Twenty-Two Speed (Of God’s Blood And Burial)

As the rain starts to fall, I take a moment to chide myself. I’m not pushing the bike hard enough. I know this because I have all these thoughts in my head: concerns about my son, some agenda items for a writing project to which I agreed a few months back but which is only now starting to eclipse all other worries as the deadline looms, the vague outline for a piece I’d like to write about Joni Mitchell’s song “Carey” and the Saturnine (as opposed to merely saturnine) pull of nostalgia for days spent in vain with a worthless lover. Were I truly pushing, there would only be the ball bearing.

“On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets.” That’s what Tim Krabbe says in The Rider, an absurdly perfect 148-page story of a meaningless cycling club race from 1977. Krabbe said in this book what all of us had been trying to say about road cycling for a long time. I read it on a friend’s recommendation in 2011 and immediately I thought: yes, this is it, there’s no need for any more books about bicycles, you can let that long-simmering idea go. “During the race,” Krabbe writes, “what goes round in the rider’s mind is a monolithic ball bearing, so smooth, so uniform, that you can’t even see it spin. Its almost perfect lack of surface structure ensures that it strikes nothing that might end up in the white circulation of thought.” The harder you push, the less you think. In 1999 I rode 107 miles in five hours and change as part of a two-day tour. I rode a Klein Pulse mountain bike in a long paceline of roadies. I spent the entire time attempting to not vomit. When I arrived at the finish I realized I did not remember a single thing about the ride, nor did I recall having a single useful thought for the whole time.

Krabbe is 75 years old now and still covers a weekly 45-mile ride around Amsterdam, riding at the same pace as the young Dutch hotshot roadies. I am 46 and I am struggling to get 26.2 miles done in under one hour and 48 minutes. In 2014, a Kenyan ran this same distance in 2:02. Barefoot, I think. Whereas I am on a brand-new titanium road bike of exceptional specification and unjustifiable expense. On flat ground, a domestique in the Tour de France averages 27mph. I’m averaging an unimpressive 16.7 on the move, which drops to 15.1 average for my trip because I have to wait several minutes for stoplights and crossings.

It’s time to think a little less and pedal a little harder. So that’s the trick about road cycling: it has to be mindless.


My ball-bearing mind cannot explain to you why I now own three, count ’em, three, new titanium Lynskey bicycles. I think it started when my friend Nick died last year. I started riding BMX with my son. Then I started riding BMX alone. Then I started racing BMX with my son. Then I started mountain biking by myself. Now I’m riding roads and trails in the evening, just like I did when I was fifteen.

I don’t have time to do this. It costs me money to ride, it costs me money to miss work opportunities, it brings me closer to deadlines and leaves me writing past 2 in the morning trying to reel things in. All of this is acceptable. I need this time with my ball-bearing mind. I need a little time in which not to think.

There are two major trails here in Columbus. There’s the rich people trail, which starts two miles from my house and goes all the way to the newly freshened downtown. It is approximately as crowded as Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. There are flocks of slightly chunky twentysomething women jogging in groups, taking up the whole trail, each of them with a functionally identical left shoulder-blade tattoo. They don’t hear my Spurcycle bell. If you yell at them they dart as a group away from the rapist, which is you. You are the rapist. So you just blow by at triple their speed and hope you don’t hit any of them. Sometimes there are other cyclists heading towards you and there must be a pas de deux. When it’s necessary, I take their space as well. On my R275 tall-frame road bike I have the same frontal area as a Freightliner. You would be a fool to collide with me. It happened a few times when I was riding these trails fifteen years ago. I have very few admirable qualities as a human being but I know how to hit someone on a bicycle.

The rich people trail is so crowded that I’ve started riding the poor people trail instead. It starts slightly north of my job and goes all the way down to Groveport, one of the Columbus cities from which I was explicitly banned by my father as a young driver. It follows a sewage line, which is vented to the air in all the places you’d want to take a deep breath. Massive clouds of bugs gather around the stink. At 17mph they feel like a minor hailstorm. Afterwards you can wipe your arms clean and try not to think about your ears.

Cyclists are rare on this trail. As you approach downtown, the jogger population turns exclusively male for a few miles before disappearing entirely. There’s a reason for this; in addition to following the sewage, this brand-new trail, built with nearly a dozen bridges at some unimaginable cost, also runs right past what they call “Little Mogadishu”. Starting in 1991, there was a mass immigration of Somali refugees to Columbus. There are now more than 45,000 Somalis in the city, most of them clustered into a few apartment complexes on the city’s East Side.

