Jason, who was the one on the ride with me, after reading this said, “I never knew until now how much you loved cycling.”
Went out with a novice rider Saturday, a kid just out of college—albeit on the extended studies program I followed myself—who was carrying those extra higher-education pounds most of us put on and who had, in a similarly damnable ncremental way, over the course of his studies traded his life in the physical world for one that existed mostly in books, in computers, in cyberspace and his own head. He’d been on the bike about a week, done some 20-milers. We had around 40 to 45 targeted, a little rolly in the first half with a food stop in the middle before a flat, hand-of-god tailwind cruise home.
Kid’s a disaster on a bike. Was afraid to grab his bottle while riding (and dropped it at one point after I told him we would not stop to drink), skitters all over the road thanks to elbows stiffer than his bottom bracket, hunches his shoulders as if he’s being divebombed from a rear flanking of grackles—nothing you haven’t seen. Hell, nothing you haven’t lived, same as me. I didn’t want the day to turn into a long, pedantic blowhard session starring me, so mostly we talked about the fields we rode by, and the quality of the roads, our lives, people we knew, people we didn’t. When he wanted to know something, or noticed an ache or wobbled particularly, he’d ask about it and I’d tell some of what I knew.
I can’t really remember anymore when it was that I learned how to ride like a cyclist, let alone what it felt like not to. But even after a quarter-century of trying to ride with some sort of intent, I know what it’s like to look over at cyclists next to me and notice that they appear more relaxed, that their spins are at once more beautiful and more powerful than mine, that they carry themselves in a way I should aspire to. I study them. I watch where their hands lie on the bar, what their fingers do, what their feet do when they rise out of the saddle on a climb, what the muscles of their forearms might tell me about torque when their grip drops into the hooks during the windup to a sprint. I watch the way they sit their bikes at stoplights, how they lean them against the wall of the coffee shop—hell, I take note of what they order, when they drink and how much at once. I’m no longer a beginner, but just about every ride I’m aware that I’m just beginning to learn something new and important about this sport that has become so central to who I am.
On the way back, we were going about 12 mph on a road that had turned cross to the wind when the Bissell rider Shane Kline passed us, going about 30. He was on the hoods, and the profile of his back arcing over his bike looked like the untroubled shape of a wave 10 miles from any shore, and his legs were blurry in their cadence. He lifted his right hand off the hood and gave us a little, flat, brief acknowledgement, palm down, that at once said hello and goodbye. I watched him vanish. The wind smacked the side of my head.
“That guy there,” I said, “he’s a pro.”
“Yeah,” said my riding companion. “I could see that.”
What I thought was: no you couldn’t, not really, but someday if you’re tenacious and respectful of what it all means you might be able to. What I said was: “You’re doing pretty good in this crosswind.”
Originally published in The Selection, November 2, 2010