There is a moment, before it happens, when it is unclear what is really going on. A frenzied series of questions and justifications run through your mind, trying to explain away this troubling phenomenon. 

It’s just going to take me a few more miles to get my legs. I can hang on until then, just stay tucked into this draft. Shit, there goes that wheel. Jump to catch it again. Lose it, jump to catch it again. Maybe I’m bonking? I didn’t eat that much this morning. I was rushed. Better eat a snack. Shit, there goes that wheel again.

The gap gets harder and harder to close. The girl in front of you gives a quick glance back, and you manage what you hope to be a cheerful wave. Don’t worry about me! Just hanging back here for a bit! The face you’re making quite possibly says “Please send help I will not make it out of here alive!!!” rather than what you’re going for.

I might be getting dropped here. Should I lay it all out to hang onto the back? I don’t know how long this day is going to last. Better to stay back here on my own and not blow up this early.

It’s a humbling course of thought. A personal battle of sorts. A dose of self-realization that you’d be hard pressed to find on a regular day, off the bike. You are forced to be honest with yourself and those around you. All expectations and assumptions fall away and you’re left alone, climbing at a snail’s pace, cursing the bike gods for ever leading you to this miserable sport in the first place.

Photo by Tracy Chandler

A few days ago I moved to LA from Brooklyn. A few days after that I headed out for a day of climbing in Malibu, decked out in Machines for Freedom kits with some rad (and very fast) ladies. Riding during the winter in New York is more a mental challenge than anything. This year, I went out to the park once when it was 3 degrees, promptly turned back around and packed my bike for warmer climes. Needless to say my base miles this winter were basically negligible. Null and void. I knew I was out of shape and I’d be at the slower end of this group but what the hell. I’m in a new city! This would be my first real ride after moving to the west coast. Might as well start this chapter of my life right, right? 

What I didn’t expect was the most humbling experience in my life as a cyclist thus far. I’ve been off the back before, of course, but never this dramatically. I quickly realized even if I had been in shape I would have been dropped by this group. And I was far from race shape.

So there we go. It’s the beginning of the day, and I’m last and in a hard way. There’s almost a beauty in allowing yourself to be last, knowing that someone always is. It might as well be you this time, because it means that next time you will be a little stronger for having survived this. That sounds hyperbolic, but when you’re out there alone, climbing the biggest mountain you’ve ever seen, it doesn’t feel like an overstatement. I’ve climbed before. In New York we have Bear Mountain; one lone peak fifty miles north of Manhattan with a 5% grade. Bear mountain is like an anthill I could have tackled as a child on a purple and silver Motobecane. Climbing outside of Malibu practically left me for dead. I only barely escaped with my will and skin intact.

I am so glad I went. 

What this experience allowed me, in addition to miles and miles of potential laid out before me, was the opportunity to graciously accept the help offered to me. You can’t let the thoughts that everyone is annoyed to be waiting for you even enter your head; you just accept the gels and snacks that are passed back to you with more gratitude than you’ve ever felt in your life. And when a rice bar revives you from near death you thank the bike gods for amazing women with spare goodies in their perfectly packed jersey pockets.

All we can do is ride more and ride harder. And continue to ride with those stronger than us. And if someone always has to be last, let it be you… at least for a ride or two. Some day soon you’ll be the one with the opportunity to turn back around in the middle of a climb and pull another girl up with stories about your first road race, when you were the Lanterne Rouge and then cried in the port-a-potty while there was a line outside.

There’s an incredible thing about being last and means you can only go one way.

Photo by Tracy Chandler