There is so much to be written about cycling, all these details, all these vital moments and mannerisms and pieces of lore that get ignored because they don’t bang big. I’ve tried to get at some of these some small moments in the work I’ve done that reaches bigger audiences, but something always feels off.
We were doglegging our way out of Emmaus, turning right on the sidewalk leaving South Mountain Cycles into the bank parking lot then left onto the little paved alley with the barbershop, then right, peering over the parked cars for traffic but, like always, not sure there wasn’t something coming anyway, then left at the stop, and right and left through the side streets of town.
Whoever was in front called out “clear” as they rolled through a stop, or “got one right,” which meant the rest of us had time to cross but should watch, and the next riders through repeated the information and it traveled that way front to back. If we had to come to a clicked-out stop, the first couple riders said, “car right” or “car left.” You could sit there resting a thigh on your top tube and take a drink of water, or take the opportunity to wave your head forward so the person who’d been behind you would move up into your slot and you’d get a little farther back if you wanted, to delay your turn in the wind.
Not that it would do much good, we could tell, even from there in town. The wind was a swirl. It was going to be a headwind and a crosswind and a tail wind, and none of it would have much to do, it would seem, with which way we were riding. The wind didn’t seem malicious, but it sure seemed thoughtless.
We were almost out of town when Yozell peeled off alone and turned down his street and rode away from us. The rest of us, the seven or eight of us, rode on and the word traveled, from back to front this time, that we should go on but soft, tranquillo, because Yozell was just picking something up and would catch us. We rode on, car lefting and car righting and clearing, the words dropped in mid sentence like commas that gave our conversation pause but did not interrupt it.
Down the steep lefthander off the busy road that busts out of town, the group elongated, and some of us waved a flat palm out to one side to warn those behind of the gravel in the corner. Then we compacted on the uphill, and overlapped wheels knowing we were in turn probably being overlapped behind, and we reshuffled amid the clicks as each of us found the gear we wanted, and by the crest of the rise the shifts had stopped and the group had settled and the hill might never have existed.
Yozell rode up beside me on the left. He was holding out a folded tubular, and he said he’d brought me a present.
I was testing a bike with deep-dish carbon tubular rims, and I’d forgotten to bring a spare. “I have the world’s best multi-tool,” I said to Yozell. “A cellphone.”
“Yeah, but if you carry this, it guarantees you won’t get a flat.”
I reached back and emptied my leftmost jersey pocket, transferring a pack of SportBeans and my office swipe card to the right pocket, and took the tub from Yozell just as we reached the turn onto Sauerkraut Road. I sat up and reached with my right hand around my back to open my pocket and with my left tried to stuff the spare in. But I had my winter gloves on, so my touch was fumbly, and as I was digging at the pocket, the wind swirled and in a big burst sent my front wheel sailing. I pushed my hips against the wind then back and trapped the top tube between my knees and most of all made sure I didn’t panic and grab at the bar — you jerk your upper body like that and you’re going down. When the bike was steady, I put one hand on the bar, close to the stem, and rode on like that for a bit and let my heart yammer at me.
I think Yozell was laughing. He was at least amused. He said, “I didn’t see a thing.” He reached out with his right hand and curled a finger into my jersey pocket and pulled it yawing wide open, and I slipped the tire in. We were going down now, and the sound of clicking freewheels was all around us, and the gravel crunching under our tires, and at the stop sign the front riders said “clear,” and we rolled through and stood and pedaled against the short hill, and all this time I was telling Yozell about when I’d last almost gone down like that, catching the sleeve of my rainjacket in my rear wheel while unlayering a few years ago. My little stunt had inspired similar stories, and those floated around us. Then we were down the hill and through the nice left turn that feels like the nadir of a good wooden rollercoaster, then up onto the hill to the private school where a metal fixing on the flagpole rope always gongs against the pole in the wind. We talked about books we were reading, and a friend of ours who needs to ride more to get his life back. I kept a good hold on my bar.
In all of that, there was a remarkable moment that passed as if it were nothing more than any other moment. And maybe it is more remarkable, partly, because it was just one more moment: Yozell held my pocket open so I could put that tire in.
He just knew to do that. And I knew what he was doing, and neither of us blundered through it. He didn’t take the tire back and try to stuff it in my pocket on his own, and I didn’t need to prove that I could do it myself with no hands, nor did I wonder what that sideways pulling pressure on my jersey was. I knew what he was doing, and he knew what to do.
My favorite description for a group of riders is that we are a pack, more so than peloton, which is derived from the word platoon. To me, anyway, there is little that is military about a group of riders.
There is much, though, that is mysterious and wild and bloodthirsty, yet there is also so much natural order, so much cooperation — the humanity of wolves, I’ve heard it called. I love how we can hunt down a beast who is faster, tougher, stronger than any one of us but no match for our collective power. And I love the alpha roles, and the omegas, and the fights for primacy, and how, when we’re near the end and all starving for a victory, we will, finally, turn on each other. I love the sacrifices, too. How we feed each other. How we howl.
But also important for me is the connotation of shared behavior that comes with being part of a true pack, actions that occur at the level of instinct. It was an amazing and confounding thing that Yozell did. But it was completely ordinary and unmemorable, and on that day there were probably hundreds of similar behaviors, if not thousands over the course of the ride — finishing a pull at the front and swinging off, the Animal putting a hand on Pat’s back to give her a boost on the hill, when we drank, and when we drank in relation to each other’s drinking, and when we rode with our hands on the tops and when we needed them on the hoods near the brake levers, the shifts that happened all at once or the times when the sound of the changes lazily wended their way front to back, someone putting a hand on someone else’s shoulder to steady them both for a quick look backward. We belong to each other more than we ever think.
After an hour or so we rode back into Emmaus and our pack started breaking apart, in twos and threes, each group going its way until it would split into ones. At Yozell’s street I handed the tub back to him as we rolled and told him thanks, and he said it would be on the porch if I ever needed it again.
I said, “I know,” and I rode off.
Originally published in the March 5, 2010 Sitting In