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NEAL CONAN, host: At 13, Bruce Barcott started riding his bike to middle school to avoid the bullies on the bus. Middle-age Mike Magnuson had to try five times before he could find his way across the Mississippi River to the world's worst convenience store. Twenty-six-year-old Tracy Ross found herself gasping 12,000 feet up in Andes, too spent to go forward or back. Each cyclist describes that as the ride of their life in a collection of essays in this month's 50th anniversary issue of Bicycling magazine - stories of escape, discovery and freedom.

Call and tell us about the ride of your life. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation and find a link to the essays at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bill Strickland joins us from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia. He's editor-at-large for Bicycling. And nice to have you back at the program.

BILL STRICKLAND: Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks. Maybe the most universal story there is the kid allowed to ride back and forth to school and who sees the world open up to him a block at a time.

STRICKLAND: Well, bicycles are one of the milestones of youth. When you learn to ride a bike, it's a really big deal, and that first time you get to go out on your own, past the driveway, away from your parents. So I think everyone - you're right. Everyone does identify with that.

CONAN: It's interesting. We got an email to that point from James. My favorite and greatest ride of my life would have been my first. Learning to ride a bicycle is something I was never interested in learning when I was a child. As a result, I found myself at 20 years old unable to ride. One day, my good friend Chris pulled up in front of my house and pulled a bicycle in his backseat. Today, you're going to learn to ride a bike, he said. I laughed and was about to go inside when he set the bike down in front of me and told me to get on. In a couple of hours, I had the hang of it, and was racing around the street like a little kid.

Ever since then, I don't get off my bicycle except for absolutely necessary. If I could ride a bike while sitting at my desk, I would. Thanks to my friend Chris for teaching me the meaning of freedom. And, yes, for 13-year-olds and I guess for that 20-year-old, bicycles mean freedom.

STRICKLAND: Absolutely. You can go a little faster than you can on foot. You can go a lot faster if you're a daredevil. But it's much, much more intimate than being in a car, than being on a bus, than any other way we travel. It's really the best of everything there is about seeing new places.

CONAN: I was interested, also, yes, there are those exotic and enormous accomplishments riding down the length of the Andes, as Tracy Ross described in her essay. And it was the accomplishment, not the first pass in which she was so tired and exhausted, she couldn't go forward and ended up crying. It was the next one.

STRICKLAND: When we put this story together, we expected to get great adventure stories, these amazing capers and life-threatening situations. What happened very quickly was that all the stories became very, very personal, even Tracy's. She has sort of a - she has a moment there trying to climb a mountain. She's, you know, running away from - or riding away from a bad marriage and trying to find out who she is. And it becomes a very intimate situation that she finds herself in, even though she's in an amazing place.

CONAN: And it's interesting, the moment, of course, that she can't go forward is the one that she begins with, and she ends with that moment where she is, well, gotten into better shape and become acclimated a little bit, and all of the sudden, she's able to go ahead.

STRICKLAND: Well - on a bicycle, you can just keep going. You get very, very tired, but the bicycle is always there to hold you up. You can ride until you're literally so exhausted you can't stand, and the bicycle is there for you. So people find within themselves these extreme depths of resilience and energy that they didn't know they have, and perseverance.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line - Josh, Josh with us from Oklahoma City.

JOSH: Yes, how are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JOSH: Thank you for taking my call. Yes, talking about riding bicycle, and I want to tell you guys, I really took riding a bike for granted. The first time I really enjoyed riding a bike, I was in the Navy. I was stationed - or did a tour in the Persian Gulf. And they have these packages where you pay so much money and they'll take you on, you know, scuba diving or the water parks. I chose to go on a mountain bike ride, and I ended up in the desert in the UAE. And I got to tell you, that's something that's going to stick with me for the rest of my life. And every time I get on a bike, it's - I imagine I'm back over there enjoying the view. And even if they didn't have trees or anything like that, it was just really exhilarating to be over in another country where there is no pavement or sidewalks. It's just you and the bike and the view. And that's really something I'm always going to enjoy having and keep with me for the rest of my life.

CONAN: I bet you brought plenty of water.

JOSH: No. No water.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Josh, thanks very much. That's a vivid image. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

JOSH: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: I know, Bill Strickland, you've ridden all over the world. In the UAE, the United Arab Emirates?

STRICKLAND: No, I never have. I have ridden in Egypt, and I've ridden in rainforests and some deserts in Africa.

CONAN: Let's see if we could go next to Forester(ph), Forester, with us from Golden, Colorado.

