FROM THE WILDS OF MANHATTAN
The End of The Bucket List
A sixty-something cyclist reflects on life after achieving all his major athletic goals. Including conquering Alpe D’Huez. On a bike.
For some of us, it may be performing “Rhapsody in Blue” in Carnegie Hall. For others, it’s hitting a home run, bottom of the ninth, in Yankee Stadium. Or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
For yours truly, it’s always been climbing the passes of the French Alps on a bicycle. Basically, one of those life-changing achievements you picture in your mind so vividly, you can practically taste it. The kind of milestone you want to achieve so badly, you ache from just dreaming about it, day after day.
So, why on a bike? Good question.
I’d already realized so many dreams in my life. Hearing Shostakovich’s son conduct his late father’s symphony in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1981. Finishing the New York City Marathon in under four hours. Paying off my mortgage three years ago.
Readers, however, need to understand that for cyclists, no matter how amateur or accomplished, no matter where they may live on Planet Earth or other galaxies, there are other significant milestones on their bucket list. Like nailing Mont Ventoux in Provence. Conquering Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees.
And now at the ripe old age of 61, it was going to be reaching the summit of Alpe D’Huez. Or else.
NOTHING GREAT IN LIFE COMES EASY.
I first began dreaming my Alps dream over 15 years ago when I first got seriously into cycling, having switched over from my previous athletic obsessions—marathons and road racing.
The first days of my new passion were far from favorable. I remember trying to wrench myself free from clipless pedals in Central Park one fine summer morning in 2002. Failing to do so in a timely manner, I didn’t look where I was going, and promptly crashed head-on into a posse of three slick-looking dudes on rad-looking bikes. I hit the deck (i.e., cyclist term for the road) butt first.
“Dude,” one of them barked at me, impatiently, as I struggled to stand up. “How many fingers?” he asked, holding up his hand. I counted the fingers and said three. “You’re okay. I gotta go,” he said, and promptly took off with his bros.
When I recounted the story to a lady friend of mine, she sniffed, “Well, I would have said, ‘I don’t know how I am. Can I get your phone number and check back with you?'”
New Yorkers. Gotta love ‘em.
THE CYCLING OBSESSION BEGINS.
Soon after learning how to ride a bike in a manner that didn’t totally embarrass myself, I attacked the sport with the same gusto I tend to approach every challenge in life. I began subscribing to all the “right” cycling magazines. I got to know all the sport’s greats, like Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinaut. I started searching for and buying all the cool jerseys. How did I know they were so cool? I would study what cool-looking cyclists were wearing in Central Park, then run home and try to find knock-offs on eBay.
Further, even though I had been bike-vacationing for 20 years, I suddenly decided to up my game and look for cycling trips that were impossible for anyone who didn’t ride at least 5,000 miles a year. The Apennines in Italy, in 2000. The Dolomites in 2007. A 123-mile ride across the Arizona desert in 2009.
I nailed them all, gleefully checking off each of these bucket-list items. But apparently I wasn’t done yet.
VIVE LA FRANCE.
From watching the Tour de France broadcasts every summer, it soon became clear to me that there were certain “musts” every cyclist worth his or her sodium tablets just had to do. I decided to make Mont Ventoux my first. A dynamic, windy, 21-kilometer ride up a very steep mountain located smack in the middle of the Provencal Vaucluse.
In 2012, I signed up for a bicycle trip that included a one-day ride up Ventoux. Again, the gods seemed to smile unkindly on this endeavor.
In fact, the clouds looked downright deadly the morning of the ride. The tour leaders advised against riding at all that day. I did what I always do when I get advice like this: I ignored it.
As soon as I started the climb, strenuously avoiding looking at the percent-grade signs along the way, weird stuff started to happen. I started hearing strains of La Marsellaise and the 1812 Overture in my head. I felt myself getting, as they say in New York, verklempt (translation: Yiddish for emotional, tearing up.) I mean, was I turning into a total emotional blob of jelly? The short answer: Yes. But hey, this was Mount Ventoux, people!
When I hit the Chalet Reynard, a restaurant 15 km climb from the start of the Ventoux climb, I thought to myself: “This isn’t so bad.”
Then the final 6 KM began, with an average grade of 8 to 10 percent, and I quickly said to myself, ‘Oh, yes it is.”
Think lunar landscape–barren mountains with not a hint of green or tree in sight. Think crosswinds that are so powerful, they threaten to blow you off your bike. Think winding, twisty roads with no guard rails. Think pain and cramping in your calves so terrible, you think you can’t go on.
