The day after this one posted, I ended up next to the Animal on a ride, and while we talked he said one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said about my writing: “It’s nice to have someone around who can put all these things I feel into words.”
For once, as we huddled against the sun-warmed brick wall or sat stoically straddling our bikes farther out in the parking lot and exposed to the wind, waiting like we do every weekday for the lunch ride to assemble, it felt as cold at the loading dock as Accuweather had warned: 17.
I had one foot clicked in, one planted on the ground, arms propped casually over the handlebar. I was wearing $270 winter tights, the $160, three-piece Assos winter glove system, and a skullcap spun from extra-fine Merino wool. The Animal was sitting on the asphalt, knees pulled up against his chest, back against the brick wall, bike leaning there next to him. He was wearing chunky, thick-fingered gray cheapo-fleecy fake-woolie gloves with a big label across the wrist: Old Navy. His leg warmers were more pilled up than a mid-‘90s Pro Tour team. On his head, a loading-dock-issue watch cap. Maybe it was blue, maybe it was black. Maybe no one alive could remember what color it had ever been.
You know where this is going, and when I started that ride I thought I did, too, but it turns out that this isn’t one of those tired old stories about how equipment doesn’t make the rider. It doesn’t — but we all know that.
What’s different, and interesting, and makes me feel good about cycling, is that the really good riders — the ones who, like the Animal, have ridden so deep into the sport that they have in a way become it — they just don’t care.
And they don’t not care in that way that’s little more than aggression or arrogance masked as indifference. We all know, or have encountered, cyclists who ride old or unremarkable gear and derive immense satisfaction from passing someone in full Castelli kit and a shiny $7,000 bike, as if they’ve taken it to the man, or pulled off a stunning guerilla attack in the class war. Hubris is hubris, whether it arises from your tax bracket or your VO2 max.
We rolled out into the wind, the Animal and I at the front, feeling short of breath from the cold every time we took a breath, our eyes watering, nostrils crinkling. Ryan was back there in our pack for the first time this year, in full-team regalia including a brand-new matching-color-scheme Ridley, and Beth had made it even though she’d had to borrow an old, heavy wheel to get there, and Matt on his ‘92 lugged steel Raleigh, and some of us had special gloves and boots that cost more than some of the others had paid for their bikes, and some of us were in tights and jerseys that could have been described as tattered two or three seasons ago.
With pack intuition we spun out away from Emmaus jointly ignoring the town signs and stayed together all the way up and down Mountain Road and, when we got to the turn for the Hemphill KOM, Brian and Hans attacked. I jumped onto them then between them, and Ryan took my wheel and I looked back and saw that the Animal had been talking at the base and was way back. The slope flattens just before the left curving kicker to the top, and I was pretty sure Ryan didn’t know the road so I stayed on top of the gear then leapt out of the saddle and threw my bike from side to side and peeked back between my left bicep and chest, and there was the Animal coming hard.
I had one effort left, and it was enough.
On the way home, the Animal took the Bulldog Sprint — the meaningless crown jewel of the lunch ride we all kill ourselves to try to win. He got the first of the Trinity, three closely spaced town signs right at the end, and in between he’d come all the way from the back, starting deliberately late, to nearly nip the Fastest Man in Emmaus for another town sign. He didn’t care that the Fastest Man in Emmaus is not the fastest, nor lives in Emmaus. He didn’t care that Christoo got into the sport as a downhill mountain biker. He didn’t care how much my clothes cost. He just wanted to beat us. And, whether by circumstance or inattention, when one of us regular people had a chance to finish ahead of him, he wanted to make sure we had to ride as hard as we possibly could to do so.
That’s the price you have to pay to be a cyclist in the way I admire and aspire to: that willingness, which has no cost yet outlasts any tire or wheel or glove or cap or even frame.
Originally published in the January 25, 2008 Sitting In