Life in the Peloton

peloton – n (ˈpe-lə-tɒn)

The main field of riders in a road race.
[French, literally: pack]

In the past I’ve fancied myself as a cyclist, though not radical. I have a decent road bike that I really paid too much for. I’ve completed the ever-daunting century a couple of times, which is cycling at least 100 miles in a single ride. My friends and I used to regularly do a Pasadena to San Diego cycling trip, though, to be honest, this ride was more about where we would eat than it was for speed or accomplishment. (I still remember singing “I Can See Clearly Now” at the top of my lungs while riding along the Pacific at Seal Beach. Really, how fast were we going if singing was involved?) Whatever the case, riding and watching cycling on television has taught me some things. Watching television? Seriously?

For quite a few years, during the now defunct reign of Lance Armstrong, I watched the Tour de France religiously. Prior to this I was uncertain as to how these stage races operated. For whatever reason I’d always assumed that you entered these races individually and tried to win them individually, kind of like runners in a marathon would do. Not so. You can’t even enter the Tour as a racer unless you are part of the team. As the near month-long races came and went I found myself more and more fascinated by the team aspect of bicycle racing, and mostly by this organic entity called the peloton. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Tour de France 2013 consisted of nineteen teams, with each team at ten riders apiece. One hundred ninety men, all with skinny arms and torsos and thunder-thighs, hopped on their bikes and, in twenty-one stages done in a 23-day period of time, cycled over 2,100 miles, most of them finishing. Unbelievable if you really think about it.

As I watched these races on television I observed many close-up shots of riders together interacting, communicating, maneuvering. I saw teams trying to get their lead rider into an advantageous position that would best suit the interest of the team. Sure, there is the team leader, just as a football team has a quarterback who happens to be the franchise player around which the entire team is viewed by the world. But it is about the team. For example, Team Sky, a satellite broadcaster out of Great Britain, proudly boasts their lead rider, Chris Froome, as the winner of the 2013 Tour de France. However, without the help of the other nine riders, each specifically hand-picked for their skills at helping this win, Froome would have most likely been relegated to somewhere in the middle of the pack when all was said and done. Froome got the win, but Team Sky celebrated because they actually won.

I love this about stage racing. You can’t do it alone. But the best part, as far as I am concerned, is much better and includes all of the riders. It is…the peloton! As you watch races like this one you notice long stretches where they are traveling over flat, country roads you see a giant pack of riders zipping along at around thirty miles per hour. When you get the shot from the helicopter flying overhead, that pack looks like a living, active, shape-changing entity; an amoeba taking in the sites of the French countryside. The riders at the front stay there for a little bit, then move along the sides to the middle and then work their way back up front. As the shot gets closer you get a chance to see the middle of that amoeba and you notice that those cyclists there aren’t even pedaling half the time. They are chatting with each other as their bicycles zip along at thirty-plus, sort of like they’re on their way to the market to pick up a baguette and some table wine.

“What time should we start dinner?”

“Does 7:30 work for you?”

“That should be fine. Let me check with my wife.”

“Come by early for drinks.”

“Do you think England should join the European Union and switch to the Euro?”

“Don’t know. You?”

In almost every stage of these races we get to see a small handful of riders (sometimes one, but rarely) decide to jump out in front and start pedaling like Beelzebub is chasing them on a Harley. This is called a “breakaway” and these riders are betting that if they put in a ton of energy early on they can get way out in front of the peloton and possibly win the stage without competing with 189 other riders at the finish line. I’ve seen this happen so many times and it rarely works. That small group hangs in there for several hours riding in a rotating single file, each one taking ten or fifteen seconds at the front, then pealing off to glide back to the end of the line. Their faces look like someone is jabbing icepicks into their thighs. Announcer Phil Liggett often cries out in his marvelous English accent, “They’re really suffering out there!” Then, with just a scant few miles remaining, you get the camera shot out in front of this breakaway looking back at them…and there it suddenly appears: the peloton! It gets bigger and bigger, closing in on the rag-tag, forlorn handful of beaten, bedraggled bicyclists, eventually engulfing them like a blue whale feasting on a smidgeon of krill. The large peloton is so much faster than the handful.

The Tour is a race with eventual winners on a podium, but the concept of the peloton continues to pique my interest. Here are a handful of reasons why l like the peloton.

“I’m winning, I’m winning! … Now I’m not.” Being in the lead is not the goal, except to help the group. The energy the leaders have to expend is so intense that even a few seconds in the front makes the strongest rider go weak very quickly. Each rider can only lead for a minute at best before giving way to another. When you lead you are only there to serve the peloton.

“I hate you! I need you! I hate you! I need you!” Personal conflict is not an issue. As you can well imagine with alpha male, testosterone-packed, world-class athletes…there will be some personality conflicts. There are guys that just cannot stand being in the same room together. I’ve seen that in every Tour I’ve watched. Yet, they need each other in that peloton. And it is there that they must, and do, work together. It makes me giggle at times.