But then you see the Ventoux tower in the distance, and it all becomes clear what you have to do.
You pull yourself together, cast off your self-pity, pray to your God in heaven (yes, there are no atheists on Hors de Categoire climbs), you pump, and pump, and pump, until you can’t stand it or stand up any longer…and you just arrive at the summit.
Bucket List Item # 235- Done.
THE PYRENEES. OH YES, THE PYRENEES
Two years later, I signed up with a hard-man bicycle tour company to ride the toughest cycling mountain range in the world, the Pyrenees–which straddles two countries, France and Spain. The leader of the bike tour was not a kind, sympathetic type such as you might find in a psychiatrist’s office on New York’s Upper West Side. No, indeed. In fact, he prided himself on aping the militaristic Robert Duvall character in “Apocalypse Now” and often repeated the famous line from the movie, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Climbing these passes–and getting in a 160-kilometer ride on the off-days between the climbs–was not in the remotest sense a vacation. In fact, it was work. Which is something I didn’t want, because I already have a job. It was so much like work, in fact, every night, there was a Power Point presentation giving the details of the next day’s horrific ride. PowerPoint. How ‘90s.
Despite these odds, and the beastly, 90-degree temperatures, topped off with 90-percent humidity, I knocked every one of those Pyrenees passes.
Bucket List Item #259-D. Done.
A SPEED BUMP (KNOWN IN CYCLING AS A CRASH).
The Pyrenees trip crushed me mentally and physically. Returning home, I thought I was done. Kaput. Ready to hang up my yellow-and-white Scott cycling shoes. The Alps dream would remain just that, a dream.
But this time I swore to myself, if this were to happen, things would be different.
The first three months of 2015, I trained like I had never trained before. Fifteen hill repeats, with 12 percent grades, every Saturday and Sunday. Four century-rides of 100-plus miles. in the worst winter New York City had in decades. All spring long, too.
And then a day before a 100-mile cycling race this past May, yet another disaster.
While I was on a simple, loosen-up-the-legs ride in Central Park, a tourist came out of nowhere riding on another bike, crossing the road against the red light. Swerving to miss her, I skidded, fell off my bike, crashed onto the asphalt, and within an hour developed a huge hematoma on my backside. Good thing there were witnesses around, because I am sure I would have murdered her.
Fortunately, nothing was broken, and my bike was intact. And believe it or not, I was okay to complete the 100-mile race the next day.
But inside, something was telling me, the gods are not smiling kindly on you, Mr. Bucket List.
FINALLY, THE ALPS.
June 18, 2015: my personal D-day. I flew to Grenoble, and within two days, began the climb I had been dreaming about since I was old enough to have these kinds of dreams.
Was it the good karma flowing back into my life after all the setbacks? Was i nicer to my mother this spring? Who knows?
But for the entire duration of the trip, it was Disney-ville. Nirvana. Margarita-ville. Your Valhalla goes here. The weather was perfect–sunny, with not a drop of rain or heat or humidity. The tailwinds were plentiful. The climbs, although legendary, were not as impossible to surmount as the Pyrenees. The roads were in great condition. The leaders were nurturing.
I began to knock off every single pass on my long-held bucket list: Semnoz. Telegraphe. Galibier. All without stopping. All without swearing.
And finally, on June 25, 2015, I conquered the granddaddy of them all, Alpe d’Huez. The dream of all possible dreams of every dedicated rider, worth his or her salt.
Bucket list 359,-D. Done-de-done-done.
SO NOW WHAT?
What do you do after you train on a 16-pound bicycle, with nothing but two skinny little wheels, wearing little more than your underwear, in the worst training ground in the world (New York City), at the mercy of merciless cabbies and Uber drivers, month after month, year after year, and get to the end of your bucket list?
You rest. You sleep in. You eat. You say, “You know what? Maybe I won’t do 15 hill repeats today.”
But the question remains; do I still have a bucket list?
After thinking long and hard about it, I’ve come to a very simple conclusion: Once you’ve begun a bucket list, you really never stop adding onto it.
You see, passion has a long shelf life. And after all, I’m only 61.
August Cosentino is a professional writer who cycles passionately, eats discriminately, attends theatre religiously, Facebooks constantly, and as the photo indicates, is as good to his mother as he was to his father who passed away in 2012. He lives in Manhattan with his two carbon-fiber bicycles, and G.
ARTICLES BY AUGUST COSENTINO
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The Sandwich Generation: Eldercare and Me
Scandinavia, The Great Escape
Welcome to the Jungle: Is Mad Men Really About Advertising
Work Like Wall Street: Earn Like Main Street