FORESTER: Well, yes, sir. Thank you for taking this subject on. I actually have been bicycling around the world on six continents, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and seven times across the United States in the last 40 years. And my great joy and pleasure is this last summer, I did my second trip down the continental divide from Canada to Mexico. But if you're looking for some great stories, I could give you just a couple, but I've had...

CONAN: Why don't you try one? We want to leave room for somebody else.

FORESTER: OK. When I was living in Antarctica, I brought my bicycle and touring gear with me down there. And, of course, in Antarctica, it's usually 30 and 40 below zero. Well, one day after a condition-one storm, it got quiet, and one of the directors said, hey, there's some emperor penguins out on the ice. So I jumped on my bicycle with all my cold weather gear and rode about seven miles out to ice on McMurdo Sound there. And sure enough, I looked into the pack ice, and I saw these figures, these emperor penguins.

So I jumped off my bike and I walked over into the pack ice. And I sat down in the pack ice, and they came right at me. And it didn't take them more than five minutes. And after five minutes, the lead penguin came over and looked me right square in the eye, and the other three penguins were right behind him. And I took off my glove, my three gloves, in fact, and I slowly stuck my hand out to just offer my hand to the penguin. And his eyes were just blinking up and down. He has this, like, soapy kind of film that covers his eyes. And he stuck his beak into my right hand, and he scratched his beak. And his feathers were just rubbing up against my hand. I was thrilled out of my mind.

CONAN: I can imagine.

FORESTER: And this went on for about, I don't know, two or three minutes. And finally, the other penguin - I think it was his mate, and the other two little penguins were sitting there looking - and she pecked him on the rump. And so he backed off, and then he kind of just backed off a little bit and then turned around. And the one little penguin baby, he looked like he wanted to come up and rub his beak in my hand, too.

But to this day, out of all the hundreds of amazing experiences - in fact, I've actually written the "Ugliest Man in Montana" story for Bicycling years ago. But anyway, that story down there in Antarctica on my bicycle was one of the really highlights of my life on a bicycle across six continents.

CONAN: Forester, thanks very much for the call. And we envy your experience. What kind of a lubricant do you...

FORESTER: I'm going to bicycle in Italy, so I'm going to have more experiences.

CONAN: What kind of a lubricant do you use at 30-below?

FORESTER: Well, at 30-below, it's pretty cold down there. And, of course, you can hear the tires just crack on the ice and the snow. And the chains don't need that much lubrication, but we had just - actually, I had Tri-Flow lubrication on the chain, and I was able to bicycle out on the ice. I went over to Scott's Base. I got to camp out. I just had a fantastic time down there, and that was just one of the great moments of my bicycle career.

And it was colder than I'll get out. But I was - when I went back to the base that day, it was a little bit warmer than usual, just because of the amazing experience of having met that family of penguins.

CONAN: Forester, thanks very much for the call. There's an email from Jeffrey in Park City, Utah: I was 16. It was 1971. We planned and plotted our bicycle trip for Manitou Springs, Colorado, to Yellowstone and back in the rear of Mr. Willy's(ph) history class. We bought our Schwinn Continentals for $103 in the week after Christmas. We trained on these tanks until we left our parents and our childhood behind June 19th, riding across the mountains of the West. We rode in Keds and cutoff jeans and T-shirts - no helmets, no gloves.

We cycled 1,600 miles in 19 days, visited Yellowstone, had one 160-mile day, became a little more adult, a bit more self-assured and in shape like no other time in my life. Gary and I are still friends. The journey still defines us and helps us. And coming of age, Bill Strickland, I think bicycles participate in that, too.

STRICKLAND: Absolutely. Everyone remembers that first bike they get. That's kind of an iconic moment, whether that's for the holidays or a birthday. And then, you know, there's a point where everyone gets in a little bit over their heads. And as the email said, you grow up on a bike.

CONAN: This from Jason in Arizona: Thirteen years old, new bike, rode 70 miles roundtrip to a lake in the mountains outside of Phoenix on a whim. And yes, those planned trips - but there's also those whim trips. And there's one that - I think it's Mark Levine describes in an essay in "The Ride of My Life" in Bicycling magazine, and this is right after 9/11.

STRICKLAND: Yeah. Mark was in Iowa when 9/11 happened. He lives and teaches part-time in New York, has a lot of friends there, and was just distraught and wasn't sure what to do. And a student of his showed up, and they, just on an impulse, went out for a ride together, went far out of town, far out of Iowa City, got lost. And coming back in the darkness just sort of felt - felt a sort of peace that stayed with him and helped him get through 9/11.

