60,000 Strokes 60,000 Strokes for Different Folks from Sea to Gasping Sea

By Harvey Berkman
Leisure Lawyer

James D. Brusslan never spins his wheels and gets nowhere.

In June and July the new Katten, Muchin & Zavis environmental lawyer spun the wheels of his 14-speed bicycle cross-country, one ocean to the other, fighting wind, rain, hail, regularly aching body parts and a constant, gnawing exhaustion to roll 3,400 miles in 24 days - much of it uphill.

Total climb? More than 100,000 feet - or six dozen Sears Towers.

A camping and canoeing enthusiast, Brusslan long has been a lover of the great outdoors and interested in the environment. He took up bicycling in 1988 and has grown increasingly serious: Every year now he does a few centuries -100 miles in one day.

Between leaving Karaganis & White, Ltd. in March and starting at Katten in July, he saw an ad in a bike magazine for the Pacific-Atlantic Cycling Tour - 3 1/2 weeks from Seattle, Wash., to Williamsburg, Va., for $2,295.

Riders get gear bags and jerseys; breakfast, lunch, and five snacks a day; a daily, detailed, laminated map; the services of mechanics traveling on two accompanying vans; nights in decent hotels, two to a room - and the chance to pump the bike's pedals 60,000 times each day to hit the 140 mile average.

When he saw the ad, the fit, 35-year-old, 5-foot-9-inch, 170-pound, hot-dog-skiing, nature- loving cyclist with time on his hands wondered if anyone who signed up wasn't a spoke shy of a wheel.

But after seeing a second ad calling PAC a "gourmet bike tour," Brusslan said, "I started to think, 'Well, I wonder if I can do it,'" he said. Trip sponsors said that if he could do 6 1/2-hour centuries day after day, he could handle the tour. He backpedaled his move to Katten, which agreed to let him start in July.

Brusslan started riding harder, clear to the Wisconsin border and back. His hobby became his full-time job.

As the tour's June 13 start-date approached, his endurance improved, and he did his first 150- mile day; but he still had no done two straight centuries, and while he was riding 400 miles a week, on PAC he'd do more than that in less than three days. So with a week to his flight to Seattle, Brusslan screwed up his determination, set his jaw - and stopped riding entirely.

"I really got nervous. I wondered why I had signed up for it; and I just stopped because my neck was hurting, my knees were hurting - everything started to hurt.

At that point, my idea was that if I just do two days in a row ... and flew back, I would still consider it a real accomplishment.

In Seattle Brusslan met his co-travelers, ranging from accountants, doctors, and teachers to a laid-off train conductor and a guy who raises parakeets. Brusslan was the sole lawyer. The youngest participant was 26, the oldest 61. Most were in their 40s.

For its first day the group rose at 4:30 a.m. It was dark, raining and near freezing; snow lined the roads. Their ride began with a climb to 4,000 feet above sea level, and things went downhill from there.

As the rise peaked and a long decline started, the wind picked up and the rain became a downpour - riding conditions Brusslan called "terrifying" for a person who'd never ridden in the mountains, even when it was sunny and calm. But the cyclists survived - and found that that day was a ride in the park compared to what they faced a week later.

After pedaling against the wind from Yellowstone National Park, the group awoke on its seventh day in Cody, Wyo. Fearing a second straight day of such pleasant weather, the riders rose to find instead "this beautiful tail wind, and everybody was so euphoric," Brusslan said. "We raced 60 miles in less than three hours."

The racing ended when they hit a 30-mile climb up a mountain that got steeper as the climb progressed. When they finally got to the top, their reward was to see the sky cloud, the temperature plummet to the 40s from the morning's 80", and hail start to fall. Their initial response was slightly nervous laughter; but as the hail grew heavier it got painful, actually denting some helmets.

As the riders descended the mountain, they saw that the hail had fallen even harder below; Carpeting the road were two inches of rocky ice.

