Riding On
By Tim Butterfield '12, Staff Writer
I started cycling last summer. Three or four times each week, I’d hop on my silver commuter and bust out my favorite 22-mile route: the axis road all the way to Clayton, Clayton to Geyer, Geyer to Manchester, Manchester to Ballas, then back onto Clayton and all the way back home in Missouri.

Riding so often gave me the experiences I needed to learn about a sport I had no background in. A second-degree sunburn taught me the ways of smart sunscreen application. A flat tire 10 miles from home taught me to carry repair tools at all times. A perpetually sore derrière convinced me to invest in a pair of cycling shorts. And what happened on Aug. 22, 2009, was something I never saw coming.

I woke up at 5:15 a.m. for the big ride. After a full summer of covering more than 20 miles regularly, I was hoping that I’d be ready for a much longer distance. Thus, I’d mapped out a 60-mile route that would equate to the cycling portion of the half-Ironman distance. This was nearly three times more than longest ride I had ever completed, but I wanted to give it a go.

The plan was to start from home at 6:20 a.m. I would pedal a 38-mile loop that would bring me back to my house for a short pit-stop. The remaining distance would be accumulated as I rode my typical 22-miler. I had the locations of each 10-mile split written down on an index card with my expected times besides them. Thirty minutes was the fastest I wanted to go for each 10-mile increment, but I was willing to settle for 45-minute splits, just in case the ride turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated.

Mom and Dad were up for the start of my ride, before the sun was fully up. They snapped a few pictures, copied down my expected times so that they would be ready for my brief stop at home after 38 miles and sent me on my way with encouraging smiles on their faces.

I was astonished at how effortless those first 38 miles were. The only challenge I felt was restraining myself from going as fast as I felt that I could go. There was simply no way that I could have gone my usual pace for a distance as long as I was aiming for, so I forced myself to keep a careful eye on my index card and the timer on my watch. Obedient to my plan, I hit my goal times, averaging approximately 30 minutes for each 10-mile segment of the ride.

When I arrived home after 38 miles, my parents and sister were waiting for me on the driveway. I told them that I was feeling great, enjoying the beautiful morning and would be back after completing the final 22 miles.

I coasted downhill out of my neighborhood and turned onto the highway’s axis road. This was a gradually increasing uphill portion of pavement that was always pretty challenging, but nothing that I’d ever legitimately struggled with — until that moment. To my horror, I felt my legs turn to jelly, and only the lowest of gears offered me some relief in my painful effort to ascend. I was shocked at how suddenly this change had come over me, as just 10 minutes earlier I had been cruising along with what felt like unlimited energy.

Let me try to explain the general feeling of my next several miles. If you’ve ever “hit the wall” on a long run, ride or swim, then you know what I was going through. If you haven’t, just imagine that you’re doing a difficult activity (usually something physical like working out, or perhaps even like studying or acting polite at a social gathering) for a prolonged period of time (I was over three hours at this point) when suddenly, you feel like you can’t go any further. The only way to get through it is to believe that you’ll eventually feel better and, even if you don’t, that your goals are worth pursuing until you fall unconscious to the pavement.

So I pedaled onward at a snail’s pace. Cyclists cruised past me with no effort at all, giving me sad glances out of the corners of their eyes. (They were on road bikes, which would have made a 60-mile ride significantly more manageable.) I dropped from three-minute mile pace to roughly six-minute mile splits, and I wanted nothing more than to fall asleep on that bicycle seat and drift into relieving slumber.

After 50 miles, I cruised through a stop sign that I had ignored all summer long. But, of course, this time proved to be very costly. Seconds after I passed the sign, a hidden police car sounded its sirens, flashed its lights and had me, a recreational cyclist, pulled over on the side of the road. I stopped my watch.

Exhausted, I sat on the side of the road as Officer Timothy Duda of the Lindbergh Police Force sauntered over to me.

“You know you just ran that stop sign?”

Shaking my head, I stared at the grass. I completely lacked the strength to speak to the officer or look him in the eyes.

“Well, you did. I’ve been warning cyclists like you for the past two days about this, but I’m not messing around anymore. I’m going to have to give you a ticket. That means points on your license and hikes in your insurance. License, please.”

I complied in silence, waited to receive my ticket and then took off again, feeling a million times worse than I had a few minutes ago. But I knew I had to finish the ride — it was my main goal from the start. Starting the timer again, I continued forward, dying a slow death but eventually reaching the end of my ride in three hours and 50 minutes.

Getting off my bike, I laid down in the grass and ate a banana. As I began to think clearly again, I pulled the ticket out of my pack and recalled the situation. It seemed unfair to me. How could I get points on my driver’s license when I’d been on a bicycle?

However, not even the police incident took away my feeling of accomplishment. I’d done something extremely challenging and come away from it with a new story to tell. The desire to finish my ride had far exceeded my interest in the way my body felt or the limiting situations occurring as I went. My need for speed had conquered my care for the law that morning. The physical triumph mattered so much more than the money I ended up paying to take care of the whole legal mess.

Set your own goals, folks, and don’t collapse on the grass until you’ve reached them. Pedal on, my friends.

Issue 23, Submitted 2010-04-21 03:57:24