At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers would share personal stories. This year, we are running an At the Back every week for members to enjoy. In this piece from the 2009 Race & Ride Guide, Fred Dreier muses about the value of riding stories.
I couldn’t blame the two Chinese soldiers for looking a tad bewildered. I had just lumbered around a corner on my road bike and slowly pedaled up in their direction. We were high on the final pitch of some green, treeless peak at the end of 12 kilometers of lonely pavement far from downtown Beijing. And while China’s sprawling capital is cluttered with millions of people on bicycles, spotting a “cyclist” is still a novelty.
Here I was, fully kitted out in my best chamois and jersey, looking like a helmet-wearing, sweaty circus clown. The two briefly forgot about the hulking radar station they had been placed atop the mountain to guard. One stood and gawked. The other produced a camera and took a photo.
The surprise wore off the closer I got. In reality, I was an American, stoned on endorphins and the thrill of discovery. To them, I was probably a spy, a terrorist, or some other threat to national security. Both of these guys had guns, and (surprise, surprise) bad attitudes. While they spoke no English, their message — turn your circus clown ass around and get the hell out of here before we start shooting — was loud and clear.
I did, but only after stopping to take in the view. The thin band of pavement crisscrossed the mountain in manicured, Dolomite-esque switchbacks. Thousands of feet below, China’s capital sprawled out in front of me all the way to the horizon. Beijing’s infamous brown cloud clung to the foot of the hills, but up there, the sky was crystal clear, the air fresh. My assignment to cover the 2008 Olympics in Beijing had hit its high point, in both the figurative and literal senses.
This tale is one of my crown jewels whenever riding buddies and I are shooting the breeze with cycling sagas. Like many cyclists, some of our best stories are in heavy rotation. No one minds a good retelling of a familiar tale. We all know how Lennard won the Morgul-Bismarck by attacking through a construction zone. How Neal achieved cosmic enlightenment with daily mountain bike treks through Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz. How Kirk had to have gravel wire-brushed out of his butt cheeks after a scary encounter with a speeding van. And how Lars won the local stage race after pilfering parts off of my bicycle when I was out of town.
This oral tradition bonds us as friends, riding companions, and racers. Each year our reservoir of riding stories grows, and each week someone has a new saga to tell of some epic ride or race.
As we all know, whether it’s a 100-mile slog through the Alps or a 10-minute spin to work, every bicycle ride is a story to tell.