A cold wind blew off the Hudson River and into our faces. Even as I buried myself within the pack of 80 or so riders, I could feel the damp air move through the pack like water through fork tines. We hit a short, but steep hill with what seemed ever-increasing speed on each new lap, speeds I’d never previously achieved.
At the top of the grade, we turned right and passed through a tunnel beneath a theater there on the West Point campus. Whether it was our sixth or seventh or eleventh lap I no longer recall. What I do recall is this: I started to black out at the top of the hill. I watched the light at the end of the tunnel begin to dim because blacking out usually means the middle going dark before the edges do. That told me something definitive—I’d never gone so hard on a bike in my life.
At some point in the run beneath the building I made contact with the rider to my right. Our forearms touched, and then stayed in contact. Was he swinging left when he shouldn’t? Was I supposed to be moving left and just couldn’t see well enough to know? I have no idea.
Somewhere deep in my brain stem an intelligence fired, telling me to modulate the pressure between our arms. As we rolled in darkness we eased from competing for the same asphalt to the light touch of fingers on the elbow of a blind person.
As our arms parted, we emerged from the end of the tunnel and the light of a gray sky pierced the haze I’d been riding through. I’d tell you I felt relieved, but that notion, considering how hard we were going, is the very definition of absurd.
What I wouldn’t appreciate until several more laps passed was that not only had the other rider guided me through darkness, he’d steered me through a slight bend in the road itself.
Riding in a pack stands as one of my favorite metaphors for what we do in love. We arrive at the start with an implicit agreement that we will all do our best to follow close and keep the pack functioning as a machine, ready to take our pulls, considerate of those in our draft, mindful of the wheels ahead. We ride with the conviction that the faster we go, the deeper the experience.
It echoes the risk we undertake. When we roll out, a helmet and glasses are our concessions to injury. We put ourselves at risk. I’m not sure I can conceive a better definition for vulnerability than pedaling at the limit of my ability inches from other people at their limit and the only thing separating us from disaster is our expectation that everyone has the same agenda—stay upright so we can get up and do it again tomorrow.
I once tried to teach a partner new to cycling how to draft. We rolled mile after flat mile where I coaxed her into riding six feet behind me. We’d roll a mile or two and then I’d look back, see her 20 feet back at which point I’d ease off until she was a half dozen feet from me. Every time I tried to shrink that distance by half, she said the same thing—”I can’t. I don’t feel safe.”
Trust is the only antidote for our sense of safety. It isn’t an impossible leap. The closer we draw, the deeper our exhilaration.
Until we place our faith in the rider ahead and choose to believe they will maintain their pace so that we can draw close, we can’t draft. There is no way to manage that span to our comfort that doesn’t require us to accept our risk, to give over our will to trust.
It’s the same in relationships—the protected heart will never love. Love is risk. Love is trust.
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