He is him, and I am me. This ought to be evident, but for some reason, initially, it is not. He is riding with one bottle, and I have two. His cassette looks like a small pine cone, mine a stack of pancakes. His quads challenge the elasticity of his bibs, while mine fit comfortably.
In the first hour, I try to be him, matching his speed if not his massive, crushing cadence. By the end of that first hour, I ought to have learned the lesson of our otherness, but I am stubborn, nigh on pig-headed, and so I go on pretending I am him and he is me.
We are flying. This is a thing he can do, and I can pretend to do, but apparently not for more than an hour-and-a-half. This became clear as he disappeared up a hill in front of me, still turning a huge gear despite the incline. He drops me without noticing, nonchalant, oblivious. I am an apple core flung to the roadside. Maybe an animal will happen by and carry me off.
But he sits up on the descents and I catch back on, still clawing at the air for oxygen as he turns back to the road, puts his head down and yanks me through the air in front of him. We do this over and over, silent except for the sound of my rasping breath.
Later we catch on with a larger group, and I am glad to see him go off on his own with faster riders. And yet somehow I still don’t have the sense to be myself. I ride to the front of the slower set, bridge the gap to the front, and then I’m on the back of his group again. It makes sense to me in the moment, as though I am just doing what’s in my legs to do.
This goes well for about 10 miles.
Then I am the yo-yo, straining at the end of the string, the leaf blown from the tree, drifting alone in the wind, finally there in no-man’s land by myself. I think to sit up and wait for the shelter of the slower group, but I resign myself to own this loneliness, to learn the lessons of my many mistakes.
That’s when it first occurs to me that I am me, and he is him. Training will not make me him. Persistence will not make me him. Cleverness will not make me him. He could be anybody who is constitutionally stronger than I am. It doesn’t matter.
A headwind kicks up and I am just crawling against the steepness, taking it full in the face. I concentrate only on moving forward. I question why I ride bikes. What business do I have even being here? I deserve to be alone (this much is true). A half-an-hour of slow pedaling and dark thinking pass in what feels like two hours.
And then he is behind me again suddenly, yelling a cheerful greeting that scares me very nearly off the shoulder of the road. They have taken a wrong turn, looped up and around and back onto the route, and they are with me again. I smile and curse my luck but resolve not to follow them again, to let them go and simply get back to my hard, lonely work.
But it doesn’t go that way. Apparently, I am not the only one who is not him. Two from the lead group have cracked, and they sit in with me, and we shamble onwards. Shamefully, I am buoyed by their suffering, and as I choke down synthetic calories and finish my water bottles I begin to rally.
I am still not him, but finally being me is not as painful as it has been. We all ride together to the end, some of us more happily than others. And then we’re eating cheeseburgers directly from the grill, swilling sugary sodas. The smell of hops takes the air. Feet go up.
The second group shows up an hour later, and by then I am mainly human again. We swap stories of suffering and joy. After the ride, we are all each other, and I suppose this is what’s important.