Joined by 75 other like-minded warriors from Planet Spandex -- visualize helmets, wrap-around sunglasses, skin-tight shorts, colorful jerseys, fingerless gloves and hard-to-walk-in shoes -- my friend Dave and I are prepared to conquer space, Western New York style, by riding our bicycles from West Seneca to Letchworth Park and back. In cycling parlance, it's a "century ride" -- 100 miles in one day -- and September, after a summer of biking, is the perfect time to do it.
In less than an hour, we're in the country -- released from Buffalo's gravitational field -- and we start to pass through places we never knew existed -- Waldo's Corners, Hermitage, Gainesville and Lamont. Goldenrod floods the fields, and while the corn's not as high as the proverbial pachyderm's pupil, it's still taller than I am, ears angling up off the stalks like pegs on a hat rack.
On the road, the going's slow enough to pick out the orange stripes on woolly caterpillars inching across the pavement -- my wife says they're harbingers of winter. And something that you can never do blurring by in a car at 55 mph -- actually read historical markers like the one that says the first president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, was born in Wyoming County. He went West as a young man.
We're heading east and are in our 50s. Downhill into Letchworth, we pause at Inspiration Point and wolf down the two tuna subs we bought back at the general store on Route 78. Yellow rafts down in the river gorge look like sunny side-up eggs. Fifty miles down, 50 to go.
The return is mental. Using my cyclometer, and counting how many times my legs move up and down in a minute, I do the math and figure my feet will have made about 30,000 revolutions by the time I'm done. (Respectable, but nothing next to the 100,000 times I read that my heart beats automatically every day.)
Dave tells me a joke about the cross-eyed cow. I respond with the one about the Junior Leaguer. At the top of some unnamed hill with 20 miles to go, we stop to toss back our water bottles and drink in the view -- blue hills in the distance, roads we don't know winding up them, green fields quilting the countryside.
I ask Dave what he likes about riding a century. He says, "The company, the scenery, the challenge and that it's not a traditional activity." I second all those, plus the fact that you can gobble junk food all day and still feel healthy. (Dave is partial to Twinkies.)
I also like the sense you get of the rhythm of country life -- landscapes by a modern-day Bruegel -- everyday people out doing what everyday people do on a summer Sunday -- painting porches, mowing hay, shingling roofs, hanging wash.
And then there's the satisfaction of being self-propelled -- covering ground without gasoline, almost running out of breath climbing up one side of a hill at 6 mph, and coming down the other side so fast you forget to breathe.
Six hours and 57 minutes after departing, we coast into a half-full parking lot, 100.67 miles on my cyclometer, 101.24 on Dave's (he must have turned around somewhere to get a snack).
The distance we've covered reminds me of the poet William Blake's aphorism, "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." A century is a long way to bike, but awash with endorphins, a new appreciation of our local geography and satisfaction with our accomplishment, I'd say our excess was worth the effort.