Serious road cyclists have a trick for boosting their spirits during steep climbs, headwinds, and lonely stretches of road. They belt out songs to the rhythm of the pedals. But as I crank north along New Mexico's State 41, a thin ribbon of asphalt beneath a cobalt blue sky, lines from my toddler's favorite Dr. Seuss book are keeping the pace: "We like our bike. It is made for three. Our Mike sits up in back, you see. We like our Mike and this is why: Mike does all the work when the hills get high."
Of course, the sleek aluminum steed I am riding in today's Santa Fe Century ― a 100-mile group ride held here in the high desert each May, with food and water stations along the way ― is built for one. When the hills get high―and they do get painfully so along several stretches of this course ― the guy doing all the work is me.
But that's why I'm wearing a huge grin. There's tremendous satisfaction in propelling yourself across great distances using nothing but your own legs. With a few pointers and the right gear, anyone can join the 15 million Americans now saddling up at least once a week and setting personal goals for fitness, mileage, and speed.
Hooked on biking
My own journey to two-wheeled bliss began in June 2003, when my wife and I sold our second car and I bought a sleek Marin Mill Valley (matte black). One of a new generation of aerodynamic, lightweight bikes, the Marin now takes me the 3 1/2 miles to the office, and home again, every workday of the year.
Geared up, with confidence and road-savviness growing, I soon began adding extra miles to my regular commute ― just for fun. Eventually, I made a decision to see how far I could push myself and my steed ― I signed up to reserve a spot in the Santa Fe Century.
Suddenly, the concept of commitment gripped me like handlebar tape. Though I've never considered myself a natural athlete, I work alongside some impossibly fit colleagues ― people who eat century rides for lunch and merrily tackle rolling Rocky Mountain group suffer fests with names like "The Triple Bypass." Having been "dropped" on a ride ― eft in the dust, panting and humiliated ― by coworkers my first week on the job years back, I came to the idea of group training rides with a certain amount of baggage. Less-neurotic types will probably want to hook up with a training club or biking group. Your town's bike dealers might even host a few weekly rides: Ask around to find a group at your skill level.
While I needed to work my way up to my endurance-cycling debut as a solo act (I did join an occasional weekend ride), the heart-rate-monitor-wearing buddies of mine did have one sage piece of advice: Book long hours in the saddle. Not to improve fitness, they said ― to harden your butt.
End of the century
Now, grinding into the last 14 miles of the century ride, that advice is coming back to me. Painfully. I'd intended to ride only the first quarter, just to get a taste of Tour de France-style peloton action. But those two-dozen miles soon turned into 50, and with a good tailwind here and there, I just kept on going, up hills, across vast plains, down miles-long descents. And now I'm done. Beat. Punched.
Then, just as I recite my Dr. Seuss mantra for the umpteenth time, divine providence arrives via the cell phone stashed in my jersey. It's my wife, who expected me home hours ago. "Where are you? Are you almost done? The kids are off the graph," she wails.
Dutiful father that I am, I flag down one of the Humvees patrolling the route, and accept a ride from a New Mexico National Guardswoman, who delivers me to the finish line. I'll never know if I could have finished the ride without a military extraction. But in my mind, 86 miles out of 100 translates to a letter grade this roadie convert can handle.
Weekend warriors hit the road on a training ride to strengthen legs, build endurance, toughen butts, and enjoy New Mexico's scenery.
Want to know more?
The League of American Bicyclists ( www.bikeleague.org) offers everything, including links to local clubs.
Zinn's Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips & Skill Building for Cyclists (VeloPress, 2004; $25), by Lennard Zinn, is packed with advice for novices, from basic home bike tune-ups to hill-climbing tips.