We’re all laughing so hard we’re doubled over heaving for breath, I’m in tears. Hardly ten minutes into the ride, Ivan flats, he and John are working through the change and Ivan has backed against an electrified cattle fence. He’s capering and jumping about, clutching his asscheek and issuing a stream of curses in between screams, an angry Rumplestiltskin dancing between live cow patties. Barney—well, he was introduced as Barney and he does uncannily have the body of the famous purple one, I thought they were teasing him but then Monica said, “no, really!” but that turned out to be pulling my leg, too, his name is Jorge—so Barney is narrating and acting out the electrocution again and again, we can’t stop howling.
We’re descending along the Rio Quimbaya, a Saturday morning group ride from Solento, Colombia, the middle of the hills and rivers coffee growing region. Suited up at a holiday unfriendly 6:30am, but the familiarity of it, packing up the gear for the day, breakfast and checking bike, ritual effortlessly transported. A few days before, Ivan excitedly shared photos from recent club runs, sometimes twenty five, thirty guys. The kind of ride, it seemed and then was, with inevitable unforced hilarity, hard charging on the steeps with breaks for stories and what’s gone on in your life since we last saw you, the kind kindness where one second you’re criticizing everyone else’s tire pressure and brand and the other you’re wondering about each other’s kids.
On this impromtu spin we start as five but will gain several more on the popular route. I’m an outsider but not made in the least to feel it, embraced, literally, too, as the new guy, they’re going to show off the local stash, we eat preride buñuelos, much later at the top of a climb stop at their favorite farmroad tienda where the shopkeeper cracks open maltas as we roll up, they’ll ask me what I think of the landscape and I’ll tell them truthfully that it’s lovely and the riding is fantastic.
We meet up with a guy coming the other way, they know him and insist that he join us. He’s introduced and they keep reminding him and me that he’s The Champion, even though he’s the slowest among us. On every rise, every false flat, after every descent, all tech sections, when he’s rolling up to the stopped group there’s much gesticulating and mock surprise, “aw, the champion is on a bad day!!!” “What has come over the champion? Has his glory ended?!!!” “The champion will someday return, but not today!!!” And Barney will let out hissing escaping air from between his teeth to mark the champion’s deflating prospects. Every time, relentlessly to uproarious laughter.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been on a ride so unironically unselfconsciously unapologetically Fredtastic that it somehow metaphysically quantum twists back over to cool. Standard kit: white or black, Euro peloton trade team, Sky, Garmin, Cannondale. Bikes are all white, most are carbon, all hardtail, several integrated seat posts, black box rockshox forks, 2×10 drivetrains. Specialized, Fuji, Trek. One bottle cage, one bidon, though everyone will be thirsty and begging water off of one another later. Ubiquitously 26ers is axiomatic. The only hint that this isn’t some World Cup race in Austria or Switzerland is the fanny packs. Fox Racing fanny packs. And that none of us are skinny.
So, I feel silly in my baggies and unbadged jersey, there’s polite skeptical curiosity about the 8 speed IGH, cautious respect at the misguided folly of running a rigid fork. It’s an hour into the ride before anyone mentions the 2-9 wheels, John nods knowingly and ventures, “In Estados Unidos, mountain bikers are pure veinte nueve, no?” I confirm that a lot of us are, certainly where I live, but that bikes like his, “Continental” plus some other words in my interior commentary, are still common, too. They tap their fingernails against the steel frame as if it’s an exotic peculiar substrate.
We roll in a big jagged loop up and down small river valleys. In one there’s a jeep hung up on a rock with the side bashed in by a dormant bucket loader, a bunch of dejected farmers standing around. Assess the situation and we assemble to push it out, I guess the construction equipment rescue gambit was judged a failure, we’re having no luck either. Barney keeps saying that we’re all doing it wrong, muster at the front! he keeps yelling and we and the farmers just ignore him, when we finally try his idea we lift the stuck car and pivot it, it’s free in four or five big heaves. Barney spreads his arms and opens his hands to the sky, “You see! Do you doubting motherfuckers see?? Who’s the genius now?? Who? I’m a physicist! (Footnote: he’s not) I’m a country genius!!!” And he’s getting in everyone’s face, “who of all of us was right you sons of bitches?” and we’re laughing again as the bemused perhaps frightened farmers are now handing out gift bunches of bananas.
Monica crests a climb, her husband hollars, “good job fattie!” my chest goes icy until I absorb that it’s a term of endearment, Monica will shortly call a friend on her mobile and lead with, “hey, what’s up fatty?, I’m on a bike ride. You?” She yells at us not to leave her behind.
I feel in the thick of things, the ribbing, the sense of going for it on a technical move while everyone heckles. We ride through an inactive rail tunnel, across a footbridge high over frothing water, through streams and peanut butter mud, cobbles singletrack concrete paved steep double track, steaming climbs and body english slalom descents. Palms, dense greenery, color chip blue skies. Roll into town triumphant the way group rides do, we joke some more, hand clasps, promises to keep in touch.