Something To Ride For


I didn’t pass him. That would have been a dick move, so just as I was about to make the catch I sat up a little and coasted onto his wheel. As far as I could tell he never even turned his head to notice I was there, but I was trying to get my lungs back in my mouth and keep my brain from bursting out my temples, so maybe he did.

I don’t know why I did it. It was just one of those stupid commuter games you play. “Can I catch that guy?” you think. “I probably can’t. Maybe I can. Well, screw it.” And you go.

He was probably 50 meters out in front of me on the long climb that leads up to my house, but I could see he wasn’t going very fast. He had a bag on, like me. He wasn’t rushing. He was just going home.

I closed half the distance pretty quickly, as you do on a climb, but my heart was red-lining, so I had to back off. That’s where it gets challenging, right? It’s hard to know how much to slow. Your brain is telling you to let the pedals go slack, to coast until the engine room gets the fire under control. You have to find that middle point, fast but not heart attack fast. You have to maintain enough progress to continue the chase, to maintain motivation, but not go all in like a poker player with a pair of nothing.

Like much of what I do on the bike, there was no real point. I was commuting. He was commuting. Why race someone who isn’t racing you? Why go so hard on the way home? It was stupid, but I needed something to ride for. I hadn’t realized that until I was getting close enough to believe I would make the catch.

The pros calculate their every effort by whether they have something to ride for or not. A chance to put a teammate in the winning break? They ride. A chance to save a podium place? They ride. A chance to set up for the sprint? They ride.

I can’t be so discerning. I don’t stand on many (any) podiums, but I need to ride. I need that something to motivate me, or I let the pedals go slack. I coast.

After D2R2 this year, I swore I would take my fitness and plow it into trail riding, that I’d double down by running on days I couldn’t fit a ride in, that I’d play more soccer, that I’d keep it going. Instead, I gave myself a week off. I slept. I drove. I ate stuff. One week became two became three.

I needed to ride. That poor bastard didn’t ask me to chase him. He was just the right challenge in the right moment. By the time I turned off his wheel my breath rasped in my chest painfully, that bronchial ache made of effort and car exhaust. I didn’t pass him, because it would have been the wrong thing to do.

As I stood in the kitchen after, sweating like a summer soda can, I wondered aloud, “WtF was that?” But it felt good. It focused my mind. I thought, “I’m going to ride every day this week.”

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Patrick O'Brien

    I like it! I don’t chase anymore. But if someone breezes me, or passes me silently without a “on your left” then I might try if for no other reason to show them the old guy on the touring bike is not that big a slug. A couple of twenty somethings on mountain bikes riding no handed did get passed and dropped though. They could have taken me down, and that warranted the attempt, and I got lucky.

  2. Khal Spencer

    Its been a long time since I raced (rather ineffectively at that) but the sight of another rider out ahead of me on my commute, or on a Sunday outing, brings out the same old competitive drive to catch the rabbit. Not to pass someone, but to push the old engine up to redline and remember how it feels to do so. With a modicum of engine care, even the sixty year old engine can still rev a bit.

    Last weekend, for no reason a casual cyclist would understand, I decided to ride up New Mexico State Rt. 4 into the Jemez Mountains and then for good measure and to feel the pain, to ride up Camp May Road to the ski lodge in town going really hard. Camp May Road rises about 1500 feet in about 3.5 miles, from 7700 to 9200 feet. It definitely hurts, and there is no sane reason a sixty year old should be pushing 165 bpm on that grade, but it makes the victory beer back at the house taste so much better. It also keeps the Grim Reaper off your wheel.

    Enjoy the rush it gives you. You deserve it.

  3. slowride(r)

    I use other riders as motivation all the time. I ride my cross bike on a crushed limestone trail a couple times a week. I’ll see a rider ahead and see how long it takes me to catch him. Sometimes I see a rider closing on me and I’ll up my pace to keep him from catching me, or at least how long I can hold him off. Sometimes riding by yourself gets monotonous, so anything that gets you moving the pedals a little faster is a good thing

  4. Jonathan

    I did the same thing today. The guy in front of me kept jumping reds: I had better legs, so I waited for the green each time then aimed to catch him before the next red light. Worked a treat, then I blew right by when we came to a long stretch without intersections.
    Didn’t feel bad at all cos old mate was running reds and I still took him down.

