Every year, 5000 deranged cyclists descend on Ellettsville, Ind., to take part in a rolling two-wheeled symphony of fall foliage, music, and serious leg cramps — it’s called the Hilly Hundred, and the Hoosier state just saw its 45th. I rode this year. I’ll ride next year, too, but probably on a softer saddle.
The hills are named — Skull Cap, Beanblossom, Salt Wound, the evil Mt. Tabor — and strung together over two days; this year, day 1 covered 57 miles with day 2 clocking in at about 43. Anyone who tells you that Indiana is flat flyover country has never explored the terrain outside Bloomington — these are the kinds of hills where Dennis Hopper’s 'Shooter’ lived in Hoosiers — vicious, unforgiving things, laid out in a course that aesthetically was designed by Claude Monet, athletically designed by the Marquis de Sade.
Day one dawned cloudy with a bit of sprinkling, annoying drizzle; my crew and I - Chuck, Matt and Dave registered and pulled on layer after layer. The forecast had said we’d see a break in the clouds —we never got that lucky. The dampness continued all day, a persistent chill that kept the temps easily below 50.
This was my first Hilly. I’d been given two pieces of advice; the first, from an old hand at the trek: “I never met a hilly I couldn’t walk”. Dismounting was not dishonorable. The second was from Chuck; “Somebody who shouldn’t is always gonna pass you.”
Both bits came in handy. The cold must’ve crept into my calves — about 20 miles in, hydration and a constant diet of bananas, bananas, bananas couldn’t stop the Little Man with the Brass Knuckles that was punching me in the backs of the legs. First the right seemed to seize — I rode it out. Five minutes of relief, and the left began squawking. Ride it out, ride it out, I told myself. I thought of Herb Brooks, the guy who coached the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team to gold: “The leg’s a long way from the heart. Candy ass.”
The rain began slapping us all in earnest. My internal monologue, my mantra of 'ride it out’ soon became 'sonofabitchsonofabitchsonofabitch... ’ Halfway up a short, steep, mother a climb called 'Knot Hole’, I had to pull my feet from the clips and walk.
I wasn’t alone. My misery’s love for company was soon to be outpaced, though, when Chuck’s observation became blindingly apparent.
For the Hilly, you see, some folks wear costumes — beyond the typical neon-scuba-suit most bikers wear. There’s even a contest. And the person who I’m sure had to be the eventual winner rode by me as I walked my bike slowly up that asphalt grade.
The rider that passed me was wearing a little red-riding-hood outfit resplendent with a short skirt, cape, white stockings, and red high heels. As Red passed, the voice that emitted the courteous 'On your left’, the common declaration of intent to pass, was decidedly male.
I had just been smoked by a crossdresser — well, at least for the day, anyway - pedaling in heels.
Let me repeat that — pedaling in heels.
Your 500 dollar clipless shoe and platform combo be dammed, Little Red Riding Hood was climbing in heels.
It wouldn’t be the last time I’d been shown up that weekend — old ladies, fourteen-year-old kids — there were times when somebody who simply was a better rider would ride better than me. To my credit, though, there were moments when the old bloke with a knack for finishing strong would sail past younger, stronger folk who’d drained themselves early.
Day one ended as it began — dank, raw, miserable. I hurt — everything from the waist down seemed to have an issue. The chill had entered my bones and radiated outward. Chuck’s good friend, a local named Jim, opened his home to us, fed us, gave us a bunk and the chance to meet his family, and ultimately joined us for day two.
My mood when I woke for Sunday’s ride - extreme pessimism. The cramps had seemed to settle in the back of my calves. Walking up a stupid flight of steps was bugging me. Matt and Chuck were fighting the same issues.
But the sunlight, the coffee, my host’s amazing culinary skills and a blast of ibuprofen helped me saddle up for the second day as we departed from the local high school. Past the vendors and the merch tents, past some riders and slower than others, I found myself at the first rest stop feeling stronger than I had at any point in the last 24 hours. The locals, some seemingly aggravated by the traffic tie-ups in their neighborhoods on day 1, now seemed as sunny as the weather on this stretch. One family had even painted a giant sign and propped in their yard: “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” Indy, Maryland, Arizona, St. Lou, we all called out to them as we hurtled by.
Bands played at each stop — bluegrass, folk, blues — and the crowd, driven by vitamin E and foliage that couldn’t be believed, began to seem to share that mood of cellular-level camaraderie that I’d heard about when it came to the Hilly. The correct response to every 'How are you?’ offered to a stranger was simply — 'I’m great man. Just great.’
Just after 1, we found ourselves at the final stop, glass of cider in hand, breathing deep and reminiscing about the canopy of yellow we’d ridden under at the top of Bean Blossom Hill. There were a little over 9 miles to go.
We’d seen amazing folks, folks lugging heavy mountain bikes up these, folks riding three seaters, a homemade tandem bike built out of wood, and then we saw a couple we’d seen several times both days pull in.
They wore matching jerseys on their bike built for two. They both wore sunglasses. The gent, riding up front and steering, communicated gently to his female partner that he was stopping. In unison, both of their right feet touched the ground, and he helped her off — she stood stock still as he laid the bike down, the she took a white cane with a red tip out of the pocket in the back of her jersey and unfolded it. He placed her hand in the crook of his arm and led her to the waiting boxes of cookies and fruit as she tapped ahead gently, careful not to step on another rider’s bike in her personal darkness.