“Be cool”, I tell myself as I roll up to the stop light, “be cool”. So, I'm cool - casually putting one foot on the pavement, squirting some water into my mouth, fiddling a bit with the velcro on my glove as the other cyclist rolls up behind me. A nod. “Nice day”. His body language is casual and offhand, the same as mine, but the unacknowledged truth is that we’re racing.
It’s still early enough in the season that nice days are a novelty, and I’m still assessing how strong I am after a winter of indoor workouts. I’d fought a bit of a headwind to get to the halfway point of today’s ride, took a slow cruise through the small town, and then turned toward home again. With the wind behind me, I felt fresh and spunky. About a quarter mile ahead there’s another rider, and I crank my spin up to a pace that’s just beyond comfortable, but sustainable.
It takes a mile or two for me to see that I’m reeling him in, and I start the “OK, now what?” thought process. Do I relax and stay behind, catch up and ride alongside, or go around him and ride away? I decide a polite pass is in order. “I’ll be on your left”.
Another mile on, I can sense he’s still there - just far enough back to not be obviously pushing. As I said, my pace was strong and I actually wouldn’t mind backing off a bit, but now that I’m in front, I’m the rabbit and he’s chasing me. This guy didn’t have the courtesy to just fade away after I passed him. So, I get down a little lower, grab another gear and another mile per hour. Another mile down the road, he’s still there.
This is getting kind of serious and I’m getting kind of desperate: legs are burning and heart is pounding. I don’t know if I can hold this pace much longer, but I created this situation so now I have to live with it. The other guy doesn’t actually have to pass me back to win this thing. We didn’t have a start line and we don’t have a finish line, so all he has to do is stay right there behind me, forcing me to push the pace until I wilt like a leaf of lettuce.
The stoplight ahead turns red and I’m saved for a moment. We stand there, each one exaggerating our nonchalance, trying not to breathe too heavy or lean on the bike as a sign of weakness. I get a clean start when the light turns green while he has a pedal-fumble, but he quickly recovers and is right there, again. I only have to last another mile to my turn-off and I hope to God he isn’t going the same way I am.
This ride started as an easy spin to a neighboring town with no real expectation of working too hard. But I had to go and provoke the other guy, and he responded just as I would have if the roles had been reversed. I wouldn’t necessarily have tried to pass him back, but my ego would require me to pick up the pace and hang just outside of his draft, silently letting him know that if he wants to be the alpha dog on this road, he’s gonna have to work for it. That’s what he’s doing to me right now.
The final mile passes and I slow to turn left, and am hugely concerned when he slows, too. But then he turns right and we part ways. I managed to keep him behind me, but it wasn’t easy. It's hard to say who was in control of whom.
Regardless of how this reads, this was not a malevolent encounter … competitive, but there was no ill will intended between us. In fact, I appreciate what he did. My riding schedule dictates that I usually ride alone, but there’s nothing like a training partner to make you push a little harder, a little longer, to turn a regular ride into a legitimate workout. No bigger than our town is, I’d say there’s a great chance that our paths will cross again, and I look forward to continuing this little game.