Bike Race: a story

Your not-so-humble correspondent. Charleston, IL. Sept 24, 2022.

“Tour de Charleston,” someone posts on a fecebook bike forum.
“Will there be gravel?” I ask.
“No gravel! And the course will be swept.”

So I visit the web site. There are 3 races: 12.5-mile, 25-mile, and 62.5-mile, a metric century. Prizes are awarded in male and female divisions, in several age categories. I make a calculated guess that the metric century would have the fewest competitors of my age group. I pay the $50 fee and register for my first ever bike race.

My plan is to bike down to Charleston Friday, stay overnight at my friend Lorelei’s place, bike to the race Saturday morning at the crack of dawn, bike back to Lorelei’s after for another night, and bike home Sunday. The weather forecast grows adversarial as race weekend approaches. When the fateful Friday finally arrives, headwinds are from the south. It’ll be a long and challenging 50 miles down on my road bike (a titanium long-wheelbase recumbent called a Ti-Rush). In such a scenario, I decided, I would take my velomobile instead.

My 3-wheeled, fully-faired Sinner Mango velomobile was already named Frosty when I bought her, used, in Jackson MI in 2015. I have since dotted her white exterior with red retroreflective stickers, but kept the name in spite of suggestions to re-christen her “Measles.” Built in the Netherlands about 12 years ago, Frosty is ideally suited for strong winds on flat roads — in other words, Champaign County, Illinois, where I live. I confirm with the race organizers she will qualify; they don’t allow eBikes, but Frosty is 100% human powered, no pedal assist. Frosty holds more cargo than my road bike, so I pack up a few days clothing, 6 bottles of chocolate Soylent meal-replacer shakes, some protein bars and hydration mix packets, a bag of Chex Mix, a pair of walking shoes so I don’t have to scrape around in my cleated bike sandals, and a helmet. Frosty can’t be fallen off of like an upright bike; she could theoretically tip on a fast curve, but I’ve never done that, and even if I did, I’d go sideways rather than over the non-existent handlebars. So I never wear a helmet in Frosty. But I will for this race, because they are mandatory. The helmet is stuffed awkwardly next to my recumbent seat, brushing against my right leg as I pedal.

Frosty between Urbana and Charleston, IL. September 23, 2022

The ride down is uneventful, cool and cloudy, mostly flat but with sub-optimal road surfaces. First Street is mostly cured chipseal – pea-sized gravel set in tar – in various states of roughness. I occasionally hit a few miles of smooth surface, enjoying sweet relief as the droning vibrations and rattles give way to relative quiet, until the next rough patch.

47 miles later, I meet Lorelei for lunch at Siam Thai. I leave Frosty in her blacksmith shop downtown, and she drives me in her truck to Pasture Prime, her magnificent paradisical country home. But I don’t wander the trails or swim in the pond this time; it’s cold and I’m tired. I just take a shower and read in bed, until the half-Dramamine kicks in and I fall into an early sleep.

And then it’s race day! I’m awake half an hour before my phone alarm sounds at 6am. By 6:30 I’m packed, Lorelei has her travel mug of coffee, and we head back to her shop. There, I drop off my overnight stuff, exchange my walking shoes for bike cleats, and roll Frosty down to City Hall to pick up my registration packet.

Dawn at Five Points Blacksmith Shop, Charleston, IL, Sept 24, 2022.

I see a table with bottled water, bananas, and cliff bars. When I reach the front of the line I’ve been waiting in, a volunteer tells me, “oh, this is the line for volunteers! Registration pick-up is inside.” So I enter the building behind the table, climb the stairs, and find my alphabetically-organized packet section at the registration desk. A volunteer hands me a large brown envelope and a bright green nylon swag bag. “Can you hang onto this bag until after the race? I don’t want to have to carry it with me the whole way.” The volunteer agrees, which is nice of her. I guess everyone else brought a car to stash bags in.

Back downstairs I see Bart, another cyclist from Champaign-Urbana. I ask him if I can have a ride back to CU, in case I’m too tired to bike home this afternoon. He agrees, we’ll exchange phone numbers later.

My envelope contains a microchip timer embedded in die-cut paper with adhesive, to stick to my helmet. I see some cyclists have stuck theirs to the outside of their helmets, but previously I’d read they’re supposed to go inside. There are instructions, but I don’t read them. My mind is already entering “bike mode,” concerning itself with physical matters like pulling off layers to regulate temperature; reading instructions is far too intellectual. Eventually I just stick the chip thingy to the inside of my helmet and hope for the best.

