Happily stranded in a sea of bicycles

Each year, the "Hilly Hundred" bike tour funnels pedaling enthusiasts from far and wide right up Old Route 37 North and down our lane. This is the first leg of a 100-mile looping trek through southern Indiana's undulating autumnal landscape that cyclists find both charming and challenging.

And every year some of our neighbors understandably gripe about it. Our normally brisk (and narrow) link to nearby Bloomington is engulfed by bicyclists for most of the weekend. A knot of them pumping up a hill can back up traffic for a couple of miles.

Tempers flare, and at least one letter to the editor appears in the aftermath of each such event calling for an end to the bicycles or to motor vehicles, depending on who is writing.

Most of us, though, take it all in stride, and simply plan to stay close to home on Hilly Hundred weekend. It's as near as we come in southern Indiana to hunkering down for a hurricane or nor'easter - and this front is annually predictable.

I don't argue with impassioned "Hilly" demoters - many are people willing enough to crawl behind our tractors and hay wagons for several twisty miles until we can pull over and let them pass. I don't want to push their goodwill to the wall by openly endorsing the often impassable two-wheeled tourists.

But I personally love to watch the annual pageant of cyclists as I milk.

The barn sits close to the road, and I am greeted for once by human voices, not anonymous honks, as I spread the hay and let in the cows.

"Good morning!" we call back and forth, over and over as they whir past hour after hour. Though we are just a couple of miles from the town park where the visitors camp and it all begins, our roosters makes it plain with full-bodied crowing that the bicyclists are, as one fellow put it, "in the country now!"

The hens, goats, calves, and cows cackle, bleat, and moo to be fed, and many passersby, enjoying an easy stretch of road after their first long uphill climb, sing back imitations. Doc and Jim, our Belgian workhorses, amble down the front pasture toward the barn, moving inexorably against the two-wheeled tide, their size and self-contained elegance winning appreciative whistles from the other side of the fence.

The road transforms from the workaday tarmac I normally glimpse through the milkroom's screen door. It sparks with color, energy, and verve, offering something new every time I look. Couples on tandems, pedalers almost prone on what look like awkward metallic cots, whole families in caravan, bikes sleek and simple, large and small all stream down the road at a vigorous, if un-race-like pace. The point is to last 100 miles and enjoy the scenery, not break any speed records. Except for the hills, it's a leisurely workout.

Invariably, the weather is kind to participants, offering up two cool autumnal days, with hills and dales aflame in color.

Over the past decade of the Hilly Hundred I recall no major rainouts, nothing beyond a cooIing sprinkle, welcome enough to sweaty brows. The heavens have endorsed the event - who are we to object?

When my son was very young, he would sit at the road's edge, transfixed by the sea of riders. Never one to retire from social engagement, Tim would sing out lusty encouragement to the hundreds of passing strangers, endlessly encouraged by a phenomenal response rate. Wherever the Hilly Hundred folks come from, they are friendly and vocal souls - my son's kind of people.

TIM is too old for the sidelines now. Having taken a serious interest in biking over the past year, he is thinking of riding in next year's Hilly Hundred. In that case, I am even more convinced that the best local response to this invasion of "our" road space is to welcome and celebrate it, to keep our cars and trucks in our driveways, and to milk our cows or do whatever else keeps us home until the storm passes.

And when it does, and the road becomes "ours" again - faster, duller, more impersonal than ever - I, for one, am not altogether relieved.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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