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.
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.