“You guys make my life so easy!” When surrounded by the peloton, the riding is easiest. In the center of the peloton the riders expend about forty percent less energy than a rider would on their own. From time to time a rider needs to recover from a difficult ride from the day before. Perhaps they are under the weather. Perhaps they crashed a couple of days earlier. They are able to “rest” there for a time until they have the strength to contribute at the front.

“Hold your line, bonehead!” You must have constant awareness of the riders around you. Traveling at thirty miles per hour with the riders nearest to you only inches away demands conscientious alertness as to where you always are in relation to everyone else. The road is a fickle beast and doesn’t always run straight, sometimes turning suddenly, or presenting one of those European roundabouts, or becoming an intersection where the riders need to negotiate a hard right or left. When it does this you can’t cheat and move to the inside of the curve, or corner, or roundabout for an advantage. If you do this you take out the riders next to you, along with those traveling behind you. You need to hold the line you have, and the other riders must as well.

“Danger, Will Robinson!” Riders in the front warn riders behind them of danger. The road is never perfect. Each one has potholes, debris, sudden bumps, any number of things. Hand signals are used pointing these out. Down the line you see these signals passed along until the entire peloton is beyond the danger.

“Hey, where did Jan go?” Unwritten rules. In the mountain stages the peloton gets broken up into smaller version of pelotons because there are only a few really good climbers, and these are most often the ones that compete for the overall Tour win. If a group of, say, ten of these are riding in a pack, there are certain things that are done that are not in the rulebook. I remember in one certain mountain stage a number of years ago that the competition for the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) was especially fierce for seven or eight of the riders, and, in this particular stage, all of them were in a pack climbing a mountain at a pace that would have given me a coronary attack. At one point Jan Ulrich, who was a long-time rival and friend of Lance Armstrong, fell. The entire pack slowed down and waited until Jan could get back onto his bike, pedal back, and rejoin them. Only then did the pace resume to what it once was. What? They waited? Would you see that happening in a marathon? Nope.

As in any analogy to life, if one takes it to its furthest conclusion it falls apart. I’m aware of performance enhancing drug scandals that riddle this sport, immoral activities among famous riders, etc. That NEVER happens in any other sport, right?

But let’s look around us. Who, in your life, is weak right now? Who do you see that is just hanging in there? Do you know someone who is just ready to quit the race? Someone you know might just need the group to gather around and say, “Why don’t you rest here in the middle of the pack for a while? We’ll bust through the wind for you and protect you from the elements. If you can just pedal a little bit and stay in a straight line, you’ll be OK. We’ve got you covered. You’ll be strong one day, but for now, you’re fine. Rest those legs. Relax. Hang in there. Oh, and watch out for that rock!”

Fame

At 9:30am Ryan Nielson started his Kenworth T700 tractor-trailer rig, checked his immediate surroundings, and carefully pulled out of the truck port at the Wal-Mart warehouse in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Within minutes he was on Interstate 78 heading east toward Pittsburg. He’d subcontracted both himself and his rig and had a load of something he didn’t really care about to be dropped off at one of those Pittsburg Wal-Mart stores, and about seven hours of driving lay ahead of him. He settled in for the long haul.

What Ryan didn’t know was that the warehouse guy who slid the trailer door shut had noticed a thin layer of dust coating it. He smiled a bit and wrote a simple sentence in that dust: “I’M A CELEBRITY!”

Several hours later Ryan stopped at a Starbucks in Harrisburg for a quick break and a stiff cup of coffee before continuing on. It was located among many other stores in a giant shopping center and he knew he had plenty of space to find parking for his giant rig. There were two young college girls who happened to have been pulling into that parking lot behind him.

Megan, riding in the passenger’s seat, read the writing and said, “Look what is written on the back of that truck.”

“That’s funny,” her friend, Ashley replied.

“Wouldn’t it be weird if it was true?”

“No way. That would be impossible.”

Ashley found a parking place near Ryan’s truck and shut off the engine of her Volkswagen Jetta. Megan started to open her door when Ashley grabbed her arm.

“Hold on,” she said, “let’s just see what he looks like.”

Ryan picked up his wallet located on the dashboard and hopped out of the Kenworth. He left the engine running as semi drivers often do, locked the door with his remote, and then stuffed the remote into his pocket. He was wearing Wrangler blue jeans, a dark blue plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, and black cowboy boots. He walked about sixty yard and around the corner toward the front door of the Starbucks.

