I guess I’m lucky I’m not very good at racing, because I enter just about every event free from the obligation of trying to win. My races are good for storytelling because I go out and ride what I’m feeling, what I’m thinking, what I’m trying to work out in some way. Hell, maybe the winners are like that, too, but it doesn’t seem that way from the outside.
Lap 17 or, I don’t know, somewhere in there, we’d just shut down three or four who’d tried to go off the front. The pack did that thing that is like a sigh, the physical compression of all the bikes simultaneous with the emotional relaxation of all the racers. I was out on the right and I didn’t brake at all, not accelerating just not decelerating, and in that way I passed one bike, then another, then two more and in another second or two, on the thin strip of open pavement between the pack and the grass I simply coasted to the front.
Shifting up twice then standing into a crouch over the stem with my hands in the drops I pulled forward at my pedals as much as I slashed downward on them. You know that feeling once in a while when your bike pounces and you hold on as if you’ve grabbed some kind of beast around the neck? That.
One of the guys we’d caught was moping, in a broken stance, sweeping here and there the width of the pavement. I hesitated a quarter stroke to let him clear my trajectory then whipped the pedals again and swiped by him close enough to feel static leap between our jerseyed shoulders. I was onto the base of the only little hill on the course, and I went harder.
I was not thinking about escaping, getting away, riding off the front. It was something Slaughter had told me that Simes had told him: It’s your obligation to make the race hard.
Simes thought races had become too easy, mostly. He thought that young bike racers had become content riding the pack’s speed instead of deciding the pack’s speed. To Simes, I’m a young racer. I’m 45. So you know the era he’s looking at the sport from.
Is he right? I don’t know. But I don’t know if he’s wrong, either. I just know that I went hard when the race got easy.
The air was strangling me as it came down my throat. I knew I couldn’t look back, but I wondered how many were tucked in there behind me and how many of them were just waiting for me to swing off so they could strangle themselves happy and how many of them might already be strangling. I wondered if I’d popped anyone off the back when the pack had reacted to get my wheel, who back there might have suddenly found the race simply too hard to do because of me, which in a way was because of Simes, and if maybe the guys still in there might be a little slower when the sprint came or not get the wheels they wanted in the leadout or make a mistake and come off five laps from now all because of what I was doing right now which was only because of what Slaughter had said Simes had said. And I went on like that in my head for hours, which was really just seconds in the real world. I went on strangling myself.
I was at the top of the hill, and I looked back. I was alone.
I was off the front.
There was no little nugget of inspiration in my head from Slaughter from Simes regarding this scenario, so I did the only thing I could figure out to do. I sat down and shifted up and scooted back on my saddle and started working forward against the pedals instead of down onto them. I rode the insides of the corners into the woods, and in the shade I let loose a river of snot from my nose that felt like the scalding spring of the stream of strangulating air that was flowing deep in my body. I guessed that this was maybe what Simes had been talking about.
I moved forward on my saddle and got right over the bottom bracket and started punching down at the pedals, tight on the tightest inside line there was, and I snuck a look back just before the sweeping left and didn’t see the pack. I’d be out of sight before they came over the hill.
They were going to catch me before the end of the race, I was sure of that. I was pretty sure they’d catch me in a lap or at most two. I was already starting to fall apart, hang my head, get a wobbly knee at the top of my stroke. I kept finding myself with my hands up on the flats instead of in the drops, sacrificing speed for breath without being aware I’d done so.
In the end, when I got caught, it was by the guy who’d win the 65+ race, bridging up to me a few seconds ahead of the pack. So how fast could I have been going, right? How hard? The pack passed scary, in a torrent the way it always does, and me feeling like the passed rider always does like a child standing too close to a train.
There might have been fewer people in there. I would never know, never be able to figure it out then not really care. I was back in the pack, in the back, and we were going. We were going hard. It hurt. Someone up there was making me hurt.
Originally published in the Aug. 13, 2010 Sitting In