“So this is how it is,” Turner said to himself, burning and hurting worse than any beating he’d ever gotten from Pops or Cason or that sorry fucker Raffy Santiago when he got waylaid coming home from the stamp and coin shop, with Raffy stealing his money, throwing his stamps into the wind, and pounding the shit out of him until he cried, moaned, bled from his nose and mouth, and then finally lay sobbing in a puddle of his own piss and gore.
He had been chatting with Carrottop at the shop a week earlier. “Why don’t you come do the ACA Century Ride?”
“What is it?”
“It’s an easy hundred-mile bike ride. Pam and I will just be tooling along, you can ride with us. You’ll love it.”
“Really?” Turner mulled over the internal logical inconsistency of “easy” and “hundred miles” and “bike ride.”
“You’ll be done in six or seven hours. There’s a couple of rest stops for food and water. It’s not a race, and you’ll be able to say you did your first century.”
“How many people will be there?”
“Several hundred. There’ll be a few guys racing it, but they’ll start a couple of hours after us. We’ll see ‘em for a few seconds when they come whipping by. Everyone else is just riding it for fun.”
“How come you’re not racing it?” Carrottop was one of the best climbers in Austin, and therefore the state.
“Pam wants to spend an easy day spinning together,” he said. “It’s our QT for the month.”
Nothing had worked out as planned, which is the completely predictable outcome of all bike rides and hence their appeal. Turner had gotten there at seven and waited an hour for Carrottop and Pam, who had dicked around and finally started at 8:30. A few miles in Pam had flatted, then Carrottop had flatted.
By 9:30 they were still only a few miles into the ride when Carrottop looked back. “They’re coming!”
“Who’s coming?” Turner asked.
“The racers!” Turner looked back and saw a small bunch quickly closing in on them. His pulse quickened. “Dude,” Carottop said. “Jump on the train. Pam and I probably aren’t even gonna finish the ride.”
“Yeah, just pedal like the shits and get in at the back. Then hang on for dear life. You can do it!”
Turner didn’t know what possessed him, but as the whirl of riders came by he accelerated. A small gap opened as they pulled away, but he pedaled hard and caught on. After a few minutes he could see there were two groups within the group of about fifty riders. The first fifteen or so were taking brief, hard pulls at the front, then rotating to the back, resting, and moving up in the line again until it was their turn to take another pull.
The others were hanging on for dear life. Over the next three hours the group got smaller and smaller until there were only eleven riders left. By now Turner had seen each of the surviving riders pull through so many times that he had given them all names. To his surprise one of the riders was Baker, the guy he’d met at the bike shop and who had defended him from the frat rats.
Each time Turner pulled through, the rider behind yelled at him. However he did it, he did it wrong. “You’re pulling through too fast!” they’d yell.
“Too slow!” they’d yell.
“Don’t swing over so fucking quick, for fuck’s sake!”
“Quit overlapping wheels, goddammit!”
“Hold your fucking line!”
“Quit surging you fucking idiot!”
“Don’t brake, Jesus!”
Other times the curses were simply generic expressions of contempt like “Shit,” or “Fuck” or “Goddammit.”
All Turner knew is that however wrong he was doing it, others were doing it even more wrong, because the group continued to shrink.
By the time they hit Old San Antonio Highway coming back through Buda, there were five riders. No one was cursing him now; breath was apparently way too precious to waste on some skinny dork with hairy legs and a Nishiki International. The pace never slackened. Turner had been out of water for over an hour and his t-shirt was soaked. They flew up a slight hill and it was too much for two of the remaining riders, who cracked and fell off the back.
Now it was just Baker and some dude wearing white patent leather cycling shoes and riding a blue Chesini. Turner had memorized that name, “Chesini.”
“What the fuck is a ‘Chesini’?” he wondered, hating White Shoes for ripping through each time with the ferocity of a guy who hasn’t been laid in a decade.
Turner felt nothing but a kind of numb, stabbing pain in his legs. He started to drift off the back. Baker looked back. “Don’t fucking quit now. Just sit in.”
Baker and White Shoes kept the gas on until they swept around a turn and hit South First Street. Now the speed got even higher. For the next few miles they flew down towards the river, blowing red lights, going faster, faster, faster. They were going for something, but Turner didn’t know what. By a mutually understood, prearranged signal, Baker and White Shoes jumped out of the saddle and began sprinting. Turner sprinted too.
White Shoes went by so quickly that Baker and Turner looked like they’d been lassoed and tied to a stump. White Shoes sat up and the trio coasted over the South First Street bridge.
Turner looked at White Shoes. He had a square, unshaven jaw. His legs were thick and powerful, like tree trunks. His eyes were dark, angry blue.
“Good job,” he said to Turner in a surprising friendly voice. Turner had expected the voice out of that ferocious face to sound like the roar of Godzilla.
“Thanks,” Turner said, but what he thought was “That guy is a Bike Racer and he is talking to me.”
“What’s your name?”
“Turner. What’s yours?”
“Stijn. John Stijn. See you around.” White Shoes peeled off and was gone.
“Nice riding,” said Baker.
“I told you that bike was good enough.”
“You finished the hardest ride in the whole fucking state of Texas with Johnw Stijn. What did you expect?”
“Who is he?”
Baker laughed. “You just rode with him, didn’t you? What more do you need to know about a guy who rides fifty people off his wheel?”