Nathaniel Ward is an English teacher, freelance editor, writing tutor, bike racer, and househusband, originally from Albany, NY, currently based in Winston-Salem, NC. Ward is the online editor here at ECJ.
Embrocation Cycling Journal is, and has always been, a handmade magazine. It is the printed extension of our passion for bicycles, the cycling community and those who have pledged their lives to the same mindset we share. Each volume is no less forged from hand than your favorite lugged steel frame, and no less extensively tested, refined, cried for, bled on, agonized over.Read more »
Cyclocross has been growing exponentially in the US for the last few years, that’s old news. An interesting byproduct of this growth, however, is the increase in recognition the sport now enjoys by the general public, as well as new and interesting corporate sponsors. Enter the 3rd Annual EMS Nor’Easter, featuring the Nor’Easter ‘Cross race, presented by SmartWool. Once again New England rock climbing and music festival impresario, Pete Ward, of NE2C productions, has teamed up with Adam Myerson and Cycle-Smart to put on a multi-sport, music festival extravaganza, this time around in beautiful Waterfront Park in downtown Burlington, VT, right on the shores of Lake Champlain.
The event takes place the weekend of September 23rd-25th, and there will be world-class music from several different genres, on several stages throughout the weekend. The interesting part for cyclists will be the UCI C2 event, featuring amateur and master’s categories, too, that will take place on Saturday the 24th. If that isn’t enough, the Nor’Easter features as a stop on the UBC (Unified Bouldering Championships) ProTour, which means you will have the opportunity to watch some of the best rock climbers in the world compete on a spectacular outdoor wall, purpose built for the occasion.
Racers who attended last year’s race (won by Justin Lindine) had nothing but glowing things to say about the management of the event, and last year’s course at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire. The venue this year is even better, and is, in the words of promoter, course designer and cyclocross guru Adam Myerson, “made by God for a cyclocross race.” The park offers grass, sand, pavement, elevation changes, and a spectacular backdrop on the shore of Lake Champlain with the Adirondack Mountains looming on the western horizon. This course will be legendary, and you do not want to miss it.
Apart from the race, expect climbing walls for kids, bike demos, an expo area, and possible zip lines, among other things. Honestly, with the creative minds at NE2C at work on it, nothing would surprise me.
On the music side of things, expect a little bit of the best of everything. Nor’Easter alumni include mega acts like State Radio, !!!(chk chk chk), and a host of others, and this year the bar is set—if possible—even higher. For the electronica lovers there is RJD2, and for the more rootsy set, there is G-Love, formerly off G-Love & Special Sauce fame, who has reinvented himself as a legit bluesman in the latter part of his career. Those are only two of the many acts who will be on stage all weekend, so check out the complete listing, and you’ll be sure to find something you like.
The “get it” here is pretty simple: events like this have the power to legitimize cyclocross as a sport—for competitors, spectators, and sponsors alike—in the mind of the American public. We should support this kind of growth and exposure for our sport in any way that we can.
And not for nothing, it will be a hell of a lot of fun, too. Woot!
I don’t want to be “that guy”, no one does, right? But the fact is that I am, sometimes. You probably are, too. Who’s that? Well, you know…don’t make me say it, it’s embarrassing. Oh alright, I’m talking about the guy yelling during the bike race.
Oooooh, that is uncomfortable. Told you.
I’m not sure when I first “arrived” and found myself in a pissing contest with another rider during a race, but at some point I graduated to occasionally carrying the spat across the finish line and really giving ‘er a good go on the cooldown lap. On one recent occasion, this indefensible and juvenile behavior lead to me being heavily body-checked—while rolling—by a guy I later found out has a reputation for being legitimately “bad news”. And me, always with the sharp tongue, inviting him to go ahead and get his racing license suspended for taking a swing at me. As if that’s all that was at stake. This experience provided me with one of those “what the hell are you doing?” kind of moments of clarity. You know, the kind that you get when you try to move a 200+ pound piece of furniture by yourself, and you get to that point where you have the thing balanced on your head, and you’re losing control of the too-small hand dolly you’re using, and you can’t really move, and in this moment you might start hearing your father’s voice saying, “you just have to learn to look before you leap.”
