The wheel

I was in a hurry. I pulled on my bibs, arm warmers, jersey, socks, vest, shoes, and gloves. I hurried out, greeted by a thick mist that turned to light drizzle, a drizzle that lasted the entire day.

We got to the start of the NOW Ride in Santa Monica. On Pacific Coast Highway, at ride’s begin, the group was huge. It had a bad feel. So many people, wet road, light rain.

The fast people immediately twisted the throttle and the speed began to pick up. I wasn’t really sure what to do. I didn’t want to be too far forward because it would be single file and hard, but I didn’t want to be very far back because people would become sketchier and sketchier as the speed picked up.

At that moment Rahsaan Bahati passed me, resolving my dilemma. I’d do whatever Rahsaan did, for this simple reason: He doesn’t make mistakes, and he is the smoothest rider I’ve ever seen. To say he is a smooth rider doesn’t really describe it, though. No matter how fast you are going, if you can stay on Rahsaan’s wheel, it’s as if you are going at half speed. His pedal strokes are so fluid that they look effortless, and he guides his bike by, through, into, and out of spaces so easily that you wonder why you can’t do it by yourself.

The reason you can’t do it by yourself is because Rahsaan thinks four or five steps ahead, whereas most riders, including me, think in briefer and briefer bursts the harder the effort and the tireder we become until we are simply staring at a wheel, hoping not to get dropped. Rahsaan separates the pain from the cognition, so that no matter how much pain, he is still seeing, computing, re-calibrating, predicting, and making choices on things that have not yet happened.

Among really great riders there is a separate group of amazingly smooth ones. After Rahsaan, the smoothest riders I’ve ever raced with are Gibby Hatton and Paul Che, in that order. Gibby was a professional keirin racer for over a decade, and sitting in the 50+ masters pack with him was simply astonishing. At least 50 pounds overweight, and completely unremarkable except for the rainbow stripes on his sleeve, he would ride an entire 60-minute CBR crit and pedal hardly at all. He’d just coast up, slide back, pedal twice, coast up, slide back, repeat.

Until the end, of course. That’s when he’d magically be third wheel and he’d kick it one time. No one was ever even close.

Paul Che, who cleverly quit racing to make money, was another guy who made the hardest thing on a bike, moving around in a pack, look like a child could do it. The handful of races I did with him, I’d try to follow as he floated through the field. He could go from 70th to 5th in a matter of seconds, hardly pedaling, slipping into spaces that didn’t even look like spaces, his hands not even on the hoods. Of course tailing him never lasted more than a few spots.

As good or better than anyone might be Daniel Holloway, but I don’t know because I’ve never been in a race with him. On training rides, though, he was another rider who seemed to move without really moving. One thing is sure, though. These magicians don’t touch, push, bump, bang or slam, although they can if they have to. 99.9% of their motion is premeditated and unopposed; you can’t stop someone you can’t see.

Rahsaan isn’t “next level.” He is “next next next level,” because his movement is based on extraordinary awareness of everything happening in front, in back, and on both sides even as all those elements change by the second. This awareness is backed by instantaneous reflexes–in full gas mode he suddenly lifted his whole bike over a gnarly manhole cover that I never even saw until I’d ridden over it. How had he even seen it, his view blocked by a dozen riders, much less reacted that quickly?

As I was enjoying the confidence of sitting on the magician’s wheel, he began to move up. I didn’t know why, but I knew he wasn’t doing it so that he could get a better view of the ocean. This is another characteristic of Rahsaan: Nothing is random. To the contrary, everything is carefully calculated beyond any description.

This is the biggest difference between magicians and hackers. The magicians act intentionally, whereas the hackers simply survive, until of course … they don’t.

The pace was now so blistering that the first twenty riders were in single file. As Rahsaan moved forward, so did I, amazed at how it just naturally “happened.” At about twelfth wheel, Rahsaan paused. Then with four pedal strokes he shot forward, always protected from the wind, to the position he’d been aiming for. I ran out of follow and was stuck.

My heart was pounding so hard and my breathing was so loud that I only vaguely heard the riders behind me, the gassed mob of hangers-on noisier than usual, then a funny cacophony, and then silence. I knew that silence. It meant that the snap had happened, the door had slammed shut, and I was the last one to squeak through.

The stake usually gets driven through my heart on the NOW Ride at Pepperdine Hill, about a hundred yards from the top, but the speed had been so high on the run-in to Cross Creek that I was utterly shot before we even began the 2-minute effort. I pushed towards the front to try and create some room to latch onto when the group swarmed by, but it was pointless. The riders who’d been driving the train were completely fresh, and when they stomped I shot backwards.

As I reversed by Rahsaan he said, “There was a crash back there. We should go back.”

I certainly wasn’t going forward, and we circled back. Soon enough I saw Foxy’s headlight; she’d been right behind the mayhem and had narrowly avoided a four-man blow-em-up that had thrown several riders into oncoming traffic which, by the grace of dog, there was none. Two ambulances carted away the injured.

The two of us continued on and climbed Deer Creek, then rode back to the South Bay. My bib shorts, which were way too short, looked ludicrous, like hotpants, riding way up to mid-thigh, exposing a huge white band above the tan line where my shorts usually stopped. Foxy snapped a photo, it looked so silly. I didn’t know if it had been the rain, but the shorts had rubbed me raw every which way, something that never happens.

114 miles and a bunch of elevation later, I got home cold, beat up, and shaky. I stripped off my black bibs with the black pad and realized why nothing had been right all day.

In a pack of a hundred riders no one noticed and no one said a word, not even the rider who’d been on my wheel for several hours, that I’d been wearing my shorts …

Inside out.

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END

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8 thoughts on “The wheel”

  1. I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1. Inside out?!

  2. J Marvin Campbell

    I ran out of follow is the story of my life.
    You condense the essence there.

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