On Top of the World (and Sweaty)

The other day, I was sitting at the paved summit of Lincoln Gap, sipping from my water bottle and feeling mighty proud of myself because I had just biked up there. I always feel like an ad for Gatorade when I reach the crest of the road on my bike. Without wanting to share more information than you need, I probably look like I have just emerged from a swimming pool.

Quickly I was humbled. Four men, including two who were roughly my age, coasted the last 20 yards into the parking area and came to a stop where I was sitting against a tree. They had just biked up the gap, too. In fact it was the third gap they had conquered that day and they said they had three more to go. They were biking the Brandon Gap, the Middlebury Gap, the Lincoln Gap, the Appalachian Gap, the Roxbury Gap and the Rochester Gap. I am always impressed when I meet riders conquering the six gaps. I’m not sure I could drive six gaps in a day. The odds of my someday biking them all between sunrise and sunset are only slightly better than my being asked by the Red Sox to join their starting pitching rotation or waking up one morning and discovering that I have Alec Baldwin’s hair. I have never in my life biked more than two gaps in a day.

And so I told the bicyclists that I’d need a Sherpa with oxygen tanks beside me, as if I were trying to reach the peak of Mount Everest, to bike the six gaps.

Serious cyclists always impress the heck out of me, in much the same way that marathon runners do. I am especially awed when the bicyclists have some lines on their faces and a little gray in their hair. I loved the story last month of the 80-year-old female bicyclist in Buerstadt, Germany. She was riding her bike through town and a 41-year-old bicyclist rode up beside her and stole her handbag from her basket. She pedaled after him as fast as she could, and when she couldn’t keep up she asked a driver to continue the chase. The driver did and the woman got her handbag back.

I don’t know which part of this story I like more: An 80-year-old woman still biking around town or the image of her riding fast and hard after the thief who has stolen her purse. My mother-in-law, who is now close to 80, still bikes around Manhattan’s Central Park, but she is an imperfect role model: She refuses to wear a helmet because she doesn’t like what a helmet does to her hair. (This has, for obvious reasons, never been an issue in my locks-challenged life).

I hope I’m still biking in 3½ decades. Good Lord, I hope I’m still standing in 3½ decades. Biking the Lincoln and Appalachian gaps is one of the most satisfying things I do with my life. The sad truth is that I was a pretty terrible athlete as a boy. I worked hard, but invariably I was among the last kids chosen for kickball in elementary school and the last boy in my circle to make the “majors” in our town’s Little League (One year I actually made the Little League all-star team as a pitcher and proceeded to allow something like 18 runs in my stint on the mound).

I was mediocre on the swim and diving teams, and the only way I was going to get off the bench on the high school football team was if a bus accident en route to an away game resulted in about 40 broken legs. Even when rain turned the football field to a swamp, the white pants of my uniform were blindingly clean.

And so I have no intention of giving up biking until my knees or my heart make me. I may not be a six-gapper. But I still savor the view from the summit.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 12, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.