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Keeping up

November 6, 2013

You never know what you can do until you do it. This was reinforced for me recently on a cycling trip in southern France. My friend Kara had suggested this trip as a way to see part of Europe in an intimate way on a budget. We have been cycling since childhood, often together, but neither of us had pedaled farther than the length of Manhattan in many years. We picked a tour company that offered “easy” itineraries on relatively flat terrain. Still, it was an ambitious plan.

I almost backed out weeks before the start, fearing I was not prepared. But the thought of disappointing Kara (or incurring her wrath) was more unsettling than the idea of being lost and exhausted in a foreign land. So I stepped up my training and bought some padded bike pants to defend against saddle sores. A cycling mentor told me if I could cycle around Prospect Park in Brooklyn three times in one outing, I would be ready.

The first time I tried the full perimeter of the park, I flagged by the second half and had to walk my bike up the last hill. But before long I was able to circle the park without dismounting. Then, with a few weeks to go, I made the second circle. My euphoria was tempered by a thorough reading of the trip itinerary. It said our first day out would cover 45 kilometers. At that rate, I would be riding the equivalent of ten circles around Prospect Park on the first day. And not on a smoothly paved road-bed.

The Canal du Midi in France is part of a navigable waterway that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean. It was the life’s work of Pierre Paul Riquet, who died six months before it opened in 1680. I don’t think the bike path has been resurfaced since then. Roots of the huge plane trees that line the canal as it snakes through vineyards from the sea bisect the path like serpents, and along with rocks cause a bumpy ride. The canal climbs over 110 meters via 63 locks. Our steepest rise was about 50 meters on any one day, with optional side trips that were steeper.

Before we left New York, I conquered the third lap around the park. I felt good. I felt strong. I was a fool. Certain that my route was more demanding than my friend’s training ground on the West Side Highway, I pictured her at the back of the pack, straining to keep up. In fact, the opposite was true.