Bicycle Vignette №1: the Cervélo

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The 2003 Cervélo P3 time trial bike, on its trainer (before being banished to my office.)

It starts with the Cervélo.

You see, the Cervélo was a gift, a very nice gift, perhaps the nicest gift a sluggish lout like me could ever receive. Many stars had to properly align for a dirtbag freelance writer like me to end up with a Cervélo time trial bike like that. First, my father-in-law had to become a mechanical engineer, work for a lifetime, retire, and transform into an avid builder of bespoke recumbent bicycles. Second, my father-in-law had to build up several years long relationships with dozens of other cycling enthusiasts in rural Hartford County, Maryland. Third, two of those cyclist enthusiasts had to have overspent on bikes throughout the years. Fourth, said cyclists needed to downsize and therefore came to the conclusion to purge two of those bikes — one of which was the Cervélo P3 — to whoever would take them, which happened to be my father-in-law. Fifth, I married my husband, a mathematician-touring cyclist whom I love dearly. Sixth, the top tube of the Cervélo P3 allowed me to stand over it. That’s quite a lot of probability in motion — so much so, one could even call it fate.

When I receive the Cervélo time trial bike, I had never seen a time trial bike in real life before. How the hell am I supposed to ride this weird gray spaceship machine? I think. I’m abysmal at riding a bike, terrible at spinning around the driveway in the back of my sister in law’s house. Riding in a circle without falling is hard, but my cyclist in-laws are pleased I’m so happy with their gift that they coax me along with pained looks on their faces. The shifters are at the end of the aero-bars and I have no idea how to use them, so I pedal paralyzed in the middle of the chainring.

We hop off the bikes and proceed with the day’s festivities, namely, eating an absolutely absurd amount of steamed crabs and drinking an unwise number of beers. After this, which lasts quite some time, my husband, who has just received a carbon-fiber Trek T2000, is desperate to ride it. I would also like to ride my new bizarro spaceship bike, which is currently leaning against a big live oak, gunmetal-gray finish gleaming in the summer sun. I look it up and down, from its foreign, antennae-like aero-bars, to the big Cervélo logo plastering its wide, tapered downtube, to the shiny Roval wheels that look fast standing still. I am a lover of objects, and I am in love with this object in particular. I borrow my husband’s helmet and we walk the bikes down the stairs to the side street. The Cervélo’s aluminum frame is almost weightless, which astonishes me.

It’s hot as hell, and humid. Classic Maryland July weather. We pedal around the block and I realize that this is the first time I’ve ever ridden a bike that is a) nice and b) fast, and I am terrified. It’s like giving a student driver the keys to a Ferrari. I feel unworthy, I feel stupid, and as I pedal up a pathetically small hill, desperately trying to shift without falling over (I fail at this, have to get off the bike, shift, get back on), I feel sick as a dog. We turn around in a cul-de-sac. We’ve gone no further than four measly blocks when I have to throw in the towel. I ride back around the corner, carry the bike back up the stairs, feeling faint as I do it even though it barely weighs anything, collapse onto the porch steps, bury my head between my legs, and vomit.

One singular, moronic thought runs throughout my mind as I swallow down the bad taste in my mouth with a glass of cold water: I will not let this bicycle humiliate me. I have got to become a cyclist.

The Cervélo now sits on my smart trainer in my office, relegated to permanent Zwift duty in lieu of more favored bikes that fit me better and serve more practical purposes, but I still love it. I love it so much that when I move to Chicago two weeks after receiving it, I can’t bear to let the movers pack it away in their truck. I choose instead to go to the bike shop, buy a car-mounted bike rack and hitch it to the rear end of the rental car we drive perilously up through dicey Mid-Atlantic highways, mountain switchbacks, and endless expanses of subsidized corn. When we have to stop in Breezewood, Pennsylvania for the night, I take the Cervélo inside the shitty hotel room with me, lay it beside my bed, watching it warily as I catch a few hours of shut-eye. When we arrive in Chicago the next day, it is the first thing I bring into our empty apartment.

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Me, riding the Cervélo in Oak Park. It’s my fifth week in Chicago.

Like all first loves, the Cervélo inspires both passion and fear, but mostly fear. It is fast and I am slow. It is aerodynamic, and I am a useless blob of flesh blowing about in the infamous Chicago wind. It is elegant and promises elegance. I am clumsy and my ability to ride a bicycle can only be described as laughable. In this case, opposites truly attract.

