On Monday, I played hooky from work and took a little road trip down to Connecticut to meet up with some old cycling buddies. I drove out from Boston on a clear autumn day, across northeastern Connecticut, over the rolling hills of I-84, with the first of the leaves turning on the trees. I made a brief pit stop at O’Rourkes in Middletown, just down the street from Wesleyan, for apple-buckwheat pancakes. O’Rourkes was a race day staple and it felt good to sit at the counter and eat and not feel rushed to be anywhere for a few minutes.
Then, it was back on the road to New Haven and the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop. At the Devil’s Gear, I met up with Matt, the shop’s owner, and with Jim, who was visiting from Wisconsin. Matt and Jim go back to the dawn of my cycling career, 27 years ago. They were the first guys I rode with when I started seriously riding. If we were going to have a reunion, the only way to do it would be on the bike.
We started out slowly from the shop, stopping for coffee at Lulu’s, before heading out of town. We were carrying the baggage of recent events and letting the miles lighten them up. While we rode, we talked. We knew all the details of each other’s lives, accumulated over the years, and still we told the stories to each other, as if we’re telling them for the first time, and laughed as if we we hadn’t heard them before. We rode easily up and over East Rock, and shot down the leaf-covered descent on the other side and headed into Hamden and North Haven. The pace was civilized (my max heart rate for the ride was 144 bpm) and there were lots of comments about who was fit, who was suffering and who was in the big ring on the climbs.
I was 12 or 13 years old when I met Matt. We were teammates together on Club Cyclisme, although I was a junior rider and he was racing seniors. On long rides, Matt would teach me more about training, jobs and girls than anybody else I would know. The stuff about girls proved the most useful. At the time, much of what he described was inconceivable to me but he assured me there would be lots of happy women out there who should be grateful to him. He inspired me to be out on the bike, regardless of the weather, but he also kept me from overtraining and injuring myself. Matt had an infectious energy and it was hard to be around him and not feel motivated. We drank a lot of coffee together which may explain some of the energy.
I met Jim at the same time, but really started riding with him when we were teammates on Connecticut Yankee Bicycle Club, Richard Sachs’ sponsored team of the era. I would ride out from Wesleyan campus and meet Jim along the road for training rides. Sometimes we would ride down to Richard’s studio in Chester and stop for coffee. I rode with him the day his daughter was born. I spent many rainy rides with him after his father died. And hours and hours in the car with him going to and from races. When my son died, Jim called me from Wisconsin every couple of days to make sure I was okay, saying he wished he could take me out for a ride.
We don’t see each other that often anymore. A few years will go by, but we’ll re-connect and pick up where we left off, as we did on this brilliant October day. We could have ridden longer. We could have ridden harder. But there was no reason to. We rolled back into town, shared lunch at Romeo & Cesare’s, chatted with other cyclists heading out on their own rides, then headed back to the shop where we parted ways. For now.
We’ve reached a level of honesty that comes from too much time together, too much time on the road, on the bike, in the car, travelling to and from races, drinking coffee. By the end of a stretch like that, you know one another better than a married couple and you’ll either be friends for good, or never say a word to each other again. Matt, Jim and I have shared success, suffering and failure. We’ve seen races won, loved ones lost, girlfriends come and go, and marriages and realtionships fall apart. We’ve had each others backs. When one guy was down, the others would help him up. And that was the real purpose of the day’s ride.
I’ve known these guys for 27 years, which feels like forever at this point, and I’m grateful for that.