Pedaling down new paths and old

"Date of birth, please?" the young woman from the adventure travel agency asked. And even though I like to think I'm comfortable with that question, I hesitated before answering. I was sitting at my desk studying the brochure she'd sent me, focusing on the section titled "Bike Trips in Tuscany."

In one picture, green rolling vineyards surround a medieval castle, and the bikers – who stand in a field of bright yellow wildflowers – are all adorable. They're wearing tight black Spandex biking shorts and Day-Glo nylon shirts with pockets on the back. Their calves – well, those are the kind of calves that could take you up heights.

I speak my birthdate into the phone.

"OK, that's great," the woman reassured, and it was obvious to me that she knew immediately that I do not own tight, black biking shorts or a Day-Glo nylon shirt with a pocket in the back. It was clear that she also somehow knew about my weak calves and heavy thighs.

I answered the rest of her questions – about helmet size, handlebar choice, and traveler's insurance – and then, when I hung up, I asked myself one more: What was I thinking when I made these plans?

My husband had agreed that taking a week-long bike trip in Tuscany for our 25th anniversary would be a wonderful gift to ourselves, so I'd reserved airline tickets to Italy, bought three books about the area, and had just given my credit card number to the trip organizer.

It wasn't until I hung up the phone and closed the brochure that I wondered if I even particularly liked to ride a bike.

I know I used to. When I was kid, I loved to feel my heart pound while I pedaled across the playground as fast as I could. I raced up driveways, jumped down curbs, and took my feet off the pedals to let them spin out of control. Every evening when there wasn't snow on the ground, I rode until dusk, and as I watched the sky darken, I hoped my mother wouldn't call me in for dinner yet.

But now, I admitted, I ride my bike only when I have to, to rack up aerobic points and to get to the post office when my car's in the shop. And as I ride, I play games to distract myself from boredom. Can I get to University Avenue in four minutes? I look at my watch and my odometer every few seconds.

"This trip may well be a mistake," I told my husband. Even though I had promised myself I'd ride daily to get in shape, for a dozen days after making that phone call, I didn't bother.

But at about 6 o'clock the other night, I put on my helmet and tucked the bottoms of my sweat pants into my socks.

Fifteen minutes, I decided, looking at my watch. Let's see how far I can go in 15 minutes.

I got as far as the playground of the elementary school near my home and, seeing it empty, I rode through the unlocked gate onto the blacktop. I crossed diagonally to the farthest corner of the yard, circled around the swing set, and pedaled a little faster than was wise.

Then, with my front tire on the white stripe that outlines the whole playground, I rode slowly around the huge rectangle for a long time. Each time I faced north, I watched the trees on the hills become darker than the sky, and once, just for a moment, I thought Mom might call me in for dinner.

I've gone for a bike ride every evening since that first night. The skin on my face and hands gets as cool as the air, the parts of my body covered by helmet, turtleneck, sweat pants, and windbreaker get sticky-hot. As the sky darkens, I lean into turns that take me no place special.

I don't know what riding in Tuscany will be like, but I do know this: The trip has already been a wonderful gift.

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