I’m too scared to ride it on the road. The first time I take it out since that day at my sister-in-law’s, my husband and I haul the bikes on the L and get off downtown, where we walk them to the Lakefront Trail. I hoist myself onto the Cervélo’s uncomfortable racing seat and we ride South.

I’m used to city bikes, upright bikes, JUMP e-bikes, riding in the suicide brakes on cheap Craigslist road bikes, never going into the hoods nor the drops — safe, easy, comfortable. The Cervélo is none of these things. The Cervélo is built for one thing: going as fast as one can in the most efficient way possible. To ride like that requires a certain level of balance and skill that I, the miserable bicycle neophyte, do not quite have.

Yet slowly, with each agonizing, breath-stealing mile, I become more and more comfortable with the way my body feels in such a precarious position — leaned all-the-way forward, hands resting in the bullhorns, elbows bent slightly, back flattened. I grip the bike like a vice, tension in my arms, my face contorted with anxiety because the Cervélo is very light, very fast, and I am going with it, not so much its master as its prisoner.

We reach a hill. Like all hills in Chicago, this one is not very threatening, but it is enough to slow one down.

“You have to shift,” shouts my husband from behind me. “Use the right shifter.”

I do not want to shift. I refuse to shift. My legs feel like jelly as I force the Cervélo up the hill in a massive gear. I make it out alright, but there’s another hill soon and this one’s bigger and longer and it’s getting closer and closer with each pedal stroke.

“Jesus, Kate, you’re going to have to shift here, you’re in way too big a gear. Stop being a baby.”

I try and steady the bike by keeping my left hand death-gripping the bullhorn. It wobbles around the path perilously as I hold my breath, lean forward, and move my right hand from bullhorn to aero-bar as quickly as possible. The position is precarious and I am unsafe, but I have to shift, I have no choice, and so, I pull the little lever up and when I hear the derailleur clunk I am flooded with relief. I’ve shifted!

However, there’s a new problem. I can’t concentrate on pedaling up the hill and moving my hand back into the bullhorn where it belongs at the same time. I’m too stupid, everything’s happening too fast, and so I make a split-second decision, a truly moronic one. For the first time, I let the hoods go and get into the aero-bars (“the skis,” as I later call them) my elbows cushioned by the pads attached to the center of the handlebars. I crest the top of the hill, pedal into the descent, and careen down faster than I’ve ever gone on a bicycle in my life. I’m flying, I shift my weight, and the Cervélo, that well-tempered machine, eases effortlessly into the slight turn. I’m lucky there’s nobody else on the trail right now because as the hill flattens out, I’m definitely not able to stop.

The world is a blur, my body is stiff against the slight crosswind, my legs locked for maximum stability, and the bike is going and going and going through sheer momentum and the cleverness of its design. This is wonderful! This is amazing! Ah! Ahahaha! Look at that, I’m riding a bike and I’m going really, really fast! The thrill, the sheer thrill! But this joy is short lived, because the path quickly becomes technical again, rutted with stray bumps and wind-piled sand, and I have no idea how the hell I’m going to get out of these bars.

Time slows, and I’m running out of it. I decide to move the right hand first, the bike threatening to tumble due to my piss-poor balance. I seize the handlebar, scoot my hand down towards the brake, put pressure there, stabilize. Wobble wobble. Should I brake? No. No sudden movements, not now — one wrong move and I’ll go over the handlebars. Then it’s the left hand — I let it wander down the ski safely to the top of the elbow pad, making sure to keep contact the whole time. Finally, I manage to get my palm against the bullhorn. Exhaling deeply, I apply light pressure to the brakes and the Cervélo slows. I did it. What a relief.

It’s a weekday afternoon and it’s cloudy, and the southern half of Lakefront is deserted, the tourists greatly preferring the northern half with its beaches and many attractions. I’m given the freedom to get in the skis a few more times, practicing the transition, the leaning down, the tuck, the way the tension changes in my thighs when I pedal with my head hunkered down in between my elbows. Soon, I get better at shifting, and by the time we turn around at the end of the trail into the tailwind, I’m taking the handful of hills in stride, still a little wobbly, but more efficient, less afraid. It’ll take me a month before I can shift positions in one fluid motion instead of a series of jerky, intermediate steps, but when I get in the bars for the last time that day, I’m smiling something fierce. For the first time, I feel like a cyclist, like a person who can ride a bike with something amounting to stamina and grace. We go twenty miles that day, and it’s my longest day out so far — in fact, it seems impossibly long. Twenty miles! That’s the distance from my parents’ house to TJ Maxx!

