"Five bulls and an old man," we thought.
Cyclists numbered hundreds around us, but the table dimmed as if in a Monastery. Strong young men and women sat with us. It was only mere seconds earlier when the lot of us judged an old, bent, coffee stained man with Elvis side-burns.
We hesitated...,"How old are you?" asked one cyclist.
"Eighty-four," is all he said.
Whispers and triumph walk hand in hand.
One and a half hours before my spot opened at the picnic table, pale fog rested against the morning sun in the flaunted hills of Iowa like water in a farmer's bucket. One by one, two by two and by the hundreds, silhouetted riders charged into the screen. Pedaled bulls. Breath and breaths poked minor holes into the foggy heaven, but as quickly the holes repaired into thickness. I heard them breath. I heard the bikes whirr. I felt them spin past me and I felt space fill as I passed them.
RAGBRAI-- the raconteur's happy place.
Layer by layer the fog lifted as if God himself sipped from the mighty bucket. One hour. One day.
"May the road rise up to meet you," Dad recited each morning of last week. The Irish Blessing, a team mantra. The road rose.
"You must love hills," said one RAGBRAI teammate, "You really push those hills!"
"I'm desperate to get to the top," I said. "Don't exactly dig the hills."
Tires flattened, spokes broken, derailleurs busted, ankles cracked, elbows, knees and heads scraped and none left wanting even for a moment. Cyclists in blips and seconds moved from taming the road to soothing the sores and souls of the wounded.
"Do you need help?"
A man and his son stopped to assist my wife. Her tire blew.
"I don't know much about fixing things, but I can try to help," he said. "Do you need a tube? I've got one here."
"I think we'll be alright," I replied, "The fact that you stopped helps already."
He left. He even expressed regret that he couldn't help more than what he did.
"Did he really just offer us his gear?" I wondered.
We got as far as we could really, but I couldn't get the outer tire over the new tube we'd bought days before. A minute later another two guys stopped to help, guys who knew something. They gladly taught us how to roll the rubber over the tube and the rim. One of them even used his own CO2 capsule (not cheap) to fill her tire up to about ninety PSI, forty PSI short of full.
"Thank you so much," said Monique.
"Whatever we can do," he answered. "You sure you don't need anything else?"
"We're good," I said, "Thanks a million, man we're grateful." They left us shaking our heads again.
We were stuck there a bit longer. We'd called teammates and knew several of them had portable air-pumps. Two air-pump carrying teammates would arrive soon. Others rode by in the meantime and asked if we were ok.
Finally our two friends rode up and pulled over. We used his air pump and filled her tire to one-hundred and twenty PSI. I think our friend nearly burst a blood vessel airing her tire. Portables weren't exactly meant to push one-hundred and twenty PSI. Takes strength. Add vessel-bursting effort to a seventy-five mile ride. Says something about a man.
Then we continued our ride.
We blew three tires last week and have similar stories to tell about all of them. My spoke broke and while it was repaired I helped another woman make a decision about one of her own bike problems.
Nothing's paid forward, they're simply paid.
Jesus Christ knows something about that.
The day of the "picnic table incident" A woman flew head over apple-cart into the ditch and shot straight up to her feet like a canon ball, hands thrust upward like a gold-medal gymnast--a human cat with nine-lives. She didn't seem to even realize what happened. It all happened so fast. She made me giggle. No, she made me laugh. No one could believe they'd seen such a perfectly executed flip into the ditch--10.0 on my card. She'd ridden into a crack, lost her balance, hit another rider and took a flip-n-roll.
Several of us stopped to make sure she was alright and to re-tell the tale. Others, including my wife used our own bandages and salve to patch up the other rider, a 16 year old girl who was stunned and hurt, but able. The road scraped and bled her. No sooner though had we patched her up, put our arms around her and prayed our thank-you's that she rose up to the hill, hopped atop her bicycle and headed out, taking her worried mother in-tow. I understand the gritted journey.
An army of wheels and cyclists left no man behind.