I know a couple of these dudes professionally; for about a decade the vast majority of my tech-business purchases were done with a single fellow named Sulieman who came over in ’93. I’ve worked with maybe a half-dozen others. They raise families and they pay taxes and they are a net positive to the community.

On the other hand, you have the fact that there has been a truly astounding amount of human trafficking done by the Somali community. Also, no fewer than eight of them have been arrested for planning terror attacks. One of them actually pulled it off. My main man Rodney has been fighting a one-man battle like Shaft or something against the Somalis in his neighborhood for more than a decade now. Last year he ended up putting his HK USP 9mm pistol in the mouth of some guy who was trying to rape his mother or something. This kind of thing is so common in that neighborhood that — get this — the police didn’t come. Instead, Rodney and the Somalis were called to a meeting by the administrator of the apartment complex and told not to have any more gunfights lest they be evicted. It’s insane. They tried to take Rodney’s gun. Said he couldn’t have a gun in the complex. “Unlike these motherfuckers here,” Rodney responded, “I’m actually black.” This completely non sequitur response actually worked. Rodney retained his HK. “Quiet is kept,” he told me, “it’s only a matter of time before I have to kill one of them… and anybody who saw me do it, too.”

“Definitely,” I responded. “You can’t leave witnesses. You gotta put two in the chest and one in the head of each witness.” Across the table at Donatos’ Pizza, my son’s eyes goggled slightly. Later on, as I steered the Silverado into the parking space in front of Rodney’s apartment, some young lady in a full niqab loitered for a moment in our path. Rodney rolled the window.

“Move, bitch.”

Anyway. Sure enough, there were a few groups of young Somali men taking up the whole path as I was riding south this evening, trying to let the ball bearing roll in my head. Each time, I rang my bell. Each time, they waited until the last possible moment, to show me that I was merely a guest in their world, before moving. I cannot imagine what I look like to them. My bicycle costs more than any of them could make in two or three months. My hair is past my shoulders. My helmet has eyes and teeth on it so it looks like the head of a dinosaur. I must seem amazingly frivolous to them, an Eloi to their Morlocks, the way that our million-dollar babies from Facebook et al look to me. People who are not engaged in the serious business of life. Unbelievers. Infidels.

“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement”

Coming around the corner of a bridge crossing I saw an unexpected scene: a man and a woman passionately kissing. Both light-skinned, she in hijab and he in the last-decade’s-soccer-team-jersey outfit affected by the vast majority of people in this area. They stood athwart the trail, with no eyes for anybody but each other. When it became apparent to me that they didn’t know I was coming, I rang my bell. They turned, startled.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, and then: “Good luck.” You don’t kiss on the sewage trail if you have other options. In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. The ball bearing rolled out of my head and my Strava average for on-trail speed dipped precipitously for the next mile and a half.

It returned when the trail went straight for while next to the freeway, with nobody around me. I moved my hands to the lowest position on the drop bars. I pushed hard and I didn’t think. For a few moments, I was of one mind with my fifteen-year-old self. Dad bought me a white-with-pink-decals Cannondale SR500 for Christmas of 1986. I rode it night after night, thirty then forty then sixty-five miles at a time, pushing against my pre-owned Look Sport pedals and thinking about nothing in particular. The ball bearing has the power to take you through time. For maybe ten minutes, I felt and thought nothing but a sort of loose kinship with the young man I was back then. He rode faster, of course. He was stronger. And he had the gift of not knowing what would come next. He dealt in the reserve currency of potential; I deal in the degraded Zimbabwean dollar of middle age.

I’ll keep riding. My pace will come back up, the distances will grow on the map and shrink in my mind. The ball bearing will roll. I won’t think. This year I’ll do a 65-miler. Next year I’ll do a century, or maybe that 210-mile weekend ride I did in ’99. It’s a nice escape. You can find me out on the road, thinking about everything and nothing at all.

* * *

Sharp-eyed readers will perhaps recognize the allusion to the truly odd Coheed&Cambria song about an evil bicycle who makes its owner kill fictional characters in comic books — I think it makes more sense to younger people. Here’s the video.

