Before the race my buddy Steve said to me, “Just be on my wheel when we cross the start/finish at the bell. I’m going to be the first guy into turn one on the last lap.” True to his word, he dove into that first turn leading the pack and at 6-feet 7-inches, his was an imposing bulk, perfect as the prow of a freighter, and a draft people would employ mob-level bumps to get you out of the way. I secured myself to his rear wheel and as he swung wide upon exiting turn three, I dove to the inside with the assurance that all I had to do was use every muscle fiber I could conjure to deliver me to the line.

As trust goes, that was easy. What was more difficult came later, being surrounded by riders I didn’t know, going hard enough that I knew I could only mount one or two efforts at the front.

I spent nearly 20 years riding in and around Los Angeles. The group rides were fast, without mercy and sketchier than a book of charcoal drawings. Even so, I miss some of those rides and riders because I came to trust them in a way I can trust few people who aren’t family. One of them, a friend who runs a local team—and for several months held the hour record for 40-44 year-old men—is just the sort of rider I think we all long to be. Kevin’s fitness is matched by his skill. I’ve watched him slip through nonexistent gaps in a gutter just to avoid an impending crash. I’ve watched him have conversations on descents that plunged like zip lines where I was too busy watching the road to do more than breathe through my mouth. His accelerations can be smoother than polished marble. People like riding next to him as much because he’s easy to talk to as you can relax when near his wheel.

I’ve followed teammates with less than a foot between our tires. I’ve gone through turns with so many riders surrounding me I couldn’t tell the outline or width of the road. And I’ve put my head down in a sprint, utterly secure in my knowledge of who was near me and how fast they were going. I’m pleased to say I’ve never folded a bike because I chose the wrong wheel to follow.

Here’s the irony of what we do: To anyone unaccustomed to the peloton, riding in a pack looks suicidal. And yet, once you know the habits of a group of people you ride with routinely, it feels safe. Yeah, safe. It’s an odd word for an activity that so often leads to injuries for minor mistakes. But unless you feel safe, you’re unlikely to do much more than just sit in the group. I was reminded of this during the opening miles of Levi’s GranFondo. We were 12 across the road, sometimes more. There had to be 1000 riders who were convinced they were at least as strong, if not stronger, than anyone at the front. Dude, I’ve been in crits that were calmer than our first dozen or so miles. I actually sat up at the top of one rise just to slip out of the back of the lead group. I’m not complaining, though; that’s just how I right-sized my sense of comfort with the event.

When the certainty goes, it’s hard to recover. Once a rider surprises you, you begin to wonder when they will do it again. But what’s a ride without that shared experience? Later in the day I would encounter a trio of riders and after bridging to them late in the ride, I began trading pulls with one of them, the other two content to be towed along. That sense of when to pull through comes back, a kind of muscle memory, and after just two or three exchanges you establish a feel for how close to follow. It’s in my nature to think trust is about circumstance more than people. I want to give us the benefit, not the doubt. To feel the full weight of that confidence though, sometimes you must build that relationship anew.

All the things that make riding with other people so rewarding, the shared work, the drafts given as freely as taken, the gaps closed, the holes slipped, the attacks launched—none of that is really possible until you trust those around you. It’s the chance to try on those different roles: sprinter, rouleur, climber, capo. It’s an enormous piece of work to build that faith, to gain the reliance of others. No matter the work, that’s the point.

It’s in that setting we discover the sort of rider we are meant to be.



  1. dG

    Agreed, and what a good piece. I no longer race, yet I recoil with the term “retired”. I enjoy hammer sessions, and *loved* racing. I have what they call “family-man-a-ritis”, a condition that besets folks of a certain age that although has a cure, its proper recovery can take up to 10 years. You guys know what I mean.

    Once a roadie gets a certain amount of racing/peloton hours, we develop spider senses that detect impending crashes, nervousness, tired legs, lack of concentration, or a brewing attack. I can’t necessarily put to exact words; how can birds and bugs and animals detect an upcoming earthquake? something in their senses, millions of years of evolution that perk their attention by means we don’t yet understand but fully perceive as part of who we are.or what we are. I’ve been bumped, pushed, punched, had levers up my arse, head butted, but in the heat of the moment the adrenaline slows down time and maximizes perception. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but am sure folks who are thrill seekers (or death-defying stunts people) can conjure similar sentiment. Well done Padraig. Now one question: that other column you wrote last week, “Making Peace”, left me a bit puzzled. would you midn expanding on that? seemed somewhat cryptic. and cryptic is not a word I’d associate with your style of writing.

