After I pulled off the course into the parking lot of some shuttered restaurant, I sat with my thigh on the top tube and, without regret or doubt, watched thousands of riders sweep past. I was fit, and light, with more miles in me than I’d had in years, and for months I’d thought I might go top 10 in my age group at this ride, the Granfondo Eddy Merckx—and show myself to be a cyclist, someone who doesn’t just ride but is a rider, by pedaling with some measure of style no matter how bad the 96-mile route and its steep, 14.5-mile climb of the Italian Alp Monte Baldo got.

That morning, I’d arrived at the start line and had just begun bullying my bike backward through the thicket of legs and handlebars at the front of the fondo—my bib number 1977 consigned me to the tail of the staggered departure—when I heard my friend Giorgio calling my name. He’s the founder of Giordana and Gita, the U.S. importer of Merckx bikes— and he was number 31, which put him at the front. He waved me through the security sneering at my number, and said, “Start here.” We tried to talk a little, but the loudspeakered announcer was screaming Eddy’s name then confetti whoomed over our heads and we all clicked in and bumped handlebars and shoulders and hips, and someone rubbed wheels and went down as always, and it was one of the best starts I’d ever gotten. Instead of battling through roads clogged with crumbling packs, I’d meet the mountain fresh, from the front, in one of the lead groups. All I had to do was hold my position and draft.

That’s when I saw Eddy Merckx just off my bar. He veered into the parking lot, and Giorgio and about 10 others followed him. On instinct instead of thought, I joined them. The fondo streamed by, and when the road was clear, Eddy pedaled away. So we did, too.

Giorgio explained that Eddy was going to ride about 15 miles, to the base of the first climb, then split off for lunch. We were welcome to tail along until then, he said—but it would mean I’d miss Baldo.

Eddy was riding with his old teammates from Faema and Molteni, guys who’d not only been there for one of the greatest eras of cycling but who had helped make it so. There was the still-lean Italo Zilioli, who’d been considered the next Fausto Coppi then saw Eddy race and dedicated his career to the Cannibal. There was Karel Rottiers, one of Eddy’s knot-muscled strongmen, now with an enormous gut. And Jos Spruyt and Jos Huysmans, both, too, with bellies. We spun along, their feet ticking a tempo so natural, and so shared for so long, there was hardly a second when just one or two coasted alone. I’d expected to be captivated by Eddy, but it was his teammates I couldn’t stop watching. They joked among themselves and jostled each other as they shared stories, yet there was always a stillness to how they rode, something imperturbable and rooted down to whatever the depth of our being is.

My mouth went dry with the futility of ever being anything like them on a bike. Every movement I made, the tiniest shift of my palm across my handlebar, felt clunky, overrehearsed, cast so large upon some screen that everyone could not help but see. The idea that I might ever possess any approximation of their class as a cyclist was ludicrous—yet I knew right then that I would never stop trying to ride, in my own way and within my own limits, like them.

It is unsettling but liberating to abandon yourself to the pursuit of impossibility. Baldo suddenly seemed small, my lost chance to conquer it smaller still. I put a hand on Italo’s shoulder and said, “Thanks for this,” and he smiled and nodded and said, in his formal way, yes, of course, you are welcome.

IV The Road I Didn’t Know   VI The Escape
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, October 2011