“Are you scared?” my airplane seatmate asked, when I told him this was my first visit to Mexico’s Michoacán state.
I hesitated, not wanting to admit it. But knowing the trepidation showed on my face, I fessed up.
“I have traveled many places,” I explained, choosing words I hoped would be easy for him to understand—easier than reaching for my super-rusty college Spanish. “And siempre, it is a little scary … but also very fun.”
Part of the fun is figuring out a place, how to get around, negotiate mercados, or ask where the library is. Okay, as much as I want to use the quintessential high school Spanish phrase, “Donde está la bibliotheca?” I have yet to do so in real life. Any libraries worth seeing are easily found on a tourist map. (The murals in Pátzcuaro’s bibliotheca definitely make it worth a stop.)
I digress. Part of the fun—and fear factor—of visiting a new place is doing things I’ve never done before. Or rather, failing miserably at things I do every day at home, but made instantly mysterious because I’ve never done them there. Like taking the bus to the train station. At home, no problem! In Mexico, I sure thought I was on the right track but ended up way off course. It took every last bit of my Spanish, and a generous dose of help from the driver and other passengers pointing me in the correct direction to get me to la estación.
Since I often feel more comfortable on a bike than I do on my own two feet, I figured that going for a bike ride would be a great way to turn that state of near-constant failure around. I was feeling especially clumsy after getting my first stress fracture 6 weeks prior. Thankfully my foot healed up just in time for this trip to visit friends recently settled in Pátzcuaro. The thing is, I hadn’t been on a bike, much less out for a walk, since the fracture.
My pal Shelley, recently having established ex-pat status, graciously hosted me. One of my dear adopted aunties, she knows that no exercise is no bueno for me. She very kindly arranged for a friend of hers to take me on a bike ride. Perfecto! (The adopted auntie thing: My parents are both only children; I intentionally “adopt” aunts and uncles who are my own ring of elders. They kindly share affection, friendship, and life guidance.)
We met up with Russ, my cycling guide-to-be, and his wife April, the owner of my loaner bike, the evening before our ride. Based on my firmly established “cyclist” reputation, Russ recommended a loop around Lake Patzcuaro, a must-see tourist attraction, and his favorite local ride. I saw the lake on the drive from the airport, and it looked like a great little ride.
Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.
Russ suggested we stop by the house so I could look at April’s bike. I was sure it would be fine. She was about my height; I was happy to have any bike at all, so no worries, right? Well, April’s bike is a full suspension mountain bike with 26″ wheels. And streamers. But, I could ride it comfortably … and with no rental shops in town, it was this bike or no bike at all for a scenic little ride. After all, I was on vacation, and you know what? I love bike streamers and April is awesome for rocking them on her bike. So we agreed on a meeting time for our ride and said good night.
The ride day was sunny and warm—a delight in November! We coasted out of the city and its traffic toward the lake. Chip-seal pavement was no sweat on the knobbies. I was instantly charmed by the car-free rural landscape, cows grazing roadside, colorful small town cemeteries, mountains off in the distance, and lake views flirting with us behind rolling hills. Smiles all around!
My guide, Russ, is a kindred spirit. He prefers steel to carbon, takes time to “smell the roses,” and doesn’t ride with a bike computer. When we stopped for a snack break at the first town, about 17 km into our ride (my bike had a computer), I asked him how long the ride was, figuring we were at least a third of the way there. He said, “I don’t know exactly. I’ve heard it’s about 86 km.”
Ruh-roh. This was not the little lakeside bike ride I thought I saw from the highway.
Normally, I don’t ride with a computer. The only measurement I worry about is whether I can finish in the time I have left. Usually that’s before the sun goes down, or before a meeting starts. On rides where energy is waning, I start counting down when I get to the last 5 miles, tracked by mile markers or route cues.
I was a long way from the last 5 miles. Russ asked if I wanted to turn back, and since there’s only one right answer to that question, we forged ahead. We climbed a few hills. I took a break. The sun kept rising. I took another break. We climbed more hills, snapped more photos of the lake, took more breaks. Stopped at a service station to replenish liquids and snacks. Rinse, repeat. Doubt, sweat, adjust the saddle, pedal, take photos. Give thanks for the sun.
Did I get to the point where I could not have gone another 5 miles? Well, I came close. Toward the end, I was really, really struggling up the hills. I never had to suffer the indignity of getting off and walking the pavement, a good thing, because it wouldn’t have been walking—it would have been stopping. Had Lyft had a presence there, I would have been very tempted. The reality of that is humbling.
I was expecting a paved, roughly 30 mile, fairly flat, lakeside ride, for no good reason other than I thought I saw the route a few days earlier. Had I possessed the good sense to look at the ride online, like any “real” cyclist, I would have seen the rest of the iceberg. I got the paved part right, and we did ride around a lake … but I got served a 54 mile ride with approximately 2,700’ of climbing (that gain number, once discovered, elicited a howl that woke the neighborhood dogs). All this on a mountain bike. Recently healed metatarsal. At 7,000’ elevation. Did I mention I live at sea level?
Normally numbers aren’t important to me. They still aren’t; I can ride a different number of miles today than I could a year ago. My current fitness, whether I’m riding solo or in a group, elevation, weather, my mood, my attitude etc. all affect my relationship to those numbers.
The point is, on this ride, I was as ignorant and cocky as Wile E. Coyote. Without realizing it. I unwittingly attempted to bite off maybe more than I could handle. Like Mr. Coyote, I raced out onto a ledge, and kept running right past the edge of the cliff, completely confident well past the point of return. My spirits didn’t fall until I realized I was way out over the ledge … and then I plummeted back to reality and clawed my way to the end. I felt as bruised and beat up as that mangy coyote by the end of the ride.
And—I got to go for a bike ride in a city I hadn’t even heard of six months before. I worked up a sweat and got a sunburn in a t-shirt and shorts in November. And it was freaking gorgeous. Never before had I so earned my post-ride beer, cocadas (like coconut macaroons only a zillion times better) and sweet, sweet nap.
Would I do it again had I known what I was getting myself into? I started asking myself this question about halfway through the ride, while prematurely dreaming of that post-ride beer and nap. Would I have packed my favorite electrolytes and ride snacks from home? Heck no—cocadas and lime-salt peanuts are all I need! Would I have flown my own bike down for this? Maybe. I’m really not sure! My cyclo-cross-turned-gravel bike would have been perfect.
But the real question is:
Would I have done this same ride, at this fitness level, on this bike, if I knew what I was getting into? I hear that about a year after childbirth, women forget the pain and remember only the good things. So yes, I would do the ride again! Maybe start out more slowly. Pack more cocadas. See if Russ will put up with my slow, sunburned self again. Then go out and blissfully cruise the lake, streamers and all.
But if the bike didn’t have streamers, I might reconsider.