Mad for a Century

Laura Madeline Wiseman

I lie starfish on someone’s grassy berm, helmet somewhere in the nebulous space that arrives when my eyes close. Filmed in road grit, I don’t move. “Ah, finally. This feels good,” someone says. Giggles sound, but is it me or her? Like a starfish picking up one red limb at a time, my limbs creep along the grass, stretching. Muscles begin to uncoil. The back hunch eases, but the day’s windburn heats my face, even in the shade. Corn ruffles in the bicycle traffic. Conversations mid-progress, half a sentence or just three words, drift from the riders pedaling. Yet on the berm the talk starts or stops, centering on those who approach the pair of girls in sundresses doling out ice water, then turning to such things like miles logged.

“Did you ride the loop?” someone says.

I lift my head, squinting towards the speaker—legs out-stretched, spandex shorts, yellow sleeveless jersey, and phone in hand. Returning to starfish, I say, “Yes. It’s my first time.”

“On RAGBRAI?”

I shake my head, luxuriating with the discovery that I have one more limb to move. Against the brightness, my eyes vanish the world. My neck tilts side to side. My breath slows, pulling me towards a fall, but my tongue rasps with thickness. Would the girls let me fill my bottle again if I asked?

The cyclists coughs.

I squint-peer, then remember the talking. “Third time on RAGBRAI. First time attempting a century.” Breeze stirs my damp hair, then I’m back to dropping into the exhale, pulse, thirst. Body afloat on the breath like a shell tumbled by incoming tide, I am sea creature.

He coughs, again.

What could he possibly want? Doesn’t he see I’m busy? I blink, swallow dryly, then a question lifts like a single bubble to the surface. “How many centuries have you done?”

“Four.” He pauses. “This will be my fifth.”

“That’s awesome,” I say, or I think I say it, or I say something, smile with closed eyes, then hold the smile. My mouth, I realize suddenly, is also a limb to stretch.

“You’re not done yet, though?” he asks.

Body splayed, I lift my head, unpeel eyelids against the brilliance. Does he just want me to see him? I look. His young body is corded with muscles under a tumble of blonde curls—an Adonis. I smile, understanding. When I shut my eyes to return to starfish, he asks, “How many miles are left? Do you know?”

“The sign on the hill said 11.5 miles,” I say, then babble. Was it that white sandwich board stationed by a cornfield, had it been a poster with handwritten words staked in someone’s lawn, or had someone held it and shouted the mileage left as all of us rolled by? “Less than 11.5?”

“Oh?”

I lift my watch to check. Because I stopped and restarted it all day to save the battery, the number says 44, meaning nothing. Squinting, I swipe through the offerings—heart rate, clock, average speed—all of it useless. I try to add up the other stops in my head—11.5 minus a couple of miles to this lawn, minus the 100 miles total for the loop, minus the 44 on my watch, minus the 46 from before or was it 56, minus the day that is really only 98.1 miles, then plus the long route I keep going to reach 100. Does this matter to him? Dropping my wrist, then return to breathing.

He coughs, again.

I exhale. “I don’t know. I can’t tell by my watch.”

“We have some left, though, right?”

“There’s some,” I say or I think I say or maybe he says it and I’ve let his words become my own. When whoever stops talking, he disappears again, then there’s only heat, breeze, thirst.

Adonis coughs.

I crawl up to a stand, waving goodbye, “I’d better go finish this to see if I have yet,” then wobble to my full bottle. Did the girls fill my water or was it Adonis? Who added the sports mix to the ice water? Peer into the light, unsure, I say, “Thank you,” then lift my bike to the road’s edge, swing a leg over its frame, start my watch, then join the bicycle traffic whizzing along.  

***

Some ninety miles earlier and uphill from the baggage truck, I break camp early, then push, chanting in my head periodically, hundred, hundred, hundred. Can I do this? In Boondocks, I stop to stretch at a truck stop. On the way to Minnesota for a summer vacation of bike rides and fishing, my dad always stopped here to refuel. Sometimes he’d replace his worn Boondocks cap. Sometimes my grandpa convinced him to stay long enough for breakfast. Once he gave me a Boondocks cap of my own. This time, I don’t go inside for pancakes, but eat a handfuls of grapes by a picnic table, then press on, rolling through the morning miles

Outside Buckeye, people stand between cornfields jiggling homemade signs on poster board, advertising wares. Some cyclists turn towards town, but plenty swirl by, pedaling fast, eyes on the road. One woman in a ride tee shirt pleads, then throws up her hands, “Oh, come on guys, stop.” The road to the town looks small, hedged in by corn. RAGBRAI has become a source of income for overnight towns, lunch towns, and the smaller ones in between, but her town must be near where the century loop begins, meaning many riders are hurrying to it or hurrying towards the day’s end in the overnight town.

