I finally had the chance to catch up with a long-time colleague of mine for lunch a few months back on a cold, wintry and blustery Chicago day. We sat down, and ordered tea and coffee. Not waiting to order our food, she immediately began to tell me a story about a recently retired CIO and former boss of hers, Hal, who had just returned from a cross-country tour of the United States. I sat and waived off the waiter. She was on a roll, so I listened. As best as I can remember it, this was Hal’s tale, told second-hand to me, about a rather unusual bike race.
Hal was driving west through the Rocky Mountains last autumn and was forced to stop in a smaller town in north central Colorado. The main road was closed off and there appeared to be no other way through town. Hal pulled his car off to a side road and walked up to the blocked road, which had spectators lined on both sides of the street. Looking down about a block, he saw that a bike race was about to begin. He walked up to the road barricades. Noticing his curiosity and unfamiliarity with the town, a bystander nudged him with an elbow and said “You won’t be getting through for about an hour. Gotta let the bike race clear.”
Being patient, Hal squinted in the bright, warm sun. “That’s ok,” Hal said. “I’ll watch.” Hal looked at the brightly colored shirts and numbers the bikers wore. The shiny glint of bike gears and wheel rims shimmered. Bikers attended diligently to their bikes, preparing for the beginning of the race.
The bystander snickered a bit under his breath. “Unusual race,” he said.
Puzzled, Hal asked, “Why?”
“No one knows how to ride a bike.”
The bystander stood silent, slyly smiling, letting Hal’s pause extend a bit. Thinking the bystander’s comment a joke, Hal ignored him and watched the bikers get ready for the start. The bikers, about 100 in number, stood poised and ready. A loud air horn went off. The bikers pushed off.
Just as the bystander said, it became quickly apparent to Hal that in this particular race, no one knew how to ride a bike. Unsurprisingly, bikers immediately careened and flopped, crashing into each other while falling to the ground, scraping knees, elbows and hands. Hal could hear swearing, groans and howls from where he stood. With a barely amused and mostly pained look, Hal grimaced as the bikers struggled. Some bikers were busy cleaning bloody scrapes. Others were furiously and vainly trying to keep their balance while moving forward. Others gnashed their gears uncontrollably up and down, going nowhere.
One biker, in a fit of anger, threw his bike off the side of the road and stomped on the wheels, bending the rims. Another stood next to her bike, madly kicking the derailleur. Off to one side, hidden from the messy mass of bikers, one biker was cautiously and slowly moving forward, wobbling a bit, but making steady progress. Seeing this, all the remaining bikers suddenly but erratically exerted harder.
A small pack of about eight younger and more muscular bikers saw this new leader and doubled their efforts, but in vain, as they collided into each other in a more spectacular and equally painful crash. Quickly, what looked like a mechanic appeared from the sidelines and was helping repair one of the crashed bikes and then another.
Hal’s amusement shifted to frustration. “Why can’t they ride their bikes?” he thought. The bystander bumped him again. “Looks like all the money these bikers spent on the latest in equipment was a failure,” he snickered. “At least someone made money on this!” He continued, pointing at what looked like the bike mechanic. “I know that guy. John something. I forget his last name. He’s actually getting paid to help these bozos. It’s a good gig for a Sunday afternoon. Some of these cyclists have bucks, if you know what I mean. It’s like taking candy from a baby.”
The carnage continued for several more painful minutes. The lead biker, despite a couple of falls, was now a few blocks ahead and the gaggle of the previously fallen muscular and over-confident bikers had somehow figured out how to keep their balance and were moving along. A few moments later, about a dozen or so bikers began wobbling uneasily forward following them.
Hal continued observing. By his count, about fifty or so bikers were no longer prone on the ground, but were meandering along, barely staying up. He looked at his watch. Now he understood why the bystander said it would be an hour.
Getting a bit too close, the bystander nudged Hal with his elbow again. “I think we have a trend here! Looks like the investments in bikes are paying off now! I got my money on the newer models. All the best cyclists have those these days.” Hal watched the bystander who was now talking on his cell phone. “Gotta get the model 750s. They seem to work best,” Hal overheard him say.
Hal waited another thirty minutes or so, watching patiently. The remaining twenty or so bikers still on the ground begrudgingly cleared away their wreckage and withdrew from the race. Race organizers were cleaning up the mess and clearing the roadway. Hal began walking back to his car. The road was going to be open soon and he wanted to get moving on.
After getting into his car, Hal pondered a bit. He wasn’t quite sure who was the more foolish, the bikers who couldn’t ride or the bystander giving tips on what bike to buy while watching this crazy race.
It’s not the equipment, Hal mused. It’s the rider.