Don’t like the pop-culture references in this one anymore, nor some of jokey tone stuff. But I keep it around because I like remembering how the end developed. I almost always write past the ending of my stories, then have to go back and cut words until I find where the things should actually finish. But I stopped this one too soon — right after the ride — and just couldn’t get the thing to work. After a couple days of useless revision I thought I might have to just kill this and try something else. Then for some reason I decided to try writing past my original ending for once.

On this Sunday’s Derby ride — the local weekly world championships, at which I somehow upgraded myself from the best guy of the worst group to the worst guy in the best group — there was an infinite 32-minute period in there during which I felt as if I were a flea giving birth to a gorilla. Probably breech. And perhaps twins.

That’s not some clever, twee writer’s technique of looking askew at the world, either. I really felt as if I were splitting apart from my sternum down to my ischial tuberosities. I don’t know why we cyclists keep riding when we feel like that. If another person caused us as much pain as we inflict on ourselves, jail time would be involved. Or a supporting role in Hostel 3.

After I got blown out of the back of the sprint, I was soft-pedaling beside Andy and Matt, and I said, “That was fun.”

“Yeah,” said Matt. “That was good.” A piece of his lung was stuck to one corner of his mouth. There’s no polite way to tell someone that.

Andy nodded, looking slightly bored, as if we’d just told him the sun would come up tomorrow. “Yeah,” he admitted. “Good ride.”

Sometimes, for some reason, cyclists just can’t confess when a ride has blown us to bits. We’re not, as a breed, averse to bragging about this or that ride’s difficulty — repeating the stories of our most harrowing days is one of the ways we give our local lore heft and permanence. And when we feign nonchalance about an asskicker it’s not like we’re fooling anyone, even ourselves. There’s no way Andy and Matt, riding beside me, could have not realized that I was about to bawl. You know that scene in Good Will Hunting when Mrs. Doubtfire tells Jason Bourne “it’s not your fault” over and over and over then hugs him and somehow that makes it okay for Matt Damon to leave his lifelong friend Ben Affleck so he can track down Minnie Driver (who I’ve always thought was approximately how hot Janeane Garofalo would look after six beers) and have more sex with her? That was the kind of release I needed: The winner of the Derby stopping at the line and clicking out and coming over to hug me and coo that, “Finishing 37th is not your fault.”

Instead, from inside the empty shells of our bodies, we agreed once more that the ride had been spectacularly jolly, then we split apart to make our separate ways home.

Sprezzatura, the Italians call it: the ability to make an exceedingly difficult feat appear to be easily accomplished. In the U.S., thanks to Hemingway, we think of this ideal as “grace under pressure.” I almost never embody that quality; often, on the toughest bike rides, I am too obliterated to even be aware of its existence. But I think sometimes despite or because of my exhaustion I can sense it up there just ahead of me, just out of reach, so close, that beautiful thing, up there in the possession and protection of the supple, spinning legs of the truly fine cyclists, and it is those times — to put it bluntly — that afterward I lie.

I rode home and hung up my bike in the garage and opened the door and stood in the laundry room, shaking. My face had disappeared under a coating of grit and dried puddle and liquefied horse shit. I put a hand out on the dryer to balance myself. Somehow my shoes were off, then I was standing in the kitchen.

Beth was fixing Natalie’s lunch, and she looked up at me, and started laughing. “You should see your face,” she said. Our daughter snapped her head up and fixated on me and said, “Daddy! What. Happened. To you?”

I looked at her for what felt like a long time but was probably only a second or two. She was watching me watch her. Her eyes were wide. Her mouth was open. I sniffled some snot back into my nose and, finally, I said, “I had a really great ride, Boo,” and I was no longer lying.


Originally published in the January 29, 2007 Sitting In<