When they find you out on the road they always assume you want to mix it up. They assume you must miss the competition. The speed! That nervy brinksmanship! Those reckless denials of known physical limits! Mano-a-mano! Grrrrr! But it’s not the case. What you miss — much, much more — is the earnest, clock-punching discipline, an obsession with your action on the pedals, the never-ending search for exquisite posture, precision of rhythm. If, when the racing days are over, you are still of a mind to go out on the bike at all, this is the stuff of your nostalgia — the rituals, the monastic fussing. “Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus,” says the poet Jack Gilbert, “but Penelope, the thing steady and clear.”
The scenario never varies much. You’re pedaling lazily; suddenly, out of nowhere, he appears, throbbing alongside, sweaty, over-breathing. “Hi, I’m a guy,” he might as well be announcing, “and this is my natural basso profundu.” And typically, too, he rolls up just a little farther than what counts as alongside. It’s “half-wheeling,” in the argot of the weekend warrior. Stifling a sigh, you note that your uninvited guest is maintaining a position on the road some fifteen, twenty, centimeters ahead of yours. Even if he pretends not to realize that he’s doing this, the effect — or maybe I mean affect — is obvious. It’s meant as a show of force: you’re already behind, you’re already losing.
In real bike racing, among actual athletes, there’s no such thing as this … this half-wheeling. I had never even heard the term until I was done with my paltry career and starting to coach rebels-without-a-cause in a suburb of the city I lived in at the time. In a purely mechanical sense one does indeed use this trick, yet never to convey a feeling of superiority. Called by us racers the “power position” (albeit in a Dutch expression that doesn’t translate well into English), it’s the technique by which you calmly, and without violence or mayhem, manipulate the rider next to you, to get him out of your way.
Moving up through the field is one of the hardest things in the sport. Part of the difficulty lies in sheer effort: by definition, you must travel faster than the surrounding peloton, and that peloton may be moving quite fast, right on the point of being “lined out.” The main problem is the congestion itself. Where you need to be, someone else has got there first. How do you take his spot? You can’t just knock him down, obviously. And you can’t even jostle the dude with an elbow, as the village … Cat-3s seem to imagine. Machismo of this kind ends one way: in tears. Which is to say, loss of skin and snapped clavicles. But one thing you can do is create a situation in which that rider’s front wheel becomes vulnerable, and you do this by placing your own front wheel just slightly (let’s say half a wheel!) ahead of his. Self-preservation — given the mere implication that you might move laterally — dictates his next option: to back off, giving ground, inching out of harm’s way. If you’re skilled in this technique, repeating its dynamic orientation over and over as you move up, your adversaries may never notice what’s happening. From their point of view, they’re just letting you go where you want. And they don’t quite know why.
But as I say, this is not a contest that particularly interests you in your sunset years. Speaking for myself, I usually elect to feign politeness for a minute or two, simply to get through these “greetings where no kindness is,” then pretend it’s time to change direction or to be otherwise engaged. “Gosh, here’s that taxidermist’s I have an appointment with, adieu!” Such that, once we’ve gone our separate ways, I can resume doing what I was doing in the first place: ticking over a smooth rhythm, watching the scenery go by, reciting The Holy Sonnets.
Now and then a bad mood gets the better of us — me — and the gloves come off. We show them something they’d generally see only on the Eurosport feed. It’s good for us (to make sure that we still can); good for them as well, because how else will they understand that it’s the way we pedal, and it’s what gift we were given at birth, and it’s how carefully we’ve prepared our body since we were nine years old? The fancy bike, the ultra-light wheels — all that crap barely enters the equation. For a pro, as long as the equipment — the matériel — rolls okay and fits decently, it pretty much makes no difference what it looks like, or how much it costs. In fact it’s a point of honor not to give credence to the idea that the machinery as such could possibly assist you. The great Bernard Hinault — the Badger! — didn’t seem to be aware that he even rode a bike. For him it was inconvenient transportation. At most a tool. He used one to reach the finish line, where the gilded cup awaited, where the motor-drive Nikons clattered, podium girls hanging on his arm — everything that seemed a deft riposte to the shame of his farm-boy childhood. And that’s the rule rather than the exception.*
Know what? We really just like to ride. If we still call it training, that’s a fairly dark joke. Riding, and riding again, and again and again — it allows us to feel like ourselves. A few years ago another former pro and I were … were training in Northern California, along mainly coastal roads — little traffic, craggy escarpments pounded by surf — when we recognized a guy from our own northern European “Classics” days. He’d popped out of a side road and merged with us. Jos had been a domestic with some big teams — among them, Sean Kelly’s PDM and Edwig Van Hooydonck’s Buckler. Now he was living near us, married to an American woman who was achieving big things in the newish sport of mountain bike racing. Like us, Jos had nothing to prove, nothing now to achieve in his own right. But he sat perfectly. His stroke and cadence were perfect, his shoulders soft and motionless as a swan’s. No muscle moved unless it absolutely needed to move.
“So where are you off to today?” said my training companion.
“North,” Jos answered.
*This fact seems to surprise people. Exceptions are notable but rare. For every Bjarne Riis, fidgeting about his grams and tire compound to the point of madness, there are fifty who couldn’t even tell you which side of the bike the drive train is mounted on.