Day 35: Roanoke, VA - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

May 17, 2011

Day 35: Roanoke, VA

Last night I ate an entire large pizza. I wake up ten hours later completely starving, like it never happened.

I ride a few miles up the Parkway and then drop into downtown Roanoke, where I hang out in a coffee shop and write while waiting for my 11:00 a.m. wheel installation appointment.

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I pull up to Cyclo-Ward and find the front door locked. I'm not surprised; the place is closed on Tuesday and only open by special arrangement, which I set up about a week ago. I figure the mechanic will be there in a few minutes, so I stand around and read the bike-related newspaper articles posted near the front door. Buses and cars speed through the busy intersection a few feet away. A couple of bikes pedal past. Every time I see a man coming up the sidewalk I'm sure it's the guy I'm looking for, but it never turns out that way.

I call. I send an email. I wait 45 minutes. Nothing.


I can't just leave town and forget about it—I need my new wheel. I kill time at a nearby frozen yogurt shop, where the walls shine bright green and purple and the air fills with the sweet smell of Swiffer floor cleaner. Rain pours and women in Subaru station wagons parallel park poorly out front. Later I fill up on phenomenal pork carnitas at the Mexican restaurant across the street because, hey, why the hell not?

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The weather forecast calls for thunderstorms during the evening. The only nearby campground is miles away, all uphill, and I know I have to come back down to the shop tomorrow. I take the easy way out and reserve a motel room. I start to ride in that direction soon after, but at the last moment decide to give Cyclo-Ward another shot.

Someone's inside when I pull up.

James welcomes me in. He didn't remember my appointment time, but he knows why I'm here. I push the bike to the work area in back, past a couch and a couple of chairs and about a dozen for-sale bikes standing in big metal racks. I unload all the bags from the bike and it goes up in the stand. We talk as he works, about frame construction, drivetrain components, where he's from, life in Roanoke, and the bike shop business. I try hard to sound like I know what I'm talking about.

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James is a fast talker and, it turns out, an incredibly skilled rider. He never had the makeup to ride at high speeds and win races, but from the time he was a teenager growing up in New York he's had great endurance. He tells me about starting with hundred-mile rides from New York City to Montauk on Long Island, before quickly moving on to 150-milers to Albany and 200-milers to far-flung places, the names of which I can't remember. He's crossed the country several times, including one attempt at the Race Across America, a completely insane event where competitors ride more than 3,000 miles across the United States in just nine or ten days. They sleep for an hour or two each night and take who knows what to keep their energy levels up. Some even end up riding with a line of tape that runs from the top of their helmet down to their back, to help keep their heads upright long after their neck muscles collapse from exhaustion.

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Preparing the new wheel goes slowly—partly because I ask questions and distract James so much, but also because one person after another walks in the door or calls on the phone in need of help, even though the shop's supposed to be closed. He responds to the questions and problems with as much patience as he can muster.

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When he spins the wheel and tire on the bike to give them a final check, he winces a little. The factory didn't tension the spokes properly and the wheel's not perfectly round. He pulls it off and puts it in the truing stand, spinning and examining and carefully adjusting the spokes a quarter, a half, or a three-quarter turn at a time. James has built and maintained and repaired bikes for more than 30 years. He's a master of his craft with a workspace that puts every tool easily at hand. I watch him work and feel totally at ease, knowing that my bike is in the care of an expert.

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The new front wheel's in much better shape and goes on easily. After a few quick drivetrain adjustments the bike is good as new, ready for another 4,000-plus miles of cross-country riding. I thank James sincerely and pedal away toward the motel—slowly for a block or two, but then at full speed when I see the massive black mass of thunderstorm coming down from over the top of Roanoke Mountain.

I pull under the front entrance 30 seconds after the hard rain starts. From my room I watch it continue for an hour, happy to be inside and warm and dry. Throughout the evening I look over at my bike, admiring the shiny new wheels with silver spokes that match the rim and fenders. I feel confident in all of it. On a four-month trip across America that means everything.

Today's ride: 10 miles (16 km)
Total: 1,753 miles (2,821 km)

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