I am off the front of the field, just past the start/finish, pushed along by a tailwind that is doing more favors for me than the pack behind. I steal a quick look over my shoulder, the top-of-the-hour news update, wondering if my gap is growing. What I see impresses and frightens me. Churning toward me with the inevitability of a train is one of the strongest riders in the race, and he’s closing the gap fast.
The inventory I take is so brief as to require no real effort. Can I go harder so I can catch his wheel when he passes me? No. If I do anything more I won’t go forward; shards of me will spill from my ears and I’ll be headed back to the group, destined to be dropped.
He enters my periphery and I wonder if time is slowing because he’s no longer moving four or five miles per hour faster than I am. He draws level, turns his head, nods, and then eases off the power in such a fractional way I alone can tell. I see the change in muscle tone in his calves as he creeps past me, the fine lines blurred and skin no longer taut with effort. He means me to join him.
Three seconds is quite a distance at traffic speeds. No one behind can see what has taken place, the strategy he used to take me along. All they see is two riders merge like drops of water.
For the rest of that straight and through the turn he pulls, but without accelerating. He’s letting me recover. He could be going faster, but he wants the help, knowing my pulls will allow him a breather. I pull for the first half of each of the two long straights; he pulls the rest. It’s not an even split, but it’s the division that allows us to break the speed limit through the start/finish, aided by the ocean breeze.
I overdraw my legs, and begin to shorten, and then skip, pulls. He covers for me, taking longer pulls and even slowing slightly when I fail to catch his wheel after the teeth of the headwind bite off what little is left of me. With two laps to go, he waits until the tailwind, turns his head slightly and then gives me the tiniest wave of his right hand, his gloved knuckles arcing like a clock’s pendulum. And with that, he drops a cog and simply rolls away from me. I hear a second click and now he’s disappearing.
What stays with me from that day is how many times he could have flashed his strength, could have attacked, could have left me like roadkill. Instead, he checked his efforts, paying them out according to some internal budget.
I’m reminded of the line from The Exorcist, where the devil asks Father Karras to loosen the straps and he suggests the devil simply make them disappear.
“That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras,” the devil says.
Years would pass before I realized I never saw him out of the saddle that day. How much more did he hold in reserve? I realized that the answer isn’t important. And the point wasn’t to keep me guessing, though that was a handy upshot.
His goal was never to show his power. And maybe that’s its truest measure. When you really have power, you don’t need to show it. Even the devil knows that.