Up on two wheels
Riding with the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen offers both novices and experienced cyclists scenery, support, and a taste of solitude
First in a regular series of articles on recreational options south of Boston.
L AKEVILLE - Three years after it happened, David Fraley still remembers what came into view as he sped around a curve on the Blackstone River Bikeway.
He was new to serious bicycling and had been training for six months. With his first big ride in the Pan Mass Challenge just days away, he was cruising along the bike path at a pretty good clip when he rounded a curve and saw boulders flanking the path.
His memory of precisely how the crash happened fails. He may have hit a patch of sand or braked too quickly. What he does remember is his vulnerable flesh going over the handlebars and smashing into rock. When it was over, he had seven broken ribs, a level 5 shoulder separation, and a punctured lung.
I met Fraley recently in the parking lot of a Lakeville elementary school where members of the Narragansett Bay Wheelmen, a cycling club that rides in Southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and eastern Connecticut, were getting ready to pedal. The group welcomes riders of all levels at weekly rides on Sundays year round, and they post a calendar at www.nbwclub.org.
On this particular Sunday, they planned a mostly flat ride through Lakeville, Freetown, Acushnet, and Rochester, which made it easy for a lightweight like me - the most I’ve ridden is 30 miles - to tag along.
It was a chilly morning, with fewer riders assembled than their usual 50 or so for this time of year. The men outnumbered the women; one man said his wife draws the line at 60 degrees, which definitely would have kept her home that day.
But several women made the trip, including Amy Robinson, a police dispatcher who drove up from Fall River. She rides regularly, but this was just her second ride with the Wheelmen, which she heard about at a bike shop.
Robinson said that she rides to let go of stress and that riding is her “me’’ time. Biking allows plenty of solitude, riding single file, to think about life - or to forget about life and just watch the scenery go by. But it also offers the chance to get together and socialize with other riders.
Although this was my introduction to the Wheelmen, I have two friends who ride with the group, which boasts some 900 individual and family memberships, totaling between 1,200 and 1,300 people, said club president Ted Shwartz.
That’s a small army of cycling enthusiasts, and each year, on the Sunday after Labor Day, they draw 2,000 riders to their signature event, a 100-mile ride dubbed “The Flattest Century in the East.’’
Founded about 40 years ago, the ride is no longer technically the flattest century on the East Coast, Shwartz said, but it’s the largest in New England.
I find this blend of social and solitary activity really appealing. I had a nice little moment of solitude partway through my ride. I say my ride because the club marked three routes of 15, 25, and 40 miles. This was my first time on a bicycle in 2012 outside the gym, so I opted for the 15.
When it was time to go, we left in three groups, not according to how far we would ride, but how fast. That way, the faster riders didn’t have to go around everyone else.
But back to my moment. This is what made me smile in the evening, at home, as I put a heating pad on my knees, a sign that I’d pushed my joints harder than my muscles were ready to support.
Sitting on the couch, I thought back to the stretch of road between Little Quittacas and Great Quittacas ponds, where the land is hardly wider than the road, with water on either side. It’s a pretty spot. Grander scenery was yet to come, but this wasn’t about the scenery; it was about my moment with the geese.
I was fleetingly alone. Two riders ahead of me had rounded a bend, and one at my back had fallen behind. I coasted, pedaled, and reached the narrowest strip of land as a pair of Canada geese looked up from nibbling at the shore of Little Quittacas, on my right. One pressed its head forward to give a soft honk-honk-honk-honk.
Canada geese don’t impress many people, and bald eagles are the real excitement around this chain of great ponds. But I’ve always liked the geese. They remind me of a time when they were indeed some of the only wildlife I saw, and saw regularly, when they landed in great flocks on the fields behind a Long Island elementary school.
On the walk back upstairs from recess I would think about their freedom, their movement, and - or so it seems in my reconstructed memory - whether I would be free like that.
Now I’m free, I think - maybe not free from the obligations and sorrows of humanity, but free to work and love, to read, to satisfy passing curiosity through the magic of the Internet, and to find moments of peace punctuated by geese.
I live in New England, where you can kayak in 8 inches of water and see dozens of tiny starfish at your fingertips.
Such is the joy of re-creating oneself through experience.
David Fraley re-created his cycling after the accident. Today, at 63, he looks fit and relaxed as he gets ready for a ride. His sunglass-mounted rearview mirror is fashioned from a Sam Adams bottle cap.
He rides a recumbent bicycle, because he hasn’t been able to ride very far on an upright bike since the crash. He rides more slowly, but for a longer time, on the recumbent.
If Fraley ever needed help on a ride, he would surely get it. At one point, when I lagged behind the club president, he circled back to make sure I hadn’t gotten a flat. Another rider new to the group told me he was grateful for the same kind of help, with a real flat, on a previous ride.
And when I started to make a wrong turn I thought I’d seen on the map, ignoring the lack of a requisite arrow painted on the road, Shwartz quickly called me back.
Until this ride, I had never tried riding with a cycling club, but I would not hesitate to go back. Riding with a club is different from riding with friends, until, perhaps, they become friends.