Cyclists rode with radios attached to their bike. The classical guy, the metal guy, the folk guy, the German pub guy, the Christian Contemporary lady, the country girl, the rap couple--they were all there. We had so much fun on the route. One of them rode past Monique and a a catchy country song with lines like "God is great, beer is good and people are crazy" played on his radio. Maybe you had to hear the song to wrap your brain around where you were. Monique did. He was a fast rider but Monique yelled, "Hey sir, could you slow down because I love this song and I'm wondering if we can ride together until it's over?" The faster rider slowed and they enjoyed a great song before he rode off into the wind once again.
One minute, one hour, one day. If cyclists were lucky, they caught up to the guy in the banana suit or the asian dude in the bear suit. Maybe riders heard like I did, one of the twenty-four wiener balloons in one man's helmet pop and laughed. Maybe they found "Team Pie Hunter", a group of riders wearing helmets shaped like pieces of pie, or maybe riders rode with the couple dressed as clowns. Maybe they saw the ladies with colorful wigs and parrot beaks taped to their noses.
They might've pedaled around the young lady who rode a mountain bike and only seven gears through Iowa, and maybe they paired up with another who took her mountain bike through every mile possible. Maybe cyclists met the sixty-five year old man who recently completed a two-hundred mile tour...in one day, and that through Utah mountains. Maybe they saw the guy with a deformed leg, the oversized shoe turned outward and the large custom pedal made just for him, ride through the Iowa hills, smiling and pedaling. Maybe. Maybe they rode with the man who weighed over three-hundred pounds last year, but who trained six-hundred miles, lost a bunch of weight and hit the road. Maybe you rode with the sixty-two year old man who rode ten-thousand miles last year. Maybe bikers heard the mighty cry of the Marine team, "Hooahhh!"
Maybe they rode in line with dozens whom one by one assisted an old man with an extra handle on the side of his bike and a sign on his back that read something like, "Help me up the hill please?" New strangers-turned-friends formed behind him day in and day out, but the line remained. Each rider took hold of the handle and rose to the hills with him a couple hundred feet before drifting off to the back of the line, allowing another rider to take their place another couple hundred feet. Maybe riders saw their privilege.
Maybe it takes might and vulnerability to be the best.
Maybe cyclists rode with the woman who only two years ago had not picked up a bike in twenty years, but whom this year decided she could do the optional one-hundred miles on day five.
My wife rolled into camp 107.6 miles later.
Maybe. Maybe they rode with the man with Spina Bifida whose doctors couldn't have dreamed he'd walk let alone ride his bicycle over almost twenty-four thousand feet of hills in one week.
We all rode with the thousands in the rain. Bikers stopped with hundreds at a warm church to take some coffee and sugar and an excellent breakfast. Maybe they were there when the church lady opened an oven so that cold, wet hands could warm. Maybe they were one of the many awed by the generosity of the janitor who would clean up the next day. Maybe the same home-owner opened his garage to others as he did for my wife and some teammates so they could again escape the rain and warm up.
Maybe. Maybe their support crew humbly, joyfully and unabashedly kept them in tip-top shape. And maybe their support blessed them as ours did us before we left in the morning.
I saw him the next day, I did. Deep, white side-burns defied a feeble cover for the giant inside--a silhouette of other days--the good 'ol days whether they were or not. Bony knees shook as small feet and small stature clipped in. His bicycle swayed left and right as balance eluded him for three seconds. Then there he was, all 84 years of him headed out of another town, down another road. I remembered the coffee stains and the judgement and I rode behind him for a minute, hardly daring to pass such a hallowed road bull headed away from pasture. He's now held together by patience and the wisdom of the journey.
I'm a young bull. I will rise and meet the road that rises with me. But my nostrils flare by the example of the mighty and the unafraid who's courage ne'er wanes and who's life remains unfeigned.
Whether they rode last week with balloons in their helmets, or rolled with the hearts of hosts of angels, they revealed the wisdom of our years, the tenacity of spirit, the practicality of skill, the happiness of laughter, the satisfaction of effort, and enabled the vulnerability of joy.
And even when they whispered, I engaged in and witnessed a tour of triumph.