Remember when you first heard about him? The first time you heard the stories—probably on the cooldown spin, on the way back from the first ride you can remember where there were real, honest-to-God attacks flying—he sounded almost super-human. Inspiring, right? He was the first legit rider you had ever been close enough to that you could count the veins in his calf muscles as they rode away from you; the first guy that made you wonder: is that how hard pros ride? Did you hear the one about his year in Europe in the late ‘70’s? Or about racing Olympic trials back in the day, I think it was the year Andreu won. He was on 7-11 for at least a season, right? And funny stuff, too. Like the time he put milk in his bottles at Fitchburg for some extra protein and it went rancid, and he got a big ol’ mouthful of curdled nastiness. And the post-ride ritual: I heard he eats PB&J with a packet of Skittles candy sprinkled on it. And what about her? Remember when she was pro a few years ago? She could drop nearly everybody else on the ride. I heard in her prime she was able to ride in breaks with the best cat 1-2 guys on the East coast, and she won damn near every top women’s race in the country.
I’ll never pedal as hard in my life as I did on those first group rides. I was finally faster than everything I had ever tried to outrun about myself, and still not fast enough to catch him. That’s where, paradoxically, and for the first time in my adult life, I found true humility and confidence, braided together somewhere on the border of my blurry vision; a feeling that started to articulate itself haltingly, in stages, as my heart beat in my throat, settling into clearer focus as the sun set and I pulled my arm warmers back up, left the twilight over my shoulder and headed home.
My father, the folklorist, is always fond of saying that whatever we, as a species/community/family, know about ourselves, we know through our stories, through narrative. Riding bikes in groups, with friends, at races, and alone, hours upon hours upon hours, creates a unique opportunity for the telling, re-telling and fabrication of stories, the expression of a communal narrative; think Gilgamesh on wheels. These are the stories that school and inspire us, that tell us how to behave, how to dress for conditions and style, how to fuel our bodies for the effort, and how to adapt to the stress and quick decision-making necessitated by racing.
Think about how you know what to aspire to, the relational nature of aspiration itself. We don’t, most of us, know what we like; rather, we like what we know. And we aim at what we can see, however high or low. That’s why these stories, about these guys and gals, they’re important: they give us the yardstick to measure against, be beaten with; they give us the mark to hit, the wheel to follow, and the promise of next Tuesday. We need our Tuesday night heroes. These are our stories, this is our epic.
Every group ride contains hundreds of hidden stories, a river of our socio-sporting narrative running through the group, just out of sight, yet palpable; but you’ll never know unless you ask. We can all read about Lance & Levi, Contador and Basso in the mainstream cycling press, and the prevalence of ProTour level races in the U.S. such as the Tour Of California and the new Quiznos Pro Challenge provides more opportunity than ever for cycling fans to get out there and cheer on the world class heroes and legends of our sport up close and personal.
But every one of those legends had a mentor. Every one of the superstars of our sport remembers someone from the old school who raced in hairnets and who has permanent tan lines; and we all remember someone who grew wings and flew away from the group on a Tuesday night somewhere long ago, almost buried in distant memory, and showed us what was possible, and what wasn’t. These are the riders who teach us how deep we can dig, how dramatically we can fail, and how worthwhile it always feels to come back and do it again next week. The next ride, the next race, that’s what racing is all about, isn’t it? For better and worse, there’s always another hit around the corner. These riders—men and women—are the embodiment of our collective history in cycling, and they are too easily overlooked.
In the coming weeks and months, I will be posting a series of interviews with some of my own favorite Underground Legends and Tuesday Night Heroes. I hope these interviews will give you all the chance to take a minute to reflect and remember where you were when it happened, and who it was that gave you the gift of understanding what riding a bike—hard—is all about.