CONAN: Bill Strickland, editor-at-large for Bicycling magazine, which, for its 50th anniversary issue, has published a series of essays called "The Ride of My Life."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

This, from Imuna(ph) in Berkeley, California: Bicycle Music Festival last year, biking with hundreds of people through the streets of San Francisco as we listened to gorgeous, live opera music - yes, live opera singers - amplified by a mobile, pedal-powered stage built by Rock the Bike against a backdrop of Victorians and astonished people coming out of their houses to listen. We brought their voices and poignant stories with us as we traveled, echoing through the historic neighborhoods. This biking experience was timeless, iconic and quaint, yet totally off the wall, technological and contemporary all at the same time.

Let's see if we can go to Matt, Matt calling from Denver.

MATT: Hey, there.

CONAN: Hi.

MATT: Hey, I wanted to tell you briefly about a ride I had in Italy in 2004. And I was in my early 20s, and I had a job over there for about six months. And come the weekend, there more or less by myself, don't have any local friends, and, you know, the options are bars, walking around, et cetera. But I have this clunky bike, and I took a train out of town, I don't know, 20, 30 miles, and then kind of drew in this map on a - or a route on a crude map I had.

And it ended up just, you know, I didn't have Power Bars or gels. I had stacks of focaccia I put it in my backpack. And I wasn't much of a rider then, but just climbed through the Apennines, which seemed like forever. And you top out, and you get a view of the Med. And, man, that was just awesome, and it turned me onto cycling. And I was completely shot. It took me most of the day, completely trashed at the end of the day, but just hooked on cycling, and I've done some tours, and I'm actually a somewhat serious bicycle racer now.

CONAN: Serious bicycle racer, but it's that first one through those mountains you remember.

MATT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I was from Maine before I moved over there for this short bit, and I thought I had ridden big hills before, but they were just - they were nothing. And so it really blew my - blew me away, and it was just beautiful. And like I said, there are no tourists, no buses, no trains. I really - that opened me up both to Italy and to cycling, and it's just a whole new way of looking at things.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MATT: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: And that's the other part about cycling, Bill Strickland, is you can get away from the beaten path pretty easily.

STRICKLAND: Right, right out of your door. One of the great things that our story package made me realize is that any bike ride you take could be the ride of your life. You never know. The next - the one you take tomorrow, the one you take later today, that could end up being the experience that sticks with you forever.

CONAN: And as we've said, you've ridden many places in the world. As you've said, you've ridden with Eddy Merckx, of all people. You've ridden with some of the great routes that everybody knows about, yet the ride of your life was in your neighborhood, on a route you take almost every day.

STRICKLAND: Yeah, I was trying to get my daughter to become a cyclist. She was nine and 10, and we would go out together on a tandem, and she loved it. But what she loved was that we were just out together, talking. She didn't really like cycling. And I thought she - that was great. But I thought she would never really understand why I loved it so much.

And then one day, we sort of got in over our heads and went down a really steep hill, and I actually thought we were going to wreck. I was really sweating it out. And at the very bottom of the hill, the bike just sort of compressed, and this big wave went through us, almost like a sound. And I was so nervous that we'd almost wrecked that I, you know, wasn't aware of what was going on. Suddenly, we were just coasting, and everything was fine. And she was beating me on the back, and she said, hey, dad, did you hear that whoom? Did you hear that sound? And I knew then that she'd experienced what I loved about cycling.

CONAN: Does she ride?

STRICKLAND: She's a soccer player and a cross-country rider. And she doesn't even remember that ride anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STRICKLAND: But it's still my favorite ride.

CONAN: Here's some more emails, Sean in San Francisco. Every year, I do a charity bike ride from San Francisco and Los Angeles. It takes a week and a day, five - it takes a week, and by day five, everyone is sore and cranky. This is my favorite day: from Lompoc, the Gaviota Pass into Santa Barbara. It's beautiful.

And an email from William in Menomonie. I was prodded into joining a couple of friends of mine for the End to End ride, which runs from Land's End - close to Penzance in England, across England, Wales and Scotland, to the northwest corner of Scotland at John o' Groats in a distance exceeding 800 miles.

And we're going to have to end with Mark, who writes us: At 15 years old, one friend and I biked from San Francisco to Vancouver Island. Best adventure of my life.

Bill Strickland, thank you for sharing some of "The Rides of My Life."

STRICKLAND: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Bill Strickland is an editor-at-large for Bicycling magazine. Again, in their 50th anniversary issue, they published a series of essays with some photos called "The Ride of My Life."

On Monday, it's 50 years since "Westside Story" hit the big screen and picked up 10 Academy Awards. We'll talk about the lasting impact of that musical. In the meantime, you can find us on Twitter, @totn, and on Facebook, nprtalk - all one word. Have a great weekend, everybody.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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