I love racing my bike, I love the people I have gotten connected to through the sport, and at this point in my life, frankly I can’t imagine where I would be without it. I was raised more-or-less Quaker, I hug people readily, and I cry at movies. That doesn’t mean I can’t throw down, though.
At my very first race, after my field had finished, I hung out near the finish line, riding the euphoria of a legitimate kind-of-near-the-front pack finish, having discovered that I seemed actually to belong in the race, high on newly formed thoughts about becoming an athlete. I remember watching the breakaway roll in from the P 1/2/3 event—man, there was a breakaway—and looking closely at the legs of those guys. What was in them that made them have magical superpowers of Cat 1-ness? So, so pro.
My buddy Jamie and my dad had come to hang out and watch the race. They were socializing, being involved, soaking up my ridiculous and all-consuming enthusiasm for bikes and bike racing; just generally grooving in the March sunshine. So we’re talking after the race, and we’re collectively marveling at the ability of mere mortals—Quebecois, even—to roll an efficient paceline at an average speed of 25mph for nearly 50 miles. I mean who does that, right? Apparently while standing at the side of the road timing laps, digging the scene, doing everything short of setting up a team tent, my dad and Jamie had heard the fast guys in the break roll by in classic mid-race bickering mode. Someone wasn’t pulling, someone was pulling off in the wrong direction, someone was guttering everyone else in the crosswinds, someone’s teammate wasn’t coming through hard enough, someone else was surging. You know: bike race shit, the kind of stuff you yell at guys for in races. That is to say, you yell about it if you know about it. Silly, right? At a March training race, of all places. But that superhuman Cat 1-ness? It comes from caring about bike racing—caring a lot. Too much, maybe.
So that scene is awhile ago now, and I don’t know why it stands out in my memory, other than the fact that I have a bit of a mouth on me, and coupled with some years of experience racing bikes, well, I’m often that guy, bitching at the kid who isn’t pulling, encouraging the guy who’s trying but struggling, shaming the guy who just attacked pointlessly only to disrupt our collective rhythm. I absorbed this tendency from some of my older, wiser, and more experienced peers, and I can’t count the number of times I “got told” when I was doing dumb stuff in a breakaway or chase group. That’s how you learn, in a macho, crawling-up-the-totem-pole sort of way, and it’s effective. The respect of one’s peer group is worth a lot, to most folks.
There are exceptions, I suppose, but for the most part, the people who find themselves at the pointy end of pro/am bike races have sacrificed a lot to be there. That can feel good when you win, make the break, have a personal breakthrough, or have the opportunity to go toe-to-toe against a personal hero—those moments tend to make it all seem worthwhile. There are other moments, though, usually between the middle of June and some later date when it’s too hot to care, when all the sacrifice, all the training and packing the car, all the disappointing your significant other, and putting yet another hotel room and another tank of gas on an already bleeding credit card just doesn’t seem to be adding up anymore. Those are the races where the compromises come thick and fast, and the long-dark-night-of-the-soul feeling can show up unbidden.
The internal dialog might go something like this:
“Gotta make the break.”
“Can’t make it, not my day. Be patient, make the chase group.”
“Chase group is slacking, nobody pulling, money up the road, don’t want to go home empty-handed.”
“Not having fun.”
“Win the sprint, just focus and win the sprint,”
“Who cares about the stupid sprint for 6th place? Again.”
“I’m done, taking a month off. Doing community service, maybe church.”
“Shut up and focus! Move up, outside, take that spot, lean on that guy, no brakes.”
“I want my mommy.”
Moments like this are when grown men fight about bike pedaling contests.
