You wanted to know how the ride was. Well, it was like this:
For starters, you would have loved it; your kind of ride! Tough, long, and diamond hard.I don’t usually get nervous before racing, and certainly not before group rides. But I was anxious, even the night before, which is crazy. I got up at 7:00 to have plenty of time for breakfast and to be out the door at 8:30; the ride started at 9:30 and it would take thirty minutes at the most to get to the Lion’s Bridge. I gave myself time to get lost …
As I pulled on my multiple layers of clothing I toyed with the idea of not even going. “Why am I doing this? It’s going to be stupid. And cold. I’m so over it. Maybe I’ll go back to bed.”
I looked out the window again; if it had been so much as sprinkling I would have bagged it, but the 100% chance of rain predicted in yesterday’s forecast had guaranteed the first perfectly sunny sky in the last ten days. I knew I had to go and I was dreading it.
As I wheeled out from the youth prison a street sweeper walked by, wearing his bright orange hi-viz uniform. It was cold and the wind was blowing, but he patiently swept the refuse from the night before into a pile. He might have been Turkish or Afghan; he didn’t look up. “Good morning,” I said.
He stopped sweeping and turned to face me directly, all of his attention focused on my face. He leaned the broom handle against his broad chest and opened his mouth into the warmest, kindest smile, showing beautiful white teeth that practically glittered in the morning sunshine. “Why thank you, sir! And a most wonderful and beautiful day, and a joyous weekend to you!” Then he turned back to his work every bit as attentively as he had greeted me.
That was the first sign I’d had that it was going to be a good day.
At the Lion’s Bridge there was no one, which was a good sign, although I knew that on a cold day with no Starbucks to hang out at, the riders would probably show up shortly before the start. Thirty minutes is a long time to stand around in the cold. I found a sunny spot in front of a concrete girder that also blocked the howling wind. “Hope we’re not riding into that shit,” I thought.
At 9:25 the bridge was still deserted and I figured I would call it a day. Maybe I’d gotten the location wrong, or more likely, the ride was Sunday only and on Saturday people rode elsewhere. Just as well. I’d get in my last Vienna bike ride, do a couple of climbs, declare victory and go home.
Just before I rode off, a guy rolled up in a Simple Green kit, of all things, clearly there for the ride. He turned out to be from Arizona and didn’t acknowledge my existence. No head nod, nothing. Too cool for out-of-towners with bike lights, obviously. We never exchanged a word the whole day. Whatever.
One by one riders appeared until we had a group of about fifteen. I could tell that they were some hard fuckers. Their kits were worn hard, the kind of wear you get from riding in shitty weather, and riding a lot. Scuffed shoe covers, faded rain capes, frayed sleeve edges, grime on the chain, flecks of dried mud on the underside of the down tube, no matchy-matchy anything, just workmanlike equipment and clothing designed to get the job done. One guy had a rear fender and no helmet, a beanie pulled down over his ears, and he had the effortless spin of someone who’d logged a few miles in his life.
Another guy on a ‘cross bike showed up with no gloves. The high forties wasn’t enough to need anything on his fingers, apparently … these weren’t SoCal fair weather riders, they were cyclists, which meant that they rode their fuggin’ bikes. I laughed to myself, thinking about how when it sprinkles in SoCal, Facebag explodes with proud photos of bikers out riding in the rain. Like I said, these were obviously a hard bunch of fuckers; it showed on their equipment and their clothing, not on their #socmed #bragposts.
I was a few riders from the back and got a good look at everyone. There were four or five riders who were obviously the hitters, but there wasn’t a single person who didn’t look like they knew what they were doing. I’ve never been in a group of that size where everyone was so fit looking and intimidating. And I knew they were keenly aware of the stranger. They were checking me out ten times harder than I was checking out them.
“Who’s this guy?” they were wondering. “And what the hell’s he doing riding here in November?”
No one said a word to me though, at least at the start. There was some quiet conversation between people who knew each other well and rode a shit-ton of miles together, but none of the South Bay friendliness that we shower on new riders. The vibe was, “We’ll find out who you are soon enough.” If there was a #socmed pecking order here, I couldn’t find it. It had the feel I love; you’ll prove your mettle with your legs, not your online bravado and hashtags.
