Very seldom am I anything other than middling. There are some cool summer nights that will see me pressing the strength of my usual riding companions, daring to dart off the front of our fast ride. And there are some dark winter nights when I can’t do any more than slog home, legs heavy as the night. The rest is just middling.
On a recent morning group ride, I spun along next to Mike while the guys on the front pulled (not so) slowly away from us. “Are we the laughing group now?” I asked. He laughed.
Sometimes, I imagine it would be nice to be that guy off the front, Hinault with his broad Breton brow and shitty scowl, putting the hurt on those behind. But I don’t have the forehead for it, nor the scowl. Neither do I have a great urge to leave behind my companions.
If we are the laughing group, the mini-bus, I am quite content as passenger, as fellow traveler. This is the general remit of the middling cyclist, to be among and between. Ours is the craic and the bottle passed. Ours is the steadying hand in the small of the back.
In the broad middle I can hang onto a faster wheel, but I can never be sure how long I can hold it. I can make big efforts early in a ride, in say the opening 30 miles, and then sometimes I am good all day, but other times not. The thing about the middle is that it is unreliable. Will it hold? This is our conflict and our denouement.
In high school I was a C student. This was mainly down to a disinterest in hard work and an abiding affinity for trouble. As a cyclist, I stay true to form. I’d rather be sharing a joke at the back than gritting my teeth on the front.
From this middle place, I can be inordinately grateful when I find the strength to ride hard past 60 miles, but also the grace to slink away humbly when I can’t.
For some reason, when I think of myself as a cyclist, I envisage wildebeests on the Serengetti, massive packs of anonymously identical animals churning across the plain in some ahistorical drive for water or food or relief from the summer heat, and there I am in the midst of the horde, sweating fervently, moving forward as I can, well insulated from the danger, predators of every stripe lurking at the edges.