Tow Truck

Tow Truck

What is it we want for ourselves? Maslow says its autonomy, feeling like we are masters of our own universe, but then we only aim for that once we have covered all those other needs: food, shelter, love, etc. How we bring ourselves into being, what qualifies, varies like varieties of flower. Forget being president—of a country, a large organization; hell, pick a noun—I don’t even share many of the same ambitions with fellow cyclists. Winning a race, whether a grand tour or Joe’s Industrial Park Crit isn’t something I desire for myself.

We like to say we become more set in our ways as we age. I’ve never really known what that means. How does one become more of oneself? That never added up for me, until maybe just now. When I considered myself a racer, I was much more comfortable playing the role of the dependable domestique. If you needed someone to mount the chase, or to disrupt it, I was your guy. If you needed someone to sacrifice themselves not on the final lap, but with three laps to go, I was happy to do it. With added distance, I see now that I really enjoy riding in service of others.

I think I was in my 20s the first time I kidded that my father was a tow-truck.

My first big event of the season is this coming weekend. On Saturday, I plan to set aside any personal ambitions in favor of riding for others. It’s not that I think I’m too slow to better previous performances; my feeling is anything but. I believe I can still set new PRs on certain descents, and even climbs, that I can lower my finishing time, and maybe I’ll take another stab at that in the future. However, this weekend, what I most want to do play tow truck, to give my draft to others, rather than to seek it, to set a pace just high enough to allow others to ride faster than they would otherwise.

I love taking a long tempo pull that allows reasonably strong riders remora for miles in my wake. I dig looking over my shoulder and seeing a line of riders streamer in my wake. But for that to work, it depends on me taking a steady pull and for the riders to have enough experience to draft close and conserve their effort.

Last summer I tried to play tow truck to a friend at a big event. I attempted to set a pace low enough to be bearable, but also just high enough that we wouldn’t be out there all day. I failed. Twenty miles in she told me to leave her, that she—gasp—couldn’t really hope to—gasp—maintain that pace all day. I told her I could slow down and then soft pedaled to the top of a hill and waited for her. When five minutes went by and I hadn’t seen her, I concluded that she’d pulled over to convince me to roll on. It was, I have to say, an effective way to settle the conversation. But I was bummed, not because she had pulled over, but because I couldn’t figure out a pace that worked for her.

What I aim to do this season is to help riders who are still learning how to draft lower their finish times. How much can we shave off? An hour? More? I’m not sure. I’m not sure what that pace looks like just yet. And I’ve seen how sustaining a pace right at someone’s threshold can shatter them. That’s not the thing to do.

What I know is this: rolling into the finish of a hard event an hour sooner than expected will give anyone a memorable day. Because it helps someone redefine their limits, to reset their expectations of what’s possible, it’s a textbook example of one of Maslow’s peak experiences. And right now, the peak experience I want most is to help others have those peak experiences.


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  1. Michael

    I know that feeling. One of my favorite cycling memories is of an organised ride in the WIcklow Hills a couple of years ago, with some lads I rode with most Sundays. Near the end of 200 km, one of our threesome was really flagging, and the other, also tired, rode off toward the finish, perhaps 30 km further. I decided to stay back and spent 25 km carefully monitoring my companion’s position on my wheel, keeping him at the edge of what he could comfortably do. We caught our friend with 5 km to go. Steady had done it, and we rode in together. After the finish, I was carrying my plate of pasta over to sit with the other two and heard my companion explaining how he had never experienced that – slowly coming back from wanting to quit the ride (we had been only 10 km from his home when he bonked) to feeling strong. He bought a new bike recently and has really taken off as a rider. Yes! Let us know how your ride goes.

  2. Lyford

    One of my happiest cycling memories is a century ride when I was somehow able to organize — on the roll — a double pace line with a group of folks who had never ridden one. Got a lot of smiles out of that, myself included.

    I don’t have the engine for long pulls, but I really enjoy being part of a line that’s rotating well with short pulls, and helping folks learn how to make that happen.

  3. Rich

    I’ve got one of those small mirrors on the end of my bar. While its useful for seeing traffic I use it more for monitoring riders behind me. If they are falling back on every little incline you are pushing too hard. I’m not that strong, but sometimes just a little stronger than the new guy.

  4. Girl

    I think there must be some sort of calculable ratio between tow truck and tow-ee. (If sitting on a wheel saves 30% of your effort, then you can estimate the relative speed/effort differential between the the truck and the tow-ee. Too great a difference and it won’t work.)

    I had a friend who was recuperating from surgery. He was fine on the flats but couldn’t tolerate any climbs at all. I’m ashamed to say it, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for him. He was simply too tired from the climbing efforts to continue without resting after each hill. I am a bad shepherd.

    That’s why I admire and appreciate those “good shepherds” out there who gladly slow down to MY speed and carry me along at my middling cycling-enthusiast pace. Must work on patience!

  5. Kevin Ostrom

    I was on a large organized ride in Oregon afew years ago. We were 4days in to our ride and a group of 6-10 riders went by, they were holding a solid 20-25mph and I hopped on the back. They were running a solid pace-line, 10-20 pedal strokes at the front rhen the leader would pull off. After a few rotations I asked if I could join in for a few pulls. It was the first time I had success with pace-line riding. Working with these riders was amazing. I was able to finish my ride almost 2 hours ahead of my planned riding time with energy to spare.

  6. Austin

    I look forward to spending time in a train wit you this weekend! We will have plenty of opportunity to work together to help many create a memorable ride along the Old Caz Loop!

  7. Chris

    I love this and have had the same thought. I don’t know the answer either but unlocking the magic of the draft – the peloton – is one of the greatest joys of cycling.

  8. Fearless

    Have a retired racer friend, invites people to ride his wheel. Starts with an easy pace for 3 mins, ups pace 1-2 mph every 3 mins and repeats till u can’t hold his wheel. He drops pace 3 levels back (1=level couldn’t hold, 2=level could hold, 3=assumed threshold) and maintains that level. I’ve incorporated that system into my efforts.
    For training he does above but rides away til end of 3 min session then slows till Rider catchs up and repeats 3 min accelerations.

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