Friday, June 6, 2008

The Brethren

We roadies are bonded. To be roadies, to emulate the PROs, to have a day where PRO Is Program Go! has come following education, supplication, surrender, even the odd humiliation. When on a ride, it’s easy to tell friend from Fred. There’s a difference, and it matters.

But unlike other bands of brothers, it’s difficult to pinpoint the rite of passage. Was it the first time we pulled on lycra? As if. Was it our first century? Probably not. Was it our first bonk? Not even close. What about the first time we slathered our legs with a smelly Belgian Knee Warmer? Maybe. What about when we started to look forward to the smell? Getting close.

Unlike Roman Catholicism’s confirmation, Judaism’s Bar Mitzvah or losing one’s virginity, there is no obvious rite of passage, no clear graduation into the ranks of riders accepted in the peloton. Yet we all had that epiphany. At some point we had been out enough that we were accepted. One day we were no longer alien and we no longer set off the xenophobe’s alarms. We had friends. The nervousness of having riders to left and right had passed and we could relax enough to have a conversation. Life inside the bubble ceased to be stressful and became a special treat, kinda like a secret stash of chocolate.

The trust we must earn from fellow members of the peloton is a special distinction. Fraternities wish they knew this brotherhood. At 35 mph every turn the group makes has the potential to go wrong the way freeway crashes do. The endgame can be fatal. I’ve spent years being an apologist for the standoffish ways of the pack, but the fact is, none of us wants to be on the wheel of a guy astride a Schwinn Varsity with tube socks pulled up to his knees. That’s not snobbery, that’s self-preservation.

Each act of the dedicated roadie is part of the system of PRO. We’ve done so many of these for so long, we’ve ceased to think about the rationale for each act. From the fact that sweat evaporates more quickly off shaved legs—keeping the cyclist cooler—to the knowledge that to be considerate of the rider behind, you pedal as you sit down, each act is part of the elaborate logic of the PROs. The guy who shows up in sneakers is telling you his education is incomplete. And the rider with a current helmet (cares about his brain), the armwarmers (the day may change), the shoe covers (an unhappy foot is a weak foot), the bare and glistening legs (no muscle fires like a warm muscle) is a wheel you can trust. He’s studied the magazines, has a series recording set for the Cyclysm, can tell you who won the Tour in ’88 and knows the Lance Feeling. He talks not of how fast he went, but of how he suffered.

We’re not cool. None of us are hip. We are, however, a brethren with a respect for each other paid each time we follow a wheel, each time we tell the story of another rider’s attack that sent us into debt. Suffering, in the end, is the thing that unites us, the grand equals sign that differentiates the accepted from the stranger. Suffering and surviving is our rite of passage.

One day over coffee a friend commented, “Bike friends aren’t real friends.” I disagreed, but kept my tongue at bay. The fact is I couldn’t disagree more strenuously; he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Our bike friends know the sacrifices we’ve made just to keep up. They know the money we spend on equipment. They know the calories we must refuse, the skipped desserts, the recorked wines, the early mornings, the aching legs, the skinny jokes, the close calls with cars, and the unparalleled exhilaration of following a group of trusted friends down a twisty descent. Bike friends? They are the truest friends we have.


Unknown said...


Great post.

Anonymous said...

I'm the chief operating officer of a nickel-mining firm, and I really, really enjoyed this entry.


Watts said...

Now that I think about it, having shaved legs, embrocation and Euro attitude DOES make me better than the Varsity-tube socks-wanna be:-) At nearly 50 yrs, I need something to hand onto!

Anonymous said...

On your Left......


Chris said...

bravo! *sips espresso*

tx/nc cyclist said...

Only a true cyclist could understand the truth about what you are saying!

Very nice!

Old Fonzie said...

Recently moved back to the Midwest and was excited to go on a local group ride last month I heard was very fast. I missed riding in a pack.

These guys were a brethren indeed. They looked at me suspiciously. I was the only one wearing tights even though it was in the upper 50's with a cold wind out of the North and temps dropping with rain on the way.

Every one of them gave me a look like I was wearing tube socks and if my cross bike with fenders was a Schwinn Varsity. Many came up to me to warn me the group was fast, asked me how fast I could ride and suggested I ride with someone else. I told them I could always sit on a wheel.