The official photographer is taking pictures of Frosty. “Your bike is the star of the show!” he says. An older cyclist examines Frosty’s insides, and I demonstrate the steering column, while other bystanders ask questions. “It’s a bike.” “It’s a bike.” “Yes, it’s a bike,” I say over and over. The vibe is festive and friendly. More cyclists arrive.

By very good fortune, last night I was able to download the route and a monthlong trial of the “Ride With GPS” app needed to run it, with nothing but two bars of phone connection at Lorelei’s. I pedal around the block and get “off course” notifications. Where is the race start? There’s a big scaffold gateway with a digital clock in front, but someone tells me that’s the finish. A block away, a fire truck is hoisting a huge American flag, and I see most of the cyclists congregating near it. Ah, that’s the start.

The Metric Century was supposed to begin at 7:50, but it’s already 7:53 as we crowd up before the flag. I hear some announcements, including, “chipseal…be careful.” Oh, NOW they tell us? Velomobiles like Frosty are terrible on chipseal; they lose traction and fishtail around.

Just before the start of the 2022 Tour de Charleston. I don’t see any other middle-aged women here. Do you?

I only see one other woman at the start. She looks to be in her early 30’s. Am I the only 50-59 year old female here? Looks like it. Good news.

The sound system plays Queen’s “Bicycle Race” after they announce a delay due to some last-minute registrants. The song is cut short by a synthesizer rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Some cyclists remove their helmets and place their hands over their hearts; I am not one of them. At 7:59, we are off on what’s called a “neutral start.” A guide truck leads the way, cyclists following for about a mile. I am at the end of the pack, because a velomobile is awkward among uprights, which usually form a paceline or “peloton.” I fall further and further behind, but the voice guidance has kicked in on my phone’s GPS app and I know where to turn even when I lose sight of the riders in front of me.

After a mile, the guide truck is gone, the fast cyclists are barely in view, and I am on my own. I remain in sight of the others for another mile or so, winding around neighborhood streets. There’s a steep downhill and I zoom, passing someone for the first time. Then there’s a steep uphill and I slow to 1.5 mph while everyone else leaves me behind. Velomobiles are terrible on hills. Frosty weighs 70 pounds, and that’s what I’m pumping up this mind-bogglingly steep grade in my lowest gear, legs shaking from the strain. There are no hills like this in Champaign county.

After that first climb I am panting, legs still shaking, but I can catch my breath as I’m no longer at peak exertion. The course is flat for a while; I can see another cyclist about a mile ahead. Then downhill again, and I almost catch up. Then uphill again. Oh god my legs. I am not used to this. This is not velomobile territory. But I knew Charleston had hills. I just didn’t know the course would maximize them, switching back and forth to hit every possible grade. Not complaining, just slowing down. I remind myself I’m almost certain to win even if I’m extremely slow, due to the dearth of women in my category.

The sun is climbing too, and I’m glad I removed my wool jacket and leggings right before the start. I remind myself to enjoy the scenery. I am grateful for the automated voice guidance; the mostly-unmarked course has dozens of turns and is not intuitive.

I am grateful for the lovely scenery. I am grateful for this nice road. I am grateful for my health and this velomobile. I am grateful for WHAT THE FUCK WHAT IS ALL THIS GRAVEL DOING HERE? Suddenly I’m fishtailing around in deep, coarse pebbles. Is this what they meant by “chipseal”? Chipseal is pea size gravel on tar. This is more like…brussels sprouts? No, I exaggerate due to stress and anger; it’s more grape-and-cherry-sized. Maybe it will only last a mile. I slow down to 6-10 mph, faster than I’d take this hot mess if not racing. If not racing, I’d find a paved turnoff as soon as possible, and reroute to avoid more of this hazard. But I am racing, and the GPS app’s voice instructs me to stay on it. Now I’m going downhill, applying the brakes to avoid spinning out of control. Over a little gravel-coated culvert, and now it’s uphill, and I stop moving because the drivewheel can’t get traction on this GARBAGE ROAD SURFACE THE TOUR ORGANIZERS LIED THEY ARE LYING LIARS THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE

Gravel. Coles County, IL, Sept 24, 2022

I tighten the parking brake and get out to push Frosty uphill. A mile later, the hell-road finally, mercifully ends, and Ms. GPS directs me onto a wide, paved, 2-lane road. I will never take pavement for granted again. I haven’t flatted yet – I am lucky. Gravel wears down those little 20” tires fast; almost every flat I’ve suffered has been on or just after a stretch like that. But the worst is over, I think, and even though I can no longer see any sign of the other cyclists anywhere, I pedal along feeling relief after my ordeal.

