On North Valley Road a couple of miles outside of Newberg, Oregon, you had to choose. Turn left, and you headed back toward the fairgrounds where you started, for a day’s bike ride of 73 miles. Turn right and you had chosen irrevocably to do the long ride, 103 miles before journey’s end. I say “irrevocably” because a few miles after you make the turn you would cross the Willamette River, and then you had no choice but bicycle on to the next crossing, the Canby Ferry some twenty miles distant.
There was only a little doubt which way I would turn. The Harvest Century, which bills itself as “the last organized ride of the season,” was my best chance of doing my birthday ride, which is a mile for every year, and this year is my 80th. Equally important, I had to prove to myself, since it had been seven months since I had done a century, that I can still bike that far in a day.
Judging by the bib numbers I saw, there were some 1,200 cyclists out for the day. While some of them were doing the short family fun ride and others the 45 miler, a substantial number were doing the long rides and with me would have to choose which way to turn.
The weather was overcast and cool, with wisps of fog swirling around the base of the Coast Range foothills. The course itself was as nice as any I’ve seen, doing a wide circuit around some of the most beautiful orchard and wine growing country anyplace. Lots of easy rollers, but no grades that required long and serious climbing.
A dad and his thirteen year-old son reminded me of my early days as adult cyclist with my fourteen-year-old son. I played tag with a man on a titanium recumbent; I passed him going up hills and he scooted past me on the downhill side. I rode a mile or two with three or four couples, the man always in front.
I tailed along behind one couple long enough to engage in a little conversation with the slender, youthful wife—fortyish, I suspected by her cycling style and appearance. I could scarcely believe her when she said they were celebrating their anniversary, number 38, to be exact! At the supper after the ride, we ate together. Seeing them face to face, I concluded that maybe they were old enough to have been married that long, but they still looked wonderful.
A woman in he late twenties at the table told us that she started cycling a year ago and loves it. This was her eleventh century ride of the summer!
My Mercian bicycle, a forty-year-old steel English touring model, stood out in a crowd of modern carbon fiber bikes. We’ve traveled close to 125,000 miles together, that bike and I. How could I use another for my birthday ride?
As we approached the main lunch break at mile 42, my legs were beginning to cramp. If the turnoff would get me to 80, I thought, maybe I should turn left. But the map was clear; this route was only 73 miles. And there really was no way to shorten the long ride. The Willamette River is a fact that has to be accepted as real. So when the time came, I had no choice, really I didn’t. And my legs were better. Right turn, it had to be!
According to my bike computer, I was averaging 15.7 miles per hour on the road, which was fast enough to get me back to the start-finish line in good time. At the snack break by the ferry, a guy much younger than I mentioned that he was averaging 18 mph. I probably could have done it when I was his age, I thought to myself.
The banks on either side of the ferry are very steep. On the other side, I tarried a little while the forty other cyclists on that trip across the river rode up the hill. When they were out of sight, I decided to walk to the top, thus saving my legs for the rest of the ride.
I started the Harvest Century at 7:20 am and finished at 4:00: eight hours and forty minutes total elapsed time, exactly seven hours on the bike. I slowed down a little during the latter part of the ride so that my average overall was 14.9 mph.
OK for an old guy like me, I decided, and drove home a happy man.