SCOTTSDALE, Arizona (VN) — I could see the sun bouncing off the windshield, could see the car moving into the space I was to inhabit in a tenth of a second. And then, I could see nothing but the ground, a white top tube, and a very boorish shade of beige.
Underneath me, the bike felt like ice. My fingers squeezed the triggers of the brakes as hard as they could. My weight shifted back to stop me from catapulting forward. “Of all the times to have been pedaling in the big ring at the bottom of this descent,” I thought. “Of all the times to give a damn about going fast.”
My ticker-tape brain kept rolling, talking to itself, sending impulses through my veins and my skin.
This is how it happens. This is how it happens.
And then, the car cleared the intersection — like a cloud that never happened — with my bike convulsing below, snapping to the right, to the left and finally settling underneath me. Somehow, I was upright, pedaling, as if nothing ever happened at all.
“Dude, you almost got hit by that car,” a very bright observer told me. “Are you ok?”
“Ok,” I said. “Ok,” I thought.
In this moment, cycling was every bit real life, and I find I’m seldom ready for their intersections, notably at 30 miles an hour. I’ve run into ex-girlfriends while heading out for rides. I’ve accepted jobs while on the bike. I’ve made some of my most important decisions on a bike, and some of my most foolish, like one that led to this fake left front tooth.
To ride, though, is to escape from this bullshit, from the rules and constraints and niceties of our real lives. Attacks are accepted and encouraged here, so long as they’re executed with class. There is a code here the rest of the world doesn’t care about.
I could see someone inside the car, someone not wanting to come out. I dangled over the top tube, tranquillo, as they say.
“I’m not going to hurt you, or yell at you,” I said, my voice muffled through glass.
The door opened, slowly, attached to a hand that shook like a leaf. She stepped out of the car, and said sorry in the kind of machine-gun diction that cannot be feigned. She was pretty, and this was something I found myself unprepared for, completely. I told her it was ok, and that I was standing there, ok — “ok” became the word of the hour — but that I wondered if she had seen me, or heard me yelling, or anything at all.
“Only at the end,” she said. “And then I just kept going, I didn’t know if you’d crashed after …”
“You didn’t feel like checking?” I interrupted her.
“Well, I just …”
“Look, I’m fine. The bike is fine. Your car is fine. I’m not even mad at you,” I said. “There’s just a lot of cyclists on this road, you know. Just please be careful.”
She was still apologizing as I pedaled away. “Tranquillo,” I thought to myself.
Tranquillo. And I had to laugh at that during my post-ride shower, at the very notion of calmness at the eye of this sport that demands perfect aggression. It’s something we say to calm down the bunch from time to time, when someone has flatted or is dangling off the back.
Restraint, patience, whatever one wants to call it, is the most important element of cycling, because without it, you are nothing as a rider, no matter your skill level or natural ability. Nothing but a book of burnt matches. We remember our champions for their bold attacks, but not cracking is what made them champions in the first place. We remember attacking our friends on the climb halfway through the long Saturday training ride, but we remember them dropping us on the slight waves into town more vividly, because we did it to ourselves. Stupid, we say, only doomed to repeat our past mistakes next time out, because who we are in life is magnified on the bike, and this cannot be helped most of the time.
It happens on every group ride. It happens when one is out pedaling alone, or competing with the ghosts of Strava. It happened during Paris-Nice to Andrew Talansky, the Garmin-Sharp rider who attacked furiously on the queen stage but faded to black behind Sky’s Richie Porte, who hit him with a hefty counter that ended the young American’s bid for his first major stage-race win.
We’re all the same, us riders. We want to be brilliant. We want to dazzle, to ride and exist outside the sliver of space we’re given on this tight earth. I’ve never been any good at knowing when to take that space and make it my own, on or off the bike. My thoughts are often seconds too late, my attacks always minutes too early. I suppose there’s a brilliance in the trying to be faster, to be smarter. I suppose.
To be a cyclist is an exercise in suppression. In this way, it’s no different than going to work each day, than being a friend, than being an enemy. There are times and places for our attacks, just as there are moments for our honesty and our criticisms. If we bumble these chances, we ride alone. If we bumble these chances, we are alone.
Of course, it’s just the timing that’s the hard part. I think I’ll drift off the front and think that over. I just won’t do it at sunset in Sunshine Canyon.