54 Replies to “Twenty-Two Speed (Of God’s Blood And Burial)”

  1. E. Bryant

    Last weekend, I did a 101-mile “gravel grinder” race. This seemed like a much better idea while trading shit-talking text messages with a former co-worker in January than it did while in the saddle of an expensive carbon “monster cross” bike struggling to maintain a 12 MPH average over a variety of forest roads and snowmobile trails. My ball bearing fell out of one of my ears while walking through the 5th or 6th sandy section around mile 65, and while I never recaptured the necessary focus, my pace did pick up around mile 85 and the last few miles were devoid of any independent thought or human emotion. The next time I return from a 12-year gap in my competitive history, perhaps it’d be best to progress somewhat more slowly. Na, fuck that – I deserve to suffer for wasting away some of my body’s best years in pursuit of vague career goals.

    Today, I Strava’d my way to a new PR at the local singletrack trail – a feat largely accomplished via large slip angles on fast-rolling but seriously sketchy XC race tires and a complete disregard for how my 42-year-old legs would feel afterwards. I finished the day by going over the bars on my cool-down lap, which seemed to be the universe’s way of punishing me for slacking when I probably had another decent lap left in the tank.

    Reply
  2. Bill

    I thought at last; a Baruth article I can share with my cyclist wife. Then I got to the sixth paragraph…

    Another great story that starts in one place and detours to roads unexpected.

    Reply
  3. Aoletsgo

    Nice write up as always or as DW would say sometimes always or just mailing it in.
    The Rider was a nice little book, except it made me feel inadequate since I never have nor ever will compete at that level.
    On the road I have done 100+ in a short day and 300+ in three days but never fast enough to make road cycling mindless. For me it has to be pushing a mountain bike down tough trails to achieve that nirvana of mindlessness.
    Be safe out there.
    Also I have a story line that you could possibly write that has been in the back of my mind for a while.
    Something along the lines of…
    In Medieval times the rich and powerful would ride out into the country on big powerful horses and the peasants would scurry out of the way. Today the dudes in spandex on titanium steeds ride out in the country in fear of the Bros in their jacked F-250’s racing to their part-time jobs at Wal-Mart or McDonalds.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Neal Stephenson wrote a while back about how the most powerful people in American society affect the garb of weak, feminine, brightly colored children… think of Zuckerman’s uniform or the wacky outfits hedge fund managers wear on the weekend. Meanwhile the powerless and downtrodden affect wildly threatening stances with skull logos and lifted trucks.

      Reply
  4. -Nate

    Well written .

    I remember back when I could ride a bicycle, I did it for fun, not to prove anything, racing sounds very interesting, maybe I missed a good thing there .

    -Nate

    Reply
  5. hank chinaski

    “the degraded Zimbabwean dollar of middle age” stealing that, thanks.

    A friend in school had a Cannondale of that vintage and in that livery and we rode around the trails of the Imperial Capital.

    I know of this ball bearing…It’s almost a petit mal: “Hey, they’ve just groomed the gap between the pavement and turf. It’s the exact width of my front tire, which is drifting towards it because I’m now looking at it.” BAM!

    It’s not polite to ask, but I’d like to be carrying on a trail like that.

    CH posted a piece on Somalis today too. Not as kind as yours.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I’ve thought about carrying pepper spray, mostly for all the dudes with their American Staffordshire Terriers on the trail.

      The problem with carrying a gun on a bicycle is when you crash the front sight digs into your leg and it gets infected. Source: uh, books.

      Reply
      • Jim Zeigler

        Back in my bike shop days, we sold the hell out of small, triangular frame bags that nestled in the joint of the top tube/seat tube. I later found out that they were almost exclusively used to carry Glock 19s or other compact pistols of that ilk. Many a bike shop high was blown (and believe me, everyone at your bike shop is high) when mechanics would discover a polymer 9 during a routine tune-up.

        Reply
      • Fred Lee

        I’ve read a lot of threads about concealed carry for cycling. It’s a challenge in full-on cycling kit, not sure how I’d carry when wearing my Castelli Speedsuit. But in commuter livery it’s more reasonable. I have in the past carried a small .38 due to a road with particularly aggressive (or maybe aggressively friendly?) dogs.

        There are areas of the country where I’d carry if I were touring.

        But yes, high retention and a breathable holster are key. I haven’t found anything ideal. I suspect the intersection of bike commuters and concealed permit holders is small….

        Reply
        • silentsod

          Shove it down the front of your spandex pants and give a knowing smile and wink to every woman that you encounter.

