I thought I’d never had a nickname. “Mr. Bill” hung around for awhile, in high school, but it never took. I was, for a few years and intermittently and only to a few people, “Wheel,” from my AOL screen name “wheeliam,” and that evolved into “wheels,” which evolved into nothing. After I wrote this, I recapped my brief nickname-less history to someone who reminded me that Bill is a nickname for William, which is my name.

Army Jay. Steak. Flask. Spago. Action. Fast Brad and Slow Brad. Hippy Rob. Acuramatt.

Sometimes I look around at the scene here in the Valley and it seems like nicknames are as integral to riding in a pack as drafting — you can’t be in there without knowing how to do it, how to take advantage of it, how to enjoy it. And, occasionally, ending up on the bad side of it.

We cyclists love nicknames, always have. And it’s not just screw-offs like me and my friends and you and your friends. It’s the riders who are the real deal, too: The Cannibal and the Badger and The Lion of Flanders and The Lion King and The Gypsy and The Eternal Second and Il Pirata and on and on. I think this is because cycling is, purely and simply, play. I know it’s a business, and a venerable sport, and the noblest form of transportation and a remedy for awful diseases ranging from diabetes to pride. But no matter how fast you ride or how far you go or how intently you focus your life on altruism, there’s just no outracing that giddy kid inside you who just pedaled away from the driveway for the first time.

And nicknames, like riding and any kind of play, really, are just one more way to construct an imaginary life inside our real life. Bruce isn’t a financial advisor; he’s The Torch. Dave isn’t an art director for a university; he’s our Flahute.

I’m all for it. I mean, I slather on embrocation to do a sixty-minute lunch ride. I swap the light wheels onto my bike for a race, then the next day eat a couple chili dogs downtown. There’s no doubt I’m play-acting, pretending, losing myself in a role simply for the fun of it. And I’m not alone out there. We’re already, most of us, creating ride personas — so why shouldn’t we give these imaginary identities names, just the way we used to do when we got together with our friends on a summer evening and decided we were all explorers, or pirates, or soldiers or astronauts?

Though some nicknames are so straightforward as to be their own explanations — such as my friend Swerve — for the most part the underlying science is as confounding as that of quantum physics. It’s not just, for instance, the question of why the pack, out of the man’s entire biographical history, collectively seized on the specific aspect of Acuramatt’s employment, but why the name sticks even though he’s hasn’t worked at the Acura dealership for several seasons — while at the same time there seems to be the promise of eternal evolution in the way Kuklis became Kuklik then Kuklickx in just a couple years. And why is it that Flask is also, depending on an ever-shifting context none of us could define but all of us instantly comprehend and adhere to, sometimes called Slacks? And who could ever supply a rational explanation for The Asphalt Beaver?

The other night Kuklickx was leaning against a bar when a guy walked in, a young, lean kid easily in his early twenties.

“Hey – Skippy!” Kuklickx said.

The kid stopped, and turned and raised both hands not in aggression but dismay. “Come on,” he said. “Seriously?” His nickname had been decided just a few days before, at a training session at the velodrome, which I gather had been a bit erratic.

Still, I felt for the kid. I stepped in and said, “Don’t fight it. It’ll just gain a stronger hold.”

He looked at me. I further explained that he might successfully jettison Skippy and get something new if he did something really stupid that night, but that trying to direct the destiny of your own nickname was like going back in time: You might accidentally kill the butterfly that wiped out the dinosaurs. I think I may have been drinking for quite some time at that point.

He walked off, and Kuklickx helpfully added, “Hang in there, Skippy.”

“There’s hope,” I shouted after him, and descended into a meditation on Goaty. The current official word is that he climbs like a goat. But there are those among us who remember when his nickname was Goatf#$!er. It seemed indelible — as powerful as it was profane, and we had as a pack come to terms with the disgrace of calling our friend by his name in public, substituting in the offensive but not quite so baldly obscene phrase “effer” when within earshot of anyone not dressed in spandex. (I tolerated my part in this abomination by harboring the perhaps naïve hope that the people filing into church on the sidewalk as we rode by might think our friend was known for some reason as Goat-Heifer.) Wisdom saved us all, finally; in a stroke of insight, The Animal reasoned that, “You can have ketchup with your French fries ten thousand times and no one calls you ‘Ketchup Eater.’ But you hint once about having carnal relations with a ruminant and the pack brands you for life. It’s just not right.”

Inspired by Goaty’s redemption, I shouted once more in the direction of the sad, serious, vanishing boy. “Skippy,” I said, “You can eat as much ketchup as you want!” But he didn’t understand, not at all. He was walking away, and I haven’t seen him on a ride since.


Originally published in the May 7, 2009 Sitting In