“I don’t know why they keep listing my name and number with these things.”
It wasn’t quite the warm welcome, hey-come-ride-with-us response I was expecting when I called to learn about the Thursday Night Ride from the Old Bracken fire station off 2252.
I had owned my GT Force for a few weeks and had been venturing out on increasingly longer rides ever since and had finally worked up the nerve, the courage, the endurance to go ride with a group of cyclists—a peloton, the French word for “platoon” used in pro cycling for the mass of riders who work in support of one another to make it through the miles.
Only I didn’t have near the endurance I would need.
When I arrived at the old Bracken fire station (I say “old” because their new facility was far larger and nicer and located several miles away; the old part of Bracken was now the city of Garden Ridge, and the amount of bracken in the area was quickly diminishing to make way for houses and businesses and schools), the field where we would park was full of cars and ordinary people, fresh from their day jobs, transformed into something extraordinary thanks to the marvels of Lycra and Spandex, helmets and sunglasses. Each had a bike worth more than the car I was driving.
Hurriedly, I leaped out of my car, unstrapped my bike from its rack, checked air pressure, and threw on my own helmet and sunglasses; I was no longer a mild-mannered computer technician: I was now a cyclist. A real cyclist heading out on a real bike ride with other real cyclists—and many were already heading out, so I followed the lead, tucking away the notion that so many were still in the field as I tucked in with the group.
Cyclists, as I would later learn, are a snobbish group of folk, due in no small part to the extremes of the sport, be it cost of bike or the miles ridden on said bike. This group was no exception, uttering not a word as a mile ticked by, then another, then another. Rocketing down the roadway (the bike speedometer read 21-point-something miles per hour—faster than I’d ever gone before), I knew where I was but was getting to experience the familiar in a whole new way, mentally making note of which was we were turning so I could later explore these same roads on my own or with hypothetical other friends I’d make through this new sport. But that didn’t last long, and, before I realized, we were in an unfamiliar area, where, to paraphrase U2, the roads had no names—or at least no name that was visible by street signs.
After another left, the pace intensified, and the roadway darkened as the foliage flanking the roadway itself intensified, reaching towards the sky like mitted hands hiding the sky save for a sliver. Balancing myself on a sliver of rubber some two centimeters wide at more than 20 miles per hour I knew this was what I had wanted when I reintroduced myself to cycling. It was thrilling to be zipping along the backroads between here and New Braunfels with so many strangers, and I glanced up as we swung right on the road and a railroad bridge came into view. Beyond that was a wall of gray as the road seemingly disappeared.
The part of Texas where I live and ride is known as the gateway or foothills to the Texas Hill Country, a topographical tangle of rises and falls in altitude. While not quite mountainous, the Hill Country and its outlying area are nothing to take lightly, especially if traveling by foot or by bike, as I was as I slammed into a twenty-four percent grade hill and the fast friends I naively imagined I had made demonstrated just how fast they were and I was not. Like a balloon tethered to the ground, my legs refused to turn as I became instantly aware of what it meant to be “overgeared” on a bike; I stayed put and the peloton floated away up the hill and away out of sight. I would not see them again.
Alone on the side of the road, gasping for breath like a fish out of water, I realized just how like a fish out of water I was. Though I wanted to think I was in my element, I certainly was not, so I began walking my bike up the hill in search of flatter earth to remount and pedal on in hopes of finding where it was I was supposed to go. In those days, there was no GPS, and there were no maps provided for the weeknight rides. But there was the sun, and it would be setting somewhat soon.
The ride was advertised as an “out and back” to New Braunfels and back again, and I knew how to get to New Braunfels and back—even on backroads, providing I could find one of the countless pathways that crisscrossed like so many arteries and veins making up this semi-remote part of south Texas, the lifeblood of farmers and ranchers allowing them to network their way in and out of neighboring towns and markets. I just needed to find one of these roads I recognized.
After a near eternity of twisting my way up a snake of a road, I happened upon FM 1863, a fork in the road that could take me back towards my car (albeit the long way) or on a shorter jaunt into New Braunfels. Because I needed to replenish my fluids, I opted for the latter in order to pop into the first gas station I came across and get what I needed to make my way back, like a dog: Head hung low, tail between its legs.
FM 1863 blasts down a hill into the outskirts of New Braunfels near Landa Park on a 5-lane stretch of some of the smoothest pavement this side of NASCAR. It was on this stretch I descended towards the Shell station that would serve as my salvation for not only fluids but also company: There were other cyclists congregated, ready to resume the ride back home.
After a quick refill of both bottles, I managed to bolt out of the gas station in time to mount my bike and catch up with this slower-moving pack of cyclists for the ride back home. Here I would learn about the two groups to leave on weeknight rides (the “A” group left first and had an average speed in excess of 20 miles per hour, regardless of terrain, while the “B” group left a bit later and was a bit more lackadaisical; it would take me another almost a full year to work my way up being able to hang with the “A” group) and assorted other nuggets of knowledge needed for surviving group bike rides. I would also meet Laura and her husband JF for the first time. Their company and mentorship would guide me over thousands of miles and hundreds of hours on two wheels, on road and off.
Turns out there’s a lot to know about riding a bike, at least in the group environment. And while this first group ride I went on some twenty years ago remains fresh in my mind, as though it happened recently, there are other impressions left elsewhere on me, in me that are even fresher, even stronger. The disclaimer given on group rides (organized or not) is that it is incumbent on the cyclist to know his/her way; he/she needs to know what they are doing. And, sure, that makes sense: We all need to have some semblance of responsibility. But that’s not entirely how I choose to roll.
Since getting dropped on that ride, I’ve managed to work my way up to being a somewhat decent cyclist (note: I still get dropped by the countless cyclists in the area who are so much faster than me) through hours on the bike, outdoors & in, as well as cross training with weights, running, and rowing. Since getting dropped on that ride, I’ve made it a mission to, when on a group ride, to ensure I know if someone who intentionally or inadvertently takes off with a group that’s faster than they’re used to riding that they know where they’re going, they know what they’re doing. Since getting dropped on that ride, I’ve become somewhat of a super domestique, a workhorse for others in the peloton to help bridge gaps between groups of riders, to help those who would otherwise be lost and suffer along the road alone. Doing so has garnered respect from fellow riders while expanding the circle of those I call friends and fellow riders. Indirectly, getting dropped on that ride put into motion a chain of events, a series of relations that would lead me to meeting the woman who would agree to marry me.
There have been adventures. There has been heartache. And since she’s developed MS and can no longer ride or run or even keep pace with daily activities so many of us take for granted, getting dropped on that ride has fortified in me the fortitude to do what I must so that she doesn’t get dropped.
I attempt to take the same tack with my students at school, serving as domestique to get them what they need, readying them for their turn to pull at the front, so we can all make it through the months that make up the school year and not get dropped in the race that is life.