What can I say? Share the love, bring good energy with you into the world, be a beacon of whatever positive stuff you believe in. I mean, yes: do these things. But really? One of the things I love about bike racers—sometimes—is that we care a lot, if arbitrarily, about something. The world we inhabit is increasingly sterilized, and our actions can very easily seem to us to be increasingly without consequence. So if the bike race is the place where we can feel those primal, procuring-fire-and-hunting-mastodons-with-a-spear kinds of feelings, well shit. Better we should feel that way somewhere, right? I would like to think there is value in that, at least I hope so.
I have heroes in this sport, and some of them don’t go fast anymore. There’s a look in the eyes of the guys I respect the most—ex pro’s, local legends, lifetime hardmen—that calls to mind the 1000-yard stare of the seasoned alpinist. This is a look that has seen true beauty and pure athleticism, and it is a look that has seen nearly unimaginable disappointment. Mostly, it’s a look that says that nothing that can possibly happen in a local pro-am criterium with a few hundred bucks on the line is worth getting het up about. It’s humbling to need to be reminded of that.
The beginning of just about anything is the easy part. No, it doesn’t always feel that way, but when you contemplate bringing any project to completion—closing on a house, winning a bike race, delivering a baby—you realize that sealing the deal, whatever the deal may be, is the sharp end of life.
The received wisdom of endurance sports coaching for the last 40 years or so has been to think of your fitness in terms of a pyramid: the broader the base, the higher the peak. More miles, more tempo, more muscular endurance type efforts, all lay the groundwork for shorter, high-intensity efforts later in the year/cycle, which bring you into race shape, complete the cycle of neuro-muscular and metabolic adaptation, and then you go fast. This is nothing new, every endurance athlete has been through it, and anyone currently racing or planning on racing in the future will have to go through it again.
When you’ve been racing for a few years, particularly if you fall into the still-sorta-pretty-serious-but-hate-to-admit-it-cuz-you-ain’t-as-fast-as-you-used-to-be category, you tend to hang out in the middle, or maybe even in the top third of that pyramid, all year long. This approach has obvious benefits, like being reasonably close to racing shape at any given time; and for those of us with family and career commitments that make the traditional program of large volume base periods in the winter and stage races in the summer impossible, it seems like the best of all available worlds—which is not to say it’s perfect, but it allows for occasional heroics and the staving off of a proper wobbling mid-life crisis.
The hard part is that improvement comes slowly beyond a certain point. Back to the ease of beginnings again: gains come quickly near the bottom of a learning curve. As you progress though, you realize just how much harder “hard” really is. Early in the process of developing as a bike racer, simply learning to ride at race speeds feels impressive, and it is. But the longer you do it, the more routine that becomes, and the more likely it is that your goals will be both esoteric and incredibly concrete. To whit: winning a bike race is a vastly far cry from simply hanging out in the front group of a bike race; it not only requires fitness, it also requires know-how.
Big differences make big differences, small differences make small differences. Sometimes in life you get to make a big difference, really shake things up and make a serious life change. Most of us, though, haven’t got the stomach for that sort of thing too often, which is where self-imposed difficulties like bike racing, and the attendant arbitrary goal-setting that accompanies them, start to make sense. Reinvention feels really good, and it feels all the better when it’s constructive, and doesn’t cost you anything major, like your family or your paycheck.
Back to our hammock slung up there on the top third of that fitness pyramid: reinvention don’t come easy n’more. A friend and one-time teammate of mine who is a former top domestic racer and seriously talented athlete once told me that a big part of his motivational downfall came down to some pretty simple math: he knew what it took to be as good as he was at his best, and he just couldn’t face the Sisyphean chore of lumbering his way back up that pyramid, again and again. This is why I keep my hammock hung where it is, and it’s why I have taken up things like running and abdominal crunches: I take comfort from being within hailing distance of my athletic potential, even if I would need a megaphone to hear myself, as it were. I don’t have the time this year, but I like to think that in the not-too-distant future I can throw myself a rope, get down to some reinventing, and see what it feels like to swing my leg over the top of that pyramid again. It’ll be nice to feel the breeze on my toesies as I sit up there, grinning the silly way I do when I’m really fit, wondering what comes next.