Many people in his life agreed that he was good looking by any standards with his muscular build, full head of dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and a smile that had gotten him many dates when he had attended community college ten years earlier. People often told him he looked somewhat like Jon Hamm and asked him if he’d ever considered modeling or acting, but that wasn’t ever on his radar. From the time he was ten years old he wanted nothing more than to be a truck driver, and that’s where he’d landed in life, at first working for various companies, then becoming independent. And he was happy. He didn’t know that two college coeds were watching him cross the parking lot.

“Megan, what if he IS a celebrity?” Ashley mused.

“What would he be doing driving a truck?”

Ashley thought for a moment, then said, “Maybe he’s an actor researching a role that he has coming up as a truck driver and he’s really getting into his character.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Megan replied, “he is VERY hot! You know what, he looks like that guy on the show Mad Men. What’s his name?”

Their eyes followed Ryan into Starbucks, the door shutting behind him.

“Let’s go get something!” Ashley cried and they both jumped out of the car and walked quite fast toward the Starbucks.

Inside there was a long line, about twelve deep, and Ryan took his place at the end. Megan and Ashley scooted over to an empty table and sat down. They both kept their sunglasses on so that they could secretly eye the supposed famous person standing in line. Megan glanced over and saw a guy her age at a table beside them working at his computer.

“Hey,” she whispered, causing him to look up, “What’s the name of that actor on the show Mad Men?”

“I don’t know, but I can look him up,” he replied, and snapped a few keys on his computer. Seconds later he had an answer. “Jon Hamm. Do you want to see a picture?” He slid his computer at an angle so that she could see. “My name’s Chase, what’s yours?”

“Ashley, that’s GOT to be him!” Megan gasped, ignoring Chase’s feeble attempt at a flirt.

“Who are you talking about?” Chase asked, hoping again to possibly land the attention of at least one of these two.

“That guy in line over there,” Ashley replied.

Chase looked over at what was causing the attention to not be on him and saw the Jon Hamm lookalike. He glanced at the picture on his computer, then back at the man. “Dang,” he said, “You might be right.”

Megan grabbed Ashley’s hand, “Let’s get in line behind him!” she loudly whispered, and they moved quickly and stealthily across the floor and were able to secure their position directly behind their supposed celebrity.

Ryan had no idea what was transpiring behind him. He just stood there patiently, checking his email, and kind of glad there was a line because it gave him more time to stretch out his legs. He was just reading his third email, a company that needed his services for about twenty days coming up in December, when he felt a gentle tap on his left shoulder. He turned around and saw two young women with wide eyes and large smiles. The one on his right extended her hand and said, “Hi, Jon. My name is Megan and this is Ashley. It is SUCH a pleasure to meet you!”

Ryan, being polite, reached out and shook Megan’s hand, but replied, “Hi, Megan. But I’m not Jon, I’m Ryan.”

Megan smiled again and leaned in closer, whispering at a level that was a bit loud for a whisper, “It’s OK. We know who you are and your secret’s safe with us. It must be difficult being a celebrity and keeping a normal life.”

At the word ‘celebrity’ a man in front of Ryan turned around to see what was going on. He sidestepped a bit so that he could glance at Ryan’s face. “Yeah, I know you!” he cried and reached out, grabbing Ryan’s hand. “My wife’s a giant fan of that show…what’s it called? Uh…oh yeah, ‘Angry Guys’ or something like that!”

Ryan shook his hand, again, being polite, and tried to say, “I’m not who you…”

“Can we get a picture with you?” Ashley interrupted and immediately the girls were on either side of him. Megan drew her i-phone out of her pocket like Billy the Kid in a gunfight, and before he knew it he was in a three-person selfie, well actually four. The guy he’d just met photo-bombed the shot.

A woman appeared out of nowhere. “Can I get your signature, please? Just make it out to Peggy. Say whatever you want!” she said, handing him a Starbucks napkin and a pen.

“I don’t think that I’m the person you…” Ryan started to say.

Just then another guy who had been listening in to this whole mess of confusion walked up. He was dressed poorly, and it was obvious to the casual observer that he’d not showered for a couple of days, more likely a week. He pushed passed the autograph seeker and maneuvered himself so that he was directly in front of Ryan, his face about a foot away. “Listen, I know that guys like you like to help people out,” he said, his breath bludgeoning Ryan like a 32-ounce ball peen hammer. Ryan winced at the onslaught that seemed to have been a combination of rum, sour kraut, eggs, and cat pee. The man continued, “My son can’t get into the Boy Scouts because I can’t afford the uniform. It’s only $175 and I know that for guys like you this is just chump change.”

Ryan stammered, “Er, uh, I don’t know who you think I am, but I’m a truck driver. That’s all!” A crowd was forming and whispers of who they thought he was were rippling across the room. He started backing away. As he did he bumped into someone. He turned around and was face to face with a very sad woman holding a baby.

“Mister,” she said, tears starting to form in her eyes, “My baby, he’s sick. Would you just touch him? I know that life has been good to you and I know that your touch will make him better. Please?”

