When it all mixes, the racing and the living, and what can be seen of the world from a cafe table on a sidewalk becomes just about all you might ever need to see of the world — when that happens I sure like trying to get it down in words.
Last night, when he led the pack past me after I’d gotten a little less than lap solo off the front, Eric told me he was sorry. He was joking but he was not. I said something or thought to say something, I never did know and now cannot remember. My mouth was open, anyway. I got back in toward the front, ten or fifteen back, which still doesn’t make sense to me because I know I can get a longer rest drifting farther back but is what the riders who are more often at the front tell me I’m supposed to do.
This morning I sat outside the bike shop sipping at an Americano in a yellow mug. When Rachel had given it to me she’d told me it was starching hot, then had said “That’s not the right word, is it? I can’t think of the right word,” and I’d told her that I knew what she’d meant anyway, and I’d thought but not said that any word that produced the right meaning maybe wasn’t wrong even if it was. Across the street, a big piece of machinery was scooping out part of the sidewalk so some guys in orange shirts could plant trees. A lady about my age walked up, pushing what I thought was a kid’s mountain bike. The handlebar was turned completely around so the fork was backward. Without thinking about it, I set my coffee down and got up and offered to carry the bike down the few steps into the shop. The lady thanked me and when I told her I knew kid bikes were heavy she told me it was her bike but went ahead and thanked me again once we were in the shop. When I came out, one of the trees was in the sidewalk. An older lady walked up, pushing a Trek Pilot—2.1, I think—and carrying a floor pump. Her daughter, who was maybe just a little younger than me, was with her. They racked the bike and went inside and came back out with Graham, the mechanic. She was explaining that she’d been able to inflate the rear wheel but not the front. Graham unscrewed the valve and depressed the nib and put the chuck on and inflated the tire. The lady’s daughter gave her a little punch on the side of the arm, but neither of them was really much embarrassed. I liked that a lot, and it made me think about the race again.
Later on last night, I made a calculation that the break was ready to happen, which I’ve been trying to do this year, which is sort of my whole ambition for racing this season if that can be called outside of my own concern any sort of ambition at all, and I found Slaughter’s wheel and rode it out of the pack and across a gap and up into the group of seven or eight. Just as we got there he shifted down again and hunkered over his bike but I was glad to have made it and was already thinking about catching a few seconds of rest. He rode right through the disintegrating break and across to the real break that was developing out of this one, and he became right then one of the four who would stay away until the end. When I saw I’d made a mistake I rode through the frayed group, too, and tried to chase on, and by myself covered a little bit of pavement that took a lot and only got gapped worse, then sat up and waited for the pack, which is another way—if I were happening to be looking for words—of saying I quit. I didn’t need anyone else to feel sorry for me that time. I did it all for myself.
As I sat for three or four laps dead last in the group after missing the break, I kept trying to remember the equation that explains what powering a bike takes. I knew that P = gmVg, and that P is watts and g is gravity and m is the total mass of me and my bike and Vg is my speed through the air. I knew, too, that I was missing most of the rest of the equation. I stopped thinking about that, and thought about how the equation seems so absolute but is just a guess. The answer depends on so many variables that sometimes the power requirement is nearly linear with speed, like when you’re climbing a hill, and sometimes, like on a flat road, you end up needing to cube. I thought that if I was thinking all this, I had probably recovered. I moved up into the front of what was left of the pack, where I was should have gone in originally.
When we were riding home and I asked Slaughter how he knew the break was going to break off the break—he was going hard enough to get into it before there was an it to get into—he said such a thing was kind of a guess. He said he kind of sensed the moment. He said it wasn’t really a matter of thinking.
Graham came out awhile after all the customers had left and stood on the steps and leaned against the railing and drank his coffee and I drank mine and we talked about the morning and the new tree in the sidewalk and other things besides the race last night. I thought that he knew I had raced but must have guessed that if I wanted to talk about it I would have. It was kind of a way, if I were looking for other words again, of saying he was probably sorry for me about whatever kind of race I’d had.
I had no way of knowing or guessing this then, but on the lunch ride later that day I would go pretty hard, harder than could be considered smart after racing the night before, almost a starching effort, and as we would be spinning back into town after the fun descent from Shimerville, Jasen would say to me, “You were spinning the pedals like a bike racer at the end,” and I would not have been thinking about it that way at all, and that would be the best part of the past two days.
Originally published in The Selection, June 8, 2012