Several months ago, I discovered that Dayton’s bike trails connect all the way to the eastern suburbs of Cincinnati, a city that I lived in for almost 10 years and loved. I used to bike around the hilly city regularly, especially for the year when I lived over the river in northern Kentucky in the Bluffs, the apartment complex on the hill as you cross the river on the I-75 bridge south. I used to bike down the hill, over the river and through the flat streets of downtown, often stopping at Findley Market for an Italian sausage out of one of those big grills.
I set a big goal: Bike from my home in Kettering, Ohio, to Cincinnati’s Sawyer Point, a beautiful riverfront park right downtown. My best guess was that it was about 80 miles.
To put this in perspective, my longest ride ever was 36.2 miles (home to Franklin and back). The next longest was under 30 (home to Yellow Springs one way). Eighty miles was a big leap.
I set out early last Sunday morning, about 10 minutes before 8 o’clock. Big storms had blown through the night before, and there was still technically a tornado watch for the region when I left. I say “technically” — the watch expired at 9 a.m., but I’d checked the radar, and it showed that the storms had already passed by. With an extra set of clothes, a set of hand-written directions, and some fruit, peanut butter and bread in my panniers, I set out solo from home.
Maybe it was the adrenaline of finally setting off. I hadn’t slept well the night before from anticipation, and now I was off. Riding to Xenia is a pretty substantial ride, but today it would be just a drop in the bucket. With the help of a friendly breeze behind me, a slight downgrade and fresh legs, I cruised along comfortably at 20-25 mph pace for a lot of it. I had to slow considerably once for a deer that wouldn’t run off, and I saw more rabbits than I could count. A frog made me practically jump out of my pedals to avoid him.
It was a lovely ride through the woods, past the dragstrip and empty ballfields all the way to Xenia Station. Xenia Station, which I’d seen on maps but never in person, turned out to be a parking lot from what I could tell. I turned right to cut south, and as far as I was concerned, my ride was really beginning. I was a little under the 20-mile mark.
Since Sunday, several people have asked me about my route. I’ll describe parts of it here, but the gist of it is shown in the map at top. All but about 12 or so miles was on shared-use bike paths. I picked up a path in eastern Dayton, rode that to the Creekside Trail, which got me to Xenia. In Xenia, I turned south on the Little Miami Scenic Trail, which took me all the way to the edge of Mariemont in Cincinnati. I got off the trail there and navigated streets for maybe 10 miles.
One of the reasons I was hustling to and through Xenia was that Michelle and Kevin, two friends, offered to ride along with me on part of the ride. They decided to hook up with me in Spring Valley, about 6 miles south of Xenia, and ride south a bit from there. I rode fast to avoid keeping them waiting, though I know they’d have waited happily. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I was coming through Spring Valley, wondering where we were actually supposed to meet, when I saw Michelle walking her bike up to the trail. I’d just arrived & they’d just arrived at the same spot. Serendipity…
So, we rode south. This section of the trail showed the worst effects of the storms the night before. Sticks everywhere, a few bigger fallen branches and debris just all over the place. We could also feel the wind starting to shift. Or maybe it was us shifting. It had been coming out of the west, but we increasingly felt it in our faces, not terribly but enough to make us aware of it. We rode two and three abreast at pretty good pace, probably an average of about 16 miles an hour. Along the way, I topped 36.2 miles, making this officially my longest ride ever, even if I didn’t go another foot. By the time we stopped at Fort Ancient about 16 miles south of where we met, I was around the 42 mile mark.
We took a break by Morgan’s Livery, which was hosting a paddle-bike-run triathlon that day, so we were surrounded by some very fit folks in spandex.
A digression: I was wearing for the first time bike shorts. I’d gotten some pretty solid advice that if I was to survive this ride, they were essential for keister comfort. I wore a pair of shorts over them and an old soccer jersey. I’m not much of a physical specimen. Overweight, gray-haired, unshaven. Some days I could play Yassir Arafat in a Lifetime movie. I’m nothing to look at, but here I was surrounded by fit triathletes, the muscle-ratti gathered at a lithe-a-thon. I wasn’t one of them, but I felt good about what I was doing. Kevin snapped a photo of me before I had a chance to sit up straight while Michelle checked my tire size to see whether she could loan me a spare inner tube, just in case.
