Friday, June 6, 2008
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.