The white, handlebar-mounted LEDs blink in the distance—beacons on a dark and cool Texas winter morning. Perched on my road bike, layered in cycling clothes, I ride toward the lights, pedaling harder, even though I can barely see the pavement in front of me.
Running over a rock could send me flying into the traffic to my left, where, at 6:30, commuters are speeding to beat Austin’s rush-hour backups. But all I care about is covering a quarter-mile fast enough to catch the guys in my Wednesday-morning group ride. Its potential to ease my sadness with 30 miles of punishing pace outweighs the risks.
It’s February 2013, the bleak middle of the most miserable winter of my life. Just a year and a half ago, my wife, Madeleine, and I, along with our two children, were living in the Bay Area, with a big move ahead of us. We had committed to relocating from our home near San Francisco, where I grew up, to Texas, where she’s from. For me, the decision to leave everything I knew behind was hard, but the timing felt right. Madeleine had long wanted proximity to family and old friends, and over the previous two decades she’d moved around plenty for my sake. We needed to downsize, and our son and daughter were still young. So off we went.
Our relationship wasn’t seamless. During 18 years of marriage, we’d sometimes struggled, and more than once we’d discussed splitting up. But there were plenty of good things, too. I wrote from an office and came home to dinner on the stove. Madeleine bought the groceries; I paid the bills. She started a photography business. We traveled and had fun together, and of course we enjoyed our kids.
The Tilin family arrived in Austin in the summer of 2011, when central Texas was baking under record-breaking heat. Sweat pouring off me, I broke down moving boxes in the garage of a house we’d found in a quiet neighborhood. We’d moved to a part of town where school buses rolled through the streets and people hosted Texas Independence Day parties. Working in that garage, arranging the bikes I’d ridden for years as an amateur racer, I’d watch groups of cyclists coast by. A good omen!
Within weeks I’d started riding with a band of mostly middle-aged guys who also juggled kids and careers. They called themselves Gruppo VOP, and while the letters stood for Velo on Peloton, I preferred the nickname Very Old People. They wore matching red and yellow kit, made endless jokes, and tried to pedal each other into submission. Arriving as a stranger, I considered myself lucky to find them. What I didn’t know back then was just how lucky I was.
The kids adapted to their schools, Madeleine reconnected with family and friends, and, predictably, our relationship’s problems survived the move. For years she’d thought I lived more in my head—ruminating and worrying—than in my heart. She said I was too reactive. For my part, I sometimes felt like my wife’s dad. I’d ask her, nicely and otherwise, to be less impulsive about socializing and spending. Sometimes keeping up with Madeleine exhausted me.
The move to Austin intensified our friction. While I worked or hung with the kids, Madeleine stayed out late with her friends, and I’d fume. At other times, my condescension would prompt her to flee. When my indignation and her restlessness ran neck and neck, I’d find myself so low and confused that I’d start singing lines from Train’s "Drops of Jupiter," which gives voice to a partner who feels abandoned by a footloose mate:
But tell me, did the wind sweep you off your feet?
Did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day
And head back toward the Milky Way?
Half a year after arriving in Austin, on Valentine’s Day 2012, we sat down at a bistro. I’d covered the table with rose petals, but Madeleine looked right through me, and our marriage felt like it was over. Months after that, she wondered aloud in couples therapy if I’d ever be the guy for her again.
That was it. My behavior could torment my wife. Her behavior caused me to lose all faith. One year after that dismal Valentine’s Day, I moved out.
The leap into the unknown in Texas became a plunge into darkness. Confused, furious, and depressed, I was suddenly just another man in his forties enduring a marriage breakup. Increasingly sad and seeing my kids only half-time, I looked for something to settle my anxieties. Alcohol wasn’t an option—I’m not a big drinker. I couldn’t swing a Porsche.
So I turned to the machine and sport that, for decades, had brought me joy. This time, though, there was a lot to work through on the bike. Some emotions were too deep and unprecedented to be easily anesthetized by speed and adrenaline.
I needed to train. I needed a goal. But I ultimately discovered that I needed something else, too.
