I knew the ending of this story, because it had happened, but I had no idea what the story was. I’m still not sure I do. But I still kind of laugh when I think about it all. And I still kind of think it all means something that lies a little past the laughter.
In the earliest part of the late part of a night in a bar, we were talking about bikes and biking and bike riders, me and Jeremy and Rob and Zach and Joe and Rebecca, and maybe a few others sporadically and at the edges, including one lady who’d shown up alone all dressed up and sat at the bar alone and ordered and aside from that never talked to anyone but kept sneaking looks over at us all the time. Bars are like that. So are bicyclists.
Jeremy was making a little fun of Zach. We’d just met him a few days before. We liked him. He rides every day — more than me, at least in frequency — because that’s how he gets around, on what I think he said was a 1982 Raleigh. He also rides just to ride, to see things, to get out of town, to decompress, to think, to feel. But he doesn’t ride for sport: not just to race, but with the ambition to go fast with and against friends, to try to be the first to the top of a hill, to push out the borders of your aerobic capacity and bore ever more and ever deeper wells in your anaerobic field. And, though in getting around the city he of course rides among people, he doesn’t ever really ride with other people.
The day before, he and Jeremy had ended up pedaling around town together.
“You almost took me down,” Jeremy said to him.
Zach nodded. “I did,” he said.
Jeremy squiggled a hand around, recreating how Zach hadn’t been able to hold a line.
“Yeah,” I said. “You ride all the time but somewhere inside you is a rider you can find if you want.” The night in a bar was, maybe, edging over now from the early part of late to late.
“What are you talking about?” Zach said, at which point Jeremy and I launched contrapuntal monologues exalting and explaining the essence of being a bicycle rider as opposed to one who merely rides, and exhorting Zach, at various points, to chisel off the excess stone hiding the masterwork cyclist inside him, to always seek to find and use the ever-changing sharp edge of the pencil point (the attainment of which bestowed upon artists a mysterious and near-mystical stroke), and to get another round of drinks. We spoke of all this, in detail and in a range of decibels and fervor, for perhaps twenty minutes. The passion with which we spoke gradually engaged everyone in our group. Even the voiceless dressed-up lady had turned full around in her bar stool and was plainly peering at us.
When we had completed our enlightening and enriching of Zach, he said, “What are you talking about?”
Joe said, “What they mean is that there are things you learn from riding with others that make you a better rider.”
“That makes sense,” Zach said. “Like what?”
“Oh, we can’t tell you,” I said. “You should only learn it from riding. It’s the only way to truly and fully absorb the knowledge.” It was late, and Zach had procured another round, and so had someone else, so I actually believed this.
“I’ll tell you one,” Joe said.
Jeremy and I independently but simultaneously protested and—in what became an extended etude complemented by hand gestures, head shakes and nods, and body poses meant to communicate defeat and triumph and horror—for fifteen or twenty minutes we allowed Joe to start to reveal this one bit of knowledge before interrupting again and again and again. We were goofing around so obviously now, with drunken clarity mocking ourselves for our previous pretentious babble, that even the silent lady was smiling.
Finally, I said, “I think we’ll allow it this one time.”
Jeremy leaned over toward Zach and said, “Because, you know, that’s Joe Breeze. You’ll be getting a piece of the knowledge from Joe Breeze. From Joe Breeze!”
“Joe Breeze,” I said.
“Joe Breeze,” said Jeremy.
“Yeah, I know,” said Zach.
And Joe Breeze said, “Listen, here it is.”
We all leaned in. I was holding my breath.
Joe Breeze said, “When you’re climbing a hill and you’re in front of someone, if you stand up, your bike is going to want to jerk backward into them.” He demonstrated with his hands. “So what you do is, you give an extra hard pedal stroke right as you stand and you kind of pull your bike forward.”
Zach nodded. He absorbed this.
So much later that night that it was now almost early, Zach and Jeremy and I were walking back from another bar, and Zach said, “That was a good tip. Earlier. That tip about not knocking into someone behind you. I could see how that kind of thing makes a big difference to other people. If you’re, you know, riding with other people. Like what you guys were trying to say.” He paused. He said, “It’s like you all care about each other.”
“You got a big piece of the knowledge there, buddy,” I said, and I wasn’t talking about what to do on a hill. “Joe gave you a gift. A big head start.”
We walked, and a little later Zach said, “Yeah, that guy, who was that guy? Joe LeMond?”
Jeremy and I laughed until we couldn’t walk, then we laughed some more and tried to walk, and kept laughing and had to stop again. There was still so far to go.
Originally published in The Selection, October 6, 2011