By Christopher Cudworth
The Saturday morning group ride was a great tradition in South Wendon. Up to 40 riders showed up at 7:00 a.m. each week. That meant for fast-paced rides from April through September.
But on a cold October morning just three cyclists showed up for the ride. There was Philip, the converted distance runner, Lutheran, political liberal and nature lover.
Then came Frank, who took up cycling to work off weight and participate in the RAGA, the Right Across Great America, an extended conservative fondo from Philadelphia to Council Bluffs, Iowa following the Oregon Trail.
The third cyclist was a younger fellow named Titan. His parents had home-schooled him and used cycling as a non-school sport. He’d won the state championship at the age of 22 but became disenchanted with the oppressive entry fees at races and now spent all his time hammering group rides and voting for at least one of the political Paul clan in every election.
The three riders started off slowly, looking back perhaps in hope that at least one more cyclist would show up to help with the growing wind. At the first stop sign all three cyclists slowed, but none of them came to a full stop.
“It’s actually better to roll on through,” said Philip. “Studies have shown that clipping and unclipping actually put you at greater risk for a self-induced fall.”
“Where’d you read that,” huffed Frank. “On the Huffington Post?”
“I don’t really believe in Stop signs,” said Titan. “Besides, I’ve heard that the white line around the outside means they’re optional.”
Up a long hill they rolled together. Frank took the lead, pumping his strong legs in a long, slow cadence because he refused to drop gears on any hill. “It doesn’t suit me,” he often said. “It’s the same amount of effort one way or another.”
Philip trailed behind in second position secretly happy to be riding in the draft. It struck him that Frank held a good line and that his rather broad butt and back made a good wind break.
Titan hung impatiently off the back. The climb wasn’t tapping him at all. He could have ridden to the front with no issue. Instead he drifted along 10 yards in the lurch. His mind was occupied with the width and breadth of the shoulder, which varied from 6 inches to two full feet. “There’s a waste of tarmac,” he muttered to himself. “The government can’t do anything right.”
Frank most likely would have agreed with that opinion. But his attention was grabbed by the blinking yellow light at the top of the hill. He’d once had a near miss on that corner when he was turning left and a flower truck roared up behind him. Now the very thought of flowers made him angry to the point of distraction.
At that point Philip moved around Frank to the front with about 300 yards to go. “Typical liberal,” Frank thought to himself. “Led me lead and then look like the hero at the end.”
But then Titan came swinging by, dancing on the pedals as he stood on them. All three pulled even on the last 40 yards of the hill, none giving an inch.
Going downhill forced them to line back up as cars sought to pass them on the road. It was a long, curving section of road leading down to river valley. Titan bent into a tuck and the other two were forced to follow suit. Frank’s still-ample gut was cramped. Philip felt his back grow tight. He’d been ignoring his core work because his gym membership had lapsed when his debit card failed because he could not find his new one in the mail because of all the literature from Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.
Turning right away from town, Titan floated to the back and teased, “Alright, time for you wheelsuckers to take over.”
Which made no sense because Titan had done no real work on the ride as yet. His long “pull” was mostly downhill and now he was calling Frank and Philip wheelsuckers?
“That’s bullshit,” Frank growled as he pushed to the front again. “You’ve got no principles, boy.”
Titan felt the sting of the comment and so drifted off the back again, plotting a way to demonstrate that his long years of home schooling had taught him more than a thing or two about the ways of the world.
Philip meanwhile had noticed a giant billboard that said “Abortion Kills.” There was a picture of a baby with a target on its chest and a young woman pointing an index finder like a gun.
“What a mixed message,” he blurted before catching himself.
“What?” Frank reacted, thinking Philip was talking about his complaint toward Titan. Instead he looked up to see the billboard and chuckled, rather hoarsely. “She might as well use a real gun,” he growled. “It’s just as quick.”
“And what, being pregnant is called Concealed Carry?” Philip jested.
“Best law ever made,” Frank flatly stated.
Titan rolled up behind Philip and asked, “What are we talking about?”
“Abortion Kills,” Frank said in a sure tone.
“Well that might be true,” Titan responded. “But shouldn’t everyone have the right to make their own decisions?’
“Sure,” Frank blurted. “But the baby you just killed doesn’t get to speak, does it?’
Philip rode to the front to avoid the growing confrontation. Frank refused to relinquish the lead pull at first, but Philip persisted. “Let’s work together,” he suggested.
“Oh sure,” Frank grimaced, feeling the effects of his three mile pull. “Just like a liberal to avoid the issue at hand.”
“Let’s talk about something else,” Philip beckoned. “We still have a long ways to go.”
For three or four miles they rotated pulls with Titan nudging the pace past 23 mph each time. Frank and Philip struggled to hold their cadence. The clicking of gears could finally be heard from Frank’s cassette as he strived to find his comfort zone.
