Getting your bike from Raleigh to Chapel Hill requires only a little planning, not a lot of perseverance.
If you've got three dollars in your pocket and a clock that tells good time, you can do it in an hour and without breaking a substantive sweat. Simply arrive at the downtown Raleigh bus hub between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., hoist your two wheels onto the front rack of an express and close your eyes: In about 50 minutes, you'll be whisked west to Franklin Street, your bike still on the bus and Raleigh now 30 miles at your back.
But what about actually biking from Raleigh to Chapel Hill, pedaling the distance from the capital to the college town without the assistance of a subsidized vehicle? Do you hug the shoulder of Interstate 40, gripping your handlebars and hoping for mercy? Do you ferret out a hidden path comprising trails, greenways and little hidden alleys between major thoroughfares? Do you simply swap the interstate for other long, straight and busy roads?
Actually, none of the above.
About a month ago, just as summer temperatures seemed to begin their steady slide toward the fall, I sent some friends an inquiry in search of a seasoned riding partner. For three years, I'd idly talked about the possibility of biking from Raleigh to Chapel Hill, and back—maybe to see a concert or maybe to have lunch, but mostly to see if my legs would last that long.
I understood, though, that I couldn't do it alone. I'd once trekked 45 miles, by accident, on a single-speed bike with rather wide tires on a steamy Saturday afternoon. By the end of the ride, cramps shot through my quads and into my calves. Each pedal spin felt like punishment. This proposed trip would not only double that distance and pick up the pace but also shoot me through a maze of major highways and country roads, shaded greenways and gravel lanes. I needed someone with endurance, experience and a Wednesday to spare.As cyclists tend to do, especially on extensive and challenging rides, they emerged in numbers: Bryan Hoffman, a 47-year-old gaffer with a permagrin and legs that appear as though carved in a bas-relief of sinew and suntan, jumped at the opportunity. With a Pinarello road bike made of carbon fiber and costing more than most used sedans, he averages more than 200 miles per week. This would be his longest ride in several months, but he could shoehorn it into his regimen of road-race training. In turn, Hoffman told Jared Harber, a co-owner of Raleigh's Oak City Cycling Project, and his partner, Ileana Rodriguez, who had never made the trans-Triangle journey. They signed on.
My companions aren't full-time or even lifelong cyclists, bikers with major sponsorships or shelves of competitive accolades. Yes, Harber is a co-owner of a bicycle shop (and, therefore, a member of its racing team), and Hoffman even placed during this year's state Road Championships, his first race ever. But Rodriguez has only been cycling in earnest for about three years, or since the tornados that swept through Raleigh in 2011 destroyed her car; that night, she met Harber, who upgraded her bike and began courting her. She went for two years using only two wheels, and she and Harber now own a home together. She bikes more than 100 miles a week. With their combined real-time tutorials, I reckoned, I could power through these 85 unprecedented miles.
As the heat began to rise on a bright Wednesday, we met at Oak City, just north of downtown on Franklin Street, a short and largely residential strip. Hoffman and Harber stuffed the deep pockets in the backs of their branded, skin-tight jerseys with water bottles and specially formulated energy candies, packets of pain relievers and lotion meant to reduce friction between your seat and the bike's seat.
Downtown Raleigh began to fill with the traffic of the morning commute, and we carved our way west through city streets, pausing for stop lights and taking care at traffic circles. We entered the city's greenway system near Meredith College and emerged just past the North Carolina Museum of Art. Country roads shot us past the skirt of Umstead State Park, toward the hilly subdivisions and busy strip malls of Cary and finally into the shaded, slow-rolling and pleasant American Tobacco Trail. We cut past Durham and just to the edge of Chapel Hill. When my lips hit the water from The Old Well, I knew, briefly, what it was like to be a proud Tar Heel.
In such a pack, you're always in constant contact, though only a fraction of the discussion concerns upcoming potholes or left turns; instead, long-distance cycling becomes the stuff of friends on a day trip. Hoffman told stories about seeing U2 in a UNC fraternity house, and Rodriguez discussed the frustrations of a cycling industry that doesn't know how to handle grown women without girly tastes. Hoffman and Harber sprinted ahead at one point; Rodriguez and I stayed behind, staring ahead and talking about work.
The journey was magnificently uneventful, packing the action not into sets of sudden, major moments but instead pulling energy through several thousand turns of the pedals—"Keep spinning. It's about spinning," Hoffman, always smiling, would repeat—and hundreds of shifts between gears and a set of nested chain rings. The only traffic accident, for instance, came during the last of 85 miles, when one car on a congested street in downtown Raleigh slammed into another one. The strangest sight we glimpsed might have been the rotund, shirtless man standing beside his bike on the American Tobacco Trail, staring into a patch of pine straw like he were trapped in a psilocybin haze and it held the vision of his future. Minutes later, he raced past us, standing on his pedals and thrashing at them as though scared of what he'd seen.
Indeed, the trip revealed its thrills and curiosities through a combination of the attenuated pace and the very alternate route. Just outside of Chapel Hill, where a winding country road empties onto the paved path that parallels the four-lane torrent of Highway 54, I spied a decaying house—paint peeling, frame giving way to rot, saplings choking out its foundation. I must've passed it a few hundred times without noticing. I made a note to stop during my next trip, to walk the property and peer through the broken windows.
In Cary, during a long climb up a set of staggered hills, I spotted three baseballs resting in a row against a curb, perhaps flotsam from some future slugger's backyard batting practice. There was a heron in Chapel Hill (a town whose name you only truly understand when it's the final ascent of a three-hour bike ride) and a field of playful goats bounding beneath tin semicircles in a patch of Raleigh that many might not assume was farmland. I had the time and sightlines to take it all in.
If you spend your days hunkered in your respective corner of the Triangle, or zipping from zone to zone along the interstate, that's what you miss. But biking from one end to the other becomes a remarkable way to remind yourself that a region is a continuum. There are little neighborhoods and rural crossroads, corner stores and roadside attractions—not just a set of disconnected dots, arbitrarily sprinkled across a map.
As much as the accommodating companions that slowed for me near the tops of the biggest hills, or the easy shifting of the sharp red road bike I'd rented, that sense of latent discovery made the journey seem, if not easy, then manageable for a neophyte.
After living in an area for more than a decade, you can begin to feel like you know all the routes, thrills and secrets. But then maybe you take a deep pull from a plastic water bottle and start climbing a hill where you're used to getting onto the interstate. Suddenly, an old road can make you feel like you're a stranger—spinning, spinning, spinning into a new town.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Spin the black circle"