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NATURE COMES ALONG FOR THE RIDE OF THE CENTURY

Something has to get your mind off your aching butt when you bike 100 miles in a day.

I am traveling light, on a 16-pound bike, with a hard-boiled egg, four energy bars, a banana and a cell phone in the rear jersey pocket. I've clamped two bottles containing Gatorade below the saddle. My goal is to ride 100 miles in a day.

I straddle my carbon-fiber Orbea, clip my shoes into the pedals, head north into the wind.

My wife is unhappy about this day. I had a stroke after a far shorter bike ride in 2006. Still, I was lucky: The only lasting effect was a burning sensation in my left hand, an awareness of mortality and a desire to squeeze every ounce of life out of life.

I don't know how the writer Marcel Proust hung on: barely moving because of his asthma, hiding in claustrophobic rooms, all brain, no body, worrying incessantly about the end, which came when he was 51. I'm still among the mortals at 58.

Do bluebirds know they are mortal? They probably don't dwell on it, concentrating on the moment of living. A half dozen males - Thoreau described them as "carrying the sky on their backs'' - flit past. I flit along with them. On my bike I always feel like I'm flying, not in a jet, mind you, but in a modest biplane. Speed kills.

- - -

A good place to pedal 100 miles is the Suncoast Trail, a paved path that parallels the Suncoast Parkway, a turnpike through Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. Up and back will get me 82 miles. I'll have to add a couple miles of lonely side roads and 13 miles of the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Area trail to reach a century.

"You going far, son?'' a guy older than me asks from the seat of his hybrid.

"I hope so.''

- - -

You ride 100 miles by riding a mile at a time. You worry as much about your rear end as your legs.

My saddle is about 2 inches wide and rock hard. I wish I had someone riding next to me. We could talk about our sore butts, our lives so far, mortality.

Don't think about mortality, stupid. Just pedal. Become another wild thing living in the moment. An odd place, the Suncoast Trail: a microcosm of real Florida. Traffic on the east side of the bike path; on the west lovely wilderness, forest, swamp, alligators, snakes.

Deer ahead.

Two does. On the path. They gaze dumbly at my approach. I guess a man on a bike looks nothing like a panther. Once there were panthers here, before the pavement and the farm houses. Now there are coyotes and farm dogs and bicycle dudes. But a careless deer that drinks out of the Pithlachasotee River might be ambushed by an alligator. Don't be careless.

I stop, watch the deer, swig Gatorade and rest my behind, already sore after a quarter of a century.

- - -

The trick is to be fit in the first place. I'm fit after years of cycling. Harder for me is keeping a reasonable pace. Go out too hard and you bonk - literally run out of energy - after a couple of hours.

Watching my cyclometer and paying attention to my heart rate monitor, I maintain a pace I think I can sustain.

Slow.

I played high school baseball but couldn't hit a curve. After college I was sedentary for 15 years. I took up jogging until my knees wore out, then bought a decent bike. I've ridden in the Panhandle and I've ridden in the Keys. Every fall I ride up to North Carolina's 6,684-feet Mount Mitchell, highest point east of the Mississippi. I pant a lot, ask God for help, but I do it.

But 100 miles. I've thought about it. Never done it. Lance Armstrong can ride a century in three hours. I keep my speed at 15 on the flats and creep up my first steep hill at 8 mph.

Stop. Drink. Eat the hard-boiled egg, which tastes heavenly after a couple of energy bars. Drink some more. Refill the bottle with water at a rest stop. Ride again.

After 50 miles my behind is talking. It says "What were you thinking?'' and I answer "I'm sorry, I'll try to stand on the pedals for a while,'' but that hurts too, so I sit again and the pain shoots through my bones all the way to my neck, which, by the way, is also sore, because I've been extending my head like an ancient tortoise for 70 miles.

I have a neighbor who is a physician. She scolds me sometimes. She says "You need to take better care of yourself'' when she sees me step out of the house with my bike in the cold weather. But I refuse to stay in the house like Proust and wait.

- - -

Fox squirrel.

Okay, a fox squirrel is not as exciting as a bear, but it does distract my aching butt. The fox is an endangered species about twice the size of our common city gray squirrels, but more likely to be seen on the edge of deserted fields near long-leaf pines, which are mostly gone now.

Fox squirrels don't scamper. They lumber.

I stop, drink, eat, look the fox squirrel boldly in the eye. My hard-eyed stare completely routs the fox squirrel. Victory for mankind! But it means I have to get back on the horrid saddle.

A long hill.

Don't look at the top. Focus on the ground. At the hill top I stand on the pedals, coast, stretch my neck, have mercy on my behind while trying not to think about my behind.

Wild turkeys.

I count a half dozen. Males. Gobblers. Ten-pounders. I envision one in a roasting pan. Instead I grab another Powerbar from my jersey and chew without pleasure.

Six hours into the ride with 15 miles to go. I feel elated knowing I have the energy to make it - as long as I don't do anything foolish like going all out and bonking before I reach the finish. Deer, fox squirrels, turkey live life to the fullest yet know their limitations. Don't burn out. But don't rust either.

I take the side trip into the Starkey Wilderness Area, where on a summer ride years ago I saw an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake coiled on the trail. It was 4 feet long, thick around as my calf, bulging with a rabbit or quail, as calm as I was excited, confident in its snakeness. It flicked its tongue and I went away.

No rattlesnakes on a cool January afternoon. Just bluebirds, warblers, crows, the occasional towhee, calling, flying from branch to branch with nothing to prove, unlike a gray-haired man on his bicycle.

Six miles left, I feel surprisingly well for a 58-year-old guy. Afternoon pines cast long shadows like in those vampire movies where the Count is going to rise from his grave at dusk. I have been riding seven hours.

My truck, an oasis, waits ahead in the empty parking lot.

I strip off my clothes, change into dry duds, eat a tangerine in the fading light.

Turn on the cell phone. Listen to my wife's anxious message.

"Call me! I'm worried about you.''

I call her.

"I did 100 miles. I'm alive.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

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