Somewhere out on Irish Creek Road, I accepted that I was going to get dropped at some point or, worse, have to ask Joel to sit up.
We were GPSing home from our daughters’ soccer game five or six counties away, so neither of us knew the road except by that primal recognition cyclists experience upon finding an exceptional route: We belonged here. Irish Creek lifted and fell and turned on itself and scrambled away, each reprise different yet never breaking rhythm.
A crosswind was coming so hard and so swirly from our right that a draft was near impossible to find, and even more difficult to stay in. I eventually finagled our exits from the turns to put Joel consistently windward, where, if I let him half-wheel me, I could sit off his front hub in a pocket of less turbulent air. This was all I had: the guile of experience.
Though just a Cat 5 in his first real year of racing, Joel was stronger than me not by degrees but by exponents. A longtime runner and mountain biker who had worked out hard over the winter and kept his momentum through spring, he was taller and lighter than me. And he was tough: He’d missed a season to fly a copter in Iraq. Enthralled by and in thrall to the pull of Irish Creek Road, he was riding in a way that was visibly forceful, though just as visibly raw. His head bobbed and his shoulders swayed as he pedaled. Something about his leg extension was not yet natural. A continual resettling on the saddle signaled a kind of ongoing experimention on a muscular level–his body working through the frustration of not being able to get its power fully out onto the pavement.
In comparison, though these days I am still chasing down the cyclist I used to be, my shadow was riding calm beside me, as if disinterested in the distress of the body that cast it. My feet canted through each pedal stroke in angles two decades in the making even if now grown a little sloppy. I still possessed the ability to ride elbows bent, even in the worst pounding of the crosswind, and when I went to the drops my forearms lay flat, producing a classic position that left not quite 2 inches gap between my knees and arms at the top of a stroke. But flab stretched the dark aubergine of my jersey into a disturbing pastel. Snot streamed from my nose. In my throat, chunks of mucous wriggled upward until I hacked them into my mouth and spat them away. No doubt about it: I was cracking.
Meanwhile, Joel told long, engaging stories and offered me a spare banana.
In sentence fragments broken apart by breaths I asked questions to elicit his anecdotes, and I put him in the wind and rode the smoothest lines through the corners and shifted to the best gear for keeping momentum on each roller. Sometimes I could slide rearward on the saddle and flatten my back, and drape my hands over the brake hoods and drop my chin and, for a few moments, feel what I should have been able to do–what I once could do and hoped to someday be able to again. My bike would glide forward, and my feet would feel more spun than spinning, and it was only then that I really rode my bike. In a few seconds there would be mucous to hack, and pain to obey, and I would slow and fall back in line with Joel and look over at him without raising my head. And he would be unchanged.
When I realized I couldn’t recall the last time on this ride I’d thought about anything besides quitting the pace, I started floating a pedal on either side, giving it no push and no pull, five strokes at a time, while the opposite foot did all the work. I am reasonably certain this is useless, if not detrimental, but a pro told me about it once so it is gospel. I remembered that my old coach, Alaric, had told me that two cogs equals a ring, so on the rollers I started shifting the front whenever I could, telling myself the lie that I was saving even more energy that way.
Joel told me it was a beautiful day.
We’d left Irish Creek long ago, and were onto the tail of the course of a weekly ride we both knew well, less than 20 miles from home, with only a set of three long, gradual hills before an easy spin through quiet neighborhoods. Joel stopped talking. I stopped posing questions. We dug our way up the first hill, topped out, stayed on the pedals down the backside and through the flat and into the next hill. I don’t know if he was deliberately trying to drop me there or if he just wouldn’t have minded if it happened, but the ride had changed in some way.
On the next hill I paced off him the desperate way, front wheel beside his rear; I knew if I lost contact I was done. I watched his hands, so I could see his shifts coming and find the gear before he did. I could no longer stop myself from breathing in gasps, and I knew he could hear. We went up and over. One more to go.
My shoulders and thighs, and parts of my left shoe, were covered with my snot. I could feel salt in the corners of my mouth, crust at the edges of my eyes, on my body clammy sweat, and in my body embers that pulsed hotter with every fanning breath. We were on the climb and Joel started to drop me in that final way, when the physics of real life become that of a bad dream, the bike ahead pulling away no matter what you do, and no matter how fast or hard you pedal you only go slower. I had done everything right, and I was going to get dropped.
So I did it wrong. I abandoned any ambitions of class and technique, and the lore of pros and coaches, and I sprang out of the saddle–which everyone knows takes more energy, which is what you do for quick bursts, only for steep sections–and I stood and wrenched my bike all over the road, and, devoid of poise, I blew myself to bits. And I hung.
We rolled the crest and, finally, coasted, both of us heaving, and after a bit Joel said, “Pretty good push.”
I couldn’t form a thought beyond the simple realization that I enjoyed how air felt coming cool into my lungs, or else I would have told him that it wasn’t a pretty good push. I would have told him that it was an ugly good push. I would have told him that I had a sense that I’d learned–or relearned–something important even though I had no idea what it might be. I would have told him thanks, then I would have told him to keep his elbows loose, like mine.
Originally published in Bicycling, July 2011