Sometimes I think in titles. I am fairly certain that’s not the way writers are supposed to write, coming up with the title first and then filling in the ideas after. It’s especially ironic as an opening for a piece that has, for the last 9 years, traveled under one, numerically incremented headline, Friday Group Ride, but there you go. The title in my head this morning is, “Talking with the Wright Brothers About Bicycles.”
In my mind, this is a story about a person who wants a bike, someone ordinary and earnest like me, who might be aware of the brothers’ boondoggles related to flight, but really just wants a way to get around town. The brothers put him off with vague promises of a delivery date, because they need the money, but what they’re doing all the time is calculating lift quotients (I made that term up just now) and constructing wings for a machine that might as well be a dream catcher.
I’d love to talk with the Wright Brothers, just to see what they were like.
I’d like to spend time with Major Taylor, too. Here is a man, the first black superstar, who rose to the very top of our sport and gained worldwide fame decades before anyone would have guessed that was possible. It’s hard, casting your mind back, to fathom the depth and strength of his character. I’d like to travel with him for a stretch, just to understand what he went through, what it might have felt like.
Tom Simpson might seem an odd choice. Simpson was famously fun, gung ho, daring, swashbuckling, ambitious, but my interest in him is as one of the first casualties in what has turned out to be a long war between humans and their limits. The opening salvo in that conflict might have been Icarus and his wax wings, a mythic tragedy that has morphed somehow into an energy drink slogan. Simpson thought amphetamines would deliver him victory, but they only killed him, at 29, by the road side in France. I would just want to give him a preview, in that way that time travelers never should, of the things to come. I’d like to warn him that what he was doing wouldn’t, couldn’t, produce the result he hoped for, and that he would be the first or last to throw his life away.
This week’s Group Ride asks, who from cycling history would you like to speak with? Who is the character you’d like to understand? What questions would you ask them? I have the sense that, in the context of the moment, it’s not entirely possible to discuss events that turned out to have been historic. To me, what is most fascinating is the mundanity of the moments leading up to breakthrough. But you might choose to land on March 13th, 1984, the day after Bernard Hinault’s infamous brawl with striking shipyard workers and ask, “Badger, what were you thinking?”