Winter Break

I didn’t really intend to take an off-season, it just kind of happened. I was supposed to go to California. I was supposed to keep racing cyclocross until the end of January.

When the trip was canceled, I stared at my training schedule and felt an emptiness. How worthless are these intervals? How meaningless this suffering? It was all over sooner than I’d intended. I wasn’t ready.

My friends were starting winter base miles and invited me out on long, slow training rides. Their endurance-zone pedaling seemed flat and lifeless in comparison to the punch-and-run speed of ‘cross season.

To hell with it.

I saw nothing in it that I wanted, so I drove to the mountain with snowshoes in the backseat and found my way up to the top of snowy peaks. I pulled out my snowboard. I rented skis. I started running. I put the bike on the hook in the basement and forgot about it.

It was supposed to be just a week. A mental break. But a week turned into two weeks and two weeks turned into four weeks. Before I knew it, I could not remember the last time I’d ridden a bike for more than just a trip to the market.

I was in the basement examining the condition of my neglected road bike when my phone rang. It was Tina Brubaker, local leg-breaker and tiny bicycle attack woman.

I should have known better, but I agreed to meet her for a beginner women’s clinic she was leading that Saturday. “It’ll be fun.” She said, “Nice and easy – perfect for a comeback ride. You can help.”

“Of course I can help.” I said, “I will show them ‘off the back.’” We laughed and I hung up the phone.

I should have known better, but I’m a slow learner. Besides, it was time to find the saddle again and she was right. What better way to do it than with the tiniest pedaling avenger? I cleaned the bike and went upstairs to gather my gear.

My cycling drawer was in shambles – ransacked during my leave-of-absence. The looting had been complete and all-encompassing: leg warmers, arm warmers and wool socks vanished. Favorite gloves and shoe covers gone missing. Anything that my boyfriend could fit into, he’d “borrowed” and neglected to return. Every accessory pillaged and claimed.

Is this the price of truancy? I’d left the fold. I’d gone over the fence. I’d abandoned. And in my absence, those still pedaling had made use of what was being neglected. It seemed fair. So fair that I almost felt guilty as I dug through enemy territory to reclaim the missing pieces.

By 10:05am I was standing over my bicycle in a circle of 12 women. Brubaker was gesticulating and talking about race tactics. She was talking about not going so far into the red when you attack that you end up getting popped out the back. To her right, Miranda Duff, another Cat 1 racer lounged in “crit-ready” repose, sitting on her top-tube, forearms on the bars. I had a bad feeling in my gut.

We rolled out.

The first hour went as planned. Pace-line practice. Chatting. Flat country roads. The pace lifted as we neared Dairy Creek, and out-and-back road that rises just enough to put you in the hurting place. I was playing sweeper when I saw the front 5 detach from the group and fly up the road.

I rolled up to Brubaker, who’d stayed behind. “What’s going on?”

“I set them free.”

“Free?”

“Yeah.” She said, “I took the reigns off.”

“Goddamit, Brubaker!” I was pedaling away, “You let them gap me!”

I had no idea why I was chasing. I had no idea what we were doing. Brubaker and Miranda called encouragement as I jumped forward to bridge.

Why are you racing, Swift? You are off the couch, remember?
You don’t even like road racing, remember?

It didn’t matter. I made contact and sat in for a few pedal strokes. When the group sat up and looked around for half a second, I attacked.

You are the stupidest person I know, my body countered. It was right.
Twenty pedal strokes later I looked back to check the gap and found a rider in red two inches off my wheel. The rest were behind her. Goddamit.

She bolted and I pulled off, letting the group come around in a whoosh. Brubaker Lesson Number One: don’t go so hard you get popped. I’m just here for demonstration purposes, people. Move along.

We regrouped when the road turned to gravel. The turn-around point. We joked about blows exchanged. Those who’d wisely chosen to pedal in civilized-style joined us. We headed back.

Things were tame until Brubaker made a move. Miranda followed and before I knew it we were at it again. Pedaling untrained legs into oblivion. Playing at chase. Red attacked and we all went with her. Miranda with another blow. Brubaker countering.

I looked back and saw that the group was split in half. Miranda was on front now, pinning it. I latched onto the wheel in front of me and launched few prayers skyward. I am not religious. I guess God knows, because he blew me into bits and pieces.

The wheel went away in standard fashion, inch by inch at first – then in gaping feet at a time. By the time I knew what was happening, I was gapped off the front group by an insurmountable distance. They let up (finally) and the distance held the way it always does.

Goddamit.

Stuck in the middle, unable to close. The group behind was long gone, too far back for waiting. I kept pedaling and pushing. No sense staying here if maybe I can make up some ground? 

I wasn’t making up any ground.

I could see Brubaker looking back at me, checking on my progress. She could see my dilemma – alone in no man’s land. Stranded.

You’re Stuck In The Middle (Yeah, Yeah)
And The Pain Is Thunder (Yeah, Yeah)

Mr. Jackson didn’t race bikes, but there we were together.

Help Me Sing It, Ma Ma Se,
Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa

And then she came back.

I watched Brubaker detach from the back of the group and sit up. Slow motion soft-pedaling. When we connected she looked back and said, “You ok?”

“Give me 20 pedal strokes.”

Her wheel like a gift, I took a deep breath. And then we went. I couldn’t help her, so instead I clung and gritted my teeth. I disappeared into the blur of pavement under her wheel. She pointed out strapping farm boys in the field to our right but I was unable to admire them, lost in the spinning.

We never made it back.

When a stop sign finally delivered mercy, we sent the other girls down the road and decided to wait for the second group. The five of us limped in together, sharing water and stories.

Nice and easy, perfect for a comeback ride.

I should have known better, but I’m a slow learner.

“Welcome back,” said the bike, “Don’t ever leave me alone for that long again.”

[Note: This is the first of many stories to come from Heidi Swift on the Rapha site. Heidi is a writer, rider and racer living mostly in Portland, Oregon. When not on a bike, she can often be found on Grit & Glimmer. Last summer Heidi and her Sicilian raced the NW Rapha Gentlemen’s Race on a tandem, her account of the experience is a must-read.]