I was 80-odd miles into my first 100-mile day when my legs shut down. The sky was cloudless; the air damp as wet laundry and so hot I couldn’t guess the temperature. I was so far past running on fumes there are no cliches to describe what I’d done to myself. The way I was burning muscle protein made me a kind of human ouroboros, not that I knew what a metabolic disaster I was.
Even after a lengthy stop at a country outpost where we purchased Gatorade and Little Debbie snack cakes, I was less Lazarus than the picture of Dorian Gray. My world had so narrowed that a single thought occupied the whole of my mind: Miles separated me from the parking lot where we were parked. I’d been so stripped of ideas that I hadn’t even considered whether or not I could pedal that final distance.
Someone in the group accelerated and in an instant we were dandelion seeds adrift. When the wind hit me what I experienced was less me slowing than time itself slowing. Before despair set in my buddy looked over his shoulder and saw me falling behind. He dropped back to me, letting go of a solid draft and once he saw me on his wheel, he made a series of upticks in pace, checking over his shoulder after each and then backing off when I struggled to follow one. He held that pace and didn’t let a minute go by without looking back at me.
We live in an era that seems increasingly every-warm-body-for-themselves. It can be hard to remember how cooperation informs our sense of freedom, how sharing yields plenty for everyone.
In that one act he taught me more about the social contract than he did the value of a draft thrown by a guy who stands 6-foot-5. When he dropped back, he gave me more than his wheel to follow.
He let me know I wasn’t alone, that no matter how destroyed I was, I wouldn’t be left to die on that road. It was a sacrifice I won’t forget. My lizard brain is imprinted with the feeling that comes from sitting in a draft at a pace quicker than I can ride on my own, but slow enough not to humiliate me with further suffering. Even so, I felt each pedal stroke as individual efforts, not the seamless turning of legs I’ve trained my body to do. The heat radiating up from the asphalt gave me the sense of doing the fire walk at some personal development retreat. Hanging in his draft saved me from the headwind, but it also made the air seem still and oppressive.
By the time I climbed in his pickup there was enough salt in my jersey to make me sound like I’d spent the day at the beach. As he loaded my bike into the bed I sat in the cab, both unable and unwilling to help.
I think back on that moment any time I want to crush those final miles home and someone I’m with is hanging more by muscle memory than will. I was too shattered to be grateful then, and for that, I don’t think I’ll ever square that debt. Soft-pedaling those miles with someone tucked in behind is a cosmic thank you, less for him getting me home than the lesson I learned about how much one kindness can mean.
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