By Olivia Harlow
There’s something about touring any country by bike that makes the experience all the more special. This is particularly true in the majestic country of Macedonia.
Because Macedonia is made up of stark contrasts between old and new, busy cities and remote villages, mountains and lakes, it’s the perfect place for cyclists. Riding a bike here allows you to completely immerse yourself in every aspect of the country’s culture, while seeing all the nooks and crannies you wouldn’t otherwise see by bus or train.
During my time cycling in Macedonia, I rode through Mavrovo National Park and alongside the crystal clear Lake Ohrid, I halted for the passing of miscellaneous farm animals, I sped up with a group of small school children who challenged me to a race, I witnessed teens jumping into the river from a bridge, I stopped to pick fresh plums from roadside fruit trees, and I saw some of the most overwhelmingly gorgeous views from the country’s massive mountaintops.
Biking with the older crowd
Before starting my bike trip in Macedonia, I prepared myself for the possibility of cycling with people much older than myself. I knew that a large percentage of BikeTours.com travelers were at least middle-aged, so I (still in my early 20s) expected to be the youngest participant.
Upon arrival, I was instructed to meet in the lobby at 9:00 p.m. for introductions and a run-through of the trip’s itinerary before starting our journey the following morning. After dropping my bags in my room and chowing down on some late-night pizza, I made my way to the hotel lobby. I was surprisingly one of the first to arrive, but as the group gradually filed in, I quickly realized the accuracy of my preconceptions.
They were old.
Some middle-aged, some sixty-year-olds, some mid- to late-seventies. I was easily half the age of the next youngest participant. As for the rest, I was easily a third of their age.
I smiled around the room, looking everyone over. I instantly felt out of place.
What have I gotten myself into?
I’m not generally the judgmental type. But I found myself thinking the most judgmental things of these people. Conservatives, uptight, grumpy. Admittedly, this wasn’t fair whatsoever, but I couldn’t silence the negative thoughts.
To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending every day with a bunch of elderly people. Don’t get me wrong, I like the elderly. In fact, my soon-to-be-ninety-five-year-old grandpa is the absolute light of my life. But for some reason, I instantly dreaded the idea of little-to-no interaction with anyone my age for a full week.
I was twenty-three and hanging out with people I was certain I could not relate to. Achy joints, denture cream, and naps are not part of my daily vocabulary. I don’t have children, let alone grandchildren. I’m not married and don’t own a house. I don’t make a reliable, steady income or have a well-paying career. I have nothing in common with these people, I thought.
But wow was I wrong.
These people moved me. They motivated me and encouraged me and revealed the truest meaning of life: to live. These people didn’t care that they were getting old; they had the desire to travel the world, participate in adventurous things, spend hours outside in nature and keep on keepin’ on. They wanted to live.
Their strength, determination, youthfulness, and love for adventure were astounding. Though they moved at a much slower pace than I was used to—and we therefore had to adjust and omit things from our trip’s itinerary—I was always so proud and impressed by their positive attitudes and persistence to not only complete the quest, but to enjoy it. During every activity, these people wore smiles on their faces. No matter how far back they might be, I could hear them laughing with genuine joy.
Even after knee replacements and surgeries of all sorts, this group of people was determined to conquer every action-packed day.
Resilience and good humor
On just the second full day of cycling, two women fell off their bikes while mountain biking; yet they continued to ride and hike throughout the week’s entirety. One of the women, Charmaine, was sent to the hospital after landing on her face. Despite the pain, she persevered through many hours in a foreign hospital, as well as many more days of outdoor activity. Instead of trying to hide her tie-dyed black and blue bruises, Charmaine kept a positive, humorous attitude about the newly vibrant colors in her face.
The other lady, Mary Lou, had injured her shoulder just before Charmaine’s accident. She made light of the situation by making a sling from a patterned black and white scarf another participant loaned her. She kept her arm in the sling for several days, taking it out every now and then to stretch and boost circulation.
