Hell on Wheels | People & Places | Smithsonian

Hell on Wheels

Hell on Wheels

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I'm not very good at vacations. I bring the wrong books, am afraid to tan and slur my words after one banana daiquiri. But this vacation was going to be different: a guided bicycle trip through the vineyards and rolling hills of France's Burgundy region. The brochure promised tree-lined back roads and a "leisurely pace ideal for the Sunday cyclist." I sent off my deposit with the clear and compelling image of myself in a flower-print sundress, a fresh baguette in my front basket, pedaling and waving "Bonjour!" to the friendly villagers.

Day 1: With 22 other Americans, I arrive by bus at a vine-covered chateau. I change into my best khaki shorts for our get-acquainted ride and wait in the garden for my fellow cyclists. First to join me is a man in neon spandex bicycle shorts, matching bicycle jersey, bicycle gloves and bicycle racing helmet. His black bicycle shoes cause him to hobble slightly as he walks. I smile reassuringly at him, certain that he feels ridiculous.

But wait! Here comes a woman in an equally elaborate outfit. Then another, and another, until it dawns on me that I will be spending the next seven days on the road with a group of toe-clip savvy, semiprofessional cyclists who reached optimal body fat ratios several thousand miles ago.

Day 2: The ride begins with a lecture from our guide on the importance of cycling together as a group. A few minutes later, my fellow cyclists, all jockeying for lead position, shrink to black specks on the horizon. Today, I perfect the French phrases for the following: "Have you seen a great number of bicycles?" "Yes, I am very tired." "One Orangina, please."

Day 3: From the beginning, I've complained to my guide that my bicycle is hard to pedal. Finally, I refuse to go another quarter of a kilometer until he takes a look. He quickly determines that for three days I've been cycling with one brake shoe locked against the front tire rim.

Day 4: Serious trouble. After five hours on the road, I'm having chest pain and can't breathe. Gasping, I careen off the road clutching my chest, only to discover that my money belt, ordinarily cinched around my waist, has crept up in ever-tightening circles to just under my new sports bra.

Day 5: Lost again, on a hot, humid afternoon in the middle of a bleak residential area. I reach down for my water bottle and find it empty. So I do what any seasoned traveler would do. I slide off my bike, lift it high above my head and heave it to the pavement. Then I rip the bright yellow helmet off my dripping head and hurl it into a concrete wall.

Day 6: Villagers at a small town see 22 bronzed, very determined cyclists streaming in synchronized precision through the main street. Hours later, a wheezing woman in baggy khaki shorts, filthy from a greasy bicycle chain, pedals slowly after them. Spectators gather along the sidewalk, clapping and shouting "Bravo! Allez!" My moment has finally come. I manage a weak smile.

Day 7: The best day of the trip. I ride with the luggage in the support van.

Next summer? I just read about a fantastic opportunity to go kayaking among glaciers in Alaska. "Perfect," says the brochure, "for beginning paddlers." Thanks, but I think I'll stay home and mow the lawn.

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