Awhile back, Mr. Richard Sachs invited me to be part of something he calls Smoked Out, which is, it seems to me, simply a place where people who create things involving bicycles can meet and talk to others like them. You have to introduce yourself when you join. This one has no title, but I always thought of it as “The Unimaginable Unfathomable.”
Action is character, according to a guy named Francis who is dead and who I never knew but, from all I hear and read, was pretty rotten at life except for just a few things, one of which was writing beautifully. He looked good in a Brooks Brothers suit, too. Despite my regard for his writing, I don’t get the Brooks Brothers but I do entertain the possibility that those who do might know things of which I am and perhaps will remain ignorant. That’s an action, right there, in that sentence, but it’s no kind of writing at all.
Another guy, one who was much better at life, William, he said, “No ideas but in things.” There’s a red wheelbarrow that could prove it out, but I have no chickens. Never did. Had three goats for awhile. Walt was more to their taste. There is no accounting for the appetites of ruminants. They ate his poems up whenever I forgot to latch the shed where I kept his book on top of mixed feed. They got this in their teeth one morning: “Of the terrible doubt of appearances/ Of the uncertainty, after all, that we may be deluded/. . . May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters, /The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions and the real something has yet to be known/. . . When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,/ Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further.” Their heads are hard.
One time, so a story goes, someone asked this other guy, Al, who was a howling prophet, how to become a prophet, and he said, “Tell your secrets.” Asked for his secret one day, a guy named Edouard said, “Ride lots.” I have failed too much where each of these men have succeeded much.
Beckett says to fail better.
Failing even that, try again.
I wrote a whole book in that way about living in that way. There are a couple scenes, a hundred pages apart, that don’t tell the whole story but tell enough.
. . . Alaric Gayfer had been standing in the grassy infield of the velodrome when I showed up for the first day of an instructional program I’d signed up for—a kind of regular-people-give-these-funny-bikes-a-try introductory class. He was in his late thirties, already retired from pro racing, and into his second or third career as a coach. Under coarse yellow hair and a big-featured face, he carried a low center of gravity thanks to boulderlike glutes and thighs, so that he seemed much shorter than he was. He wore no special jacket, no whistle or clipboard or anything else that would identify him as the instructor, yet he was instantly recognizable as our leader.
There were maybe ten of us—some promising juniors, including a 12- or 13-year-old girl with national-class and perhaps world-class talent, a couple of guys like me in their late 20s or early 30s, a retired racer trying to lose some weight (whom Alaric would quickly nickname Suds, which meant he could clean the track with us), and a few others scattered across ages and abilities and ambitions. We stood before him in a half circle. . .We began with the basics—learning to strap our feet into the pedals, getting used to how the non-coasting rear wheel would of its own momentum push the pedals around once you’d started it rolling, figuring out how to apply back-pressure to slow the bike. Then he coaxed us into whispering our front wheels up to within an inch of the rear wheel ahead of us, showed us how to safely dive down the steep banking of the velodrome, reminded us over and over to pull back on the handlebar instead of pushing down in a sprint, and to pass cyclists in one quick and decisive move—not, he said, as if we wanted to wrestle with them but as if we were stabbing them. Near the end of the summer, he began organizing us into little groups so we could try out the strategies and tactics real racers used.
While we spun around the velodrome, he’d stand in the infield, shuffling in circles to keep an eye on us while yelling instructions: “Suudddsss – nowww!”
Out in turn four, Suds would know exactly what to do, springing off the 13-year-old girl’s wheel to cross the finish five bike lengths clear, for a victory that embarrassed him and disappointed her. Alaric would begin walking toward the finish line, giving one short wave of his hand to the girl. She would roll over to him. He’d grab her shoulder, lean in, and give quiet, wise advice. Next time she would finish only four bike lengths back.
Sometimes he would yell at me: “Biilll—”
But I could never tell if the second part of his command was “Gooo nooww,” or “Go downnnn,” or even “Not nowww!” So I’d pick something to do—abandon the sheltering draft of Suds’s wheel and wrestle around him for 200 feet, so that at the line I could lose by four bike lengths to him and three bike lengths to the Princess of Genetics.
