“Wait, are you trying to psych yourself out?” Jon asked, on hearing my well-worn excuses.
“You don’t understand, that’s what she’s been doing for the past three weeks,” Dave N. cut in.
The subject in question was, as it has been for the past three weeks, the Ride.Studio.Cafe Sunday rides, but Dave could have been referring to my aversion to group rides in general. The concern wasn’t so much skill - that time at the track taught me how to paceline - but speed. Having hung out with too many [male] competitive cyclists, I had convinced myself that I was simply too slow to hang on to any group ride. Even as Dave reassured me that the slower RSC rides were no drop, there was that all-too-Asian sense of paralyzing guilt; I did not want to impose myself upon a group of people while I lingered off the back, thumping along like a giant anchor.
So I had always replied with “okay, well, maybe when I get faster,” while never knowing when that would be. At the same time, an understanding of the potential psychological damage that could result from knowing exactly how slow I was kept me from installing the cycloputer I bought over a year ago. It sat in its clear plastic packaging while I mentally battled myself: one side demanding I install it and harden up as the other side told me to chill out and relax, because ignorance is surely bliss.
But I’m Asian, which means that I have a natural inclination to know exactly how much I suck at any given task. Even as I shunned the cycloputer, I could hear my father’s voice in my head, telling me to make spreadsheets and acquire accurate data points. This is probably to be expected from a man who has obsessively plotted his blood pressure every day for the past decade, makes itineraries that are planned down to the minute, and rewrote - by hand - all of his class notes for final exams when he was in college [thus becoming valedictorian of the economics department]. But my relative stupidity aside, it was the consequent hint of disappointment that I knew he would feel if he knew of my willful ignorance that did me in. I installed the cycloputer and prepared to cry.
It wasn’t so bad, although it wasn’t so good, either. The irony was that the very thing that I expected to keep me far away from group rides made it easier to join them. I had points of reference; what felt comfortable, how long I could sustain whatever speed, how fast I could stagger up a climb. After hitting a personal high of 34.8mph [on the rollers so yeah, it doesn’t really count], I finally caved to Dave’s constant insistence that I come out on a RSC Sunday ride. I met Dave early yesterday morning at a designated parking lot, loaded my bike into his car, and hitched a ride to RSC.
Advertised accurately as “really fun, with just really nice people,” a group of about 20+ showed up for the ride, despite the chilly temperature. I grabbed a waffle before the entire group headed out together; instead of two groups separated by pace, the plan was to choose between a shorter 23 mile loop and a longer 38 mile option after the first 16 miles. Riding mostly single file, we chatted and joked around, going easy. Given the relaxed pace of the first leg of the trip, legs feeling good and attempting to justify the inhalation of a delicious waffle pre-ride, I was persuaded to do the longer loop.
“Medium pace, right?” someone asked.
“Yeah, like what we were doing plus a little more,” Dave said.
“What’s ‘a little more’?” another joked.
“Don’t worry,” Jeremy B. said to me, “I’ll keep it slow.”
...We were doing 17+ right out of the gate. Trying to hang on to the wheel of a girl in a Hup United kit, my eyes darted from her rear hub to my cycloputer which blinked: 17.7...17.9...18.1... Dave called out that we had lost some people and we thankfully slowed down. I took the opportunity to nestle into the group, insulating myself from the blistering pace set by Dave, Jon [on his fixed gear], and Hup United. But the group kept stretching out, forcing Jeremy at one point to push it up to 20+ to drag the two of us out of the wind. Up and over rolling hills, through mostly secluded streets with beautiful scenery at a pace I probably wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen, it was like doing a Sufferfest video except I couldn’t just get off my rollers. “Oh, it’s better than that,” Dave said, and that was true: you don’t get to laugh or descend so much when you’re stuck inside, sweating out intervals. Sure, the pace was humbling at times, but it was also kind of fun to complain about it to another human being ["wait, why are we doing 22mph, again?"].
“10 miles until coffee,” Jeremy announced, when we regrouped again. 10 miles until a great Americano. My legs started to hurt less.
Two miles later, we hadn't stopped hammering. “I thought ’10 miles until coffee’ would mean we would take it a little easier,” Jeremy said as Jon led the group on his steel fixed gear with Hup United right behind him. Maybe, I secretly hoped, Jon was going to slow it down a little with his one gear. This irrational hope plus the guilt of being a shameless wheelsucker the entire ride had me inexplicably offering to draft the cyclist in front of me. There was about a bike length of a gap between him and Hup. I took a short pull.
Mental note: being nice can result in all kinds of WTF. Because Jon was not slowing down. Clinging to Hup’s wheel for dear life, the two of them paced us up hills and kept it fast enough to hurt. Someone behind me popped on a climb and I got dropped soon thereafter. I made some half-half-hearted attempt to catch them before lingering in no man’s land for a little bit, a small mushroom cloud erupting over my head.
It wasn’t a full blown bonk, which meant that I not only made it back in one piece, but I did it without drooling all over myself. The last few miles were easier, all of us staying together to crowd back into RSC for more coffee and waffles. I munched on another waffle before gobbling down a ham and cheese croissant. All washed down with an Americano.
"Now you can feel like you really earned everything you're eating," Dave said.
I nodded, my mouth full. Oh, I earned it alright. My legs were aching for the rest of the day [even after getting a ride home!] but I finally understood why riding fast and hard can be so much fun.
My legs still hurt today, and I know I won’t be hitting anything close to yesterday’s speeds for a while. That’s okay, though, because I saw my legs generate those numbers once. And next Sunday, if there's good company, I just might see them again.