After a little bit, though, the curiosity was overpowering, and a guy named Christoph came up alongside and chatted me up. He’d raced in California in the 90’s, and described himself as the “old man” of the peloton. He was 47. He didn’t look very fit, but the way he pedaled and sat on his bike, you could tell he was a tough bastard, and I knew from experience that way a guy pedals is way more important than how much extra weight he’s carrying. Turns out he raced pro for several years and knew Steve Speaks and Roy Knickman, had raced Redlands, banged bars with L.A. Sheriffs, and knew all of the Subaru-Montgomery racers, among others.
Less than twenty minutes into the four-hour ride we hit the wind. We were riding two by two, and people were taking really short pulls, like a minute or two minutes, max. Each time Christoph and I hit the front it seemed to last a lot longer than that. “The testing has started,” I murmured to myself, keeping my face expressionless. Christoph was stonefaced too, and never wavered until after a bit he’d shout “Off!” and over we’d swing as the next pair put their necks under the executioner’s blade.
The rotation was perfectly organized. No shouting, no instructions, no gatekeepers, horsemen, or sweepers–just fifteen really good riders who were starting out on a long day and knew what to do. It was also interesting because no one pointed anything out. You were expected to watch the road like a hawk and not run over shit. We rode so closely together that you quickly understood where the Euro pack skills come from; they come from training hard on long rides on narrow roads that are never straight.
I could tell right away that there was one rider who was the ride boss; his name was Damir. He had on a Voest Alpine jersey, he wasn’t too big, legs slim but busting out with muscles even wearing tights. The guy he was paired with was the other hitter, and when they pulled, the pace always jumped. I watched Ride Boss grind his partner down over the course of three or four pulls, until the guy had to quit rotating and sit on the back. By now, hardly anyone was on the front for more than thirty seconds except Ride Boss. It was the most horrific wind I’ve ever ridden into, easily a 20 mph cross-headwind that guttered everyone behind in a dual echelon and absolutely flayed whoever was on the front.
Christoph finally had enough and dropped to the back as well. Ride Boss had been checking me out and he decided it was time to put me through my paces. He slid up next to me and in a few minutes we were on the point. He slowly picked it up until I was crouched down over the stem as low as I could get, and the pain was relentless. I knew he was trying to crack me, but I just said to myself, “Fuck it, I won’t be the one to pull off first.”
After about three minutes of awful work into the teeth that howling fucking wind, Ride Boss finally swung over. He’d had enough for that first session, but as we paired up at the back I knew it was just a matter of minutes before we were on the front again. People had that gassed look but no one was quitting. The conversation had evaporated as people counted the minutes until it was their turn again. Like I said, these riders were so fucking tough, even the ones who weren’t pulling. If we’d been in SoCal we’d have lost half the group in the first half hour. No attacks, nothing more than relentless, steady riding.
Ride Boss and I hit the front again and he amped it up until we were both sitting on redline, straightfaced and pretending that this agony didn’t hurt at all. A few seconds before I cracked, he swung over. Now, only four other riders were pulling; everyone else was in survival mode. We hit the wind again and even Ride Boss was starting to look giddy. Still, no one quit. After one particularly horrible effort I knew we must have dropped three or four riders, but nope, everyone was still there.
Eventually we hit the turnaround. I have no idea where we were; it was a long fucking way from anywhere. We’d been pounding out through farm fields northwest of Vienna. Like cyclists everywhere, these guys knew the best roads. The second we turned, the horrible headwind became a monsoon-like tailwind. All the riders who’d been shirking or doing 30-second pulls came to life. The pace got cracking, and each time we reached some tiny little burg there would be a sprint for the city limit sign. The guy from Arizona, who’d taken exactly two baby pulls the whole day, attacked for the first sprint.
Shortly thereafter more than half the group called it a day and took the short way home. We kept going for extra credit; you, friend, would have gone with us. There were no coffee stops, no water bottle refills, no potty breaks, no regroups, nothing. We rode our bikes from the minute the ride started until we got home; four hours of solid-state, full-on riding. Several of the guys were ex-pros, it turned out.
Back at the Lion’s Bridge, Ride Boss and I exchanged emails and phone numbers. “You rode good,” he said. “You’re a tough guy.”
I think that’s the best compliment I’ve ever been given, for anything, by anyone. “Dude,” I said, “you had me on my knees.”
“Nah,” he said. “You go good. That was one of the hardest rides, today. Nice time riding with you. Next time you’re in Vienna, come ride with us again. This ride, it’s the good ride. The other ones are for shit.”
It sure made all of the headaches and hassles of bringing my bike worthwhile. It sure made me glad I did the ride. It sure made me eager to come back and do it again. Friend, you would have fit right in. See you soon.
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