by Kate Gardella

The sun begins to set and a majestic auburn hits the sky.  Vibrant red and orange leaves hit the ground from the trees.  Shadows are growing shorter and nothing moves.  Everything is still.  The atmosphere feels clam and peaceful.  I feel a slight chill in the air as I breathe out and barely see the outline of my breath.  I feel almost as though I am the one and only seeing this perfect fall picture.  I think of my day, my friends, my work, my own little world.  Things are getting tough now.  School is getting harder and my stress-level elevates each day.  Bills are piling up and projects are due soon.  I wish I could take time for a break.  Just for an hour.  I wish I could just get away from everything.  Then it hits me; I am going to go for a bike ride.
My good friend Gracie got me into cycling.  At 5 foot 4 inches and 38 years old, she was the most optimistic woman I have ever met.  She was my mother’s good friend and never would you find her in a bad mood.  As soon as she walked into a room, the mood lifted.  No matter how dull or insignificant a matter is, she would poke fun at it and always managed to make everyone laugh.  I was going into my tenth grade year of high school as I was strumming through her bike magazine.  Bicycle Magazine was the name of it.  It had a zero percent-body fat guy on the front, going downhill on his sleek sliver bike.  He was tucked down on his handlebars, going 80 mph or more and looking mean as ever; there was no smile or any hint of happiness on the cover.  He looked as though he had been cycling for a day or two in the hot sun.  Right then and there I knew cycling was a grueling sport.  I was intrigued and opened the magazine.  There were road racers in their shiny spandex and tiny “space-age” helmets.  Their legs muscles were massive compared to the rest of their skinny bodies.  Next page showed a crash that had happened.  Torn tangled bodies in a mess that looked as though it was a football pile-up.  Gracie looked over my shoulder.  “You should come out and ride with the group.”  I laughed; me and “the group”, I would not make it.  But she made me even more interested in trying it. 
I attended the next bike ride with Gracie.  She picked me up for the ride but I only felt embarrassed with my hunk of metal as a bike compared to her orange, lightweight, top-of-the-line road bike.  “Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine,” she said.  I looked at her thinking I was making a fool of myself.  It took every bit in me not to run back into the house.  We got to the group ride and I met the other cyclists.  There were four other riders.  All had the aerodynamic jerseys with sleek spandex and bright colored road bikes.  They welcomed me immediately with open arms.  The older cyclist, dubbed as “King” looked at my bike.  “Are you ready for this ride?”  I nervously nodded and hopped on my hunk of metal.  I surprised them all and soared by.  I tried not to think of anything.  It was all me.  “Just keep stammering.  You got this.”  Not only did I keep up with them, but I conquered the course.  Another cyclist pulled up to me.  “If you had a road bike, you would be flying now.”  I thought about it; I would, wouldn’t I?
Gracie told me of the MS Tour 150 that she races for every year.  Since she had MS, which is a nervous and muscular disease, she felt passionate about it.  It was a two day event riding 75 miles a day adding to a grand total of 150 miles.  You raise money to benefit other victims of MS.  I decided that since she helped me with getting started on a bike, I needed to help her. 
She called me on a spring afternoon.  It was weeks before the tour.  “I’m getting some appeal for the ride at the bike shop.  Do you want to go?”  Of course I would.  A kid in a candy is equal to me in a bike shop.  I wanted one of everything. 
We drove up to this one room shop that was smothered with bikes of every kind of make.  A short, balding guy came from the counter.  He had some what of a hunch and tiny legs.  He did not look as though he was a typical rider.  Gracie introduced me to Mike, the bike shop owner.  He looked at me as if I was another customer and proceeded to talk to Gracie.  Gracie asked him if he had any bikes that I could rent for the MS Tour 150.  He looked at me and then at a blue Trek 1200. And just like Harry Potter when he was getting his first wand, Mike says, “This one would probably suit you.”  He measured the bike to me and told me to hop on.  I looked at Gracie as if he was joking.  I couldn’t believe I was even touching this beautiful, sleek Trek bike.
I lifted my hand over the aluminum frame; cool to the touch.  The handlebars had black rubber material that was swirled around the bars.  The gears were tucked near the ends of the handlebars as though it was the finishing touch to a masterpiece.  I imagined that they were polished and shine just for me.  The bike was smaller and much more hunched down than my mountain.  Gracie smiled and told me to go for a spin.  She saw the excitement in my eyes.  You’re kidding right?  I couldn’t ride this bike; but I also couldn’t resist.  I picked up the bike and surprisingly enough, it was lighter then a basketball.
