I couldn’t tell you much about the race. We traced lap upon lap around a city block, uphill past the school and the staging holding the announcer and the officials. The rise was gentle, maybe only five percent, and we turned left onto a road less notable for how flat it was than for how it passed between homes that held air still has the heart of a dead man. Another left sent us downhill behind the school where we picked up enough speed to thrill us with our own velocity, only to execute our next left onto a road that shrank like so much new cotton in a dryer, three lanes shrinking to two, the docked lane to our right, forcing everyone who swept wide through the turn to squeeze left or flyswatter into a guardrail. A final left restarted the Escher game of seemingly forever up.
Because of the way the course squeezed riders left between turns three and four, riders on the inside of the turn had to brake, while anyone at the outside stayed on the gas. Try to apex turn three and you’d be last into turn four. I spent the entire race on the outside of the pack, violating a lesson older than I was.
Someone won the race. I have no idea who. I wasn’t there for the finish. I never crossed the line, nor did another four riders.
With the bell ringing in our ears, we threw ourselves into that last drop. I was spinning out my top gear, but I could see chaos ahead as we approached turn three. I could hear braking, the crack of carbon fiber and the thud of bodies on pavement. A driver had driven his car around the sawhorses blocking the intersection and had pulled onto the course, taking up all the space everyone at the outside of the pack needed to execute the turn at 36 mph.
As I later told a lawyer, “Shit went everywhere.”
When I entered the turn, I could see a veritable minefield of riders. For a moment, I saw the chaos as an opportunity; I could, my brain stem briefly hoped, thread my way through and arrive at turn four in the first 10.
Then I saw Mike.
Michael Jones was a rider I’d made friends with that season. We did many of the same group rides together and were two of the only riders from the West Side of LA who were willing to drive four hours for a road race in the Central Valley. His strength was comparable to mine and that made racing with him fun. All this is to say, I’d grown to like and respect Mike, and while I might have been willing to bunny hop another rider, I wasn’t willing to risk Mike’s safety for my glory.
Which is to say the only route through the turn that didn’t involve me hitting my brakes was interrupted by Mike’s presence on the ground.
I still remember thinking, “I can’t run Mike over!”
So I went straight. Straight toward the sidewal elevated by a concrete curb, straight being the one direction I could go that didn’t involve me harming another person.
I hit my brakes, as hard as I dared for someone who has been over the bar before. My memory of the end of my race includes only the twin gunshots of my tires going flat as my rims cut through both tire and tube. And while more than a meter of distance existed between front wheel and rear, the sound that registered in my brain wasn’t two different sounds, but a single sound in two parts, a trochee, like “pistol” or “deadly.” My wheels were still round enough to roll the final three feet to the chain link fence, whereupon my front wheel stopped and I fell over.
I got off easy. My right hand was pretty scraped up, but I didn’t have the broken collarbone that Mike did, or the broken shoulder of another rider. A Trek 5900 OCLV was spread over several square meters of asphalt, as was someone’s front Spinergy wheel. Whoever cleaned up the mess was going to need a broom to sweep all the carbon shards and a can of Coke to wash away all the blood.
It was, to that point in my life, the scariest incident I’d ever been through as a bike racer or as an adult male. One guy who went down never raced again, not due to his injuries, but because he was too frightened to pin on a number. Weeks later, I’d toe the line, ready as ever to take my chance.
My non-cycling friends asked about pads, full-face helmets, skid plates. The reasons why we don’t wear more are numerous as riders in the pack. From range of motion to regulating body heat, wearing little more than the costume of a 1980s rock star helps performance, rather than hinders it. Hell, we might as well race naked for all the protection our clothing provides against the road.
And that word—chance—it acknowledge the unknown, the randomness of the future and our inability to control outcomes. To really participate in a race, accepting uncertainty is the price of entry. No matter how fit, how strategically deliberate, how confident in our ability we are, the outcome is not only unknowable, we put ourselves at risk.
Each time we wait for the starter’s pistol, everyone standing there holds a similar hope. Even if we dispense with the belief that we might win, we all—to a person—carry the conviction that we will cross the finish line with our bikes, and more importantly, our skin, intact. Such faith is what allows us to pursue our dreams.
It’s as clear a definition of love as I know. And cycling has given me as many metaphors for life, for devotion, for love as I manage to consider. Love, no matter the form, requires we make ourselves vulnerable, like so much Lycra on a skinny body. Despite how high the stakes, the reward for connecting with another heart is too compelling to swear off. When I think of faith, what it means to believe in something, love is the payoff, and the risk isn’t lost skin or a broken heart, but a life not lived.