To be honest, my memory was a bit fuzzy that Delgado won the Tour in '88, but I do clearly remember the story he later entered the Betty Ford Clinic. I don't know exactly what the Lance Feeling is, but I might. After all I was two months out of chemo on the same drugs Lance used.

What I am saying is that I may have some trouble on the written test for the Brethren, but I was going into the exam with the answers written on my legs and I knew I'd pass.

I missed the old days of group rides growing up. And yes those guys are still true friends. I haven't spoken to anyone from High School, but still keep in touch with many of the guys I rode with and am always happy to run into one serendipitously: we greet each other like long lost litter mates.

I tried to be cool. When guys asked me why I was riding a cross bike I didn't go on about how when I raced in Belgium 20 odd years ago you'd see a lot of cross bikes at the start line of a kermesse. I just told em it was my only bike.

I rode at the back. I kept up and filled gaps. I tried to start conversations about this year's Spring classics. But no one followed racing anymore.

When we got to a certain point a few guys peeled off to get home early. Not being too strong, I went with them. We had a nice ride. I got to know them a bit.

I was tired after that ride. But it felt good. I could see I was getting back into shape and that I had a new group to ride with.

No none of them could ride a side wind or name the 88 Tour winner but I felt like I had something to offer, something to repay for the guy who started the Sunday rides I went on at 13. The guys who showed me how to ride an efficient paceline. The guys who told me the stories about the de Vlaeminck brothers and the world of PRO racing. And even the guys who showed up in tube socks but showed us you don't have to have the look to be a hammer.

Anonymous said...

Rite of passage? Being able to ride properly in a group. The rest of the cycling bling you might have counts for zero.

Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Apologist means that you are actually a defender of the practice, the usage has changed over the centuries to be a rather confusing mess.

LK said...

There is a right of passage into the peloton. It's when you are invited to join a ride.

I was 15 when that first happened and it was the point of conversion from being a young runner to a young cyclist.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Padraig! Many of my best and closest friends (and wife!) are members of the bretheren.

Required reading for those that have called us "elitist".

Richmond Roadie said...

Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

Nels said...

Who's re-corking wine bottles?

Anonymous said...

I don't know about this post, Padraig. I am reminded of two things:

1. I recall a story in VeloNews where a rider from the 1990s era Coors Light team went out in his steel Day-Glo Serotta, huge helmet, old pearl jersey and hairy legs. He had CAT IV riders telling him how to ride before they even started. Within three weeks he did the local hill climb race and beat all the local CAT I and Pro guys. The point - it's best not to judge on atheistic and it's PRO not to care about atheistic. There is almost something homosexual in talking about and looking at a guys shaved glistening legs.

2. I am reminded of the old Marx quote that goes something like: I would not join any club that would have someone like me for a member

Anonymous said...

Any fool can put socks over their shoes.

Anonymous said...

I work as a bank teller. So, I think I have this straight. I buy a new helmet and I'm in the club?

Bluenoser said...

You just know you're in when everyone is comfortable.


Newmaforma said...

There is always the story of the fast guy on old or poor equipment. The guy who couldn't get dropped by the groups Alpha Hammer. Matching anodized headset to hubs or embrocation and white sex shoe covers to match bar tape and saddle or not, it's the smooth pedal stroke, straight and predictable, relaxed riding that shows the skill.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, the myth of the old guy that shows up in crap gear and destroys. I've seen that once in the last ten years. I like that one as much as the Loch Ness Monster stories. In the day to day local riding and the big weekend rides there is a code and a language and its dumb and superficial but also meaningful.
Its always about how you ride, but how you ride is connected to the respect you pay to the gear and the way you use it. I know a guy that calls it the gestalt. Everybody on the ride benefits from good riders. The better you are, the better the ride is for it.

All rules have exceptions, but these days people don't know what they don't know and riding well is something worth learning (from the back of the group). Group riding is a language and a good group has built in all the levels of apprenticeship. its something to be respected and admired.

You learn more by learning from the natives and the skilled and on some rides you get put into some kind of hurting with each other and it makes for a Budweiser moment. Those moments mean something, they tie friendships to something nonverbal and ancient, and they recall some caveman hunter imprint or something for the bonds made over pushing yourself over your limits.

I know those guys in that picture. They can ride. I hope you have guys like that where you do your miles. There's dozens and dozens of them out here and its great (Cheers to them all) .

Anonymous said...

