A couple of days ago, Jen, our medic, gave a small speech at our daily pre-supper rider’s briefing. Tallis, the Tour leader, booms out “riders’ meeting” and we gather as if the bell had rung for school assembly. Jen wants to remind us about wound care in the tropics; a couple of the riders had had severe cuts which had become infected. This kept them off their bikes for days at a time. After the lecture she added that we were more than halfway through the Tour and that the intense physical exertion of long daily rides would take its toll. It would be no shame, she said, in fact, necessary, to bike half days or take the occasional day in the truck simply to rest and recover.
It was only the day before that I was commiserating with a fellow rider, only a few years younger than myself, how tired we often were from the rigours of the road and inadequate sleep. On ride days we would try to get to bed by 7 or 7:30 in the evening to rise by 4:30 in the morning. But one never has the best sleep camping. The ground may be harsh, thorny, too much on a slope. The tents are never quite roomy enough; the cot or mattress never as comfortable as one’s bed; heat may suffocate or the dampness from condensation seep into one’s bones.
So we moaned. Then after a moment’s silence, we sheepishly grinned at each other and confessed: it may also be our age. She is in her early sixties; I recently turned seventy.
My age had been a concern for me in signing up for the Tour. Could I withstand the demands of such a Tour? I had been a runner for many years going out three or four times a week for long runs of fifteen or twenty miles. Then a couple of years before I noticed I couldn’t run the hills in the rapid, easy way I had been used to. My breathing was becoming more laboured. I went to see my doctor who sent me for a heart stress test. It registered a peculiarity. I was referred to a cardiologist. He took one look at me, heard my story and dismissed my concerns. There’s nothing wrong with your heart, he said, you’re getting older. This knocked me for a loop; I would rather have had some treatable disease than incurable age. A further test confirmed his diagnosis. Absolutely nothing wrong with me. Quite the contrary. I was very fit—for my age.
At every turn I seemed to be confronted by the fact of my age from my recalcitrant body to various dispensations or exceptions accorded to folks beyond some, to me, symbolic line in the sand. To join the Tour, I had to sign a special waver replete with scary language absolving them of any responsibility for my well-being simply because I had crossed their line (sixty-nine years old). In the bathroom mirror I was always shocked to see a man pushing into his late sixties or beyond with grizzled grey features and a white fringe around a bald dome.
In the mind’s mirror I saw a blurred indistinct figure, constantly morphing, one second a five-year old sitting under a tree lost in a book, a world newly discovered; in another a confused adolescent; then yet again a single parent perplexing his way through fatherhood. I was, am, all my ages in a shifting, simultaneous kaleidoscope. How could I then be this thing defined by one single number?
Yet, as I push on here I see how an extra day’s rest seems to make a greater difference to me than some of the younger riders. (The age range of our group goes from early twenties to early seventies.) The other day, I had to ride the truck because of a bothersome saddle sore, an enforced rest. The next day I performed superbly, outriding many who are normally faster and stronger than I am. Even this does not tell the whole story. For there are younger riders who seem to need as much rest as I; our oldest rider (a year my superior) is consistently strong and consistently out there every day for the full day’s ride.
I can’t set the clock back but the clock is not immutable. We do not live in a fixed time that moves us from present moment to present moment into a one-way direction called the future. We live in multi-dimensional space-time; there is no denying aging but it does not fix us like a butterfly in formaldehyde.
We are in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Tomorrow we push into Zambia. We have five long days ahead of us, averaging 145 kms a day, before reaching Lusaka and our next rest day. I am thinking that maybe I can ride every single km of it, depending on terrain, headwind and sleep. Not age.
Postscript: It is a week later and we are now on the outskirts of Lusaka for a day’s rest after a hard week. I did what I had set out to do including two of our longest rides back to back of over 170 kms each day (a double century, i.e., over 100 miles) followed by shorter distances (under 130kms) but tough climbs of up to 1770 meters.