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Traveling by bike provides unique view of the world
 
Published in The Herald  Friday, August 19, 1988
 
Rusty Forrest, our new bicycling columnist, is a long-distance rider.  He travels up to 250 miles a week, sometimes making one-day, 200-mile trips, criss-crossing the Carolinas.  Along the highways and byways, he stops in places like Liberty Hill and Blowing Rock, taking in the sights and talking to local folks.  The 30-year-old  has been "riding forever" and recently completed a 1,350-mile, 17-day trip to Panama City, FLA., and back.
 
The gas station owner in Union pulled his tobacco pipe from his mouth and peered curiously over his glasses.  He studied me for a second, then glanced over at my bicycle leaning against the Coke machine.  He was certain he had heard wrong.

 "Wait a minute now," he mused.  "You're gong where?"
 "Due West," I repeated.  "Where Erskine College is."
 "And back to Rock Hill?"  I nodded yes.
 "Today?"  I nodded again.
 

The man gave me the wildest look I have ever seen in person.  It lasted at least 15 seconds.  It was the same look you see frozen on the hapless victim's face in the horror movies.  The very thought of riding a bicycle 200 miles scared this man deeply.  Finally he snapped out of it and shook his head.  "Not me, buddy."


One of the many things I love about distance riding is meeting folks on the road.  I'll never know their names, and they don't know mine, but there's something about a tired and road-dirty bicyclist that attracts every curious person within a hundred yards.  "Where ya goin'?  Where all ya been?  What's that gizmo ya got right there, some kinda speedometer or sumpthin"  I know what that other thing is.  That's your water jug.  Whatcha carry in it?  Aren't you afraid of dogs?"
 
The day I went to Due West, my ride got all off schedule, mostly because of public relations.  Every single time I stopped, somebody wanted to talk.  It was on this day that I finally realized just how often this happens.  Over the years, I have fielded a thousand bicycle questions from hundreds of strangers, but when I started riding long-distance, these strangers began to interview themselves.


These folks come cruising into the local burger joint or gas station with their minds in the usual humdrum mode.  Suddenly they're staring at a sweaty cyclist, so they must ask where he's going.  They just can't help themselves.  They have to ask.  It's friendly human nature.  They always seem shocked at the answer.  They abruptly discover that the sweaty cyclist is in the process of pedaling a bike farther than they would care to drive their car with the air conditioning on.  It conjures up some involuntary on-the-spot soul searching every time.


By far the most common reaction is a blank stare.  Some people will follow the blank stare with a dumbfounded, "Why?"  Others will quickly round up the kids and leave, figuring me to be dangerously sadistic.  A much smaller minority will claim that they would like to ride a bicycle that far, but they just don't have time.  Still, even these folks look at me as if I'm headed for the gallows.


I don't care what any of them say anyhow.  My mind's made up.  I work, I sleep, I ride.  I have to do the first two, but I ride because I'm joyously hooked.


Bike riding attracted me from the start.  If my mom had ever known just how far I rode that sidewalk Huffy on those endless summer days ... well, 10 blocks seems like an eternity when you're only three feel tall.  I hadn't heard about ultramarathon cycling way back then.  I simply invented it.  When you're 6 and two miles from the house, you look scared and ride hard.


Being an adult ultramarathon cyclist brings with it a lot of unique responsibilities.  You have an image to uphold.  You have to always look real determined, and you must try not to let your tongue drag the pavement on a long climb.  Also you learn how to sneer like Clint Eastwood and say, "Scuse me, ma'm, but could you tell me....well...which way is South Carolina?"


Through it all, I have gained insight.  I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the world is still chock full of friendly people.  Forget what you hear on the news.  Good cheer is most definitely still winning.  I meet neighborly people at random every time I go out on a long bike ride.


Perhaps the bicycle itself is the catalyst for good relations.  Sometimes the gas station attendant accepts money from a half dozen hurried customers while he rambles on at great length for me, telling every bicycle story he knows along with a healthy dose of local history and some suggestions about where to stop in the next town.


Traveling by bicycle supplies me with full scoops of life at a time, rather than just a taste.  The people.  The places.  The traffic.  The wind.  The hills.  The dogs.  The potholes.  The thrill and challenge of it all.  You just can't find all that sitting at home.


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