The Value of Getting Dropped
“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.”
I remember when Greg LeMond was chosen as “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated magazine in 1989. I was thrilled for him. As a new cyclist myself, enamored with the history and the largesse of the sport, I was proud that an American had finally won Le Tour.
Since the publishers of a major magazine that normally gave accolades only to gorillas throwing spheres had now honored a cyclist, I had hope. After all, this was the 80’s, and I was living in the self-proclaimed center of college basketball and the Kentucky Derby. “Finally, a little respect,” I thought. “Maybe there’ll be a little less jeering about my Lycra shorts, and the fact that I wear a helmet to ride my bike down the street.”
“Does he wear underwear under those tight little girly shorts?”
“Oh that’s nothing. Get this — he shaves his legs.”
“Well no wonder they like ridin’ around on them hard, skinny little seats!”
[Insert NASCAR-inspired chortling and guffawing here]
My ever-buoyant idealism became as flat as a punctured tubular after I had learned during a televised sports show that there had been no small amount of infighting at SI when Greg had been nominated for the award. Suffice it to say, the gorillas had their backers; it was not a unanimous decision. The quip I recall hearing was, “Give me a bike, and I’ll ride up a damned mountain,” presumably by an editor or some such.
People who have never ridden competitively, outside of a pre-teen race around the block, have no conception of how soul-crushingly hard it is to race a bike.
In fact, in another story in another magazine, LeMond was quoted as giving one particular reason for why cycling is so punishing; it’s one of — if not the only sport — where you can reach exhaustion multiple times in an event. Because the bike supports you, you can push yourself to the limit, and then recover and go again.
Exert. Waste yourself. To the limit. Repeat.
Cycling is a sport where the minimum required effort is usually summarized in one word:
And since I’m lauding LeMond right now, with the pallor of the Armstrong mess saturating cycling, it should be noted that he is one of the sports’ most long-standing and vocal anti-doping influencers.
Cycling is hard. And it hurts. And it’s dangerous. And expensive, ferchrissakes.
So — why are it’s adherents, and in this context of pain — it’s clean, non-doping adherents — so cultishly passionate about it? Why do we wake at in-human hours to go out with similarly-insane compatriots in all kinds of inhospitable weather to thrash ourselves against the pavement, grinding chains, driving our heart rates to stratospheric levels, and filling our eyes with stinging sweat?
What’s more, why do we do it on roads where the isolated, the cagers, kept separate from the earth over which they merely depress an accelerator whip by us with horns blaring, insults railing, and Super Big Gulps hurling?
Because…we might experience the honor of getting dropped.
A Briefing for the Descent
In case the vernacular isn’t obvious to the non-cyclist reading this, “getting dropped” is simply being left behind while out on a group ride. The experience involves a potential range of emotions and physical sensations, from straightforward resignation to a kind of desperate groping.
Climb aboard, shift to an easy gear, and spin along with me as I give you a for-instance.
Your group gets together every Sunday morning at the local shop at 7:30am for a fast ride. There are several racers in the mix, some more serious than others, but you’ve ridden with this crew for a few seasons, and you usually know what you can expect. There’s the “coffee sprint” where the speed demons wind it up for bragging rights — the last one getting to the county line sign agrees to pick up the espresso tab on the way back. There’s the screaming downhill where a couple of the junior riders just wave everyone else to pass for fear of mangling themselves into someone else’s spokes on the way down. And there’s the long, twisting, gradual climb where most everyone stays together, but the effort is intense enough that no one speaks; the only sound is the chorus of chains meshing with cassettes, and jersey and jacket fabrics whooshing back and forth in a fugue as bodies weave and dance up the grade.
As always, you look forward to the ride, but you have to balance the rest of your life leading up to it if you hope to maintain pace with the pack. Your kids want pizza and ice cream on Friday when you get home from work, and the wife wants a romantic evening on Saturday that could eat into your precious sleep — not to mention your equally precious energy reserves.
When your iPhone lights up as bright as a roadside flare at 6:30 a.m., Hortense flips over in a further show of indignation, and you slip out of bed to start your pre-ride ritual.
It’s chilly out, and still dark. Breakfast consists of an energy gel and a pre-packaged honey waffle. You’re quite certain that last night’s wine isn’t going to help you break any speed records. In the kitchen and still in your jammies, you quietly shake up your electrolyte cocktail in water bottles that have seen you through a few too many seasons. You begin to warm your soul by applying the smooth sting of embrocation to your bare legs, and shock yourself awake when the cold chamois cream in your bibs makes contact with your nether-regions. Heart rate monitor securely strapped, you complete the layering process: base layer, long sleeved jersey, wind skin jacket, balaclava, helmet, gloves. A few extra ratchets to tighten up the shoes before you click in to your pedals, and you’re off into the neighborhood silence.
