Your basket is empty.
There was nothing spare.
Not a shred. Not an inch, not an ounce.
There was no time for what hadn’t been, or what we’d left behind.
I took a fraction of a second to look behind at our six chasers, still bound to us, in their minds at least, by the elastic that hadn’t yet broken, by the straight road that still placed us firmly in their sight, and by the hope that never really leaves the hearts of the defeated.
There they were, six bruised egos kicking their last angry pedal strokes and I couldn’t let them get any closer; they would take the breath from my lungs if they could. Their image, bent double in the road behind us, reminded me of a spurned lover, drunk on fury and stood in the street screaming that it isn’t over.
Hush now, I thought, everyone is looking at you making that fuss, and I’m never coming back.
These were the survivors. The others – those who had been too weak to make it this far, who didn’t have the metabolism for the early crosswinds and the long chase behind the break, or for the series of sharp hills that arrived like a succession of blows – had conceded defeat long ago. In ones and twos they had given their best and, moving forwards as fast as they could, discovered it was no longer enough.
They were gone now. They would not be seen again until after the finish, when reality would flood the car park like a tidal wave, and they would all suddenly swarm around the team cars drinking cans of Coke and talking to each other about their bad luck, and how if only the rider in front hadn’t dropped the wheel when he did, or if things had just been in some little way different.
But I couldn’t spare a thought for that, then. In a bike race, you realise that you only exist if you are one of those who can still win. Right then, there was me and there was him, and if either of us paused or tried to hide some scrap of energy from the other – for even a second – then there would be them, too; those six indignant chasers, who still clung to us like betting slips.
You can’t blame them, I told myself. Inside the final kilometres a rider’s mindset changes. The sudden proximity of a conclusion means that the things he has previously given away he can no longer surrender without a fight.
Inside the final kilometres there are only desperate men in desperate times. The allegiances that have been formed throughout the day dissolve one by one. There were two of us then, but it couldn’t last. Our unspoken pact that distanced the rest of the break was always doomed; we were both bike racers, we’d always known that in our finest hour we are really alone.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’, I thought to myself, as we rounded the bend that took us onto the final twisty run-in to the finish, and away from the threat of the chasers. But as every bike racer knows, it isn’t just the other racers that disappear from your mind in those moments – now there was nothing spare, not a glance, not a thought and soon the world itself would disappear.
I knew so well that familiar run-in to the finish. I had ridden it so many times before and, when I had, had thought about life and racing and jobs I had to do in my apartment. I had thought of things to say in conversations to come. I knew the sight of the river that ran on our left, and I knew, too, the Mr. Bricolage billboards and the town signs on our right. These were my roads, and on any other day, every little visual clue would have been a reminder of another time that I had ridden here. But those days had been when I was passing in training, when I was just riding. Now I was racing and racing is something else.
Because in those exhilarating closing stages of a race, in that dying moment, there is nothing but the tunnel vision that stares ahead to the finish line. That was when I knew I was racing; two bike riders and a finish line and neither of us had a friend in the world and nothing else existed. And I loved it and I didn’t even need to know what happened next because no matter how good, or how much money and success the conclusion would bring, it would be over. And that moment when there was nothing but the racing, and there was nothing spare, was what I was living for.