The Passion of the Twerps
by Bill Strickland
Starting a winter ride by descending my hill is always horrible, so I figured Rod was pedaling so fast just to try to stay warm. But after Laird, Rod and I pulled up at the stop sign and made the left turn onto the flat road that leads out of town, Rod dropped the hammer again. On my warmup road, literally seconds into the first necessary pedal strokes, we were already at 20-plus.
Laird, who’s just getting into cycling and doesn’t know any better, made a jump and slotted in behind Rod. I watched them gap me and, at the first stop sign, I eased onto Laird’s wheel just before Rod attacked again. We had gone exactly one block.
Rod ran the next two stop signs. He was hunched forward over his bike and on this Emmaus road in February was working like a rouleur dieseling the peloton across the cruel spring roads of Europe. Laird was stuck to his wheel. I was doing 90 or so rpm in around a 39×18, my hands up on the bar tops. I could feel on my face the expression that people tell me is a smirk but which I experience as a simple smile of recognition: Damn, we’re all of us so human sometimes.
At a get-together the night before, I’d told Laird I was going out to do a couple easy hours the next day and that he should come with me. He had been avoiding the cold and the snowy roads, doing intervals on a trainer and lots of running. I knew he was much fitter than me, but also much less experienced, and we can talk about any number of subjects together, so I figured we’d be a good match to make two hours of winter base tolerable. When he’d shown up this morning, he’d said his friend Rod wanted to come along and would meet us if that was okay. “Sure,” I’d said. “More is always better in the cold wind.”
I watched Rod tow Laird up the little hill to Vera Cruz, which is the best route for warming up on all of the rides that leave south out of Emmaus. I rode my pace, and crested the hill and descended to the four-way stop, where they were waiting because they didn’t know the ride. “Right,” I said, and Rod attacked again. This was a rolling and gradual mile climb to another stoplight, and I let them go. I was testing an $800, 23-poundish aluminum bike with Tiagra. It was much smoother than I’d thought it would be, and I started comparing it to other bikes I’d ridden, and trying to figure out if it was better in some ways than the first race bike I’d ever bought in my life, back in 1981. I did a few little out-of-the-saddle jumps and mashed the gears around to see how they’d respond, but I never went so hard I couldn’t have talked if someone was there to talk to. It was the ride I’d planned to do before I’d invited Laird along.
At the light, I saw that Rod and Laird had ridden through, and were circling. I waited at the red, and drank some of the water I’d spiked with a single shot of whiskey to keep from freezing, and snotted my nose, then pedaled under the green light and said, “Straight on this for a good while,” and Rod blitzed the road again. Laird grabbed his wheel and we singled out and bounced around in the wind that way for a bit. When we got into the rollers, I kicked my bike out slightly to the right and overlapped Laird a little and said, “Listen, when you guys drop me up here, just go all the way to the stop sign and we can regroup there if you want.”
Laird looked back and said, “I don’t think we’ll be dropping you.”
“You will,” I said. “Right up here when the hill kicks. I’m at winter pace today.”
From the front, Rod huffed, “This is winter pace.”
“Not for the guys I race with,” I said, and I let them ride away, single-file and swaying across the road.
That was the most we’d communicated the whole time.
The day before, I’d gone out with a group that included a pro mountain biker, two guys who hang in there at the top-level races out at the velodrome on Friday nights and a retired pro who owns multiple national champ jerseys. We’d eased out of town at 15 mph or so, then settled in at a faster talking pace. Here and there we sweated, then recovered, but hardly any of us would have noticed it: We rode side-by-side, filling the air with chatter and making fun of each other and offering those suppositions about the world and life that can get worked through on a ride.
I was never going to get to know Rod, but I already knew who he was. He’s one of those guys who gives it everything when there’s nothing to prove, and on the rides with everything to prove, he turns out to have nothing.
For sure, I have been a twerp on a bike myself through the years. Mostly not, these days. (Though I confess I might not know that on my own. One of the compulsory conditions of being a twerp is ignorance of your status. You simply finish a ride that was fun for everyone else thinking, “I showed them.” But my riding friends have become those of a high-enough caliber — the real deal — that they wouldn’t even deign to retaliate by riding me into the ground; they’d simply ridicule me the next time they saw me after they let me drop them.)
To be as honest as I can here, I also need to admit that I probably couldn’t have kept up with Rod even if I weren’t all full of earnest and hard-won road wisdom. He was unquestionably more February-fit than me. So for sure there is at least some self-serving element in my noble act of letting him go. But I’m reasonably certain that even if my legs had what the Euros call the good sensations, I’d wouldn’t have ground Rod into the pavement in revenge for his twerppery. I’ve somehow gotten past the point where I get any satisfaction out of maliciously pushing the pace against those who are obviously slower or less experienced than me, or those who have said they want to go easy. I get my competitive fulfillment these days from the guys who are better than me — not by dropping but by seeing how long I can stick with the good guys before I get dropped.
In its own way, of course, my competitive passion is just as silly as Rod’s. When I get off the front of a training race with Bobby Lea and Jackie Simes and Kyle Wamsley, I know that, no matter how much such a momentous feat means to me, they aren’t counting on me for anything and probably won’t even remember that I was one of the people who latched on for a bit. When Johan Museeuw put his arm over my shoulder on a wind-wracked Belgian road and called me one of the fast ones, or when Lance Armstrong rode at the front of a pack with me and bumped shoulders for twenty or thirty miles, I knew they thought I was just about good enough to goof around with and that’s all. It’s not a bad thing to fill meaningless accomplishments with personal meaning, just as it’s not bad to go out on a February Sunday and pretend a base ride is a chance to prove your mettle. For most of us, that’s as real as it gets. We just have to remember that we’re pretending. We have to remember to emerge from the fantasy from time to time and sit up. We have to remember to be as humble as we are proud when we ride for however long with anyone worth a real damn.
I had a great ride that Sunday. I rode in by myself and the sun was bright on my back and for a few miles I found that unreality when all you can hear is tire on pavement, the spatter of snowmelt, the doppler of a rare passing car. Laird called later that afternoon to apologize. I told him there was no need. I told him we’d get together to ride someday soon.
I found this article very entertaining, Scooby.