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.