By Eric J. GoldsteinIf you had told me several months ago that I would find salvation from the seat of a 20 year old Fuji RoyaleII bicycle, I would have laughed—but it would have been a somber, desperate laugh. At age 45, I found myself lost and disconnected, unable to find joy in family, friends, work, or recreation. A horribly lonely feeling that keeps you up at night, finds you sobbing uncontrollably at any random time and scrapes at your soul with talons of utter hopelessness.
Stay with me, I promise this has a happy ending…I am a forever adolescent married father of two amazing kids who has more toys than his children. I have been blessed with a wife who has been my friend and partner through twenty-five years of marriage. I have a nice home, good friends, and while I’m not wealthy by any means, we are quite comfortable. So how did this happen? What is it that brought me to my knees one Sunday morning and then kicked me into a hole of self loathing and apparent depression from which I saw no escape?I still don’t know. I only know that I was suddenly a guest at a banquet that had gone bland and colorless. Everything seemed the same, but I could find no joy in any of it. Game night with the fellas became a chore, so much so that I started to avoid going altogether, making up all manner of excuses. It became harder and harder to hide my unhappiness...okay, my depression, if that label defines what I was going through any better.So there I was, a formerly athletic, outgoing, and energetic guy whose pant size now threatened to enter a new decade and who breathed heavily after 10 steps, with no answers in sight but the one very plainly in front of his face. It was a Wednesday morning. I was off from work and looking for something, I can’t recall what, in my garage-turned-storage room. Suddenly there she was, as if I had not seen her before, my Fuji 12 Speed, unridden for the past several years but still in good shape. I don’t know why I decided to roll her out of the garage and hop onto the saddle. I don’t know what made this day any different from the hundreds of days I’d pushed the bike out of my way while cleaning the garage. But still, I threw my leg over and slapped my Vans into the toe clips and...I sailed.This was the spring-back from the bottom of the bungee cord. I was a kid throwing off my training wheels and riding free for the first time, again. I stood up in the pedals barely able to contain myself, grinning open-mouthed and laughing at the wind rushing past me. I sailed past my neighbor’s houses, gliding through the streets around my development in a long circle back to my driveway. I jumped off the bike, giddy and excited and all out of breath from a quarter-mile ride.That night, I dug deep into my closet and found my old canvas and rubber Bata cycling shoes. They were worn and ragged and hinted at faraway days of long rides when the Batas were a lot newer and less worn, as was I. Cradling them in my hands, I blew the dust from them and tried one on, an improbable Cinderella but just as excited to see they fit.Two days later on a beautiful spring morning, I crammed my old frame into the car, the bike in the back seat, and drove to the state park a quick three miles down the road. The park is a Mecca of sorts for runners, skaters, and cyclists as it affords two oval roads, an inner and an outer, that are relatively free of any motor traffic. I was completely oblivious to new technology and "proper" clothing. I didn’t know clipless pedals from index shifting. The one piece of equipment I did purchase before the ride was a helmet (concussions I knew about). I wore my Bata shoes, a pair of Spandex shorts, and a baggy T-shirt I made certain would cover my gut.I saddled up as riders whizzed, wheezed, and flashed by me, standing upright in the pedals, frozen for an instant just before starting that first revolution on my bike in the park and my heart and soul.Everything creaked—me, the bike, everything. But I pushed on, thrilled and exhilarated to be out and riding. I don’t remember a whole lot of detail about that first ride, outside of feeling the blood in my veins pumping hard and fast, and the wind rushing past me, and my lungs working overtime. But I do remember the first time I attempted the relatively small hill in the park. I had to stop twice on the way up what is less than a quarter-mile climb.That became my first goal. I didn’t really, consciously, know it at the time, but that first goal and the many small ones that followed were the building blocks of my healing process. I conquered that hill, small victory maybe, but I read and questioned and trained, and I conquered that hill and the few others beyond it. But there was one I could not yet even begin to attempt.The climb is a mile long stint of a major artery called 9W whose steepest grade is barely 8%. This two-lane thoroughfare has wide shoulders and stretches that run for miles without lights or stop signs. Every cyclist traveling north from NYC or South from, well almost any point north of the George Washington Bridge has ridden 9W at some point. The climb was the bridge from my town to the town below and the rest of the cycling world.I had found the local bike club online and set myself the goal of joining my first group ride only after conquering this monumental climb, the emphasis on "mental." I could not allow myself to be a potential burden to others. Little did I know of the incredible people I would soon meet, but for now I was stuck in my own prison attempting to scale the walls to freedom.My first attempt was hardly any kind of attempt at all. After filling the atmosphere with enough CO2 to clear a planet-size hole in the ozone, I collapsed in a heap using my bike to hold me up. Riders of all descriptions rode past; Pannier-laden touring cyclists, spandex-wearing speed junkies, mountain bikers with chain ring tattoos on their arms, casual hybrid riders out to enjoy the sun. I chose a Saturday morning for this. I guess I love an audience.I did not attempt again that day, but worked on the smaller hill in the park and found, by accident, what became the precursor to the 9W imitation of Everest. It was an approach to a golf course from the smaller hill inside the park. This added another half mile to the climb at a manageable 5% grade until its crest at about 8%. I rode that over and over again. Day after day after day. Let me tell you, I mastered that Ventoux!The following week, on a Wednesday that promised of later summer heat to come, I went at 9W again. I rode down 9W building up a bit of speed, and believe me it was just a bit of speed, and hit that hill with everything I had! I hammered and crushed those pedals, spinning over and over, my heart pounding, lungs bursting and my thighs...I won’t swear to it but I’m sure I burnt through some spandex!But I got over that Hoover Dam of a hill and the descent was the sweetest mile I have ever ridden. Until I realized going back up was the only way home...I didn’t consciously know it then, but I had broken through. I had made it past the point of no return. I finally joined the local bike club, The Rockland Bicycling Club, and eventually went on to become a Ride Leader and Board Member. I have been blessed to ride alongside incredibly inspiring individuals. Many have become ride partners and some more than that, friends. This past August, thirty five pounds lighter than I was that first day on the Fuji, I participated in my first road race. It was 50 miles of tough grueling work, and I am hooked. I am committed to a full season of racing for the next year with the help of my club and the coaching prowess of my local bike shop. I am happy again at work, finding worth in what I do where I couldn’t before. Everything that was old is new again, and I celebrate life again as I did when I was twenty and the future was wide and deep and open.I now own a fancy carbon fiber racing bike and a fixed gear track bike, but every once in a while I take out my beloved Fuji Royale II and just go for a ride around town. She wasn’t very expensive. She hasn’t ever been updated. But she is priceless to me and I would never change a thing about her. My greatest pleasure is seeing that she still gets use. She has become my son’s to ride now and if he meets his goals we’ll go shopping for something new that maybe one day will be there for him when life gets in the way and a little salvation is needed.
ISSA Certified Fitness Trainer
USCF Cycling Coach
SBCU Certified Bike Fitter