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Ride (and lead) with empathy

Updated: May 16, 2021

Martin Merryweather (Co-Founder)

A story about empathy and why it's Tullio's first core value

I’m riding closely behind the rider in front. Fixated on their back wheel, as it sways rhythmically from side to side, with the power from each pedal stroke passing through the chain to the sprockets. It’s hypnotic, as the silent shouts for oxygen within go unnoticed. My breathing is laboured and burns the back of my throat.

As tiredness takes over my body, my power drops. The wheel in front slowly starts to move away from me. I press harder, feeling the bike inch forward to close the gap. But it’s futile. I try two, three times more to hold the wheel but eventually the invisible bond connecting me to the rider in front breaks, and it’s over.

My head drops. I fight the urge to shout them back, but I am too exhausted anyway. I have nothing left in my lungs. I reach for my water bottle but I remember it’s been empty for some time now. My eyes sting with the salty sweat around them. My heart rate comes down and my shoulders relax. The pain in my legs dissipates but the pain in my heart grows. In that moment I am alone. Me, the road and my machine. I still need to get home.

But then...

A rider from the group drops back. As he slows, I get closer. He sits upon a wonderful machine, beautiful clean lines, matching components, the spokes on his wheels sparkling as they spin around glistening hubs, the sound of his chain gliding over the sprockets, clean and polished. He rides with such enviable style, upper body still, legs spinning slowly yet smoothly as we climbed the final hill of the day.

He slows down to my speed and lets me draw up to him. He offers me food. I can’t take it. He asks how I am feeling but I am too tired to speak. He gestures to my back wheel, moves ahead of me, looks back over his shoulder and slowly nurses me up the hill. He knows exactly how I am feeling right now and knows exactly what to do. I don't even have to ask. He knows the pain I am in. He understands how I am feeling. Has he felt this way before?

The group he’d dropped back from has disappeared into the distance. We didn’t speak. He just kept riding at a manageable pace up the hill checking over his shoulder to check his speed wasn't enough to drop me again, but enough to keep us at a good pace.

I felt so bad. I’d ruined his ride. He had to slow down to ride with a fat teenager like me. I couldn’t even speak to him I was so tired. I was so embarrassed. I didn't take enough water, not enough food. What must they all think of me?

Turns out the rider lived in my village. As we arrived back to those familiar roads he turned off to head to his house with a cheery smile and a “well done, see you next week”. I am not sure if it was a question or a statement. He waved good-bye, I waved and shouted my thanks. I rode on to my parent's house.

That’s the memory of one of my earliest club runs with Clevedon & District Road Club (CDRC). We covered some 50 or so miles I expect - that was usual for a Sunday morning. I’d have been riding the 1970's Claude Butler my uncle had let me have, which, as one of my first projects, I'd converted from 5 speed into a 10 speed machine. I was new to the cycling club. I had no idea of feed strategies and I blew really badly. That's how I ended up in such a state.

It was 1991, and I was 15 years old.

In 2017, I visited my parents and took my bike with me. I decided to join a CDRC club run for old times sake. The chances of meeting that same rider some 25 years later seemed remote but it did cross my mind he might be there. As we rode out to meet the second group at Congresbury I couldn't believe it… there he was! Still looking great on his bike, still smiling, and he recognised me immediately. His name is Andy Morrison.

That day, we rode side by side in the group as we headed towards the Mendips and this time I could speak! Discussion quickly moved to the good old days and that day when he dropped back to help me home. I am not sure if he remembered it or not.

I told him straight. Had he not dropped back for me I am not sure I would have made it home without calling my parents. It was his empathy towards me that drew me back the following week which led to many hundreds of club runs, races and many thousands of miles since. To be fair, it wasn't just Andy, though he was the one who showed me how it works in cycling, but it was the club, and not just CDRC, but nearly all the clubs I have ridden with. In fact, I think it’s part of being a cyclist.

I believe that empathy defines what it means to be a cyclist. It's what makes us cheer on all pros no matter what team they are riding for. We can acknowledge their pain. Whether it's emotional empathy or compassionate empathy. It's why most cyclists become life long friends with each other. Even in competition, winners are seldom big headed or boastful.

Cycling can be hard, but empathy unites us. And it's the same in our business lives and our home lives.

That's why our first core value is Ride (and lead) with empathy. This is the foundation of our community, on the bike, in business and in our daily lives. It means looking out for each other, it means sometimes slowing down to help others. It also means accepting help and support when it's on offer and not feeling bad about it. That's what your community is for. We know what it means to understand and share the feelings of another.

Thanks Andy for teaching me such a valuable lesson, and thanks everyone else for reading this far!

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