Team Camp: The tale of Mr.Serious and Mr.Sleepy

By: Nathaniel Ward Oct 19

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Right now everyone’s focused on cyclocross, but road racing counts too, right? Come on, we love it, and in April or May, dirt circles and human sized horse jumps almost seem silly, so pure and intuitive is the joy of rolling along on the road. Road racing (mostly fairly) gets shit for taking itself too seriously, and indeed it is bidness time when it’s time to do some road races. Team camps are all the rage these years, and everyone who’s anyone is putting one together. Thinking ahead to road season and what I will do to prepare myself, I always chuckle at a memory from camp with a team I raced on some years ago.

On this team, as is the case with all teams, all teammates were equal, but some teammates were more equal than others.

One of the senior members of the team—we’ll call him Mr.Serious—was, as his name suggests, quite a serious fellow. He was not entirely humorless, but certainly focused, dedicated, not fookin’ around, and expecting the same from his mates. Leading by example and trying to encourage/intimidate us all toward a productive season on the road, though it was only December, Mr.Serious was lean and fit, squeezing in two-a-days, including hard computrainer workouts and frequent 10k runs. In recent years, the challenge of bike racing not quite enough on its own, Mr. Serious had taken to duathlons, at which he excelled. So Mr.Serious’ December fitness was enough to make many a local training crit hero jealous in July, and before we had collectively done anything more physical than lift a cup of coffee, it was clear that team camp would involve some proving of manhood. Ahem.

Your humble author—we’ll call him Mr.Sleepy—while a reasonably talented and dedicated athlete, most of the time, is also a bit of a Romantic; a man of many moods and appetites, and a man who, in the days when I trained like a bike racer instead of a dad, actually appreciated a fairly serious off-season, to allow myself to recuperate and live a somewhat normal life for a few weeks after a season of trying to be like Mr. Serious and his ilk. This normal life consisted of things like staying up until the wee hours reading neat books, eating ice cream for two meals a day, occasionally rock climbing, perhaps indulging in a cigar or two, and while not succumbing to the all-out wintertime Bacchanalia of some of New England’s more legendary hardmen, still managing to gain several pounds, get pretty relaxed, and forget about exercising (at least on purpose) for awhile.

As luck would have it, our team director—ex-military, boundless energy, impeccable style, we’ll call him Captain Haircut—had devised an orienteering course for us all to execute, in pairs, as a somewhat friendly form of competition and team bonding. We were to navigate our way by compass through a nature preserve, execute a rappel down a loose shale cliff, cross a stream or two, and make our way to a rally point a click or so away. As luck would have it, Mr.Sleepy and Mr.Serious, as two of the oldest members of the team, were paired together, and off we went, determined to show up our youngers, and win the hell out of team camp.

We set off quickly and in earnest, but also in high spirits, clearing the rappel quickly with only one near-accident on the part of Mr.Serious, which was quickly glossed over so as to preserve the due machismo of the moment. This little stumble should have made me nervous. It did. Off we jogged.

About jogging: Mr.Serious was, true to form, clad in loose fitting khakis, high-tech trail running shoes, a long sleeve baselayer and a cap, all appropriate to the season and the activity—an ensemble calculated to keep him warm enough while moving, and Mr.Serious is always moving, unless he is sleeping to recover for more world beating. Mr.Sleepy, on the other hand, was clad in mid-calf height Sorrel-style snow boots, suitable for standing still in for long periods of time, or perhaps building a snow fort with kids; a thick fleece jacket over a sweater; a cap, and enough beard to use as a blanket in case of emergency bivouac—in short, an ensemble sure to keep me comfortable for long periods of sedentary daydreaming, which is just the sort of thing Mr.Sleepy likes to do in December.

We were jogging.

After 10 or 15 minutes, missing a trail here, crossing a stream there, long ahead and out of sight of our teammates/competitors, I started to get the sense that we were headed much further south than we needed to be. I suggested as much to Mr.Serious, but he scoffed, as he knew the area well from his habitual trail running. We carried on, getting further away from the sounds of our mates, and further into the unknown.

At some point, I started to drag the pace, and Mr.Serious ordered me (I say ordered) to give him my jacket.

“It will be easier for me to carry it”, he said flatly.

I did as I was told.

We jogged on, until, after over an hour, we reached the fence delineating the southern boundary of the nature preserve and a trailside sign, clearly indicating that we were lost as hell, and irretrievably far away from the rally point. We stood in silence for a moment, in one of those awkward male-bonding moments, not making eye contact, deciding what to do next.