They crossed a high bridge over a river. Philip rode close to the edge and glanced at the water far below. “I heard they wanted to damn this gorge,” he said as they slowed to hold their lines in the growing winds.
“And well they should,” Frank asserted. “The cost of power in this area is way too high.”
“They’d just tax us to make up the difference,” said Titan.
“So true,” Frank agreed, almost laughing at the thought. But not quite.
“Thank God for the recession,” Philip said. “At least they didn’t start some boondoggle project that would ruin the environment anyway.”
“Who cares about that?” Frank insisted. “What is the environment anyway? It’s everything! Are we supposed to sit around and do nothing? Build nothing? Be nothing?”
“That’s not the point,” said Philip. “And you know it. It’s more about being intelligent with what we do!”
“And who gets to decide that?” chortled Titan, again swinging to the front for a punishing pull. “All those faux intelligentsia are so full of shit about the environment anyway. Half the time we try to preserve things they only grow wild with invasive species. It’s just about as bad as human immigration.”
“Harrr!” Frank threw back his head in agreement. “Ain’t that the truth?”
“Funny how you guys think you’re so smart about anything that abuses others,” Philip hissed. “Jesus would be disgusted.”
“Jesus is irrelevant in government issues,” Titan maintained. “Freedom from religion is law you know.”
“But I thought your mama was a Jehovah or something?” Frank queried. “Isn’t that why you home schooled?”
“Not at all,” Titan replied. “We just didn’t think public schools have a clue about what’s important, or how to teach it.”
“On that I can agree with you,” Frank said. “Everyone should get vouchers and just pick their school. It’s the best of all worlds…”
And at that point a large truck came blasting past the three cyclists. The truck gave no quarter and the rush of wind sent them reeling on the edge of the road. Philip caught his wheel in the gravel and began to swivel and swerve trying to keep his bike up. But his wheels sunk into the tarsnakes hardened by the fall chill. He swerved and pitched into the ditch with stones and gravel raining down on top of him.
“Holy crap!” Frank yelled, shaking his fist at the truck that roared on up the hill ahead of them. He thought he saw the guy stick his arm out the window and flip him the bird. He flipped the guy off in return.
Frank and Titan circled back to find Philip climbing up the grassy embankment. His kit jersey hung off his shoulder and a red rash showed through.
“Thanks for stopping,” Philip blurted.
“Of course,” Frank said. “We wouldn’t just leave you here. The hell!”
Titan helped Philip back up the bank, taking the bike over his shoulder and inspecting it by the side of the road. Frank climbed off his own bike and stood over the front tire to straighten the handlebars. Titan placed the chain back in line and lifted the bike to spin the rear wheel. Frank tested the brakes, then pulled a kerchief out of his jersey pocket and handed it to Philip. “Here son, your chin’s bleeding.”
Philip glanced back at the embankment where he’d started to crash. “Look at those tracks in the road shoulder,” he laughed. “That’s crazy.”
They all laughed. There were S-curved ruts in the gravel. “Nice try,” Titan chuckled.
With the bike checked out they all got back on their rides and began rolling up the road again. “You okay?” Frank asked quietly as he rolled up beside Philip.
“Couldn’t be better,” Philip said bitterly. They bumped fists.
“I crashed last year and laid in the ditch for about half an hour,” Titan related. “I hit my head and didn’t know what time it was, or where I was.”
“Well that explains a lot!” teased Frank.
“Yeah, maybe,” Titan said.
“Honestly, I feel like shit,” Philip explained. “Can we hold this pace a while?”
“No problem,” Frank replied, feeling a sense of commonality and responsibility in the situation. This was how it all worked, he thought to himself. Someone has to take the lead.
Titan rolled along behind, whistling to himself as he imagined adding a few miles to his ride once they were back. His fitness was near peak. These group rides were great for socializing, but the real work needed to be done on your own.
As the trio rode along Philip glanced down at his cyclometer and said, “Not bad. We’re still averaging 19.5 at 35 miles.”
“I don’t trust those things,” Titan responded. “I ride by feel. It’s much more honest anyway.”
“I know my pace by heart,” Frank somewhat agreed. “I know exactly how fast or slow I’m going at all times.”
“To me the empiric feedback is important,” Philip said. “You can’t really make decisions or know where you stand without information to back it up.”
“Not really true,” Titan stated. “All facts are subjective to the source of input. That’s why it’s best not to make too many laws. I mean, what does a speed limit mean on the highway if no one obeys the law anyway?”
“But you have to have standards,” Frank insisted. “Otherwise society is a free-for-all.”
“What you’re both saying is that we need guidelines,” Philip suggested.
“That’s a namby-pampy liberal viewpoint if I ever heard one,” Frank snapped. “Guidelines. What a joke!”