On that early morning last February, I catch the VOP riders as the pack moves south on the shoulder of Austin’s Capital of Texas Highway. The ride starts only blocks from my home—what was home, that is. Like a flash of light, I suddenly inventory my existence and what I’ve lost, how the children and Madeleine are, right now, starting another day without me.
But my fellow VOPers slowly tease me out of my funk, and soon I’m chatting as well as building strength for a cycling adventure that’s ten weeks away.
"You chillin’, Tilin?" says Brad Houston, with a honeyed Texas accent. Brad and I are pedaling in the middle of an 18-person group, which moves as one through a subdivision called Travis Country. "Or did you come to make a guy like me suffer?"
We turn right onto the shoulder of Southwest Parkway, which marks the end of the warm-up. The Wednesday-morning VOP ride is notably cruel: no agreed-upon pace, no understanding that everyone takes a turn pulling the others. Anarchy can prevail. Speeds are often fast.
With a glance over my left shoulder, I briefly glide into Southwest Parkway’s right-hand lane to move to the front. In an instant, three guys zip past me.
I shift into a harder gear, demand more power from my quads, and settle into the trio’s slipstream. They’re all huffing. I’m huffing, too, and loving every second of it.
But making other riders miserable isn’t my objective. After all, it’s the self-deprecating, 55-year-old Houston—a personal-injury lawyer specializing in cycling cases and a descendant of Texas icon Sam Houston—who gets much of the credit for reviving my love of cycling. I’d arrived in Texas out of shape and uninvolved in the sport. Then I met Brad, a dedicated rider with a politician’s appetite for meeting people and building community. He launched VOP in 1999.
"Join us," he told me over the phone. "It’s a bunch of old guys."
They didn’t ride like geezers. For months I watched the others pull away on Austin’s rolling, challenging terrain. Brad kept encouraging me to come back, and over time I managed to keep pace and get to know everybody. It’s a great group: Mike wisecracks; Rob and Greg obsess over winning the "primes," the races within the rides; the two long and lean Dans tend toward subtle sarcasm; Ken H. and the two Daves are polite and gracious; and Frank, a multi-time state cycling champion, always seems happy.
Off the bike, I’d told a few VOPers about my personal problems, and they’d taken me out for beers and pep talks. The guys knew I was unleashing my demons on the bike and helped me stick with it. By the time I’d decided to move out, in the fall of 2012, I could take turns leading the peloton.
But it wasn’t until late December of that year, when I got an e-mail from Frank—58-year-old Frank Kurzawa, a fixture of Texas racing for two decades—that I found the distraction I’d sought. Frank wrote to remind me and other VOPers that registration had opened for the Tour of the Gila, a springtime, multi-day stage race for pros and amateurs held in the steep mountains of southwestern New Mexico.
"May 1st to 5th," said the e-mail. "An amazing race in an amazing place."
I wanted in. The training would consume me, and the race was in a beautiful spot, far from central Texas. I filled out the online entry form and paid my $120. No sooner had I finished the transaction than I worried that I’d made an impulse buy.
A four-day stage race, covering nearly 180 miles? I hadn’t raced in five years. In the midst of an unraveling marriage and family, I had committed myself to something that required unbelievable fitness.
"Green light!" yells Greg, who is in front at the crest of another hill on Southwest Parkway. He’s the first to see a stoplight that’s about a quarter-mile down the hill. When the light is red, the VOP riders ease up in anticipation of making a stop. But green means it’s time to accelerate and try to make the signal.
There’s clanking all around—bike chains grabbing bigger gears. Unfortunately, I have little strength left. So much of road racing boils down to recovering from hard, repeated efforts. In many ways, success goes to the rider who can endure the most interval work from start to finish. I’m just a few miles into a tough but short training ride. The Gila will be a different beast altogether. I can only watch as a bunch of VOPers blow past me.
Soon after moving in, I conclude that my stark two-bedroom apartment has what I need. IKEA beds for the kids. A TV on the wall. My desk. A toaster. The pantry holds energy gels and bars. I think of the place as a modern-day Rocky Balboa bunker, where I’ll work, sleep, eat, and recover from training.
