One reason I nearly always ride alone is that I enjoy quiet solitude and time inside my own head. Another reason is that I'm relatively slow. I ride a cyclocross bomber on routes thick with ultralight flying machines. As it turns out, I don't ride well with others anyway.
I'm new to the urban road cycling culture, and I'm not very good at it yet. I come from rural, recreational mountain biking, where grinning riders shout friendly greetings to each other as they pass. I miss the respectful amount of personal space that mountain biking requires. Packs of grumpy roadies swarming through my margin of error make me twitchy. I realize that I'm just supposed to stay calm and hold my line, but I'm the opposite of casually deliberate. I'm inherently awkward, especially when startled.
Astonishingly, some guys can maintain the principle of silence while coming from behind. I actively listen and look, but sometimes another rider sneaks up on me. The first time a dude silent-drafted me up a hill, I executed a terrifying full-body wreck at the top trying to turn out of his way.
Since then, I've been doing physical therapy and practicing being less spastic around other riders. It's helping! I managed not to fling myself to the ground the last time some dude I don't know rode my rear wheel.
A couple of hours into a weekend ride I was starving. I topped out on an empty trail amid fleeing prairie dogs, pulled out a fig bar and rolled to my turnaround. At the bottom I washed some of the seeds from my teeth then pulled my neck gaiter back up over my nose.
Beyond the intersection where I turn back, I saw two uber-fast cyclists in matching kits. Serious bikes with razor-sharp tires stood at attention between their legs. The riders were chatting. Casually deliberate. Waiting calmly for the light to change before they exploded past me.
As they stood there, I headed back up the hill and set a steady line about six inches in from the edge where concrete meets tallgrass prairie. Lots of room for them to pass while I settled into the climb. Strong. Steady. Breathe and spin. Listen. Windy. Breathe. Lengthen my back. Where are they? Shift. Breathe. Shoulders down. Open lungs. They must have turned off. Shift. Breathe. Sun feels good. Breathe. Breathe. Why haven't they passed yet? Breathe. Tweak the stroke. Breathe. That short false flat near the top. Shift. Nudge back on the saddle. Shift. Breathe. Still don't hear them behind me. Straighten back. Open lungs. Shift. Breathe. Breathe. Set to move to the big ring. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Summit. Shift front. Faster. Breathe. Shift. Faster. Breathe....
Then I glanced back over my left shoulder into the blue-grey eyes of a fast dude. Too close. Too intimate. I nearly took us both down when I flinched and wobbled for just a second. I exhaled a quick "sorry," and flashed fig-seeded teeth at him.
An awkward moment later, I remembered that my gaiter was still covering my mouth.