What if instead of cyclists, people saw us as people on bikes?
Knowing I’d be holding Sophia in a few short miles made the strenuous, blind-curve, no-shoulder climb going north over Backbone Ridge on Sneed Road southwest of Nashville that much easier. It’s never been entirely easy. I remember the first time I tried to do it, five years ago. I couldn’t. I stopped halfway up and sat on a guardrail, gasping for air, my chest tight. But that was before I was diagnosed with asthma, when I assumed 16 years of smoking had done irreparable damage to my lungs. Now, cigarettes years behind me, asthma in check and my lungs and legs healthier and stronger, I take bigger breaths, climb in larger gears on larger hills, and on this occasion, think about holding babies.
The chilly spring temperatures were fading, which made my ride from the Belle Meade area of Nashville southeast to the town center of Franklin perfect for my customary mid-ride mocha at the coffeeshop. Most area cyclists know a good part of this route. The stretch of Old Natchez Trace along the Harpeth River, that although peaceful and pastoral, can be miserable on a bike, because the city of Franklin or the county of Williamson or whoever is responsible for these things can’t seem to get around to paving it. But it dumps you out on Del Rio Pike, which is straightway flat heaven. You zip by horses and cows — cows tend to follow you with their heads — and old farms and big houses. I grew up in the city and have no idea why this is so pleasant to me. Come to think of it, I didn’t grow up an athlete either and have no idea why I’ve taken so hard to wearing really tight and colorful spandex clothing while riding a bicycle that is worth more than my car. Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything since I own a 2001 Suzuki Esteem with almost 100,000 miles on it. But that’s as it should be, as my bike-riding friends remind me.
Sophia’s dad, my close friend Thomas, texted me while I was enjoying my mocha to ask if I still wanted the beat-up, in-need-of-serious-restoration, 50’s dinette set he had been holding for me. I didn’t. You know how you think you’re a certain kind of person who likes a certain kind of thing, but then you get to a certain age and have to accept that maybe you are not that person? I used to think I was a 50’s dinette kind of person. I’m not. Or I’m not anymore. But then Thomas asked if I wanted to stop by on my ride back home anyway to see him and his wife, Becki, and Sophia. Of course I did.
The dinette set, along with a barrage of other things Thomas and Becki didn’t know what to do with, was outside the garage. What I wanted was inside. And then there she was. Sophia, 10-months-old, a little groggy from having just woken up, but ready and willing to be held by a sweaty, 41-year-old bearded man in bike shorts. And so we hung out a bit, her in my arms, both of us bouncing around and watching Thomas and Becki move things from one place to another. “What are they doing?” she seemed to be asking me. “They don’t know,” I replied.
I was on a high when I left them to ride down Highway 100 back home. A good portion of the road, from the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway going east to Edwin Warner Park has a soft shoulder ribbed with rumble strips. You can ride the thin space between the strips and the embankment, but it’s not safe. There’s scattered debris, and garbage containers and opened mailboxes. You’re a white-knuckled balancing act the whole way. The easiest thing is to ride on the road, hugging the white line to the right as best you’re able.
I felt the white pickup truck creep up next to me, terribly close, and knew something bad was about to happen. He began to lean in, to direct the front of the truck toward the shoulder to force me off me the road. I got pushed on to the rumble stripes, the bike shaking my body and chattering my jaw. I hopped to the right onto the space before the embankment, panicking and trying to steady myself. As he lurched forward, his hand in the back window pointed to the right to say “get over to the right.” I held my left hand up in confrontation. He sped off. I was furious. And scared. I never caught his license plate.
I stayed off highway 100 for the next couple of weeks. I’ve had people yell out the window at me, buzz me, and on one occasion, toss water out of a car. But never that. Never someone trying to kill me. It was the beginning of the cycling season, and I was jarred and shaken. I started mapping out alternative routes to the Natchez Trace Parkway. To Franklin. To Sophia.
I’m part of a bi-weekly writing group and a few weeks after the incident, we did an exercise that called for us to write briefly about something we experienced in the last few weeks that signaled the beginning of summer. Only what happened. No descriptions, no reflections, no color, no texture. Just a few minutes and only the facts. So I jotted down a couple of sentences about the guy in the pickup truck who tried to kill me. The second part of the exercise was to go back and fill in the details. To bring those facts to life and tell a story. I began and wrote about the temperature. The mocha. The ridge. The climbing. I wrote about Sophia. Essentially, I wrote the piece you’re reading. By the time the exercise ended, I hadn’t even gotten to the guy.
And maybe the guy hadn’t gotten to me.
Faced with fleshing out the facts, I didn’t immediately go to the guy in the white pickup truck that tried to run me off the road. I went to the baby with the soft skin that got me over the ridge. As I wrote, what I remembered of that day was not the fear — that up to that very moment, holding a pen above my notebook — was still gripping me. I remembered the warmth, and the personal growth, and the innocence that inspired me.
If that guy is out there, maybe he’ll read this and no longer see a cyclist on the road slowing him down, but a person. A person compelled to take big breaths to rebuild his lungs and climb big hills to challenge himself. A person who wants to take advantage of the sunny days and have a cup of coffee. A person with friends and family who looks forward to holding a baby in his arms. Maybe a person like him. Only on a bike.