A long time ago I used to race bicycles. Long enough ago that when I tucked into a descent my hair flowed out from beneath my helmet and snapped like ribbons in the wind. Now it’s been decades since my hair flowed anywhere but down the shower drain.
Last night I got a text out of the blue from a friend from those racing days, someone I accrued a few thousand pedal-powered miles with over the years. We’ll call him Speed.
I was a solid middle-of-the-pack cyclist with a few top-10 finishes on an extremely regional circuit; Speed was a champion and even pulled a brief stint as a pro.
Following Speed’s rear tire for a few thousands miles over the years I had plenty of time to ponder the difference between our levels of achievement; the distinction came down to genes and fearlessness.
Work ethic? I had it. When Speed lured me into a pell-mell 114-mile training ride through the Mississippi hills after less than two weeks of training, I didn’t quit. I ground away until — well after dark, dehydrated, and nutritionally concussed — I was back in my apartment and unable to do anything other than stiff-leg it to my mattress, tip over backward and not move.
Train as I might, I could never out-sprint or out-climb Speed’s fast-twitching aerobic machine of a body. But where he really lost me — dropped me, in the parlance of the peloton — was at the fear factor.
With all the clarity of 10 minutes ago I recall bringing my wrists, elbows and knees together, raising my rear out of the saddle, projecting my helmeted head well out over the handlebars, and following him into the first asphalt curve on the down-bound side of those Mississippi hills.
We wove the first few sweeps smoothly, but already he was pulling away. Air was coursing ever more loudly through my helmet, and I remember a guardrail as a silver blur just off my kneecap. I leaned harder into the turn and checked my speedometer.
57 miles an hour.
Gently, gently I touched the brakes and pulled out of my aerodynamic crouch. Speed was gone now, well out of sight. I continued to feather the brakes, but even at a cautious touch I could smell scorch.
Eventually I emerged at the base of the hill, where Speed — just as he did at the crest of long climbs — was circling, waiting for me to rejoin him. Onward we pedaled.
It was good to hear from Speed. He tends to disappear — for years, sometimes — then resurface. It felt odd to relive our sweat-drenched trek through the hills on a random January day nearly three decades after the fact, but come bedtime the memory clarified itself in context: Sometimes after a long, winding slog uphill into the wind for what feels like, oh, four years, you find yourself hurtling down the other side thinking escape velocity is just the thing, but then you sit up and think what would be really nice is a simple ride through the country. Less roller, more coaster.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” (tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.