Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Amongst the Cyclists

I have a confession: I am afraid of bikes. The way some people fear lions or rabid dogs, I dread pedals and gears. When I was 15, I had a bicycle accident and tore off most of the skin on my left arm. I got some cool scars for my trouble. The incident pulled the bloom off of my budding romance with my bicycle. For about a decade afterwards, I refused to touch a handlebar.

But now I live in Greenpoint, where cycling is a custom, like greeting strangers with a handshake and binge drinking. Is it not time to face my fear? Since Friday, I’ve been vacationing in Naples, Florida, cycling capital of the southern U.S. On Friday night, when I learned that a local bike club planned to host a forty-five mile ride on Monday morning, I thought: Here is an auspicious opportunity to conquer an old nemesis.

So on Sunday afternoon I rented a bike. The next morning I rode up to the parking lot outside Moe’s Burritos for the 7:30 start time.

But when I arrived at the parking lot, I immediately knew that something was wrong. The scene was  unsettling: roughly 200 men and women, a mix of young and old, thin and sinewy, wiry and muscular, eyeing each other warily across the parking lot and flaunting their orange spandex bike suits.

There was also this: I’d been told to expect a slow, patient ride, with two groups, one slow and one fast, no speed guideline for the slow group, and the fast group averaging between 20-22 mph—roughly my top speed, which I can maintain for a few minutes when I pedal as hard and as fast as I can. And then I talked to the registration lady. “20-22 mph is the slow group. But don’t worry. We can start a 19 mph group.” It was clear: this was no pleasant jaunt along the Gulf Coast. I’d smuggled myself into a ritual gathering of the cycling ubermenschen.


In my experience, hard-core cyclists are mostly normal, non-psychotic people, at least in their everyday lives, until they band together; then, an inscrutable force takes over, trumping all usual social norms. It is the cyclist code, a collection of esoteric laws and minute distinctions of rank. Thus, the fast “A” group always maintains a safe distance from the slow “B” team. Both groups divide further by allegiance to rival bike clubs. In the parking lot, roughly half of the riders were wearing red and white spandex suits emblazoned with the words “Naples Cyclery”. Another subsection, perhaps a third, wore skin-tight red and orange adverts for “Naples Velo”. And within these bands, there were still finer gradations of status, possibly related to skill, income, age, and other factors that I did not know enough to discern.

One status signal is louder than the rest. I am referring to the bicycle. Each of the cyclists had an elite road bike, with one exception, a man with a graying ponytail and a mountain bike who was skulking behind an SUV. A road bike, it should be said, is an absurd machine. Equipped with ultra thin tires and very stiff suspension, it is good for one thing only, i.e. barreling down smooth pavement at full speed; it is over-specialized, like a strange flightless bird whose next evolutionary step is extinction. The bike I had borrowed was middle of the road, made of aluminum and retailing for about $1500. Most of my companions rode carbon-fiber space ships, the best of which weigh less than a small dog and cost upwards of ten grand. The main justification for this huge price premium is a ring of tiny ball bearings hidden in the center of each wheel. When these are properly made, the bike is almost frictionless. After you’ve accelerated to top speed, it’s easy to fly down flat roads at 22 mph. The seat is so much higher than the handlebar that you, the rider, are forced to lean far forward, flattening your chest until your upper body is nearly parallel to the road. You feel like a charging bull as you lead with your helmet, ready to gore anyone that should cross your path, like other cyclists.


The ride started. We left the parking lot. A third pack, a C team, settled in behind the A and B groups, which I gratefully joined. As it turns out, I was actually a bit stronger than I had thought. I pushed to the front, settling a few feet behind the leader of the group, a sixty-year-old grizzly bear of a human being named Tom. Tom was a natural leader of men, boasting a grim stare and bright green skin-tight shorts. I followed him for the rest of the ride. We traveled on shoulder lanes converted into bike lanes along 8-lane commercial roads. We passed subdivisions, pet cemeteries, heavy wood sound barriers, sidewalks, shopping centers, towering highway lights spaced at regular intervals. We positively blazed along, averaging nearly 18 mph.

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