One of the things I figured out while writing Ten Points is that sometimes you can get the writing itself to feel like what you’re writing about. It happens sometimes with rhythm, sometimes through word choice, sometimes punctuation or something ungrammatical like enjambment or run-ons, and sometimes I have idea what the hell creates the effect. For all I know, I’m the only one who even feels it. But in this case, for instance, the refrain feels to me exactly like a long, steep climb.
We were already scattered up and down the road by the time we got to the base of Kulp’s, as if the Saturday Shop Ride was a giant hand that had scooped all nineteen of us up and shaken us around then tossed us out onto the pavement.
Kulp’s is the biggest and most ragged climb of our Butter Valley ride, the midpoint in spirit if not in miles. Get up over it, and there are only a few more, gradual ascents between you and the Faema espresso machine back at South Mountain Cycles.
The summer’s humidity had broken just that morning, and the digital sign at the bank was showing 63. We clicked in and heard that quick, unmistakable series of falling-domino sounds that becomes as familiar and evocative to cyclists as the defining rock-and-roll riff from the best summer of your childhood.
It was a shop ride: There were a few new guys, there were a couple guys visiting from out of town who’d heard about the ride, there was the one truly good cyclist among us (who once, long ago, had been gifted enough to be passed by Davis Phinney in a race), there were the girls who were way stronger than the new boys had any right to expect them to be — it was the wonderful messy humanity of every good pack you’ve ever ridden in. We sprinted, and regrouped, and made fun of each other, and paid each other compliments, and we ate and drank as we rode, and we relished the tiny chill in the air at the same time that we welcomed the growing warmth that meant the high part of our season was nowhere near done yet. None of us wanted to leave this pack, this ride.
Someone lit the road up as we drove into the last and stiffest roller before the transition to Kulp’s, and we strung out in twos and threes and here and there singles, probably a quarter-mile between the first of us and the last and yet we all somehow still felt as if we were together.
I happened to start Kulp’s near the back, and I got to watch nearly the whole group ride into that first steep section, looking like tiny surfers paddling into a mythic wave on a 1950s documentary flickering on an old TV. Five or six of the midpackers ran hard at the blank gray wall rising above our heads and around half of their group got slapped back by gravity right away and, caught under the cruel physics of the slope, seemed to float listlessly on the road as if they had drowned. From that flotsam emerged Hans, and the Russian guy whose name I can never remember, and Joel, and though I knew they’d get popped after the turn in the woods I admired them for their chronic optimism. I myself ride too much with reality these days, I think.
I rode up through the pack, dragging Charles along for a few pedal strokes before he dropped off. Up ahead, Heath was chasing Taus, and I wanted to see that play out at the crest, so I dug my feet down into the hill and scooped them back out, over and over, the closest I ever get to knowing what an honest day’s work feels like. I passed Hans, and then, with my head down, with clear, thin snot rolling over my lips then across my chin and off onto my thighs, I went past Joel, and somewhere in there I must have gone by Ganoddy — the Russian guy’s name came to me phonetically though I knew I was spelling it wrong — because there was no one between me and the race going on between Heath and Taus.
I hovered right there in the gap, pacing myself, hurting just enough to hurt and getting an odd satisfaction from it the way you flex a sprained wrist over and over just to feel the sensation.
I couldn’t remember the Russian guy’s name again.
After a few seasons of riding with us, Heath had gotten strong, and he was attacking because he could, because it felt good to be able to — and because he felt free to. He was in that awkward season when you first become a hammer and you’re no longer hanging onto the group but driving it. You make a lot of mistakes in that transition year — cracking the group apart when you shouldn’t, gapping people because you’re inattentive. At a century we’d done earlier in the year I’d yelled at Heath. He was with a tiny group of hurting friends who were only hoping to get to the end, and when it was his turn at the front he’d busted everything apart. When you’re one of the strongest, I told him, “The pack is an egg. There’s no honor in smashing it.”
There would be honor, however, in smashing Taus on Kulp’s, and Heath knew it and was giving it a go. He’d gotten a gap on Taus, and was working his body hard, rocking his shoulders and jabbing his legs down as if he hoped to punch them through the surface of the road. I watched a while, knowing that I was looking for something but not knowing what it was until it sunk in that although Taus was gapped, he was not losing any ground but sitting in his saddle, spinning.
The road dipped just before the last arc to the crest and Taus leapt out of the saddle and, though I knew it was impossible, it looked as if his bike was no longer rolling steadily over the earth but was making huge, leapfrog advances over ten-foot chunks of road.
I passed a white box, over on the right, sitting in some wilting but still green grass, and written on the sides in red marker were two words: Free. Free.
Something yellow was inside the box. National Geographics? Mini umbrellas? I was past it, and I couldn’t remember the Russian guy’s name, and Taus was at the top, spinning circles at the intersection, waiting for the rest of us, and Heath joined him, and I joined them, and we spun in circles and I wondered why I loved doing this, why I savored this moment of a ride so much.
Joel came up fourth. He didn’t really look tired.
There were the rest, trickling in one at a time, or in little wobbly clusters, Hans and the Russian guy, and Charles looking surprised by the biggest hill of his life being ridden faster than he’d thought it could be — a door had just opened for him, you could see it — and there was Conrad coming up looking as if he hoped the county had installed a defib unit at the crest, and Beth and Craig and Brad and more of them, and just about dead last, coming up with the Tank, was Yozell, who is only last when he decides to be.
I figured that he’d pushed Tank some. But Yozell would never say so. He rode around acting tired to make Tank feel better. I gave Conrad a spare energy gel I was packing. I said, “Charles, yeah?” Charles smiled. The kid was going to climb lots more in his life.
Yozell’s jersey was hanging funny, pulled back tight on his shoulders and riding low on his waist, crooked and jacked around. I rolled behind him and saw two squash, as yellow as the maillot jaune and each nearly as big as a wine bottle, crammed into his jersey pockets.
One of the things I love about cycling, though I can’t explain it, is that sometimes a single ride feels like your whole life. Up on the top of Kulp’s that day, just that one climb felt like everything. We’d raced it, and we’d dogged it, and we’d won and we’d lost and we’d climbed into the unknown and we’d been humbled, and helped, and we’d even stopped for the free squash.
We didn’t know it yet, but we had two flats and a bee sting to the face ahead of us. The group was going to shatter in the most beautiful way on the rollers back home. Charles was going to go back to Gulu, Uganda, where there is one paved road. Christina was going to be riding a new titanium Litespeed before the new week started. I was only going to get out for two rides in the next fifteen days.
We spun our circles at the intersection at the crest of Kulp’s and waited for the moment when we would all simply and simultaneously realize it was time to rush down into the rest of our lives, but what we were doing felt so complete it seemed nearly unimaginable that we had to add to it, that we had to descend, that we had to finish off the ride. We spun our mountaintop circles and we loved the sport and the pack, and I remembered, again, the Russian guy’s name was Ganoddy.
Originally published in the August 27, 2007 Sitting In