“It’s going to happen to one of you. Don’t be that person.”
The skin on my right arm feels taut, pulled tight by the sun. On my face, throughout my body, there are splinters of pain and my body feels dry, like it’s been rolled in flour. If someone would ask me the time I’d tell them three, close to four. In reality it’s closer to one-thirty and we’ve just eaten lunch in a small town where the houses have bleacher seats for what looks like the edge of the world. On the lawn, during lunch, Nick Aster is explaining the architecture of the area. He points to a small, two-story house that looks like the 1970’s reinterpretation of a ginger-bread house on summer vacation. Chocolate brown wooden slats and many windows. Typical of the area he says. Further up along our route there’s a development that stirred up a lot of controversy a few decades back because housing developments, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing they might be, were frowned upon. Then the team rallies for a human pyramid and Aster is beneath me telling us, “Go, go! It’s good! Get up there!” And then a lightning bolt of expletives telling me to get off, “his back, his back.” We managed to work it out and Lily proved that she does indeed make a good top. Well worth the pain. We think.
And now I’m riding. I’m alone. We’ve left town immediately into short bursts of hills that weave up into crops of trees and I’m thankful for the shade as I reawaken my calves, my thighs, and my mind. In most cases, the body can outlast the mind. I’m not thinking now, just climbing, hoping for a break, wondering how long it will be before my mind mentions to me the possibility that my body cannot go any further and when I ignore that how long it will be before it begins to make the argument to my feet, and my ankles, and my legs, until all of them have rallied against me and are in the street protesting being overworked and underappreciated. I push harder, beyond the shade, into the dry heat and now I am coasting, coasting, and before me to my left the hills are gently being herded across the street and down into the Pacific Ocean. In the vast expanse in front of me there are glimpses of a line of cyclists in blue and orange jerseys that elongates into dashes that punctuate the dark gray crests that are carved into gold and it is like Morse code signaling back to me the reminder that I am not alone even though I am by myself.
The ride has become like life and occasionally we are together, side by side, laughing, and in some cases, only near one another, close enough to hear the other breathing, working, and later you are alone and the sun is bearing down on you and to your left, only a foot or so away, a diesel engine thunders past and so you move sharply, but gently, to your right, four, maybe five inches, and glancing in that direction you see the world fall away into the crest of rock and far below that the sea. This is the thin space between catastrophe in which you’ve placed yourself to see the world as it is: beautiful, and dangerous for those who don’t pay attention.
The ribbon of highway traces the coast and this will last the rest of our ride for the day until we arrive in Fort Bragg to pay a visit upon invitation to the Thanksgiving Coffee Company. That thought is a fine point in my mind, something nearly incomprehensible, and trying to imagine it seems impossible and useless right now. I shift into a lower gear and spin faster, up this next hill, to save my thighs. It feels like they are rubber bands being twisted to the point of collapsing into knots. I begin to wonder if tomorrow I’ll be able to complete the seventy mile ride and only the pain of the uphill and the release, the momentary glide, and the drift into the next descent allow me to forget that I have never done this before. I don’t know if I can do this because even though I’ve looked at the dailies, and I know the distances, my body doesn’t know what this is.
Something is wrong. My legs feel as though they’ve come unhinged. I’m no longer a part of the machine beneath me. I’m separate from it, holding onto it, but the communication has been lost between the bicycle and the lower half of my body. I am pedaling, freewheeling, spilling power out of my feet into the chain-rings and all over the ground. I look down. My chain has come off. My right crank is wearing it like a necklace and I’m staring at it, assessing it, forgetting that I am on a highway, negotiating cars to my left and occasional cliffs to my right. I look up. I’m fine for a while. The road slopes down in a straight line in front of me for at least a half-mile but I don’t think of it in these terms. I only see time. I twist my right ankle sharply counterclockwise and feel my foot snap free of the pedal. I brake evenly and slow to a crawl into the dry, California grasses. “Are you okay?” I hear Jules yell as she comes towards me, quickly, pointedly. “Chain came off,” I respond, and she checks in to make sure I’m alright and I am so she pulls ahead as Jesse comes to me and now I’m back on the bike and we’re riding and I realize that when I reach my left arm down beneath the level of my seat to shift my front gears I have to be sure not to push on the lever too hard. If I do it’s going to jump my chain off again. Typically I’m in this gear on the beginning of a downhill. Which means that if I don’t remain aware of the fact that my front derailleur is out of alignment I’m going to shove my chain right off the ring and onto a metal bar that, in the worst case, will jam it up, forcing my rear derailleur immediately up into my frame, which will lock up my entire bike. On a hill. With people coming behind me. And cars behind them. I practice shifting, carefully, and decide that I’m sure I won’t forget and race ahead to catch up to Jesse because I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I know he’s yelling it. I pull up alongside of him and we’re moving in a long, straight, smooth, fast bead. We’re next to one another and there’s plenty of open road ahead flanked by the colors of the end of a dry summer. “Your cables are stretched out,” he says, as I pull next to him. “Al’s real good with that sort of stuff. Good to get it up on the rack later.”