My fellow building dwellers are mostly University of Texas students, and I largely ignore them. But one Friday evening in early April, I cross paths in the hallway with three college-age girls who are dressed up for a night out. I’m in my sweats, carrying a bag of trash to the garbage chute, and I notice how they scoot around me.
Confused, furious, and depressed, I was suddenly just another man in his forties enduring a marriage breakup. I turned to the machine and sport that, for decades, had brought me joy.
I’m immediately overcome with sadness, and I start to cry. Apparently, I’m no Rocky; to these kids, I’m an ancient astronaut visiting their planet. I feel old and profoundly lonely. My tears plop onto the concrete floor. I hate that I ever agreed to move to Texas, and for the moment I hate my wife.
A few days later, I work for three hours and then straighten up in my desk chair. Time for therapy: the cycling workouts are like shrink appointments. They can’t be missed.
My path to cycling leads through a small closet that I rent off a hallway inside my building. I open the door, pull out my bike, and put on my cycling shoes. Now I’m not a separated man semi-living out of a sports closet. I’m a rider.
To get ready for the Gila, I ride a few days a week with VOP and perform workouts taken from coach Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg’s training book The Time-Crunched Cyclist. The foundation of today’s routine is Steady Effort PowerIntervals, or repeats, performed at the highest maintainable pace.
I cruise neighborhood streets like Woodview and Shoal Creek. They’re smooth and quiet, and yet riding them makes me emotional. My routes here can’t compare with the scenic rides I enjoyed back in California.
"Hey, A.T. How many of these things do we have to do?" says my buddy Rob in his choppy Dutch accent.
Rob Janssen, who meets me 20 minutes into the ride, is a 46-year-old family man, freelance software engineer, and VOP stalwart. He’s related to Jan Janssen, who won the Tour de France in 1968, and Rob can definitely ride. He’s also funny, and seeing him immediately lifts my spirits.
"Half a dozen," I shout as we descend toward one end of Mesa Drive.
Rob and I arrive at the bottom and turn around. I tell him we’re doing three-minute intervals, with three minutes’ rest in between. I’ve been dutifully performing similar work for weeks, and I know it’ll hurt.
"Start slowly," I advise Rob while clicking into the pedals. But he’s impulsive and takes off, even though he’s feeling a little weak today. While the first repeat is a tough pump-primer for me, I still pass Rob about halfway up the grade. I watch the watt numbers on my power meter bounce: 286, 320, 264.
At the corner of Mesa and Firstview, with my legs and shoulders tingling from the completed effort, I ride in circles for a minute. Then I descend Mesa for another go, finding Rob not far from where I passed him. He’s stopped.
"I puked," he says after I pull up. Sweat is dripping off his dark hair.
"What?" I say without being able to suppress a small grin. "You nut! Start slower, or just go home. You’re not right."
"No, no," he says, turning his bike so that it faces downhill. "Let’s do it again."
Like me and other VOP man-children, Rob still finds pleasure in the pain of riding hard. As a kid, he biked through Holland’s powerful wind and rain, just like I spent my youth running and riding in Bay Area fog. Back then I migrated toward endurance sports to escape my family’s dysfunctions, and I found that I loved being alone with my own hard breathing. But now that I’m 47 and living through the demise of a marriage, I’m discovering that the pain involved in pushing myself isn’t the only medicine I require.
Still, about halfway through the second interval, my body finds a groove and the pain curve flattens. That’s not surprising: intense exercise has been proven to trigger anti-depressant effects, in part because it clouds the brain’s response to stress.
But by the end of my fifth interval, when I wheeze, shake, and burn with discomfort, I’m also giddy. I can’t wait to tell Rob that I’ve set a personal best by averaging 300 watts. He finishes after me, and he’s miserable. Still, when I give him my news, Rob gamely lifts his hand for a fist-bump.
"Hey," Rob says, now chuckling. "How many more of these do we get to do?"
