The strange pull of cycling

November 19, 2014 § 20 Comments

I first saw the old elephant about three years ago. He was gray-headed and busting out at the seams as we flew past him on the Donut Ride. He’d gotten a good ten-minute head start but we overhauled him long before the first big climb. He huffed and puffed and mashed for about ten pedal strokes, trying to hang on before he was blown out the back.

As we passed him someone said, “Good job, Bill,” and then we were gone.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Backintheday Bill,” the other rider said as he filled me in on Bill’s career as a top local pro and general two-wheeled wrecking ball.

“He looks terrible,” I said. “He’s gotta weigh over 250.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen him in fifteen years, maybe more. His race weight was 140.” From that Saturday on I saw Bill every weekend and always said hello when we passed. Over time he stopped taking head starts and began rolling out with the group. And he was getting smaller.

At the beginning of the year I noticed that he was sticking with us up the first hard surge, and although he was still a pretty big fella, he was certainly under 200, and his kits didn’t look like they were about to unravel and kill someone with the force of the exploding seams. Now he’s visibly getting thinner by the month, and sticks with a much younger grupetto all the way over the first big climb. All of his kits are new because the old ones flat out don’t fit anymore.

Bill’s one of many, many riders who come and go and then come back. They leave for all the right reasons — racing is dumb, cycling is costly, pedaling is dangerous. Some leave for all the wrong reasons, too. My buddy J.C. had found Miss Right through cycling.

“Can you imagine anything better?” he had said. “A girlfriend who loves to bike?”

I didn’t say anything, because I could imagine a lot of things better, like a girlfriend who loves to cook, who earns seven figures, and who loves you to bike while she perfects her home brewing recipe. But I didn’t say anything except “Nope.”

They married and six months later she quit cycling. Then six more months later she told him to quit cycling. Then six more months later he was single again, and back, of course, on his bike.

Some dudes quit for spiritual enlightenment, like The Buddha. Tony used to be one of the most feared racers in SoCal. Then he started growing a big bushy beard, and worse, reading books, long books with hard words. They ruined him, of course, and one day he announced on Facebag that he was “done.” Now he’s a Buddhist adept, spreading love instead of dishing out the pain, but mark my words, he’ll be back. As nice as it is to make the world a better place, it’s even nicer to watch people crumble.

Sometimes when a guy sells his bikes and is “done” you’re kind of glad, but other times it’s a sinking feeling of genuine loss, like when Todd quit coming to the rides, then sold his bike, then vanished from view. Everybody loved Todd. He never had a bad word to say, he was one of the funniest guys alive, and he was always up for a beer. If you had a problem he’d give you the shirt off your back, even if what you really needed was a pair of trousers.

But as a cyclist, he was the guy who made your ride fun. You know how when someone pedals up and everyone kind of moans inwardly, as in “Why’d that buzzkill show up?” Todd was the opposite. Punctual-departure-Nazis would sit around for ten, fifteen minutes, gladly waiting for him even though he was always late and didn’t show up despite blood pacts the night before about “being there no matter what.” Todd was the brightest jewel in the crown of South Bay cycling fun, and then one day he was gone except for the occasional post on Facebag, which always made me sad.

Then yesterday Fireman texted me a photo. “Just finished our ride,” the message said, and next to the words was a picture of him and Todd draining a fermented recovery drink. There was a huge smile on Todd’s face, and I bet it was mostly from being back on his bike.

But his smile wasn’t nearly as big as mine.

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