          Reply
      • E. Bryant

        I now carry a small unit of pepper spray when riding on public roads, but mainly for four-legged creatures that need to be taught a lesson (note that about 99% of dog encounters are the classic case of all bark and no bite, but that remaining minority can really ruin an otherwise-great ride).

        I don’t have a good answer to threats of the two-legged kind, as even a small piece like a Glock 43 is not easily stowed in a secure yet easily-accessable location while riding.

        Reply
    • Disinterested-Observer

      Ooh this country (Somalia, El Salvador etc) is full of child soldiers and rapists with PTSD. Why don’t we bring them here?

      Reply
  6. Danny

    A friend of mine used to run a shop in Groveport, and I’ve done a fair amount of high-speed “test runs” down what I think was Corbett road.. the city seemed relatively mundane to me, though I was not on a bicycle. In my experiences with riding both road bikes and skateboards through tense areas when I was younger, I’ve always been a bit more comfortable on the board – it tends to ensure that you’ll be ignored by most, and at the very least it doubles as a blunt weapon if things get rough..

    Reply
  7. Ronnie Schreiber

    Coincidentally, I just got the Litespeed back on the road two days ago. I did an easy 9 miles with my heart rate just into cardio range.

    I’m thinking of signing up for the Alyn Hospital bike ride in Israel in October. It’s a five day ride and this year they’re doing the Dead Sea to Jerusalem climb. I’m not sure which will be more difficult, training so I can do 5 days of ~60-70 mile rides with a lot of climbing every day, or raising the $3,600 I’d have to commit to in order to do the ride.

    If anyone would like to participate in sponsoring the ride, please let me know.

    Reply
    • Ronnie Schreiber

      Note: The Alyn Hospital is a hospital that treats crippled children regardless of their religion or nationality.

      Reply
  8. Fred Lee

    After a couple years of injuries I’m back on the road this spring.

    Slow as hell, which is frustrating. 20 extra pounds and 80 fewer watts will do that. But I too will get faster.

    A couple years back when I was faster I bought a closeout Litespeed Ci2 frame. I finally built it up this Spring. It feels a bit funny to be riding a Carbon Litespeed, particularly after having been 90% Titanium for the last 15 years. One Ti frame which developed a crack is now relegated to trainer duty. The custom Titanium tandem has been sold post-divorce. Only two outdoor Ti bikes remain; a custom TiCycles (local Portland builder) and a Habanero set up for fast distance riding. That bike has seen more 300 mile days than I can count, and I hope it sees some more.

    Reply
      • E. Bryant

        Titanium is an excellent handlebar material if done correctly. I’d feel a hell of a lot better about Ti than carbon fiber for any bike that is potentially subject to crash damage (read: anything I’m riding), and aluminum gives me pause due to that whole fatigue-life thing (although Al bars of reasonable quality are cheap enough to replace yearly as a maintenance item).

        Frankly, something of a ferrous nature still makes plenty of sense when the goal is not breaking one’s face into several pieces.

        Reply
  9. Doctor Awesome

    Be careful on those exorbitant bridges. The pressure treated wood that was used in their construction gets as slippery as these ball bearings you keep going on about. The fine rangers at the metro parks’ solution to their bridges lack of friction was to put up a sign that instructs the user to walk. that and some grip tape strategically placed to ensure that all the skin on your hip and elbow rubs off as soon as you are foolish enough enter one of those birdges at speed.

    In my experience the other trail users ruin my ball bearing. I’m much more likely to ride out into the country around hoover reservoir or off towards the rolling terrain east of Johnstown.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      The Johnstown ride is great, I used to do it all the time. But the traffic to get there at five…

      Reply
  10. bbakkerr

    The “safe” trails are often more dangerous than the roads due to the general bike traffic, joggers escaping the crowded jogging trail, cyclists setting land speed records, etc.

    The MTB trails have only recently opened up here in MN after a long winter, but I was riding em all winter on ye olde fatbike. Much less crowded when it’s zero degrees outside.

    Maybe the best part of winter riding is how fast it feels to be on 2 inch MTB tires again on the same trails, not to mention getting on a road bike again. Effortless speed in comparison.

    Your article has made my old C’dale SR800 call out to me from the garage. However, the BMC carbon fiber this or that bike calls out much louder.

    Whatever the bike, biking makes everything go better.

    Reply
    • Doctor Awesome

      I totally agree. The fair weather fatties who only come out on the first day or once a month on a Sunday afternoon are the worst.