We reach the L station, take the train back, pedal around the block, haul the bikes back up the stairs, and lean them up against the wall in our half-unpacked apartment. I look at the Cervélo differently now, with taciturn understanding of its power and a budding belief in my ability to wield it. It looks handsome in contrast to that bare white wall, and I cherish it simply as a beautiful thing that exists in the world.

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Me, about to put Look pedals on the Cervélo.

Like all first loves, my love for the Cervélo becomes complicated once the initial, heady infatuation wears off. The Cervélo is seventeen years old. They do not make time trial bikes that look like it anymore — the technology’s progressed too fast. The Cervélo is a transitional piece of design. The way the handlebars, brakes, and skis come together is awkward, clunky, full of too many screws and divets. On the new time trial bikes, everything’s closer together, more compact against the wind, streamlined, integrated, elegant. To me, however, the Cervélo still looks like the future, still feels like the future when I ride it all tucked into myself, head down, power shooting through quads and calves, wind and body locked in a timeless struggle for dominance.

Four weeks after moving to Chicago, I go from riding four miles and feeling exhausted to riding fifty miles and feeling just as exhausted. The fifty mile ride tells me something is wrong. Halfway through, my right knee hurts something awful. I power through, make it home, lay on the couch with an ice pack, and wonder what that’s all about. I take the Cervélo to the bike shop for a tune up and the wizened mechanic looks at me, looks at the bike, and says, this bike does not fit you. I do not understand. I can sit on the bike. I can pedal on the bike. What do you mean it doesn’t fit me? It takes me a second to realize that the knee pain and what the mechanic has just told me are interconnected. I ask him to help make the bike fit. He special orders me a shorter stem. It takes a few weeks to come in, because the Cervélo is obsolete as are most of its components. I wait, the day comes, and I ride the Cervélo back to the bike shop.

One mechanic holds the bike by the aerobars as I climb into the saddle; the other mechanic watches me pedal. My knee’s not coming over in the right way, it’s too far forward, pinching the muscle there, causing the pain. They can’t bring the seat any further up or the stem any further back, and so they raise the seat to the point where I can barely get on the bike.

“This bike’s just too big for you. It’s a men’s bike. You have to lean too far forward, the geometry’s off, unstable. You can ride it for a few hours or so without pain, but it’ll never really be what you want it to be.”

I’m heartbroken, but I don’t show it. I pay for my new stem and, almost falling over while trying to throw my leg over the too-tall seat, I ride home. The Cervélo’s never left the house since then — but not because I don’t ride it anymore. In fact, I ride it more than ever. It’s found its niche.

It’s the perfect smart trainer bike — useful for positional work, for putting out high wattages while concentrating on form, for doing sub-two hour efforts. It looks cool in my mirror, which motivates me. I can get in the skis without fear of falling on my ass.

The Cervélo is no longer the mysterious, idealized, fetishized object it once was — instead it’s become a workhorse, a functional machine whose use fulfills specific, important goals. Through this shift in function, the Cervélo is liberated. It’s transitioned from being a reified work of art — a technological enigma — back into what it truly is, what it always has been: a humble bicycle.

When I look at the Cervélo sitting there in my office, I still love it, I can’t help it. I owe so much to this weird freak of a bicycle, draped unceremoniously with a white workout towel, relegated to less glamorous pursuits. This love is inevitable, it is eternal, it is a fundamental part of cycling. For every person who rides bikes absurd distances at absurd speeds loves the bike that transforms them from a normal person walking among the living into a cyclist — careening across tricky crosswind flats and up torturous mountain switchbacks alike, mind ground into dust, body flush from the spasmodic execution of precise, heroic movement; soul alive with limitless potential. This is the debt I owe to the Cervélo and all the small events that rippled through time to bring it into my life. It’s a debt that can never truly be repaid, but, like all debts, the payments are still due. The only way to make good on them is to keep riding.

Written by

architecture critic, essayist, cyclist

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