He is him, and I am me. This ought to be evident, but for some reason, initially, it is not. He is riding with one bottle, and I have two. His cassette looks like a small pine cone, mine a stack of pancakes. His quads challenge the elasticity of his bibs, while mine fit comfortably.
In the first hour, I try to be him, matching his speed if not his massive, crushing cadence. By the end of that first hour, I ought to have learned the lesson of our otherness, but I am stubborn, nigh on pig-headed, and so I go on pretending I am him and he is me.
We are flying. This is a thing he can do, and I can pretend to do, but apparently not for more than an hour-and-a-half. This became clear as he disappeared up a hill in front of me, still turning a huge gear despite the incline. He drops me without noticing, nonchalant, oblivious. I am an apple core flung to the roadside. Maybe an animal will happen by and carry me off.
But he sits up on the descents and I catch back on, still clawing at the air for oxygen as he turns back to the road, puts his head down and yanks me through the air in front of him. We do this over and over, silent except for the sound of my rasping breath.
Later we catch on with a larger group, and I am glad to see him go off on his own with faster riders. And yet somehow I still don’t have the sense to be myself. I ride to the front of the slower set, bridge the gap to the front, and then I’m on the back of his group again. It makes sense to me in the moment, as though I am just doing what’s in my legs to do.
This goes well for about 10 miles.
Then I am the yo-yo, straining at the end of the string, the leaf blown from the tree, drifting alone in the wind, finally there in no-man’s land by myself. I think to sit up and wait for the shelter of the slower group, but I resign myself to own this loneliness, to learn the lessons of my many mistakes.
That’s when it first occurs to me that I am me, and he is him. Training will not make me him. Persistence will not make me him. Cleverness will not make me him. He could be anybody who is constitutionally stronger than I am. It doesn’t matter.
A headwind kicks up and I am just crawling against the steepness, taking it full in the face. I concentrate only on moving forward. I question why I ride bikes. What business do I have even being here? I deserve to be alone (this much is true). A half-an-hour of slow pedaling and dark thinking pass in what feels like two hours.
And then he is behind me again suddenly, yelling a cheerful greeting that scares me very nearly off the shoulder of the road. They have taken a wrong turn, looped up and around and back onto the route, and they are with me again. I smile and curse my luck but resolve not to follow them again, to let them go and simply get back to my hard, lonely work.
But it doesn’t go that way. Apparently, I am not the only one who is not him. Two from the lead group have cracked, and they sit in with me, and we shamble onwards. Shamefully, I am buoyed by their suffering, and as I choke down synthetic calories and finish my water bottles I begin to rally.
I am still not him, but finally being me is not as painful as it has been. We all ride together to the end, some of us more happily than others. And then we’re eating cheeseburgers directly from the grill, swilling sugary sodas. The smell of hops takes the air. Feet go up.
The second group shows up an hour later, and by then I am mainly human again. We swap stories of suffering and joy. After the ride, we are all each other, and I suppose this is what’s important.
I typically confuse actions with feelings. I say, “Man, I’d love to go for a ride right now,” or “I really need to sit down and do some writing,” but what I really mean is that there are feelings I want to have, brain states that frighten and soothe. I want flow, and I want progress, and I want forward movement that mostly lives inside me and only looks like moving through the world, sometimes on a bike, sometimes at a keyboard, sometimes not moving at all.
I want that bursting sense of possibility I get when I hammer out of the driveway and up the slight rise at the end of the road, the launch of a new ride and its palpable feeling of freedom, of escape, a buzzing in my guts as adrenalin collides with serotonin up in the old brain box. I fairly sprint for the top of the hill, the faster to get out into the world.
The first minutes, fingers to keyboard can be the same, escaping into my thoughts, spewing pre-formed phrases out onto the screen, bits of language that have been tumbling around temporally for hours and days. Sprinting to get them all out before the flow falters, before the dependent clauses dangle off the ends of their sentences and break, like a slipping chain, like a mental mis-shift.
I want to feel the desperate equilibrium of a long climb, the way head and lungs strike their fragile bargain, teetering there between capacity and rhythm, hovering in that magical place where I can’t seem to do more and can’t seem to do less, legs screaming but not loud enough to be heard, breathing heavy but not too heavy to lift, every track beneath my train of thought fully occupied by forward movement, and everything melts away but the climbing, the up.
I want that well worn spot at the end of the couch and a book in my hand and coffee cup perched there beneath the lamp, the clock’s ticking inaudible and unimportant, nowhere to be but fully inhabiting the ideas bound in ink and paper, racing through the pages, synapses singing, warm and wholly calm, every minute a moment and every hour an eternity at the same time. Timeless. Mental.
The frenetic moments off the front of the ride/race/ramble, when I marvel at my strength, wonder what I should do next, doubt it will last. All of it thrilling, even when it ends, like a solar flare of energy, accidental and necessary.
Or the post-ride feed. Sitting around a table with friends, cups steaming or ice jumbling against sugary salvation, the food arrayed before us like a trophy cabinet, and the inquest begins. Everyone did either more or less than they actually did, as suits their ego and the careful arrangements among friends. The mind capers in triumph at having done something worth doing, at having earned the reward.
Action and feeling are inseparable, the one leading to the other and back again in a tight loop of motivation and energy, and the cruel truth is that the same actions don’t always lead to the same feelings. The recipe is never so neat and easy. The rabbit is not always to be found in the hat, but sometimes only out in front of us, hovering in the mind’s eye just out of reach, and each of us a greyhound at the track, loping madly in circles.
Image: Matt O’Keefe