You just never know . . . for some reason that paragraph toward the end, “all around us sometimes . . .” meant something to a bunch of people, who sent me private emails saying yes, or thanks, or they’re finding that out now, or, in one case, why? Wish I knew.
Steak just stopped by my office to tell me about the Thursday Night Crit, the last one of the year, full of attacks and chases and suicide sprints and the mandatory puzzling sit-ups, a good one with the pack strung out but refusing to break, one of the best it sounds like, even in October right up there with the burners of summer. Road season’s over here in the Valley now.
It got away from me this year. I only made it to three or four Thursdays, and didn’t get to a single other road race. A pretty good percentage of the people who were slower than me last season are giving me drafts these days. I can’t latch onto the good guys and get dragged into a decent place in the sprints anymore. I can’t jump across gaps on hills. I love riding my bike.
Dumb, huh? I mean, I know I’m supposed to have more fun when I ride great, when I win or at least podium, or score points, or finish the hard rides up among the royalty. But it doesn’t work that way for me.
I keep thinking back to one of the crits I did make, early August, the pack lined out and wriggling mad like some kind of fantastic worm driven by instinct more than judgment to burrow straight into a mountainside made of wind as hard as any rock. There were dark clouds closing out the blue sky above us, puffy black clouds not like foreboding signs of a storm but something more unsettling, as if the cumulus had lost a fight and gotten a black eye. That sky — I think of it as bruised.
I was sitting my wheel up between two riders, in the space just behind the blurred circling of their cranks, overlapping each of their rear wheels in the gap that Bicycling magazine warns readers to never occupy but which is a great place to be in a race — there is no better draft, and if they came closer together they’d bump shoulders or handlebars before one of their wheels got close to mine. Both riders were horsing through every pedal stroke, turning the cranks not only with their legs but with their backs and arms and shoulders and that useless but somehow necessary bobbing motion of their heads. I was, on and off, coasting.
We were just about done with what would turn out to be a 32-mph lap of the 30-circuit, 30-mile race. I remember that I’d lost count of how many times we’d gone around the course, or how many sprints we’d done, but I sensed that we had to be almost finished, and just as I thought that we screamed past the lap counter and the number there said 15.
Work had been sketchy for the past two months, and at home it was one of those times when Beth and I were more living together than anything, and our yard was a mess, and I hadn’t washed my car all summer, and someone had stolen two of the tire lockdowns off the roof rack, and just that afternoon when I’d gone out and bought deodorant I inadvertently got not the invisible one but the white kind — the kind that ends up making a mark if you’re not careful pulling your shirt on – and for so damn long it had kept on raining when I wanted to ride, and when I didn’t want to ride it had kept on being sunny and perfect.
For all those reasons and all of the other ones I couldn’t think of, I coasted my wheel back out of the gap and looked over my left shoulder and flicked my head that way to let the rider behind me know I was coming over, and I slipped out of the side of the pack and put my head down and pedaled to the front, all the way to the front until I was pulling the race behind me. Someone in red attacked from the right and I chased and latched onto the wheel and as soon as I got there he did the smart thing and pulled off — to save his energy so he could have a shot at scoring points — and I went ahead and pulled some more because I wanted to. That’s all: I just wanted to.
I blew up, of course. I dropped back, and Jorge, who was sitting front-middle to set up for the sprint, opened a hole for me and yelled “In! In!” as I started to drift past, and I listened to him because there was no other voice in my head to listen to. I hurt, and I heaved, and I stopped hearing even his voice, but I stayed there, doing nothing special but riding my bike in a pack of bike racers on a moody summer evening.
One of the best moments of my life.
Is my life that empty? Or is the sport that full? Something in between, I’d guess (and hope).
All around us, it seems sometimes, at any moment marriages might fail and careers can explode and reputations crack apart and happiness withers, and most of the misery happens, I think, because we humans are so adept at tricking ourselves into making terrible mistakes in pursuit of a moment of pleasure.
All around us in a pack, people have a chance to live at least for the duration of the ride suffused with the sensation of joy in what has to be nearly its simplest and purest form.
A few times in my life, I’ve gone home from a race with a medal, or a coupon for a local restaurant, or a shirt or a waterbottle or, once, twenty bucks. I like to win. But I love to ride — and I take that home after every race, after every shop ride, after every lunch ride, every 5 a.m. solo in the fog. I take it with me everywhere I go, and that’s the only result that really matters to me right now.
Originally published in the Oct 3, 2008 Sitting In