Though I don’t turn towards Buckeye, I stop along the shoulder to check mileage since Boondocks. Others joins, others go. Some of us refuel. Some apply more sunscreen. Several study maps, others their cyclometers. One asks, “Is this the century ride turn off?” Then another, “Isn’t there supposed to be a sign?” Someone says, “I can’t do the century today. I want to turn around if I’m on the loop.” Another rolling by says, “We’re not there yet. The loop’s ahead. There’s a sign.” Many of us leave then, joining the cycling traffic pressing onward. Then, a two-foot sign appears on a corner where cornfields meet. A pair wait beside it, checking the glimmering horizon for a friend. The ways of this crossroad is simple and clear—where I’ve been, where I’ll sleep tonight, incoming loop finishers, the loop’s start. I hesitate. Right now, I could just finish the ride, turn toward the overnight town making today a sweet 73, but if I go straight, I commit myself to 98.1 miles, eleven miles beyond my personal record of 87 miles. I know people bike centuries all the time, but can I?

***

Forty-five miles later, the overnight town’s mayhem appears. Poles flutter with stapled team signs pointing arrows every which way. Cyclists turn one way, then another, but some continue on. A chain grocery appears, then another. The mega courthouse becomes visible behind a blue inflated beer tent tunnel. Venders line the square. I stop, push back my sleeve to squint at my watch. The low battery icon appears, but it’s still recording. I do the math in my head, again. Where will I get the extra 1.8 miles or have I already found them? Could I maybe login somewhere, upload my data real quick, to check? Or should I just keep pedaling somewhere, then find camp?

“Do you need directions?” a man says, approaching where I’ve stopped in the gutter. His green polo and khaki shorts make him look like a bald girl scout with a beer belly, but he holds a stack of town maps.

“Which way?” I ask.

“Where do you want to go?”

“The baggage truck,” I say, then lean on the handlebars, one foot on the curb, the other still clipped.

“You’ve gone too far.” He uncaps a marker, then makes loops and arrows on a map.

“That’s okay. I need the miles.”

He nods and I know he understands. He offers directions, asks questions, points to places in the air, points to the grocery across the street. “Anywhere else you want to go?”

“Online,” I say, lifting my watch.

He nods and I know he understands. He makes additional swoops on the map. Will he add where the sprinklers are? Or perhaps the small town local with a garden hose standing on the corner offering a spray to cyclists? I pedal towards where his arms made the greatest swirls, armed with his map that might give me two things, either places to find 1.8 miles or the internet to prove I’ve already found them.

***

Nearly one hundred miles from where I awoke before five, my watch refuses to sync beside the showers in camp at the local school. The app swirls, offering only a stubborn Looking…. Has the school blocked my app’s site? Bleary-eyed, I wheel up the hill to the grocery. It teems with cyclists. Some park bikes. Others talk under white tents. I wedge my bike among the others, then enter the store. Inside, more cyclists fill the diner. Some occupy folding tables wedged in the produce aisle. The collective heat of the day, combined with the mass of bodies, overwhelms the store with humidity. Though cooler than outdoors, the lack of breeze stifles. I search the diner for an outlet, finding a power strip splattered with dried ketchup under the microwave. Leaving my watch and tablet to charge, I take the only seat available—a barstool at the counter. A teen in a red apron helps a cyclist at the register, but when she finishes, I ask, “Is the Wi-Fi working?”

“The cell towers are down.” She fiddles with a binder, opening it, turning plastic encased pages, then slides it from view.

“Is there a place where I might get online?”

“I live in the next town over. I’m just in for the day.” Other apron clad teens slide around her, faces gleaming with sweat. Scanning the congestion, she says, “The library has internet.”

“Where’s the library? Can you show me?” I push my map across the counter, but she backs up. “Maybe you could tell me where it is?”

She shakes her head. “You’ll find it. It’s just set off the street a bit.”

“Which street?”

“The main one.” She points one way, but looks in another.

“Is it on the main street?”

