I used to be unbeatable on a bicycle. I was the Greg Lemond of southeast Iowa or at least that was how I thought of myself. When I stood up in the pedals, my biceps flexing underneath my Marlboro t-shirt, I was the god of the pavement and nobody, at least in my family could even come close to following in my slipstream.
In between the seasons of planting and harvest, weather permitting, my family and I would go for evening bicycle rides. Mostly on weekdays we would ride north to town and then north of town to an intersection with what we call the Lebanon road and then back home again with an extra spin through town on the way back called “scooping the loop.” All told, we would put about fifteen miles under our belts every evening. On the weekends, we often times extended our jaunts to forty miles as we road to the county seat for pizza or to go swimming or neighboring towns just to add miles.
In the early years, all this riding, some one thousand miles a year was in training for the Registers Great Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) that is held during the dog days of the end of July every year. In one week, upwards of fifteen thousand people from Iowa and across the nation would ride five hundred miles across a state that is anything but flat from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. But life has a way of changing and after a couple years of completing RAGBRAI, our family moved onto other pursuits. However, our bicycling never stopped. We still kept up our schedule of almost daily bicycle rides weather permitting.
After we scooped the loop in town and headed south the last three miles of blacktop home, things were different. The last three miles consisted of some rolling hills followed by a half mile straight away to the gravel road that leads to our farm. Gradually as we headed up the first hill into town the pace would inevitably quicken and a little jockeying for position would occur. My favorite position was in third behind my father and younger brother but that didn’t always work out. But you dealt with the cards given.
Down the hill and across the bridge over the Little Fox River we would fly carrying our momentum as best as we could up the next hill. We would tear past McLain’s place gradually stepping up the pace and swoop down into the valley through the ess curves by Ead’s and up the final two hills. On the final hills when the pace slowed to accommodate gravity, if you were an invisible fly watching three of us (my mom having long since faded back) pop the tops of our water bottles and after a final swig empty the remaining contents onto the pavement. This was serious business and all extra weight was off loaded.
Cresting the final hill, only a half-mile of perfectly flat blacktop lay between us and the gravel road to our farm. Here things got really serious and all talk or joking stopped. Just like an Olympic event, we would jockey back and forth trying to keep a good position but not expend all available strength reserves until the last minute. Lead man was never good because you were not only breaking the wind but also blind to what was happening behind you. Second was pretty good as long as the person in third didn’t blow by and battle it out with the first guy meaning you had to swing well left to get around both. Third was ideal because you had the element of surprise to both those in front of you and if you got around man number two, you could in essence block somewhat forcing them to expend more strength to take the long way around.
Air whistled by your helmet as you watched in front of you, your mirror and tried to listen for the ratcheting sound of a chain moving into a higher gear meaning someone was making a break for it. When that sound came, all hell broke loose. I would stand up in the pedals and quickly ratcheted through the gears as I pumped for all I was worth. Body moving opposite the swaying of the bike to keep the center of gravity somewhere close to the tire contact on the pavement, my breath would start coming is raspy grasps as my lungs strove to keep up with the oxygen demand of my legs.
I inherited my mom’s long legs. My father on the other hand had short more stocky legs and so I was able get more force into the peddles due to a longer moment arm (engineering term). My brother who also had the gift of long legs was just younger and not as developed. Thus I inevitably won, shooting past the gravel road and gliding as my now jellied legs limply hung onto the pedal clips and I focused on one breath at a time into my oxygen starved lungs. Momentum spent, we would turn around and slowly ride back to the gravel road where we would meet my mother and together ride the half-mile down it to our farm.
Somewhere along the line, probably through my mom’s old job at a t-shirt printing place, I inherited a Marlboro t-shirt and probably because it was like forbidden fruit in our smokeless house, it was my favorite. At the time, Greg Lemond was the king of the Tour de France and my inspiration. I rolled up the sleeves to accentuate my biceps and the logo was my jersey. Passing the gravel road, I was leading the peleton after a particularly grueling day in the Alps and that red shirt with while letters was my yellow jersey. I was the Greg Lemond of southeast Iowa and I was unbeatable… in my family.