The Secret Handshake

The Secret Handshake

I struggle in crowds. Masses of people make me uncomfortable. It’s an odd admission for someone who used to play in rock bands before rooms full of people. Even odder that I would go to standing-room-only shows where I was shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. I can’t do it anymore. Yet I never really struggled with riding in a peloton beyond the fear of crashing if someone ahead of me went down.

This is a way of backing into a larger admission, that I don’t really like people. I’m an introvert, more comfortable with those that I know than those I don’t know. And it’s not that I’m unwilling to make friends; the greater truth is that I tend toward the intense and I’m wired to want to get to know one person better than meet three new people.

With that on the table, I may seem like an unlikely candidate to advocate for inclusivity, but it’s true. I believe in the bigger tent. On one level, there’s a self-serving end to this. If you’re a cyclist, I’m going to be less weird to you. I’ve written elsewhere that I’m always at the shallow end of a bell curve. I’m not your typical guy. My freak flag is too big to hide, so finding other people who fly the same flag isn’t just a matter of connection, it started as a larger function of self-preservation.

So, yeah, I like cyclists. I know what you’ve gone through to learn the sport. I know every sacrifice you’ve ever made in terms of diet, lost sleep and money. I know the efforts you’ve made that seemed more than you were capable of. I had the same terror the first time I got bumped, and the same exhilaration when I realized I was going to ride it out.

What we share goes deeper than a love of the Green Bay Packers.

It’s that larger effort, all the learning, all the training, that I call the secret handshake. I’ve got acquaintances who have guarded their knowledge jealously and make fun of the rider who shows up with tube socks on. Because I believe in the a bigger tent, I do what I can to share what I’ve learned (it’s why I wrote the book “The No-Drop Zone“).

Here I must assert how needlessly pervasive the HTFU attitude has become, how it’s now a stick we use to beat others. As if any of us could measure up to European domestique standards. It’s the sort of thing that contributes to us being called elitist. Codifying the things I learned to do in order to be simultaneously considerate and stylish into published rules was a fantastic way to drive people away from the sport.

There are reasons why I’ve learned to only brake as hard as is necessary, why I pedal just a bit harder as I stand up, why my clothes are form-fitting, why even though my road bike is spectacularly maneuverable I’ve taken the time to learn how to ride it in an effortlessly elegant straight line. None of those lessons has anything to do with my own comfort or sense of style, though each of them has certainly increased at least one or the other. I do them all because of my regard for those I ride with.

Those lessons are, at root, a sign of my respect for the social contract.

This sport has fundamental truths. Shaving my legs keeps me cooler on a hot day because the sweat evaporates more quickly. I don’t wear a helmet with a visor on the road because at speed the wind catches the visor and pushes the helmet back on my head, both slowing me down and tightening the chin strap against my throat. I wear bibs that are snug to allow me greater freedom of movement on the bike and to prevent chafing that would make my nether regions a post-ride no-fly zone.

It’s up to me whether I share that, or keep it secret. And so while I’m no politician, I know that the bigger the sport is, the healthier our community is.

The secret handshake is not a way to bar the gate, it’s meant to be a way to welcome the new members.

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17 comments

  1. Rod

    You may be a single in this group, but you are in a group of singles whom oddly enjoy each other.

    Keep up the good work.

    R

  2. MikeG

    And this is why I read your site! I read the first two paragraphs out loud to my wife, and she is laughing so hard she has tears in her eyes…because I could have written those same words!

    People constantly make me crazy, and yet life is all about relationships. How I was ever able to be social enough to lead the local shop ride for two years is a miracle, and yet your words on sharing secrets and mentoring newer riders is exactly why I did it.

    Amen, and preach on!

  3. Ron

    Very nice piece!

    I came to cycling after an entire lifetime spent playing ball sports, including in college. I needed a change, I was burned out, and I wanted a lifetime sport. Over a decade later, I can’t believe what cycling (and just plain ol’ riding a bike) has provided. I also can’t divide bicycles and riding them from me and my life at this point. It’s a part of me and one I need and love. Since I got into the cycling game kinda late, I was the neophyte learning from the guys twice my age in the paceline. I was happy to get yelled at when I did unsafe stuff, also didn’t hurt that coming from team sports, I was quite used to a little (lot) of yelling when things go wrong.

    Having said that, I’d never belittle someone else, but I do have my own standards, sense of style, and taste. I kinda shake my head at oddball roadies I see, but unless they’re being unsafe, it’s none of my business if they want to ride ugly bikes or wear ugly kit. So what?

    I’ll gladly share any info I can and I’m actually part of a local cycling advocacy group in my city, so I donate my time to making cycling infrastructure better for all, from roadies to commuters. (And darnit, most serious weekend roadies need to get out there and commute. To me it’s insane to ride for 8 hours on Sunday but drive everywhere else. *If your infrastructure permits it, as mine does.)

