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.