One Crash Changed It All

By: Ben Zawacki Jan 11

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One crash changed it all; It was supposed to set my life along the train tracks of normality. By no means was it life threatening, but it certainly pushed me in the direction of the average; the stage, event and timing all scripted the perfect tragedy. It was the last twenty minutes of the criterium finals at the national championships in Park City, Utah. I was a rather promising junior and in my final year, and I was postponing my high school senior exams in order to compete at that lofty venue. I was quite successful regionally, I had international experience, I was coached by professional national champion, Mark McCormack, and I was ready for my breakthrough on the national level. That morning I had won the first of two qualifier races, as the course was not able to contain all the hungry competitors at once. I won it in dramatic style no less, riding away solo to victory, a simple one-handed gesture was all that was needed upon crossing the finish line. I’d save the grandiose two-handed salute for the afternoon.

The finals approached and the weather was ominous. The race started quickly and the field disintegrated as the hill, wind, and speed all took their toll. I was alone, racing for the New England branch of Colavita’s amateur program. Kids riding for a team that would be later known as Garmin littered the field. As the race blasted on, the true competitors started to show. I remember it distinctly, there were seventeen of us left. Four riders, that would eventually go on to win the race, were just off the front. Another lone rider jumped, all the major teams were represented and this was my chance. We powered on together for a few laps, the rain starting to fall and the wind howling down on us. I could feel the win. After turn one there was a fast straight, dropping into an off-camber, ripping corner with the gusts sweeping across it. We were a handful of seconds down as I followed him into the curve. And then his wheel started to dance, a graceful dance, something comparable to the waltz. I watched as he eased himself onto the ground; we were traveling near forty miles per hour. I did what I could, I adjusted, I contorted, but there was no way around it, I too was going down.


But this is not a story about bike racing. I did crash. I did go to the hospital. I did get stiches. I did lose my best chance at being a national champion, and I did miss my chance at worlds. I was out for weeks. I had a few opportunities to follow the typical route to the pro’s. I was on a supposed development subdivision of a professional team that my coach rode for and was captain of; I had contacts that could put a word in with the national development team and possibly get me a ride at world’s. But this turning point, minor in the grand scheme, was likely to alter my life path permanently.

My sight, wavering between cycling and real life, found its mark. Unlike many of those other seventeen riders, it was time for me to accept that my horizon was filled with books, graduation, and eventually work. And yet here you are, reading a column written by me, and my only real qualification for this writing gig is that I am a professional cyclist.

This is a story of retrospection.

My path began traditionally. I played sports, had friends and a solid family life. But there are a few key factors that led me in the direction of cycling. The most key of those being that my father found cycling right around the time I was born. He fell in love with the beauty of it and quickly became immersed; racing every weekend and bringing me into the thriving local community of cyclists.

On a more subliminal level, I was an only child and my parents divorced while I was rather young. I became quite good at entertaining myself and have developed a strong individualistic attitude. Those feelings pushed me away from the typical ball sports. I had a difficult time buying into the notion of winning and losing as a team. I wanted the pressure to reside solely on my shoulders; I wanted to enjoy my own successes and failures. Not a healthy attitude, but one that developed early and fit well with junior racing.

I became known as the kid who rode bikes, and by high school that was my intended profession. I may not be the most naturally gifted individual, but it came easily to me, and I rode often, but rarely with the intensity, structure or duration of my peers. I was relaxed and easy going, a far cry from the obsessive junior riding thirty hour weeks. In hindsight, that was key to my cycling career.

There are countless young and gifted athletes who are pushed too hard and too early, and they quit. Many are the next big thing, but for one reason or another, they leave the sport. It’s said that to master anything, 10,000 hours are required. In cycling, that time is often spent alone in the solitary confinement of one’s mind. Try to force cycling too soon and it is inevitable that you will retreat.

And then I crashed. I salvaged the season, upgrading to category one and securing a spot on the enviable Fior Di Frutta team, but something was missing. With the memory of what could have been still prominent in my mind, I took my successes for granted. I didn’t appreciate the work required to make it at the next level. Looking back, this delay in my trajectory was essential. I wasn’t ready.


Next was a time of transition, the end of a chapter; graduation with pressure to go the mainstream way and pursue a college education. I was distracted from cycling in a constructive way. I raced at the elite level, but in reality was exploring many other facets of life: studying, celebrating, and being a newly-young and faux-independent adult. I made great friends and memories in those years.

And then I was ready. No crash, no life changing moment, I was simply ready. It was my senior year of college and I was ready to work. I had done a lot of growing up in the previous years, but this year I did a lot of maturing. I became focused. I walked around college on game days declining each beer shoved in my face; I masochistically pushed away the Halloween candy; I spent my nights reading and sleeping; I dipped below 150lbs, and I became the person I wanted to be. All the years of groundwork I had laid of training and living culminated perfectly into someone ready to take the next step, and at the perfect time. The chapter of college years was closed and the introduction of professional cycling was written.

 

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