How to Ride a Bike.
By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.
I was coming back up Hines Drive this morning. Headed east. About 15 miles done, another 5 to go. It’s hot. 88° and climbing, feels like 98°. Humid. Wind is still, maybe a puff of tailwind going east.
Hines Drive is closed to cars on Saturday morning. A Dr. Seuss procession of every imaginable pedal-thing fills the parkway. There are riders with kiddie trailers, on recumbents, riding unicycles, pedaling tandems and pace-lining on inline skates. If it rolls, glides, skates, tows or walks on a leash it’s on Hines Drive on Saturday morning.
It’s like surfing a crowded beach. You go out there, paddle hard hoping to catch the perfect ride in. About twice a year you hit the turnaround point at Ann Arbor Trail and you catch it coming back toward Dearborn. The perfect ride.
It’s an ugly reality that most Americans can’t ride a bicycle well. It’s never more apparent than Saturday Morning on Hines Drive. Tonight, there will be a new litany of social media posts with emergency room visits and X-rays of broken collar bones. Americans know everything. As result, you can’t teach us anything. It is more apparent in U.S. cycling than almost anywhere in American culture. Do a group ride in Belgium, France, Italy- there is a hierarchy, organization, unwritten and unspoken rules for how to ride.
In the U.S. it’s mayhem. People ride four abreast. Because the entire road is open to cyclists (and every other means of ambulation), cyclists feel compelled to use as much of the road as possible. Riders push knee-busting cadences below 50 RPMs. Orthopedic surgeons should park a van at either end handing out business cards. People on $10,000 aerodynamic bikes in the wrong frame size sit bolt-upright over their unused aerobars wondering what saddle they should try next in pursuit of that elusive “best bike seat”. Triathletes do long training rides in tri shorts to “get used to them”. In short, it’s a mess.
But once or twice a year you catch that perfect ride. That perfect wheel.
Not sure who he is. Rides a Trek triathlon bike. Wearing a jersey from the Ford Athletic Swim and Triathlon (F.A.S.T.) club. His bike was clean and well assembled. Cable housings long enough, derailleur cables short enough. Rear wheel true. Tire relatively new. Saddle height and fore/aft looked good, aerobars fit him too, hand on the shifters and elbows on the elbow pads. He sat on the bike well. Pedaled well. No rocking. Knees straight up and down. Snappy Cadence, about 86 RPM. Good for a time trialist or triathlete.
I don’t know who he is, but he can ride. Really ride. Straight. Smooth. Good cadence. Pre-acts to other riders up the road before he passes, doesn’t shout “ON YOUR LEFT!” when he goes around them. Like I said, not sure who he is, but he can ride.
Got on his wheel. When you get on someone’s rear wheel to draft your front tire is only about 4-6 inches at most from their rear tire at over 20 MPH. Ride off to one side for “safety” and the first time they decelerate imperceptively and alter their line just a trifle- you go down. Your X-ray is on Facebook on Monday morning.
So, I lined up on his rear tire and used the back of his saddle as a reference. Focus. Hold. Relax.
He shifts when you are supposed to, and I can’t even see him do it. His body does not move when he shifts, only his right thumb and index finger. Smooth. When the resistance starts to increase with the gentle roll of the flat road he touches his shifter for one easier cog. Me too.
This is a luxury. The perfect wave. The perfect draft. The perfect wheel. The perfect rider.
He rides straight, smooth, predictably and holds a steady effort just a few percent above my fitness level. Given the smooth, comfortable draft swirling off his body just four inches in front of me I can go 2-3 MPH faster than I normally would be able to at the same effort.
So he tows me along. In utter perfection. I’ve caught the perfect wave.
It’s rare to see a U.S cyclist ride this well. Smooth, calm, confident, skilled. Even his clothes fit him correctly and he is wearing bib cycling shorts, not triathlon shorts, even though he is out on his tri bike.
This was likely my best wave of the year. My best free ride. I don’t know who he was, but he could ride.