The Catch

Any time I travel I do what I can to find a way to ride a bicycle. It may be one ride, or it may be four, but I won’t feel like I’ve explored a place properly until I have managed to ride a bicycle around whatever town I’m in.

My father’s family is from the Gulf Coast. I’ve been visiting New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and Mobile since before I could speak. In the more than 20 years I’ve been a cyclist I had never ridden in any of these communities with the exception of one ride on the outskirts of Mobile in 1996.

With the help of a friend, I lined up a bike and got in a number of rides in New Orleans and Gulfport. It was on the final day of my trip that I set out to join the morning group ride in New Orleans that heads west on the levee bike path.

Of course, the Fates had other plans for me.

My chosen route is less than stellar and adds an extra half mile to my commute, and while I don’t object to bonus miles (who does?), my timeline is compressed due to oversleeping by a whopping eight minutes. My perfect timing is looking less and less perfect. Then it starts raining.

Every other day of my trip the rain holds off until after lunch. I wouldn’t care—I probably would even enjoy it—but my concerns for the camera hanging on my shoulder force me to pull over at a gas station for a plastic bag which I wrap around the camera before tucking it into my pocket.

I get to the bike path and start hammering. I have no idea how fast the group is or to what degree my effort will be futile. My hope is to get to the turnaround point and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be stopped and hanging out for a moment’s recovery before heading back.

I eventually ride out of the rain and just as I consider checking the time and mileage to gauge my distance from the turnaround, I see the group ahead on their return. A slight bend gives me some sense of their speed (hammerfest) and size (15-16 and shrinking). I see two guys weigh anchor just before I begin to slow down.

I stay to the right of the eight-foot path, and the lead rider puts out the call to let the group know a rider is up; they skinny and we pass each other comfortably. I hit the brakes, downshift, bang a U-turn and dig in. Instantly, the gap to the group is 60 feet.

Now, I could have turned around before they reached me and started to accelerate so that by the time the last guy passes me I am doing at least 25 mph. But while I’ve never discussed this with anyone, such a tactic seems tantamount to sitting out a lap in a training crit and then jumping back in. Definitely not PRO.

So it let them pass and give chase. Now, on my own bike at home this would have been plenty difficult, but my situation is a bit more complicated. I am on a borrowed bike. A travel bike. With 24-inch wheels. And a flat bar.

To recap: I’m in full team kit on a bike that probably wasn’t really intended for its current use, don’t look remotely PRO, trying to catch a good-sized group that is currently turning strong riders into exhaust.

What on earth am I thinking?

Turns out I was oddly suited to the bike. I ran out of gears at exactly the point I ran out of strength. a 52×12 can be turned over at about 29.5 mph, or at least, that’s what I think I saw as the distance to the group finally began to shrink.

A guy playing goal tender turns around to check what is behind. I doubt he expects what he sees. I assume his worst case scenario is to behold someone on aero bars gradually clawing his way back, meter by painful meter.

What he does see—I can assure you—is one of the stranger things he’ll see this year. Some 880-1408 heartbeats later (I’m a little rough on just how many because my heartrate  was 176 and it was about five to eight seconds later), he looks back again and this time I am bigger. We repeat this routine twice more and then something wonderful happens.

But first, I must digress. If I was on one of my group rides, doing what group rides are meant to do (go fast until it hurts) and I looked back and saw some interloper trying to chase my group down while riding a bike that clearly didn’t fit the bill, I can tell you one of the things that would go through my head—go to the front and hammer. I don’t mean attack my group, but slither up to the front and gradually torque the pace up in such a way as to incite the boys into inflicting even greater pain on each other, and in so doing, open the gap to the interloper back up. Yes, I’ve been that guy from time to time.

I pull to within 15 feet of the group—close enough to think I’ve got them, but still too far to taste their draft. My legs are beyond painful; I’m on the bubble and wondering if I’m going to make it across and thinking that if I don’t find something deep down inside to finish this off, I’m going to look quite the fool. And then it happens. The goal tender begins to soft pedal and backs out of the group.

I make the catch when the gap from him to the group is about eight feet. He gives a little glance and then eases on the gas ever so slightly. A couple of seconds later we are in. The subtlety of his move is unspeakably PRO.

My excitement to make the catch is completely overshadowed by my admiration for this guy’s generosity. He doesn’t know me and my bike is clearly out of the norm, so he has no duty to me, but something in my effort speaks to him enough that he decides to lend a hand in an unspoken fellowship of the road.

His effort is subtle, artful, even and to me speaks volumes about experience picked up racing. His speed varies by only a mile per hour, making his move an unremarkable effort, but it makes all the difference in the world to me.

He waits a couple of minutes and then begins making his way up through the group and I follow him. He pauses for a few pedal strokes when he reaches the front and then turns on the gas just as subtly as he had before, but this time he goes much deeper: 26, 26.5, 27, 27.5 and then my unrecovered legs blow while he and three guys on his wheel pull away from the dozen or so left in the group.

I’ve been trying to read his jersey and memorize the club. There is a big “AR”—Alison-something Racing. There needs to be a study on what lactic acid does not to muscles, but the mind.

Watching him ride away bugs me less for getting dropped than for the fact that I’ll never get a chance to talk to him. Scratch that. I don’t want to talk to him, I want to buy him a beer. He may forget the effort, but I can assure you, I’ll remember it for as long as I ride.

