Bike Shorts

*Sarah was madly in love with Tom Cruise. She was a Rubenesque redhead with wavy hair and hazel eyes, and it was a pin-up poster, talk incessantly, drooling teenage love.   As a tour leader, I was about to spend eight weeks traveling with her through Europe, six weeks of it on bikes, on a tour titled “from London to Moscow.” I suspected by the time I saw the skyline of Moscow from our passenger train, I’d know the complete depth and detail of her infatuation with Tom. I could write the book.

Sarah had spent the summer before at a weight-loss camp pursuing the American dream every female teenager inherits from our culture – to be first and foremost – thin. It is the only cultural vision for young women for which they will never hit the glass ceiling, as the ravages of anorexia and bulimia blatantly attest to. Having not succeeded in her goal, Sarah had signed up for an across-Europe bike tour which required biking an average of 80 miles per day while carrying your belongings in panniers.

As it was the bike tour company’s first year of running this tour, they were generous in their inclusionary criteria: were you a teenager, could you pedal a bike, could you pay $ 4,500? Well, all right then. Once on the tour, Sarah told me she did have a beater bike at home, but had rarely ridden it. Having no idea what bike touring was like, some of it through the French, Swiss, and Austrian Alps, but resolved in her desire to lose weight, her parents had paid her way, purchased the necessary gear, and sent their Southern Bell to the touring headquarters in Massachusetts where the trip originated.   Of the twelve teenagers in the group, I was most doubtful about Sarah’s capacity to make it to the end of the tour.

Including Sarah, we were a motley crew of strong individualists. The most obvious example was *Stephen, whose Mohawk haircut was at odds with his matching lycra riding gear and the hairstyle du jour of all cyclists: helmet head. But pretty much any teenager that is attracted to riding their bike through seven foreign countries, training through four others, and is willing (or longing) to be away from their family for eight weeks, is unique or a bit of a character. I guess the same could be said for the other leader and me. It’s not that we were special, just idiosyncratic. *David, my co-leader, had spent the previous summer biking across the US with teenagers. He was a teacher in his late 20’s, who by his own admission ate every meal, every day at MacDonald’s. As the tour unfolded, I learned more about his solitary lifestyle in the off-season and glimpsed just the tip of darkness related to growing up in a family affected by alcoholism.

As for me, I had spent other summers on tour too, although the previous summer I had taken a break from leading and instead spent a couple of weeks on the coastlines of Oregon and California planning a future tour for the company. The rest of the summer, I had spent volunteering at a horse farm shoveling manure and grooming horses in an attempt to feel closer to my deceased father whose first passion was horses. So we all had our quirks, but most of us shared an interest in travel, a desire to experience other cultures, and a love of biking.

Once we landed in Heathrow, assembled and packed our bikes, we headed south to the coast to catch the ferry to Dieppe, France. Between the pumping adrenaline, the honeymoon phase inherent in any new undertaking, and the sheer capacity and strength of youth, the first days went by seamlessly. Everyone had to adapt to sore butts, and some ached all over at first, but we caught the ferry on a sunny day and landed on French soil without mishap.

We needed to pick up our pace pretty quickly once we were in France. We had less than six weeks to get to Budapest, to catch a train to Moscow where we would begin a tour of various cities for two weeks before flying home. The first big adjustment for everyone in the group, except David, was getting in the spirit of high mileage. I had ridden long days on tour before, but I wasn’t use to riding a fully loaded bike 70, 80, 90+ miles day after day. And even though I had trained, my body ached, burned, and peeled in places where the bike seat, handlebars, or sunshine met. Everyone’s spirits seemed low and grinding and eventually David gave a pep talk that was more like a siren’s wail verging on threat. What? If someone couldn’t keep pace, she or he could go home? And the down side of this was? But everyone, including Sarah, dug deeper and pedaled and pedaled, slogging up and whooshing down through the French Alps and over the border into Switzerland.

So far, I had learned that Tom Cruise was to Sarah, what Donny Osmond was to me in the 7th grade when his song “Puppy Love” was as hot as the red hip-hugger and wide bell-bottom pants I wore while crooning this song into the mirror. Only, I must confess, having a crush on Tom Cruise was way cooler. As for Sarah’s weight loss pursuit, high mileage and high calorie output were being somewhat thwarted by an introduction to French pastries and Swiss chocolate.

Sarah didn’t say much about the biking, even when asked how it was going, but things came to a head one day when while cycling up a mountain and around a blind corner, I discovered her kicking her bike like a madwoman as it lay on the roadside. It was a moment and I was her only witness. Through tears and screams, she made it painstakingly clear how she was feeling about her sore backside, the heavy panniers, and life on the road to the ever-elusive weight loss. This kid was having to dig deep to keep pedaling every day, and I was moved by both the depth of her emotion, as well as the unwavering determination I was to observe in the days and weeks that followed as she stuck with her goal of completing the tour.

Fast forward by or through-

~fields of gently swaying sunflowers, glistening lakes, white-capped Alps, days of bone-chilling rain in Austria, the largest Ferris wheel in the world lighting up the Vienna night sky

~endless architectural wonders and art museums (think awe turning to cultural overload)

~hauling bikes over The Grand Canal bridge in Venice and into a boat that would transport us to Lido

~government sponsored campgrounds in the former Yugoslavia where they took your passport (gulp) and kept it until you checked out

~a public bath and massages in Budapest where middle-aged Hungarian masseuses poked at our muscular thighs and laughed

~the shades of green, gold, and terracotta of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the frequently posed question to American tourists walking in Red Square: ”Do you vant to trade?” spoken in Russian flavored English, making me feel as if we were momentarily in a James Bond film.

We were sitting in the dining room of a lovely Moscow Hotel eating (or not) a formal multi-course lunch of caviar, broiled fish, and potatoes, and discussing our morning visit to Lenin’s Tomb. Suddenly, Sarah said in a loud voice, “There’s Tom Cruise! There’s Tom Cruise!” referring to someone walking by the dining room entrance, to which the whole group through gestures or words communicated, “Yeah, right.”

We finished our meal and walked out on to the sidewalk and all of a sudden Sarah was jumping up and down on the street yelling, “There’s Tom Cruise!” Sure enough, she was right. In 1987, it was probably one of the few places the actor could walk down the street and not be accosted by a herd of fans seeking autographs. He was strolling along with a blonde actress, whom I recognized but couldn’t name, dressed casually in a bomber jacket, white Nikes, and jeans, looking handsome, surprisingly short, and like he had just stepped off the set of Top Gun.   Sarah resisted the urge, or maybe yielded to my request, that she not ambush him.


Sarah rode a bike over 2,000 miles through Europe the summer she was 16. While her body grew stronger and firmer, she didn’t appear to lose much weight. (Truth be told, she never really needed to.) I hope when she looks back on this experience, she remembers with pride that she made it with grit, determination, and the quiet encouragement of group will. And I hope she can tell others with pleasure that when she adored Tom Cruise at 16, she got to see him in person. In Moscow. Half way around the world. And the immeasurable distance she had brought herself to get there.

(*Names have been changed for the sheer fun of it.  Okay, and for the now quaint concept of privacy.)




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