    I’ll end with a question: what suggestions do you have on sharing helpful information and having it well received? I’m a teacher by training, so I’m pretty good at this. But, just last week I watched two newbie roadies on the MUP nearly crash and couldn’t help but tell them how they could avoid this. Even though I was commuting in street pants and a t-shirt…they seemed to think I was speaking down to them. I wasn’t. But if you roll up in full Assos on a glimmering bike, how the heck do you get the guy on Sora in baggies to listen? (I think a huge uphill battle is the “it’s like riding a bike” mindset. Ha…for anyone who rides a lot, you realize that riding a bike well is NOT easy.)

    1. Lyford

      With novices, “May I suggest something that may make _____a bit easier?’ or “….more comfortable” have worked for me. It expresses concern. If you use some form of “….do it better” it sounds like you’re talking down to them, and not everyone wants to go faster.

      Instead of “I do it X way”, try “A lot of folks do it X way and find that it works for them”. An alternative is “somebody suggested X way to me and I found that it worked.” Again, you’re trying to avoid making yourself the authority figure — you’re just passing on information.

      Starting with a compliment always helps, even something as simple as “It’s nice to see someone else out riding!”

      Take off your sunglasses.

  4. Ron

    Oh, and one other thing. My life is pretty darn static. I live with my wife, son and pets. I work 5 days a week. I have plenty of friends. But more and more…I’m just not out/don’t have time to be out in the world. I’m on the phone all day and work, but I generally control my environment and it’s very peaceful and regular. I find, more and more, that when I go out amongst the general population, I want to scream. I’m in such a controlled environment that I can’t handle the regular world at this point. I ride a bike to work. I walk my dog in the woods. I walk to my co-op to buy groceries. I pretty much do the same thing week in and week out. I essentially live in a bubble and it’s only making me annoyance with MOST other humans worse. I don’t see it getting any better. And, I like people and I’m social…but there are so many selfish dummies around these days it’s maddening. I think I’m also hitting middle age and have found out a horrible truth: people don’t mature and grow out of bad habits, they just get older!

    People wearing pajamas around town.
    Cell phone abusers.
    People crowding me on lines.
    WAITING in line!
    Distracted drivers.

    I could go on…but I’m in such a controlled environment daily that I find what the average American has become to be enraging. Take your goddamn slippers off when you leave the house! Don’t drive with a phone in one hand and an adult sippy cup in the other!

  5. Shawn

    Two points:
    1) I was sure the first few paragraphs were guest-written by an Incumbent Jockey.

    2) Regarding passing it on, it’s not what you say but the way you say it. Even well-intended “advice” can alienate the newbies when they have reason to perceive a contemptuous delivery.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’m not sure what an incubment jockey is, but if this doesn’t work out for me, Ima look into that.

      Yes, yes and yes to how hard it can be to pass on any wisdom. If there’s a wrong way to do it, I’ve done it over the years. Mostly I keep my trap shut until someone asks. What I’ve found is that someone’s ability to listen has less to do with you than them. I’ve kidded with people, I’ve asked questions, I’ve alerted riders to upcoming issues, and all of those have both worked and failed.

    2. Shawn

      I was extremely polite for newbs who did the shop rides (duh!) and tried to be on the various Weeknighters. However, I confess that I was a condescending pr**k to wobbly newbs who party-crashed our selective training rides. In hindsight, I wish I could do those rides over again with more kindness and patience.

      The ball was on the tee for the doofus (ahem) who doesn’t know the difference between an office holder running for re-election and a bike you lay down on to pedal. Thanks for your forbearance. haha

  6. leroy

    Over the years, I’ve figured out that riding a bike is like playing the guitar.

    Anyone can do it; not everyone can do it well. No matter how much you know, you can learn more. And if you stop practicing, you won’t be able to do what you know how to do.

    My dog informs that they’re similar because you can fit a card in your spokes and your strings. But he may be teasing me.

    He does that sometimes.

    1. Pat O'Brien

      As the worst campfire guitar strummer, I hear you. But playing the guitar and riding the bike are worth doing, even if you struggle a little. They keep your mind and body in shape. For a long time. And it’s cheaper than drugs or therapy.

  7. Rick Vosper

    Congratulations, Padriag. An excellent piece, and one that cuts to the heart of cycling culture. And speaking as a fellow introvert, a fine essay on that topic as well.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks much Rick. This one has been eating at me for a couple of years. Funny how long it can take you to articulate something you already knew in your bones.

  8. NZ Ev

    I can so relate to this piece. I too am an introvert and don’t like being in crowds of people. I am an early riser and leave on my longer rides an hour before sunrise to beat the crowds and traffic. I enjoy riding on my own and escaping the packs of people. I ride for me not for the social factor. I walk my dogs early in the morning and start work early. I am allabout the morning and enjoying my time alone to recover from being around people all day long at work.

  9. Dodger

    The teacher looked at his three students then asked a question. “Why do you ride a bike?” The first student answered, “for health and fitness.” The second said, “for transportation.” The third responded, “to ride my bike.” The teacher smiled and said, “may I ride with you?”

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