She thought biking 320 miles would be a breeze. Then came the hills. One outdoor lover challenges herself to “Pedal for the Parks.”
This wasn’t what I signed up for and it sure wasn’t fun. Wheezing out my new mantra, “Never, ever, ever will I have to climb this hill again,” I teetered on my bike as my speed stalled around 3 mph. At that moment, on an exposed stretch of asphalt in the middle of Maine on an 85-degree day, I entertained serious thoughts about quitting. It was mile 25 on day two of a five-day bike ride, and it was already the hardest physical and mental challenge of my life.
The Northeast Climate Ride, a 320-mile bike ride from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Boston, Massachusetts, raises awareness and funds for groups working on issues related to climate change, sustainability, and bike-friendly transportation systems. NPCA is one of more than 80 groups that participate and benefit from the ride. Last spring when I decided to take part, I pictured a flat route of glittering shoreline shaded by harvest-colored trees. I expected temperatures in the low 70s and leisurely pedaling made easier by a light wind at my back. I volunteered without a qualm.
Never mind that my biking experience didn’t stretch much beyond my three-mile roundtrip commute to graduate school more than five years before, or that my bike was a hand-me-down from my mother and roughly 27 years old. I invested in new tires, bike shorts, and a set of gloves. I discussed travel plans with four other colleagues on the ride and booked hotels, a rental car, and flights. We started fundraising, swapping training tips, and meeting for group rides.
September arrived, and we drove to Bar Harbor in a Suburban large enough to accommodate our bikes, our bags, and ourselves. As the car crested yet another mountainous hill, in a world of green (not golden) leaves, on a day of 80-plus degrees, a small twinge of fear gripped my heart.
The first day of the ride dawned bright and clear, and 130 jittery cyclists gathered in spandexed glory at the starting point. We were registered, tagged, handed directions, and plied with snacks. After strapping on our helmets, handing off our bags, and pumping up our tires, we turned left out of the parking lot and immediately hit a series of hills that didn’t stop for hours.
One secret I learned from a veteran rider about surviving long bike rides when you aren’t particularly trained for them is to distract yourself with your surroundings. Do not stare ahead at the hill to come. I tried that. I wound up cursing it and very nearly crying. Do not consider how many miles you have remaining that day, or in the days to come. You will very quickly talk yourself into a deep and dark place. Instead, take calming breaths and turn to your left or your right and see what you can see.
I can’t say I was terribly successful at this during the first two, long days in the saddle. But by day three, I noticed a miraculous shift.
My mind and body began to adjust to the new rhythm of straddling a bike seat for eight hours. As I propelled myself across previously unimagined distances, I dared to hope I might actually finish the ride. I tuned in to the world around me and was struck by a beautiful patchwork of idyllic scenes: a boy and girl on a tree swing in the middle of an overgrown meadow; an elderly couple in housecoats watching the day unfold from their rocking chairs; a congregation circled hand-in-hand outside a sanctuary; a father and son tossing a football beside an ocean muted by fog; a woman leading two horses from a paddock into a barn; an exercise class of senior citizens dutifully lifting dumbbells in a community center parking lot.
When not being passed by cheerier, fitter riders, I noticed the geography shift hour by hour. We rolled past coves filled with fishing boats, front yards crammed with lobster cages, and fields speckled with sheep. Like a carefree pack of kids on summer break, we cruised over sand-strewn streets in sleepy, seaside hamlets and weaved through bustling, tourist-filled towns. There were red barns rising over green hills, fields hushed by early morning mist, quaint shops, and clapboard houses with deep porches. Riotous flowers, overflowing farm stands, and wind-whipped flags added dashes of color and life while lighthouses, windmills, and rocky shorelines served as landmarks, water stops, and history lessons. Mile after mile—as we strained up hills, coasted around bends, and arced over bridges—the landscape buoyed our spirits and carried us closer to the finish line.
Predictably, many of us came from Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington, D.C., but others hailed from Colorado, Canada, and California. Riding as teams or as individuals, we spanned every age, from college student, to newlywed, to retiree. There were seasoned cyclists on ultra-light racing bikes and first-timers, like me, on hardworking hybrids. What stood out, however, was not our many differences, but our common cause. A surprising spirit of resiliency and boundless humor managed to dull the aches and transform the difficult miles into a source of pride and victory. Rallying despite flat tires, wrong turns, and skinned knees, we found perfection in the simplest of moments, like a sun-warmed chocolate chip cookie or a bracing plunge into a late-summer lake in Maine.
Three hundred and some odd miles later, as we rounded the corner into Boston Commons with sore backsides, aching muscles, and chapped lips, we celebrated the safe and successful conclusion of our multi-day trip. In the end, over high fives, hoots, and hugs, we realized it was never about the numbers. We had become the faces (and legs) of Climate Ride.
I’ve been back at work for a few days now, and my body has settled back into its old rhythm. Though my fingers still tingle from the pressure of my hands resting continuously on handlebars, my legs have ceased groaning with every step. And the hardest thing I’ve ever done? It’s somehow become one of the best things I’ve ever done, too.
You can join NPCA supporters and staff for a four-day charitable ride next February as part of our next exciting Climate Ride at Death Valley National Park. Learn more on the Climate Ride website.
About the author
Katherine DeGroff Associate and Online Editor
Katherine is the associate editor of National Parks magazine. Before joining NPCA, Katherine monitored easements at land trusts in Virginia and New Mexico, encouraged bear-aware behavior at Grand Teton National Park, and served as a naturalist for a small environmental education organization in the heart of the Colorado Rockies.