The hefty man to my left wore tight purple shorts and a matching shirt. Even his helmet and shoes were purple. The only thing not purple was his bright yellow racing bike. I was on the black and green Devinci, with my Acadian flag strapped to my seat. I was wearing my team’s red and white gear, with orange sunglasses, a see-through raincoat, and plastic gloves. We always joked that we were going to the lab.
My team was squeezed together beneath the sign that announced the start of the 25 km/h section. There were eight of us: four students and four adults, only a quarter of our usual biking group. This was a six-hour, 135 kilometer race, so only a select few had been chosen to go. I looked around and smiled at them, the best of the best. We would be riding fast today. I was a little nervous. I never imagined biking that far in a week, let alone one day. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t let fear or doubt get in my way. I had a finish line waiting for me.
Our trainers explained the rules. They discussed the rest stops, and made sure we understood how important it was to stay together. We would travel in two parallel lines, staying close to the bike in front of us for the best aerodynamics.
We were offered energy bars and beverages, bananas and water. Everyone was smiling, talking and cheering. We were restless; nothing could subdue the electricity of this crowd. I was hopping from foot to foot; my friend Isaac was literally jumping up and down. We were all eager to get on our bikes. Although we were inexperienced students, even the most professional bikers treated us as equals. When we found a way into the crowd, I received many compliments on my Acadian flag. It was great to be recognized as an individual among so many riders.
A sea of colorfully dressed bikers, 5,000 strong, stretched down a highway that had been closed for a week in preparation for this. We saw on the screen that the race had started, but we knew it would be a half hour before our turn came. Soon this sea of bikers would flow like a river.
Finally we began moving forward. We weren’t even on the pedals yet, just walking. We had been warned that it would be an extremely slow start. We chatted, reflecting on our months of training. Then, we slid our feet into the pedals and started pumping. As the pace picked up we quieted a bit, keeping our comments about the road ahead.
Then the first hill rose up. We maintained our speed for a third of it, then suddenly the crowd thickened. We slowed to a crawl and continued like this for a few minutes, until we got to the top. We took the bypasses and crossed a bridge out of Quebec City, onto the country roads. Then the biking really started.
We were passing through the first communities. There were lots of signs encouraging us, and folks on the sides of the road, cheering us on and waving flags. They made every biker smile.
“Get ready!” my coach shouted. We were going to pass the group in front of us! You have to love that feeling, being the faster group, surpassing your peers. We shouted encouragement to each other as we picked up speed, moving into the passing lane. I smiled at the bikers we passed, and they smiled back. Once they were behind us there was nothing but clear road ahead. We yelled encouragement as we kept our speed, holding a steady 28 km/h.
After passing a few more groups, it was my turn to take the lead. Just like a formation of geese, we rotated leaders so we wouldn’t tire ourselves. As soon as you get out of line you feel the wind pressure. I was so glad to be wearing sunglasses or my eyes would have been watering like crazy. A few minutes later I was already tired of the front, but I needed to do my part. My coach beside me kept me focused, pointing out features in the road, making sure I kept my breathing regular and I used the right gears.
A few towns later I was relieved of my duty and moved to the middle of the line. Even better, our first rest stop was just ahead. There must have been 200 riders there, drinking, eating, talking, and waiting for the porta-potties. I pulled out an energy bar. I couldn’t believe how good it tasted! Then I took a drink of water. Our coaches had said how important good nutrition and hydration were, and I knew they were right.
Ten minutes later we were back on our bikes, once again among a small crowd, like a miniature replay of the beginning, but quickly we passed the large, slower groups and moved out to the open road. Then it began to rain. It seemed like the water was coming from all directions – the sky, the road, the bike in front of me, and even my own bike. I was immediately soaked. The raindrops felt like bullets on our faces. Once again I was thankful I’d brought sunglasses.
“Stay off the white lines!” our coach reminded us. “The rain makes them dangerously slippery.” We pushed on through the elements; we were in this to the end. This wasn’t something you could train for on a stationary bike at home. This road had ups and downs, straights and curves. You had to watch for cracks and other bikes, keep glasses clear, and communicate with your team. The gym might have prepared me for the physical part, but this race was so much more than that.
As we rode on, we kept encouraging each other and taking turns at the front. Although the rain seemed to come down harder and harder, we were able to keep a steady 26 km/h. We were like a train, just chugging along. Eventually, we made it to the second rest stop. We switched arm warmers, if we’d brought extra. I was so thankful for the pockets on our shirts. I whipped out another energy bar and drank more water. I gave my extra plastic gloves to Isaac. We had lost one of our adult team members to a flat tire. Roads have no mercy in this weather. We had even witnessed a few crashes. If we were careful, we would be fine; we knew how to control our bikes.
As we mounted for the last time that day, two of our group’s adults said they were going to join a slower group. I wished they would stay; that meant three fewer windbreakers. Our coach had warned us about this last segment. It was long with a very slow incline, followed by a flat, then a final steep uphill. We decided we would keep a 25 km/h pace to preserve energy for the end.
Once again, the train was rolling. The rain let up a bit, and the wind was at our backs; we were having a grand time. We made sure everyone was feeling up to the challenge. We passed groups, some passed us. You could smell the rain, the fields, and the trees, like nature was bathing us in its presence.
Slowly nature crept away and was replaced by small communities. Then there was the big hill, looming in the distance. It seemed to grow each second we got closer. We forced ourselves up, standing on the pedals and pushing with all our might. My breathing was getting heavier, and I could feel sweat trickling down my face. I lifted my hand to wipe my glasses and immediately my bike started to wobble. I grabbed the handlebars and regained control. Lesson learned.
Though the hill seemed endless, we reached the top. We were sitting again, rolling calmly as we recharged after the climb. The train never stopped, only slowed now and then. I felt great though. Honestly, I was expecting to be drained, but that was not the case. Clearly my teammates felt same way, as we smiled and cheered after conquering the infamous hill. The road was smooth, no cracks or potholes. We weaved through the streets, smiling and waving at the people who had come to cheer us on.
“Where’s the finish?” I yelled to our coach.
“Just ahead!” he said with a sly grin.
I wondered why he was grinning. As we rounded a turn I saw why: There was a long banking turn, and the road dropped like a roller-coaster track!
We let gravity do the work; pedaling would be useless. We glided, keeping a safe distance from each other. We were hunched over with a tight grip on our handlebars, fingers ready on the brakes. We kept accelerating, the hill seeming to go on and on. We were going 57 km/h, my coach told us later, but that moment it felt like 100 km/h. We were flying. It was amazing; I felt invincible. We zoomed past cheering crowds, houses and trees, everything but the road a blur. It was a much nicer end to the day than a big uphill.
Suddenly, there it was, just a few hundred meters away – the finish line. It was what we had been working toward all day, the ultimate prize. I stood up and pushed to catch up with the others. We formed a line and rode the last stretch side by side. I felt so good, after all our work, to have accomplished this. I smiled at my friends, sweaty, soaked to the bone, tired, hungry, thirsty, and smiling as brightly as me.
One hundred and thirty-five kilometers didn’t seem so far anymore. It was a good day. No, a great day.
“The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right. Which one are you?”
– Henry Ford
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.