Clippings: When biking is like a big group hug

At Middlebury College’s football stadium this past Saturday the parking lots were full, people filled the lawn to overflowing in front of the stadium on this fall-like morning, but none of the 495 athletes and hundreds of supporters were there to watch football — they were cyclists and they were there to ride 25, 50 or 100 miles in support of the Kelly Brush Foundation.
In the fourth year of the ride, which meanders through the Northwest part of Addison County and into Charlotte and Shelburne, the ride has grown exponentially, this year raising a record $200,000 to help promote ski racing safety and athletes with spinal cord injuries. It’s a worthy goal that has attracted attention throughout the national ski community and the Northeast. 
But as I was scurrying to find a place with friends at the back of the pack before the 9 a.m. start, a funny thought crossed my mind: Wouldn’t I rather be coming to this hallowed place in Americana (the football stadium) on an late summer weekend to watch football and yell for the home team, instead of getting ready to ride five to six hours on a hard, narrow bicycle seat with the threat of rain looming overhead?
That the answer is “no” deserves exploration.
Just what compels 495 otherwise reasonable adults to rise at 6 a.m. or earlier, drive long distances to a starting point, then ride 50 or 100 miles on bikes among a large pack of other riders? Just what is the point?
As a rock climber and mountaineer, I got it. As British climber George Mallory famously quipped in 1924 when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” It’s the same obsession as going to the moon. As humans, once we realize we have the capability to do it, someone will soon rise to meet the challenge. And the appeal of being one of a few people to actually stand on a summit, climb an unclimbed face of rock, or stand on the moon, poses a challenge that some adventurers simply can’t resist.
But biking? I mean, you can get to the same places in a car, or a motorcycle — and it’s a lot easier.
And as for biking in a group of 495 others, is that even fun — swerving in and out, dodging the rear tires in front of you, all the while being careful not to bump another tire or a shoulder and cause a group pile-up? And isn’t it a bit dangerous to ride in a pack going 25-27 mph just inches off the rear tire in front of you, let alone 40 mph downhill and around corners? 
Well, yes it can be a bit risky, and, yes, oddly, it is fun.
I’ve been biking for the past 20 years or more, at first, as a rookie racer in small team triathlons, then as part of a Middlebury Bike Club 15 or so years ago, at which point we routinely did 10-mile time trials and timed hill climbs up Middlebury Gap, and more recently on longer rides in groups. While much of the training is done solo, group rides are far more fun.
The appeal is social. In groups of five to a dozen or more, over a 30-to-40-mile ride (an hour and a half or two), you move around and talk to the different people in the group (you talk less going up hills). Sometimes you seek others out, other times the ebb and flow of the group just puts you in contact with different riders. There is a close camaraderie simply because you’re out there together enjoying the fresh air, Vermont’s spectacular scenery, and you’re being active.
In the larger group rides, like Saturday’s, you know you’re part of something bigger than yourself. The entry fees and fund-raising is all for a good cause, but what’s meaningful is that you’re with 494 other like-minded souls who enjoy the challenge of the moment.
The distance doesn’t matter all that much. Twenty-five miles can be challenge enough for many, and 50 miles is a good ride for almost everyone. A hundred miles through Vermont’s rolling hills? Well, admittedly, that’s a long way and your quads are barking at you when climbing those last several hills, no doubt about it.
But whatever distance one rides, however steep the hills or stiff the wind, what’s unique about longer rides is that everyone is pulling for you to finish, and everyone is proud of what you’ve accomplished. These rides, like ultra-marathons or ultra-distance trail running, are less about the competition to cross the line first and more akin to being part of a big group hug. 
If you don’t believe it, just watch the finish. Just seconds after the facial grimaces have faded and the leg cramps subsided, there are lots of high fives, bear hugs and big smiles. No disappointment in coming in 25th or 495th. The finish is personal and applauded by all. 
Not every sporting event can claim to be so egalitarian in principle — where every rider is a winner, and that is one of the charms of group rides.
As for preferring a 100-mile bike ride to watching football with friends on a sunny Saturday in the fall, let me limit that comparison to one or two weekends — as for the rest of the fall, I’ll happily be on the sidelines in blue jeans, kicking back and cheering the home team.

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