Say you decide to bike the infamous Lakeville Ironman because you detect spring stirring outside the cave. You want to come out, put your snout in the air and take a long drag. There are still places near the Twin Cities where you can smell manure. On this route, you ride through it.
You're excited because you're riding with a group of women from Duluth. The Duluth women can laugh their way through 100 miles of rain and sleet. They can dismantle and reassemble their bicycles in less time than it takes you to remember which pocket holds your Allen wrench.
You start riding, but your hands can't get warm. So you pull off to the shoulder and gratefully accept the mittens a Duluth woman offers. She's got layers to remove and opts to hang back.
You go it alone to catch the main pack. Only you cannot catch the main pack. You are a single self. That's why cyclists form echelons. Like birds traveling south, they know how to sneer at a headwind and know that they travel faster in packs. They know that more legs and pooled resources generate greater power and more speed.
It works like this: When you're at the front of the line, you tuck your head into the wind and pedal hard. You create a tunnel through air, and the others slip easily through. When you tire, the woman behind you thanks you and takes over. She tucks her head down, creates the tunnel and pulls the line. When you're in the group's draft, your legs freshen up. Before long they are asking to dance.
But you're not in the pack, because you paused for mittens. You can't let your legs stop. You imagine the Duluth women riding fast and laughing at each other's jokes. Your core starts overheating. It's freezing outside, but you've sweated through two layers of tights. You want to unzip your jacket and take a drink of water. But you can't miss a stroke. You'll lose ground.
Instead of being a coming-out-of-hibernation-and-let's-chat group ride, this has become a 20-mile individual time trial. And you suffer.
Lactic acid is chewing through your muscle tissue. You're dehydrating, admittedly because you're being fueled by the vodka gimlets you drank last night -- and not by the lentil and multigrain salad that your imaginary self would have chosen.
You get really mad at your parents. Your dad must have dropped you on your head when you were a baby; probably your mother drank her way through pregnancy. It's their fault you can't catch the pack. You lose hope.
Just then God decides he likes you best. He makes one of the group's gears fail on a hill. The women have to slow. You catch the line. You cannot remember feeling so ecstatic.
And you remember why you're proud to be a Minnesotan, and why you'll vote for Democrats in the fall.
In the past, Minnesotans came closer than any other state to functioning with the ethic of the echelon. They consistently chose candidates who favored progressive tax schemes for the same reason that no one will ask the woman with the chewed-up legs to take a turn pulling. Not yet.
Minnesotans got that it's stupid to ask citizens with the fewest resources and weakest legs to pull the same load as those with the fastest bikes and the strongest legs. Minnesotans believed in pooling their resources to ensure a strong group of riders. They accepted higher taxes as the price of having a well-educated workforce, safe bridges, efficient transportation.
And Minnesotans used to blow past the rest of the field.
But now we've had years of lone riders in charge. Our leaders have told us that traveling in packs and pooling our resources slows us down. It stifles individual initiative and growth, they say.
Yes, community and common good can be inefficient. You started your ride 40 minutes late because Sondra couldn't find her sunglasses in the car.
You made up the time, though, because you worked as a group.
And someday you might end up like Stephanie, sideswiped by a skittish rider at mile 30. You'd like a group there to help scrape you, too, off the pavement and help you tuck your broken arm into your coat. You'd like someone to retrieve your bike and call the man waiting for you at home to tell him what happened. You'd like to have someone like Kerri volunteer to accompany you to the emergency room.
Cycling groups don't define worth by who pedals the fastest or by who has the nicest bike. Everyone has something to offer. So it's wise to be careful dropping people or leaving anyone behind. Had the group dropped Anne or Kirsten, we wouldn't have had two doctors around to help Stephanie bind up her arm.
And what if you hadn't waited for Sondra? You wouldn't have finished the last hard miles into Lakeville laughing at the expression on her face when she found her sunglasses -- in the kneecap of her tights.
Jennifer Imsande is associate director of the Masters Program in Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She rode the 2008 Minnesota Ironman last Sunday.