There will be chaos—keep pedaling
This is, perhaps, the wisest statement I’ve ever heard about riding in a pack. I’d love to know who first uttered those words. Who had wisdom enough to say to a friend what might as well be known as the Cyclist’s Prayer? What was the occasion? Better yet, what was the circumstance that first taught a rider that lesson?
A teammate said that to me before a race sometime in the early 1990s. I’m reasonably sure it was before the Bear Mountain Road Race that the West Point cadets held as part of their annual collegiate stage race. What occasioned the comment was a descent on the course in which simply freewheeling inside that pack was guaranteed to see you hit speeds in excess of 50 mph. For me, it would be the fastest I’d ever gone on the bike, probably by a good 10 mph. He said that as riders felt themselves accelerate, some would start to freak and that it was important to put fearful riders behind me. It was good advice.
Two years later another teammate said it to me, though the circumstances are less clear to me now. It struck me because this teammate had never met the previous teammate. Their lives were separated by years, degree programs and geography. And yet, it was the same advice in a different situation. Many years would pass and then in the comments to a deeply personal post I wrote for Belgium Knee Warmers a reader shared that a teammate had once told him before a team time trial, “There will be moments of chaos, keep pedaling.”
For most of the time that quote has rattled through my gray matter, it has served as a rule of thumb, much like the advice to race car drivers to always aim at the crash because by the time you get there, it will be elsewhere. The advice to keep pedaling is comprised of layer upon layer of wisdom. In it, there’s the simple physics of a bicycle, that under power your weight will be centered and the bike will handle better, that if you’re not slowing down, the gyroscopic effect of the wheels spinning means you’re more apt to stay upright—even if you are bumped. There’s the reality of bike racing, that the worst expression of chaos is a crash and if you are pedaling then you’re probably not crashing. Another great truth buried in this little koan is that bike racing is, at its very core, chaotic. If you are to make peace with bike racing, then you need to make peace with chaos. The final kilometer of any race is the ragged edge of disaster itself, one narrowly missed explosion of metal and bone after another, resulting in personal glory for one rider and something approximating relief for another hundred or so survivors.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about that quote the way I like to think about my favorite quote by William Faulkner: “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.” There is no truer statement that gets to the heart of what makes a writer tick. We write our way into opinions, epiphanies, existence itself.
There will be chaos. Of that, I’m certain. There was a time when I would have railed against that idea. I’d have insisted that life didn’t have to be that way. And I was right; life doesn’t have to be that way. But it is. Chaos is beyond my ken, beyond my control. And it’s in every corner of my life. It is the work of entropy itself, that second law of thermodynamics that stipulates everything breaks down.
Some chaos isn’t so tough to deal with. The chaos of my son Philip’s toys on the living room floor? A bit uncomfortable if one is caught underfoot, but not a biggie. The chaos of the Deuce’s biology? Not something I’m at peace with. The real struggle is the in-between stuff. Modern life is sometimes compared to those Chinese acrobats who spin plates on the ends of wooden dowels. In my case, one plate holds Philip. Another holds Matthew. There’s one holding my wife Shana and a separate one for her mother, who will be with us another week. There’s what ought to be my work life and for much of the last week, I’ve added to that pressure a fresh dose of tasks in the form of everything I’m doing for an upcoming Kickstarter campaign. This afternoon, I was handed yet another plate to swirl into the air when the “check engine” light on my car came on as I was trying to drive to the hospital for some time with the Deuce. It was all I could do to nurse the lurching beast home. Not a bill I want … or need. Damn entropy.
Chaos was what I felt when I realized there would be no seeing the Deuce today.
So, yes, there is chaos. But that’s not how that quote goes. It states, “There will be chaos.” In that I hear the lesson of acceptance, that no matter how much I want to get through this particular chaos, the future will hold more chaos. Acceptance is my reminder to myself that I might as well chill; any plan I have isn’t going to it—the plan, that is.
The second half of the quote—”keep pedaling”—is an imperative. It isn’t an invitation. It isn’t a suggestion. It isn’t a request. It goes Nike’s “just do it” one better because in order to keep pedaling, one must already be pedaling. In as much as this is an imperative, it is also an assurance; you’re doing it right. Now just keep doing it.
I have begun to see this little koan in increasingly large contexts. Several weeks ago, when I was trying to spend every waking hour at the NICU, it became an admonition to stay on the bike, to keep logging miles. The drive wasn’t for preserving fitness, of course, it was just about stress relief, getting out there and clearing my head so that I would be more useful to my wife, more at peace when at Matthew’s side and more centered when talking to doctors.
It has come to serve an even larger role in my life, though. It’s a kind of moral north star for me, suggesting that what I’m doing is good and I can take heart in the idea that I’m on the right track and I needn’t change anything. It’s important to show up, to be present every day. It’s good for me; it’s good for my wife and it’s good for my kids.
Of the many things I need right now, a promise does me more good than all the kilometers I’d log in a month of Sundays. And that saying is nothing, if not a promise. This is going to be weird. It’s not really going to be fun. It’s not over, either—won’t be for a while yet.
But I’m going to get through and what I’m doing right now is what’s going to get me through.