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By Ed Granger

Basque fans brilliant as overripe oranges and as full of juice. Colombian climbers taking an entire nation to mist-shrouded heights of joy. These examples of a near-conjugal relationship between cycling and culture are familiar to any fan savvy enough not to get too worked up when David Etxebarria goes up the road. They excite volumes of commentary and compel Paul Sherwen to dig deep into his suitcase of hyperbole. They have anthropologists scratching their heads, trying to discern the precise distinctions between the Steel, Aluminum, and Carbon Fiber eras.

Yet not a word about the Amish.

Let me explain. Or better yet, let me take you along on a ride through the kind of countryside most writers lacking an eye for detail are content to label "bucolic." Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is no stranger to cycling, home each year to one of the run-up races to the U.S. Pro Championships in nearby Philadelphia. It's the place where U.S. Postal's Floyd Landis was raised in a Mennonite home, though the word around here is that the story about Floyd's mother never having watched television until viewing her son in last year's Tour de France is apocryphal.

Lancaster County is also home to a number of "plain peoples" who famously ignore many of the "necessities" of the digital age (and a couple of ages previous), and who draw tourists to peer into windows, gawk at horse-drawn buggies, and eat enough fried carbohydrates in a single week to prevent Lance from ever bonking again in his entire life. Best known of these, of course, are the Old Order Amish. Other than that, Lancaster County is noteworthy primarily for its excessive humidity.

To elaborate on my appreciation for Amish cycling, I'll let the VCR preserve Roberto Heras' scampering up the Vuelta's final mountain, knowing that I can later, like Sisyphus' rock, push him back down to re-ascend at my whim. I clip in and point my Fondriest roughly northwest, initially riding parallel to a new development of vast, half-million-dollar homes where I imagine family members randomly greeting one another as utter strangers, much like Team Telekom's winter training camp. Then it's over a covered bridge whose lengthwise planking -- always best to know ahead of time lest you put a wheel between the boards -- acts as a portal between twenty-first-century suburbia and a living agricultural past.

Across the Conestoga, a team of work horses swings in wide circles to begin working another row of corn, raising clouds of dust that are tugged back to earth by the soggy late-summer air. Children on inline skates cling to the backs of the ubiquitous square, horse-drawn buggies to catch a lift, or propel scooters too beat-up to tell if they're merely ancient or downright homemade. And there are folks on bicycles. Lots of bicycles. Women in bonnets wearing long dresses in quiet blues and greens make steady and stately progress. Boxes affixed to the back make it possible to deliver vegetables or bring home an apple pie. Bikes are part of a basic, neighborly commerce. They carry things because they can, and not just because unforeseen emergency may call for a patch kit or a Snickers bar. I know better than to try to bring an apple -- or better yet, shoo-fly -- pie home in my saddle bag. (For the uninitiated, shoo-fly pie is a concoction that contains enough molasses to enable your dentist to retire to Monaco.) Bikes are expected to pull their weight, just like people and animals.

The following day is Sunday, and Sundays are different. Sundays are for church, and then for visiting. On Sundays, bikes connect people to the larger community. On the day Roberto is riding toward Madrid and rightful national acclaim, I ride past an Amish gathering about to conduct a service in a barn. Buggies parked beneath trees are vastly outnumbered by a veritable forest of bicycles, mostly hybrids bearing familiar brand names. I briefly latch onto the back of a small, black-clad breakaway containing a couple of relatively fast-looking Fujis. We slow to pass a buggy on the left, and it occurs to me that for the Amish, bikes are a relatively fleet form of transportation. Buggies are only marginally faster downhill than up, whereas a bike enables you to enjoy the simple gift of gravity.

One other recent Sunday afternoon I passed two Amish men on bikes engaged in conversation. The temperature was pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Trees were wilting like salad-bar lettuce. One of the men was wearing a long-sleeved black coat and a black hat (have I mentioned the humidity?) Dario Frigo would have been bribing someone to turn up the air conditioning in the broom wagon. Wearing high-tech, "moisture-wicking" jersey and shorts and a swiss-cheese helmet, I was the one feeling out of place. In an America loath to break a sweat even to the point of sucking all the power out of Canada, decorum occasionally wins a minor skirmish over comfort.

On another ride not long ago, in a mood to explore, I swung onto a narrow lane lined with Amish farms that I hadn't visited before. It was the kind of road that is little-trafficked, even by impatient SUV occupants trying to cut as quickly as possible between one main road and another. Someone had taken the trouble to plant a soldierly row of red flowers where hardly anyone would ever see them. For a change, "gratuitous" found a context where it couldn't reflexively be paired with "violence."

On this final Sunday of the Vuelta, as Felix Cardenas tries to figure out why if he's king of the mountains Eric Zabel's wearing the polka-dot jersey, I swing south to head home, taking me into the aptly-named Farmersville and past mail boxes bearing names like "Wenger" and "Lapp" and - yes - "Landis." Somewhere not too far from here, Floyd began pedaling down the road that would take him to the Tour alongside Lance. I come to the intersection where north Farmersville road intersects with east and west Farmersville roads before becoming south Farmersville road. From this cornucopia of Farmersville roads I head west past fields of corn stubble, ducking as some type of floral flotsam-jetsam bounces off my helmet, sign of a sinking summer.

A few miles further, I turn onto an uneven road that leads to a teeth-jarring trip across a covered bridge whose sadistic builders have arranged its boards cross-wise. As I cut a wide rightward arc, I pass a slow-moving group of Amish boys and girls on bikes, the boys lagging behind and chattering away. I pick up speed on the straightaway, and when I turn, the boys have moved to the front, one in particular obviously trying to match my pace. The chase doesn't last long; more a matter of his slower bike than my swifter legs. But clearly, bikes are also about having fun.

In an era when "cultural differences" are packaged and marketed as blithely as cell phones and triple-bladed razors, I hope my words about the Amish don't constitute a kinder, gentler form of exploitation. The Old Order Amish certainly endure enough of the wrong kind of curiosity as it is. I've tried to make a few observations about people's relationship with bikes in my own backyard, without resorting to cycling as metaphor for Life. And I've offered my own, very limited perspective without, I hope, pretending to anything other than a superficial knowledge of Amish culture. My real concourse with the Amish consists mainly of venturing a smile and a wave, and receiving a smile and wave in return.

The Basques and Colombians have a passion for cycling that fans can easily appreciate and even vicariously share. The Amish mostly wish to be left alone. So let's park the bikes, rewind the tape of Roberto's ride, and begin the tough work of getting those glucose levels restored. Shoo-fly pie anyone?



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