When I wrote about the annual Times Bike Tour last year, I said it was okay to be "dropped," as cyclists call being left behind by the group.
Being dropped, I wrote, allowed me to settle in with riders going my own pace, middle-aged guys taking it slow enough to enjoy the comradeship and beauty this ride offers.
The weather was ideal for last year's ride and this year's, on Sunday, and every year since 2005, when the St. Petersburg Times resurrected the event after a hiatus of more than a decade.
Cows grazed in the pastures along the route through eastern Hernando and Pasco counties; azaleas and dogwoods bloomed; orange blossoms put off their gorgeous perfume. Because proceeds from the ride go to recognize law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, and because the Pasco County Sheriff's Office supports the event, traffic control was top-notch.
That's all true; the ride is great. But as for coming to peace with getting dropped — that's the kind of nonsense you tell yourself when you can't keep up.
Much better is to get as fit as you can, hold the wheel in front of you until you see stars and, hopefully, drop the other guy, especially one of those preening hotshots on a $5,000 bike.
I didn't see many of those at the starting point, the Dade City campus of the Pasco-Hernando Community College, which struck me as odd because, unlike in previous years, I didn't know of any other rides or races Sunday that would draw away top riders. Also, though the parking lot looked fuller than last year, the number of registered cyclists for the three rides — 75 miles, 40 miles and a 9-mile family ride — held steady at about 400.
The mystery was solved a few minutes into the ride, when cyclists flocked to us like stray geese joining the fall migration. Turns out, they had pedaled off early to warm up and, in many cases, to avoid paying the registration fee.
Bicycle racers often do this, they say, because these are public roads that they have a right to use and because they are so fit they don't need to stop at the rest stops for snacks or drinks. I say it's because they are too arrogant and stingy to part with a few bucks for a worthy cause.
But a lot of them are very fast. A group of six broke away Sunday. I joined a larger pack following closely enough that, for miles, we stayed within sight of the Sheriff's Office motorcycle escorting the ride. We chased hard enough that gasping cyclists — including a few hotshots — began to drift off the back.
I lasted 30 miles, 26 miles longer than last year, long enough that when my fellow "droppees" coalesced into another group, I wasn't among the riders who wanted to spend time admiring scenery.
Robert Stevens of Dunnellon, among the first finishers in 2007, organized us for speed, directing us when to take our turn at the front, forbidding us to stop for drinks.
"Sign of weakness,'' he said, as I ruefully watched the well-stocked aid station at 55 miles fade to our rear.
Why suffer this way just to ride a bicycle fast? Because it's fun. It's fun to beat other riders, to feel fit and — more and more, I find — to feel young. Or, maybe it's just a relief not to feel old, to be able to think for a day or two after a good ride that I can still do what I could a decade ago.
Either way, I no longer want to be one of the young guys who charge up hills at 20 mph, but one of those few, remarkable 55-year-olds who can keep up with them.
I'm not there yet, either in age or ability. But at the end of the ride, rolling down the long hill toward the PHCC campus, I saw that I had taken more than 10 minutes off my time from last year.
Never mind that I was sunburned, sore and so exhausted that when I got home all I wanted to do was take a nosedive on the couch. I had turned back the clock.