I pulled the bike out in front of the store carefully.  I got my right foot perfectly aligned, placed my hands readily over the brake and with one swift motion I spun away.  It was magic.  I was speeding past cars and other bikers.  The wind was carrying me the entire time.  I did not ride; I glided.  I was lighter than a feather and untouchable. I whirled around the corners.  It was my haven and I finally escaped from the rest of the world.  For a minute loop around town, I knew this was the one and only bike for me. 
“You like it?” Mike asked as I got off.  Like wasn’t even in my vocabulary.  I loved it.  He wrote the price of the bike on a card.  I took one glance at it and laughed.  I never knew bikes could be expensive.  Once the price passes four figures, there is no way I could afford it.  I gracefully thanked Mike and left with Gracie only memorized by the blue Trek.
A couple of minutes later as we drove home, I received a phone call from my mother.  Without missing a beat, I began my story about the adventure with the bike.  She only chuckled and asked if I like it.  I said yes but continued with the story.  She stopped me once more.  “No, no, I’m asking if you like it.”  Again, with confusion I said yes, it was a nice bike.  She paused, “Well it’s yours.”  Tears scrolled down my face.  I must be hearing things wrong.  The only thing I thought was “what?”  “What did you say?  You are kidding me, right?”  She laughed harder now.  “No, I’m not, it’s yours.”  Impossible.  The most elevating feeling of happiness reached me.  It was unbelievable to know that that bike I just rode was mine.  How is that possible?  Now more tears were running down my face.  I looked at Gracie.  “What’s wrong?  What’s going on?” she looked at me not knowing what to do.  “The bike, the Trek 1200, is mine”, I said in one breath.  A second later we screamed like little girls in hysteria. 
As soon as I got my bike, I went out to a group ride.  I flew as everyone expected.  If King challenged the group by pedaling faster, then with one slight motion of my finger I upgraded my chain and counter-attacked.  I was good and everyone knew it.  Gracie caught up with me.  “You need to find another group.  You need to find a ride that will challenge you.” 
I found myself back at the bike shop.  Mike came out from behind the counter.  He skeptically looked at me.  “You want to join the racing team?” sounding surprised.  He was shorter then I remembered.  He looked me over once more and gave me the website to the races and team rides reluctantly.  On a warm Saturday morning, I pulled up to five guys wearing bright-colored spandex covering head to toe.  Again, they had the zero-percent body fat and looked like scrawny tall guys with massive legs; none of which were smiling but gave me one look and went back to their talking.  Mike came out from the crowd.  He gave me a warm smile and introduced me to Brian, the tallest guy in the bunch and the respected pack leader.  “So you came to race, huh?  Well, welcome to the team.”
We took off like a pack of hungry wolves and immediately Brian took his lead as the pack leader.  I hung back trying to take everything in.  It didn’t feel right to be remotely close to the front.  Mike rode up next to me.  “There is a stretch of rode up ahead.  Go ahead and take lead.”  With a gulp I shifted gears and pulled up to the front.  The wind was blowing against me as if to say that there was no chance in hell I would win this battle.  I could hear the guys snickering behind me. 
To my surprise, all I heard was the wind pushing busily by.  My legs were beyond tired.  All of the energy in my legs was gone.  They were lifeless.  I didn’t know what pressed me to keep cycling.  Finally, my test was over as we came to a stop light.  I snapped out of my pedals but my legs went limp.  I wanted to just rest on the ground; just for a moment or until I felt my legs again.  Mike breathless stopped next to me.  “That was one hell of a pull.”  I turned my head away from him and smiled, “Really?”
Mike told me that the last race of the season was coming up and since I missed all the other races because I was training, that I should give it a try.  “Mike, that’s like next week.  I will be crushed if I try to race now.”  Mike looked at me with the most sincere expression.  “And…”  I sighed and lowered my head as if in shame.  I knew my time to race would come but it was too soon.  I envisioned the race; I would be dropped immediately from the pack and not finish.  The guys would look at me and not take me seriously.  I needed my team’s trust and faith in me and not doing well would destroy my reputation.  I couldn’t lose this race.  I couldn’t lose my team.
It was the morning of the race.  I could not have asked for a more perfect day.  The sun was out; fluffy white clouds were passing by merrily and a summer breeze lifted my spirits.  I packed everything the night before to clam my nerves some.  I don’t think it helped.  Four hours until the race.  My heart thumped.  I tried doing some stretches to relax and make myself as limber as possible but my muscles only twitched in fright.  I looked at the clock again, three hours.  I exhaled a long breath of air.  I tried closing my eyes.  The thought of falling asleep was tempting but I resisted.  I opened my eyes; two hours.  My stomach dropped.  What am I doing?  I can’t race.  I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to be put out by a single race.  Not yet, not now.
