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How a 40-Mile Bike Race Led to Self-Respect

Fear had held him back, but this ride changed that

I’ve made it off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island, the climax of New York City’s 40-mile, 5 Boro Bike Tour. In the last six hours I’ve seen more of the city than I have in the 34 years I’ve lived here.

After crossing the official finish line, I slow to a stop and take a deep drink of water, which is un-refreshingly warm from the 77-degree heat. I glance down at my requisite biking outfit: fingerless gloves (similar to the kind Freddie the Freeloader wore on The Red Skelton Show); padded shorts (New York potholes can be a killer to the unprotected butt) and a Day-Glo, vomit-green Lycra shirt.

My daughter told me it looked “legit.” To me, it’s the outfit of a crazy man — which right now makes absolute sense. How else did a 59-year-old with the athletic skill of a sloth and the courage of a possum get to this place?

It’s a story that, in a way, began the day I got married.

Gearing Up for the Big Race

Over the years, my wife, Sue, a major fan of exercise, had persuaded me to get involved in various forms of physical motion, with exotic names like “running,” “push-ups” and “yoga.” One by one, I took them on and succeeded. Well, maybe not so much with yoga, but it was good for a few laughs on Sue’s part.

After she gave me a bike many years ago — the first I’d owned since adolescence — Sue took the next step, suggesting that we take part in the 5 Boro Bike Tour. Every year, I had a good excuse to decline: “I’m too old!” By the time I was 59, I thought it was finally true.

But this year was different. We needed to prepare for our summer family vacation: a five-day, 125-mile bike trip through the south of France. Simply riding to the southern tip of Manhattan for a burrito and a Carta Blanca like we usually do wasn’t quite the training required.

For me, it was fear ... Of embarrassment — even if the worst that could happen was a bruised ego, an injury that heals quickly if you allow it.

We initially intended to build up our stamina by biking during the winter. Unfortunately, temperatures in New York hovered around 10-below Antarctica, with snow and ice piling up atop each other for months. Early spring wasn’t much better, as winds compared favorably to a Category 1 hurricane.

By the time the thaw arrived, we had only one month’s prep time. Our weekend rides started at 12 miles and rose from there. In a surprisingly short time, we built up to 24 miles — but that included a refreshment break. Just how I was going to nearly double that goal without a beer along the way was an enigma out of The Imitation Game.

And yet there we were one beautiful spring Sunday this spring, pedaling through the city, surrounded by 32,000 other participants and cheered on by bystanders with shouts of, “You rock!” Never in my life had anyone told me I rocked and meant it. That alone was worth the ride.

With 40 miles of streets, bridges and highways closed off to everyone but us, we got a uniquely up-close view of the city. Williamsburg, Vernon Blvd., the Pulaski Bridge — names I knew only from traffic reports on the 6:00 news were now before my eyes and under my tires.

No question, it was challenging, requiring an occasional walk up an incline and, 12 miles from the end, a pit stop on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. My thighs throbbed like the speakers in a souped-up SUV. My eyes could have used a quart of Visine.

I might not have been an athlete. but I sure felt like one.  And I loved it. The Tour was the first sports event I ever took part in where I felt like equal to the majority of the other participants. Unless you consider Foosball a sport.

To reach the finish line, however, we had to cross the daunting Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Not for nothing did Tour veterans refer to it as “The Beast.” From where I stood on the BQE, it resembled a gigantic image of Dracula spreading his cape across the bay.

And like the legendary vampire, it possessed an icy aura. For while the temperature was 77 degrees, the lower level of the bridge — infamous among bikers for its precipitous, mile-plus incline — felt a good 40 degrees colder. Goosebumps rose on my bare arms.

The breakneck ride down the other side and into the sunshine made the chill worthwhile. As we reached the end, I realized it was the first time I ever crossed any finish line in my life.

Conquering the Fear

Walking my bike through the crowd, my mind wandered back to the lead-up to the bridge. As Sue and I were riding the Gowanus Expressway, cars barreled in the opposite direction on the other side of the barrier, giving the scene a literally dreamlike quality. “This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever done in my life!” I shouted gleefully.

Why do some people try challenging things early — Sue biked the Tour over 30 years ago when the turnout was in the low three figures — while others, like me, wait so long?

For me, it was fear. Fear of the new. Fear of failure. Of embarrassment — even if the worst that could happen was a bruised ego, an injury that heals quickly if you allow it.

But now, I’ve tried — and won. Not first place, but an even better prize: self-respect.

Yes, many of my friends have gone on to accomplish great things and become wealthy, respected, even famous in their fields. But hey, I’m the only one who ever took part in the 5 Boro Bike Tour.

It won’t earn me a Purple Heart or a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but I’ll accept it in my obituary. In fact, I hope it’s the first line — for now, anyway.

You see, I’m fortunate to be healthy enough for another, greater challenge.

“So what do you think,” I asked Sue, “the Tour de France next time?” She replied with a familiar smile that said, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

But forget about the 5 Boro Bike Tour. I’ve done that already.

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