There is a fog to climb through once I turn onto Hidden Valley Road, so I set to climbing through it. It is one of those deep and silent and lonely all-surrounding, ancient-seeming fogs that, especially in ascension, makes you feel mystic. As I rise through it, the fog that settles onto my skin loses its vaporosity and becomes beads of water, and on my nose these trickle down in crooked paths to the tip where they dangle swelling at the bottom until they detach, fall, and disappear into the mist swirled by my feet. For some reason I do not know, I decide I need to ride so smoothly that the drops come unconnected because of their own cumulating weight instead of the jiggling of my body. Sometimes, I succeed.
THERE WAS A RACE defined not by a break but what was more accurately a split, made up of maybe 20 out of the 45 who were left out of the 90 who had started, and I missed it. I was trying to go across with the rider we all call the Gatekeeper and a guy I work with and someone else, and we were falling apart. Pearson came by, and I jumped out of my group onto his wheel, and just staying on his wheel was the hardest effort I’d made in months. He chased for about a lap, and when we got across, when we reached the split, the leaders, I sat at the back with him gagging and spitting.
I was making a noise like I was a cave and deep inside me my lungs were a pair of jackals who’d fought to the mutual death and were loosing final, long, pitiful mortal yowls that just barely made their way to the earth’s surface to be heard. Eventually, because he was training for nationals, Pearson decided he ought not to do such things for so long to his body that day and he dropped out. He rode to his car and changed, and when he came back to watch, I found all this out later, he saw me in the split and said to some people standing around, “He better have still been in there.”
The things I’d witnessed in that chase—how to go full-out then past even that, until you were full full-out, and how you had to do so if you wanted to be any kind of rider at all—I’d figured those were the lessons that would endure. But here, now, on this strange climb in the next season, it is not Pearson’s chase that moves me, but the sentence he said afterward.
THERE WAS A DERBY that blew into bits in a crosswind climb, and across a gap I made the break, but to do it I had to leave behind the friend I’d earlier told I would try to help get to the finish with the group for the first time. I sat up. I sailed sideways in the gale, off the end of the echelon and onto the farthest, graveliest strip of the road’s shoulder, which I thought of as “the gutter,” because that’s what we all always called it. The draft-staggered formation of leaders pulled away, curled low over their bars, occasionally shouting a word or two to each other.
I was alone.
The wind shrieked. After a while of soft pedaling, I looked back. Joel was coming up on me. I started drifting left, to indicate I was going to give him the sheltered spot, and in a few seconds, he blew by me. I sped up and took his wheel but he had us guttered, where there was barely any draft to be had against the crosswind. After a few seconds Joel flicked his elbow and swung left, and as he drifted back, instead of pedaling ahead I kept pace, tried to keep him beside me.
The cyclists I’d years ago apprenticed myself to, the founders and rulers of this ride, had taught me that if you came off the lead group and the chase was dead, you ought to just sit up and roll in with your friends. I said a few things to Joel about the wind and the exalted who’d made the group. He replied and nodded his head, then abruptly slowed and nudged his bike over behind me. I put my hands in the drops and faded left to give him room for a draft and went along harder than I wanted to, then elbow-flicked him up, and he did the same and we went on like that, working like hell. We began to sweep up riders who’d been popped off, the nasally voiced guy whose personality makes everyone resent his speed, one of the burly sprinters who hadn’t made a hill. Eventually, I saw a faded national-team jersey drifting toward us.
Lefty had been a local prodigy in another era and, according to those who tell our legends, after going over to race in Belgium he had come home and hung his bike on a hook and said he was done, that he’d witnessed what it took and the cost was too high for him. Now, years later, for whatever reason we do such things, whatever reason could overcome whatever actually had happened in Belgium, he was coming around again.
We were bearing down on Lefty, six of us chomping and champing and sweating and battering through the wind. A supreme effort. As we caught him then swept by, he looked over at us. And he shook his head. He ceased his silky pedaling while we passed, I remember, not only not joining us but with the cessation of that wonderful, natural spin of his, communicating to us, if we were paying attention, that he did not care to.
I AM CLIMBING IN A FOG at the start of the second season of my quest to become something more like a true cyclist. What had I owed Pearson that day, and why had the race of someone so mediocre like me mattered to someone so accomplished like him? Did I belong doing the wrong thing with my friend, or the right thing with Lefty? All the cyclists around me, even if they don’t know they’re doing so, they’re telling me how to become what I want to be. I can’t decipher just what it is they’re saying, but I know it has less to do with how fast I reach the peak of Hidden Valley today than with whether there’s a drop of water on the tip of my nose when I get there.
VIII How To Not Ride X Not Riding It Right
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, May 2012