As competitive runners, my best friend and I were always pounding each other in training. Seldom did a run proceed at less than 6:00 pace. We learned that habit in an era when everyone ran fast all the time. Intensity was how you got better. A part of me still thinks it’s true.
Yes, we’ve learned over the years through science and experimentation that running and riding too hard can lead to burnout, poor performance and injury.
But what’s the fun in not trying too hard sometimes. Crazy things can happen when you cross the line into training madness. You might even encounter an Englishman who will run or ride alongside you, talking amiably as you suffer. Englishmen are good at that sort of thing.
It happened that my best training partner met the Englishmen during a long, experimental training session that happened pretty much by chance.
We had an 8-mile run on our training schedule one muggy August afternoon, and took off running at 6:00 pace in our usual way. Finished the run in 48:12 and then he turned to me and said. “I’m not tired. Let’s get some bikes and go for a ride.”
This was long before he took up cycling seriously. Later in life he rode his bike with fury and fitness, competing in CAT 3 races and above. He also rode his bike back and forth to work 60 miles round trip each day. Got so fit that summer he accepted an invitation to ride the famous climbs of the Tour de France in France. Alpe de Huez. Mont Ventoux. He rode them all in the heat of summer, hanging onto the back wheel of a manic Frenchman named Erik (pronouned Air-rheeek). It was the thrill of a lifetime. And hard as hell.
But that summer neither of us was anything near to a serious cyclist. I buzzed home and got my Columbia 10-speed, black with a split seat. He pulled up on a dull yellow Schwinn Varsity. And we took off riding toward Sycamore, 17 miles away.
The first hour went fine. Then my friend heard a whirring coming from is bike and realized a brake pad had shifted and was about to come off. The rubber was corroded. The bike hadn’t been ridden in a while.
So he yanked off the brake pad but in the process something might have happened to the cable too, which meant the brake handle went slack and the cable itself dangled by the side of the bike. He yanked that off.
A few more miles down the road another brake cable broke. On the rare moments when we stopped he had to put his feet down. Neither of us had clipless pedals. We were just mashing along in tandem, chewing up as much road as we could.
It got hot. Neither of us had any water. We kept pedaling. The miles rolled away until suddenly another strange sound came from the chain of my friend’s bike and it ground to a halt. The rusty chain was stuck between the sprocket and the bike. We yanked it out and attempted to keep going, but something was wrong. He seemed to have only one gear, and a relatively low one at that.
We were 12 miles from home and he was pedaling like the old lady in the Wizard of Oz. Sweat streamed from his body and then stopped. He started to look a little pale, and the hills were really hard for him to ride.
5 miles from home he plain out bonked. His pedaling turned into a strange, weak sort of thing that offered little propulsion. He looked worried and distracted all at once. So I decided to ride circles around him to keep him focused and moving forward. And something in my brain decided to begin conversing in a thick English accent.
We often talked in accents between us, my friend and eye. Outrageous Inspector Clousseaux voices, and Asian and East Indian and Black and dumb White Guy accents. Whatever it took to make the other guy laugh. Just mid-20s fun.
But the Englishman had a purpose that day. He offered praise and encouragement for the effort. “Jolly right, good chap, keep pedaling,” he’d chirp. To which my friend would mutter some famished invective, not nearly strong enough to get me to stop.
It continued that way for 5 whole miles. The Mad Englishman riding circles around the damaged Schwinn Varsity and its haggard rider. But we got home and bought two whole giant jugs of Gatorade, which he drank in consecutive gulps and recovered.
He told me then he never wanted to hear that fucking Englishman again. But the cheery chap turns up once in a while on longer rides, when neither of us expect it. It can be him that takes the role of the Englishman, or me. But we know what it means, hearkening back to the day when we first tried a long ride, and overshot our experience.
Which was worth it. The Englishman has been good company ever since.