the laughing group
The jokes are better at the back. That’s what I’ve learned. There’s time to look around. There’s time to tell silly stories and laugh at one another’s jokes, even when they’re stupid. Especially when they’re stupid.
I used to ride at the front. I used to surf my way through the field, slipping through the gaps between riders until I found just the perfect wheel. Following the right wheel will cover any number of fitness sins. I’d put my chin on the stem and just go.
And there’s sweet satisfaction in making a bike go fast. The pavement blurs beneath your wheels. You can hear the guy next to you breathing and the thunk of the gears as the pace ratchets up. You come home thrashed and glowing.
But you also miss a lot along the way, because going hard on a bike is the same no matter where you are. You pedal hard. The world streaks by in abstract lines. There isn’t much time to look around, and there’s certainly no time for jokes. The other riders are just riders, a wheel to follow or an obstacle to pass. They aren’t people, really, just riders.
Last week with a fast group ride looming, I decided it was a good day for a grupetto. The route promised great scenery and beautiful roads. But in truth, this was a decision driven by necessity. All the group ride savvy in the world was not going to cover for three weeks of surfing and no biking.
So I set to work rounding up a group of likely suspects. This is a key step in forming the grupetto. The perfect grupetto riders say they’ll ride slow and actually mean it. When the group starts to go hard, they can sit up and let it go. This is suprisingly difficult, actually. Our cavepeople brains don’t like to be left alone. There’s bears out there, you know. The perfect grupetto riders also know a lot of good jokes.
We lined up at the back and sat on for a while. We yo-yoed over the rolling terrain, off the back on the way up, back on the group on the way down. Then the guys at the front turned the screws.
— I think we let it go now, don’t you?
— Yeah, let’s let it go.
And just like that, we did. Our friends drifted back to meet us and soon we were a small group winding our way along, the main group long out of sight.
— Are we on the climb yet? How far to go?
— Keep dreaming.
In California, you climb to get to the climbs, and the road spiralled endlessly upward. We were riding up a wall in California’s coastal mountains. They’re young, these mountains, with steep slopes and crumbling sandstone faces. The wind and rain have yet to smooth out their sharp edges and the roads have a way of pointing straight to the sky.
After grinding up a particularly steep switchback, we decided we were tired and under the wide branches of a scrubby live oak tree, we stopped to rest and banter. A slipping seatpost and no tools, too much beer the night before, are we there yet, we must be on the climb now, right?
And then we came to the part of the climb where we could see the top, which is always the worst part of every climb. It’s better not to know. But there it was, a sweeping hairpin and a ski jump to the summit. We stopped again, just to look at it. We’re going up there? Well, fuck.
We stopped again just short of the summit, because when you’re in the laughing group, you have to stop. You stop to regroup because you haven’t regrouped lately. You stop because you feel like it. You stop for no other reason except that you can.
You look at the scenery and take a few photos and joke about the sheer dumbfuckery of riding a bike up a hill and embrace the laughter of good friends out for a ride on a perfect California day.
There was road sign and a rock pile and we stopped to take photos of them both. The road stopped pointing upward and we swooped through scrumptious, bike-loving, banked corners. There was more laughing now.
And then it was over. Did you guys do the same ride we did? They looked suprised to see us coming in so long after the main group. Well, we rode the same number of miles and we rode the same roads.
But we didn’t do the same ride. We were the laughing group. We cursed the climbs and cracked jokes at every turn. We came home with stories. We won.