“Ready. Set. Go.”
I dug my heels into the loose gravel, feeling the small pebbles fleck up against the back of my calves like tiny rain pellets. I hadn’t gone ten steps before there was a blur of movement to my right. Morgan passed me, to take the lead. I watched the neon green bottoms of his shoes flash tauntingly left-right, left-right as he rounded the first corner of the church. I gritted my teeth, determined not to let him get too far ahead. I pumped my arms harder, and felt my stride quicken. But it did not last long; something felt off. While my lungs and heart were in great shape, my legs felt like a pair ofdead weights. It was the first time I had been running in months, and my muscles weren’t used to it.
Five windsprints later and that fact couldn’t be more apparent. We weren’t even halfway done with our workout,and I was cooked. As I dogged my way around the church for the final time, I thought about what my cross country coach from high school would say. “Walker! Quit being such a pansy!”
Morgan was already at the finish line when I got there, bent over to catch his breath. I was relieved to see he had been struggling as well, but still embarrassed by my performance. Neither of us had expected the sprints would be so difficult.We had agreed on the workout as a way of getting some exercise in during the two weeks we were off our bicycles, working on a story in the village.
The first part of the workout was the windsprints. The second part was floor exercises.
“C’mon Chris –Put some strength into it!” Father Raja chuckled from his plastic lawn chair. I cursed under my breath.
I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so weak. I wasn’t more than two sets of pushups in and I wasn’t sure how many more times my shaking arms would liberate me from the ground. I heard laughing nearby. A group of boys from the village had gathered to watch the spectacle.I glanced over at Morgan to see that again, he was doing better I was, but still struggling.
We were both battling the same thing: the cycling body.
Eight months on the road, and six hours a day on the saddle does a few things to the body. It turns it into a machine. The machine it is geared, oiled, and calibrated to do one thing only. Cycle.
No matter how much junk food I eat, or how many other types of exercises I do during our weeks off the saddle, cycle touring always seems to transform my body into the same form. A few aspects of this are quite admirable. I’ve got a pair of thunder thighs and rippling calves that impress the ladies. I mean, when I see them in the Indian markets turning heads to watch me pass, I know it must be because of my well-formed legs. I just hope they don’t look above my waistline. At that point, my chances for a date are as good as over.
It only takes four days of bicycle touring before any fat or muscle I have accumulated elsewhere seems to melt right off my ribcage. It doesn’t take long before I start to look like Skeletor. I get plenty of reminders to that effect. Concerned friends, not to mention my parents, often remark that I’m not eating enough. The funny thing is, I don’t think they realize how much I do. Last night, Morgan and I gorged on a pot of rice that weighed three pounds. It’s about all we’re able to do without feeling sick. After all, those Tour de France guys have an advantage over us. To get more calories, they go to sleep with IV’s in their arms.
The one advantage of the cycling body is that I can wake up any morning and decide to ride 120 kilometers like somebody else might decide they’ll take a stroll around their neighborhood. My hours on the road have built the machine. When Morgan and I left Paris, we couldn’t go more than 30 km before stopping for a rest, or more likely for a chocolate croissant; our bodies were in constant shock from the amounts of energy we were expending. Now, we have become scarily efficient. It isn’t uncommon we ride 70 kilometers in one stretch before feeling the least bit sore.
We’ve just had to get used to the fact we can’t do anything else. As good a shape as we’re in, we’re in terrible shape. Things involving different muscle groups like running, or anything involving upper body strength, are exercises…in humility. We don’t have the energy to maintain floor exercises while we’re bike touring, and eating all the junk food we need to maintain weight just makes us feel terrible.
So at this point, I have acceptedthe idea that Skeletor will probably be my doppleganger for the next year. Kids will laugh at my pushups, my pants will fit tight, and my shirts will hang loose. But when I look at the ten thousand kilometers we still have to ride to Shanghai, I know the machine will be up to the task.