You’re alone. The houses are dark and silent, all but that one house that always keeps the light on in the living room; its orange glow is a distinct contrast to the grayish blue of the rest of the sleeping world. You’re well aware of the sound of morning voice and the rustle of bed sheets, as you click into a gear hard enough to force you to stand. Time to get warmed up.
Riding alone and getting dropped aren’t any where close to the same thing. Riding alone can be lonely, but it can also be powerfully introspective. While the townsfolk lay in warmth, thinking of excuses to skip out on communing with the redeemed, you are lord of all you survey from atop your faithful friend. Your prayer fills your lungs and your glory begins to emanate in a moist fog from beneath layers. This is your church.
Fast forward a few miles, a few conversations, a few gear changes, and you find yourself snuggled into a different kind of bed, and surrounded with the increasing glow of the nearly-risen sun. The rider ahead of you is 10 years your junior, has neither children nor wife, but he does have an intimate relationship with his home gym and his racing coach. His rear wheel leads you by inches, and the smoothness of his stroke whispers, “no ice cream in these legs, no ice cream in these legs, no…”
Riders on either side are so close you frequently bump elbows. You’re this close because you want to be, and because you trust each other. There is speed when you huddle against the wind, especially when the only wind is the breeze you yourselves are generating.
For the first 30 miles or so, all’s well. Little attacks over the rollers, short accelerations that are quickly caught with a bit of trash-talk and laughter, and you’re there every time — not that anyone’s really trying to escape. These are but the bites bear cubs inflict on their brothers, tumbling in the grass; the shove of one buck’s haunch into another, just to let the other know, “I’m here.” The sun’s risen but yet to show itself above the tree line, and the mist over the fields reminds you of how few people are out experiencing this life. While the status quo is checking their weekend boxes, you’re checking your bike mate’s and their intention to bring a little hurt.
And so it begins.
Getting Dropped Matters
You sense the change. The laughter stops and the cadence doesn’t slow after the group crests a rise. Collectively, there is a rhythm. The beat emerges, as of itself. It is not democracy; there is no vote, and no one is asked if they would adjust the tempo this way or that. It simply is. And you are on the train, or you’re not.
Lingering, in the closet of your consciousness, before you began this ride, you knew you’d only have so much. You dare not rationalize it. You dare not bring it out from behind the jackets and shoes. If you acknowledge it, it will invade your quads and your lungs and it will increase your weight and stiffen your circles to hard, diagonal lines. Recognition will bring punishment. And you will suffer.
You can see the pizza delivery boy’s face.
You focus on your breathing. You change grip on the bar. You remind yourself to use your whole leg. Turn big circles.
Turn ‘em over. Flip, flip, flip…
Your son prefers butter pecan to vanilla.
Get out of the saddle and spin lightly. Don’t let a gap form ahead of you.
No, honey, really, not tonight.
Getting dropped isn’t an instantaneous affair. It comes on like a cold front. You had read the weather report a few days ago, and you knew you could have been prepared with your umbrella, but you decided to skip it on the off chance that it would blow over. Now you’re bracing to ride through a monsoon, and there’s nothing you can do.
If you are hanging off the edge of a cliff, the top of the cliff is just there. It doesn’t move. Safety is just ahead of you. Stalwart. Firm. Gather yourself, grab the extended branch, get a foothold, and slither yourself up there. Kiss the ground when you arrive and savor your living heartbeat causing you to peal like a bell.
But getting dropped…offers no such hope. Because the safety you seek is moving, and it’s moving away from you. It has decided to leave you. It is legion, and it’s gathering momentum.
You, separate and exposed, open to the elements, are already bringing your full self to the fight. Your lungs fill with fire, your quads and lower back kick like a drowning child being pulled under by a shark. All the while the shoreline retreats from you, evenly, smoothly, silently.
The espresso has long since been consumed in the engine. The locomotive ahead of you has no intention of looking back. Before you slip under for the last time, you exhale a thought, “I’ll see you next week…”
That is the sound of character development, road bike style.
A cyclist’s hope is as delicate as a candle in a shower, and yet, it refuses to die. You’ve been bested; you were in the presence of many kinds of greatness and you were found unworthy — but you are thankful for being included while you were. With your heart in your throat and your limbs quivering from the fruitless effort, you watch your group turn as one at a distant intersection, and you surrender to the fact that, like the beginning of the ride, you will go home, alone.
There will always be someone faster. There will always be someone with greater endurance. It’s not likely that you’ll always be the first one to summit the climbs — if you’re ever the first one to summit. But if you seek to ride only with those that can keep pace with you, complacency will be your wingman, followed quickly by the thin sort of arrogance that believes it is at least “in the top half.”
Go and find the groups that can drop you, and fight to stay with them. Make lactic acid your frequent elixir. If suffering is the measure of a rider, make the suffering count. It makes the embro feel that much warmer, and the espresso that much more satisfying.