Pedaling as fast as I can, I barely manage to keep up during this, the fifteenth Wheels of Love Bike Ride in support of Alyn Hospital, a pediatric rehab hospital in Jerusalem. How did I get here? What am I, an almost 60 year old woman, doing out on the road in the middle of the desert under the beating sun, cycling several paces behind the pack of experienced riders?
My story begins with my lost luggage on a recent trip to Malta. One of the lessons I learned from losing my luggage was to do the things I want to do now and skip over the painful deliberation process that often leads me nowhere. (For more on this see my blog post: Lost Luggage)
Entertaining the idea of joining the Alyn bike ride in the past, I had surveyed the website and closed it after looking at the expense and considering the effort. Now, in Malta, my internal voice says, “Stop thinking about how much it costs, how much money you must raise, and how hard you will have to train. If you want to do it, just do it!” And so I sign on, rather late in the day, rider number 407 out of a total of 410.
On returning from Malta, the seriousness of this venture dawns on me. This is the first physical challenge I have ever set myself. Under the tutelage of my brother Yehuda, a fourteen year veteran of the Alyn ride, I am on the back roads of Emek Haela , pedaling at 6:30 AM three days a week. My bicycle becomes a permanent fixture on the rear seat of my car, and the exhilaration of riding never dims. I love the freedom, the wind in my ears, the great outdoors, the smells after a rain, the unexpected flowers. All my rides are solo, and I treasure the time alone, the solitude, the meditative nature of pushing the pedals round and round, watching the odometer clock the kilometers.
After training, the next hurdle is raising $2500 for Alyn.. Fundraising is not new to me having worked for the last thirteen years in a non-profit agency. What is challenging is the personal nature of asking people to support me (and of course Alyn Hospital along the way). I am surprised by how supported I feel by those who do donate. As I pedal up one hill, turn the corner and see the next one looming in front of me, I feel each one of my friends and family members who have donated to the cause pushing me up the hill. It works! It really works! I actually make it to the top without getting off my bike to walk it up.
Opening day. The sun is shining brightly, hundreds of riders in bright yellow shirts and padded riding shorts milling around. Excitement is in the air, adrenalin is pumping and spirits are high. I am riding off into the unknown. How will I do? What will it be like? Will I make it till the end? While this is not a competition, I still do not want to fail. The five day ride begins in Sde Boker, winds its way to Mizpe Ramon and then back up to the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.
As I mount my bike and peddle off, staying towards the back to avoid collisions, the familiar rhythms of up, down, round and round, ground me and bring me back to myself. This is familiar. I have done this before. It feels reassuringly normal, almost as if I am on a training ride.
The scenery whizzes by and I notice that the rains of the previous week have washed out the atmosphere leaving the browns of the Negev sand in sharp contrast to the deep blue sky, without a cloud in sight. My fellow riders ranging in age from 15 to the late 80s, and are friendly, and outgoing. No snobs allowed here. There is the 79 year old retired engineer who looks like he is in his early sixties, the distinguished physician who now spends his time writing medical novels, and a sixtyish woman just like me who has left her job of 35 years and is trying to figure out what happens next. There is the twenty something who was severely injured early this year pedaling a handbike with all his might. How can I even think of giving up when he never stops? We get to know each other rather quickly, hearing personal stories, cutting through the artifice of polite society. We riders are in this together, pushing ourselves to the maximum and sometimes beyond. We cheer each other on, encouraging, supporting. We are each other’s family for a week, and comradery conquers all.
The last day of the five day ride proves more challenging than expected. The police escort scoops up a group of us stragglers on Begin expressway, and we are oh so disappointed as the end of the ride finds us on the wheels of a bus rather than on the wheels of our bicycles. I commit to coming back next year, stronger and fitter (and perhaps a few kilo lighter) in order to keep up with the rest of the riders.
By the time we arrive the cheering onlookers have petered out. As we park our bikes and follow the signs to the “medal ceremony,” I think to myself that this sounds corny, and consider skipping it. I find myself in a small garden with riders in their ubiquitous yellow shirts encircling wheelchairs with handicapped kids of all ages wearing green shirts. I am directed to approach one of the “Alyn kids” in the green shirts to receive a medal. A few steps away, I see a boy who looks to be about ten years old, his frail body splayed out in a wheelchair pushed by his mom. He has a pile of medals in his lap. I think to myself, “He is the one.” I come up to him, and ask him if he would like to give me a medal. He nods and smiles shyly. I ask him his name and he tells me, “Elad.” I bend over so that my head is close to his, and he can place the medal around my neck. Suddenly my eyes are wet. Tears spill over as I meet up face to face with Elad, an “Alyn kid”, one of these very kids that I have been working so hard to support over the last many months. The move from anonymous Alyn kid, to Elad, the ten year old in a green shirt, is startling and surprising. I wipe my tears, we take a photo, and the ride is over. Until next year.