I had just dropped down Emerald past the StageOne World Headquarters and pulled up behind a white pickup waiting on the red light at Pacific Coast Highway. Dude’s window was down, and every five seconds (I counted) a big billow of cigarette smoke came pouring out the window.
I’d inhale, unwillingly, as the smoke coursed into my lungs. “Fucking cigarette smoke,” I thought. “I love it.”
Granny was a 3-pack-a-dayer, and it killed her young as she only lived to be ninety-five. Had she not smoked like a chimney since before the Great War, she’d doubtless have made it to 97 or even 98. She was robbed.
Summers in Daingerfield I was a little chain smoker too, even though I never once lit a cigarette. Lying between Granny and Jim, him playing solitaire with the cats, her reading a book, and me watching Gunsmoke, I smoked enough second-hand cigarettes to cancerize my lungs once and for all.
I still can’t breathe in that stuff without thinking about Granny and her Kents, and also without thinking about Ian, who smoked right up until the night before he died. When we cleaned out his sad apartment with the windows drawn and the unused stretch-a-matic muscle builder hanging from the bedroom door, most of the knick-knacks, such as they were, had so much tar from the years of cigarette smoke that they were glued to the surfaces on which they rested by virtue of a thick, dark brown resin of tar as tacky and strong as any super glue.
I’ve always thought smokers were a lot like cyclists, and it hasn’t escaped my attention that so many bikers are ex-smokers or reformed drunks or other addicts transferring one habit for a slightly less damaging one. Like cyclists, smokers are always just one step in front of the meat wagon.
Smokers measure their progress to the grave stick by glowing stick, keenly aware that it’s killing them but jaundiced enough to know that life is killing them, too. This differs only slightly from the riders who venture forth with traffic, all too willing to risk death in order to make the progress to eventual death more tolerable, pleasurable, even. Not glowing stick by stick, they measure the passage pedal stroke by stroke.
The night roaches
This night I was wearing my bolt-on legs, fresh out of the box courtesy of the Hunger Diet, and Dog I felt good. Turning left onto Esplanade I caught sight of a brilliant bike headlight behind me, moving at warp speed.
It was another night roach venturing forth under cover of darkness to ambush hapless commuters like me. My night roach policy was simple: Blow by me and say “Hello,” or better yet slow down to chit-chat as Chris Down had done last week, and I’d be happy.
Blow by me while telepathically calling me a wanker, as Bumblebee Dude had done a couple of weeks ago, and I’d chase or die trying. Part of it is the old-fashioned insecurity that drives any wanker worth his salt, the inner fear that you’re not fast enough (hint: you aren’t.).
The other part is common courtesy. Our cycling community is too small, and life’s too short, for people to slam-bang past others on bikes without even acknowledging their existence. Night Roach bore down on me and then passed, chin over stem, rocketing out of my slipstream with his South Bay Wheelmen kit briefly soaking in the glare from my light.
“See you, sucker,” he telepathed me.
It took some effort, but I caught onto his wheel, and, already deep inside his head, I knew what he was thinking when he saw my light reflect off the inside of his front rim.
“Hi, there!” I telepathed “I’m back!”
“Fuck,” he telepathed in response. “Better pretend I don’t care.”
By now he was absolutely drilling it, but we had a small tailwind and were still on the section of Esplanade that slightly tilts down, and he was broad enough and going fast enough that the draft was substantial, so he now had a permanent guest.
You hooked it, now you gotta land it
In Normalworld, he would have sat up, looked back, and said something. Or he would have swung over for me to take a pull. But we were in Nightroachworld, where everything is a potential boot sole about to come down on your spine.
“If I sit up, he’ll know I’m too tired to go it like this by myself,” he thought. “But if I keep at it, I’ll blow and look like the ultimate wanker. What if he’s just resting, and as soon as I pop he powers away? If I wave him through, I’ll look stupid for not having invited him along when I passed him in the first place, and will be admitting that he’s as good as I am. Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
I took stock of his legs. They were young legs. He rode a fair amount, but didn’t have the look that comes with brokedown, carved up, older, battle-scarred, road-hardened legs. So the equation got easier. Esplanade ends in a hill. You can either bear to the right and take the stiff, steep climb, or you can bear to the left and take the gradual one.
At this torrid pace, he was going to come apart as soon as we hit the hill. If not, he was the proud owner of a UCI pro license. He had to pick his poison. The left turn was more gradual and would show he was afraid of the steeper route, and therefore fearful. The right turn was gentle at first and would then break you without mercy.
He bore left. “Oh, Mr. Toughguy,” I telepathed, “afraid to go steep, eh?”
As expected, he slowed a bit at first, then quickly unraveled. Then, and only then, did he look back. “Hey,” he said hopefully, panting hard, “how’s it going?”
It was a fake friendliness, begging now for pity, and maybe a dollop of mercy, where he had given his all to wankify me on my carbon cross.
I said nothing and sat on his wheel. He churned about thirty more big, square, forced efforts and then completely blew. I pulled alongside him. “How’s it going?” he whimpered, but all it sounded like was “Howsmmlllgnnguhg?”
I revved up the bolt-ons and sped away.
A tale of two night encounters
Smokers are at least a little cynical on the inside, if not a whole lot. The act of smoking makes it impossible to lie to themselves. “These fucking things are killing me,” they think. “I guess I’ll have another one. Now.”
In our own way, cyclists share that cynicism about the negative effects of cycling–the expense, the risk, the subjugation of domestic tranquility to biking, the unhealthy eating habits, in short, the things about cycling that are killing you but that aren’t killing you quickly enough or certainly enough to make you refrain from doing it.
Why else would a night roach blast through the dark with a tiny headlamp, swerving around curbs and madly overtaking strangers, for no reward but the pleasure of administering a whipping?
I was pondering that question the following evening, twenty-four hours later. Again, I was on the way home. This time, though, the bolt-ons had been replaced by overcooked noodles. My pace was labored as I rolled through Lunada Bay.
Suddenly I heard voices behind me and saw the brilliant shine of multiple lights. A small group of four riders overtook me, going significantly faster. They slowed. “Hi, there,” said their leader.
“Hey,” I answered. “Where you guys going?”
“San Pedro, then up Via Colinita to the Domes and back to Manhattan Beach. Want to join us?”
They’d broken up their earnest pace just to chat with a stranger. “Sure,” I said.
They made a slot for me in fourth wheel. The pace resumed. It wasn’t hammering, but it was steady. These dudes were serious. The guy in front of me, John Daly, told me about the ride. “Five o’clock every Tuesday and Thursday after work,” he said. “We get in right at fifty miles. Only about 3k of vertical, but it’s better than nothing.”
Wow. After work. These dudes were serious. My spaghetti strands began talking to me. “You go with these dudes and you’ll bonk in Pedro,” they whispered. “Then they’ll drop you and leave you for dead. Politely, of course.”
As we rolled along I noted how carefully and courteously they rode, pointing out shit in the road and keeping a tight, safe line. No attitude here at all. Everyone welcome, just pay attention and enjoy the night as you rolled through it.
“Hey guys,” I said, “I think I’d better head back.”
“Sure,” the leader said. “Glad to have had you along.” They vanished into the blackness, the bright red embers of their taillights glowing with each drag on the cigarette, until they vanished around the bend.
I watched them disappear just as a great horned owl flew overhead, noiselessly, and settled on the traffic signal crossbar at Hawthorne, waiting for some rodent, who, unaware, would become its next meal.