The crowd moved in closer to get a better look at the unfolding drama. Ryan was feeling more and more uncomfortable with this situation. Being an introvert at heart, what was happening could be described as his own personal hell.

“Touch the baby, heal the baby,” he heard some of the gathering crowd say, “the baby needs you. Touch the baby. The baby…”

“I have a latte for JoAnne!” the Starbucks barista called out. No one responded. The room became quiet, the woman continued to hold out her baby, the crowd of twenty-five or thirty people remained poised in anticipation of a genuine miracle that could take place in their presence, and many were catching this moment on the video app of their smartphones. Sweat appeared on Ryan’s forehead as he slowly looked around at these people. “What can I do? I can’t heal this child!” he said to them. Some looked confused. Others had smiles that indicated they were the wiser and were in on his supposed secret. He racked his brain for a way out. “Please, sir,” the woman said again.

“OK, fine,” sighed Ryan. This made no sense whatsoever, but he was willing to do anything to get out of there. He reached forward hesitantly and gently touched the forehead of the small, whimpering child that was being held out in front of him. The surrounding crowd was on edge as to what would happen next and their eyes and cameras went from Ryan to the baby. Nothing really did happen, except the baby stopped whimpering, probably, figured Ryan, that this child felt the touch of a total stranger and was curious as to what was going on.

“It’s a miracle,” whispered someone at the edge of the crowd, “the baby was just healed!” Gasps of oohs and aahs swept through the room, with the occasional ‘miracle’ and ‘divine’ heard as well.

“I have a child at home who is under the weather! Would you mind waiting here for ten minutes?” a man at the edge of the crowd yelled.

“My son refuses to do his homework!” called out a woman as she pushed a stubborn teenager to the front, “Will you bring the hammer of the gods down upon him until he completes his English assignments?”

“What are you doing?” Ryan protested. He had to get out of there. As someone who hated attention he was more uncomfortable than at any other time in his life, including the public speaking class he’d forced himself to take in community college. In the confusion a plan came to mind. It might not work, but he needed to try something. Ryan held up both hands, quieting the crowd. He was going to speak and they did not want to miss a single word. Smartphones popped up again. Hushed silence, as if Jesus was on the mount ready to say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” They were poised. He was addressing them. THEM! Oh, if only their friends could see that they had an audience with this, unadulterated fame, with their possible fortunes following closely behind!

Using the almost forgotten skills he’d learned in the public speaking class he cleared his throat and made a statement. “Many of you may not realize that celebrity is always accompanied with responsibility. And that responsibility takes a toll. I would love to help all of you, but first I’ll need to take fifteen or twenty minutes to meditate. In my truck that I was driving there is a compartment with a bed in it. I’ll go there and relax for a bit, say a mantra or two, then I’ll be back.” Somewhere in the back of his head he thought he remembered that some famous people meditate. And the word ‘mantra’ came to mind as well.

He started to move through the crowd, when the lady who’d wanted his autograph asked, “Why are you driving a semi?”

“You’re driving a semi?” another asked.

Ryan stopped and turned around to face questioning eyes. He had never needed to figure out why a celebrity would choose a tractor-trailer rig as an everyday driving vehicle. He remembered his brother.

“Uh,” he stammered, “because…uh…my brother owns it and let me borrow it for a few days just for fun. Normally I like to drive my Ferrari or Porche, but on occasion I like the feel of a big rig.”

“You don’t have a brother,” said Chase, looking at Jon Hamm’s information on Wikipedia.

Ryan, quicker on his feet this time, replied, “I have a really close friend and we are like brothers. That’s how I always refer to him. My brother. Yes, that guy you’re reading about there.” He started moving again, slowly toward the door. “Uh, please wait here. I’ll be right back.” And out the door he went. He tried to walk swiftly without looking hurried, but felt as if it wasn’t working. He took a risk and glanced back. He saw faces peering at him through the window. He stopped, turned, and waved. They waved back. He motioned for them to relax, smiling and facing both of his palms before them. “Relax,” he whispered out loud, “relax.”

They smiled back and slowly turned away from the window. About fifty yards and to the left, just out of view of their window, Ryan’s truck patiently sat, idling, waiting for him. He toggled the remote, opened the door, and climbed up and into the truck. Knowing he was out of eyesight of the mob at Starbucks, he gently pushed in the clutch, popped the gearshift into first gear, and slowly drove his Kenworth away.

What Ryan didn’t see was that the crowd in Starbucks had formed an area in the middle of the store and was holding vigil. The woman with the “sick” child sat in the middle and many reassured her that help was on the way soon. Every now and then someone broke out in a song and others joined: “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad…” or “This land is your land…” or “Row, row, row your boat…” in the round. This went on for two hours before they sent a rep to find Ryan and realized he was gone. Eventually they all dispersed and went about their normal, un-famous lives.