Fire in the belly

Yesterday I saw a cyclist pull up to a stoplight, preparing to make a right turn (that’s a left in America). Road work meant that he had to ride up on the sidewalk and merge back into traffic after making his turn.

He was a MAMIL, a middle-aged man in Lycra. White beard, decent bike. Built about like me, in fact.

Also stopped at the intersection was a semi truck, an empty flatbed used for carrying shipping containers.

The light turned green, and the bike slotted in behind the trucker. But then something changed. As the semi driver worked through the gears, the cyclist seemed to switch from “afternoon-ride” mode to “desperate breakaway”. He glued himself to the back of the trailer, pedaling faster and faster.

Up out of the saddle, arms bent, head forward. Even as the road tilted uphill, the acceleration continued. 20 mph, 22, 25, faster. I could tell he hadn’t planned quite right… too small a gear meant that his legs were spinning too fast to maintain for long. But shifting mid-sprint is tricky… it’s easy to pop the chain off and literally throw yourself over the handlebars. So he made the safe choice and just pedaled himself out.

After about 30 seconds, it was all over. The guy sat back down, the truck finally up to full speed and rattling off down the road.

For those few seconds, a regular guy was transported to the final few meters of a Tour de France stage he’d seen on TV. The lone breakaway rider has been out suffering for hours, while the rest of the pack steadily reels him in. Almost every time, the poor bastard gets swallowed up and finishes near the back. But almost every race, somebody tries anyway, pinning everything on that final 30 seconds. Win or not, the breakaway guy knows he took charge and did everything he could. That’s an immensely satisfying thing when the world seems to be spinning out of control around us.

I had such a rush watching this little vignette and feeling all those things… all the best part of sport, condensed into a moment.

Even if I didn’t beat the truck.

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