Lessons Learned from Coke Bottle Man

Many years ago, when I was a young cyclist, I thought I was fast. Maybe not “Tour de France fast” but darn close. Now remember, this was long before Strava & social media could set the record straight. The only test were races and training rides, both of which I had little experience with. Nonetheless, I was fast.

As fate would have it, friends from the local bike shop invited me out on their Sunday jaunt. I knew some raced, or were former racers, but wanting to take my riding to the next level, as well as wow them, I took them up on their offer. When I arrived, I was surprised to see the short, old guy from the shop whose glasses were as thick as bottles. On this particular morning, he wore goofy-looking sunglasses over them. It was all I could do not to chuckle. Today I knew I would shine, especially with Coke Bottle Man in our group.

Since the shop was in an urban area, it took us about an hour to reach the country. Once there, the pace picked up and I matched it easily. As the miles grew, so did the pace. By now I was huffing and my bike handling, once so smooth and relaxed, was erratic. And then the unthinkable happened: the pace line inched away. Horrified, I was out of the saddle sprinting but the damage was done; I couldn’t bridge the gap. I watched them hum down road, a beautiful stretch of black ribbon canopied by trees, and found excuses were easier to stomach than my crushed ego.

Typically, this is where stories like this end, but in my case, it would prove to be the beginning. Someone glanced back, noted I had dropped off, and the group stopped. They urged me to rejoin them, but I waved them off. I was about to turn and ride home when Coke Bottle Man rode my way. He eyed my bike to make sure I didn’t have a mechanical issue, which I didn’t, then sized me up. I hadn’t bonked; I had simply been dropped.

“No matter what it costs,” he coached, “stay close to the group. No matter what.”

I nodded, let him pull me back and we rejoined the pack. The pace line revved up, and Coke Bottle Man kept pace beside me. “Get closer. Closer. There.” I felt the tug of the draft, the thrill of reaching a faster speed only inches away from clipping a wheel and crashing. It was the most exhilarating, nerve-wracking experience, and I loved every second of it.

Coke Bottle Man continued to teach. “Find an easier gear and spin. You’re pushing too high a gear.” I noted his legs churning like fan blades, his upper body relaxed, motionless and his bike zipping along as if powered by a Detroit V8. I did my best to imitate his style, and like a colt struggling to find his new legs, I adapted, learned, and improved.

That was over 30 years ago, and to this day I can still hear him urging me on: “No matter what it costs…” 

But the most important lesson I learned that day was that it’s impossible to size up a rider simply on physical appearance. I’ve been dropped by guys (and gals) who I presumed weren’t strong based upon first impressions. Conversely, I’ve dropped guys and gals I thought “looked” better than me. It’s a losing proposition; don’t do it.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, once back at the bike shop, I learned that Coke Bottle Man was the top masters rider in the state of Ohio that year.

Lessons learned.

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