This one still feels important to me, to something about who I am or hope I am. As the struggle to ride to the limit — or do anything near whatever its limit is — goes deeper into you, I think it becomes deeper.
For a few years now, people who should know better — riding people, but also, more specifically and personally, my riding friends — speak as if everything is normal when I manage to finish some dodgy cycling escapade: “Of course,” they say. “Of course you rode it. Of course you made it. Of course you got back on your bike. Of course you finished. Of course you were with the group. Of course you were at the front. Of course you rode in the rain. In the snow. In the cold.”
If you ride long enough, I guess, actual cyclists begin to imagine that you are one of them. What’s really going on, as we all know but will never admit to each other, is that we’re faking it. The actuality comes from imitating those who are imitating those who imitate it so well they seem to not be imitating it.
We figured out — or had it figured out for us so many times that we absorbed the lesson despite ourselves — that if you don’t let anyone know your last burst of energy is your last, it might not have to be. Sometimes the pack will sit up half a second before you do. Sometimes the hill ends before you do. Sometimes one of the hardmen gets thirsty for a Coke and pulls into SnappyMart before you’re forced to admit you vomited up your energy bar five miles ago and won’t make it another block if you don’t get a hot dog off the roller.
In a simpler and more optimistic sense, what happens is that you stop quitting; you have to be made to quit.
That’s a big difference, and it can end up changing not only who you are as a rider but who you are as a person. The acclaim you receive for this, however, is as subtle as the transformation is monumental: You become taken for granted as a cyclist. Those who are always there when there’s a there worth being there for assume you always will be there with them. That’s your reward: you become ordinary.
I can’t remember going for a ride with any group of decent size and looking around and thinking I was the fastest, or the savviest, or the most experienced. There are always other riders who possess those qualities in greater degrees, or sometimes a rider who is all three at once. Yet, those riders don’t express any surprise when I stay with them, or force a move, or bring back a break, or even when I know a great road when we’re six counties from home. I only hear about something when I can’t do one of those things. I’ve become completely ordinary. And that’s pretty amazing.
Though I’d never let any of them know it’s a big deal — of course.
Originally published in The Selection, December 6, 2011