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A Sort of a Homecoming

August 6, 2016

Today was the first time I was able to return to my usual Saturday training group ride since the crash on January 12th. Almost 7 months to the day. Needless to say, it felt good … and a little awkward and spooky at times too. The idea of an overlapped wheel or other mishap bringing me down and reinjuring the wrist was always lurking in the corners of my thoughts. I’ve obviously been back on the bike for a bit now, but outside of one ride with SRAM during the Tour of California, and racing at the track, I’ve ridden almost exclusively alone. And the controlled setting of the track is less spontaneous than the Saturday slugfest with a bunch of dudes trying to see who has the highest levels of testosterone.

As I sat at the usual corner waiting for the group to roll by, I was flooded with happy and anxious butterflies in my gut- much like toeing the start line at a crit. Luckily, a pair of wandering tourists stopped to ask for directions and distracted me, as the group came rolling around the corner with shouts of “SUGAR!” rising up.

The pace was the usual casual roll at first, gradually becoming more spirited (aka fast). The group was a little smaller, perhaps only a little over 20 riders, with some possibly riding later to watch the Olympics instead. But the core of usual suspects was intact, making sure the pace would become steadily faster as we rolled … and it did.

I suffered to hang on, but focused on remaining steady and near the front. I didn’t want to get dropped right at the start, and knew that if I surged or went for the early sprints, I’d be toast. All the solo riding, and earlier TT and fixed gear rides, gave me a base of fitness again, but absolutely no top-end speed. I knew I had to conserve, and roll momentum as much as possible. I chatted with friends I hadn’t seen in 7 months, and retold the story of recovery a few times. Many in the group knew the details, but not all, so I was greeted with a mix of “welcome back” and “where the hell you been”.

I was spared nothing, no consideration was given to my absence; it was game on. I fought for each wheel, and took my pulls- tongue out, a la Voeckler. My heart rate pegged over 220bpm a few times. The main “hill” of the ride provided the usual fight to get to the front before the base of the hill. The few kilometers before the hill are usually the hardest of the entire ride, robbing the legs of strength before climbing. I made it into the lead group and held on, getting into good position as the climb started … then pulled the ripcord and rolled back through the group. At the usual regroup spot, the banter was the same as ever. The usual talk about who dropped who and how and when. We may be older, but we’re still just a bunch of guys riding bikes to test each other. Our lives are put on hold just long enough to feel the rush of wind in our helmets, as we dash for bragging rights for a week.

As we rolled off again and began to wind things up for the final sprint, the old sprinter’s instincts began to kick in again; watch that wheel, don’t let him roll off the front, keep breathing, spin easier gear, not now, not now, not now. NOW!

The pace hotted way up as we neared the “finish line”, with the usual volunteers setting a nice pace, shedding the few riders who needn’t be in the sprint. It was as it ever was, and though I knew I had no sprint to use … I was there, and being watched. It’s a sprint I’ve won many times, owning the bragging rights with a handful of friends from the group who almost always share the Weekend World Championship® title between us. The rabbit wound it up, stringing it out, and the rest of us jostled for our spot. I was perfectly placed as the usual drop in speed came with the lead rider popping too soon. I knew it was the moment, and so did my sprint nemesis … and he jumped at the exact moment I knew it was time to go. I jumped out of the saddle and gave it a few stomps of the pedals. I quickly realized the speed wasn’t there, and sat up, pedaling easily to 5th in the end.

The usual congratulations were shared as the sprint was discussed among the group. “You were there Sugar.” “I totally expected you to win that one- you were positioned perfectly.” “You looked good, Sugar- I tried to come around you, but it was too late.”

I was back. I didn’t win. But I won.

It was a homecoming 7 months in the making. The victory was in being there and finishing. The old, stale conversations I’d missed for so long, were a breath of fresh air. It was good to be back. It was even better to feel the rhythm and energy of the group, knowing my place among the wheels. Reading the “race” and knowing where to be and what to do- even if I didn’t have the speed to finish the job. At least I was there doing the job.

Cycling is a beautiful sport. A cruel one too. But the group ride, the fast training ride, the “slap your best mate” ride is a family reunion every weekend. And I love my family.

Tim

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