As I reached the conclusion that we were clearly beaten, and could therefore at least look forward to a reasonably paced hike back to the rally point, during which we could possibly get to know each other a bit and take in some flaura and fauna, Mr.Serious made a declaration:

“We can still win; we’re faster than those guys.”

Maybe this is why he used to be a professional bike rider and I will always be an amateur.

So we started running again, he effortlessly, bounding from rock to root like a sinuous wild animal, me lumbering behind, the weak antelope at the back of the herd. We jogged in silence, each contemplating our lot: for him the shame of losing, and the necessity of never admitting to anyone, for any reason, that he couldn’t read a map; me wondering if I should go back to being a musician.

The mood at the rally point was jovial, though concerned about our tardiness, as apparently none of our teammates were aware that we were at war with each other, and our very manhood depended on winning the challenge. Laughs were exchanged, but everyone gave Mr.Serious a wide berth, knowing better than to crack wise under such (apparently) dire circumstances.

We piled into the team car, talking about what to have for dinner, what other shenanigans we might get up to, and general goof-offery. After we were stacked in, cheek-by-jowl, with the smallest two members of the team sitting in the trunk of the Volvo, Mr.Serious—sitting shotgun, naturally—broke out his kit bag and we all waited, dutifully, while he swapped his orienteering kit for running tights and road shoes, and announced that he would be running the 7 miles back to the shop.

It was a quiet ride home.

Mr.Serious won the biggest race of his career that season.


Fall In Dixie: Part II

By: Nathaniel Ward Sep 29

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So sure, an alien landscape can start to feel like home. That’s no surprise, really. It’s been cooler, and more drizzly, here in Dixie than is typical for this time of year, and that means a now familiar landscape has been somewhat alien. Daylight is shorter than it should be, and the tobacco should have been picked and hung to cure two weeks ago; tubulars should be glued already, but life interferes and they aren’t, predictably.

Bike races, of whatever size and shape, always feel like home. The cars in a parking lot that ought otherwise to be empty at that hour of the day/time of the week; the drift of people in varying states of race readiness—pinning numbers, eyeballing their nemeses, pumping tires, toweling off, looking relieved to have escaped the rest of life for an hour or two—coupled with a palpable potential energy, about to become kinetic: I like it in this place. I see this potential energy when I see course tape framing a lightly worn strip of grass, without a rider in sight. It’s like a freshly groomed baseball diamond, or a stage set for an orchestra, but still empty of musicians: the sense of possibility is overwhelming.

Everything in life looks different from the outside looking in, and a race is no exception. Visit a local race on a rest day sometime, or take your kids with you to spectate at a ‘cross when the spouse has to work and you can’t race anyway. It all looks like simple math, no beginning, no end, the riders all strung around the course. And from this perspective, it all looks like a series of simple choices and consequences, no high stakes, no superhuman effort required: rest here, accelerate there, punch it here, rail that corner and there’s the 10 seconds—the impossible 10 seconds—you need to catch the next group. It makes you wonder why your friends look so damn serious, and where all the pain is coming from.

Look at a racer after a race, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a weeknight training race or a national championship, the look is always the same. We find what we’re looking for out there on the course, we find out what we are that day. That’s why we look relieved, and calm, and we wonder how soon the glow will fade, the buzz will subside, and we might forget again.

Try to talk to someone—even a close friend, even someone with whom you have raced dozens of times—after a race that they rode and you watched, and you’ll discover that you have become strangers to one another, just for awhile. Our internal landscapes change, too, and often without our invitation.

There’s something in the passing of the seasons, the beautiful reminder of fall, that sharpens the edges of these landscapes, both geographic and psychic.


Fall In Dixie: Part I

By: Nathaniel Ward Sep 20

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Cycling gives a sense of place. For those of us who fill our lives with riding and racing, geography becomes personal, and the journey (we’re always moving, somewhere) builds community.

Fall in Winston-Salem feels like proper fall this year: chilly mornings, tacky soil under the tires, leaves turning, sunlight sharp when it is.

This landscape etches itself into me, I into it, ‘cross training races come and go, crits wane with the daylight. Some friends travel to the big ‘cross races every weekend and are less available; some eschew cyclocross entirely and are more available than ever this time of year.

I no longer get lost on my rides, and it gets progressively harder to find unexplored roads along my usual routes. That feels like home, almost.


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