At our core, we are believers. To be a cyclist is to know the way the world goes wrong. Flatted tires, lost skin, sudden showers, nervous groups, malicious drivers, there is an ever-growing list of risks you can claim as intimate. Each threat is a variable you plug into the risk calculus that might tick out, “Stay at home.”
It’s not as if we forget. But the doing gives us little time to think. At the top of a descent we might suggest to others or ourselves to be careful as we drop. But on descent we shift from awareness to is, evaluating only the line itself, not how things could go wrong. Little else can make us as nervous as thinking about a touch of wheels transforming the pack into yard sale. Funny how safety isn’t awareness of the thing itself, but rather awareness of the shifting electron cloud of wheels. It’s the is that is.
Of all the activities we regularly undertake, the one requiring the greatest physical skill is arguably pack riding. Race or not, 80 warm bodies occupying the same amount of space as a nightclub—only moving at 30 mph—takes trust to the point of absurd; to non-cyclists, we might as well profess a belief in the Great Pumpkin. We trust those around us to maintain their line, to accelerate on schedule, to brake no sooner or harder than utterly necessary. And given that unlike a freeway, anyone can show up for a ride without so much as a test, we’re putting our trust in the unproven in a way we wouldn’t accept among cars and drivers, even with the addition of airbags.
But no amount of awareness can prevent all accidents. Sooner or later we all go down. That’s not the mystery. This is: We persist. The recovery is ugly. From bandages to range of motion, it is work as true as the training itself. It lacks the cool of riding—no team gear, no screaming crowds, no finish line—which is why in its solitude, recovery is totally PRO.
Honestly, statistics are no match for the fear that moulders. Those spores can poison more than just one ride or one road. The saddle itself can become a minefield leading us to washouts, flats and T-bones that never materialize. To get back on the bike we must make a mental leap—everything will be fine.
Sooner or later we throw a leg back over the saddle. Maybe we ride alone at first. Maybe left turns feel trickier than right. Maybe we pick back roads for a week or two. But that timid heart gives way to our old self and we head back to the group. We continue to believe that the rides and races go well more often than not, that the good days outnumber and overwhelm the bad.
But our faith is greater than knowing most days turn out well. Faith is the knowledge that all of the days—good, bad and dripping—add up to something more, a meaning, one we’re left to make sense of on our own. That answer gives the sunniest days a luster, the darkest days warmth and our final days a reassurance that we played with all our heart.
Any time I travel I do what I can to find a way to ride a bicycle. It may be one ride, or it may be four, but I won’t feel like I’ve explored a place properly until I have managed to ride a bicycle around whatever town I’m in.
My father’s family is from the Gulf Coast. I’ve been visiting New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi and Mobile since before I could speak. In the more than 20 years I’ve been a cyclist I had never ridden in any of these communities with the exception of one ride on the outskirts of Mobile in 1996.
With the help of a friend, I lined up a bike and got in a number of rides in New Orleans and Gulfport. It was on the final day of my trip that I set out to join the morning group ride in New Orleans that heads west on the levee bike path.
Of course, the Fates had other plans for me.
My chosen route is less than stellar and adds an extra half mile to my commute, and while I don’t object to bonus miles (who does?), my timeline is compressed due to oversleeping by a whopping eight minutes. My perfect timing is looking less and less perfect. Then it starts raining.
Every other day of my trip the rain holds off until after lunch. I wouldn’t care—I probably would even enjoy it—but my concerns for the camera hanging on my shoulder force me to pull over at a gas station for a plastic bag which I wrap around the camera before tucking it into my pocket.
I get to the bike path and start hammering. I have no idea how fast the group is or to what degree my effort will be futile. My hope is to get to the turnaround point and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be stopped and hanging out for a moment’s recovery before heading back.
I eventually ride out of the rain and just as I consider checking the time and mileage to gauge my distance from the turnaround, I see the group ahead on their return. A slight bend gives me some sense of their speed (hammerfest) and size (15-16 and shrinking). I see two guys weigh anchor just before I begin to slow down.
