In a two-word comment on the Bicycling website, one of my readers called this one “particularly baroque.”
Because we’re on a flat road and I’m sitting fifth in the double paceline, it doesn’t matter that I’m the heaviest I’ve been all season. And I’m trying hard to make sure it looks like it doesn’t matter. I’m breathing through my nose, the oxygen flowing in and out easy and light, one of those rare times when I’m on a bike without making an adversary out of air — how little of it I sometimes seem to be getting, or how impenetrable the wall of it is in front of me, or how hot it sears me as I squeeze it down into my lungs.
We’re descending the long, nearly imperceptible slope of Vera Cruz road as if we’re on sleds, and like rails on snow all around us comes that peculiar shushing sound tires sometimes give off. We are talking about our families and our weekends ahead and about what bikes we might buy and what rides we might do or just did, chattering side to side mostly but sometimes someone will shout something funny forward or back, up or down a rank of the paceline, and the sound of all of us is a constant but constantly changing hum.
It’s a Thursday, which we all know is the easiest lunch ride of the week because a few of us race later that night. I turn to Lisa on my right and I say, “This pace is great.”
Her cheeks are red, and she’s hacking out her breaths and chewing them up before she can swallow them back down, and she sort of tilts her head my way without really looking at me and rolls her eyes. For some of us, Thursday is not the easy day but the one day to show up and try to hang with the group that’s usually too fast.
I say, “I mean, it’s steady,” trying to cover up, trying probably too late to not be the guy who lords his ease over someone struggling, especially when he knows his ease is an illusion.
The front of the group chips up onto the little rise over the railroad tracks and the pace eases, the two riders up there doing exactly what they’re supposed to do on a Thursday, which is to cradle the pack rather than crush it.
“I meant, it’s smooth,” I say.
Lisa blows out some air and shakes her head, and we pedal on. After we kick up over the tracks we’ll climb a little more on a slope that just a month ago felt gentle to me, bending left then right to the sinuous descent where the whole pack hits 30 in the shade of the trees that have grown over the road from one side. On the other side of us, alternating with little country homes that somehow always look grim instead of charming, will be unmowed pasture running up the hill and browning in the last sunny days of summer.
As the tracks bump under my wheels, Lisa says, “Sorry.” She says, “Sorry, I’m not much of a talker.” She says, “This isn’t hard but it’s not easy.”
“I know,” I say, and I do know.
I am not fat, not at all, but I am fat for riding. Even on these little rollers I have to scoop my feet down into the pedal stroke a little harder than I am used to. My calves sting. My knees ache. Hell, my big toe hurts all of a sudden.
But I am sitting up with my hands loose on the bar and talking like everyone else about nothing with the pleasure you find in that on those days when nothing turns out to be your favorite subject, and I am laughing forward and backward as the chatter passes me, and I am waiting to look out from the shade over into those fields on a September noon. And I am breathing through my nose, except that now, even on this damn little bump, I have to open my mouth a little.
We ride on and down, and the air in the shade beside the pasture is velvety and chilled, full of grass and trees and fruit and sun and, I guess, us, all the rides we’ve done on all the spring and summer days the field has been growing. I breathe that air in through my nose and swirl it around my mouth and the back of my throat as if I’m tasting a wine that’s been opened for me at a fine restaurant. We ride, and little gaps start to open in front of us as the road undulates. I soft pedal sometimes to stay beside Lisa then coax her forward into the group with invisible transitions to higher speeds; sometimes I slide up and fill the gap so my body opens up a little stream of stillness for Lisa to come back to the group in.
I breathe through my nose even when no one is watching. Lisa gasps. Someone up ahead snorts, chokes. This is the easy ride, Thursday. JK tells about catching a fish. Swerve drops a hand and with his index finger points out potholes. Hans talks about his brother moving to Utah. I breathe.
There is one real climb on today’s ride, Second Street from Vera Cruz into Emmaus, the last mile up and down into town. We race it by tradition, always, even on a Thursday, and without knowing why, without planning to, I make the decision that when we get to Second Street I’m going to follow whoever wants to lead and sit behind them with my elbows loose and my hands resting on the top of the bar as if I haven’t even noticed the grade, until the third turn from the top where I’m going to shift up as I get out of the saddle and pop a surge into whatever group is left at that point. Then I’m going to shift down and sit and spin for about fifty strokes then jump again, and I think I can do that three or four times before the air becomes scalding in my body and starts to liquefy everything inside my chest. Then I’ll try to do it once more just to see if my heart can stay solid inside that fire, and whoever is going to win the race for the top should pass me at that point. I want to gasp with familiar surprise at the betrayal of my body and the indifference of gravity, and ride for a few seconds with my eyes shut tight against reality, and I want the sound of each hated, beloved breath to be all that I can hear. I want to be not much of a talker, because that is the truth about me right now.
We ride toward Second Street and I sit in the pack and I open my mouth and let the wind rush into me, and the smells of the group and the fields we pass and the road we roll over, and the sounds, too, and the light and maybe even all the colors of the day. I breathe it all in.
Originally published in the Sept 5, 2008 Sitting In