We came shuddering and shouldering and shouting out of the corner onto the long straightaway, and our appearance incited the clang of the bell and in hypoxic Pavlovian hysteria we pedaled into the sound and through it and out. For five or six laps I had stuck myself onto Pearson’s back wheel for just this moment, a moment I had too often reasoned myself out of in the past couple seasons, so when he did what I’d known all along he was going to and put his head down and began rooting a path through the tangle of handlebars and thighs and whirling pedals before us, without thought I followed him.
And it was that simple. That was all it took to be at the front of the pack in the first corner of the last lap of this crit: the annihilation of my thinking self.
Bonser had followed us, or been there already but in any case was off my front wheel, cutting inside on the corner. I thought I could hear his pedal ticking against my spokes. On my right, Aubrey bumped my elbow with his once then twice, then laid over against me arm to arm and our handlebars clicked and clattered against each other like roped boats in a wake, and I thought that I didn’t care, that I’d rather hit asphalt than give up Pearson’s wheel. But that was two thoughts now instead of the none that had got me there, and once I was thinking I did the rational thing, which, when Aubrey notched his handlebar in front of mine, was to back off, at first just a wheel length but soon after a whole bike length thinking as I gave that up that I could still maybe take Aubrey’s wheel instead. And that was enough thought to send me farther backward, through most of the pack, and I watched the guys who would go on to contest the sprint, who I had been one of, ride away from me.
I finished 29th or something. I was never really sure and have never checked.
In penance, I decided to flog myself with the next race. That would give me on the afternoon more than 50 miles at crit speed, and with the faster one at the end. I never got near the front. I got spat out twice and chased back on twice, and the third time I came off I had that drowning feeling, when the mouthfuls of air you swallow into your lungs seem only as if they are stopping you from breathing. I kept riding. I could see that at least I would be able to finish without being lapped, which felt like something, but really it was nothing and on the next lap when I passed the officials at the finish line I coasted over to the curb.
Chip was there, and he said, “Hey, you stuck in there for that second one, didn’t you—you killed yourself.”
After the field came by again and the road was clear, I pedaled across the street and clicked out and leaned my bike against the storefront window and walked in because I knew it was air-conditioned inside. It was an ice-cream shop, so I bought an ice cream. I would have bought an elephant. I came back out onto the sidewalk and noticed that Patrick Gellineau was sitting on a lawn chair over by the corner. He’s one of our elders, one of our legends, a 1972 Olympian gone wily in the places where he no longer had the strength he’d once had. He was laughing with someone about something, his head tipped back and his eyes to the sky. His eyes were open. He was not a man who would close them in deference to any star of any size. His legs were stretched out, long, lean, shiny in the sun where sweat lay on broad expanses of muscle but dark where channels ran down to bone or tendon.
I wasn’t sure if he knew me, but I liked to follow him when we were in the same races. He possessed an imperturbability that was maddening to me but more effective than anything I ever tried on my own. When I was around him, I rarely got dropped for good. Breaks would jump and seem to me as if they were going to stick unless we started bringing them back right away, but Gellineau would sit his position in the pack and as if daydreaming tick over some massive gear, and if I could get myself to remain calm and stay on his wheel the group would at some point be all together again without any effort of ours. When a race really had snapped for good and the break was never coming back, and someone like me would be waiting for exactly the right moment when I could try to leap across without dragging the entire pack along, he would be waiting instead for me to stop waiting, for exactly the right moment when he could drop into the draft of a desperate chase and go up the road under someone else’s exertion. He was one of the great ones, one of the ones who was always there, who frustrated a lot of racers because he knew how to race.
As I was watching him, behind me the peloton passed in its peculiar hum, something in it of the static when television used to actually go off the air, of a windup cymbal-clapping monkey held close to your ear, of playground shouts—and cries. Then the strange instant of silence pulled along by a pack before all the sounds of the world return. Then the trailing air. The breeze riffled the ends of my hair, felt cool moving across the perspiration on my neck. I took a lick of the soft-serve ice cream cone and it was frigid. The sun baked the shoulders of my jersey.
Patrick Gellineau was looking at me. I licked the ice cream cone again, and again its coldness made my body feel the heat of the sun. I heard a single bike coasting along the road behind me, someone else who’d gotten dropped. Gellineau’s legs looked worn comfortable in all the right places, like the handle of a good old rake he’d been using most of his life. I was thinking nothing but aware of so much. Gellineau was looking at me, and he said, “There’s a man who knows how to enjoy a bike race.”
I wanted another taste of my ice cream. I wanted to stand in sunshine on a day like this. I wanted to feel the air of the race move across my skin. I wanted to turn and watch the last lap and see how it all turned out. I wanted to talk to Patrick Gellineau. I wanted to never think ever again about being a bike racer, but just to be one, and so I waited. I waited for it to happen, for exactly the right moment.