Until the next right turn, which puts me back on more of the same gravel. I remind myself I will win my category just for finishing, regardless of speed. So I slow way down, indulge some vengeful thoughts about the route planners, and proceed, again stopping and walking on an uphill. By the time this stretch ends, I am resigned to my gravely fate. But the road is smooth for a while, and I appreciate it.

I’ve now completed almost half the course, and am wishing I’d stashed one of those free bottles of Power-Ade on the snack table. I’m chugging through my two water bottles quickly. Will I have to stop at a store somewhere? Why have I seen no water stops? Where is everyone? Then I see an official-looking volunteer in an orange vest at the next intersection. She’s holding up a stop sign to cross traffic and waving me through! Even though I’m miles behind the peloton, they waited up for me. All is not lost. A few miles later another orange vest does the same, and I ask him where I might find water. Right there! he says, pointing to a table in front of a church. I hop out, throw a couple bottles into Frosty, and am back on my way. Were I not in a race I would take a 10-minute break here, enjoy a snack and take off the socks I wear inside my bike sandals. But I am in a race, so on I go.

This is where the GPS app starts lying to me. “Turn right,” she says. So I do, and then the “off course!” alarm sounds as I’m headed down a gravel lane. I stop, pull out my phone, and look at the course. Why did she tell me to turn right? I turn around and when I reach the main road again, I get the “back on course!” chime. Thanks, but why did you tell me to turn? A few miles later, same thing happens. I am stopped in a small town on a small detour the app sent me on and then chastised me for. Who made this route? Did they program in tiny little errors to dupe newbies like me? I indulge in a few vengeful thoughts, but I just can’t hold onto them. That’s why I got into cycling in the first place: it clears nasty (and all other) thoughts right out of my head. I have no time nor energy to dwell on resenting the route programmer. I will merely slow down and visually check the route at every voice cue. After all, I’m going to win my category, I just need to stay the course.

Having outsmarted my route-misprogramming nemesis, I ignore the next few instructions to turn right. Every once in a while there is a sign with an arrow confirming a turn, but not often. Then there are some more orange-vested volunteers waving me over a busy road. And now there’s some chipseal – real chipseal, slippery and dangerous but not like the 6 miles of coarse oily gravel from earlier. I can handle this chipseal, even though I still fishtail a bit, and slow way down, and my drivewheel spins a little.

And what’s that up ahead? Another cyclist! By doG, I’ve caught up with one. I unconsciously cry out when my drivewheel slips on a little gravel patch – I almost hyper-extend my knee, I hate when that happens – and he looks behind, startled. In a few minutes I pass him. “How you doing?” he asks. “Very tired,” I answer, which might come off as disingenuous because now I’m ahead of him. But I am tired, so very tired. Oh god here’s another hill. I’m so slow, he’s catching up. But now I’m over, and zooming downhill with Frosty’s 70 pounds of inertia, and in a few miles he’s no longer visible in the rearview mirror.

Now I’m heading north, counting the miles to the finish. 20, 15. In 8 miles I should recognize the roads, since the last stretch covers the familiar route from Lorelei’s place to downtown Charleston. Where am I? I still haven’t taken off my socks, it’s too warm for them, but I mustn’t stop. Don’t forget to notice the scenery! It’s a pretty area. 7 miles, 6 miles…

My bib number is 54 — same as my age. Auspicious. While I eagerly anticipate finishing, I also want to savor this time. I won’t be outdoors in pretty scenery on a perfect September day forever. I won’t be 54 forever; I only have half a year left of that. Then I will be 55, then I’ll be in my 60’s, my 70’s, how many more years will I even be able to bike? I am as young and healthy as I will probably ever be, right now. Hurry up and end, I think, as the miles count down, but also please last forever.

It’s good to be 54. Tour de Charleston, IL, Sept 24, 2022.

The sun hits my bib number, a piece of yellow kevlar pinned to the front of my shirt, making it bright and visible, and my helmet (which I’ve really wanted to take off and stash next to me, but haven’t due to fear of surveillance) signals that this odd suppository-shaped contraption is in fact a bicycle, and as I pass a yard sale everyone gives me the thumbs up. I’m a racer, in a race! A few years ago I volunteer marshaled at the Illinois Marathon in C-U, riding this very same velomobile, to support the racers and track down stragglers. Now I’m one of the stragglers, getting support! As I get closer to the finish there are more volunteers waving me across roads. I’m increasingly confused about where to turn – has Ms. GPS lost her voice? – but there are signs now, and more orange vests, and one directs me to turn left, saying, “straight down to the finish!” A few bystanders give me the thumbs up and clap. I must be an hour later than the other racers. There’s the finish, with a bunch of people clapping. I roll through. I did it!