I pile yoga classes onto my cycling regimen to give me strength and flexibility, along with the added sense that I’m doing good things for myself. Around the middle of April, my scale says that I weigh 132 pounds, 15 less than I weighed before moving to Texas. I should feel good about this: training is making me healthier and providing a sense of control in my otherwise haywire world. Honestly, though? Fitness doesn’t help at all when you’re missing your wife and kids.
Living alone is monkish and laborious. When I cook, I have to clean, too—which usually leaves me unmotivated to cook. I also discover, thanks to some painful dating experiences, that you can’t just whip up intimacy. When I’d last dated, about 25 years ago, adult life was new and unfolding. But in your late forties, dating is more like a visit to a bin of broken toys. You’ll find smiles and people who want good times. But life has made them wary.
April can’t end too fast, and I arrive in Silver City, New Mexico, with a small collection of teammates. (Some ride for VOP, and all of us ride with a local team called Violet Crown.) Frank is here, of course. The first-timers include me, 44-year-old Ken Greene, who’s an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, and Dan Perkins, a 43-year-old attorney. Ken is a fount of knowledge and also a bundle of nerves.
"That hill Frank calls a ‘pimple’ in the middle of the valley?" he says on a spring afternoon, as the four of us walk up Bullard Street to sign in ahead of tomorrow’s start. "Think of it more as a raging boil. It’s a two-and-a-half-minute climb!"
The guys’ company in general, and Ken’s anxiousness in particular, helps me relax. Compared with my other worries, our racing concerns seem microscopic.
Dan is placid and a strong rider, and my strategy is to stick with him during the race. But the next day I’m all nerves. On a warm, sunny morning, I stand with about a hundred other athletes at the start of the Tour of the Gila’s four-stage men’s masters (35 and older) competition. We’ll ride for the next four days, sandwiching two hilly road races around a time trial and a short-course race called a criterium. The competitor with the lowest cumulative time for the four stages—176 total miles—wins. (Other athletes in other categories, including the pros, compete separately, sometimes on different courses.) Today my stage measures 75 miles, climbs 5,800 vertical feet, and takes us through national forest and twice over the Continental Divide.
We hear the starting signal and lurch forward, and soon the group is rolling west on U.S. highway 180. I stress out for several miles, but for good reason. One unexpected move inside this crowded cluster and dozens of us could go down.
But after the peloton turns onto New Mexico highway 15, I feel better. On a climb to the village of Pinos Altos, the group slows and my legs power me toward Dan and the front. The air smells like pine, and by the time we descend and ride through the flat and lush Mimbres Valley, I feel nearly unstoppable. I complete the stage 21st overall, only 16 seconds behind the race leader.
But at the finish line, something is amiss. Where’s Dan? I didn’t see him during the entire second half of the race. Nearly half an hour goes by, and then there’s a tap on my shoulder.
With gauze wrapping his torso and his face crusted with dried sweat, Dan appears out of nowhere. An ice pack wedged into the bandaging sits against the small of his back.
"Sucks getting old," he says. "It’s my back. I’m out of the race."
I feel horrible for Dan, and while I don’t confess it to anyone, his bad news disorients me. A bike race offers its own kind of intimacy: beyond the desire to win is the understanding that everyone shares the pain, and that we need each other to cut the wind and ride safely. I came to New Mexico counting on Dan to help me feel protected and somehow whole. Later, watching the poor guy stiffly pack up his belongings in our hotel room, I felt the same lonely pangs that I’d encountered when I first moved into my apartment.
"Suffer like a dog on that last hill tomorrow," Dan says stoically, referring to the 16-mile time trial, the race’s second stage. "Stagger into the finish."
The next day, over a barren and hilly New Mexico landscape, I take Dan’s advice. My time-trial result of 42:32 is surprisingly fast, good enough for 14th place.
Something far subtler, however, lifts me higher. Hours after the TT, I find Ken sitting on his hotel-room bed, wearing a pair of bizarre inflatable leggings. They’re blown up around his lower extremities to create compression. He looks ridiculous, I laugh, and he smiles. Ken doesn’t even know what he’s doing for me. Belly laughs. Conversation. Sharing the adventure.
"Dude!" I say.
