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December 03, 2016
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Keeping up

You never know what you can do until you do it. This was reinforced for me recently on a cycling trip in southern France. My friend Kara had suggested this trip as a way to see part of Europe in an intimate way on a budget. We have been cycling since childhood, often together, but neither of us had pedaled farther than the length of Manhattan in many years. We picked a tour company that offered “easy” itineraries on relatively flat terrain. Still, it was an ambitious plan.

I almost backed out weeks before the start, fearing I was not prepared. But the thought of disappointing Kara (or incurring her wrath) was more unsettling than the idea of being lost and exhausted in a foreign land. So I stepped up my training and bought some padded bike pants to defend against saddle sores. A cycling mentor told me if I could cycle around Prospect Park in Brooklyn three times in one outing, I would be ready.

The first time I tried the full perimeter of the park, I flagged by the second half and had to walk my bike up the last hill. But before long I was able to circle the park without dismounting. Then, with a few weeks to go, I made the second circle. My euphoria was tempered by a thorough reading of the trip itinerary. It said our first day out would cover 45 kilometers. At that rate, I would be riding the equivalent of ten circles around Prospect Park on the first day. And not on a smoothly paved road-bed.

The Canal du Midi in France is part of a navigable waterway that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean. It was the life’s work of Pierre Paul Riquet, who died six months before it opened in 1680. I don’t think the bike path has been resurfaced since then. Roots of the huge plane trees that line the canal as it snakes through vineyards from the sea bisect the path like serpents, and along with rocks cause a bumpy ride. The canal climbs over 110 meters via 63 locks. Our steepest rise was about 50 meters on any one day, with optional side trips that were steeper.

Before we left New York, I conquered the third lap around the park. I felt good. I felt strong. I was a fool. Certain that my route was more demanding than my friend’s training ground on the West Side Highway, I pictured her at the back of the pack, straining to keep up. In fact, the opposite was true.

On the first day out in Beziers, France, a sturdy town at the top of a steep hill overlooking a valley of vineyards that stretches to the sea, I was chosen to be at the back of the group because my fluorescent yellow shirt would be easy for our leader to spot. It was to be my fate for the rest of the trip even without the shirt. My propensity for stopping to photograph obscure things like my favorite “French blue” doors or a herd of white horses secured my position at or near the rear all week.

My only accidents came from stopping my bike, not riding. Once, I lost my balance while waiting for stragglers and fell backwards onto the road, with my bike on top. A driver behind me stopped immediately to see if he could help. The French are considerate of cyclists. It is their national sport and pastime. Another time, I communed side-long into a fig tree. But I can’t blame my last-place standing on injury. Kara and I both had falls and used ample amounts of Arnica gel to soothe our sore muscles. In the end, we were proud of our journey. We celebrated with a weekend in Paris, acknowledging 50 years of a friendship that has stood many tests over time.