"It was at that point that probably 10 people flagged motorists down and asked for rides," Brusslan said, adding with quiet pride that "there were a lot of us who continued down."

Such trials contributed to the riders' development of an ethic of focus: You had a job to do and you did it, steady-as-she-goes, one-wheel-in-front-of-the-other, just keep moving whatever the obstacles and problems, at a constant 17 mph if yon can, a good clip

"You just had to keep going," Brusslan said, "and so you accepted it."

Or you quit. Of the 35 riders who began, about two dozen finished. And of those six or so "sagged" at least once.

In PAC parlance, the tour's two vans were "sag wagons." They rode ahead to set up lunches and snacks, provided mechanical help to those in trouble and rescued those who could not go on. They also would "sag" forward any laggards.

Although they rode in significantly dispersed groups, the cyclists all had to finish at a decent time: Leaders wanted them in not too long after dark and would go get them if they had to.

Getting sagged "wasn't a thing that was publicized," Brusslan said. "If it happened, everybody was kind of hush-hush about it. Nobody would really brag that they had been in the sag wagon, and no one did it just because they were tired. The only time that people ever did it was when they were in just such excruciating pain, or they had some internal problem, like they were vomiting."

Which is not to say that even regurgitation halted all those so afflicted. At one rest stop a rider lost his lunch but no tome, getting back on his bike in minutes with no complaints, a textbook display to stoic PAC spirit.

Such stolidity was respected: Etiquette dictated suffering in silence.

"Everybody was [in pain]," Brusslan said. "It served no purpose to complain. I realized that very early on the trip. I remember I once said my knee hurts. It was the first thing I said about my knee, although I had been in excruciating pain, and some guy just exploded: "If I hear anybody complain about their knees again, I'm just going to go crazy."

"You were either going to do the trip or you weren't, so any kind of normal analysis of how you were feeling, or how many miles we had, or just the normal contemplation of life's things, you just couldn't do because it might in some way interfere with the goal at hand, which was just to go forward."

The constant exertion and exhaustion notwithstanding, this tunnel vision simplified life.

"We rode, we got there late in the day, we went out for dinner in small groups, and then we just went back to the hotel and went to sleep," Brusslan said. "The whole purpose when you got off the bicycle was to feed yourself and make sure you were sleeping and you had enough to drink."

There wasn't much lollygagging. The group made special trips to Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone Park, but soaking in scenery was not a priority. "As they said when we started, this wasn't a wine-tasting tour," Brusslan said.

Breaks were relatively often but short - 20 minutes for lunch, less for snacks. When stopped, the cyclists had no use for extended-pinkie debate or rambling, soul-baring rap sessions.

"There was very little philosophical analysis on the trip," Brusslan said. "When we got to a break, we would get off the bicycle and people would surround the food like animals and just eat as much as they could, then maybe talk for a minute or two and then get back on the bike. How could you really sit and relax when you knew you had 130 more miles to go that day?"

It was that endless mental stress as much as the daily physical strain that led some riders to abandon, Brusslan said: You need a backbone as strong as your thighs to ride the PAC tour start- to-finish.

"The people who dropped out were people who got really excited about downhills and good things and who got really down when they ran into bad things," Brusslan said.

Even at the end, the cyclists' celebration was muted.

The two dozen finishers rode in formation from Williamsburg to Yorktown, Va., with the 61-year-old man on point. It was, Brusslan said, "raining, as usual."

"But everybody was really proud. We got to the beach and people brought their bicycles and touched the water. Some people dove in and swam." They took pictures and relaxed a bit, but there was little true euphoria. "Everybody was just unbelievably tired," Brusslan said. "I really enjoyed it, people were really nice, there was a lot of camaraderie, but it was basically exhausting."

After a little while, the drained, exhausted comrades all reboarded their bikes: Their hotel for the night was hack in Williamsburg, 16 miles away.

"Even at the end, we had a ride to do," Brusslan said.