Riding home that day early in the 2011 season, Jason and Mark told me they could see white bone at work inside the bloody hole the asphalt had ground into my elbow. We stopped at a store and bought a beer each, then went along the busy street until we saw a bench off in a grassy field behind a church. We sat there drinking at our beers. I’d gotten back in the race and, gritting my teeth so hard my dentist would months later ask me what I’d done to my canines, I’d somehow beat one guy of the 42 who’d made it to the finish.
The pastor came out. He told us he hoped we didn’t mind, but he could never pass up a chance to minister. I said that’d be no problem for us, that we’d just raced our bikes, and I told him how in every race, if you raced it right, you never got less than a hint and sometimes much more of whatever divinity and damnation might lie in wait for you. Before he left, he said we were welcome to stop and sit there anytime we wanted. He said he hoped we understood there was a way to ensure our souls made the right choice between the fates augured in our bike races.
Late in the season, with my elbow still aching, I gave everything I had to a sprint in the middle of a points race and got nothing, but I stayed on the pedals instead of letting up after the line and ended up getting a good gap along with three or four other guys. They were no better than me, though, and my legs had gone to sludge. We weren’t going to stay away no matter what. I eased up, to recover, to wait for the pack. And just as I did, a couple of the local pros blurred by.
There was no way I could latch on. I jumped as hard as I could anyway, trusting that other groups would be coming in chase. Twice, I managed to tuck into passing drafts, only to get dropped. Pain was twisting me in a way that made my left shoulder droop and contorted that side of my pelvis and torso toward the handlebar. The riders who came by next were ragged in line and wracked in their breathing, and I thought also that they’d waited too long to have any chance of crossing the gap. Then I saw Slaughter in there, who’d once made his living racing his bicycle, and I knew they’d go all the way. I rode myself down through the mouth of my own hell, and all of us got onto the break. Then, stiff at the elbows, trembling, choking down inhalations like a child coming off a hysterical sob, I let the break ride away from me.
On the way home with Animal and Fondo and the whole group of us who ride together, Slaughter drifted beside me then threw his arm across my back and pulled me over until our bars were fast against each other. In a voice near a whisper, he said, “You never come out of a break that way. You just can’t ever do that again.”
I wanted to explain how hard it had been for me, how much I’d suffered. But I said something I didn’t know I was going to say. I said, “I’m sorry.”
“You know when you came off the break?” Slaughter said. “That exact moment? I wanted to quit like you. Everyone did. It hurts that bad. That’s what it’s like.”
He let go of my shoulder. The ride home from there on was short, but for me it was an eternity in which my feet spun the pedals, my fingers shifted gears and braked, my body performing all the actions it needed to while whatever it is inside us, what the pastor would have called my soul, lay still and silent. I’d been so proud of my suffering all year. For the cyclists I wanted to emulate, that was like being proud of breathing. I spun the pedals. I shifted gears and braked. I was going home, and I took a breath.