“No, a few back.” She vanishes, then is replaced by another more harried teen at the counter. Everywhere in the grocery store cyclists hold their phones or set them on the tables. Some eat. Some lean back in chairs. One man glares at his mini tablet, then grumbles. Leaving my devices to charge, I wander one cramped aisle after another for food, weighing what I can actually eat right now against what I’m willing to carry. Then, back in the diner, I check the app, but it perseveres with Looking…. I inhale a carton of strawberries, then one of blueberries, alternating mouthfuls of fruit with fistfuls of salted popcorn, until the store’s heat drives me to collect my possessions to go. Off the main drag, I roll everywhere trying to connect—the library, another grocery, near shops, random corners—always squinting against the glare, dodging cyclists or their friends. Some streets jar with potholes and cracks, others are made of cobbles, while a few open smooth. Everywhere bikes careen or vehicles roll. Where there aren’t bikes or vehicles mid-motion, people stand, sit, splay, or laugh. But the internet is nowhere. It simply doesn’t exist here. Finally, I drop my head into my hands, sagging with my failure to prove I’ve done it. Not a century. Maybe not even 98.1. Why can’t I do this?

***

A mile and a half earlier, music sounds from the square. Above the double windbreak of blue spruce, a windmill’s blades remain motionless. Murmurs lift from the domes of the tent city, multi-hued and tight-packed against the spruce, a sort of winnowing cascade that reaches across the green. Though my bicycle is already parked beneath the high school’s sign that lists athletic wins in orange and black plates, I drag my camping gear from the baggage truck to it, as far away from the nearest tent as I can. Then, I sit in the shade to eat a grapefruit. The breeze refuses to dry either my damp hair or the sweat-soaked state of my kit, but at least I’m alone.

Then a cyclist says, “May I share this space?” holding wadded wet items.

I nod as he spreads damp gear on the bricks beside me that surround the sign’s metal legs. Out here, the field stretches wide and unbroken by tree or fence, making the bricks the only place to dry laundry and the only shade. He flaps out a jersey. His tee shirt and athletic shorts stir above his leather sandals. “Sorry about the grapefruit mess,” I say, waving towards the nearest trash bin up the hill. “Do you know if they have internet in the school?”

“The school has showers and internet, though I didn’t use it.”

“Hot water?”

“Yes.”

“A line?”

“Not when I arrived. “

“Did you do the century loop?”

“No.”

“Do you know what mile you’re on?”

“No.”

“Did you do the gravel loop?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “My bike’s carbon.”

I nod, but don’t ask what carbon is or why that should matter. “Is this your first RAGBRAI?”

“No.”

“Do you ride it every year?”

“No.”

“Are you from Iowa?”

“No.”

Apparently unable to communicate, I peel a second grapefruit, then slowly chew several pieces. What is the definition of bonking? Maybe I can look it up when I get online. He spreads out each item like a bachelor, then says, “I’ll be back in an hour to see if these are dry.”

***

Forty-five miles earlier, from Radcliffe’s park stage the vocalist sings covers. “He’s fifteen,” a cyclist says. “Can you believe it?” The teen’s voice blends and moves, growls and cajoles. The sound fills the park as cyclists talk or stretch, eat or queue for vendors. The shade shrinks as the sun rises, but there’s enough for everyone.

In the street, Miss Radcliffe, a seventeen-year-old fair queen, takes photos of an elderly couple sitting under a blue tent. Of interest is not just the couple who pose for the photo, but the others who stand behind them, grinning. Alone, in pairs, or groups, cyclists join them, many hold what they’ve just been handed—the ride patch for the century loop—others hold out their hands to shake the elderly man’s. It’s John Karras himself, the loop’s namesake, and the cofounder of RAGBRAI in 1973, who sits there beside his wife.

This goes on and on, men approaching the queen, men trotting behind the loop’s namesake, men saying thank you, saying what an honor it is to meet him, what the ride has meant to them. All the while, Karras sits there tall in a ride tee shirt, khaki shorts, and red-framed glasses, nodding and shaking each hand in turn. Then a man emerges. He hands his phone to the queen, who accepts it. She wears simple blue jeans and a sleeveless top, but her glittering red sash and crown match the flare of the cyclist’s kit—bold jersey, bright helmet, sweat-gleamed body. Then he calls to Karras, “I was with you on SAGBRAI. I don’t know if you remember me, but I sure remember you and the ride.” Karras nods as the man shakes his hand, then mugs for the photo. SAGBRAI was the second ride across Iowa in 1974, years before I was born.