  5. Tom in albany

    On my morning commute, I catch or I don’t as my legs allow. I do pass because the point is to get to work. I’m not out for a joy ride. It’s not personal. It never is. I don’t know why some get upset about being passed. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. Feel free to hop on my wheel or pass me back. However, I am never obligated to ride your pace or sit your wheel or let you sit mine. I have my own goals.

    That said, I always give an ‘on your left’ as I approach and a ‘good morning’ as I pass. If the pace is reasonable, I may ride with you for a brief chat. I may even thank you for giving me the rabbit I sorely needed that ride.

    However, it is never personal. I get passed all the time. I’m a 17-18 mph average kind of rider. So, when I pass someone, I don’t feel bad and I’m not trying to make them feel bad. I’m trying to get my exercise in AND get to work (or home) on the schedule that time allows.

    If all of this makes me a jerk well, I’m sorry. That’s not my goal and never is. So, please explain to me why some think that’s so…

  6. Robot

    @Tom – It doesn’t make you a jerk. In this particular case, I thought, I don’t need to pass him, on a climb, on a Friday, on a commute, to achieve what I want to achieve. Additionally, if I’d passed him, I probably wouldn’t have ridden away. I was gassed. So it would have been passing just to pass, to make a point, which didn’t feel right.

    Keep riding hard. It’s all there is.

  7. Randall

    Is that all there is?
    If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
    Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
    If that’s all there is…

  8. Full Monte

    Sachi nailed it.

    And I used to do it. When I rediscovered cycling a couple years ago, I was watching my computer, racing my 25 year old self. The one that’d ride four hours non-stop like it was nothing. The one that’d do 30 miles after work every day and average 20 mph. The one that took scary chances, pushing skills to the technical limit.

    I crashed and burned because of it. Painful, fracturing lesson.

    Time to relearn who and what I was now, as a rider. Time to set new, realistic goals.

    I do from time to time chase another rider, way up the road. Imagine myself bridging to the breakaway. In that, it’s pretend. Imagination. Being a big kid on the bike…like that Specialized commercial with the young boy on the dusty road, pretending he’s riding Roubaix and holding off Tom Boonen. Brilliant stuff. Let’s never be too old for play and joy!

  9. Andrew

    I do this all the time, and wonder why I have to be such a competitive AH….

    When I was younger and stronger, and riding in a tshirt, I used to take great pleasure in passing guys who were all kitted up. that was back before everyone started wearing cycling kit.

    when i was a resident, commuting on the bike trail in seattle, i did have one of the great “minor triumphs” of my life. there was this AH surgeon who used to give everyone a hard time, and i saw him up ahead of me, all kitted out on his super nice bike. i was on my commuter, with my panniers etc, but i blew by him so fast that he didn’t know what hit him. or he wouldn’t have, if I didn’t turn around and very pointedly give him “the look”.

    i am a bad person.

  10. Tom in albany

    Thanks, Robot. I read it all again and picked up a bit more of the grey.

    And my wife wonders why I won’t always say what’s on my mind. It’s a dangerous place, my mind. It’s a place where ready-shoot-aim-‘oh-shit’ reigns supreme…

    I used to be a very competitive AH. In my 20s-30s, we had a hard time keeping women on our volleyball team because of the hyper-competitiveness. I was very guilty of it. After I scaled it back, we had a woman that joined the team that actually agreed to stay on my team for the rest of our lives. I still love winning, but playing’s fun…

  11. Ron S

    I had a strange commute-catch last Friday. I was on a bike path next to a road. There was a guy ahead on the road and as I measured his pace, I thought I could catch him after I merged with the road. I started the chase in earnest and he must have seen me as he raised his pace. I finally reeled him in and said hi. He said “how-ya doin” and I said “out-of-breath”. He now holds the pace at about 22-23 on the flat road while I work to catch my breath. I get the distinct feeling he’s trying to drop me. OK, I can hold here. We both turn onto a park road and he suddenly drops back to about 30-50m behind me. Now I’m pedaling at 18 MPH and he’s sitting back there. We roll through the park and rather than chat, he sits back there :-. As we wait for the light, we start chating. He’s recovering from a crash earlier in the year and I’m fighting off old age at 58. We continued to chat for the rest of our mutual ride until I turned off. I still don’t get the weird part in the park, as the road was wide and there was no traffic. I had a feeling it was a race tactic, but I don’t race so I don’t know.

  12. TucsonMTB

    Ever watch hummingbirds? They always chase. It’s their nature.

    Mine too . . .

    I sometimes joke with my wife about how I caught another hummingbird today or another hummingbird caught me.

    Those are the good rides.

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