I wanted to make the writing feel like the riding, which is maybe one reason it’s so messy. But I think it works here and there, and though the last paragraph is much flawed, I like how reading it feels.
Right at the first hint of rise Yozell happened to be on the front so he just stayed there tapping it out, steady and not yet hard, and Pearson was, I think, sort of floating off the side bobbing from front to middle and talking about something to someone. I didn’t want to be anywhere near them.
I haven’t been able to climb at all since I got back into town at the end of July. I covered the Giro and the Tour this year — doing it right with wine and long dinners — and before that I was following Lance around the world, with neither my bike nor the time to ride. For months I’ve been the last one up almost every hill every ride.
Stephanie went up beside Yozell and someone said “Car back,” and because Sweetwood is twisty we started singling up, somehow knowing without talking about it which of us should fall back and which should ease forward, and in that selfless strandmaking I slipped behind Goat and Pearson and watched as Yozell reached out to put a hand on Stephanie’s back and pushed her to the front so he could get in. She hasn’t been riding with us long. She accelerated, and because I found that funny I knew Goat and Pearson and Yozell and Acuramatt and Brad and Bart and Steak and the rest did, too, the rest who were still here, anyway. Already a couple people had let us go. We settled in to wait for her to blow up, and when she did four or five of us jigged around her and reshuffled and breathed and looked sideways at each other and sat behind Pearson and Yozell.
The two of them were going side by side, talking and turning the gear over with equal ease and it was the kind of ease that was already starting to put the rest of us down into ourselves. We were sniffling our noses and scooting around on our seats trying to find the right way to sit but there wasn’t going to be a right way today.
Sweetwood levels out a couple times, goes false flat once or twice and a few times looks for sure like it’s going to plateau but tips up after a fake summit or a deceptive corner. It never really kicks, which means that, unless it’s a day when by the same unthinking agreement that lined us up single-file we decide to climb it easy, the kick comes from the riders.
We sat behind Pearson and Yozell, and someone peeled off the back. Acuramatt maybe, maybe Steak. I didn’t look back. You can feel people get peeled off. It’s an awareness that must be made up of a sensory cumulation of nearly unnoticeable elements — the slightest change in the tenor as well as the overall level of noise, the smell of the wind where there once was sweat, an instantaneous revision in the arc of the flow of air around the group, a reshifting of shadows. There’s a surprising violence to it, as well — all the more so because though it is sudden it is silent — as if the rider actually was adhered onto something, and had been gripped by a larger force and bent outward until whatever had joined him to us gave way.
Someone else peeled, and I moved my hands off the tops and out onto the hoods and stretched my back and decided right then I was not going to peel. There was no way I could stay with these guys but I was going to make them kick me off. I don’t know why this mattered.
Somebody else came off. When it happens the group itself feels lighter, goes faster, as if we had been laboring under our combined weight and losing a rider was like losing fat and our power-to-weight ratio had improved. It has to be something subconscious, some instinct, or maybe some strategy far beyond my understanding of the sport. I looked over and Goat was next to me and I could feel maybe one person behind us, maybe no one and I realized I was starting to come to the end of my ability to realize things.
So I stuck myself to the wheel in front of me. My stroke was the only thing that felt right. My lungs felt as if they were being rubbed together in order to start a fire. My elbows were starting to go stiff, and inside my body cells were dying from a lack of oxygen or starvation at the molecular level, and tiny strings of tissue in the muscles of my legs were tearing apart and fraying, and chemicals were leeching into the spaces, and there was not enough air in the world suddenly and I got saved by my little finger.
The little finger of my right hand starting hurting, intensely, as if my body had figured out that, since I was ignoring the incineration of my chest and legs, some odd sort of pain was the only way to get my attention. It worked. I blinked and shook my head and flexed my elbows and repositioned my hands and settled in.
And Bart peeled off.
It was me and Goat behind Pearson and Yozell. Goat is fitter than me, and lighter and faster. I didn’t look over at him. I didn’t want to see him riding strong. I listened to my breaths and watched Yozell’s wheel and Pearson’s wheel and watched their calves lengthen and contract, and when they stood I stood and when they sat I stood awhile longer because I wanted to make it my ride as much as theirs. One of those times when I had stood too long and was sitting as I pushed my bike forward with a big pedal stroke on my way down, I felt Goat peel off.
Air rushed in beside me. Cool, fresh air carrying senseless but real triumph, impossible to explain, embarrassing to claim. I was on Sweetwood the way I used to be, only the good guys ahead, the whole rest of the lunch ride behind me. Yozell looked back and turned his head and said something to Paul I couldn’t hear, but I knew it was something about me being the only one left.
I said, “Fuck you guys,” because I was proud to be there and ashamed of being proud, but also because I knew they were going to start kicking now and what I meant to tell them was, okay let’s get to it then, and also, I’m going to surprise you by making the first few kicks, and finally I meant: You didn’t peel me off. I meant: You couldn’t peel me off. You’re going to kick me senseless in a few seconds here but you didn’t peel me, and I’m going to pay for this the rest of the ride no doubt, and tomorrow I won’t be any faster than I was yesterday but today I didn’t get peeled. So let’s ride.
Yozell kicked, and I cocked my head over and wrenched at the bike for five seconds and got onto the wheel and sat and tasted breakfast, tasted stomach, tasted a hot metallic nothing and waited for the next kick. A long string of snot had unreeled from my nose down past my knee, and my shoulders and the tops of my thighs were spattered with gummy mucous and my right eye wouldn’t stop twitching and I couldn’t wait for it to get worse. I couldn’t wait for my chance to get kicked out the back. It had been so long coming now.
Originally published in the October 30, 2009 Sitting In