    1. Author

      To the degree that you sensed there’s more below the surface in this piece, you’re on the money. This post, “The Bright Spot” and “Making Peace” are all part of what is likely to turn out to be a larger series of posts. They all hail from the same space. And to one degree or another, they are all metaphors for something bigger I’m wrestling with.

  2. Scott M.

    It’s remarkable how much one can discern from a first impression. While we laugh at the “rule” that calls for positioning sunglass ear stems outside your helmet straps, it’s an early indicator that the rider knows enough to care. Same goes for placement of the tire label next to the valve stem; the age of the seat bag (older is better); and whether the rider locks his elbows or rides in the drops. All are great indicators of whether you can trust their wheel or should avoid it like the glutton intolerant avoid bagels.

    1. Michael Bell

      OK, I gotta ask about the thing with the sunglasses. I started riding in Bloomington Indiana, home of “Breaking Away” and I wasn’t aware of that “rule”. Is there a practical reason or simple aesthetics? From my perspective, it’s always felt like the sunglasses were more secure if tucked under the straps.

      Regarding trust, I still recall the first time I did the local “Hilly Hundred” bike tour, and saw a paceline blow by us only to have the bunch go down soon after. That made an impression on me to not take the wheel of just anyone. Likewise, one of the first criteriums I saw cured me of any real desire to race. The moto tried to pass the pack on the downhill section of the course, and took out a pile of riders as he cut in front of the pack on a corner. I like to ride fast, and have done some time trials, but think I got started too late in life to seriously consider anything that involves pack racing. The weekly gravel/trail rides that I started doing this year are a different animal. Maybe 8-10 riders, all of whom are considerably faster than me, so generally I’m sucking wheels and barely hanging on. Hoping that next year I won’t be such an anchor!

    2. Michael (we're legion!)

      Yes, Michael Bell. The sunglass stems outside the straps thing is style, as far as I can tell. If you wear prescription glasses, as I do, it is plain stupid to have them outside the straps, as movements of your head move the glasses, which then changes the focal point in the lenses with respect to your eyes and the world bounces and moves and goes in and out of focus. I would not want to ride next to me if that was how the world was looking to me! Scott is onto something – whether someone has been steeped in the culture for long – but one has to decide which things to accept and which to overrule. The tire label next to the stem – this can help in finding where a puncture is and then locating the offending piece of glass. The seat bag – well, at some point, we all have to replace them, but who wants to do it often? Few of my friends shave their legs any more, having decided it is not worth the hassle, but hairy legs don’t erase forty years of riding knowledge. You’d notice the hair on their legs, but perhaps after you’d noticed how smoothly and predictably they ride.

    3. Author

      Okay, if I may, the way I was taught back in the ’80s was that you put your glasses over your helmet straps for two reasons. One was to help keep the helmet in place, because back then helmets didn’t have an occipital device to keep them from moving around. Of course, that reason is no longer necessary, right? The other reason was that should you need to remove your glasses for some reason while riding, you could simply pull them off and they wouldn’t get caught in the helmet straps. Most eyewear designs I was familiar with back then were small enough, and the helmets boxy enough that if you tried to pull the glasses off your face with your glasses under the straps it was easy for them to get caught by the straps. Then you’re stuck with glasses half off your face. Now what?

  3. Jim

    Once a racer, always a racer. Most are not racers and don’t have that inner drive to always pull through, rotate, and form that instant bond you get in a breakaway or chase.
    By the way, “sketchier than a book of charcoal drawings” is pure gold. Thanks, man.

  4. Charlie Fuller

    whenever i’d start back into a season of crit racing and my brain would spasm a bit the first few times i was back in the confines of the peloton, i’d use the mantra “school of fish…school of fish” to calm the fragments of panic. the thought of how fish read the mass of others around them and respond fluidly always got my mind back in the right place, like fast community, like magic.

  5. Author

    Thanks everyone for your kind words. It’s nice to be in a space where pieces like this one come unbidden, nearly effortless. I promise to mine this vein until the floor starts to fill with groundwater.

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