Every few years I get invited to contribute to the Rouleur Photo Annual, and since I don’t even know which part of a camera is the handlebar I just go ahead and write something and the editors put it next to someone’s pictures. This year I got to write for Taz Darling’s photos. Looking at them, I was struck by how Taz never goes for the shot you’re supposed to get — the decisive moment or the race-winning break or foreground the triumphant visage of the conqueror while background the vanquished weeps. Taz shoots, as I said in my essay, like the best jazz musicians play: with great attention to the spaces between the notes. If you don’t respect and appreciate the spaces you don’t fully experience the song. Or the bike race. And that’s what I wrote about.
A few summers ago I was basting my lungs in carbon dioxide in an open criterium — an unlikely event that sees aspirants such as myself line up with pros and national- and world-champs — when a massive slab of a man decided to have an early dig. It was Stefan Steinweg, a three-time track world champion and Olympic gold medalist, and he did not so much attack as rumble off the front one mile-per-hour faster than the group, then in a few more pedal strokes two-miles-per-hour faster, then three, then four and five and six and on up to a speed that crumpled in the legs of the few optimistic chasers as surely as if he were smashing their knees with a crowbar.
By the time the other stars of the pack got themselves scared enough and angry enough and chagrined enough to get organized, Steinweg had maybe a football field’s lead. I sat myself close enough to the fire to get singed but not incinerated, the absolute front of the middle, and for the first few minutes I watched Steinweg simply keep riding away from a rotating paceline that included another Olympic gold medalist, at least two national champions, five or six pros and a couple hotshot juniors. I was pretty sure that not only was the pack not going to catch Steinweg but that, on a one-mile-course, he was going to ride all the way around and lap us. Then the chase started blowing up, flinging its weak out to the sides where they flailed in misery as we streamed past, and the whole race went single-file and simply to survive I shrunk my entire awareness to three thoughts:
Stay on the wheel. Get to the next wheel. Pedal circles.
Now stay on the wheel. Pedal circles you must pedal circles. Get to that goddamn wheel. Stay on the wheel. And the wheels became those of riders who exceeded me in skill, class, potential, genetics, training. Over and over and over, those three notes drumming through my head, primitive and pounding, allowed me to hang on way past the point at which I belonged anymore.
Stay on the wheel —
I remember what happened next as a stillness but it could not have been so. The wind was screaming with our velocity, and our chains were humming and our wheels were keening and we ourselves were heaving great loud breaths out onto the course. But there was a space between the notes that the race was imposing on me, and without knowing why or what I was doing I cocked my head as if to listen to the space. I heard nothing.
And that nothing seemed to mean everything so I rose from the saddle and slashed out to the side and dumped my chain the one last cog down to the end of the cassette and pulled at my pedals as if I were trying to upend my bike and by the time I popped out ahead of the pack I was going at my max, my full speed, the fullest speed I ever could attain under my own power and just as I went clear Steinweg went by me in a whooshing blur. He’d lapped us and ridden right through the group and somehow I’d anticipated it.
His training partner had grabbed his wheel, a six-day racer named Chris Grasmann and they were gone, past me, unreachable, but I was also gone and past, unreachable by the pack and to my astonishment there was the line we’d all been riding for and I rolled over it to complete what must be the weirdest top three in cycling history:
1. Steinweg (3 world championships, 1 Olympic gold medal)
2. Grasmann (6-day racer with multiple victories in Europe)
3. Strickland (once won coupon for free cheeseburger)
That’s what the judges saw, and my wife and a friend or two, plus the few spectators who might have recognized me because I was a local. That’s the part they still sometimes ask me about. That’s the moment that would have showed up in most photographs, had anyone cared enough about the race to shoot it.
But the space was where it happened. That’s also where some of the great photographers do some of their best work. And racers, too. Next time you’re deep in it — whether you’re going against Stefan Steinweg or a barking dog or the timing of the stoplights on a long stretch of city street — try listening to the spaces, living in them, letting them take you somewhere the notes can’t.
Originally published in Rouleur Photography Annual 2009