Twenty years ago, I was out for a lazy, Sunday-morning spin when a locomotive commotion of clattering gears and hissing chains and shouts and laughs and red and blue and black and green and white jerseys sizzled past me. A gale of the pack’s own creation tumbled after them, then the 90 or so riders vanished into the horizon.

I had moved to the Lehigh Valley only a few weeks earlier, but I knew I’d just experienced the fabled Derby. This unofficial race has no prizes, keeps no records, is covered by no media, but is esteemed by cyclists worldwide thanks to the international riders who use it for training while they’re in the area to compete at the Valley’s velodrome. Victory in its finishing sprint has been claimed by Olympic medalists, world champions, national champions from dozens of nations, even one retired Tour de France winner.

Because I didn’t know any better back then, I imagined throwing my hands high in the air in Derby triumph, and promised myself I’d make it happen someday— but years passed before I even dared to ride one, then years more when success meant staying with the pack a few yards more before getting spat out the back. A full decade after my first glimpse of the Derby, I could finish with the group, at first desperately clinging to the tail, then for years lodged solidly but hopelessly in the middle, and, finally, every so often, able to touch the sharp end of the race. In 2005, in the fittest season of my life, in a few weeks when the pros and most of the best amateurs were off doing real races, I twice finished third, then second. Soon after, a new housing development brought denser traffic, and the Derby royalty moved the finish to a different road, one that eliminated the gradual uphill that had given me any chance at all against the heavier natural sprinters. For a couple more years I gave the Derby everything I had anyway, then for a few after that, thanks to work and life and age and lots of other handy excuses, I stopped being a rider the way I had been.

I came out on the other side of all that free from the weight of a 20-year-old dream, and that was when—this year—I began riding the Derby better than I ever had. Not motivated by where I might finish, instead simply trying to ride each week in the purest sense of what it meant to do it well, I immersed myself in the rhythm of the pack, sitting when a real rider would, attacking in a way that earned nods from those riders when I was caught, a nuanced yet satisfying reward so different from the naïve victory I’d imagined all those years ago. That was also when I won the damn thing.

I didn’t raise my arms. I sluiced across the line on a wet road at the ragged edge of a thunderstorm that had jabbed at us all day, and I dropped my head in relief that I hadn’t crashed, and I waited, coasting, for euphoria or whatever kind of rapture the achievement of a lifetime goal would bring. All that came to me was a question.

I sat up and took one hand off the handlebar and looked back for my friend, Steve, who had been there at the end when it was down to just four of us, who had once been named the state’s best all-around amateur racer and had won the Derby many times. When he rolled up, I asked, “Does that count?”

He slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Derby winner!” Then, maybe seeing something in my grit-ringed eyes or in the set of my shoulders, he said, “They all count. You know that.”

And I did. The storm had kept most of the good riders away, and all but a few of the ones who’d shown up had stopped racing when a crash in a rain-slicked corner split the pack. But in those 20 years I’d ridden many even stranger Derby days without questioning the authenticity of the victory. It wasn’t the circumstance of the ride I doubted; it was the circumstance of me. I had finally won a Derby, only to find out I’d lost a sense of why it had once mattered so much.

Everyone was happy for me, told me they knew how much I’d wanted a Derby. My wife took me out for dinner. Ray stopped by to toast me. The next morning, when I opened the refrigerator to start making my daughter’s breakfast, I saw a crinkled grocery bag on the top shelf. Scrawled on it in ink was a message: “Bill—Derby winner. Long time coming. Andy.” I peeked into the bag. Andy had snuck a bottle of Chimay into my fridge overnight. I read the inscription again.

One Sunday last year, with a crosswind slapping the Derby into chaos, I had gone searching for Andy in the pack and, when I found him, said, “Mother’s Day Derby.”

He said, “I know.”

He’d been racing since he was a kid, had just turned pro on the velodrome and was riding like never before, racking up Derby wins. I could barely finish with the pack that year, but I tore myself apart to make sure I saw the end, to make sure I got to watch Andy escape for a win as beautiful and as far off from the rest of us as that spring morning’s pure blue sky.

That Derby was on May 9, and in June Andy’s mother, Debbi, died of the cancer that we all knew was going to take her.

At the burial, Andy’s cycling friends clustered together, the way we always seem to. We stood out in the sun, lean and strong but blinking a lot, or else turning our heads to stare off down the slope of the cemetery, watching flowers and little flags on sticks snap and sway in the breeze. In the distance, a young, pregnant woman in a white dress was chasing a little girl who seemed to have just learned how to run. The girl was wearing a pink dress, and her arms were high in the air, and though I couldn’t hear I was certain she was laughing. She had no idea she was in a cemetery; she was in a grassy field on a sunny and windy day with flags and flowers waving all around her, and she had escaped.

I looked back at Debbi’s grave, at Andy sitting in front of it, then back at the little girl. She was running, and the sky was pure blue and far away, and I knew soon her mother would need to catch her, and I wanted to remember the little girl free so I looked back at the grave. Debbi had always found joy in Andy’s love of racing rather than in the racing itself. In the last days of her life, his Mother’s Day Derby would have meant something to her only because it meant so much to him. And the Derby mattered to him, as to the rest of us, only because it mattered to that tooskinny group standing a little awkward at the edge of the service, unaccustomed to sharing such intense emotion without their bikes between them.

There in front of my refrigerator, I held my unlikely trophy for my unlikely Derby in my hand and stared at it, and I must have done so for too long because my daughter had come into the kitchen and I heard her saying, “Dad. What are you doing? Dad. Hey. What’s that?”

That day in the cemetery, I hadn’t been able to help myself. I’d risked one more look at the little girl. Her mother had stopped chasing her, was standing with her arms crossed, smiling, happy for a moment on whatever kind of day was happening to her to see her child happy. I looked back at Andy, and back again at the little girl, and she was running, running.

I looked at the prize my friend had given me, and I answered my daughter. I said, “That’s what you get when you win the Derby.”

V Impossible   VII What It’s Like
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, December 2011