The value of a friend with a car

I’ve rarely ever ridden the areas of western Chengdu. There’s a few reasons. To get there, it’s a haul. It’s flatter than flat. There’s a lot of development and industry sprawl (. I know there’s good riding in the direction, but it makes for only the biggest type of day on the bike, and if you’re riding you’re guaranteed to spend a third of that time riding bits that aren’t worth it.

Today made for a special occasion: A friend with a car. Our driver, Jordan is an old hat in the cycling scene. Years ago when I’d first opened Natooke I remember paying his shop, which was not far from my own, a visit. A few years would pass, and he in turn, would pay my shop a brief visit. Brothers in trade, our interaction was brief: A simple you’re-in-the-shit-too nod of approval. We’d rap basic bike shop talk, slightly affirmative praise of how business is running, hiding a deeper dread surrounding bike shop ownership.

He’d take myself, Kent, and Steph out to meet up with Doggy in the landscaping farmland regions outside the developing, industrial hellscape known as Pixian (famous the world over, surprisingly, for its fermented bean paste; unknown for the Foxconn factory that cranks out over 40 million iPads, annually). Despite rain, which in Chengdu is a given anyway, things were looking up. Shortly after set out, we quickly learned that Doggy’s front derailleur was out of battery, limiting him to a furious spin.

This particular mechanical issue is funny. I suppose it doesn’t surprise me, living in a world where everything needs to be charged. It definitely highlights how this piece of innovation, accurate, rapid-fire, uninhibited shifting, is really a stupid, expensive bit of design. Needless to say, we left Doggy to spin out his own loop, cutting our number down to four.

With Doggy indeterminably off-the-back, Jordan set a hard pace. He was itching to ride. In a rare show of conviction, he braved the rain, despite having just installed a new chain. He’s quick. At the front of a pace line he keeps a rapid, steady cadence. Being a father of a four-month-old (with an incredible head of hair, I’ve been told), he hasn’t had much chance to get in the kind of riding he normally makes routine. This was fine for Kent and I, content sitting pretty like a pair of pack mules.

Steph, on the other hand, was looking to make up for lost time. With a couple of weekends off the bike, she had it in her to sit tight at the front of the pace line. It’s a real respectable sight. Mild-mannered and somewhat reserved off the bike, Steph makes for an entirely different spectacle while riding. Having ridden with her several times now, I’ve determined her well is bottomless. It’s kind of scary, in fact. Cycling is a sport where discreetly trying to do as little as possible is a respected skill. Encountering an athlete, like herself, reminds you that there are people that don’t have limits, and if they do, they don’t grumble about them, even when they go charging past the threshold.

Fortunately, by this point in the ride where my petty heart can’t handle a pace line, we had reached the day’s climbing. A set of rolling hills that gradually led to a final 200m ascent, I took the opportunity to do my thing. I struck at my one opportunity to dance off the front. There’s a grace in my tactless-ness. “I’m a climber. It’s what I do: I climb,” I say when we regroup. It’s a lame attempt to conceal the fact that in any other scenario my ass is grass. Luckily, it started pissing rain on the ascent, so I managed to avoid this rote conversation entirely, with everyone opting to go straight for the descent in an effort to keep warm.

Soaking wet and with the larger part of the ride behind us, we set back on the straight and narrow, (and flat as hell), back to the starting point. Spirits soared as the weather suddenly burst open and cleared. I continued to rattle off stupid jokes. Steph remained up front, while Jordan was racked with a series of “mysterious” calf cramps. Kent was trying to decide if the ride would alleviate or exacerbate a cold he had. Things were as they should be.

We wrapped up the ride, caught a glimpse of Doggy, rinsed off road grime and took our leave. All-in-all, the route was pretty solid. Great roads with good asphalt, tree-lined and lush. It was a nice departure from the farm roads I normally wind my way down, and am happy to know I’ve finally made a friend with a car.

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