Even though my hands were throbbing in pain, releasing even one from the handlebars wasn't a choice. The crosswind blew so hard a garbage can lifted and launched like a missile across the road just ahead of me. I'd lost sight of Peggy a half-hour before. For all I knew she was already in Milwaukee. This trip was turning into Bike to Hell Day.
Peggy was a bad-ass bicyclist when we first met. Not a racer but someone who took her weekly hard ride to Paoli seriously. She owned a competition Trek. All sleek with artful trim, it was as pretty as its rider.
I had a 1968 Schwinn Typhoon.
I had recently finished my own life as a competitor -- an 18-year swimming career. I felt invincible in the physical fitness department, so when new girlfriend Peggy suggested we ride bikes to Milwaukee at the end of the summer I said, "Sure!"
"You better start riding," she said one morning in June as I watched her push away from her apartment toward Paoli. "It's so cute that she thinks I should be working out on a bicycle!" I thought. Then I went back to bed.
We sat down to plot our route one afternoon in July. Looking at the map was a wake-up call for sure. Madison to Milwaukee was clearly a longer ride than my new workout course: Bedford Street to the Plaza bar.
"I don't think the Typhoon is gonna cut it," I said.
"Really?" Peggy said with sarcasm.
"I think I'm gonna need at least a three-speed."
I put off the bike upgrade until a day or two before our ride. My pal Gregg had a Schwinn Continental he said he'd loan to the cause. The Continental, as you may know, was a respectable, regular-guy 10-speed in its day. By today's standards it'd be like riding Mike Tyson.
Gregg's was beefed up with steel fenders and one of those bike lights that runs on the generator when you positioned the post against the wheel rim. I felt like a European racer when I pulled out of his driveway.
On the way across town I practiced shifting gears. This is how that went: I picked one of the levers from the two frame-mounted choices. I pulled and tugged until the gear-grinding sounds became unbearable, which happened just as all forward momentum vanished. Then, just before falling over, I'd wrestle the lever back to where it had been, in the neighborhood of fifth gear. Repeat.
We left the next morning.
You never really feel a crosswind in the city. I'd never even heard of a crosswind. This one gave the word dual meaning. It ran sideways, and it had a hot temper. I was grateful that the Continental weighed as much as a Harley.
In my trial run I learned that trying to shift gears was a useless, noisy bother. Why invite that? Instead, I shifted to plan B even though, when I thought about it, I'd never seen anyone standing up to pedal a 10-speed. What dumb asses, because it worked like a charm. Fifth gear seemed the perfect gear to get to Milwaukee. Peggy rode ahead of me. Further and further ahead of me.
County Road BB heading east looks flat. But it's not. It dips and falls, then forms little climbs to another slight downhill pass the likes of which became farther and fewer between. I had to hold on tighter to the curved handlebars when I stood to pedal. No wonder the pain started in my hands. A couple miles out of Lake Mills the hurt was on in my back, too. Sweat rolled down into my eyes and settled in like bee stings.
Peggy was waiting for me under a tree in town, reconsidering our relationship. We went into a tavern and had sandwiches and beers. The Trek and the Continental were locked side by side. If a stranger looked at the bikes he would never have guessed the two riders were traveling together.
But ride together we did. For the next stretch of miles. Now I resented the Continental's heaviness as I looked enviously at Peggy's feather on wheels. Also this: Standing on the pedals was getting old. "Hold up!" I yelled. We pulled off the road into the high grass.
Upon close inspection I saw that the light generator post was rusted in position right onto the wheel rim. It snapped completely off when I tried to pull it away. Like magic, the riding instantly became easier. I didn't even have to stand up to pedal. Still, by the time we reached Brookfield my body was in such raging pain and fatigue I told Peggy I either had to stop or ride directly to the hospital.
Her father drove a beat-up, maroon Cadillac Fleetwood. He helped me put the Continental in its casket-like trunk. I never went to the hospital, but I rode the rest of the way to Milwaukee sprawled across its back seat, as big as a hospital bed.