It was one of those rides, just good to get out there. I had to push myself to get out, time on my hands, overcast but the rain holding off, Rock Creek closed to motor traffic on a Saturday. Late enough in the day, sleepy August, just get there and have a ride along the stream, maybe out as far as East West Highway, maybe not. I get to the last set of gates closing off traffic after going over the hump, enjoying getting up to speed on the flat straightaway after the boost of the downhill, and that's pretty good, maybe just head back. A slender deer watches me pass from the side of the road before bounding off. The Weather Channel promises the rain won't even be a threat 'til 9, but there have been a few sprinkles. The occasional guy on the time trial bike, a few slow peddlers, a walker, a jogger, couples with labs enjoying getting wet in the slow waters of the creek, dead branches over the gap above the stream bed. Make the little climb, cross the traffic, and then it's all downhill from here. Good enough ride, not fast, but healthy, and let's not dawdle, get home, there's probably some things to do, life to figure out.
Crossing Broadbranch, careful with the few cars coming through, glide into the parking lot, slow, I almost put my chin in my hand, meditatively, like The Thinker statue, which you can do on a bike, easily enough as elsewhere, and then steer forward onto the little walkway paved path that leads back to the old stone mill barns at the bottom of Tilden. Which is where, coming the other way, I figure out just as I pass, and have to think about it, inconspicuous, in a pair of normal shorts, wearing slip on sneakers, with a small backpack, wearing black framed eyeglasses and yes, a helmet, a cap underneath, and riding a simple sturdy serviceable Surly bicycle is the greatest cyclist of all time. Seen from time to time at this hour on a Saturday taking a relaxing spin after the famous 10AM ride that becomes out in Potomac a very fast paceline, as I take my ride back in.
I roll on for a moment. Jesus, that was him, wasn't it. So, I turn around. And by the time I get back through the sleepy parking lot and cross Broadbranch again, I've caught a glimpse of him up the road. Who knows, maybe I can catch him. Slowly gaining on the figure ahead, who is taking it easy, yes, the powerful calves, the tattoo, it is indeed Sir Lancelot, though you had to be smart to figure that out. Rolling up carefully alongside over the hump of the stone bridge, I nod and speak out over the wheels, "I thought that guy back there looked pretty fast." And having spoken to him before over a Whole Foods fish counter, about what he's riding these days, I have a sense of how he talks, he says something like hey, back to me, and then, hearing what I said, "which guy?" So I point to him, "this guy." "Nah, I'm not that fast."
We get to talking, as we roll along, as is comfortable and customary at this spot in the road, though he could step on the gas pedal if he wanted. It's a lazy Saturday, early August, the stream is running, the air is still, the sun's not beating down on us, it's quiet, and few in the road. It develops, as I explain a bit of my cycling friendships and local knowledge, that the man is at least for the time being not that into bike racing. He had a crash. I'm sorry about that. It's just about getting out there, and long slow miles, maybe even going out along the towpath, and camping. Yeah, man. That's how I feel too. And perhaps, a thought, he is so no longer into racing and competition, that he is slightly reluctant to give up his anonymity. I tell him my story of the other day, of the pace line flying past me and I bumped along the ruts of the road, keeping my line. Interesting, that the great cyclist had in a way abandoned the old identity, not wearing an old team cycling kit or even cycling shorts. I ask him about bike shops, compare experiences, and he endorses the good people who care about cycling down at The Bike Rack.
It's all a blur, he says, about his years as a competitive cyclist who could beat anybody, whole fields of racers. We pedal up the road, not lifting the pace. 13 or 14. Which is how I rode in his company, ten years ago with my serious cycling friends, coming back in from Grosvenor on Beech Drive, the recovery ride, a ride I was quite happy with, and seeing up close, for the first time, the physique of a world class cyclist, the massive hamstrings, the fibers of muscle in the calves, the quadriceps. Back then, no helmet.
Yeah, I say, patting my stomach, I'm trying to get more Buddhist about the wine. I'd like to get rid of that. "Looking at statistics, we're not doing so bad," he says. I explain, yeah, I've done the writer thing, blah blah blah, but it's really about doing it for its own reasons. He had a blog. He's a good writer. I enjoyed his observations. There was good humor in it too. He's been on hikes, up and down, ten miles, keep you in shape. He likes the Billygoat Trail.
It turns out, as we reach the same place where I turned around before--I might have thought he's go on and scoop up more miles--that he's allowed himself to become more of a fan, more aware of its history. Hey, me too. We talk about the bad days of doping, '93, '94, when everyone started using. Paris Roubaix is a good one to watch. And somewhere along the road, his thought that the best thing, which he really enjoys, will always enjoy, the long slow miles, the simple beauty of it sinks in, agreeing with the world as it is and the trees of the forest that lines the road on both sides.
Back in the park, he pulls over to use the restroom. Hey, great talking to you; thanks for riding with me. A rolling Tour de France style handshake. Then the road is before me again. Over the bridge, across from the picnic area I pull over and use the restroom, and respond to a text from my old college buddy out in LA as he comes through, raising an arm, and I raise an arm. I get back up to pace, and I see him take a right at the intersection, to climb through the woods. Yeah, that's a good idea, and I size up the pace of a limo bus that's taking people back and forth from the tennis tournament from parking lots, turning up the road and beginning to climb. And there, climbing, I am dropped, the road going silent before me. Give the man the space he needs. Yes, it's about getting out there.
By the time I get home, eat some leftover roast chicken, a kale salad, starving, and then shower, I am again comfortable with myself. I am also very tired, only a tomato with basil and olive oil for breakfast. I lay back on the couch to read, and fall into a good nap, slightly conscious but not moving. Then I read a bit. The thought occurs to me somewhere back on the road that I wished I participated in a healthy job, like school teaching, or maybe like him, a store of good nutrition at least. A good coach.
Finally about One AM, I have what's left of a bottle of Pinot Noir, one glass, but a mistake, and so then, lonely, I go out and slowly ruin the good feeling with a few more glasses of wine as the body craves with thirst, satisfactory only when I can share a bit of being a barman with another good barman in the pub down on 17th, and then, two double quarter pounders with cheese, both like disappearing like nothing, and I walk home, silently, and go to bed. And today, a sort of sad feeling prompts me to write what I could not write before, before I gather myself for work, Sunday night, my Monday morning.
A great cyclist, like my friend of the road, needs a lot of open space. The strength comes from lots of miles. There is primarily the comfortable ease and grace of that power, that what would require of anyone else lots of effort to maintain and look a lot rougher. And the same with the writer. The writing comes from a self-comfort in the process, as if easily tossed off, no problem. That only comes also from lots of miles and roads up and down.