I had recently written of the living organism that is the paceline. I had noted the joy of riding with those that you know. One of the best parts of riding in a group with those you know is the game of poker that ensues.
Aaron is the best bike poker player I know. He always, always has a game face. You never see him suffer. I’ve seen him riding a bike in 90 degree weather, experiencing food poisoning–game face on. Going out on a quixotic sprint–game face on. Subtle smile, no sign of exertion. He’s so good at it that when he slows a bit, you just assume that he’s bored. There’s never an indication that he’s slowing because he’s tired. He’s just grown weary of being at the front, perhaps.
But you start to recognize the signals in other riders.
You see the subtle way that a rider starts rocking their hips more when they’re getting flagged.
You see the move from the drops to the hoods…back to the drops. The twisting of the wrists as the hands try to grab the bars tighter–to wrest some greater leg strength from the silent carbon fiber.
You see the change in cadence as a rider shifts down, shifts up, shifts down, trying to find a sustainable gear.
You see the hands go to adjust a helmet as a bead of sweat runs down the side of a rider’s face.
You see the rider try to squeeze just a little tighter to the rider in front, working to hide just a little bit better in the draft.
You see a gulp for water–and then the paradox of deciding between quenching thirst by taking a drink, or continuing to breathe as hard as a rider can breathe.
You see all these things and more, and you know what they mean. You know who will stay at the front until they’re spent, and who will back off and rotate through. You know who will take a pull no matter the personal cost, and who will languish at the back of the pack and let others do the work. You know the cards that other riders are playing without having to be told. And you decide how to play your own cards.
It’s a rolling paceline and a friend goes to the front. You see the hunch in his shoulders as he starts to burn–the hunting for a gear. He hasn’t flicked an elbow yet, but you know he’s suffering, so you pull through anyhow and offer respite. Or maybe that yellow sprint sign is lingering in the distance and you let him suffer…you play him out longer…you wait for the chance to not just pull through, but to blow out the front of the pack with a hard sprint that you know he can’t follow.
You’ve got cards to play too.
Today, you’re letting that build–you’re letting a friend take a long, lone pull. Hey, they haven’t flicked the elbow, you think. But behind you, someone is watching your cards. They see you not pull through. They know what you’re thinking, what you’re doing. And while you’re laying in wait, they’re lying in wait. While you’re setting a trap, so are they.
You get close enough to the sprint that you’re ready to lay your cards out in one effort far harder than you can reasonably sustain, with that full house that you think no one has seen. And then you go–it starts as you just pulling through, but then you don’t slow and move over–you build and you’re exploding out of the saddle in a whir of gears and legs and sweat and growls. You’ve played your hand. Your cards are on the table. The yellow sign lingers in the distance and it looks as though the pot is yours.
Just as you start to get ready to celebrate the victory, you hear the whir of gears behind you. That person you hadn’t seen–hadn’t expected–the person reading your cards. They explode from your draft and push through to the line, blowing your cards out of the water.
In these rides, it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about playing your hand as best as you can, and playing fair. It’s about enjoying the game. It’s about taking a turn as the dealer, and taking a turn as the victor. It’s about learning your friends nuances so well that you see the subtle indications that they need help–or that they’re ready to be taken advantage of. It’s about bluffs and team play, and reassessing as the game proceeds.
It’s poker in the peloton.