|Home | Classifieds | Mechanic | Links | Race Headlines | Features | New Books | Photos | Travel | Cartoons | OH-WV-PA Info | Site Map | Search | Contact|
By Jim Joyce
Something, somewhere, somehow was jabbing invisible knitting needles into my right knee. The joint hurt. Bad. I was becoming more and more convinced that I'd be walking with a permanent limp when this mistaken venture was all over.
"Hank," I finally said, "It's really killing me."
"Your first tour, right?" Hank said, calmly, not even changing cadence.
"Yeah, but I did do 50 miles a couple of times last week. And the week before, I--"
"It'll be alright," Hank said. "...Just keep riding...it'll go away...in a few minutes...you'll see."
Ten miles to go. We'd already done 68 into a headwind along flat-as-a-pancake Northwestern Ohio Farm roads. My shoulders, hands, and wrists just plain ached. But my knee really concerned me. And it was a real scorcher of a sunny, August day: The kind of day when road kill smelled like it was well done and ready to serve. Worse, the weather forecast called for more of the same.
"Uh, okay," I mumbled, thinking Hank was nuts. No, not nuts, but downright evil. For a second I saw red horns and a red tail swinging from his saddle. Get hold of yourself. This ride is 90 percent done. But what if I never ride again? What, finish on the first day of a six-day tour? Ain't gonna happen... I gotta finish this stinkin' ride. Hank must know he's talking about. But this knee...
"It'll go away." Hank added. "You'll work out that kink before long. Just stay with it."
"You really think?"
"Tomorrow, it'll be fine." Hank said. "You'll get stronger each day."
Who's he kidding?
"I'll take your word for it, Hank," I said, wincing. "But this headwind ain't helping!"
He smiled and laughed, having knocked off about seven hours of flat riding in 90-degree heat.
But that was pure Hank, my riding buddy and mentor 10 years ago on a well run but budget-minded, commercial bike tour across Ohio. (Hank's real name and the company will not be identified out of respect for his privacy.) I was in the last leg of Day One. Ahead of me were five days of touring at an average of 75+ miles per day. I was a novice long distance rider in my late 20s. I was sore and I was worried. Was I out of my element completely? Would I even finish the next two days? Would this end up as one embarrassing regret?
Not according to Hank. And he was right…about the knee and many other things that week. This fellow 12 years my senior made a real positive impact on me. We began the week as perfect strangers in a company van heading across Ohio and ended it as what I considered to be genuine friends.
Difference in Age and Wisdom
It seems Hank had left behind many bad habits that I still dabbled in, including staying up late, drinking too much beer, snacking on junk food, sleeping in, and looking for a party. I had no doubt that Hank had had his share of wild living. He had a sharp wit and a good sense of humor. He never preached, never wagged his finger. He simply preferred and practiced healthy living.
After a ride I felt like sneaking out for a couple of beers. Hank had a Diet Pepsi every few hours. That was his "splurge." While I was hoping to strike up a conversation with female rider or two in the evening--turned out we were all too exhausted--Hank phoned his wife at 9 p.m. sharp and never missed a night. In the morning, while I was frantically getting my clothes and stuff together for the day, Hank was patiently waiting and giving his bike or mine a quick tune up. One evening, a group of us strolling through a small town stumbled across an amateur theater company's free rehearsal of "Damn Yankees."
Afterward and for the next few days, Hank was heard to belt out a "Damn" good rendition of "You Gotta Have Heart," keeping fellow riders smiling.
"All days are good, some are even better," was his daily mantra, one I'd never really heard before but have never forgotten.
We rode. We talked. We rode. We talked. We downed a lot of water and food. We talked. Bike tour cyclists can really get to know each other after conversing through a few days of long rides.
"All days are good, some are even better."
Pasts and Presents
Hank's attitude and outlook were bright, though his life experiences were not always so. He almost dropped out of school, later serving in Vietnam. He'd logged one failed marriage and was now discussing the challenges of being a good parent to the daughter of his second wife. Many siblings of his huge childhood family no longer kept in touch. He had a little brother who had done time in prison and no longer informed Hank of his whereabouts. He had a good plant manager job--despite the lack of a college degree--but he never knew if and when his plant would close or if he would be transferred.
"I gotta make it to a 'chew out' session at the plant first thing next Monday," he said, next to the last day of the tour. "Yeah, every once in a while, they give me hell."
This was a high-pressure job, no doubt. And you could tell he wasn't looking forward to Monday. The sleep habits, the good diet, the humor, the routines, the fitness, the many other good habits--no wonder he was the plant supervisor. He could hack it. He knew how to live. I wouldn't doubt he was a religious man but he didn't wear it on his sleeve and would show it by example rather than by pounding his chest.
