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.
On a good day, you will find no reason to ride up Stella Road. It bends serpentine up and away from Pleasant Street, the top invisible from the bottom. It is steep enough as it twists up toward the tree line, that you need to go straight for your small ring rather than trying to work back up your cassette, short and sharp, like a punch in the nose.
At the top, you take a hard right onto Ernest Road, which is deeply rutted and potholed and only partially paved. Ernest also rises sharply before tipping over into a wide muddy free-for-all of a descent that requires staying back off the saddle, lest you find yourself burying a front wheel in a deep mud puddle and testing the more extreme effects of gravity on your fragile physiognomy.
Most days I choose Stella and Ernest as part of my way home.
In winter, our New England roadways get constricted by snow. Even with lights visible from outer space, I feel vulnerable in the heavy darkness. The headlights shear the night in two with a Dopplering whisper from behind. Safe cycling, or at least safe-feeling cycling, requires finding other ways home. Stella and Ernest are the other way, a crooked, rutted path that takes me out of harms way, if I can manage the climb and plunge with my meager handling skills.
I didn’t always do this, choose other ways. I used to just bull through by the most direct route. I was proud of my ability to take just enough lane to let cars know when not to pass me. I was pushy and fast, slaloming traffic when there wasn’t enough room on the right, pushing at the pedals to keep pace with traffic, taking chances when the reward didn’t justify the risk. Naturally, this led to some confrontation, some frank exchanges of views, some frantic hand gesturing, and in the end, a lot of anxiety I didn’t need.
I needed to find other ways of getting where I wanted to be.
It should not be a revelation to anyone that the bike is an ideal tool for exploring alternate routes. Stella and Ernest are but one way to traverse the relatively short distance between my home and office. There is another route that goes by an Audubon sanctuary. There is one that takes in two brief sections of rail trail. There is one that doubles my vertical gain.
Other ways are increasingly important to me. Between my way and the highway, there are a lot of other choices.
I seem to be out of that pig-headed young man part of my life, children and responsibilities and simple experience burring off my edges. I can accept a lot more bullshit than I used to. I can even, in the right light, appreciate some bullshit. This last represents, I think, some not insignificant personal growth.
Stella Road is bullshit, but suggests to me that there are many parts of my life in which finding other ways might make sense, other paths that, while initially steeper and more challenging, do a better job of getting me where I want to be.