I took my first full ride around the hill this morning. It was sunny and warm, a perfect January morning for a bike ride. The streets were filled with cyclists. You’d think people would be ecstatic, riding in such circumstances, but what I noted is how grim almost everyone was. Some were grimly staring at their computer. Some were grimly grimacing up a grade. Some were grimacing at getting passed. Some were grimacing as they passed you.
No one was smiling and no one said hello except for Vinnie, who zoomed by with a big grin and said “The legend!”
One fellow passed me on the switchbacks, had his legs fall off, and then snarled, “Comback, eh?” when I passed him.
Going up Crest I got passed by Alan Becker, one of the more unpleasant people I’ve ever ridden around. “I thought you were in Texas?” was his greeting. I let my presence answer the question. He’s another guy who presumably reads this blog and is too cheap to subscribe.
“I honked at you yesterday when you were on Torrance!” he said. I didn’t ask him how it was he thought I was in Texas if he had seen me yesterday.
I tried to ride away from him but coudn’t, pushing home the point that after depletion and three weeks of bed rest I was truly pathetic. Correctly judging that I was weak, he powered by me, something that could never have happened in his wildest dreams. But dreams do come true … I tried to follow him, one of the weakest people I know, only to get smartly out-sprinted at the top by a guy who accelerates like a dumpster. He turned around and passed me to descend, grimly happy at this once-in-a-lifetime achievement. It’s not every day you get to crush a guy in tennis shoes, and it probably went a long way to make up for the countless Flog Rides he had started late, was immediately shelled from, and never finished.
If I’d had a mirror I probably would have looked pretty grim, too. I searched the road carefully for the way down looking for even the tiniest shred of my self-respect, but there was none.
That’s what riding on the hill seems to be. An exercise in grimness. I pondered the reason and concluded that every single person out there is at any given moment predator or prey. That’s the “fun.” One moment you devour some poor sap, the next moment the poor sap is you. It’s an endless carousel of up-and-down, various strangers zipless fucking each other for the entirety of the ride. It had seemed like such a natural and normal thing the years that I did it.
Even though I tried to use the ride as a two-hour Chaucer practice session, it repeatedly was interrupted with grim people grimly passing by. I say interrupted because my heart rate always spikes when I get passed. The sound of the tires, the chain, the labored breathing, and then the visual of the grim bicyclist consuming another piece of prey.
I contrasted this with my experiences touring, where people always stopped and talked. When you see someone else on a bike loaded down with panniers, you want to stop and chat, hear their story, tell them yours because there always is one. There’s a fellowship, an instant bond between people out on some lonely road going to West Hell on a bike. The effect is more intense at a campground, where tourists often go over to each other’s camp sites, exchange information, share a beer, sit around a camp fire.
One reason perhaps is that the ARC, or “avid recreation cyclist” as Matt Brousseau calls them, is manufacturing adversity whereas the tourist’s adversity is very often real. Long stretches in the rain or cold or searing heat followed by setting up camp, cooking dinner, cleaning up your shit, and then doing it the next day all over again. When you tour, unless the whole thing is sagged, you often feel vulnerable and you appreciate seeing other people out doing what you’re doing.
The opposite happens with ARC riding on the hill, where other cyclists simply get in the way of your fantasy that you are doing something superhuman, godlike, beyond the ken of mere mortals and by the way, did you see my cool new kit? What is most extreme is the contrast between the beautiful weather and surroundings and the grimness of the riders.On tour I can’t count the number of times I got off my bike simply to gaze at the beauty of a mountain range, or to drink glacier-melt, or to photograph something worth remembering, be it a grave marker or a cactus.
But on the hill, when you have the whole gorgeous day at your disposal? Don’t even think about stopping–you might get passed.