He was built like a superhero, probably six feet, three inches, and a solid 200 lbs., with shoulders like a truck bumper and legs the likes of which I’d only seen in cycling shorts at the track. He stuck out among our skinny lot like an SUV surrounded by a fleet of Mini Coopers. He was precisely the sort of athlete that makes coaches salivate at his sheer potential. In him I saw a guy destined to rip the pack apart, someone with the sort of wattage to sew disarray in the peloton, a destroyer of drafts. The sheer possibility that someone would upset our steady equilibrium of uneventful bouquet parades.
In him, I saw chaos, and in chaos I saw a chance to get stronger.
I made a point to stay close to him. I wanted to be there when things were hardest, though I didn’t want to mix it up in the scrum of the sprint and he was the opportunity to inflict a fresh kind of pain and I was willing to equate pain with strength.
Then he started showing up on a fixie. That was chaos of a different sort. Without brakes, if the pack slowed, he shot up the gutter, in turns he’d swing into the outside lane, moves I wanted no part of.
And then one day this Goliath said something that chilled me. I don’t even recall what occasioned the announcement. Was it a crash? A near miss? An unnecessarily sketchy or aggressive move? An exchange of words? It and so many miles are gone.
What he said was, “I hate y’all on the bike, but I love y’all off it.”
It was then that I realized he didn’t understand the brotherhood, at least, not the way I do.
I don’t know too many sports that pose significant risk of being injured, even when done well. As a result, riding in a pack requires trust greater than playing in any musical ensemble in front of a big audience. For me, learning that trust wasn’t easy. I spent years in the music biz and its attendant junkies had taught me to be wary on a variety of levels. From stolen equipment to handshake deals that were no deal, to backbiting comments meant to hurt a reputation, my overall trust score was asymptotic.
But taking up cycling taught me the social contract in a way nothing else had. There’s no lying in cycling. You can either take a pull or you can’t. Your line is either good, or it isn’t. We weren’t sophisticated enough to say we were weak and then unleash a Mark Cavendish burst that sucked dust in our wake. And if I wanted to ride in a group, to get faster, to make any friends, I had to learn to trust people. And others had to learn to trust me.
After a life spent as a nonconformist, an outcast, as a new cyclist I developed an acute need to assimilate. I had to learn to follow lines exactly, to match accelerations, to brake no more than absolutely necessary. Sticking out in the group was the opposite of what I wanted. And the first time I turned around ever so slightly to see not just one rider on my wheel, but me surrounded by riders, I nearly fell off my bike. All I could think was that if I screwed up in the least the road would be littered with bodies.
There’s a famous photo of Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, perhaps the two most antagonistic riders ever, sharing a bottle of water, and another of them sharing a bottle of wine out on the road. But even they got it. Even they understood the social contract that exists between riders, that no matter how badly Bartali wanted to beat Coppi, and vice versa, everyone needed to make it to the finish line. That means no hooking wheels, no brake checking and, especially, no hitting. Sharing a bottle of water signifies a respect for the other rider’s humanity. It is, as we say, the decent thing to do.
I rode with people from any number of backgrounds and political persuasions. And after having coffee with some of them post-ride, I realized don’t necessarily like everyone who is a cyclist. But out on the road was a different story, it had to be. I came to appreciate that they wanted the same things as me. They wanted good company for a hard ride. They wanted to go hard enough to stoke the embers of belief that we are all getting stronger. They wanted thrilling descents and knee-out turns that lend the pull of gravity. They wanted to get home with their skin and bones intact.
When I crashed in 2012 it was a friend with whom I’d had a falling out who called 911 for me. I took him, and the rest of the guys who had to see me laying on the ground, bloody, the guys who were all a good hour later getting home than they’d planned, out for beers.
We live in a fraught time where to disagree is to be a mortal enemy, especially where sports and politics are concerned. Following the wheels of people with whom I disagree is a chance to find something in common, to build a bridge through a more elemental connection. It’s a truth too visceral to fake. In that I found salvation. The rules of the peloton taught me more about regard for my fellow man than being a Boy Scout did.
On one of the last occasions I saw Goliath, just as the group was breaking up at the end of the ride, I slipped up beside him after he’d said, yet again, “I hate y’all on the bike, but I love y’all off it.”
I leaned in and said, “You’ve got it backward.” What I didn’t mention is that once you love your fellow rider on the bike, loving them off of it becomes a lot easier.