Book review: Journalist's long bike ride makes up-and-down tale

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    Life Is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America

    Bruce Weber

    Scribner, 352 pages

“Like you,” cyclist Bruce Weber begins his day-by-day account of his cross-country bicycling odyssey, “I’m growing old.”

Unlike most of you, however, Weber has no spouse, no kids, no place of worship, no ball-and-chain cramping his style. A confirmed New York bachelor, he enjoys freedom to take an adventure most of us can only dream about: a four-month-long, coast-to-coast bike ride.

Weber’s travel diary, “Life is a Wheel,” originally appeared as a series of blog posts for The New York Times, where he has worked for more than 25 years. Not merely a chronicle of a 3,600-mile bike ride, it’s as much an exhibition of the cyclist’s emotional state, booby-trapped with lifelong anxieties.

The genre is hard to pinpoint, but it’s essentially Weber’s letter to the son he never had. Still, it has to rank among the more pitiable accounts of humanity’s elusive search for inner peace. Weber’s constant kvetching wears thin after a while, and it’s hard not to agree with Terence, a reader from South Bend, Ind., who chastised Weber on the blog to stick to nature scenes and skip the personal travails: “Your style soars and you whine less.”

Weber’s personal entry in the Book of Life might read something like this: one housekeeper, three books authored, five bicycles under ownership, numerous cross-country and international cycling trips, and a bunch of serial crushes and a trail of ex-girlfriends.

And: 20 years of psychotherapy.

And so, approaching the end of his sixth decade of life, it was time for the next thrill: Weber strikes out on his second cross-country bike ride.

“I decided to make this trip in the first place because I felt my résumé for adventure wasn’t keeping pace with my advancing age,” he declares. “I’m going out of my way, after all, to add substance, heft, accomplishment, satisfaction, eccentricity, individuality, spice – something – to the narrative of my life.”

Despite his dyspeptic disposition, Weber can turn on the charm and comes across as the ideal dinner party guest: successful, sophisticated and a glib conversationalist. As an obituary writer for The Times, he’s a literary mortician capable of considerable life-giving powers to inert subjects.

Eros is his fickle cycling companion, vying for supremacy with bouts of chronic loneliness. At age 57, the never-married obituarist finds himself over-the-heels in love with a new flame, and she’s polishing her résumé for adventure on another continent – the ultimate long-distance relationship. Weber’s latest love interest, Jan, is a divorcee who uprooted her life and scooted to Paris to chase her fab career in journalism. “We pedal beautifully together,” Weber gushes.

And so Weber sets off on his escapade, cruising on a $8,000, custom-built, titanium bicycle, and laden with about 35 pounds of provisions. But the far greater burden is his emotional baggage, as he cycles down and up and down through states of despair and euphoria.

Weber’s pedalogue is a one-word case study of highs and lows: Gulp. Damn. Yikes! So... Whew! Ommmmmm. Arrrrgh. Ha! Sigh. Cool! Yikes! Arrgh. Whoa!

As he wheels his way homeward, a few locals join him for several hours of cycling and even put him up for the night in their homes. Several lifelong friends, as well as his lady love Jan, intercept Weber in this or that town for a round of middle-aged merrymaking.

At the conclusion of the bike trip, though, Weber is truly a brokenhearted man. One morning after biking to the office at The Times, the cyclist feels his chest tightening and sudden shortness of breath. Diagnosis: Weber has a pair of occluded arteries and has to undergo double bypass surgery.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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