get sore, and we’re only halfway through the trip. We both know about the hill ahead that we must ascend out of Ithaca.
Back on the bikes, we spin up again and settle down into a steady rhythm. Cadence, mantra, whir, hum, the wheels go ‘round and the miles spin off, but more slowly now. I can’t get comfortable on the seat. We know that spending too much time in the saddle can crush sensitive nerves. That is a concern.
Five more miles to the covered bridge at Newfield. Farm country in upstate New York during early summer. This place is right out of an advertising campaign. As if from a Wyeth print, a lovely old threshing barn appears on our right. It is well kept and surrounded by a stone stockade. The banner painted on the gable end proclaims “A.D. 1882”. I wonder about the men who worked that farm, and the pace of their lives, about their dreams and expectations.
I think about my brother and sisters who grew up here and moved away. They often tell me how they long for the green hills. I miss them deeply. We are all growing older now. My brother still smokes. I know what will happen as surely as I know about the hill waiting for us in Ithaca. One of my sisters persistently professes the goodness of God. How could anyone seeing the ordered chaos of this beautiful place disagree?
Paradoxically, the contact patch of a tire remains motionless against the road surface, even as bike and rider hurtle forward in a harmonic ballet danced by Inertia and Momentum. While Torque is induced by Precession, Weight hangs gracefully in the arms of Tension as Speed gives lift to Balance transcendent.
Because Nature has provided it with binocular vision, the predator can instinctively calculate the vector necessary to intercept its prey. Yet only man can contemplate the relationship of geometric shapes in the abstraction of his mind. Bicycles are formed of triangles and circles, two perfect shapes. Three points not on a straight line define the legs a triangle, while the intercept of the perpendicular bisectors of any two legs will also define the center of a circle that will pass through those same three points. Do these facts postulate the existence of God? If so, is the existence of man requisite to that inquiry? How could my sister possibly be wrong?
The sun is out! We are at the top of a long grade. Abruptly, the earth drops away on all sides. We can barely see sailboats on the glimmering waters of Cayuga Lake seven miles out and eight hundred feet below. The yellow sign says, “Trucks use low gear – hills for the next 2 1/2 miles”. The view is incredible. Ithaca College is several miles away on the hilltop across the valley. The stone of Cornell’s McGraw Clock Tower appears blue in the distance. The endorphins kick in and a rush surges through me. I scream and whoop and pump my fist in the air. We throw the bikes into high range and plunge into the drop. The speed picks up quickly, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, thirty-eight miles per hour. The wind whips at my face, and I squeeze the brakes carefully to keep the speed under forty. I’m glad that my tires and wheel bearings are new, and that my chain is tight. One hundred and twenty-eight gear inches at full throttle. That’s a momentum of over twelve thousand foot pounds per second riding on two square inches of rubberized Kevlar. A crash at this speed would be disaster. Sometimes I wonder which one of us will die first. I hope my buddy buries me. I don’t like that kind of pain.
We coast to the bottom and slip past the entrance to Robert Treman State Park. We’ve come here often to picnic with our families and other neighbors. It was a good time for our children growing up. Close friends, good neighbors, and no divorce. Every mother looking out for the welfare of any kid in the bunch. Beaver Cleaver stuff. The wives made that happen. My youngest is twenty today. She is a beautiful young woman. Where did the years go? Two miles more and we’re at the entrance to Buttermilk Falls. Bumper stickers extol “Ithaca is Gorges”. It is true. A geologist once told me the Finger Lakes radiated as cracks from a meteor impact at the middle of Lake Ontario. The glaciers came much later. This place is ancient.
We cruise into downtown. There are three colleges here. Look at all these pretty co-eds. Yeah, sure- as if! They no longer look back. We have a decision to make. Stone Quarry Road climbs back up to the ridge along Route 96 South. It is half as long but twice as steep; we are getting tired now. We choose the longer route. What coasts down must grind up. There is no way out of this without pain, and we know it. A Marine Corps drill instructor once showed me that toughness is a quality of the mind. But Parris Island was thirty-five years ago. I know my friend won’t quit until we get to the top. I feed off his tenacity. “I can do it”, I tell myself. I’m not going to let him down. Our minds get right. We hunker down on the drop hooks and settle in to mash gears up a long hard pull. The derailleurs click down, click down, and click down again, down to the lowest gear. The first half-mile is the steepest. It is just below the entrance to Ithaca College. My friend and his wife sent their son to that college. It was expensive; maybe more than they could afford. I know how hard they worked and saved to make that happen. “That is a beautiful campus,” he croaks out, panting for air. “Money well spent,” I respond, barely able to whisper. Our throats burn with thirst, but we can’t afford now to reach for a water bottle. We need to pull up with both arms and force the front foot down. Left, right, left, right. Slower cadence. Just keep the momentum going. Don’t stop. Don’t stop or else. Or else the whole trip behind us is just a sham. This is where it really counts.
Soon we are passing the entrance to the college, and the grade breaks off just enough to let us take full deep breaths. Two more miles to go uphill, but we know we can make it now. That thought alone somehow brings new strength back to wobbly legs. Up we go, up into the hill country again. Past the old farmhouse restaurant and the French country inn. Up above the lake toward the scudding clouds. Look to your right! On a hilltop even with us now across the valley, there is a barn roof glinting in the sunlight against a patch of purple sky. We were there ten miles ago. There are still eighteen miles more to go before we get back to the car. But we know we have won this battle. It is mostly flat or gradually downhill all the way back.
We stop under a shade tree, eat another PowerBar and let the sun soak in. It feels delicious. Thunderclouds are rolling ominously around us. We have played dice with them all morning and we have won. It doesn’t matter if it rains now; nothing can stop us from getting back.
We slide quietly back into Candor and across the bridge below the old millpond. The car is six blocks down Academy Street across from the school. My buddy takes off in one last desperate sprint, hamstring be damned. I am content to spin down, take my hands off the bar, sit back in the saddle and watch him fly down the street – toward what? Toward the car? I don’t really think so. Have we been racing toward something or away from something? Are we chasing it, or is it chasing us? I’m not really sure. In any event, we have come full circle and are back where we started. But we are better for the effort.
Another strand of shared experience has been woven into a cord of friendship that spans more than twenty years. I love life, I love biking and I love my friend. But guys who eat PowerBars don’t say things like that. Do they?
Mr. Fischer, a husband and father of four, has been a United States Marine, a biology researcher of wolves in Alaska, a janitor, a car salesman, a field engineer and a New York state trooper. When not on a bicycle, he is self-employed as a forensic consultant specializing in homicide investigation, accident reconstruction and police procedure, having testified in several hundreds of cases as an expert witness. He was successful in petitioning the State of Pennsylvania to protect the pristine twenty-six square mile watershed of Silver Lake from the ravages of gas exploration, and he has authored a number of white papers on environmental protection and several technical papers.