One of the things that appeals to me when it comes to writing about cycling is that a storytelling element that in many other instances is simply informational can usually be employed to enrich the tale, or at least add a little texture that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Nicknames like Swerve, and evocative real names like Slaughter (a last name) for some reason seem to be common in the sport. In fact, sometimes I need to cut back on the colorful names — calling the Animal by his real name, Paul, like I do here — to keep the narrative where I want it.
As we rode out those last few chilly days of 2007 and gathered afterward in the espresso-warmed sacristy of the bike shop, Swerve kept agitating for some kind of big New Year’s Day ride, something special to kick off the season, a deliberate gesture that would serve notice that we were committed and serious cyclists, tough types who rolled in like lions of Flanders and would never stop roaring.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess. Maybe. I don’t know what I’ll be doing.”
Though our little cycling community here in Emmaus is full of mountain bikers and crossers and trackies and a few messenger acolytes and a DUI rider or two plus assorted weirder types, we’re rooted in roadie culture and, like roadies all over, value tradition too much while having almost no use for ceremony. You know: Shave your legs because Fausto did, but don’t make a big deal about your first time.
At noon on New Year’s Eve the temp kept losing its balance to either side of freezing then righting itself, and there was just a spit of rain and snow, and the shaded parts of the roads were slushy. We sat in the shop ready to ride and someone suggested Vera Cruz, our go-to loop. Someone else wanted to climb. Pryor was there. He’s our spiritual flahute. He said, “What about Hollyberry?”
We’d done Hollyberry on New Year’s Day a few years back, and I’d carried a 375 of Taittinger in my jersey pocket and, right at the base of the mile-ish dirt-and-gravel climb, the six or seven of us had stopped and toasted each other, sometimes even remembering to swipe clean the mouth of the bottle between swigs.
“It would have been cool if we’d brought champagne today,” Beth said.
I said, “I guess we could ride by the liquor store on the way out,” and as I finished talking there was Taylor standing in front of us with a magnum of some bubbly swill he and Bowman had been secreting in the shop in the event, I guess, someone found themselves in dire need of champagne that tastes like cutting oil.
“It’s yours if you’ll drink it,” he said.
I told myself the magnum ended up being stuffed in my center jersey pocket because my upper body is so still and smooth when I climb, that I’m so souplesse, that I’m a master of form. But, really, I know, I’m the stupid one.
Selene was there, and Dave, who I’d barely ridden with all year, and Steve, who just started riding with us, and Brad who got fast, and Brian who’s doing double rides these days to come back from MRSA, and Beth and me and Ray, and it was the last ride of the year and even with the champagne it didn’t feel like anything special. It was just whoever could get out to meet at noon getting out to meet at noon. We drank the champagne. Snowflakes scrimmed in front of us, all white then transparent, then white again, and under a crust of ice the mud had melted a few inches down so our wheels sloshed around, and Ray got a flat at the top of Hollyberry, and we rode back to the shop. It had been a good ride.
The next day I had to take my mother to the airport so I missed the lunch ride. When I got home, Paul and Slaughter and Steve were there. They’d done the lunch ride and wanted to go out for a little more. I changed, and we rolled down my driveway and turned uphill and let our gearing get on top of us a little bit so that it would grind the cold out of our bodies, and at the crest we were warm just shy of that point where you sweat. I looked over at Slaughter. He was on a lugged steel Kellogg, ‘81 or ‘82 Shimano, cleats nailed to the soles of his perforated black leather shoes. I shook my head.
“What?” he said.
“You’re like a ghost,” I said. And that’s when I remembered it was New Year’s Day and I was out for a ride. Not a big ride. Not a special ride. Just one more ride. It was no big deal to us. We were riders. With good champagne, with bad champagne, with none at all, on the first day of the year or the last, riding was just the thing we did, and that was the best thing about it.
Originally published in the January 3, 2008 Sitting