Oct 20, 2012

It wasn't easy for the donors to find the space — close to the White House there wasn't much available. But they eventually found a building that was just big enough for a track. Competition-legal, but half the length of the one he'd learned on. So the banking was much steeper, and he couldn't balance his nearly motionless bike on the turns like he'd used to. Skills it had taken him years to learn didn't matter any more.

Riders had to go pretty fast just to keep from falling off the steep turns. So no slow, tactical, cat-and-mouse riding like the old days. Instead, it was perpetual motion, constantly powering around corners that always seemed a little too tight, G-force pressing him into the saddle, forcing him to lean into every turn.

Short straightaways, tight turns. You had to be completely present to avoid what the cyclists called a "mishap." And being completely present on his bike meant he could be away from everything else, at least while he rode. Away from deals, away from crises, constituents, filibusters, posturing. Here at least was one place, for a little while, where it was in everyone's interest to go in the same direction, and to move fast.

He sometimes joked that it was the only place anything seemed to happen fast these days, but it was dedicated to going in circles.

And there are rules about going in circles. You can ride below the red line near the bottom of the track. Or, about halfway up the inclined surface, you could ride above the blue line. But they frowned on you just cruising along halfway in between.

If you were going to change your path, you had to check to make sure you wouldn't cause a collision, and then just go. No gentle transitions, no room for compromise. And no need. Everyone knew the rules, and everyone followed them. All turns were to the left, all passing was on the right.

Falls did happen. Every so often, even to him. When he did fall, even if he didn't say anything about it, the first lady could always tell. Even when she couldn't see the bandages yet, she knew the scrapes he'd gotten from the time he took up the sport and knew how he looked when he was favoring his right side.

She used to joke that the only thing that could get a piece of him was the high-friction surface designed to grip skinny bike tires. Usually, it was the skin near his right knee, his right elbow. She thought that after a few falls, it would toughen up with scar tissue. But she could tell. It hurt just as much as it used to, every time. None of the other riders knew — he'd laugh it off with them. But she knew.

Years ago, when he first started riding on the track near home, he'd slid his feet into pedals with cages. But now he used the pedals that clipped onto the bottom of the shoe. He always smiled a tiny bit when his feet clicked in. The pedals had taken some getting used to, and he'd been inordinately happy as he learned to click in effortlessly. To this day, he felt a flash of satisfaction at that click. It meant he was ready. In control of his bike.

In control of something.

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