Going with the flow and finding one's place

Published March 12, 2007

DADE CITY - When one bad thing happens to a cyclist - when your legs and lungs suddenly catch fire with exhaustion - it is usually followed by something even worse:

Through fatigue-fogged eyes you see the pack of other riders disappear up the road. So, when you are at your weakest, you face the prospect of riding the rest of the way without companionship or encouragement, with no one to help you fight every riders' enemy, the wind.

In the cyclists' term that perfectly describes not only the falling behind but the accompanying humiliation - you've been dropped.

I had hoped that for once this might not happen to me at the St. Petersburg Times Bike Tour, which started at the Dade City campus of the Pasco-Hernando Community College and, depending on the route the riders chose, circled either nine, 40, or 75 miles through the surrounding countryside.

Two years ago, when the event was revived after a hiatus of more than a decade, I lasted 50 miles with the lead group. Last year, it was just short of 60.

This year, nearby races on Saturday and Sunday were expected to siphon off some of the best riders - the "hammerheads" who might otherwise ride in the Times Tour, said Glenn Weber, owner of one of the event's sponsors, the San Antonio Cyclery.

"The racers will be doing those events," he said last week, "so the tourers and the hard-core recreational riders should be out in force."

Not quite "in force" it turned out. The tour attracted about 450 riders, slightly better than last year, but down significantly from the 800 who showed up the first year.

Also, some hammerheads did appear, as they always do, including Bill Shook, a former age group national champion, and Robert Stevens of Dunnellon, who would finish the ride in 3 hours, 38 minutes.

They dropped me after 4 miles.

A few years ago, that would have meant the day was a failure, a write-off after less than 15 minutes on the road.

But Sunday, as I settled in with the next bunch down the road, I started to realize it was the best thing that could happen to me, that I'd ended up with a group that was more my speed in every way.

I was fresh enough to do my share of work at the front, not just hang on desperately as I had in the past.

I was comfortable enough to look at something other than the wheel in front of me and take in the sights - and, even better, the sweet smell - of a perfect spring day in orange blossom season.

I could consider that all this effort was not just for fun and exercise, but also to benefit the Police Unity Tour, which raises money for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.

After a few miles, I thought there might even be a lesson in this ride about entering a new, less frantic time of life. That is especially true because it was accompanied by a steady stream of riding advice from the self-appointed patron boss of our little peloton, Tom Singletary. It sounded like a good general way to approach things.

"Don't kill yourself, we have a long way to go," said Singletary, 65, a Tampa lawyer and veteran cyclist and runner.

"Go steady. Don't do anything unpredictable."

When we had 30 miles to go, he yelled out that it was 45, in case anybody was thinking about getting overeager.

When we rounded a corner near the home stretch, he sang out a line from an obscure barroom ballad, a reminder that it wouldn't hurt to take some time to relax after we were done:

"Three more miles and we'll be home, drinking beer with lots of foam."

Another consequence of being dropped after hanging on too long with a too-fast group: You are so tired, your pace slows to a crawl; you find yourself being passed by children and senior citizens and folks riding leaden-looking, knobby-tired mountain bikes.

This year, I rolled over the last hill with Singletary and the rest at a brisk pace. And, when I looked at my watch, I'd found I'd finished several minutes faster than the year before.

Not that it mattered, of course.

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352)754-6116.