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  1. Doug P

    I remember a guy called Emil (I think)who was new to our rides. He was strong, not afraid to do monster pulls, and that was not always appreciated by certain members of the group. He was derided as ‘squirrely’, ect. I had no problem with his riding. He could tell I was his ally. I guess something in my manner let him know he was OK in my book. He’d go by the group and give me a sign…I’d hop on his wheel, and we’d proceed to make the rest hurt. I’ve since realized this behavior is called ‘tend and befriend’. My other tend and befriend tactic was to race the guys to the top of a hill, and as the others waited for the slower riders, I’d turn around and accompany the last rider up the climb. At the top my legs felt great, and the folks who waited had legs of wood! A little kindness and camaraderie goes a long way, people!

  2. Rick

    Bravo well done, conjures up the essence of the universality of the experience of all group rides no matter which part of the country you ride

  3. Robot

    Coupla things: First, I rode my first road bike in Mobile, Alabama. Many a Southern summer did I put myself about that town, riding on non-existent shoulders and sometimes in storm drains, such is the space afforded to the cycling few.

    Second, riding in South Eastern heat and humidity comes right after cleaning the Augean stables on the list of Herculean labors. Lots and lots of no fun, except for being on a bike.

    Third, finding a generous cyclist is like trying to find an honest politician here in Boston. Regularly I come up on a group, or even a solo rider on decent bike and pro-ish kit, and fail to elicit any sort of comradely response at all. Failure to cooperate into a headwind, to me, is tantamount to cyclist-on-cyclist violence.

    I suppose that, where I see fellowship, some see only challenge.

  4. Jim

    >>>Failure to cooperate into a headwind, to me, is tantamount to cyclist-on-cyclist violence.

    Indeed. I’ll go you one further. A rider is suspected of crimes against humanity if he does not know how to echelon.

    Except in a race where it’s a sure sign of mental deficiency if a rider fails to gutter a rival at every possible chance. “Oh, sorry, didn’t know you were back there, mate…”

  5. randomactsofcycling

    Great post. Sometimes (though it seems not frequently enough) what goes around, comes around. In a good way.
    Hope you enjoyed the rest of the ride.

  6. James

    In my experience, especially around Portland, Or., people think they are PRO to the extreme! You can be out in the middle of nowhere and pass a rider coming the other way in his/her beautiful matching kit and not even get a glimmer of recognition that I exist. Or a rider passes me (not an uncommon occurrence since I’m so damn slow!) without a word of warning or greeting. I just never quite got the elitism of so many of our fellow cyclists. I remember reading an article a long time ago by a guy who thought it odd that fellow cyclists wouldn’t acknowledge each other but pass a jogger and he will utter a hello no matter how out of breath they are. So, Padraig, I think the guy who held up to help you probably couldn’t reconcile why he waited for you in the first place so took his earliest opportunity to drop you as he should have before! Frankly, I’m sick of our pseudo pro brethren and their elitism.

  7. Jim Morehouse

    I’ve been in places (and have been one of those riders myself) where there is no recognition from other riders out on the road. I’ve lived in Long Beach, CA, Fort Collins, Colorado, Laramie, Wyoming, Reno, Nevada, and now in the damnedest of places, Las Vegas, Nevada. Of all of these, Las Vegas is, to me, the least likely of places to have friendly riders, yet not a day goes by that I don’t get waved at by nearly everyone out riding, and vice versa, and I mean nearly everyone! And finding pickup rides is pretty easy, as breaking the wind is meant to be shared. Las Vegas? What’s wrong with this picture? Yet it is refreshingly true. I’ve been here eleven years, and of all the things to complain about here, cyclists remain the friendliest people in this town, and I love that about this otherwise atrocious place to live.

    1. Author

      Thanks everyone for the comments.

      Robot: I’ve got to hear more about your Mobile exploits. You’re right about failure to cooperate.

      Jim: Understanding how to do a proper echelon both in terms of flow and strategy is one of those rare, great skills. I love it when I see it.

      Random Acts of Cycling: Indeed. They were a great bunch and I was very happy to ride there.

      James: I didn’t take the guy’s attack as an offensive move against me at all. I think he’d be sitting in the back waiting for the proper time to put the hammer down. He’s a guy with a keen sense of timing. I do know what you mean about hellos, though. I’m a big believer in etiquette and think we should all do more to acknowledge each other. I try, at minimum, to nod at other riders. The riders I saw in New Orleans waved without fail.

      Jim: I should look you up next time I’m in Las Vegas and go for a ride. It kinda makes sense to me that people would wave. Sin City isn’t much of a cycling town and I can imagine that I’d feel so relieved to see another cyclist, I’d probably turn around and chase them down just to say hi and meet a kindred spirit. But I’m weird like that.

  8. dacrizzow

    james-i live in portland,or and i can barely keep both hands on my bars when riding up 30 towards suavie’s island or rocky point from all the waving. most of my friends i ride with on a regular basis are solo guys we meet at crossroads or trails that eventually keep coming back. if you see a group of about 4 or 5 guys riding on 30 usually dressed in rapha and swobo and castelli and the like but going alot slower than we should and laughing in the paceline feel free to join. we could use some new jokes.

  9. James

    dacrizzow…thanks for the offer. I’ll take you up on it but be warned, the last time I rode in a paceline was about 19 years ago!

  10. Randy

    Enjoyed chatting with you after that ride. I’m not quite sure who that rider was who dropped back for you. Riders wear all kinds of jerseys for those morning rides, and the one you describe sounds familiar, but I just can’t put a face to it right now.

  11. dropoutdave

    This issue of riders not acknowledging each other comes up regularly on mountain bike forums, usually with complaints that obnoxious roadies do not greet nice mountain bikers. What they don’t realise is that roadies often do not even greet other roadies!
    I have to say that when I (a mountain biker in Scotland) have to cycle on the road, nearly every roadie I meet gives me the nod. I think the reason might be that we can all tell the difference between a rider who takes it seriously and one who is just going to the shop for a pack of cigarettes and a can of Coke.

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