Cycling: A love letter

What with the season's first back-to-back triathlons coming up, me still barrelling around a learning curve on the swim, losing Trainer Kevin as my trainer, dry trails lending themselves to beautiful runs, my first time helping build trail, and lots of thoughts on recent physical changes in this body, you'd think I could find something besides cycling to talk about.

Sorry. As for anyone in love, every conversation returns to the object of affection. If you try to change the subject, I will merely flit to yet another starry-eyed anecdote.

I was ready to write a post about recent rides. Then I realized I first want to tell you something fundamental about my history with cycling.

I want to tell you that there is not a space in my heart untouched by the man who at this minute sleeps beside me, unaware that I write about him. That I look back at the prints he has left across the last sixteen years of my life and see now that they are all shaped like bicycles. I want to tell you about N.

The first time I saw him, he was coasting up to our graduate school building on his Trek 820 Antelope, the same bike he rides now on our around-town rides together. He rode in the afternoons and on the weekends, long hitches out to the lake, down rural Oklahoma roads where rednecks and fraternity brothers threw empty cans and bottles at him.

Our first friend-date was a kidnapping. He couldn't find cycling shorts. It was 1992. Nobody stocked them. Nobody wore them for casual rides. It wasn't done. I didn't even know what they looked like. But he wanted them very badly. So I knocked on his door and announced the kidnapping. He got in my car. We drove twenty miles to another town to look for cycling shorts. I don't remember whether we found them. I remember being impressed at his commitment to the details of this thing he loved. I didn't get cycling. But I got that.

The first day I knew he loved me was incidentally the day he rode in the Redbud Classic. I went to the start/finish and hung out and read a book. I had no concept of riding forty, fifty, sixty miles. I didn't get cycling. But I saw how pumped he was to be riding, how hungry to test and push, how he and his bicycle were like a lock and key. And I got that.

He bought me my first bicycle and taught me to ride. I was hesitant and slow. I was afraid to ride alone in traffic, so he rode with me. A lot. I rode behind him, mimicking whatever he did. Up in the pedals? I'll try. No hands? If he can do it, then it's possible, so here goes. We rode bike paths all over town, longer and longer rides, and rails-to-trails rides, including one 50-mile ride in which he patiently stopped and massaged my calves every 20 minutes for the last 20 miles, talking as he worked out the knots, as to a novice peer rather than a nuisance wife, about gearing and spinning.

I still didn't get cycling, but I loved riding. Bike path cycling was the first time I enjoyed moving around in my adult body. And saw I might be good at something I had always thought was for other people. Why did I stop? Partly because compulsive eating behaviors began to wreck and blot out my life. Partly because when my sister, then the beloved friend who had been like my brother died within a few years, I was sleepwalking in a daze of loss. And then I was writing a book about all of the foregoing; less-ingrained pursuits wilted away.

And partly because I was still afraid of riding alone in traffic, and N., after more than a decade and thousands of miles on the 820, had gotten his first really great road bike. He was flying, at last. Free, alone, and so excited and joyous and proud that he could hardly contain it. He loves that bike. He babies it and cleans it and knows it and touches it as though it were alive and exquisitely sensitive to him. And it is. N.'s bike is the rest of him.

He rides in the heat and cold. He rides hilly long road routes; he rides calm bike paths. He rides with a group; he rides alone. In the winter, he rides hours on the trainer. Cycling is his constant. He calls himself a beginner, but this classification is meaningless to a passion so deeply etched with detail over years.

Though he has had his phases of obsession with pricy gear (and is reeling with my rapid onslaught of same), his cycling passion has never been an excuse for the acquisition of trappings. Though he can talk cycling endlessly, he has no empty talk. For every word he says about riding, his feet have spun the pedals twenty thousand times. Beginner or not, a person could do worse than be that kind of cyclist.

He's ridden over the Rocky Mountains twice. I hope to ride there with him. And you know, it's not about proving I can do this thing. I want more than anything to see his face when he's at the top of Independence Pass. I want him to see mine. I want us to know this about each other, in a way no one else ever could — our faces at that moment.

I want him to know that whatever glows in my face then — as it does when I race — lit slowly over time from a spark first thrown by his life.

Last year, when I signed up for my first triathlon, having not ridden in two years, we bought the hybrid for my birthday. And I told myself, "You are no longer afraid to ride with traffic. It is simply not acceptable. You will ride the way N. rides." And I did, and left my hobbling fear behind.

This year, we purchased my beautiful Gogo — far more bike than I am rider and more bike, more quickly and expensively, than N. has ever had. We disagree on several particulars and priorities about this bike, and I'll own my mistakes. But I tell myself, "You will treat this bike with the respect and care that N. treats his. You will ride with the dedication and attention that he does. You will research your gear decisions the way he has. You will be as self-sufficient on your bike as he is his." I'll develop into my own cyclist, but I'm still improving by watching him.

I'm starting to love cycling in a big way, however johnny-come-lately, ignorant, and unpracticed. I want more, more. I don't want to say no to any of it. When I climb hard hills, when I decide to ride though it's cold or windy, when I grit out a faster spin or find a larger gear as I crest a hill though my legs are tired, I want these things on my own. But it's easier because N. has shown me these things being done. He's wanted more, and I've watched him. I don't know what comes next for him in cycling. Whatever it is, he will own it as he has every scrap of experience. That's a kind of cyclist, and a kind of person, I want to be more like.

Today I pre-rode the BikeSource triathlon course. I felt so good on the bike that I didn't want the ride to end. I pedaled around the park. I practiced making tighter turns. I practiced staying lighter on my handlebars. Then I remembered something from long ago. I held back a laugh. I balanced until my fingers were barely touching the bars, then lifted them and rode.

And wham, fell so hard in love with N. that it shook me through.

I got cycling. I got him. I couldn't have told you whether I loved the bike or him more right then. Bicycle prints all over my heart.

It was suddenly all the same thing.


N said...

Aah Yes. Drunk rednecks using me for target practice on Friday nights. The rubes never figured out that empty Natty Light cans really didn't fly true when thrown from a truck doing 55. Tom Petty on my walkman and trash on the highway shoulder. Cycling at its finest. Good times.