      I envy you up north people. Fatbiking on a snowmobile trail or fire road looks like it would be great fun. The central Ohio winter’s I get are insufficient for such shennagins.

      Reply
      • E. Bryant

        I got into fatbiking this winter, and it helped to maintained my sanity when snow continued to fall in MI after Easter. It does require some recalibration with regards to speed, as pushing a pair of 4.8″ tires across wet snow at 1-2 PSI apparently sucks up some wattage. I’ve done short rides where my heart rate stayed above 170 BPM for a straight hour and I didn’t even cover five miles in that time. But it’s still way more fun than riding an indoor trainer.

        Reply
    • Jim

      If you’re in MN and haven’t already been, try Cuyuna. It will make you grateful for iron ore strip mining!

      Reply
  11. Paul Alexander

    Jack, Mr. Petrany’s piece on the DB11 AMR currently gracing the top of R&T’s website is sleight of hand-cum-promotional pap. Do they still make a V12? Is the AMR V8 only? Is it faster than the ‘top of the line’, presumably the V12? Because they said it shouldn’t be, but then the engine tuner was given free rein. My head still hurts from trying to parse it. An honest piece would have read something like, ‘Aston drops V12 option on DB 11, Aston makes amends with AMR edition’.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I haven’t read it… honestly I haven’t read a useful piece on Aston Martin in years. They used their Kuwaiti money to buy the press more or less outright and they have “advocates” in every corner. The last one I drove was the Vantage V12S. It seemed okay but I don’t know why anybody would buy one.

      Reply
      • Paul Alexander

        Ah, explains a lot. Seems like the luxury automakers are in the process of courting a few selected ‘journalists’ to join the Life of Luxury set and act as their court appointed scribes while shutting everyone else out.

        Reply
  12. tyates

    In the middle I felt as if I had turned a corner and stumbled into an Elmore Leonard novel. Which is a good thing. Very well written. I also like how you indirectly communicated that biking is a great way to experience your environment with awareness rather than thought. Also if you ever get to the Washington DC area its an absolutely great place for biking because of all the railroads & canals that used to be there that have now been replaced by paths & trails.

    Reply
  13. PenguinBoy

    I’m frantically trying to pack for a 3 day 320 km ride that I last did 16 years ago, and this came up – perfect timing! Hopefully I’ll manage to get the ball bearing to roll…

    Reply
  14. Luigi Harrison

    Thanks for the engaging and inspiring read on my favorite subject, Jack. Like my best rides which aren’t races, it started and ended as planned, but took me to unexpected places well worth visiting along the way.
    The next time you visit Switzerland, please make some time to discover by bike. You won’t need pepper spray or a firearm, and the ball bearings here are famously precise. I don’t currently have a titanium bike to lend, but like you, I require very little justification to add another to the collection.
    And bring your family, as BMX, karting and LEGO opportunities abound around here for John, and DG should experience a Swiss hill climb (search on Saint-Ursanne Les Rangers, for example) to broaden her racing horizons.
    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      When I was driving up and down the Gotthard Pass, particularly the short stone climb, I wished I had my bike and was very envious of the people who were riding!

      Reply
  15. stingray65

    Great piece. The reference to ball-bearing mind sounds very much like the concept of “flow” that has been demonstrated in a variety of activities ranging from sky-diving to playing video games. Time disappears, and it is therefore a great surprise to come out of the “flow” state and look at the your watch and find that 15 minutes or 15 hours has gone by in what seems like seconds. Not sure if many people feel it very often these days, because it would mean not looking at their phone for a few minutes.

    Reply
    • tyates

      Very good point. I think anyone who can still maintain any attention span at all will end up running the planet in 10-20 years.

      Reply
  16. Domestic Hearse

    Belly band, Kimber Micro 380 at the 4-5 o’clock. Any printing can be attributed to an article in your back jersey pocket.

    This combo works as a girdle to keep me looking less portly in my kit, and serves as perfect predator repellant, whether I’m on an urban or rural ride.

    PS: All trails suck. Throw the bike in the Silverado, park outside of town on some quiet county road, Strava yourself a 25-mile route. You can borrow others’ routes at will. Save the ones you like, mix things up. Flats, headwinds, steep climbs, rollers.

    Reply
  17. Compaq Deskpro

    I need to buy a bike. Budget is $200. Used quality from Craigslist or new Wal-mart? I’ve had both in the past and had them last years.

    Reply

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