No sooner do I turn Frosty around to join the crowd than the master of ceremonies announces the winners. I park, and guzzle the two bottles of water I picked up. Snacks, I need snacks. Bart wants to exchange numbers but I am too confused, I can’t even converse let alone fiddle with my phone. Volunteers are packing up the snack table but I grab a bottle of red Power-Ade, eschew a banana, and remember my Soylent shake, all 320 calories of which I chug in about 30 seconds. A group of women have questions about the velomobile, and I say, “gimme ten minutes, I’m too spaced out just now.” Bart is declared winner of the men’s 50-59 division. He hands me his phone to take a picture as he strides to the podium. I’m still not ready to fiddle with a phone so I hand it to the kid on my left, who just won the under-18 division, and he snaps the pictures. Bart returns with his shiny gold plastic cyclist figure atop a sparkly plastic column mounted on a little marble rectangle. I’m gonna get one of those, I realize. Then they call my name, I mount the little painted wood podium, the photographer takes my picture, and that’s it.

Official Photo from

Bart and I take selfies together holding our trophies. I finally work my phone enough to exchange numbers. The women who wanted to ask me about Frosty are gone.

Bart Tate and Nina Paley show off our magnificent Tour de Charleston trophies. Sept 24, 2022

How am I going to get home?

I can leave Frosty at Lorelei’s and Bart can give me a ride later tonight. That will spare me tomorrow’s fierce headwinds, but I’ll have to find someone to bring me back down later, when there’s a southerly wind to ride Frosty back. Bart wonders if Frosty might fit in his pickup, so I roll her a couple blocks to where he’s parked and try. Doug from Champaign is also there, and helps lift Frosty in and out of the small, covered flatbed. Frosty is too big, even on her side. Getting home will be complicated. Doug and Bart depart and I pick up my overnight bag and shoes from Lorelei’s shop. I cram everything in so messily that Frosty’s drivetrain grinds and skips – something is interfering with it. I pull off the road and re-pack.

Lunch occurs to me. I’d forgotten I need to eat actual food. I pedal a mile to Siam Thai, my favorite, and get tempura eggplant and shrimp spring rolls. Not my usual vegetarian rolls, oh no – I’ve exerted myself, I’m gonna eat my fellow animals for protein, in the form of 3 entire shrimps. I put my trophy on the table and text pictures of it to Lorelei, my Mom, Corinna. I eat, I rest, my mind returns, I feel normal again.

Lunch of Champions. Siam Thai, Charleston, IL, Sept 24, 2022

It’s only 2pm. The wind is from the west-southwest. I could ride Frosty all the way home. That would be crazy, but it would simplify things – no worries about storage or arranging rides to and from. So instead of turning east to Lorelei’s, I turn north. Let’s just see how it feels, just go a mile or two, if you’re too tired just turn around. On the edge of town I text Bart and Lorelei that I’ve changed my mind, I’m heading home, I promise to take it slow and easy. And that is how I end up throughly exhausted, legs and glutes sore, a 113-mile day. “Just make it home, then you can rest,” I promise myself as the remaining miles count down from 45, to 30, to 20, to 10, oh those last 10 are the longest. Rest tonight, rest tomorrow, the whole week, the rest of the year. Bike season is over, good way to end it, I will never have to bike again.

I won my first and only bike race, and I want to quit while I’m ahead.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

3 thoughts on “Bike Race: a story”

  1. The double used Vision recumbent was “sold” to me back in 2005 (or so) for $287 by Mike Librik. Not too long after receiving my Nina Paley pandemic mask I visited Mike at work and he instantly recognized your handy work. My mask brought number of compliments for such an ornate and eye catching mask. Alas, last this spring I had to retire it .. I literally wore it out.

    Here in Austin, Texas one of the most pleasant “road races” (ha!) is the Armadillo Hill Country Classic. My friends and I usually do the 30 miles, but as we approached 70 we splurged and extended to 45 miles with the loop’s turn around in Oatmeal, Tx. We are always done by 1 or 2pm (which avoids the peak 4pm Texas Heat).

    I sympathize with “biking to the start”, “racing”, and “biking back home”.
    I hope your body and mind give you as much opportunity to bike into your middle 70s. On days when biking home from work doesn’t require 40 minutes though 100+ Texas temperatures (or the rarer 50% chance of rain), I commute 18+ round trip and never fail to get shouted compliments on this “Easy Rider”, 45 degree, “captain’s chair” recumbent.

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