Though I’ve already ridden myself stupid, near the bottom I’m able to get through some number of pedal strokes by trying to conjugate what is happening to me. I am going to crack, I think. I am going to be cracking. I am going to have been cracked.
I am not sure what comes next in the sequence. I am going, I think, then, as if my brain itself is gasping, I cannot finish the phrase and get lost and start over and get lost again before finally managing to think, I am going up, and I ride up Blue Mountain Drive some more.
I’d been hoping for an episode like this when I designed this year’s East Coast edition of the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race, an unsanctioned event that hosts about 20 teams of six riders on open-road courses. I wanted to share the brutality and beauty of my local scene–what it takes to scale the 25 percent dirt slope on Goat Hill, the razor edge of high-speed skill and restraint required to descend Mountain Mary, and the resolve necessary to plod through the tire-sucking clay of Bake Oven Road, but also the one-room schoolhouses and the Amish buggies and colorful Mennonite pelotons, and, here and there, goats loose on a lonely lane. When I finished mapping the race, I knew I had all that. But, with more than 11,000 feet of climbing that included four trips over the Blue Mountain Ridge–three of them charitably described as unpaved– and barely a flat road in 133 miles, I knew I also had a ride that would, at some point, empty me.
I needed that. Earlier this season, I’d realized that through neglect, or complacency, or too much compromise with the demands of everyday life, I’d lost my way as a cyclist. I was missing something beyond fitness or speed, some kind of intimacy with the sport the best riders possessed, and which I’d once been good enough to sometimes borrow, or to at least get close enough to feel. I’m one of those who, on a bike, finds more power in emotion than in logic, in faith than in plans, so instead of hiring a coach or attending a skills school or plotting out a yearlong training program, I began searching for a ride that would strip me of everything but the necessity to ride–trusting that, deep down there where the decision to either ride or quit would be made, in the smallest but most primal way I would be a cyclist. Once I found my way to the bottom of who I was, I believed, I could start riding my way back out.
Blue Mountain rises like a giant waking just in front of me and lumbering to its feet. The dirt is spotted with thick, shifting pools of gravel, and studded ditch to ditch and its full length with the ragged tops of embedded stones. The ascent is only about 2 miles, with no kick steeper than 11 or 12 percent, but this is my team’s fourth time over the ridge and, at its base, we were 100 miles into the day. I see one rider silhouetted ahead of me, hear another one behind. Birds trill. Gravel crunches under my wheels. I am going up. I am going to quit.
I start to play the game in which I let myself quit if I get to the next corner. I get there and tell myself that I can quit at the next corner, but I can’t see one. I can’t see anyone in front of me or hear anyone behind me. Instead of birds and gravel I hear my breath, my heartbeat, snot sliding its way out of me. I play the quitting game with a tree, then a rock, then I stop being able to focus for that long and I promise myself I can stop if I take just one more pedal stroke.
One more, I think as my right foot descends. Then, as my left falls, pedal stroke. I do that and the mountain does what it does, which is to rise. I do that and spit and spasm and the mountain rises and I keep doing that and after a while all I can do is one more on the right downstroke and the other is abandoned. Sometime after that, as Blue Mountain Drive rises all I can manage is more then more and more, then nothing. I am just riding now.
Just riding is one of the great triumphs of my life, which has been made of equally meaningless great triumphs, all the hills and mountains and wind-blasted days, and jumps and bridges and chases in races, that in the moment meant everything, that one pedal stroke at a time, 50 or 65 or 130 times a minute shaped who I’d be for the rest of my life then became just another ride once I unclicked. I begin to think about this, then think about it a lot–consider it from the past and present, reconsider it out of the context of cycling, affirm it, wonder at its veracity, and when after all of this I look out from inside myself I see that I’ve ridden about 5 feet. This is going to be a long 2-mile climb, Blue Mountain Drive. I keep climbing it. My ribs hurt. I can’t hold the hoods anymore. My legs sputter, then fail. I am there, where I wanted to go, the bottom of who I am, and it turns out that I am a person waiting to fall over.
I hear Alaric. He was my coach years ago, the summer I decided, wrongly, I could turn myself into a track sprinter. What he taught me about riding taught me that how you ride is about how you live, and that if you were lucky you could make how you live about how you ride. I hear the two words he said to our friend Paul after a ride one day, after finding out for sure that he was going to die from a brain tumor: “I’m fucked.”
Without noticing that it began or, for a long time, clearly that it is happening, I am pedaling out I’m on the right and fucked on the left.
I’m climbing again, at first just barely, the gap between the contraction and the obscenity long enough to get lost in, then the two words coming faster but still with a hesitation between them, like the slurred speech of Alaric’s last days, then I am riding tempo up Blue Mountain Drive in the strong cadence of my coach’s most boisterous days. He’s talked to me before like this, not like a supernatural voice but one from the past, a memory I hear, and sometimes his old words take new meanings. I stand and attack the hill in pride and profanity, and he is not telling me that I am in the state he describes but reminding me that he was. He is telling me that I am alive and have Blue Mountain Drive to climb, and I better ride it the way I want to live, like a bike rider, which is who I was when he knew me and who I can be again if I want to, starting right up there, just around this corner, at the top of this thing that tried to make me quit.
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, August 2011