After a bit of a break, Michelle and Kevin headed back north, and I changed into some lighter, dry clothes now that the sun was high. I took off further south, riding against the traffic of the triathletes.
South from Fort Ancient, the next big milestone was Loveland, but I was getting confused about how far away it was. I’d forgotten the order of towns, and it wasn’t always obvious what town I was in. I was expecting Corwin-Morrow-Loveland, but Morrow took forever, and there was no sign of Loveland for a long, long time. I thought it might be six miles, but those miles went by, then 10, then 15 and still no sign of Loveland.
I was tired, I was alone, I was discouraged and I’d started to wonder if I’d make it all the way. Though I’d gone more than 40 miles and topped my longest ride ever, I knew I had another longest-ride-ever ahead of me. I’d already gone really far. I could call it quits somewhere nearby and still have the pride of a very long ride. I kept pedaling as I thought through it all, adding up more miles.
Around mile 50, somewhere between Morrow and South Lebanon, if memory serves, I heard a tell-tale “ping” and looked down between my legs. My rear wheel, which had just been trued, was going rowr-rowr-rowr, warped all to hell. I’d broken a spoke. Two weeks earlier, I’d broken a spoke, and the warped wheel rubbed against the brake so hard I could hardly pedal it. This time, I kept moving, looking at the path ahead and down between my legs thinking, “Well, I guess that’s it.”
My speedometer also caught my eye. Despite the broken spoke, I was still going 16-17 mph. I wasn’t slowing down at all. I was sore and hurting, but no worse than I’d been 10 miles earlier. “OK,” I told myself, “This is now about whether you’ll refuse to give in.” Marathon runners say the last few miles are all mental. This was now my marathon, and whether I made it was just a question of what I as willing to put up with. Sore back, tired legs, dry eyes — I have all of that but I’m still cruising at 14-16 mph, and my broken spoke isn’t slowing me down.
Looking back, that’s when I really finished the ride, when I decided not to quit unless my bike just wouldn’t go forward anymore.
The wind kicked up in my face now, but it wasn’t like pedaling into a wall. I kept going, moving somewhere between 12-14 mph on average. As I finally got closer and closer to Loveland, traffic on the trail really picked up, and it didn’t let up much until I got off the trail far south of there near Newtown.
Loveland’s a really lovely place for cyclists. The path in town is lined with little cafés, ice cream shops, even a BBQ joint, all right on the trail. It was a lovely oasis and a nice place to stop for lunch. As I ate a banana and a peanut butter sandwich, I called Teresa to update her on my progress. She was with the boys at Ikea, eating hotdogs.
Back on the bike, sore, tired and wondering when my wheel would finally give out, I headed south through Milford and then to Newtown, where the trail portion of my ride ended. There were no signs, but I’d studied the map enough to know Newtown Road overhead when I saw it. My odometer read about 70 miles. 70-damn-miles. Me. You’ve seen the photo above, right? I mean, c’mon. That guy rode 70 miles.
When I got off the trail, I was euphoric. This was the home stretch. I had only about 10 miles to go, and I would be riding on streets I know in a city I love. I’d go west through charming Mariemont, turn south to go past Lunken Airport and then west through Columbia-Tusculum, where I’d ride right in front of the last apartment I had in Cincinnati, a charming duplex with a vestibule and lovely tilework. Once I hit my old apartment, I had 3.8 miles left. I can bike that in my sleep, no matter how tired I am. Getting off at Mariemont meant I’m practically there.
I rode off the bike trail, and staring at me on Wooster Pike above was a huge friggin’ hill. Uphill. Probably about .25 miles long, not miserably steep but a very steady climb. I steeled myself and started climbing. Ugh. But there was no question of quit now. I was too close. My wobbly wheel was still turning. I wasn’t calling for a ride from here.
