"On your left," Jason called out as his legs kicked into overdrive.
He stood up from the seat and pedaled strongly, refusing to lose any speed on what seemed like the hundredth hill he'd been on that day. He'd made good time so far, and he was determined to keep up the pace. He passed his teammate, who was also out of the seat pedaling.
"Come on, Jason. Do you always have to show me up like this?" Drew asked in between breaths.
"You'll be back in the lead soon enough," Jason said as he completed the pass.
For Jason Karn this was his third year making the 290-plus mile trip by bicycle from Boston to New York City and his second year riding with Drew, Kyle, and Diane. They'd all been first-timers three years ago, and now they were a little team of four among 132 other riders raising money for an NYC AIDS charity.
Jason felt good so far. He was, according to his bike's odometer, 37.2 miles into today's 103.7 mile course. Yesterday the group went south from Boston, cut through a corner of Rhode Island, and ended up in Norwich, Connecticut. Day one had been great, catching up with people he hadn't seen since last year and meeting some new riders as well. The ride's opening ceremonies had been quite emotional, the riders, crew, and even a few onlookers standing in the chilly dawn, reflecting on those who'd been lost to the disease and vowing to continue the fight for a cure for those living with it today. Flags bearing the names of people who were being honored or remembered by those on the ride inspired him to keep going.
Day two was Jason's favorite of the three-day ride. The hills were arduous, featuring one incline that forced many riders to dismount and walk up because it was so steep. Jason walked that hill his first year and was disappointed with himself. Then he'd heard a story that night that the course was designed to mimic the life of a person living with HIV/AIDS--stretches of normal flat road that could get extremely difficult very fast. Since then Jason refused to let the course frustrate him. He merely trained harder to prepare for it.
Having survived the big climb for the day, Jason settled in for the next five to six hours of riding. It would be hilly all day, but the worst of it was over. The day was perfect, exactly what a late September day in rural coastal Connecticut should be: cool, slightly breezy, vivid sun, and some fantastic bursts of color in the trees. He couldn't help but be in a good mood around so many supportive and loving people.
"Come on, push those legs, you two. I'm coming for you next." Jason was still standing and pumping, trying to pass Kyle and Diane on the hill. "You know you don't want me to do that."
Kyle added speed, increasing his distance from them. Diane grunted as she pushed to keep Jason from passing.
"Almost to the top," Jason said, spurring them on.
Ahead of them, two riders crested the summit, so he knew this hill was almost done. His legs burned as the hill got steeper just before its summit.
"Whew!" he shouted out as he got over the top and gravity kicked in. He sat down and let the bike take off. He loved the wind rushing past him, moving the hairs on his arms and legs. The breeze blowing through the vents on his helmet felt great too.
"On your left," said Drew, right on cue. Drew liked to pedal down the hills, whereas Jason was content to coast as long as possible to rest his legs a bit before the next climb began.
"Go right ahead," Jason called as Drew shot by.
Jason saw a dozen or so bikers ahead of him. The ones farthest ahead were headed up another, smaller hill. There was a biker on the side of the road changing a flat, too. That sucked. Jason had had his share of flats over the years, and roadside repairs were not fun.
As he got near the sidelined rider, Jason slowed down.
"Yeah," the guy said, "just slow going with this." He was kneeling on the ground, working to free the tire from the wheel. He paused to give the thumbs-up sign, which riders were supposed to use if they were okay.
"All right, man. See you down the road."
Jason sped up and changed gears to catch up to his friends.
That didn't sound good. Jason took a look behind him and saw he had room to safely turn around. He watched as the rider stood up and kicked the tire he'd worked on.
"What happened?" Jason asked as he came to a stop.
"I broke the damn lever," he said, holding up broken pieces of plastic. "The tire wasn't budging, and I guess I forced it too hard."
The poor guy looked frazzled. Jason got off his bike and laid it on the ground next to the tireless bike. At least he'd found a good spot out of traffic. There was even a log to sit on while doing the work. Multi-colored leaves covered the ground. If they didn't have a ride to do, it would have been a nice spot for a picnic.
"It's okay. I've got levers and we'll get this fixed."
"The tire is so tight." He gestured again with the broken tools. "I'm not sure these can get it off."
This guy, rider number 114 according to the bike's placard, must be a newbie at changing tires. Tires could always be loosened. You just needed patience, and in some cases, experience.
"I've changed a lot of tires," Jason said as he got levers out of his seat pouch. "And if I can't do it, there's always the sweeper van to the bike techs."
"True. I'm just trying to stay out of the vans."
Jason picked up the tire, kneeled down, and started to work the plastic tools in between the tire and the wheel rim. It was very tight. He went back and forth between pushing on the tire with his fingers and flexing the levers to get the tire over the wheel rim.
"New tires, huh?"
"Pretty new, yeah. The first flat this bike has had. I bought it a few months ago to do long distance rides like this."
