For a few years, nobody I rode with could beat me on the back of Fifth Street, the short and steep side, the one with the hairpin that will scatter a group of cyclists like they are tiny black ants getting flicked up and down and off the crook of an elbow.
Nobody’s beating me today, either. I’m alone. The slight and steady resistance of the pedals is pleasant and somehow reassuring, like stirring thick scratch waffle batter. I’m at home here on Fifth. I live just about halfway down the other side. This is the hill I have probably climbed more than any other in my entire life. There is something for me about the ascent that cannot be expressed in length and grade.
I pass the road sign that reminds me that the speed limit is 40. A group of cyclists going by a marker like this on a stretch like this is pretty much obligated to repeat some stale joke about staying under the posted speed, a remark that is more of a ritual than a witticism but will anyway elicit groans or ripostes, which themselves long ago have became fundamental elements of the climb. Our group never mentions this sign. There are better jokes up ahead, like the sign I’m going by now that warns me not to pass anyone, and the painted admonition on the pavement a little farther on that will let me know, as it has for more than 20 years, that no matter how fast I ever thought I was, from the viewpoint of a mountain road I have always been and have remained: SLOW.
The hairpin looms. Back when I was the best on this climb, I would every once in a while come into the turn deliberately overgeared to show off, sometimes even in the big ring, struggling already on the mild opening slope to not crumple under the gear but then able somehow to resurrect myself and swing wide and pounce right into the throat of the beast of the turn and tear away at it with my legs and great swings of my arms, and once I had gnawed through it I would stand furious and free and snorting and flying all the way to the next turn then across the tricky little dip where anyone who slowed could be caught, and just as I knew I had to quit at last I would sprint to the summit. I remember realizing one day, circling at the top, that I was showing off for myself. Nobody much cared but me. But I cared a lot. I gave the mountain everything I had, every time I could.
When I started getting beat on Fifth, at first it wasn’t because I was any slower or tried any less. It was because I began to ride with better cyclists, the way you’re supposed to. Then those riders did what they always do, which was to make the whole group a little better, and some of my friends who’d been there all along started beating me, too. Whether I gave everything or almost nothing, I almost always finished right in the middle of the pack in those seasons, so I started saving more of my effort for our other hills, other moments. Then for a few years I really did get slower, and some days it took everything I had simply to not be the last rider up the hill. In the season that just ended, here and there I was about as fast as I’d ever been in my life, and I won a few times again but mostly not, dependent less on my form than on who happened to show up that day. But the best climbs weren’t the ones I won. They were the ascents when I made it hard for the riders who were fitter than me and also those with more class, when I hurt them in the hairpin maybe, or made them punch at their gears in surprise that I might actually get away, or forced them to have to roll around at the top taking secretly deep breaths without talking for a few seconds while we waited for the stragglers. My best rides up Fifth were the ones when there was not even a chance I could show off, when there was no possibility at all I could win nor any heroic need to save myself from being last, and what mattered to me was not what I might get but how much I could give.
It’s a new season. I don’t know if I’ll be ready for this same old hill or not this year, but I’m ready for whatever it has left to teach me.
XVI Just Another Year XVIII Rooted
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, January 2013