I stay to the right of the eight-foot path, and the lead rider puts out the call to let the group know a rider is up; they skinny and we pass each other comfortably. I hit the brakes, downshift, bang a U-turn and dig in. Instantly, the gap to the group is 60 feet.
Now, I could have turned around before they reached me and started to accelerate so that by the time the last guy passes me I am doing at least 25 mph. But while I’ve never discussed this with anyone, such a tactic seems tantamount to sitting out a lap in a training crit and then jumping back in. Definitely not PRO.
So it let them pass and give chase. Now, on my own bike at home this would have been plenty difficult, but my situation is a bit more complicated. I am on a borrowed bike. A travel bike. With 24-inch wheels. And a flat bar.
To recap: I’m in full team kit on a bike that probably wasn’t really intended for its current use, don’t look remotely PRO, trying to catch a good-sized group that is currently turning strong riders into exhaust.
What on earth am I thinking?
Turns out I was oddly suited to the bike. I ran out of gears at exactly the point I ran out of strength. a 52×12 can be turned over at about 29.5 mph, or at least, that’s what I think I saw as the distance to the group finally began to shrink.
A guy playing goal tender turns around to check what is behind. I doubt he expects what he sees. I assume his worst case scenario is to behold someone on aero bars gradually clawing his way back, meter by painful meter.
What he does see—I can assure you—is one of the stranger things he’ll see this year. Some 880-1408 heartbeats later (I’m a little rough on just how many because my heartrate was 176 and it was about five to eight seconds later), he looks back again and this time I am bigger. We repeat this routine twice more and then something wonderful happens.
But first, I must digress. If I was on one of my group rides, doing what group rides are meant to do (go fast until it hurts) and I looked back and saw some interloper trying to chase my group down while riding a bike that clearly didn’t fit the bill, I can tell you one of the things that would go through my head—go to the front and hammer. I don’t mean attack my group, but slither up to the front and gradually torque the pace up in such a way as to incite the boys into inflicting even greater pain on each other, and in so doing, open the gap to the interloper back up. Yes, I’ve been that guy from time to time.
I pull to within 15 feet of the group—close enough to think I’ve got them, but still too far to taste their draft. My legs are beyond painful; I’m on the bubble and wondering if I’m going to make it across and thinking that if I don’t find something deep down inside to finish this off, I’m going to look quite the fool. And then it happens. The goal tender begins to soft pedal and backs out of the group.
I make the catch when the gap from him to the group is about eight feet. He gives a little glance and then eases on the gas ever so slightly. A couple of seconds later we are in. The subtlety of his move is unspeakably PRO.
My excitement to make the catch is completely overshadowed by my admiration for this guy’s generosity. He doesn’t know me and my bike is clearly out of the norm, so he has no duty to me, but something in my effort speaks to him enough that he decides to lend a hand in an unspoken fellowship of the road.
His effort is subtle, artful, even and to me speaks volumes about experience picked up racing. His speed varies by only a mile per hour, making his move an unremarkable effort, but it makes all the difference in the world to me.
He waits a couple of minutes and then begins making his way up through the group and I follow him. He pauses for a few pedal strokes when he reaches the front and then turns on the gas just as subtly as he had before, but this time he goes much deeper: 26, 26.5, 27, 27.5 and then my unrecovered legs blow while he and three guys on his wheel pull away from the dozen or so left in the group.
I’ve been trying to read his jersey and memorize the club. There is a big “AR”—Alison-something Racing. There needs to be a study on what lactic acid does not to muscles, but the mind.
Watching him ride away bugs me less for getting dropped than for the fact that I’ll never get a chance to talk to him. Scratch that. I don’t want to talk to him, I want to buy him a beer. He may forget the effort, but I can assure you, I’ll remember it for as long as I ride.