One common thread that runs through every German novel I’ve ever read is that what I think I understood was completely wrong. However, thanks to its brevity, simple vocabulary, and translucent prose, I’m pretty sure I got this much right out of Herman Hesse’s novella “Siddhartha.”
When asked by his prospective employer what he could do, since he’d spent his life wandering around not bathing and doing mostly nothing, Siddhartha answered, “I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.”
Now there may be a better mantra for a bike racer, but if there is I’ve never heard it.
Age lays you low if you like to race. You’re not only not as good once as you ever were, you ultimately reach a point where you’re not even as generally bad as you once were, but generally so, or even worse. The decline is vicious, steep, inevitable, and cruel.
On the plus side, plunging recovery, waning strength, and diluted pain tolerance have forced me to adapt since I ride so much with riders who are so much younger. It is shameful to admit, but I have begun resorting to tactics. Sneaky, wheel-sucking, despicable tactics that are the signature of every card-carrying bike douche and, parenthetically, every successful one.
My only defense is that I have come to it late whereas most of my peers, and whole swathes of younger riders, have never known anything else. And to its credit, tactical douchery does have its rewards.
Take the most recent Thursday Flog Ride. Although the Wily Greek had temporarily vacated for the Tour of the Gila, NJ Pedal Beater was there along with a very small handful of other riders. NJ’s approach is to go out so hard that he immediately drops everyone. Failing that, he deliberately tries to kill you. More about that later.
On the first lap NJPB made short work of half the small group with a repeated series of attacks so vicious and fast, and unleashed at such difficult points in the ride, that after a few minutes the only remaining victims were me, EA Sports Inc., King Harold, and Uglystroke. As an aside, NJPB had done the 140-mile Belgian Waffle Ride the previous Sunday in a scorching 7:11, winning his category and putting him in the top-20 overall even though he essentially time-trialed the entire route.
I knew that any exposure to the wind would be fatal, particularly since NJPB is tiny and provides minimal draft to begin with. I also knew that his vastly superior recovery and excessive tininess meant that any time at the front by me would be rewarded with more searing attacks. Then I factored in this detail: I’d never beaten him on this ride because the handful of times we’d reached the final steeps of 18-percent Via la Cuesta together, he had dusted me off like an energetic maid with a feather broom.
This, of course, is the iron law of cycling: The best predictor of future results is past performance.
So I sat. By the end of the second lap it was just me, Uglystroke, and NJPB, whose attacks had diminished a bit in frequency and ferocity. However, furious at being unable to shake us, NJPB took the approach of “kill what you can’t beat” by insanely attacking into the two wet 180-degree hairpins that are frequently populated with giant peacocks, not to mention oncoming traffic if you cross the yellow line.
The desire to kill people who you ostensibly pretend to like is interesting because it tends to nullify the “people you like” part of the statement, especially when done repeatedly. NJPB was unconcerned with the fact that after each descent we easily floated back to his rear wheel; the goal seemed simply to either terrify us (it succeeded) or crash us out (it failed).
On the fifth lap I tested him with two surges which he easily followed. Then I returned to the not-especially-draftable rear wheel and waited for the finale. Incredibly, when we hit Via la Cuesta he crumpled, something I’d never seen, much less imagined. I sped away, enjoying the fruits of my tactical douchery, never quite believing I’d hold it to the end.
And perhaps I didn’t. He recovered and sprinted up the final 21-percent mini-wall such that he either beat me by a tire or I beat him. In any case, I marked it down as a success to sneakiness.
Two days later a similar game played itself out on the Saturday Donut Ride, where I’ve never beaten or even followed 27-year-old Colin Dong, a Ph.D. dental student who weighs twelve pounds and goes uphill, shall we say, quickly.
On the big climb, a 20-minute-ish effort that really begins in Portuguese Bend and finishes atop the radar domes, I sat. And sat. And sat. All on Colin’s wheel, and briefly on Chris’s before he swung over.
As the pain intensified I simply reminded myself of Siddhartha: I can think, and my plan is to hunker down and suck wheel and don’t counter when he slows and don’t let him trick me onto the front. I can wait, so I simply have to wait for the end. There will be no glory other than the glory of waiting. And I can fast, which, over the past two months, has allowed me to shed enough blubber so that I’ve gone from 165 to 155.
As we hit the final turn, of course, I lost the ability to think as my plan turned to “Quit now.”
I lost my ability to wait as I realized that waiting even one more second wasn’t worth the collapsing pain box.
I retained my ability to fast, but that was only because I’d forgotten to pack a gel.
Colin sprinted away over the final 300 or so yards, but I’d finished with him in sight, and nearly in reach.
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