The deal was this: We could go around the 14.5-mile loop up to three times. The course was closed, which meant we got to ride down Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Kelly Drive unimpeded by traffic. The only motor vehicles were our police escorts and other vehicles that were part of the race.
At the start, I was feeling good. I had my gear on, and was moving faster than I’d ever moved on a bicycle before. "I got this," I said to myself. Then, Jen Fredrick, an on-air correspondent from Fox 29, zipped by. My jaw dropped.
"Hey, weren’t you just in England covering the queen’s diamond jubilee?" I asked. Turns out, she’d flown back on a red-eye in time to participate, but didn’t seem the least worn out by the experience. I wanted to chat, but those legs of hers were churning as quickly as she usually cracks jokes during Fox’s morning show.
My breathing started to become more labored. I decided to stop talking — not that there was anyone there to hear me. Jen had already zipped on ahead. I knew my biggest challenge was ahead of me, the one that I’d been dreading since I signed up for the ride: climbing the Wall.
The Manayunk Wall is hallowed ground in cycling circles. The infamous half-mile stretch begins at Main and Levering streets and heads up at a 17 percent grade, hence the name.
Legs, lungs, and hearts have been broken there. And now I was about to take it on.
Shortly after beginning my ascent, I was breathing hard, but climbing at a relatively steady pace. "I can do this," I thought. Then, my hubby pointed out that the bike I was riding was in the highest gear. Not good.
I pushed on, trying to right the situation. Maybe it was oxygen deprivation, but I froze. I couldn’t remember which lever was the correct one to shift into a lower gear. I tried both. Repeatedly. My guy — who would have been halfway finished were it not for me — tried to help, but the chain wouldn’t slip into a lower gear. Realizing I was in trouble, he tried to manually shift my gears for me.
"I think it’s broken," he said, pointing out how the chain was still wrapped around the highest gear.
"Take my bike," he urged.
No way. I tried once again to power up the Wall on sheer will, swerving from side to side in an S-pattern as Jen had suggested before she blazed past me.
Ahead, I could see what appeared to be a leveling out and beyond that an even steeper portion of the Wall. I gulped. Then, I noticed a beautiful thing: The riders ahead of me were crawling off their bikes. One by one, they were swinging their legs over and walking, helmeted heads held high as they steered their cycles up the Wall. I was embarrassed — but I followed suit.
I’d fought the Wall. And the Wall won.
I couldn’t blame the bike; the folks at Bicycling Magazine arranged for me to ride the course on a Fuji road bike that retails forabout $5,000.
I couldn’t blame my husband; he did his best to help me up.
No, this one was on me.
Then something unexpected happened. Someone spotted me trudging up the hill and called out, "You’re doing really good."
"Don’t you see me walking?" Ithought.
Another person yelled, "You’re doing more than any of us are doing."
Before long, we had reached the summit. Time to get climb back on board the bike. I didn’t relish the idea of bicycling down a steep incline, a/k/a "The Fall from the Wall," but what could be worse than getting up it? After the indignity of that, the rest had to be downhill.
And it was.
After The Wall, the other hills and the rest of the course barely meritedmention. I thought of going back through the course again, but then remembered the embarrassment of my first Wall experience. I didn’t want to go through that again.
It turns out that I was far from the only one.
"On a scale of one to 10, it was a 10," said Eagles defensive lineman Darryl Tapp, who also fought the Wall on Sunday — and lost.
Truth be told, it made me feel good to know that a 27-year-old professional football player had to struggle the same way I did to reach the top of that hill. I
I think I may have even passed him on the way up. n
Contact Jenice Armstrong at 215-854-2223 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @jenicearmstrong. Read her blog at philly.com/philly/blogs/dnheyjen/.