Five Northeast Mississippi cyclists explain their love of biking, things they’ve learned along the way and how they weathered accidents and discoveries.
– Gliding around the world: More than two decades of pedaling together have kept Dr. and Mrs. Jim Gordon of Tupelo enjoying their vacations in trim shape. She said, “We’ve been married for 22 years, and I gave him a bike for a wedding gift.”
Now in their mid-50s, the couple just returned from a 600-mile bike tour of New Zealand.
They first started their overseas travels with touring bikes when a nurse saw Dr. Gordon pedaling to work. “You look just like a Dutchman!” she insisted.
That started them thinking, and they joined a commercial bike tour group and planned a few trips with friends. Today, their national and international odysseys have taken them through Maryland, the Florida Panhandle, Hot Springs, Ark., virtually the entire Natchez Trace and portions of France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany and Ireland, the country where Dr. Gordon fell off his bike and broke his pelvis the first day of the trip. (He kept going, riding the rest of the tour in the luggage van.)
Overseas, they tend to stay in the villages and away from the larger cities, Dr. Gordon said. “Nobody’s interested in the average American tourist, but when you’re in a small town on a bicycle, you become the attraction.”
It’s a good way to enjoy the countryside at a slow pace, notice all the details and meet people. She recalled an image from France, “I came over a hill and there’s a woman there, digging in a garden that’s just a riot of color. I stop, and she practices her English and I practice my French.”
The Gordons also both like the challenge of conquering steep slopes and then stopping to admire the view they earned. Their highest climb to date has been to 6,000 feet in the Swiss Alps. Mrs. Gordon said, “There’s something about being able to climb a mountain, and no one can ever take that away from me.”
Biking also has another vacation benefit, she said. “You can eat anything you want because you expend so much energy, biking three to three and a half hours per day.”
She had some advice for novice bike tourists: Train before you go. The only trip that left her exhausted and discouraged was a hilly southern England bike tour when she wasn’t in top shape. They have faced other obstacles, too.
“I’ve also biked uphill in the wind and rain and stopped, then had it hail on me.” She laughed, then continued, “But you also have glorious days.”
Dr. Gordon’s advice tidbits were equally practical: Pack light. (A van carries the luggage separately on commercial bike tours, but it’s still a good idea.) You can take your own bike instead of renting, but be sure you know the airline’s rules about shipping. Also be aware that traveling with a bulky bike is considerably more inconvenient than taking a set of golf clubs.
The both emphasized biking for the sheer pleasure of it; no other reason will do. They will ride 25 miles without batting an eye, Mrs. Gordon said.
She gave a final reason for their shared love of cycling. “Probably the best thing about bicycling is it’s something we can do together.”
– Love that mud, love those wheels: Candy Wheeler of Tupelo started out four years ago with a borrowed bike and plenty of enthusiasm. She and her husband are still pedaling along. Mountain biking is her passion.
“I love the mountain biking because it’s just like being a kid again you romp in the mud and scream down hills. It’s great!”
She doesn’t mind being among the 10 to 20 percent minority of females in competitive mountain biking. “I’m a country girl and a tomboy, and I guess it just came naturally.”
Road biking is also a solace for the day’s stress. “You can just get out and ride and get away from everything,” she said. “It’s so peaceful.”
Her longest ride was about 80 miles around Tupelo and into Itawamba County earlier this spring. She dryly recalls that the day was particularly windy.
For everyday jaunts, she leans toward her mountain bike. She’s learned the hard way: She often hops on her mountain bike to pick up a pizza, but one day she got on her road bike instead. The different seating position and handlebar design made the handling awkward. It took creative juggling to get home. (Hint: She has learned to ask the pizza shop to tape the box shut, just in case of spills.)
Cycling with two to a dozen friends just multiples the fun. Wheeler said she revved up her biking zest when she moved to Tupelo and found biking companions. She advises asking around at bike shops for people seeking cycling buddies. When riding together, a group can draft off each other (ride in the area of lower wind resistance just behind another cyclist) and enjoy chats.
With guidance from buddies, she learned about the “Roller Coasters” at Trace State Park in Pontotoc, a rapid-fire series of hills that give a carnival-like ride. She’s also heard about “Blood Rock,” a common area in several different parks, named because of the frequency of gashed knees and broken collarbones in an area of rough terrain. One hilly North Carolina race course even has its own “Collarbone Hill.”
Wheeler also recommends that people shop at a bike specialty store for their bicycles for better service, and she recommends the higher-end bikes whenever possible. It’s not necessary, but she compared it to the joy of driving a Mercedes versus an economy car.
She’s an enthusiastic fan of the more expensive front suspensions on bikes, too. “It helps your handling skills more than you would think. Because of that soft ride, it’s like pedaling a Cadillac.”
The area of biking where she sees the greatest need for education is in car/bike right-of-way. “A lot of people don’t know a bike should follow the same traffic rules as a car, … riding on the right side of the road.”
Bikers who ride too close to the white line, trying to make room for cars, are in danger of sliding off the side of the road. Some friends have dodged soft drink bottles being tossed at them, and others have been brushed by vans that just breeze on down the road, oblivious to the wreck. She has known of bikers to be killed by drivers crowding their space.
She emphasized, “Same road, same rules.”
– Safety rules the trails: Michael Voss, a new Oxford resident, was living in Lexington, Ky., about one and a half years ago when he had a major biking accident. He’s still grateful he wore his helmet.
He was tearing through a rugged trail, going about 20 mph, when he crashed. He landed on his head, skidded and snapped his left collarbone. He still had to push his bike about four miles out of the woods, but he’s grateful.
“I wouldn’t have walked away from it without a helmet,” Voss said. “… It’s such a small amount of prevention. It’s easy to do.”
– Oh, his aching head: Ed Billeter of Lee County biked for about 16 years and was just getting back into the groove of cycling when he had his big smash-up earlier this month.
A car hit his sports touring bike in early morning Tupelo traffic, and all he remembers is waking up to a crowd of medics. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Luckily, he escaped with a shoulder bruise and a concussion on the left side of his head. The head injury kept him hospitalized for four days; every time he stood up, he got dizzy and collapsed.
“When I got out of the hospital, I went right out and got a helmet,” he said ruefully.
He said other memorable road experiences include drivers on major roads coming up behind him and honking impatiently instead of waiting a few moments to safely pass him. “That kind of spooks a bicyclist.”
He has also rounded a curve in Washington State and seen a six-point buck standing still in the middle of the road for a few heartbeats. It’s that kind of quiet, unexpected beauty that keeps a person cycling.
To contact more cyclists in your area, call the Tupelo Bicycle Club at 844-8660. For bike clubs in other areas, check with your nearest bike shop.