When I was 18, I had just bought my Nishiki International and was pedaling over to the business school on the UT campus to lock it up. The business school had the best railings, and even though I was a philosophy major I swallowed my disgust and kryptonited my love to the secure steel bars of finance rather than trust it to the honesty of philosophers.
I stood up in time to see Robert Doty unlocking his bike, a maroon Fuji.
“Hi, Robert,” I said.
We eyed each others’ bikes like junkies eyeing the respective tracks on their forearms. “You’re one, too,” we thought.
Bob was fifteen months older but two years ahead of me in school. We’d gone to Jane Long Junior High School but didn’t really know each other; I knew his name because every week on the Monday announcements over the PA, Mr. Thompson would praise the football team for losing valiantly again and then in a hurried aside would add, “Jane Long’s Debate Team of Robert Doty and Thomas Chatoney won first place again in the xxx debate tournament.”
Mr. Thompson never learned how to pronounce Tom’s name, which rhymed with “flattony,” preferring instead the more redneck version that rhymed with “baloney.”
In high school I got to know Bob as the senior star of our nationally ranked debate squad, but I was still a lowly sophomore debater. Two years’ difference in high school is a lot.
Standing in front of the business school that day, standard social hierarchy crumbled as it often does when bikes are concerned. “You ride?” Bob asked. If there was gonna be a hierarchy, it was gonna be leg-based.
“Yes, but I’m new at it.” The last part was superfluous; my Nishiki glittered, still never having even been ridden in the rain.
“Let’s go for a ride sometime,” Bob said, and we did what people used to do, that is, took out pens and wrote down each other’s phone numbers and then a few days later made an actual telephone call on a thing wired into the wall.
Bob became my first riding partner, and he beat me down mercilessly. He was a distance runner as well, and terribly fit, whereas I was merely terrible. Our most epic route went out FM 2222 up Feedlot Hill, a mile-long grade of about six percent that you had to climb on the way out to Lake Travis. We could scarcely imagine a more imposing mountain to ascend on a bike. Each time Bob would drop me there, hard.
One day I made up my mind to hang no matter what. I hung on for as long as I could until he lowered the hammer about halfway up and kicked me out the back. I was blown physically, but emotionally, too. I started crying and cursing as he vanished up the road. Shortly before I crested the top, where Bob was waiting, I stopped trembling and swore that one day I’d beat him.
I think back on that moment a lot. Who breaks down in tears on a bike at getting shelled?
The following year I roomed with Bob and his older brother, Harold the Bad, in the rundown, roach-filled Villa Orleans on 38th Street. Harold was a redneck, duck-hunting Ph.D. student, and he thought the whole cycling thing was silly. Why couldn’t we just go out and kill shit like normal people? I was a pretty solid pain in the ass roommate, but Bob had never had a younger brother and he cut me a lot of slack that, hardass that he was, he’d have never tolerated in someone else.
One of those places where he cut me nothing but slack was the kitchen. Bob was the house cook and he baked whole wheat bread a couple of times a week. I’d never had fresh bread before and when it came out of the oven I had to be restrained from eating all of it at a single sitting. “It’s not just for you,” Bob would remind me, half pissed at my gluttony but also half pleased at seeing someone relish his bread so completely. Through all these decades I’ve felt guilty at having eaten all that bread and never so much as lifted a finger to help out, cf. The Little Red Hen and the Grain of Wheat.
Yesterday Bob was in town for a conference and he had brought his bike. He was staying right around the corner at Terranea, so we met up there. I handed him a paper bag. “Might want to go put it in your room. It’s not going to do well on a long bike ride.”
“What is it?” he asked, taking the bag. “Ummm,” he said, feeling the outside, “still warm.”
He opened the sack and tore off a piece of the bread. “Man,” he said, “this is good!” Bob would know.
He went off to his room to stow the goods.
It was a very sunny day.
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