By Christopher Cudworth
Five years ago there was a great group ride put on by our cycling club, Athletes By Design. It was a controlled pace ride that averaged 20mph. You knew that you’d get a good workout every Wednesday and cover between 35-40 miles. All you had to do was keep up your cadence and tuck in the draft if you wanted to simply finish.
For some reason I liked riding in 3rd or 4th position. For one thing, it felt safer. During one early summer ride a pileup had occurred when someone new to the ride hit their brakes too hard coming into a stop sign. Wheels clashed and a chain popped off. My reflexes were quick enough to allow me to avoid a collision. Other than an unfortunate communication mishap with a close friend that resulted in me turning into his front wheel, those are about the only close calls in 10 years of riding.
Other than racing, that is. Criteriums are a manic mix of high speed surges and tight turns. Because of that volatile environment, close calls are common. But you sign up for those the minute you put your front wheel on the line and the whistle blows. Racing does come with risks.
That first year I raced eight times and learned something harsh about my abilities and thinking at every event. It was trial by fire, yet the moment I nearly t-boned a downed rider on an uphill segment in a criterium, I felt like a “real cyclist.”
That’s how it is in the sport that never gets easier. Cycling is an “envelope” sport. If you’re serious about improving in some respect, you’re always pushing the edge of your envelope. The minute you can outride your own little group there is always another level, or a set of hardass riders coming up on your back when you’re out for a solo ride. Jump on and find out if you can keep up.
That’s what it means to be a cyclist. You must be willing to take on challenges to grow. Some of those challenges will outright flatten you. Yet you come back another day, another week, another month later and try again. For if you fail, or get dropped, or cancel a ride because you’re getting sick, there is always tomorrow. It’s important to remember that because cycling really can wear you down with all its pressing difficulty.
It happens every year, and year after year. Fighting back into shape after the winter months can be painful and even lonely. And when you get dropped there seems to be nothing but sullen air to breathe. Yet you keep on pedaling. Then you patch up your bruised ego and ride home as fast as you can. Might as well get something from the ride. It all adds up.
I recall riding into a 20 mph northwest gale one windy March day. It was all you could do just to do stay in the draft of the rider ahead of you. I chose to hunker in behind a big triathlete with a vee-shaped back. He made the perfect wind block and his strength was unending. Nothing else in the world exists at that point except to keep 6-12″ between your front wheel and the back wheel of the rider ahead of you.
It is one of the tarsnakes of riding that you can be so proud just to hang on during a group ride when someone else is doing all the work. You’re like, “Yeah, I rock!” and then you humbly realize that the three people at the front are the only ones who have a right to be proud in any way. The rest of us are merely wheel suckers.
But hey, that’s how you improve. You suck wheels until that day you find yourself at the front, and there is no place to hide. So you take a half-mile pull at 23 mph into the angled teeth of a crosswind and then another, and another. Suddenly you realize that you’re capable of much more than were just last week, or ever. On the final pull of the day a rider slides past and mutters, “Nice pulls,” and you think to yourself: “There is no better compliment on earth.” None.
Of course there’s always the pricks to contend with in cycling. Some people, blessed with the strength and desire to do all the pulling simply do not want you to suck on their wheel. They will go so far as to “gutter” you going into the wind so that you can’t even catch a draft. On and on they go at 26 mph, daring you to ride at their pace. Yet you do it somehow. But the satisfaction you feel is a rather bitter pill to swallow. There is no conviviality in fighting other cyclists that way. You wonder: why can’t some people be willing to work together?
The answer to that question is that cyclists are just as fucked up as the rest of the world. It takes all types, and the world is a tough place sometimes. Just ask Greg Lemond, who had to tangle with his own teammate, Bernard Hinault, to earn his first Tour victory. There was no easy road for Lemond that year, or any year after that. The fact that he had to battle back into shape after getting blasted in the chest by a shotgun is only more proof how tough and resilient a man he really was.
Still, you persist in trying to find a group that works together to improve. And within that group you still find the Whiners, the Excuse-Makers, the Haughty Elites, the Grinders and the Flakes. Truth be told, one person can be all five of those personalities in a single ride. If things are tough enough, cycling can do that to you. It squeezes alternate personalities out of you like hard bits of toothpaste popping out a tube.
When you finally crash and get road rash, bust a collarbone or your ass, you soak in soreness a few weeks and begin plotting your return to the bike. People ask, “You’re done for the season, right?” Spouses worry. Children think you’re crazy. But you go about your recovery with one goal in mind: to get back on the bike.
Usually your fellow riders understand this brand of cycling schizophrenia. They’ve all been visited by the ghosts, demons and clowns within themselves.
Imagine how pronounced those voices must be in an event as extreme as the Tour de France! Only a true professional cyclist can stand up to that kind of physical and emotional pressure. So it’s no surprise that those guys and gals are at times a bit flat in post-race interviews. They’re left most of their personality out there on the road. It drains off you like sweat.
That is also why the most daunting cyclists of all are the Stoics. They ride and ride without complaint or comment. They may make small talk well enough, but when the surge comes along the small talk ends and they are not only in the chase, they are leading it. Their faces are impassive and focused. They seem to see the smallest nail on the road and deftly steer around potholes where pinch flats await. They are consummate riders with quick cadence and legs that climb like pistons.
And that’s what it means to be a cyclist. Giving it all and not being able to explain exactly how or why you do it. Yet you live for that feeling early in the ride when your gear is all organized and in place. Your bike is well-tuned and the chain makes no noise. There are 70 miles of hard riding out there waiting to be done, and you know it is your job alone to do it. No one can push you up the hills or guide you down. There are decisions to be made at 25 mph and more.
We don’t necessarily think our way through that kind of process. We feel it. Gut it out. Hang in there. Ride through the pain. Then we head out another day and do it again. And again.
That’s what it means to be a cyclist. It gets in your blood. Fills your head with strange dreams about going fast and catching back on. You pull and pull the effort from yourself and stare down at the strange beast between your legs, all carbon or steel. Pretty paint and all, it still needs to be ridden. You’re just the person to do it.
You are both human and machine. Daydreamer and goal-setter. Hardass and commiserator. Soaking wet and dry as a bone. Hungry and Spartan. Bold and humble. Amalgamate and whole. You are a rider. Hard-earned.
What it means to be a cyclist is both simple and a riddle, because the one thing to be done each ride is to find out who you are. And when it’s all said and done for the day, you look yourself in the eye and say, “Damn, it feels good to be alive. ”