In the heat the beginning of the day drifts into the unsorted memories of the rest of the trip. They are uncategorized laying on the floor of my mind. I will get to them later. Here, I am pushing myself up the purgatorial climb of a mile-long stretch of hill on the 101. In theory, I am still excited about the trip. I am ecstatic not to be in an office, sitting on a chair, staring at a screen. Instead I am sitting on my bike and the happiness of this is a kind of happiness that feels close to childhood. At night I will be around a campfire with my friends, my team. I will be able to see the stars. I am happy. But I hate this climb. I want it to be over. I want to get off my bike and sit down. I want to be surrounded by trees and not the gaping hole of a mountain that’s been ripped apart to widen the highway to make room for the truckers that are blowing past me at sixty miles an hour. And then it’s over.
Here, I am climbing through the forest. I have pulled ahead and am out in front. Only Wavy is beyond me and he has gone so far that he has passed even out of my mind. I can feel two of my teammates behind me, not far behind, but far enough that I have time to myself. The air is cool and damp and I take deep breaths through my nose and my mind is filled with the scent of pine. The road is impatient and curves to the right. Now to the left. On the next curve the gravity of the mountain pulls hard to the left and steepens and so I stand up, out of the saddle, and this feels good, like a relief, even though I know that now that I’m standing up I’m losing energy. I sit back down and put it into a lower gear and spin faster. D pulls up along-side of me, to my left. He easily pulls ahead. I look back over my left shoulder. The Hooker brothers. “We can catch him,” D says. “He’s just two turns ahead.” He’s talking about Wavy. I can’t catch Wavy. I don’t want to watch this pack pull ahead of me. It will be discouraging. I force my legs to work harder and I maintain my position between these brothers that have both ridden across the U.S., Alex from San Francisco to Brooklyn, and Jesse in reverse, and Zach Dorman, who looks like the kind of guy that could pull rock apart with his bare hands. I manage to stay with them and we space out, but we don’t catch Wavy. In a serene piece of the mountain, with some distance between me and the brothers, I reach into the back of my jersey to pull out the mini-video recorder that I’ve been using to catch brief highlights, doing my best to make sure that I’m safe about this, both for my own sake and for the sake of my team. If something happens to one of us, something happens to all of us. I immediately lose my balance, over-correct twice, and realize that this will only get worse. I give up, let go, and hold my left hand into the air as though it’s an Olympic torch in my hand. I land on my right side, scared. I’ve never ridden in clipless pedals before. My introduction to them was through a friend that fell riding out of Golden Gate Park, five years ago. She didn’t get out properly at a stop sign. The fall caused a compound fracture to her ankle.
The sound of my digital SLR bouncing off of the street behind me, somehow underneath me first and then making room for the rest of my body to land evenly on the pavement, makes it sound hollow, made out of plastic. As I’m hitting the ground I’m actually surprised that the camera hasn’t exploded. By the time I come back to the fact that I’m essentially chained to this piece of metal that’s partially coming down on me and will pin me to the road it’s over, one of my feet has come loose, and I’m okay. I stand up. D yells back. The brothers yell ahead. It’s quiet. The camera seems fine. I’m standing in the forest, on the side of a mountain. I’m calm. Jesse makes sure I’m okay. He rides ahead to catch up with D. Alex pulls up and checks in with me. As we get moving, back into the gentle upward slope of the climb that will end in a five-mile downhill that everyone later will excitedly talk about like it’s the first roller-coaster they’ve ever ridden, Alex says, “I once saw my brother do that with a nineteen ninety-three Jeep Cherokee,” and proceeds to tell me a story about him, a friend, and his brother flipping a jeep upside down onto a kayak and skating on that down the road until coming to a full-stop. Not wearing seatbelts. And as they’re climbing out of the car they were hiding the cigarettes because they were afraid of being caught smoking underage.
All of these memories are loose, rotating through my mind. I move between them. In the heat, my skin is pulled tight and I don’t recall the order of events. We are missing turns off the freeway. Mary is lending me her towel to dry off after swimming. “Just gotta do it,” Jenny says. “Take the cold plunge,” and we dive into the river. We are being led on a tour of a sustainable coffee distributor. I am listening to a story given by Paul, the roast master, about Bobby Kennedy giving himself a ride back to his hotel in Paul’s car, which used to belong to belong to Bobby Kennedy. I am looking into compost heaps and I am dripping grease onto my chain, and I am sitting on the cement deck of a corner store in Leggett with my jersey zipped open and the warmth of the afternoon light covering me. I am coming up the last of the hills out of the morning ride and ahead I know that at the bend will be the ocean. I pull out the recorder and as I come around the corner I see Lily looking out over the ocean and Toby opening up the van. Wavy is sitting on the back, reading a book, and soon everyone will be cheering for the sweep, the last rider to ensure no one has been left behind, and we’ll be together, sitting on the grass, eating lunch, laughing, and stretching.