Have to give you props on this great post and your blog in general. I certainly don't mind the product reviews or your lunch with the Clif Bar folks. Readers should be able to discern an appreciative, enthusiastic piece from an advert and make up their own minds.

Oldfonzie seems to have a great attitude. Regarding the old guy with hairy legs who shows up stomps--Bryan Miller (of AC Pinarello fame among others) was a regular out here in Santa Cruz until moving back to Colorado. A real treat to ride with and still an incredible cyclist--hairy legs, t shirt over the jersey, no STI notwithstanding. It's the pedal stroke, how you move around in the group--the gestalt as anon says.

Great stuff, thanks,

bikesgonewild said..., padraig, what was your friend thinking...some of the oldest & strongest friendships i have involve old cycling friends...even if you don't see an old riding buddy for years, it's all just like yesterday, when you do...'s been years since i've ridden in a fast group but your words ring true...a riding group is a living, breathing symbiotic organism... a year away from sixty (fuck, how did the time go so fast beneath my wheels ???) & after a major heart surgery to correct a hereditary problem, i tend to ride on my own a lot...but i must still be doing something right cuz i've had old cycling friends who've seen me out on the roads tell me i looked like i was born to ride a that is a "pro" spike for the ego...


C said...

I liked the idea behind the self-preservation bit, but if that guy in sneakers can hold his line, then he is way more pro than the 50-something dude riding a Cervelo with Zipp 404's.

Riding like a pro, gear be damned, holds way more weight than just looking like one.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! You tied it all together nicely!

Anonymous said...

I feel like the "riding friends" phenomenon comes from sharing hardship together. Ever notice how after a race you get chatty and friendly with the guy you just sprinted against? It all about sharing that same pain, and knowing what the guy next to you went through.
The friendships and team camaraderie that were created during my 4 years of doing XC, skiing, and track in high school with the same guys...was just amazing. There is something about suffering, training, and racing with people 6 out of 7 days a week that lets you get to know them better in month than others would learn in a year. You see them dig deep and win that 800m race but you see them the other day too when they don't finish, throwing up over the fence.

Anonymous said...

In 1970 I showed up at a university club ride on my Schwinn complete with generator light, way over my head even for this 40 mile ride. A couple guys were nice enough to help me out.

In 1972 I looked just as stupid on a different Schwinn that was way too big. I was riding laps on the Brown Deer, WI track when a family of intermediate and juniors showed up to do some real training. They were nice enough to chat, ignoring my lack of style. They later became friends when I began racing.

In 1973 when I started racing most of us looked stupid in one way or another so acceptance wasn't based on appearance. In 1974 our education began when British 6-day pro Norman Hill taught us how to "look smart."

In 1983 at a local road race in Texas a guy who we never saw before showed up with shoe laces that were at least twice as long as they needed to be. He also had tin foil wrapped around the head tube, etc supposedly for aero advantage. We never said anything to him but all agreed to stay clear. We never saw him again and always referred to him as spaghetti shoes.

In 1988, Tom Seaborn showed up at the Spenco 500 race wearing sneakers. He later became one of the top ultra riders.

Hans Hagman said...

"He speaks not how fast he was, but how he suffered"...

So well said BKW, so well said.

Jonathan C. Puskas said...


Hup, hup!

Anonymous said...

"Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content."

--Bob Dylan & Sam Sheppard, "Brownsville Girl"

Anonymous said...

So damn good!!

Unknown said...

I was doing a search on the Spenco 500 and this came up about Michael Seaborn and wearing sneakers at the 1988 Spenco. I was at that race as one of the teams (we were a team of 4 Cat. 4's and 1 Cat. 2 who finished 6th in the team competition) and if this is the guy I am thinking of, I remember him well. He was one of the solo riders, and not only was he wearing sneakers, he was wearing a tank top. We all died laughing when we saw him, and took bets on how long he would last.
We weren't overly impressed at 4 laps, which was 100 miles; we were more impressed at 8 laps; we were stunned at 12 laps as he just kept motoring by. He finished something like 14th or 15th, which was an incredible result, and we eagerly asked his wife what his secret was as far as fuel.
"Well, he really liked those little white donuts. He ate a package of those every lap."

Chris Petty, the solo winner, won the race with a broken derailleur, wearing a skinsuit with no pockets, and eating cans of beanie-weenies.

Michael Secrest was not amused.