This July 4th will mark 25 years since I won the Great Fairbluff 4th of July Bicycle Race. I had almost forgotten about it, but it came to mind recently when reading about Ed Abbey’s love for the bicycle on Monday.
I took up bicycle riding in college, using a bike to commute to classes and work. I was a budding environmentalist. My bike commuting continued for several years in which I was putting only a few thousand miles on a car and most of those were during kayaking trips to the mountains. I never had any plans on racing, bicycling for me was just another way to be outdoors. But in early 1981, I changed jobs and went to work for the Boy Scouts. My district chairman was a businessman from Fairbluff, North Carolina and he knew of my interest in cycling, so he encouraged me to enter his town’s 4th of July bicycle race. I think he even paid my entry fee, which wasn’t more than a few dollars. I had thought about entering their canoe race on the Lumber River, which flows through town, but was encouraged to enter the bike race cause it was their first year and they were trying to ensure they had enough bikers to make the race feasible. It was to be a ten-mile race along the backtop that cut through tobacco fields east of town. We’d start and finish at a park on the edge of the community. I didn’t exactly train for this race. At this time in my life, I could have sprinted nearly ten miles on flat roads and there are no hills in Columbus County.
I arrived early on race day, dressed in funny tight-fitting shorts and a jersey. I took my bike off the car. It was a Ross touring bike, designed for long road trips, not for racing. I got my bike ready (I think I even took off the pannier frame over the rear wheel to shave weight). Then I sat at a bench and changed into my cycling shoes as I checked out the competition. I was shocked. Farmers were driving up in pickups, with old bikes thrown in the back. A few people were riding to the park from their homes in town. Gathering were a collection of Murray single speeds like the one I got for Christmas when I was seven. There were a few old Schwinns, like the bike my uncle had when I was a kid, with gears (all three of them). There were even a few ten speeds that had been purchased at the K-Mart in Whiteville. I felt embarrassed with my bike that was by far the most expensive on site.
The organizer called us all together and informed us the race had been shortened to five miles. Instead of starting at the park and riding out of town and back in, they would load us up in the back of trucks, haul us five miles out of town, and we’d ride back in. We were separated into divisions, adults racing each other and teenagers and children in two other divisions. Riding out to the starting point, feeling foolish in the way that I was dressed, I knew that only a couple of the younger guys with their K-mart ten speeds even had a chance to keep up with me. I feel foolish even being there. But I also felt that I had to win, or I’d feel even more foolish. It turned out, winning wasn’t much of a problem. One guy, who was probably 18 or 19, stayed with me most of the way, but whenever he tried to pass, I’d pump a little harder and he’d fall behind. I cross the finish line several lengths ahead of him and way ahead of everyone else.
In the crowd at the finish line was a newspaper photographer for the News Reporter out of Whiteville. She snapped away and commented to the woman that I was with whom she didn't know, which got her all jealous, about my smile. The next day my picture was in the newspaper (I wish I could find it since I had much more hair back then). I stood by my bike, holding the trophy and grinning like a cat, surrounded by two kids who had won their divisions. People thought my smile meant that I was as happy as if I’d won the Tour de France. The truth was that I was grinning to keep from laughing.
I decided that afternoon to retire from bicycle racing while I was on top. I never raced again and can still claim I’m undefeated.