“Did you hear a pop?”
This is one of many questions I’ve been fielding for the past month, questions I haven’t really been interested in tackling, because they have pointed down a road that is incomplete. There is a joke that you are not a real bike racer until you’ve broken a collarbone, and during the Tour of the Gila last month, I became a real bike racer. As I sat on the side of the road in Pinos Altos, watching my Tour of California and national championship dreams roll away from me, I knew what the slump in my shoulder meant, well before I saw the X-rays.
A broken collarbone, especially a clean break like mine, is not a particularly interesting story. It breaks. You’re uncomfortable. It starts to heal. You crawl back on the bike and try to regain the fitness that oozed out of the cracked bones. The real injury can be what happens to your head when you stare at the void between where you are and where you want to be, wondering when you’ll be back with your team. I would look at my suitcase, my home on the road that is seldom unpacked during the season, empty at the back of my closet like a carcass picked over by buzzards, wondering when I’d line up with my brothers on the road again.
I ventured out on the road, testing the strength of my shoulder, knowing it wouldn’t be back to full strength until it was time for our mid-season break. Despite being able to train, the risk of crash and re-injury in a race was too high. So when Tim Johnson texted me last week, asking if I could be at the airport in five hours to join him on PeopleForBikes’ Ride on Chicago, I jumped at the chance. I had no idea what I was volunteering for, but 880 kilometers of adventure seemed like the cure for my restlessness, and I scrambled to pack my bags for Minneapolis.
The first morning (and subsequent five mornings) came as a brutal shock. Apparently, the non-racing world is unaware that 10 a.m. is the only acceptable time to start a ride, and the only thing pulling me out of bed at dawn was the fear of being the cocky pro who overslept. I’d stumble down to the parking lot, dreading human interaction at such a sleepy and grouchy hour, but as I hunted for coffee and oatmeal, I was struck by something you don’t see often in professional cycling: excitement. Everyone was cold and tired, yet the group was buzzing with energy every morning.
As the kilometers ticked over, I chatted with the other riders invited along for the ride, and came to find that this was not an easy stage race Tim concocted to win town line sprints, but rather an event to raise money for PeopleForBikes, and to showcase the work Minneapolis, Madison, and Chicago have done to integrate bicycles into their transportation infrastructure. A bakers’ dozen of riders from all walks of life took a week off their jobs to lead by example, politely asserting their rights to safe riding conditions, fundraising, and adding to a narrative that grows every year.
Tim’s invitation was the biggest gift I could be given at this time in my season. I left the Ride on Chicago filled with awe, inspired by the people who rolled alongside me as we ripped through the Midwest. As I stopped caring so much about how few kilojoules I was expending, I remembered something that is so easy to forget as a racer: Riding bikes is fun. Every day flew by like a recovery ride, and the passion with which the group tackled days that should have been above their capacity reminded me of what I love about cycling in the first place. Intervals were replaced by pushing stragglers up hills, and sitting in the wind to shelter those unfamiliar with crosswinds.
The Ride on Chicago taught me that looking after all kinds of riders, on all kinds of bikes, is a privilege and responsibility the elite need to tend to. We are the tip of the iceberg, supported by a mountain of other users, many of whom are woefully underrepresented. Whether it’s helping a young competitor refine their nutrition, encouraging your friends to ride townies to dinner instead of driving, or donating to an organization dedicated to developing safe riding conditions for all, we have the ability to elevate the experiences of others and ourselves in the process.
Whether you are a blue-collar worker using a beaten and weathered bike from a box-store, a parent with small children in tow, or a professional racer, bicycles are transformative. For me, all it took was a week away from fixating on the mountains of Utah and Colorado to remember why we love bikes so much, regardless of how fast we ride. And somehow, by ignoring my own selfish athletic goals during a lost week in the Midwest, I returned home to find that the fire was burning even hotter.