I made it up the hill at about 5 mph and through Mariemont, then through the industrial zone to Lunken Airport, where I used to hit golf balls at the driving range. Through here, I had to keep pulling my directions out of my pocket to avoid a wrong turn. I didn’t need any extra distance, even tenths of miles. My directions were in a plastic bag, along with two $5s, my driver’s license and my health insurance card (Teresa’s suggestion). I stopped in the shade of a tree to phone Teresa again and let her know I was getting close. After we got off the phone, I reached into my pocket for my directions, but nothing. They were gone.
No directions, no license, no health card, no $10. Damn. I checked my other pockets, my panniers, but nothing. I called Teresa back.
“I think I have a problem,” I told her.
“Can you go back and see if you can spot it?” she asked.
“I’ll try,” I promised.
I wasn’t happy with myself for being so careless, but I turned my bike around and started riding back along the route I’d taken, away from Sawyer Point. I knew I had limited energy, and I was using it to go the wrong direction. I went back about half a mile and saw nothing. It was a fool’s errand, and I was being a fool. I wasn’t going to find it, and I couldn’t change that. I didn’t need the directions anymore because I knew the way. So I turned back around and rode past Lunken a third time.
I started having weird trouble with my gears. At one point in my fruitless search, I had shifted to the smallest gear on the back wheel, and my chain came off. I downshifted and caught cogs again, but it all felt very chunky. I shifted back and forth as I rode from Lunken to Eastern Avenue, trying to figure out what was up and discovered I had only two or three cogs in the middle of the rear gears that I could reliably use. Broken spoke, and now something wrong with the gears. My derailer seemed bent out at a weird angle too.
But my wheels were still turning when I pedaled. At this point, I was less than six miles away. I was holding up better than my bike. It was limping along, but I kept going.
I limped past my old apartment on Eastern Avenue, which came up a lot quicker than I’d remembered, and turned onto the last road I’d take: Riverside Drive. 3.8 mostly flat miles along the river to Sawyer Point. I looked at my odometer. It read 84 point something. I started to tell myself, “It won’t hit 89.”
I could see the I-471 bridge, which runs right through Sawyer Point. I’d ride right under it to get to the large green lawn in front of the amphitheater where I planned to end. I could see the bridge getting closer. I topped 85 miles. “I won’t hit 89 miles,” I kept repeating to myself.
And I got closer and closer. 86 miles, 87 miles, 88 miles. “I won’t hit 89.”
And I turned left into Sawyer Point. There were people everywhere — families, kids, motorcycle cops, a clown on stilts and a DJ playing the chicken dance and the hokey-pokey. I’d made it.
I rode toward the giant lawn in front of the amphitheater, and not 50 feet before it, I carelessly tried to change gears to get up a slight rise. My chain completely locked. My pedals would not turn. I had to get off and walk the last damn 50 feet. Then I collapsed in the grass, deliriously happy. This is the picture I took laying there, the only one Teresa or I thought to take that afternoon.
I called Teresa, who’d just arrived with our two sons. The boys came running to me on the grass when they saw me, and I unexpectedly choked up a little. It was very sweet. It reminded me of myself at age 8 running to my dad at an airport in upstate New York. An Air Force serviceman, he’d been stationed in Korea for a year, and I wore funny goggles to the airport to welcome him back.
After a few hugs, I laid on the grass awhile while Teresa took the boys around. All the people were at Sawyer Point for something called Kidsfest. What luck. They had some fun on the inflatable bouncies and playground, and I laid on my back and rested my legs. Then we walked to the car, put the bike in the back and drove an hour up the interstate to home.
88.49 miles, 6 hours & 18 minutes on the bike, a little more than 7 hours total. My house to Sawyer Point. Check.
Addendum: The next day I was shocked not to be sore. I was a little tired but otherwise normal. My bike was much worse for wear than I was. In addition to the broken spoke, I discovered I’d broken off the smallest cog of the gears on my rear wheel. I had eight cogs but arrived with seven, and those seven were wobbling back and forth in the extra space. The broken cog and chain trouble also stressed my rear derailer to the point that I’d bent it all out of whack. Instead of being parallel with the wheel, it stuck out at about a 30 percent angle. And the bike was filthy, as I was. I’ve since showered, and the bike’s in the shop. A good Samaritan mailed my license, health card, directions and $10 back to me the next day. His daughter had found it at Lunken Airport. Nice people in this world.