"Are you alone? Training? You don't see women that do that much here."
It's been over a year since an older gentleman with stronger legs said that to me. We bumped into each other on a popular ride route, on a weekday morning because I was unemployed and he was self-employed. He offered a wheel for the way home, and I bumped into him three times that same week.
Employment, winter, and a trainer mean I haven't seen him in months. I have his number ["were you trying to pick her up?!" a friend of his joked when I ran into them], and I'm sure he'll be down to ride, but I feel a little weird getting back in touch. Riding alone - either because I don't feel like burdening anyone I know with my slower legs or because I want the freedom to roll out of bed and ride without waiting for someone who's "going to be there in like 10 minutes, I just woke up" - has
always been become the norm. The group rides I've been on are happy memories, but my reclusive riding has turned me into the eternal bachelor friend, the one who's been flying solo for so long that commitment starts sounding odd; a nice concept, in theory, but maybe one that doesn't apply here.
You could say that I've been hoarding the freedom implicit in solitude. There's security in knowing that I'm alone, plus a twisted ego boost from being confident that, no matter what happens, I'll be the one getting myself home in one piece. There are no concessions to make - of water, pit stops, ride routes, or meeting times - which means I get to be a selfish asshole, but that I also have to deal with whatever comes my way, alone. I'd like to think that it's made me better at not blaming other people for situations I've created...although, you know, let's not entirely rule that out yet.
It would be disingenous of me to claim that embarrassment at my self-consciousness has nothing to do with being the voluntary loner. When you ride with others, you start to notice things about how you ride, or they're noticed for you. Habits become "really fucking weird habits," or, worse, "shit you're not supposed to do." That kind of insight, though usually helpful, can be a bit like "suggestions" from significant others about your personality: uncomfortable to hear, and sometimes only appreciated in hindsight. You'd think I'd be used to being wrong by now, but I still have a hard time not letting it get under my skin.
The annoying thing is that after you disengage from all that for a while, after you get used to the independence, after you see nothing but positive things about the isolation, you wake up early one Saturday morning and wish for the impossible friend who would be doing the same, just so you guys can go out and ride. Not someone to vent to, or to shoot the shit with, but simply to be there, riding next to, in front of, or behind you.
As someone who requires a regular people detox, it was a strange feeling. It only made sense later, grimacing through the prickly, hot pain of tired legs as I dragged my bike up the train station stairs. It wasn't only the desire to make some more of those unforgettable, shared memories. With friends that like to ride hard, there will always be an understanding of why you're useless for a handful of hours afterwards. There are no demands to shower, get changed, and immediately go shopping in heels. It's okay to be caught between exhausted and hungry for the rest of the day, spending the afternoon with legs stretched out, watching highlights of the TDF, and going to bed at 10pm on Saturday so you can do it all over again on Sunday. That distinctly heavy, post-ride exhaustion becomes a part of your life - raging bitchfests are too easily triggered by drained legs, so my weekend naps have become non-negotiable - and remains elusively inexplicable to those who prefer to always coast easy.
"Oh, fuck," I had said breathlessly to no one in particular last Saturday, halfway up a mountain pass. My legs were reminding me that I hadn't ridden there in almost a year while my face was dousing itself in sweat. Not the glistening-in-the-heat-this-could-be-sexy-if-done-right kind, but the kind that gets squeezed out of your skin because you're pushing so hard on the pedals. I looked terrible; my hair half matted down with sweat, not a trace of yesterday's eyeliner around my eyes, my face bright red.
Even so, I would've loved some company.