I packed the car as if it was my last day on earth.  I was unnerved leaving the house. “This is it”, I thought to myself.  I reluctantly started my car and sped away.  I got to my destination too fast.  I stepped out of my car to see other cyclists warming up on the circuit, chatting casually with each other.  I walked up to the sign-up booth when Mike greeted me.  You could tell in his voice that he was excited for me.  He went over strategies for the hundredth and one time as I sat there in complete silence.  The sound of worry came out in his voice.  “Ok, Kate, go have fun”, he concluded.  The announcer shouted for the racers to go to the front.  I nodded to Mike with a smile to show that I was not afraid, but deep down I was a nervous wreck.  I got my bike and met up with Brian.  He made sure I was ready and we walked up to the starting line like a big brother walking up his little sister to the school bus stop.  It gave me comfort to know that he was looking out for me.
There were roughly thirty guys in spandex ready to race.  The announcer shot his gun and the race was off.  I pushed off but something was keeping my left foot to lock into my pedal.  I struggled with it for about five seconds when it finally connected.  I sighed with relief but looked up to face my fear.  I knew immediately that I was dropped.  The pack of cyclists had already flown past me.  “What do I do now?”  I thought to myself.  I am all by myself, but I had to keep going, the race was not over yet.  Thirty minutes had already past and no sign of the pack was to be seen.  I was growing tired.  My lactic acid in my legs was building up and hungry pains hit my stomach.  The winds began to change course and blowing against me.  I desperately looked for my team or any one at all.  I could quit and blame my knee but then I would have to live with my lie.  No, I came to race.  There is no quitting in cycling.  I began to see other cyclists, who were not on my team, on the side of the road.  “Are you ok?” I would shout but they only held up the thumbs up so I continued my journey.  My thirst grew overwhelming. I ran out of water and still no sign of my team or the pack.  I was worried.  Do I stop?  How am I going to get home?  By now my legs were numb.  The only thought running through my mind was to keep pedaling.  That was all that I survived on.  My only goal was not to stop.  I knew once I stopped, I would not pedal anymore.
Hours had past now.  What the hell have I done?  I was weak and delusional.  On the horizon I saw a cyclist but had no idea who it was.  It was only one but it gave me more hope then I knew.  He was slower then me.  I pulled up to him.  To my surprise it was Brian.  He looked horrible.  He didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to because I knew exactly what he was thinking.  “I’m pulling you”, I demanded.  I got ahead and began my pull towards home.  A couple of minutes went by.  I heard a voice from behind me.  “Thanks”, shouted a voice.  Brian had gained his strength back and began to pull.  It was a miracle.  Soon, other cyclists began to show up.  Again, all were weak and beyond exhausted.  We let them tag along with us as we drove onward.  The race ended with five other cyclists on our line that were on the verge of passing out.  They were grateful as we crossed the finished line.  Mike was at the end.  He had the biggest smile on his face and was clapping with the crowd for our arrival.  “You did it, girl! You brought everyone home.”
I looked up at Mike with exhaustion as I unclicked my pedals and threw him a satisfied smile.  Mike nodded with a huge grin and patted my back to say that he was proud.  I turned my head to see Brian crutched over his bike as other onlookers threw ice-cold wet rags on him.  I looked at him with sorrow.  For some reason I felt I should be the one weak and dehydrated instead of standing there watching him.  There was a crowd around us and people I didn’t know came to congratulate me.  I thanked them but I had no idea what I had done.  I could have sworn I came in dead last.  Mike saw my confusion.  “You didn’t need to win a race to show you are a true cyclist.  You unselfishly helped other teams finish when they were down on their luck.  Hell, didn’t you just start racing like a month ago.  You came a long way, Kate, and no one thinks less of you.  As a seventeen year old female, I would say that was pretty damn good.”  I laughed at his compliment.  I knew that was all that I was going to get from him.
I began to really think what Mike said to me later that day.  I had come a long way.  I accomplished more in two years then people have done in ten.  I astonished myself for the first time.  Not only had I gain respect as a cyclist but I had also gain true friendships along the way.  Ever since my first race, I established self confidence and focus in my life.  I began to understand that no matter where the journey leads, I have my willingness and desire to make it happen.