You’re there. All in. You’re pushing a big gear, spinning hard. Your legs are burning. Your lungs and heart are maxed out–doing all they can. There’s the subtle whir of a chain in the background (maybe I should have lubed that before the ride) and the crunch of gravel beneath you. There’s the sound of the wind in your ears.
Your headlight vibrates with the crunching gravel, and the usually crisp edges of what it illuminates shake with reverberation from the uneven surface below. The darkness closes in on the round ball of light in front of you, as you focus on putting everything you have into the pedals, and as you start to reach beyond your abilities, the darkness closes in just a little more, as the edges of your vision start to get cloudy.
You’re going too hard, it isn’t sustainable, you can’t hold on. You start to see the ground below you lighten up, as headlights start to get closer to you. What are you riding from? Why are you riding so hard? It’s your friends behind you…but that’s not why you’re in the saddle. You’re riding to burn away the tension of your day. You’re riding away from the ghost in the details of your work, or the frustration of an unsolved problem. On a good day, you might be riding on a euphoric wave of accomplishment…but tonight, you’re riding to vanquish an unseen enemy. You no longer hear the wind or the chain or the gravel, thoughts of chain lube have passed, and the burn of your legs is moderating. You barely feel the vibration of the rough terrain below. It’s just the thumping of your chest, the narrow circle of vision in front of you, and darkness all around.
As your legs start to falter, the headlights behind you grow stronger, as does the whir of their tires, and eventually, you get passed. They’re riding as a team, which would have been a smart tactical move, but you have to ride this night alone.
They pull past, and you realize how Quixotic your attack was. No–that’s too high of praise; at least Quixote had actual windmills. You’re tilting at an invisible specter. You throttle back and start to feel the burning of your legs and chest. Paradoxically, the burning becomes worse as you start to take it easier on your pedal strokes. What were passing headlights are now taillights, receding in the distance in front of you. You take the luxury of a deep breath, a swig of water–a few drops run down the side of your face and you uneasily paw at them with the gritty, dirty back of your gloved hand. You don’t know if you won or lost, because you can’t see your competition and can’t tell when you’ve passed the finish line.
You do know that the guys up the road will have to wait for you if you continue to dawdle. They don’t know that you’re lost in the moment, and they’ll start to think something is wrong. So you ignore the burning and wheezing, and you pull hard against the handlebars as you push all of your force into the pedals. Between their soft pedaling and your hard pedaling, you rejoin the group, and work in unison to get back to town.
At the end of the ride, there’s not a word about the attack, or the chase, or the aftermath. There’s just talk of the great ride.