I don't get to ride with other people very much. Life is hectic and I don't have the hours spare to be able to spend long days in the saddle gathering chamois time* but not necessarily miles; they have to be used efficiently, and that means riding alone, unfettered and undistracted. And so, I don't have much basis for measuring my own strength. In any group there's a pecking order, and though everyone has good and bad days, it's normally possible to measure your progress, positive or otherwise, against your friends. It's usually the same people that get to the top (and the bottom) of the hills first, in the middle and last, and it's unusual for the apple cart to be upset in mid-season (late winter/early spring pecking order rides being a subject for another day) but it was yesterday.
(*rides gauged by time spent wearing bike clothing, being around bikes, and talking about bikes, rather than time spent actually riding bikes.)
I knew nothing about it at the time but whilst grinding my way up a particular climb, in pursuit of one rider ahead, others were climbing off behind me. Deafened by the sound of blood in ears, teeth gritting, welds popping off the frame, worn chain links creaking their way onto hooked and jagged chainring teeth, tyres slipping on chalk and gravel, I couldn't hear the sound of cleat leaving pedal several times over and thus with no excuses (because the rider in front had stayed on, damn him, no matter how much I wished he might falter and stop and therefore let me off the hook), I made the top and sat looking at the view, feeling rather pleased that I'd managed to clean a climb I'd thought would be impossibly steep, and not a little out of breath and knackered.
Did it make it any sweeter knowing that I'd beaten riders who I'd once have been walking far behind? Of course it did. It's an indication that I'm starting to get things right, that my legs are coming back to life after the summer's solo efforts, that the hard road miles and the deliberately, frustratingly truncated 'easy' rides are having an effect on my strength and fitness. And it also means that my head is starting to come together again, because I had to think damn hard to get up that hill, had to concentrate on lines as well as legs and block out all the other churning mess. And that clarity is the one thing that I have been dreaming of, for a long, long year.