Titan rode up to their sides and challenged them. “Let’s put this theory to the test!” And he rode off the front at 25 mph. Frank and Philip gave chase, then clung to Titan’s wheel as he pushed faster and faster. 26. 27. 29. Then they were all riding at 30 mph. The road dipped and climbed and still the pace stayed high. All three were hammering with Titan starting to sweat even though his fitness was superior to the other two.
Finally they reached another long downhill stretch and the pace reached 40 mph, then 45. Titan howled in excitement and Philip kept his eyes glued to the rear wheel of the leader. Frank stayed in a low, dense crouch and pedaled at times to find his gear when they would finally emerge on the flats. Then he planned to take the front and bury them all in the long sprint to the finish.
To his surprise crazy Philip pulled out from behind Titan and wheeled around with his hands on the upper hoods. He seemed to be defying the wind itself. Indeed, even Titan laughed as Philip pedaled like the old woman in the Wizard of Oz. They all started laughing and kept it up as they clamored together in the last sprint. None of the three could muster any sort of lead, perhaps because they’d used up so much oxygen laughing at Philip’s idiot attempt at a sprint in the final stages of the hill.
Then they rolled to a stop and high-fives were exchanged. “I may hate you bastards but that was a good ride,” Frank admitted.
“Not so bad hanging out with liberals and libertarians after all?” Titan asked.
“It all comes down to the rubber meeting the road, doesn’t it?” Frank stated. “We’re all just chunks of meat on a seat.”
“You wheel suck and then you die,” Philip added.
“Speak for yourself,” Titan retorted. “I’m going out for another 20. No limits, you know?”
“Have at it,” Frank observed. “I’ve got a Bible study in 45 minutes. Time to go home and change. Then I’m watching the Big Ten games this afternoon with a beer and a good chunk of red meat.”
“How delightfully cliche,” Philip chimed. “And do you expect that I’ll be watching dance with my gay friends and eating quiche enchiladas?”
“Suit yourself,” Frank spouted. “What you liberals do on your own time is none of my business unless you want to tax me for the right to do it.”
“The only sure thing in this world,” Titan insisted, “Is that hell is other people.”
“Existentialism,” laughed Frank. “I had to take that at my liberal freaking college too. Bunch of French freaks sitting around pushing their fingers into their foreheads. Jesus could have answered all their questions with one picture drawn in the dirt.”
“Yes.” Philip countered. “Love one another does go a long way. And forgive the rest.”
“Ha!” Titan laughed. “How very predictable. Was that John Lennon or Jesus who said that?’
“More like Buddha or some other fatheaded liberal,” Frank blanched.
“Well, love is truth whether you like to admit it or not. You can call me liberal or whatever, but love really is the answer.”
“And I love to make fun of you both,” Titan jested.
Frank huffed and pulled his handlebars up in front of his chest. “Someday,” he aimed the wheel at Titan. “I will run the both of you down just to save the world from your pathetically disconnected worldviews.”
“Good luck catching me brother,” Titan said, gripping his hoods in a flexing motion.
Philip added: “Thanks for not leaving me in the ditch though guys. You’re both Good Samaritans in my book.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Frank noted. “See you next week.”
“It’s supposed to be 30 degrees. Even colder,” Philip said.
“I ride until my tires freeze,” Frank grunted.
“See you then,” Titan waved, riding away for his extra 20 miles.
Philip pedaled over to his Subaru and loaded his bike into the back. The bumper sticker on the back said COEXIST. Next to it was the silver shape of a fish with feet and a word inside that said DARWIN.
He noticed that his shoulder was pretty sore. He noticed in the reflection of the rear window that his chin also had a knot of coagulated black blood. As he closed the hatchback he glanced up to see Titan disappearing into the trees on the first climb out of town. Frank was rolling back toward the city with that earnest pumping style of his.
Philip drove home to his farmette in the country and hung his bike in the barn that served as a garage. His golden retriever came lapping up to him and his red-headed wife emerged in her peasant dress with nothing underneath. They made love in the straw behind the shed, and all was good with the world. Except the part where his shoulder hurt.
In fact there was a fracture in his collarbone. But he was glad for his Obamacare, the conservative hospital where he had surgery and the quiet little coffee shop where Titan had done much of his home schooling by using their free Wi-Fi. That’s where Philip wrote this little story to recall all that had happened, and why he did not show up for the 30 degree ride that next weekend.
Frank still led, but Titan dropped the other 2o riders in the last four miles and rode home merrily alone. And the world was still good. Except for the part where Frank got into an argument with a rider who belonged to the Tea Party. The only thing on which they could agree is that carbon fiber was not the cause of global warming.
But all the cyclists in the group ride agreed that triathletes were all nuts. There are some principles that really are immutable in this world.