In which I get half-lost in Ulster County, and stirred by cyclists in Rwanda

I’m not known for getting up very early on Sunday mornings (or any morning, for that matter.)  Yet I went up to Poughkeepsie earlyish this morning (for me) to do a little volunteering for a good cause – Blue Belt Janicik, a bicycle safety awareness campaign put together by the family of a local airman, who was killed riding his bicycle near his base in Texas in 2008.  Please don’t think it sprang out of these noble impulses that I’ve now got to boast about.  I belong to a nearby triathlon club, which asks its members to volunteer at a couple local events a year; I needed to check one off, and the date worked for me.

That said, I was happy to be there doing something (or looking like it, anyway).  The story behind the Janicik cause is both heartbreaking and horrifying to me.  I spend a lot of time on my bicycles, commuting, training, or just plain riding around.  Bike culture has drawn me further and further in over the years – and this month especially, when (like every July, going back to pre-Lance days) I get absorbed in watching the Tour de France.  I’ve never been a competitive bike racer, though I had a intense yearning to do so when I was a teenager (and I’m still a little sad I didn’t find a way to put myself through that punishing training then.)  I just rode a lot, miles upon miles through the summers.   Memories of 14-15 year old me careening down two-lane no-shoulder windy Connecticut roads, on a rarely-maintained Sears bike and (of course) no helmet chills me nowadays.  I never wrecked – not that I can remember, anyway – and for that I’m thankful and probably quite lucky.

The more often I get out on my bikes nowadays, the happier I am.  Yet it’s still a somewhat dangerous pasttime/hobby/way of life, as my own good sense and groups like CARD tell me way too often.  A lot of people are getting hurt or killed on the roads.  It’s preventable.  I don’t want to stop and I don’t want to get hurt.  So whatever little bit I can do for the cause of bike safety and advocacy, I tend to do.  Let’s just say there’s some self-interest there to go with the ideals.

As volunteering goes, it was a short stint today – iffy weather following the heat wave kept the morning bridge-biker crowd down.  After an hour we packed up.  Since I was already at the Walkway over the Hudson, and had ridden my bike up from the train, I decided to pedal over the bridge, along the recently extended rail trail to its terminus, then a few miles down the main road to New Paltz and to Main Street Bistro, my preferred place for a superb $3 weekend brunch.

What was meant to be the wheeled version of a Sunday stroll to a fine, cheap meal, mapped in my mind like this:

Turned into a wandering, sweating, hilly, half-lost 20+ mile journey, mapped in reality like this:

Really, 20 miles isn’t very much to me – when I know I’m going 20 miles.  Or when I know where I’m going at all.  But today I got half-lost once off the rail trail, thanks to a closed road in an unfamiliar neighborhood and a poorly-followed detour.  Not really lost; after a few miles I figured out where I was, but by then there was little point in backtracking.  I rode on.  I hadn’t dressed or prepared for a ride ride – a cotton polo and cargo shorts, no water, no glasses, a banana four hours earlier, masquerading as breakfast.

So it was a pretty Sunday ride and an irritatingly sweat-soaked, want-to-be-there-already, now-here-comes-the rain experience.  Forget three dollar brunch, by the time I got to New Paltz I needed the fat veggie club sandwich and a half-gallon of fluids.

I rode, as I sometimes ride, with my bike lock in one of those flimsy drawstring nylon bags you get as a giveaway just about anywhere these days.  Along with the lock, I’d thrown in a recent edition of the New Yorker.  The one, it just so happens, with “Climbers,” Philip Gourevitch’s wonderful piece on Team Rwanda, a fledgling professional bike racing team made up of a dozen or so young Rwandan men, all dealing to different degrees with the legacy of the civil wars and genocides that ravaged that country when they were children.

It’s an amazing story.  Can you conceive of a neophyte bike team that doesn’t just carry the name of a nation synonymous with mass brutality, but may be helping heal that nation’s heart and soul in some little way?   Did you even realize there is a Tour of Rwanda bicycle race, its stages lined by thousands of spectators, like a scaled-down version of the legendary grand tours of Europe and elsewhere?  This may be difficult to imagine for most Westerners if they think of Rwanda; lucky thing most Westerners probably don’t think of Rwanda, at least beyond “that place in that hotel movie a few years ago.”   Can you imagine that the aspiring pros on Team Rwanda – now demi-celebrities in their country – by and large grew up far too poor to afford even cheap Chinese single-speed bikes, making do instead with wooden bikes – “Flintstoneian scooters made from machete-hewn planks and beams, and fitted with machete-whittled wheels”?  That training in a city tens or even a hundred miles away doesn’t mean throwing the race bike on the rear rack of your Subaru, but riding your one and only bike all the way there?  That some of the team’s members, like Gasore Hategeka, worked their way into the team by racing its members with their loaded bike-taxis, or else by setting off on long solo treks across the mountainous country, partly to train, but mostly to survive.

“Gasore preferred hauling cargo to passengers, and the longer the trip the better: he liked to see the country, and he liked the workout. There isn’t much flat land in Rwanda, and the northwest is all peaks and troughs. Gasore’s village, Sashwara, sits at one of the highest points on the main road, a mile and a half above sea level. To the town of Gisenyi, on the border with Congo, is about forty miles, and downhill almost all the way. For Gasore, who frequently made the round trip in a day, the steep climb home was his favorite part. Although he could make as much as two thousand francs on the Gisenyi run, he took even greater pleasure in making good time.”

The story of these riders (and their American coach, with a trial and redemption of his own) was a big “suck it up, you dumb wuss,” to me grousing about sweaty clothes and a slight thirst and some rain spitting in my eyes on an elongated ride on my shining, smooth-shifting, few-hundred-dollar second bike.  More importantly, it’s ennobling without being tritely ‘inspiring’, because it does not make these young men out to be indomitable heroes or magical prodigies who’ve risen surely through the sport, whom we’ll soon see  rise over the global stage.  Maybe that happens someday.  Probably not.  That’s ok.   A certain kind of triumph doesn’t necessarily require victory.

If you’re interested in bicycles and bike racing, but also recent world history, the complexities of putting a terribly impoverished and traumatized, yet proud and – yes, ‘optimistic’ – nation back together again in the wake of unimaginable horrors, or just the resilience and determination of individual human beings (and perhaps something about the meaning of effort, concentration, endurance, desire), you ought to check this article it out.

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