I’m not much at persuasive writing, so I just told a story.

Doing a ride a few days ago, a hard one but no harder than any I’ve done this year, there were maybe seven of us working, maybe 10, with at least double that sitting behind. I’m not really there yet, where I want to be with my form, so pretty quick I get to that point where I start trying to figure out how many more pulls I ought to take: Do I beg off the front when I can still slip into the pack and sit the whole way, or do I go ahead and ride myself dry just for the beautiful ignorant personal satisfaction of doing so? I’m in my head, I’m hurting, but I’m turning them over okay so I’m not worrying about much besides my spiritual calculus and keeping just enough awareness of the world to make sure I don’t rub tires whenever the crosswind gusts.

I guess I’ve done my pull at the front and swung over and am fading back—one more time, who knew?—when one of the other guys doing the work with us finishes his turn and looks back and spits out, “Leeches!”

He flicks his head backward at the group sitting on behind us and snarls, “I *&!?%#@ hate them.”

I fade backward, and when it’s my turn I jog right and get back in the production line and move forward and take my turn in the wind and slide over and fade back and do it again. As it turns out, I’ll make it all the way to the end of the ride working, but—or maybe because of this—I’m thinking not about how many pulls I’m doing or what’s best for my form but about leeches and hate and who belongs at the front of a pack.

For sure, “hate” is a pretty strong term to direct at a bunch of guys out playing on a bunch of toys on a sunny day. But that’s not what bothers me. The specific word was probably nothing more than hypoxic hyperbole and, anyway, even if it was real I’d bet it was nothing more than a wisp. I myself have occasionally summoned up a dose of anger to get across a gap or jump over the top of a hill or just to hang on sometimes. It vanishes as quick as it comes.

What I don’t understand is the disdain for cyclists who have done nothing but simply ride behind us.

I know some of those riders back there — a lot of them, actually, and probably more than I know up in the front. A good portion of those behind us are, in plain and real terms, unable to come up and do any work; I honestly don’t think they could make the trip from back to front, either because they don’t have the fitness to make a run out on the side of the pack in the wind, or because they don’t have the technical skill to slip up through the group. Some of the others could come up, could take a pull or two, but, I know, they’re conserving because they want to try to make it all the way to the end of the ride with the pack—that’s a big accomplishment for them. Some of them back there, in fact, measure their success week by week according to how far they make it: I got to the hill. I got to the S turns. I got over the kicker — each progression a milestone, something for them to be proud of. And what you maybe wouldn’t appreciate unless you considered the back group individually instead of as a lumpen receptacle for your scorn, is that some of those riders are way closer to being the real deal than either I or the hater are, and they’re back there just to spin along and get some brisk miles in as part of their day-long training.

And a bunch of them, I have no idea what’s going on in their heads, their legs, their days, their lives. I don’t know why they’re back there, which is maybe in some way the most important thing: to know that you don’t know.

Some of those riders, you know what — yeah, they’re not sitting in, they’re sitting on, and those bastards are going to try to jump us at the end for as much of a win as you can have on a ride that isn’t a race. But in regards to wheelsuckers, I take my road wisdom, as I do for much of my riding life, from The Animal: “If you get to the line with a fat man who beats you,” Pearson advises me, “it’s your fault.”

Me, when I get the chance to look back, I mostly see people with good intentions trying to have some fun in a world that doesn’t allow too much of the stuff to go around. Sometimes I see someone trying to, as Tim Krabbe said, clean my plate before they start in on theirs. Great, is what I think: That’s cycling, and damn, I love it. Let’s go ahead and see who’s stronger and smarter and more patient and more willing to lose if it increases the chance of winning. (And, anyway, more often I am the one in back instead of the one looking back — I have more guile than watts.)

If you take a glance behind and the road back there looks dirty to you, clean it. If you can’t, make sure you blame the right person: Yourself.


Originally published in the May 14, 2010 Sitting In.