We rode away from everyone early in the morning, Ben and I, on a miles-long false flat that leveled to an even lengthier, crosswind-wracked ridge so open that the only delineation of horizon was a blurry treeline at the farthest border of useful vision. As the road wriggled across the exposed land I swathed myself in Ben’s draft, adjusting each time we changed our orientation to the howling. We had dropped our friends not by seconds but minutes, but to sit up and soft pedal in such a wail was somehow harder than riding with rigor.
Finally, in the shelter of piney forest, Ben slacked his cadence. I took a drink and ate a sugar waffle. Taylor came across first, as I crinkled the wrapper into a pocket, then Chris, then Jeff and David together as we nosed into a descent. The thick, soft-barked trees and generations-deep bed of fallen needles on each side absorbed sound so the clicking of our coasting freewheels and aimless bits of conversation seemed amplified for how quickly they were hushed.
On the next climb I took Ben’s wheel again and again we pedaled off, neither trying to nor trying not to. We simply rode the pace the slope and the squall in some way demanded, and waited for our friends when the cessation of both allowed us to.
We were all on our fourth 100-mile-plus ride in six days, and this was the hilliest yet. Coming off the last one emptied, I’d expected to be a straggler. But the two of us rode away in an amiable voiceless spin to ≠another forest atop the next, and longest-so-far, climb. We stopped to pee and I drank more and ate a tiny Belgian sausage, slightly warm from having been hoarded in my pocket against my back. Chris rode up and said, “You have the magic legs today, Bill.”
I told him that I would not speak of such a thing. I did not want to jinx it away.
The enchantment would vanish, of course, and too soon, the way it always does for middling riders like me. I’d fall apart, become one of the last to the top for the rest of the day. But that was still hours away. I had hills and hills of magic legs left, and eventually≠ while going up and on the top and sauntering with no pedal strokes down a 4 percent grade in wait, Ben and I passed time in the looping conversation ≠peculiar to a long ride. We talked about families ≠and bikes and growing up and getting old, and Ben said, “You’re used to this, huh?”
And I said, “What?”
“Long, hard rides. You are used to them.”
“Uh…no. I don’t think so. I guess maybe? No, wait: No. I’m just having a good day, a few good hours. I don’t ride like you.”
Which he had to know, I thought. He had that easy and endless temperament to his spin, and that aura of absolute relaxation in the saddle that was a shroud for something coiled always within him, some elegant and awful spring under such pressure there was about him when he was on a bike a kind of non-aural high hum. I list to the left as I pedal—all my saddles wear away on that side. When I’m desperate to hang, which is often, I drop my torso and cock my head to a side and look out at the road aslant, and my tongue lolls.
Ben tucked into his bike. His back was flat, his foream in a plane with his upraised thigh. He said, “Ah, no. You ride like you.”
He found an imperceptible furrow in the wind and gained speed and I followed and, for a few more hours, down that hill and up others and across some blustering flats, I rode like me, and the characteristics I’d for so long thought of only as flaws fit together in a way that let me stay right with him.
X Not Riding it Right XII The Thing We Carry
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, July 2012