"What?" he asks.
"Hey man, they’re great," he says. "You want to try?"
Back when I lived in the Bay Area, I loved to launch my bike up the kinds of sustained climbs—mountains like Diablo and Tamalpais—that somewhat resemble the biggest challenge I’d face in the Tour of the Gila. The last quarter of the 69-mile fourth stage, a course called the Gila Monster, climbs more than 1,500 vertical feet to the race finish at Pinos Altos.
But those California climbing days were then and this is now, and in Austin I trained for climbs mainly by suffering alongside my VOP mates up short but tough grades with nicknames like Walgreens Hill and 360. The question now is: Can the bonds that elevated me then—friendships with VOPers like Brad, Rob, and many others—help me get up a New Mexico mountain? I held my own (and 13th place overall) in the 16-mile, third-stage criterium, and I reached Sapillo Creek, and the foot of the Gila Monster, in the top 20. With less than 20 miles to go, I’m not just riding to get past a crisis. I’m racing to finish in the money.
Today's stage measures 75 miles, climbs 5,800 vertical feet, and takes us through national forest and twice over the continental divide.
As the road pitches upward, some riders shoot by. I let them go. In a bike race, a long ascent is like a 12-round boxing match, or, for that matter—yes—a marriage. You can’t completely hold back, hoping for some envisioned result, because the end can come unexpectedly fast. There’s always the possibility of a knockout punch—a fellow rider who just might maintain a suicide pace, or a spouse who becomes unhappy. On the other hand, you might have to endure a climb’s challenges for a good long while.
At the main climb’s summit, my legs are knotted with fatigue, and yet I sense that my surrounding competition, which is maybe 12 strong, may be hurting worse. So I stand up, pedal as hard as I can for a quarter-minute, and leave everyone behind. The four-day slog is almost over, and as the rider that VOP built, emotionally as well as physically, I’m in a position to take a top slot in the event’s most prestigious stage. There are maybe four guys left ahead of me.
I’d lie if I wrote that I spent the next two miles, during which I rode largely alone and exhausted, drawing deeper parallels between a bike race and a marriage. But, in retrospect, I do believe that those two miles served as a metaphor for so much of what I’d experienced with Madeleine since we’d met in 1990.
It had been a long relationship with a lot of beautiful moments: travel, homes, marriage, and the births of two healthy children. We endured many bruising times, too. But the one thing we’d consistently encountered was uncertainty. Who really knows what’s coming next? The move to Austin wasn’t a singular, unfortunate event in our relationship. In reality, it was another part of a long, arcing story, just like my breakaway on the Gila Monster was but one more unexplored stretch in an epic race. In competition as in life, you wonder: How will everything turn out?
With less than three miles to the finish, the group I left behind catches up to me. With under a mile to go, I deliver a final burst. Again I separate myself from the group, but this time the surge is short-lived. I finish eighth in the stage, just over a minute behind the winner. I’m drained, and ecstatic.
With our muscles stiffening, my teammates and I stand around long enough in the cool New Mexico afternoon to get the news that I finished tenth overall. At that point we loiter in the little village until we can snap a group picture while I hold up my prize: a check for $13.
But the Tour of the Gila, from entry to finish line, was an invaluable experience. I now continually remind myself that life is really a series of unpredictable episodes punctuated by the expected. Personally, I think that’s the only sane way to see things, wherever I live, if I’m married or not.
In the year since the race, I’ve traveled and hung out with my VOP buddies, heard fabulous music, enjoyed dates, and plowed through great food. Austin is a good place. Meanwhile, Madeleine and I are getting a divorce. I’m still processing the breakup, and I remain upset. I still love her. But ours is a different relationship now than it was, and I’m optimistic that we’ll be real friends as well as caring parents.
As for VOP, the boys and the rides still torment me in beautiful ways. While fitness alone won’t mend a broken heart, if you get fast on a bike and come to Austin, I know a great bunch of cyclists who can make you smile. I’m living proof: most mornings I rise knowing that the best thing I can do is point my bike toward the group ride, and then put one pedal in front of the other. O
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