THE POWER OF THE PACK

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On any given summer morning, the rotary at the beginning of Milestone Road becomes the starting line for a large group bike ride on Nantucket. Spandex-clad cyclists straddle road bikes in the dew-covered dawn, waking up, waiting, and wondering, “What do I have in the tank today?” They are gardeners, contractors, bankers, waiters, real estate brokers, and vacationers, young and old, men and women. Yet at 6:00 A.M. on this narrow piece of pavement, they are all cyclists, defined only by how fast they can turn their pedals.


Before long, the Nantucket Velo team arrives, rolling in like a pack of tiger sharks. Outfitted in steel blue and silver uniforms, black helmets, and white-rimmed sunglasses, they glide on space-age bicycles—sleek carbon fiber frames with seamless welds, weightless components, running ten grand and up. The leader of the Velo team, who the French might call the maillot jaune, the “yellow jersey,” is Todd Burns. Burns has a presence on a bike. He seems to sit higher, pedal faster, and breath easier. His teammates are similarly imposing. Jim Congdon is a workhorse, often galloping past the group into the wind to “get in his workout.” Six-foot-four-inch Mike Allen is a giant on a bike, mechanically grinding his pedals over the biggest gears. When he hits his stride, the bike sounds like a handsaw cutting through supple birch. All the way down the roster—Rich Brooks, Dave Troast, the Toole brothers, Angus Macavair, Sean Monaco, Bob Prohaska, Mark Burns, Tom Hanlon, Chip Drapeau and Paul Flanigan—the Velo team is Nantucket’s U.S. Postal Tour de Lance powerhouse circa the early 2000s (before the doping scandal). “Our group is a different breed,” Todd Burns says, “a little sicker in the head, relishing episodes deep in the pain cave.”

“Alright, everyone ready?” Jim Congdon calls out rhetorically. “This first loop, no one gets dropped. The second loop…the gloves are off. Every man for himself.” The “loop” is a thirty-mile route weaving along practically every piece of pavement from the rotary to Siasconset and back. Depending on wind direction, riders set out down Milestone Road, branching off northeast onto the smooth blacktop of Polpis Road. From there, they pick away at cul-de-sacs and back roads: up and back Wauwinet, up and back Pocomo, up and back Quidnet. Returning to Polpis, the route swings by the Sankaty Lighthouse, then takes a fast, straight shot to ‘Sconset Village, into the labyrinth of Tom Nevers, and finishes along the straightaway down Milestone. Make no mistake about it, this is not a leisurely sightseeing tour around the island, but a gutsy hour-long gauntlet that often erupts into all out dogfights, cyclists breaking away and challenging the pack to catch them if they can.

The opening three miles pass amicably. Each of the twenty or so riders takes a thirty-second turn at the front breaking the wind for the rest of the group. In cycling, the power lies in the pack, what’s called the peloton. Riding in formation, the group conserves energy by circulating to the front and sharing the burden of cutting through the air. In large pelotons, cyclists in the middle can pedal half as hard as those in the front. However, once one falls out of the pack, they are as good as done, lost to fight through Nantucket’s coastal breeze alone. With local traffic prohibiting the glorified pelotons of races, the group rides in a train, maybe two or three rows wide.

Amidst the patchwork of jerseys, a common thread is the blue and silver of the Nantucket Triathlon Club, lead by Jason Bridges, Jake Allegrini, and Heather Williams. Bridges has literally made cycling his business; he owns and operates Nantucket’s first and only bike tours. When the pace gets out of hand, he helps reign in the group and reestablish the thirty-second intervals at the front. Many of the tri-guys and –gals will wash down the morning ride with a 5K run and half-mile swim. They ride tri-specific bikes designed to promote the most aerodynamic stance possible. Stretched over the bike, their backs running parallel to the ground, they glide over the road and under the wind. When performed correctly, as by Danielle Odell or Jake Allegrini, the form can be as graceful as a thoroughbred in full stride.

Around the ten-mile mark, the group splits into three: slow, medium, and fast. Up front, the Velo team and some tri-guys cruise along with a mysterious, unaffiliated rider. Wearing a teardrop-shaped helmet and a retro Cannondale jersey, Steve Warren rides on an old, Italian frame—one of the forty or so he has restored himself. A man of few words, Steve seems to relish cycling of yore, claiming that classic steel frames will endure long after today’s pricey carbon fiber bikes are broken and defunct. Cruising around twenty-seven miles per hour on the flats, this elite group finds its pace, passing traffic with the moxie of Hells Angels. Hitting the straightaway between Sankaty Light and ‘Sconset, each begins shifting into bigger and bigger gears as if clicking back the hammer of a starting gun. Without a word, everyone in the pack senses that the race is on.

Congdon is the first to break out, lowering himself into the drops of his handlebars and tucking in his knees to form a compact locomotive. Allegrini is quick to grab his back wheel, followed by Mike Allen and Steve Warren. Just to their left is Todd Burns, stroking his pedals with perfect, relaxed cadence. Whipping along the Sankaty Golf Course, the pavement purrs as each rider cranks the biggest gear on his bike. Suddenly, Steve pulls out front, standing up on his pedals and rocking his frame from side to side. This provokes an all out assault, the pack spreading five across the road, each going pedal for pedal. Burns takes it up a notch, pushing through to the front. ‘Sconset comes into sight: It’s now or never. Kicking with everything they got, sucking air through pursed lips, eyes trained on the road, the most elite cyclists on the island careen towards an unmarked finish.

Crossing a crack in the road just before reaching the entrance to ‘Sconset, the riders sit back and coast, breathing heavily with their heads hung. There is no photo finish. No winner crowned. No yellow jersey, no flowers, and certainly no beautiful women giving out kisses on a podium. No, this is for the love of the road, the enjoyment of pain, the delight of endorphins, the best way to start the day. The morning ride is not about glory or victory, or even competition. It’s about a small community bound by gears and chains and only so much road to ride.