Like Hank, my life had had its share of ups and downs. Part of my booking this trip was to help put behind me a recently broken relationship and to help me decide if and how long I would remain in my present job and town. Funny how a good, tough, week-long bike tour can help to sort things out. Maybe it's the cadence and rhythm, or maybe the change of scenery. Most likely, it’s all that time--time just to talk and think. It’s time that is so scarce in our busy, everyday lives.
Cranking Away As Route Toughens
By the time Day Five arrived, I felt great and was on the top of my game. I couldn’t believe it. Hank was right again. Now I could easily hang with him and my youth began to give me a distinct advantage in climbing and endurance. Further, the route had become much more hilly, similar to my home terrain, and I was pumped. Hank, in turn, lived in a flat state and--though he liked a hill or two--was not pleased with a continuous supply of them.
Early in the morning of Day Six, our final ride, the staff informed us that the road-marking crew's measurements were fouled. The evening before each ride, they had painstakingly marked roads with spray paint arrows and charted the entire itinerary, day by day, along the state's backroads. Their work had been excellent, but this time they weren't sure because of some unexpected construction and faulty figuring. They said it would be probably be about 75 miles.
"All days are good, some are even better," said Hank as we proceeded to gobble down a hearty, filling breakfast, and then roll out of our campground.
Seventy-five miles? Ha! It turned out to be 90 grueling, hilly and hot ones. This day witnessed a role reversal of sorts in our partnership. After about 60 miles, Hank hit the "Wall," that mythical barrier that tells a rider he or she's just about out of juice. I was getting closer to my hometown and knew that it would level off somewhat, but not enough. I was worn but feeling good. Hank's head was hanging and he grimaced every time we came around a bend or crested a hill, only to discover another one standing right in front of us. And he was looking older to me, maybe not the whole 12 years my senior, but the forehead lines, thinner hair, the bits of gray frosting above the ears--the signs of middle age encroaching--were suddenly more pronounced. More pronounced, too, were his toughness and a vulnerability that I hadn't yet seen in him. But I never let on about any of this. After all, Hank was only human, a regular guy, and now I finally realized it.
"Damn, there's a lot of hills around here," he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. "Damn!"
It was hot. Real hot. The mercury climbed toward 100. The sky was clear but the air was dank like a bathroom after a shower.
We stopped a few times to just rest our legs. We drained our water bottles just minutes after refilling them. At a roadside fruit market, we chomped a few oranges for quick fuel and cramp prevention, then saddled up for the final leg of the route. Our town of destination, according to fellow riders at this stand, was somewhere between five and fifteen miles away. No one was certain. We hoped it was more like five.
It was 15.
We were both cussing and moaning as we began to think we'd never see the town where our cars lay idle for one week in a high school parking lot.
Until ... yes! We spotted the town's water tower, that triumphant beacon along Ohio roads that signals a town is within spitting distance. Our pace picked up. We looked at each other and shared grins of relief. We high-fived without swerving one iota.
Within a few minutes, we wheeled from farmland into the outskirts of that neat-and-tidy, proverbial Ohio town. By this time, we were hooting and hollering. We sped into the parking lot and dismounted. I kissed the asphalt of the lot. Hank chuckled and shook his head.
"We did it!" he said, "But this last day was hell. Real hell."
We each hit the rest room, splashed our faces, and then grabbed our gear from the company truck. Riders were trickling in. I felt like relaxing and taking my time since I lived only about an hour away. Hank, though, had to drive westward across a couple of states and had to prepare for the "chew out" meeting mentioned earlier. He needed to get going.
We exchanged business cards and home addresses, joked a bit and then shook hands heartily. Hank was looking fit as a fiddle again and the twinkle was back in his eye. I was glad to have been of help to him that day, encouraging him as he had me days earlier. I felt I'd grown immensely as a biker, and--pardon the cliche--as a person.
He bid farewell and sped off in his small pickup truck.
I never heard from Hank again. I meant to write him promptly, but lost his address in a move of my own. I finally located it about a year or so after the tour and fired off a card. The card was returned, marked "Addressee Has Moved, Forwarding Order Expired." I knew that he would get the same response if he had tried sending me a note.
Ten years have passed since that tour. I am just one year short of Hank’s very age on the trip. After the tour, I moved once again and, even later, relocated to another city, where I am now settled, happily married, and am living a lifestyle much like that of my old riding buddy.
Perhaps his plant closed. Perhaps he was promoted and transferred to another plant. Perhaps he opened a bike shop. Perhaps he's still tuning up neighbor kids' bikes, his favorite hobby.
Whatever you're doing, wherever you are, Hank, I'd like to say, "Thank you, my friend." And remember...
All days are good, some are even better.
Features | Crank On Home