Jason looked at rider 114's bike as he worked. He'd done enough tire changes that he could multi-task while prying the tire off. He recognized the bike as a good road bike. It was near the top of the line and comparable to his own.
"I'm Ben, by the way."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Jason."
"Hey, J-man, everything okay?" It was Rodney, a rider Jason had met last year, checking on them as he approached.
"Yeah, just helpin' out here. We're good." Jason saw Ben give the thumbs-up.
"The people here really are incredible. Everyone's so helpful. I've never seen anything like it."
"It is an amazing group," Jason said as he got one of the tools to slide around as the tire started to loosen up. "There we go. Progress."
"Fantastic," Ben said as he pulled a new tube from his seat pouch.
"This your first time doing this ride?"
"That obvious, huh?"
"Well, I didn't recognize you, but you could've been someone who is back from taking a break from the ride."
Ben gave the thumbs-up as another group of riders passed by, several of them saying hello to Jason as they went.
"Nope. This is a first," Ben reaffirmed. "The course is kicking my ass, but I have to admit I'm enjoying it. Everyone I talk to on the road is friendly, supportive, fun to be around. I rode for a while yesterday next to a guy with an iPod blasting from his handlebars. It was a rolling dance party. It was a great motivator to keep pace to stay near the music."
"Yeah. I like hanging with the music people too," Jason said as he got the tire fully off the rim. "There you go, one tire off the wheel."
"Do you mind if I take it from here? It's good practice."
Jason stood and handed over the wheel. Ben took it and sat back on the log to work. Jason watched, ready to hand out advice, but Ben was doing fine as he reached in and pulled out the punctured tube.
Jason couldn't help but check out Ben as he worked. He'd already noted that Ben was tall, probably around 6'1" or 6'2". He was built, too--broad shoulders, broad chest, sturdy legs. The way he filled out the cycling jersey and shorts made it clear the guy worked out routinely. Jason liked the way Ben's red hair glistened in the sun. It was a little spiky despite being under a helmet most of the day. He also had light reddish hairs covering his legs and arms, which made Jason want to see if the guy's muscular chest was hairy too.
Jason spent so much time gazing at Ben he didn't pay attention to the road, and a couple riders slowed down for them. "You guys okay?" one asked as they came to a near stop.
"Yes, sorry." Jason gave the thumbs-up.
"Okay, almost done," Ben said, holding up the tire proudly. "Let's see if I can actually get this put back together."
Ben had put the new tube in and partially inflated it, making sure it was tucked inside the tire correctly. Jason picked up the defective tube and studied it.
"I found the puncture; it's to the left of the stem. Do you see anything on the tire?"
Ben looked at that area of the tire. "Nope, no punctures visible, and I didn't feel anything inside either."
"Oh well, sometimes these things just happen."
"Yup. It's all good. I got to meet you, after all."
Ben smiled up at him, a brighter smile than the one he got when he first stopped. Jason noticed the fine stubble on his face, similar to what most of the riders had on day two. He also caught a look at vivid green eyes, which the sun hit just right. Ben got back to work before Jason could form a response.
Jason's phone vibrated in one of his jersey pockets. He reached around, pulled it out, and removed it from the zip-top bag he kept it in. It was a text from Drew, letting him know they were at the next rest stop and asking where he was. Jason typed that he was helping with a flat and asked how long until the rest stop closed. He held the phone, waiting for the reply.
"Everything okay?" Ben asked as he got the tire back on the wheel and started to inflate the tire with his hand pump.
"Yeah, my teammates wanted to know where I went off to."
"Sorry. I didn't mean for you to get separated."
"It's no problem. They wanted to make sure I didn't need help."
The phone vibrated again. Drew told him there were about thirty minutes until the stop closed, and they'd wait for him there as long as they could. He typed out an "ok" and sent it back.
"We'll catch up with each other at the next rest stop. It's less than four miles away, so we've got time to get there."
"You can get going if you want. I'll be fine. I've just got to finish the inflation and then pop the wheel back on."
Jason saw little beads of sweat break out on Ben's forehead, caused by the effort of working the small hand pump. Jason thought it was damn sexy, and his thoughts turned to how the rest of Ben would look covered in fine beads of sweat.
"Really, it's good. I'll be riding in a couple minutes," Ben said, as if he could see Jason weighing the pros and cons of leaving him there.
"If you're sure."
"I am. I'll buy you a tall, cold glass of water tonight."
Jason laughed. No alcohol was allowed during the ride, so he appreciated the humor of being bought a glass of water.
"Sounds good," Jason said. "I'll see you later then."
Ben handed Jason his tools, which Jason stored.
"Thanks for the help, Jay."
"You're welcome," Jason said, picking up his bike. He got on and rode away, standing up to pedal fast to make up the distance between himself and his teammates.