Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Code of the Road

Like hoards of others yesterday (I imagine)I snuck out of work a bit early and got out on the road for an hour of that glorious sunshine and warmth. I even worked up a light sheen of sweat on my uncovered lower legs. What a day!

About a third of the way out, I had that sixth sense you get when a rider has pulled up on your wheel, right behind you. Then I saw his shadow sneaking up on my left, and to my surprise, he pulled up alongside and said hi to me. This is New England; cyclists are rarely friendly or outgoing. There’s too much status and image at stake. But I was glad of it; I’m always the one waving to other cyclists, and I only get a wave back maybe half the time.

Anyway, we chatted a bit, about the weather, the colds and illnesses that kept us off our bikes during the winter, the ins and outs of the local roads. Turns out he lives roughly a twelve-minute ride from my house. Since he’d reached out to me, I thought I’d reach back, and told him I’d be happy to ride sometime. I mentioned the distances and average speeds I usually ride. We exchanged names and shook hands.

At one point, he hit a classic spring pothole and his frame pump fell clattering to the road. As a courtesy to a new acquaintance, and to show that I wanted to continue the conversation, I soft-pedaled a ways down the road while he gathered and re-mounted the pump, and then rode out of the saddle till he caught up with me.

I really love the courtesies and customs of the road. An unspoken code arranges our interactions. Subtle rituals, a century old, pass between us. We checked each other’s bikes out discreetly – first riding with me on the right, then, when the opportunity arose, switching sides, so that each of us could, without making a show of it, take in the other’s frame, components, whatever other details we wished. He slipped behind me as cars approached from the back, and without a word, we fell into an easy two-man paceline for a while.

I love also the secret code, hidden in many obscure details, that communicates riders’ ability level. I don’t have to ride hours with them to know the basics about them. I can watch their form, their level of souplesse. I can also check out their gear; this fellow had a custom-built bike, and he had bar-end shifters. He had 32c tires on. Everything about the bike and the rider’s easy position on it, told me he was into distance riding, that his legs were probably cast iron.

Then there’s the verbal way to find out about a rider, but even that is subtle. At one point, we were discussing a well-known metric century route in the area, one with a fair amount of altitude gain spread out over giant rollers and miles-long stretches of 6% climbing. He quietly let me know that he had ridden that route in various ways, including with his daughter in a stroller behind him; as part of a four man team time trial; and finally – the coup de grace – in a regional championship race, in which competitors completed the route twice. He was quietly presenting his bona fides, and I took the point quite clearly, and without a trace of resentment.

He graciously then told me where he lives and invited me to stop by, but it was clear to me at that point that I’d have to be feeling better than I am these days before I do that. It was a quiet, nice exchange, tastefully done. I didn't feel "schooled." I turned around at that point, because I had to get home, but I left feeling that he genuinely welcomed me to come find him and ride... if I felt ready.

Road cycling is teaching me to be strong, to be humble, to be generous. It's also teaching me to be subtle, to be tasteful. To let the facts speak for themselves.

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