To get out in front of the grimy, white, hiccupping car blinking its right turn signal, an instant before the stoplight changes I stroke my foot down and lift my butt backward from the top tube onto the saddle, and I’m a bike length into the intersection by the time the light goes green. I start to click in my loose foot and pedal onward.

I fumble the entry.

The pedal spins. My foot drops past it and my leg straightens in a way that should never happen on a bike. The opposite foot, which at some neural level had been anticipating a counterforce, plunges unchecked to the absolute bottom of its rotation. My bike wobbles.

Behind me, the car clears its throat and coughs its way into the intersection. I’m barely moving. I ratchet my crank backward then take another downward stroke for momentum, and reach again for the pedal. When I feel it underfoot, I press down and forward to engage the cleat.

I miss again. I’m fully in the intersection now, and fully inside the clamor of the car as well. I can smell its wet exhaust, sense with the hair of my arms the pressure of the air it is pushing forward and aside. With just the one leg, I pedal a complete revolution to shudder out of the car’s turning radius. My bike waggles. The front wheel is trying to flop sideways. I’m about to wreck–at 3 miles per hour. The car snorts.

I look like a guy who doesn’t know how to ride a bike. And with that thought, it hits me that I don’t know how to ride a bicycle, at least not the way I want to, not anymore.

I’ve been riding with intent for not quite 30 years now. Spent a few of those with no car at all, pedaling (and coasting) wherever I had to go. I’ve ridden in Europe and Africa and Australia in addition to the United States, commuting and touring and racing and vacationing and engaging in arcane missions such as delivering medicine to the dying, on all kinds of bikes, from recumbent tandems to a literally priceless one-off borrowed from a Giro d’Italia winner. I’ve shared secteurs with guys who won the races held on them, Tour roads with Tour pros.

In all those experiences, I became aware of cyclists who ride in full possession of their existence as such, whose every motion on and with a bike is an expression of mastery. When they rise out of the saddle to climb, these cyclists, the action appears inevitable, as if it had to be that way and no other. It is the same when they drape their hands over the brake hoods, when they sit up and survey the road cast before them in that moment before taking off a jacket, and when, walking, they push their bikes alongside them, a thumb and a finger light in the rearmost notch of the saddle and no other contact needed, and in the way they lean their bikes against benches and light poles and curbs, how they take their bikes through doors, how they rest their forearms over the handlebar in repose, cock their heads to speak in the wind at speed while still watching the wheel ahead of them. This ease belongs not just to kitted racers or local training-ride legends. I see this quality in the stumpy old guy who always wears a horrible fluorescent vest, and whose saddle height is too low yet who pedals more often and with more natural facility than almost everyone on every team around. I puzzle over the unquestionable class of the guy who rides up my hill every day after work, crushed under the lowest gear of his cheap and rusting and squeaking department-store mountain bike, but imperturbable. These are cyclists.

I once was nearly like that, or very occasionally like that, or near enough to like that to be able to ride with such cyclists without reservation or awkwardness. Somewhere between work, and being a father, and a soccer coach, and a husband, and the guy in charge of getting the truck’s clutch replaced and chainsawing the willow that fell last week, and being funny and friendly during Friday happy hours, I’ve lost my way.

The pedal fumble itself was not damning. These cyclists I am talking about, they are not perfect. They miss shifts, and they get caught out when the pace bounds from 25 to 37 for no reason, and I have seen pros bumble their starts and fall right over in intersections. But even their mistakes communicate an intimacy with the sport, something like the longtime couple who can accidentally click their teeth going in for a kiss and laugh about it, because awkwardness no longer exists between them, and because the disruption actually contributes to the rhythm of their life. There was no fluidity or forbearance in my mistake.

The white car rumbles past me, going straight, its turn signal unaccountably still blinking, on and on, announcing a change of direction the driver never intended to take, or maybe planned but forgot about. I click in. I pedal. Hard. Then quick. There’s a difference and I am glad to know it. I hover in the deafening tumult off the car’s rear quarter panel, my bar nearly tapping the pitted surface. Just up ahead is a cross street, and the curb is high and the car is close and I think the driver no longer sees me. The turn signal ticks bright and dark, and again the same, and again, and it goes on that way. I have no idea if the car will go straight again, or turn right this time and smash me. But I know what I have to do. I wrap my hands around the drops and shift up and spring forward, out of the saddle, wrenching the bike from side to side, dwarfing the motion of my earlier wobble and at the same time obliterating the remnant memory of its unsteadiness, and I shoot past the car, past the uncertainty and into open road.


II Pretty Ugly

Originally published in Bicycling, June 2011