Years after I wrote this, I needed part of this story to tell another in my print column, The Pursuit. That one, The Escape, got picked as a Notable in that year’s Best American Sports Writing. It’s a better story, I know, but something about this one is more pure. I tell you, I still think about that little girl running, and when I picture that — so pink on so much green against so much blue — I can see Andy jumping for that sprint win, so clear, so goddamn clear.
On a Sunday morning in May I pedaled out of the velodrome parking lot with the Derby. A respectable crosswind slapped at us from the right, but it had been there all year and by now we didn’t pay it too much attention except to note that once we finished the roll-out —the two-up, controlled-pace hour to the turn-around where the unofficial race back toward the velodrome begins—it would be a crossing tailwind.
The group was small, maybe just more than thirty, and lacking in its usual stacked roster of Olympians, world champs, national champs, ex- and current pros. I shuffled around a bit and ended up by Andy and I said, “This one’s all yours. You’re it. The fastest guy.”
He said something funny I can’t remember except that it was funny, then he said he’d try to give the win to me if I wanted. He owes me one, from years ago. He was being nice: I’m not the rider I was then, and not even the rider I should be now, so I shook my head and we talked about what cyclists talk about when they know each other well: everything.
I really didn’t deserve a shot at the Derby. I was just starting to get a bit of form back, still had no top-end, still had a stone and a half to lose—it’s all so bad that I’m measuring weight that way these days—and I hadn’t been able to hang around enough lately with Andy to feel right about taking the favor then blowing it the way I knew I would. I had a lot going on. So did he.
We got the crosswind, and I hung in there and did some work, and made a run up Sprinter’s Hill that hurt some people and stripped the pack down, and even after that I surprised myself by recovering and slotting back into the little group hurtling toward the sprint. I found myself sitting fifth after the final turn, the sprint just up the road, a couple guys at the head then Andy and his Cycle Loft teammate Kacey Manderfield and me. I couldn’t believe I was there, but no matter how good I felt about that I knew I’d never make the jump. And when it came I didn’t. Andy rode off from everyone for a win as beautiful and as far away from us as the morning’s pure blue sky.
That was Mother’s Day, a Mother’s Day win at the Derby. Andy’s been riding like that all year, been riding like that before then and since then. On June 21, his mother, Debbi, died. Cancer.
The graveside memorial was today, and some of us were there, his cycling friends. We stood out in the sun, lean and strong and blinking a lot or else turning our heads to stare off down the slope of the cemetery, watching the flags and flowers and leaves of the trees blow in the breeze. The day after Andy’s mother died, I’d driven over to his house late, when Tuesday racing was done at the velodrome, and we’d talked a little bit about what cyclists talk about when they know each other well: everything.
“It’s better now,” he said. “The struggle . . .”
“I know,” I said. “There’s something in us, some kind of energy, and you can actually see it fighting to get out.”
People make fun of me sometimes for seeing life as if from always behind a handlebar. But there are rides when we struggle and fight and claw against ourselves and finally become so worn down that in our fatigue we become faster. We have escaped the burden of our bodies. That’s what I thought of that night.
“That’s exactly it,” he said. “She’s free.”
Far off down the open, grassy slope of the cemetery, a young, pregnant woman in a white dress was chasing a little girl who seemed to have just learned how to run. She was wearing a pink dress and her arms were high in the air, and though I couldn’t hear I would have bet anything she was laughing. She had no idea she was in a cemetery or, if she did, what the cemetery really meant. She was in a grassy field on a sunny and windy day with flags and flowers waving all around her, and she had broken away from her mother and she was running and running and running. The sky was pure blue and far away and she was beautiful in her escape. I knew her mother would catch her soon, and take her hand, and that was good but I wanted to remember the little girl free so I looked back at Debbi’s gravesite, then at my friend Andy sitting in front of it and I couldn’t help myself, I sneaked one more look at the little girl and she was still running.
Originally published in the June 25, 2010 Sitting In