Ron Paul turned 76 during the 2012 Republican presidential primary campaign, and when questioned about his ability to serve if elected, the Texan challenged his opponents to a 20-mile bike ride in Houston’s humid summer heat.
He also regularly asked his staff to squeeze rides into his itinerary when he campaigned in New Hampshire. When his schedule showed he would be riding 12 miles in Concord, I called and asked, “Could I come, too?”
The campaign staff were completely taken aback. Usually, a reporter — or two maybe — met him at the starting point, asked him for sound bites about the day’s headline topics, and then left.
After checking with someone, somewhere, the press secretary called back and said, sure, I could tag along, as long as I didn’t slow them down.
I maybe should have mentioned to them that I had not ridden more than a quarter-mile in at least 10 years. And that I’m scared of riding downhill. And that my bike had two flat tires, and I had no pump. But I didn’t.
I lugged my bike out of my building’s basement, and I walked it 3 miles to the starting point. Paul’s campaign aide luckily had a hand-pump in his trunk, and pumped my tires up off camera while the candidate gave the standard sound bite interviews to a Boston TV reporter.
Ten minutes later, we were off, just the three of us.
When I could, I would pedal up to ride alongside Paul, gripping my recorder between my hand and handlebar, and ask him questions. But for most of the 90-minute ride, we pedaled along in a single-file line as cars passed us on the narrow roads, or, more often, I fell behind because I couldn’t keep up on the hills.
I started panicking when I realized we were closing the loop and heading back to the parking lot where we started. I had asked him two questions. He gave me standard Ron Paul answers, long-winded and difficult to turn into a story. What would I tell my editor this odd idea had yielded, besides a gorgeous September afternoon out of the office?
I was behind again, and had been for long enough that Paul might have forgotten all about me. He let go of both handlebars of his bike for a while, coasted down a hill and rounded the last corner. And then, he grabbed the bars again, and gave his bell a triumphant ring.
And I knew I had my magic moment: the oldest candidate in the race, a moment of childlike daring, dangling his fingers in the breeze, followed by a few seconds of glee after an interlude of freedom from the pressures of the campaign trail.
Sarah Palermo, a former reporter for the Concord Monitor, is communications and outreach manager for New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Campaign for Legal Services.