Let us begin by singing the praises of John Steeber Jr.'s macho butt. It's tough, man, tough like a Parris Island drill instructor, tough like a cast-iron frying pan with bacon grease crusted on the bottom. Every few days he sits the Clint Eastwood of behinds onto a mosquito-sized bike saddle, shifts his weight and starts pedaling.
He pedals for the next six or seven hours straight or until he has completed 100 miles or more. When he is through, he doesn't gulp Advils, soak his cheeks in hot buttermilk or weep with pain in his fiance's arms. That would be lame, man.
Maybe he mows the grass. Maybe he drywalls the back bedroom. Maybe he walks Annie, his Australian cattle dog. Then he plans tomorrow's ride. "My philosophy is, if you want to accomplish something there is no way anyone can stop you from accomplishing what you want to do," he says. "You should do it."
In west-central Florida he is known as Century John because he never messes with a bike ride shorter than 100 miles. He is 44. He is a fatless 165 pounds. He shaves his head, loves punk rock and is no stranger to the scariest mosh pits of our republic. He has what most of us would consider an intense and somewhat obsessive personality.
If everything goes right, today he will finish three weeks of cycling by logging Mile No. 2,131.61. In Paris today, the world's elite cyclists will finish the Tour de France, which by the way has lasted 21 days and 2,131.61 miles. Of course, they're young dudes with thighs the size of redwoods.
"I don't in any way compare myself to those great athletes," Century John says. "In fact, I know a lot of people in Florida who are faster than me and who ride more miles than I do in a year. But my specialty is 100 miles. Every time out."
Why a hundred miles?
Well, it's a round triple-digit number. Two, a century is like an endurance runner's marathon, slightly less stressful on the body, perhaps, but long and painful nevertheless. Some serious lifetime cyclists have never even attempted one.
To do a century, cyclists generally train for months, maintain expensive and fragile equipment, eat disgustingly well and hope their butts hold out during the ride. If they finish, they have a story to tell and maybe a plaque to hang on the wall. For someone like Century John, riding a hundred seems to mean more than a pat on the John Wayne of fannies.
"Life is short," he says. "You might as well squeeze every ounce of life out of your life."
• • •
His bike, which he knows like the most intimate lover, leans against the wall in his Pasco County home. It's a $3,000 Felt onto which he has added $2,500 worth of space-age components, including a GPS computer, emergency tools and eight lights for rides that often begin in the dark. The saddle is an expensive and very worn Selle Italia, about 5 inches at the point it supports his hips and an inch wide at the spot where it contacts his genitals. When he set up the bike, he used a plumb bob to keep everything — the seat, the pedals and his body — in perfect alignment.
"I believe in preparation," he says. In fact, he tries to keep everything in his life in perfect alignment. At home, he tapes a list of household chores to the refrigerator and checks them off as he goes along. His kitchen, from floor to ceiling, is free of grime and dust. When he built his pantry, he designed one shelf specifically to accommodate cereal boxes of a certain dimension. When he prepares a meal he writes the ingredients on a blackboard — and then stacks the ingredients on a nearby shelf in the order he will use them.
Librarians would nod approvingly at how he organizes his bookshelves by topic. His music collection hews strictly to the alphabetical; the Ramones could never precede Rage Against the Machine. Everything is supposed to have a place. Structure is important.
In an uncertain time, in a century when chaos reigns, it isn't easy to be John Steeber Jr. Nor was it easy to be the New Jersey boy who grew up when attention-deficit problems were considered a character flaw instead of faulty brain chemicals.
"I couldn't sit still," he says.
Even supper was a challenge.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," his father admonished him.
He remembered for about 10 seconds. Then he began telling his dad about everything that had happened that day as he chewed. His dad leaned across the table and with his huge hands closed his mouth.
His dad, John Steeber, was a merchant seaman who frequently was away from home for months at a time. He'd send his boy postcards from some exotic locale; the boy took the cards to school and hid them in his books. When he was supposed to be reading American history he was dreaming of his dad in Timbuktu.
"Sometimes I felt I might explode if I couldn't do something physical," he says now. At recess his favorite game was "Kill the Man with the Ball." He remembers running 8 miles to the mall and 8 miles at home. He ran shorter distances for the cross country team, gave the sport everything he had, felt better about himself.
After high school he took college classes, washed dishes in a restaurant and unloaded boxes at a department store shipping dock. His colleagues, noticing his shoulder-length hair and unnerving stare, called him "Manson," after the murderous cult leader. He coped by running, did triathlons, one day settled on the bike as his main sport.
Eventually he graduated from a trade school to learn how to be a seaman. For most of his adult life he has worked on ships as an engineer's assistant. Every hour of the day is planned; he never has to worry about keeping busy.
"I always tell my captain don't hire me if you don't want someone who will give you 110 percent every minute of a working day," he says. "If you have a job, I will do it, all out."
He has visited more than 50 countries during his career and has ridden in many of them. Last year he was away from home for seven months. On shore leave he'd rent a bike and ride his century. When it was impossible to leave the ship, he used a stationary bike in his cabin or on the deck. One time, as he pedaled furiously on the bow, the ship sailed along the 102-mile Suez Canal.
His company's office is in Jacksonville, 208 miles from his front door in Pasco County. Sometimes he rides his bike to company meetings, leaving at 3 a.m. and pedaling for the next 12 hours. After the meeting, and a good night's rest, he rides back to Pasco County.
