As Lance Armstrong huffed and puffed in the Pyrenees on the Tour de France, I celebrated the 31st anniversary of the Nelson-Fallow Tour de Cornwall.
Our tour, however, unlike the dramatic bicycle classic unfolding across the French countryside as I write, was not a race. No one even pedaled very fast. Ours was an open-road trip by two 14-year-old American boys who lived in London. It was our first test of daring and endurance, a rite of passage whose emotional embers still glow.
And it was fun despite all the flat tires, sunburns, and exhaustion. Or was it fun because of such adversity overcome?
Allan and I had been best friends for a year, attending the same London high school while our families lived abroad. Allan's father worked for the United States Army; my father was a correspondent for this newspaper. We thrived within a small circle of American friends that roamed the parks of London, attended rock concerts, engaged in 1970s hippie-ish hijinks and costumes, and laughed a lot. Allan wore his hair in a ponytail; I had a red Afro. I am sure our children derive immense satisfaction laughing at our yearbook photos.
July 7, 1971, found us riding our heavily-laden bikes to Waterloo station to catch a train to Salisbury. Then we would ride to Stonehenge; to Land's End, the southwestern tip of England; and back to London along the coasts of England's western counties. We had a map, but no plan; gumption, but no experience; the fuel of trust and enthusiasm.
Four miles outside Salisbury, before even reaching the druidic stone monoliths, my rear tire went flat for the first time. Before the day was over, I would fix four more flats, exhaust my entire supply of patches, and even puncture my one spare inner tube. I vividly recall fixing the final flat in darkness before we pitched our two-man tent in a field in the dark.
It wasn't until morning that we noticed the sign posted at the field entrance saying "Danger: Keep Out," and the enormous radio tower whose guy wires were anchored near our tent. The candy bars we ate for breakfast never tasted so good.
Our days of pedaling soon found the proper rhythm. We learned to route ourselves on smaller lanes and country roads, to avoid the diesel fumes of trucks, and to stop more frequently for popsicles and roadside strawberry stands. "Can you get berries like these up in London, dears?" asked the grandmotherly proprietor, which I recorded in my diary of the trip.
We also learned to worry less about the daily distances covered and more about absorbing the texture of the road. Even today, the names of the little towns we pedaled through conjure visions of country churches, narrow valleys, steep lanes bounded by high hedges, and steering around cow pies as we coasted behind dairy herds moving from pasture to barn for milking.
Every so often, I discover that my journal contains a long-forgotten life aspiration. "Allan and I think it would be pretty great to be wardens at a youth hostel," I wrote one night, after meeting an especially nice hostel warden. "So Allan and I will marry someone each and take our wives up to a hostel and be wardens for a couple years."
Mostly I remember a camaraderie that comes from learning the rhythm of encouragement and cajolery. We could finish one another's sentences, or elicit howls of laughter with a sideways glance.
In six days, we reached our goal: Land's End. "We pitched our tent in Sennen Cove, just above the beach on a nice grassy bluff," I recorded dutifully, "so the tent would have a nice breeze. The sunset was fantastic. We went swimming in the surf." But those words fail to embrace the way my memory distills the night: success in the journey, a hard-earned pause in the tour, and, in the onrush of being a teenager, a halcyon moment.
At the end of the summer, Allan moved back to the States. We wrote letters and saw each other once or twice over the years before losing touch. Yet I always wondered: What had become of Allan and his aspirations?
Though our roads had diverged, I Intuitively felt that we could pick up where we'd left off. We'd simply lost touch.
Then, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from Allan last week. "Are you THE Todd Nelson of cycling fame? Of orange Afro renown?! Of clomping-across-London-dance-floors-and-White-Mountain-trails-in-the-same-hiking-boots infamy?"
It gave me a bounce. Allan edits travel books, and, as we filled in the 25-year gaps, he pointed out that we both have children older than the two guys who rode to Cornwall. The journey has resumed. New lore is always in the making.