With no more than 10 minutes to the top of the longest and last climb of the day, the wolf closed its jaws on me.
“In bocca al lupo,” someone said to me years ago at the starting line of a fondo over in Italy, thumping my helmeted head with his knuckles just before thousands of us exploded out of the pen. I rode alone that day mostly, all the way to the first mountain then over it and down and across a long stretch of false flat, with only the wolf in my head for companionship.
I kept thinking as I rode that, with my faint understanding of Italian, in which I know words but not syntax or grammar or anything remotely resembling a language, I must have misunderstood. Why would someone tell me to ride into the mouth of a wolf? I assumed the phrase was the name of a hard road ahead, or perhaps a high pass. On the steep pitches of the second real mountain, I finally rode myself into a group of equal speed, and somewhere in there, amid the clamor and choreography of a great ride, I stopped paying attention to that lone beast moving around inside me.
Days later, I remembered, and repeated the phrase to the frame builder I was visiting. He told me I had been wished good luck. A cyclist being told to ride into a wolf’s mouth is like an actor being advised to break a leg.
Since then, whenever a ride is vicious but I am having good luck with it I think about what staying alive inside the mouth of a wolf must take, to somehow manage to survive the teeth, the snapping, the ripping, the drooling, the gnashing and, afterward, to not lose fear when you next hear a howling.
I’d had the flu the week before our ride and knew I shouldn’t have been out there on that 90-miler. But we all had the day off in the middle of the workweek, and we all knew some of the roads but not all of them put together in just this way, and, anyway, I’d been having a great year on the bike and had done plenty of rides harder than this one without falling apart.
I fell apart.
We’d been tormenting each other for hours the way good riding friends will do, sometimes pretending the other had started the half-wheeling, sometimes with an outright attack and taunt, and sometimes in grim joy ratcheting up the pace in unspoken agreement until someone finally cracked and complained and we could ease off. On that final climb, my legs felt as if they’d been suddenly seized then shaken and shredded free of all muscle and blood.
Dave, beside me, said, “Hey, are you okay?” I said I wasn’t, and he said that I never say that. Tom told me to drink, and I told him I had been, and he told me to eat, and I told him I had been, and he said, “Uh-oh.” The periphery of my vision flickered, then began darkening. I dragged one foot through a pedal stroke, then the other, and when I didn’t feel asphalt against my cheek I figured I must have been still upright and moving so I did it all one more time.
A cyclist can go a long way like that. Dave said, “You’ll ride through this.” He stayed beside me, more an act of balancing than pedaling. Ray came back. I think he was telling long, funny stories but it was only the rhythm of his voice that I could hear, and my feet followed that. Tom was out of the saddle in front of me, bobbing, and that had a rhythm, too, and as my ears followed Ray my eyes followed Tom, and Dave said, “You’re riding through this.”
I was in the mouth of the wolf. It had torn me apart. But now it was carrying me, had gripped me gentle by the scruff and was taking me someplace safe, and I understood, finally, and I gasped, “lupo,” and though no one responded I had no doubt in some way they knew all about it.