The day after?
He may climb on his bike at 5 a.m. and ride two hours to St. Petersburg, hook up with cyclists from the local bike club and stay with them all the way to Pinellas County's southern point, Fort De Soto. "He's an animal," says John Sinibaldi Jr., a ferocious cyclist who sometimes rides with the Century Man in St. Petersburg.
From Fort De Soto, Steeber rides alone to the beach and pedals north to Clearwater, where he catches the Pinellas Trail to Tarpon Springs. From Tarpon he takes Keystone Road to East Lake Boulevard and zips north along Seven Springs Boulevard, Rowan Road and Regency Park Boulevard.
One hundred twenty miles.
He fixes himself a turkey sandwich.
• • •
Eating enough calories and drinking enough liquid is always a challenge. Recently, after a 165-mile ride, he discovered he had lost 9 pounds. He typically begins the day with a big breakfast, usually cereal and fruit, but sometimes pancakes and turkey bacon. During rides he eats frequently, usually fruit, high-energy gels and a tuna sandwich from Subway. To prevent dehydration he drinks every seven minutes — he times his water breaks. He carries two Gatorades and 70 ounces of water in a pack he typically replenishes during the ride.
At home he eats again, pasta, broiled fish, a baked potato, roasted chicken, but never red meat. "I don't eat anything with four legs," he says. Nor does he drink alcohol or anything caffeinated. He has a weakness for Cheetos.
After dinner he typically loads data from the day's ride onto his computer; he keeps precise records. He often shoots video during a ride and sometimes edits the footage into a YouTube movie.
For entertainment, he enjoys live music, the louder the better. He is a fan of those punk-rock godfathers, the Ramones, and likes Ministry, which plays industrial speed metal that sounds to some ears like a man shrieking in pain above the roar of a jackhammer. He tries to position himself in front of the stage and collects guitar picks and set lists. When he travels to a new American city or a foreign country, he always tries to find the nearest Hard Rock Cafe. There are 150 in 53 countries, and he intends to visit every one. So far he has 64 Hard Rock Cafes on his list.
Every once in a while, someone asks if he sees a therapist. The answer is no. Easier to keep demons at bay by riding his bicycle to exhaustion.
• • •
For years, he looked for the right woman, but finding her was difficult, given his travels and his unusual personality. "I mostly looked on the Internet," he says. "I had a few relationships, but they were never what I wanted them to be."
He found Dharma May in a chat room in 1999. They talked, or rather Dharma May listened, until dawn. Subjects included John's pursuit of a camel by bicycle in Dubai and about the time he bungee jumped from a hot air balloon. "I thought that he was either the most interesting man I would ever meet or the biggest B.S. artist," she tells friends.
A small-town Mississippi divorced mother of three kids, she was nervous about meeting him in person; she had been disappointed in love more than once. John lived in New Jersey at the time; at midnight he picked her up at the airport and squired her around New York City, showing her the subway, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center and the neighborhood where Cyndi Lauper had filmed the video for Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
They plan to marry — their engagement has lasted nearly a dozen years — but they have yet to set a date. "Everything has to be perfect," the Century Man explains. "We want to have a perfect Hawaii honeymoon. Perfect requires planning."
Dharma works in the human resources department of a Pasco company. She is calm where John is sometimes volatile. "She keeps me grounded," he says. When they argue, it's usually about details: Was that birthday present handed over in a paper bag or in a cardboard box? It takes a while to sort this out; John likes to keep his facts straight.
Sometimes when he is looking at maps, explaining an upcoming challenge or talking about the logistics of riding a hundred miles in a Florida summer, she smiles and rolls her eyes. She says she is looking forward to the day when her man settles down and, you know, finishes his last century. Since 1987 he has ridden 225 centuries; for the last 4 ½ years he has completed at least one a month. He has no immediate plans to stop. Sorry, Dharma.
"Life is what happens when you're making other plans," John Lennon once said. It's his favorite quote. Riding a bicycle for a hundred miles, skydiving, hiking the Appalachian Trail, giving himself a new challenge — that's how he defines life. "I'm trying to visit the highest points in all 50 states,'' he says. "So far I've got 37 of them.''
But they will have to wait. For now there is the business of putting those tough buttocks on the bicycle seat and pedaling, in the wee hours, at dawn, in the midday sun, at dusk, into the night, in any kind of weather. Who will do all these centuries if he does not?
"Yo, God," he once screamed during a horrific thunderstorm while riding a century. "Is that the best you can do?"
A moment later, his tire went flat. As lightning flashed, he replaced the tube and then realized he had been kneeling in dog poop.
"Yo, God!" he shrieked to the heavens. "Is that the best you can do?"
On Sunday, July 24,, Tour de France cyclists crossed the finish line in Paris after riding 2,131 miles in 21 days. On the same day in west-central Florida, Pasco County's John "Century Man" Steeber Jr. finished his parallel tour. Steeber, however, put 2,150 miles on his cyclometer — in 17 days. When he got home, he jumped into the pool to cool off, took a refreshing shower, enjoyed a short nap, then headed to the beach with his fiance, Dharma May. They celebrated his unusual feat with a picnic. They didn't drink champagne, but they did eat some chicken.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Dharma May, fiancee of John Steeber Jr., the long-distance cyclist, works in the human resources department of a Pasco County company.