Whenever I asked Mary Lou how she was feeling, she’d hold onto my arm, flash me an adorable smile and answer in her thick, sweet Tennessee accent, “Liv, I’m doing just great.”
At seventy-two years old, Mary Lou’s strength and positivity were beyond impressive. Her husband joked about how Mary Lou had always been a fireball with a love for adventure; that’s part of why he fell in love with her so many years ago. The way he looked at her could make a cold-hearted cynic believe in love again.
There were several couples on the trip, as well as a few married men who had come on an independent quest. Two of these men were my buddies, Sam and Stu. Every hike we went on, there were many stragglers. I’d be lying if I didn’t get a bit irritated with the stop and go pace, but thankfully I had my two buddies Stu and Sam right behind me. Sometimes even in front of me.
Stu is probably in his mid-sixties. He’s got a long wiry grey beard and the greatest deep-belly laugh. He wears colorfully designed socks with closed-toe sandals. Sam will turn eighty soon. He’s fairly tall, has vibrant blue eyes, scraggly eyebrows, and generally always wears tall white socks. On hikes, he carries two hiking poles to help with balance. Though Sam wasn’t quite as strong of a cyclist, he was a fiery trekker. This soon-to-be-eighty-year-old was one of the quickest up the mountain. And he’s definitely the give-the-shirt-off-your-back type. If there was ever anyone in need of some assistance, he’d insist on loaning a walking pole to them.
Sam, Stu, and I ended up calling ourselves the S.O.S. team, which stood for Sam, Olivia, and Stu. Every hike, it was the three of us out in front. We’d stop and wait up for the rest of the group, photographing one another and talking about how gorgeous the views were. We’d chat about politics, relationships, and all of life’s craziness. I felt that between bike rides, hikes, dinners, and bus commutes, I grew very close to these two over the course of our trip.
The old and the energizing
I’d expected this older group to drag me down; but instead, they energized me. During a portion of the trip, I was fairly sick and experienced on and off stomach pains. Thanks to the help and care of several group members, I always had medicine on hand and numerous people checking in to make sure I was feeling all right. They’d joke about how it was their motherly or grandmotherly duty to take care of me.
There’s nothing better than having a mother figure around when you’re feeling sick—especially in a foreign country. I appreciated the older group dynamic even more while in my sickly condition.
Throughout the trip, everyone tried to make me feel welcome. They overwhelmed me with kindness and compassion, humor and wit, wisdom and vigor. I was inspired by their insight, strength (both mentally and physically), attentiveness to the world around them, and youthful spirits.
I’d come into the bike trip only knowing one person: Jim Johnson, the president of BikeTours.com. Prior to our trip, Jim had been a mentor to me during my transition into the Chattanooga area, as well as a friend. I’d met with him several times to rant about my post-graduation stresses, as well as bond over a variety of similar interests we shared.
Never did I expect to call this sixty-one year old one of my closest friends. After spending three weeks cycling through Bulgaria and then Macedonia with Jim, I learned that age truly is just a number.
It’s not every day that a twenty-three-year-old girl can say with honesty that she is friends with a man nearly three times her age. But it’s true in this case. By the end of our time together, Jim and I concluded that we had almost a big brother-kid sister type of relationship and that we would most likely be close friends for the rest of our lives.
Friendships for a lifetime
I built some incredible friendships with the people from my bike trip; and though I may never see most of them ever again, I’m so thankful for the time I shared with them and for the lessons they taught me.
I now have pride in the fact that I traveled the world with a group of older cyclists. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to surround myself with thirteen individuals who I truly consider to all be role models.
I think it goes to show that every athlete, young or old, fast or slow, has a strength instilled in them that forms a bond between us all. No matter your skill level, a passion for cycling and endurance connects us to one another.
I can only hope to be half as badass when I reach the age of my Macedonian bike tours friends.