I’d take a recovery lap, rasping and blind. Still standing in the infield, Alaric would yell, “Biilll, wot ’appened?”
I’d replay the race in my head, then gasp something like, “I came around Suds on the far straight, but got caught by both of them.” My voice would be barely audible; I almost could not hear myself. Even so, Alaric would scream, “Whyyyyy?”
I’d analyze the action as rigorously as I could. “Uh—I guess that—because I went too early to hold them off?”
Alaric would scream, “Whyyyyy?”
“Because maybe—I thought I was faster.”
Everyone on the track, our class and the pro racers there to practice, could hear this.
“Because,” I’d say, “I thought–”
“I don’t know, Alaric. I don’t know.”
I’d be back at the finish line. Alaric would give a short wave of his arm, and the future female champion would roll over to him. He’d grab her shoulder, lean in, and give his wise, quiet advice. . . .
. . . At the last class of the summer, Alaric wanted us to try a race called the miss-and-out; at the end of each lap, the last person to cross the finish line is pulled from the track. There were seven pros and top-level amateurs doing some training there that day, and Alaric put them on the track with us to keep the speed high and smooth—safer.
“You’ll kill your bloody selves, won’t you, if I let you miss-and-out alone,” he said.
One by one our class dropped out. On the ninth lap, I came around the gifted young Princess from two bike lengths back to put her out. On the tenth, I beat the ex-racer Suds by no more than the width of a tire. It was me and seven real racers circling the track. I would be the next one out: Eighth place.
I finished third.
I smiled, dying, all the way around my recovery lap, and when I got near the finish, Alaric gave a short wave of his arm. I rolled in his direction and he walked toward me. When I was near enough, he grabbed my shoulder and leaned in. He rested his forehead against mine and kind of rolled it back and forth, as if we were bears.
He whispered, but like his speaking voice, it was a big whisper, one that filled the area bounded by our heads and arms. “I need you to think hard on something for me, Bill.” He paused, and though not long, it, too, was big and heavy. “Why is it that you ride better when you’re about to lose than when you’re about to win?”
I love bicycles for some reason, and bicycling even more (the same unknowable reasons any of you do, most likely), so the stories I tell seem to almost always happen on a ride or after or before. I am just about sure I must be aiming toward something I cannot imagine let alone fathom, so I focus instead on the small accomplishment of finishing a story. In this, you can, eventually, bring to bear some craft, and get to know which tools to pack for a job, and on tricky bits try some technique you picked up on your own or from a friend. Sometimes it feels like art. Mostly, you get through it. You know stuff about it nobody else does, what happened inside it, what was cast out, what was resurrected. There is some private and intractable satisfaction in that.
I need to be paid, too. This is my profession, telling stories. I work at the largest cycling publication in the world, the largest one there has ever been. Three or four times a year, we have to explain how to change a flat. We tell people they don’t need underwear with bike shorts. We remind them how to take off the left pedal. I think this stuff is important. I think it aims toward the same unimaginable and unfathomable something as any of the other words I string together. I remember riding cobbles with Johan Museeuw. But I also remember when I didn’t know which way to turn the barrel adjuster.
I ride with cyclists who, when I look around the pack and see them and see them expecting me to be there with them, remind me I should not be there with them by any measure except the desire for the unimaginable unfathomable. They have their private and intractable satisfactions. Maybe that is what I’m aiming for: the commonality of our differences, all of us, and all of the differences.
Small clock. If your chain is having troubling shifting to the smaller cogs, you turn the barrel adjuster clockwise. That is how you remember when your bike and your brain are rattled from riding cobbles with Johan Museeuw.
Alaric is dead. I ride to his grave sometimes. Some of those sometimes I write about it. I use action and things. I tell my secrets. But I never get past the words to the silence that requires nothing further. Jack Simes said to me once after a race: “Amazing different complexity of the human element mixed with a gadget. Hard or impossible to make sense out of it, sometimes. I guess that’s what the finish line is for.”