Saturday, March 19, 2011

Constant Companion

How long has it been? I forget. Time is a concept that has ceased to exist.

I lost myself long ago to the rhythmic flow of the peloton, gliding through corners at 28mph, reshuffling riders from the front to the back; the hum of wheels, the clicking of shifters.

Like waking from a fever dream reality seeps back, leaving a faint impression of the experiences that have come to pass, but without depth, terribly incomplete. It's a shock to find oneself suddenly riding amongst one-hundred other riders, to be part of a machine that carries hundreds of tons of force, to feel the burden of processing the inconceivable in fractions of seconds.

There's a reason why my brain fell back to the comforts of muscle memory.

. . .

How long had I been perceiving the drone of my wheels, the hissing wind, the cadence of my pedal stroke and instantly filing those sensations away? As my awareness returns the immensity of my task does as well. 110 miles. It's the longest ride I've ever done, and at a 21mph average pace it's taking its toll.

Hours before I left the rolling hills of Lawrence for my hometown. Desolate country roads have gifted views of farmers' fields and abandoned oil rigs, under the open invitation of pristine sunshine and a clear-blue sky. Each hill encountered has been pounded down by sure-footed pedal strokes, hands held in a close aero grip, shoulders moving only a fraction.

The sensation of transferring power into a pedal, powering a stroke, pulling a chain, spinning a cog, rotating a wheel, propelling a bike, is intoxicating. It lulled me into a trance, and for that period of time there was no distinction between machine and man.

. . .

Pain is my constant companion. Like a good friend she is true, giving back what was given to her in earnest. Turn your back on her and avoid her, and she will spurn you with a woman's contempt. For months now I have been cultivating our friendship, meeting with her almost every single day, all in anticipation for this moment.

As with anyone, however, her company can wear itself thin. Exactly as it is now.

Coming back to my senses the immensity of her burden begins to be felt for its full weight. I've kept her company for far too long. Sitting mid-pack I look over the heads and shoulders of my competitors, over the glow of street lamps, and the din of the crowd's voices at a high-rise office building on the Tulsa skyline.

What am I doing?

It's a simple question, though it has become more pressing as of late. Looking up at that building, racing down the finishing straight, heading for another lap, I can't help but wonder.

This is insane. What mentally stable person does this? I should be up in a building like that, working, holding an internship. My god, I'm a 23-year-old-literature-undergraduate-racing-a-bike. What am I doing?

. . .

I'm rounding the 90th mile of my ride, my average speed still holding steady, legs thundering, riding with my constant companion. She likes it best when she's allowed to express herself, that's how you cultivate her friendship.

She's starting to make herself heard.

I'm finally quitting the rolling hills and the long climbs, and I'll finish criterium style on a 1/2 mile course with two right-turns and a blip of a hill at the end. 40 laps to go.

. . .

The pace is becoming frantic. People are taking risks, some of which are carrying dire consequences. Amongst the sweat-stained jerseys of the peloton are those that carry the marks of calamity, the grass-stained, blood-stained, ripped, and torn.

I ditched my bottles a few laps ago. They were empty and I couldn't rationalize the extra burden of their weight. In a situation so extreme no variable can go overlooked, not a couple of extra grams, not a momentary hesitation, or a nervous squeeze of a brake lever. A crash goes on the inside corner of turn seven. It cleaves the field in half, sparing only those in front of it, claiming those behind.

I jerk hard right to avoid the press of bodies and squeeze both brake levers to their maximum. As I make contact with the roadside curb I allow my grip to relax on my handle bars. The momentum of my front wheel is instantly arrested, the rear continues its journey impetuously, somersaulting impatiently over its twin. I ride its bucking stride as it carries me over my handlebars, tucking my shoulder into a roll.

I will be one of the blood-stained.

. . .

20 laps to go.

I still carry the scars of all my crashes before. They sink weirdly into the divots surrounding my knees, an odd purplish red color. Some fade, some refuse to go away, those opened time and time again. Such concern isn't now a concern of mine. She makes sure her voice is the only voice I hear and that her thoughts are mine. I can thank her for that, for all of her attention there's no time to fear a tire losing purchase or a pedal clipping.

It's part of keeping her happy and fostering our friendship.

. . .

I could have sworn the official skipped me in the pit for check in. In the rush to rejoin the race he missed me, just walked right on by. I'm surrounded by riders, but I'm not really here. I'll finish 26th out of one-hundred and ten, but I won't finish.

Such concerns aren't mine. For now there is the next man, and the next man, and the next.

. . .

One-hundred and nine-and-a-half miles, the final turn, I'm surrounded by riders. They're all reflections of me, my ambitions, my fears, my strengths, my weaknesses. They're phantoms of who I might face, but my only real opponent, myself.

Gritting my teeth against the pain, I ignore the screaming voice in my head, standing into a sprint.

. . .

Overhead the outline of that office building looms, I'm out of the saddle, teeth gritted, a silent scream in my throat. Amongst dozens of competitors I'm alone. I cross the finish line.

. . .

A gasp of exasperation marks the end of my ride. For all of it I'm alone. There is no crowd, no competitors, no sky-line, just me, the road, and my constant companion.

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