I’m still miles away from the century end, if I’ve made it to mile 65. Should I join the queue to pose for the photo? Is it okay that this is only my second RAGBRAI or my first attempt at a century? The heat burns my shins as the shade creeps up from the curb. I stand, walking directly into the blaze and smile towards the couple, but when Karras looks my way, I squirm. My smile strains. Does he not like knickers and long-sleeved jersey? Is my sunblock smeared white across my face? Am I mad with bonking already? If I stand behind him, will this mean I have to finish the century, or I’d only have a photo and a lie? Or is the photo proof? If I show it to any cyclist after today, will they nod in understanding? I drop my gaze, then exhaling slowly, stand taller, maybe if I take this picture I’ll have to finish the century, biking every mile. Squaring my shoulders, I look up, and grin. When it’s my turn, I trot behind him for the photo, saying, “Thank you.”

***

Over halfway from one hundred, I lift my bike from the parking, slide on my helmet, and swing my leg over the saddle. Just as I clear town, a notice a man in a red jersey pedaling my slipstream. We roll in silence, until he pedals hard past me, calling, “Do you want me to pull for a turn?”

“Okay,” I say, then fall behind him. He’s warrior quick, taking up a thrilling cadence. I fight hard to match his rhythm, faster than I normally ride, as fast as sprints in the spin classes I sometimes join midwinter. I have drafted, but never like this. We move. My breath assumes a steady bellows. My heart races to an aerobic beat. Cornfields blur into green topped gold, though the fat clouds seem to only hover above. Everything—houses, farms, drives, hay bales—disappears into a whirl. Sweat slides down everything. My breath moves wild, seemingly loud, but he says almost nothing. Is this the way to pedal a century? When he takes his turn behind and then later, disappears I regret not having the chance to pant out the words, “Thank you. That was my first time.”

***

Seventy-five miles into the ride, a swarm of cyclists in Air Force jerseys, plus several others who’ve hopped into their peloton of speed, begin to pass in a mass. A middle-aged man joins them, then another. One by one, they peel away. I begin to pick up my speed. Could I draft with the military, too? Do I even know how to ride in group like that? I pedal hard, surge the gap, then fall into it. If a few miles ago, I thought drafting with the red jersey was fast, this is faster, but I practice what I know—study body language, watch for air breaks, cadence shifts, hands and fingers on shifters. This speed thrills. We move faster and faster. No traffic stops us, no group or solitary riders impeded our way, no rumbles or massive hill make us divide. I work, then the world drops away. I’m aware of passing along this road between towering cornfields, beneath an enormous sky, on a brilliant day, but I do not think, I am. I am only revolution of wheels. I am breath. I am action and reaction to what I’m moving inside.

At the crossroads, I glance towards each direction I’ve been, knowing only the overnight town is ahead. The military slows to rejoin the main body of riders and I, like others, drop back. My breath slows to a human speed, my legs whirl, the day’s heat descends around me, reminding me of the miles left to 100.  

***

Nineteen miles later and after circling with my app Looking…, I return to my tent, then eat like a teenage boy—fruit, popcorn, deli meat, dried fruit, coconut water. Between bites, I record the numbers from each leg of my route in my notebook, then do the math. Others walk or talk. Some spread damp gear. Some just now wheel into town. Hang gliders burble above. From the sidewalk above, a man calls down to me, “It looks like you’ve got a nice set up there.”

“Thanks. It’s been a great ride, hasn’t it?” I say. He agrees.

Others pass, commenting on the ride, the gliders. “I think they’re dropping something,” one says to another with a touch of uncertainty, as if he’s too shaking off the aftereffects of bonking and isn’t sure he’s only imagined objects like gifts floating from the machines. I haven’t seen anything dropping, but study again my sums. Perhaps what the man thought he saw was what I’ve been looking for all day—a century fluttering down from above, enough for everyone who wants to reach out and trace one of their own.

#

Laura Madeline Wiseman’s essays have appeared in Mid-American Review, Sou’wester, Southern Indiana Review, The South Loop Review, and elsewhere. Her essay “Seven Cities of Good” was an honorable mention in Pacifica Literary Review‘s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Award. Her essay “Hunger” was selected as the honorable mention by Paul Lipskey for the Arts & Letters Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Her newest book is Velocipede (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016). She teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.