I think the first paragraph of this gets closer than usual to a lot of the things I’m after in terms of rhythm and description, scene-setting, word choice and a sort of open end to the paragraph that still feels, to me, anyway, like its own little ending.
The stretch of Sauerkraut Road that goes through the new development had been so recently paved that we could feel its sticky heat on our bare legs, and the acrid sulphury smell of fresh black asphalt filled our noses with its wasabi-worthy pungency. And up there ahead, sure enough, there were two or three big, battered trucks all spattered with black flecks, and a guy in an orange vest. He was holding, American Gothic style, a poled sign stenciled with the word that, when seen in any roadside context by a cyclist, is most commonly read as a welcome excuse, or as a good suggestion for how to spend another perfect couple hours, or as a condemnation: Slow.
Today, it reminded us to keep the group together on this ever-so-slightly uphill grade that is the longish preamble to our lunch ride. If the fastest of us rode deliberately and attentively easy, and the slowest of us maintained an intensity just a flicker into uncomfortable and concentrated on drafting, all 14 of us would reach the meat of the ride together and be able to frolic as one entwining thing over its level roads for a good hour.
I was sitting on the front with Super Intern, and we were talking about the everything that is nothing that you talk about at that point on a ride, and as we held our arms out to the right to signal the turn onto Iris, both of us saw that the transition between the black velvet we were on and the old, gray pavement ahead was strewn solid with gravel. So we said, “Gravel,” and each put our inside hand down and flicked our fingers in circles to point out the offending pebbles to those behind us.
The group snaked around the turn in that beautiful slinky way that lets you know you’re in a line of bicycles with riders who mostly know what they’re doing, and Supe and I heard tires crunching gravel but no skids and we relaxed and looked through the next corner, and I said, “Of course we ride through gravel right after coating our tires with tar.”
And I reached down and, cupping my right hand around the hump of my front tire, skimmed the palm of my worn, black Pearl Izumi glove over the spinning surface. I felt three, four, five little hard nuggets of gravel peel off the tire and go bouncing down onto the road. One of them kicked back up and hit me on the hard, bony front part of my right leg.
I moved my hand back behind my legs and onto the seatstay, then looked ahead to make sure we had a clear road and, touching the stays and the seat tube as a guide to keep my hand from getting too far down and being sucked between the frame and wheel, I let my fingers and palm skim the rear tire.
A piece of gravel snagged against my glove, pulled loose from its tar bed and came off, pinging against the frame. Another. One more.
My finger felt something odd on the seat tube and I looked down and noticed the cut-out for the rear wheel, one of the things that made the Allez I was testing snappy on climbs, that tight rear triangle that made me feel as if the wheel was right there under my body. The curve of the tube there was artful and stirring, and without thinking much about it I knew I wanted my fingers to feel its arc, to run along its edge as a way to get a direct, tactile experience of its aesthetic rather than just looking it. So I moved my hand down, and touched the inside of the cut-out with two fingers, and the wheel grabbed my hand and yanked it down into the gap between it and the frame.
“Ow!” I said eloquently, as my hand compressed into the tiny space and I heard bones crackle. “Shit!” I said in summary of my situation.
The bike skidded, and with the one hand I had on the bar I steered left, trying to swerve as little as I could, and I dropped backward off the saddle to put weight on the rear to keep it from sliding out, and I shifted my hips left and then right and then back to the center, trying as hard as I could to keep the bike from getting sideways. And as I was doing all that I yanked at my hand as if it were a stubborn pull cord on a mower that had been sitting in the shed all winter.
My hand came out. I put it on the brake hood, and looked behind and to the right and saw that I hadn’t crashed anyone else, so I stood up and looped around and let the group pass and as I was that Brad, who’d been behind me, said, “Nice save.” And someone else said, “Is your hand okay?” Someone at the back said, “We’re all here,” and I realized that the people at the rear didn’t even know what had happened and thought I was coming back to make sure our perfect group ride hadn’t been spoiled on the uptick of the run-in.
I rode back up beside Supe and said, “That was stupid,” and he agreed with me.
Once upon a time, that would have been more than stupid for me. I wouldn’t have known how to react. And for a long time after I knew how to react, I wouldn’t have been able to do so quickly enough. The skid would have been a wreck and, if I hadn’t ended up ripping my shorts or rashing up my hips or even breaking a collarbone, I would have, at the least, disrupted the choreography of the group we’d worked so hard to maintain.
I would never jinx myself by claiming to possess any ability or instinct that keeps me out of crashes. I have immense respect for dumb luck. But at the same time, after more than a quarter-century of study at the altar of the bicycle, I can rightfully claim that I have become good enough to be stupid.
At a race the other night, my friend Andy bunnyhopped the guy who’d touched wheels and was going down in front of us. I just managed to swoop around the sliding bike, and when we got fifteen or twenty feet clear we took one quick look back and saw that cascading wave of colors that crashes over itself onto the pavement when about 30 people go down.
I looked over at Andy and grinned like a fool and said, “That was stupid.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”
Originally published in the May 21, 2007 Sitting In