I was shaking as I lay on the concrete driveway in Vader, Washington. My Wahoo read 129 miles – still 77 miles from the finish line of the longest ride I’ve ever done in my life. It was 10 a.m. on day two of Seattle to Portland, an annual 206-mile road ride organized by the Cascade Bicycle Club.
This year’s restart after two years of virtual events was an opportunity to capitalize on the pandemic cycling boom and diversify its rider base. Cascade reached out to affinity groups including North Star Cycling, Asian Bike Club, Gruppetto Cycling Club, and my own organization. All bodies on bikes. In the end, Seattle attracted around 5,400 cyclists to Portland.
At All Bodies on Bikes, our plan was simple: offer our affiliated riders discounted registration and meet at the start line. I started the ride with four other self-proclaimed All Bodies on Bikes riders, though eventually each found their own pace.
The first 102 miles sped by. When the first day ended, I camped at the designated hub, a community college in Centralia, Washington. I pitched my tent in a field full of colorful tents with riders of all ages and genders as we all shared the stories of the day. By 6pm the beer garden was dry so most of us called it an early night. The 5 o’clock rollout would come before we knew it.
In the morning, with 104 miles to go to Portland, I made a crucial misjudgment: I decided to ride alone. I prefer to drive like this most of the time. I’ve grown to enjoy hours in the saddle alone with my thoughts, at my own pace over hundreds of gravel miles through Kansas, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and my new home state of Arkansas.
I rolled out of the field just after sunrise and headed into historic downtown Centralia. My plan was to cover as many miles as possible before the sun came out in full force. After that, I hoped to meet friends or find horseback riding friends. I felt sore and tired, but my body did exactly what I asked it to do – first.
The first 20 miles ran parallel to the interstate. From time to time bollards lined the path. As I trotted on, a fast moving peloton came up behind me and passed me on the left. I cycled seven more miles past the interstate alone. I started to feel lonely and looked for a friendly face. With no company to distract me, my mind was consumed with self-doubt and pity. Can I do this ride? Why am I even trying out here? I’m walking so slowly, I won’t be there until midnight. My knee hurts. My butt hurts.
While training for Unbound Gravel, a race in Emporia, Kansas, I got advice from Meg Fisher, a former Paralympic athlete and good friend: “If you get sad or unhappy on your ride, you need to eat. Take a break and eat something.” While I couldn’t solve the problem of riding alone, I could definitely eat something. And that’s where I found myself, lying on the ground at the truck stop in Vader, eating cold pickles and potatoes, and wondering if I could go on. Riders passed me, almost every part of a pack. I didn’t do this right.
Every minute I lay there, more and more lactic acid built up in my legs and precious time passed. My mental will to finish was deteriorating. My thoughts went dark again. How long would it take to drive to Portland from here? If I crashed on purpose, could I get a free ride to the end?
I realized I could keep going on my own, knowing that each mile would get harder the deeper I sink into my self-inflicted funk. Or I could find new friends to ride with. After all, I’m not exactly a stranger to most people.
My entire professional life revolves around making people feel welcome, included and empowered on the bike. As co-founder of All Bodies on Bikes, my name has become synonymous with inclusive bike touring. Why on earth did I try to do this ride alone? As it turns out, long drives are meant to be shared — and no matter how much I think I like being alone, 200 miles is way too much to drive alone.
After admitting that I had to ride with people, I wasn’t alone for long. I heard my old friends, Alison and Ginny, who I joined on Monday night gender-specific rides in Seattle, call my name as they rounded the corner at the rest stop. The three of us rolled on to Portland.
But at mile 62, nagging thoughts came back to me: I still had to pack my bike and catch a 7am flight the next morning. At my pace I finished at 7pm and then I had to disassemble my bike for the journey.
When we pulled into the next rest stop, I had a plan. I would go to Portland with someone happy with my 164 mile ride. It wouldn’t be the full route, but this was by far the longest road ride I’ve ever done.
While Ginny and Alison were filling up at the rest stop, I slowly circled the parking lot, looking for a friendly face. It wasn’t long before I came across Bike Works’ 15-person van, with a bike rack on the back. Bike Works is a community bike organization in Seattle. That’s where I attended my first bicycle repair course. The crew was from Seattle to Portland supporting a group of riders from the North Star Cycling Club and the Asian Bike Club (ABC).
The Bike Works support people asked no questions when I asked for a ride to Portland. They grabbed my bike, loaded it onto their luggage rack and reassured me I wasn’t a burden as I got into the van, exhausted and somewhat grumpy. Seconds later I was fully gambled in the second row.
I woke up 14 miles down the road when we stopped at the next rest stop. I don’t know if it was FOMO or the best power nap in the world, but when I woke up I was ready to ride. We unloaded my bike and I set off again, slowly pedaling south. After nearly 30 miles along a highway, I crossed the St. John’s Bridge into Portland. By the time I crossed the finish line, the celebrations had ended and the food trucks were mostly out of food. I grabbed my finisher souvenir and made my way to the hotel.
I was happy with my ride, proud of the distance I rode and never had to do it again.
Two weeks after Seattle I flew to Portland for another cycling event in Richmond, Vermont. Rooted Vermont is a gravel race that is also committed to promoting a more inclusive environment. It was a much smaller event but there were some admirable inclusion practices that all organizers could learn from.
Rooted reserved half of its 800 registration spots for women and non-binary cyclists. Rather than being surrounded by a monochromatic sea of Lycra-clad dudes, I shared the starting line with members of Melanin Base Camp, Queens and Kings Ride Together, and the Houston Gravel Collective.
Rooted hosted a BIPOC shakedown ride, a women’s forum (disclosure: I was the keynote speaker), and discussion groups. They provided financial assistance to underrepresented communities. By Sunday, when it was time for the actual ride in Vermont, all the contestants had been hanging out together for almost two days. During this time we created our own inclusive Gravel community.
Is that asking too much of a road event? Possibly. It’s a different format and a much larger audience. But inclusion is more than just inviting community affinity groups. It nurtures these communities. center us. Learn from each other and get better together on every ride. The invitation to the starting line is just that: a start.
Marley Blonsky is the co-founder of All Bodies on Bikes, a movement promoting body size inclusion in the cycling industry.