They never even looked back. Two fellow travelers, grinding and swinging up the hill in front of me. As I turned the corner into the climb’s lower ramp I glanced up and saw them there. I thought, “can I catch them?” and put my head back down.

My wife had been emailing with some friends about summer plans. Summer. As if that’s a thing now. And their calendars were filling up, and there I was in my tired desk chair shaking my head and wondering at people who were thinking about more than what was in front of them at the moment.

I have not been too hard at the pedals for these last few moons, succumbing to winter like dry leaves to a campfire. Still, those two riders on the hill weren’t drilling it. They were trading off the front like they were serious, but I was making up ground. “Oh, I’ll just go hard in this first section and see how much gap I close,” I told myself. Them swiveling their way into the middle, flatter part of the climb.

“I’m sorry,” I typed back to my wife. “I’m OTB as far as the summer goes.” And she to me, “OTB?” And me back, “Off the back.” And her, “Oh.” And then nothing.

When I reached the flat after the first rise, that blessed point where you can get a real gear back under you, I gauged my progress and saw that I was, in fact, reeling them in. What was 40 meters had shrunk to 20. The swish and roar of traffic made the whole thing something of a pantomime, them fleeing, me pursuing. I clicked twice down the cassette, stood into the work.

I suppose if you know you’re going to be OTB you do something to mitigate the consequences. You seek help. You delegate what tasks you can to willing collaborators. You let folks know you might not be getting back to them with the alacrity they’ve come to expect.

With the gap cut to 15 meters, maybe 12 really, my sonar or dead reckoning or powers of estimation now being swept into the dustpan of oxygen debt, I thought to do the right thing. I eased off. Not to give up. Not to back off. Not to concede defeat. But rather to pace myself. Too anxious am I usually to hurtle across a gap, this the recipe for blowing up, so that just as I make contact, I lose the ability to hold myself steady on the bike. I go all knees and elbows, power draining out the acute angles of my flailing.

Work is busy, and I have placed my attention there, perhaps to a fault. It is not so much that I am behind with my work, but rather that I feel a sudden quickening of results there. The momentum is with me (us) and I am hell bent on holding it and keeping it and stoking it, taking what the road will give me, riding the lightning. You get my point.

And so, with maybe 10 meters to go, 10 striding paces to close the gap and kiss in relief the rear wheel of a rider I’ve never met, I saw that I wouldn’t make it. Nearing the top of the climb, the whole thing only about a mile long, we were flattening out. They were pressing tentatively at their own shifters. Having not gone full gas, they were able to exploit their improved terms with gravity to an extent that I was not.

I never know when I’m going to be OTB. At some point, I lift my head to see what’s coming and realize I’m not close to where I ought to be. I’m out of shape. I haven’t thought of the summer. There are things outside work that need my attention. What have I been doing? Why? Are my priorities all out of whack? Usually, yes.

I had not gone that deep yet this year. Rolling up to the top of the climb, watching my friends, total strangers still, take the corner that leads away from the up. My lungs burned. I was disappointed in myself for not catching them, but also happy that I had convinced myself to try.

When you’re OTB, you find out who your friends are. My wife has planned our summer. She knows I’m not a great planner of leisure time activities. I’m task oriented. I clean the bathroom. I pick up after the dog. Equally, on the bike, the guys I ride with will spin along next to me, chatting, because that’s what I need, that’s what they need, and we all know we’re OTB, but we’re working on it. It’s not so bad.

We’ll catch on. Just give us some time.

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Scott

    — PAYBACK —
    OTB is my standard place in the pack too — except when it’s not. So when some stroke of luck, terrain, fitness or endurance lets me be OTF, I aim to punish.
    Many of those little climber types have their own weaknesses, so when the tables are turned, I dish it as hard as I can — payback (or paying up) for all the awkward minutes they spend waiting for me at the top. “Will he show?” “Should we wait?”
    So when I’m not OTB, nothing pleases me more than to hear a climber groan in pain when the big guy rolleurs past at mile 92. “Suck it,” I say. There’s a lot more to cycling than going uphill.

  2. todd k

    True, you will find out who your friends are when OTB. OTB and no one waits I am simply doing a different ride and that generates its own sense of freedom. Fortunately, most of the time, some one will wait back and offer a branch. I try to repay this favor whenever possible.

    Barely to only somewhat off the back can be rewarding in its own way. You may be at the bottom, but if you can just hang in there and keep everyone in sight, it all time difference becomes fairly realative, and who knows who was actually over reaching the most? May as well be you. Especially if you have a few pounds on everyone after a long winter.

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