Spring mornings in coastal Los Angeles are often overcast, the air saturated with a blue light that keeps what’s close sharp, while allowing the distance to fade as in the edges of a dream. Our standard training ride of the time left the Manhattan Beach Pier, rolled up the bike path to the bridge that spanned the mouth of the Los Angeles River, along a narrow jetty before turning onto a loop of a road in Marina del Rey. The social contract at the time was that we eased along the bike path at 16 mph, allowing anyone late to the start to latch on to the group before the ferocious occurred.
After turning onto our first stretch of road, we were usually able to gradually accelerate over several hundred meters. On most days, the increase in speed was more Country Squire than Berlinetta. To say there was an unspoken rule we ratcheted the pace gently would be to pour eight ounces of coffee in a six-ounce mug, but most riders were accustomed to saving their fast twitch until we turned back on that stretch of road 20 minutes later.
Precedent, that fancy way of noting familiarity, held that every now and then one of the bigger sets of legs would disrupt the usual course of events. It was several press releases in one: a way to check legs, both the attacker’s and the attackees’, not to mention the athlete’s equivalent of a throat clearing, a reminder that smack talk can’t generate watts.
I entered the season with my eyes set on upgrading categories and I had no interest in letting the established badasses put me at the other end of the accordion. In a race, showing one’s cards too early is, as ideas go, worse than not eating. Get too showy and the other riders will mark the offender like flies on a corpse. A training ride, I learned early on, is the exact opposite of a race. Winning the final sprint in a training ride is to admit one did not work hard enough during the ride.
We rolled off the bike path and onto the smooth asphalt early that spring morning and I threaded my way to the front of the group, upshifting as I went. By the time I pierced the clean air at the front of the group I was moving several miles per hour faster than the peloton. I left the front, put several meters of exhaust between my back wheel and the lead riders and then put my head down.
A sequence of three lights can disrupt breaks and chases equally. I’ve seen riders escape thanks to the lights and I’ve seen them returned to the fold with one foot in the crosswalk. This was a day where I had the good luck to make each light, and true to justice, the pack did too. I made it through one more light, looking back over my shoulder in the turn to see the mass of neon colors bearing down on me. I knew that two more turns lay between me and the intermediate sprint line, the first of only two on that ride, not especially worried about being caught—I knew I would be swept up before the sprinters’ exultation. I just wanted to keep them waiting for as long as possible.
As I predicted, I was Jonah to the peloton’s whale, and was relieved when a half dozen guys shot past me before the sprint went chaotic. Moments later, a friend, a guy noticeably stronger than me, caught up to me inside the bunch and as his pedaling slowed, he turned to me and wheezed, “What the fuck?!” In his view, I hadn’t respected an agreed-upon order. To me, I’d just shaken the Etch-a-Sketch.
Later in the ride a couple of friends noted that I’d almost taken the sprint, that because I wasn’t a sprinter, I was smart to set out alone and early, but perhaps I was too early. Next time, maybe I should wait a bit. What they didn’t understand was that winning that sprint was never the point. My intent was only to suffer with my nose in the wind for as long as possible. Defining victory is an individual pursuit, and that day I did win. When I got home that morning, I struggled to get off my bike, to rise after removing my shoes, to climb the stairs to the shower. That I ached with each step for the rest of the day was proof that I’d accomplished my mission.