One More Pedal Stroke

I was telling stories to my high school kids today.  One of the perks of teaching is that I have a captive audience – I just kind of ignore all those requests for bathroom passes and the kids have no choice but to listen to my drivel.  Honestly though, I think the kids kind of enjoy days like today – at least they get out of doing math for a day.

I told them a story from one of my first bicycle tours.  Way back in the summer of 1988 I cycled from Norfolk, Virginia to New Orleans.  My trip was pretty poorly planned, as usual (why would anybody choose the Norfolk airport if they had a choice??), but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  My decisions were made at the last possible moment, and were often ill-informed at best.  One of those decisions led to an experience that, quite literally, changed my life.

You see, I had a choice of two roads through one particular stretch and I randomly chose one.  I had cycled probably a hundred or so miles on that path before I started hearing the warnings.

“You’ve got one hell of a climb coming up!”
“You’ll never make it up that hill – cars can’t even make it up.”
“Hope you’re prepared – there’s a hill coming up that not even the strongest cyclists can climb!”

For nearly 150 miles I heard the warnings, and that hill grew in magnitude each day.  The hill became some sort of big, bad monster out to devour me.  It would gobble me up, grind me to bits, and spit out my bones.  As I drew nearer, the dread factor rose to astronomical proportions, and I was certain I would end up turning around and pedaling 250 miles back to where I had made that fateful decision.

Early in the morning, after eating an enormous pancake breakfast to fuel my muscles, I headed out.  The hill was before me.  I would give it my best shot, but knew in my heart I was defeated before I took even one pedal stroke.  I’m not sure why I even attempted to climb it – probably some kind of youthful folly of mine.

I remember very clearly the man walking out of the post office.  As he reached for his door handle with one hand, he waved at me with the other and shouted, “Do you know you’ve got one hell of a climb coming up?”  That was all I needed.

I started climbing.  I pedaled.  And I pedaled.  I shifted down and pedaled some more.  My lungs cried for air and my legs protested at the abuse I was subjecting them to.  I shifted to my lowest gear and kept pedaling.Pass between Srinigar and Leh in India

“One more pedal stroke,” I chanted silently.  “One more pedal stroke.  One more pedal stroke.”

I wondered just when the really steep part of the hill would start – I was maxed out as it was.  There was no way I could handle it when it got really steep.  One pedal stroke after another, my bike inched its way upward.  “One more pedal stroke.  One more pedal stroke.”  (When will the steep stuff start?)  “One more pedal stroke…”

Sweat was pouring down my face and my breath came in gasps but still my legs moved in those endless little circles.  I wondered just how much longer I could hold out.  But in the meantime, I focused on each and every pedal stroke.  I figured as long as I had it in me to pedal one more stroke, I’d keep going.

In my peripheral vision I saw a woman run out of her house clapping her hands and shouting something.  My attention was focused on the road in front of my bike and it took a few minutes to register what she was shouting.

“You did it!” she shouted.  “You made it up!!”

I stopped my bike and looked at her in confusion.  “Huh?”

“You did it!  You made it up!!”

I was stunned.  I had made it up the hill to end all hills.  I had conquered the monster!

As I think back on that climb, I realize I learned a lot from that day.  I learned that sometimes life is like that.  Sometimes life is tougher than a bed of nails.  Sometimes life throws things at us we are certain we can’t handle.  And yet, if we think about right here, right now, we can get through.  If we set a goal and say, “I can make it through today,” or “I can make it through the next ten minutes,” we can do it.  It all comes down to breaking it into small enough, manageable enough, chunks.

For me, it was one pedal stroke.  If I had it in me to take one more pedal stroke, I would keep going.  And when I put together a whole lot of those pedal strokes, I made it up the hill.  That’s how life is – just a simple string of pedal strokes.


edited to add:  That photo up there isn’t the hill I’m talking about – that is a pass John climbed between Srinigar and Leh in India.  I wish I had a photo of my monster climb.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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8 Responses to One More Pedal Stroke

  1. Grand Canyon Harry April 11, 2008 at 5:02 am #

    Nancy: How did this grade compare to the Montezuma grade in southern California? Keep up the good work – June is near.


  2. nancy April 11, 2008 at 5:05 am #

    Honestly Harry, I have no idea. That tour was so long ago and it was my first “big” tour. In my mind that climb was about a thousand times worse than Montezuma, but I suspect that it really wasn’t all that bad. Isn’t it funny how our minds play tricks on us sometimes? I wish I could remember which hill it was so that I could find out just how bad it really is!

  3. Grand Canyon Harry April 11, 2008 at 8:48 am #


    I guess it really doesn’t matter which was worse – you made it up and over both, probably with a little sweat & tears (hopefully no blood). Just remind the boys that no more walking like they did at Montezuma, they have a record to break “riding!!!” Any thought on the political situations in Central America? That is one reason I don’t go south of the border – governments are too unstable.


  4. nancy April 11, 2008 at 9:06 am #

    We have friends cycling Central America right now and they are reporting that all is well. We will rely on local information once we get down there and, if it looks like a particular section is too dangerous to pass through, we will either take a bus or fly over. At this point it all looks good, so we are hoping that holds!

  5. Dave Fege April 14, 2008 at 8:58 am #


    I bicycled DOWN Montezuma Grade a few weeks ago. It’s still there and just begging to be climbed. But since I climbed it once over a decade ago, I see no reason to do it again. There are other hills to conquer.

    Wishing you and John and the boys all the best of luck getting to Prudhoe Bay. Our hearts and thoughts are with you.


  6. nancy April 14, 2008 at 9:38 am #

    I tend to agree – we did Montezuma once, and I have no desire to do it again. That being said, I have a distinct feeling we will be wishing for Montezuma once we get down in the Andes!

  7. Marcia April 15, 2008 at 2:45 am #

    Hi Nancy, I am looking over your GREAT site,
    and loved your hill Story, very inspiring.
    I am sure it was great for your kids and anyone
    reading it.
    I wonder if your boys are learning or know Spanish?
    I imagine that is one of the things your homeschooling?

  8. nancy April 15, 2008 at 5:33 am #

    They don’t speak Spanish yet – but they will! I’ve mandated that one! Thanks for the comments!

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